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@theDuckPond

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Solas sat on his bench, facing the duck pond, as was customary on his lunch break. Afternoons spent under the shade trees were a popular tradition; the park area in the center of the university was filled with college students enjoying the gaps in their class schedule. The water feature drowned out the rest of the ambient noise, keeping the pond a peaceful place despite the crowd. He tore off the crust of his sandwich, tossing it to a few of the ducks who had been eyeing him, impatiently waiting for him to finish his meal.

“Excuse me, professor?”

“Office hours are between two and four in the Eastern Hall building, room 211A,” he replied automatically.

“Yeah, it’s not that. I’m not one of your students, actually,” the young woman replied.

He looked up at her; no, she definitely wasn’t one of his. Though he rarely got to know his students, due to the large lecture hall sizes of most of his classes, he was sure he’d remember if he’d seen her before—or, at least her vallaslin. She also appeared too old to be one of the undergraduates his expertise was wasted on; a grad student, perhaps.

“It seems you have me at a disadvantage. Have we met?”

“Oh, no, I just figured you were a professor. You’re wearing tweed, after all. It’s a bit quintessential. And I’ve seen you around, and I figured you probably weren’t a student, given that you look, you know, ‘distinguished’.”

‘Looked old’ she meant, but she didn’t try to hide it, smiling playfully.

Despite himself, he couldn’t help the hint of a smile on his own lips. “I see. Well, you’re correct in your assumption. How can I help you?”

She shifted under the weight of her backpack. “Like I said, I’ve seen you around here a lot, and I’ve noticed you’ve taken to feeding the ducks, I was wondering if you could… Not.”

“Is this for a class?” he asked, raising his eyebrows. An experiment on animal behavior outside of a laboratory or a true wilderness setting was ill-advised.

She shook her head and shifted awkwardly again. “No, it’s just bad for them. Bread is, anyway. There are no nutrients in it for them, but because people are always feeding them, they don’t bother to find their own food anymore. They’re malnourished. I think that’s why Afro has that afro.”

“Excuse me?”

She abruptly sloughed off her bag and plopped next to him, a very long braid falling over her shoulder as she leaned forward to peer at the pond. “There,” she said, pointing as she found the waterfowl in question. “I call him Afro. That can’t be healthy, right? It’s like a deformed feather or something.”

She indicated the puffball (that he supposed did appear to be an ‘afro’) by waving her hands in a circular motion around her head. He’d noticed the duck before—it was hard not to. At first he had assumed some fluff from the local cottonwood trees had gotten stuck on the misfortunate bird’s head, but it wobbled back and forth with the duck’s movements, as if held there by a thread.

“Are you a Biology major, then? Environmental Studies?” Animal husbandry was still a popular study for Dalish clans that raised halla.

“Do I have to be a Bio student to care about the ducks?” she shot back.

“Perhaps you should put up some signs, instead of harassing passersby.”

“I did. I’m guessing maintenance took them down. Maybe if I made some more official looking ones…” she trailed off for a moment, playing with her braid as she peered around the park. “Anyway. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t feed the ducks anymore. Or at least, not bread. There’s a great little wild bird shop off of Central that carries a good selection of feed, if you’re interested, but I don’t expect anyone to go so far out of their way. Professor.”

The ‘professor’ was tacked on the end, as if she belatedly remembered to be respectful. He turned to extend a hand towards her, seeing no need to hem her in with titles—the Dalish woman was quite amusing when she spoke her mind. “Solas.”

She smiled, and shifted to face him as well. “Elle,” she replied, shaking his hand firmly. “It is Professor Solas, then, or…?”

“Just Solas will do. At least, until you find yourself in one of my advanced courses.”

“’Until’? Have you figured out my major, then? What do you teach?”

“I teach Pre-Imperium Elvhen History. My specialties lay in interpretation of the Fade and the Veil.”

“Ah, yes, of course. I’m Dalish, so I must be studying elves. I couldn’t have any other interests in all of Thedas. The politics of just that last couple hundred years could take years of study to analyze, but let’s not forget to go as far back in time as possible, to ‘when we were great’. Never mind that the hundreds of ages between post-Imperium and now have been equally fascinating as all that. But no, we’re not proper elves if we’re not elitists, right?”

He scowled, and his response was laced with sarcasm. “Yes, how foolish it would be for you to value your own heritage. My apologies.”

“Don’t you mean our heritage?” she returned, her eyes condescendingly searching his face for the absent vallaslin. Then she abruptly burst out laughing, her attempt to smother it causing a snort. “Ha! Sorry, I’m just messing with you. It’s just a lot of people have been making that assumption since I got here is all. I couldn’t resist.”

He looked at her quizzically as she continued to grin broadly. If all her bluster had been a farce, did she believe what she’d said, or the opposite?

“Let me remind you that you made a similar assumption yourself only moments ago, when you chose to address me as ‘professor’.”

“Ha, you’ve got me there. You win this round, Hahren.”

Relaxing, he ventured, “So what is your major, Da’len, if you don’t mind my asking?”

She opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted when her phone started buzzing. She pulled it out, silencing an alarm. She then hurriedly dug through her bookbag, pulling out a notebook and a pen before zipping it closed. “I gotta get to class. I guess we’ll just have to talk about it next time.”

“’Next time’? Should I expect you to find you disturbing my lunch again in the future?”

Elle stood, slinging her backpack on. “I suppose not, so long as you keep your bread crumbs to yourself,” she answered as she scribbled. Then she stood and said, “This was fun. For me, anyway. I hope you don’t mind the me-insulting-your-life’s-work thing. I actually just transferred here, and I don’t know many people. I’m not so good at making friends, so, here. In case you want to hang out sometime. Like a friend-date, I mean, or… Something cooler sounding than that, because that’s not actually a thing.”

She tore off a piece of paper from her notebook and thrust it as him. He peered at the offering: a phone number, with an area code he didn’t recognize, written in a large rounded script and pink ink. He had the impression that she would turn and run the moment he took it, should he choose to.

So, he reached into the inner pocket of his tweed jacket and pulled out a business card between two slender fingers, wordlessly offering it in exchange as he took her phone number.

“Ooo, very smooth. Do you keeps cards in your pocket just for times like this? You must teach me your ways, Hahren.” She hitched her backpack up. “I’ll hit you up sometime. Dareth.”

“Dareth shiral, Da’len,” he replied as he watched her walk away.

~~~~~

It was almost a week later, and Solas had not seen Elle at the duck pond again. He regretted his words, thinking perhaps ‘disturbing’ was too harsh a term to describe their meeting. In truth, the brief encounter had been engaging, if confusing.

The idea of calling her never crossed his mind, of course, though he was aware of her number still in his jacket pocket. It didn’t mean anything; he seldom emptied his pockets.

At times, he was struck with the ridiculous temptation to toss his crust to the ducks at the end of his meal, as it would serve as a summoning spell for his local Duck Justice Warrior.

Instead, he found himself at Fereldan’s Wild Bird Unlimited—a small, cramped, carpeted store that had a strange, but not unpleasant, smell. He stared at the shelf of food pellets, trying to choose one, when his phone vibrated in his pocket. As he wondered if he should ask the staff for more information on waterfowl dietary needs, he pulled out his phone and unlocked it absentmindedly.

It was a text. His eyes widened, just a little, when he saw the unknown area code that he now recognized.

[12:33] Good afternoon hahren

He waited for the ‘ . . . ‘ to disappear, smiling, until it was replaced with:

[12:34] Do you know how to text
[12:34] or are you too “distinguished”?
[12:34] lol

He frowned.

Chapter Text

Elle nearly jumped out of her skin as her laptop made that loud video call bleep-bloop noise. Looking up from her phone (having just texted Duck Pond Hahren), she smiled as she saw [Incoming Call From Maxine] above the ringing phone animation.

She moved from her couch to the table, setting down her cell phone to click [ACCEPT CALL].

“Hey, Jerk,” she greeted when the call connected.

“Hey, Ugly,” her best friend replied. “You were supposed to call last night.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry. I didn’t get home until real late last night, and I didn’t want to wake you,” she explained. Her cell buzzed twice, but she ignored it.

“Two months in the big city, and you’ve already forgotten all about your childhood friend and confidant.”

“Okay, one: you’re being dramatic,” Elle started, only to be interrupted by Max’s exaggerated sigh as she pressed the back of her hand to her forehead theatrically. “Two: it’s not the ‘big city’, it’s just bigger than the one closest to the rez. Three: you specifically told me to stop calling so late, anyway.”

Her phone buzzed again.

“Yeah, meaning ‘call earlier,’ not ‘don’t call at all,” Max chided. She crossed her arms and leaned back, revealing more of the cluttered bedroom behind her to the webcam. “It’s a weekday, what were you doing out so late?”

“I was on the bus, and there were all these protesters blocking the street—”

“Let me guess: you didn’t get stuck in traffic.”

“—so I got out and asked them about it, yes,” she finished, fiddling with the end of her braid. “That’s the whole point of protesting: to spread awareness.”

“And then you spent hours holding up signs for someone else’s cause.”

“For my cause. Just because I didn’t know about it beforehand doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in it.”

“I told you. Didn’t I tell you and the Keeper? ‘If Elizabeth goes to a place with that many people, she’ll never run out of things to be angry about,’” Max said, waving her hands emphatically. “You’re going to be arrested within the month.”

Elle rolled her eyes and stood, wandering the, like, two feet to the kitchen of her tiny apartment. “You’ve never called me Elizabeth a day in your life,” she said, raising her voice so that the laptop mic would still pick it up.

“You’re right. ‘If Monkey-Butt goes to...’” Elle rolled her eyes, ignoring her friend as she poured herself a cup of coffee, leftover in the pot from that morning. Sticking it in the microwave to heat it up, she sat back down in front of the computer. “What was the protest about this time, anyway?” Max asked.

“This woman, Meredith Stannard? She’s a big shot at this company downtown, and she acts like her employees aren’t even people. She’s been using all these tricks to jump through loopholes so she doesn’t have to pay them for vacation time and maternity leave and stuff. You should see her employees, they look completely dead inside. Emotionless.”

The microwave beeped, and she went to retrieve it.

“That’s the girl I know and love—always trying to get people fired.”

She reached into her fridge to grab an open can of evaporated milk, stirring some into her coffee. “I do n—”

“How was the protest, anyway?”

Elle leaned back into the frame of the webcam so that Max could see her great big smile. “So much fun! I talked to a bunch of people and handed out pamphlets and the news was doing interviews, though I let employees do that part; I wasn’t going to steal their moment. It was so much more attention than we’ve ever gotten on the rez. This guy, Cullen, he’s leading the charge and he wants to blow the whistle on all this dirt on Meredith, but doesn’t know how to throw his weight around to make it impactful. This isn’t my first rodeo, of course, so I gave him a bunch of advice and the names of some websites and my contact info; I think we’ll meet up sometime this week. I can tell this was a hard step for him to take, but he’s doing the right thing. Well, maybe not career-wise...”

This time when her phone buzzed, she picked it up.

[12:35] I assure you I’m quite competent with everyday technology, cell phones included.
[12:35] I have even been known to use a computer for my work, wonder of wonders.
[12:37] I would hesitate to assume that anyone from an older generation than yourself has completely lost touch with the world, Da’len.
[12:45] Did you have some reason for contacting me, or was it simply to wish me a good afternoon and insult my age?

[12:46] Sorry, I was busy

“Hello? Best friend right in front of you, here? Get off your phone!” Max protested.

“Oh, I’m sorry, did you have more to add? Did something new and exciting happen in the two days since we last talked? Some big event in the house you’ve lived in your whole life, or your papae’s store you’ve worked in since you were, like, six?” Elle retorted without looking up from her screen.

[12:49] Busy? You are the one who contacted me.

[12:49] Right
[12:49] but then I got busy :P
[12:50] Sorry hahren

[12:50] You are forgiven.

“Well… Obviously not,” Max replied. Looking up, Elle saw that she’d pulled out her phone as well-– no doubt messing around on some music app. Elle smiled, and returned to her own screen.

[12:51] …Well? I’m waiting

[12:51] On what, exactly?
[12:51] I feel as though I’m missing a script.

[12:52] I wished you a good afternoon, but you haven’t done the same for me. It’s only polite to return the salutation. Where are your manners?

“Who are you talking to? You’re giggling at your phone,” asked Max through the laptop.

“This elf I met at the duck pond. I yelled at them for feeding the ducks, then gave them my number,” she answered, taking a moment to sip her coffee.

“Yeah, that does sound like you…” Max started, before getting distracted by something on her screen.

[12:54] Good afternoon, Elle.

[12:54] :D
[12:54] Anyway
[12:55] I heard about this new shop opening up downtown. I met the owner the other night and she really seems to care about the little people so I really want to support her, but I don’t have any $ to spend and she’ll probably be too busy to talk to me, so I’d just be standing around by myself providing moral support? So I was hoping you’d go with me

“Wait, what kind of elf? Like a you’re-finally-going-to-get-a-sex-life elf?”

“You know why I’m not dating. He’s just a guy; a professor at uni. Just asking him out on a friend-date.”

Her drama queen friend let her phone fall from her hands, and hit Elle with a flat stare aimed right at the web camera. “Tell me you didn’t actually call it a ‘friend-date’, Footface.”

Elle took another sip of coffee in an attempt to cover her hesitation. “Well… Not today, anyway...”

“Elle, no! That’s just a you-and-me thing; that’s not a big city thing. Everyone is going to think you’re a loser, Loser.”

Elle rolled her eyes, sighing. “If they can’t handle a few idiosyncrasies, then I’m sure it’s for the best. Besides, it’s endearing.”

“It’s weird.”

[12:57] You would like me to “stand around” and provide moral support for you, whom I have only just met, as you support someone else you just met?

[12:58] Yeah p much lol
[12:58] Though you could shop, you know. Maybe pick up something besides tweed jackets with elbow patches.

[12:58] You may find that I do own other outfits.

[12:58] Yeah, but I’m a gambling girl, and I bet they all look p similar.
[12:59] Am I right?

 

Elle nearly jumped out of her skin as her alarm went off in her hand. She silenced it. “Time for class,” she explained to an expectant looking Max, who nodded. “Still on for watching a movie tonight, Halla-Lover?”

“Of course. See you later, cuz.”

“Bye, cousin.” Elle shut her laptop and gulped down the rest of her mostly-cold coffee. She typed frantically with one hand while trying to put on her running shoes with the other.

[13:00] Lol, I’m taking your silence as a yes. So are you in? It’ll be fun. Think of it as an adventure.
[13:00] Come oooon *insert peer pressure*
[13:00] Don’t make me go by myself!

[13:01] You hardly seem timid enough to need an escort, but I’d be happy to accompany you nonetheless. When is it?

She grinned, shoving her phone in her pocket as she grabbed her bag and ran out the door. She’d have to wait until she caught the bus to give him the details.

Chapter Text

Solas sat in an unfamiliar coffee shop, The Singing Maiden, reading from a tablet and resisting the urge to check the time again. It wouldn’t make Elle get here any quicker, he knew, and the guitarist was still playing the same song as the last time he’d glanced at his watch. He was simply being impatient. He wasn’t eager to shop so much as to leave this place; organic and free trade as the coffee here might be, he could swear the caffeine was affecting him just from inhaling the bitter scent permeating the room.

“Hahren!” Elle greeted gleefully when she finally entered the shop. “You made it!”

He intended to reply with a snarky comment about wondering if she would ever make it herself, only… When he checked the time, to see just how late she was, it turned out she was right on schedule. He must have arrived earlier than he thought.

“I have,” he conceded. “Your directions were very thorough for one so new to the city, Da’len.”

“They ought to be. I’m here often enough,” she said, and then with a nod she added, “I see you opted for a sweater vest and khakis, very nice. That’s way different than tweed and khakis. You sure showed me.”

He busied himself with clicking off his tablet and closing the case to hide his smirk. “Unfortunate that my wardrobe is not so varied as yours.”

She was dressed much the same as last time: well-worn running shoes, a plain t-shirt, her dark hair in a braid that fell past her hips, and shorts that looked only slightly out of place in the cool air of early fall. She was even carrying the same worn pink backpack.

“Ah, you win round two,” she granted, and he slid his tablet into his soft briefcase. She pulled a travel mug out of her backpack, the logo of some wildlife fund emblazoned on the side reminding him of his initial suspicion that she was a Biology major of some kind. She gestured to his empty table. “I’m going to get some coffee before we go. You haven’t gotten anything yet? I’ll get you something, what do you like?”

“Thank you for the offer, but I don’t much care for coffee.”

“They have a great tea selection; I really like their chai,” she offered instead.

“Thank you, but no.”

She shrugged, and stepped up to the counter. He supposed he’d have to wait until she got her caffeine fix to leave.

He watched, still at his table, as she read the nametag of the dwarf behind the counter to greet him. “Hey… Cabot. You’re new here? What’s the word?”

“Obsequious.”

There was a pause as she waited for the man to continue. He did not. “Well alright, good. In that case I’ll take some coffee, please, with evaporated cream.”

Cabot took the mug from her, but said, “We don’t carry evaporated cream.”

“Flissa keeps some in back for me. Is she here? I think she wrote ‘for Beth’ on the label, actually.”

Beth?

Cabot grunted disbelievingly, but disappeared into the back nonetheless. It only took a few moments for her to receive and pay for her coffee, evaporated cream included, and then she returned to Solas’ side as he pulled the strap of his briefcase over his shoulder and stood.

She leaned back as he did, bowing backwards in exaggeration—it was the first time she’d seen him upright. “Andruil, they breed them tall in the city! Must be something in the water. I swear my neck was already aching from all the shems, and now the elves are just as tall!”

“Shall we?” he asked, amused.

She nodded, and delayed only once more to drop her change into the musician’s case. “Hey, Maryden,” she greeted as she did. The women, Maryden, nodded with a smile, but did not break her song to return the greeting.

Together, they managed to locate the small boutique a few blocks away (she had the address, but evidently being able to find the coffee shop was an exception to her lack of directional skills). They spoke little other than navigation—it was the longest she’d gone without saying something vaguely insulting.

“Well,” she said, staring at the store from across the street as they waited for the light to change. “I hope it’s a bit busier inside than it looks.”

“‘The Bee’s Knees’,” Solas slowly read aloud from the sign under the ‘GRAND OPENING’ banner. From the storefront it looked completely closed.

They made their way to the store. It was not busier inside.

It was a jumble of items, looking more like a storage unit than anything that could be called a ‘boutique’. There were books piled haphazardly on the ground, made all the more incongruous due to the fact that there were bookshelves lining an entire wall. These, however, were filled with an eclectic collection of odds and ends. There was a box of shoes, all jumbled together, and a few racks of clothing placed in seemingly random locations. A guitar and some paintings leaned crooked against a wall. There were some potted plants, though it was unclear if they were for sale or simply decor. It smelled like wet paint and incense. The only person in the room was the woman behind the counter, staring at her phone until she looked up when they entered.

“Oi, it’s Eliza, innit? Thought I might be seeing you around.”

“Hey, Sera, how’s the grand opening?” Elle/Eliza replied.

“Well, not too grand, yet. Just an ‘opening’ so far. Smaller than I hoped. Ha! Get it? The opening is smaller than—nevermind. Just a few friends in here so far, mostly. And there’s you. Have a look around and that.”

“Well, I’m sure it’ll pick up; it’s only the first day. I’ll going to promote it on my blogs and stuff, that ought to help some,” Elle said encouragingly as she moved to examine some pillows covered in red and blue Free Marches heraldry.

Solas moved close to her and murmured, “Will it now, Elizabeth?”

“Aaaahah,” she replied, her laugh interrupting her drawn-out noise of disappointment. “You caught me quicker than most, Hahren.”

“Are you experiencing an identity crisis, Da’len?”

She perused a rack of clothes, looking over each item as she explained. “No, it’s just this dumb joke. When my cousin Maxine was little she hated her name—she likes it now, but this was ages ago. So I tried calling her Max, but she got mad at me, because it sounded like a boy’s name. You know how kids can be. She started crying about how I had a bunch of nicknames to choose from and she didn’t, so we sat and came up with as many as we could for each other. She ended up sticking with Max, by the way.”

Solas examined a shelf full of odd items as he listened. “And you decided to go by all of them at once?”

“Well, I finally got her to laugh when I told her that at school—it was summer, so the new school year—I was going to give every teacher a different name for me. Which, honestly, didn’t really work. The rez is small and they all had my real name on the attendance sheet. And ‘Liz’ is no good, I learned, everyone knows what that one’s short for. Anyway, then we went on this field trip and I gave a different name to everyone we had to introduce ourselves to, and me and Max giggled and thought we were so clever. So, yeah, it’s just this dumb inside joke with myself, at this point. And Max, when she’s around.”

“Do you and Max still giggle over how clever you are?”

Elle ceased her examination of a clothing tag to roll her eyes. “No. But it’s hard enough to find jokes that aren’t harmful, so I like to stick with it. Find fun where you can. It’s also helpful sometimes, because I’ll give the same name to a specific group of people, so like, everyone at the animal shelter calls me Ellie, and everyone working on the upcoming campaign calls me Lisa. Whenever I get a message or someone I don’t recognize approaches me at a fundraiser and says, ‘hey, Betty,’ I can skip that whole awkward ‘where do I know you from again?’ step. I mean I’m pretty good with faces, but even so.”

“’Betty?’” he asked incredulously.

She laughed. “Yeah, I know, that one’s a bit of a stretch. I think the worst one I ever tried was ‘Za’. Everyone told me that it sounded like I was talking about pizza, which isn’t fair, because I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone call pizza ‘za’ unironically.”

He was curious which group of people she’d assigned the moniker ‘Elle,’ but he didn’t ask; knowing her, the answer would likely be unflattering. He picked up a book at random and flipped through its pages as he asked instead, “What do you do when you find yourself introducing someone from one group to the other? Or someone who is interested in both homeless pets and your campaign?”

“Well, first of all: it’s not ‘my’ campaign, but secondly… Yeah, that’s been becoming a problem lately. It never used to be, before I moved to the city. Mostly I did stuff online, it was all through my blogs and emails and stuff. It seems more and more likely I’m going to have to just pick one soon, which feels unpleasantly like admitting to growing up, to be honest.” She pulled out a pink sundress and put the hanger over her head, draping the fabric over her front. The color perfectly complemented the rose colored lines of Dirthamen’s vallaslin on her brown skin, but it seemed inappropriate to mention it. At least, it did until she pulled out the tweed sleeve of a suit jacket and shouted, “Hey, look, it’s perfect! It looks just like yours!”

He frowned. What had possessed him to hold his tongue, when she never did? “Why would I need it, if it looks just like the one I already possess, that you hate so much?”

“I never said I hated it. And I bet yours doesn’t have cruelty free leather elbow patches,” she answered, displaying the patches in question. “Plus, you haven’t seen the best part!”

With a comically exaggerated ‘wow’ expression and a flourish she pulled the jacket far enough to open it, flashing the lining of the coat at him. He nearly flinched at the neon-yellow plaidweave, and shook his head in dismay. “That’s not a good shade on me I’m afraid, Da’len.”

“What? This is totally your color. Here, try it on—I still need to get a promo picture.”

Solas was wary of what her pictures had to do with him trying on an atrocious suit jacket. “It doesn’t appear to be in my size. How unfortunate.”

Elle ‘hmm’ed and pulled it off the hanger, holding it up to him. “Yeah, no way. You’ve got way broad shoulders, Hahren. Damn city elves. Here, this’ll fit!”

Before he could turn to see what she was referring to she pulled it off the shelf behind him and placed it haphazardly on his head: ‘it’ being a fedora that smelled like dust, falling down over his eyes. He felt her sling an arm around him—the touch wholly unfamiliar—and by the time he managed to push up the brim so he could see again he was blinded by a camera flash.

He snatched the hat off and stepped away from her. “What do you think you’re doing?”

She answered as she examined her phone. “Promoting local small businesses. It’s not like you’re going to catch lice from it, Egghead. Hey, not bad. It would look better if you weren’t frowning all the time. I can fix that, though.” Solas put the offending hat back where it came from, and watched as she swiped through her filter options for the ridiculous picture of her pursing her lips and wearing a dress around her neck with her arm around him. Her fingers tapped the screen and an 8-bit pair of sunglasses appeared, covering his eyes. “Much better. I’m going to post it to my Instagram and my new locavore blog, @theDuckPond—I don’t suppose you’ve got a Tumblr or something you’d like me to tag?”

“No, I don’t suppose I do,” he answered slowly, making a mental note to look up many of the terms she’d just used.

She flashed him an obnoxiously knowing smile and removed the hanger from her neck. “I’m going to take some artsy pics of the rest of the shop.”

She walked away with her simple announcement, and he could only shake his head at her antics.

Solas examined another shelf of mismatched objects; there seemed to be a little bit of everything in Sera’s store. Most of it was labeled with which small business had created the items, or how the materials were obtained through morally sound methods. Many of them referenced something called ‘Etsy’. It was a very ambitious business model.

He ran his fingers along a shard as he inspected it, unable to discern its purpose. Beside it was a large clay orb on a stand.

A flash of light from Elle’s camera drew his attention to the other side of the store. He was startled when she flashed him a wink, and his hand bumped distractedly against the stand.

He tried to catch the orb as it fell from its place but it slipped through his grasp. It clattered to the floor, but luckily it did not shatter, merely rolled away from him.

“Hey, you break it you’re gonna buy it!” the shop owner shouted from her counter.

“What’s going on here?” Elle asked as she scooped to pick up the orb with her left hand, her phone still held in her right. For a moment it looked as if the sphere had broken after all, as part of it shifted while part of it did not. He watched as she pocketed her cell and used her other hand to examine the orb. She unscrewed it, separating the halves along a hidden seam. “Oh neat, it’s like a safe or something. Place to keep your secret stash. I like the fingerprint look, too. It would look good in your office.”

“You’ve been to my office?”

“Yeah, sure. Wood paneling, right? Winged back chair? Every time you smoke a pipe that one classical songs plays?” She paused, waiting for his reaction. In response to lack of one, she urged, “Come on, you know the one—dun dun dun dadadun!”

Solas sighed, aggravated. How could he have expected any less? “My office looks the same as any other office provided by the university—not like an outdated cliché.”

“Home office?”

“No.”

“Rats. Worth a shot. You ready to go?” He nodded that he was. As he headed to the register, she watched, surprised. “Wait, are you actually going to get it?”

“Certainly. It’ll make a nice dish to keep my hard candies in,” he deadpanned.

Her mouth fell open just a little, before she said, “Aah, you almost had me!”

“Wot?” asked Sera, evidently feeling left out. “Oh, I get it. Old people, hard candy. Droopy ears is making fun of his own droopy ears. This it for you?”

“Wait—” Elle said, interrupting their transaction. When Solas turned to her, she lifted her hands and touched the points of both his ears with her fingertips. “He does have droopy ears!”

He scowled and batted her hands away as both women laughed at his expense, and he felt an unfortunate heat spread to the ears in question.

“Yes, I do think that’s quite enough for me,” he answered, passing a card to the cashier.

“Aw, don’t be like that, I’m only teasing…” Elle started to apologize, but then got distracted by a display of natural beeswax soap. “’Bee-you-T-full’. That’s the brand that donates to bee conservation, right?”

“Yeah. I donate double whatever people’ll buy from here. Gotta save the bees and what. Love bees—they got them pinchy butts!”

“I should think ‘stabby’ would a more apt description,” Solas input. He enjoyed Elle’s slow smile, surprised as she was that he would contribute to such an inane conversation.

“Pfft,” Sera replied eloquently, handing him a receipt and trying to bag his purchase. Elle stopped her, pulling a reusable bag out of her backpack instead. She then pulled out some cash, and handed Sera a couple bars of soap to ring up.

When given her total, Elle reached for her wallet again, exclaiming. “Oh! Shoot, forgot about the sales tax again. You’d think I’d remember by now.”

Sera scoffed. “So you are one of the elfy elves, then.”

The change in Elle’s demeanor was subtle—not suddenly tense or hostile, but her jovial tone was gone as she braced herself. “Excuse me?”

“One of the ones that only live where they’re told, all like, ‘this is our land and we’re not gonna pay nothing for it,’ but then expecting the big wigs to swoop in with the tax cents to fix things up or such."

“That’s a harmful oversimplification of Dalish politics,” Elle replied, voice oddly even as she handed the city elf the rest of her change.

“Whatever. I didn’t mean nothin’ by it; I think it’s grand, yeah? Fat cats get enough of our money, they ought to be fitting the bill. I just wish them elfies wouldn’t do it with their heads crammed up ten thousand years ago.” When Elle said nothing in response, Sera passed a receipt to her tightly. “All set then.”

“Thank you,” Elle replied coolly.

Solas followed as Elle silently slipped her bars into her bag and left. Once outside he said, “You surprise me; I would not have expected you to back down from a challenge like that, Da’len.”

Elle whirled on him—clearly he was exempt from her desire not to start anything. “And just what do you think I should have done?”

“It seemed a fine opportunity to enlighten her,” he answered as he walked in the direction of the coffee shop, and the garage where his car was parked. “You didn’t seem the type to be afraid to speak her mind.”

He successfully suppressed a smile as she took immediate offense. “Look, My Guy, I’m always down to discuss the discourse, okay? You don’t have any idea how wrong you are. But you’ve got to pick your battles. There’s a difference between ignorance and hate; you can educate ignorance. A lot of times it will still lead to a fight, but hours or days or years down the line it can make a difference.” She trotted after him as he crossed the street. “But hate? Hate is hate. You can provide facts until you’re blue in the face, and it won’t get you anywhere.”

“And you think this Sera is guilty of hate?”

“Look, I don’t like to generalize—” Solas snorted at that; she’d never hesitated to stereotype him. “—But I’d wager that she’s not from an alienage. She’s been surrounded by humans her whole life, so she’d never developed an identity as an elf. Combine that with the microaggressions we’ve all had to put up our whole lives for having pointed ears, and she’s got a grudge. Blames ‘elfy’ elves for not appropriating enough that we aren’t treated differently. And you—”

He turned to look at her, raising his eyebrows and awaiting her assessment of him.

“…And you were just trying to get a rise out of me for picking on you, weren’t you?”

He could no longer hide the smirk. “Guilty.”

She scoffed, and nudged him with her shoulder. “You win again. I’m not keeping track anymore, not if you’re going to keep beating me.” She sighed, and her voice softened. “Look, I know I can come off a bit…”

“Belligerent?”

“Not the word I was going to use, but fair enough. My cousin, Max—also my best friend five-ever—says I have a tendency to ‘bully’ people into friendship. I’m sorry if it was a bit much, but it’s just so easy.”

“I can handle a bit of hazing, I assure you.”

Her feet stopped, and she gestured to the bus stop sign nearby. “This is my ride.”

“I’d be happy to give you a ride home,” he told her.

“Nah, my bus pass needs to pay for itself. Besides, not going home, I have some friends to meet up with.”

He nodded, and did not press her, though he felted a tad cheated out of time with her. “Thank you for inviting me along. This was certainly not what I expected to be doing this weekend.”

“Of course! Thanks for providing back up. I might have needed it back there. I’ll see you around, okay?”

She gave him an easy hug, surprising him. As she stepped back, he asked, “What shall I call you, then? Do you favor one name over the others for your ‘grown up’ name?”

She laughed. “I don’t know, surprise me. What do you want to call me?”

‘Confusing’ came to mind, as well as ‘infuriating,’ and possibly ‘intriguing’.

“Then I will see you again, Elizabeth.”

“Well, you’re not getting any points for originality,” she chided as he took his leave.

It was only when he got to his car that he realized he still had not discovered what she was majoring in.

Chapter Text

The next time Elle ran into Solas was unplanned, much like the first. Several days had passed with little more than the occasional text. Elle had some time between classes today, so she sat in a teacher’s lounge grading tests. She’d been hoping to finish in time to fold some pamphlets she’d printed, but she was still working on the tests when Solas walked in. Their eyes met, both of them startled to see the other. He spoke first.

“Elizabeth. I almost didn’t recognize you with pants on. This area is for professors only.”

She smirked. She was indeed wearing grey slacks and a blouse, instead of her usual shorts and t-shirt, as she always did when trying to look like an adult. They weren’t alone in the room, however; he knew his words would have a different connotation to those listening in.

Well, if he was hoping to faze her so easily he was in for disappointment. “I can’t very well teach a class half-naked,” she answered, not correcting the misinterpretation of anyone else might have.

Solas’ eyebrows knit together, and his eyes darted to the papers in front of her. “You will not convince me that you are actually an instructor here. I may not be familiar with everyone on the faculty, but I’m certain that you’re not amongst them.”

Rats. “Are you?” she asked. He nodded. “Well, I’m not trying to convince you of anything, Professor. I’m just trying to do my job.”

Elle began to gather up the papers as Solas went to the minifridge and pulled out a bottle of water. When he stepped over to her, his voice was quiet and patient, having apparently tired of the game. “What are you up to, Da’len?”

“Why, I’m just going over the lesson plan for today.” She tucked the papers neatly into a folder, which went into the briefcase that replaced her backpack on teaching days, “Now, if you’ll excuse me, Hahren, I have a lecture to give.”

“Do you, now?” he asked. It was her turn to nod. In truth, she hadn’t been planning on leaving for a few more minutes, but she was trying to make an exit. “On what subject?” he prodded, testing her.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” she asked childishly, heading out the door.

“I would, in fact,” he replied, following her. “Do you mind if I audit the class?”

“Be my guest.”

They walked in silence for a bit, him catching up to walk beside her as she made her way to the stairs. As they climbed he kept looking at her out of the corner of his eye, until at last she met his eyes with a sidelong glance of her own. “You keep looking at me like I’m going to admit this is all a ruse.”

“Not at all. If anything, I’d expect you to enter a classroom at random and start acting as if it is your own, long before admitting defeat.”

She laughed. “Yeah, that does sorta sound like me. Maybe when I was younger.”

She reached the classroom and went in, holding the door open for him. Then she went straight to the front of the room and began pulling out her laptop, preparing a Powerpoint presentation. It was easier than writing on the board. Solas said nothing, just stood near the door, with his regal posture and hands grasped behind his back.

How did he always look so dignified? She should to start trying to keep her shoulders back. Elle caught a glimpse of him as she reached to pull down the screen rolled above the whiteboard—he was wearing the faintest little smirk, like he’d figured her out.

Elle wondered if he knew it was precisely that arrogant look that made him so much fun to mess with.

A couple early students filtered in past Solas, so he took the nearest seat. He wasn’t actually going to stay for the lecture, was he?

“Don’t you have somewhere to be?”

“I have time for this,” he answered, just a hint of emphasis on the last word. Time enough to watch her embarrass herself. She began to feel just a hint of nervousness, but she’d led plenty of classes before; it would be fine.

And it was. The Political Science students piled in, and though she felt self-conscious switching to her metered voice and professional diction in front of Solas—who spoke formally even in casual situations—she didn’t stumble over her words. She soon barely noticed him, in fact, focusing on engaging her more active students. As usual, she started by following her Powerpoint slides. And, as usual, she quickly veered off-topic.

Today they were discussing the presidential election process (and the history there-of), which was particularly pertinent during an election year. In fact, the election would be held in less than two months. Elle loved when the students would ask questionsand hated to discourage them by saying ‘we’ll get to that later’ or anything like that. So, she had a tendency to skip around a bit, bouncing back and forth between slides and often going completely off subject. She also struggled to remain impartial, but she knew she should keep her agenda out of the classroom. Solas remained in his seat for the entire period, observing quietly. Thankfully, he never raised his hand.

It gave Elle hope that some of the students would leave here today better informed—hopefully too informed to vote for Corypheus. As soon as time was up she dismissed the class with a ‘please be sure to keep all this in mind in a few months!’ and then sat at the previously unused desk to make some notes on what they’d covered today. She’d hit different points than the class from yesterday, so it wouldn’t be fair for this week’s test to have the same questions for different class sections. Solas waited until the room was empty again before approaching her, which gave her almost enough time to finish up.

“Just a sec, I need to finish this note for Dr.…” She stopped herself, but it was too late.

“For Dr. de Fer, your graduate sponsor.”

“Aw! You figured it out!” Elle crossed her arms and slumped back against her chair, pouting.

He chuckled heavily, and she heard a rather cute hint of a snort. “Some time ago, yes. It helped that I knew the College of Social Sciences had funding for an additional TA this year, and the Chair of the Political Science department takes any opportunity to delegate her duties. Though, I can’t help but wonder if she would have been so eager to sponsor you had she known how tangential you can be.”

“Yeah, Vivienne does prefer I follow her script…” Elle muttered, packing up her laptop. She’d hoped to make a better impression with her lecture, but Solas certainly wasn’t wrong about her. “She complains about my lack of focus on a pretty regular basis, actually.”

“Then she is blind. From what I’ve seen your focus is indomitable, it is simply set on different passions. Your lecture was very well informed.”

“So you’re suggesting that I’m not scatter-brained, I’m just… What, passionate?”

“No. I am declaring it. It was not a subject for debate.”

Elle did not blush easily, but she could feel one creeping in. She’d been trying for months to gain Vivienne’s approval, but still couldn’t tell where she stood with her at all; to finally be praised for her work was a relief. Solas’ rather arrogant way of doing so was also immensely flattering, and left her heading out the door to stall as she scrambled for something self-deprecating to say. He fell in step beside her again.

“Well, Hahren, you know my real name and my major, now. Guess it’s time to spill: I’ve wanted to study Law my whole life—make a real difference and all that—but none of the scholarships readily available to the Dalish will pay for professional schools; law school, medical school, you know. All of my advisors kept pushing History on me, like you assumed, and things like Liberal Arts or Animal Husbandry, like that’s a viable career option for anything I want to do. So, after bouncing around for a bit, I got my BA in PoliSci, hoping I’d think of a way to use it how I want. And so far… I got nothing. So, here for a Masters, until I know what to do with myself.” She gave him a wry look. “You’re going to find out how boring I am, now that you’ve figured me out.”

“I highly doubt that to be true, Da’len,” he replied, amused, leaving her wondering which point he was contradicting.

Elle realized that she didn’t know where she was headed. “Are you hungry? Do you have time for lunch? I found this deli near here I wanted to try. Family owned, local produce.”

He smiled. “I have the time. I believe I know the one you’re referring to. They have excellent frilly cakes.”

Chapter Text

During their first (of several) lunch(es) together, Solas and Elle discussed many things, including his work schedule. Two days a week he held classes; two large, low-level lectures in the morning and a small class in the later afternoon for the advanced students. He was also on campus for a few hours on the weekend for office hours, which he held between classes. Knowing he took lunch at the duck pond on those days, Elle invited herself along, regularly showing up. So regularly, in fact, that last time she had texted when a fundraiser prevented her from coming, as if she were expected.

Solas was deliberately vague about what he did with the rest of his week, his real work, until she finally asked forthright—recompense for her own games. He took great delight in watching her surprise as he casually explained that he spent a great deal of time in the bowels of the archaeology department; it was so difficult to throw her off the way she so easily did with him. He wasn’t an archaeologist himself, of course, but he worked closely with many ancient Elvhen artifacts in his studies.

Even after admitting this to her, he tried not to speak much of his research (although after spending his adult life dedicated to a single subject it was difficult not to) because of the cantankerous response she’d had when they first met. But, even in this, she surprised him. She freely asked him questions whenever she thought of one, and listened eagerly to his answers. She fully trusted his expertise when it came to facts, but quickly debated anything the least bit subjective. He suspected it was often just to play advocate.

Even after several weeks of her company, conversations with her were… Stimulating. He looked forward to his time spent with Elle, and was disappointed when she hadn’t been able to join him last week. Today, he’d gotten no such text, and he might have to admit to himself that he left for lunch just a little bit early.

When he found her she was sprawled out on their usual bench, her back to one end and her legs stretched over the entirety of the wooden seat. In response to the recent drop in temperatures she’d started wearing a worn, pastel pink hooded sweatshirt everywhere, though absurdly she still insisted on shorts. Her hot pink lunch bag was discarded on the ground next to her book bag, indicating that she’d already eaten. She was cutting strips for people to tear off into the bottom of a flyer, her lap holding a stack of them. Under her bent knees were a fresh stack and a pair of scissors, waiting for him.

The very second he saw her, Solas realized he’d actually missed her in their week apart. He was even more surprised by a second realization as his heart rate picked up, just a little—he cared for more than her wit, it seemed. Was he actually…? He was interested in her, this argumentative girl who had bullied him into companionship. The feeling had snuck up on him, so wholly unfamiliar he had not thought to shield himself against it.

It had been a very long time since he’d been thus inflicted. He’d always been content to be alone before, he didn’t see why that must change now. It was unwise. Though… Not completely without its merit.

He smiled. “There you are, Elizabeth. Just when I thought I’d seen the last of you.”

She looked up and smiled warmly, and he ignored a bit of fluttering in his chest. “You won’t get rid of me that easily, Hahren,” she promised. “I’m like a weed. Never know when I’m going to pop up.”

“You may not be as unpredictable as you think,” he said, unable to bring himself to reply with the usual ‘Da’len’ given his new perception of her. She didn’t notice.

She held out her hand, and he reached into his bag to hand her a pouch of bird feed. She smiled the same silly smile she always did during this exchange; she’d been delighted when she’d found out he actually bought some proper food for the ducks, though he explained it was merely practical—by now the ducks knew him, and if he didn’t placate them with food they’d harass him for his entire meal. Still, he suspected she was secretly flattered, which was fine by him. She’d also called him ‘cute’, which he’d been less fine with.

Pouch in hand, Elle lifted her legs as if she was a tollgate. He set his lunch bag on the ground and took his seat, silently picking up the stack of papers. His food could wait until he’d finished helping her with her task.

He blinked as she stretched out her legs again, obediently lifting his arms as she settled her feet comfortably in his lap. He tried not to dwell on deciphering the gesture. He also tried not to notice the bare russet skin weighing down his thighs, focusing instead on the work at hand: a flyer advertising free pet spaying/neutering at Haven, the animal shelter Elle volunteered at sporadically.

Cutting neat lines into four of five pages at a time, Solas asked, “Why the sudden push for spaying and neutering? There’s a lot of flyers here, and I believe I heard something on the radio.”

Tossing kibble to the nearest duck, she rolled her eyes. “Don’t even get me started,” she said, as if it weren’t entirely too late for that. Ducks swarmed her as she explained, “Over in Ferelden there’s a sudden anti-neutering push. King Alistair—you know how he fumbles sometimes in front of the cameras—well someone off-handedly asked if they were planning to breed the royal mabari, Poncho, or if they were planning on neutering him. And the king, jokingly, said, ‘I’d never do that to him, he’s been through enough’. But you know how Fereldens are with their Andruil-cursed mutts, so now everyone is acting like it’s the noble thing to do. ‘Let them be natural!’

“So now, of course, there’s mabari pups filling up all the shelters, and poorly trained mabari being put down because they’re jumping fences to get at each other and scaring people in the process. And that’s really not fair to the dogs, you know? It sucks. And while most trends travel from Orlais to Ferelden, not the other way around, social movements still move. So, we’re trying to stipple it as best we can. Fen’Harel have mercy on all those poor pups.”

With a final snip, Solas finished the last of his assigned work and added his completed pile to her own. Giving her a curious look, he said, “The Dalish do not normally wish the Dread Wolf to take those they care for.”

She shrugged, handing the empty pouch back to Solas (she was very insistent on reusing bags) and wiping her hands on her shorts. “Right, but… They’re dogs, he’s a wolf; I think he’d take care of them, don’t you?”

“Yes, I’m sure the Betrayer has a notorious soft spot for puppies.”

“Same.”

Lunch forgotten, he added hesitantly, “Actually… There’s something I’d like to show you, in my workshop. Given your thoughts on the Dread Wolf, I’d like to get your take on it.”

“Mine? I’m no expert on any of that; I’m not sure what good I would be to you.”

He smirked. “I’m not looking for a professional opinion, simply a… Popular opinion.”

“Ah. A Dalish opinion, you mean.”

“Yes,” he conceded with a nod. “You’ve never lacked those.”

She laughed. “Yeah, alright, that I can do. Kudos for admitting to it. When?”

“Whenever is convenient for you—there is no rush, and it will only take a moment.”

“I’m free now,” she offered, and he immediately felt colder as she removed her legs from his so she could stand. “Let’s do it.”

Chapter Text

Elle followed Solas clear across campus to the Anthropology building, and then they took the elevator down to the second basement level, which apparently existed. He had to use a special key before he could press the 2B button. The doors opened into a room that seemed almost like a lab, except it smelled of dusty recycled air instead of cleaning supplies, and it was carpeted, and the ceiling was too low. So maybe not like a lab.

They were surrounded by shelves of boxes and bins neatly stacked and clearly labeled. There were various stands and tables laid out with pieces of things she didn’t recognize, being put back together like a puzzle. There were shelves and shelves of books that did not look like light reading.

All-in-all, it looked forgotten, underfunded, and short-staffed, but serviceable. The air felt weird in addition to smelling weird, and she began to suspect the temperature and humidity were being closely controlled. Not with glove-box precision, perhaps, but surely it was no easy feat to maintain an entire floor, however small it looked.

A young man, human, looked up at them from beneath a ball cap and stringy blonde bangs. “Solas, you’re back early!” he greeted happily.

“Indeed. Cole, this is El—”

“Elizabeth. Yes, I know. Though you called her ‘Elle’ before. And ‘Duck Justice Warrior’. A rebel with too many causes. Free, forever fighting, a fierce friend. You want to help people.”

Elle walked closer to Cole’s desk and held out her hand to Solas’ graduate student with a smile. “I do my best. Elle will work fine. It’s good to meet you, Cole. Solas has talked a lot about you, too.”

“Oh, he hardly even mentions you. I don’t know why,” the boy replied, though that obviously wasn’t true if he knew so much about her. “Wait! She can’t be down here; he’s not done learning! She won’t understand why you don’t understand.”

“It will be fine, Cole, she has my permission to be here. I’ll keep a close watch on her,” Solas promised.

“But—”

“Have you finished repairing the mosaics?” Solas asked, looking at a table covered in thousands of pieces of golden tiles, clearly not finished.

“No,” Cole answered, miserably. “They aren’t speaking to me.”

“Perhaps when they are fully assembled you’ll be able to make more sense of them.”

Cole looked unconvinced, but left to do as he was bid. With a gesture, Solas led Elle to a room off of the main one. When they were out of earshot, she said, “Cole is cool. I’m a little surprised you never mentioned that he’s ND.”

“I am not familiar with that term, but surmising from the context… Cole is a very bright young man. His intuition is remarkable, and a very useful asset to this department. He seems to simply look at a piece and glean its history. Now…”

The room hummed. He shut the door behind him and flipped a light switch, drawing her attention to whatever he’d brought her here to see. The wall was lined with neatly aligned images, and on a workbench were stone tablets or what looked like pieces of walls or columns. All of it was etched with ancient Elvhen writing, the modern translations sitting nearby. Taking up most of the table with a high-res photograph, larger than a poster, of murals undoubtedly too big to transport to a university basement.

It showed a shamanistic figure, cloaked in a wolf pelt and holding a staff with a tree branch. They seemed to be magically applying vallaslin to some elves wearing what might be regal robes. Behind the figure stood bare-faced People, looking (to Elle) to be more commonly dressed.

Given the pelt and the conversation with Solas that had led her here, Elle was guessing this was the Dread Wolf. Maybe Fen’Harel had tricked the Dalish into thinking the markings would elevate them?

Elle turned to Solas. “I have no idea what I’m looking at, here.”

His lips twitched in amusement. “I will explain, although I should start at the beginning. Do you remember when the research regarding the Evanuris first became public? You’d have been quite young.”

She snorted. “Yeah, I think I recall the fabric of Dalish society falling apart all around me. It rings a bell.” She shrugged. “You’re right, though, I was little. I didn’t know a lot about it for a while. No one believed it at first; historians get stuff wrong all the time. My clan still kept drilling the pantheon into my head the way you do with kids—rhymes and school plays and the like. But I remember when it picked up enough traction that the adults started to whisper about it, and I remember when my parents sat me down to tell me about it. They were so gentle about it that I knew it was serious grown-up stuff, that they were worried how I’d react to finding out that the gods were just people. But honestly, I thought it was really cool.”

“You were happy? That your gods are myths?”

“But that’s the thing; they’re legends, not myths. They actually have some truth to them. They were stories told over thousands of years. I remember fables about how wolves have tails and bears don’t because the Dread Wolf tricked them, or how Mythal made the sky blue with her tears. I knew those were just made up cartoon movies. But here was actual proof that these characters all existed at some point! It was so validating for me. I was so proud of my people for knowing these figures, after so long, even if we mistranslated powerful magic as godhood. Proud that maybe they really did discover fire, or bows, after all, and we never forgot. Who knows, maybe we really were immortal, too.”

She saw Solas’ eyebrows lift as she spoke. “That is a surprising attitude to have,” he said when she was done. “I do not know many Dalish who share in your enthusiasm—in fact, most seem to feel disenchanted, if not personally attacked.”

“Yeah, well, I was too young at the time to be angry about it. To see that it was an attack. Soon, though, every time I ended up somewhere with human children I’d end up in a fight with some kid who made fun of me for my people believing in false gods.” She shook her head. “It always baffled me; it wasn’t like there was any proof of their god—besides the word of some woman they set on fire. The pantheon was real people, worthy of respect. Like the ancient kings humans are forced to memorize, who are supposedly divinely chosen. How was Mythal any different from a queen?”

“So now, because of those children, you feel attacked?”

“Wouldn’t you? You can’t pretend as if Brother Genitivi’s research wasn’t motivated—and paid for—by the Chantry. Still, he handled himself with more tact that woman who discovered the origin of vallaslin. I swear that woman has a personal vendetta to undermine Dalish culture.”

Solas shook his head and shifted his weight, clearly agitated. “How refreshing, a Dalish elf who blames the truth for being true, and not their own misguided traditions,” he said, so sardonically dismissive that Elle wanted to punch him.

Bristling, she argued, “I’m not blaming the truth, I’m blaming how it was handled. She was grossly negligent with her findings!”

“Dr. Flemeth is a highly esteemed member of this field—the field of studying your culture. Are you suggesting she is so dedicated out of spite?”

“Am I supposed to be grateful? Look, I can’t claim to know what her problem is, but I know the damage she’s done. I know how the Dalish were the last to know! That damn Discovery show picked up her paper and ran with it; the public’s first introduction to something like that should not be a bunch of crackpots on tv trying to make a buck. Do you know how I found out? These kids cornered me on the playground, trying to force me into a dog kennel. They kept telling me that elves liked being enslaved, that’s why we did it to ourselves. Do you really think that’s how a little girl should find out about something like this? Do you have any idea how scared I was? How confused?”

"I am genuinely sorry you had to endure that, but I am obviously not suggesting that is ideal. What would you propose? That every time someone discovers the Dalish were wrong about something the researchers go door to door, holding their hands while they break the bad news? The knocking would never stop."

She sucked in a deep breath through her nose, waiting precious heartbeats to reply to avoid screaming. "There was an Arlathvhen that year, Solas. She couldn't have waited a few months to talk to us then?"

"The same year, yes, but ten months is a long time, and the field was competitive. It would have been a shame if someone else managed to publish similar findings before she got the chance, after all her work."

"Well maybe this fictional person would have behaved with more respect! Why are you defending her? Flemeth didn't need to sell the rights to that show. Why are you acting like this isn't a problem? You won't convince me she meant the People no harm—have you ever even read that paper? It was completely filled with microaggressions, victim blaming, flat out insults to the Dalish, you name it."

"I more than read it," he snapped. It didn't seem like something he'd meant to say. Elle crossed her arms to hide hands shaking with adrenaline, waiting for him to reluctantly continue. "I worked with Dr. Flemeth on that project. I earned my own doctorate working for her."

Elle felt her eyebrows rise just about as far as they would go. This conversation was clearly a waste of time, so she said only, "I see."

He sighed, still frustrated. "I admit it wasn't as impartially worded as it could have been, but you have to understand that she felt it necessary to be forthright—"

"Why did you drag me down here, Solas? Your going to tell me the Dalish messed something else up, right? Let's get on with it."

"I do not think that would be wise at this time."

"No, I mean it. Lay it on me. What, we used to dock our own ears? Maybe the Exalted March on the Dales was our idea?"

He gestured vaguely to the mural, or maybe the writing. "It hardly seems worth mentioning now, but I wanted to share the increasing evidence than Fen'Harel was no betrayer of the People, but of the Evanuris. That the name was given to him by his enemies when he fought to free the slaves, and put an end to those who ruled them."

She uncrossed her arms to run her fingers along the image. So it was Fen'Harel, then, removing vallaslin. Freeing slaves?

"That's... A really interesting interpretation, actually," she admitted reluctantly. Solas continued to watch her cautiously, though he seemed to relax slightly. She took a deep, calming breath of her own. "I'm not sure how old you think I am, but this all came to light before I received my vallaslin. They aren't forced on us; the number of Dalish becoming adults who choose not to get their vallaslin increases every year. Do you know why I still got mine?"

"No," came the soft answer.

"Because this isn't what it means anymore." She gestured to the painting, to the words, shaking her head. "I didn't choose 'slave markings,' and I didn't choose to brand myself with a false god. Elvhenan is where we came from, and it is important to remember those ancestors, but the Dalish are not the Elvhen. These marks represent my clan, my family, my commitment. Not any of this. Whatever they once meant, they're ours now."

He nodded. "That is admirable. I know at times it must be very difficult to live with the consequences of that decision. I am sorry for whatever part I may have played in that."

Shrugging, in an attempt to seem like she wasn’t still furious, she granted, "You're not responsible for Flemeth's actions. It's not as if I could ever tell Vivienne what to do. I should probably get going."

He looked like he had more to say, but he obligingly opened the door, shutting off the lights as they passed.

Elle turned to say something more, but as her head turned she caught something out of the corner of her eye. She tried to ignore it, maybe save it for some other day, after they'd calmed down—but that wasn't a strength of hers. "Solas, what is that?"

He followed her eyes to the shimmering, broken relic. "The eluvian?"

"That, what is that?" she snapped, pointing to an item beside the mirror.

He huffed. "An arulin'holm, as I'm sure you are aware."

"Who does it belong to?"

"The university, of course."

"Not of course. All arulin’holm belong to their clan—the whole clan. That right is protected by law. There is no legal reason one should be here, as I'm very aware that the department studying my culture, as you put it, has not deigned to hire any actual Dalish researchers."

"Do not presume to know how this department gets its resources, Elizabeth. I assure you the acquisition of that artifact is entirely legal; I filed the forms myself. It was found at a digsite belonging to a clan that no longer exists to claim it."

"Because they were slaughtered and run off, right? So give it to the next of kin! The descendants, or any old clan, anything but using excuses to gain property that belongs to the Dalish!"

"Really? Must you make a mountain of every molehill you find? It's not as if it holds any practical purpose for a modern clan—"

Elle let out a long, frustrated groan, trying to resist pulling her hair out. "Stop! Just—I'm done, I'm so done with this. This whole department is sick. Expect some cease and desist letters from my lawyer."

She stomped into the elevator, jamming the button with her finger and waiting impatiently for the doors to close. She looked at the ugly carpet, the wallpaper... Anything but the room full of her stolen past, anything but the apologist jerk who didn't see a problem with any of it. As the doors finally closed, painfully slow, she heard his grad student speak up. "I told you she wouldn't understand."

Chapter Text

Solas was not surprised when he did not hear from Elle again. After their fight she’d stormed out of his life as quickly as she’d blown in, leaving him dazed in her wake. Without their lunches, or even her ranting text messages whenever she felt the need to vent out of the blue, he felt disengaged with the world. He perpetually felt a nagging in his mind, as if there were something he’d forgotten to do. Odd that the loss of her felt nearly physical, when they’d only started spending time with each other just over a month ago, and saw each other only a few hours each week.

He felt starved for conversation, and wound up spending a great deal more time in the teacher’s lounge than usual, talking to his peers. For once, when his colleague, Abelas, invited him to a conference, he didn’t immediately turn it down.

Perhaps it was a good thing, then, that Elle had come so briefly into his life; she was a catalyst for change. Cole was always telling him he spent too much time in solitude, and this seemed to do the trick to get him out of his self-imposed seclusion. Still, nearly everyone he spoke with was either afraid to rock the boat and offered only platitudes, or had no new insight to add to a topic and simply repeated the tired points. They all lacked Elle’s fire.

He hid his melancholy from his students, speaking clearly to a class of more than one hundred. Unlike Elle, he was quite capable of staying on-topic while still answering questions. He was always very thorough in his answers in his larger classes—it was harder for students to find the courage to raise their hand, and the chances were that if one student thought something was unclear, several less-brave others did as well. Dispirited or not, he never tired of those few who were honestly interested in the subject, and weren’t just taking the class because it was a prerequisite.

When class was over, most the students left eagerly. Some lingered in the stadium-style seating, making plans with one another before heading out. A few came to his desk with questions, and he provided either the answer or his office hours, depending on the complexity. As he erased his notes from the white board he was aware of a remaining student, still up in the back row for unknown reasons: Shy? Asleep?

He looked over his shoulder as he turned around. “I suspect you have—Elizabeth? What are you doing here?” he questioned, guarded, but trying not to sound defensive.

She was leaning on her desk, legs crossed, chin propped up by her hand, clearly waiting for him to notice her. She sat above his eye-level, and he chided himself severely for noticing the curve of the back of her thighs from this angle.

“You know, I’ve been asking myself the same question. For some reason I couldn’t get our little discussion out of my head—I deal with people like you all the time, so I don’t know why it should matter so much this time,” she started. Clearly, she wasn’t here to apologize. He wasn’t sure why he felt relieved by that. She continued, “I guess it’s because you have actual influence over people. Most jerks with backwater opinions can’t do as much damage as you, renowned as you are in your field. Or… Or maybe it’s because you had a point or two.”

She looked away as she said the last piece, as if unable to both look him in the eye and concede a point at the same time. Mercifully, she stood, the back of her legs no longer in his line of sight as she made her way to the stairs. He tucked his hands behind his back.

Perhaps he should apologize first. Not for what he tried to say, of course, but his behavior certainly could have been better.

When he would have spoken, though, she continued, descending the stairs. “I guess I came here to prove to myself that you really are just some ignorant jerk, that I didn’t have to feel like I was cutting off another friend. I thought I’d see you here, twisting all your students’ minds to make them agents to your own agenda. Maybe I just came to pick a fight, if I’m being honest.” Stopping before him, her voice sounded resigned. “You were actually pretty fair, though, and mostly respectful. Even—ugh, even passionate, at times. Your view points were… They’re valid. And you’re incredibly patient with your students. I wanted to hit that Orlesian kid who kept asking the same thing over and over.”

“I should not have raised my voice before. I—”

“Here.”

He snapped his jaw closed. She unzipped a pocket on her bag, pulling something out and thrusting it at him. The light caught the green plastic of the flash drive in her left palm, and the worn label that read ‘MARK’. He reached out and carefully took it from her.

“What is it?”

“Your homework. Educate yourself. There’s a folder in there for you: read it. Dirthara-ma.” Elle hurled the last words at him like an explicative: May you learn. She started to turn away, but then remembered to add, “The one that says ‘Prideful Asshat’, not ‘Hey Douchbag’. That one was for Mark. Though you can read that one too, if you want. Read them all, for all I care.”

He studied her as she left, holding the information in his fist. He wasn’t speechless, just… Curious. He supposed he had questions.

