The first time they travelled together, it was just outside of Haven.
They hadn’t meant to, of course, barely knowing one another, and Cullen could remember it well. It was before dawn when Cullen had come upon a small tent set up in his favourite hunting clearing; he dismounted his horse and strode forward. A fire was still glowing, low but hot, and a horse that was all too familiar to him was nipping at the barren tree branches.
There was a shuffling to his right, and his horse looked up, peering towards the woods. A small figure came bounding through the trees, longbow strapped to her back, and a belt of rabbits hanging from her hip. She was a familiar face from Haven, always planning with Josephine and Cassandra. Cullen had to admit he’d caught himself staring at her more than once during their strategy meetings. She had dark brown hair the colour of chestnuts, always pulled into a careful braid, and tied with a leather strap. She had freckles like a night sky strewn across her cheeks, and plump lips set in a heart-shaped face, with ever-vigilant green eyes. Her vallaslin was done in the same shade of dark brown as her freckles, blending in seamlessly at points on her cheekbones and brow. And she always carried an intimidating amount of knives.
“Commander. Shh. Come.” She said, pressing a finger to her lips and disappearing into the woods again. Cullen raised an eyebrow, but tied his horse near hers and followed into the forest. He followed her tracks, small compared to his own boot-prints in the snow, and found her a moment later, settled next to a river that flowed despite the cold air.
She was crouched low behind a boulder, her bow at the ready, and he stood back and watched, catching sight of the rabbit just at the water's edge. It didn’t sense either of them, as she had positioned herself downwind from the rabbit who sniffed the air, skiddish.
Almai let an arrow loose, and shot the rabbit at once. A splash of red was strewn against the white snow, and he could hear the small elf let out a sigh, standing up and putting her hands on her small hips. She looked over her shoulder at him.
They shared a rabbit stew by firelight, and talked of everything; which weapons they favoured, which fighting techniques they preferred, the troops’ training, the diplomatic efforts being made by Josephine...It was an evening neither of them could forget as the sun began to set.
“You are staying out here for the night then?” Cullen asked.
“I actually prefer staying out here. Feels a bit more like home.” She said. Cullen had noticed the makings of a semi-permanent camp when he had come in, but did not want her to feel embarrassed, and had said nothing. He softened his expression, thinking of his own family, so far away whom he had not seen for years.
“You must miss them.” Cullen said, though he did not know why he would say something so personal. She looked at him curiously, and tilted her head to the side just so, her brow furrowing before she looked away and poked a stick at the fire.
“Yes, well. Duty calls.” She said, though Cullen could sense the reservation.
“I did not mean to intrude, please, forgive me if I’ve-” He said. Almai sighed and waved her hand which glowed with a faint green light, oddly contrasting against the warm orange light of the fire. He admitted, the magic emanating from it unnerved him, though he did his best to push that thought from his mind.
“There is nothing to be sorry for. Did you want to stay here? I am taking your hunting area after all.” Almai said, getting back to the point. Cullen took the opportunity to switch the topic to something lighter, and he looked at his roll and small tent still packed on his horse for just a moment.
“No, no. I had best get back. I will camp another time.” He said gently, giving her a smile. She, reserved as ever, just gave a small nod in return.
“As you wish, commander. Will you take these to the cooks? And you may keep the pelts. As thanks for your surprising company this evening.” She said, standing from her place and fetching the belt of rabbits that hung from a nearby tree branch. She thrust them at him as he stood, and he nodded.
“Of course. Good evening, m’lady.” He said, giving her a small bow. She nodded as she sat by her small fire again. Cullen took a moment to appreciate the glow of her in the firelight; he had tried counting her freckles from accross it all evening, and had yet to succeed.
“Good evening, commander.”
The next time Cullen caught sight of her was in the kitchens, far past midnight when the ladies and children had cleared out of the area, retreating to their well-deserved rests. It was Cullen’s haunt when he could not sleep, howevever, and he accredited the habit from his Mother. The kitchen had been the hearth of his home, and his mother had always made sure to have them sit a the table to eat together. Small memories, he pondered now, seating in front of a warm kitchen fire, but memories that kept him going, even now.
