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All The Wrong Places

Chapter Text

Kaera Lavellan doesn’t get lonely. She is a hunter; she is used to being solitary. She likes it, even. Much easier to stalk a target alone, easier to make decisions about whether to follow a track, or where to sleep, or when to return to the camp. Even in Skyhold, although she often sought out the company of her new friends and colleagues, she was just as often perfectly happy to focus on solitary study or exercise. Kaera has never, ever had a problem being by herself. She doesn’t get lonely.

Or so she told herself.

Which is why, in the tumult of change and emotion following their return from her second dragon hunt, she was unable to immediately identify what she was experiencing. Certainly, hearing that Lord Thomasz Pentaghast of Nevarra was moving to claim a legal right to marry Cassandra was distressing. No one was comfortable when a threat to the Inquisition only had one possible solution, as was the case here. And although Josephine had declared herself willing to enter into a sealed marriage with Cassandra to allay the threat Lord Thomasz posed, it was still a solution requiring more sacrifice from her colleagues than Kaera was entirely comfortable with. Furthermore Kaera, and all of them, had been dreading Cassandra’s reaction to the news, and to their proposed solution.

Distress, discomfort, dread — all reasonable and understandable reactions to the situation. All feelings Kaera was perfectly capable of dealing with in herself.

She had been rather less prepared for the pangs of envy she felt toward Josephine, though this was also not entirely unexpected — just something she had hoped she was already past. But apparently, she wasn’t. Not as much as she would have liked to think. Still, Kaera had taken this in stride. Although she felt she had largely put her intense feelings for Cassandra behind her, it was not terribly surprising that there were a few sparks of it being stirred back into (hopefully brief) flashes of light and heat by their current situation.

But, Kaera told herself, this was temporary. It was nothing that reflected on herself, on her situation. These feelings would pass, life would go on in all its fascinating chaos.

Despite her conviction that she could simply set aside her feelings in this matter, Kaera found the week from the start of Cassandra’s courtship of Josephine to their marriage to be a period of bewildering upset. She had initially thought that perhaps Cassandra was merely fulfilling her duty, courting Josephine out of necessity. But it soon became evident that genuine feelings were developing between them.

Kaera… had not not coped well with this realization. It felt brutally and cruelly unfair, that Cassandra should change her mind about loving a woman. She knew, of course, that she had no claim on Cassandra whatsoever, that her thoughts on this matter were ridiculous and selfish. If anything, her own apparent inability to move on was more distressing than her initial hurt feelings. It had been months since she had, at Cassandra’s request, stopped flirting with the Seeker. Kaera was appalled at her own out-of-control emotions, and did everything she could to push them down.

Fortunately, she had plenty of distractions at hand. The situation between clan Lavellan — her kin — and the human population of Wycome had been escalating in distressing ways. She threw herself into the strategizing, with Cullen or Leliana assisting where they could. She had been able to do her work. She had been able to be pleasant and friendly. It had been well enough. Until Cassandra had asked Kaera to witness the marriage.

This alone would have been hard on Kaera, giving blood from her very veins, signing her name to seal Cassandra’s marriage to another woman. The request had thrown Kaera off balance — she had not been expecting it, although perhaps she should have.

Mercifully, Cassandra had not seemed to pick up on Kaera’s distress, or at least not the reason for it. That would have been unforgivable, if Kaera’s deplorable weakness had caused any distress to Cassandra. Kaera had at least managed that much…. But oh, the way Cassandra’s voice had softened with tenderness, speaking of her affection for Josephine…. Kaera had felt as though her heart had split open and was threatening to spill out all her bitter, vain, thwarted adoration.

It had been a close thing, a very close thing. Too close. She had been able to hold it in. Barely. And she had been able to look Cassandra in the eye, and smile, and agree to witness the sealing.

The wedding itself had been a tense affair, at least for Kaera. She had been holding her emotions rigidly in check, her blood laced with heat from the sips of akevitt she snuck from a flask she had tucked into her pocket. And after, she had felt exceedingly awkward and excluded in a strange glass room full of plants growing out of pots, with four human women, listening to conversation about other human weddings, reluctantly sipping the unpleasantly fizzing wine that some human societies associated with special occasions. It had been nigh on intolerable. Although the situations were nothing alike, it had nonetheless reminded Kaera of the numerous Dalish wedding ceremonies she had attended, and her discomfort from the tacit (or not-so-tacit) pressure levied on her at such events as to when she would be consenting to a Dalish marriage — a bonding.

She had excused herself as soon as reasonably possible. Thank the Creators for Scout Harding’s dance lessons. They would, Kaera thought, make not only a good excuse, but would (she hoped) offer her some much-needed distraction.

Kaera decided not to change out of her formal attire, instead heading directly to the Herald’s Rest. She could hear the dance music playing before she even got to the door, could hear the laughter and whooping and rhythmic stamping of feet on the floorboards, and she felt something inside of her unclench a tiny bit.

Inside, Scout Harding was directing a set dance, instructing the three couples on the floor: three members of the Chargers, a scullery maid, and two mercenaries. Maryden was plucking a lively melody. The tavern was mostly full; many onlookers cheered the dancers on, though many more ignored them.

Kaera made her way to the dance floor, catching Harding’s eye. “Inquisitor!” Harding called out. “Good to see you! You’re just in time — I need a partner so I can demonstrate how to do this step.” She held out her hands to Kaera, smiling. “Come on,” she said when Kaera hesitated. “You’re here to dance, right?”

Kaera gave a small smile and took Harding’s hands. She was not especially keen on being the focus of anyone’s attention tonight, which she would be if Harding was going to use her to teach the steps. However, Kaera had to admit that Harding was probably her favourite partner of all the dance-lesson regulars. With just a couple of points of contact, Harding could lead her partner effortlessly, even when her partner was utterly unfamiliar with the dance steps… she was just that good. It was exhilarating and thoroughly enjoyable.

Harding directed her into the line of dancing couples, already leading Kaera into the basic steps of the set dance. “All right, folks,” she called, raising her voice to be heard above the music and general din. “Follow us down the line, change at the top of the chorus….” Harding led Kaera through the dance. It included steps that Kaera was already familiar with from previous lessons, so all she really had to do was listen to Harding’s instructions and allow herself to be led. Harding’s steps were sure and graceful, her hands firm as she guided Kaera down the line, changed direction, and danced in and out of foursomes with one of the other couples.

Finally, Harding called out, “Wrap it up!” and Maryden ended the song after one last chorus. A smattering of applause broke out from the audience. Kaera, smiling, bowed to Harding. She was a little out of breath, and feeling quite cheerful.

“Let’s take a break, everyone,” Harding said. “Have a sit and a drink, and after we’ll do the ‘Redcliffe Reel.’” The group broke up and walked to sit with friends, or wherever there was a free seat. At a bit of a loss, Kaera stood on the dance floor trying to decide where to sit, when Harding gently tugged on her elbow. “I think I see a couple of seats behind the ale casks,” she said. “Care to join me?” She smiled at Kaera.

Bemused, Kaera nodded and followed Harding to a small table that happened to be free. They sat. Kaera, still in a good mood, smiled at Harding; the scout was good company, and Kaera didn’t have the opportunity to visit with her often enough. “Sorry I was late,” she began. “I… something came up.”

“Oh, no need to apologize! Half the time, I’m late for my own lessons because I get called away. And, well, you’re the Inquisitor. It stands to reason you’d have more important things to do than let Krem step on your toes all evening.” Harding smiled. “I just hope it wasn’t anything serious.”

Kaera blinked. Did Harding not know? “You… know that Cassandra and Josephine were just married?”

“Oh, that! Right! Of course. I’m not at Skyhold a whole lot, but that seemed to come out of nowhere. I heard it was for political reasons.”

“You might say that,” Kaera told her. “Cassandra’s cousin, a Nevarran courtier, wanted to marry her for political gain. We had to arrange a match for her, quickly, to prevent him from claiming her under some barbaric human law.” Something occurred to her. “The cousin had recently sent out an envoy to fetch Cassandra. I’m actually a little sorry we’ll be missing that — they’re due at Skyhold in a few days. I imagine it’ll be an interesting meeting.”

“No doubt. Well. Seeker Cassandra and Ambassador Montilyet. How about that,” Harding said thoughtfully. “What an odd match. The Seeker is so… serious. And fierce. I saw her punch a tree once — just straight-up punched a tree, a regular cottonwood tree! I’m still not sure what to make of that. And the Ambassador is… sort of the opposite of fierce. Gentle, I guess, but determined, powerful in a different kind of way. And kind. She once sent me a basket of flowers to thank me for my work with the Inquisition.” Harding smiled fondly. “She’s so lovely.”

“Mmm,” said Kaera, as neutrally as she could manage, casting her eyes around in agitation, her good mood abruptly turning sour. Was anyone in Thedas not infatuated with Josephine?

Kaera managed to catch the eye of a passing server, so she and Harding ordered drinks.

Kaera, frustrated with herself, firmly pushed down her irritation. She must get past this. And it wasn’t as though Harding was incorrect. Josephine was lovely, and kind, and hard-working. Before the silence at the table could become awkward, Kaera carefully said, “It is a good match. They care for one another, quite a lot.” Suddenly, she felt absolutely exhausted, though it was not terribly late.

“That’s… really nice,” replied Harding. She seemed to sense the change in Kaera’s mood, and was looking at her quizzically. “I hope they’ll be happy, then.”

“As do I,” Kaera murmured. Their drinks arrived then, and Kaera took advantage of the interruption to change the subject. “I’m glad that you’re here in Skyhold, at least for a little while. I don’t see you here often enough.”

“Oh, haha, well,” Harding said, apparently a bit flustered, though she was smiling. “Sometimes even I need a break from sleeping on the ground. And… well, it’s really nice to be able to visit with people. And teach some of them how to dance!”

“We definitely appreciate it. This lot needs all the culture they can get,” Kaera quipped, feeling a little more invigorated, either from the first sips of her ale (washing away the taste of that nasty fizzing wine) or from the company.

“Well, maybe some of them,” Harding said with an amused glance at the table occupied by the Chargers, who were apparently engrossed in a rather loud and apparently amusing game of chance. “But I think that gets balanced out with people like Ambassador Montilyet, or Sister Nightingale, or Lady Vivienne. You know, two days ago, Madame de Fer said hello to me!” Harding said, her astonishment only half-joking. “Or maybe she was waving at someone else and I just thought she was…. Yeah. That’s probably what happened.”

Kaera chuckled, and Harding smiled widely at her.

“I wonder if all Circle mages are elegant like that,” Harding went on. “I mean, Dorian’s awfully pretty, isn’t he?”

Kaera gave a smirk. “I suppose, but believe me, it loses its appeal when you have to travel with him, and he gets into a sulk because he lost his tin of moustache wax, and we’re two weeks out from any vestiges of civilization.”

Harding laughed delightedly. “Oh, ahaha, well, he wouldn’t last very long as a scout! Out in the bush, being pretty is definitely low on the list of priorities.”

Kaera hesitated. The opening was there. She hadn’t really flirted with anyone at all since… well, since Cassandra. But… Harding was friendly and interesting and certainly attractive. Why not?

“And yet,” Kaera said, her mouth quirking into a smile, “you manage it quite effectively.”

Harding’s eyes widened and her cheeks went a startling pink. “I — oh! Uh. My goodness.” Smiling, she glanced away.

“I can only imagine the hearts you would break if you were to make it a priority,” Kaera went on, delighted. “The Inquisition would be vilified throughout Thedas! So it’s very sensible of you to subdue your loveliness. The Inquisition thanks you.” She raised her cup in a toast to Harding, then drank. Harding, laughing, still quite pink, returned the salute.

Kaera felt quite energized after that little exchange. It had been really very nice to make Harding smile and laugh. Between getting rejected by Cassandra, and the necessary seriousness and busy-ness of her Inquisition work, Kaera felt like she hadn’t been able to be playful or charming for months.

She stayed for the lesson on the Redcliffe Reel. She was partnered with Krem this time, and Harding hadn’t been kidding about his stepping on toes — it wasn’t that he wasn’t coordinated, Kaera thought, but he was so long-limbed and unused to dancing that he couldn’t quite seem to figure out where his feet went in relation to his partner’s. Though his somewhat-obvious infatuation with Maryden wasn’t helping, as he often got distracted with looking at the bard as they went through the steps. He was always politely apologetic, and Kaera laughed it off each time.

After the dancing lessons came to an end and Harding departed for the night, Kaera was welcomed to the Chargers’ table where they were still playing (and arguing over) that game of chance. Bull kept refilling her cup of ale, telling her it was to make up for her “busted toes, after you had to dance with this lout.”

Krem gave an ungentlemanly snort. “I’ve seen you dancing, chief. You looked like a druffalo having a seizure.”

Bull laughed. “If you say so, Krem puff. At least I never stepped on anyone’s foot.”

“That’s because no one would dance with you!” Krem retorted. “Everyone kept their distance the moment you started flailing around….”

The conversation was entertaining, and between that and the ale, Kaera was suitably distracted for the rest of the evening. By the time Kaera excused herself, she was still very cheerful. It had been an extremely trying day. But tonight had still been good.

Kaera went to sleep thinking about dancing, repeating the steps in her mind; the first night that week that she hadn’t lain awake, unable to shake thoughts of the sealed marriage, or of the situation in Wycome.

Perhaps things were getting better.

Chapter Text

The next morning, wanting to prolong her feeling of serenity, Kaera threw herself into her work: going over reports from Wycome and possible plans with Cullen; preparing for the next morning’s departure to the Western Approach and the hunt for the dragon that had been reported there; practicing with her dual daggers (she was nowhere near proficient yet, but was improving, she thought); hearing the concerns from the Tevinter delegation, then conferring with two of Josephine’s assistants on the meeting. Although intrusive thoughts about Cassandra crept into her mind from time to time, Kaera was always able to set them aside and re-focus on the task at hand. The day passed quickly.

As the last of the afternoon light slipped behind the mountain, Kaera had brought some of the paperwork from the Tevinter meeting to her chambers, intending to work on her recommendations until she fell asleep. She knew she ought to eat something, but was not hungry. She just wanted to focus, keep her mind away from —

Kaera had not been at the desk in her rooms more than an hour when a knock came at her door. It turned out to be Cullen, asking her to come out for a few drinks at the Herald’s Rest. She and the commander had, Kaera felt, an understanding of one another. She sensed that much about her situation — the burden of her marked hand — resonated with his struggles to free himself from the bondage of lyrium use.

Despite this, Kaera initially didn’t want to go. But… the previous evening at the tavern had been extremely pleasant. And it really was good to see Cullen looking so healthy and energetic, despite what Kaera knew to be ongoing lyrium-withdrawal symptoms. So she allowed Cullen to persuade her, followed him out to the tavern while he filled her in on the progress of the recruits she had trained with for a couple of days while Cullen had been laid up. At the Herald’s Rest, they sat off to the side with Varric and Blackwall who were presently arguing about the correct rules for Diamondback.

Not knowing much about Diamondback, or human games in general, Kaera sat back and listened to her companions’ chatter. In short order, with some food and ale in her, Kaera felt that coming out had been the right decision after all. Evenings, she knew from experience, could be very bad when she was feeling out of sorts. Distracting herself with work was all well and good, but this, she thought, was much more pleasant. She ought to come to the Herald’s Rest more often.

Then Cassandra arrived in the tavern. And Cullen — damn the man — waved her over.

Cassandra would have spent last night, and all likelihood most of this day, with Josephine… in their marital bed. Kaera was not very familiar with human wedding traditions, but she was very aware of what the sealing had required, and of how affectionate Cassandra and Josephine had been the night before, at the ceremony. There was little doubt in Kaera’s mind that —

No! Kaera forcefully pushed such thoughts down, focusing intently on the conversation. It took a great deal of mental discipline, but soon enough she was able to conquer the worst of the invading thoughts. She was even able to begin to respond normally to the conversation at the table, and was thinking that perhaps this would not be completely insupportable, when Josephine arrived.

To Kaera’s dismay, Cassandra responded like a flower blooming. Oh, it was not obvious, nothing so overt or crass. But Cassandra’s shoulders relaxed fractionally, her features softened, and she practically melted into Josephine’s side as Josephine slid onto the bench next to her.

Kaera sat, miserable. She noticed everything, every touch, every glance that passed between them. How relaxed they were, together. How beautiful Josephine was, how witty and charming and clever. It seemed like the entire table hung on her every word when she spoke.

Kaera tried to finish her ale as fast as she could. Unfortunately, Cullen had just poured her a full pint right before Josephine had arrived; on top of the pint she had already consumed, and the food she had eaten, finishing the entire glass quickly was not possible. Silently, she cursed shems, the enormity of their appetites, the hugeness of their drinking vessels. It would have been too conspicuous to leave the table with a full glass before her. She sipped her drink frequently, and hoped that no one noticed her silence and confusion.

The instant the last of the pint was swallowed, she began to excuse herself with as much grace as she could muster; the early departure time for the Western Approach the next morning was a handy excuse, at least. After witnessing one last tender glance between Cassandra and Josephine, she fled. Thank the Creators she was leaving tomorrow morning, without Cassandra. She wanted nothing more than to get to her quarters and, Creators willing, get enough sleep that the journey tomorrow would not be torturous.

She was walking quickly and not paying attention to her surroundings, focused on just getting out of the tavern and through the yard without making eye contact with anyone. So when Cullen’s hand fell on her shoulder, she jolted as though she’d been hit by a bolt of hostile magic.

“Sorry!” Cullen said, taking a half-step back. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”

“No, I — it’s fine. I was just in a hurry.”

Cullen gave a rueful half-smile. “A hurry to get away from me?” he asked teasingly.

Kaera missed his tone entirely. “No, of course not,” she said flatly. She was not in the mood for conversation; she felt utterly drained.

Cullen dropped his playful demeanour. “Well. I certainly understand that sometimes the crowd at the tavern can be a bit much,” he said.

“It’s not that,” Kaera said, distracted. “It’s — I suppose I’m rather tired.”

Cullen nodded. “I understand. The situation with Clan Lavellan is certainly fraught, although I’m confident we will be able to force a resolution,” he said reassuringly. Then he hesitated. “It’s been — it’s been good… that is, not good, I mean, obviously it’s not a good situation in Wycome, but I… Maker’s breath,” he cursed softly, pinching the bridge of his nose. Dropping his hand, he lightly touched Kaera’s elbow. “It has been good to be able to work so closely with you,” Cullen said, looking into her eyes. “If you’d like to… talk about it all, I have a rather nice bottle of wine in my office…?”

For a few seconds, Kaera considered it. Cullen seemed mostly to be a decent man, trying to do the right thing in a hostile world; certainly his dedication to the Inquisition was unassailable. And he was a friend— he had trusted Kaera to be there for him during some of his worst days of lyrium withdrawal, when she had helped to nurse him in his grave illnesses and spoken calmly to him in his irrational rages. If there was anyone who might be able to hear, without judgment, Kaera’s whole stupid struggle with this situation….

No, no, no! What was she even thinking? The last thing she wanted to do was talk to other people about her weakness. Cullen was probably concerned that the Inquisition’s leader was apparently not as focused as she ought to be. Well, she was not going to confirm his suspicions by blubbering to him about her ridiculous jealousies. No, what she needed was to be alone, to lick her wounds in solitude. “No, no thank you,” she said, her tone more snappish than she entirely meant. “I — sorry. Not tonight. I’m just really very tired,” she added, trying to sound less combative.

“Really, Kaera, you seem out of sorts,” Cullen said uncertainly. “If there’s anything I can do — ”

Kaera shook her head. “No. Nothing. I really don’t want to talk, Cullen.” She backed away, then turned and walked swiftly up the stairs to the keep. “Thank you, though,” she repeated over her shoulder.

In her room, Kaera collapsed onto the settee in front of the fire, letting out a huff of breath, feeling agitated and ill-at-ease. What a miserable evening it had turned out to be. Well. She would simply have to get better control of her emotions — it wasn’t as though she was going to be able to avoid Cassandra and Josephine indefinitely. She would have to learn to… to be easy with their demonstrations of affection, and to be happy for them.

Kaera looked longingly at the bottles she kept on a shelf. Each contained akevitt from a different region, distilled with different herbs, that she had collected since joining the Inquisition. The Dalish spirit was meant to be sipped in small quantities, with friends and family. Not consumed alone, to dull the mind and suppress the emotions. No: quite aside from having to leave first thing in the morning, it would be a dishonourable way to consume akevitt. It had been a bad idea to indulge in bringing a flask to the wedding, though she could not quite bring herself to regret that decision. Still, she felt she needed something to help calm her mind.

Ignoring the bottles, she rose and fetched supplies from her cabinet, and sat on the floor before the blazing fire to make arrows. She had a box of arrowheads from the smithy, a large collection of prepared wooden shafts, bags of feathers for fletching. She had her tools, a kit she had assembled after they had settled at Skyhold, similar to the one she had carried before the Conclave: many small, sharp knives, fine thread, a straightener, pots of glue. The task of arrow-making, to her standards, was repetitive and painstaking, and precisely what she needed at that moment.

This was a completely unnecessary chore — at any moment, she could get as many arrows as she could ever need from the Inquisition’s armoury. But making arrows was something Kaera knew how to do, knew she was good at. It required focus and skill. And there was something satisfying about setting out on a mission with a supply of arrows she had personally made for herself. It reminded her of her days as a hunter, when she had often made arrows to pass her time at camp, or out of necessity when she was out on a hunt. She felt self-sufficient. Worthy.

Kaera made arrows by firelight until her fingers were sore. Then she spent some time packing, enjoying both the task and the thought of riding out — and away from Skyhold — tomorrow. She had always liked traveling, and the anticipatory act of packing was a favourite activity.

Kaera felt both tired and calm by the time she finished. Perhaps she would be able to sleep tonight after all. She changed into her sleeping clothes, wrapped a blanket around herself, and went to sit by the fire for a bit before retiring to bed.

Sitting like that, alone in front of her fire, it suddenly came to Kaera Lavellan that she was lonely. This was a very strange thought. Kaera had never thought of herself as lonely; not during her many solitary hunts; not during the frequent periods when it seemed like she didn’t have a single friend in the entire clan; not during those first chaotic days at Haven when she was surrounded by shems and city elves and other strange folk, and the only people who spoke to her in anything more than blind reverences were plainly suspicious of her.

How could she be lonely? It was ludicrous. She had spent the whole day interacting and conferring with her colleagues. She had even been ready to seek out solitude before the evening meal, before Cullen had dragged her to the tavern. And she knew that she could have stayed at the Herald’s Rest, drinking and visiting with her friends, for as long as she desired. Even after she had left, Cullen had offered a drink and a quiet visit.

These were not the experiences of someone who was lonely! Yet the absurd thought would not leave her mind.

Once the thought of her own loneliness took hold, other unpleasant thoughts followed, unstoppable as a flash flood. The one woman for whom Kaera had ever felt deep passion did not want her, had never wanted her. And her friends… her acquaintances, really, or colleagues… she was only among them because of the random chance, the rotten fucking luck that had placed the mark on her left hand. She stared grimly at the ugly slash of lurid green-glow that cut across her palm. Slowly, she clenched her hand into the tightest fist she could make. The sickly light seeped out between her fingers, around the edges of her closed palm.

Kaera closed her eyes, tightly, but it was no use. Hot tears leaked out, like the green light from her fist. Her nails dug into her palm; she fought to control her breathing, fought to get her emotions under control. She had not wept since she had been a very small child. Although she had experienced many heartbreaks, many injuries, many catastrophes, none had brought her to tears.

But tonight, heartsick, bewildered, painfully aware of loneliness, hollow and tired, she cried, silently, harshly, trembling. She was lonely. She had been lonely for a long time. Perhaps she had been lonely all her life, without realizing it.

It did not last long. The tears, at least, ended after a few short minutes. Kaera scrubbed at her face with her hands, gathered her blanket around her, banked the fire, then climbed into her bed.

Trying to fall asleep, she told herself this would pass. This would pass. Nothing ever persisted; it was the way of the world. She would get over this. She would get over this.

Chapter Text

Kaera rose after a night of fitful, thready sleep. In her dreams, she had wandered, lost, through cold stone rooms that got darker and darker until she had been crawling through them by touch. She had not been terrified, but she was certainly unnerved upon waking. Physically, she felt fine, if a little tired, but mentally, she felt like a frayed bowstring, taut and straining, threatening to come apart entirely at any moment.

Perhaps the journey would help her. Traveling was a balm to the soul, she thought. She had always enjoyed traveling for its own sake… as a child in a wandering Dalish clan, Kaera had always relished their movement, the new places they settled in every few weeks or months. As she got older, she found she longed for even more travel, and she ventured out away from the clan and camp, alone or with small groups, to hunt or to trade with outsiders. Travel, especially to entirely new places, was a wonderful thing, even moreso in Kaera’s current circumstances. Getting away from where all one’s problems were, going to a place to accomplish a specific task… yes. This was all for the best.

Kaera dressed, fetched a tray from the kitchen with breakfast for two, and headed to Cullen’s quarters. She felt badly about brushing him off the night before; he had only been trying to be kind. Fortunately, Cullen was perfectly amenable to her peace offering. He seemed a little tired and stilted with her; but then, it was rather early in the morning. He insisted he was fine, so she set out the food while Cullen laid out the maps and documents they’d been using.

Over breakfast, they finalized the plans for Inquisition forces to march on Wycome. Cullen was clearly confident that this was the optimal solution, and Kaera trusted his judgment on this. Early on, Kaera had thought that negotiation would be all that was required. When she had lived with Clan Lavellan, she had been one of its best intermediaries between the clan and all outsiders. She knew that they had been successful in dealing with hostile shems before. Perhaps it could be done again, even in her absence, she had initially thought.

Then it had come out that Wycome nobility were using red lyrium, and it became obvious to Kaera that diplomacy would not be enough. The nobles’ madness had driven them to persecute and attack Kaera’s kin. Once that madness had entered the equation, the time for diplomacy and half-measures was past, she and Cullen had agreed. Kaera overruled Leliana and the diplomatic assistants who had investigated the situation. Cullen would delegate the orders, and Inquisition troops would be marching within days.

By the time Kaera returned from the Western Approach, it would all be over. Kaera might even find the time and energy to write to her family once she returned; it had been too long since she had been in touch. Although Kaera was not particularly close to most of her kin, she had kept in sporadic touch with them since the events at the Conclave.

After saying her farewells to Cullen, and exhorting him to touch base with Cassandra if he felt in any way out of sorts, Kaera collected her packs and met the hunting party in the yard. The horses were already saddled, including an enormous Asaarash for Bull. Blackwall and Dorian were also packed and ready to leave, as were the handful of scouts who would be accompanying them, of whom only Harding was known to Kaera. An advance scouting party had left perhaps a week earlier to liaise with the dragon expert, some kind of scholar, who was camped in the area and who was said to be able to advise them. They had sent word back, via raven, that more scouts would be needed to support the party — locating this dragon, in this landscape, was proving to be quite the task.

Everyone mounted up, the pack animals were loaded and leashed, and the party set out with a bit of fanfare from the few people out in the yard in the morning chill.

Creators, but it felt good to be riding out. It had been less than a fortnight since they had returned from the last hunt, but it had felt to Kaera like an age, and she was more than eager to leave again.

It wasn’t that she hated her new home. Skyhold could be lovely. It was defensible, which was of course the main thing. But there were other amenities. Skyhold flowed with springs that were almost as good as a river in Kaera’s mind — better, even, at least on days when she felt chilled to the bone, and could sit in hot spring water until her blood was thoroughly warmed. Although most of Skyhold’s rooms were cold and imposing, Kaera enjoyed certain parts of the keep very much, with the baths near the top of the list. She also found the warmth and camaraderie of the Herald’s Rest to be cozy and attractive, especially as she made more and more friends in the Inquisition. And although she would not have thought so when she had first arrived, Kaera now found the mountain vistas available from many parts of Skyhold to be beautiful. The solidity, distance, and seeming strength of the mountains was as reassuring as the sight was aesthetically pleasing.

Still. The place was big, and much of it was still in shambles. Chill drafts flowed everywhere; Kaera’s quarters were especially bad for this, since no fire could hope to dispel the icy air that emanated from the large windows and permeated the entirety of her large rooms. Although Solas insisted that the place had been originally settled by the Elves, Kaera felt extraordinarily out-of-place among the keep’s strange, foreign architecture. She had visited and even stayed in human buildings before, of course. But none had been so large as Skyhold. And none had been her home for any length of time.