~~~~~

There was… A lot of information on that small drive. He read both [Prideful Jerk] and [Hey Douchebag], as well as [Cultural Appropriation], [Gun Control], [Immigration], [LGBTAQ], [Microagressions], [Vaccines], and many, many more. Each folder contained several text documents in her words, explaining the issue, why it mattered, what caused it, how it could be treated correctly. They seemed to be posts she made on her blog, or something she’d written as a comment on someone else’s piece, that she kept a copy of so she could paste it when she didn’t feel like repeating herself. She had sources, and examples, and he followed the hyperlinks and read those, too. It was a disorganized mess, unintended to be navigated by anyone other than herself.

She called herself @theHeraldofDiscourse, and she was exhaustively thorough.

He didn’t get through it all in a single day, of course. It took him most of a week; it would have normally taken anyone much longer, but he kept being drawn back into reading more, spending long lunches on his computer, and staying up late into the night.

Reading it felt like listening to her speak, or felt like arguing with her when he disagreed with any of it. He’d feel himself get angry and dig in his heels when she said something outlandish, but the way she’d concede points and admit to understanding where the opposition was coming from, even while disagreeing with them, left him receptive by the time she made her strongest points. It made him realize how often she’d done just the same to him in their spoken conversations, and made a note to be on guard for it from now on… If there was to be a ‘from now on’.

He could readily tell the difference between a piece she’d prepared, and one that was an immediate response to something that irritated her; when she had time to think about it, or was being playful, she tended to use numbered lists, and emoticons to lessen the blow. When she was angry, she lost all sense of pacing, writing big blocks of text and forgetting how caps lock worked.

Following links and reading comments, he saw her get attacked maliciously by the truly ignorant. The fury building in him, tempting him to act as a barrier to keep her from such an onslaught, was punctuated only by the need to defend himself from her when she seemed to be attacking his own views.

He knew little of her family, her friends, her childhood, yet he knew her opinion on everything from public restrooms to nuclear bombs. It was an unconventional way to get to know someone.

And it was a completed unexpected way to fall in love.

Oh, but she was beautiful! A warrior, quick to raise a shield for those needing defending, wielding a sharp tongue and sharper wit as her blade. She could take on the world by herself, he was sure of it. He had never seen someone who cared so deeply, had not expected it from someone who daily wore pink and teased others as easily as she drew breath. It took a while to understand the website that hosted her blog, but it was apparent that this thumbdrive was not filled with occasional incidents—this was something she did every day. She was a rare spirit indeed to have the stamina for this level of conflict without it getting to her.

Helplessly fallen for a woman who couldn’t stand him, Solas miserably opened the folder he’d been putting off for last: [Hate Mail].

Chapter Text

“Well, I should get going. Thanks for letting me pick your brain! Not your actual brain, of course. That would be weird. Might help me pass this test, though.”

Elle laughed. “You’ll do fine, Dagna. But I’m happy to help anytime. I’ll email you the rest of my notes when I get home tonight.”

“Alright. Don’t forget! I have your number if you do.”

Dagna giggled at her threat and walked off with a wave, leaving Elle lying on the stiff grass alone. She closed her eyes and tilted her head back, enjoying the feel of the autumn sun and the quiet solitude—for all of thirty seconds. Then she got antsy, and checked the time with a sigh. It was too soon to meet Josephine to go over campaign details. Not enough time to go home and work on some projects or that long post she’d been meaning to make.

Someday, she knew, Elle would have to learn how to spend two seconds in her own company without freaking out. For now, she would continue to make plans with anyone in her contacts at all hours of the day to avoid it. Maybe Max was free to keep her company until it was time to go.

Elle unlocked her phone and opened her Skype app to try and give Max a call. Someone walking past stopped right in front of her, and she looked up as the shadow fell over her.

Oh great... Him again, holding coffee and watching her awkwardly. She wasn’t anywhere near his bench, what did he want?

“Just because we’re in the same place at the same time doesn’t mean we need to acknowledge each other,” she informed him.

“I am sorry—I didn't mean to intrude. I wished to return this to you,” Solas said, and he held out her old flash drive to her.

She didn’t need it back; it was an old one, cheap, and all the files were backed up elsewhere. She hadn’t told him any of that, though, so she accepted it blandly. “Thanks.”

He didn’t leave. When she looked up at him a second time, squinting in the sun, he held out the coffee he was holding. Belatedly, she remembered that he didn’t drink coffee. “This is for you as well.” She thought about refusing. It was a reusable mug, though, from The Singing Maiden. He had bought it for her, knowing she refused to use disposable cups. “I asked for your regular,” he added.

“This looks an awful lot like an apology attempt, Professor.” She refused to call him Hahren.

He nodded at her dry response, and clasped his now-empty hands neatly behind him. “Indeed it is. I would like to apologize for my tone and the raising of my voice before, as well as not realizing how harmful to the Dalish my apologist attitude or microaggressions have the potential to be.”

Ooh, look at you using buzz words. You did some reading after all. Though you do realize that apologizing to one Dalish for hurting all of us is acting like I’m somehow a representative for all Dalish, right? We don’t have a hive mind.” His mouth hung open, trying to formulate a response, but she just sighed loudly. “Dammit just sit down already, would you? You’re making my neck hurt. I need more dwarven friends.”

He sat, near her, but not as close as he would have a week ago. Even sitting on the ground his posture was perfect. How did he do that?

She should apologize too, probably, or at least say something forgiving. She took a sip of coffee; the symbolism in that would have to suffice. She almost smiled at the familiar taste of evaporated cream. “So. You did your homework. I wasn’t expecting that; most don’t. You read everything in the folder? I’ll give you extra credit if you followed the links and stuff.”

“The folder intended for me, as well as all the rest, and I skimmed the sources, credits, comments.”

“Like, the whole thing?” She asked, lifting the flash drive still between her fingers. When he nodded, she tucked it away into her bag to hide the impressed lift of her eyebrows. “And?”

“And it was quite enlightening. It wouldn’t even occur to me to have an opinion on half the things you are so passionate about, Lethallan,” he replied, a hint of humor edging into his voice. She gave him a sidelong glance, and then conceded a small smile of her own. Dammit.

“Ah yes. The things that the privileged don’t even know are things.”

“Quite. How do you find the time for all these battles, Elizabeth? It seems a tiring burden.”

She shrugged defensively. “This is what I do. And you saw the files, I organize stuff so when I get the same Asks all the time, I can reuse my old answers a bit, though it’s better to keep the sources and examples up to date. It gets exhausting making the same argument all the time, though.

“Do you remember at lunch when you asked what my hobbies were, besides volunteering, and I said I spend a lot of time online? And then you gave me one of those annoying smiles that older people have when they think young people are wasting their lives on their computers, like somehow it doesn’t count as real social interaction when I’m on my phone all the time even though I have friends in other countries who I know everything about and you have, like, five ‘real life’ friends you actually speak to.”

“I… Suppose so.”

She smirked, knowing he probably had a different interpretation of that conversation. “Well, that’s what I’m doing. The Herald of Discourse, full time activist. I’ve never had a real job, I don’t have any hobbies, and I don’t have any secret talents. I bounce between causes to fight for and I argue with anonymous strangers online. I wanted to be a lawyer but I can’t so now I’m just… Wasting time.”

She picked at the cold grass, and could feel his eyes on her. “It doesn’t seem a waste to me. I should mention… I’m afraid there was a folder on there that I do not think I was meant to see.” Her eyes went to his, wide as her mind raced, trying to remember what could be on there. “The things people say to you… I’ve never seen such unwarranted hatred, such disproportionately crude threats.”

Her hand flew to her heart as she understood what he meant at last. “Creators, don’t scare me like that! I thought I’d left some nudes on there or something…” She laughed as his eyes went wide this time, and caught his ears going red. Poor guy. “I just keep track of those in case I ever have to press charges or anything. Make a note of the harassment dates and IP addresses and whatnot. Nothing has ever come from any of it, no one has ever really acted on anything.”

He shook his head, agitated. “That is not as comforting as you seem to think it ought to be, Lethallan. How can you submit yourself to such vitriolic attacks? Surely there is something you can do. Have you spoken to your lawyer about it? What right does anyone have to—”

“The right of anonymity, I guess,” she answered, irritated and cutting him off. A week ago he was trying to explain her own heritage to her, and now he was going to act like he had to protect her? “Look: I’m a woman. I have pointed ears. I have ink on my face. Any one of those things is more than enough to draw a target on my back, just by existing. Add to it that I’m online, speaking my mind, not hiding my identity? It pisses people off.”

He sighed unhappily. “You’ve said all this and more before, I know. I suppose I will have to trust your judgement in these matters, but I will continue to worry.”

“Well, don’t. You’re just freaked out because you saw the worst of it—ninety percent of the hate I get isn’t that bad.”

“That is not as comforting as you seem to think it ought to be,” he repeated dryly. With a resigned shake of his head, he added, “You are very brave, Elizabeth.”

She shifted uncomfortably. She was used to being called ‘bitch’, but ‘brave’ was something altogether different. “Do you have anything to say about the rest of it? There was a lot of information on there.”

He looked away. His hands seemed restless. “I’m still digesting all these new viewpoints. And I am still trying to figure out what it all means to me, and my work. I was always so sure that I was doing the right thing, and now… I’m no longer sure what I think about my own research, my own motivations. I do know that there are some points on that flash drive—not related to the Dalish—that I simply cannot agree with you on, so I understand if you do not wish to spend any more time together.”

She rolled her eyes. “Andruil’s ass, Solas, it’s not a checklist of requirements! Well, I mean, there are some deal-breakers…”

“I have no intention to vote for Corypheus,” he promised.

She smiled. “That’s a good start. It’s healthy for people to have different opinions, to express them, to be friends with people who are different than them. You’re allowed to have a mind of your own, you know.”

“’Friends’?” he repeated, hopeful.

She groaned with an exaggerated face palm that her cousin would be proud of. “Wow, you are so lame. Yes, we can still friends, Dummy. Is this what I sound like when I ask people out on friend-dates? I owe Max an apology.”

He chuckled. “I think it is endearing. I did have one question, regarding our conversation in my workshop, if I may.”

Ugh. Just when she thought they could move on. This whole conversation sucked. She should have dropped in on Josephine early. “Just one?”

“For now. I’ve read a great deal on why you wear a vallaslin, and why you chose Dirthamen for your own, but…”

Uuugh. She braced herself for whatever racially insensitive question was about to leave his mouth. “Yes?”

“Why pink?”

She barked a laugh in surprise. She reached over to shove his shoulder as he grinned. “Brat. You had me going.” She shrugged. “It’s not like you haven’t noticed by now that it’s my favorite color. There’s so much in life that needs to be taken seriously, so many things that aren’t okay to joke about. Pink is fun. I like fun. I wanted to get hot pink, of course, but my Keeper assured me that when I was older I would realize that it was a bad idea.”

He laughed. “It would have been unique, that is certain. Your Keeper served you well, I think; it is a good shade on you.”

“Well, thanks I guess. I still think the hot pink would have been awesome, though,” she said with a smile. Softer, she started, “Look, Lethallin… We’re still friends and all, but I’m still kinda processing not hating you, so unless you have another bribe on you—”

“I do, actually,” he said with a sparkle in his eye. From the inner pocket of his tweed jacket, where the fancy business cards lived, he pulled out an envelope and handed it to her.

“What’s this?”

“And invitation. The university is hosting a conference this weekend—for educators and sponsors, primarily.” He gestured to the envelope she was opening. “Afterwards is a benefit, a formal affair: dancing, champagne, and rubbing elbows. I apologize for the short notice; I’ve only just decided to attend myself. I’m entitled to a plus one, and I think you should join me.”

“Oh you do, do you? And what would I be doing there? I won’t know anyone there but you.”

“Yes, and we both know what a wallflower you are,” he replied with his usual subtle sarcasm. “So many new faces make for a splendid opportunity to network, wouldn’t you agree? Many department chairs will be there, whom you’ll recognize, and they will be chatting with others in their field who work outside of the school. Many who hire students as soon as they graduate.”

“Hahren, are you trying to get me to figure out what I’m doing with my degree?”

