Raven sighed as their group trudged down the winding slope that made its way from the Inquisition camp to The Crossroads, thumbs hooked into the pockets of her coat. Infamous as always, her bad timing had struck yet again and left her with one of the most awkward experiences of her life – and considering recent events, that was saying something.
Only days prior, she’d been at Skyhold itching for an escape - the walls were closing in and tension hung in the air like a hangman’s noose, poised and ready. If she didn’t get away from the uncomfortable silence that stretched between herself and…well pretty much anyone who took it upon themselves to “check in” on her she’d throttle the next person who walked through her door.
Cullen, to his credit, had taken notice of her agitated state and suggested that she check up on Corporal Vale in the Hinterlands. “He’s sent word of new recruits and it would do them good to meet the face of the Inquisition. It inspires loyalty...” he’d said. When Raven had warily cocked an eyebrow in his direction, he’d given her a sympathetic smile and added “…not to mention it’ll give you some distance from whatever has you pacing like a caged wolf.” A breezy side mission in the open, warm expanse of the Hinterlands? She’d never packed so quickly in her life.
Cole and The Iron Bull had both obliged her desire for them to travel with her on what amounted to little more than a recruiting field trip. Honestly, they’d been the only people she’d sought out for company over the past few days. The Iron Bull never asked questions when he already knew the answer and Cole, well, he didn’t really need to ask questions at all and Raven found comfort in both of these things. Her third choices, however, had all been either out in the field or sick with the flu that was raging through Skyhold like a damn storm…leaving her with the awkward experience she found herself in now.
Behind her, Solas and Cole chatted amiably about spirits as if the world had ceased to exist beyond their sphere. Bull ignored them for the most part, refusing to be pulled into a conversation that didn’t involve mental chess or battle strategies. He’d attempted to engage Raven in conversation a few times, but when her responses proved to be less than stimulating, he’d stopped trying.
It was just as well - she wasn’t in the mood for talking. It was all she could do to muster up her witty shield to converse with Corporal Vale about the recruits. The double-take he’d given her when she’d first arrived hadn’t gone unnoticed. Then again, the constant looks of puzzlement and surprise she received at Skyhold weren’t the easiest to ignore, either.
“You’ve done amazing work out here,” Vale remarked, recovering from his shock. “Thanks to you, these refugees ae safe with warm clothes and food in their bellies. Some of these people have skills that could benefit the Inquisition. You will be able to make use of them, if you have a mind to,” he asserted. “You’ve saved their lives – none of us will forget that.”
Bull grunted in agreement. “Their gratitude will make them loyal soldiers.” Raven nodded, telling the Corporal to recruit the willing before walking down to meet and greet with the new soldiers.
The afternoon hours seemed to pass more like days as she, Bull, Cole and Solas spoke to the refugees. By the end of the day, Raven was mentally and emotionally exhausted. If anything, now she wanted to get BACK to Skyhold if only so that her avoidance of one person in particular could be more finely practiced. Even with the broad expanse of the Hinterlands open to her, she still felt trapped within their travelling party, restrained by the tether of responsibility when all she wanted to do was be alone and yell at the stars. Or cry beneath them. Honestly, at this point she wasn’t picky.
Several minutes passed as the group made their way from The Crossroads towards the camp near the lake, the sun setting low over the horizon. The ground was still wet from several days of rain prior to their arrival, giving the whole area something of an ethereal glow. The silence of the group was interrupted by a loud yawn from Bull, who stretched his arms over his head and looked over at Raven as he cocked an eyebrow. “You hungry, boss?”
Raven gave a half-hearted smile. “Starved, actually.”
“We’ve got some ram’s meat left from when we first got here,” Bull informed her with a shrug of his shoulders. “Camp’s about a mile and a half up. I’ll head up there and start on some soup.”
Raven chuckled. “Easy on the spices this time, fire-breather. Not all of us want to obliterate our tongues.”
“You like it,” he said with a teasing grin. “But I’ll leave out the red peppers just for you. Can’t have you crapping fire in the wilderness,” he laughed. Grinning as he dodged a playful blow from Raven, he jogged ahead and out of reach. With a wave over his shoulder, he lengthened his stride, disappearing into the tree line ahead…leaving Raven to walk with Cole and Solas.
