At the top of the stairs, Zaire found a large covered platter on the table outside of her door. She looked over at Dorian. “When did you become so good at ensuring we’re fed?”
“When I learned that none of you will eat without assistance. I’ve known children with better self preservation than you lot.” He rolled his eyes.
“So…” She smirked at him, lifting the lid on the tray just far enough to see that it looked packed with an unusual amount of food. Far more than she thought she could manage, and she felt a stab of guilt. There were others that needed to eat more than she did in Skyhold, she was certain. “You asked Josie to take care of it.”
“Not entirely, although I should spoon feed you your food at this rate. See if I do you any more favors.” He crossed his arms. “I merely encouraged her to take advantage of Leliana’s observations and concerns. With a little help from me. Now I just tell them who looks hungry.”
“Do you manage to get extra dessert out of the deal?”
“No, alas. I have to make do with wine as thanks for my thoughtfulness.” He reached out and plucked the key out of her pocket, unlocking the heavy wooden door and pushing it open. He held it open for her, then followed her in, closing it firmly behind them.
“Can you lock that?” Zaire called back over her shoulders, carrying the tray up the last set of stairs to her living area.
Dorian reached back and pushed the bolt over. “When did you become so paranoid?”
“I’ve pissed a lot of people off, Dorian. Several of them this week alone.” Zaire set the tray down on a table and flopped down on the bed, tugging off her gloves and tossing them onto a pillow. She held her hands up in front of her face, stretching out her fingers and looking at her palms. Times like this, when the mark didn’t show, she could almost feel normal. A normal, heartbroken woman that went from smuggling lyrium to trying to save Thedas in a matter of mere months. She could read the years by the lines on her hands, by the callouses and the scars and the way her flesh draped over her knuckles when she looked at the back of her hands. She felt older than she had a right to.
“Well, laying on the bed in dirty clothes certainly won’t help.” He dropped down onto the couch and sprawled dramatically. “But that’s not my problem as I can’t smell you from here.”
Zaire didn’t get up, instead dropping her hands to her sides and closing her eyes. “I think it’s the least of my problems.”
“Yes. That much I can see.” She heard him stand and start moving. Opening her eyes, she watched him get the bottle of wine from the rack near her desk and open it. He pulled out two glasses from a cabinet and filled them.
She sat up to take a glass from him, and he kept hold of the other one. “Thanks.” She paused, sipping at the red wine. She didn’t know much about wine, but generally drank whatever she was handed. “I’m still working out what happened with Alistair.”
“Having to leave him behind?”
Zaire winced at Dorian’s blunt delivery. “That’s… part of it.” She held the wine in both of her hands. “Did I tell you the Hero of Ferelden sent me a message asking me to keep him safe?”
“No.” He sat on the bed, sitting cross legged. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry. That’s a terrible burden to bear.”
“I sent a letter, along with Hawke’s, but there’s nothing I can do to fix this.” Her shoulders slumped as if she felt the physical weight of it all, pressing down on her. If it pressed hard enough, perhaps she could sink so far into this mattress that she’d never come up again. She wasn’t sure what to make of that thought. “I feel like I failed.”
“Zaire.” Dorian shook his head and put a hand on her knee. “That was a decision that he made, too.”
Nodding, she rubbed at her forehead. As much as having to tell Audra Amell what had happened, she had even larger concerns. She laid her free hand over his, grateful for his friendship. “People are not supposed to be physically in the Fade, right?”
“It’s certainly not a wise decision, that much is certain.” He looked thoughtful as he shifted his eyes from her to his glass, the crimson depths swirling with the movement of his hand. “Ancient Magisters entering the Fade, the Taint, archdemons, ect.”
Nodding, Zaire sipped at her wine. Alistair’s last brave moments stuck in her head, but something else did, too. “There’s two things I can’t shake. If it was bad for anyone to enter the Fade physically, even for a short time, isn’t it worse to leave someone there? Even if they… don’t survive. It seems that something has been left there that shouldn’t be.”