“The choice is yours, I simply think this is a good way to get some inspiration, and to meet some people who may be able to answer some questions, or offer guidance.”

Well, this was unexpected. He’d never been the one to initiate them hanging out before. In fact, pretty much all her friendships were her asking to meet up first, which was fine. She was the one that couldn’t stand to be alone.

And it was sweet of him to think of helping her, even while they hadn’t been on speaking terms. She was completely unprepared for a networking event like this, but… “Yeah alright, I’m in. I’ve got an LBD I like, might as well go schmooze in it.”

“Thank you. If nothing else comes of it, at least the champagne will be free.”

“Good to know. Hey, my alarm is about to go off here in a minute, but… Do you want to get dinner later? To make up some of the lunches we’ve missed.”

He looked surprised, but nodded quickly. “I would.”

“Great. It’s a friend date.”

Chapter Text

The weekend came swiftly. The Higher Education Conference started on the last day of the workweek, but with his schedule Solas was able to attend most of the day, and the following day as well. Many of the exhibits were dry or trite, but several of the speakers had been well worth listening to. It was also nice to have a chance to socialize with many peers he normally only spoke with via email, or by reviewing one another's published papers.

Dr. Flemeth would sometimes poke her head out of retirement to speak at events like this. Solas was relieved when she did not—he still was not sure how he felt in her regard.

To cap off the weekend was the gala that he'd invited Elle to attend with him. Unlike when they had gone to dinner—which had been only somewhat awkward—tonight she allowed him to pick her up instead of insisting on taking a bus. When his GPS said he'd arrived, he parked in front of a rather old building and dialed her number, as she'd advised. He turned off the car and got out while it rang.

"OkayI'llberightout!" she answered, and immediately hung up before he could reply. He put his phone away and leaned against his car, watching for signs of her.

The building looked as if it had once been large condominiums, until the rooms had been divvied up into smaller and smaller apartments, doors placed haphazardly and at odd intervals. Elle soon darted breathlessly up from some exterior stairs, which seemed to indicate that her apartment was below-ground.

His mouth went dry at the sight of her. She was wearing black, a gown with a classic silhouette, covering her from collarbone to toes and leaving her arms bare. Her hair was dark enough that it often appeared black, but contrasting against her dress in the waning light of dusk its true mahogany color shone. She wore the upper part of her hair in a more intricate plait than the usual, and the rest flowed free to her hips. It was the first time Solas had ever seen it down—it must have taken quite some time to curl it loosely as she had.

She must be wearing cosmetics, because tonight something was different about her eyes; he couldn't seem to look away from them.

"You look beautiful," he told her sincerely.

"Thank you! You clean up nicely, too," she said with a friendly grin, taking his compliment as a matter of course; nothing more than what would be expected from one friend to another. Certainly not something a man would say to a woman he loved. "Which ones?" she asked, tugging back her skirt and peering at her shoes: one opened-toed black heel, and one silver strapped one.

"They both look fine, Lethallan. I recommend whichever is more comfortable."

Elle rolled her eyes in disgust, and turned back to her apartment. The movement drew attention to the slit in her dress, flashes of leg somehow more captivating than the full view her wardrobe typically allotted. Angrily, he internally ridiculed himself for having such thoughts—undoubtedly she would have something to say about them, if she knew.

He waited where he was, and moments later she reemerged at a normal pace wearing a worn looking pair of suede pumps that must have originally been mauve or rose or some such color.

"Were those one of the options?" he asked as he opened the car door for her.

"Well, they're comfortable, for heels. And my favorite pair," Elle answered as she attempted to climb into his vehicle, unaccustomed as she was to skirts. When he walked around and entered from the driver's side, she continued, "The dress is too long for me in flats. Black is a neutral, so I can wear whatever, right?"

He smirked. "I cannot claim to be an expert on such matters, but I do believe that is what they say."

"Ah. Right. Shouldn't be asking Mr. Sweatervest." Far from being insulted, Solas only chuckled at her predictability. As he buckled in, she held out a card wallet and her phone. "Do you have room for these in your pockets? I'd rather not have to watch my purse all night."

"Certainly." He stashed the items in his inside pocket, eyes lingering on hers again.

"What?" she asked when she was done fastening her seatbelt and he was still watching her.

He shook his head at himself, starting his car and shifting into drive. "I've never seen you with your hair down before."

"That's because there's so dang much of it. It's annoying." As if to emphasize her point, she leaned forward and swept up the locks that had gotten stuck between her and the seat so that they lay over her shoulder, exposing the low back of her dress. It was not scandalously low—just enough that the sharp vallaslin across her upper back was clearly visible. No doubt it was why she'd purchased the dress to begin with.

She was brave. Flaunting her Dalish heritage, even when walking into an unknown situation. She seemed to wear it like armor.

"Long braids are traditional for Clan Lavellan, correct?"

"Yep. Two braids, for the men. Not everyone still wears them, of course; fewer people than still wear their vallaslin. Mostly elders, to be honest. Probably because this much hair is a pain. Still, I figured if I ever want to be an elder someday I should look the part."

He'd learned of her ambitions within her clan from her blog, of course, but this was the first time she'd mentioned it to him directly. An invitation for him to ask her about it? "It is a lovely tradition, and you wear it well," was all he said.

After a few moments passed in silence, she cautiously asked, "What's wrong? You're quiet tonight."

"Merely pensive. I am recalling a time in which my hair was nearly as long as your own." He watched for her reaction from the corner of his eye as he pulled onto the freeway.

She did not disappoint. "Whaaa? Hahren had hair? No!" she said with a comical gasp. "I assumed you were born bald and just decided to rock that look for the rest of your life."

He chuckled. "No. You should have seen me when I was younger; cocky and hot-blooded, and not a loafer or tweed jacket to be seen."

"Wow. You think you know a guy." She turned in her seat, scrutinizing him with narrowed eyes as the streetlights flickered past. At last, she said, "Yeah, I can totally see it. You're just better at hiding it, now. I bet you wore eyeliner. I just can't picture the hair, though..."

"Perhaps if I come across an old picture, I could be persuaded to show it to you." As she clapped her hands, he added, "Do not raise your hopes too high; I've rid myself of most possessions that remind me of that time in my life."

His voice must have given away more than he intended, because her voice softened. "Oh? Bad memories? I can never seem to bring myself to get rid of photos, even if I don’t like them."

For a moment the only sound was the clicking of his blinker as he changed lanes, contemplating how much to tell. "When I was younger than you are now, just beginning college, I made friends quickly. They treated me differently than I had been in the past. I felt for once seen as something other than a pair of pointed ears. I thought, ‘this was what it means to be among peers pursuing a higher education.’" He sighed, agitated with his own naiveté. "Eventually I found that they'd never seen my ears at all, obscured as they were by my hair. When they discovered that they'd allowed an elf in their group they lashed out, as if the deception had been intentional."

Elle nodded understandingly. "I'm sorry."

"I'm afraid the story doesn't end there, Lethallan," he replied. "I didn't quite learn my lesson; at least not the correct one. After I realized how simple it was to hide who I was—or so I thought—the deception did become intentional. Though I broke ties with that first group, of course, I found it simple to infiltrate others. I made one excuse or another for my behavior, but the truth is that I enjoyed being able to pass between factions without fear, accepted by both. I was proud of my tricks.

"It escalated how you'd expect." He resisted the urge to reach up and touch the nick on his ear; a reminder of a knife and a bad decision he luckily had not had the courage to go through with. "In the end, it was I who outed myself. I realized that I was doing myself no favors. I was only ‘reinforcing harmful social constructs’, as you would put it. I rid myself of hair so I could not be tempted to fall back into old habits."

She made a sympathetic noise, and he felt her hand cover his, her thumb moving back and forth against his skin. He glanced at her, but Elle was looking away, staring off into the distance. He smiled, and enjoyed the quiet, comforting moment.

"Did you also throw away all your hats?" she asked, and he laughed, a small snort breaking the reverence.

"I did. Although I regretted it the following winter."

Chapter Text

Solas and Elle arrived in the ballroom, and she immediately felt under dressed. The crowd, mostly human, was also mostly fabulously dressed; some even wore old-fashioned Orlesian masks. The floor was marble (though possibly fake), chandeliers hung from the ceiling, and servants in white tops and black bottoms circled the crowd.

"I should have gone with the fancy shoes..."

"Which ones were those?"

"Fair enough," she replied, though he probably hadn't meant that everything she owned was rather not-fancy. "So, what now?" she asked, still standing to the side of the entryway.

Solas gestured to the room around them. "We dance, we mingle, we enjoy the free champagne."

Elle was skeptical, but she was always up for new adventures. He led her to the bar, picking up some stemware. He handed her a glass, and she took a small sip, because that's what you did when people handed you champagne. Near the bar were signs on stands explaining what this benefit was benefiting, exactly. She'd already looked into that, of course, using the information from the invitation Solas had given her, but she read through the signs anyway. It gave her something to do; she hadn't expected to feel so out of place. Plus she doubted Solas would have given it much thought, and waiting for her gave him the chance to read up as well.

They weren't the best run charities, but less corrupt than some. As she perused the familiar information, someone greeted Solas with a clap on the back, but they were just passing by and did not stop to chat.

"Do you know many people here?" she asked when a second group greeted him similarly.

"I do. Would you like me to introduce you?"

Oh thank goodness. "Yes, please," she answered. She wasn't afraid to strike up conversations with strangers, but it would certainly be easier this way. When she looked up, however, she saw a stunning figure on the other side of the ballroom. "Oh hey, Vivienne is here. I should go say hi. You go ahead, okay? I'll catch up with you later."

He was silent, but gave her a nod that was nearly a bow. Elle skirted around the dance floor to Dr. de Fer, holding her shoulders back and head up high as various humans turned to look at the elf in their midst.

"Elle, darling, what a surprise!" Vivienne greeted her as she approached, separating from her group.

"I could say the same—you haven't mentioned anything about going to a gala this week."

Vivienne waved her hand dismissively. "Events like this are a dime a dozen; hardly worth mentioning something so small." Elle had to resist rolling her eyes; she'd noticed early on how self-aggrandizing Dr. de Fer could be. "What about you, then? I saw you come in with a professor from the History department, did I not?"

"Yeah, Solas and I are friends. He invited me at the last minute, and I thought I'd see what all the fuss is about."

Vivienne made an 'ah' noise. "That explains it," she decided, looking Elle up and down.

Yep, definitely should have gone with the fancy shoes. She tried to ignore the familiar stab at her self-confidence. "Explains what?"

"Why, what a grad student of mine is doing on the arm of a professor, of course. And Solas does not often attend these occasions—I do hope he isn't trying to impress you, dear. It would cause quite a scandal should anyone suspect you two were an item."

"Well, if you hear anyone starting any rumors be sure to mention that I'm only into women."

"Ah, well that should certainly help clear things up then. Assuming you've told him that," Vivienne said, sounding disappointed. Not the worst response Elle had ever gotten to coming out. Vivienne sure was fond of rumors for someone who was accused of having an affair with a married congressman for the last several years... "Do come to me next time; I'll bring you to my favorite dress shop with plenty of time to have something made for you."

She couldn't imagine having the confidence to wear something as grand and low-cut as Vivienne was wearing, but that wasn't Elle's only concern. She tried to formulate a response about consumer responsibility without sounding preachy, but before she could reply Solas' voice sounded over her shoulder.

"You could have invited her yourself, of course, Dr. de Fer. I do believe you are not using your plus one this evening?" Vivienne's face was carefully neutral, but Elle felt her eyes go wide. To her, he gave a little bow and said, "Come, dance with me, before the band stops playing."

Elle instinctively took the offered hand, but as he escorted her to the dance floor she asked, "Stops playing? Why would they stop so early?"

"It will be only temporarily, while the charities present."

"Oh, right, charity speakers. Theoretically the reason everyone is here."

His left hand went to just above her waist and a bit to the back, and he made a movement with the right hand already holding hers that must have been an indication of something she got wrong, because he asked, "Are you familiar with the rumba?"

"Like the little vacuum robot?"

He chuckled. "Not quite."

"Well unless it's like slowly swaying back and forth at middle school dances or jumping around at a concert, I don't know it."

He smiled and took her right hand, placing it on the muscle of his arm, near his shoulder. "Keep it there, and your arm bent just like this. You should be following my movements, so your arm shouldn't straighten or pull you in too close. And keep your elbow up." She nodded her understanding, and tried to lock her elbow into position. "This hand should be in mine like this—no, softer. No clutching. As if we were holding an egg between our palms."

She gave him a look, but did her best to comply, painfully aware of others swirling around them as she stood still receiving impromptu dance lessons. "Alright. I think I've got it. As long as there's no steps and the whole dance is just us standing like this."

"Well, I'm afraid you are about to be disappointed. Listen to the song; do you hear the tempo? Slow, quickquick. Slow, quickquick?"

She didn't hear it even a little, but on the next 'slow' Solas stepped backwards, and her locked arms pulled her with him. She stepped on his foot so immediately that she had to stop to laugh. "This isn't going to work."

"Giving up so easily? Let's try again—start with your other foot, this time."

She did, and she was able to get the rhythm of the box step he was leading her in, though her knee kept hitting his. He instructed her to try angling her steps a bit, before she ended up bruised. She tried to comply, but she was distracted by what Vivienne had said; she hadn't really ever come out to Solas, had she? Not that it really mattered. Creators, she couldn't wait for future generations to be less heteronormative so this wouldn't be a thing.

If she could blurt out something as simple as 'I'm gay' maybe she would have been able to fit the conversation into the dance, between reminders not to drift too far and to keep her elbow up, but she didn't have a smooth transition into 'sometimes I say I'm into girls but really I think I'm questioning if I'm grey ace because honestly I've only ever been attracted to my two exgirlfriends’. That was a bit personal, anyway. This is why it wasn’t spelled out on her blog page... Solas probably didn't care, anyway.

Considering the lessons took up most of the song, it wasn't surprising the dance itself seemed short. "At the end of this last box we will take two slow steps to the side," Solas warned her. He did not warn her that it was because he was going to dip her for the finale of the song. She made a pretty unmajestic sound as his grip shifted, and she belatedly understood what was happening.

He was smiling as she righted herself. "Thank you. Sorry."

"No need to be sorry, it was my pleasure. You did well for your first time."

"Liar."

"The presentations will start shortly. Shall we?"

~~~

Though the music stopped, the crowd didn't quiet much for the speakers. Solas said that these sort of events often served as reunions for those in attendance, so people were often more interested in catching up than listening to the presentations. Whatever the reason, it was rude, and Elle was grateful that Solas found them a position where she could both hear and see. The speeches did actually give her a better feeling about these charities.

A few minutes in another man had joined them, silently standing beside Solas. He could have been related to Solas, with his poise and size. She would have made another comment about tall city elves, if not for Mythal's vallaslin covering his large forehead in green.

More than likely, both men were at least half human. Solas certainly looked more human than elven, and it would explain why he had such a hard time when he was younger, feeling ostracized by both humans and elves... A common enough issue, she knew. Still, she couldn't help but feel bad for him after the story he'd told her in the car, even if he overcompensated by being an elitist jerk when it came to Elvhen history.

After the last speaker left the stage and a polite amount of clapping, the man turned to Solas, completely disregarding her. "You have been avoiding my emails. Are you turning down the job this winter? We need you there to—"

"This would be best discussed another time, perhaps," he replied curtly. "Elizabeth, this is my colleague, Abelas. We've worked together for quite some time."

She noticed that Solas did not label her to Abelas. Was ‘longtime colleague’ the closest he got to saying ‘friend’?

"Good to meet you," she said, sticking out her hand.

Abelas glanced down his nose at her, and then turned to Solas. "As in Elizabeth Lavellan? As in the lawsuit served to the department sitting on my desk?"

"Ah, yes." Solas turned to her. "In regards to that, I do not think it is necessary to—"

"Oh, I think it's very necessary!" she interrupted. "Just because we're friends—"

"Solas, you should not be speaking to her without a lawyer present, as—"

"Abe!" came a shout, and the three of them turned, then looked down, to see the approaching dwarf.

"Speaking of which…" muttered Solas.

"I have asked you repeatedly not to call me that, Mr. Tethras," Abelas said curtly.

"And I asked you not to call me that. It seems we're at a stalemate,” the man replied easily. He was much more casually dressed than most the guests in attendance, and held his hand up to Elle with a smile. "Varric."

She shook the offered hand. "Elle."

He jerked a thumb at Abelas. "Don't tell me you're one of Abe's friends?"

"Nah." She mimicked his gesture, thumbing to Solas. "This one."

"Chuckles? Huh. Not sure that's much better."

Elle laughed, glancing at her friend, who looked bemused by the exchange. “’Chuckles’?”

"This is Elizabeth Lavellan," Abelas informed Varric.

"Who? Oh right, the Warrior with the arlin'holm." Varric's reply, unlike Abelas, sounded friendly and amused. "You here to start some trouble?"

He winked and she laughed again. "Wasn't the plan, but the night is young."

"Varric!" came a loud Tevene accent from behind her. She turned to see a rather dashing man in a very expensive-looking suit and a satin shirt strolling up to them. "I thought we agreed to stick together tonight to keep the would-be matchmakers away? I was just clucked at by a hen for ten minutes before I could escape."

"Mother Giselle is here? Sorry, Sparkler."

Joining the group, the human said, "What have we here, then?" He offered a hand to Elle as well; evidently she was the only one he didn't already know. "Dorian Pavus, Esquire."

She shook his hand, recognition causing her jaw to drop before she could say her own name. Eyes darting between the two men, she said, "Wait, Pavus and Tethras? As in ‘the law office of’?"

She saw Solas nod from the corner of her eye. "You've heard of me?” Dorian asked, chuckling happily.

"Us," Varric corrected.

"Of course! I never thought I'd just run into you."

"These men are both alumni to the university's sister school of law," Solas told her. "They both donate regularly, and have a good amount of influence over the current curriculum."

"I didn't realize. It's great to meet you both. I've always wanted to thank you; you handled the reparations case against Tevinter beautifully." She didn't bring up that the case had been fought against Dorian's own father—they would remember that, obviously. "I must have read the transcripts five times that summer."

"Oh, I like this one," Dorian said to no one in particular.

"I don't even read the transcripts," Varric added.

Solas cut in. "Elizabeth was preparing for law school at the time, I assume."

"Oh? Have you graduated yet? We're always looking for new interns."

Elle waved a hand dismissively, and wondered why in Thedas Solas would bring it up. He knew it was a sore subject… "Actually I'm not a law student, unfortunately."

"Fascinating," Abelas said dryly. It didn't help her mood. "A word?" he asked Solas, before leading him away. Varric and Dorian stayed where they were.

Returning to the subject, Varric said reassuringly, "Don't beat yourself up about it. Admissions are competitive.”

"Oh, I got in. I had the grades, just not the goods." Both lawyers blinked, not understanding what she was getting at. Perhaps she should have guessed that, given their privileged backgrounds. "The money. I couldn't afford it."

"I see. Sorry," Dorian said awkwardly.

"Cluck cluck," Varric said under his breath warningly, baffling Elle until she saw Dorian respond by looking around.

"Great, here comes Giselle again." He turned to Elle, hopeful and desperate. "Dance with me? Varric refuses."

"Sure," she said, laughing and passing her hardly-touched champagne to Varric, allowing Dorian to take her away, though the song that was playing was at least half over already.

On the dance floor, he asked, "Do you prefer to lead or to follow?"

"I can't do either."

"Ah. Very well; follow after me." He held up his hands, expecting hers to meet them, but she managed to mess up the handhold; it was a different position than Solas' had been.

"Solas taught me the roomba earlier," she offered. "Tried to, anyway."

"The rumba? Yes, that'll work."

He tried to lead her in a rumba. Apparently there was more than the one kind, because it looked completely different at first. She eventually saw that the rhythm of the steps was the same, but Dorian was moving linear where Solas had moved in a box pattern.

She did her best to follow along, feeling about as graceful as a newborn halla, while he moved his hips like a snake charmer. When she tried to apologize for embarrassing him he assured her that she wasn't; everyone only had eyes for him, after all.

She was quite certain that people were watching as they made a mess of the dance floor, laughing together as he tried to teach her some spins—as if the basic steps weren't hard enough for her. After the fifth time she spun on her toe and he shouted, ‘keep the footwork when you turn!’ she finally figured out what he meant, and things got easier from there. Easy enough that she could start picking his brain. Elle was able to dance more seriously as she asked the lawyer about various cases, some he was directly involved with and some she just wanted his opinion on.

Admittedly, though she was honestly curious, a couple of the questions she asked were just to show off her knowledge—she couldn't help herself. Any credit she may have gained for those questions was lost, no doubt, when she had to ask some pretty obvious follow-up questions.

As the song ended Dorian made no move to leave—probably because, as a quick look revealed, Giselle was still chatting up Varric.

"She's not an actual Mother," Dorian explained when he caught Elle's look, starting a new dance with the new song. "She works in the Theology department and insists on nagging every unattached faculty member like a disapproving mother after grandchildren."

Elle laughed. "Ah. Well, I'm sure she means well, in her own way."

"No doubt."

Minutes later he spun her, and she was surprised to see a very large Qunari behind her. Twirl complete and facing Dorian again, it was obvious that he was ignoring the other man—it wasn't as if he couldn't see him.

"May I cut in?” said the giant, voice rumbly but articulate.

"No, you may not."

"Come on, Kadan, don't be like that," he pleaded. To her he said, "Hey. Name's Bull."

She could see why. "I'm Elle, nice to meet you."

"No it isn't. His name is Bull because he's full of bull shite, you know."

"Look, I said I was sorry. Hear me out for just one dance, and then you can go back to being angry."

The music faded as this song ended as well, and Elle couldn't help but feel like Bull timed it that way on purpose. She wasn't sure if she should leave; if Dorian would rather have a friend present, or rather not have a near-stranger witness whatever this was.

Eventually Dorian let out an explosive sigh. "Fine."

Elle smiled as she took off. Twisting her head to look around, she couldn't find Solas and/or Abelas anywhere, so she went back to Varric.

"Not much of a dancer, are you?" he greeted.

"Nope," she replied, fanning herself. It wasn't more exertion than she was used to, but it was a bit toasty with the press of bodies around. "You?"

"Nah. Not tonight, anyway."

A server passed by with a tray of champagne and a brilliant smile, offering both to her and Varric. Elle shook her head with a small, "No, thank you."

When the server, a dwarven woman with copper hair, offered Varric a flute he accepted. Elle watched as he carefully picked a stem without taking his eyes off the other dwarf, whose smile dipped into a shy close-lipped one, peering up at the lawyer with bright, light green eyes.

The flirtation didn't escape Varric, either. When she kept walking he watched her go, not moving his feet but twisting his body to get a better look.

"You should go talk to her," Elle suggested in a cutesy voice and an eyebrow waggle.

Varric turned back to her. "What? No. I'm spoken for. Sort of. It's complicated."

Elle shrugged. "Well, don't let me tell you what to do, but—nevermind."

"What?"

"It just seems like you're old enough to know that once a relationship goes 'complicated' it rarely goes back to 'good'. But it totally sounds like I'm trying to pressure you or whatever; I swear I'm not."

He took some time to respond, eventually saying, "It wouldn't be right to approach her while she's working."

"Fair enough, that's usually true. Though based on the look she gave you, I'd guess that she wouldn't mind you asking for her number, for when she’s not working."

More hesitation followed until Elle clapped him on the back. "It's too stuffy in here. I'm going to go get some air. Tell Solas where I am, if you see him?"

~~~

Elle found a door going outside that apparently led to a balcony overlooking the city. Not where she'd intended to end up, but it worked. Outside the air was definitely cold, with more than a hint of the impending winter. She pulled her cape of hair over her shoulder to expose her overheated skin to the air, and leaned against the balustrade. It was like ice. She played with her fishtail braid and as she wondered if she was supposed to be out here.

The city lights sure were pretty, though.

She reached up to rub her eyes before remembering that she was wearing makeup for once. Not foundation, of course—she’d never wear anything that would cover her vallaslin—but every time she wore a little mascara she got a ton of compliments. Not worth doing it every day, though.

It didn’t take long to cool off, and soon she was downright chilly. Still, it was peaceful out here, and the sound of the party through the doors behind her was comforting enough to stave off her fear of being alone; for a few minutes, at least.

The door opened behind her, and she turned her head towards the unmuffled din to see who it was.

"Elizabeth, there you are. Are you well?" He approached, placing a hand gently on her back. It was oddly comforting.

She caught Solas looking at the vallaslin on her back; a common occurrence in the city, so she ignored it. "I'm fine. Just getting some air. Plus I couldn't find you."

"My apologies. Abelas has been monopolizing much of my time this evening."

"Is there a problem?" she asked, and then clarified, "Is it me?"

"No." He bent to lean against the railing beside her. "It is work related. Some builders bought some land, and the required environmental survey revealed some interesting finds. Now the company has reached out to the university's archaeology department to take care of it. Abelas has some qualms with the project."

"I thought you weren't technically part of the archaeology department?"

"Hence my reluctance to get involved," he said with a smirk and a nod. "Misters Tethras and Pavus seem impressed with you."

"Creators, I didn't even know 'misters' was a real word. Just call them by their first names, Weirdo," she scoffed, rolling her eyes. She straightened and ran her hands up and down her arms briskly.

Wordlessly, he stood to unbutton his jacket, handing it to her.

She accepted it, pulling it on over her nicest dress. The jacket was warmed by his body, and smelled really nice, like he always did. The oversized brown wool undoubtedly looked ridiculous on her, but at least she wouldn’t be cold.

She leaned back against the railing, bracing herself on her newly protected elbows. He propped himself on his hip, crossing his arms. "They want you to submit an application to their firm's scholarship program."

"When did they say that? Just now?" She hadn't even been out here that long. He nodded, and she hesitated. "I did already. I applied before I started uni. I wasn't approved."

"You may try more than once."

"Yeah, but..." She shook her head, unable to word her protest. But she already tried, but rejection hurt, but she gave up on all that years ago?

"You needn’t do anything you aren't comfortable with, just know that it is an option."

"Hahren... Did you bring me here to pimp me out to your lawyer friends?

He snorted. "It isn't as if I have agents hidden amongst the guests. I did intend to introduce you, true, but the three of you share a common interest, do you not? It is only friendly."

"Yeah, sneaky friendly," she said, crossing her arms. "'Rub elbows,' he says. I'm comfortable with my life; I don't need you calling in favors to fix anything."

"I did no such thing. The only favor I'm requesting is asking a beautiful woman to dance with me," he replied, extending his hand smoothly.

“Yeah, alright. Let’s go back inside and see if I can lose the rest of my dignity.”

Elle took his hand, but he didn’t lead her to the door. Instead, he moved in an easy motion, pulling her into the rumba starting position (his version, not Dorian's). His hands were wonderfully warm in hers.

She laughed at his presumption, and he smiled at her laugh. This time she stepped smoothly along with him. She studied his face, not sure where else to settle her eyes. It felt like he was staring at her. Smiling like this, his cheeks were far too round for his jawline; he looked goofy. Adorable. She didn't say anything, of course—it was messed up to ever critique someone’s joy.

This time when he dipped her she didn’t need the warning, though she wouldn’t say she was good at it. His face closer to hers than it ought to be, so she probably wasn’t leaning back far enough.

Back to standing, hands still on each other, Solas spoke slowly. “Elle, I think…” He shook his head, a small motion. “I think the benefit is ending soon, and I am not certain we are supposed to be out here.”

“I was wondering about that, too.” She raised their still-together hands back into position. “One more dance and we’ll go mingle some more? I think I’m ready to learn some spins.”

He smiled. “Deal.”

Chapter Text

"You have hardly touched you meal," Solas pointed out as he and Elle were having dinner at a small restaurant downtown. "Is it not to your liking?"

"No, it's fine," she replied, pushing her food around with a fork. "It's my favorite thing to get here, it's just that I'm here a lot."

"You should have said something; we could have gone somewhere else."

She shrugged. "I'm kinda sick of everywhere around here, to be honest." She forced herself to take another bite.

"Ah. Everywhere that you are sure treats their ingredients and employees with respect, you mean. It is a wonder you haven't starved."

"Lethallin, are you calling me picky?"

"I wouldn't dare. Though I do wonder if it would be so terrible to try someplace else." He took a bite of his own.

"You know why I don't. We're living in a capitalist society, here. Where you spend your money matters. Like, yeah, it sucks paying fifty percent more for organic carrots or whatever, but every dollar I spend tells businesses what I—as a consumer—want, and when enough people want the same things, change happens. Eventually."

He smiled at his warrior who turned every cent into a rally cry against the unjust. "Every breath you take you turn into a battle to be won, Lethallan. How are you not exhausted?"

A wry smile. "Who says I'm not?" She took a long sip of her water, and Solas could tell she was choosing her words carefully. "It is exhausting. Of course it gets to me sometimes. It wears on me when I see how little other people care. They're wasteful, or willfully ignorant, or actually make fun of people who do care. Like, do we really need to shame people who care about their carbon footprint? Sometimes I'll be going along fine and then see, say, someone wearing loafers from a company that is well known for using sweatshops to make their products and I'll have a hard time seeing past that."

She was looking away from him, at her plate. Solas shifted uncomfortably, unconsciously crossing his loafered feet. “I am… Sorry."

She shrugged. "It's not just that. It takes a lot of my energy, trying to do everything perfectly, and there's pretty much never any tangible results. Sometimes there is, and I cling to that. But I know that no matter how hard I try, or for how long, it'll never be enough. Society doesn't work like that. So yeah, it gets to me."

Her voice was quiet, and Solas realized that it wasn't that she was avoiding looking at him—she was withdrawing, shrinking in on herself.

"So, what do you do to reenergize?" he asked, hoping to draw her back out.

"I tell myself ‘no more’, that I'm giving up, and then some company or politician will say something radically insensitive and I get angry again. Rage is a pretty effective motivator. Or sometimes I make some emo vagueposts on my tumblr... My followers never fail to reach out to me, to offer support. Or..." She shook her head.

"Or?"

"No, I don't want to say," she answered, suddenly embarrassed. The rose of her vallaslin seemed to seep through the rest of her cheeks. "You'll make fun of me. I'll never hear the end of it."

He smiled, relieved to see her animated again. "Very likely true."

Exasperated, she said in a rush, "Sometimes I throw a pity party for myself and get a bunch of ice cream from that place off of Second. I haven't gone into that particular location yet, but it's a chain."

"I know the one. I didn't think they passed your vetting."

"They don't." Hurriedly and defensively, she added, "They aren't any more evil than any other company, but no, they aren't 'good' either. But… Their white chocolate raspberry is. Sooo. Goood."

He laughed at her, much as she expected. He also reached over the table with his fork to steal a bite from her plate. "It is comforting to know that you have a weakness. I was beginning to suspect you were invincible."

"Hardly. I'm as vincible as anyone else, Solas."

"Nonetheless, your perseverance is admirable. Allow me to cook for us next time. I will even let you pay for the over-priced carrots."

She smiled. "Deal! I hope you’re a better cook than I am." The conversation lulled for a moment as they ate, until she asked, "So, what's something else you disagree with me on?"

She was referring to the folders of 'discourse' written by her and read by him, as she often did. "Perhaps you would care to take a break from being so combative for once; save your energy for another battle? Why is it you never ask what we do agree on?" he asked, as if he hadn't been waiting for her to predictably ask him exactly this question. Tonight he was prepared.

She smiled around her fork. "It makes for better conversation, this way."

Smiling in return, he finished a carefully chewed mouthful, making her wait before declaring, "Affirmative action."

He was rewarded with what could only be described as a ‘severe eye-roll’. "Elgar'nan, what do you have against it? No, wait, let me guess—"

"People should be evaluated based on their merit. A more qualified candidate should not be passed up in order to fill a quota. I would hate to think I've gotten an opportunity at the expense of another solely because I fill a certain demographic."

"That's exactly what I thought you were going to say. You're such an idealist, Hahren."

"Am I?" he asked, genuinely not expecting the label. "Is that such a bad thing, Lethallan?"

"Not necessarily, though I'm a bit surprised you aren't more pragmatic. I thought wisdom came with age?"

He answered with a dry look. He should come up with some retort, but he couldn't think much beyond the sting. It hadn't bothered him before, her teasing him for being 'distinguished', but now that his feelings for her had changed…

He didn't care to be reminded of the many reasons a young woman like Elle might not be interested in someone like himself—though he held hope that such things didn't seem to mean much to her. Still, it had been foolish of him to nearly confess his heart on the balcony under the starlight the night before last—best not to forget that she was furious with him only a week ago.

She continued. "You act like it's so easy to reshape the world into this better version, but it's not. Yeah, ideally, dear Idealist, we wouldn't need affirmative action. But we do. Even if discrimination had never affected you or I personally—which we both know it has—there are plenty of studies proving that marginalized groups of equal or greater qualifications are still overlooked."

"Forcing companies to employ people they do not wish to will not make them accept them."

"Not true. It normalizes minorities holding decent jobs. Even in the case of one of the other applicants being more qualified, that doesn't mean the one they hired wasn't qualified. They'll do their job well, prove that they earned the chance. Maybe the shems who resent having them won't change their minds, but there will be coworkers who see that they're as competent as anyone else, and work twice as hard. Then, someday, when that coworker inevitably gets promoted over them and has to hire people, they won't be so reluctant to hire other minorities. At least of a similar demographic."

With a lift of his eyebrow that was sure to irritate her, Solas pointed out, "Ideally."

Her lips twisted around how much she did not want to concede the point. "Ideally," she agreed at last. "Though I would still rather get an opportunity because of my pointed ears than be denied one because of them, assuming I’m qualified.”

"Like when you applied for law school."

"One of them, yeah. Ugh. That was forever ago, just how far back have you been creeping my blog? Ugh, they weren't even subtle about it! They must not have recognized 'Lavellan' as a clan name, because from my application they told me I was very promising and they were excited to meet with me, but when I showed up for the interview they wouldn't stop staring. Barely asked any questions, didn't listen to my answers, and then suddenly decided I was 'too ambitious'." She played with the end of her braid. "Might as well have told me that there was no place for me outside the forest. I was furious. I should have sued them for discrimination. It wouldn't have worked, of course, going up against a school of lawyers with no evidence, but I should have done it anyway."

"I see you are no longer hesitant to file against schools," he said, and she smiled. He added, "Though you may wish to consider dropping the charges against the archaeology department."

Her smile disappeared. "I'm not dropping anything just because we're cool now, Solas," she said, voice stern. "That arulin'holm is not—"

"The arulin'holm is no longer property of the university."

A sharp look and hesitation. "What happened to it?"

"It was determined that clan Sabrae was the closest living kin of those it originally belonged to, thus it was returned to them as the rightful owners, with full documentation."

"Oh... That's great. Fast, too. I’m guessing someone already figured out the next of kin long ago? About time someone did something about it. Are you going to get in trouble?"

"It should have very little impact on the department, as clan Sabrae has generously agreed to loan the relic back to the university for the time being, to aid in the rebuilding of our eluvian."

"Oh," she said again, irreverently this time. She almost sounded disappointed. "Well, as long as it's because that's what the clan wants, and not anything skeevy, then it's all good I guess. What about with Abelas?”

“You needn’t worry about him.”

“He must still be mad about the suit. And what about that thing, the dig he wants you to help with? You haven’t mentioned it again.”

There was a reason he hadn’t. He could not talk to Elle about the planned archaeology project… He was certain she would not approve. “Not much has changed; I am still trying to get out of it, though I may be unable to. Perhaps if his mood were to improve…”

“Fine, I'll think about the lawsuit, but this doesn't change the past. Or anything else that department has been up to."

