It had become something of a routine of late for Dorian Pavus to take a small selection of books from the library, and venture out into the afternoon sunlight to sit in Skyhold’s little herb garden. By the time he arrives, there are always three things waiting for him under the arbour: a comfortable chair, a pot of stripweed-free tea, and his dearest friend. Kali Lavellan is already sipping her own cup, bundled up warm in a blue woollen tunic, with one of the Commander’s hideous fur mantles draped over her petite shoulders. She waves to him, and gestures to the ancient chair beside hers.
Before the Inquisition’s legendary final battle with Corypheus, the two were much more likely to be found traversing the Hissing Wastes or the Storm Coast or some equally ghastly piece of wilderness, searching for miscreants to beat into submission. But Kali is still recovering from severe injuries sustained during the fight, and Dorian has seen enough of the South to last him at least long enough to wait her out, so tea and books will have to do for now. Besides, there are enough worlds within the pages of his books to keep them both entertained for a lifetime. And they don’t require him to wet his feet, which is always a plus.
“What did you bring for us today?” asks Kali. She leans over to pour him some tea.
“I thought a selection of Ferelden folk tales might pique your interest,” he replies. Indeed, when he’d flicked through earlier that day, and glimpsed at least seven drawings of various dogs, he’d known in an instant that she’d love it. “But first, as promised.” He hands her a beginner’s volume of various spells and enchantments.
Kali examines the tome with interest. She’d performed far more advanced spells than the book in her hands describes, but those were all the productions of adrenaline, improvisation and sheer dumb luck. She’s since been very gracious about learning the basics. Far more gracious than he would be under the same conditions.
“Ooh! I would love to be able to cast a barrier. Imagine the fun I’d have!” She flips the book open and eagerly begins to read.
Dorian picks up his own book: the third volume in a complete history of the Fifth Blight. He’d started reading it after the Hero of Ferelden had come to Skyhold, but between researching Corypheus’ family history, following the Inquisitor all over the continent, and becoming enthralled by Varric’s awful romance novels, he hadn’t had a chance to finish it. He can’t remember ever taking so much time to read a single book. He flips to the page he’d marked.
He’s read the sentence at the top of the page at least fifteen times before he concedes that he hasn’t absorbed a word of it. Too many thoughts circle in his head, sucking in anything unrelated and refusing to let it go. Hardly a mindset conducive to research. So, instead, he caves in and lets his mind drift. Gideon, and the things he’d told Dorian he wanted. He’d said, once, that he wanted them to be together for as long as possible. At the time, Dorian hadn’t known how much of a future there would be. It made little sense to make promises to his amatus one day when they might be burying him the next. But now Corypheus is dead, and Dorian finds himself facing far more future than he anticipated. A future with Gideon, maybe. He’d learned long ago not to hope.
“You are very distracted today.”
Dorian had been so deep in his reverie, he had barely heard the statement, but the interruption draws him up and out from under its surface. He peers over the book he’s been failing to read, and blinks owlishly at the woman sitting in the chair adjacent to his own.
“Whatever do you mean?” he asks.
Kali regards him a moment. The response had been little other than an attempt to avoid giving an answer. Her expression indicates that she knows this as well as he does, and the wry smile that follows it indicates her decision not to humour him. “You haven’t turned the page for half an hour,” she explains.
Had he really lost that much time? It doesn’t seem right. But the light of the sun is tinted with gold, and the shadows it casts have lengthened, and Dorian realises with a jolt just how distant he had been.
Though none of this convinces him to concede defeat.
“I’ve been rather fixated on this marvellous diagram,” he says, hurriedly. “Somebody obviously spent a lot of time on it. I want to commit the details to memory.”
“Oh?” Kali flashes him a wicked smile. “Well, I must see it for myself.”
Dorian looks back at the page, and is utterly mortified by the sight. He really hadn’t been paying attention. He takes half a second to wonder if there is a way to flip to another page without her noticing, but even if he could manage that, he doesn’t know the book well enough to find anything more appropriate without a glance at the index. And so, with the shame of a humiliating defeat written across his face, he turns the book to let her see nothing but a wall of text.