Kaera had been close to feeling settled in Skyhold when all of this sealed marriage business had started up. She could reliably find friends to spend her free time with; she knew who to go to for supplies or advice or information; she had even started to feel a little more at home in her quarters, furnishing them with warm blankets and robes to ward off the chill, and hanging a large Rivaini tapestry, woven in a colourful abstract pattern that reminded her of Dalish decorative textiles, over her bed.

Despite the fact that they were under constant threat from everything from mischief-makers looking to undermine the Inquisition for profit, to an ancient darkspawn seeking their utter subjugation, Kaera felt like she had found a place where she could be. Her skills were valued — not just her ability to close rifts, but her skills as a hunter, and as a person able to negotiate between initially-hostile groups of people. If she felt a bit alienated, being surrounded by humans and immersed in their cultural practices, well, she was certainly not the only outsider at Skyhold. Besides, no one was pressuring her to be bonded, to be tied down to a duty she saw as stifling and pointless. Perhaps, at Skyhold, she could belong. She could find a place where she had friends, where she could fulfill an important duty that felt right to her, where she could, maybe, be happy.

Kaera firmly believed that the possibility of happiness should be seized. It did no one any good to wallow in misery, and there was no reason for Kaera to focus on her own disappointment now. Nothing had really changed at Skyhold. Cassandra was no more or less a romantic possibility for her than she ever had been. Kaera’s distress at the relationship between Cassandra and Josephine would lessen over time. It had to. She would rebuild her place there — perhaps with less time spent specifically with Cassandra, or with Josephine (whom Kaera genuinely liked and respected a great deal) — and keep on building the community there that meant so much, not only to her, but to so many who had come to the Inquisition.

The company rode along in different formations for the rest of the day, and they ate in the saddle. They weren’t riding at speed, but still ended the day early so that the mounts could rest, making camp in a forest grove off the road. It was certainly nice to travel with a scouting party, Kaera thought; they were efficient and helpful in setting up the camp, and many hands made for light work. That evening, as the company sat around the fire, Harding played a few tunes on a small tin flute she carried, occasionally supplemented by singing when someone knew the song. Kaera didn’t join in the singing, knowing none of the songs herself, but frequently found her fingers or feet tapping a light beat or counter to the lively music.

Later that night, not quite ready to sleep yet, Kaera sat next to Harding at the fire. “That music was lovely,” she remarked. “Where did you learn to play?”

Harding smiled fondly. “A neighbour taught me, when I was little. I don’t think my mother was really happy that I was spending all this time with her — she was human, and there were rumours that she was secretly an apostate mage…. I just liked her because she taught me how to track animals, and how to use a bow. And how to play a tin whistle.”

“Huh,” Kaera said thoughtfully. “That’s — my aunt was the same. I mean, she taught me to track and to hunt with a bow. She never taught me any music, though.” Kaera gave a rueful grin. “I don’t know if I’d be any good at it anyway.”

“Well you’re really good at dancing, for someone who’s just learning,” Harding pointed out. “You’ve got a strong sense of rhythm. I bet you’d be great. I could teach you sometime, if you…” Harding trailed off and glanced at Kaera. “I mean, I know you’re busy. Really, really busy. It’s so nice that you take the time to come to dance lessons in Skyhold, I think it helps morale for everyone to see you sort of cutting loose. And I definitely like when I get to dance with you!” Harding clapped her hand over her mouth. “That — that sounded — sorry! I mean, it’s nice because, well, you’re closer to my height than a lot of the Inquisition members, so dancing is easier… but also because you’re a great partner! Heh. Um.”

Kaera smiled. “I enjoy dancing with you as well,” she said. “You’re an excellent dancer, and it’s always a pleasure.”

“Oh! Well! Good.” Harding offered a flustered smile. “Ah, sorry, I’m babbling. I think I’d better turn in for the night before I say something really embarrassing.”

Kaera decided to find her own tent as well; they had a long road ahead. All in all, she felt the day ended well, and she was able to sleep soundly.

Two days went by without much of note happening. They would rise, break camp, and set out at a moderate pace, ride all or most of the day, then camp early with a rotating casual watch. They did not stop at any of the towns and settlements they passed, having all the supplies they needed. Kaera was happy for this, as she much preferred sleeping in a tent to spending a night in a human inn.

On the road, Kaera listened to her companions’ banter, joining in when she was feeling energetic and talkative. Occasionally, her mind got caught in its own bitter brambles, and twisted in on itself for a while, but she was generally able to focus on the road and on the task ahead. The further from Skyhold they went, the easier it was for her to avoid useless ruminations. Certainly, the conversation was as interesting as any she had heard at the Herald’s Rest. Bull was gregarious; Dorian, charming; and Blackwall, entertaining. Of the scouts, it was mostly only Harding who spoke to Kaera, but she was friendly and easy to talk to.

By the third day out, Kaera was feeling more like herself than she had in the ten days prior. She had been lost in thought when she became aware of something happening in the company behind her. Coming about, she guided her horse to where a group of four humans had approached the company. One of the humans was speaking to Blackwall. “…back up along the path, perhaps two hours on foot. Spewing demons like I’ve never seen in all my years. Just — so many of them, ser. We can barely hold our own against one demon, but this…. There were a dozen good workers in my company. All taken by demons, except for us here.” The humans were unarmed, and not well-dressed for traveling in the cold foothills at this time of year. Kaera noticed that they all bore injuries, none very serious, but not trifling wounds either.

“I can’t speak for the party,” Blackwall told the woman. “You’ll have to appeal to our leader.” He glanced at Kaera. Following his glance, the woman’s face went through the sequence of responses that Kaera was very, very used to by now: the blank gaze that didn’t quite acknowledge her as a person, which many humans gave most elves; distaste at the notion that an elf was being deferred to as a leader of a party consisting of mostly humans; shock as recognition dawned. Most people knew by now that the Inquisitor was an elven woman, but encountering her seemed to be another thing entirely.

At least the woman recovered quickly. “Your Worship,” she said. “My company and I were harvesting wood for trade up yon.” She indicated a path leading off the road, through the trees. “We’d had no trouble working in this place ever before. But this time… one of my people came running into the clearing we were working in, yelling his head off. There were demons on his tail. Well, we ran. None of us is trained fighters. We tried to make for the camp, through the woods, but… there was this thing, all glowing green, that the demons were coming out of.” The woman’s face showed her disbelief and fear. “We never got back to our camp. Those of us that survived, we made for the road here.” Her face twisted with repressed grief. “Please, Your Worship, will you help? All our gear is back in our camp, by that… thing. We need our traveling things at least, to get home. And… well, if we don’t bring back at least something for our labour, it’ll be bad for us. Please… will you help?”

“Yes,” Kaera said, not having to give it much thought. “I will close the rift, we’ll take care of the demons, and you’ll be able to collect your gear…. How badly are you wounded? Do you need healing?”

The human woman hesitated. “Not magic.”

Kaera gave her a cool look. She was not herself bothered by magic or magic-users, but she had certainly encountered many who were. The humans did not appear to be badly injured, though, so it did not matter at the moment. “Very well.” She nodded to the scouts. “My people can tend to your injuries while I go deal with the rift and the demons.” She looked to her companions. “Bull, Dorian, Blackwall — will you come?”

The men nodded their assent. Kaera was about to lead them up the path when Scout Harding caught her attention. “Inquisitor? I think I can help. The clearing where the trees are harvested is obvious enough, but I expect that the location of the rift won’t be directly on the trail. Still, I know this area; I’m pretty confident I can lead you to it.”

Kaera looked appraisingly at Harding. She had worked in the field with Harding at numerous Inquisition outposts. The woman was competent and very obviously commanded the respect of the scouts who worked with her. But Kaera had never seen Harding in an active combat situation. Harding carried a bow and a hunting knife, and almost certainly knew how to use them well, but… Kaera was reluctant to approach what sounded like a significant Fade rift with a fighter she was unused to working with.

Still. Harding was well-respected and skilled. And Kaera knew from dancing with her that she was graceful and strong, which boded well for her fighting abilities. Besides, if the rift was off the path, they would do well to have a scout with the party.

Kaera nodded at Harding. “Thanks.” Harding nodded back.

The fighting party divested themselves of extraneous gear, and double-checked their weapons while the scouts took the human survivors off the road a little way to set up a temporary camp where they could await the fighting party’s return and tend to the survivors’ injuries. Harding designated a lead scout to be in charge during her absence, and Kaera delivered instructions for if the fighting party failed to return. Then the party mounted up and began making their way up the path, Scout Harding in the lead, followed by Kaera, Blackwall, and Dorian, with Bull bringing up the rear.

After more than an hour of silent walking, Harding pulled up and quietly addressed Kaera. “If the clearing they were working in is the one I’m thinking of, we should leave the horses here and continue on foot. The terrain gets a bit iffy, and the trees will make fighting difficult even without the animals panicking.”

Kaera glanced up the path. If the rift was close, it would certainly be best to proceed on foot. “Good idea,” she said to Harding, nodding to the others to follow her lead and dismount.

They tethered the horses, then went briefly over strategy. “All right, same plan as usual, I think. We’ll try to pick off the demons one at a time,” Kaera said. “Blackwall and Bull, pick a target and move in. Dorian and I will cover you from the perimeter.” She glanced at Harding, hesitating. “Scout Harding, I….”

“I’ll lead you to the clearing,” Harding said confidently. “From there, we’ll have to figure out where the rift is. When we find it, I’ll hang back. I can stay hidden, and I can definitely defend myself if I’m spotted, but I’ll keep out of your way.”

Kaera nodded, relieved that Harding wasn’t going to try any heroics. Fighting in a forested and hilly area was challenging enough without worrying about introducing someone unknown into the plan.

Harding led them further up the path. The party moved silently, their weapons drawn — Kaera was still impressed at how quietly Blackwall and especially Bull could move — eyes and ears straining for the telltale gnashing of demons, or the quieter unnerving susurration of rift-fire.

Shortly, they came to the clearing. Several felled trees were on the ground, as well as tools that had evidently been dropped in haste. Following Harding, they passed silently through the clearing and up a nearly-invisible path through the trees.

They arrived at a grassy crest in the landscape; they could all hear the unmistakable growls of demons. Harding motioned for them to crouch down as they approached. Visible over the crest was a grove, lit by the unnatural green glow of a Fade rift. The rift was not the largest Kaera had seen, but it was still quite big. She counted five midlevel demons in the grove. Creators knew how many more would issue from the rift as they fought to vanquish it, but nothing would be solved by waiting to attack.

Kaera glanced at Harding, indicating with her eyes that the scout was to remain where she was. Harding nodded. With her chin and eyes, she directed Dorian to one side of the grove — she herself would move to the other side — and nodded to Bull and Blackwall, who nodded back. Kaera was confident that everyone knew their roles. It would be a challenge, but not impossible.

The party moved out, silently. Kaera stalked through the trees, feeling a kind of fierce joy. She was in the forest, tracking enemies silently, planning to take them out strategically, her allies working in harmony with her; it was good.

She steadied her footing; she was not as deep in cover as she might have preferred, but the ground further back was too steep. She notched an arrow in her bow, pulling it to half-slack, ready to provide cover fire as soon as Bull and Blackwall attacked. With a yell, Bull burst out of cover, Blackwall behind him. They both engaged the nearest demon, and the battle was on.

Bull and Blackwall made short work of the terror demon they had attacked, and Kaera and Dorian were able to cover them. When the warriors moved on to the next demon, Kaera stepped forward, into the grove, to get a better line of sight on the fighting. She continued to fire at the demons further out, keeping them back. The party was very effective, taking out three demons in quick succession.

The warriors were attacking a terror demon while Dorian held its final companion off. Bull was between Kaera and the action. Kaera stepped further out to get a clear shot to help with cover. She would close the rift, now hissing and crackling behind her, as soon as the demons were defeated.

A snarling groan behind Kaera sent her diving forward, rolling, just barely escaping the massive claw of a pride demon. It must have emerged from the rift, drawn by the fighting. She dodged another swing of its arm. It was so massive that it took up half the grove, it seemed; its reach was so great that Kaera was hard-pressed to stay a hair’s-breadth ahead of its claws.

Kaera tossed her bow aside; it was no use to her now. She dove and dodged, fleetingly hoping that the others had the lesser demons under control. As soon as Kaera managed to put some distance between herself and the demon, it launched a bolt at her, catching her on the hip as she twisted away. Searing pain lanced through her, and her leg collapsed. Helpless on the ground, she barely managed to roll to one side as the demon brought its arm down with enough force to make the ground shudder. It stepped back, gathering energy to launch another bolt at her. Kaera braced herself, prepared to dodge as best she could despite her nerveless leg; it was her only hope.

Suddenly Scout Harding was between her and the demon, firing arrow after arrow into the demon’s head and chest. It reared, roaring in outrage, its bolt dissipated. The demon’s arm came around, aiming a blow at Harding, who had not stopped firing. Before the blow could land, Bull and Blackwall launched themselves into the demon’s side and back, and a fiery blast engulfing the demon’s arm told Kaera that Dorian was also attacking it. All the while, Harding stood between her and the demon, firing, firing, firing. Each of her arrows hit true, knocking even the enormous demon back, obviously causing it pain.

With the whole party (except for Kaera) attacking, the demon was driven away from where Kaera lay. Bull and Blackwall pursued it to the far side of the grove, their weapons never still, and Dorian kept hitting it with blasts of magic from the perimeter. Harding stood her ground, keeping herself between Kaera and the demon; she never stopped firing. Kaera was dazedly aware of how damned good Harding was. Her form was graceful and fluid, with not a motion wasted; her movements were immaculately precise as she took a scant instant to aim each shot before releasing it; she was the quickest on the redraw that Kaera had ever seen, including even her kin in the clan.

When the demon eventually fell, Harding kept her bow drawn, looking around for any new threats. Seeing none, she set down her bow and arrow and crouched down close to Kaera. “Inquisitor! How badly are you hurt?”

Kaera, breathing heavily, looked at Harding, still a little dazed. She noticed that Harding had a long scar, parallel to the line of her jaw, on her left cheek. “I’m fine,” she breathed. “Just… I need to…” Kaera pushed herself up, or tried to. Her leg was still tingling painfully from the bolt to her hip. Harding rose smoothly and offered a gloved hand. Kaera took it, and was hauled carefully to her feet with the same controlled strength Harding displayed when dancing. Harding’s other hand immediately braced Kaera’s elbow, supporting her.

Kaera found she was able to stand, with Harding’s help. She turned to the rift, lifting her left hand. She had to close it before more demons came through.

Taking a deep breath, Kaera felt the energy of the mark pulse through her arm, focused and flowing and foreign. It was, still, an uncanny sensation. Kaera directed the mark’s energy outward, where it was drawn to the rift like water running down a slope. Kaera could feel the rift pushing back against the mark, fighting to stay open — then it closed, like a massive door slamming violently shut. As always, it knocked Kaera back a bit. Harding’s arm went around her waist, keeping her on her feet.

The rest of the party gathered around her, still glancing warily around the grove; it would not do to be surprised by a lurking demon or other enemy. “Kaera, are you all right?” Dorian asked, concern etching his features.

Kaera nodded. “The demon hit me with a magic bolt — not full-on, but it clipped my hip. I don't think there’s any major damage, but I can’t quite put weight on my leg.” As she spoke, Bull pulled a potion from his belt and handed it to her; she dank it gratefully, wincing as she felt the affronted tissue of her hip and leg knit itself together. She carefully tested the leg, and found it was in perfect condition. Harding’s arm was still around her waist. She smiled her thanks at the other woman, then stepped away, going to retrieve her bow.

“That thing was enormous,” Blackwall remarked. “Where did it come from?”

“The rift,” Kaera said darkly, walking back to the group. “It was drawn by the fighting and emerged while we were all distracted. I shouldn’t have turned my back on the rift,” she muttered, half to herself. “Stupid.”

“It was a close one, boss, but we managed,” Bull said. “And the terrain around here means fighting in close quarters — not a lot of room for strategic manoeuvring. Especially with a Fade rift nearby.” He fixed her with a neutral gaze. “It was a mistake.” He grinned. “But, hey, now you know better. You won’t do it again.”

“Hmph,” Kaera said, stowing her bow.

The others helped Harding and Kaera collect what arrows could be salvaged. Kaera noted that the arrows Harding used were heavier and shorter than her own, tipped with dark gold-coloured metal heads, fitted with sturdy fletching that stood nearly perpendicular from the shaft. They were extremely well-made, and many of Harding’s arrows that they found were salvageable. Kaera wondered if Harding made them herself.

Harding suggested looking for the humans’ camp site: “We can bring them their horses to ride back up, or at least something warmer to wear than their workclothes.” The scout led them to a likely spot a ways further up the path. Her guess was correct, and they found the camp site untouched in a clearing near a stream. They took some cloaks and led two of the large horses back down the path.

They came to where their own mounts waited. Everyone was, by this time, relatively relaxed. The area was free of the sense of oppression and malaise that everyone — especially Kaera — felt around Fade rifts, and Harding or Kaera would likely have heard any enemies approaching long before they reached the fighting party. They mounted up, tethered the humans’ horses to theirs, and started back.

They found the scouts and the human survivors where they had left them, huddled around a small fire. The survivors had had their injuries tended to, and expressed gratitude for the party’s help as they donned their cloaks.

“It’s a terrible thing,” the woman who seemed to be in charge of the humans said to Kaera. “All these demons, showing up anywhere and everywhere. It’s getting so a person can hardly do an honest day’s work.”

“What is it you do, exactly?” Kaera asked.

“We fell trees,” the woman said. “Trim the branches, then haul them into Orlais where they fetch a decent price. Large, intact trunks are used in all manner of buildings and decoration.”

“If you ever need work,” Kaera said, “that comes with protection, come to Skyhold. We still need many things to rebuild the fortress; I am certain that your skills would be of use. And the Inquisition would be able to send scouts and fighters to accompany you.”

The woman gave Kaera an appraising look. “We’ll think about it, Your Worship. But first, we must fulfill our contract with our Orlesian partners, and tell the families of our fallen comrades what their fate has been.” She shook her head. “It’s a terrible thing,” she repeated.

They left the woodcutters to make their way back to their camp with the horses. The Inquisition party had lost over half a day of traveling time, so they pressed on along the road that evening at a fair pace, making camp quite a bit later than usual.

As the party ate and conversed around the fire, Kaera seated herself next to Scout Harding. After a time, she said, “Thank you. You saved my life, back in the grove.”

Harding turned to look at her. “Of course, Inquisitor. I’m just glad I was so close at hand when that demon got the jump on you.”

“As am I,” Kaera said, “though I wish I had been paying more attention. That was a bad mistake, turning my back on the rift.” Kaera found herself unconsciously twisting the ironbark ring she wore on her left index finger. Flattening her palms on her lap, she added, “I know better. I’m… not sure why I did that.”

Harding shrugged. “Fighting in forests is tricky at best. There’s just so much in the way.”

Kaera shot a look at Harding. “Until recently, I lived in forests my entire life,” she remarked. “I’m the last person in the Inquisition who should be caught off-guard by trees and uneven ground.”

“Maybe,” Harding conceded. “But you’re also unused to rifts. They’re something else altogether. When you’re fighting, you’re probably aware of everything around you. But rifts mess with that. You can be aware that there’s no enemies behind you, not for fifty yards at least, then foosh!” Harding made a noise like the snap of an active rift, gesturing with one hand. “Suddenly there’s something there, right on top of you, that wasn’t there before, that didn’t approach you, it just appeared.” She tilted her head as she looked at Kaera. “All I’m saying, Your Worship, is that it can — and does — happen to everyone, these days. No one’s yet figured out how to deal effectively with the rifts.” Harding blinked in the firelight. “Well, except you, I guess. Closing them is the only thing that helps, and you’re the only one who can close them. You did good, today.”

Kaera huffed. She stared into the fire. “I often wish I could just cut off my hand and let someone else use it to close the damned things,” she said, clinging to her irritation.

Harding just gave her a small, sympathetic smile. “Well I’m glad it’s you, Inquisitor Lavellan,” she said. “You’re a good fighter, a good leader, and a good negotiator. I can’t imagine anyone better suited to bear your particular burdens, and I’m very glad I was there today to fend off that demon.”

Kaera looked back at Harding, meeting her eyes. She felt as though some part of her softened, that had long been tight and hard. She smiled crookedly. Harding smiled back. The scar on her cheek stretched, curling around the apple of her cheek.

There was no music that night; they were all tired. Kaera slept soundly, and dreamed of finding arrows in the grass.

Chapter Text

After they had closed the rift in the clearing, it was several days’ uneventful ride to the Western Approach. As they had travelled, the air had become warmer and more arid, and the landscape had changed from jagged mountains to stepped foothills, to rocky forests, to desolate grasslands, then into the hot, dry lands of the Western Approach.

They met the advance scouting party at a camp set up around a rocky outcropping surrounded by yellow sands and dry grasses. Between the advance scouts and the party they had brought with them from Skyhold, the camp was extremely efficient. Kaera dismounted and her horse was immediately led away by a scout, while another directed her to where she could wash before meeting with Frederic, the resident dragon scholar.

Professor of Draconology,” Frederic corrected her as they shook hands, “University of Orlais.” Kaera managed to not roll her eyes at him; they needed his help, now, if they were going to be successful in tracking the dragon. “Thank you, Inquisitor, for your assistance in my research thus far. It has been invaluable!”

“Ah, you’re welcome,” Kaera began. “Though that was mostly… well, never mind. I’m happy we could help, but now we need your help… professor.”

“Yes, of course! I have been carefully compiling the scouts’ reports from the various sightings of the dragon. I believe it to be an Abyssal High Dragon, your Worship,” Frederic said reverently. When Kaera failed to react as the man clearly expected, he cleared his throat and went on. “They had been thought to be extinct in Thedas,” he explained. “Fire-breathers, I believe you’ll find, with flames hotter than any forge. It will be very challenging to bring her down, even for you and your illustrious companions.”

“Hmm,” Kaera said. “How far is its lair?”


“Ah, well, I am… afraid we have not yet discovered where the creature makes her home,” Frederic said. “I am only just beginning to understand her hunting behaviour. It’s fascinating, you see, unlike typical fire-breathing dragons, I’ve observed that — ” Frederic, apparently seeing something in Kaera’s expression, cleared his throat once more. “I believe I have determined the best locations to set out lures for the dragon,” he said. “Thanks to the Inquisition, we have all the necessary components, it’s just a matter of having fighters — such as you and your party — capable of placing them. I am confident that, as long as you check the lures frequently, you will locate the dragon within a reasonable time.”

Kaera was a little disappointed. She had been hoping that they would be able to simply go to the dragon’s lair and defeat it. This would add days to the mission timeline, and… despite her eagerness to escape Skyhold, she was anxious to know how the situation at Wycome had ended, and how the Nevarran delegation had been received. Ah, well: there wasn’t much else to be done but follow Frederic’s plan. She thanked him, then headed to find her companions.

She found her party and the other new arrivals (minus Scout Harding, who had gone to get reports from the leader of the advance scouting party) around the small cooking fire, eating camp bread and spicy stew. Smelling the food, Kaera realized how hungry she was, and helped herself to a generous bowlful of stew and a large knot of bread before settling in front of the fire.

“So, Boss,” began Bull. “We hunting dragon tomorrow morning?” He was by far the most energetic of the party, clearly looking forward to the hunt.

“Sorry to disappoint you,” Kaera replied, “but it sounds like we’re going to have to lure the dragon out. Might be a few days before we even spot her. At any rate, we won’t be going anywhere tonight,” she added, eyeing the low sun. She looked a little pointedly at Bull. “Do try to get some sleep tonight, Bull. You look like a child on the night before his blood writing ritual.”

“Oh?” asked Dorian. “Were you excited, before you were marked yourself?” The question caught Kaera a little off-guard, and she took a breath through her nose. Dorian held up a conciliatory hand. “Only if you care to discuss such things, of course.”

Kaera nodded. “I don’t mind talking about it, really…. But I’m afraid I’m not a very good Dalish,” she said, mock-ruefully. “I don’t ever really think about my vallaslin, and I certainly don’t have any especial reverence for Ghilan’nain, or any of the elven gods.” She shrugged. “I suppose I was excited — it meant I was passing out of childhood, becoming an adult member of the clan. I wanted that.”

“Do you maintain close ties to your family, then?” Blackwall inquired.

Kaera gave a small sigh. “…Not as much as I probably should. I’ve written to them a few times since… since the events at Conclave. I’m… I guess a bit of an embarrassment to my family, to be honest.”

Dorian raised an eyebrow. “Well, my dear Inquisitor, I’m quite an enormous embarrassment to my family, and I couldn’t be prouder of the fact.”

Kaera grinned at the mage. “I guess I’m in good company, then.”

“Inquisitor,” said a voice behind Kaera. She turned to see Scout Harding approaching. “I’ve just been briefed by the head scout here.”

“Ah,” Kaera said, setting aside her bowl and rising to her feet. “Good. Tell me,” she said, walking to join Harding so they could move a little away from those still eating around the fire.

“Well, Inquisitor,” Harding began as they walked, “welcome to the Western Approach. The head scout gave me a very thorough report, and I wish I could tell you we’ve ended up somewhere pleasant. Between the sandstorms and the vicious wildlife, they haven’t made it very far beyond the camp. They haven’t got any idea about where, specifically, the dragon might be… you heard that you’ll need to set lures, see if you can raise it?” Kaera nodded, and Harding continued, “It’s definitely out there, somewhere. It’s been spotted more than once. Just yesterday, apparently one of the men got too close to a poison hot spring and gave a slightly delirious report of a high dragon flying overhead….”

“Well, that’s good news, at least for us,” Kaera said with a small smile.

Harding gave her a dubious look. “I don’t think I will ever get used to the idea of wanting to go to where a dragon is. Most sensible people want to get as far away as possible, as fast as possible.”

Kaera laughed. “Well it’s a good thing I have a sensible person like you around, to keep the more reckless members of the Inquisition in check.”

“What would you do without me?” Harding quipped. “Speaking of which… I hope you’ll consider taking me, or some of the other experienced scouts, when you head out there. I know that from here, it mostly looks like just sandhills, but believe me, this landscape can be extremely treacherous. Poison gas from the springs, sandstorms that blow in in the blink of an eye, shifting sands that can swallow whole caravans… plus there are all kinds of nasty monsters out there, as if the land itself trying to kill you isn’t enough. In short, this might just be the worst place in the entire world. You have to be careful out there.”

Kaera glanced over, her mouth quirking. “Are you worried about me?” she asked.

Harding tilted her head, looking both pleased and concerned. “Someone has to be. Just… try not to die. I don’t want to deliver that report to Skyhold.”

“Fair enough. If you’re willing to come, we’d be glad to have you along.” They had made the circuit of the camp as they walked, and were now approaching the cooking fire once more. “Especially since, between me and Bull, we need as many sensible people along as we can manage.”

“I was telling the Inquisitor that sensible people run away from dragons, they don’t go looking for them,” Harding explained to Bull, who had glanced up at hearing his name.

Kaera seated herself by the fire and took up her bowl again. “The same could be said of fade rifts, darkspawn, Red Templars, and almost literally everything else I’ve gone looking for since I joined the Inquisition.”

“Truth be told, I guess I go running after plenty of dangerous things myself,” Harding admitted. “But hey — sensibility is overrated! Give me excitement! Give me mayhem!

“Ooooh, I like the way she thinks,” Bull said. “We should keep her around! For mayhem.”

Harding’s eyes were shining. “Yes! Mayhem!” she said, grinning.

Kaera rolled her eyes. “All right, get it out of your system.”

Harding pumped both fists in the air. “Maaaayhem!” she roared.

Bull leapt to his feet (Kaera was still occasionally taken aback at how nimble he was, considering his size). “Maaaaayhem!!!” he shouted, both fists in the air.

Harding and Bull stood, smiling at each other. Blackwall looked mildly amused, and Dorian was trying (and failing) to hide a smile. Harding gave Kaera a sheepish glance. “It’s funny how a word loses its meaning when you say it enough times,” she remarked.

Kaera just laughed. “I have to say, I’m very glad you’ll be joining us on the expedition,” she said. “If we absolutely must drag ourselves through a miserable and blasted wasteland, at least we’ll be entertained.”

That night, after some music around the fire, Kaera practically ordered everyone in the dragon-hunting party to bed. She wanted everyone well-rested for the next day’s travel. Kaera fell asleep easily, almost as soon as she lay down.

When she woke the next morning, refreshed, it occurred to her that she had been sleeping blissfully well most nights since they left Skyhold. Reflecting on this, it also occurred to her that she hadn’t thought about Cassandra and Josephine at all for the last several days… and bringing them to mind just then didn’t cause the usual internal flinch. Perhaps she was finally getting over the whole situation. Perhaps… perhaps even going back to Skyhold would not be so bad.