Cullen turned from the fireplace to look who had spoken so quietly in surprise. Almai stood there, dressed in a white shift and a fur-trimmed blanket draped over her shoulders. She was barefoot on the cold stone castle floors, and her dark hair was loose around her face. He thought privately how small she looked, and so delicate in comparison with the Almai he saw during the day. That Almai wore leather armours and seemed to always be watching, always on edge; he appreciated it as a warrior himself, but this Almai was the one that touched his heart for the first time. They stared at one another from across the kitchen, and she bowed her head gracefully, becoming a bit more stony as she clutched the blanket around her shoulders.
“I am sorry to disturb you, commander. Please, act as if I were never here.” She said. Cullen was quick in his words, standing up politely from his place sat at a bench by the fire.
“No, please, don’t leave.”
Almai stopped with her back to him, and Cullen coughed, nervously rubbing his neck as his heart hammered in his chest. He felt like a boy all over again.
“I meant, please, don’t leave on my account. If you have a moment, perhaps we can discuss some things.” Cullen said, nerves getting to him.
“As friends, or as warriors?” She asked, peering at him wearily. He ears twitched in a keen way; she was listening to any faltering he might make. Cullen felt like he was going to sweat out his breeches.
“Friends. My mother always said, no business at the table.” Cullen smiled. He couldn’t help but notice the smile that came over Almai in that moment.
“Your mother is a wise woman.” She said, striding towards him, her blanket flapping about her ankles. She took the spot of a stool beside his bench, and stuck her feet towards the warm hearth. She wiggled her toes and looked at him with curiosity.
“She was indeed.” He said, settling down again and reaching for the pitcher of mead he had been working on himself. He grabbed a second cup, and offered it full to Almai, who accepted with a nod. She seemed not to want to pry at his wording, drinking in silence next to him.
“May I call you Cullen?” She asked suddenly, turning to him. The question took him by surprise; up until now, it was always Commander. Cullen was the name shared with only a few, but her familiar way made Cullen swallow and nod.
“Of course.” He replied at last. She turned back to the fire with a satisfied smile playing on her lips.
Cullen hated to admit how much he liked his name on her lips.
“So, what has you up?” Almai asked. Cullen thought a moment about the cold sweat he’d awoken in, panting and dry of mouth, heart pounding out of his chest.
“Bad dreams.” He said, taking another drink of mead and not daring to look at Almai. She always had that peering gaze which he feared could reveal his every thought.
“I am sorry to hear that.” She condoned. He tipped his glass in acknowledgement.
“Nothing I haven’t faced before.” He quipped, even though every time a nightmare woke him it was terror anew. “Why are you awake?”
“I have dreams. Not always bad dreams…” She said, looking far away for a moment.
“Tonight though?” Cullen asked gently. It was such a personal thing, prying into a person’s bad dreams, but it was something that felt right at the moment. She looked back at him sharply, her jaw clenched.
“Tonight was...bad.” She said. Cullen sighed, and reach for the bottle of mead, and Almai’s scowl gave way to a smile. He filled up her glass, then his own, casting what he hoped was a warm, comforting glance. He raised his glass to her.
“If we should give it another thought this evening, damn us both then.”
pls comment or kudos it is my lifeblood thx
The next time Almai travelled, it was not with Cullen; she had in fact, hidden it from Cullen as much as she could. She had successfully brokered a deal with the mages, but when he had found out at the war table, the rage she had seen made her purse her lips and cross her arms. She hoped her collection of knives looked as intimidating as they felt, heavy at her hips.
“You don’t know what that will do when you pour all that magic into it!” Cullen insisted, loud and brash. She had ever seen the commander so...upset. Worried, even.
“It is a risk we must take.” She said firmly, her words even and calm. Josephine and Leliana looked uncomfortable, standing to the side.
“It is a risk that will kill you.” Cullen stressed, staring at her across from the table.
“It is a risk I must take.” She said, staring back at him. He silently held her gaze for a moment, and Cullen could feel a dark pit in his stomach, staring at her, but he did not know why. It was the same pit he felt when the Blight had broken out. This would not end well.