To her credit, she doesn’t laugh at him. She nods thoughtfully, but allows herself a smirk. Her eyes are glowing slightly in the shadow. “Yes, I can see why you’d be so fascinated,” she quips. But she quickly sobers and leans a little closer to him. “So, is something wrong?”
Well, not exactly. But he can’t deny it would be nice to get a worry off his chest.
“It’s Gideon,” he says, finally.
“Oh no! Did you fight?” she asks, hurriedly. “Do you need me to fight him?”
“What?” He jerks back in his seat. “No!”
“Oh, that’s a relief,” Kali laughs, raising a hand to her forehead. “I mean, I would have. But I think I would have lost.”
“Gideon hasn’t done anything wrong,” Dorian says.
“Did you do something?” she interrupts. “Did you sneeze in his mouth? Athim did that to me once.”
“Perhaps if you let me finish, you would find out,” he snips. Kali places a finger to her lips, with an impish smile.
Dorian sighs. She’ll understand. She always understands, or at least she makes a good show that she does. “I’m so happy with him, happier than I ever believed possible.”
“You love him?”
Dorian almost laughs. Trust Kali to cut straight to the crux of the matter, and be completely unflinching about it. She’s right, of course. He does love Gideon. Every conversation, every stolen kiss, every night spent in each other’s embrace, it felt as though the words could fall out of his mouth with the next breath he took.
And yet every time he opens his mouth to say it, the phrase dies in his mouth, crumbles into dust and fades away. His father had said that he loved him, even as he tried to pick Dorian apart and crush every trait he deemed unsavoury. His mother had said it every morning and every evening, though she never looked at him when she did, and his days were spent with the “servants.” His au pair had loved him, though she’d never said it. She’d been the one to tell him of his father’s plans, to push him out the front gates of the estate and tell him to run. And he had run, straight to Rilienius’s house in Minrathous.
He’d never knocked on the door. He had nothing to say. Or rather, he had no idea how to say it.
It certainly wasn’t the first time his words had failed him, and now they’re failing him again. How can he explain it all to her, someone for whom love has been ever-present, and unconditional? Is it even possible for her to understand? He feels he owes it to her to give her that chance, but he has no idea how to articulate it all.
“I can’t say it,” he says, lamely. “I’ve never had someone say those words to me and mean them. They feel…empty.”
It speaks volumes about Kali that she doesn’t give voice to her sympathy. She fixes him with an expression that screams with pity, but she offers no cliché, no empty platitude. She simply rubs Dorian’s hand as she muses on his words.
After a moment, she gives him a mischievous smirk. “Humour me.” She readjusts herself in her seat, leaning forward with intent. He sets his book to the side – not as if he was making much headway with it anyway – and mirrors her. “You must repeat after me, you understand?”
Kali clears her throat. “Ar,” she says.
“Ar?” he repeats.
“All together now,” she instructs. “Ar lath, ma vhenan.”
“Ar lath, ma vhenan,” he says, obediently.
Frustratingly, Kali does not explain the phrase; she simply throws her hands in the air with a flourish and a laugh. “There you go! You have said it!” she exclaims, voice tinged with triumph.
“Said what, exactly?”
“That’s ‘I love you’ in Elven,” she explains. “Well, the literal translation is ‘I love you, my heart,’ but we always put the heart on the end. Unless it’s a friend or family member, then there are different words…” She trails off, waiting for a response.
Dorian draws a complete blank. “I…you…what?”
“Well, I thought since you felt you couldn’t say it in Common, you could…oh!” She doesn’t finish her sentence, because Dorian has practically lifted her halfway off her chair and into a tight, if awkwardly positioned hug.
“Kali, you marvellous woman, you!” A laugh pours from her mouth, and she wraps her arms around him in return.
“Now, I am only telling you this because your partner is also Elven.” Dorian sets her back in her seat, and retreats a little to see her full face. “I don’t want you to run around saying ‘ar laths’ to all and sundry,” she says, sternly. “This is my language, and Gideon’s. I only ask that you respect it.”