Fenhedis. She should have thought that through.
Silence stretched long and tense over the group in the wake of Bull’s departure – even Cole, usually full of questions, barely uttered a word. The silence gave free reign to unbidden memories of giant harts standing against a foggy sky…the trickle of water embracing her like a gentle lullaby…a breeze against her skin that was suddenly too cold…
Raven shook her head, quickening her pace uphill as if distance would make the images subside. She needed distance…some time to think…
“Ar lasa mala revas. You are free. You are so beautiful...”
She had just crested over a small hill when the familiar words slammed into her like a brick wall, making her lose her footing on the dampened slope. Her ankle twisted painfully beneath her as she slid partially down the hill and rolled against a small bush. Wincing in pain, she pulled herself up onto a small boulder and tried to stand again, only to have her ankle shoot bolts of pain up her leg in protest. Swearing again, she turned to look as Cole and Solas crested the hill behind her.
“…but then you turned away. Why?”
Solas’ reply was firm. “I had no choice.”
“She is bare-faced, embarrassed, and she doesn’t know. She thinks it’s because of her,” Cole pressed, confusion and empathy in his voice.
“You cannot heal this, Cole. Please, let it go.”
Cole’s questions twisted the knife even further and she fought the urge to bury her face in her hands. Of course he would be asking about this – it wasn’t as if she had any answers to give him for the pain blooming in her chest. Solas had artfully dodged every question she’d attempted to ask until she had backed away entirely to lick her own wounds. Though considering their relationship, perhaps Cole could get a better answer from Solas than she could…
Looking to the side, she noticed she’d tumbled into a small group of bushes. Maybe if she were still enough, they’d pass her by and she could make her way to camp on her own.
Cole’s eyes, however, pierced through the foliage and found her. Turning abruptly from the path, he walked brusquely to her side. “I am sorry… I tugged on the hurt and tore it,” he said quietly.
Raven forced a smile, shaking her head. “I’m fine, Cole,” she lied, waving him off. When his gaze met hers, however, she sighed. There really was no point in lying to the boy.
Solas appeared a few moments later, brow furrowed. “What happened?”
Raven shrugged and Cole backed up as she attempted to stand. “Nothing. I was just tired and thought I’d sit d –” Pursing her lips, she attempted to bite back a cry of pain as she tried to put weight onto her foot and nearly fell again. Instead, she managed to hop on one foot to lean against a tree, stubbornly crossing her arms.
Cole frowned. “Her ankle is mad at her,” he mumbled and Raven choked back a laugh. Cole always had an interesting way of putting things.
“I’m FINE,” she reiterated. “Just go ahead without me. Once I work some healing magic into it, I’ll join you at camp.”
Cole frowned. “You are hurt. You shouldn’t be by yourself at night,” he said, shooting a glance up at Solas.
Solas seemed decisively torn, looking from Cole to Raven with a frown tugging the corner of his lips. “Cole is right,” he finally agreed. “You would be injured, alone, and in no position to defend yourself.”
Raven sighed tiredly – ironically, this was the most he’d said to her in at least a week. “Please just go… I’ll catch up to you both, alright?” she deflected stubbornly, turning away to resume walking towards camp. Her ankle throbbed against the tight laces of her boots and she sucked in a breath, biting her lower lip as she hobbled forward, back straight and rigid. She could see the peaks of the Inquisition tents in the distance, at least.
She’d managed to make it past the small group of trees when she felt a hand on her waist and jerked to the side, only to be swept into strong arms that cradled her back and knees. Eyes wide in surprise, she tilted her head up to see Solas staring straight ahead as he walked back to the path that led to camp, Cole catching up to walk behind them.
Struggling against his grasp, Raven tried to push Solas away only to find his resolve even stronger than hers – it should have come as no surprise, really. While she was constantly teased for her stubbornness, Solas was clearly eons ahead of her in that regard.
“Please put me down,” she sighed in exasperation. “It’s just a sprained ankle.”
“Tel’dar din’samahlen…” Solas replied, voice low in her ear.
Raven’s jaw dropped in shock as outrage poured through her. She’d just resolved to slap him soundly across the face as Cole’s voice, soft and ethereal, spoke from a few feet behind them. “He doesn’t mind like you think he does.”