Almai stayed her ground still, looking determined and fierce, unwavering in her gaze, and it was Cullen who broke away first.
“Do what you like. You have my warning.” He said moodily, striding around the table to the door. He saw the guards posted outside the double doors jump back into position as he strode out of the hall in a huff.
Almai breathed out, realizing she’d been holding her breath. She leaned over the table, letting her shoulders drop, and she felt Josephine’s reassuring touch on her shoulder.
“Give him time,” She said. “He will come round.”
“I do not have time for him to ‘come round.’ I need the support of my commander, and if I do not have it, I must go without it.” She said firmly. Josephine removed her hand, and Almai couldn’t help but feel that cold wall between them that she herself had built up.
“I leave in an hour.”
comments pls idk what im doing lmao
“What of your escape? Perhaps you will surprise it, find a way…”
Almai looked up at Cullen, who stared at her with intent blue eyes and a furrowed blonde brow. She stared back at him, at loss for an answer--she didn’t want to lie to him. They both knew that hope was slim--Cullen’s plan needed a fallback man, and Almai had no intention of letting a single soldier or mage die out there if she could help it.
“Meet me in the mountains,” Almai said, looking over her shoulder as the sounds of nearing troops caught her keen ears. “Just get these people out of here.”
Cullen hesitated, feeling a dark pit in his stomach. He knew this would not end well, and he could see Almai biting her bottom lip, distracted green eyes scanning around them for any signs of immediate danger.
“I’ll be waiting for you.” He said quietly as he turned from her. He could feel her eyes on his back as he left the hall at a running pace, ready to lead the civilians away from Haven. She could only think about their fight over the mages that had kept them separated for weeks now, stewing in their respective anger. But those words Cullen uttered in haste set deep in her heart.
Almai let out a breath she’d been holding as she watched Cullen disappear around a corner, no doubt going to catch up with Father Rodrick and round up the civilians left in Haven. Almai steeled herself like armour, and let her hand fall to the knives at her hips. She had her orders from her Captain; now if she only had the courage to deliver.
Corypheus was fearsome astride the great dragon tainted with red lyrium. No longer human, the Ancient One as he was so-called flew over Haven with his beast, lighting home after home alight. Almai could hear the screams of the ones she could not save, and knew they would haunt her dreams for years, decades, to come.
It was when the dragon bore its great rotted jaw at her that Almai finally made her move and kicked the arm for the catapult. The chain spun, and the boulder loaded in it’s skin flung far overhead towards the mountains. Almai smiled. It had hit it’s target.
A great crack resonated over Haven as a wall of snow collapsed from the side of the mountain. Almai didn’t wait another second to start sprinting before Corypheus and his dragon could turn around to grab her. The snow was heading down the mountainside far too quickly; she didn’t dare waste a second.
Almai dived into a storage cavern near the trebuchets and felt her body take the blow of the dive as she tumbled over the stairs and scrambled against a wall. Snow filled up to her ankles in the darkness, until it covered everything above her. She could hear the sound of a roaring sea of snow passing overhead, the sounds of trebuchet wood cracking like thunder and of stones from the towers tumbling down, shaking the ground around her. Almai did not think she would live through the moment, and kept her face to the wall, praying to every god she grew up knowing.
And finally, the snow settled, and the movement overhead turned quiet. Almai took a cold breath in, and reached to her belt for her flint. She felt around in the dark and felt the material beneath her fingertips; rough and coarse, she pulled it around something that felt like a broomstick, and struck it alight. It was a broomstick.
Almai head it above her head, and stared above her. Snow was piled there, creating a cavern that could very well be her tomb. Almai, never a quitter, sighed and looked around her. A ladder, a few potato sacks, and some boxes. She had work to do.
Getting out of that cavern had been only a small trial. Tunneling herself out and setting foot into the mountains was something else entirely, and now, just far enough off to see the dancing lights of fires ahead, Almai collapsed into the snow. Her body couldn’t take another step through the waist high snow. She reached to her side satchel, and closed her frozen fingers around a smooth ball; a smoke bomb. She threw it at the hardened undisturbed snow top and it set off in a great cloud, her last hope to live through the frozen cold.