But that was in the future. For today, they had a dragon to hunt.

Chapter Text

The hunting party set out on foot. Scout Harding took the lead, with Kaera usually only a step behind her. Bull, obviously keyed-up at the prospect another dragon hunt with the Inquisition, was right behind her, followed by Dorian and Blackwall, then two sturdily-built scouts picked by Harding to accompany them and help carry supplies and dragon lure components. With Harding leading the way, it was likely they would be able to reach the first of the lure sites by midday.

The landscape was, as Harding had indicated, not pleasant. Still, Kaera found it fascinating. She had been to a few places where bodies of water had produced sandy beaches or banks, but this was altogether different. There was just so much of it, miles and miles and miles of sand dunes, punctuated by outcroppings of red stone. There were a few bits of scrappy vegetation here and there. When Kaera remarked on them, Harding told her that, every seven years, for just a few days, millions of dormant flower seeds in the deeper sand would bloom all at once, carpeting the desert with small, brightly-coloured blooms. Kaera thought she would dearly love to witness such a thing, but Harding told her it would be two more years before this phenomenon happened again. “And that’s assuming we don’t get another Blight in the meantime,” she remarked. Seeing Kaera’s expression, she quickly added, “But you do occasionally see a few blossoms outside of the flowering years, especially around oases. We can keep our eyes open for them.”

The small oasis they stopped at for a brief rest did not have any flowers, but Kaera was nonetheless glad of the break. Walking on sand, which often slid and shifted underfoot, was unexpectedly tiring. They frequently had to take circuitous routes to avoid the pools of poisonous water that gave off a sickening miasma. At midday, they set the dragon lure, then — at Harding’s insistence — set up a canvas shelter that was like the roof of a large tent with no walls, shielding them from the relentless sun. The scouts all settled down to sleep. “We really can’t walk around for a few hours,” Harding explained. “It’s not a reasonable use of energy. We wouldn’t get very far, and we’d all be exhausted or sick in short order. We rest while the sun’s at its highest, then walk later into the dusk.”

Kaera knew better than to argue with Harding’s logic. Even if she didn’t sleep, she rested with the others. They set out once more as the sun started to slip down the western sky.

They set another lure that evening, by the last light of day, then made their way (courtesy of Dorian’s veilfire) a safe distance to where they set up camp for their short night. They risked a small fire, but ate a cold supper, and there was no music before they all made to sleep. It was unexpectedly cold, especially after the heat of the daytime, and Kaera was for once grateful for close quarters, sharing a tent with Harding and the other female scout.

The next day passed in the same way, setting up two more lures, breaking for a long rest at midday. On the third day, after setting the final lure, Harding began to lead them back to the main camp, where they would resupply before setting out again to stake out the lures. “The fastest and easiest route back will take us past the second lure,” she told Kaera.

“Might as well check it out, then,” Kaera said wearily. The lures were foul things; but Kaera was a hunter, and knew that it didn’t matter much what she thought about bait, as long as their prey found it appealing. Still, anything with that much quillback intestine was bound to attract beasts other than the dragon, even somewhere as desolate as the Western Approach, so it made sense to give this lure the once-over to see if it was still intact.

One of the scouts, a human man named Maxim, was in the lead as they approached the lure. He jogged up to the trap to inspect it as the others trudged doggedly onward. They hadn’t stopped for a midday rest; Harding was confident that, if they made steady progress through the day, they would make the main camp before full dark.

Maxim rejoined the group. “Totally untouched,” he said to Harding.

Harding, her head and face wrapped in lengths of linen against the sun and sandy winds, glanced over toward the lure. She tugged down the cloth that had covered her face, and Kaera saw her brow furrow. She followed Harding’s gaze, and, without being able to put her finger on the exact reason, her hunter’s instincts told her that something was off about the lure. She met Harding’s gaze for an instant, unspoken understanding passing between them, and they both moved toward it.

Kaera and Haring slowly circled the lure. It was made from a combination of materials that Frederic had determined would attract the Abyssal High Dragon, through their magical properties or through straight-up aromatics. The components were bound with quillback intestine, then hoisted up perhaps eight feet high on the end of a sturdy branch. Even at a distance, it smelled atrocious — despite the midday sun, a swarm of flies buzzed around it.

“Looks like the binding’s held,” Harding remarked, though she sounded uneasy.

Kaera squinted up at the lure. Something wasn’t right, but what?

“If you two are done gawking at that disgusting thing,” Dorian called from where the rest of the party waited, “could be please move along? I’ve got sand in places I don’t even want to think about.”

The two women ignored him, staring intently at the lure. Then Harding’s breath caught, and Kaera glanced at her sharply. “I… I think it’s missing the Phoenix tail feathers,” she said quietly.

“What?” Kaera said, glancing back up at the lure. “How…?” It was hard to distinguish the different components of the lure, especially from the ground. True, the telltale steely glint from the feathers wasn’t visible, but… the lure had been in the hot sun for several days now. Perhaps they had degraded, or been soiled by the other components, or….

“I think something picked out the Phoenix feathers,” Harding said, her tone grim.

“But what could have — ”

“Boss?” Bull called. His tone held a note of urgency. “We’re gonna have company!”

Kaera had turned before Bull finished speaking. She looked to where he was pointing, high in the sky. She shielded her eyes against the brilliant glare of the sun, quickly spotting the unmistakable form of an immense dragon — at a distance, but approaching fast. Without conscious thought, she was already running back to the party. She was vaguely aware of Harding’s presence close behind her. “Run!” she shouted at the human scouts — neither was equipped or trained to help take down a dragon. “Leave the supplies, make for the main camp. The dragon won’t follow you if we attract its attention,” she said, shucking off her pack and hastily stringing her bow. The two scouts, carrying only a couple of waterskins apiece, took off at a jog in the direction of the main camp.

Kaera glanced at Harding. “Here’s your chance to be sensible,” she said, indicating with a gesture that Harding should follow her scouts.

But Harding was also stringing her bow, her pack and extraneous items already tossed into the same pile as the rest of the fighting party’s things. “You’ll need someone to guide you the rest of the way back,” she pointed out. “Besides, I thought we’d established that I’m here for the mayhem, Inquisitor,” she said, humour and unease warring in her tone.

Bull laughed. “I knew I liked her,” he remarked, experimentally swinging his battle-axe.

“Honestly, mayhem is tremendously overrated,” Dorian muttered, gripping his staff and rolling his shoulders to loosen them. “Why the wretched beast couldn’t hold off a few more days….”

“This way, we get it over with sooner,” Blackwall pointed out. He sounded as tired as Kaera felt… but he was still moving quickly, checking his sword and armour, preparing for battle. He was looking to Kaera, waiting for orders; they all were.

Kaera squared her shoulders. “Right, then.” She glanced around. The landscape offered few strategic opportunities, being mostly sand dunes with a few low rocky outcroppings. This would be a match of strength, which would not have boded well against a dragon at the best of times, and here they were, exhausted and sun-sick. She adjusted the hang of her quiver, her fingers brushing against the sheathed daggers she now wore on her back. “You know this one’s a fire-breather? Everyone prepared for that? Dorian, you hit it with the strongest ice you can muster; that will give Blackwell and Bull openings to attack, while Harding and I take shots from the periphery. Understood?”

Everyone nodded except for Bull, who gave another experimental swing of his axe and grinned. “Can’t wait, Boss,” he said, excitement colouring his voice.

“I’m glad someone’s excited about this,” Harding muttered at Kaera’s side as the party moved to stand in loose formation.

Kaera gave a wry grin, but did not look at the scout, as all her attention was focused on the approaching dragon. It was close enough now for Kaera to see the greenish flash of its underbelly. It was immense. She notched an arrow and pulled her bow half-slack, keeping her limbs loose, ready to spring into action.

As soon as the dragon was within range, Kaera and Harding, acting in unspoken accord, each fired an arrow at the dragon’s head, then bolted in opposite directions. Bull rolled and Blackwall dodged as the dragon landed, shaking the ground. From a distance, Dorian hit it with a massive blast of ice; it reared, screaming, and the battle was on.

The fight went as Kaera’s other battles against high dragons had gone, which was to say, chaotically. Despite the party lacking Cassandra, the Inquisition’s most experienced dragon hunter, Kaera noted with relief that Blackwell and Bull were holding their own quite well, landing blows to the beast’s legs and underbelly, managing to dodge its attacks. Dorian steadily blasted it with ice while circling the perimeter of the battle.

There was one very dicey moment when Kaera found herself once more next to Harding, both of them firing at the dragon. Unfortunately, this attracted the beast’s attention at the exact moment that Dorian was occupied with moving out of its range. With a powerful beat of its wings, it thrust itself up into the air, pivoted, and dove straight for Kaera and Harding.

There was no time for strategy, no time for thought. Both women dodged desperately. The shaking of the ground combined with the powerful draft from the dragon’s wings knocked Kaera over, but she was able to tuck herself into a roll as she hit the sand. She scrambled to her feet. She saw Harding, on the ground thirty feet away, fumbling for her bow. The dragon lifted a massive foreleg to take a swipe at the scout that would severely maim if not outright kill her.

Kaera didn’t even think. Her daggers were in both hands before she was aware of having discarded her bow — useless at this range — and she launched herself at the dragon’s nearest leg. She contorted her body into an ill-advised leaping overhanded attack. Both daggers sank into the flesh of the dragon’s upper leg, and were dragged down in a vicious lacerating cut by Kaera’s weight.

The dragon flinched — though the motion in such an enormous beast was more like a powerful thrash — and Kaera was thrown, landing awkwardly on the sand. By then, Dorian had resumed his ice blasts, and Bull was already laying into the dragon’s hind leg with Blackwell close behind. Kaera scrambled instinctively toward Harding; the scout was already pushing herself upright. Kaera, unthinking, reached for her, grasping the other woman’s arms. She probably meant to look the scout over for injuries, but froze when their eyes locked. Both women sat utterly still for a moment, the fight forgotten. “I — ” Harding began.

Whatever she had been about to say was interrupted by another piercing shriek from the dragon.

Kaera shook off her daze even as Harding broke out of her grip to retrieve her bow and moved into position to begin firing. Still breathing heavily, Kaera ran to pluck her own bow out of the sand, briefly inspected it, and then steadied herself to continue the attack. The tide of the battle had turned; the dragon was being worn down. It was dragging one useless hind leg while Blackwall and Bull took turns damaging its other legs and underbelly. Kaera occasionally spotted the glint of her daggers, which remained embedded in one foreleg. Dorian was being more strategic about ice blasts to conserve his energy, but was making each hit count. Harding had managed to get to the dragon’s far side, and she and Kaera peppered its wings and body with arrows from both flanks.

The dragon rallied to attack, rearing up and drawing breath for another fiery blast. Kaera, sensing an opportunity before she consciously saw it, took careful aim at the dragon’s eye as it hesitated on the precipice of its attack. Her aim was true, and the arrow sank deeply into the beast’s eye socket. It screamed and flailed about, more violently than Kaera would have expected from such an injury; it landed on all fours, lowering its head and shaking like a mabari shedding water off its coat. Bull leapt forward and, with a powerful swing, planted his battle-axe into the base of the dragon’s skull, just below its crest. The beast shuddered and thrashed, and, with one final shriek, collapsed and was still.

With an arrow still nocked, Kaera approached the fallen dragon cautiously. Bull, however, was utterly unconcerned. With one hand on the handle of his axe — still embedded in the dragon’s skull — he raised the other arm to the sky, fist pumping in triumph, laughing uproariously. Kaera allowed herself to relax, even smiling at Bull’s antics.

“Is everyone all right?” asked Dorian, striding up.

“Took a bad blow from the beast’s tail,” Blackwall rumbled. He was leaning on his sword, favouring one side. Dorian went to him, proffering a flask of healing potion.

Kaera glanced around. Bull was apparently in fine form, Dorian appeared unscathed, and Blackwall’s injury would be remedied by the potion in short order. But where was Harding? With a slight flutter of anxiety, Kaera spotted the scout, still standing a ways off, unmoving. Concerned the other woman had injured in a way Kaera hadn’t witnessed, she jogged over. “Scout Harding?” she asked as she approached. “Are you… are you all right?”

Harding did not have any obvious injuries, but she did not immediately meet Kaera’s eye. She was staring at the fallen dragon. “…Harding?” Kaera tentatively reached out and laid a gentle hand on the scout’s arm; a faint tremor ran through the other woman’s body. Harding blinked, then focused on Kaera.

The other woman gave a faint smile. “Phew,” she said. “That was… by far the biggest thing I have ever fought.”

Kaera couldn’t help but smile back. “They are just outrageously huge, aren’t they? Now when you encounter, say, a giant, it’ll seem like a mere toy.”

Harding laughed breathlessly. “Ah, I think I might just stick to my original strategy of ‘run away from the big monsters’.”

Kaera, starting to feel a familiar rush of post-battle ebullient energy, slid her arm around Harding’s shoulders. “Come, now,” she teased. “What about the mayhem?” They began walking toward where the others had congregated by the dragon’s head.

“I think I’ve had my fill of mayhem, to be honest,” Harding said, “at least for today.”

Kaera laughed, and gave Harding’s shoulders a squeeze. “Don’t get all sensible on me, Harding. We brought you along specifically for the mayhem!” This last was said loud enough to carry to Bull, where he was working his axe out of the dragon’s skull.

Pulling the axe free, Bull raised it, one-handed, over his head and brandished it. Bits of gore fell from it, but he didn’t seem to notice. “Maaaayhem!!!” he roared.

Kaera laughed, and even Harding gave a small chuckle. Dorian shook his head in mock dismay. “The discipline around here is shockingly lax,” he remarked to Blackwall.

“Seems pretty typical to me,” Blackwall replied, amused.

Bull walked around the dragon’s head, still elated. “What a creature!” he said admiringly. “Look at the size of these horns! Magnificent!” He let out a low whistle. “Damn, Boss. Will you take a look at this.”

Taking her arm from around Harding’s shoulders, Kaera walked over curiously. Bull was staring at the dragon’s massive face. When Kaera came to his side, she saw why.

“Harding!” she called. “Come look.”

When Harding came to stand next to her, Kaera once again put her arm about the other woman’s shoulders. She glanced at Harding’s face, which registered astonishment, and smiled broadly. “We make a good team,” she said quietly. Harding returned Kaera’s smile, and her strong arm went around Kaera’s waist. Together, they turned back to gaze at the dragon. There was one arrow in each eye socket; one of Kaera’s narrow, elegant, white-fletched hunters’ arrows in the right eye, and one of Harding’s powerful brown-fletched arrows in the left.

After a moment’s silent contemplation of this unique tableau, the party split up to prepare to head back to the main camp. They were all sweat-soaked and exhausted, but they also knew very well that it would be best to get back to the main camp by nightfall, though it would not be an easy or pleasant trek. Kaera retrieved her daggers from where they were still lodged in the dragon’s foreleg, and she and Harding collected what unbroken arrows they could find (even many of Harding’s had snapped, whether from glancing off the dragon’s tough scaly hide, or from being buffeted while stuck in its wings). They distributed the packs and supplies between themselves — although they were down two scouts, they no longer had the lure components to carry around — and set out at a determined pace, despite their exhaustion. No one wanted to spend yet another night camping in the open.

They reached the main camp an hour after full dark, thanks to a combination of Dorian’s rapidly-dwindling veilfire and Harding’s expert guidance. Somehow, Kaera had found a second wind, or perhaps she was delirious with exhaustion. Regardless, instead of falling into a bedroll as soon as she arrived, she found herself with her companions, Harding, the two human scouts who had gone on ahead, and a handful of the camp’s denizens. The fighting party took pulls from a flagon of some powerfully fermented drink Bull produced from somewhere, and they regaled the others with recounting the battle with the dragon.

“It was a masterful final stroke,” Blackwall said appreciatively to Bull, who laughed and took another swig from the flagon before passing it along.

“There are no words,” Bull said, “no words for how amazing it felt to challenge such a magnificent creature! So much power, such grace! It was an honour to take it down. I never would have gotten close enough to land that blow if Harding and Lavellan here hadn’t blinded it,” he said, nodding to both women.

“Blinded it?” one of the camp scouts asked incredulously, turning to Harding. “Incredible! How’d you manage that?”

Harding shook her head. “I saw a shot; I took it.” She looked to Kaera, across the flames; she looked as tired as Kaera felt, but she held Kaera’s gaze steadily.

Kaera gave her a tired smile. “As did I,” she said. “It’s a real pleasure to fight alongside a fellow hunter. We understand one another.”

Bull was shaking his head. “I’ve fought alongside archers before. Hell, one of my Chargers ‘augments’ her aim with a glowing crystal, but even she’d be hard-pressed to match a shot like that. But both of you managed it, at the same time, from opposite sides! When you collect the parts, be sure you handle the head carefully,” he said to the camp scouts, “and preserve the arrows’ positions. We need proof for posterity! I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eye,” he said, chuckling.

Kaera laughed politely, but the last of her energy had drained out of her; she felt grindingly tired. She stood, swaying a little. “I’m just glad that we won the day, and I’m very glad we made it back to camp. I’m utterly spent.” She glanced around the fire; Blackwall and Bull were going strong, though Dorian was slumbering, slumped against Bull’s massive shoulder.

Harding also got to her feet. “Yeah, me too,” she said. “Good night, everyone.”

The two women fell into step as they walked toward the tents. “I’m so glad to be back at a proper camp,” Kaera remarked.

“Oh, me too!” Harding replied. “It’s nice to have a tent to oneself. Not that sharing a tent with you was terrible!” she added hastily. “It was nice! I mean, you get really warm when you sleep, and the desert gets so cold at night, so it was — that is, well, not that I was snuggling up to you on purpose or anything — oh, no, not snuggling, agh, I — the expedition tents are small though and my toes get really cold and I don’t know why I’m still talking,” she said, giving a rueful chuckle, then clearing her throat.

Despite her fatigue, or perhaps because of it, Kaera couldn’t hold back a laugh. “Oh, you are just delightful,” she said. The other woman groaned, hiding her face with both hands and slowing her walk. Kaera slowed to match her pace, leaning over and giving the scout a nudge with her shoulder, “Really, I’ve enjoyed traveling with you, fighting at your side. Even sharing a tent with you!” She nudged Harding again as the scout lowered her hands, shaking her head. “At least you don’t snore like Sera, or kick like Vivienne.”

Harding gave her a shocked look. “Lady Vivienne kicks? I… huh.”

“Whereas you, my dear Scout Harding, are a perfectly polite and lovely tent companion.”

“Haha, well, you too, Your Worship,” she said shyly.

“Hmmm,” Kaera hummed thoughtfully. “You really should call me ‘Kaera.’”

“Oh! Well… then you can call me ‘Lace,’” she replied.

Kaera, too tired to be entirely polite, gave a quiet bark of laughter, then clapped a hand over her mouth. “Sorry, sorry! Is that… a traditional name among surface dwarves?”

“No, no! Not even remotely. What can I say? My mother was a seamstress.”

“It’s a beautiful name,” Kaera assured her. “A beautiful name for a beautiful woman,” she added, feeling bold and tired and happy, leaning again into the other woman as they walked.

“Oh, goodness, I… I’m very flattered.” Harding — Lace — blinked at Kaera, smiling. She really was gorgeous, Kaera thought.

They paused at the edge of the cluster of tents, and turned to look at one another in the flickering torchlight. Kaera gave a crooked grin. “Well. I hope your toes won’t be too cold tonight, Lace.”

She gave a low chuckle. “I’m so tired, I could probably sleep on a bed of snow,” she said.

“Me too,” Kaera said. “Sleep well, then.”

“You too… Kaera.”

Chapter Text

Although she rose early out of habit, Kaera allowed herself and her companions a morning of relative ease. She spent a few quiet hours by the cooking fire, cleaning and making minor repairs to her gear; most of her companions sat nearby, engaged in similarly untaxing activities. Dorian did not emerge from his tent until midday — unsurprising, given their reliance on his magic for both the battle and to light their path as they returned to the main camp in the dark. And Lace was not around. The scouts from the expedition told Kaera that she had gone with a fresh party to lead them to where the dragon had fallen, to collect its useful remains.

When the scouts returned in the middle of the afternoon, laden with packs and wagons, Lace was not among them. “She said she wanted to investigate some of the oases,” one of the other scouts told Kaera.

“By herself?” Kaera asked. “Does she… often do that?” It was ridiculous but… Kaera was suddenly worried that her flirtation with the other woman had somehow offended her. Perhaps she had come up with the excuse to go off on a solo expedition to get away from Kaera. Were her attentions really so unwanted as to drive women away, to send them into the desert alone to escape her?

The scout shrugged, apparently unconcerned. “It’s not unheard of for experienced scouts like Harding to go out on their own. She can more than take care of herself, Inquisitor. She’ll check some of the smaller oases on our maps, looking to see if the water’s still there, and still fresh, that type of thing. Sometimes they turn on us, become poisonous almost overnight.”

Kaera nodded; that made sense, although she was still a little troubled. Maybe it was just a coincidence that Lace would go off on a side mission, rather than take things easy in camp, right after she and Kaera had talked as they had. It wasn’t as though Kaera had propositioned the other woman… or gotten quite as extravagant in her flirtation as she had with Cassandra, before the Seeker had put an emphatic end to that. Kaera had enjoyed it, enjoyed being flirtatious and lighthearted and charming; she had thought that Lace was enjoying it as well… so it was a disquieting thought, that she had perhaps driven the other woman away.

Rather than dwell on it, around midday, Kaera fetched her arrow-making supplies from her kit. She joined the handful of people around the fire, where she sat mostly in silence, making arrows. She briefly contemplated getting a start back to Skyhold that afternoon. There would certainly be a backlog of tasks requiring her attention or input, and she was eager to know how the envoy from Nevarra had been received, and (more importantly, to her), how the action at Wycome had gone.

But… ultimately, she was not especially eager to return to the duties and obligations that Skyhold always lay at her feet. Tedious contract negotiations, thorny military decisions, agonizing legal judgments… Kaera was in no way anxious to return to those. Here, on expedition, she was able to relax in a way that she could not in Skyhold or any established human-dominated settlement. Besides, she was still physically tired from her trek in the desert, to say nothing of the battle with the dragon, and her companions likely felt similarly — Dorian was, in fact, dozing against Bull’s shoulder yet again.

No, another night in the camp with the scouts was for the best. If she had been urgently needed at Skyhold, no doubt a raven would have found her by now. They could escort the shipment of dragon parts back to Skyhold at the leisurely pace of the caravan. At least that way Kaera would be well-rested for whatever fresh misery might await her at Skyhold.

And so Kaera sat by the cooking fire, slowly making arrows and chatting with anyone who happened to settle next to her. She liked talking to the Inquisition’s scouts; they tended to be unpretentious, practical, and interesting people. She supposed that was another reason she had become so fond of Lace. The woman was highly thought of by everyone who had worked alongside her, widely acknowledged to be a skilled scout and excellent leader; in person, she was unassuming, steady and pleasant, practical and brave and easily likeable. Certainly she was well-liked at Skyhold, and her dancing lessons (when they happened) were highly-anticipated and enjoyable events. And now Kaera had seen Lace in a battle situation, twice — the demons in the clearing on the road here, and the high dragon. She was an impressive fighter, keeping a cool head amid the chaos of an encounter. And her aim and speed as an archer were impeccable.

It suddenly occurred to Kaera that she was… really, actually, markedly interested in Lace. Her hands stilled on the fletching she had been working on as this realization sank in. She examined her feelings more closely: Was she genuinely attracted to the scout, or was this… situational? The heat of battle, the pleasure of being out of Skyhold and away from her responsibilities, her recent emotional turmoil over Cassandra… any and all of these could be influencing her emotional response.

Kaera slowly began moving her fingers again, carefully affixing the fletching to the shaft. At the same time, she turned over her feelings in her mind, reflecting and questioning. The fighting, whether demons or dragon, had certainly gotten her blood flowing. But Kaera was used to battles, used even to dragons (…somewhat), and was confident that she wasn’t confusing the rush of battle with lust, wasn’t mistaking the thrill of victory for infatuation.

And although she was certainly a little more relaxed outside of Skyhold — at least when they weren’t on a hard expedition, or actually engaged in battle — Kaera felt the same happy frisson of interest when she thought back to encountering Lace at Skyhold. Dancing with her, chatting with her in the yard or at the tavern… pondering her memories, Kaera recognized that there had been an attraction even then, though she had been too distracted to be entirely aware of it.

She turned the finished arrow over and over in her hands, needlessly checking its straightness again and again. As she did, she turned her mind’s eye to a painful, ugly part of herself: her thwarted feelings for Cassandra, her frustration with not being more resilient in coping with the Seeker’s rejection, and her shame over her inability to abide with Cassandra’s undeniable affection and love for Josephine. It was… reprehensible that she had not been able to graciously move on, that she had not been able to just be happy for Cassandra… and for Josephine.

Kaera took a slow, careful breath in through her nose. There was no point in further castigating herself for these failures. Setting aside her shame, she focused on her disappointment, her wounded heart. Was she chasing after an interest in another woman just to push herself further away from the pain of rejection?

Kaera laid aside her arrow and gazed into the glowing coals of the cooking fire. The hurt was still there, was still aching like a stone lodged in her chest. But… it was a small stone. Kaera had experienced hurt, heartbreak, rejection before Cassandra. With the Seeker it had been rather more intense, especially when the woman’s feelings for Josephine had become obvious. Kaera was still a little bewildered by how much that had shaken her.

Kaera wondered, not for the first time, what had happened, why she had fallen so hard. Certainly, Cassandra was attractive, desirable, worthy of admiration and love. And they had certainly met under… memorable circumstances. After the explosion at the Temple of Sacred Ashes, Kaera’s life had been utterly chaotic, and she had been dragged hither and yon by forces she barely understood, thrown into situations she could never have foreseen for herself… and through it all, Cassandra had been like a rock. Her faith and steadfastness, her passion and strength, had been a bulwark through all the storms. Little wonder Kaera had fallen for her.

Now that Kaera had moved through the chaos, into something that was not exactly stability, but into something that felt good and right… perhaps she was actually, finally, truly ready to let go of her romantic fantasies about Cassandra. Perhaps her agitation during the last week at Skyhold was merely the death rattle of her infatuation with Cassandra, the last spasm before her thwarted love settled into fond regard and friendship.

It certainly felt like the end of something. Kaera had been quite at ease around the Seeker in the weeks leading up to the sealed marriage. That ease, their friendship, had not been forced, or a product of denial. Kaera’s recent upset had been circumstantial, a knee-jerk reaction to Cassandra’s emergent relationship with another woman. It was understandable. It was forgivable.

Perhaps it was time for Kaera to forgive herself, for her less-noble feelings. For having the audacity to fall in love with someone who couldn’t love her back. For taking time to recover, to mend her broken heart.

Perhaps it was time to move on.

Kaera allowed her mind to turn to contemplating her feelings for Lace. Before now, she’d encountered the woman numerous times on expedition, and heard about her scouting and leadership abilities from others in the Inquisition. More often than not, it had been Lace who was assigned to spearhead the scouting of new terrain, the settling of a main camp in a given area. Although her skillset meant that she was frequently away from Skyhold, she was as crucial to the operations of the Inquisition as any of Kaera’s companions or advisors.

And, well, there was really no denying that Lace was attractive. At camp or on expedition, clad in sturdy leathers, hair tightly braided, Lace was dashing, if reassuringly practical. When she was in Skyhold, haunting the tavern or leading dancing lessons, relaxed and happy, she was… beautiful. There really wasn’t any other word for it, Kaera thought. Lace was a beautiful woman.

And not just in an innocent, pretty sort of way, with her leaf-green eyes and freckles scattered across her features like dewdrops. Lace had an unconscious sensuality that was obvious if one looked beyond her practicality, her strength. There was the way she smiled, lips curving attractively, the scar on her cheek curling with the movement. There was her voice, the tone and timbre of her speaking, her sweet laugh. There was the strength of her arms, the surety of her calloused fingers, when she led Kaera through dance steps. The powerful slope of her shoulders when Kaera’s arm went around them. The unexpectedly soft dip of her waist under Kaera’s hand.

Kaera was happily contemplating freckles and curves when she was shaken out of her reverie by Bull seating himself next to her. He had a large knot of panfried bread, the kind the scouts made at established camps, very similar to the dense, chewy bread of everyday Dalish meals; he tore it in two, offering Kaera the smaller of the two steaming pieces, which she accepted with delight, stowing her arrow-making kit under the bench she sat on.

