After finishing eating, Zaire took enough time to change into something clean before wrapping herself in a dry oilcloth cloak and heading out into the storm. She stuck to the shadows and corners, careful to keep her hair covered as it was her most obvious feature at a glance. The rain hit her cloak, pattering against her hood and blocking out a good deal of what she could hear. It almost drowned out the sound of her heart thudding in her chest, and she wondered how she could close breaches, kill Venatori, and help take down a dragon, but didn’t know what to say to one man.
He wasn’t just any man, though, and that was the issue.
She crept up on the barn and lingered near the entrance for a moment. He had indeed returned, and sat beside the fire, carving a block of wood. She took a moment to watch him. From where she stood, she could see him in profile, bent over his work and lit by the firelight. His hands were steady, but she saw a tremor in his shoulders. He’d taken off the padded layer of armor he usually wore, and it sat over a chair nearby, she presumed to dry. His hair fell around his face as he worked, the fire lighting his skin in soft light and harsh shadow. It was a state she rarely saw him in, a level of vulnerability that she wasn’t accustomed to him showing outside of their most private interactions.
He looked as if the layers had been stripped away, leaving just the man underneath. Who was this man? Not Blackwall the Grey Warden, not Thom Rainier, just… him. He looked beaten down, resigned to his fate. Tired.
He had hurt her, and she had hurt him in return.
I’ll never find out who he really is if I don’t ask. Shivering, she pulled the cloak around her and stepped forward, starting for him. One of the horses nudged at his door as she passed. She looked up to find Scotch looking down at her. He wasn’t hers, as he was far too tall for her to ride, but he tended to be a favorite of Blackwall’s, so she spent a lot of time with him. She paused in front of the door, even though she couldn’t reach without pulling up a stool. The stable doors in Skyhold weren’t made with dwarves in mind. “I can’t pet you from down here, sorry.”
Blackwall’s head snapped up and watched as she approached. “M’lady,” his voice rumbled, as he scrambled to his feet, setting aside his carving.
She shook her head. “Sit down. It’s fine.” She watched him cautiously sit, and unclasped her cloak, pulling it from her shoulders and shaking it out before hanging it on a hook on a pillar close enough to the fire to help dry it faster. She took a seat near him by the fire, close to him but not close enough. The fire was warm and helped heat her from her cold trip through the rain. The distance between them felt massive and it hurt, not touching him. Even more than that, the pain that she felt the most was not knowing where they stood with each other.
They sat in silence for a moment before he finally spoke. “It’s… good to see you.”
She’d missed hearing the rumble of his voice and was struck with a sudden desire to hear him just say her name. “It’s good to see you, too.” She stared into the fire, struggling with words. Start simple. “Is there anything you actually know about the Wardens? Or did you make it all up?”
“I made very little up.” He reached next to him and picked up a piece of wood that he was not carving, throwing it into the fire. Sparks scattered into the air. “I also feared you knew enough to contradict me. Warden Blackwall told me a bit before my initiation. But it is a… secretive order. Not even the most senior Wardens know all there is to know.”
It seemed like the perfect place for someone like him to hide. She nodded. “I started to get concerned around the time we went to Valamar and you didn’t seem to be able to know when the Darkspawn where coming.” He’d nearly gotten her killed that day. His inability to actually detect Darkspawn had led them into an ambush where the odds ended up being against them. Zaire had gotten bruises all over her body and a black eye from that. She remembered the look of complete devastation on his face when he looked at the marks where the Darkspawn had choked her. She could see that look in a different light, now.
His posture deflated. “No. That’s… part of why I left. I failed to protect you. My lie got you hurt.”
The uncertain wavering in his voice hurt as much as those bruises had. “It could have happened even if you had felt that there were darkspawn there.”
“We got lucky.” He put his hands down on his knees, hard. “That could have been worse.”
She wished that she could make him laugh, or smile, or anything. It had been easy to be angry when she wasn’t here with him. He looked broken, overwhelmed. Not the confident man who talked down the Wardens at Adamant, or even the gruff mentor that taught people how to fight back to defend themselves. “At least now we know why you were never worried about Corypheus's Calling.”
“Yes. I have none of the Wardens' abilities, and none of the... drawbacks.” He sighed. “Still, I would've fought through the darkest pits of the Deep Roads, like any true Warden. There's more to it than being able to sense Darkspawn. Warden Blackwall would have agreed.”
She started to lift her hand towards him and forced herself not to, instead folding her hands in her lap. “The Wardens at Adamant listened to you. They saw you as one of their own.”
“Perhaps it takes an outsider to show how much of yourself you've lost. I never understood the reality of being a Warden. I only saw the ideal. I suppose I reminded them of something they'd forgotten.”
“They’d forgotten a lot.” Zaire rubbed her gloved hand against her bare hand, trying to warm them and failing. Rain pounded onto the roof of the barn, and she found herself thankful for everyone working so hard for the Inquisition. “You have a lot of respect for the Wardens.”