And it was cold, so very cold. She wanted to shiver, but she just held her frozen fingertips to her chest as the fires danced before her vision. Her legs ached and she could feel the injuries from her fall mounting. Her ribs didn’t feel right. Her head pounded. Almai just wanted to sleep. She closed her eyes as the snow began to pile on her. She didn’t know how long she lied there, fading in and out, watching the fires far off dancing in her vision.
The voice was so far off, distant in her mind like a dream, that Almai didn’t bother to move or open her eyes. It wasn’t real. It was a dream far too sweet, the voice echoing familiar and comforting as she lost hold of reality.
Cullen had seen it first, and set off towards the snow covered hills at a run; a long trail of grey smoke coming from a speck on the horizon, far above them. It had been days with no word from her, and they had all feared the worst; this, however, was the best of signs.
His scouts followed after him, grabbing packs and a stretcher, spotting the grey smoke rising from the pure white snow that glistened in the high moonlight. He remembered Leliana hurriedly following by his side, and Josephine barking orders to prepare a hot bath, her voice echoing behind him. His armour was heavy as he waded through the snow, but it helped keep him warm and dry, the padded leather close to his chest and his red cloak wrapped around him. He quickly took it off though when he reached Almai, whose eyes were barely open.
He said her name, trying to wake her, aware of how panicked he sounded and felt in that moment. Her lips were almost blue in colour, and her body was curled in on itself, trying to conserve what little heat she had left in her. Cullen draped his cloak over her and lifted her from the snow, holding her close to his chest. He watched her tiny breaths rise in clouds as the scouts prepared a gurney to take her back to camp.
Holding her in his arms, Cullen felt the absolute loss of her. She was not well, that much he acknowledged, but the idea of losing what she represented to the newly formed inquisition...the idea of losing her…
He handed her over to the mage healers and let them busily get to work as they lied her on the canvas, picking her up and heading to the camp with her on their shoulders. It was Leliana’s reassuring hand on his shoulder which started him forward after the procession, he himself lost in a daze of what if’s and could have’s.
He wasn’t allowed into the medical tent until the sun had rose, and the healers stepped out, looking exhausted and worn, but satisfied. It was Solas who approached him first of the healers, and looked at him with an even and reassuring gaze.
“She is strong. She’ll be fine. Lost a finger and a half, but nothing to be done about that.” Solas said. Cullen was horrified, but after seeing the state of her in those mountains, it was no surprise. He was thankful she hadn’t lost more.
“Let her rest. You may visit, but keep quiet.” Solas said with a bow of his head before leaving Cullen to himself. Cullen looked to the red tent, a candle flickering inside casting shadows of various shapes against the fabric. His chest tightened.
He would not leave her side until she woke, two days later.
Almai opened her eyes to see two people beside her, one asleep in his chair, his hands in his lap. The other, looked over her with surprise, but then smiled and pressed a finger to his lips. As her vision came into focus, she realized it was Solas, hovering over her, her hand in his. He patted it gently, and pulled her blankets up to her shoulders, gently pressing her down into the bed she hadn’t realized she was trying to get out of.
“Hamin, Almai. He will be here when you wake again.” He said in a whisper, nodding to Cullen.
“How long?” She asked. Almai didn’t particularly want to know the answer, but she had whispered it before she could stop herself. Her entire body ached, and when she moved her fingers, something felt...wrong.
“Two days. A few more hours will not unsettle him. Drink this and rest.” Solas urged, turning and busying himself about his table of potions and elixirs, only stopping to hand her a red looking drink with bits of flowers floating in it. It tasted bitter when it hit her tongue, but Almai drank it all back. She had come to trust Solas' advice on these things with time; he'd saved her from more than a few scrapes and arrow wounds.
“That tastes terrible.” She coughed, her vision blurring at the edges. She was tired again. She couldn’t feel her legs.
“Medicine works, it does not always taste good.” Solas said with a chuckle. Almai gave a small huff and shuffled under the blankets. She reached out with the hand that did not feel so awkward, and snaked her small fingers into Cullen’s hand and fell asleep in the warm tent.