“I made Dorian go to his tent to sleep properly,” Bull said in between bites. “He gets a crick in his neck when he sleeps sitting up like that, and we’d never hear the end of his moaning. Blackwall’s off discussing griffons with the good professor; seems it’s a shared passion,” Bull said, amusement colouring his voice.

Kaera gave a huff of laughter around a mouthful of bread. When she’d swallowed, she remarked, “You’re hardly one to make light of a person’s fascination with dangerous monsters.”

“Hey, dragons are still around,” Bull replied. “Might as well be interested in something you can actually fight.”

“Hmm,” Kaera said noncommittally. She was baffled by Bull’s fascination, but then she supposed that any of her own hobbies and interests would seem terminally boring and incomprehensible to most other people.

“We hitting the road tomorrow?” Bull asked.

Kaera nodded. “We’ll head out with the caravan,” she confirmed. “It makes more sense to travel with them. And this gives Dorian, and all of us, a bit more time to recover. There’s no reason to rush. We might have spent several days in expeditions to find the dragon, but then it came to us! So we’re technically ahead of schedule, even given the delay on the way here.”

“Sure, boss, make sense,” Bull agreed. “And I imagine you’d want to wait until Harding gets back to camp regardless.” He said this so neutrally that Kaera gave him a long look, trying to assess whether he was implying anything. She thought she detected a playful gleam in his eye, and so she smiled as she swallowed the last of her bread.

“You can hardly blame me,” she said.

Bull grinned at her. “No. She’s fantastic. I’ve always had a soft spot for redheads….” Kaera rolled her eyes at him — Bull was hardly subtle about his appreciation for red-haired women. “The scouts respect her. She leads from the front, doesn’t pull rank on them. She’s confident in her leadership. Great to have around in a fight, too. She’d’ve made a fantastic Charger,” he added approvingly. “I think she’d be good for you,” Bull went on, his tone careful. Kaera felt herself stiffen just a fraction. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but… it might be a positive thing for you to have someone to, hmm, lavish your affections on. Someone who returns them.”

Kaera braced herself for a flash of pain, at being reminded — however obliquely — of her recent, misplaced and unrequited affections. But the pain never manifested. In its place, Kaera felt a relief so acute it was a kind of joy. She smiled at Bull. “Yes,” she said softly. “I think so too,” she added, realizing it was true.

They both glanced over at a small flurry of activity at the edge of the camp. Kaera spotted Lace — her head swathed in fabric against the harsh sun — a few seconds before Bull did, or perhaps Bull simply recognized something in Kaera’s body language when she spotted the scout. Either way, he gave her a meaningful thump on the back and a knowing smile.

Kaera stayed put for the time being, sitting in companionable silence with Bull by the fire. Lace would want to give her report immediately. Kaera watched her surreptitiously, as she gathered with several of the other scouts under a canvas sun-shelter, apparently going over maps of the region. Once that task finished, the scouts drifted away. Perhaps sensing Kaera’s scrutiny, Lace glanced her way, meeting Kaera’s eyes. Kaera gave a smile and a nod.

“Think I’ll go look in on Dorian,” Bull said, rising.

Kaera barely heard him. Lace was walking toward her, tugging the cloth covering off her head. Kaera’s heartbeat thumped exhilaratingly.

“We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” Lace joked as she came close.

“I agree,” Kaera replied. “I far prefer meeting meeting you somewhere with less sand, and fewer poison springs. A pleasant lakeshore, perhaps, or a woodland glen. Alas, we must make do.” She shifted slightly on the low bench, tacitly inviting the other woman to sit down next to her.

Lace seated herself, giving a rueful laugh. “It really is a wretchedly miserable place, even by my standards, and I sometimes think I’ve camped in every blasted fadescape in Thedas. Frankly, I’m looking forward to leaving, and I’ve made arrangements to have the scouts’ rotations shortened. Professor Frederic wants to stay on, even though the dragon’s gone.” She shook her head. “He wants to study its dens. At least without the dragon, the scouts can more safely take him out to explore. And I’ve verified that half a dozen of the springs in the area still have fresh water… and, well… one of them had these.”

Lace was still clad in expedition leathers and swathed in pale fabric to protect against sun and sand, and although she had shed her pack, she still had several small bundles and kits lashed to her belt and jerkin. She now carefully removed one of these, a vaguely cylindrical leather packet, from which she removed a fabric bundle that dripped with moisture at one end. She gently unfolded this to reveal a spray of colourful flowers.

Kaera’s breath caught. After many days of seeing nothing but dry grasses and blasted trees, the sight of actual blooming flowers was wondrous. As Lace held them out to her, Kaera gently caressed the blossoms; most of the flowers were wildly varying shades of blue, with a few whites and bright yellows thrown in. The stems and leaves were fragile-looking but felt surprisingly woody and strong. The roots were as delicate-looking as Orlesian lace, but were tough and sturdy under Kaera’s fingers as she touched them reverently. She found she was smiling helplessly, entranced by the unexpected but profoundly welcome sight and feel of flowers. “Lace,” she breathed, “what are these? Where did…?”


“The desert blooms every seven years,” Lace said quietly. “It won’t bloom again for another two years. But there are always… outliers. Rebels. They grow in small, hidden corners of the desert, out of time with the rest… or in old oases that were dry during the last bloom but re-emerged this year. It’s hard to know for sure. But if you know where to look for them, and if you keep a sharp eye out, you can find them. Little spots of hidden beauty.” She delicately touched one of the blue blossoms.

Kaera’s eyes lifted from the flowers to gaze at Lace. The other woman’s expression was wistful as she looked at the flowers that they both cradled in their hands. The faint, spicy scent of the flowers came to Kaera, intoxicating and thrilling; she inhaled deeply. Then she gently threaded her fingers through Lace’s.

The scout’s eyes widened and she glanced at Kaera, but didn’t pull her hand away. Kaera offered a crooked smile. “I might have liked to see the desert bloom,” she said, her thumb tracing the callouses on Lace’s palm. “But truly, the desert is immeasurably more precious with you in it, Lace.”

Lace’s green eyes widened. “Wow,” she said softly.

Kaera was lost for long moments in the brightness of Lace’s eyes, the rushing joy of their entwined fingers, the thrilling closeness of their bodies. She wasn’t exactly sure what she would have done next — for all her flirtations, she wasn’t precisely experienced in romance — but they were at any rate interrupted by the approach of Blackwall and Frederic who were still avidly discussing griffons. Fortunately, the men seemed intent on their conversation, which was animated enough to be audible at a distance, giving Kaera and Lace sufficient time to untwine their hands and compose themselves.

The flowers ended up in Kaera’s lap, and their pleasing scent drifted around her head. As Kaera listened to Frederic and Blackwall avidly discuss academic knowledge of griffon physiology, she was exquisitely aware of Lace, where their bodies touched at the hip and shoulder, the subtle movements the other woman made….

Kaera was able, despite her distraction, to contribute to the conversation, which eventually turned to other beasts, living and otherwise. Lace, who had encountered no small number of beasts in the wild, weighed in more frequently. As the evening hour approached, more scouts drifted to the fire, the chatter generalized further, Bull and Dorian reappeared, and eventually food was passed around.

The air cooled, even as the light of the sky shifted toward dusk. After the food had been cleared away, and laughter and even bits of music started to permeate the general buzz of conversation, Kaera felt Lace’s hand on hers. The scout leaned close, speaking softly into Kaera’s ear. “We should get those flowers into the ground tonight,” Lace said. “They’re pretty robust and would probably be fine until tomorrow, but still…”

Kaera looked over to her and smiled. The flowers were still in Kaera’s lap; giving Lace’s fingers a quick squeeze, she handed the flowers to the other woman. Then she and Lace rose silently, walking away from the fire toward the large spring that the camp was built around. No one drew attention to their departure, and outside the ring of light and warmth from the cooking fire, it was suddenly cool and quiet.

Despite the harshness of the landscape, the dusk hours in the Western Approach were usually pleasant, and tonight was no exception. The wind had died down; the sky shaded from deep black to soft sapphire blue in the west, and the stars were spectacularly bright, the moon a slender waning crescent. They walked slowly, enjoying the mild air. “I’m so impressed that you found desert flowers,” Kaera said softly, not wanting to spoil the quiet intimacy of the moment. “I never thought I would be so starved for the sight of green and growing things.” She reached over and gently touched the tangle of the flowers’ roots.

“I know what you mean,” Lace replied, her voice low. “When I was a child, I don’t know if I could have imagined a landscape where almost no plants grow, at all. This place is just… so far removed from everything I used to know.” She glanced over at Kaera. “I actually feel so lucky that I’ve been able to see so much of Thedas, working with the Inquisition. I might not love every single second of being here in the Western Approach, but….” Lace’s eyes dropped down to the flowers in her hand. “These flowers are really remarkable. If we plant them near the oasis here, maybe, seven years from now, even though it’ll be too early for the whole desert to bloom, this oasis will have a few flowers growing.”

“Seven years from now…” Kaera said thoughtfully. “I wonder how many of us will be around to see them?”

“Well that’s a gloomy thought,” Lace remarked.

Kaera gave her an apologetic smile. “Yes, sorry,” she said. “But… if anything, there’s a certain kind of joy in considering that these flowers will be blooming every seven years long after any of us have lived and gone on.”

“Yeah,” Lace said thoughtfully. They were carefully walking around the waterline of the oasis, toward the biggest thatch of long grasses and scrubby bushes. “Planting flowers for the future,” she said, kneeling down and laying the packet of flowers on the ground. “Planting hope.”

Kaera knelt down beside her near the water’s edge, close enough that their knees touched. She watched as Lace dug in the thin, sandy dirt with her hands, digging deeply to where the soil became wet and heavy. She set each plant gently into the holes she had dug, then carefully scraped the dirt to cover the roots and a good portion of the stems. When all the plants were in the ground, Lace cupped her hands and dipped them into the clear water that lapped quietly by their knees, then let the water gently trickle over the plants.

“I really hope these ones stick,” she said to Kaera. “They’ll probably take root easily enough, but who knows whether they’ll bloom again in seven years.”

Kaera smiled at her, joy rising up in her chest. “How about we come back in seven years to see?”

Lace shot a sceptical look at her. “You want to come back, to this exact oasis, in seven years… together… to see if the flowers have bloomed… when we don’t even know what will happen to us a month from now?”

Kaera’s smile widened; she felt it tugging at her cheeks, unfamiliar. She couldn’t remember the last time she had smiled like this, the last time she had felt like smiling like this. “Yes! I do want to see if they’ll bloom… together.”

Lace shook her head. “You can’t mean that,” she said, though she was looking at Kaera with a hopeful, sweet smile.

Kaera shifted, taking Lace’s hands in hers. She laughed, quietly, joyfully, looking at their entwined fingers, the beautiful freckles covering the backs of her hands. “Oh!” she said, noticing something. “You’ve got all kinds of dirt on your hands!”

Lace laughed at that, sounding both pleased and nervous. “Ahaha, well, no surprise there.”

Kaera hummed in response, shifting even closer to the other woman. “Here,” she said, her voice husky. She gently guided Lace’s hands back into the clear, shallow water of the oasis. Slowly, tenderly, Kaera caressed and massaged Lace’s hands, washing the dirt away. The water felt beautifully cool and silky against her skin. She leaned into Lace, pressing their shoulders together; she stroked over Lace’s palms, along the calloused pads of her fingers, her strong wrists.

When she had washed every speck of dirt off their entwined hands, Kaera lifted them out of the water. The drops that fell sparkled as they fell back into the oasis, catching the light of the stars. Shifting again to turn toward Lace, Kaera brought one of her hands to her lips, smiling, and brushed a kiss across the backs of her fingers.

Lace’s breath caught; her eyes were wide. She was really so gorgeous, Kaera thought. She reached out to stroke Lace’s cheek; her fingers were still wet, silvering Lace’s skin where she touched. Slowly, carefully, she moved the very tips of her fingers to Lace’s lips, caressing. Lace’s eyes fluttered shut, and her lips moved the tiniest fraction against Kaera’s fingers. Kaera slid her hand to the back of Lace’s neck, leaned forward, and kissed her.

It was a slow kiss, still a little uncertain. But, oh, it was sweet, as sweet as the waters they knelt beside, as sweet as the starlight overhead. Pleasure billowed in Kaera’s body, like a million flowers blooming all at once. She moved her lips gently, with infinite care and tenderness; Lace, so beautiful, so amazing, deserved nothing less.

Just as the warmth of the kiss started to uncurl into something more fiery, Kaera breathed out, pulled back. Lace’s eyes were still closed; they opened when Kaera stroked her cheek, settled her fingers under Lace’s jaw.

“Wow,” Lace breathed.

Kaera felt that helpless, unfamiliar, wide smile emerge again. “Yeah,” she agreed, then leaned in for another kiss, helplessly, joyfully.

Chapter Text

Kaera walked Lace back to her tent that night. They did not walk arm-in-arm, nor did they kiss again outside the tents — their connection was as new and precious as a green bud in spring, and neither woman wished to completely expose it just yet. But as they paused outside of Lace’s tent, Kaera could not help taking one of Lace’s hands between her own, stroking her fingers over Lace’s palm, over her wrist just under the edge of her cuff…. Kaera took a deep breath, then reluctantly pulled her hands away. The exchanged soft goodnights, then Kaera made herself walk away, back to her own tent.

Inside her tent, in the dark, Kaera stripped, stowed her clothes, and wrapped herself in her bedroll by feel. She felt incandescently happy. Lace was such an incredible woman, strong and brave and smart. It seemed ludicrous that Kaera had not considered her like this before, that it was only on this mission that she had recognized how desirable she was as a romantic companion. Thank the Creators Kaera had finally managed to open her own eyes. That she had managed to let go of her bitterness and hurt, and allow herself to pursue happiness and romance.

Kaera lay on her back, not quite ready to sleep. Light from the scant few torches around the tents barely penetrated the canvas, and it was quite dark… save for the very faint green light pulsing from her left hand. Kaera raised her marked hand, holding it a few inches above her face. The mark, Kaera had noticed, responded to external influences — the proximity of Fade rifts, the presence of demons, and so on. However, it wasn’t like a piece of armour or jewellery, separate from herself. The mark was also, in some ways, woven into the fibre of Kaera’s own being, her own body, and it often responded to her emotional state, becoming painful, brighter, more burdensome, when she was upset. Kaera moved her hand in the gloom, fascinated. The mark was so faint that it barely illuminated her palm; it was fainter than fireflies in the forest. She couldn’t be sure, but it seemed to Kaera that the mark had never been this quiescent.

Tucking her hand back under the blankets, Kaera allowed her mind to drift around her newfound happiness. The idea of having someone like Lace as a romantic partner, openly and in the fullness of reciprocation, was a joy so bright that it almost ached when Kaera thought of it. Although… she wondered just how open Lace would want to be. She supposed she and Lace would have to talk. About expectations, and about wants and needs. Kaera found she longed to give Lace a wonderful romance that would make her radiantly happy, but… she really wasn’t entirely certain what would make her happy. She thought she knew Lace, as an individual woman, probably well enough to begin to guess at what she might want in a romance. But, upon reflection, it seemed possible that their different cultural backgrounds might introduce some blind spots.

What did surface dwarves expect of romance, of courtship? Kaera had known more than a handful of surface dwarves in her life, and tended to think of them, culturally, as being indistinguishable from humans. Though she had never really given much thought to those assumptions. She would have to make sure she didn’t assume too much, going forward. She wanted so badly to make Lace happy….

Certainly, Kaera was not especially interested in the Dalish rituals of courtship and bonding. While she had still lived with the Lavellan clan, her own youthful liaisons had been tolerated under the assumption that Kaera would eventually settle down and allow herself to be bonded to a Dalish man in order to propagate Dalish children.

In some ways, Kaera was glad to be taken away from her clan so wholly by the Inquisition. In the months leading up to Conclave, Kaera had been spending more and more of her time on solitary hunts, or on expedition with some of her clanmates into human settlements to trade or negotiate. Whenever she had been back among her kin, her family had not tried to hide the fact that they were disappointed in her reluctance to be bonded, to become a Dalish mother. Kaera’s own wishes, her own preferences, had not mattered to them at all. It still hurt, a little, to think that all Kaera was to them, even to her own family, was a vessel for more Dalish children.

“There’s no higher calling, as far as they’re concerned,” Kaera’s aunt Dorrit had told her many years ago when the two of them had been out hunting. Kaera, young and stubborn to a fault, had practically flown to her aunt when the opportunity presented itself following a bonding celebration in the Lavellan clan… and the unavoidable post-celebration needling from Kaera’s mother and sister, focused largely on Kaera’s duty to be bonded and bear children. Kaera had been allowed to go on brief excursions with Dorrit, to be taught to hunt and gather in the forests, once she had come of age, and had continued the habit as she got older — Dorrit was wonderful company, and Kaera found in her someone who did not cleave to the strictures of Dalish clan life as much as the rest of their extended family.

Dorrit, twin sister to Kaera’s own mother, had never been bonded to a husband. She spent very little time with the clan, although she was something of a beloved legend among its young people for her hunting skills. Dorrit spent most of the year hunting and exploring, returning to the clan’s camps from time to time to trade. Their family mostly treated Dorrit with a kind of exasperated fondness, giving her a mixed welcome into their dwellings when she made an appearance.

“So they really do think they’ve got your best interests at heart,” Dorrit had gone on. “And… listen, Kaera. If you choose that life, if you choose to be bonded and bear children….” She fixed Kaera with a shrewd look. “I won’t mince words. If you choose that, you can still take women as lovers. Creators know, enough ‘proper’ Dalish women do.” Kaera must have looked vaguely scandalized, because Dorrit had laughed at her then, not unkindly. “Oh, sweetling, don’t pretend you’re a new-hatched innocent, not to me! I know you’ve been carrying on with that lovely healer girl. Aye, and before her, the huntress from Sabrae clan, a couple of years ago. And probably others. Yes?”

Kaera had not been embarrassed, or at least not ashamed, not with Dorrit, who had looked at her with no judgement as she spoke. Still, this had been the first time anyone from her parents’ generation had acknowledged Kaera’s relationships at all, and it had been mildly disconcerting. But, with Dorrit, in the middle of the deep woods, far from the clan’s camp, there had been no reason not to open up, to speak aloud the nature of her liaisons. “Yes,” Kaera confirmed. “A few others. It wasn’t always… most times, it was just a night or two.”

“And the healer girl…?”

“Madi,” Kaera had said, softly. “Her name is Madi. I… yes, more than a night or two. But she’s going to be bonded this summer. So that will be the end of it.” Kaera had not been terribly sad at the slow drying-up of tenderness and affection between them. It had felt natural enough, and Kaera had never really been passionately in love with Madi. But she was rather lonely and bored at camp without the excitement of clandestine meetings with Madi… and, Kaera had to admit, it galled her a little that Madi had finally put an end to things because of her betrothal.

“Ah,” Dorrit had responded. “Well. It need not be the end of it, you know. For you and Madi.” Dorrit sat next to Kaera then, and took her hand. “Sweetling, the clan is full of women who are bonded, who bear Dalish children, and yet have extramarital liaisons. Aye, and men too.” Dorrit had sighed. “I don’t want to shock you, Kaera, but I have lovers in any number of camps. Women who have decided to stick with their duty, stick with their clans, and yet welcome me to their beds for a few nights whenever I’m nearby. Everyone mostly turns a blind eye to such things, as long as we’re reasonably discreet, and as long as familial duty and clan duty is upheld.” She tucked a lock of hair behind Kaera’s ear. “You could have a proper Dalish family, and still have Madi, or other lovers. You could be satisfied, and make your parents happy.”

Kaera had looked away, suddenly angry. “Why is it that I am only allowed to be satisfied? Why must I sacrifice my own happiness, my own desires?” She looked at Dorrit, trying to communicate her frustration. “I don’t just want to be ‘satisfied’. Dorrit, I want affection and, and, and desire, and I want a partner I can love. I want to be able to live with her and travel with her, and I… I do not want children, I don’t!” Kaera became distressed, finally saying this out loud, admitting it to herself as much as to Dorrit. “I don’t want to bear them, and I don’t want to raise them. I…” She had looked at Dorrit pleadingly.

“Oh, sweetling,” Dorrit had murmured, pulling Kaera into a hug. “Believe me, I understand. We’re both absolutely terrible Dalish, aren’t we?” she had asked affectionately. “The clan just don’t know what to make of women like us.” She had pulled back and looked at Kaera. “But the world is bigger than the clan, Kaera. You have choices, even if the consequences of some of your choices might be, well, unpleasant for your family. Or for you — you might need to live outside the clan’s camps, like I do, or even leave Dalish life altogether. You have to choose a life you can live with. So… what will you do?”

Kaera had shrugged, and shaken her head. “I don’t know,” she said fretfully. “Maybe I… maybe I could be like you? I could hunt, and travel, and trade with the clans, and… and take lovers….” She trailed off.

“Hmmm.” Dorrit had thrown a companionable arm about Kaera’s shoulders. “My life works well for me,” she said thoughtfully. “But it does mean, truly, that I will never have a partner, a romantic companion that I live with to the exclusion of all others. Instead, I have lovers I see but rarely, only for a night of physical love, and aside from that we’ve nothing much to do with one another. Which suits me grandly,” she added with a wolfish grin. Then her expression had softened. “But… if it’s a companion, a partner that you want, sweetling — someone to share your days and nights with — this might not be the life for you.”

“But what if I found someone who wanted the same thing?” Kaera had said insistently. “Someone who would travel with me, hunt with me, someone who would love me and… and live with me, abide with me, wherever we go.”

“Well. That would be extraordinary, wouldn’t it,” Dorrit had said. “I hope you find someone like that. I really do. But, sweetling, you have to make your plans based on the circumstances you’re living in, not betting on your ideal partner coming along and roaming the woods with you for the rest of your lives.” She stood, pulling Kaera to her feet after her. “And you needn’t make any rash choices now. Here’s my advice: Go out with the trading parties as much as you can. See a bit more of how other people live. If you’re lucky, and observant, you’ll know when you find the right path for your life.”

Perhaps she had been unlucky, or unobservant, or both, Kaera thought, lying in her tent in the Western Approach, far from Dorrit and the woods of her youth. Dorrit, despite her wisdom and despite her uncanny understanding of Kaera’s desires, hadn’t been entirely correct about her advice. Kaera could not imagine a clear path for her life, right or wrong, not anymore. The events of Conclave had thrown her existence into such chaos, completely shaken apart every path she might have considered.

In idle moments, while Kaera had still believed that she might court Cassandra, she had imagined their life together. It was pure fantasy, of course, but it had been profoundly seductive. Imagining traveling with Cassandra, just the two of them, looking for the Seekers or pursuing other important projects… or just roaming Thedas, finding purpose in helping others. The more Kaera reflected on this fantasy, with the clarity of hindsight, the less sense in made in the context of Cassandra’s personality and stated wishes. It was painful and a little embarrassing to realize how ridiculous and self-centred such thoughts had been.

But it seemed to Kaera that Lace would take to such a life like a duck to water. Well… probably. Best not to assume anything. Still, from what Kaera knew about Lace, a roving life might suit her very well indeed. Lace, Kaera knew from briefings, had been herding sheep in the Ferelden Hinterlands before joining the Inquisition. She had immediately proven adventurous, capable, and skilled in all types of terrain and all manner of situations. It seemed likely, Kaera thought, that she might be open to a life of wandering, hunting and trading, rambling over all the corners of Thedas… with Kaera by her side. Partners. Companions.

All that was on the far horizon, for now. They had barely even begun to connect, she and Lace, and there was plenty to look forward to between now and whatever commitment they might make to one another. There was also, of course, the Inquisition, and Corypheus, and whatever fallout would come from Wycome, and the thousand other situations the Inquisitor must have a hand in.

Whatever the future might hold… Kaera would court Lace. Properly. Kaera would be attentive and generous, and she would learn as much as she could about what Lace might expect of a suitor. She would sweep the other woman off her feet! Kaera was already looking forward to all of it, looking forward to being back in Skyhold where she could really be wonderfully romantic…. She would bring Lace gifts, treats, things to make her face light up. They would dance together, in the tavern. Go for walks along the curtain walls, arm in arm. Make arrows together before the fire in Kaera’s quarters, together on the settee, talking about their adventures, planning new ones.

Kaera fell asleep, smiling, and dreamed of camp bread, and tents sized for two.

Chapter Text

Kaera rose in excellent spirits the next morning. She remained that way through breakfast (when she made sure to seat herself next to Lace) and as the fighting party and a number of the scouts (including, notably, Lace) prepared the caravan to depart for Skyhold. Amid the flurry of activity, Kaera slipped away to the oasis — she wanted to look at the flowers, the ones Lace had brought in, one more time.

A few of the stems had drooped, but the majority of the flowers were upright, their blossoms open to the morning sunlight. Kaera knelt down on the sandy bank, and gently ran her fingers through the blooms, their fragrance mingling with the fresh clean smell of the water. It was quiet, away from the bustle of the camp site, and peaceful.

Soft footfalls let her know that someone was approaching, and Kaera smiled, guessing who it was. She glanced up to see Lace making her way along the bank, toward her. Kaera smiled, and said, “How happy I am to see you. Your beautiful face is all that was lacking from this lovely moment.”

Lace laughed, seating herself next to Kaera. “You are just incredibly charming. You know that?”

Kaera, seeing no reason not to be bold, took Lace’s hand, bringing it to her lips. She pressed a lingering kiss to Lace’s fingers, looking at her with what she hoped was a roguish sparkle in her eyes, and Lace laughed again, softly. She had a delightful laugh, Kaera thought.

They sat, looking across the small pond of the oasis, barely hearing the noise of the camp. Kaera, still feeling bold, turned her head toward Lace, leaning into her. She kissed Lace’s temple, near her eye; kissed her cheek, close to the wispy hairs of the sideburns that crept down in front of her ears; kissed the corner of her mouth, as Lace turned her head slightly toward Kaera. Then they kissed, sweetly, for long moments.

Pulling away, Kaera smiled at Lace, feeling intoxicated with delight. This close, she could see every precious freckle on her face; see the flecks of warm brown in her green eyes; see the soft downy hair on her cheeks and around her sensual mouth, light as cornsilk. She lifted her other hand, bringing it up to cup Lace’s cheek, pull her in for another sweet kiss.

But, sensing something, Kaera pulled back. She looked at Lace inquiringly.

“Sorry,” Lace said quietly. “It’s just… we’re going to have to go soon. I — I thought I’d find you here. I wanted to catch you before we leave, since this is probably the last time we’ll be able to talk, privately, until we get to Skyhold. I wanted to ask you — that is, I really don’t have any… any expectations here. I mean, I hope that this — that you — but I wasn’t sure if — because you’re pretty amazing, and… well, you’re the Inquisitor!” Lace looked at her imploringly.

Kaera thought she knew what Lace was asking. She smiled fondly, stroking Lace’s cheek with her fingers. “I don’t have any expectations either. But I also have hopes.” Kaera’s smile widened. “I… hope that we can spend quite a bit of time together. Whether on expedition, or at Skyhold. I hope we can get to know one another, and I hope we will become very close. I — I hope you will allow me to court you.”

“Court me?” Lace’s eyes were wide.

“Yes. I — ” Kaera hesitated. “I don’t know what you would want. For something like that. For… courtship. Among the Dalish Elves, such things are, honestly, much more formal and impersonal than I care to be. With you. So I would, ah, be making it up as I go along, I’m afraid.”

“Oh! Haha, well,” Lace said, placing her hand on Kaera’s knee. “You’re, um, doing really wonderful so far. And… as long as we’re spending time together, that’s… well.” She smiled at Kaera. “So… while we’re travelling to Skyhold. And once we’re there. Are we going to…?”

“To be open about this?” Kaera stroked Lace’s cheek again, just for the sheer joy of being able to touch her affectionately. “I would very much like to. I don’t think either of us wants to be ridiculously performative, but… I do not wish for this to be secret. Is — is that what you also want?”

“Wow.” Lace was smiling, the apple of her cheek curving under Kaera’s hand. “Yes. I’d like that. All of that. Wow.”

They grinned at one another, and Kaera was just starting to lean in for another kiss when they both became aware, with the instincts born of many expeditions, that the preparations to depart had reached their final stages — the tone of the shouting, the noises that the horses made now that they were hitched to the wagon, the finality of the various thuds and bangs as the last of the gear and dragon’s loot was loaded. With one final exchange of smiling glances, they rose and walked back to the camp.