He glanced towards his Warden armor, still in a corner. “They take all men, from the most noble to the most despicable, and make them equals. I needed to believe something like that was possible.”
Nodding, she thought for a moment before speaking. It was not that far removed from what she tried to do with the Inquisition, and perhaps that underscored that he belonged here with them. However, she would do him a disservice if she didn’t offer alternatives, even if she loathed them. “You still have the choice of going to them, if you feel that’s what you need to do.” She hated the idea of him leaving, but it would have to be his choice to make.
“Is that what you want?”
“Maker, no.” Zaire tucked her unmarked hand into her coat to try to warm it. “But I gave you your freedom so that you could choose.”
“I didn’t deserve that freedom, Zaire.”
She gritted her teeth, starting to get frustrated with his denial of his own worth. “Maybe you didn’t. It was a hard call to make.” She looked at him, trying to gauge some sort of reaction. He kept his eyes on the fire. “But it was my decision.”
“I don’t understand why.”
Ok, that’s it. “You don’t have to understand,” she snapped, shaking her head. “If you want me to say it, then I’ll just say it.” She got to her feet and crossed her arms. “First of all, I’m sorry for what I said. About not loving you. I heard your lie and I lashed out with one of my own. Maybe I was trying to tell myself it was the truth, so that what was to come would be easier. And you saw through that.” Of course he had, because he knew her that well. The thought made her mad and she squared her jaw. “I didn’t care who you were. I never did. We all screwed up somewhere. I used to be a lyrium smuggler. Did you know that I’d smuggled lyrium to Kirkwall? To Samson?” She’d never admitted that to another person. I’m just fortunate that Samson hasn’t recognized me. “Did you know that I’ve contributed to the addiction of more former Templars than I can even recall.” She threw her arms up in the air. “What do you think anyone would think of me if they knew?”
“No.” Her hands balled up into fists at her sides. “You don’t get to sit here and pretend that you’re the only one that’s fucked up. You made a bad decision, and you gave some shit orders. I’m no better than you. I don’t care,” she snarled, taking a half step towards him. “I cared that you had chances to tell me you weren’t a Warden. You lied to me about that. We used your credentials to forge alliances.” Tears pricked at the corners of her eyes. “I trusted you.”
He turned to her and reached out, taking her ungloved hand. She pulled her hand free, leaving him with his hand held out towards her, waiting. She met his gaze and held back a sob that she would refuse to let out.
“I’m a man. Who made terrible mistakes. Who fell in love with you.”
She stared at him, feeling her composure crack and not caring. “You want to know why I let you go? Because you deserve a second chance. Because there’s a man somewhere in the Hinterlands who told me about a man who was helping others fight. You.” She looked down at his hand still reaching out and fought taking it in hers with every instinct she had. “Every day I’m fighting.” She held up her marked hand. “The mark hurts. It takes its toll. One day, it might take me with it, for all I know. I’m fighting so that everyone can have a chance at life. At making it through this. A fight I might not survive. I just want the same chance at something good that I’m giving every other person. I’m giving up everything for the Inquisition.” She met his eyes. “I didn’t want to give you up, too. Even if you lied, even if you didn’t trust me enough to tell me.” Reaching out, she planted her hands against his chest and shoved. His body rocked backwards and resisted her push. “You think your life didn’t have value? That’s not fair to you, it’s not fair to me, and it’s not fair to any of us who have fought beside you.”
He reached for her wrists and wrapped his hands around them. “It was fair that I pay for my crimes.”
She pulled her arm free and punched him hard in the shoulder. She felt irrational, angry, and she was past caring. “You left. I tried to tell myself it was the Calling, but you resisted Corypheus's calling, then I started to worry you went crazy. Then I thought it was me. I thought I was why you left.” She spun around and picked up a log, throwing into the fire. Just to take all that rage that was bubbling up and put it somewhere. “I didn’t know what happened to you, if it was me, if it was a Warden thing, if I needed to come after you.” Swatting his hands aside, she stalked around him, her voice rising as she spoke. “I just wanted… I just wanted you.” Her posture sagged. “That’s all. I didn’t care about Warden Blackwall, or Thom Rainier, whatever name you wanted to call yourself.” She stopped back in front of him, standing between him and the fire, staring at him. All she wanted was one simple answer from him. “Why didn’t you trust me?”
He stared up at her, his eyes wide. He held his arms out. “I’m sorry.” He winced. “That… doesn’t begin to cover it.”
The sorrow on his face was more than she could take, and as she finally felt a tear slip down her face, she fell to her knees in front of him and let him hold her. She couldn’t stop herself from shaking.
Wrapping his arms around her, he laid his chin on the top of her head. It felt more like home than anything she’d ever known, and she hated that he’d stayed so calm when she could not. “There aren’t any words that will fix this, I know.”