He nodded. He hadn't expected she'd be so easily placated. "You have my assurance that there was nothing 'skeevy' about the arrangement. In fact, the artifact may well remain in Sabrae hands, even as it is used in university research." Mouth full, she hummed questioningly for him to continue. "Their First, Merrill, will likely be one of my graduate students come Spring. I originally overlooked her application, but after working with her regarding the arulin'holm she proved to be—"

"Why did you originally overlook her application?" Elle interrupted after a hurried swallow.

"Her proposed thesis project was unrealistic," he replied dismissively. "Far too—"

He stopped short, alarmed by what he had been about to say. Elle's eyes narrowed. "Too what?"

He let out a heavy breath, running his hand over his scalp. "Too ambitious, Lethallan, but she—"

"Are you kidding me?"

"She wants to rebuild an eluvian and—"

"So? Aren't you already doing that?"

"Please do quit interrupting me, Elizabeth. Merrill plans to rebuild an eluvian and get it working again. Which requires magic, as you know. Which hasn't existed in two hundred ages."

She paused. “Yeah okay, you win this round. That's pretty ambitious."

"Thank you."

"She doesn't even want to go into science, maybe first join the millions of people trying to bring magic back, and then maybe get an eluvian working?"

"No. She seems determined to figure it out by working with it directly. I admit I'm hoping that once she becomes a student of mine she will choose a more... Readily obtainable goal."

"Hmm. No, I'm hoping she does it. You never know. And I can't say I'm disappointed that you'll actually have, I don't know, a real live Dalish person with you while you study the Dalish."

"I do not study the Dalish, I specialize in pre-Tevinter—"

"I reapplied for that scholarship at Pavus and Tethras," she blurted.

Solas sat back. He kept his face carefully neutral, though he was immensely pleased. "Oh?"

"Sorry. I keep trying to bring it up and then chickening out because it actually makes me feel really... I don’t know. But I did it," she said in a rush again, ripping off the proverbial Band-Aid.

He smiled gently. "I am glad. Even if nothing comes of it, you will be no worse off than you are now, correct?" She made an unconvinced noise. "Perhaps after this we could get some ice cream, to celebrate."

She snorted. "Filling out an application and updating one of my old entrance essays is nothing much to celebrate. And if they didn’t take me before I don’t see why they would now that my rap sheet is three times as long. Besides, the white chocolate raspberry isn't for celebration, it's for mourning. I haven't had any since... I think since the National Convention chose Corypheus as its nominee. I couldn't believe it..."

"Are you sure? I'm quite sure they have other, less-mournful, more-celebratory flavors of ice cream. Or sherbet."

She laughed, and his heart swelled at the sound. "Yeah, I'm sure. Thank you, though. I'm meeting with some friends after this. It's that time of year again: time to stand outside the costume shops and tell people that no, 'Dalish Savage' is never an acceptable Satinalia costume. Not even if they're ‘one-sixteenth Dalish princess'. Want to come?"

"No, but I thank you. Perhaps next time. Hunt well."

Chapter Text

“It’s not too late to back out, if you want,” Elle informed Solas as she swung her heavy backpack beside the other supplies on his backseat. She shut the back door and opened the front, continuing as she climbed in. “I mean, it’s too late not to give me a ride because the bus already left and I can’t be late to my own protest—but you could just drop me off if you want. You don’t have to stay all day.”

“I have no intention of backing out, Lethallan,” he told her as she situated herself and he pulled out of his parking spot. The sun hadn’t quite risen yet. She heard him add quietly, “Especially not after last night’s Presidential Debate.”

Elle was relieved to hear it. She knew—or suspected, at least—that Solas was one of the many citizens so disenchanted with the nominees that they were unlikely to vote at all. If Corypheus had finally said something awful enough to make him care, many others likely felt the same.

She’d been surprised last night, standing in front of a costume shop with her companions, to receive a text from him taking her up on the offer to participate today. She never thought she’d actually get him out to one of these things!

But, here he was, and she welcomed the company. And his car, to be quite honest; it was a lot easier than carrying everything.

“Alright, so, did you look at the materials I sent you?”

She saw a soft smile on his lips. “I did.”

“Okay, so you know the plan. Here in this folder is a copy of our permits, proof of notifications to the authorities, my immigration paperwork, my lawyer’s info… All stuff I have in my backpack as well, but sometimes backpacks go missing. Or sometimes asshole cops confiscate your backpack and someone else needs to know where to find your ID.”

“This event requires permits?”

She rolled his eyes, but not at him, and he probably didn’t see it anyway. “No. But I’ve staged plenty of protests on public property that didn’t require permits for noise or gatherings or anything else, but you best believe they tried to tell me otherwise. So, sometimes it helps to over-permit.”

He nodded. “You seem… Concerned about law enforcement.”

“Well, you know I’m not anti-police, per se… But it’s important to remember at these events that they’re not our friends. If they’re supportive of the cause, that’s great, but sometimes they’ll get buddy-buddy with protestors, even give out hugs and what-not, trying to get you on their side and then talk you down. Treat them respectfully, but do not forget that their job is to send you home. That’s what I always tell newbies; if they aren’t on your side of the line holding up a sign like the rest of us, then just try to avoid them.”

“I will keep that in mind,” he replied neutrally, shifting gears as he changed lanes. She liked the way his hand rested on the gear shift, long fingers draped casually. It would be nicer if this was an electric car, though.

“Like I said before, this is on public property, right outside the courthouse. Honestly, they’re probably used to it, so this should be pretty casual.”

He snorted. “You have an interesting definition of ‘casual’, Lethallan.”

“Yeah, well, not getting tear-gassed is my casual,” she replied gruffly.

His head snapped to her fast enough to make her worry about his driving, his brow furrowed tight. “Tear-gassed? Has that happened to you?”

“Eyes on the road, old man!” she laughed. “Yeah, it has. It’s… Well, it isn’t fun, I can tell you that much. I packed some vinegar just in case, but that’s not going to happen today, no worries! Nice, simple picketing. I printed approximately a million small flyers to hand out. Most people won’t read them, but most people don’t stop to chat either, so it’s the only way to try to reach them. Materials help you stay focused.”

“And our focus is Corypheus’ sealed court documents, yes?”

“Yes. The man has been at court two dozen times, and lost just as many. If we can publish what’s in those records before the election we’d have a plethora of bad press on him. Whatever it takes to get the public to see that he’s evil.”

“On that we agree,” Solas murmured.

The rest of the ride passed much the same, with her going over the details as he nodded along. She went over some basic protesting rights, some simple statements to make if anyone was interested in more (or was counter-protesting), some safety points. She had some jugs of water in his truck, as well as a first aid kit in both the car and her heavy backpack.

She went over some chants and slogans with him, but he did not seem interested in joining her would-be chorus. Shocking.

He was here, though, and that meant something. It meant a lot, actually.

~~~

Elle was disappointed to see the slight drizzle as they approached the courthouse, parking a safe distance away (but close enough to go back for supplies). Still, if the weather kept off, it would be a productive day.

She stepped into the center of the area they would be occupying; it was already outlined by a small police presence (as declaring when and where the protest would be was required for the permits), and, much to her relief, a faint scattering of allies. Some friends, some new faces, some curious early-morning onlookers. As Josephine bustled to greet her, a stack of papers in hand, Elle dropped her plastic crate on the ground and stepped up onto it.

She always had been a bit too fond of the ‘soap-box’ metaphor.

She lifted her loudspeaker before her, and turned to look at Solas over her shoulder, grinning wickedly—the adrenaline that would carry her through the day was already buzzing. This was her element.

“Are you ready for this, Hahren?”

~~~~~

Ten hours later the protest was going strong. Not her highest turn out, but… Respectable. It was approaching late afternoon, however, so much of the crowd would start dissipating. People were tired, and they had dependents to care for at home. The evening news was already putting together their evening broadcasts, so they would be leaving soon, too.

Elle had hopes of a sit-in… But it was probably unrealistic today.

Still, it’d been a productive day on her feet. The sun chased away the rain clouds, and Elle felt great. All around her were signs reading:


TELL THE TRUTH

Coryphe-ASS Serves Tevinter, Not Orlais

Magisters Support Corypheus & Oppose the Maker

and


In Your Heart Shall Burn!

As well as chants of


Lock him up! Lock him up!

and


What do you have to hide? Corporate interests by his side!

Elle scanned the crowd for Solas; she actually hadn’t seen him much today. As the organizer she ran around constantly, while he’d always had a penchant for observing quietly. He did plenty of that, in the early hours, but he actually proved to be a pretty effective resource once he acclimated.

She didn’t see Solas, but she did see Josephine making her way towards her, wielding water bottles. “How goes it?” Elle asked her.

“A bit tedious, just now,” Josephine murmured, accented words gentle. “I’ve spent nearly the last half hour providing a news blogger with statements and resources. Happy to do it, of course—I think it will pay off splendidly. Have you been staying hydrated, Lisa? Do you need more sunscreen?”

Elle smiled, accepting the water. It was a disposable bottle, but sometimes you had to pick your battles. “No, I should be good for another hour or so before reapplying. How are you holding up?”

“Well it certainly is… Lively,” she answered diplomatically. She wasn’t fooling anyone—Elle had seen how hard she’d been cheering earlier when Elle was giving a pep talk speech. “I’m quite glad I came out. I think I’m still better suited for organizing mailing lists, but it is nice to see another side of things.”

“Well it’s been a pleasure having you around, and not just because you pass out all the best snacks. Have you seen Solas around?”

“Yes, he was just… There, talking to that couple by the steps.”

Elle turned, and sure enough there he was. No one needed her attention just then, so she slowly made her way to him. He was on the outskirts of the gathering, as he’d been most of the day.

He held a stack of flyers—he’d been holding the same stack for the majority of the day. While other helpers had the place pretty well canvassed by now, joining the picket line when their stack was gone, Solas had a different style. He used his wit instead of waving a sign, used his silver tongue for drawing in passersby instead of chanting. He preferred one-on-one interactions, like how he was taking the time to thoroughly discuss the issues with the couple now facing him. Instead of just handing out papers, he explained the contents to those who would listen, pointing out sources printed on the hand-out.

She’d seen him put up with open hostility with far more grace than she would have been able to, calm where she would have lost her temper. She saw him pursuing people she would have immediately written off as a lost cause—in fact, in one such case she told him not to bother, only to have him ignore her and spend twenty minutes with the man.

The man made a donation.

Equally important, or perhaps more so, she saw him convert the apathetic into agents of his own agenda. It was astonishing to watch him take people who just wanted to ignore politics, wanted to pretend it wasn’t an election year, change their plans for the day and start picketing.

Not that she’d never had such a thing happen, but like… Man, was he good at that. She watched it happen again and again. His methods were slow, but there was no denying they were effective.

She couldn’t wait to tell Max about it.

His eyes flicked up to her for just a moment while he was still talking to the pair in front of him. She gave him an, admittedly, oddly shy smile and a small wave. No, not shy, she was never shy… Self-conscious, maybe. His polite smile shifted into a genuine one, his cheeks rounding before he returned his attention to the task at hand, nodding along to something. She waited where she was, arms wrapped around herself despite the heat.

Then she heard a bleating behind her, a commotion of movement.

She whipped around. No, no, not again…

She rushed towards the noise, signaling to some of her help to follow her. She thought she saw the movements of uniformed officers in her peripheral.

Then she saw them, a group of Avvar head and shoulders taller than the parting crowd. She saw burly arms raise, saw the goat horns, but she was still too far away to do more than shout, “Stop! Do not do that! You’re only hurting—”

Aarrrhh!!” the man shouted as he hurled the goat at the courthouse. She couldn’t see the impact, but she heard a disturbing crack, heard the crowd cry out and run in the opposite direction, heard the police shouting and talking into their radios.

“Mov-ran! Mov-ran! Mov-ran!” shouted the goat-thrower’s idiot friends.

Fuming, she ran towards them, and was jerked back painfully by her elbow. She spun to see who apprehended her, jerking her arm free and she scowled at… Solas.

“Elizabeth, what are you doing? It’s not safe!”

“I know what I’m doing!” she snapped, angry at the distraction. She had to act quickly if she wanted to contain this. He watched as she charged into the fray.

~~~

Elle was not quick enough—there was no saving this protest. The goat was alive and doing fine, but still needed veterinary care. The police, content to let the protesters do their thing until that moment, started to become controlling. Not that there was much to control; the small amount of blood on the wall of the courthouse was enough to seed uncertainty in a crowd that was easily dispersed after that.

The Avvar was arrested, all the while demanding that his goat be returned to him, and that the traditions of his people be upheld.

She tried her best to keep the energy going, to keep the people fighting, but it was a losing battle. They’d already been losing momentum before the goat hit the wall. Within the hour, after arguing with law enforcement, she allowed Solas to assist her down from her ‘soap box’, her loudspeaker and backpack weighing heavily on her.

“I’m sorry for yelling at you earlier,” she said simply, feeling defeated.

“Thank you. I am sorry for attempting to stop you; you have proven you know what you’re doing.”

She huffed a laugh. “This wasn’t my most sterling example of competence… But thank you. Let’s help Josephine pick up a bit, then we can go. All I really want is a shower, right now.”

He nodded and looked away, started to move away, but she reached out and caught his elbow gently.

She really needed a hug right now.

She set down her speaker and tip-toed to wrap her arms around him. His arms folded around her, and she would have smiled if she had any energy left. When they’d first started hanging out she’d give him a good-bye hug whenever they parted; at first he’d seemed surprised, and a bit stiff, and she always meant to ask if she should stop. She never did, though, because he seemed to become more comfortable with them, to anticipate them.

Elle was glad for it in this moment, to have someone to squeeze who still smelled good after a day in the sunlight.

“I know you’re disappointed, Lethallan, but today went well. Your hard work will pay off, you’ll see. They will listen; your passion cannot go ignored.”

His murmured words brought pinpricks to her eyes, because she knew he was probably wrong but couldn’t bring herself to say it.

She pulled back. “Come on. The work isn’t over yet.”

Chapter Text

It was the day before Satinalia, a fall holiday which involved feasting, masks, and cultural ignorance. Solas was not the least bit surprised to learn that clan Lavellan, and Elle, had their own traditions; which, apparently, included Elle preparing a meal for all of her friends here in the city. She hadn’t invited Solas so much as she had told him firmly that he absolutely must be there—not that he’d have refused, of course. She also invited all of the friends that were constantly stealing her time away from him, and even the legendary Max was traveling up from Wycome for the event.

Elle was more excited for Max than anything else, he knew. Still, he showed up early, with a bottle of wine in hand. Elle wasn’t one for spirits, but she would appreciate the impoverished families that benefited from the winery’s profits, and the guests could always drink the bottle on her behalf.

Though he was early, he could hear the sound of a crowd inside as he descended the cement steps to knock on her apartment door. Idly, he looked down at her doormat as he waited. He tried to deny the uncomfortable anticipatory twist of his stomach as he did—the one he always seemed to feel when he saw Elle lately. He knew the cause, of course; it stemmed from the constant wonder of when—or if ever—he should approach her about the way he felt.

So many times he’d been just about to tell her everything, but then he’d come to his senses and change the subject. He did not expect to have this kind of uncertainty at his age. He couldn’t remember ever having such a profound lack of confidence, even in his youth; he’d been reckless, then.

This would be so much easier if only he understood how she felt! Most of the time he knew it was only foolishness to think more might be possible between them, but then she’d say or do something that made him think… Made him hope…

He was a patient man. He wished he could take his time, enjoy this feeling, and wait for it to be reciprocated. Moving too slow could be just as dangerous as too fast, he knew, but he did not want to rush this.

Unfortunately, whatever he did, he was at risk of destroying their friendship, and he could not endure that.

Nor could he bear to do nothing. He felt as if he was being dishonest with her, and hated that feeling. He did not wish to deceive her any longer.

Solas’ ruminations were at last interrupted when the door was yanked open—his gaze downcast as it was, he saw only bare feet and legs, and got only the periphery impression of skin tone. His gaze wrenched up to her face in momentary panic.

He was relieved when his eyes passed over dark khaki cut-off mini-shorts and a remarkably small brown camisole, though of course she had not answered the door while nude.

“Solas! Creators, you startled me. Did you just get here?”

“I-Yes, I just knocked a moment ago.”

“Sorry. Guess no one heard it—come on in!” She stepped back. “Leave the door open, I was just trying to get some airflow; it’s hot as Fen’Harel’s fuzzy balls in here.”

As colorful as her language was, as he stepped out of the bitter autumn air and into her apartment he had to agree. Her apartment was… Small. He entered facing a living room and across from a sliding glass door, which was also ajar. Squeezed onto a loveseat was Josephine, a bearded human, and a city elf, all talking animatedly. In what served as the dining area to the left was a round table covered in dishes, at which sat a dwarven girl. Another elf was in the kitchen, separated from the living room by a half-wall.

Around the room were various piles of discarded scarves and jackets, and any other outer layer Elle’s guests could part with in this heat.

“I brought a—” he started, holding forward the bottle of wine, but he was interrupted by a shout from the kitchen.

“Halla Breath, it’s burning!”

Elle rushed the few steps to the kitchen, leaving Solas behind. “Well pull it out then, Dummy!”

Solas followed, slower. There appeared to be no flat surface in her apartment not otherwise occupied, so he made room for the bottle of wine on a counter and striped off his wool coat and hat.

“But it’s popping! I don’t want to get splashed!”

Elle was using a slotted ladle to pull misshapen lumps out of a stock pot of boiling shortening, depositing them onto a pile of not-as-dark lumps and patting them off lightly with a cloth. Solas stood to the side, unsure what to do with himself.

“So, introductions again,” Elle started, speaking loudly as she switched to stirring a large skillet of ground meat. “Everyone, this is Solas, he’s a professor at the University of Orlais. I yelled at him for feeding the ducks and apparently he’s into that. Solas, you know Josie from the protest. That’s Thom Rainier, I know him from this pledge-drive to help veterans. Next to him is Dagna, a grad student. We have a class together, so she’s a study-buddy. Behind you is Colette, yet another grad student—one of Professor Kenric’s; you know him?”

“Quite well. He speaks highly of you, Colette,” Solas answered, nodding to the smiling girl and then the others on the couch in greeting.

“And this, of course—”

“Is the infamous Maxine Lavellan,” Solas finished with a smile, recognizing Max from innumerous photographs. “I can see the familial resemblance.”

Max shook his hand, just once but firmly, smiling wryly. “Oh yeah. We could be twins,” she said, continuing his jest. With her round features, light skin and eyes, and wavy blonde hair, Max looked nothing like his Elle. She was wearing a band t-shirt and had Andruil’s bow arched over her forehead and cheeks in a subtle tan. “Instead of fourth cousins thrice removed or whatever.”

“I thought we were third cousins four times removed?” asked Elle, reaching past Max to grab a plate of balled dough.

“That counts as ‘whatever’, Frog Face,” Max retorted, rolling another ball of dough with well-greased hands. She made a face. “Your batter is all gritty.”

“Because I used real flour instead of that over-processed crud, Chicken Legs.” Elle flattened and pulled until a dough ball formed a disk.

“Oh my gods, nutrition is not the point of fry bread; it’s kind of the opposite in fact. Could you not go all social justice warrior on every little thing? Fry bread is too important.”

“I’m not a social justice warrior, I’m an activist…” Elle complained, sounding to Solas to be legitimately defensive. Max flinched as Elle tossed her work into the pot of boiling lard, causing spitting and popping of the grease. “And if anything, whole wheat is more traditional. More historically accurate.”

“Who cares about historical accuracy? ‘Oh, I’m sorry officer, I know halla are endangered, but my historically accurate recipe calls for ground halla’…”

“Sometimes they used druffalo…”

“Oh that’s much better, Halla Killer.”

Solas shifted his weight as the pair continued to bicker, wine forgotten. He had intended to offer to help in the kitchen, but he did not want to miss the opportunity to observe Elle antagonize someone else for a change. Watching her interact with Max explained a great deal about his own experiences with Elle. If only he’d seen this sooner.

He shifted again as he looked around the apartment. Thom appeared to be interested in Josephine, who seemed more engaged in whatever conversation she was having with Dagna. He turned to Colette, who still sat quietly at the table, offering him an awkward smile, which he returned.

From behind him he heard Max interrupt Elle’s promise to use the family recipe the next time to murmur suggestively, “Oh my, who is that?”

A glance revealed two human men cautiously entering through the open door. One of them—Solas supposed—was a bit conventionally attractive, and likely the one to catch Max’s eye; he was tall, and had curly blonde hair. The other had sallow skin and bloodshot eyes, and long brown hair that looked greasier than the cooling fry bread.

“Hey Cullen, right on time,” Elle greeted politely, pulling the last of the bread from the pot. “Everyone, this is Cullen, we met at the protest against Circle Enterprises. And this is his friend…?”

The other man scowled and elbowed Cullen, prompting him to stammer, “Oh, uh, this is my buddy Samson. You said I could bring someone, so, I wasn’t… Samson, this is Liza, and uh—”

Solas heard Max’s quietly amused snort. He’d almost forgotten Elle’s many monikers.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you Cullen. I’m Josie, a friend of Lisa’s. How long have you known Lisa?”

This time Solas joined Max in covering a snort with a cough. Ever the diplomat he’d taken her for, Josephine put just the smallest emphasis on the name ‘Lisa’, as if to correct Cullen’s incorrect use of ‘Liza’. She must not have realized the game, yet; nor had Cullen, by his bemused look.

Grinning, Elle began another round of introductions before further corrections could be made. Solas only half-listened; he didn’t care for the dismissive way Samson peered at the apartment, and cared even less for the way Cullen was staring at their hostess. He remembered again that there was danger in taking too long to confess to Elle.

~~~

Dinner was served soon after, in a plethora of mismatched dishware—there didn’t appear to be two dishes of the same design in the entire selection. There was a pile of fry bread, as well as ground meat, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and beans for those who didn’t eat meat (which appeared to be only Colette). Elle produced a folding table that scarcely fit in the living room, which she put in front of the couch, trapping the trio in their seats for the duration. The four kitchen chairs were brought in, and in them sat Colette, Samson, Cullen, and Max.

“Sorry there aren’t enough chairs everyone, I was supposed to be able to borrow some from my neighbor, but it didn’t work out…” Elle said, sitting in her cousin’s lap with an ease that spoke of practice.

“Oh, you can have my chair, Solas,” offered Dagna as she started to grab her empty plate. “I can fit on the arm of the sofa!”

“I thank you, but that won’t be necessary. I’m happy to stand.”

Elle patted her naked thighs, offering Solas a seat on her lap. “Why stand, when you can help me make Max into a pancake?”

Max made an indignant sound of protest. “Your butt is plenty big enough on its own, Four Eyes.”

“You’re right—as the host, it’s only polite to offer you my seat. She’s comfy, I promise.”

“’Four eyes’? Do you wear glasses?” asked Cullen, frowning at the tower of elves.

“Because of her vallaslin,” guessed Colette. “Dirthamen’s raven.”

“Yeah, my cousin the Bird Brain.”

“Oh. Right.” Despite the words, Cullen’s tone and scanning of Elle’s face made it apparent that he didn’t see it.

“Because the raven has eyes, here-ish,” Elle explained further, tapping the approximate location on her forehead helpfully. A chorus of ‘ah’s came from the guests.

“Do they seriously not teach any of this in city public schools?” Max asked incredulously.

“No, I guess not,” Cullen answered. “I don’t think any Dalish went to my high school.”

“That you know of,” Max mumbled.

“Why would they? It’s not like we had to pick markings. Besides, I went to private school,” Samson said, all but sneering.

Though Samson hadn’t said it, Solas could hear the word ‘slave’ implied before ‘markings’. He was not the only one.

“Yes, why would you want to learn about other people who live in the same country as you, you—”

“Lisa? Pardon me, but could I have a drink before we get started? I’m afraid I can’t get one myself,” asked the trapped Josephine, interrupting Max.

No doubt the woman was just trying to avoid unpleasant conversation, but nonetheless Elle jumped up from her cousin’s lap. “Of course, sorry. Anyone else? Juice okay?”

Solas was leaning against the half wall, and Elle passed him into the kitchen after taking her guests’ orders. He didn’t notice how his gaze followed her movement until she reached up into a cupboard, stretching to reach glasses on the top shelf. The motion resulted in her already-minimal shorts riding up, exposing pert cheeks peeking out from beneath the khaki.

His eyes immediately dashed away from the forbidden sight, and collided with Cullen’s as the other man also tore his gaze from Elle, face flushed. Solas narrowed his eyes, and Cullen turned redder still, looking away again.

Solas resisted the urge to see if Thom, too, had noticed—he knew Samson hadn’t, as the man was frowning at the food Max was offering him. “What is it?”

“Another thing your fancy private school history teacher failed to teach you about,” Max replied, dropping the plate in front of the man when he didn’t take it. She then stood and brought Solas a plate, though he suspected it was only to keep herself from berating Samson further, for the sake of her cousin’s dinner party. Solas thanked her all the same.

When Elle returned to the table, she took a seat on the arm of sofa nearest Dagna instead of on her cousin, and the conversations split into groups determined by proximity. Solas was content to stay just where he was, observing camaraderie and tension in turns.

Unsurprisingly—it was dinner with Elle, after all—the conversation made its way to politics and the upcoming election. The splintered conversations all drew together as Cullen’s voice rose above the others.

“It’s a shame Gaspard is Celene’s VP, instead of the other way around.”

“Gaspard? You may as well elect a bull if he wins. Celene is far more qualified,” Thom protested.

“Maybe you just don’t want to vote for a woman?” Colette suggested disdainfully.

“Of course not!” Cullen stammered. “I mean, not of course that I wouldn’t, of course that’s not what I meant. I only meant that I trust Gaspard—he’s a military man; disciplined, organized.”

“Celene has decades of experience in office—I’m sure it involved ‘organizing’,” Thom said gruffly.

Solas saw Dagna fish out her cell phone as she continued to eat. He would have spoken then, but he was too far from the table to be heard over Samson.

“’Military minded’. Have you forgotten that he wanted to start a war with your home country?”

“He did?”

“He mentioned it in passing during a campaign eight years ago,” Elle supplied, almost sounding bored. “He’s refused to comment on it since, so I would say it was a bad joke and now he doesn’t want to appear weak by admitting that he wouldn’t start a war with Ferelden for no reason.”

“You can’t support a candidate just because they ‘probably’ didn’t mean it,” Samson scoffed. A fair point, Solas had to admit. Dagna shifted uncomfortably across from the man, still not looking up from her phone.

“Well, he is just the vice presidential nominee,” Josephine replied politely. “An important position, to be sure, but it would be more accurate to say that they—and myself—are voting for Celene.”

Max snorted. “Like she’s any better. Didn’t she say one time that her ancestor had the right idea about the Hilamshiral Alienage Massacre?”

“She was defending her name sake, yes,” Colette quickly cut in, vying to be heard over Elle. “And I’m not voting for—”

“She didn’t say she agreed with it, she was just being evasive and grossly apologetic about it. I don’t like it any more than you, but—”

“This is why I’m voting for Briala,” Colette interrupted. “Maybe it’s a waste, but I won’t vote for Corypheus or Celene. One in the same, if you ask me.”

“I agree,” Max declared, for all that she was not eligible to vote in Orlais. “I don’t care if people say it’s throwing your vote away, you should do it.”

Well I care!” Elle shouted, just as Solas anticipated she would. He watched as she struggled to compose herself, wondering if now was the time to cut in. “Normally I’m all for third party votes, you know that, but this year is too important. Stopping Corypheus matters more than making a statement right now.”

“Corypheus and Calpernia are exactly what we need right now!” Samson bellowed, demanding attention from everyone but Dagna, who remained determined to stay out of the conversation. Solas felt a pang of sympathy for the girl. “He actually says what he means, unlike all these career politicians.”

“But what he means if horrendous,” Solas barely heard Max say, as Thom spoke fervently over her.

“Corypheus is being controlled by Tevinter’s Archon. Your man is a puppet.”

“Do you have any proof?” Samson demanded.

“YES,” about three others answered. Elle continued, ticking off on her fingers. “I have proof that he said he wants to close the ports to everyone but the Vints; that he wants to seal the Deep Roads because he thinks that’s how immigrants are moving here, which is idiotic; that he—”

“Aren’t you an immigrant? Why do you even care who Orlais elects!”

“Why do you think I care?” Elle said, indignant.

At the same time Colette rolled her eyes. “So are you. All of you! I’m the only natural citizen here.”

“Exactly,” Samson said, as if that somehow proved his point.

“You’re making a fool of yourself,” Cullen told him. “Perhaps a change of subject is in order.”

“Don’t apologize for me—she started it.”

“You are being rude to our hostess,” Cullen scolded.

“Well, I wouldn’t want to lose the privilege of cheap food and actually getting to sit in a chair…”

“Elle, I think I’m going to go…” Dagna said, starting to stand again.

“No, Dagna I’m sorry. Please stay? We’ll talk about something else, okay?”