The return trip to Skyhold would take a day or two longer than the trip out, with the wagon carrying the loot from the dragon’s corpse. Kaera was looking forward to it — one last stretch of relative peace before she would have to deal with her duties as Inquisitor back at Skyhold. She was also, of course, in a much better frame of mind on this journey than she had been on the ride to the Western Approach. And there was her new relationship with Lace….

Because they were not making an effort hide their closeness, the more observant members of the party were not shy about remarking on the relationship. Their teasing was good-natured, though, and Kaera did not mind, did not mind at all. For the first time in her life, Kaera was free to be open about a romantic relationship, and every reminder of that was a source of joy.

“I know you’re pretty tough, boss, but you’d better watch out for this one,” Bull said to Kaera one afternoon as they rode along a stretch of forested road. He indicated Lace, riding slightly ahead of them, with a nod. “She may be small, but she’s mighty.”

Kaera grinned roguishly at Bull. “You don’t need to tell me that!” she told him cheerfully. “Even before she faced the dragon — and half took it down, all herself! — she saved my bacon when that pride demon came at me. Or did you think I’d forgotten?”

“I suppose not,” Bull said. “I’m glad you appreciate that she’s got the soul of a warrior, but do you think you can handle her?”

Kaera smiled at Lace’s back, noting with delight that the tops of her ears had gone red — they weren’t nearly far enough away, or speaking softly enough, for Lace to miss hearing their banter. “I hope so,” she said, “for as long as she’ll let me.”

Bull gave a low laugh, and Lace shook her head minutely, but Kaera could tell from the other woman’s body language that she was pleased.

Every day’s ride was largely uneventful. Kaera found that her relationship with Lace — new though it was, untested, unconsummated — brought her a kind of steady happiness and comfort, even when they rode several horselengths apart, even when they passed nearly a whole day without exchanging a word. Every evening, when the party made camp, she and Lace would sit together by the fire with everyone else. Privacy was not possible in such circumstances, so there was no opportunity for anything more intimate than hand-holding.

But Kaera did not yearn for much more… not yet. For now, she enjoyed sitting next to Lace, pressed together knee-to-shoulder, holding hands, a little apart from the others. They would sit together, talking, after the others had mostly gone to their beds. They spoke of little of consequence, telling each other stories from their pasts, trading tales from hunting expeditions, from other Inquisition campaigns, learning each other’s interests. Lace, in addition to her abilities as a dancer and a piper, was an avid astronomer. She laughed when Kaera expressed her mild astonishment.

“Oh, I know!” she said. “A dwarf, stargazing? I suppose my ancestors would be totally perplexed. But I’ve been a surface-dweller all my life. The stars are, well, they’re always there. The patterns they make, the same, night after night, year after year. No matter what else changes, the dance of the stars is the same.”

Kaera had never really considered the stars before. They were pretty enough, but they weren’t entirely useful for orientation in the dense and frequently tall forests where she had spent most of her life. “So… even with the Breach scarring the sky, the stars…?”

“Same as ever,” Lace replied serenely. “Whatever else the Breach threw into chaos, it can’t touch the stars. See that formation, right over there… just above and to the left of that tall tree, you see that triangle of bright stars? That’s the centre of a constellation that most human societies have named. I like the Avvar tradition — they call constellations ‘children of The Lady of the Skies,’ and the one centred around that triangle is called ‘Longsighted Eagle’….” Lace told Kaera the fanciful Avvar story around the constellation, and then two other human stories about the same group of stars, before they retired to sleep that night. Kaera smiled to herself, in the darkness of the tent, thinking how wonderful it was that Lace was so intelligent, and curious about the world, in addition to being an incredible archer and scout, and beautiful on top of everything. It seemed unbelievable, now, that it had taken Kaera this long to take a real interest in Lace, but Kaera fully intended to make up for lost time as soon as they arrived at Skyhold….

Although she was genuinely looking forward to properly courting Lace once they got to Skyhold, Kaera felt melancholy tug at her heart during the last night on the road before they were due to arrive. The company were all seated around a small campfire, Kaera and Lace close together as had become their habit. This close to home there was little use in rationing supplies, and so the stew had been flavourful, the camp-bread plentiful. Despite how comfortable and happy she felt, the small twist of anxiety persisted. Kaera probed the unpleasant feeling, hoping to mentally talk herself out of it so that she could relax, but the emotion resisted analysis. She was not (to her knowledge) anxious about their return to Skyhold; she was not concerned about Lace (sitting next to her and turning her tin whistle around and around in her hands, waiting for the right moment of postprandial quiet to begin playing) or about her companions; she did not sense, even faintly, a Fade rift or the proximity of demons, nor were her senses detecting any other enemies or predators.

It was rather annoying, not being able to fully relax around this grain of anxiety, and Kaera worried at it as she might rub at a bruise. Then, just as Lace had begun to play a few experimental scales on her flute and the company quieted to listen or join in, the underpinning of Kaera’s misgiving emerged in a flash; without thinking, she remarked to Bull, “We haven’t had a single raven from Skyhold.”

Bull gave her a penetrating look. Lace stopped playing, though she did not set down her whistle. “Yeah,” Bull said, his tone carefully light and neutral. “I wouldn’t worry about it, boss. We’ll find out tomorrow why that is.”

“Probably means everything’s going as it should,” Blackwall suggested. “Surely if some disaster had come along, they’d’ve found a way to send word.”

“I suppose,” Kaera said doubtfully. “It’s only that I would have expected, at the very least, we would have received updates about… a couple of things.”

“Maybe the ravens are all occupied with Sister Leliana’s business, and the updates weren’t considered crucial enough to send a messenger,” Lace suggested.

“And they wouldn’t necessarily go out of their way to send along good news,” Dorian pointed out. “I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you, Kaera. If anything, the fact that they haven’t bothered to send updates is a good sign.”

“You’re probably right,” Kaera said. She smiled reassuringly at Lace, who smiled back before taking up her whistle again. Kaera tried to set aside her concerns, and even mostly succeeded as the company took up the singing of a humorous ditty with call-and-response verses. Though she did notice that Bull smiled but did not laugh at the song. Though she could not entirely relax into it herself. Ah, well. They would be back at Skyhold late tomorrow afternoon, and it would all come out in the wash.

As they had every evening during the trip back, Kaera and Lace sat together at the fire after the others had quieted down or gone to find their beds. They talked of this and that: Lace’s mother, the seamstress, and the thoughtful and loving letters she sent; Kaera’s aunt, and how she had given Kaera an ironbark ring after the first time she had successfully tracked, killed, and field-dressed a wild ram; the first time Lace had seen Skyhold; Kaera’s experience liaising between the clan Lavellan and various human outposts; their favourite styles of arrow, and their preferred type of blade for a hunting-knife. Kaera was learning more and more about Lace, and found that the more she knew, the more she admired the other woman. Each night had ended with Lace pointing out a new constellation to Kaera and telling her some of the stories associated with it; Kaera listened, rapt, gazing at Lace’s face as often as she did at the stars being pointed out. Kaera knew she was well on her way to becoming happily infatuated. She was, in fact, quite looking forward to being at Skyhold with Lace, to spending time with her at the Herald’s Rest… and in the privacy of Kaera’s rooms.

It had been a rather long time since Kaera had been physically intimate with anyone. After Conclave, she had been caught up in chaos. And then, there had been… Cassandra. After that, no one had really caught her eye, or perhaps she had not really been allowing herself to look properly…. And before Conclave, even, there had been a long dry spell. Kaera had been getting old, by clan standards, to be still unbonded. There weren’t many single women close to her own age, and even fewer who shared her inclinations. Kaera had never taken up Dorrit’s suggestion to carry on affairs with bonded women — she didn’t think that such liaisons were wrong, really, but they did not appeal to her. In a romance, Kaera wanted to be her partner’s only partner, at least for the duration of the relationship. With such constraints, she had simply not connected with anyone for several years, even before Conclave.

Kaera supposed, though, that one never really forgot the motions and mechanics of intimacy. And although the touching of hands, arms around shoulders and waists, and sweet kisses were all well and good, Kaera found she was very much looking forward to taking Lace to her rooms where they could… well. She certainly hoped that Lace was interested in a more physically intimate relationship as well, though even the idea of simply sitting with Lace before the fireplace in Kaera’s rooms, just talking and holding hands, had a deep appeal.

They rode relatively hard the next day. Everyone was looking forward to being back in Skyhold, for any number of reasons, and there was no need to spare the horses this late in the journey. They rode into the courtyard mid-afternoon, to the small crowd of people that always greeted the arrival of an official Inquisition party. To Kaera’s consternation, she did not see any of her advisors or companions in the crowd; usually one or more of her friends was at least there to greet her briefly.

Kaera was not yet worried as she slid off her horse and handed the reins to a stablehand. Then a young woman whom Kaera recognized as a member of Josephine’s staff approached her discreetly, and said, in a low urgent voice, “Inquisitor, Ambassador Montilyet would like to speak with you as soon as possible. She is waiting for you in her office.”

Nameless alarm reared up in Kaera’s chest. Something must have gone horribly wrong. Of the dozen or so things that Kaera could think of just off the top of her head, the most likely candidate for catastrophe was the delegation from Nevarra that had been scheduled to arrive shortly after Kaera’s departure. Inquisition intelligence had indicated that the delegation had been sent in Lord Thomasz Pentaghast’s name, though the man himself was not to be present… but, Creators, what if he had arrived and… and threatened Cassandra? Or Josephine? What if the sealed marriage had not been enough to convince the delegation to abandon their mission, what if this had cause a diplomatic incident, what if Cassandra had been carried off by force? Kaera’s head spun with possibilities, and her heart beat in her chest like a wild dragonling in a cage.

She had enough wherewithal to thank the young woman, then she made her way very quickly through the courtyard into the keep, then fairly flew into Josephine’s office.

The ambassador was at her desk, but she rose quickly when Kaera entered. Before Josephine could speak, Kaera blurted out, “What is the matter? Is it the Pentaghasts? Did the sealed marriage gambit not work?”

Josephine blinked in surprise, then walked toward Kaera. “Oh, no, no, that was all — no, the Nevarran delegation arrived, was persuaded to examine the sealing contract, and left. They have been gone two days now, and Leliana’s sources suggest that they… oh, but that does not matter. Kaera, I — ” Josephine nearly choked on her words. Kaera’s alarm was increasing by the moment.

The ambassador went past her and gently shut the door, the turned back to Kaera.

“Josephine, please, what is it?” Kaera asked, feeling sick with worry.

Josephine’s face was a mask of tragedy. “Oh, Kaera. I am so, so sorry,” she said, her voice cracking. With a visible effort, she went on: “Inquisition forces marched on Wycome, as you and Cullen commanded. But there were many, many losses, on all sides. Our forces were able to destroy the red lyrium, but then were obliged to retreat. The Wycome forces fell upon Clan Lavellan in their rage.” Tears shone in Josephine’s eyes. “I am so sorry, Kaera, I have no words for how sorry I am. Clan Lavellan was completely massacred. We can send people to look for survivors, but Cullen’s lieutenant there has advised that we withdraw from the area entirely. I am afraid that I — that I — ” Josephine’s composure broke down entirely, and she shook her head mutely before hiding her face in her hands, shaking with emotion.

Kaera felt utterly, utterly numb. Unconsciously, she moved forward, put her arms around Josephine, to comfort the weeping woman. It was as though Kaera was dreaming, or sleepwalking. She did not weep; she held Josephine, rubbing her back, and told her that it would be all right. Kaera heard, without really hearing, Josephine’s anguished pleading for forgiveness, her insistence that this was all her own fault, that she had been distracted by the sealed marriage business and had not briefed Kaera as fully as she ought, nor made as strong a case for the diplomatic solution as she should have. Kaera, automatically, reassured her, said there was no way she could have known, there was nothing different they could have done. Her own voice sounded odd, as though she were hearing it from underwater.

Josephine was still extremely agitated, still weeping, when Kaera stepped back and asked if there was anything else that needed her attention. Wide-eyed, Josephine shook her head. Then Kaera turned, silent, and started walking.

Somehow, she was in her rooms, before a fire she didn’t remember lighting. She stared into the flames. Her hand ached — it ached, like it was being slowly and inexorably crushed. She rubbed at the palm, over the lurid and aggressively pulsing green light of the mark, feeling its oppressive weight as though it were a physical growth on the bones of her hand. She was suddenly seized with an acute and stunningly intense hatred of the mark, of this thing that was embedded in her flesh, that had twisted and deformed her life.

Abruptly, she rose to her feet and began pacing, still rubbing at her hand. She couldn’t quite control her breathing, and though she was not weeping, not really, tears seemed to be coming out of her eyes, catching in her eyelashes. A horrible, queasy quaking seized her belly. Her family — her mother and father, her sister and her brothers and their families, all had been dwelling near Wycome. They were likely all dead. The Wycome humans had been mad with red lyrium; they had probably slaughtered everyone, all the children and the wizened elders, the gentle craftspeople and herders and healers. Perhaps some of the hunters had managed to escape. She wondered if Dorrit had been in the area, had been killed. Her fingers found the ironbark ring she always wore, the one Dorrit had made for her, that she now wore on her left index finger, just above where the horrible mark began on her palm. She twisted it restlessly.

Her pacing brought her before the cabinet where she displayed her bottles of akevitt. Each bottle was from a different region, with a different kind of infused herb or fruit. Her face twisting, she very carefully lifted the bottle that contained Lavellan akevitt from near Wycome, from her home. She knew, without opening it or even bringing it close to her face, that it was imbued with the fresh and bracing scent of berries from the juniper trees that grew in the region. Perhaps this was the last extant bottle, if the Clan had been destroyed. She felt an irrational urge to turn to the stone wall, to smash the carved glass of the bottle against it, to howl in rage. She did none of these things, but carefully placed the bottle back on its shelf.

Kaera then, in a daze, selected a bottle of the Sabrae-clan akevitt that was generally available for trade in southern Thedas. Kaera, clinging to what scraps of logical thought she could muster from the whirlwind of her mind, thought she would be able to replace it. Not from a distant clan. Not from a dead clan.

She did not smash this bottle either. Instead, she sat before the fire, carefully removed the stopper, and took deliberate sips of the spirit, trying to focus on the strong herbal flavour of it, the burning of it in her throat and belly.

Eventually, her breathing evened out, and the awful quaking in her guts eased. She sobbed then, harsh barks of sound, tears running unheeded down her cheeks, onto her chest. It hurt, physically, her face and her throat contorted in her wild grief. Anger boiled up from under the grief, anger at those fucking lyrium-mad shems at Wycome, at her advisors for not knowing this would happen if they pushed a military solution, at herself for allowing this slaughter to happen. Hatred, ugly and bilious, pulsed in her. Still sobbing, she gulped more akevitt; its spicy burn brought her back to herself, calmed her, a little.

How long she sat before the fire, sometimes wracked with a wordless grief, sometimes seized with ugly hatred, she did not know. The fire burned low; the light fell from the windows. Without changing her clothes, Kaera kicked off her boots and shed her belts and jerkin, then took the bottle to her bed where she fell in and out of a restless sleep.

Chapter Text

As the cold light of dawn seeped in through her windows, Kaera rose from her bed. She had seldom felt so physically awful, hungover from akevitt on an empty stomach, sore and achy from the expression of her sorrow. She hadn’t slept, really, just rested in between bouts of anguish that she doused with sips of liquor.

At least her mind was mostly calm, for the moment. Before she could examine that too closely — lest the floodgates of grief open — Kaera dragged herself to the water closet to relieve herself. She washed her face and hands. Changed into fresh clothes. Built up the fire. She found her vials of medicinal infusions, located the one for an achy head and body, and poured a little into a small flagon of watered wine with a dollop of honey to counter the bitterness, then sat by the fire, slowly sipping directly from the flagon.

Once she felt marginally better, Kaera closed her eyes, her mouth pressed into a grim line. Her family — her clan — were likely all dead. Breathe in; breathe out. She did not weep. She felt a pulling sadness that would likely bloom up into active grief many more times, but… she was no longer in crisis. She had loved her family in a kind of abstract way, more a knowledge she ought to love them than any real feeling. She had happily — eagerly, even — lived away from them for most of her adult life, going off on extended hunting excursions and working with trading parties as soon as she came of age. She had nothing in common with her family, with her clan. No close friends.

She had friends here, in the Inquisition. Maybe not close, but… with the potential to become close. And, here, she had purpose, she had a duty. It was a duty she wanted, a duty that fulfilled her. From the most mundane tasks to the grandest quests, from rendering judgment (and, she hoped, mercy) for individuals, to shaping the entirety of the Inquisition’s mission… it was, Kaera realized, exactly what she wanted to be doing with her life, with her energy.

She had to admit that she had long ago abdicated her duty in the clan, at least in spirit. Although the name “Lavellan” would always be part of her, Kaera did not feel kinship with her clan, did not feel that her Dalish identity really defined her. She had fought against the strictures of being a “good” Dalish woman all her life. Although she had affection for some of her culture’s traditions — she enjoyed collecting akevitt, she depended on traditional Dalish herbal remedies for small hurts and ills, she loved the embroidered clothing and blankets of her clan — much of it simply did not match what she wanted in her life. The focus on the past, on preservation. The pressure to be bonded and produce children. The instinct to hide away from shems, to avoid too much interaction even with other Dalish clans.

Kaera had, like Dorrit, been a terrible Dalish woman, and a disappointing Lavellan daughter, she thought with a sad smile.

And now, she was the Inquisitor. She was not just of the Clan Lavellan — she was of all of Thedas. She bore the mark, and she was the head of an organization that was trying to protect people, all of the people, from a monstrous threat. She was not going to fall apart, not over this. Kaera opened her eyes, looking into the fire, a smile still touching her lips. She would be strong. She would be the head, or the heart, of the Inquisition, as best she could.

She would still need to mourn, she knew. All the business with Kaera not being able to get over Cassandra had shown her that she was not nearly as stoic as she would like, and it was better to be aware of that and plan for it. She would need to mourn, yes. But, more immediately, she would also need to speak to Josephine, and to Cullen, to determine exactly what had gone wrong, so that they could incorporate that information into future plans. And there would be other problems for the Inquisitor to deal with, other plans to make, trials to judge.

First, though, she needed to eat. She had not had any food since yesterday afternoon, and hunger was gnawing at her guts. She had a quick but thorough wash at the room’s basin and put on clothes fit to be seen, then made her way to the Herald’s Rest. She did not especially feel like dealing with the social dynamics of the mess hall; at the tavern, she had a better chance of keeping to herself. She nodded at people she passed without stopping to chat. She did not wish to engage with other people just yet.

The tavern was scantly populated at this hour — it was just barely midday — and Kaera spoke softly with Cabot to ask for food and drink before she retreated to a small table in an inconvenient corner where she likely wouldn’t be spotted or spoken to. Cabot brought her food over himself, gruffly nodding at her thanks. Kaera thought she detected a hint of sympathy in his manner. She wondered if he knew about Clan Lavellan, if everyone knew, if they had all known before she had.

Pushing such thoughts aside, Kaera ate her bread and cheese and pickle. Once she had eaten, she felt much better, physically and mentally. She watched more people drift into the tavern, to eat or drink or just to have a place to sit alone or with friends. Not for the first time, Kaera thought that the Inquisition was doing good just by being a city-state that accepted everyone, regardless or race or creed or background, where everyone could find a place and a role. In the Herald’s Rest, she could see, even at this hour of the day, mercenaries sitting with mages, dwarves rubbing shoulders with humans, elves from myriad clans and cities and Circles.

Kaera was trying to find within herself the will and energy to go to the War Room and face everything that had happened in her absence, when someone slipped into the chair across from hers. She glanced up, irritated; she still wasn’t in the mood to visit with people. Her exasperation evaporated when she saw that it was Lace, looking at her with a cautious expression.

“Hi,” Kaera managed to say. She still wasn’t entirely sure she wanted company, but certainly Lace was probably the most welcome face she could imagine.

“Hi,” Lace said softly. “Kaera, I — I heard. About your clan. I’m so sorry. Are you all right?” She tentatively slid her hand onto the table, palm-up: an invitation, an offer of comfort.

Looking at Lace’s hand, Kaera’s heartbeat suddenly froze like a river in winter. She knew Lace’s hands were strong, and safe; her touch, newly discovered, was a source of joy. And yet… Kaera hesitated. Everything was still so raw; flashes of pain, anger, regret sparked in her chest like a knife’s blade striking stone. It somehow felt like the simple act of reaching out toward comfort would bring nothing but more vulnerability, more pain, and that was the absolute last thing Kaera wanted to bring to her relationship with Lace.

Lace’s face fell, almost imperceptibly, and she withdrew her hand. The twist in Kaera’s heart tightened, and she closed her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said quickly, “I just, I…” She opened her eyes again and looked at Lace, who was regarding her with an expression of concern. She was, Kaera thought, not for the first time, so beautiful. Almost without thought, a smile came to her face; but it twisted into a grimace before it even really emerged. “Oh, Lace, I’m sorry. It’s just all so awful.” She gave a quiet, breathy laugh. “I was so looking forward to… to coming here, with you. And here we are, and I’m so happy to see you, but….”

“I know,” Lace said softly. “Is there anything I can do?”

Kaera shook her head. “No, nothing. I… thank you, you’re so sweet. But unless you can go back in time and stop me from making a stupid decision about Wycome…” She felt bitterness creep into her voice, and got a hold of herself. She took a shaky breath. “I need to talk to the others. Find out more about what happened. Maybe… maybe there might even be survivors.”

Lace glanced at her. “You think so?”

“Maybe. Hunters, traders… some of the Clan may have been far from the fighting, or able to run away. I don’t know.” Kaera scrubbed at her eyes with her hands. Part of her wanted, very badly, to crawl back into bed and sleep everything away; part of her was so, so tired that simply to be awake was an intolerable burden. She took another breath and looked at Lace. A smile curled at the corners of Kaera’s mouth; how could it not? How could being awake in this life be a bad thing when Lace was in it?

“All right,” Kaera said decisively. “I’ve sat around entirely too much.” She rose from her seat.

“I think everyone understands you need some time,” Lace said, though she was also rising. “I mean… you lost your family.”

“My family,” Kaera said thoughtfully. “My family is here,” she said, very quietly, trying out the idea of it. She looked around the tavern, at the people sitting alone or in groups, eating and drinking or just resting their feet. Some people she knew well, had fought alongside, had shed blood with. Others were strangers, but drawn here, to the Inquisition that Kaera had helped to shape, to fight for its ideals or to receive its protection. It felt more like home — like family — than anything ever had with the clan Lavellan. “My family,” she said again, looking at Lace, “is here.”

Lace didn’t reply, but gave a small, hopeful smile.

“Well,” Kaera said. “I have to find the advisors, get a better grip on what happened at Wycome. And I’m sure a thousand other things have come up that require my attention,” she said, giving a small peevish sigh.

“An Inquisitor’s work is never done, I guess,” Lace said.

“Creators, I hope that’s not true,” Kaera said, “since I would dearly like to meet you back here, in the tavern, tonight.”

Lace’s face broke into an expression of delight. Kaera thought that she might never be unhappy again, if she could just see Lace’s smile. “Oh,” said Lace, “yeah, that would be… I’d really like that. If you’re up for it.”

“I’m sure I will be,” Kaera said, smiling back. Then her expression turned grim. “But for now… duty calls.”

***

All three of her advisors were in the War Room when Kaera arrived. She felt curiously as though she was on trial; they were standing so seriously on the other side of the war table, gazing at her intently. It was disconcerting, but she found she preferred this arrangement to the many times she was required to sit in judgement of others.

It occurred to Kaera that they were not sure how to address her. Only Josephine had spoken to her since her return from the dragon hunt, and that had been to inform her of her clan’s extinction. So: they were waiting for her to speak, to set the tone.

She took a deep breath, to steady herself. Then, in as neutral a tone as she could manage: “So. Wycome.”

Her words, at least, produced a reaction in the three humans. Josephine blinked hard and looked away; Cullen’s jaw set, and his hands gripped his belt so tightly the leather creaked; Leliana stepped forward, leaned over the war table, looked directly at Kaera, and spoke.

The spymaster was the first to speak that afternoon, though hardly the last. It was a long and unpleasant discussion, and was at various times tedious (when going over, in detail, the landscape and troop movements), aggravating (Kaera had a difficult time containing her anger over the Wycome humans’ succumbing to red lyrium), and painful (the finality of the Lavellan clan’s extermination, and the unlikelihood of survivors). Between the four of them, they went over every circumstance — an exercise they had done before, on other failed missions, but which had never before been as personal. It was exhausting.

They went through several flagons of watered wine, and had tea brought in three times and food twice. By the time the torches needed to be lit, they had gone over the entire operation with a fine tooth comb. It was not even remotely satisfying, Kaera thought, having the details, though perhaps it should have been. Instead, she was just… tired.

Josephine was still attempting to take full responsibility for the massacre. She was so obviously distraught that it was alarming; Kaera had only seen her visibly upset in a very few instances. By Josephine’s reasoning, she had been distracted by the arrangement of her sealed marriage, and had not been personally present at many of the strategy discussions leading up to the decision to march on Wycome. Her reports had advised military restraint. The others pointed out that Josephine’s suggested plan would not necessarily have prevented the massacre, not once red lyrium was involved. Even Kaera could see that, ultimately, the destruction of her clan had come about mostly because of the red lyrium, which was beyond their control, and by the clan being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In the end, all they could do, as the leaders of the Inquisition, was learn from past missteps. They came out of their long discussion with a plan to ensure that any individual who was distracted was called to task by the others; and a better understanding of the tactical implications of a population maddened by red lyrium. It was cold comfort, but Kaera actually felt pleased with their progress by the end of the day.

Kaera followed Josephine into her office as the ambassador made to leave. Josephine was heading for her desk, but Kaera caught her eye and nodded toward the chairs that were set before the room’s small fireplace. Josephine hesitated for an instant — not, Kaera suspected, out of defiance or hostility, but likely out of her ongoing self-recrimination — then she smoothly changed her course to seat herself in one of the chairs while Kaera took the other.

Somehow, it was easy for Kaera to set aside her own emotions, and reach out to comfort Josephine. “Josephine,” she said, her tone soft and friendly. The other woman met her eyes easily, but Kaera sensed that she was nonetheless bracing herself. Kaera dove right to the heart of it: “Josephine, what happened at Wycome was not your fault,” she said firmly. Before Josephine could interject, Kaera continued, “It was not your fault, nor your responsibility. You did everything as you should; you provided a report outlining your recommendations, based on the best understanding you had of the circumstances. Which is exactly what Cullen and Leliana did.”

“But I should have been there,” Josephine said, quickly, when Kaera paused for breath. “If I had not been distracted by… by personal concerns… I would have been able to provide context, persuasive arguments, that might have changed the Inquisition’s actions.”

“‘The Inquisition’s actions,’” Kaera murmured. “You mean ‘the Inquisitor’s actions.’ Josephine, the final decision was mine. And it was informed by more than your report; it would have been informed by more than your words, had you been there for every single discussion. You are taking on more than your share of responsibility.”

Josephine was shaking her head. “I should have been there. I should not have allowed myself to be preoccupied. Nothing is more important than my duty as Ambassador for the Inquisition — ”

“No,” Kaera interrupted. “No, Josephine, I will not hear such things. My Inquisition does not demand self-abnegation from its members. Above all, the Inquisition is about people. I will never lose sight of that. You ought not to either. There is not a person alive who does not have personal needs that will sometimes take priority over duty — especially duty that can reasonably be delegated, from time to time.” Josephine looked skeptical, so Kaera tried a specific example. “I’m sure you would agree that there are few people as dedicated to duty, and to the Inquisition, as Cassandra. She was just as preoccupied as you were, with the sealed marriage. And you do not blame her for this, do you?”

“Yes, but — no, of course not — but Inquisitor, any distraction on her part did not result in… in a disaster.” Distress coloured Josephine’s tone.

Kaera, wishing to comfort, reached across and laid a hand over Josephine’s where it rested, tense, upon her chair’s arm. “Josephine, disasters happen every day,” she said. “We are all doing the best we can, every day. It is possible to commit no mistakes, and still lose. That is not a weakness; that is life.”

Something in Josephine appeared to relax; her shoulders dropped slightly. She turned her hand around to lightly grip Kaera’s fingers. Encouraged, Kaera said, “What happened at Wycome… it was awful, and a tragedy. I… I was not close to my Clan. But I am still….” Kaera’s voice trailed off, and she found she needed to avert her gaze.

