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There is something about meeting a beautiful stranger in the grey hours between midnight and dawn that leads to strings of peculiar things. Like a novel, Iraine muses, as she shakes her umbrella absentmindedly off in the building entryway. She will be reminded of Zevran and his oversized yellow dog every time she comes home late in the rain—the patter of raindrops on the entrance overhang, the faulty light fixture yet to be fixed, the smell of wet soil and musty carpeting, the squish of her soles on the concrete; every sensory input linked together in one continuous chain of memory. The sight of Anders’ front door a soft pang of nostalgia.

Yet it’s hard to miss ‘older and simpler times’—such as they are, with not even a year between her move to this part of town and her toothbrush appearing next to two others long enough for it to be called permanent—when she opens the door to find the apartment warm, a welcoming light trickling out to the hall from the living room doorway. She hums as she kicks her shoes off and deposits her umbrella on the bathroom floor.

Except it’s not Zevran occupying the couch with Dandelion sprawling by his feet, reading through another night of otherwise unrestful sleep. Alistair is huddled in a blanket alone, sitting on the floor with papers strewn around him on the carpet and an expression of pensive melancholy on his face.

He doesn’t stir when Iraine crouches next to him to touch the edge of a photograph with one knobbly finger.

The picture shows a stout man in his late thirties perhaps, broad shouldered and dark skinned with strong features and warm eyes. He's holding the hand of a boy with yellow hair. On the back in faded black ink somebody scrawled: ‘6 Drakonis; Alistair comes home’, and a stick figure in a childish hand with ears that stick out almost to the edge of the small slip of paper.

Iraine gently puts the picture back and scoots across to wind her arms around Alistair’s middle.

The date on the weekly planner stuck to the fridge reads 6 Drakonis.

Zevran wakes her around dawn—it’s an accident, he is quiet like a cat as he avoids tripping over the boxes and papers littering the floor, but she shudders awake when the fabric of a soft, old blanket touches her arm and blinks up at him half-asleep. Zevran carries an extra pillow. He scuttles in behind her with a grunt, reaching across her side to rest his hand on Alistair’s belly and tucking his nose under her scruffy ponytail. A couple of minutes later Dandelion takes his place by Alistair’s other side. Iraine pulls her legs up—her knees fit just fine between Alistair’s thighs—and drifts off to sleep again.

 

-

 

It is two weeks later when the landline rings, unexpected, on a Saturday afternoon. Iraine and Zevran are elbow deep in repackaging leftover pumpkin preserves so it’s Alistair who answers, bright “Hello, Arainai household” turning fast into long silences and stunned eyes that look stubbornly past them through the open window into the bright afternoon outside.

Iraine and Zevran share a look at every scarce ‘oh’ and ‘yes’ and ‘uhum’.

Alistair puts the receiver down seventeen minutes later and forgets his fingers on the handle.

“My love?” Zevran inquires gently. Alistair looks up, eyes wide.

“It’s the house.”

 

-

 

Aunt Maud, who for the past sixty-five years never left her childhood home for more than a week at a time, decides to pack up her things and move to Denerim to be closer to her last living relatives. The house’s ownership gets promptly transferred to one Alistair Theirin. All paperwork arrives one week after the lawyer’s call in a large, standard brown envelope.

Zevran makes cheesy macaroni and the three of them huddle on the couch to open it.

And so it happens that the next Saturday sees them piling onto the early train connecting Redcliffe and Haven, stopping at Redcliffe (Hinterlands) Station —one of those old contraptions forgotten here from the previous century, two carriages that stop by every bush to shuffle people in and out of old-fashioned train compartments. The three of them sit in silence as the city disappears beyond the horizon.

At the train station they are greeted by Aunt Maud’s lawyer and squeeze into a car for a mile-and-a-half ride through half-tamed countryside.