Dagna reluctantly kept her seat, and the men remained silent. Everyone remained tensely silent, for a few minutes.

~~~

It was a while before new topics stemmed from awkward small talk. Despite the shaky start, however, Solas couldn’t help but notice how happy and animated Elle was around so many friends; her cousin especially.

“This cute girl came into the store the other day,” Max told her conversationally. “We talked for a bit, and it turns out she lives around here. I have her number if—”

No, gods Max, you know why I’m not dating right now.”

Solas eyebrows furrowed at Elle’s tone; not exasperated like he’d expect, but openly distressed. Wait, did she say…?

“That was forever ago,” Max protested, speaking at the same time that Cullen cleared his throat.

“Uh, why is that again? That you aren’t?”

A very good question, however squeaky it came out.

“It’s a long story…” Elle mumbled.

“It’s not a long story: it was a bad break up, and you said you were over it.”

“That’s not—” Elle took a breath, grabbing the end of her braid to twist as she spoke calmly, but avoiding eye contact with everyone in the room. She shrugged and spoke matter-of-factly. “I got my BA at Crestwood University, this tiny college in Ferelden. I ended up falling for my roommate, Lace, and we got together… But we always knew it would have to be temporary, because I was going to go back to Lavellan Reservation after graduation, and she was going to—I don’t know—travel the world I guess. She didn’t want to be stuck in a little town.”

“What happened?” asked Dagna gently.

Solas could guess easily enough. He nearly broke in, wanting to protect Elle from talking about something she clearly didn’t want to talk about. He hesitated, though… He’d never heard any of this. Elle was about as forthcoming with her romantic past as he was, which is to say she acted as if she didn’t have one.

He was more than a little surprised by the pronouns involved.

She stood abruptly, and began gathering dishes, speaking hurriedly. “The clock was just always ticking, I guess. We couldn’t talk about the future and stuff like that because everything was only for the time being and it wore us down until it was just too much to keep pretending.” She passed him, moving into the kitchen and loudly dropping the dishes into the sink. “But we still lived together, and we tried to fix that but the dorms were already overfilled and they wouldn’t give us a Falon’din damned transfer to another room. And even after they did…

“We tried to stay away but we just… Kept getting back together, on and off again. You’d think after breaking up with the same person four times the fifth wouldn’t hurt so much, but you’d be wrong. When I decided to stay in school for my Masters I transferred here just to get out of the same town as her.”

The confession would have been met with sympathetic silence if not for Max’s, “Yeah, but now it’s done and you live here and you need to let yourself have some fun.”

“But nothing has changed; I’m still going back to the reservation after graduation, and I’m not expecting to find anyone here who would want to move with me.”

“Stop thinking so long term—you never know what’ll happen so just—”

“Maxine, stop. I don’t want a girlfriend. I’ve already tried this twice—I had to break up with Shianni when we graduated high school and I left for college, too, remember?”

The use of Max’s full name was enough to keep her mouth closed, but the look on her face and her crossed arms indicated that she would be bringing it up again later.

Solas barely registered Max’s reaction, or anyone else’s, or anything else around him at all. A fist was clenched around his heart, and he suddenly could not stand the crowded room, the stuffy air, the fenedhis heat. He couldn’t breathe.

He couldn’t leave; couldn’t just walk out without a word, nor could he speak pleasantries. There were two doors in the apartment—her bedroom and the bathroom, surely; they would not work. The backdoor then, yes, the patio. He moved straight to the sliding glass door, escaping to the farthest corner of the cement, only steps from the door itself, and he…

He was such a damned fool. How many times had Elle tried to beat it into his head not to make assumptions, and yet it never even occurred to him that she—he sucked in a long breath through his nose and let it out shakily past his lips.

He’d spent so many hours in her company, days with her talking about anything and everything; how was it possible that he never knew she was gay? Had she truly never said anything, never mentioned it on her blog, or was he so intent on his own hopes that he just wasn’t listening?

There was no reason for this overwhelming sense of loss to be enveloping him like this. He’d lost nothing, because he never had anything. Never had a chance at all, however much he dared to convince himself otherwise. He closed his eyes, taking another deep breath, followed by another.

He felt as if pressed by a tremendous weight; no doubt comprised by the size of his own folly. May he live a thousand years and never be so oblivious again.

Already, his mind was working to protect himself, to build walls. He needed distance from her. She was an incredible woman, one he respected, but he would need time to learn not to think of her the way he had been. It should be easy enough to make their plans together infrequent for a time; it wasn’t as if she was in want for companionship, judging by the small crowd on the other side of the glass.

The phone in his pocket buzzed then, and he was at once severely annoyed by the distraction and wholeheartedly welcoming of something to pull his thoughts away, if only for a moment. Irritation won out when he saw that it was a text from Abelas. The man had been on him daily regarding the excavation; Solas had hoped that he’d at least stay silent over the holidays, but evidently that had been wishful thinking as well.

[6:56] Ran into Bram today. He had something to talk about other than buckles, for once. Evidently UO hinted to him that they may request that he lead the excavation this winter, in your stead. Because you have not given them an answer. STILL. Tenured or not, I suggest you do not forget that University of Orlais hired you specifically for these sort of projects. How do you think they will take you refusing this one, so soon after the department was hit with a lawsuit that has yet to be resolved? Losing the leniency they’ve had with your little basement workshop will be the least of your worries.

Solas frowned at his phone, noticing how his hand still shook as he held it. He’d put off giving a solid response for some time, it was true. Who could blame him for putting the ramifications of declining off for as long as possible? For he did have every intention of declining. The project was morally distasteful… Though he couldn’t for the life of him recall if he would have thought so before he’d met Elle. She would be up in arms if she knew of it.

Right now, though, spending months away from an empty duck pond felt like salvation. He had let his little crush damage his career enough.

[6:57] Tell them I will go.

[6:57] Tell them yourself.

Solas sighed, and as he pocketed his phone Elle stepped out onto the patio, closing the door behind her.

“Are you okay?”

“I am fine, thank you. I just needed some air,” he answered, monotone.

“Yeah, sorry. I guess I shouldn’t really try to have groups at my place. It’s just tradition, you know?” she said apologetically and with a shrug.

Solas forced the corner of his mouth up, to act like nothing had changed. After all, nothing had. She was still the same person as the first day he saw her. “We met only a couple months ago, and I recall you claimed that you were ‘bad at making friends’. You’ve gathered quite a collection nonetheless.”

Pft, what, you jealous?” Quieter, despite the closed door, she said, “They’re just Smoker Friends, it’s not the same thing. Except for Max, of course.”

“You do not smoke.”

“No; it’s just a term I use. They’re transitory. Like in an office, you know, you go out for a smoke break at the same time every day, and you make friends with the other people who are out by the ashtray at the same time. You talk about your day, your family, your hobbies… You get to know each other, but you never make plans outside of work, and then if someone’s shift changes, all you do it say ‘hi’ when you pass them in the halls. You don’t maintain the friendship anymore, because it was for convenience’s sake.”

He felt a further sinking sensation in his chest. “That is a harsh way to look at it.”

“No, I don’t mean it like a bad thing…” She fidgeted with her braid, looking guilty. “I want to show you something, when you’re feeling up to coming back inside.”

“After you,” he heard himself say plainly, as if from a distance. Yes, that was a good idea, to keep his distance. He willed himself to act normally until he could leave. He followed her back into the crowded apartment, which seemed less so than before.

“You’re making that up!” a voice accused. Dagna, probably.

“I agree—there’s no way,” agreed Collette’s voice.

Before him, Max’s hand reached out towards her cousin. “Elle will back me up—remember the time we—”

“I’ll be right back,” Elle replied, brushing her off and continuing her steps.

“Oh I see how it is, Bird Brain; you drag me all the way here, and then you abandon me to—”

“Drama Queen.”

“Frog Face.”

“You’ve already used both of those,” Elle told her, almost out of the room now. Max’s mouth worked as she scrambled for a new insult in time.

“Oh! Silly Goose!” Josephine supplied helpfully.

The cousins cracked up, Elle stopping in front of him with her hand on the door, laughing too hard to continue. Solas managed a small smile at the other woman’s attempt to join the game, but it faded quickly.

Then Elle opened the door and ushered Solas in first. As she followed him, she turned and shouted, “Bannock Butt!”

There was a theatrical gasp, followed by “HOW DARE!” just as Elle quickly shut the door. Her lips pulled across her teeth as she winced and smiled at once—both amused by her antics and worried about Max’s retribution—and leaned against the door as if she feared her cousin might break it down.

Solas couldn’t find the energy to laugh along, however, as he was staggered by the room around him. It was Elle’s bedroom, of course, and his senses were overcome by the sheer impact of the scent of her, snapping his attention back into focus. He had never thought about how she smelled before, not consciously, but it was impossible not to recognize it as unmistakably her as he stood in the cramped room, in want of fresh air.

Light filtered in from small windows high in one of the plain, unpainted walls—ground level from the outside. Sheets tangled around a Pendleton blanket on her twin bed, half strewn on the floor. Beside the bed was a night stand, holding a laptop and a lumpy, poorly made clay lamp that looked unfinished. Completely covering what he suspected was a chair was a mountainous pile of laundry, a ridiculous blend of neon charity walk t-shirts, khaki and denim, and possibly every shade of pink in existence. He could not discern if the pile was clean or dirty.

He had first assumed that the living room and kitchen were in disarray due to the number of Elle’s guests, but now he could see that it was likely normal for her. The small space around him was completely cluttered, filled with reusable grocery bags that appeared to be an attempt at organization—they seemed separated by contents of printouts, text books, and things he could not recognize at a glance. There were many with stuffed animals.

All of this he discovered in seconds, knowing that he should not stare, despite his interest, despite the assault to his senses. Elle pushed away from her door, judging it safe, and gestured to the wall next to it. It was covered in photographs, all unframed and layered over one another.

“When I first started volunteering when I was a kid,” she started, crouching down and touching a few of the 4x6” photos, “I started noticing how transitory the connections I was making were. This girl, here, she was my best friend for about two months... We talked every single day. I thought we’d be friends forever.”

Elle easily pulled off a picture, the wall undamaged by the piece of mounting putty she’d used to put it there. She handed it up to Solas, and he asked, “What happened?”

She shrugged, and stood. “Nothing unusual. We finished the service project we were working on together and didn’t have a reason to hang out anymore. We made plans for the summer that we never kept, and eventually stopped calling because we had nothing to talk about.”

“I’m sorry,” he replied, uncertain. The picture he held showed Elle, very young and without vallaslin but still unmistakably her, beside another young elf, surrounded by canned goods. He flipped the picture over and saw that on the back was written the date, the girl’s name, and the words, ‘FOOD DRIVE’.

He glanced down near where she had pulled the photo from and saw a young Elle, always surrounded by friends, doing a plethora of activities as she tried to figure out who she would grow up to be; horseback riding, bowling, pottery, scouting.

Above those photographs were newer ones, and as she grew into a teenager the hobbies and after school events were replaced with volunteering and school dances. Just below eye-level was her as she was now, the pictures here square and printed with filters, activism at the forefront. The very top row, at her eye height, looked to be family pictures, Max included. Some of the pictures were turned so that they faced the wall.

“No need to be sorry—that’s the thing,” she was explaining. “I wasn’t all that broken up about it. I thought I should be, until I realized that it was just always how life goes. You lose touch with your school friends over the summer, you never see your summer camp buddies again… But that doesn’t mean they weren’t really your friends. They still leave an impression, or shape you, or whatever. I didn’t want to forget that, so I started making this little wall. I set it up every time I move. A picture, a name, something to remind me how they came into my life.”

Solas thought of his own lack of pictures, all expunged as if that would erase his memories. Such tokens hardly seemed to matter to him in his youth, but he had to admit that as time passed and nostalgia set in he’d come to regret that; and not simply because he had no pictures of himself with hair to share with Elle.

“You were wise for your age. Still are, in fact.”

That earned him a smile, her eyes crinkling at the edges, and he refused to let it breed butterflies in his stomach. “Anyway, I brought you in here to show you how lately it seems that all of these have something the person wanted from me written on the back—that sounds wrong, I don’t mean that they’re using me, but… That’s how relationships go, you know, usually you both get something out of it, even if it’s just companionship or whatever, it’s a two-way street… If that makes any sense.” She tapped a few recent pictures, Cullen and the others he met today included. “But lately it’s because they need help with a strike or protest or something.”

Solas nodded, not wanting to interrupt as he struggled to understand her. She was beginning to speak too quickly, the way she did whenever she felt vulnerable.

Elle bent the corner of a few depicting people he had not met, showing him a glimpse of the words on the back. “Clothing donations, homeless shelter, politics…” she listed to herself, and he realized she was looking for a specific one that she couldn’t find in all the others.

All at once he was overwhelmed on her behalf; how could she possibly find the time for all this? How did her shoulders not sag with the weight of her resolve to save the world from itself, single-handedly? At last she pulled a picture from the wall, revealing it to him—to his chagrin, it was the two of them as they were that day in The Bee’s Knees, complete with the 8-bit sunglasses adorning his face.

“What’s on the back of mine?” he asked, quiet and curious. She smiled wryly, and he knew that was exactly what she’d brought him in here to show him. She flipped it over.

It was blank, other than his name and the date.

“I keep thinking I’ll fill it out later, but after an embarrassing amount of time I remembered that sometimes people are just friends to be friends. I… Ugh, don’t tell Max that I got all sappy, but, I just wanted to tell you that—that I appreciate it, I guess.”

Solas let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, feeling awash of guilt—could he truly claim he had no ulterior motive? Moments ago he’d made the decision to pull away from her, simply because he could not have her.

“You do not have to thank me, Elizabeth,” he said, pushing the words out. “It is my considerable pleasure to be your friend.”

That much, at least, was true.

She pinkened, just a little, then looked at the photograph in her hand, then the wall… Anywhere but at him. “Thank you. You too, I mean. This is embarrassing.”

He smiled reassuringly. “Don’t be embarrassed, Lethallan. You know you can talk to me about anything.”

She nodded emphatically. “That’s just it, though. I really like that I can—” Her voice choked off abruptly, surprising them both. She blinked moisture from her eyes, annoyed, and he reached for her, but aborted the motion when she cleared he throat and continued. “I don’t have to watch what I say around you. You saw, out there, how things get around certain subjects. It’s always like that. I forget what to avoid talking about, or I’m too much for people to handle, or get too loud, or aggressive, or obsessed with one thing and it’s all I talk about for, like, a week…”

“With good cause,” he assured her.

Her smile twisted up at him, her face noticeably red. “You make me, um, make me feel like you actually care about what I say, instead of just put up with it. And you aren’t afraid to call me out, either. I like that too. That probably has a lot to do with, you know, blowing up at you while we still barely knew each other. If we can get past that, we can get past anything, right?”

Anything. Right. He had an intense urge to tell her how he felt at that moment. To ask her for help. If they can get through anything, then please, could she tell him how to get through this? It was unbearable.

He forced a smile instead. “Don’t forget the lawsuit.”

She laughed. “Ah, yes. The secret to everlasting friendships. Shouting and legal action.” She looked at the ridiculous picture of them again, and reached up to stick it on the wall; not back where it was before, buried under all her other acquaintances, but up top with Max and the other permanent fixtures in her life. “Or maybe it’s premature to say it’ll be lasting, but I sure hope it is. I don’t want this to be transitory, like the others.”

He knew that it would cost him, to maintain their friendship with his heart raw as it was, but the pain did not bear measure against the hopeful look in her eyes, brown and shining up at him from beneath wet lashes.

“It won’t be,” he promised.

Chapter Text

Elle dug a pair of pants out from a pile of laundry, shaking them roughly before holding them out to determine whether to not they were too wrinkled to wear. She decided that they would flatten out enough on their own by the time she got off the bus, so she pulled them on. She didn’t want to look too dressy, after all—it was just dinner with Solas. She resented the Orlesian weather that made pants necessary. It never got this cold in the Marches!

She paused on the way to the bathroom to stop and look at her picture mural with tempered embarrassment. Whatever impulse has led her to show it to Solas, he seemed to take her awkward display in stride. Mostly.

He’d seemed reluctant when she invited herself to dinner today (knowing that Max would head home that morning, leaving her alone) and Elle had tried to rescind the idea, but by then Solas had insisted.

She reached for a pic that she had turned towards the wall, and pulled it off. Turning it over, she picked the sticky-tack off of the image of her and Lace on their first day as roommates.

When she’d first moved into this apartment she’d had the picture face-out, unable to picture that Lace wouldn’t remain a big part of her life. At some point she’d turned it around, unable to look at it any longer.

Today, she returned the tack to the back of it, and put the picture down with the rest of her past, where it belonged.

She went to the mirror in the bathroom and checked the fit of her new blouse once again—it was a gift from her mamae, brought down to her by Andi. The inside tag had been cut off, so Sylaise only knew what brand it was and whether or not it was made in some sweatshop. Elle was pretty sure her mamae has gotten it from a thrift-shop or hand-me-down, though, so at least there was that.

She smoothed down her hair, wondering if she should try to do something different with it for once. Not for hanging out with Solas, of course, but just because she was a bit bored of it. Maybe she should switch to an Orlesian braid once in a while.

Some other time. Can’t be late. She grabbed her backpack, full of schoolwork that needed to be finished by the time Satinalia break was over, and left to catch her bus.

~~~~~

An hour or so later, Elle had her books spread out on the table of Solas’ breakfast nook as he cooked in his spotless kitchen. She read a sentence for the third time without understanding it before groaning inelegantly and letting her head fall to thump on the pages.

A chuckle came from the direction of the stove. “Something troubling you, Da’len?”

She looked up. “Uh oh—you haven’t called me ‘Da’len’ in ages. Am I in trouble, Hahren?”

He stiffened, an odd look on his face, and turned back to his work. “Of course not, Lethallan. Anything I can help you with?”

“No… What about you, can I help?”

She saw his lips pulling gently into a small smile. “You are only offering to avoid your own work.”

“Well, yeah.”

He denied her, gesturing sternly at her homework as he picked up a knife, and began to finely chop some parsley. She ignored her studies, watching the nimble movements of his hands. He had his sleeves rolled up, and she could see the subtle movements of muscle in his forearms and tendons in his hands as long, slender fingers rhythmically manipulated the blade.

He used the knife to guide the herbs from the cutting board, combining the leaves with the capers, scallions, and garlic he had already minced. He looked at her as he drizzled a measurement of olive oil over the mix. The look was reproachful, a silent reprimand that she really should be focused on her work, but then he pointedly set out a single lemon and a zester for her.

She smiled, amused by his silent offer, and obediently moved to zest for him. When he grabbed the salmon fillets and tongs she stopped him. “Wait—your apron.”

“Ah, thank you for reminding me.”

After he’d ruined a shirt last week, she’d decided it was her personal responsibility to remind him to wear his apron anytime something might splatter. Sometimes she even sent him reminders by text, if she wasn’t with him. If she hadn’t been so distracted she would have reminded him sooner. Solas pulled the apron from the hook on the pantry door and pulled it over his head, endearingly mindful of his ears, as always.

It was just a plain blue apron, probably bought from a grocery store, but it was actually a really good color on him; it brought out the blue in his eyes, and the pink in his cheeks. The strap got a bit caught on his shirt collar, and Elle easily pictured how a girlfriend might reach up and straighten his collar, tiptoeing to give him quick kiss as she did.

Elle snapped her attention to her lemon to hide her eyes going wide. That was… That was a weird thought, right? Well, no, maybe not. Why shouldn’t she want to see Solas in a happy relationship? He had never mentioned wanting one, but he did seem lonely. He might be happier if he started seeing someone else.

That thought left a telltale knot of jealousy in her gut. Because he wouldn’t have as much time to spend with Elle? She wasn’t normally that selfish with her friends. Or was it because… But it couldn’t be. She would have noticed by now.

The kitchen timer went off, and Solas’ voice cut through her thoughts. “That is quite sufficient, thank you,” he told her, taking away the bowl of lemon zest. The lemon in her hand was completely bald. He only put a pinch of the pile she had made into the recipe before moving to turn over the salmon on his stovetop broiler.

She was overthinking this—it was just a stray thought. She was just feeling affectionate towards her good friend, was all. She couldn’t be into Solas… Solas was a guy. There were plenty of people who were interested in men but only sexually attracted to women, sure, but she had never had romantic interest in men before; not even back in middle school, when she assumed she was straight. She’d agreed to be Tamlen’s girlfriend because everyone was doing it, not because she had any special feelings towards him. Just like she couldn’t have any special feelings towards her friend, Solas.

She was looking at the counter, staring at nothing, but she could feel him watching her out of the corner of his eye, as he so often did. She looked up at him, and he moved a paring knife and small cutting board closer to her. It took her far longer than it should have to remember what she was supposed to do with them: she used a few quick strokes to cut the lemon into wedges.

When she looked at him again he was busy pulling plates from the cabinets. Curious, she tried to imagine it again; a small moment, a soft kiss.

It was supposed to seem icky. But… Dammit that actually sounded nice.

Well, that didn’t have to mean anything. She’d been single for a while; she probably just missed romance. That didn’t have anything to do with Solas, personally.

But entirely without her permission the scene in her head kept going, escalating, forcing her to imagine a more heated kiss and his chest pressed against hers and… And… It wasn’t bad at all.

He caught her staring, met her eyes, his lips parted slightly, and for a moment she was terrified he could read her mind.

“June’s blade strike me down!” she hissed under her breath.

“Elizabeth?” His voice sounded soft and worried and caring and perfect and she hated it.

“Nothing, sorry, I think I just figured something out. About my homework.” She turned away, rushing to the table as if she wanted to write something down before she forgot it.

On her notebook, she wrote:


not again notagainnotagain NOT AGAIN n o t a g a i n

It wasn’t fair. Solas was supposed to be safe! Elle knew she was bad at this sort of thing; she had not made it to adulthood without realizing that she was not as perceptive as others at telling when people were interested in each other—even when she was one of those people. That was why she limited her time with so many of her friends until she could be certain neither of them would develop romantic interest, and tried to avoid anything that could be mistaken as flirtation.

Sometimes she miscalculated; Max had advised her to ease up on Cullen, for example. But Solas was supposed to be safe. There was no reason that a man who had his life together (and was, what, ten/fifteen years her senior?) would be interested in some loud-mouthed girl from the Marches. And she, of course, was supposed to be some kind of grey-ace lesbian or something.

She was definitely not as gay as she thought she was.

“Will you grab the water, please?” Solas asked from over her shoulder, startling her into slamming her notebook closed, not that he’d be trying to read it. She nodded guiltily. She wondered how he would react if she kissed him. She grabbed the water pitcher and empty glasses from the granite countertop, following him as he carried their plated dinner and flatware to the dining room table.

“Is everything alright, Lethallan?” he asked her as they settled.

She squeezed lemon juice over her salmon, avoiding looking at him. “Yeah, just distracted I guess.”

“You are nervous about the election,” he guessed. He wasn’t entirely wrong.

“Well, it’s almost here. Seven more days—six, now. For better or worse.”

He reached out and squeezed her hand reassuringly. “I am not worried. There are ignorant people, yes, but there are also those such as you. All your effort will not be for nothing.”

“Even if I lose, it wasn’t for nothing…” She tailed off as she looked up at him at last, and saw… She saw her best friend looking back at her.

Best friend other than Max, of course.

She smiled, her breath rushing out in relief. She was glad to see just her friend again, and she almost laughed, almost told him the ridiculous thought she’d just had. What a joke, right? Except… Even now that other feeling was seeping back in simply from the sound of his voice.

She listened with one ear as he changed the subject and went on about his work, trying to figure herself out as they ate.

“…acquisition fell through, so naturally that extended the length of time it will take me to complete my dissertation. I either need to procure a similar artifact, or else…”

She should tell him anyway, right? He deserved to know. Maybe if he shot her down she would quit having such ridiculous thoughts.

“…thus, most likely I will need to find entirely new sources. I am confident that I can, of course, but it would be a lot of additional legwork, research, and of course, revisions…”

No, she might make him uncomfortable. She couldn’t do that to him unnecessarily. She had to be sure what her feelings actually were before she went around telling people. She wasn’t one for spreading false information.

“…still on track to publish within the year—giving time to do it properly, without negligence to the Dalish, as we have discussed—but until then I must still play games with department politics...”

What was a good amount of time, a couple weeks? No good; not acting on emotional impulse was not exactly Elle’s strongest trait. Maybe just one week. Yes. A week to figure out if she was into him—and what to do about it if she was.

This would be so much easier if she could just kiss him and see how it made her feel. That always seemed to work the best for her. Except when it was awkward.

“… Which brings me to something I need to tell you, Elizabeth.”

It was his tone of voice more than the use of her name that caught her attention. “Yes?”

“You will remember that project that the archaeology department wanted my presence on? The digsite in Exalted Plains?”

“The one that Abelas was nagging you about it, but you didn’t want to do it?”

“The same. I did not mention to you that the university has been rather insistent, and that I have… Avoided telling them formally that I intended to decline the opportunity. I’m not proud of the deception, but the moment they learned that I would not go they would have retaliated by cutting funding for my projects, and likely for my graduate student as well. I wanted to make the most of the time I had left.”

Elle rolled her eyes in disgust. Was there anything that didn’t come down to politics? “They ’would have’?”

He granted her a small smile for her perception. “I recently agreed to their terms. It… It would be foolish not to. I am so close to completing this paper, and if it is received as well as I anticipate I will never have my hand forced again. One or two more simple excavations to keep the peace with the University of Orlais would be a trivial price to pay for earning the influence to pick and choose my assignments on my own terms, or to even relocate.” She didn’t understand the pleading look in his eyes as he asked her urgently, “You understand, don’t you? I have worked towards this my entire academic career. I cannot just throw that away.”

“Of course, Lethallin, don’t be silly,” she said gently, not getting why he seemed afraid that she would be upset. “Solas, you seem scared. What are they making you do? Is it dangerous? Is it going to help your research at all?”

Another weak smile. “No, in regards to both. There is no danger, and I am not anticipating finding anything of particular interest or unique origin. Still, if the builders insist on moving forward with their plan, I am glad that these artifacts will be preserved. There is always honor in protecting a piece of history, however small.”

She smiled. He was so cute when he got all passionate about his work. She hoped whatever she ended up doing with her life would be half as fulfilling. “Of course there is. So, when do you leave? How long will you be gone?”

“It should be a fairly quick process; two months, perhaps three.” He paused to take a sip of water, choosing his words carefully. “The company is… Concerned about the results of the election. Whomever is elected, if the project were to wait until the ground grew soft in the Spring, new laws may pass that could inconvenience them. They wish to be done as soon as possible. I leave in one week’s time.”

“A week! That’s such short notice! They can’t give you any more time than that?”

“Do not forget, I was the one that strung them along—it is my own doing. Truthfully, it is more surprising that they waited as long as they did for my answer; but then, I believe they knew I would agree in the end.”

“Yeah, because they’re forcing you,” Elle grumbled, crossing her arms. A week, huh? That sort of interfered with her ‘do I like Solas’ plan. Max had just left her this morning, and now Solas was leaving her, too. “Dirthamen damn it, Solas, I’m going to miss you. I guess you’re not teaching any classes next semester. What am I supposed to do without you around? Who will feed the ducks with me?”

He smirked. “I have faith that you will find endless causes to occupy your time, and I will be back before the birds fly south for the summer.”

Maybe it was fortuitous, his leaving before she had a chance to do something stupid. She wouldn’t want to say anything before he left for so long, after all. She could reevaluate when he came back next year.

“Do I at least get to monopolize your time until you leave?”

He hesitated, but said, “Of course. I have many preparations to make, but I would not see you neglected.”

Or… Maybe she should just figure it out sooner. Who needed a week, honestly? A day was plenty.

“Good, then. I need to make sure you don’t forget me. There’s, um… There’s a movie at that independent theater downtown I was planning on watching tomorrow? Low budget, but the production team is all local women and I wanted to support them. We could get dinner afterwards; about this time tomorrow. Does that sound alright? About twenty-four hours from now?”

Solas shook his head, as if amused. “That sounds just fine, Elizabeth.”

Chapter Text

About twenty-four hours later, Solas was walking Elle out of a small independent theater downtown. They walked side-by-side into the parking garage as she gave her review of the film they had just watched.

“…I liked the acting, too. The dialogue had a really natural flow.”

“If only the same could be said of the cinematography.”

“Oh good, it wasn’t just me. The scene transitions were so jarring, weren’t they? Especially with the camera angles. Those were interesting.”

“That is one word for them, yes. Another might be ‘nauseating’.”

She dug into the pocket of her ridiculously large hoody for the cell phone she had silenced before the film. “So, there was actually something I wanted to talk to you about.”

His mind instantly went to worst-case scenarios; that she wanted more information about his trip, that she had discovered his true feelings, that she would not have time to see him again before he left. He carefully kept his face impassive even as his heartbeat picked up, tucking his hands behind him as they approached his car. “Yes?”

Speaking quickly and fidgeting with her phone, she started to explain. “It’s not a big deal or anything, stupid really, but you know I like to be honest—candor is sort of my thing—so I just…”

She trailed off as she got distracted by something she saw in her notifications, and Solas bit back a sigh of frustration. Elle stopped in her tracks, and he reached past her to open the door for her. He expected her to start speaking again when he got into the driver’s seat, but she was still staring at her screen as she buckled her seatbelt. There was a look of horror on her face.

“Elizabeth?”

“Give me a sec,” she replied, preoccupied as she scrolled.

He obliged, giving her time to process whatever it was as he drove them back to her apartment. From there they would walk (her idea) to the diner just down the street.

After a few short moments passed, Elle said, “It’s Corypheus. I was checking the sources.” She played the clip.

The sound of Corypheus’ voice filled the cab of his car as they listened to the interview. To say that the presidential candidate’s words were offensive or alarming was an understatement. The reporter asked about his immigration policies, to which he replied that Orlais was ‘overrun’ with elves and dwarves, referring to them as leftovers from when they had fled south to escape their owners in Tevinter. He ‘joked’ about sending them back. He went on to praise Tevinter’s ‘glory days’, and said that slavery had been the backbone of their economy. Elle stopped the video when Corypheus casually mentioned that Orlais could use an economical boost like that.

Silence fell over them, and Solas felt chilled by the man’s words and Elle’s expression alike.

After a time, he said, “I know it might not seem like it, but this could be a good thing, given the timing. The election is only days away; this interview will still be fresh in everyone’s minds as they vote.”

Elle laughed bitterly, crossing her arms and staring out the window. “Like that will make a difference; you’re ever the idealist, Solas. The fact that Corypheus has even made it this far has cured me of believing his supporters will ever think that enough is enough. People are already tripping all over themselves to defend him.”

“A vocal minority,” he assured her. “Just because they speak the loudest does not mean they speak for all.”

“I hope you’re right.”

~~~~~

Elle was focused on her phone for the remainder of the trip, still tapping out some message to her followers as Solas perused the diner menu. She looked worried—scared—and he wanted desperately to comfort her, but he didn’t know how.

He tried distracting her. “Did you see the flyers around campus for the exhibit the art department is hosting?”

“Yeah. I was going to go with Dagna, but she canceled,” Elle replied, sounding defeated.

After a moment, he tried again. “Perhaps I should convince Abelas to go. He met a man at a similar function not too long ago whom he wanted to ask to dinner, but he pays so much in alimony that he was convinced he could not afford to start dating again.”

He was disappointed when the topic did not spark a rant about alimony, or gender roles, or much of anything besides a sympathetic “hmm” from her.

He let her finish her task as he made his selection and set aside his menu. As he waited for the server to return, he asked, “Do you know what you are going to order? You cannot go wrong—the sign on the door said that everything they serve here is GMO free.”

That earned him an eye roll. “There’s nothing wrong with GMOs.”

“Oh? I thought you preferred organic food?”

“They’re not interchangeable! The man who bred corn that could survive on less water during the drought that left most of Ferelden starving won a Peace Prize, and now everyone’s acting like he’s a demon just because when they hear ‘genetically modified’ they picture a bunch of scientists in lab coats dicking with their food. Breeding plants is necessary, especially with rapid environmental and population changes, and it’s not inherently evil.”

He took a quick sip of water in an attempt to hide his grin, or at least his laughter. “But some are created in a laboratory. Is it really necessary to splice jellyfish DNA into potatoes so that they glow when they need to be watered?”

“They’ve also created plants that turn carbon dioxide into oxygen at twice the usual rate, which could help save the environment. Labelling all these plants under one umbrella term—and then avoiding them because they’re ‘unnatural’—is not the solution,” she declared, and proceeded to tell him precisely what she felt the solution should be.

~~~

By the time Solas and Elle were walking back to her place, her phone firmly in her pocket, she seemed calmer. She closed the distance between them to nudge him with her shoulder.

“I know what you were doing back there, you know. Trying to provoke me. My papae used to do the same thing when I was little, before the divorce. He thought it was cute until I got older and it wasn’t anymore.”

“And yet, my tactic worked quite well,” he pointed out.

“Yeah, I know. I’m as predictable as ever.”

He snorted. “Hardly.”

She smiled up at him, and then down at the sidewalk. The yellow of the streetlights left shadows on her face as they passed. The cold air made her sniff, her nose red. “Well, in any case, thank you. And I’m sorry for ruining our friend-date.”

“Elizabeth…” He could have stopped himself from asking what he did, then. He could have swallowed the words, hidden them behind his soft smile. He didn’t, though; he let them come. Maybe he should leave well enough alone, but he could not shake the feeling that there was something more in those small moments when she caught his eye and her breath. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but even knowing what he knew, he had to ask. “Tell me—what is it that makes our dates ‘friendly’, as opposed to the more traditional kind?”

He watched her reaction closely as she stumbled on her feet as well as her words. “Well, um—what do you mean?”

They stopped, having reached an intersection. Solas did not take his eyes off of her as he pressed the button to walk across. The calmness of his voice belied his fear of her answer. “When some people get to know each other, go to dinners and see movies, it is courtship. For some, it is friendship. Where would you say lies the distinction?”

Was it just the streetlight that made her face so red? Did he misread the way she twisted her braid around her fingers? “In the intent, I suppose. And chemistry.”

“Chemistry?”

“Yeah, you know… Like, you and I are friends, so we have emotional intimacy, but wouldn’t be affected by physical intimacy like datemates would.” It looked like she shook her head at herself, just a little, as she looked away awkwardly. He did too, allowing her words to sink in. Before they could, though, he heard her take a deep breath and say decisively, “Like this, watch.”

She reached out and turned his head firmly before he had a chance to respond to her words. Then she braced her hand against his collarbone and leaned in. Fool that he was, he didn’t realize what she was doing until she closed her eyes. Surprised, he followed suit, tilting his head at the last moment before her lips met his.

Clumsy and quick, it floored him nonetheless. Elle pulled back too soon, turning away, flushed and squeaking, “See? N-nothing.”

Solas grinned—he knew he was not misinterpreting this. He reached out, grabbing her between her waist and her hip, first with one hand, then the other. He shook his head, and easily pulled her close.

If his worth as a lover was to be decided on a single kiss, it would be a proper one.

He kissed her, his Elizabeth, leaning into her even as he held her to him. He caught the barest taste of her tongue as she wrapped one hand around his neck, the other clinging around his waist. His knee sliding between hers was entirely unintentional—he was only trying to get closer to her, perhaps even closer to those legs she relentlessly tormented him with.

He could have stayed like that forever, the feel of her lips overriding his need for air, but a car horn blared and startled him into pulling back. Neither of them looked towards the man shouting suggestively out of his car window.

Elle looked up at him, first dazed, then impish. “Okay… You win this round.”

He laughed, and kissed her one last time—it probably would have turned into more than just once had the light not changed, the WALK sign beeping to signal them.

The beeping sound echoed through the night as it counted down the time they had to cross safely. Hesitantly, she reached for his hand, brushing the back of her fingers against his lightly. He smiled, somewhat giddily, and though he felt his cheeks heat he grabbed her hand and intertwined his fingers with hers. They crossed the street—hand in hand, he walked her home. It was a wondrous thing.

He heard her sniffling against the cold and moved closer to her, happy to share his warmth. She squeezed his hand and sniffed again. They walked in silence, and he wondered if he should say something, or just enjoy this moment with her. He had been so sure he would never get this chance… He would not ruin it.

His upcoming trip complicated things, certainly. Not only because of the distance, but the work itself. He would tell her, of course—the sooner the better, in case she needed time to adjust to the idea, or… Or forgive him. He would not hide it, though; it was one matter to conceal such a thing from a friend, but another entirely from… From someone who was more than that. He smiled again, and saw that they were approaching her building.

He took a steadying breath. “Elizabeth—” he began, looking at her as she sniffed again, this time raising her free hand to wipe her cheek with the cuff of her sleeve. Fear gripped him and so he gripped her, halting and tugging until she turned to him. “Elizabeth! Are you crying?”

She squeezed her eyes closed, forcing out tears that fell freely. “Sorry, I’m sorry,” she said, immediately pushing away from him and back towards her home. He pulled on her hand to stop her, but she yanked away and covered her face with both hands.

He chased after her. “Vhe—Elizabeth, talk to me, please; what is upsetting you?”

“It’s stupid, I’m sorry, I’m stupid,” she babbled, slowing to a stop in front of the stairs leading to her door, if only because she was rubbing her fists into her eyes too hard to see. “Ugh, I tried to hold it in until I got home, I didn’t want you to see—”

“You should not have; you don’t have to hide anything from me. Please talk to me,” he pleaded, wiping away a stray tear with the pad of his thumb.

“It’s just—there are… considerations. What if this isn’t the best idea?”

Ah. Was that all? “You are referring to the ‘transitory’ nature of your time in Orlais? It will be years before you finish your grad studies, there is no sense in—”

“It’s not just that! What if—like—what if we break up over some stupid argument over-over butter versus margarine or something? I’ll lose my best friend, Solas. I need you.”

She was worried about a breakup before they were even together. Couldn’t she see that that meant something?

He gently took her chin between his thumb and forefinger, tilting her head until she could see the sincerity in his eyes as he lovingly, emphatically, sternly, told her, “I would not abandon you so easily, Elizabeth.”

“I’m not saying it would be something that ridiculous…” She shook her head, escaping his grasp, still panicking. “What if this is a mistake? I told myself I wouldn’t do this. I shouldn’t have.”

Solas hands dropped to his sides, his face falling. Did… Did she regret this?

“Do… If you could take it back, would you?” he asked, terrified. Internally he begged for her to deny it.

She shrugged. Shrugged, as if he’d asked nothing more important than where they should have lunch. “I-I don’t know. Maybe. Please, I’m sorry, I’m just scared. It’s too late now, anyway.”

She reached for him, but he stepped back, raising his hands to fend her off. His breath left his body, and the pain in his chest made drawing a new one impossible. It would not have hurt more if Elle had run a blade through his heart.

He’d waited so long for this moment, and she… He didn’t want to have to convince her. Didn’t want her to talk herself into being with him because it was ‘too late’.

He wanted her heart more than he wanted the dawn to come… But not like this.

He forced his face into neutrality, ice creeping into his bones. “The kiss was impulsive and ill considered, and I should not have encouraged it,” he heard himself say calmly, from a thousand miles away. “There is no reason a few minutes—no more time than it took the light to change—should ruin our friendship.”

She looked at him skeptically, still blinking away tears in the dark. “Really? Just like that, and it never happened?”

He may have nodded. “Of course, Lethallan. We need never speak of it again.” In prayer, he said, “It will be as a false memory, like a dream lost upon waking.”

She reached up and hugged him. “Thank you, Solas. I appreciate that. I’m sorry I’m such a mess.”

He did not want to embrace her, did not want to be so close while holding himself back. He did, though—to assure her that everything would be fine, to give her the comfort she needed from a friend. “Everything is as it was, Elizabeth. And I will always remember a surprising moment stolen in a dream.”

Chapter Text

Elle sat cross-legged in a hand-me-down wooden chair in her cramped, silent apartment. As silent as any apartment with thin walls could be, anyway. In her lap she had her hands wrapped around a chipped mug filled with her morning coffee; she wasn’t drinking it, but she enjoyed the warmth seeping into her fingers. She didn’t even like coffee all that much, she’d just gotten used to it as a grad student necessity.

Her eyes still stung, and the effort to keep the tears back had given her a blighted headache. She’d won that battle, though—she would not cry again. She did sigh heavily, expelling every last bit of air from her lungs before reaching up to click the [CALL] button.

It rang three times before Max picked up. She still had one ear bud in, and was looking at the phone it was connected to instead of at her computer. “Hey, Sucker. You listen to that playlist I gave you yet?”

“Uh, no. I’ll check my email.”

“It’s not in an email, I put it on your laptop while I was down there. That’s like the only way to get you to listen to anything.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

Max finally looked up. She immediately pulled out her earbud and set her phone aside, saying, “Sweety, are you okay? What’s wrong?”

Elle’s face crumpled a little, but she took a breath to steady herself. “I… I kissed one of my friends when I probably shouldn’t have. Definitely shouldn’t have.”

“Aw, Honey… Again?” Max shook her head. “You keep doing that.”

Elle nodded miserably. “Yeah, I know. Apparently it’s habit forming.”

“Well, tell me what happened! Was she someone I met? Oh, was it Josie?”

“It was a ‘he’, actually,” she said, making a face and finally taking a sip of her coffee.

“Oh. Well, at least that part’s new.”

“Yeah, I know. I don’t know.” She shook her head at herself. Even if Max wasn’t pansexual she wouldn’t have thought it was weird, but Elle was still adjusting to the concept of kissing boys again. “You met him. Solas, the elf from the party?”

“Ew, the creepy bald guy?”

“He is not creepy!”

“He just stood around staring at everyone all night.”

“It’s not his fault that I don’t have enough chairs!” Elle shot back. She didn’t mention that Solas was a fan of people-watching—that probably wouldn’t help her case.

“Okay, okay! Sorry,” Max replied before Elle could keep going, raising her hands up innocently. “So he wasn’t in to it?”

“No, he kissed me back… Man, did he ever.”

“Gross. Okay, so—wait, what’s the problem then? Is he married or something?”

No.” Elle bit her lip, and took another sip to cover the gesture. “We made out a little and then, like, I immediately started crying in the middle of the street.”

“Ah, well that would probably scare me away. Poor guy.”

“Yeah,” Elle sighed. “I know.”

“So why the crying? What’s the problem—it’s not the dating thing, is it?” Elle nodded, and this time Max sighed. “That’s stupid.”

“It’s not stupid. He’s my best friend,” Elle told her, before quickly adding, “Best friend in the city, I mean.”

“Yeah, or he could be your best-friend-with-benefits-in-the-city,” Max suggested as she rolled her eyes. “Come on—you’re not aro, and you’re going to be out there for ages. You’re going to wind up falling in ‘Like’ with people sooner or later. Yeah, it’s a risk, but it’s always a risk. Even if you wait until you move back home to start dating, it’s a risk.”