Kaera felt Josephine squeeze her hand, offering comfort. She closed her eyes. Giving comfort, and receiving comfort — absolutely normal things friends did for one another. She certainly hoped that she and Josephine could be friends, as well as colleagues. She had always liked and admired the frighteningly efficient ambassador, ever since she had made an effort to greet Kaera in old Elvish when they first met at Haven. Josephine’s marriage to Cassandra did not change that, nor did the outcome of the Wycome mission. Kaera opened her eyes to look at Josephine. “I will mourn them,” Kaera said. “And we will move on, all of us. Together.” She clasped Josephine’s hand, looking into her eyes.

Josephine gave a small smile, which Kaera returned. “Thank you, Kaera,” she said. “Your forgiveness means so much to me.”

“There is nothing to forgive,” Kaera told her. “Though if there were, I believe you would still have my forgiveness. That is… that is what friends do, is it not?” she asked, then immediately felt a little foolish for being so forward.

But Josephine’s smile widened, and she gave Kaera’s hand another squeeze. “I believe it is, Your Worship.”

Kaera made a face at the use of the title — she had never been overly fond of it, especially in private conversation, which Josephine was well aware of. Josephine gave a small laugh, and both women rose. “I’m glad we had this talk,” Kaera said, sincerely. She felt better than she had since learning about Wycome.

“As am I,” Josephine said as she walked to her desk. Seating herself, she added, “Perhaps you will take tea with me some time in the next few days?”

“I’d like that,” Kaera said, giving a crooked grin. “Thank you. Now, I should — is Cullen still in the War Room?” she asked, glancing to the closed door.

“I imagine so, unless he left by the back hallway,” Josephine said.

“Ah, good. I should speak with him as well. Thank you for the invitation to tea,” she said over her shoulder as she left the office. “I’ll look forward to it!”

Cullen was indeed still in the War Room, examining the map, over which he had spread a great number of pages covered in notes. He glanced up as Kaera entered. “Ah! Hello,” he said uncertainly.

“Hullo, Cullen,” Kaera said walking up to him. “I… I just wanted to check in with you. How have you been?”

Cullen blinked. “I… that’s what I ought to be asking you, isn’t it? After… everything that’s happened.”

Kaera took a slow breath. “That’s kind of you,” she said, and it was true. She allowed herself a small smile, thinking that here was another friend, another person in the Inquisition whom she cared about, and who cared about her. “I’m still trying to wrap my head around it all,” she admitted, walking around to where Cullen stood. She gazed down at the papers on the table without really seeing them. “It’s so strange to think that all of my clan is gone. And… it’s truly awful to consider how frightened they must have been.” Her vision blurred; Kaera fought to keep her emotions in check.

She felt Cullen’s hand, a little awkward, patting her shoulder. “Kaera… I’m so sorry for what happened,” he said tentatively. “If we had known, if we’d had any idea that this was a possibility…” He made an inarticulate noise. “I’m sorry. My military intelligence failed you, failed your clan, failed the Inquisition.” The hand on Kaera’s shoulder stilled, tense.

Kaera looked up at him, getting her own emotions under control. She reached up her own hand and laid it on Cullen’s shoulder, mimicking his pose. “Ach, Cullen,” she sighed. “Why must my advisors insist on blaming themselves for a decision I made, and which I made based on our best understanding of advice from many sources?” She shook her head. “I greatly value the care and thought you and your people put into the Wycome mission,” she told him sincerely. “I am very aware that you would have done anything in your power to prevent this outcome. Please don’t blame yourself.” She gave his shoulder a brief squeeze, though she wasn’t sure whether he would feel it through his extravagantly furred mantle. “But you did not answer my question: how have you been faring? Personally?” she clarified, giving him a significant look.

“I — am quite well, thank you,” he said. “I have not had any bad episodes since you’ve been gone,” he added. A small smile touched his features. “I’ve made quite a lot of progress with the recruits that arrived last month. They’ll do us proud, I think. And… I have been making connections with some of the recruited mages.” This caught Kaera’s intense interest; she raised her eyebrows, silently asking for elaboration. “I know, I know, and believe me, I’m as shocked as anyone. But I’ve had some conversations with Vivienne about strategic deployment of Knight Enchanters and other mages with significant martial skills. We’ve been working on formally integrating some of the mages — with proper oversight, of course — into the Inquisition’s military units.” Cullen’s expression was one of pride and satisfaction. “I believe it is a move in the right direction.”

“I agree,” Kaera said, a little wonderingly. She was very pleased; she had sometimes wondered if recruiting the mages had been the right decision, given how violently some of her colleagues had opposed the idea. The fact that people like Cullen — and Vivienne! — were open to collaboration with the rebel mages was, to her mind, a major victory. “I look forward to hearing more about this initiative… but perhaps another time. I’m absolutely starving,” she said, plaintively.

“Well… we could have supper brought in here,” Cullen said. “We could catch up now. I haven’t heard all the stories from the dragon hunt — I’m sure Bull left out at least some of them when he was recounting things in the tavern yesterday,” he said, smiling.

“Ah, thank you, but no,” Kaera told him. “I really need to get to the tavern. I… promised Lace I would meet her there,” she said, feeling a little shy. It was a small thrill, to say it out loud, to to speak of it, to tell her friends about her and Lace.

Cullen’s brows knitted. “Lace? You mean Scout Harding?”

“Yes. She and I are… we’ve become close.” Kaera couldn’t keep a smile off her face.

Cullen’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh!” he exclaimed. “I… huh. Well. That’s really lovely.”

“It really is,” Kaera agreed happily. “So I’m afraid I must dash, before I miss her entirely. But we can catch up more soon, I hope?”

“Of course. Well… enjoy your evening.”

“Thank you, you too!”

Kaera left the War Room by the back hallway, and proceeded to the tavern at a trot. It was fully dark out, and the courtyard was lit by torches, but it was not so late that the place was deserted. The tavern was predictably crowded, but not packed. Lace was sitting at a table with some scouts and a handful of recruits; she caught Kaera’s eye and smiled. Kaera nodded toward the bar, and Lace nodded back; they could make their way toward one another soon, but first, Kaera wanted some food— she really was famished.

She was ordering at the bar when Sera sidled up to her. “Hey there, Your Worshipfulness,” Sera said, quietly, so that only Kaera would hear.

Kaera felt herself tensing slightly; she liked the rogue well enough, but always felt that Sera was an inch away from getting upset with something Kaera said or did, or mocking her supposed “elfiness.” Sera was immensely useful to the Inquisition, both as a fighter on expedition and for her knowledge of urban lowlife and connection to the Red Jennies, and Kaera appreciated her, but… she always felt like the other woman was making fun of her.

“I heard about your people, yeah?”

Kaera looked up, a little surprised at Sera’s soft tone. The other woman was regarding her with a mixture of sympathy and shrewdness.

“I… don’t have words that fix things,” Sera went on. “I don’t know if you — if you believe in your Creators, or if that helps. Probably not? I dunno. But you have friends. We’re real. Please remember that.”

Kaera felt her breath unexpectedly catching in her throat. She hadn’t thought that Sera would care, not about the Lavellan Clan or about Kaera’s feelings. Not that Sera was cruel or unsympathetic, but they were hardly close friends. For her to go out of her way to be kind and offer friendship… it was so utterly astonishing. And touching, really. It seemed Kaera had more friends here than she had counted on. She blinked and looked away, not wanting Sera to see her emotional reaction. But she did manage to say, her voice only a little rough, “Thank you. Thank you. That… means a lot to me.”

Sera cuffed her on the shoulder, not ungently. “Don’t go getting all sensitive on me, Quizzie,” she said. “Aren’t you Dalish supposed to be ever so above-it-all?” It was the kind of remark that would have made Kaera bristle, scant moments ago. But now, somehow, she heard the friendly teasing behind the barb, and managed to give a faint smile.

Sera nodded at her, turning to go, then hesitated. “Oh, one thing?” she said, even softer than before. “I have a Red Jenny near Wycome. Got a relayed message from him. Says he saw when your clan… well, I’m sorry that got lost while everything was happening. He says there could be survivors. A few. But they would’ve got away by being hard to find, so… he’ll keep looking?”

Kaera’s breath caught again. “Oh!” she exclaimed. Unconsciously, she twisted the ironbark ring on her finger, the one her Aunt Dorrit had given her. If anyone could have survived, Kaera was sure it would be Dorrit…. She took a deep breath. “Thank you, thank you so much, Sera. If you can find anything out, anything at all….”

“You’ll know soon as I do,” Sera told her. “You’ve done enough for the Jennies. Least we can do is keep an eye out for your people…. Really hope someone turns up.”

“Me too.”

With a final cuff to Kaera’s shoulder, Sera disappeared back into the crowd. Kaera, rubbing her shoulder, looked after her in bemusement. It really would be nice to become friends with Sera, she thought. She seemed fun, as well as being a decent archer and excellent contact.

Kaera collected her food and drink and was looking about for a spot to sit when someone waving caught her eye. To her delight, she spotted Lace, waving her over to the end of a long table, where there was a bit of space, just right for two.

“I hope this is all right,” Lace said as Kaera approached. “I thought maybe… maybe you just wanted it to be the two of us. But I’m sure we can go find a spot with the scouts, or — ”

“No, no, this is perfect,” Kaera said, smiling at Lace. “Just the two of us is… perfect.”

Lace returned her smile, and they seated themselves. Perhaps sensing that Kaera’s priority at the moment was eating rather than conversing, Lace regaled her with some of the gossip from the keep while Kaera busied herself with her meal. Lace managed to tell tales about their colleagues and others in the Inquisition with a playfulness that seemed to invite humorous fellowship rather than mockery, and it was a delight to listen to her.

As Kaera pushed her bowl aside, she felt fatigue grip her, and took a sip of ale to try to clear her head.

“So the copper marigolds weren’t for the empress’s crown after all,” Lace was saying. “Varric figures they’re a love offering for her handmaid. Isn’t that romantic?”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“…Of course, it’ll be so much more lucrative once Madame de Fer is able to cultivate them in her greenhouse.”

“…Of course…”

“Along with all the other metal flowers. Once the gold roses are harvested, the Inquisition will be rich!”

“I… what?” Kaera blinked, vaguely aware that something Lace had just said didn’t make sense.

Lace gave a low laugh. “Sorry, I couldn’t resist. You’re asleep on your feet, Kaera.”

Kaera scrubbed at her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said ruefully. “It’s been a long day.”

“I’ll bet. Are you… are you still doing all right?”

Kaera nodded slowly. “So far. It hits me hard, every so often. I’m still trying to understand it, trying to come to grips….” She sighed. “Right now, I’m so tired that I can barely think straight.”

“Why don’t you get yourself to bed,” Lace said. “And we can try this again tomorrow, maybe?” she asked hopefully.

Kaera gave a tired smile. “Oh, yes, please. I expect I’ll want your company even more tomorrow. And the day after. And the day after that, too,” she said playfully. Against her will, she yawned hugely; Lace giggled. “Haha, sorry,” Kaera said. “You’re right, I really do need to sleep properly.” She reached across the table with both hands. “Until tomorrow?”

Lace slipped both her hands into Kaera’s, beaming. “Tomorrow,” Lace said.

Grinning, Kaera brought both Lace’s hands to her lips, pressing a kiss to the back of each freckled hand, before releasing her, and rising to leave. She kept glancing back at Lace as she walked out of the tavern. If anyone else noticed their tête-à-tête, and their affectionate parting, Kaera did not see, nor did she care; she only had eyes for Lace.

Kaera fell into a sound sleep as soon as her head his her pillow, and dreamed of copper marigolds whose petals withered and blew away like ash in the wind.

Chapter Text

The next several days passed in fits and starts; Kaera sometimes felt like she was dreaming while awake. Much of her life at Skyhold went on as it had for many months before, ever since the place had been made liveable and people had started to flock to them. She spent hours with her advisors, trying to understand situations far outside her experience, learning as much as she could before making decisions about the Inquisition’s involvement. She sat in judgment. She visited and spoke with Skyhold’s denizens, hearing their complaints and their problems, their successes and accomplishments, their aspirations and hopes. She trained in the yard, she read, she made arrows.

But every day, and most nights, were punctuated by sudden fits of overwhelming grief. Many times, Kaera was reasonably sure no one noticed her unrest, which often manifested as a sudden withdrawal into her own thoughts, or (mortifyingly) as a minor outburst of temper. This was embarrassing, and Kaera would not have blamed any of her friends for pulling away from her over it; but, to her relief and chagrin, everyone she thought of as a friend seemed to stick by her. She had an enjoyable afternoon tea with Josephine; Bull offered himself as a sparring partner for her practice with her double daggers, and invited her to sit the the Chargers in the tavern each evening; Dorian bantered cheerfully with her when she came to the library for more books; Blackwall offered her wood from his own stockpile to make her arrows (which was awfully kind of him, although the wood he used for his carvings was absolutely the wrong type to be making arrows with); even Sera sought her out to tell her about the pranks she had pulled recently. Everyone really was being so kind, more kind than she deserved.

Despite her friends’ efforts, she sometimes felt so lonely, so alone, that she thought her heart might break. These feelings were baffling, given that she spent much of each day in the company of friends and colleagues. Fortunately, such feelings passed almost as quickly as they surfaced. Kaera put it all down to the process of grief, and simply tried to manage such fits when they arose, and then move on with her day; she had no wish to spend time or energy on them, and certainly her friends would not want to be around someone who was suddenly needy in addition to being suddenly temperamental!

In the evenings, Kaera managed to spend time with Lace in the tavern. Each day, she looked forward to seeing her, and each night, Kaera was once more amazed at how lucky she was to have Lace in her life, like this. They were not hiding their relationship, which was wonderful; Kaera rather liked being able to show Lace off when they were together in public. When she was with Lace, it was easy for Kaera to set aside her grief, so just be happy. This was a massive relief, since Lace was the last person Kaera would wish to burden with the drudgery of mourning. Whenever Lace asked about how Kaera was coping, or mentioned Wycome or the Lavellan clan… Kaera simply changed the subject. Lace was so interesting, and knew so much, listening to her was a delight.

They had not become as…physically close as they had while on expedition. Kaera might kiss Lace’s hands, or her cheek, but that was the extent of it. And she found that, at the end of each evening, she was tired and simply wanted to go to sleep, alone; so much for her idle thoughts of taking Lace to bed the moment they returned to Skyhold! But, in some ways, this was better. They could take their time, get to know one another. The dancing lessons resumed shortly after their return, and their relationship was known enough among the tavern’s regulars that they always ended up partnered together. It was lovely, being in Lace’s arms once more. She felt safe like this: held close, but neither pressuring the other for anything more. Kaera was never happier than when Lace was leading her through the steps of a dance, there in the tavern.

The days turned into weeks. Kaera hadn’t been required on any missions, which was a welcome respite, although there was certainly enough to keep her busy in Skyhold. Lace went out on an expedition for a week with a number of the scouts. Kaera missed her every day, and managed to wheedle Leliana into allowing her to include little notes with each raven that went out. When Lace returned, their dancing that evening in the tavern was, Kaera thought, even more exuberant than usual; it was wonderful, being able to hold Lace close once more, to make her smile and blush by telling her how beautiful she was, to have their friends laugh and tease them and smile indulgently when Kaera claimed Lace for yet another dance.

Every day, Kaera felt more like herself again. Every day, she had fewer bouts of grief, fell into fewer pits of irrational loneliness. Every day, she felt more and more sure of the friendships she was cultivating, more content and comfortable and stable.

There was one person in the Inquisition with whom Kaera seemed unable to connect, despite wanting to. Cassandra had been avoiding Kaera ever since she had gotten back from the last dragon hunt. At first, Kaera had barely noticed; she had been dealing with fresh grief. But, after twenty days or so of being back, it had become painfully obvious that Cassandra was going out of her way to avoid her. If Kaera approached her in the yard while they were both training, the Seeker moved elsewhere. She made herself scarce at mealtimes, and in the tavern, whenever Kaera happened to spot her. When she first noticed it, Kaera was confused; this quickly gave way to hurt. Had she done something to offend Cassandra?

She put this question to Josephine, directly, during what had become a somewhat-regular teatime meeting in Josephine’s sitting room. Josephine sighed into her tea, creating a tiny puff of steam.

“No, you have not done anything to offend her,” Josephine said. “It is nothing that you have done, or failed to do, I assure you. It is many small things all coming together, I’m afraid.” She set her teacup down. “Cassandra feels guilty about missing the dragon hunt. Yes, I know, the hunt went extremely well; nonetheless, she feels she ought to have been there. She seems to be under the impression that the Inquisitor must not hunt dragons without the Inquisition’s unofficial dragon hunter.” Josephine sounded just a little vexed, and Kaera had to hide her smile by taking a sip of tea; married scarcely more than a month, and Josephine already spoke of her wife with the fond exasperation of a long-wedded spouse.

“Further, I am afraid she also feels… well. She feels guilty that our sealed marriage may have distracted the advisors — and you — from properly assessing the situation in Wycome.” Josephine said this carefully, observing Kaera’s reaction.

Kaera took a slow sip of her tea (such a strange human custom, drinking steeped leaves with little medicinal value; but Kaera found she was getting accustomed to it, and even starting to enjoy the flavourful brews Josephine provided during their meetings), then said, “And she has no more reason for this guilt than you had,” she said. “You know this.”

“Perhaps,” Josephine conceded. “But, given the outcome, it is not an easy thing to live with — as I’m sure you are very aware.” She took up her teacup once more, filling it from the pot that sat on the table between them, and spoke without looking at Kaera. “And… she is cognizant of what your feelings were. That is — your feelings toward her. I truly believe that she was unaware of how these feelings had… persisted. Now that she is aware, she feels guilty about that as well. She is deeply worried that speaking to you, she would say the wrong thing, and hurt you or make you upset.” Josephine glanced at her. “And her guilt over this compounds, unfortunately, with her guilt over the distractions around Wycome.”

Kaera found it difficult, then, to meet Josephine’s eyes. To think about this was no longer a pain, not quite. But the echo of pain was still there. And even had there never been pain, Kaera would still have been mortified to speak of this, of her thwarted and selfish infatuation, to Josephine of all people.

But… the other woman was gazing at her with no judgment whatsoever. In fact, she seemed herself a little uncertain, a little self-conscious.

Well. There was no point in beating around the bush. Obviously, Josephine was well aware of what Kaera’s feelings had been. Best to follow Josephine’s lead and address it head-on. “I suppose that’s understandable,” she said. “It’s certainly… an awkward situation for everyone.” She offered a wan smile, which Josephine returned. “But it’s all absolutely in the past.” Her smile grew more confident. “The sealed marriage business was a shock to us all, and it stirred up the last sparks of… of those emotions. And I dealt with that, and I’ve moved on. I really have.” Thinking of Lace, she smiled widely.

Josephine looked rather relieved. “I was certain that was the case. And… if I may be so bold, might I wish you and Scout Harding well?”

Still smiling, Kaera replied, “Thank you! Thank you. I’m really just… I feel very lucky.”

“How wonderful! I am so happy to hear that. You, of all people, certainly deserve some joy in your life.”

“Ah, I don’t know about that…” Kaera said, a little embarrassed. “But it’s been very nice.” She gave a low laugh. “I guess I never really thought that — that I would actually be able to have something like this. To have someone in my life like this.”

“Isn’t it wonderful, when such things happen, unlooked-for,” Josephine said softly. Kaera met her eye, and they exchanged smiles. “Well,” Josephine said, setting aside her teacup and rising. “I will have words with Cassandra. There is clearly no reason for her to continue to avoid you, not that there ever was, truly. I will make sure she stops doing so,” Josephine said decisively, a fiercely determined look on her face.

Kaera almost felt a little sorry for Cassandra.

***

Although Kaera was very aware that Josephine was a woman who — when she put her mind to something — got results, she was still a little taken aback when Cassandra accosted her in the yard later that same day.

“Inquisitor,” the Seeker began. “…Kaera. Might have a word? In private?” She looked exceedingly uncomfortable.

Taking pity on her, Kaera nodded and immediately wrote off her plans to do a bit of training before the evening meal. “Of course. Where…?”

Cassandra glanced around, then jerked her head in the direction of a tucked-away corner of the yard where Kaera knew Cassandra sometimes went to read her books of stories. One wouldn’t notice someone there unless one happened to look specifically into that corner while walking through that end of the yard; it was as private as outdoor space in Skyhold could ever be. The Seeker had apparently set a wooden chair, much-repaired, in the otherwise-inconvenient space, though neither woman made a move to sit.

Cassandra turned to face Kaera. Every part of her body radiated discomfort. Kaera was more than a little nervous herself — despite Josephine’s assurances that Cassandra was not upset with her, Kaera could not shake the suspicion Cassandra was about inform her that although they could be colleagues, they could no longer be friends. Certainly, after the other woman had been so obviously avoiding Kaera, it would not be entirely… unexpected. She braced herself, and waited for Cassandra to speak.

The Seeker cleared her throat awkwardly, avoiding Kaera’s gaze. “I have been told I must talk to you,” she said, stilted and viscerally unhappy.

When Cassandra stopped at that, Kaera’s heart dropped. “Ah,” she said. “Yes, I was visiting with Josephine earlier, and she said she would speak to you. But, Cassandra, I — you don’t have to do this,” she said, trying to keep her voice even. “If you — if you don’t wish to associate with me, or, or be friends any longer, then I am certainly not going to require it of you.”

“No, that is not — Inquisitor, Kaera, it is not that I do not wish to — ugh!” Cassandra shook her head in aggravation. She took a slow breath, then looked Kaera in the eye. “I do wish to be your friend. I am proud to call you friend. But after all the business with Lord Thomasz and — and my marriage — and I assure you, Kaera, if I had known that you still felt… felt anything about me, that I would never have asked you to participate.” Again, she shook her head, like a restless horse. “I am an idiot. I should have known.”

Kaera held up her hands in an appeasing gesture. “Cassandra, please don’t say such things,” she said. “If you had asked me before your courtship of Josephine, I would have told you that I felt only friendship, admiration, and respect for you. Believe me, I was shocked at myself when… well, it hardly matters now. Now, I would very much like for us to be friends.” She looked hopefully at Cassandra.

But the other woman’s expression was still troubled. “You offer me friendship, despite the fact that my personal affairs — the distraction of the sealed marriage — contributed greatly to the devastation of the Lavellan Clan at Wycome,” she said, her voice dull.

Kaera shook her head vehemently, denying this. “That is absolutely not true,” she said. “Cassandra, I made the decision to have Inquisition forces march on Wycome, based on input from all of my advisors. If anything, I was more focused on my work during your courtship. And we have no way of knowing whether a different decision on my part would have — no, you know what?” she said, abruptly interrupting her own argument. “It doesn’t matter. The sealed marriage was absolutely necessary. Your distraction, and Josephine’s, was absolutely understandable, and didn’t really impact the decisions I made. What’s done is done, no one can change the past, and regardless, Cassandra, it was not your fault,” she said emphatically. She ran her fingers through her hair, agitated.

Cassandra hesitated, then nodded. Seeming to choose her words carefully, she said, “Thank you, Kaera. I think it is likely inevitable that I will feel some responsibility for… for Wycome. But I very much appreciate your reassurance, and your rationality, as regards this matter… and I greatly appreciate your friendship. I — ” Here, Cassandra hesitated again, and took a deep breath before continuing. “I am your friend, Kaera, and… I have some understanding of what it is to lose people… people you perhaps cared about, or people with whom you had… complicated familial relationships,” Cassandra said wryly. She looked into Kaera’s eyes. “I know I am not always… eloquent. And I am aware that our friendship is — that it might be complicated… by… our history. But I hope I could be a source of… of comfort. And understanding.” Cassandra’s demeanour was kind and sincere, if a little awkward, and as she spoke she held open her hands toward Kaera.

Perhaps it was the cumulative effect of many days of publicly suppressing the low grief that still roiled beneath the surface of Kaera’s consciousness; perhaps it was the surprise of empathy from an unexpected source; perhaps it was relief that Cassandra still wished for friendship. Regardless of the reason, at Cassandra’s words, some wall in Kaera toppled, and grief came rushing out. Choking on it, she fell forward into the Seeker’s arms. She was not weeping, for what seized her then could not be called anything so gentle-sounding as “weeping.” The harsh noises she made were not quite sobs, and a veritable torrent of tears poured from her eyes. Helpless, beyond embarrassment, Kaera shuddered and shook and rode it out, with Cassandra silently holding her.

Eventually, Kaera got control of herself once more, and became aware that she had rather disgracefully dampened Cassandra’s shoulder. “Oh, Creators, I’m so sorry!” she exclaimed in dismay, pulling away, ineffectually fluttering her fingers over Cassandra’s shoulder. “I’ve made a mess…” she said, acutely embarrassed.

Cassandra held her arms, not letting her get far. To Kaera’s consternation, the Seeker was smiling. “Do not trouble yourself over it,” she said. “My leathers have been through far worse. As have I,” she added, giving Kaera’s arms a squeeze. “I am glad I could be here for you, to… to help, in some small way, with your grief. It is something I understand… and it is part of what makes you a good leader, these feelings, and how you handle them.” Cassandra rummaged about in a pocket and produced a clean but worn-looking handkerchief, which she handed to Kaera.

Kaera solemnly dabbed at her face; her breathing had slowed and evened, and although she felt a little achy and water-logged from her fit of grief, she also felt… lighter. Happy. Kaera had been so careful to contain her grief with everyone else. Even… no, especially with Lace, since she wanted her time with Lace to be happy and enjoyable for the other woman, not bogged down with Kaera’s neediness. But with Cassandra… Kaera knew that Cassandra had experienced loss, had lost her family at a very young age. If Cassandra, of all people, encouraged Kaera to open up about her grief, how could grief be weakness? Nothing about Cassandra encouraged weakness.

It had felt good to give free rein to her emotions, here, with Cassandra, at least for a little bit; it felt much better than when she wept alone. And, above all that, it was a massive relief to know that Cassandra was not angry or upset with her, that she would no longer be avoiding her. They were still friends.

She offered Cassandra a small smile, and felt a tiny twist in her heart when the Seeker gave a smile in return. They were still standing very close. And Cassandra… Cassandra was still very beautiful, Kaera thought. My friend is beautiful, she thought to herself, feeling the twist in her heart relax into gentle ease. It was such a comfort to know that they were still friends, and only friends, and that Kaera was more than happy with that.

“Thank you,” Kaera said, straightening and tucking the handkerchief into a pocket. “I think that was a long time coming,” she admitted. “Thank you, Cassandra, for… well. For being a friend.”

Cassandra nodded. “Always. And… if you ever feel the need to talk, or if you need a shoulder to cry on…”

“Literally, in some cases,” Kaera said ruefully.

Cassandra smiled. “I know my reputation is that I am hard, and impatient, and brusque. And I can be those things, it is true. But I am also well-acquainted with grief. And… I would not wish any friend of mine to feel alone in her grief, Kaera.”

Kaera felt a sudden swell of gratitude and happiness, strong enough to cause her eyes to prickle with tears. What had she done to deserve such friendship? “Thank you,” she said unevenly. “Thank you.” Impulsively, she leaned forward and, unheeding of the still-damp spot on Cassandra’s shoulder, pulled the other woman into an embrace. As Cassandra’s arms came around her and held her tight, Kaera felt nothing but friendship, safety, comfort, happiness. And for a brief moment, leaning on Cassandra’s strength and her friendship, Kaera allowed herself to believe that maybe everything would be all right.

Chapter Text

Kaera did not see Lace at the tavern that evening, which was unusual, but not alarming. Although they had made it something of a habit to spend most evenings together, they had not explicitly agreed to do so. After eating in the mess hall, Kaera had run into Varric, who invited her to a game of Wicked Grace in the tavern, which she readily agreed to. Kaera had vague thoughts of inviting Lace to play as well, but she didn’t see the scout anywhere in the Herald’s Rest as they entered.

Despite the disappointment of not seeing Lace, it ended up being a wonderful evening for Kaera. It was the first time since she’d returned from the Western Approach that she’d gotten together with a large group of her friends. Just sitting at the table, listening to the lively conversation and watching everyone’s faces, made Kaera feel deeply happy.

Varric and Cullen got into a spirited debate about the “Kirkwall rules” for Wicked Grace (they must have run in very different circles in Kirkwall, Kaera surmised). Josephine evidently coaxed Cassandra into coming, and it was genuinely lovely for Kaera to see them together… to say nothing of the fact that Cassandra’s presence meant that Kaera wasn’t the worst player at the table. At one point, she attempted to teach Cassandra a few of the tips she had picked up — until Varric had taught her a few months ago, Kaera herself had not known anything about human card games, and still found them a little mystifying. She leaned over to see Cassandra’s cards and give her advice about her strategy, yet even with Kaera literally plucking cards out of the Seeker’s hand to put into play, Cassandra still seemed to utterly misunderstand the nature of bluffing, and so lost anyway.