This northern corner of Redcliffe City’s outer economy is charming and seemingly untouched by the last fifty years. Between telephone poles cows and herds of ram roam through hills upon hills, old-fashioned homesteads spread out between orchards and farmland and between it all stretch patches of a forest. Iraine presses her palm to the car’s window. There is a faint vibration that tickles her skin, something that reaches past the engine’s roar—Redcliffe was a magical place once upon a time, its hills and valleys close to the Fade, and echoes of it can be sensed still. It wakes a pang of peculiar longing in her that is at the same time familiar and hard to place. But there is no time for her to sink into that strange in-between place: the car turns onto a long driveway and Alistair grows tense beside her, eyes drinking in the sight of tall pines and patches of wildflowers, the yard and the house that peels out of the mid-morning fog like a ghost. She reaches to grab his right hand and on his other side Zevran does the same.

They scramble out of the car without once letting go.

Alistair lifts his face toward the sky and sighs as the house greets them.

Iraine has known old places like this—the cloister was one of them, an ancient structure of wood and stone sprawling across Lothering, full to the brim with memories of people past. The children in her dorm used to whisper ghost stories past bedtime, but to her its presence always felt like a vague embrace of home.

Alistair’s childhood house is the same. It reaches out with searching eyes and the pines rustle their branches in welcome.

“Well, this is it,” the lawyer pronounces, balancing folders of paperwork and her handbag as she climbs out of the driver’s seat. Iraine blinks, startled. “Would you like to have a look inside?”

“Yes,” Zevran replies after one sidelong glance at Alistair, “We would love to.”

“Excellent. Follow me!”

The house is old. Its base is still Hinterlands-round, the stone outline of its original foundation visible through the entry hall, the kitchen, the living room—Iraine spreads her arms to touch either side of the corridor, turning her face towards the door where the lawyer bustles around a vaguely stunned Alistair and thinks: Yes.

Zevran toes the cracked tiles by the entrance and gives her a look of loving exasperation.

“How hard is this going to be on him?” Iraine asks and Zevran scratches the back of his head with an uncertain frown.

“It’s hard to tell. The family kind of fell apart after Duncan’s death and we never expected… well. The house was never part of his inheritance.”

“I see,” she replies quietly. Alistair is standing on the threshold, alone at last—his hand rests on the doorframe, half-inside, half-out, looking in their direction but not really at them. “I understand, I suppose,” she adds and thinks about a small flat in the elven district of Denerim, spiderwebs in abandoned corners and a single wooden memorial branch in the cemetery a few streets down. It’s hard to separate the memory from the feeling of Sister Claudia’s sweaty hands gripping her own and the smell of cheap fabric and dust and neglect twisting her nose.

Some memories are better left alone.

But this house—this house whispers about endless summer days and family meals, of growing things and love, rainy nights in the winter and good company. When she looks up again, Alistair leans with his shoulder against the doorframe and smiles. Zevran moves closer to embrace him from behind. He whispers something in his ear with familiar fondness and Alistair huffs, turning around to kiss him on the doorstep, gentle and loving against the slice of trees and sky barely visible behind them.

“Well,” Zevran says, eyes crinkling with a smile, “it appears our schedule with that country home retirement plan just happened to move forward several years.”

 

-

 

The first time Dandelion hops to the ground from the rear seat of the rental car, two weeks and lists upon lists of tasks and supply acquisition later, he almost topples over with excitement. The mabari scrambles around to inspect everything in the yard—every fence post and bunch of grass, empty tools shed, tree, insect and the remnants of a once well-maintained vegetable garden. Iraine follows with similar, albeit better constrained enthusiasm.

There is a patch of annual strawberries, young leaves barely starting to show above the damp soil. The sunny outcrop by the house’s back porch will be just perfect for early tomatoes and the apple trees behind the fence show promise of buds aplenty. A shadowy corner hides a patch of elfroot, thick winter leaves hiding fresh green stalks in their shadow where new plants grow towards the sky.

Under her searching fingers the garden almost vibrates with the promise of spring.

The three of them spend the day walking around the house—kitchen, pantry and sitting room downstairs, three small bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs—taking inventory. Light fixtures need to be changed and the floors fixed and lacquered if not replaced completely, although Iraine hates the thought of getting rid of the old-fashioned wooden floorboards, laid down in a pleasing fishbone-pattern so rare to see even in old houses anymore.