Elle was silent for a long moment, looking down at her coffee. It was losing its warmth. She meant to take a sip, but she remained unmoving until she finally mustered a weak nod. “I know.”

So?” Max’s arms flew up in a violently ‘I don’t know what to do with you’ gesture as she asked the creators for the strength to put up with her third cousin four times removed.

Elle shot up, slamming her mug to the table as she paced the tight space. “Yeah. I know. I know it’s stupid! I’m stupid. I just-I panicked! And I just…” She shook her head. “If I had made it home I could have freaked out in private, you know? And then… And then I would have calmed down or whatever and he would never have seen me like that and we’d still… We’d still be…”

Max was making soothing sounds, the soft susurrations becoming static from the laptops speakers. “Shhh, shhh, it’s okay, it’s going to be okay. I really wish I was there to give you a hug right now, Lethallan, but I’m not, so I need you to do me a favor and take a few deep breaths. Can you do that?”

Elle stopped her pacing, crossing her arms and tucking them close, then nodding. She squeezed her eyes closed, and tears streaked down her cheeks as she focused on her breathing. After one large sniff she steadied herself, opening her eyes and slowly sitting back down, twisting her braid around her thin fingers.

“He offered me an out. I didn’t even know that I wanted it, but I was so surprised he offered that I just sort of agreed. He said that we could just pretend it never happened, and go back to being just friends, you know?” She shook her head at herself. “But that’s a load of bull! You can’t just… Things will be weird now. Things are going to be awkward and then he’s, like, he’s leaving on this trip for like three months which is as long as we’ve known each other, and we’ll be awkward-strangers, which is way worse than just strangers. It’s done. I’ve ruin it. I lost him.”

She shook her head again. She’d destroyed everything in a record amount of time, this time.

Max waited patiently to see if Elle would keep going. When she didn’t, she said, “I hate to be the one to tell you this, Dear, but you’re both idiots.”

“Thanks.”

“I mean it. You both like each other, so just… Be together? Like, it’s not that hard. Text him, tell him you changed your mind. Jump his bones the next time you see him. If you really think you’ve already lost him, then what’s the harm in trying?”

Elle wanted to believe her cousin, but… “You didn’t see the way he just shut off, though. It was like he flipped a switch back to ‘friend’.”

“I promise if you grab his ‘switch’ it’ll turn back on for you.”

Elle rolled her eyes. She wrapped her finger in hair until it turned purple. “He liked the kiss,” she finally told her cousin, “but the way he jumped straight to ‘Let’s pretend it didn’t happen’, and how easy it looked for him, makes me think that maybe… Maybe he doesn’t actually like me, that way. He just liked the kissing part.”

“Hmm. I mean yeah, I do like it when pretty girls kiss me out of nowhere.”

“Right? Who doesn’t. So maybe it didn’t mean anything to him in the first place, and that’s why he was so quick to, you know...”

“You still don’t know, though. Don’t assume. Here’s a crazy idea: maybe try having an adult conversation with him about it.”

“That sounds awful.”

“Oh come on, you face everything head on. You gotta figure it out. I still say he likes you and you should just do it. When are you seeing him again?”

“I’m not sure. Our usual plans are messed up because he’s packing and finishing up teaching assignments and stuff for his absence.”

She tried to say that she wasn’t sure she would see him again before he left, but panic gripped her heart and nothing came out.

Max didn’t notice. “That’s not going to work. I’m not putting up with you being like this,” she wriggled her hand in the direction of the camera, “for that long.”

There was a long, pensive silence. Then Elle lifted her eyes up to the screen. “You’re right.”

“Pfft. Yeah, I know.” Max picked up her cell phone. “Hey… Have you ever noticed that the only long-term friend you’ve managed not to tongue is your cousin?”

Elle groaned.

~~~

Moments later, Elle was tired of waiting for Solas to answer her too-many texts, so she hit the call button. She brought the phone to her ear, telling Max, “I’m going to call him, I’ll tell you how it—”

“Don’t you dare hang up on me, I’m going to be right here—”

Elle turned away from her still-protesting cousin when Solas picked up. The first thing she heard was his sigh.

“Good morning, Elizabeth.”

“H-hey you,” she answered, jumping up so that he wouldn’t hear Max. She paced her apartment once again. “Uh, how are you?”

“I am well, Lethallan.” And then, some hint of concern in his formal tone, “Are you?”

She shook her head, but lied. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

Silence, from both of them. All three of them, technically.

“This is usually where you tell me why you called.”

“Right, I’m sorry. I… Just wanted to know if we were still meeting for lunch today?

Confused hesitation. “This is not one of our lunch days. I believe you have work today.”

“Right…” She tried briefly to think of a lie, but she could not come up with a reason Vivienne would give her the day off that he would not be able to verify, and the thought of lying to her by calling in sick was too intimidating. “Sorry, I guess I got my days mixed up.”

She could feel Max watching her, witness to her failed attempts to act like a person.

“Is there anything else? I am very busy at the—”

“Um, no, I suppose not. I’ll let you get back to…” She glanced at her computer. Max was staring directly into the camera, close to the computer, so that it looked like she was staring directly at Elle. “No, actually, wait. You still there?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.” Elle took in a gulp of air, trying to remember all the words for communication that were so much easier to use online than on the phone. “I’m sorry for pressuring you with my needs but I’m feeling very insecure right now because I feel like you’re avoiding me and maybe it’s all in my head but maybe it’s not and if you and I could make some definitive plans to spend some time together before you leave this weekend it would really go a long way to make me feel better, unless of course you are avoiding me in which case that’s valid and I’ll respect that but you don’t have to hide it from me, you can just say—”

She stopped only because she needed to suck in a breath, but decided that that was enough blurting from her and kept quiet. There was silence on the line. She didn’t look at her laptop.

After a moment she pulled the phone away to look at the screen and make sure the call was still connected. She heard paper shuffling as she put it back to her ear.

“I really do not have any time to spare in my schedule without forgoing sleep, Lethallan…”

“Oh,” she replied dumbly, feeling zero-percent better. Was that a good sign that he checked for her? Or was he still avoiding her while pretending not to?

“…so I hope you have something interesting in mind, otherwise you might hear me snoring. The earliest I am available will be after dinner with the investors tonight.”

“Okay, great! That works perfectly; I have movie night with Max tonight, you can join us!”

“What?” protested Max, at the same time that Solas said, “I would not want to intrude on your time with your cousin.”

“Don’t worry about it, honestly,” Elle said, waving her hand to silence Max. “I’m sick of her, anyway.”

“Rude!”

Solas chuckled. “If you are certain. I really must be going.”

“Of course! Have a good day, Lethallin. See you later.”

“I will see you tonight,” he said, then added, “Tell Max I said hello.”

Of course he had heard her stupid loudmouth cousin. Elle wondered if she was red as walked back to her chair.

“So… Everything is good?” her cousin asked.

She shrugged. “I think so? He seemed normal, I think...” She sighed. “I don’t know. He’s always so proper, I can’t tell.”

“You’re overthinking it.”

“Probably,” she said. Then, “It’s your turn to pick the movie, right? Make sure it’s lighthearted or whatever.”

“Right.”

“And no kissing scenes! Preferably no romance at all, actually.”

Max rolled her eyes. “Right, because it’s so easy to find a comedy with no obligatory heterosexual romance. Just promise me that if you start making out on the couch you’ll hang up first; you’re my cousin, I don’t need to see that.”

Elle made a disgusted noise and slapped her laptop closed, ending the call.

~~~~~

Many hours and an exhausting day at work later, Elle was ignoring the stupid pointless butterflies in her stomach. She was dressed normally, and had cleaned her apartment the normal amount for having company, and soon Solas would be there for a perfectly normal movie night.

She was in the kitchen, making popcorn in her grandmae’s old cast iron skillet, when he knocked on her door. Her heart lurched a little when, before she had time to react, he let himself in. She did the same thing at his place, but they never hung out here. That was normal, right?

“Hey! Just in time,” she greeted from the stove.

“Good evening, Lethallan,” he replied politely. He unwound a navy scarf from his neck, the tips of his ears pink from the winter chill outside. “Smells good. Do you need any assistance?”

“What, without your apron?” she replied over the sound of popping. “Nah, I think I’ve got it. I might even manage not to burn it, this time. Go ahead and have a seat.”

She heard the sounds of him making himself comfortable as she focused on not overheating the kernels—she was too impatient to cook most things, always tempted to turn the heat up to finish it quicker, usually to disastrous results.

When she was done she poured it into a bowl with some salt and turned to the living room. Solas had moved her open laptop so that he could sit on the far side of the loveseat, and he was looking at his phone. That was weird, he never—no, it made sense. He never looked at his phone out of boredom, but he was probably getting more work done, more emails sent.

“You’re in Max’s seat,” she informed him.

Confused, he blinked up at her, then at the laptop, before he figured out the joke. “Ah, of course—my apologies.”

He stood with a flourish, half-bowing as he returned the laptop—not even currently connected to Max—to its previous seat. He took the bowl of popcorn from her and knelt to sit on the floor. She was glad she’d vacuumed today.

She shook her head, and sat on the remaining seat to call her cousin. Max answered, gave the title, and the movie was pulled up on Netflix. Afterwards Elle returned her computer to the end table, gesturing for Solas to return to his spot.

“I could not take a lady’s seat,” he insisted.

Elle laughed again. “I was only joking, Solas. Sit!”

But he refused again, attempting to cover a smirk by tossing popcorn in his mouth. Elle shrugged and turned off the lights before settling down on the floor next to him, using the couch as a backrest. She and Max pressed [PLAY] exactly at the same time with a, “Ready, set… Go!”

The movie ended up being some ridiculous college movie about students on a kind of bucket-list road trip. Elle and Max talked quite a bit during it, making fun like they usually did, but Solas remained fairly quiet—although he did occasionally laugh along with their antics. Elle kept catching herself looking over at him, worried he wasn’t enjoying the time she forced him in to; it wasn’t exactly his type of movie, after all. Mostly he just looked tired, but not unhappy.

The bowl of popcorn separated them, and at one point they inevitably reached for some at the same time. When their hands brushed Elle snatched hers away, and immediately felt stupid for doing so.

Solas sighed and caught her escaping wrist, turning towards her. He covered her hand with his. “Please calm down, Lethallan.” He spoke quietly, clearly hoping not to be overheard by Max. “There is no need to be so tense. This is fine.”

She smiled, nodded, and squeezed his hand. She felt silly for worrying when he sounded so sure. He gave her hand a friendly squeeze in return, and turned back to the TV.

She still occasionally glanced over at him—she knew that she did because he stopped pretending not to notice. He would catch her eye with a raised eyebrow or a smirk until she looked away, laughing at herself. Once he stuck out his tongue without looking. The time after that he tossed a piece of popcorn in the air and caught it in his mouth. When he looked for her response she attempted to do the same, triggering an impromptu unspoken competition that lasted until the bowl was empty and her floor was littered. They were both laughing, and Max was complaining about feeling left out and threatening to mute them.

Soon after the popcorn ran out she remembered the frilly cakes she’d picked up from the deli near the university. Not as traditional for movie watching as candy, perhaps, but it was hard to find a brand of chocolate that didn’t profit from modern slavery.

Solas smiled when he saw them, and she smiled in return, glad to see him at ease. He had his legs stretched out in front of him and leaned back with one arm. She put a finger against her lips conspiratorially, urging Solas not to say anything about the treats out loud or else Max would get jealous again. Solas seemed content to thank her silently if it meant he could indulge his sweet tooth.

She hoped it made up for the movie getting pretty stupid. Max—Fen’Harel take her—had managed to find a movie with very little romance or kissing… Yet a lot of goofy sex scenes. Elle would have glared daggers at her each time, but the laptop was turned towards the TV as if it were another person watching. Normally they set it up so they could see each other, but Elle had worried it would be awkward for Solas to feel watched. She would have to settle for sending Max some strongly worded texts in the morning.

The movie ended when the male lead finally reunited with his long lost love from summer camp, only to discover she had become a chantry sister. Solas had been yawning heavily for at least an hour, and even Elle thought it was getting late.

They both said goodnight to Max as the credits rolled, and Solas helped her pick up the radius of popcorn around where they’d sat. A sense of dread descended on her, knowing that in a minute she’d be saying goodnight to him as well.

“My whole butt is numb,” she complained, rubbing it a little. “One of these days you’ll have to try actually sitting in one of my chairs.”

He chuckled, and she bit down panic as he began to pull his scarf on. “I will keep that in mind for when I get back, Elizabeth.”

He turned to the door, and she shook her head. How could he leave when she’d never even told him how much she loved the way he said her name? She’d never liked the full thing before hearing the way it sounded from him.

She nearly babbled all that as she met him at the door, but managed to stop herself and say, “Thank you for coming, Lethallin,” instead.

“Thank you for having me.”

She wrapped her arms around themselves. “I mean it. I really appreciate you going out of your way tonight, Solas. I needed this.”

“Yes, I know,” he said with a nod. “I believe I did as well, Lethallan. You are feeling better, then?”

“I am,” she said with a smile, because it was true. Tonight had been fun. “I’m still going to miss you, though. Who will give me historical perspective when I start ranting about some aspect of modern society?”

“Keep a list of your rants,” he suggested, “and I will go over them when I return.

“Don’t think I won’t,” she warned him with a laugh. She saw him stifle a yawn and added, “You should get some sleep. You’re okay to drive?”

He nodded, hesitated, and then surprised her—he hugged her tightly, practically picking her up off her feet. “I will miss you as well.”

She closed her eyes and nodded and hugged. Past a heavy throat she said, “Travel safe, okay? Let me know when you land. And I expect you to text me every time you have a signal.”

“I will,” he promised, still not letting go. “I will be back before you know it, and I will tell you all about it. Everything.”

“Yeah, I know,” she conceded, and stepped back. “You still sure you can’t make it to Josephine’s election day party?”

“I leave very early the following morning…” he started, and it sounded to her like he was worried she’d talk him in to it.

“Just thought I’d ask,” she assured him. “I guess this is goodbye, then.”

He nodded, hand on the doorknob. “Yes.”

“Dareth shiral, Solas,”

“Goodbye,” he replied as he opened the door and left. She gave him a little wave when he looked back at the top of the stairs.

Elle shut the door, and let out a held breath. She set the lock, thinking of how she would miss him but she was, unfortunately, used to being far away from loved ones. She text Max her thanks, and that everything went well. It didn’t seem like Solas felt any different about her than two days ago, in fact—like his feelings hadn’t changed at all.

She got ready for bed—brushed her teeth, set her alarm, climbed in to clean pjs and fresh sheets—and cried herself to sleep.

Chapter Text

“Thank you for staying so late today, Cole,” Solas said to his graduate student. “I’m relieved we were able to fin—what do you think you are doing?” He crossed the floor with quick strides and snatched his cell phone from the boy’s hands.

“Wait!” Cole protested. “I’m not finished!”

Solas looked at his screen as saw that Cole had been composing a text to Elle. “I assure you that you are,” he snapped, stabbing the button to delete the message unsent.

“But if you would just tell her—”

Enough. We have talked about this; you will refrain from interfering with my personal life. It is none of your business.”

The boy brightened, as if he had not heard Solas. “There she is now! You can tell her yourself.”

Solas scowled, confused, just before the phone rang in his hand. It was Elle.

He answered, walking away from his interfering student. “Elizabeth?”

“Yeah. Sorry…”

Worry flooded Solas—she sounded off.

“What is wrong? Are you well?”

“Nothing. I’m stuck, is all.” Her words were sluggish, slow. Was she intoxicated? “I need a ride home. I know you’re super busy but I already tried everyone else and I don’t know who else to call.”

He felt a stab of guilt that he was her last choice. “Where are you?”

“Haven. I missed the last bus. I was volunteering but you know how I have allergies? Or maybe you don’t. It was bath day today and I took some pills to stop sneezing but I guess I fell asleep waiting for the bus…”

He breathed a sigh of relief. As he crossed the room he heard Cole mumble, “Drugged, but not drunk. Endearingly drowsy.”

Solas disliked that she was not at home. “I am on my way. Are you safe where you are?”

“Yeah. I’m inside, alone. I’m supposed to lock up and stuff.

“I am on my way,” he repeated, already stepping in to the elevator.

~~~~~

He called her again when he reached the animal shelter, sitting in the empty parking lot while he waited. She climbed into the car with more apologies.

“Thank you so much, I know it’s late and this is nowhere near your place. I’m really sorry if I woke you.”

“I am happy to help; I would not see you stranded. As it happens I was still in the Anthropology building.”

“Oh. Everything all set for your trip?” She fumbled with her seatbelt for longer than usual.

“Just about. It is a bit of a hassle to leave in the middle of the semester, especially on such short notice. My own fault, of course. Fortunately for me, my TA—” He glanced over as he spoke and saw her chin suddenly drop to her chest. She jerked her head back up just as quickly, blinking wearily. Solas remained quiet after that. She didn’t seem to notice. Within minutes she was slumped back in her seat, fast asleep.

He couldn’t help but smile gently as he drove her home, accompanied only by the soft music barely audible over the sound of the heater.

A sound that was lost under the thumping of his heart when she shifted, now using his shoulder as a pillow.

Solas did his best disturb her as little as possible, driving slowly around corners, avoiding bumps, and trying not to move his upper arm when he shifted gears. When they reached their destination he pulled the parking brake as quietly as he could. He peered at the sleeping girl on his arm, streaked in yellow light from the streetlamps. Her dark eyelashes fluttered against her cheek.

He tilted his head back against the headrest and closed his eyes. For a long moment he simply allowed himself to wallow in the exquisite agony that came with loving Elizabeth Lavellan.

He had been… Resentful, a few days ago, when she’d called him the morning after rejecting him, looking for comfort. He had wanted time, space to lick his wounds. It felt as if his heart cease to beat and yet she allowed him only a few hours reprieve before tugging on its strings.

He tried to tell her no, and not for the first time. However, as with every other time he’d tried to pull back, to hide away from her, she had only to crook her finger to make him come hither.

And so he had gone, albeit bitterly, to sooth Elle’s worries even while it still hurt to look at her. But long before the frilly cakes he had realized he was mistaken; yes, she wanted assurance, but not just for herself. She was concerned about him, as was made apparent by her constant watching. He should not have been surprised—nearly everything Elle did was for others, from the money she spent to her choice in major. Why would this be any different?

When their hands brushed in the popcorn bowl and he realized how afraid she was, he also realized that one of his own fears would not come to pass—he would not lose her due to how he felt about her. However awkward she may feel, she was determined to keep him in her life. That knowledge came with a certain feeling of freedom; ever since that dinner where she revealed her photowall he had felt guilty for deceiving her… But now she knew.

There was an odd sense of peace that came with martyrdom, with sacrificing what he desperately wanted. Oh, there was pain, yes, unimaginably so… However, now that his love for her had been acknowledged (and subsequently set aside) he no longer felt the need to worry his every action would give him away. He could just enjoy the part of her she was willing to share with him, and he could enjoy it for what it was.

He lowered his chin, turning back to the impossibly cruel woman curled up on the seat beside him. Perhaps she could not be tamed, but she would be well loved. Somehow, he found the strength not to brush a kiss against the top of her head, instead reaching over to give her shoulder a friendly shake. “Lethallan. You are home.”

Elle mumbled, then shot upright, hand flying to her mouth. He couldn’t hide a smile when she blushed and he realized she was checking that she had not drooled on him. She laughed a little at herself.

“Thank you. Sorry again. I probably shouldn’t have taken that second dose, but the first one didn’t seem like it was working,” she explained as she slowly unbuckled her seatbelt. “Worth it, though. The pups love bath time. They were so cute.”

He chuckled quietly. “I am glad you enjoyed yourself, at least. Get some rest.”

“I will.” He expected her to say goodnight next, but she pulled her backpack into her lap, wrapped her arms around it, and asked conversationally, “So what were you doing in the lab so late?”

“Cole and I managed to complete one of the projects I have been working on for years, which is a relief. I am fortunate he was willing to stay to aid me.”

“That’s awesome! Which one was it, the one with the shards?”

“No. Do you remember when I told you of my plan to reclassify the categorization and key words of that cross-specialty database?”

“Umm… Sort of?”

He chuckled. Elle had a good memory when it came to their talks of history, archeology, or anthropology, but even he had to admit this project involved a great deal of minutiae. “Admittedly, it had been tedious work. It is not yet implemented, of course; that will take time to program and translate, as it is an international database, which will in turn require funding. I am confident my classifications will be adopted, though—no one can deny that they are a much needed improvement. Using the database as it stands is… Frustrating, no matter how many PhDs one has. And, now that it is done and only needs to be submitted for consideration, I do not have to worry if I am not able to return to the project after the dig.”

“Why wouldn’t you be able to continue it? You said the dig isn’t dangerous, right?”

“As I have told you many times, there is no danger. At least none physical. My career, on the other hand…”

“But I thought this dig was all important to your job? Oh, wait, it’s not because of me, is it?”

“No, nothing of the sort,” he lied. Of course it was her fault, but not for the lawsuit like she thought—that had more or less blown over. No, he was merely concerned that he’d refuse to do the dig in the end, and lose his position. He hated the idea of someone else taking the work he and Cole had worked so hard on and claiming it as their own. Or worse still, that no one would, and his years of tedium would be for no benefit. “Everything will be fine, I am simply taking care of some things. Speaking of which, it’s getting late, Lethallan.”

“Right, goodnight. Dareth shiral again.”

“Goodnight, Lethallan.”

She looked out the window towards her apartment, one hand on her backpack and the other on the door handle. Still, she hesitated. Solas knew something was wrong a moment before she said, emotionlessly, “You know, I always thought when people say they ‘couldn’t bring themselves to do something’ they meant morally, but I am actively trying to force my hand to open this door and nothing is happening.”

He immediately grasped her other hand. “Elizabeth?” She turned to him as he squeezed. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

“I just need to grow up, it’s dumb…”

“Talk to me.”

She smiled, sad and wry. “It’s just… I really hate sleeping in my empty apartment. I know you know that I crash at other people’s places all the time, but I’m not sure if you realize how often I do it. But ever since I had you guys over for dinner and the conversation turned all political, I’ve been on my own… Cullen is avoiding me—he says he isn’t, but he is. Dagna cancels at the last minute whenever we make plans. Collette won’t even answer me. You’re leaving in, like, a day.” She shrugged, withdrawing from the handle. “So I’ve been on my own a bit more than I’m used to. I don’t like it.”

“What does this have to do with growing up? It is entirely normal to want companionship.”

“Ha, I meant sort of literal; it stems from how I grew up, I think. Or maybe I would have been like this no matter what. Everyone knew each other on the reservation, at least in the area I was in. As kids practically my entire class moved as a herd of halla each day after school, roaming from house to house—whichever had the newest video game, or the best snacks, or a pool when it was hot. I think the parents worked out some kind of system to keep the cost of feeding us all fair to everyone. We wouldn’t go to our own homes until sundown, or dinner time. Even then we usually divided into cliques—I had dinner at Max’s more often than not during my parent’s divorce.

“Anyway, at some point in middle school everyone began splitting up. There was more fighting and drama than before and we all started drawing lines in the sand. Or people just wanted to spend time alone with their datemate.” She shrugged. “We all just grew out of it, just like our parents always said we would.”

“Except for you, presumably.”

She huffed quietly. “I missed it a lot, but I got over it. I had Max, after all, and whatever dates the two of us had at the time. But then, in college… Crestwood U is a bit of a party school. I got spoiled again. Especially by the time I was avoiding my dorm because Lace and I were fighting or whatever—I slept on so many floors and futons that I forgot what a real bed felt like.”

Solas shook his head, unable to relate to Elle’s compulsive socialization. Her youth sounded vastly different from the one he’d spent in the foster care system—something he was relieved to hear. “I imagine that it is a big change, living truly on your own for the first time,” he guessed.

She nodded silently as tears brimmed her eyes; that must have been the wrong thing to say. When she could speak evenly, she said, “Max says I have monophobia. My mamae thinks I have some kind of manic disorder.”

“What do you think?”

She laughed, small and quiet, and he cherished it. “I think I’m too scared to go to a therapist and find out.”

“The fearless Elizabeth Lavellan? Scared?”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. It happens more often than you’d think. They’d probably just tell me to get a pet or something. Like I have time to properly care for a pet. You know, pet owners these days…” She stopped her rant before it got going, reaching for the door handle once more. “Sorry, no more stalling. Thank you again, for… Thank you.”

“Any time, Elizabeth.”

“Goodnight.”

Seconds ticked by. The song on the radio changed. The lights overhead flickered. Still, she stared out the window as if walking to her apartment were as daunting as climbing a mountain.

He should offer to open the car door for her, or walk her to her front door. He should offer to come inside and chat or watch tv for a short while, to put her at ease. With a sigh, he offered, “Elizabeth, would you like to sleep at my place tonight?”

He head snapped to him. “Only if you’re sure,” she claimed, even as she put her bag back down at her feet and reached for her seatbelt. “I won’t be a bother, you won’t even know I’m there.”

Extremely doubtful. He already regretted having to leave her in the morning. “Do you need anything from your apartment? Pajamas, toothbrush, school books?”

“Nope. I keep a change of clothes and everything in my backpack, just in case.”

“I have to leave very early—”

“No worries, I wake right up, I’ll leave whenever you do—”

“So I will leave you with my spare key, and you can stay as long as you’d like,” he corrected the woman already buckling her seatbelt. He released the brake. “It is probably best that someone in the city have a key to my place while I am away, anyway; I should have thought of it sooner.”

~~~~~

“Please give me just a moment to prepare the bedding,” Solas told Elle, oddly formal as she entered behind him. She’d been to his house plenty of times before, but it felt strange to arrive so late, with all the lights off.

She set down her backpack by the couch, but didn’t sit down for fear that she’d fall asleep before Solas brought out the pillows. She pulled out her phone and scrolled her tumblr dash mindlessly. Nearly every post was about the Orlesian election tomorrow. Even she was sick of it all by now, just wanting it all to be over with already. She’d given up on her feed by the time Solas returned, a pillow and neatly folded blanket in hand until he set them on the couch.

“The bed is prepared; I changed the sheets for you. Is there anything else you require?”

“I’m not kicking you out of your own bed! I’m taking the couch, you go to bed.” She grabbed the pillow and tossed it to the side where she intended to lay her head.

“A gentleman does not sleep abed and leave a lady to the loveseat.”

“Well it’s a good thing I’m not a lady, then,” she laughed.

“Please, Elizabeth,” he insisted.

She wanted to continue to argue, not fully comfortable with this arrangement, but as she opened her mouth she saw how exhausted the poor guy looked. She took mercy on him, and nodded. “Okay, but don’t say I didn’t offer.”

She reached for her bag as he nodded gratefully, and she turned to give him a quick goodnight hug. It was awkward. His surprised movements were jerky and her tired limbs were heavy and neither of them seemed to know where to look, meeting eyes and then darting away. She wished him sweet dreams and retreated down the hall.

The weirdness continued as she went into Solas’ bedroom. She’d seen it in passing before, sneaking curious glances while he was cooking. It still had the same light blue walls, heavy curtains, and matching dark oak furniture. She closed the door behind her so she could change, feeling entirely out of place.

She didn’t keep a full change of clothes in her backpack, of course—that would take up way too much space. She typically wore the same shirt to bed, minus the bra underneath, so all she needed was a comfy pair of pajama shorts. For tomorrow she had a fresh shirt and pair of underwear.

When she was done changing she turned to open the bedroom door, and saw a painting on that wall she hadn’t noticed before; it wasn’t visible from the doorway, and she’d never fully entered before now. The bold colors of the painting surprised her, and the sharp lines reminded her of the murals he’d once showed her in the basement of the anthropology building. She took a picture of it with her phone before hunting down a changer on the nightstand. She turned off the lights and climbed into bed with the door ajar. She fell asleep instantly.

Elle didn’t stay asleep for very long, unfortunately. She woke, heart pounding and breathless. She looked around with wide eyes to make sure she was alone. When she confirmed that she was her head fell back against the pillow, and she covered her face, cheeks burning.

She couldn’t remember her dream very well, but she was pretty certain it had been a sex dream… One involving a long-haired Solas with different genitals than she suspected he had.

She almost never had those kinds of dreams, especially when she wasn’t seeing anyone! Embarrassed, she reached for her phone to check the time. The screen blinded her, but helpfully confirmed that it had only been about an hour and a half since she’d gone to bed. She nestled down into the covers and closed her eyes, trying to fall back asleep. At least she hadn’t drooled on his pillows.

Sleep was elusive this time, though. It wasn’t the bed, which was far softer than expected. She’d thought Solas would be the firm mattress type, but this was downright plush. And it wasn’t that she wasn’t tired, because she definitely was.

She smell suffusing the room wasn’t helping any, though. He’d said he’d changed the sheets but somehow they still smelled like him, or else it was the comforter, the pillows… Surrounded as she was, she couldn’t believe she was ever stupid enough to think she wasn’t attracted to him. No wonder she’d had that Dirthamen damned dream!

As she turned over on her other side she realized that it was also the quiet that was keeping her awake. It was too quiet here… Quieter than her cheap apartment, surrounded by other cheap apartments. She tried to ignore it, but gradually an overwhelming sense of being alone sunk into the silence enveloping her. Her eyes sprang open.

From this position she could now see light filtering in through the open doorway. She heard nothing, but the blue glow flickered like a television. Was Solas still awake? That would be great. She could use the company. She rolled out of the bed, wrapping a blanket around her (and hiding her ducky pajamas). She slowly walked down the hall back to the living room.

The tv was on the lowest volume setting, the History channel playing. Solas was curled up in a chair, his arm draped over the arm of the chair, hanging limp. He was fast asleep.

Elle smiled. She lightly padded to the coffee table to pick up the remote to turn off the tv. Then she picked up the unused blanket he’d set on the couch and very gently tucked it around him. He stirred, making a cute little noise before falling quiet again.

Even asleep, Solas was good company. Elle laid down on the couch, near enough to reach him, and fell back asleep.

Chapter Text

Elle stared at the wall. She sat on the floor of her bedroom, back against the opposite wall, unblinking.

She’d left Josephine’s election day ‘party’—which had felt more like a wake—after the numbers started coming in. She took a shower just to get herself to stop refreshing the page every thirty seconds, to stop reading the scared messages coming into her ask box. People were reaching out to @theheraldofdiscourse for assurance, but she didn’t know what to tell them.

She’d hoped that by the time she finished there would be some better news to be had. A miracle. A mistake.

There was not.

She hadn’t even braided her hair before she’d checked, and now it lay in a tangled damp mess all around her in the waning light because she didn’t care enough to do anything about it. The sunset would soon turn to night, but she could not find the energy to get up and turn on any lights.

So she sat, and she stared. She was pathetic. Weak.

Her discarded cell phone buzzed on the carpet beside her. Possibly Josephine, worried about her leaving abruptly. Maybe Solas. He’d left in the morning while she was still fast asleep on his couch. Could just be some other friend or family member. Mamae. Max.

She ignored it. She didn’t want to talk to any of them. For once, Elle just wanted to be alone.

It buzzed again. She ignored it.

