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another year

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Dorian was worried about the Inquisitor. This was hardly unusual, to be fair; in fact it was so far from being a new state of affairs that when Dorian wondered briefly what it would be like to live without at least a vague background worry for Elden, he came up blank. It was, he supposed, an inevitable hazard of having been foolish enough to fall in love with a man as absurdly self-sacrificing as Elden.

There were things only the Inquisitor could do, certainly. He also didn’t have to do everything, and lately he seemed to be doing worse about delegating some responsibilities instead of trying to take on all of them. Josephine was wonderful about that sort of thing, shifting lesser matters away from Elden before he could really notice her doing it, and Dorian knew she shared some of his concerns, but it seemed even she was no match for Elden’s apparent desire to drive himself into the ground.

Because that, as far as Dorian could tell, was what Elden was currently trying to do. There wasn’t much going on at the moment, although he’d never taken Elden for a restless man, and simple restlessness wouldn’t explain how hard he seemed to be driving himself—always meeting with allies, checking in with the newer recruits, poring over maps by himself when his advisors were busy or he didn’t want to bother them, training alone or with others, and barely pausing to eat or sleep. This was the fourth night in a row Dorian had woken up alone to find Elden hunched over his desk, because he’d either gotten up to work at some point during the night or never gone to bed in the first place.

The light was still low, with only a couple candles lit at the desk and Elden almost certainly straining his eyes over whatever he was doing, and Dorian decided he’d had enough. He’d never been known as a particularly patient man, after all.

He pulled back the blankets, strode over to the desk, and dropped one hand on Elden’s shoulder. The Inquisitor jolted at the touch, which was doubly concerning, because Dorian rarely had much luck sneaking up on him even when he was trying, which right now he wasn’t. Elden blinked up at him, seeming to take a moment longer than usual to recognize him, and when he smiled, there was still a tightness at the corners of his eyes. “I’m sorry. Did I wake you?”

“Yes, the scratching of your quill is absolutely deafening,” Dorian said. “More importantly, I find I’m rather chilled without you to warm my bed, which is terribly inconsiderate of you.” Elden opened his mouth, almost certainly to apologize again, and Dorian waved him off. “Just come back to bed, Amatus, and all is forgiven. Surely this…whatever it is you’re doing…can wait for morning. And I do mean actual morning, not the crack of dawn.”

“Correspondence,” Elden said, “and I’m almost finished.” Dorian gave him the sternest, most skeptical look he could muster, and Elden amended, “Well, I should be almost finished. I should have finished some time ago, for that matter.”

Dorian glanced at the piles of maps and letters. It all looked daunting enough, even aside from the fact that most of it was probably unpleasantly political. “Whatever does that mean?”

Elden sighed and rubbed at the bridge of his nose, leaving a smear of ink behind that would be adorable under other circumstances. “This wouldn’t be a problem if I weren’t so damn slow.”

Dorian frowned. Eventually he was going to have to do something about Elden’s idea that struggling a bit with reading and writing made him stupid, but at the moment he figured he should focus on more immediate concerns. “I guarantee it will keep. Now come back to bed or I’ll knock you unconscious and drag you.”

Elden half-smiled. “No you won’t.”

“No, I won’t,” Dorian agreed, “but I will absolutely give you my saddest kicked-puppy expression, which I’m told is unfairly effective.” When Elden still looked ready to argue, he went for a low blow and added, “I really do prefer not to wake up alone if I can help it.”

Oh, look, there was the guilt in Elden’s eyes again. Well, at least it was in the service of a good cause, although it was truly ridiculous that he had to resort to such tactics just to convince Elden to get some sleep. Before he could think better of it, he tugged on Elden’s hand, and the Inquisitor finally snuffed the candles and followed Dorian back to bed.

“Now,” Dorian said when they were both properly nestled under the blankets again, “I can’t help noticing you’re doing even worse than usual at taking care of yourself lately, because I am occasionally capable of being observant, so don’t tell me it’s nothing or I’m imagining it. Whatever is it this time?”

There was a pause while Elden probably decided that “I’m fine” also went under things he wasn’t supposed to say, and then he sighed against Dorian’s shoulder. “It’s silly.”

“I very much doubt that, even leaving aside the fact that this supposedly silly matter has you running yourself more ragged than usual.”

Another sigh, quieter, and then Elden admitted, “It’s my birthday. Well, soon.”

“Not for another month, I thought.”

Elden shrugged. “Soon enough to think about it.”

“I sincerely hope you are not keeping yourself awake because you dread whatever awful gift I might find to give you,” Dorian said. The words and tone were light, because he was good at that, but he was starting to get an inkling of what this might be about, and he didn’t like it at all.

Elden snorted. “Of course not. It’s just…” He fell silent for a moment, searching for the right words, and Dorian let him. “It’s…a reminder, every year, of…well, a lot of things, now. Responsibilities. Everything I still need to do, and be, and all the people who will suffer if I can’t, and everyone who’s already suffered or died because I wasn’t quick enough or strong enough or…good enough.”

Not good enough. Dorian could think of only one reason a birthday would bring those fears so strongly and repeatedly to the forefront of Elden’s mind. “Let me guess: you can’t help thinking these things because your parents strongly implied or outright stated something similar, especially around your birthday, when they remembered again that they’d failed to mold you into the perfect, dutiful, obedient son they wanted you to be.”

It was hard to read Elden’s expression in the dark, but Dorian thought he looked startled for a moment before he smiled wryly. “I suppose you would know something about that.”

“Just a bit,” Dorian agreed, deadpan. More seriously, he continued, “I do know what it is, to be a disappointment and feel it come back to gnaw at you even when you’ve decided it doesn’t matter and what they wanted of you was selfish and wrong. I doubt anyone escapes from that entirely, and I know it doesn’t just stop.” It was easier, saying honest things like this when it was dark. “But you, Amatus—if you aren’t good enough, then no one is. You are ridiculously noble and selfless, and everyone here knows how much you care about them and how hard you work for them. You’re not what your parents wanted you to be, true enough. You’re better.”

Elden shifted uneasily. “But if I fail—”

“Listen,” Dorian said. He didn’t make it a habit to interrupt Elden, but in this case it seemed important. “Listen to me. I know, all right? The Inquisition—it’s a burden, and it’s one that no one should have to bear alone. That’s why we’re all here to help you, why we’re following you, not just the Inquisitor. Because as trite as it may sound, we believe in you. I believe in you.”

“You might be slightly biased,” Elden said.

“I would’ve joined the Inquisition under someone else, true, because I understand how important this is. But I wouldn’t have fallen for just anyone. You are a kind, compassionate, brave, impossible man, someone I am proud to know, and I think we all know I tend to have good taste. So I will say this as many times as I need to: you are good enough. You are enough.”

Another pause, and then Elden sighed again, some of the tension leaving his body. He finally sounded sleepy as he mumbled, “You are too good to me.”

“No such thing,” Dorian said, and kissed his forehead. “Now sleep, Amatus, and don’t you dare leave this bed until you’re actually rested. Thedas will still be here when you wake up.” And so will I, he added silently, because some things were still too fragile to speak, even in the dark. Until the world or I end.