Almai awoke to a shuffling of feet around her. She saw the flap of the tent open for just a moment, catching a glimpse of nothing but pure whiteness beyond, and she felt a certain fear for it.
Almai sat up slowly, and began to take note of herself, finally conscious enough to make sense of where she was. A tent. She could hear the crunching of snow outside. Mountains. Snow. Corypheus.
Almai scrambled and reached for the bucket conveniently placed next to her bed. All she could see was the roaring jaws of that rotting, lyrium-ridden dragon and the looming figure of Corypheus’ mangled body. She heaved into the bucket again.
She thanked the God’s that no one had been in the small tent when she’d had that unpleasant moment and she quietly slumped into her cot again, exhausted and her mind yelling at her to run, even though there was nothing left in her.
“Almai? Maker’s breath I step away for two seconds...let me get someone…”
“Cullen?” She asked weakly, her vision spinning. He was gone though in the same moment, and it was Solas who swooped through the tent a moment later, followed by Fiona. Cullen became a figure in the background of activity around her, and it was Leliana asking her questions, appearing from seemingly nowhere while Solas pinched her toes through the woolen blanket.
“Oi!” She kicked, her leg kicking towards Solas. Solas caught her foot with a quick hand, but smiled.
“That is a better reaction than I could have hoped for.” He said with a nod. Fiona too looked at Almai with a patient smile.
“I can’t believe you made it out of there.” Fiona said, shaking her head as she held a glowing green hand over Almai’s hands. She could feel the warmth from her radiating into her hands, seeming to will them to move, but they were in pain. To Almai, it felt unnatural, like her fingers were permanently stiff, and she feared what it meant for herself. Who was she if not a quiet huntress? Her identity resided in those dark hunts and overgrown forests, blending in with her surroundings, and without that...Almai felt her heart break all at once.
“Wait, what does this mean? Are you going to be able to fix me?” Almai asked, her hands still stiff and barely moving. She could feel angry tears spring to her eyes and she bit her bottom lip. She ignored Cullen to her right who she saw cover his mouth and furrow his brow, looking concerned.
“Solas. Vindhru, mala.” Almai hissed through her teeth at Solas. Solas caught her fierce gaze, and frowned, pursing his lips as he didn’t dare drop her glare.
“I do not know. You were out there for too long. You need to sit, relax and let us work.” Solas said firmly.
Almai looked like she was ready to throw whatever little strength she had in her at him, but she decided against it. She knew fully well Solas and Fiona were her best hopes at getting the use of her frostbitten hands back. She shrank into the pillows of her cot, and looked around her at the familiar faces. They looked a mix of concerned and relieved.
“How are you feeling?” Leliana was the first to ask, breaking the silence.
“Besides the fact I’m missing two fingers and can’t barely move my hands? Peachy.” Almai said with a sarcastic smile. Leliana smirked.
“I think you’ve been through worse.” She said, nodding to Almai’s glowing green arm. They both laughed, despite the perspiration starting on Almai’s brow. It all happened in a moment; She grimaced, and brought her hands instinctively towards her chest at a burst of pain, but Fiona was the one to inch them forward, oh so gently. It was clear Almai was in pain by the way she took deep, steadying breaths. She didn't want to look at any of them, ashamed by her weakness.
“Heal me. I’ll talk after.” Almai said, trying to relax into the pillows, breathing through the pain in her hands. Solas seemed to be mixing some sort of concoction with a certain focus, one eye on Almai and Fiona across the tent space. In the background, Almai saw Cullen hesitating by the tent door, his brow furrowed; She couldn't stand to see him looking so concerned for her. It was Fiona who barked the order first, quick and short while she watched Almai worsen, giving her a reprieve from his worried gaze.
“Out! Now! Now!”
It was another day of pacing outside of Almai’s tent until finally he was allowed inside, Solas looking haggard as he passed Cullen on his way from the tent. Cullen let himself in, and saw Almai, sitting up in a chair, waving gently to Fiona.
“Almai, i’m…” Cullen stumbled for words.