They all agree that the bathroom tiles need to go.

By the end of Cloudreach the kitchen is fitted with a gas stove to replace the rickety metal-framed wood fire one and the sitting room houses the couch from the old flat, green curtains framing the window overlooking the hills. They spend a whole day cleaning out the fireplace, the three of them covered in soot and collapsing with laughter in a pile of black limbs between furniture waiting to be sorted and the guts of the old washing machine Alistair hasn’t managed to fix. Iraine’s floorboards upstairs regain their original golden glow.

One Bloomingtide evening they finally settle down with a cardboard box Zevran found in the attic a month back and they let Alistair sort through the papers and photographs one by one.

He finds a folder labelled ‘Alistair—Adoption Documents’ under an envelope full of wedding pictures and a wad of grocery lists held together by a fraying elastic band. Iraine scoots out of Zevran’s lap to dig out a packet of tissues from her bag.

It’s their second night in the house, huddled together on the blow-up mattress right in front of the fireplace with Alistair tucked firmly between them.

 

-

 

They elect not to hold a housewarming party. The three of them celebrate the arrival of Justinian eating early strawberries with cream on the porch, Dandelion napping by their feet, satisfied. They just finished putting the bed together in the east-facing bedroom and Iraine emptied her last suitcase at last.

“We will have to get around to the bathroom eventually,” Zevran says, drawing lazy circles on Iraine’s back as she leans against his shoulder, “the hot water refused to work this morning, even though the boiler is fine. Must be the piping.”

“Thank the Maker it’s summer,” Alistair replies between two generous helpings of whipped cream, “we have three months to figure it out before fall comes around again.”

“I’m looking forward to sleeping in an actual bed,” Iraine adds with a sigh. The blow-up mattress was kind of fun the first couple of times until back-ache and other practical considerations made Iraine shudder at the thought of sleeping on one again.

Or trying to sleep with someone. Two someones.

The memory makes her smile.

“It’s real,” Alistair says then, voice soft. Iraine blinks up—he’s looking at the view stretching out in front of them with a smile, the hills and the pine trees and the neighbour’s roof peeking over the orchard, the summer-blue sky and the clouds that stretch from one corner of the world to the other without stopping.

“It’s real once we fix the piping, the electric wiring upstairs, the pantry, the kitchen floor, the whitewashing and the windows and… hah,” Zevran trails off with an exasperated laugh, winding arms around a lapful of Iraine who cannot help grinning at him, happiness stretching the space between her ribs like roots under concrete, soaring towards the sun.

“Home,” she says with conviction and reaches for Alistair, yanking him into a messy and comfortable embrace, “home. With the bad piping and the spooky lights.”

“I concede. You’re the one who talks to houses,” Zevran teases, half-serious. Iraine crosses her arms in mock-indignation.

I do not talk to houses. Houses talk to me. Get it right.”

“Of course, most magical woman of my heart,” Zevran smiles and pulls her closer.

 

-

 

There is something about meeting a beautiful stranger in the grey hours between midnight and dawn that leads to strings of peculiar things. But Zevran sleeps better now—a combination of fresh air and enough sunshine, no doubt, tucked under Alistair’s protective arm with the windows wide open and the smell of rain and watery flowers drifting in from outside.

They don’t comment on Iraine’s frequent nightly walks.

She senses something—it’s hard to tell what, a promise or a memory, something that wakes and rustles under the soil and reaches towards her with pensive, ghostly fingers. Iraine sinks into it like an embrace. Her flowers never stop blooming and her tomatoes always taste like summer. Their neighbour comments on the apple orchard and the basketful of sad, sour apples it used to yield every season until now—her, Zevran and Alistair can apple preserves for weeks, it seems, come Kingsway.

Growing, here, feels right.

It’s autumn now—first week of Firstfall and the fog rolls in from the direction of Lake Calenhad, frost lines the edge of the gravel path and the grass lies down under the weight of heavy rain.

When she climbs back into bed, her toes are black with soil and her heart is at peace at last.