Raven felt her body stiffen and turned her head away, looking out over the grass as it passed below her. Her cheeks were flushed with heat and she could feel her heartrate quicken. His arms were a familiar comfort, a brief balm over the ragged wound of the past few days. If she closed her eyes, if she leaned her head against his chest the slightest bit…for a moment, it would be as if their last talk hadn’t happened at all.
But it had. And she still didn’t know why.
Creators, she wished Cole had just put his arm beneath her shoulders and helped her along. It would have been slow going, but at least she could have avoided this –
“He hurts, an old pain from before when everything sang the same. You’re real, and it means everyone could be real. It changes everything, but it can’t.”
The words were piercing, lancing her anew with confusion and agony. Hesitantly, she snuck a look up at Solas whose jaw was now set in a look she barely recognized. Only a hundred yards to the camp…
Cole’s words came faster now, as if he were a fresh-faced student determined to share something he’d stumbled across while unearthing a ruin. “They sleep – masked in a mirror, hiding, hurting, and to wake them –“
She heard Solas’ teeth grinding as Cole gasped behind them, almost pausing in his steps. “Where did it go?” he asked, bewilderment in his voice.
“I apologize, Cole,” Solas’ voice was firm, almost a warning. She’d heard that tone before. “That is not a pain you can heal.”
He’d no sooner spoken than the group crested the hill on which the camp rested, cutting off any possibility of further conversation. Bull’s eyes were on them as soon as he heard their footsteps. “I was wondering what kept you gu – What happened??” he asked, standing and walking over to the group.
Cole frowned. “I asked a question and it made her ankle angry.”
Bull arched an eyebrow, shooting Solas a look as if asking the man to explain what the hell that meant. When Solas offered no words at all, Bull sighed before shifting as if to take Raven from his arms. Raven waved him off, swinging her legs as she braced her hand on Solas’ shoulder to push herself from his grasp. She noticed, with a pang of regret, that his arms were loose this time, releasing her as Bull helped her to stand. “It’s just a sprained ankle. I fell on one of the slopes,” she muttered, hobbling towards the camp where dinner waited.
Sitting on one of the logs, she ignored the look Bull gave her and worked at loosening the laces on her boot, tugging her swollen ankle free of its painful grasp. Without a word, she made her way to the end of a nearby wooden pier to dangle her feet into the cold water, hoping that it would help to ease the pain.
Several minutes later, she heard the approach of Bull’s thudding footsteps against the wooden pier, followed by a hand on her shoulder. Turning, she saw a bowl of soup in his hand and accepted it gratefully.
“You gonna tell me what’s goin’ on between you two?” he asked quietly, his eyes regarding her as she ate.
“Nothing.” Well, it wasn’t a lie.
Bull frowned, looking over at the camp. Raven heard his intake of breath as if he were going to speak again, but nothing followed. Instead, she heard his footsteps retreat down the pier again and closed her eyes in relief that had little to do with her ankle.
One empty bowl of soup and ten numb toes later, Raven leaned back on her palms and looked up at the night sky, the stars shining like beacons within the silky blue expanse. Only a few clouds drifted lazily across the sky and she wondered briefly what it would be like to fly.
Something soft landed in her lap and she jumped, looking down to find two elvhen foot wraps and a compression wrap for her ankle resting in the fabric of her tunic. Confused, she tilted her head up to see Solas turning to disappear down the pier.
He paused but did not look at her, his body half turned as if he were an animal deciding between fight and flight. Even in the darkness, she could see his shoulders were tense.
Frowning, Raven looked back at the fabric in her lap before looking back at him. There were so many things she wanted to say. Instead, she let a soft sigh escape her lips. “Thank you.”
His shoulders relaxed and he nodded. “Of course, Inquisitor. Let me know if I can be of further assistance.”
She managed a small nod as he turned to make his way back down the pier. What questions could she ask that he hadn’t simply ignored before? Saying anything more was pointless.
Turning to pull her feet from the water, she carefully wrapped the compression bandage around her ankle and continued to sit, looking out over the water. The foot wraps were heavy in her hands, a reminder of kindnesses given and secret smiles shared in shadows.
They might as well be strangers.