Sera managed to tidily win two hands before wandering off — she insisted that she didn’t care about “stupid cards” and had acted as though she was playing entirely randomly, but Kaera strongly suspected that Sera was actually a cunningly good card player (or perhaps a very effective cheat, not that there was much difference in Kaera’s mind, for a game based on deception and diversion). Throughout, tall tales and gossip and laughter passed between the players.

Kaera enjoyed herself thoroughly, and didn’t even mind losing a bit of her gold. In between conversations and rounds of Wicked Grace, Kaera glanced around the tavern, trying to spot Lace in the crowd. She thought she saw a flash of her auburn hair at one point, but perhaps not. Ah well, she would invite Lace to play cards with the larger group some other time.

Then Kaera went another whole day without seeing Lace, and her nagging confusion spun itself into active worry. To make matters worse, the general atmosphere in Skyhold had become abruptly more fraught when Varric had introduced Kaera to his friend, a human woman known as the Champion of Kirkwall. Kaera had initially been under the impression that this woman — Hawke, as she asked to be addressed — was simply there as a favour to Varric and to help the Inquisition to learn more about Corypheus through Hawke’s connection to the Grey Wardens. But apparently there was some kind of history there, because when Cassandra had learned about Hawke’s presence at Skyhold, she had become so instantly and overwhelmingly angry that she actually took a swing at Varric, right there in front of Kaera, and it had taken some time to talk both of them down from that, leaving Kaera rattled and distracted.

Later, at the War Table, Kaera inquired as to whether the scouts had all been sent out; they had not. Kaera thought perhaps Josephine was giving her one of her significant looks when this was asked, but she was unable to pursue it further because they had to make plans to follow the lead Hawke had brought to them, and before she could really wrap her head around what was happening, Kaera found herself packing to leave for Crestwood early the next morning. She stuck her head in the Herald’s Rest, briefly, hoping that perhaps, if Lace was around, they could have a nice drink together before Kaera left. It would be so lovely, Kaera thought, to sit down after the chaos of the day and lose herself in Lace’s calm and common-sense, in her sweet voice and sweeter smiles; perhaps, to leave hand-in-hand; perhaps, a kiss goodnight, and kiss goodbye, in the courtyard, or in the hallway outside Kaera’s rooms, or on the settee in front of Kaera’s fireplace….

She blinked as a ceramic mug shattered somewhere in the depths of the tavern, followed by raucous laughter. Lace was nowhere to be seen. Kaera did not especially feel like joining the Chargers, or going to where Sera and Blackwall sat laughing with some of the rough-looking mercenaries in a corner, or any other group. She just wanted to see Lace, by the Creators!

Huffing in frustration, Kaera pushed her way out of the tavern, into the cool night air. Well. There was one thing she could, perhaps, do before she left. She made her way to her rooms, built up the fire, and managed to find everything she would need to write a letter. She had applied herself, quite studiously, to learning how to read and write properly in the common tongue. At one time, she had delusions of reading the same florid novels as Cassandra, or perhaps writing her poetry…. Kaera could only smile at herself, at her ill-advised single-mindedness. Before joining the Inquisition, Kaera knew enough of the common tongue writing to both write and decipher notes when she and her companions from the clan needed to communicate with groups of humans or other outsiders. Here, with the help of Dorian and a few other regulars in Skyhold’s library, Kaera had learned enough to be a rather decent writer, if she did say so herself.

Kaera wrote:

My dearest Lace,

How I have missed you these past few days! Perhaps you have adopted the hunter’s art of concealment so well that even other hunters cannot find you. If so, please teach me your ways, so that we might hide out together!

Kaera fiddled with the pen for a moment, unsure about how to proceed. Then she decided that this was no time to hold back; she had not seen Lace for many days, and would not see her for another week at least. Besides, the end of the world could come about at any time — despite Skyhold’s apparent fastness, they were all painfully aware that the Inquisition was always just one freak attack away from another Haven…. To think that Lace might be taken from her as her clan had been — no! Kaera’s breath caught. She would not think of such things. She would think only of how happy Lace made her, of how Lace’s smile lit up every corner of Kaera’s heart, of how the callouses on Lace’s fingers were such a perfect counterpart to her own….

Oh, my Lace, Kaera wrote, suddenly overcome with tenderness. I wish I could see you before I leave. I wish I could tell you how much you mean to me, how happy you have made me. In such a short time, you have brought such joy into my life, and I can scarcely believe how lucky I am. I want to dance with you every evening, and go stargazing on the ramparts ever night. I miss your voice, and your smile, and your hands in mine. When I am returned from this Very Secret Mission, I hope we can make up for lost time….

Kaera paused. I hope you know how wonderful it has been to have you in my life this last little time, when things have been especially hard, she wrote. Knowing that I would see you soon has helped me get through dull and draining days, or long and lonely nights. Talking with you, just spending time with you, is a balm to my soul. You have been so patient, so kind, so gentle with me, when it felt like the world was full of pain and loss. It really was true, Kaera thought. Lace had not pushed her to be more open than she felt ready for, had simply allowed their time together to be light and happy and… well, rather superficial. Kaera had thought this to be a good thing, focusing only on that which brought delight… but opening up to Cassandra, even a little, had shown Kaera that perhaps openness about her grief could bring her closer to Lace rather than push the other woman away.

She wrote: I have not been able to open my heart to you as much as I wish to; my heart, like a wounded animal, went to ground. And you, like the wonderful hunter you are, have been quiet, waiting for it to emerge again. When I return, I will show you how much my heart truly yearns for you, and I will tell you all about how much I adore you and cherish you. I can hardly wait.

Satisfied, Kaera signed the letter as prettily as she could manage — her handwriting was not nearly as elegant as she would like for something like this — blotted it, folded it and sealed it, then addressed it to Lace. Tucking it partly into her jerkin, she trotted back out to the yard, heading for the tavern. She would leave it with Cabot or Maryden, with instructions to hand it off to Lace as soon as possible. Although perhaps Lace herself was in the tavern by now, and Kaera could give it to her personally… after all, it wasn’t that late….

The tavern was a little less crowded than before, though as noisy as ever, as the remaining patrons had busied themselves with their drinks in the intervening time. Kaera made her way directly to the bar, hoping to just leave the note with Cabot and be done, when she spotted Lace by her distinctive auburn hair (which was, gloriously, let down to tumble in soft waves past her shoulders, here at Skyhold). She was seated with her back to the room at a table a by the wall, across from two scouts — human men Kaera recognized from expeditions and from in and around Skyhold, both swordsmen, and an established couple since before joining up with the Inquisition.

Well, this was a bit of good luck, finding Lace here at the last moment. Kaera approached the table, and the men glanced up at her before giving one another a significant look. Lace must have noticed their reaction, because she turned around to look just as Kaera stepped up to the table.

Kaera gave Lace a crooked smile, sensing that her presence wasn’t entirely welcome — they must be discussing business affecting the scouts. Leaning over, she placed a hand on Lace’s shoulder, but she could feel the sudden tension in the other woman’s body at the moment of contact and immediately let her hand drop to her side. Well, whatever they’d been discussing must be something truly hard, Kaera thought. She had been caught up in dealing with the fallout of Hawke’s arrival and the subsequent planning to locate the Grey Wardens, so if something had gone awry with a scouting mission, she might not have heard about it yet.

Kaera opened her mouth to ask, thinking perhaps she could offer help or support, or at least a sympathetic ear, when one of the men spoke. “What are you doing here?” he asked curtly.

Kaera’s head snapped up. She was generally used to humans speaking to her with disdain, but this was a man she’d been on missions with, and had previously had very cordial conversations with both him and his mate. Getting over her shock (and reasoning that what they’d been discussing must have been dire indeed), Kaera said, “Ah, sorry to interrupt. I just wanted to say goodbye to Lace, since I’ll be heading off in the morning.” Tilting her head down to look at Lace, she found the other woman was not meeting her eye. Kaera pushed away the sting, and went on: “I’ve really missed you, the last little bit, but when I come back, I’d really like if we could spend some time — ”

“Why would she want to spend time with you?” the first man snapped.

The second man hissed, “Padrick, Maker’s breath, leave it.” Then, to Kaera, the second man (Eron, if Kaera was remembering his name correctly) said, “Sorry, Inquisitor. He’s always sticking his nose in other people’s business.”

“Oh, so our friend being mistreated is ‘none of my business,’ is it?” Padrick asked, rounding on Eron.

“Harding can handle this herself,” Eron replied.

Kaera glanced back down at Lace, who hadn’t moved or spoken. “Lace? Is… are you having a problem with someone?”

Padrick snorted. “‘Having a problem with someone?’. You lead her on, you keep blowing hot and cold, and then you find comfort in another’s arms, and then have the gall to pretend you don’t know — ”

“What?” Kaera asked, her voice emerging in an undignified squawk. She glanced between the men and Lace, confused. “Lace, what is he talking about?”

Lace looked up at Kaera, her expression pained. She shook her head. “It’s just… lately, you’ve been — that is, I feel like maybe you — ”

“You performed an emotional vanishing act,” Padrick said imperiously. Eron had lowered his head to rest his forehead against his open hand, but Padrick paid him no heed as he went on. “Right when you could have reached out to someone important to you,” he said with a significant glance at Lace, “you pulled away. And maybe that would have been understandable, but you certainly didn’t pull away from everyone.” Kaera stared at him, her face burning, mortified and baffled. What was this man going on about? “Tea with the ambassador, dinner with the Commander, cards with the whole lot of them… and could you spare so much as a moment to spend with our dear friend here, who cared about you so much?” he asked, gesturing to Lace with his hand.

Lace was shaking her head, glancing between Kaera and Padrick. “No, it wasn’t like that!” she protested weakly.

Kaera, for her part, was effectively speechless, but Padrick wasn’t finished yet. “And then, embracing another woman, crying in her arms and then embracing her, right in the yard! A woman with whom rumour says you have been deeply in love for many months! A married woman, at that!” he said, emphasizing his words my thumping his hand on the table. “And then spending most of your evening bent practically over her lap — right in front of her own wife! — while you play a degenerate card game,” he added with a flourish, then took a sip of beer in a way that was distinctly self-satisfied. “It’s just sad, really,” he concluded.

Eron finally raised his head. “Padrick, can you please not stir up drama, just for once — ”

Padrick raised his eyebrows. “I am just coming to defend our friend’s wounded heart,” he said. “Perhaps I simply care too much.” Eron rolled his eyes.

Kaera looked down at Lace, emotions roiling in her chest. She hadn’t given much thought to her conversation with Cassandra, aside from her relief that the Seeker wanted to be friends still. It had never occurred to her that they might have been seen, let alone that others might draw conclusions based on it… “Oh, Creators, Lace, if that’s what he’s talking about, it was just… just a friend comforting a friend. You know that, don’t you?”

Lace’s expression was so sad, so hurt that Kaera had to fight an impulse to lean over and pull her into an embrace. “Kaera, I — I trust you,” she said haltingly. “But you’ve been so distant. Any time you might have opened up to me, or come to me for comfort… every time, you’ve shut it down, or left. I thought it was just that you needed more time. But maybe…” Lace glanced away. “Maybe it’s just me. Maybe you’d rather find comfort… elsewhere.”

Kaera could not suppress a gasp. This was so wrong, Lace had it so wrong, Kaera could hardly speak fast enough. The words came out of her in a rush. “Oh, Lace, no, no no no, oh Creators. Lace, I wanted to… to just be happy when we were together, just focus on how wonderful and, and amazing you are, and how lucky I am to be with you. I didn’t want any of that, of that grief and sadness and confusion, to come between us. I didn’t want to put that burden on you…”

Lace looked back up at Kaera. To Kaera’s dismay, tears shone in the other woman’s eyes. “Don’t you trust me? To be strong enough? To be there for you? Don’t you think I’d understand?

Kaera felt tears spring to her own eyes. “Oh, Lace,” she murmured, leaning down toward her.

But Lace stiffened, moving slightly away from Kaera’s opening arms. On the other side of the table, Eron stood up, leaning over the table. “Inquisitor,” he said, his voice calm. “I really think you should go.”

Kaera looked over to him, and to Padrick still seated beside him and looking at her balefully. Both men were tall and had the musculature typical of swordsmen, and Kaera had little doubt that they would be able to enforce Eron’s request that she leave, if it came to that. She straightened and took a step back. “Lace,” she said, a note of pleading in her voice. “Do you want me to go?”

Lace’s shoulders were lowered, her head hunched down. She didn’t turn to look at Kaera as she said, “I think that’s for the best. I’m sorry.”

Kaera blinked back tears. “All right,” she said quietly. “All right.” Then she turned and left, walking quickly and meeting no one’s eye.

Back in her rooms, Kaera quickly lit a fire. She felt as though an armoured fist was squeezing her heart; it hurt, physically, almost as much as it hurt emotionally. She should have known, she thought bitterly. She ought to have known that she was not meant to have love, affection, a partner. She ought to have known that, given a real opportunity to be with someone as lovely and amazing as Lace, she would absolutely botch everything.

After wiping at her nose with her handkerchief, Kaera dug around in her jerkin for the note she’d written. She had half a mind to toss it into the fire.

But the note was nowhere to be found. She actually got most of the way out of her clothing, looking for it, but it was well and truly gone. Well, shit, she thought. Panic seized her for a moment — it could have fallen out anywhere! Someone might have picked it up, might be reading it and laughing about her right now! But she quickly calmed down. Most likely, it had fallen out by the table Lace was at in the tavern, and if she or her friends found it, it was likely already torn into pieces — or tossed into one of the tavern fireplaces. And even if someone else found it, even if someone else read it… so what? It was hardly a secret that she had been close to Lace. She was certainly not ashamed of her feelings, or afraid of people knowing of them. Perhaps it was a little embarrassing that her feelings might be scrutinized now, since it seemed unlikely that she would be able to salvage her relationship with Lace… the other woman didn’t even want to speak to her….

Still. Out of all the awful things that seemed to be happening in her life right now, Kaera thought that the possibility of her little love-letter being read was not especially catastrophic. So she changed the rest of the way out of her clothing and prepared to sleep. Grief over the loss of her relationship with Lace continued to squeeze at her chest and belly, aching, agitating. She had not felt this way about Madi, not at all; she had been upset, yes, and sad, but she hadn’t felt a grief like this, an ache of longing for all the future days they might have had together…. And, of course, with Cassandra, everything had been so overwrought that it was still difficult for her to contemplate what she had felt, after Cassandra had rejected her initially, and then after Cassandra had fallen in love with Josephine. It had been intense, to be sure, but it now seemed so shallow to Kaera; her romantic feelings had been so utterly one-sided, and her daydreams of a future together so laughably unlike anything Cassandra was likely to want for her life, that it seemed (in retrospect) silly to have mourned it at all.

Things had been so wonderful, with Lace. Stargazing on the road to Skyhold. Dancing in the tavern. Just being with her, talking, holding her calloused hands, seeing that sweet smile directed at herself…. Getting to know such an amazing woman was its own kind of pleasure, and the possibility of being romantic, of being intimate with her, was a blessing.

And now it was gone. Like so much else in Kaera’s life, snatched away. She pulled her left hand out from under the blankets, staring unhappily at the glowing green line on her palm, feeling its uncanny glow on her face. Everything in her life, she thought, had been twisted and corrupted… blighted. And this time, it was absolutely Kaera’s own fault, for pushing Lace away, for pushing down her own feelings, for allowing herself to take comfort with another friend instead of Lace. It was all so stupid, Kaera thought. And it had crushed the best relationship that Kaera had ever hoped to have in her life.

Sleep did not come easily, that night. When she did sleep, fitfully, Kaera dreamed of searching desperately for a bottle of akevitt, but finding only shattered and empty bottles.

Chapter Text

Kaera thought that the expedition to Crestwood was, for lack of another word, a slog. Hawke was coming with them to liaise with her Grey Warden contact, a human named Stroud. Varric had insisted on accompanying them, and Kaera could see no reason to refuse — it was the kind of mission that might benefit from having more ranged fighters in the party. In order to balance this, Kaera asked Vivienne to come along as the party’s mage, since Knight-Enchanters were capable of both ranged and melee fighting. Blackwall rounded out the party. Although Kaera liked all of her companions well enough, she was closer to some than to others, and she had no close friends among the party this time. She was, moreover, withdrawn and acutely unhappy, and would likely have been thus even among good friends.

They were traveling without scouts or any other escort, and no one beyond Varric and Hawke seemed inclined to banter, so both travel and camping happened in subdued quietude. Crestwood was as unpleasant as Kaera remembered it, damp and dark and corpse-ridden; the party saw action more than a few times, though (despite their apparent differences) the party fought well together and were never in any serious danger. Hawke proved herself to be an adept fighter with her twin daggers, and Kaera even roused herself once or twice to ask for pointers for her own training.

The party met with Stroud, and learned of the Grey Wardens’ predicament, of the Calling that had touched them all with Corypheus’s rise. Blackwall seemed to be relatively unaffected by the Calling — Kaera gathered that it had not affected all Grey Wardens equally, perhaps because it was a “false” calling, although Kaera certainly didn’t understand such things very well. At any rate, Kaera quickly offered the Inquisition’s protection to Stroud, now branded a traitor by Warden-Commander Clarel, and determined that they should regroup at Skyhold before taking the next steps to confront the Grey Warden. Time was, obviously, of the essence, and so the party wasted no time in setting back on the road to Skyhold. They travelled as quickly and inconspicuously as possible, resting during the day and avoiding main roads, for Stroud’s sake.

Kaera was, for once, not enjoying traveling at all. She was caught up in ruminations about Lace that made her want to withdraw into herself. Blackwall had attempted to chat with her a bit on the way to Crestwood, but was, in anything, even quieter and more withdrawn than Kaera on the way back. Varric spoke mostly with Hawke and Stroud, and Vivienne generally ignored them all except for occasional dry remarks about their surroundings.

Because they were trying not to attract attention, they had not had any missives from runners nor ravens the entire time… until a single raven arrived in their camp, days before they were due to arrive at Skyhold. Leliana’s ravens were extremely well-trained, and this one materialized next to the fire almost (it seemed) out of thin air, startling Kaera out of her reverie. Varric, Stroud, and Hawke were off to the side talking, heads together, as usual; Blackwall had gone into his tent immediately after eating. Vivienne and Kaera had been sitting by the fire in silence, and it was Vivienne who extended an elegant hand to the bird, deftly opening the cunningly-made little pack on its back and pulling out the rolled pieces of paper. She held out a scroll to Kaera, saying, “This one is addressed directly to you, Inquisitor.”

Kaera, feeling morose and not looking forward to being back in Skyhold, much less reading correspondence from that place, looked blankly at the tightly-rolled paper in Vivienne’s hand; then, reluctantly, she reached for it.

“Well, I suppose that if you’re not in the mood, my dear, I’ll look at the other one — it’s not addressed, so I imagine it’s an update for any and all of us,” Vivienne said, her voice as neutrally pleasant as always.

Kaera looked down at the rolled paper, and saw, with a sinking feeling, that her name was unmistakably in Lace’s handwriting. They had exchanged enough little notes during the week Lace had been off on a mission that Kaera had no difficulty identifying Lace’s characteristic neat, straight lettering, so distinct from the tight handwriting favoured by Leliana and (apparently) everyone who worked for her. Why in the world would Lace be writing to her now? Judging by the heft and thickness of the rolled paper, she had quite a bit to say — this was not like the short notes of one or two lines written on scraps they had exchanged before. And if it was an important scouting report, why had they not waited until the party returned, or had Leliana or one of her people write it out in their narrow, coded text to save space? Whatever it was, Kaera thought, it couldn’t be good.

Vivienne had opened the other rolled paper and read it quickly, after summoning a small veilfire flame so she would not have to twist or stoop to read by firelight. She hummed, a sound that managed to be both inquisitive and conclusive at the same time. Kaera blinked at her, waiting for her to elaborate, but the mage appeared not to notice Kaera’s glance. Finally, Kaera said, “What is it, Vivienne? What does the note say?”

Vivienne’s eyebrows rose fractionally. “It informs the party that there is nothing of import to report from Skyhold, but that the raven will await a reply to the personal missive from Scout Harding.” Vivienne re-rolled the paper, setting it aside. “If you’re embarrassed, please don’t be,” Vivienne said, amusement colouring her voice as Kaera silently cursed the blush that was apparently visible on her cheeks even by firelight. “Your relationship has hardly been a secret, darling. It’s genuinely wonderful that you and that adorable scout have found happiness together. I hope you’re planning to court her properly, perhaps take her out somewhere nice the next time there’s a joint expedition near Val Royeaux. I can recommend a few places…. Ah, but please forgive me, my dear, I’m sure you’re wanting some privacy, to read your letter.” Vivienne made to rise.

Kaera swallowed around the lump that had formed in her throat, then managed to croak out, “No. No… I don’t think this is the kind of letter you’re thinking of.”

Vivienne gracefully sat back down, and hummed again, this time conveying concern and skepticism. “I can’t imagine why else Harding would be writing to you like this. You are together… aren’t you?”

“Yes. Well… no. Not anymore.”

Vivienne’s icy disapproval, communicated with a glance, washed over Kaera like a mountain wind. “Really,” she said, the barest edge behind her pleasantly-neutral tone. “Well, I hope you’ll reconsider, Kaera. I wouldn’t want you to break the poor girl’s heart. I’m sure there would be a reprisal.” Being caught by Vivienne’s gaze was, Kaera thought, exactly like a mouse being eyed by an enormous hunting-cat. It was terrifying. “Don’t toy with her, darling, it’s unkind,” Vivienne said, softening a tiny bit. “And she’s rather capable with that bow….”

“I know! I know,” Kaera said. “Believe me, I’ve been around when she’s used it. She’s amazing,” she added, unable to keep the frank adoration out of her voice. “Look, I — it wasn’t my idea to end things. I wish… I wish a lot of things,” she said sadly, staring into the low flames of the campfire. “It didn’t work out. I… wasn’t as open with her as I should have been. She doesn’t want to speak to me anymore. So that’s that.”

Vivienne was silent for a moment. Then: “My dear, forgive me for pointing this out, but I can’t imagine that someone who has sent you a letter — an extraordinarily lengthy letter, for one conveyed with Leliana’s ravens — does not wish to speak to you.”

“Huh,” Kaera said, turning the rolled paper over and over in her hands, looking at her name in Lace’s handwriting. “Well. Maybe it’s just an extensive telling-off,” she said weakly, half-joking.

“That seems unlikely. Frankly, I can’t imagine Leliana would allow her ravens to be waylaid to deliver a barrage of insults. It’s rather impressive that your Scout Harding was able to convince Leliana to send a raven carrying only her letter to you — I knew Harding was capable with her bow, but to have cowed Sister Nightingale into such a deed is truly astonishing. It would be rather discourteous of you to dismiss her letter, especially after all the trouble she must have gone through.”

Kaera swallowed again. “Ah, perhaps you’re right,” she said, gently breaking the tiny seal on the scroll. “I suppose the least I can is actually read it.” She unrolled the paper, leaning forward to catch the glow of the fire. A cool flash of light ignited over her shoulder, and she smiled her thanks at Vivienne for the veilfire. She straightened, pulled the paper to its full length (a mere handspan, but an extraordinary length for a ravenborne note), and began to read:

Kaera, please forgive me; both for the brevity of this note, & (more importantly) for my treatment of you. I was upset before; sad that you didn’t seem to want my help or closeness during your grief, confused that you seemed to want help & closeness from others, esp. CP. I was afraid you wanted her and not me. Not talking or being close for so long seemed to confirm. I know I am no beauty, no hero, & I wondered what you saw in me. I doubted everything. But then I found your note the night before you left & realized I had been completely mistaken. I hope you will forgive me. I hope we can talk and be close again. I miss you. I insisted on sending this to you because we never know what will happen to any of us & couldn’t stand the thought of you believing I was still angry. I will try to be here upon your return. If you can forgive me, please write back. Yours, LH.

Kaera read the note several times over. Her relief was so intense it nearly knocked her over where she sat. Lace forgave her. Lace wanted to be close, still. Oh, this was so precisely what Kaera had wanted, wanted so badly without allowing herself to even think about it, that she could scarcely believe her good fortune.

Something must have shown in her face, because Vivienne smiled at her — a genuine, pleased smile, no disapproval at all, not that Kaera could sense. “I take it the letter comprised a positive development in your relationship with Scout Harding?”

Kaera took a deep breath. “Oh yes,” she said. “I think so.” She smiled, perhaps the first time she had done so on this entire Creators-forsaken trip.

“I’m very glad to hear it, my dear,” Vivienne said, gently snuffing out the veilfire above Kaera’s shoulder. Then she fixed Kaera with a look that was shrewd, though not disconcerting — or at least, not as disconcerting as Kaera was used to associated with Vivienne’s looks. “Would you like some advice from me?”

Startled, Kaera merely nodded.

“Power can change our circumstances, but it very rarely changes our hearts,” Vivienne said. “One sees this everywhere power is present. Perhaps the most obvious example of this in our time is the ongoing entanglement between the Empress Celene and her handmaiden, how neither can let it go despite the danger and complications it causes. Many of us who play the Game have the luxury to be more circumspect regarding our liaisons than the Empress, but I have found that — despite everything — the heart will love what it will love, absolutely regardless of power, of family, of propriety….” Vivienne, uncharacteristically, trailed off. She seemed to catch herself, though, and spoke on.

“I gather you came from a Dalish clan where you were not entirely happy with your role. I certainly understand that, and I respect that you were trying to put yourself in a position better suited to your skills and personal desires — it speaks well of you that you were not content to meekly accept your lot in life.” Kaera stared at Vivienne, rapt; they had scarcely ever had an entire conversation with just the two of them, and she’d had no idea that Vivienne had thought about her at all, let alone approved of her. “This led you to the Conclave, and what happened there, the power that was thrust upon you, was circumstance rather than ambition. But you have made the most of it, leading with conviction and integrity to your own goals. I know that it is likely not a thing you would have chosen for your life. Yet you have done so much good that one hopes you do not regret it entirely.”

“You may be giving me too much credit,” Kaera said. “I’m not much of a leader.”

“Nonsense, dear,” Vivienne said blithely. “You lead by the strength of your convictions, and by your disregard for what others think of you. It is an enviable set of skills, and one I would wish to see more of in the world.”

Kaera shot her a disbelieving look. “You can’t possibly wish more people were like me, especially not people in power. You’ve disapproved of almost every decision I’ve made as Inquisitor!”

“Your refusal to bow to others’ demands — even my own — speaks more to your integrity than anything,” Vivienne said. “It’s true, I considered leaving when you brought all those feral mages into Skyhold… but even then, I was impressed that you were not cowed, even a little, by the many people who did not approve. And I must admit, it has turned out to be not nearly as disastrous as it ought, by rights, to have been. I’m quite confident that Cullen’s training of Knight-Enchanters to be embedded in conventional military units will be a strength for the Inquisition, as well as an effective method for keeping the mages under reasonable control. Rather like Circles, only not confined to one place, and dedicated to furthering the Inquisition’s goals! Really, it’s quite a coup. No, you have directed the Inquisition from a position of independent strength, and you have done it well.”

Kaera still wasn’t sure she believed Vivienne about all this, but the mage was not finished speaking. She went on: “Now, power, as I said earlier, influences our circumstances, but generally does not influence who and how we love. I know you had some hopes regarding Cassandra at one time, and it was not to be; and this is for the best, as I cannot imagine her happier than she is with Josephine.”

Kaera gave the other woman a sharp look. Was that intended as a barb?

“I’m sure you must agree,” Vivienne went on smoothly. “She and Josephine are far more suited for one another than you could ever have hoped to be with Cassandra. You simply want different things out of life, which is true of any two individuals, but I’m sure you’re aware that you and Cassandra would have been miserably incompatible, even if she had shown interest.”

Kaera, more annoyed than hurt by these personal remarks, merely grunted in affirmation.

“Scout Harding is a wonderful match for you,” Vivienne went on. “Trust me, Kaera, I’ve observed the starting and ending of more love affairs than you’ve had hot meals. I can see when two people are genuinely suited for one another. It’s not so much about what you have in common — and, on paper, you and Harding have very little in common! A surface dwarf recruited by the Inquisition to scout and to serve, and a Dalish elf who has been elevated by circumstance to the pinnacle of that same Inquisition — your backgrounds and ranks don’t recommend the match at all. However, even a casual observer can see that you and Harding have compatible goals, compatible desires for both your day-to-day existence and your long-term plans for your lives. You enjoy spending time among friends and colleagues who work together, though you both also seek solitude as often as you seek companionship. You both prefer being out in the land, and chafe at spending a long time in an urban environment. You both prefer the freedom to do what you think is right, rather than being bound by firm duty to any larger organization. Really, it’s an obvious match, when one considers it.”