“I shall tell Gideon, and only Gideon,” he agrees. “You have my word.”
“Good, because I’m trusting you with this, Dorian Pavus.” She gives him a steely look, but her eyes soften after a moment. “You’ve not made a habit of letting me down.”
Dorian smirks. “I don’t believe I’ve let you down at all.”
“Neither do I, but I don’t want to make that generalisation,” she snips.
She turns the page of her book, and resumes her reading. He takes a seat in his own chair. He feels like a great knot had been tied in his gut, and he’s only noticed it now that it has been untangled. He’s starting to notice other things too, other things about the evening he’d been missing. The evening chorus of birdsong filling the air, the rustling of leaves in the breeze. He can finally try to relax.
“Dorian?” He turns his head to look at her. She looks worried, almost afraid of something. She does worry so much. “You know I love you, don’t you?” she asks. Her voice is so quiet, he almost loses it among the general chatter in the garden. He smiles at her. She really does always know what to say, doesn’t she?
“Ar lath, ma…what would I say for ‘friend?’” he asks.
She smiles, and then laughs, openly and brightly; it’s a sound that could cure a despair demon of its melancholy. “Ar lath, ma lethallen.”
He’s heard enough Elven to know that she’s just called him “brother.”
When Dorian returns to the Inquisitor’s quarters that night, Gideon is already there, sitting at his desk and poring over some report or other. The front of his hair is standing on end, where he’s run his hand through it so many times in frustration. Still, when he looks up and sees Dorian standing there, his face spreads in a wide, joyful smile. Dorian feels his stomach backflip.
“Am I glad to see you,” says Gideon, in that deep, warm brogue of his.
“People usually are,” Dorian replies, with a smirk. Gideon fires back a sarcastic laugh.
“Oh, ha, ha. Seriously, there’s something I wanted to ask about. Venatori stragglers in the Hissing Wastes. I’d value your opinion.”
“In a moment, perhaps. First, I’ve something to tell you.”
Gideon raises an eyebrow. “Oh?”
He opens his mouth to speak, ready for those words to tumble out like they had so many times before…only no sound emerges. His chest clenches uncomfortably. Perhaps the words weren’t the problem after all, maybe there’s something wrong with him. What if he can never say it at all?
Gideon closes the gap between them, concern written into each slope and angle of his face. His hands meet Dorian’s, and Dorian twines their fingers together. Those hands feel like warmth, and strength, like gentle encouragement.
Say it, you bloody fool, he tells himself. Just say it.
“Ar lath, ma vhenan.”
Well. There it is.
He had thought that saying it aloud would be a relief, but if anything, he feels more anxious than before. Would Gideon be offended that Dorian had used his language so? Had he been romantic enough? Had he sounded sincere? Perhaps there’s a certain tone one has to say it in? It doesn’t help that Gideon isn’t saying anything, just standing there with his mouth slightly open. Maker, has he ever been so desperate for someone to speak before?
But then he smiles. Gideon smiles, and it might be the most beautiful thing that Dorian has ever seen.
“I did. And I mean it.”
Just a few moments ago, Dorian would have thought that he was about as in love with Gideon as it was possible to be. But when Gideon’s breath hitches, and he wraps his arms around him, he feels it all double, and double, and double again until he wonders if his heart might give out. Gideon’s hands tighten on Dorian’s waist, and he pulls him closer. His lips find the corner of Dorian’s mouth. He chuckles, and kisses Gideon back. Had he ever felt so terrified? Had he ever felt so free? Gideon might break his heart in the very next second, but at least he would know. He would know that Dorian loved him.
But it seems fortune continues to smile on Dorian, because Gideon is holding him so tightly that his fingers may leave bruises.
“Ar lath ma vhenan…I love you too. Creators, I could say it forever. I love you, Dorian Pavus.”
Dorian buries his face in Gideon’s neck. He thinks that those three little words might mean more to him, one day.