“Then just stop talking.” She closed her eyes and let him hold her against him, breathing in the scent of him, of leather and sweat and wood chips. His hand stroked her hair as she curled up against him, wishing that she could take back everything they’d both said. His warmth and solid hold calmed her. His arms formed a barrier that kept out the rest of the world, even if for a moment.
He kissed the top of her head and just held her until she stopped shaking. “It was never about you,” he murmured.
“I know that now.” She pulled away from him, taking his hand in hers. He shifted towards her and placed his other hand over hers, holding it. That simple motion held in it a thank you, a declaration of love, and relief.
He held her hand in his, warming it. “What do you think will happen to us after all this? A house? A dog?” He smiled. “Do you think that mark of yours can be used for cooking eggs?”
“Would you want to eat an egg cooked with this?” She held up her gloved hand.
“Perhaps not. We could just continue as we are. No eggs necessary.” He reached a hand up and brushed his fingers along her cheek. “As long as you're by my side, I don't care what happens.”
She leaned into his side as he put an arm around her. “I’m sorry for yelling. Can we just pretend the last few days didn’t happen?”
“No. Nor should we. This has been… well. Certainly not me at my best.” He pulled her against him and rested his chin on her head.
Not my best, either. “What do I call you?” she asked softly.
“I've gotten used to ‘Blackwall.’ Perhaps we could treat it as less of a name and more of a title. Almost like ‘Inquisitor.’ Reminds me of what I ought to be. And… I’m not ready for you to say that other name.”
Zaire wasn’t sure what answer she expected. A part of her wanted to call him Thom, to just try out how it felt to say out loud. But is he ready for that? Am I ready for that? “Is this some fetish about my Marcher accent and the way I say Blackwall?”
“I do like the way you say it.” His hand drifted up to the back of her neck and he rubbed at it. She closed her eyes and relaxed into his touch.
His hand stilled and she opened her eyes when she felt him tense. “What?”
“I didn’t mean get a dog now,” he noted, and she followed his gaze to find a mabari watching them from the door.
“That wasn’t me. Although wouldn’t that be clever on my part.” She stood, dusting herself off, and gestured to the mabari. “Where’d you come from?”
“She’s beautiful,” Blackwall commented, coming forward and kneeling before the dog.
She trotted up and stopped in front of them, her head hung low. Blackwall reached out and scratched her head, and while she leaned into his hand, her tail did not wag. Instead, she looked past him. “Not even a wag?”
Zaire followed the mabari’s gaze to Blackwall’s Warden armor. Oh no. “No.” She looked down at the dog. “Aren’t mabari smart and very attached to their masters?”
“They are.” Blackwall looked over his shoulder, and his face fell. “She was Alistair’s?”
“Was. Shit.” Zaire started pacing. “Not good.”
Blackwall looked alarmed, and started to get to his feet. The marbari walked around and stopped him, putting a paw on his knee and putting her weight on it so that she could lick his face. “I’m not sure what this means.”
“I think it means dogs like you.” Zaire watched Blackwall reach out and scratch the dog behind her ears.
“I’m more concerned that it implies that the Warden Commander is here.” He glanced nervously back at the armor. The mabari backed up and let Blackwall stand, and he started to gather the armor to put it into a trunk.
“Maker be damned, this is not going to be my night.” Zaire sighed, rubbing at her forehead. “I’m going to sort this out.”
“I’ll come with you,” he offered, but she shook her head.
“No. Let’s not stir the Warden pot.” She looked up at him. “I… I think I still need time to process this. To be close to you.”
“That’s fair. It’s more than what I deserve.” He got to his knees in front of her and held her face in his hands for a moment before kissing her. “I’ve missed you.”
She threw her arms around his neck and hugged him, then backed up and punched him in the shoulder. “Don’t every put me through this again, Blackwall. I swear to the Maker that you’d better not have any more secrets up your sleeve.”
“No secrets, m’lady. I promise.”
Taking him at his word, Zaire stood up and reached a hand out the mabari. “How about you take me to meet who you’ve come with?”
The mabari barked, once, and left the barn, Zaire following. Just before she left the barn, she realized she was about to walk back out into the storm without her cloak. She turned to get it to find that Blackwall had already gotten it and was walking to her. He got to his knees in front of her and put it over her shoulders, then leaned in to kiss her cheek.
She turned her head so that his mouth landed on her own, and kissed him. It felt like home. “You don’t get away that easily,” she said, managing a smile.
“I don’t plan on getting away at all.” He got to his feet and started back to the fire, and she turned to follow the mabari into the darkness and rain.
“I do know my way around,” Zaire commented, “but your nose is probably going to get us farther than me trying to find who you are here with.”
The dog’s tail wagged a couple of times and she looked up at Zaire. They moved through Skyhold, the mabari occasionally stopping to sniff the air or ground.
Near the tavern, Zaire saw another mabari waiting, who barked once when he saw them coming. “Another one? How many of you are there?”
They both stood outside the tavern door, waiting for her to open the door. Sighing, Zaire pushed it open, and the two dogs bolted through the door. She followed, closing the door behind them.