It buzzed again. She picked it up. Unseeing, she threw it against the far wall with all the meager strength she had left. Then she sobbed again, though most her tears had already been spent.

~~~

Elle must have half-dozed, because a knock on her front door startled her awake. She realized it was still dusk as they knocked louder. She stayed right where she was, and closed her eyes again.

The someone at the door tested the knob and, finding it unlocked, let themself in.

“Elizabeth?” There was a rustle, a thump on her kitchen table. Louder, Solas repeated, “Elizabeth?”

I’m in here!” she snapped. Obviously. It was a one-bedroom apartment for crying out loud! There weren’t a lot of options.

She saw the hall light flick on, and then saw him in the doorway, flipping the light switch in her bedroom back and forth. Nothing happened.

“Tell me you voted for Celene or get out of my apartment,” she said, harsher than he deserved. Normally she was more understanding of elections, but this time she found herself holding everyone who abstained or voted third party during such an important one equally culpable as those who has voted Corypheus. She’d already unfollowed a few dozen of her (now former) mutuals.

Of course I did,” he assured her, gentler than she deserved. He moved aside a canvas bag of who-knows-what to sit on the floor next to her.

She went back to looking at the wall, and he looked at her. He touched a section of her hair, slowly tucking it behind her pointed ear so that he could wipe the lingering wetness off her cheek with the back of his fingers. She let him. Then he took her hand. She let him do that, too.

‘Let him’ in this case meaning ‘latched on to him like he was the only thing keeping her from falling’. She took a deep, shaky breath, and Solas turned to examine her wall as well.

After a long silence, he asked, “Did you lamp do something to provoke your ire?”

He must have seen the dent in the wall, the broken chunks of pottery on a pile of clothes, the cord yanked out of the wall.

“Yes, actually. It kept reminding me that I’m a failure.”

“Lethallan…”

“Not its fault. That’s why I’ve kept it all this time, ugly as it is,” she continued, undeterred. “I made it at this stupid crafting day camp Mamae made me go to back in middle school, when she still hoped I would find a normal hobby. Mine was the worst one there, but I was still so proud of it. Not because I made it, not really, but because I knew who made it, and under what conditions. I knew it wasn’t made in some sweatshop, and though it was technically unpaid child labor, it was just me so it was fine.

“But then when I told my parents about all that, Mamae laughed at me. ‘What about the clay? The copper wires? The electricity it’s going to use?’” She sighed harshly. “She’s always doing that. I know it’s not on purpose, but anytime I talk about something important to me she just… Laughs at it. Acts like it’s childish or pointless to care. She doesn’t take me seriously.”

Solas squeezed her hand, and gestured to wall of photos with his chin. “It seems that she was unable to hold you back. You have done more than most.”

Elle closed her eyes and tilted her head back to thump against the wall. “Whatever. I guess she tried to be supportive. Maybe I only remember the times she made me feel like shit, and not the good times.” She sighed again, disgruntled at the concession. She snatched her hand back and glared at him accusingly. “Why am I even telling you this? You never talk about your childhood, or even adulthood. You never get upset about stupid stuff, either. How are you always so calm? It always feels so one-sided talking to you like this. Like you’re a therapist, not a friend.”

She’d never regretted her words so quickly in her entire life. Solas looked completely stricken, devastated, and stammered, “I-I’m sorry, I did not mean to make you feel—”

“Creators, I’m sorry—Solas, I’m so sorry I didn’t mean to say that,” she tried to assure him in a rush, reaching for his hand with both of hers. She wrapped them together and slumped over them. “Please ignore me, I just… I’m not good company right now. I shouldn’t be around anyone. I just want to be alone.”

His eyes were glassy, but he managed a weak smile. “No you don’t.”

She wanted to be angry that he was telling her how she felt, but her face crumpled again. Her vision swam. Voice stuck in a whisper, she admitted, “No. I don’t.”

She shook her head. She hated herself for hurting him, and not just today. Wasn’t he was supposed to be, like, packing or something right now? Instead he was babying her. And she was being a bitch about it.

Just another failure to add to the pile. “The worst part is, I still can’t live up to that stupid lamp. I just can’t know everything. Fine, free trade coffee, that’s great, what about, like, ev-ery-thing else? Even this damn wall—isn’t drywall made of bones? I could be living in an apartment made from ground up halla bones for all I know!”

She banged her head against it hard enough to scare Solas, who shouted “Lethallan!” and pulled her towards him where she couldn’t hurt herself. She was shifted until her head rest nestled on his shoulder, and he stroked the back of her throbbing head. “You apartment is not made of the bones of an endangered species your people hold sacred. If you do not trust the enforced industrial standards—”

“I don’t.”

“—then at least you can trust in greed. There are far more valuable uses for halla bones.”

“Gee, thank you. I feel so much better,” she replied sarcastically, although she sort of did.

He pet her head in silence for a moment more and she stayed curled towards him. She was starting to get drowsy when he stopped and said, “Come. Your ice cream is melting.”

He got to his feet and reached down to help her up. She followed him out to where he had, apparently, left a gallon of ice cream on her table.

It was white chocolate raspberry, from her favorite place on Second Street.

He remembered? She mentioned that maybe once, months ago.

“I thought the occasion called for ‘mourning ice cream’, as I believe you called it,” he explained, hunting down bowls. She gestured to the drawer with the spoons, and he put two large scoops in a bowl and held it out for her. “And if you have to mourn, you don’t need to be alone.”

Elle’s throat tightened painfully. She wanted very much to throw her arms around him, but the ice cream was in the way so she simply took it gingerly, unable to even say ‘thank you’. She sat and ate, a mess of hair spilling around her, hands shaky. He prepared a bowl for himself, put the rest in her freezer, and sat beside her once more.

“I am sorry things did not turn out as we had hoped, Lethallan.”

She ignored his words, angered by the way he made it sound like it was no more important than a bad grade. “I’m glad you came over,” she told him instead, looking down at her bowl. “I probably won’t be here by the time you get back.”

“What?” he demanded, eyebrows knitting together as he frowned at her. “Why do you say that?”

“I can’t stay here.” She shook her head, denying her itchy eyes. “I failed. I couldn’t change anything. I let myself get distracted. Promoting local businesses, saving puppies… None of that was as important as this. I spread myself too thin. I should have had more focus.”

“No one person could sway the vote of every citizen in Orlais; not even you.”

“Yeah, well… Ugh, it just hurts, you know? I tried so hard to save these idiots from themselves, and all they’ve done is prove they don’t want my kind here. I can’t stay here. This isn’t my country. I want to go home.”

“Lethallan…”

“Besides. He’ll probably have me deported, anyway.”

Solas knew better than to reply to that. They ate in silence.

She had to stop before she could finish, her throat tightening again. She didn’t deserve to be coddled by Solas. All she ever did was challenge him and lecture him and, lately, behave erratically. She pressed the back of her hand to her lips as she tried to swallow a thick mouthful, spoon still in hand. Solas’ arm came around her when her shoulders began to shake from the effort to hold in more useless sobs.

He took the spoon from her as he rubbed her back. “Lethallan, I know you’re scared, but—”

“Stop. Please stop, just stop.” It was all she managed to say. She moved away from him enough that he pulled back, and she covered her eyes with her hands. She didn’t cry, or move. She didn’t talk about fascism, or setting civil rights back fifty years, or anything at all. She felt him staring at her for a time, but then look away.

When she’d taken enough deep breaths to hold in her scream she dropped her hands. She thought he’d take it as an invitation to talk again, not that she wanted to. That is, until she got offended that he was still ignoring her for his phone, typing hurriedly.

“Look, Solas, if you need to go…”

“No! I’m sorry, I just…” He trailed off and she sighed, completely drained, and put her bowl in the sink. When she went to take his as well he spoke again, stopping her. “I was trying to determine some way to show you what you mean to me, everything you have done. There is a father whose blog I found when he commented on one of your posts from a couple years ago. I don’t think you ever saw it. He wants to talk to you.”

“I don’t want to deal with that right now, you can show me some other ti—What? Now?” She shook her head as he indicated his phone. She didn’t see the point in even talking about something from back then; it wouldn’t make her feel any better about today. “Solas, no, I’m a mess right now. I don’t want—”

The phone rang in his hand, startling her—to make matters worse, it was the bleep-bloop of a video call.

“You look beautiful.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Please? Only for a moment.” He held out the ringing phone, leaving the decision up to her.

She took the stupid thing, smoothing down her hair as she accepted the call.

“Hello? Oh, there you are. It really is you,” said a man, a tired looking, middle-aged Rivaini human.

“I’m sorry, I don’t recognize you…”

“No worries, of course you wouldn’t, Sweetheart. Don’t feel bad about that. Name’s Leo. My daughter—her name is Jade—we were just two of the thousands of refugees escaping the war to the Crossroads the summer before last.”

“I’m so sorry—” Elle started, trying to sound sympathetic and wondering how this was supposed to make her feel any better.

He waved her off. “We’re back on out feet, though it took a while. We had family down in Ferelden we were headed to live with, but the immigration people didn’t make it easy on us. We were stuck with the rest of the refugees, at the mercy of the emergency services. There were plenty of donations to go around, ‘til there weren’t. It only took a couple weeks for all the news channels to completely move on to other stories—when we still needed help—and the donations stopped coming in. We were starting to get scared, people stealing from each other and hoarding supplies, when you showed up with your whole clan, passing out food and blankets.”

Elle managed a wan smile and nodded. It hadn’t been her whole clan, of course, but it was a good showing, thanks to the support of her Keeper. She’d ended up volunteering there for so long that she’d had to postpone her graduation from Crestwood U. “We were happy to help.”

“You did a good deal more than just help. Some used their personal vehicles to drive injured folk a hundred miles to the closest hospital that had space for them. A couple of you got in trouble for bringing us some ram meat without a hunting permit, but that meat saved lives. Thank goodness they knew how to prepare it, too—I’ve only ever cooked meat from the supermarket. I wouldn’t know what to do with a whole ram!”

“Neither would I,” she admitted, hoping this man didn’t think that was common Dalish trait.

“The Chantry services wouldn’t accept any donation of home cooked meals, or used clothing or any of that. I watched them throw warm food right in the trash when people were going hungry!” he continued, undeterred.

She knew that the Chantry was more concerned with potentially getting sued by someone getting sick eating improperly prepared food than they were with starving people, but she didn’t feel like discussing the moronic regulations in place.

“Then my daughter was in hysterics because she was supposed to start her first day of school and had been looking forward to it for months, but of course she couldn’t. You reached right in to your own backpack and pulled out a notebook and gave it to her. It was one of those-uh, those ‘rock paper’ ones. Told my girl it didn’t tear. Water resistant, too.”

“Stone paper, yeah. Better for the environment.”

“Right, stone paper. You’d think I’d remember by now, I’ve bought about two dozen of them. You told her that you don’t need a classroom to learn and that she should observe what’s going on around her and write down her thoughts. Now she won’t write in anything else.”

“Uh, sorry.” Elle shook her head at her younger self telling a four year old to write for entertainment. “I’m not very good with kids.”

“Oh no, don’t be sorry! It’s right worth it. I’ve got a whole stack of notebooks my little writer has filled. Here, I’ll go get them.”

“That’s not necess—” she started, but it was too late. Her new view of a stranger’s ceiling meant that he’d already set the phone on a table or something.

She glanced at Solas as she waited Leo to return. They shared a silent look, Solas watching her closely and holding his bowl of ice cream in his hands.

“It’s cute when parents are so proud of their children,” she said lamely to fill the quiet. He hummed an agreement.

Hearing a scuffling noise, she turned back to the phone. The camera lurched around until it settled on the view of a six year old girl in cornrows and princess pajamas. “It is her!”

Behind the girl the father shrugged sheepishly, holding a stack of worn notebooks. “I accidentally woke her up while grabbing these.”

“Hello, Jade” Elle said to the girl.

The phone shook as the girl waved enthusiastically with one hand, evidently wide awake now. “Are you Elizabeth? Daddy said you wanted to look at my notes!” She grabbed one from the stack and flipped through the pages much faster than anyone could read. “My handwriting is much better than it was when I was just a little kid but I mostly write out my articles on the computer now, anyway.”

“Tell Elizabeth what you want to be when you grow up, baby.”

“I already am a reporter, Daddy!” To Elle, she said, “During the fights I heard you and the other grown-ups keep talking about how no one cared about what we had to say because we were poor, and I think that’s bullsh—”

“Language!”

“It’s not fair,” she said, rolling her eyes hard enough to make Max envious.

“So what kind of articles do you write?” Elle asked politely.

“Oh, all kinds,” she answered. “Whatever is happening around the neighborhood. I want to keep it local, where people aren’t being heard.”

“She has her own online newspaper!” her father boasted. “I help with the programming, but the rest of it is all her.”

“What about your favorite one that you’ve done recently?” she tried again, still not understanding why she was talking to this (admittedly charming) little girl.

She was expecting the girl to say something about playground games or cootie outbreaks but the girl answered with, “Well I got an anonymous tip that someone’s neighbor’s mabari was allegedly tied up in the back yard with blood on it. I took some pics and reported it to the police and now they took the dog somewhere safe and filed criminal charges against the owner.”

“Oh!” Elle said, eyebrows rising in surprise. “So I guess your neighbors read your newspaper?”

The father beamed. “Most of them sure do. Just a couple weeks ago my little girl worked with the neighborhood watch and did a piece on the spike in vandalism on this block.”

“My big project this year is trying to prove that the water table is polluted but Daddy can’t afford the testing so I’m trying to work with Channel 5 News—they take forever to respond to my emails, though.”

“Wow.” Elle stared, dumbfounded, as the pair continued talking about an exposé on expired school lunches and emergency response times in their neighborhood compared to the wealthy one. She was pretty sure at that age she couldn’t sit still long enough to learn to write anything, much less anything worth reading. Her whole room had been filled with plastic ponies and not much else, but here was this almost-seven year old talking about witness statements and free speech.

The father must have seen the dazed look in Elle’s eyes, because he soon interrupted his daughter. “I think Elizabeth is tired, baby girl. And you need to go back to bed.”

Jade stopped reluctantly, looking as if it was only for Elle’s benefit. “Alright. Goodnight Elizabeth! Nice to meet you. I hope we can talk again sometime. Daddy shows me your blog posts sometimes, but he says I’m too young for a tumblr.”

“You are,” her dad said sternly, echoing Elle’s thoughts. His daughter passed the phone back to him. To Elle, he said, “It’s great to finally be able to thank you, again. Not just for the donations, though that was life-saving, but for inspiring Jade to take a stand against this sort of thing. Thank you.”

Elle already-stinging eyes watered again, though she knew she didn’t deserve this much credit for Jade’s ambition.

“Hey! I’m the one that does all the work!” Jade protested.

“You’re doing amazing. Send me a link to your newspaper, okay?”

“I will,” Leo answered. “Hey, pass me back to your boyfriend, I want to thank him, too. He mentioned getting a chance to talk to you but I didn’t think it would ever happen.”

“Alright.”

She handed the phone back to Solas, arm extended as she covered her face with her hand. Solas said his farewells and enthusiastically thanked the man and girl. Elle’s head snapped up when she heard the unmistakable faux shutter sound of a cell phone camera app, but from the way Solas held his phone she could tell it had just been a screenshot. She busied herself with putting his bowl in the sink as he continued to fiddle with his phone a bit, unsure what to say to him. Part of her just wanted to go to bed.

After she had rinsed them both bowls she turned to him and said, “That was… Incredibly sweet of you, Solas, but I don’t understand why you set all this up, coming here and everything.”

“I wanted to show you what I see when I look at you. Then, when you did not answer my calls… I was worried. I knew you needed a friend here with you,” he explained with a shrug, setting aside his phone at last.

She shook her head. “No. This was more than—I mean yeah, ice cream is a pretty basic friend tool, but the rest…” She struggled to get her thoughts in a coherent order. To figure out how to say how… Weird? Touching? it was that he’d stayed in contact with this man. Why? In case Elle needed a pep talk? He had so much on his plate, it meant something that he was still giving her so much of his time.

Didn’t it?

Before she could just flat out ask, she heard her wireless photo printer start up. She turned to it, confused.

Solas strode over to it expectantly. When the image was spat out he made sure it was dry and then turned it over. She caught a glimpse of it as he did—a screenshot of Leo and Jade. It wasn’t until he produced a pen and wrote their names on the back that her sluggish mind realized what he was up to.

“Solas…” She hugged herself, feeling exposed and anxious and not having a clue what to do about it.

“Come,” he said, managing to take her hand and guiding her back to her bedroom. He tried to turn on the light again before he remembered it was not there. He settled for the yellow light slanting in from her hallway and what little street light filtered in through her high windows. They were both elves; they could see well enough in the dark.

They stood before the photowall as he pulled some putty from the clump she kept on the wall and used it to place the new picture directly over Cullen’s face.

“I cannot bear to hear you say that you could not change anything,” he told her, his quiet voice perfectly clear in the silence. “You say that all these people were transitory in your life… But that does not mean your presence has not had a lasting effect in some of theirs. You have changed lives, Elizabeth. My own included. You change everything.”

That. That right there, the softness of his eyes, his smile rounding his cheeks… Pride? Fondess? Whatever it was, it was the look of a man who would give anything for her to stand on her tiptoes and kiss him.

So she did.

He… Did not react as she expected. He barely reacted at all, in fact. He stayed as still as a statue, other than closing his eyes. The returned pressure of his lips when she pressed hers to his was so slight that she may have imagined it.

She sank to her heels as her heart sank into her gut, thudding painfully. No… Not again, please not again!

Solas let out the breath he’d held and she felt it, shaky, against her sensitive lips. “Please, tell me what that kiss meant, Elizabeth,” he asked, almost pleading.

Struggling to ease the dread she felt, she let out a little huff of a laugh that did not even convince herself. “What, you don’t know what it means when a girl kisses you?”

“I thought I understood the last time…”

Ouch. But fair. “That… I-I was scared. I told you that there were certain considerations…”

“Yes. I remember.”

She twisted her hands awkwardly in his shirt. “Well, I’ve considered them. I think it’s worth the risk, if you do.”

His whole carefully neutral expression changed to one of shock. “I… Yes.” He barely breathed his answer, the ghost of the word brushing her as he pulled her in and kissed her properly. For, like, a second, not even done wrapping his arms fully around her before he pulled back again. “Yes, I do think it’s worth it,” he told her firmly, as if he was afraid she hadn’t hear the first time.

She laughed, an honest bubble of laughter this time this time, and tugged him back down to finish his kiss.

She slid her hands to his shoulders and he pulled her closer. Her heart lifted as they kissed softly, though it didn’t stay soft for long. They swayed as first one demanded more, then the other. They pressed so close that his belt buckle and cell phone pressed uncomfortably against her, though she didn’t mind. Their hands wandered until one of his was holding her butt—not quite squeezing, but definitely not just resting there. She wanted to return the favor, but his arms prevented hers from drifting lower. She settled for running her hand along his collarbone and shoulders, and tugging on his lip with her teeth.

After several minutes, progressively getting more heated and urgent, Elle suddenly pulled away with a loud snort, trying to cover her helpless giggling with her hand.

“What is it?” Solas asked, bewildered.

She tried to answer, but erupted into giggles again, and had to take a deep breath to explain, “It took me way too long to realize that that’s not a cell phone in your pocket.” He turned a wonderful shade of red, unable to not smile along despite his embarrassment. He moved his hips back from hers, for all the good that did. “I can still feel it,” she teased as she slid close to him again.

Still grinning sheepishly, he firmly grabbed her hips and tried to keep her an arm’s length away. “Maybe we should slow down, Elizabeth.”

“I love how you say my name,” she murmured as she reached for him. “Does that make me self-centered?”

He caught her hand before she could feel him through his khakis. “I mean it,” he told her gently. “It would not be right. I… You are emotional. I would not take advantage.”

She rolled her eyes. “Right. Because sex is always better when it’s completely emotionless.”

His eyebrows shot up at the word ‘sex’, as if it had not occurred to him that this was headed in that direction. She brought her uncaptured hand to his face. “If you want to stop, we stop. But I’d rather it be because you want to, and not because you think I should want to.”

He watched her, blue eyes wide and unblinking, and she prepared herself to pull away. Before she did, though, his eyes flicked to her lips and Solas melted in to her, bending forward as his lips returned to hers. Very happy with his choice, she popped onto her toes again to make it easier on him.

His hands were at her waist, now, gentle. This gave her more movement than before, so she wrapped one hand around the back of his head to keep him from breaking the kiss, and the other… Well, she wrapped her hands around each of his heads.

It felt both awkward and not, fondling her friend. It also felt both familiar and foreign on its own… She had not felt up a guy since the back seat of Tamlen’s car during freshman year of high school. She had no apprehension, though, as she tried to rub his shaft—trapped as it was at an awkward angle by his clothes. He had fallen apart instantaneously at her touch, panting through his nose as she kissed him and making the most delicious noises that sent tension straight through her.

His hands were roving between her waist and butt, squeezing her briefly before retreating back up only to repeat the journey. He didn’t seem to notice as she moved her hand from around the nape of his neck to the fly of her shorts so that she could undo the button. He definitely did notice when the next time he slid his hands down the fabric was loose enough that his fingertips dipped below it, only the cotton of her underwear under his palms. His mouth pulled back with a sharp intake of air even as he squeezed greedily and pulled her to him, his hips grinding against her. She narrowly escaped her hands being trapped between them. When he kissed her again, it was so fast that their teeth clacked together uncomfortably.

They each winced, and he mumbled an apology, but she wasn’t having any of that. She wanted more. She tugged at his shirt, untucking it, planning on unbuttoning it next, but he undid the top button and moved to pull it over his head. She saw that he wore an undershirt and grabbed the hem of it. He tried to take it from her, missing with one hand, and ripped the bundle off over his head like the nuisance it was. Before he even cast it aside Elle was following suit, pulling off her own top.

She forgot that she wasn’t wearing a conventional bra, though, just the shelf-bra built in to her tank top. She was never great at getting those off, unfortunately. The bulk of the shirt came right up but the band covering her breasts stayed here it was, and she wound up with her arms trapped in a tangle above her head. She felt him trying to help, but she was impatient; with a twist and a yank she freed herself—and elbowed Solas right in the gut.

Oof!

“Sorry! Are you okay?” She brought up her hands to frame his face, and saw him laughing off the pain. In apology she covered his face with little kisses on his cheeks and jaw and brow and nose. He tried to catch her lips as she did, not having any interest in apologies, but in the end he let her have her way and simply laughed along.

He quieted, still smiling, and looked at her softly. “Elizabeth, I l—”

She shot forward and crushed his lips with hers before he could say what she was pretty sure he was about to say. She brushed her body against his, and it was successful in distracting him.

Stilling, he looked down at her, hands slowly gliding from her waist to her ribs to the sides of her breasts, his thumbs barely touching them (not that there was a whole lot of them to touch). “You are so beautiful,” he told her, eyes piercing hers as they flicked back up, his voice filled with a simple sort of honesty that caught her breath.

She wanted to make a joke about how it hardly counted if he waited until she was topless to say so, but the way he was looking at her almost reverently stilled her tongue. She wanted to correct him, assure him that she wasn’t the sort who needed false compliments—she was no beauty, only somewhat pretty, and she was fine with that. She wanted to tell him that beauty standards were an arbitrary and harmful construct of society anyway and should never be mentioned when trying to express someone’s worth.

She wanted very much for him to never stop thinking that she was beautiful.

She took one of his hands with her own and turned her head to kiss his palm. Then she moved his hand lower, to her chest, where he seemed so shy to touch. His eyes flicked down to watch himself gingerly caressing her, allowing him just a glimpse before she leaned in to kiss him tentatively.

He had the softest lips, and the feeling of her skin against his was incredible—she couldn’t believe she’d tried to deny them this. Like before, things quickly got heated, the two of them pressed hard against each other, blocked only where his hand made up for his earlier hesitation; one of his broad palms was pressed against her back, holding her steady as he massaged and kneaded and tugged at her breast earnestly.

He relented only to swap the positions of his hands. Her fumbling at his belt buckle (why wouldn’t it come off!) was interrupted when he then dropped his mouth to her neck, her shoulder, to the peak of the breast he’d just released. He had to hunch over to do so, of course, and now she could no longer reach anything interesting. Not that running her hand along his shoulders wasn’t nice, and, dang, what she could see of his back muscles was certainly worth seeing; still, though, she was fighting exhaustion using an adrenaline high and found it difficult to be patient.

She managed to tug down her shorts, shimmying out of them. That caught Solas’ attention, though he quickly lipped her other nipple before he straightened, as if unwilling to leave it untasted. His gaze slowly panned down her body, naked except for a ridiculous pair of light blue panties with little yellow stars on them. It occurred to her to be grateful not to be on her period.

He was grinning boyishly when he looked back to her eyes. “Not pink?”

She smothered a smile and gave him a playful shove. “Not everything has to be pink,” she scolded, even as she could feel her cheeks turning that same color. This pair had actually come in a set with some pink ones, but he didn’t need to know that. She tugged with both hands at either side of his buckle. “Help me out here.”

He blinked, looked at himself, then unbuckled as he kicked off his shoes and casually removed everything from the waist down for her (except his socks). As he stepped out of his pile of clothes he reached for her, hands on her hips and eyes definitely not on her face.

“Elizabeth…”

She reached for him as well—and not just his hips. All she did was run her hand down his shaft (honestly impressed with how incredibly soft his skin was here) and jostle his balls a bit, but the sound he made—it was supposed to be her name, she thought—made her think for a moment that he’d been about to come already. She bit her lip at the thought.

With his thumb and forefinger Solas tugged at the elastic of her underwear, a small gesture unmistakably asking for permission. She gave him a small smile and nodded her consent. He didn’t seem shy about his own body at all, but seemed utterly intimidated by hers. She liked that far more than she should.

When he leaned in as he pulled down her underwear she couldn’t resist his neck, running her tongue along the prominence of his throat and sinking her teeth in to where his neck met shoulder as her panties hit the floor. One arm wrapped around him as her other hand stroked his cock shamelessly. She feasted on the vibration of his whimpered moans until he was shaking and moved back, abruptly stopping her hand with his.

“I’m—it has been a long time.”

She smiled, not sharing his fear of him getting off so fast. That was sort of the point, after all. “For me, too,” she assured him.

There was enough space between them now for him to watch as his hand slid down her body. He touched the small tattoo revealed by her underwear—half of a cheap BFF tattoo on her hip—but he didn’t ask about it like she thought he would. She pushed lightly on his chest, nodding to the bed behind him quizzically. He nodded, stepping backwards only one long-legged stride before hitting the edge of her bed.

Without taking his eyes off of Elle he sat on the mattress, and then braced an arm behind him to scoot further on to the bed, erection swaying clumsily. It was only twin sized, so he was pretty much in the center of it; broad as he was, it didn’t leave much room for her to lie beside him. So, she knelt on the bed, positioning a knee to either side of his hips. She stayed on her knees, leaving space between them, and looked down at the guy she had fallen for so unexpectedly.

Solas eyes were wide, his arms splayed, and even in the dark she could see that his pale skin was completely flushed across his cheeks to each red-tipped ear.

“Gods, you’re cute.”

“’Cute’?”

She leaned down to kiss him, on all fours now. She was all tongue, and though she could reach him fine he strained to lift his head and shoulders off the pillow, trying to get closer to her. His hands were moving rhythmically up and down and around her thighs. It was almost too soothing, given how tired she was, so she soon straightened back up. He immediately sat up as if to follow her.

Grinning, she flattened a palm to his chest to guide him back down; he would only go so far as leaning back on his elbows, though. He was pink down to his chest now, eyes heavy lidded in a face faintly shining with sweat. Elle repositioned her knees to gradually lower herself until his erection was pressed between their bodies.

Not quite was she was going for… But she rocked her hips experimentally, and Solas shuddered beneath her. Trying it again, this time the head of his cock rubbed along her clit so perfectly that she cried out a strangled little ‘yes!’ of surprise before biting her lips closed.

Damn, she still couldn’t control that embarrassing habit. When Tamlen had discovered how vocal she was one night in his car he’d told his buddies, who then told the whole school about her ‘cheesy porn star noises’. For months the other students made fake moans as they passed her in the hallway, and twice she’d been given detention for porno magazines her classmates had somehow planted in her locker. That had been the end of her and Tamlen.

Below her, Solas only gaped at her and dug his fingers into her thighs as she raised herself to try again.

This time she felt him start to penetrate her before his head abruptly slid out and away. He cried out as his whole body flinched. Elle jumped back up on her knees as he hissed a breath between gritted teeth.

“What happened?”

“It is not meant to bend that far,” he explained as he reached down to check his length.

She whined wordlessly as she pulled farther away, sitting back on her heels to give him room. “I keep hurting you. We should stop.”

“No! I’m fine—”

“Solas…” He could possibly want to continue after she’d nearly broken his dick. She could see it, though, right in front of her stomach and still standing eagerly.

She would have thought pain would have been a bigger turn off for him.

She tugged and tested him carefully for a moment, watching him closely, but he showed no further signs of injury. Indeed, he bucked slightly, encouragingly.

She slid a hand down his torso, feeling each of his muscles tighten as she skimmed down his abdomen. He guided her into moving forward, her knees resting higher by his sides. Then, one hand on her hip and the other holding the base of his cock, he lined them up and brought them together—

—and then she quickly pulled away before they connected. “Wait, damn—we need a condom, don’t we? Do you have one?”

“I—no.” He looked abashed. “I did not think… It seems as though we should stop after all, before things get too far.”

Elle rolled her eyes in disgust, hiding the movement as she rolled off of him. ‘Too far.’ They were already there. Still, the lecture on how ridiculously harmful it was to only consider it sex when penetration occurred could wait. She leaned in to him, tasting the sweat on his neck as she wrapped her hand around him. His hands came back to her, one stroking her hair sweetly as the other caressed her from hip to waist, up to her breast.

“Wait!” she shouted, and his hands flew off of her instantly. She gripped his bicep reassuringly. “Not that, I just remember that I might have something…”

Twisting herself she leaned over the side of the bed, straining to reach some small boxes that were beneath it. She felt his hands on her, stabilizing her. Absurdly, she felt self-conscious of being in such an unflattering position while naked in front of Solas, her stomach folding over itself.

By luck she managed to push aside some boxes and reach the correct one; it was full of folded pamphlets on safe sex and STIs, and each one has a condom carefully stapled to the corner. She’d handed them out in front of one of many ‘abstinence only’ schools in Ferelden. They didn’t believe in teaching their children anything other than ‘don’t have sex’, and then continued to be shocked that they had twice the teen pregnancy rate of places with proper sex education. Not only that, but it wasn’t like there were adult classes on the subject either, so the majority of the populace remained dangerously ignorant.

“I got arrested for handing these out,” she told Solas as she pulled the condom off and settled back. She told herself she didn’t care about how her small breasts practically disappeared when she laid on her back. She held the foil packet up to the meager light, trying to find the expiration date. “I don’t even know why I brought them with me to Orlais… Hoping to find a use for them, I guess. Good, it’s still good—”

Her words caught as she looked up to hold it out for him. He was kneeling over her now, one of his knees between hers. His broad palms were skimming over her, his eyes following his hands, and she wasn’t even sure he’d heard her speak.

All her worries about her looks went out the window. As she watched him, one of his hands lowered until his thumb spread open her crease and traced gentle shapes between her folds. She pressed her lips together in a failed attempt to smother a moan and his eyes snapped up at the noise.

She held the condom out to him again and he took the offering slowly, his fingers brushing hers, as if he didn’t quite recognize what it was.

Then he snapped out of it, opened it, and she watched as he placed it on the head of his cock and tried to slide it on. He must have had it upside down because he quickly turned it over and tried again. He laughed a little and shook his head at himself as it still didn’t work. He turned it over once more.

“It’s like a dongle,” she grinned as he managed to unroll the latex at last. He gave her a bemused look and she laughed harder while waving her hand in the general direction of his junk. “Not your dong, I meant—like on a flash drive, that’s what the part you plug in to the USB is called. Dongles never go in right the first time.”

The joke wasn’t nearly as funny after having to explain it, but he seemed entertained nonetheless. “I certainly hope I get that part correct, at least.” He drew one knee over so that he could nestle between hers. She spread her legs wider for him, and maybe it distracted him because when he leaned on an elbow to hover over her she winced. “Ow! Ah-you’re on my hair.”

“Sorry! Are you alright?”

“Yeah, it’s fine.” She swept her hair aside, leaving it to cascade off the side of the mattress.

“Are you sure?” She nodded, and he stroked a hand up her side as he looked deep into her eyes with his—they were grey in this light, or at least what little could be seen with his pupils so wide. “Elizabeth, I—”

She kissed him before he could finish, hoping this time he would take the hint. She didn’t want to ruin the mood.

As they kissed he positioned himself and entered her in one motion, and it felt… It… Well it certainly wasn’t perfect.

Most of it felt great. Amazing even, and most of body screamed “Yes!”—including her mouth as she arched her head back. But as he moved in her something just wasn’t lining up right. It pinched a little, a bit too much pressure against her cervical bone. She didn’t stop him, though; those nerves that weren’t uncomfortable were alight with how good he felt in her.

She did try to shift her hips a little, though, trying to find a better position, even if she had to lift her hips off the bed the entire time. She also had to push against the wall—otherwise her head would be banging into it with how they were moving across the bed.

She noticed Solas reposition his knee a lot as well, and realized that there were too close to the edge of the bed for him to get proper purchase.

Elle started laughing childishly and gave up on the whole endeavor when one or both of them shifted into a position that caused her vagina to make a loud flatulent noise every time he pushed in to her.

He didn’t laugh quite so hard as her, but he slowed to a stop as he pressed his forehead to hers with a smirk. “It seems we are to be deprived of any sort of dignity tonight, Vhenan.”

She smiled, ignoring the nervous flutter in her stomach at the pet name. “It’s not exactly out of a movie, is it?”

Grinning, he kissed her damp forehead. “Well, I don’t know. It’s not that far off from that film you and Max insisted on watching.”

He had a point. “Can we move down? My head is sort of in the wall.”

He pulled out of her and moved backwards on his knees, and she did a sort of awkward nude crab walk to get to the center of the bed. They both settled comfortably this time, and wrapped arms around each other. She was a bit worried that the moment was lost, but his body did not lose interest in hers during the shuffle. They kissed slowly, long enough for the drop in adrenaline to make her tired.

His affections became urgent again as his tongue plunged into her mouth, and his long fingers plunged in to her. He felt the shape of her, stretching her, teasing her. She wanted to touch him back, but didn’t want to end up pulling the condom off or something. Instead she gave in to him and shamelessly panted directions in his ear like, “More, a little higher, yes, there, more, more,” and he obeyed diligently.

That is, except every time she begged him to be faster. He remained frustratingly steady, denying her the last little bit of friction she needed as she keened so close to release. Impatiently she moved his hand away, grabbing his hips and wrapping her legs around him. He chuckled but complied, this time hooking a hand under her thigh, hitching up her leg as he slowly pressed in to her.

She moaned gratefully and he continued to push, filling her completely as her back arched off the bed. He tried to kiss her but when he kept moving in her she had to turn her head to shout. It felt utterly perfect this time as she clenched swollen muscles around him. The condom had been a bit dry going in, maybe, but the angle he found had her screaming his name. She frantically ran her hands up and down his torso, grabbing his hard ass on occasion, needing something to hold on to. Her senses were overwhelmed by the press of his body and smell of their sex the way he was gasping. She could hear the sound of the mattress softly thumping against the wall, even over her own screams and the neighbor banging loudly for them to be quiet.

This time when he refused to increase his speed for her she had the leverage to raise her hips to meet his, quickening the pace herself. He moaned luridly as they crashed together. He buried his face in her shoulder and she turned away so she wouldn’t be yelling right in his ear. Testing, she ran her fingernails lightly down his back. Liking the noise he made she did it again, harder this time. Solas groaned, surprised. A moment later she realized that he had come, but was still pumping into her (a bit sluggishly). That and the sound of his panting in her ear pushed her over the edge at last.

Solas!

He continued to ride her through her orgasm, though she noticed he was no longer quite ‘up’ to the task. When the last waves of relief ebbed away and her cries quieted, she blinked open her eyes and saw his face, flush with sweat, watching her intently. She smiled up at him, and he smile down at her, eyes crinkling.

They kissed for a moment, breathless and lazy, before she felt how his arms were shaking with his effort not to collapse on her. Her fingertips had only been lightly skimming his damp skin but she moved away entirely, signally his freedom to pull away.

When he did, she said, “There’s a wastebasket by the night stand, if you want.” She didn’t know if he would prefer to clean up in the bathroom or not.

He nodded and removed the spent condom, and carefully placed it in the basket. She wondered if it felt weird to have a little bag of goo strapped to your dick, but she didn’t ask.

He laid back on the bed, almost cautiously, and she eagerly wrapped herself around his side. She nestled his neck at first, but his shoulder was much too hard for a decent pillow, so she soon moved down to his chest. He wrapped an arm around her and easily intertwined his legs with hers. He softly stroked her long hair with his other hand, though it kept becoming tangled between his fingers.

“I’m really glad you came,” she told him for the second time that night.

He chuckled. It was silent, but she could feel it in his chest. “As am I. It is one of the wiser things I have done, recently.”

She traced the fine hairs trailing from his navel to below where he’d pulled the sheet up. She thought she should say something else, but his hand in her hair was so soothing…

“I need to talk to you about something,” he said, startling her awake maybe a minute later.

Drawing in a sleepy breath, she said, “Hmm? Yeah, whatever you need.”

Her words sounded slurred even to her. She blinked her eyes open and Solas smiled, kissing the top of her head. “On second thought it can wait, Vhenan. Get some sleep.”

“If you’re sure…” she muttered, relieved. If he needed to talk about the terms of their relationship or exclusivity or whatever to feel secure she would be happy to, of course, but she really would rather sleep first.

She rolled over and wiggled into a proper pillow and he promptly turned to spoon her. He managed to get both of his arms around her; one wrapped around her waist like a vice, and the other under her pillow and holding her shoulder. The tightness should have been uncomfortable, but the smell of his skin and the warmth of his muscles enveloping her only made Elle feel protected, and so perfectly not-alone.

~~~~~

Elle stirred again hours later. She felt Solas brush hair off her face and opened her eyes. The sky outside was just starting to consider maybe getting lighter. Solas was no longer in bed beside her, but was kneeling on the floor in front of her, fully dressed.

“Why are you—ugh, Ghilan’nain’s grief. Your trip.”

“Yes,” he answered apologetically. “I still need to get my suitcases from my house before I head to the airport…”

“That sucks. Did you get any sleep? I hope you’re one of those people that can sleep on the plane.” She groped for his hand until he gave it to her. She pulled it to her lips for a kiss. “I’m going to miss you. This sucks. Everything sucks.”

He laughed weakly and tugged so that he could kiss her hand in turn. “Not everything.” Then he wrapped her hand in both of his, holding them before him as if praying over their entwined hands. She waited, as he seemed to be trying to form his words, and eventually he implored, “Tell me not to go.”

“What?”

“If you need me, you need only ask me to stay. I-I’ll call them, tell them I cannot do it after all—”

“And then what happens to all your work?”

“It is not as if I would not be able to find work in my field—and I think I could ensure that my choice does not negatively impact Cole. Most of my independent research on Fen’Harel does legally belong to the university however… But I might be able to—”

“Stop.” She hated how much thought he’d clearly put in to this in such a small amount of time. She hoped that when he came back he could publish quickly so that he wouldn’t be under UO’s thumb anymore. “Don’t ruin your career for me. You’ve worked hard, and you deserve recognition for that.”

“I could hardly abandon you now,” he protested. “I would not want you to think… I would not…”

She gave whichever of his hands her fingers were wrapped around a reassuring squeeze. “It’s not as if I think you’re trying to hit it and quit it, Solas. Besides, we can do long distance, no problem. You’ve already got that video chat downloaded. We’ve got this.”

He nodded. “There is much we need to discuss. I would rather do so in person, but as that is not a possibility…”

“There’s nothing wrong with over the phone. We’ll set up a time every night to call, alright? When you have a signal at the hotel. I’ll make sure I’m somewhere I can talk, promise.”

“Thank you.” He stood and leaned over her, and kissed her with a softness typically reserved for sleeping princesses in faery tales. “I will make this up to you, Elizabeth. Get some rest. I will text you when my flight lands.”

“Dareth shiral, Lethallin,” she told him, as she had every other time she’d thought she wouldn’t see him again until he returned. She pulled him in for a more resolute kiss.