“Surprised? Yes. Turns out when you have the best mages in the realm at your disposal, some miracles are bound to happen. I’m weak, and can barely hold a fork, but I’ll regain my strength in time.” Almai said all at once, seeming tired but hopeful. It made Cullen smile gently.
“I am glad to hear it.” He said as Fiona brushed past him out of the tent, carrying a bowl of water.
“You will help me in my retraining, yes?” She asked, tilting her head to the side just so. Cullen could barely stand it when she patted the bed next to her, a motion for him to sit.
“Yes, of course. Whatever you need, Inquisitor.” He said, taking the few steps to cross the tent and sit at the foot of her cot. She smiled at him, but didn’t bother to correct him this time, far too exhausted.
“Solas has told me how you have been waiting, day in and day out. I wanted to thank you.” Almai said gently, closing her hand around a wooden ball, likely given to her to increase her strength in her hands again. Cullen blushed lightly, but waved a hand.
“Do not mention it.”
“Thank you, still. You are the best of friends, Commander.”
Cullen’s heart nearly stopped, being so close to her. He stood up from the bed, and rubbed the back of his neck in that nervous way he tended to do.
“Yes, well, should you need anything, do not hesitate to send for me.” Cullen said, feeling every bit as awkward as he sounded. Almai just nodded and smiled. Cullen thought he must look pathetic to her, nervous as ever.
They travelled alongside one another, and set their tents next to one another. Always, beside her large war tent, was his smaller Commander’s tent, a plain green in contrast with the inquisition’s auspicious bright red.
And he rode beside her on the road, following her black mare, a giant beast that seemed only to love her called Sylaise, an honouring for her gods she always said with pride in her tone. Some days he could tell she was still weak, her face sunken and her shoulders shivering, hands barely gripping the reins of her steed. On those days he would quietly pass her his rabbit pelts, which she would always take with a quiet nod, draping them over her shoulders, and take her steed’s leash, tying it to his own without a word. Almai only gave him that kind smile in return. The cold from the mountains had stayed with her, but Cullen would be hard pressed before he let her suffer a moment under his watch.
And Almai noticed the small, quiet gestures. She was not the type to blush, but she felt a flutter in her stomach at the sharing of a flask of water and when he passed his large gloves to her to wear over her own as a double layer. The kindness of the human was not something she had expected, particularly after their fight in Haven, but it was welcome in the snowy mountains as they followed Solas to the edge of the world. The Inquisition needed a home, and Almai felt the burden of it, but with Cullen’s extensive kindness, it felt lighter.
When Solas, ahead of the group, motioned for Almai to follow, they reached a cliff and could look down upon Skyhold, Almai beamed for the first time in a long time; The Inquisition had a home at last.
It was weeks before Almai seemed to get a moment to herself. She reflected on all that had happened since coming to Skyhold; the establishment of the Mage’s refugee camps outside of Skyhold, the expansion of the Inquisitions reach westward, and the acquisition of specialists and new party members alike. Sera, The Iron Bull, and Dorian had all become frequent faces around the castle’s halls, and Almai found herself exhausted between managing them all and the missions that required her attention constantly.
It was the breaks in her schedule when she would seek out her Commander that would revive her fighting spirit, quite literally. It was just such a moment when, frustrated with the mountain of political paperwork Josephine had put on her desk, she sought him out.
She found him at the foot of the castle steps, watching his troops train against dummies and stepping in every so often to demonstrate a technique properly. Almai watched for a moment, hanging back on the steps, appreciating his determined efforts. She couldn’t have asked for a more dedicated commander.
“Commander?” She interrupted at last, approaching him. He turned, and a smile passed over his lips, and she returned it.
“Almai. Come to watch the troops embarrass themselves?” He asked. Some of his troops threw ‘boos’ at him, and others laughed. Some waved to Almai, and others saluted before returning to their training; it was something Almai thought she would never get used to.
“As lovely as that sounds, I have come instead to embarrass myself.” She said, patting the knives at her hip holsters. He nodded.
“Tired of paperwork, hm?” He asked, stepping to the side of his scout table and grabbing his great sword that had been leaning against it. He removed his cloak, unfastening it from his shoulder, and Almai chuckled.