“I don’t believe it’s the Fade that’s the problem per se, I believe it was considered to be entering the Golden City. Or Black City, depending on your source.” Dorian now seemed to be moving the wine in a pattern within the glass, a habit she noted he had while thinking. “But. You pose a good question. Is it the fact that they went into the city… or that something physical was in the city at all?”
“Meaning that even a body could be a risk?” She took her hand off of his and clasped her own glass in two hands.
“Yes.” Dorian tipped his cup back and finished the whole glass before speaking again. “I’m going to need more wine for this.”
Zaire set hers down on a table by the bed and hopped off the bed, going over to get the bottle. She didn’t want to interrupt his train of thought on this. She filled his glass and set down the bottle, then lifted her own glass, sipping as she begun to pace.
Dorian started to drink the wine then stopped with the glass halfway lifted. “That’s perhaps an issue. We don’t know what actually happened there. All we know is that it started the first Blight, which is the only tangible proof that anything happened at all.”
“Do you think it’s possible to… survive that? The demon?”
He watched her pace as he sipped at the glass. “I don’t know. The odds were not in anyone’s favor. But it’s fair to say that it’s… haunting some of us.”
She frowned. “Have you dreamed lately?”
“Of course. Mages all have a stronger than usual connection to the Fade.”
Having no connection to the Fade, Zaire wasn’t sure how to ask the question she was trying to ask. She shuffled back across the carpet to sit next to Dorian. “I don’t dream so I don’t really understand… but… what do you dream about?”
“The usual things. Demons. My father. Sometimes good things. Wine. Cullen.” He shrugged. “Why do you ask?”
She didn’t know why she asked, and she didn’t know the answer she was expecting. “I don’t know. Do you think it’s possible for a mage to manage to find out if Alistair is alive in the Fade?”
“As much as I hate to put this out there: Solas may be a better person to ask than I.” Dorian wrinkled his nose in distaste. “But, if you want my opinion, you’d need a mage with a stronger connection to him than I. Perhaps related to him, but…” He shrugged. “It doesn’t seem like that’s an option.”
Zaire froze in place, calculating the conversation she’d overheard between Morrigan and Kieran. She couldn’t tell Dorian that; it wouldn’t be fair to then. And what if she were wrong? If anyone could have chance of it, he seemed likely.
“Although,” he continued, “you may be interested to know that there’s been some tense times in the library. The elven mage. Fiona. Since you returned from Adamant, she’s been… snappish. Claims to not be sleeping well, too many nightmares.”
“After what she’s been through, nightmares seem to be the expected outcome.” Zaire paused. “Since Adamant. Have you heard any other mage mention this?”
“Not that I’ve heard, although it’s not as if they acknowledge me if they can help it.”
Zaire didn’t like the sound of that. “That’s their loss. I, for one, value your company.” She leaned against a pillow, forcing herself to relax and think. Fiona would be on her list of people to talk to tomorrow, after she’d had some time to think on how to phrase the question.
“Of course you do, because you’ve got taste in friends.” He smiled. “Speaking of losses, and not to change the subject, but you appear to have still not addressed your other situation.”
Finishing off her glass of wine, she started towards the food, pulling up a chair. “You need wine for these conversations, and I need food.” She lifted the top off the platter to find a still warm bowl of stew containing meat, carrots, and potatoes. On various smaller plates around it, she saw bread, cheese, fruit, and a dessert pastry. The stew smelled delicious and she dove into it. While she’d likely eaten her fill of enough stew to last a lifetime, she did admit that it help to warm her in the colder temperatures at Skyhold.
While she ate, Dorian refilled her glass and took a seat across from her and waited for her to speak. Halfway through her fifth mouthful, she said around a chunk of potato, “So. Blackwall.”
“Speaking of barbarians.” He made a tsk sound. “Swallow your food properly.”
She did so, washing it down with a gulp of the wine. “Blackwall. Or… Thom.”
“I don’t care what you decide to call him.” He crossed one leg over the other and smoothed his hands over his robes. “What I care about is that you are clearly not happy.”
She shook her head. “I’ve got bigger problems than my happiness, Dorian. I do.”