Kaera’s mouth was actually hanging open. She closed it, then opened it again to speak: “Well. Ah, I think so too. Though… I just really like being with her. She’s so interesting, and lovely to talk to… and such an incredibly good hunter and fighter. She knows so much about dancing, and astronomy, and she — ”

“Yes, yes, dear, spare me; I’m very happy for you both, but I’m afraid my patience for listening to lovelorn accolades is essentially nonexistent,” Vivienne said, not unkindly. “But I said I was going to offer you advice, not merely observations.” The mage looked at Kaera imperiously. “It is, generally, a good thing to be in control of one’s emotions, and how one displays them. Emotions are power, just as surely as rank or skill or money are their own kinds of power. Those of us who play the Game know this inherently. Emotions are the first and last seats of real power, and this means that being able to control and withhold one’s emotions is a potent skill.” Here Vivienne paused, and seemed to choose her words with more care than usual. “Withholding one’s emotions is a kind of power. And it is both unkind and unwise to exert power in relations of the heart. The cost is too great, both for oneself and for one’s lovers. Do you understand what I am saying?”

Kaera blinked. “I… I think so.”

“Good. You really need to do right by your Scout Harding, and I’m glad to have given you a nudge in the right direction on that account. Now,” Vivienne said, igniting another veilfire flame with a gesture, “it is late, and we ought to all retire. I’ll grant you a few moments of light to write your reply, if you can find your writing implements.”

Kaera scrambled to retrieve the scrap of wrapped, sharpened charcoal from her pack, then used it to scribble into the back of Lace’s note: Yes, yes, yes to everything. I am sorry, I miss you, I will see you soon. KL.

Leliana’s ravens flew by night as easily as by day, and so she placed the note into the little cylinder on the bird’s back, and sent it off. After that, the party, minus Blackwall, banked the fire and carefully crawled into their tents to sleep — with three to a tent, at least they all stayed warm, although Vivienne (predictably) kicked like a bronto as she slept.

That night, Kaera dreamed, and upon waking did not remember her dreams, save that in them she was loved, loved, loved.

Chapter Text

Chapter 13

After that, the time on the road seemed to fly by, at least for Kaera. The party still wasn’t especially talkative — Stroud, Hawke, and Varric still mostly kept to themselves, Blackwall was out of sorts, and despite their earlier conversation Vivienne showed little interest in sparking up camaraderie with Kaera or anyone else… although Kaera now had a much keener sense of how observant the mage could be, how her apparent aloofness was overlaid on a personality deeply invested in assessing those around her.

But Kaera was used to amusing herself, to keeping her own company. And now she had something to look forward to, something hopeful and happy. Oh, it would be a joy to see Lace once more. Kaera spent the long, quiet hours on the road or in camp thinking about all the things she wished to do with Lace. She thought about how she would take Lace in her arms the first time she saw her after coming back to Skyhold, how she would press kisses to Lace’s face, to the sweet corner of her mouth, tucked under the apple of her cheek. She thought about how they would dance together at the Herald’s Rest, how they would sit together in between dances and talk. She thought about what it might be like to take Lace to bed, to be intimate, to touch and kiss and pleasure one another…. (She mostly thought about this while they trekked along, rather than in camp, since being tucked into a small tent with Vivienne and Hawke was not exactly conducive to such thoughts.) She thought about how they might make a life together outside and after the Inquisition, about what that might look like, where they might go, how they might live.

Kaera also had many, many moments of doubt, of panic, even. After all, the note from Lace — which she had, perhaps short-sightedly, returned on the raven’s back before entirely managing to memorize its contents — was hardly a definitive form of forgiveness. Perhaps Lace was not as sure about this as Kaera hoped… certainly there would be difficult conversations to have, apologies that Kaera would likely have to make more than once in order to move forward. She had hurt Lace, rather badly, although inadvertently. And yet she somehow had the unbelievable good fortune to be able to make amends and win her back. It seemed too good to be true. In her moments of doubt, Kaera was certain that it was too good to be true, that she had misunderstood the note… or that Lace would have changed her mind by the time they got to Skyhold.

There was no point in dwelling on such gloomy thoughts. And the pleasant thoughts were enjoyable, and helped pass the time, so Kaera indulged in them, frequently, during those last few days on the road.

When Skyhold’s towers at last hove into view, Kaera felt a turmoil of emotions that ultimately resolved themselves into a low-level nervousness as they rode through the gates into the yard. It was midday, and the usual small crowd gathered to greet them. Kaera looked for Lace while trying not to look as though she was looking; she suspected she failed spectacularly, as she could not quite help twisting her head this way and that, looking for a flash of auburn hair in the throng. Still, it didn’t matter, in the end. Lace was not in the yard. It was not unexpected, and was probably for the best, since Kaera knew she had to take Stroud and the others to the war table immediately to begin plans for their return to the Western Approach in order to roust the corrupted Grey Wardens they now knew to be operating in that region.

So, after a rapid change of clothes and quick wash, Kaera went to the war room to do just that, where she remained with Stroud and the advisors until the torches needed to be lit. They emerged with a plan to set out for the Western Approach within a few days. Conscious of the risk Stroud was exposing himself to by helping them, Kaera made sure the man was provided secure rooms, then settled him with Hawke at Varric’s fireplace — with discreet guards stationed throughout the throne room and apprised of the situation.

Then, feeling famished on top of fairly desperate to see Lace, Kaera made her way to the Herald’s Rest. Although they hadn’t made actual plans to meet… it seemed safe to assume that if Lace actually wanted to see Kaera, this would be where they would find one another. In the pale light of later afternoon, a few folks were making their way through the yard, though none were lingering… save one. Lace was standing outside the tavern, alone, looking around (Kaera thought) a little uneasily. When their eyes met, Kaera’s heart lurched, and she quickened her pace.

Kaera stopped a few feet away from Lace. She was once again struck with how beautiful Lace was. Unthinking, she allowed her eyes to drift over Lace, admiring. It would be easy for a lot of people to overlook her beauty, Kaera thought. She was so practical in her demeanour and role when on expedition, that her loveliness could easily be overshadowed by her competence. But here in Skyhold, with her hair let down and glowing in the torchlight, dressed in a way that was softer and showed the curves of her figure, where her laughter and cheerfulness were on display among friends in the tavern, or her grace and skill at dance lessons… Kaera was proud, so proud to have caught the eye of such a woman. To be able to show her off, and be seen with her.

But first, she had to apologize, and win back Lace’s trust. And before she could do that, she would have to stop staring (and, Kaera noted, to her hopeful delight, making Lace flush a little) and actually speak to her.

Kaera took a deep breath, then began: “Oh, Lace, I am so sorry.”

Before she got any further, Lace made a soft sound, like a sigh or a cry, and stepped forward, holding out her arms hesitantly. And Kaera helplessly fell forward, into those strong arms, wrapped her own arms around Lace and held her tight. She felt herself shaking with something that wasn’t quite laughter, and certainly wasn’t weeping, but which made her breath catch and judder in her throat, and made speaking quite impossible for a few moments. Kaera lowered her head and tucked her nose into the warm crook of Lace’s neck, inhaling the smoke-salt scent of her skin. It was the closest they had been, physically, since returning to Skyhold after the last dragon hunt. It felt so very right, so necessary, that Kaera was almost shocked to realize how long it had been, how distant and closed-off she must have been, to have not sought these embraces.

They stood like that, not speaking, for a time, heedless of the folks walking past them in the yard. Eventually, Kaera turned up her head so that her lips brushed Lace’s ear, and said, softly, “I missed this so much. I missed you so much, Lace.”

“Yeah,” Lace breathed softly, “me too. Me too.”

Kaera pulled back far enough to look at Lace’s face, their arms still around one another, and was about to speak when her stomach issued a squeaking rumble that was clearly audible. Kaera gave a dismayed squawk of laughter. “Oh dear, I’m sorry. I’ve barely eaten today, we were in the war room as soon as we came through the gates….”

Lace was smiling. “You poor thing,” she said, amused. “They’re practically starving you! Fortunately, I know the tavern’s stew is especially good tonight — those little mountain hens are in season…” Lace tucked Kaera’s arm into the crook of her elbow and led Kaera into the light and warmth of the Herald’s Rest.

They managed to find a table where they could converse easily enough, but it was far from private. By unspoken agreement, both women spoke only of neutral topics: the changing of the season, their mutual friends, gossip from around Skyhold. They ate and drank as they talked; Kaera put herself outside of two entire bowls of stew — it was really good, and she was absolutely famished, after all. When they had finished the food and essentially exhausted all possible subjects of small talk, there was a pause in the conversation. Kaera offered a crooked smile to Lace, then reached her hand across the table, palm up. Lace covered it with her own hand. They sat in silence for a moment, just enjoying the connection. Kaera allowed her fingers to caress the underside of Lace’s wrist, the delicate skin there with her precious pulse fluttering just under the surface. Her eyes fluttered, lost in the pleasure of touching, of feeling Lace’s calloused fingers in her palm, the warmth of her skin.

A burst of shouting and laughter from a few tables over shook both women out of their temporary reverie. They glanced over at the source of the noise — the Chargers were all laughing and clapping Rocky on the back, regarding Creators knew what. Kaera looked back at Lace, offering a wry smile. “Do you — ah, do you want to head somewhere quieter?”

Lace’s radiant smile was all the answer Kaera needed.

They rose and walked, falling into step as they headed through the yard and into the main keep, making for the stairs to Kaera’s room. It had to be Kaera’s rooms, she thought. Lace would have a small room to herself, or possibly just an alcove in a room with bunks for other scouts; but it was unlikely to have much by way of other furnishings, it might not have a fire or other creature comforts, and for such a tryst as this was likely to be, privacy and a few luxuries were self-evidently desirable. They walked closely together, too close to be entirely casual, and every time their shoulders touched, or the backs of their hands brushed together, Kaera felt joy bubble up like spring water in her body.

Inside her room, finally, Kaera closed the door and turned to Lace. The other woman smiled, perhaps a bit uncertainly…. Well. They had time, Kaera thought. They had all the time in the world. There was no rush, no urgency, no anxiety; Lace had forgiven her, had come back to her, despite how close it had come to all falling apart. The first relationship Kaera had been able to openly, freely, happily embrace and celebrate. And now it was secure — at least for now, Kaera knew as well as she knew her own heartbeat that everything could change — but this, tonight, felt as real and sure as the ground beneath their feet, as solid and beautiful as the mountains outside the windows that glowed with the last of the day’s sunlight. Timeless, if only for a night.

Unhurried, deeply happy, anticipation glimmering faintly at the edges of her consciousness, Kaera smiled at Lace, moved toward her, took both her hands in her own. She did not move in for a kiss, or move to embrace Lace; there would be time for that later. “Why don’t you go sit down,” Kaera said, “and I’ll build the fire.” At Lace’s soft assent, Kaera led her over to the settee, guided her to sit, attentive and tender as any lover could be.

Kaera built up the fire. It occurred to her that she ought to offer Lace a drink, and she had a flash of regret for not bringing a bottle or flagon of something from the tavern. What did Lace enjoy drinking? They had both had ale or stout or whatever was on offer from the casks at the tavern. Did Lace like wine? Perhaps she enjoyed tea or other hot drinks, like humans did. Well, Kaera would find out… later. For tonight, though….

Smiling, Kaera turned back to face Lace. “I think I would like to celebrate a little. To have a toast to coming back home — to Skyhold, and to you,” she added, her smile widening. “I have some bottles of akevitt. Would you join me, in having some?”

Lace shook her head. “I’m sorry. I don’t, um, know what that is…?”

“Oh! No, that’s not terribly surprising. I don’t think it’s very popular outside of Dalish clans. It’s a sort of strong drink, like whiskey. We make it with herbs, usually, but sometimes other flavours. We drink it with friends and loved ones, to celebrate or just to express communion between people. I would like to drink some with you now… if you care to try some. I certainly understand if not!” Kaera said, still smiling, not wanting to pressure Lace into drinking something that was admittedly an acquired taste, even among the Dalish.

“I think I might have had some, at some point, I just didn’t know what it was called. Tastes like aniseed?”

“Some do,” Kaera said, rising. “I have some made with anise, if you like,” she said thoughtfully, walking to the shelf where she kept her bottles. “Or…” Kaera carefully lifted the bottle of Lavellan-clan akevitt, made with the bracing juniper berries local to the Wycome area. She took a deep breath, looking at the glint of reflected firelight on the dull glass of the sturdy bottle. She turned back to Lace, who watched with curiosity from the settee. Unsure what expression showed on her face, Kaera said, softly, “Or, perhaps we could try this one. My family… my clan made this. We use juniper berries for the flavour.”

Lace’s eyes were wide, her expression open and affected. “Oh,” she said, “wow. That sounds really wonderful, Kaera. I’d like that.”

Although her heart ached within her chest, Kaera felt a joyful spike of affection pierce through it, at how generous and kind Lace was. She gave a shaky smile, then turned back to the shelf to retrieve two of the little enamelled tin vessels that were traditionally used for akevitt. She carried the cups and the bottle to the settee by the fire, sat next to Lace, poured the drink for them both. Lace held the cup carefully, looking a little uncertain.

“Usually you sip this, rather than throwing it back all at once,” Kaera told her, “although there are, ah, certain occasions where that’s done too.”

Lace gave a small smile. “To get a running start?”

Kaera laughed, softly. “Precisely. For celebrations when becoming, shall we say, unwound is a priority. For tonight, though, I think… I would like us to take our time.” She gazed at Lace, seeing her beauty lit by the firelight, the open, hopeful expression on her face, and smiled, helplessly.

Lace smiled back. They both lifted their cups and sipped. Kaera closed her eyes, allowing the fragrance of the spirit to permeate her senses, to linger in her nose, the roof of her mouth, the back of her throat. It was so, so familiar, the scent of juniper berries, brisk and woody, then the bracing burn of the drink. The images and sensations it invoked in her were… well, not sorrowful, not at the moment. But they were vivid, and they were of her clan, or her life before….

Kaera opened her eyes, to find Lace gazing at her. Kaera raised her eyebrows, inquiring. “It’s lovely,” Lace said, “really nice, smoother than I would have guessed.”

“Hmm,” Kaera hummed, appreciatively. She brought her cup up again, inhaling its scent, then sipping. “I remember smelling this, our clan’s akevitt, as a child, when the adults would share it in celebration or companionship. It’s amazing, what the distillation does to the juniper berries, enhancing and transforming their scent, so that the akevitt somehow smells both precisely like the berries you could pick off any juniper bush, yet also… unique, different. Sharper, clearer.” She sipped again. “I begged to try some when I was a child. We all did. It wasn’t forbidden, not by clan law, but traditionally children are not given akevitt until we come of age, and have our vallaslin,” she went on, gesturing vaguely at her face, at the markings etched on her chin and forehead in homage to Ghilan’nain.

Lace gave her an impish look. “I get the feeling that you didn’t want to wait….”

Kaera laughed, remembering. “No, indeed! I wanted so badly to be grown, to be an adult, drinking akevitt and making my own decisions about things. A friend of mine who was the same thing, a lad named Iain, we snuck a flask of it into the woods one time.”

“Oh dear! You must have been so sick, after.”

“We didn’t drink the whole thing! Creators, that would have been dire. We couldn’t have been more than thirteen summers old, both of us scrawny as saplings. That much akevitt would have laid us low for sure. No, believe me, neither of us could take more than a tiny sip without coughing fit to burst!” Kaera shook her head. “Definitely not a children’s drink.”

“No kidding. It’s, uh, quite potent.”

“Yes indeed.” Kaera sipped again. “We ended up burying the flask between some distinctive tree roots. We came back every so often to try more of it, Creators know why. We didn’t ever drink enough in one visit to inebriate us, and then the flask was empty — and the clan was going to be moving on anyway.” Kaera smiled. “Though… the first time I had akevitt with the clan, when it was actually sanctioned, after I’d come of age… I was able to sip mine without coughing. I think perhaps many of them knew, or guessed, what Iain and I had done. Perhaps many of them did the same, when they were children. Perhaps we weren’t as clever and sophisticated as we thought.”

Lace chuckled. “Oh, gosh. I’m glad that ended well, at least.”

“Yes, although I don’t know if I ever stopped wanting to be older, more independent, than I was. Not while I was young. Although I suppose all children wish such things,” Kaera said thoughtfully, sipping the last her her akevitt, allowing its bracing flavour to linger on her tongue.

“I don’t know about that,” Lace said thoughtfully. “I suppose a lot of kids do.”

“But you didn’t?”

“Not really. I mean, I was always pretty grown-up, in a lot of ways. I was still a little girl when my dad and baby brother died from a sickness that passed through the land. After that I had to really help out a lot around the house and the shop, and to earn us a living when my mother was grieving — I had to grow up fast.” Lace took a long sip of akevitt. “I think maybe a part of me always wished I could just go back to being a little girl, being taken care of by my mum and dad. But, well, no sense in wishing the rain to fall back up to the clouds, right?”

Kaera stared, then set down her cup. “Lace, I… I didn’t know your — your father and brother were… I’m so sorry.”

Lace gave her a compassionate look. “It was a long time ago. I guess it never really came up in conversation.” She tipped her cup, swallowing the last of her akevitt, then gazed at Kaera. “And we don’t have to talk about it now… I mean, we can talk about it later, it’s fine, I don’t mind talking about it! But… Kaera… I realize what it’s like to lose family,” she said softly. “It’s not the same as what you’re dealing with, I know. But I think I can understand, if you give me a chance. I wish you had opened up to me. I wanted to be there for you.”

Kaera’s heart quaked in her chest. “Oh, Lace,” she said, her voice wobbling. Wordlessly, she turned, leaned toward Lace, opened her arms. Lace swiftly set aside her cup and leaned into Kaera’s embrace, her arms going around Kaera’s waist, pulling her close. Kaera tucked her face into the side of Lace’s neck, and the sat like that for several moments, the only noise the crackling of the fire. Kaera felt tears pricking in her eyes, and tried to calm the emotions that swelled up in her: pain over Lace’s losses, grief over her own losses, anguish that she had pushed Lace away, deep comfort and joy that Lace was willing to forgive her.

Eventually, Kaera took a deep, shaky breath, and raised her head just enough to touch her lips to Lace’s ear. “I’m sorry. I was stupid, I know, trying to keep my grief from touching us, from touching this,” she said in a low voice, tightening her arms around Lace’s shoulders. Softly, she kissed Lace’s ear once, twice, three times. “Oh, I missed you. I missed you, Lace. I need you.” She nuzzled into the side of Lace’s neck again, kissing her warm skin.

Lace’s arms around her waist loosened, a little, and Kaera pulled back, looking at her inquiringly. One of Lace’s arms snaked in between them, her hand rising to cup Kaera’s cheek. It was so immensely comforting a gesture that Kaera’s eyes fluttered shut. She could feel the callouses of Lace’s fingers at her temple, her thumb gently rubbing her cheek. Kaera drew in a deep breath, and as she breathed out, she relaxed, profoundly, as though some old throbbing injury had just been soothed away. She turned her head a little so she could kiss Lace’s palm. Then Lace’s hand was moving, sliding to the back of her neck, her fingers threading up in Kaera’s hair, and she pulled Kaera into a kiss.

It was a sweet kiss, as perfectly sweet as all their kisses had been. Kaera felt her cares slide away, out of the active parts of her awareness… she allowed herself to become lost in the kiss. Lace’s lips were soft, warm, moving against her own. She shifted on the settee to turn more fully toward Lace, sliding her hands down her strong back, feeling the firm muscles of her waist, the thrilling softness of her hips where they curved out under Kaera’s hands. Kaera breathed deeply, trying to move slowly, to kiss slowly. She did not wish to overstep, not with Lace, not so soon after they had come together again. It was a struggle, keeping her hands at Lace’s waist, not pulling her closer, not deepening the kiss; a pleasant struggle, Kaera thought giddily, and so very worth it, to make this good for Lace….

All such thoughts dissolved like snowflakes in a cookpot when Lace clasped her shoulders more tightly, pulling them closely together, slipping her tongue out to touch Kaera’s lips. Suppressing a gasp, Kaera opened, deepened the kiss, swept up in soaring pleasure. She could not stop making small noises, helpless, lost in Lace’s beauty, her strength.

Then Lace, not breaking the kiss, still clasping Kaera, shifted her hips and her legs, rising up and moving over, until she was straddling Kaera’s lap. Knees on either side of Kaera’s hips, Lace sank down, her back curving so that she was, gloriously, pressed closely against Kaera from thigh to sternum. Kaera could not suppress another breathy moan. Lace pulled back, holding Kaera’s face in both hands, looking into her eyes. “All right?” Lace asked.

“Oh, oh yes,” Kaera said, her voice rough. “You are so beautiful,” she said, but the end of the word was swallowed by Lace, leaning in again, kissing her. She tightened her arms around Lace’s waist, pulling her in, pulling her close. She thought perhaps she had never experienced anything so thrilling, so intoxicatingly pleasurable, as Lace, in her lap, in her arms. Lace moved slowly and intentionally, kissing Kaera deeply; one arm slowly moved around the back of Kaera’s neck, holding her close; the other hand stroked over Kaera’s cheek, along the line of her ear to its tip, then back to trace fingertips over the exposed skin of Kaera’s neck. It was delightful, incredible arousing, and Kaera found herself making high breathy noises with every exhale, found herself moving, curving her back to press herself against Lace, rolling her hips up into closer contact with her solid thighs.

Lace’s arms slid from around Kaera’s shoulders, and her kisses moved from Kaera’s mouth, across her jaw. Kaera, helpless, turned her head, trying to recapture Lace’s sweet lips with her own, but the other woman was relentless, her hands now on Kaera’s shoulders, and when she began moving her lips over the sensitive skin of Kaera’s neck, Kaera shuddered, desire moving her like a roaring river. She moaned with every exhale as Lace’s mouth, her soft lips, deft tongue, the edge of teeth, moved over her neck, to the lobe of her ear. Lace’s hands slipped down Kaera’s shoulders, between their bodies, and her fingers brushed the tops of Kaera’s breasts, then quickly and firmly slipped over her nipples, rigid with her desire beneath the fabric of her shirt.

At Kaera’s inarticulate cry, Lace stilled her hands, resting them on Kaera’s ribs, stilled the movement of her body. She softly kissed Kaera’s earlobe, then murmured, “We can slow down. We don’t have to do anything tonight beyond this.”

Kaera, her breathing still fast and deep, gripped Lace’s hips, willing herself not to grind up into them. “We… do you want to slow down? Do you want to stop?”

Lace kissed Kaera’s ear again, her lips sliding along its outer edge, and Kaera could not help writhing, pushing up against Lace’s thighs. “I don’t want to stop,” Lace said. Her hands slipped up from Kaera’s ribs to stroke her breasts, gently, the palms rubbing slow circles against her stiffened nipples. Kaera tightened her grip on Lace’s hips, moaning, overwhelmed with desire. “I want you. Tonight.” Lace quickly tugged up Kaera’s shirt, slipped her hands under; her calloused fingers ran over Kaera’s bare skin, coming up to hold Kaera’s breasts, a perfect fit in each of her hands, kneading gently. Lace kissed her ear again, again, again, then said, “I’ve wanted you since the dragon hunt in the Western Approach.” Another kiss. “Since before then, really. Since first seeing you in the field, hunting, leading, graceful and strong and beautiful.” Lace pulled back just far enough to press a brief kiss to Kaera’s mouth, then moved to her other ear, kissing her way along its sensitive edge. “Since first talking with you around a campfire, learning how clever and compassionate you are.” Lace’s hands cupped Kaera’s breasts, her thumbs tracing circles around her areolae; Kaera’s back arched, and she pulled Lace even closer, passionate and wanton. “I was thrilled when you came to me, when you started this… us. And now that I have you here, now, where we won’t be interrupted… I want you. I want this. Tonight, now.”

Lace pulled back, sliding her hands out from under Kaera’s shirt, and Kaera stiffened at the sudden loss of stimulation. But Lace was cupping her face, leaning in, kissing her, all tongue and heat and cresting desire. “Take me to bed,” Lace said, breathless, in the instant between one kiss and the next.

Kaera did not need any further encouragement. She rose from the settee, Lace’s legs wrapping around her waist, holding one another. Lace was not light; she was solidly muscled, but compact, and Kaera lifted her easily enough. As she walked, she kept kissing Lace deeply, not paying much attention to her surroundings, and yet she somehow managed to get across the room to the bed without stumbling. She set Lace on the edge of the bed. Lace, legs still wrapped around Kaera, pulled Kaera down on top of her, kissing, kissing, kissing.

Soon enough, they were both out of their clothing, heedlessly discarded in their passion, their need for closeness and intimacy. Kaera was endlessly thrilled with each expanse of skin on Lace’s body, every cluster of freckles, every scar and stretch mark. She told Lace so in a voice roughened with desire before touching, kissing, glorying in Lace’s form, in her reactions. Lace was mostly silent, and Kaera paid ardent attention to every shift of her body, every change in her breathing, every guiding touch of her hands. She wanted to make this so good, so amazingly good for Lace…. Even when Kaera moved between Lace’s legs, pressing in with tongue and lips, deeply intimate and perfect, Lace was quiet; her heavy breathing, the rhythmic tensing and relaxing of the muscles of her thighs, the shifting of her limbs, told Kaera what she liked. It was only when she climaxed that her exhalations were voiced, and then only with the softest breathy cries at the very peak of her pleasure. And, oh, Kaera thrilled to it, cherished the sweet sound of Lace’s voice raised by her passion. Wanting to hear it again, wanting more, Kaera greedily kissed and touched Lace’s body, all the places she found Lace to be responsive, gently at first, and then with more intensity, allowing it to build once more between them, until she was again between Lace’s legs, pleasuring her, chasing those breathy cries….

It was some time before Kaera crawled up to lie beside Lace. After discreetly drying her face and lips, she leaned over, kissing Lace’s face, her sweet precious lips, the gorgeous line of her jaw, telling her how beautiful she was between each kiss, how cherished and adored. When Lace’s breathing slowed down and her eyes focused, she kissed back, her arms coming around Kaera’s shoulders, holding her close. They kissed for long moments, pressed together, quiet and restful… and then one of Lace’s strong legs curled around Kaera’s in such a way that Kaera’s desire flared like summer lightning. “What would you like?” Lace asked, and Kaera groaned, her quiescence vanished.

“Your hand,” she said roughly, “please. And… kiss me, please, oh kiss me….”

Lace’s hand, her calloused fingers, moved upon Kaera, and they kissed deeply. Kaera clung to Lace, one leg wrapped over the curve of her hip, rolled by waves of intense pleasure. It didn’t take long for Kaera to reach her climax, shuddering and crying out before lying back, replete, full of tender adoration for the beautiful, amazing woman in her arms.

They kissed, after, for many minutes. They spoke, quietly, bare and pressed together beneath the blankets, of their desire to be together, their commitment to make this work. Kaera felt extraordinarily happy; to have this, to have Lace here in her arms, talking about their future, joyful and intimate and hopeful.

Eventually, they slept, close together, warm and safe. Kaera dreamed of flowers in the desert, blooming next to an oasis, precious and rare and beautiful as hope.

Chapter Text

Kaera Lavellan doesn’t get lonely. She is a hunter; she is more than capable in solitary hunts, and even better with Lace at her side. She enjoys hunting alone, but finds that she wildly loves hunting with Lace. They stalk their targets together, collaborate to follow a track, choose together where to sleep and when to return to the camp. Even in Skyhold, surrounded as she is with friends and colleagues, Kaera finds she is just as often perfectly happy to focus on spending time with Lace, alone together. Kaera has never, ever had a problem being by herself; but being alone with Lace is so much better. With Lace in her life, Kaera doesn’t get lonely.

Kaera is used to being alone, and is becoming used to being with friends, with colleagues, with allies. People whose path she shares because she wants to share it, because it is the right path for her, for all of them. She is becoming used to commitment, to finding common goals and common ground.

Kaera knows there will be troubles ahead. How could there not be? There will be disagreements, arguments, misunderstandings. There will be hard moments, hard days. There will be battles and tragedies and losses, and some will be all the more painful because of the openness of her heart, because of her friendships, because of her ever-deepening love for Lace.

It will be worth it. Every time she looks at Lace, Kaera knows it will be worth it.