“Always. Spare me a few moments, hm?” She asked. She was aware that the troops had taken note, as they always did in their training sessions, and stepped to the side of the training grounds. They left a large circle of space for the two of them to spar, but kept watchful eyes; it was a pastime of Skyhold, these days, watching the two of them spar.
“Always.” Cullen replied. He drew the sword from its sheath, and walked beside her to the middle of the training grounds. Cullen was shy, but fighting was in his blood, and he took pride in his abilities. He stood with confidence, and held his sword like it was an extension of himself. He waited. He always let her attack first.
And she always did. She flung herself at him with gusto, moving quickly on the dirt ground, aware but uncaring of the troops steadily throwing their bets in for todays match. Her focus was on him.
He moved surprisingly easily for a man so large, she noted. He had a grace about him that had surprised her in their first match, but she was used to it by now; She watched his feet, and met the swing of his sword with her knives, deflecting the blow with a grunt of effort. He was strong.
But she had her own advantages. Cullen had been trying for weeks to get around her, but she moved quicker than he, lighter, quieter. He supposed it was the nature of her training as a rogue, but he was stronger and larger, and he used it to his advantage to press in on her, getting closer and closer. She dodged another swing of his sword, but he saw his opening.
The blow took her breath away and sent her flying back into the dirt. Cullen had expertly reversed his sword swing to pummel her in the stomach with the pommel of his sword, switching movements in an instant she could not have predicted. She heard the goans and ‘ooh’s’ from her troops, and she couldn’t help but smile as she sat up from the dirt.
Cullen caught sight of her smile, and knew that he had finally set something off in her; the warrior he’d seen on the field before, fighting tooth and nail against demons and darkspawn. Her dark hair was dishevelled now, framing her face as she stood up, and Cullen readied himself. She looked beautiful, but he wasn’t afraid to push her in training, and he watched as she discarded her knives, throwing them expertly into the dirt.
“C’mon. Afraid of a little hand-to-hand, Commander?” She mocked. The troops around them laughed, and Cullen smirked before passing his sword to one of his scouts.
“As you wish, Inquisitor.” He said. He removed his gloves and breathed out as he raised his hands to fighting stance, protecting his face. She moved in quickly, and he quickly realized she excelled in this area.
Her hands moved in a flurry of activity, and despite her small size, she was able to deflect his own punches as they moved around the dirt fighting ring. It was when she was able to grab his shoulder and move herself around him that Cullen was most surprised. She pushed him forward with one hand on his back, and kicked at the back of his right knee, forcing him to kneel as she wrapped an arm around his neck, attempting a hold, her face pressed into his hair as she performed the choke-hold. Cullen, however, regained his senses and reached behind himself to grab her shirt, and leaned forward. She went sprawling forward over him, landing with her back in the dirt and breathing heavily as Cullen scrambled atop her.
He held her hands over her head, and pinned her legs with his own body, hovering over her. She struggled a moment, looking fiercely at him, before she sighed in the intimately close moment. How badly did he want to stay just like that, watching her chest heave and her features flushed with the exertion of their spar.
“I believe you have me bested, Commander.” She said, looking up at him with green eyes. She lingered there with his gaze, feeling the heat of his body so close, and it took a moment before Cullen blushed and got off of her in a rush, regaining his senses as to how many of his troops were watching them.
“I believe I do. Well matched, Inquisitor.” Cullen said, offering her a hand up. She took it, and half of the the troops groaned while the others cheered as he pulled her from the ground.
“Sorry, everyone, you’re out of pocket this evening!” Almai said with a laugh, brushing her dark hair from her face. She looked over at Cullen and gave him that beaming smile that made his heart skip.
“Thank you, Commander. Tomorrow, then?” She asked, picking up her knives from the dirt and putting them into her hip holsters. Almai stared him up and down, he looked as dirt ridden as she did, and she couldn’t complain; it was a good look on him with his messy blonde hair and broad shoulders. Her heart was hammering still, thinking of how close she’d been to his lips moments ago. He smiled.
“As you wish.”
