A tree waits for her in the fade tonight.
She comes to already making her way towards the shallow hill where it rests, right hand trailing above the tall grass. The early afternoon sun paints everything in golds, deep and bright, and the wind carries with it the scent of wheat and wild oat.
It is with a smile she walks up to the large, old tree, places her hand on it, and lets her head fall back with a deep breath. But the moment she realizes she can see every individual leaf on the canopy above her, and that she can run her hand over the trunk and feel the rough bark under her fingers, and that no matter how hard she concentrates on the horizon it will not blur, she knows he is close by. For her dreams are only ever this clear when he hunts her.
At first he would hound her steps as a wolf, shy and mournful, tail between his legs, eyes cutting away from her own the moment they made contact. He would never stay long after that and her dreams would become hazy and unfocused once more. Then he'd appear as she last remembered him, tall and imposing and sad, but now full of rage and frustration. He'd berate her over disrupted plans, agents discovered and caches that seem to have vanished without a trace. Sometimes he'd cool down long enough to ask her what she was up to, only to receive a blank smile in return. He'd spin on his heel with a snarl and a swish of pelt and leave her to wake up, heart hammering.
Not so this time. There is no anger, no frustration, no exasperation. The armor is all gone and in their place there are garments she does not recognize, fine but simple and so fitting and foreign they make her skin itch. She tracks him in silence as he walks up to her, staring at some point above her head, and she does not move an inch when he slides down next to her against the gnarled trunk
They sit in silence as the lazy breeze sweeps past, facing forward and tense. She is, predictably, the first to fidget. She rolls her foot to ease a crack out of the joint, taps a finger against the ground, takes a deep sigh. Still, he does not budge.
"No reprimand today?"
"Granted, it's not as bad as that one time I put one of your Eluvians at the bottom of a lake. I don't think I've ever seen you so livid. And... wet."
Not so much as a quirk of the lips when she glances his way.
"I'd thought you'd at least want to ask what I did with those shipments," she picks at the hem of her tunic. "Don't worry about it, they're in safe hands. And your guards? Well, they'll stop sneezing eventually."
When he fails do so much as twitch, annoyance skitters up her spine and she nearly rounds on him, to shake him or shout at him or roll him off the hill, anything to make him react. As it is she just stares at him, at what the fade reflects. And is it the truth, these dark circles under his eyes, the sagging posture, the sallow tone to his skin? Is this something he projects intentionally? Is the fade trying to tell her something or is he?
Then it dawns on her.
"You don't want to do this anymore."
"I must," he finally replies.
"You're afraid of what you're turning into."
"I cannot be," he grates out.
She shifts to face him fully, a rustle as the wind whispers in the grass.
"You keep telling yourself these things! If only you'd-"
The pained sound is enough to stop her in her tracks, and at this he does move to hide his grimace. He turns away from her, shoulders hunched, looking smaller than she's ever seen him. Some small, ugly part of her crows in triumph to see him so defeated, and the very thought makes her sick to her stomach. Words stick in her throat, from comforting to damning, and she settles for resting her only remaining hand on his shoulder.
He flinches hard but does not move away and oh, it would be so easy to press closer, to feel his familiar contours against her and let pour out everything her damned heart has been holding back for years.
The voice that's kept her alive and sane this long protests loudly. Why should she make things any easier for him? Whatever they were, whatever he was to her, he is her opponent now, the next power-mad god she must stop from destroying the world and everything she holds dear.
'Var lath vir suledin.' Our love will endure.
She'd meant every word, for all that he seemed intent on forgetting it. She will find a way, she has to. But she cannot simply pretend things are not as bleak as they are. He kept her blind to the truth for so long that covering her own eyes now seems like every bit as much of a betrayal. So she does the only thing she can ever think to do when backed against a wall. She starts talking.
"There was a little human girl in the markets of Val Chevin. She ran up to me one morning, and placed something in my hand without a word."
He remains still where he is, so she continues, undeterred.
"When I looked down, I saw that I held a tiny lion carved from wood. It was rough, but beautifully made, mane curled and jaws opened wide. She asked me shyly if I wanted to see more, so I followed her to a stall where there were dozens upon dozens of animal carvings, from birds to bears to dragons and even halla. 'She makes them herself, you know,' her mother, the vendor, told me with pride. The girl couldn't have been any older than ten and had to stand on tiptoes to peer over the counter at me. I spent so long looking at the wares she got bored and started whittling another piece of wood in front of my eyes. Slowly, a sparrow started to emerge, wings spread in midflight. I ended up buying an entire collection of the little things."
He uncurls a bit but does not turn and she lets her hand drop from his shoulder. After a moment he speaks, voice rough and low enough to nearly vanish with the wind.
"Tell me more."
Something warm and too large to be contained blooms in her chest, and the words are shaky and watery when she starts again.
"Everything is loud in Rivain; the people, the colors, the scents, the music. Everyone on the street is either laughing or singing or arguing. The vendors press up against you, somehow know to greet you in your native tongue, refuse to take no for an answer. The shops and stalls and even windows in homes are lined with bright, multicolored cloths that seem entirely too heavy for the heat. The people wear them too, on their shoulders, wrapped against their waists, wound around their heads. And oh the food; even the sweets have spices in them! They combine flavors and textures no one dared imagine together before, and they have the strangest fruit and fowl I have ever seen. They court and fight and love and hate and laugh with such passion that you almost think they'll burn out before they reach old age. But then you see an old couple dancing to the tune of the band playing on the street corner and you can't help but envy their youth. Sometimes, the rest of Thedas seems bland by comparison."
He rolls his back against the tree again, darts a look at her eyes, then down her left collarbone where her flesh starts to scar. He looks away.
"One time the rain caught me on a path in the middle of the forest," she continues hastily. "I ran to find shelter and ended up underneath an old willow overlooking a small lake. It was more a pond with delusions of grandeur than anything else and I paid it no heed as I settled in for the night. Normally I would have lit a fire but that far north the nights are warm so I didn't. Without the light from the fire, my eyes adjusted to the darkness and I could see the drops as they landed on the surface of the lake, the dragonflies darting madly about. There was no roaring fire to keep me company, just the steady sound of rain and whistling frogs that lulled me to sleep. Since then I have not lit as many fires as I used to and now I see rivers of stars in the desert night sky, and owls swooping low enough to skim the country grass. Light can hide things as much as it reveals them."
He sighs and turns to her, eyes daring to linger on her face this time. He doesn't smile when he looks at her but the lines around his face ease a little and she can't help the grin that tugs at the corner of her mouth.
"Will you tell me more?"
She answers without thinking and it is so easy to keep telling him tales of this world in a mirror of something they once shared. She tells him about Antiva and guitars with twelve strings and how the salt gets into everything, and about elvhen and human children playing together in the streets of Wycome, about old magic, and new sprouts growing in ruins and he relaxes by fractions.
What seems like hours later they've both migrated to laying on the ground staring up through the leaves of their tree. She's not sure when she stopped talking, or when he started humming, deep and gentle, but there's golden light and a cool breeze and a hand so close to her own that their fingers brush.
And for now, it's enough.