“No, you don’t. Yesterday, I watched you make the one and only decision you’ve ever made as Inquisitor that anyone could ever accuse of being selfish.”
That stung. “I’m not-”
“I’m not saying that you are. I’m saying that others could look at it that way.” He set down his wine and reached across the table to cover her hand with his. “Zaire. I know you better.”
Letting him wrap his hand around hers, she slumped. “All we do is fight here. We fight for others to have a chance at life. At happiness. To survive this. Dorian…” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “I just had to remember what it’s like to have a shot at that myself. It’s so hard to fight when I can’t remember what it’s all for sometimes.”
He squeezed her hand. “So you let him go because you wanted to be happy?”
Not sure how to answer that, she shrugged. “I know it sounds ridiculous, because I’m not happy, but…”
“You need to have that conversation with him. In fact, I suggest you go as soon as you’re done eating.”
Sighing, she nodded. “Fine. I will. But if we’re going to sit here talking about this, I think it’s only fair that I get a chance to ask you about Cullen.”
“Is it fair?” He leaned back in his chair, lips pushed together under his mustache. “I suppose it is. Well. Then I assume it’s obvious that it’s not going where I’d like. Cullen takes beating himself up over past misdeeds to a whole new level. Perhaps worse than Blackwall, I’d imagine.”
“That’s… Impressive. And maybe accurate.” Zaire winced.
“I know it is. It’s just that… I know he’s done things. He won’t tell me the details, but he was a Templar. I’m not stupid. I might be from Tevinter but I know full well the abuses Templars are guilty of upon mages here. I hear the rumors. The whispers.”
“Does it bother you?” She picked up her spoon and continued eating her stew before it got too cold to taste good.
“It’s less that it doesn’t bother me, and more than…” Dorian stared down into his wine glass, tension showing along his jaw. “He clearly wants to leave that person he was behind. He wants to see people for who they are. But he isn’t quite there yet. Even worse, I’m concerned he doesn’t think he’s worthy of anyone caring about him.”
“Least of all a mage,” she added between bites of food.
He pointed to her. “Yes. That right there.”
She finished chewing a bite of stew and swallowed. “What do you do with two people that have trouble seeing their own worth?”
“Lock us in a room together and take away our clothes would be my suggestion.” Dorian chuckled.
“I’m impressed you managed this much, to be honest.”
“Are you really? Did you doubt my charm?” Dorian made a face and Zaire laughed.
“No. Not in your charm. Cullen’s ability to take a hint… yes. I did doubt that.” In fact, it had taken more than just hints. They’d started by playing chess, since it appeared that most of the people at Skyhold were not terribly good at it. The games had started with a lot of strategy and concentration, and evolved into some verbal sparring. Zaire had watched them on a few occasions as they’d established a rapport, and Cullen had admitted to her later during one of their rare discussions that weren’t about work that he enjoyed Dorian’s company. Their friendship had, at first, helped Cullen get perspective on how he could more tactically leverage the Inquisition’s mages. It moved into mutual flirting, onto the dance at Halamshiral, and everything that’s come since. She’d watched Cullen’s usually serious demeanor crack into some of the most genuine smiles she’d seen on his face. In turn, she’d watched Dorian become more confident in himself, a real confidence that seemed borne partially out of having the chance to make a difference, and partially out of the knowledge that not everyone would judge him as his father had.
“Oh, you’re referring to how it took weeks of flirting to get him to even flirt back.” Dorian leaned back and smiled smugly. “The novelty of making him blush has not worn off.”
“I’m not sure it ever will.” Zaire smiled, balancing her spoon in her hand. “I never got the chance to ask which one of you asked the other to dance at the Winter Palace.”
“It was me, and he turned me down.” Dorian shook his head. “I figured he wasn’t interested.”
Zaire remembered how irritated Dorian had been, pacing the garden at Halamshiral and gesturing with his hand that didn’t hold a wineglass. Shortly before ripping into an Orlesian noble that had gotten too far into his personal space. “Well, we saw what that got him. Pinched inappropriately by a number of nobles. And then all hell broke loose.”