He caressed her cheek, eyes roving her face, and she wished she didn’t know he was memorizing it. Then he kissed her forehead; she closed her eyes as he did. She heard him reply at last, some familiar comforting Dalish phrase that her sleep-addled mind didn’t bother to translate. She kept her eyes closed, not wanting to watch as he walked away, down the hall.

As she heard her front door close him, her brain finally realized what he’d said. Her eyes snapped open.

Ar lath ma, vhenan.

~~~~~

“Creators, would you stop smiling so much? It’s disgusting,” Max said with a tremendous eyeroll from behind the cash register at her papae’s shop. “Giddy doesn’t suit you.”

Elle paid her no mind; she could see the grin her cousin was failing to hide. She was happy that Elle was happy, especially after disappearing last night.

“Enjoy it while it lasts,” Elle warned. “I’ll be back to my old self in no time, and I’ll probably be bugging you a lot because I’m running out of people to talk to.”

“Do you think you’ll be okay? You’re not going to be too, you know, lonely, with him gone?”

Elle waved her hand at the webcam. “Yeah, I’ll be fine. We’ll be good. He should have a signal every night, and I’ll get to torment him with naked selfies until he gets back. That’s always fun.” She paused, trying to find the words to tell Max about the ‘ar lath ma’ incident. Elle had hardly texted Solas today, other than to make sure he arrived safely. She would have to be honest and just tell him that she needed more time—a lot more time—before she was ready for the ‘L’ word. In any language.

Maybe she could have Max tell him for her.

Max stepped away to ring someone up, though, and Elle wasn’t able to find the words without sounding like she was second guessing things. After a moment so much time had passed that she just let it go for now. The two women remained silent as they each did their own thing; Elle was going through a backlog of emails she’d neglected in favor of tumblr, and Max was doing whatever Max did all day.

Ugh,” she said out loud, visibly wincing at an email thread.

“Hmm?”

“Just… What year is it again? I feel like in the last few days I’ve got back in time eighty years.”

“This doesn’t sound good. Is it you-know-who?”

“No, not the Idiot Elect. At least not that I know of. Some—gods, some assholes are clear cutting a Dalish burial ground! To build apartments!”

“Creators... How is that even legal? And haven’t the shems made a hundred horror movies on why you shouldn’t do that exact thing?”

“Apparently it’s ‘okay’ because they’re going to try to transplant the vallasdahlen to a different burial site, nevermind that that never works--almost all the trees will die.” In her periphery Elle could see Max shaking her head, but she didn’t tear her eyes away from the linked article she was hurriedly scanning, checking the sources. How? They had no right! “I don’t know how I missed this. They must have mentioned it in the clan newsletters a dozen times,” she mumbled quickly, eyes flicking across the screen.

“No one reads those. They’re mostly graduation announcements and high school sports, anyway.”

“It’s right here in Orlais! In Dirthavaren. It says they’re breaking ground ‘any day now’. That’s not enough time to stop it…”

“The Exalted Plains? Isn’t that where Solas ran off to?”

“Yeah, there’s all kinds of Dalish ruins in that area,” Elle said with a dismissive shrug. “We have to do something…”

“Hon… You said you needed a break from activism for a while—”

“Max!” she snapped before her friend could finished talking. She glared at the webcam, silent as she was torn between wanting to chastise Max further and needing to apologize for her tone.

After a pause, Max nodded and sighed. “So what are you going to do?”

Elle twisted her braid around and around her wrist as she thought about her options, her contacts, her legal sources. There were groups already battling this, of course, and by the looks of things failing—what could she do that they weren’t?

She also considered whether or not she was overreacting in response to yesterday’s loss…but no, she wasn’t going to sit by and watch her people be stepped on, regardless of what else was going on.

It was probably too late to stop them from desecrating their vallasdahlen. Even with the election taking over all the major news networks, the fact that word of this atrocity hadn’t spread like wildfire amongst the activist blogs she followed spoke of a very deliberate scheme on the part of the builders and alleged land owners.

She shook her head at herself as her plan took form.

“Hey Arrowhead, you know what we haven’t done in a while?”

“Whaaaat?” Max asked suspiciously.

“Does your papae still keep all those chains in stock?”

“Oh no, not that again—” Max collapsed, slumping over the counter.

“Come on, cousin! This is our ancestors we’re talking about,” Elle pleaded. She added, “I promise you can drag me to whatever music festival full of bands I’ve never heard of that you want to this summer.”

“Promise?” came the muffled reply.

“I just said I did.”

Max looked up, grinning wickedly. “I’m in.”

Elle smirked reached for her phone to call her lawyer--Leliana appreciated knowing in advance when Elle planned on getting arrested.

Chapter Text

“So... Have you told your new boyfriend we’re in town yet?” Max asked as she uncoiled another length of chain from a cheap dufflebag. They had come to Var Bellanuris, final resting place of so many generations, in the dark of night; needing no flashlights thanks to their natural elven night vision.

Elle pressed her back against the vallasdahlen tree she’d chosen, careful stepping around bushes of rashvine nettle, to stand beside the gravemarker. “Not yet,” she admitted as Max wound the links around both elf and tree, equally careful not to disturb the burial mound. “Why, you got dinner plans?”

Max scoffed and rolled her eyes. “Obviously not, Nettle Breath. I just think it’s kind of weird that you’re both here, in the Dirth, at the same time, doing separate things, at separate construction sites...” she said pointedly, handing off her the end of the chain before pulling out a lock.

Elle gave her a nod and Max clicked the lock in place. “I know I should have told him… I’m just worried that if I did it before hand he’d feel obligated to leave his new job to be here and support us. Me. He’s having a hard enough time with work right now as it is.” She sighed, watching her cousin stash their belongings under a nearby statue. Hesitantly, she added, “You know he asked me to tell him to stay? Like, I don’t think he was joking; he meant it.”

“Yeah, that’s…” Elle never found out what Max considered that to be, as the other woman interrupted herself, grunting lightly as she swung herself up in to the statue’s arms. She began wrapping chains around herself.

“I’m glad to see high school gymnastics was good for something after all.”

Max smirked as she settled herself. “After four years of it, it better be.”

There was silence for a moment before Elle mumbled to herself, “Damn. I should have used the bathroom first.”

~~~~~

Solas stood in the drafty portable that would serve as both office and storage for the coming months, meticulously checking the aerial grid map of the excavation site as he planned. He was tired, irate, and missed his Elizabeth terribly.

After his flight arrived yesterday, he’d been ushered to a series of pointless meetings, one after the other. He’d been unable to retreat back to his hotel until quite late, and then he’d stayed up far into the night texting Elle about nothing in particular, both acting as if things had not changed significantly. He felt guilty for brushing off someone he used to know that he’d seen in the lobby to do so… And, of course, for being here at all.

Which is why he was on site before the sun, the grey dawn just breaking over the horizon as he planned the most efficient method to comb through these ruins. He wanted to get this project over as quickly as possible. If the diggers started in the northwest corner, they should be done in time for the loggers to pass through, so long as the cold weather and hard ground didn’t slow them down more than expected…

With loud footsteps and a louder voice, a dwarf barged into his space, slamming the door behind him. “Ah, burning the candle at both ends? That’s what I like to see!”

“I imagine you do,” Solas snipped at Bartrand, the supposed owner of the land they stood on. “You're not paying me hourly, after all.”

The other man harrumphed. “You’d be wise to watch your tone, elf.”

Normally Solas tried to be respectful, but he found it hard to control his temper of late. Maybe he had been spending too much time with outspoken individuals. “Or what, you’ll have me replaced? By all means, postpone your project for another six months until the next qualified archaeologist is available; it would only lose you millions. Or were you simply planning on cutting corners...?”

He let the implied ‘again’ hang in the air between them.

Bartrand’s face turned red at the implication, or rather, the reminder that Solas had done his research on his so-called business practices. “Is that a threat? Just one phone call and I’ll have the Dean on the line—”

“Yes, that is how phones work.”

“Listen, I’m in charge here!”

“And as I have told you before, your investment is better off without you micromanaging things that are beyond your expertise. There is no reason for you to personally oversee this process.”

“And let you scientists smuggle some valuable idol out from under me? I think not! You better believe I’ll be looking over your shoulder as you pull each and every useless piece of pottery from these worthless--”

The door flung open again, revealing a cheap hireling in an ill-fitting security uniform. “Mr. Tethras! We have--there are trespassers!” they shouted breathlessly. Solas scoffed and returned to his map until they added, “Protesters, I think.”

He felt his blood run cold. He looked up, as if he’d be able to see the intruders from where he stood. No… Surely fate would not be so cruel…

He moved, ignoring the guard being reprimanded by Bartrand for not doing his job and their own assurances that the authorities had already been called. Solas hopped down the portable’s stairs and made it several paces before stopping; he realized he didn’t know which way he was headed. Then he heard shouting in the distance, and made his way towards it. It grew clearer as he sprinted closer.

“—On what charges!”

Where did he recognize that voice from?

“We are protesting peacefully, there is no need to—”

That one… Was her.

“You are trespassing,” Solas heard a woman with a strong Nevarran accent say with exasperation. “Do not make us add resisting arrest as well.”

He slowed to a stop as he grew near, passing through a forest of qunari security guards Bartrand had hired to look intimidating, observing as silently as statues now that it was out of their jurisdiction. He was horrified to see that the voice belonged to a police officer. A police officer who was handcuffing Elle. Nearby, a pair of officers holding bolt-cutters tried to wrestle her cousin off of a stone statue.

“Solas?” He turned back to Elle, who stared at him in surprise. His gut knotted as a smile spread on her face. Then it twisted as her smile slowly fell. Her eyebrows knit together in suspicion. “Solas, what are you doing here?”

“I knew it, I fucking knew it…” He heard Max mutter.

“Unhand her!” He did not take his eyes off Elle. “They have caused no harm. We will not be pressing charges.”

“We damn sure will be!” Bartrand shouted as he jogged up to them. He stopped and stooped, hands on his knees, breathing heavily. “They broke the law! They need to be made an example!”

We’re the criminals? You’re defacing Dalish history! This is sacred ground!”

She wasn’t looked at Bartrand.

“You Dalish will call a blade of grass ‘sacred’ if it’s convenie—”

“It’s not like that,” Solas interjected, pleading. He had to make her understand… “I’m working with them to preserve your history. It is lost to us, buried beneath the ground where no one can see it, learn from—"

Bullshit! My people aren’t worth more in a museum than laid to rest! There are graves here that aren’t even hundred years old, Solas--there could still be people alive who’ve met them, and you get off claiming they’re ancient relics! You aren’t an archaeologist, you’re a grave robber!”

“No, I--This way I can extract each piece correctly, make sure no one carelessly--”

“There are thousands of people buried here! You’ll put them all in a box to be forgotten, and kill the trees while you’re at it. No one would ever dare pave over a human graveyard like--”

Enough!” shouted the cop. Almost at the same time an explosively loud screech of metal came from off in the distance. Solas’ eyes widened in surprise and he watched Elle, trying to discern if she was responsible. Her face held only fury. All of the officers not otherwise occupied took off towards the racket. The Nevarran officer holding Elle glared at her accusingly. “You are coming with me. Now.”

Her tone brokered no argument, but still Elle hesitated, standing steadfast against the rough shove on her shoulder to stare Solas down. There were no tears in her eyes, no remorse, only barely-tethered fury.

“I never thought you were someone who would do this, Solas,” she said with deadly quiet.

When the officer shoved again Elle turned without another look, and calmly walked to the awaiting car, hands cuffed and shoulders squared.

Solas stared, dumbfounded as his world fell apart. “Thank you,” was all he could think to say as he watched her walk out of his life. Her cousin spat at him as she was wrestled past.

~~~

Elle paced in the jail cell, absolutely livid. She tried to ignore Max’s eyes following her, flicking back and forth like she was watching a tennis match. She completely blocked out the itchy burning sensation behind her eyelids. She would not cry. Not again. Not for that traitorous asshole.

“You’re going to wear a hole in the floor,” her cousin complained.

Elle bit back some remark Max probably didn’t deserve and sat roughly on the bench beside her. She yanked her braid forward and wrapped it around and around her hand and wrist until she could feel her pulse, then loosened it, then did it again.

“Do you want to talk about it, Sweety?” Max asked softly.

Did she? Her knee bounced furiously as she tried to think of a way to answer Max. When she opened her mouth to say something a sob almost escaped. She snapped her mouth closed so fast that she bit her tongue and shot to her feet to resumed her pacing.

At least she didn’t taste blood.

There were no clocks in this damn place, so she didn’t know how long it had been--half an hour, maybe?--before Elle was forced to stop her pacing and stand back as the cops escorted another prisoner to the holding cell.

It was Sera, the elf from that little bee shop. The reminder of where she and that monster had started made her feel dizzy. She resumed her pacing as soon as she was allowed.

She thought about the tiff she’d had with Sera that day, thought about her argument with Solas about the arulin’holm, thought about all the times she’d been in cells just like this one… Anything to keep herself angry. Furious.

The rage was a comfort. She was familiar with outrage. It was an old friend of hers.

“So what are you in for?” she was vaguely aware of her cousin asking.

“Well I was at the same place you were, ya? I saw you lot get taken away, it just took them a little longer to catch me.”

Elle hated Sera’s playful tone. And the way Max thought she was funny.

“Oh man, it’s a shame I missed that,” Max said. Was she flirting? “I was a bit distracted, what with…”

Elle didn’t know why Max bothered to lower her voice, as if it were possible for Elle not to overhear in this small space.

“Oh yeah, that looked like a whole thing.”

“Yeah. Wait, was that explosion you? What was that?” Max asked, sounding excited.

Sera laughed. “Yeah it was! Put nails in some of the trees, so that the chainsaw things would break when they tried ‘em.”

Elle spun on the other elf, shouting. “Excuse me? You could really hurt someone doing that, you know. The chain snaps and injures the poor minimum wage workers. Now they can’t work and they get replaced within a day; what does that solve? They aren’t the people we’re after! And it could kill the trees!”

“Hey, quiet in there!” a man by the name of Officer Barris said, banging on bars with his nightstick.

“Elizabeth…”

She ignored her cousin, glaring at Sera, who glared right back. She thought Sera would say something in her defense, and Elle got angry when she just sneered at her instead.

“Who asked you to help, anyway?” she demanded. “I thought you hated everything ‘elfy’?”

“Wrong is wrong, innit?” Sera retorted. “I’m not going to help just because it’s elfy, but I’m not going to not help just because it is, either. ‘Sides, you’re the one that asked us to come. Short notice, that.”

Elle stopped her walking, looking at the other woman. “Gods, you’re with @theRedJennies, aren’t you? Mod S?”

Sera crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow mockingly, clearly deciding she had the upper hand.

Elle should have known better than to ask such an extremist group for help, but she was desperate and they did good work. Sometimes.

Max blinked. “...What?”

Elle sighed and slumped next to her confused cousin on the bench. After a moment, she asked Sera, “Did you sugar gas tanks of the backhoes in the east lot?”

“Ha. Backhoes,” Sera said with a snerk. “‘Course we did. Did you think we’re green?”

Elle allowed herself the barest of smiles. “Thank you. We got most of the machines out of commission, then. That’ll set them back.” She slumped onto the bench, Max acting as a physical barrier between @theHeraldofDiscourse and @theRedJennies.

The others made small talk while Elle tried to calm her nerves. Deep, slow breaths. They’d done a lot of good today, right? It was unfortunate that no news channels had shown up before they were taken away, but that’s how it went sometimes.

Maybe it was better that way. She would have been too distracted for cameras anyway, after she saw…

Solas. Solas had been there. Her cheeks burned at the memory of her being so stupid that, for a moment, she’d thought he’d been there for her.

She’d never in her life felt so utterly naive. He must have lied to her dozens of times over the last months, and she hadn’t even suspected. Had she always been this easily deceived? Had he felt relief with each passing day that she didn’t hear about this atrocity going on, felt safe when the deadline came and went and she was still too distracted by the election to notice?

Oh gods, did Solas ever intentionally derail her? Distract her with some other topic when she was headed down a path that would bring Var Bellanuris to her attention, like he did when she was upset?

Her mind felt sluggish even as it raced, trying to recall every conversation she’d had with him, looking for clues.

“What was the point of it all…” she wondered out loud. Sera and Max’s conversation stopped as Max looked at her. “Why would he bother, what did he think would happen…?”

“I don’t know, Honey,” Max said as she pat Elle’s back. “He’s a creep. I’m sorry I ever told you that you need a sex life.”

She barked a broken laugh. “Thanks. You know just what to say after a girl’s been arrested by her b--”

She stopped short, her breath trapped in her throat.

“Her boyfriend…” she heard Max murmur to Sera in explanation.

But that wasn’t what she was going to say.

She was going to say ‘best friend’.

The implications of it hit Elle all at once. When she got home she wouldn’t be able to cry on her friend’s shoulder. She wouldn’t be able to ask him about his day or remind him to wear his apron while cooking or laugh with him at the duck pond.

She tried to be pissed at him for doing this to them. To her. She really tried to hate him for it.

But all Elle felt was fear, was panic, was loss. Tears came, hot and awful. She clamped her hands over mouth as a keening noise escaped her throat, trying so so hard to stop. She didn’t want to cry anymore, especially not in front of Sera, in front of these officers. She was stronger than this!

Shaking violently with the effort to silence herself, she pulled the hood of her stupid pink hoodie up and then down over her face, yanking the drawstrings in attempt to cover as much as possible. Max’s arms where tight all around her, rocking her, shushing her, yelling at no one in particular to bring them tissues as Elle fell apart.

~~~

Hours later, when Leliana posted bail, Elle and Max were finally released. Sera remained behind, but exchanged contact info with Max, who somehow balanced mourning the loss of Elle’s lovelife while trying to get one of her own. Blandly, Elle read the namebadges of the arresting officers, in case she needed them later.

Pentaghast. Aclassi.

It was the former who handed her back her things. As she handed Elle her backpack, she explained with disgust, “We had to turn off your cell phone. It would not stop ringing.”

Elle thanked her, for some reason, and followed Max out into the glaring daylight. She winced, her dry, itchy eyes protesting. The tears were gone. They wouldn’t be back. Her heart had hardened to a cutting edge, and she used it to cut off that part of her past completely.

She took deep breath of air that felt the same as it always did, even here in the Dales. Her ancestral home.

She sighed.

“You’ve got the bus schedule back to your place, right?” Max asked her.

She did. She pulled it out of her backpack and checked it. It would be a bit of a wait at the station, but they didn’t have enough time for any errands before heading there either. “Let’s go,” was all she said.

As they walked, Max caught Elle looking at her phone again and again. “You have to turn it on first, you know.”

She considered for a moment, then thrust it at her cousin, gruffly saying, “You do it.”

“Okay.”

“Just… I need you to read the messages for me. If there are any. And listen to the voicemails,” she explained in a rush, even though Max hadn’t questioned her.

“Alright,” she said simply, taking the phone.

“Just tell me if… If he said anything I would want to know about.”

“What would you want to know about?”

She took a moment to consider, watching her worn running shoes move over the hot cement sidewalk, wondering what was buried underneath. “Anything that would change my mind,” she said at last.

The walk to the station seemed to last forever. Max said nothing as she scrolled through messages, her face completely unreadable despite how Elle tried. She even turned down the volume on the voice messages so that she couldn’t possibly overhear, though she managed to briefly catch the sound of his muffled voice, which was enough to make her stomach clench. She’d never heard him so panicked.

They made it all the way to the bus terminal before the chore was done. Gods, that man had a lot to say, all of a sudden. Max, who had stayed decidedly out of ear shot, came to join Elle as she sat on yet another uncomfortable bench and waited for their ride. Elle was tired down to her bones.

“Well?”

Max shook her head. She seemed angry. “Just a bunch of excuses and garbage about keeping his job.” She held out the phone. “Do you want me to delete everything?”

Elle took it. “No.” She turned it off. “I’ll have them reset my phone at the store. It’s about time I changed my phone number.”

Chapter Text

Elle sat on the grass around the duck pond at her old campus--one last farewell to the afro-duck. She was reclined, relaxed, and enjoying a moment alone in the afternoon sun.

Her phone rang, the bleep-bloop of a video call. Thank the gods, that moment of solitude had been plenty long enough. “Hey, Stringbean!”

“Hey hey,” Max answered. “Just wanted to check in on you. Big important week this week.”

“Yeah, it’ll be a change,” she replied, trying to sound nonchalant past the butterflies in her stomach.

“Are you going to be alright? I’m worried about you out there all alone. You won’t know anyone at your fancy new law school.”

So this was a pity call, then. Not that that bothered Elle any. She was more than a little intimidated by Skyhold School of Law. “Of course. Besides, they say that since you don’t get to pick your course load or what order you take your classes or anything, you end up with the same people in all your classes pretty much the whole time. I’m sure I’ll make some new fancy law friends in study group. I’m definitely going to need to do a ton of studying.”

“Psh. You’ve got this. You’re the smartest Bird Brain I know.”

“I don’t know…” Elle ran a hand down her braid, smoothing stray hairs. “I just wish I knew that I got in because of my work, not just because someone on the scholarship board is grateful that I convinced him to ask out a girl.” She expected an invitation to Varric’s wedding any day now.

“Oh please. Your resumé is impressive as your rap sheet. You’re there on your own merit, you don’t need anyone to hold your hand.” Max paused. “Though, if you do, I’ll be there. I’ll audit the classes or something.”

Elle smiled, grateful, and before she could say something sappy she opted for sarcasm. “Yeah, like I’d fly you all the way down here just so my little cousin can watch me fall asleep in class.”

Max rolled her eyes with a scoff. “I’m older than you. And you totally would.”

“Yeah, I totally might. I reserve the right to hold you to that. And I’m taller.”

“See? You sound like a lawyer already. You’re going to do great, you know, Sweety. You’ve always been great at arguing and memorizing crap.”

“Actually, being argumentative will probably work against me…” Elle said truthfully. She’d always known that was the case. “I’ll have to unlearn some bad habits. But hey--at least I can remember crap.”

Elle stuck out her tongue, and Max laughed. “So have you picked an Official Grown-Up Professional Lawyer Name?”

She grimaced. “Honestly I would like to just go by ‘Elizabeth’...” She waited for Max’s faux-outcry to fade before adding, “...But whenever I do people automatically start calling me ‘Liz’, for some reason, and I hate that. So I think I’ll just stick with ‘Elle’.”

“I’ve always liked that one,” Max said, oddly un-sarcastic.

There was a gap in the conversation; trying to find a way to fill it, Elle asked, “Did you get the chance to read that article I sent you the other night?”

“No…” answered Max predictably. “I skimmed it. It looked like good news? Var Bellanuris?”

“Great news. Awesome news. After sabotaging those machines and drawing atten--”

“You mean that thing you got me arrest for.”

“Yes, after that thing and the additional news coverage, the article says a lot of weird things kept happening at the construction sight. Accidents and strange music and objects supposedly moving on their own. People kept quitting because they thought it was--”

“Haunted. Oh-em-gee. Humans, always blaming spirits for everything. It was probably just the locals messing with them.”

Elle laughed, but not because of what Max had said, eyes darting around to make sure no one lurked within earshot. “It was!”

“Wait… You mean like, it was it was?” Max fake-gasped dramatically. “ Lavellan, did you tamper with those poor shems’ work?”

“Not me directly, no, but I know something about it.”

“And you didn’t tell me? How dare!”

“I did! I mean, I forwarded some posts to you. It's not my fault you never pay attention. Anyway, it’s all thanks to this kid who calls themself ‘the Dreadwolf’. Which, edgelord aside, they contacted a ton of activists groups via their @Fenharels-Favor url over social media, including the @theRedJennies. No one has any idea who they are, but it’s obviously an inside job--they always knew exactly where security would be, when to ruin the concrete with sugar, what area was going to be worked each day... In the end, so many people kept quitting because of the working conditions or the ‘demons’ and the delays cost so much money that the construction company just abandoned the project altogether.” Elle shrugged and admitted, “They technically still own the land, but it’s a start.”

“Huh. Wow. Way to go, @Fenharels-Favor. Though honestly, bad moniker for someone looking to help elves.”

“Actually…” Elle hesitated, a faint smile pulling the corner of her lips even as she agonized whether to tell Max the tale, given the source. But she didn’t have to tell her where she’d heard it. “I heard that there’s this theory that the Dread Wolf actually betrayed the evanuris, not--”

She gasped. Actually gasped, hiccuping a little.

“Elle? Hello?”

“Oh gods. Oh, man, oh I am the dumbest person in Thedas!” She pressed a palm to her forehead, trying to keep her mind from reeling.

“Well, yeah.”

“It’s him. I’ve been talking to him this whole time!”

“‘Him’ who--oh.” Max’s tone turned guarded. She usually tried to steer the conversation away whenever Elle would bring him up, but she sighed and asked, “How do you know? It’s probably just some construction guy’s kid--.”

“No, it’s…” she couldn’t maintain the conversation, too busy trying to remember everything she’d said to him, what he’d said back, how many clues she’d missed because she was still such a gullible idiot.

A shadow blocked the sun suddenly, and she sensed someone close. Too close. She looked up and saw someone staring at her beneath an askew ball cap.

“Cole?” she asked.

“What?” asked Max.

Office hours, always the same, scheduled, semester after semester. Comforting, even if no one ever comes. Though he prefers it when they do.”

She blinked at him, jaw hanging dumbly. Then she checked the time--it was almost two.

“I have to go,” she said as she disconnected the call.

~~~

Elle went straight to the Eastern Hall, room 211A, feet hurrying along the familiar path. She tried to figure out what she was going to say to him, or what she would do if any of his students were there. She tossed words around in her head, mumbling to herself even as her pace kept her breathing heavy. She was the only one there when she arrived.

As in not only were there no students, but Solas was not there either. Why not? She whipped her cell out of her pocket and realized that it was still five ‘til… She probably could have walked a bit slower.

She waited. Suffocated by the silence, her eyes wandered around the room until she spied an item on a bookshelf being used to stabilize the books.

It was the orb.

The stupid clay orb from The Bee’s Knees, the one Solas had picked out the first time they’d hung out together.

She had forgotten all about it; she was certain he hadn’t had it in his office before. A wave of nostalgia hit her at the sight of it. And embarrassment. And anger. Ignoring a ache buried deep in her chest, she walked over to it, lifting it without letting the books fall to run her fingertips along the wavy lines, visions of a time that seemed so long ago flooding her, though it had only been months.

She heard footsteps approaching and hurriedly tried to put it back as if she were a child caught with her hand in the hahren’s cookie jar. She failed, miserably--it probably would have fallen safely to the cheap carpet if she hadn’t tried to catch it, but she did, and ended up knocking it in to the corner of his desk. It shattered.

Damn! Elle knelt in the pieces, glancing up just as Solas was strolling in.

For just a second she saw a completely different man than she had known before and wondered what in the world she was doing here. He held himself proud, practically swaggering as he greeted a passing coworker in the hall before he entered.

His feet stopped just past the doorway, and his whole demeanor changed, his confidence fading off him as he saw her. His shoulders drooped, and even from here she could see the bags under his eyes. “Elizabeth? What…?”

Right. What was she doing here? She looked back down at the shattered clay and spied something. She picked it up gingerly, and stood.

It was a little green plastic flash drive.

There was nothing else in broken pottery--he wasn’t just using it as a place to keep nicknacks, or even hard candy. He had hidden it there intentionally.

She was willing to bet if she looked on this drive she’d find a lot of confidential information about a certain digsite.

When she held it up between two fingers for him to see he shifted, hands clasping behind his back as his face settled blankly. He might as well admit to it right there.

“It’s true, isn’t it? You’re ‘Fen’harel’. You’re ‘the Dread Wolf’.”

His eyes widened and glanced out the door into the hall, and then quickly shut it. His hand pressed to the wood for a moment as he slowly turned around, looking over his shoulder until he faced her directly. “Well done,” he said.

She almost threw the flash drive at him. He had absolutely no right to look that proud. “Fen’harel indeed. Ma harel lasa!”

“Only by omission.”

“That’s bullshit and you know it. You lied to me! I-” She took a deep breath. “You’ve been sending me messages for months as if you were some stranger. It’s not fair for you to manipulate me like that.”

Solas let out a small sigh. “What would you have me do? I needed your help to contact the right people, and I did not know if you would give it willingly.”

“I would have you tell the truth, for once. I would have had you trust me! Did you really think I wouldn’t have understood? Did you think I couldn’t be professional enough to look past our history to do what needed to be done to save Var Bellanuris?”

He looked at her, misery in his eyes as he flared his arms out beseechingly. “You changed your number just to avoid me, Elizabeth! I was not about to force you to get a restraining order against me, too.”

That stopped her for a moment. She probably would have.

Elle’s eyes darted around the room, looking at anything but him. She didn’t know where to go from here. “Well your plan worked, so, thanks for that I guess. Better late than never.” She didn’t need him to confirm that it had not been his plan from the start.

Silence reigned again. He seemed to realize he was blocking the door and moved. She left the flashdrive on his desk and they circled around each other wearily until he had a hip leaned onto the desk for support, and she was near the doorway.

Well, she was here. She might as well say it, those words that had been circling around in her head, over and over, since she’d climbed in the back of that police car. “Forget the messages, then. That was hardly the first time you tricked me, was it?” She met his eyes. “You betrayed me, Solas.”

Her words sounded tired, even to her, belying the fury they’d originally brought her.

He flinched nonetheless. “I know.”

“Why? Why did you lie to me all those months, all those moments that-- Why--” she had more to say but cut off abruptly, bite her lips together when her voice caught. She would not let him see her like that.

“I am sorry,” he answered.

Before she made the decision to say the words, she shouted, “Tell me why!”

“Because I am a fool!” he snapped. He sighed forcefully, looking away. “I was confused. I know that is not an excuse, it is barely a reason, but it is the truth. That is all I have to offer you.

“All that time that I… That I hid things from you, I was torn about whether to do my job, or refuse on principle. On whether to act as the man I was before I met you, or to act as you would in my place.” He met her eyes, his gaze intense. “It was only once I had lost you that I realized my error. Knowing you has changed me, Elizabeth. I cannot be who you want me to be, but nor can I be who I was before. I had to find my own path.”

Her breath was trapped in her throat. She crossed her arms to buy herself time; she didn’t know what to think. As @Fenharels-Favor he had done a lot of good, and she was grateful. But she could not forget what it was like, seeing Solas stand by as they arrested her, knowing he had kept something from her that would have changed her mind about him. About everything.

“I wish you had told me sooner about all this. I would have liked to help you through it,” she said quietly, to the floor. “I wasn’t born believing in equality, equity, you know. I used to have a lot of shitty opinions on marriage and history and gender that I don’t like to remember, actually. People change. We fight to make ourselves better. I never expected you to be perfect, Solas. But you’ve always shown willingness to learn. Well--not always, but after it was beat into you a bit, anyway. That matters to me. If you’re a different person now than when I saw you last, I can respect that.”

“What are you saying?”

She swallowed against the hope in his voice. “Not that I forgive you,” she said clearly. She wasn’t ready to go that far. She finally looked up from the ugly carpet and back to him. “But… That I understand? I’m happy for you. Maybe the next time you need help with sticking it to the man you can message me about it. Without the deception. And you know that your secret is safe with me, Fen’Harel.”

He nodded to her.

“Thank you.”

She nodded back, for some reason. That was that, she supposed. She didn’t say anything as she awkwardly opened the door, though she would have glanced back if she wasn’t so horribly aware that he was watching her. He didn’t move to stop her.

As she left Elle felt… Content, actually. That.was more closure than people usually got for this sort of thing, right? An explanation, a change… This was good. This was everything she had wanted. She was in law school, paid for with the Inquisitor scholarship that Varric and Dorian had encouraged her to apply for, and with no relationship to distract her. Exactly as she had planned when she’d moved to Orlais.

Perhaps, years from now, they’d meet again. She’d be some big shot lawyer taking down giant corporations in her black power suit and pink pumps, and he’d be in tweed and glasses as he researched who-knows-what in a deli with free wifi, if that was still a thing. They’d be pleasantly surprised to see each other, and chit-chat a bit. Maybe share some frilly cakes. She would notice how deep those crow’s feet of his had gotten as they caught up, talking about all their successes over the years.

Her sneakers squeaked on the linoleum as she slowly came to a halt.

The thought of not seeing his face change with age stung. The thought of him not being there to cheer her on, of her not being able to do the same for him, downright ached.

“Dammit, Elle, why can’t you just leave well enough alone?” she scolded herself aloud as she turned around on her heel.

Barging back in to his office, she saw that Solas had not moved from where she’d last seen him, still half leaning/sitting on the desk as he stared towards the doorway. His eyes widened when she came back, widened still when she told him, “I’m still pissed.”

“I… I assumed you were, yes. You’ve earned your anger.”

“I’m still pissed,” she repeated. “I might even hate you. But I’m also proud of you. And I’ve fucking missed you. So much has happened, and I’ve hated that you weren’t there for it. You were supposed to be there! You were supposed to rally me to keep fighting and read Jade’s little articles with me and help me decide if starting at a new school was a good idea. I didn’t need you, but you were my friend and you were supposed to be there!”

He gaped as she ranted, but when she finished a small smile tugged at the corner of his lips. “You are still in school, then? I’d… I had heard that you dropped out of the program and I worried that… I would hate to think that, because of me, you--”

“Oh don’t flatter yourself,” she snapped. “I’m not about to throw my life away over some awkward one-night-stand with a teacher.”

She’d said it to hurt him, but he only smiled heavier. “Where did you transfer?”

“I’m not here to discuss my new major, Solas.”

“Of course.” He cleared his throat, and straighten. Hesitantly, he added, “May I ask why you are?”

She took a steadying breath, bracing herself. “To ask you to have dinner with me.”

There was a stunned silence, long enough to become an awkward one. “You would still be my friend, after all this?” He eventually asked.

Elle barked a (somewhat bitter) laugh. “I’m not asking you on a friend-date, Solas. I don’t think we can manage to be only friends. I’m… I guess I’m asking you out on a date. A date-date. Maybe we can just try to take it slow this time, figure out if there’s something real h--”

“No!” he shouted, as if alarmed.

She had to drag a deep breath through her nose and hold it for a moment to avoid lashing out at him. She tried to keep her voice neutral, but she could tell it came out strained. “Would you care to explain why not?”

“I…” He shook his head, helpless. “I feel as if I am still deceiving you, somehow. I’m not trying to convince you that I am a good man. You deserve so much more than what I have to offer, Elizabeth. You owe me nothing.”

“I’m fully aware of that,” she couldn’t resist replying dryly. “But… Dammit, I just--Don’t you think this is worth testing? I feel like… I don’t know. You became so important to me so quickly, and I like to think you feel the same, and it just seems so stupid to just ignore that.”

He had a pained look on his face. “It would be kinder in the long run. You cannot build a relationship without trust. Do you really think that you could ever look past what I did? Could you ever come to forgive me?”

Tears pricked the corners of her eyes, but she ignored them. “I don’t know,” she answered honestly. “Do you think we could ever make each other happy? That someday we might look back on today and be grateful that we took the risk?” she countered.

“Yes,” he answered, and in that moment she believe him. “Yes, and I would treasure the chance to try again, Elizabeth.”

“Good. Dinner, then. And we can try to figure this out.”

“Thank you. When? Tonight?”

Gods, of course he’d go from refusing altogether to not wanting to wait more than a few hours. “I… Think I need more time than that, actually. This was sort of a lot to take in.” She slung off her backpack, and pulled out a notebook. Reaching in for a pink pen, she flipped to a back page and wrote down her new phone number, with the local area code. She tore out the page and handed it to him. “I… I deleted your number.

She heard him release a breath as he took her offering, and exchanged it for a business card from his breast pocket. “Of course. Take all the time you need, Vhenan.”