“As it tends to do. When the dust settled, you had danced with Blackwall, and I’d taken up a corner with a glass of wine.” Dorian held up his wine to make the point. “I considered asking you to dance just to remember I could dance. Then Cullen stopped in front of me and reached out a hand. He was as red as the outfits we were wearing.” He smiled. “He stammered a lot. I had to ask him if he was asking me to dance.”
“What did he say?”
“Oh, it was positively incomprehensible but it seemed to be yes. I considered making him wait a moment, bent over in a bow with his hand out, but I got concerned he’d lose his nerve.” Dorian’s eyes went from his wine up to Zaire’s face. “It’s hard for him to have his guard down that much, but with the threat passed… well. I’m sure we gave the nobles something to gossip about.”
“They had a whole assassination attempt to gossip about,” Zaire noted. “Why would they-“
Dorian laughed. “Because that’s what they do. Orlesians love a good scandal.”
“You moved well together out there.” Zaire remembered their first halting dance steps before Cullen had taken a deep breath and just let go. At first Cullen had been stiff, formal, but then they seemed to find a stride.
“Thank you for that. I was mad at him for not only making it so hard, but after the dance, he blushed, stammered, and left. I believe he told me I had a beautiful nose first. The next day, he invited me to dinner in his office. He tried to explain. He failed.”
“I remember.” She laughed. “Then he kissed you.”
“Yes, that. And I’m still not sure how we got there. I’d like to blame too much wine, but Cullen barely drank.” He smiled. “That escalated quickly.”
“It’s good for him. I’ve noticed he’s become… well.” Zaire paused, trying to find the right words. “It does him good to spend time with a mage. It’s showing in how he’s started approaching situations.”
“I think it does him good to spend time with someone who cares, but I admit, I’ve noticed. He’s been telling me about some of the mage recruits, and his tone has been changing. You can consider that a bonus to him exhibiting less signs of stress in general.” Dorian’s grin left no doubt in Zaire’s mind as to what he referred to.
Zaire started to reply when the pounding at the door came, followed by Sera’s voice. “Let me in, yeah? I’ve been out on the roof and it’s warmer in here.”
“The roof? You’re all savages,” Dorian commented as Zaire stood up and bounded down the stairs to slide the bolt aside and pull open the door. Sera stood in the doorway, perfectly dry.
“I thought you said you were soaked?” Zaire asked, puzzled.
“Oh, I just said that so you’d let me in.” Sera bounded past her and up the stairs, nearly running into Dorian as he downed the second glass of wine. “Hope you left some for me.”
“Just don’t eat all of her dinner again. Please.” Dorian waited for Zaire to come back up the stairs, then patted her shoulder. “I’d hug you but you smell like horse. I’m off to do my next good deed.”
“Doing a good deed, huh?” Sera asked. “Is Cullen’s nickname ‘my next good deed’? So you can go… do it?”
Groaning, Dorian hastily headed for the stairs. “Zaire – let’s talk with Solas tomorrow.”
“You’ve got it. And thanks.”
He slipped through the door and closed it as Sera stole a handful of grapes from the plate and shoved them in her mouth. “I think Blackwall is back in the barn. You should talk to him.”
“Not you, too.” Zaire sat down and put her arms on the table, resting her head on them. Of course, of all of them, Sera would be the most likely of the bunch. “What do you think of the situation, Sera?”
“Me?” She shrugged, picking up the bottle of wine and taking a drink straight out of the bottle. “He tried to be good. That’s better than most.”
Zaire picked back up her bowl of stew and kept eating. A knot was forming in her stomach that threatened to make eating far more difficult than it already had been the past two days, but if she didn’t eat she wouldn’t be of use to anyone. “I’ll go after I eat. Fair?”
“Yeah. But I’m waiting for you to finish. What if you never leave because you’re waiting to eat this piece of cheese?” Sera asked, pointing.
“Hey!” Zaire pulled the plate closer to her. “Get your own cheese.”
“Well then eat it faster!”