She couldn’t sleep as her mind raced between all things, restless. Most often, however, it landed on Cullen. Where he was, how he was feeling with his withdrawal, how he felt about her. At times, she would catch his lingering glances from across the training yard, and at others, he seemed so absorbed in his work, he didn’t have a spare thought for anything else. Some days she didn’t see him at all, both of their duties pulling them away.
That particular night, she found herself at night in the banquet hall, sitting in front of the fire by the front doors. She warmed her feet by the hearth, and stretched out on the bench, watching the crackling of the fire. It was well past midnight when she looked over the bench at the sound of a door scraping open and heavy footsteps echoing in the hall.
The Commander stopped in his tracks, where he had apparently been heading towards his quarters, still dressed head to toe in his uniform. He looked exhausted, and Almai immediately wanted to smooth the furrow from his brow.
“Inquisitor? I mean--” He blushed. Almai laughed and waved her gloved, glowing hand.
“Almai. Please. How many times do I have to tell you?” She scolded, though she privately admitted she loved to do so.
“Once more.” He said with a light smile. He said that every time.
“Why are you awake at this hour?” Almai asked.
“I was just heading to my quarters. I haven’t actually gotten to bed yet.” He said. Almai looked surprised; it was almost dawn.
“Of course. Go, you must rest.” She said with a nod, though she felt a longing to be with him in that moment. She wanted his kind companionship, and thought of their time in the mountains.
“I wanted to...actually, would you mind walking with me? I wanted to speak with you about some things.” He said.
“Of course.” She said, sitting up from the bench. His eyes lingered on the exposed freckled skin of her neck before she covered herself with her house coat. She looked up at him with large green eyes, and Cullen felt his heart skip.
They walked side by side out of the halls front doors, and let the moonlight illuminate their way down the stairs. A biting wind drifted through the air, and Almai shivered.
“Here.” Cullen said, unclipping his red cloak from his shoulder armour before Almai could refuse. He draped it over her shoulders, and she, for once, let her guard down enough to let a blush pass over her.
“Thank you.” She said as they continued down the stairs. Cullen gave her an encouraging smile, but she couldn’t help but feel the nerves radiating off of him.
Cullen’s stomach did flips, and he gripped the pommel of his sword at his hip. She matched his pace, but he deliberately slowed down to give them more time as they crossed the yard. Only a kitchen boy walked by, heading into the castle for the evening, and Master Dennett nodded to them from the stables. Everyone else could either be heard from the bar, or were watching from the walls of Skyhold, on duty, spaced so far apart conversation was quiet and far inbetween. It was a moment of relative peace in the middle of a war.
“I wanted to ask something of you, and you may decline if you’d like.” He asked, nervous. Almai could hear it in his voice.
“Hm?” She asked.
“Would you...teach me Elvish?” He asked, looking sheepish.
Almai was taken aback by the request, and she gave him a surprised look. She brushed a lock of brown hair from her face, and breathed out, but smiled.
“What in the Gods’ name’s has driven you to this task?” Almai asked.
“Well, Leliana advised me to make a better example of an effort at reconciliation, it would be beneficial to learn,” Cullen offered, but Almai could tell he was hiding things. He was careful and quiet with his words, like he’d gone over them so many times.
“It would be my pleasure. How about in the evenings, before bed?” She asked as they came to the stairs to his tower. She stopped at the foot of it, looking briefly to her own tower, on the other side of the castle, so far away.
“I won’t keep you today, but tomorrow evening would be perfect.” Cullen said, looking down at her, one foot on the first stair.
“Goodnight, Cullen.” She said, looking up at him and lingering a moment. He seemed to hesitate as well, but nodded.
“Goodnight, Almai.” He said gently.
It wasn’t until she was back in her room that she realized she still wore the Commander’s red cloak. Instead of letting the bad dreams creep in, she slept with the cloak, wrapped in the scent of Cullen as she dreamed of blissful nothingness.
It was their fourth lesson when Almai could call herself comfortable around the Commander. Their lessons were not taken in the practical way that Almai had become accustomed to seeing the humans partake in classrooms at desks. Rather, they ventured into the mountains surrounding Skyhold, into caves and hidden valley’s on foot, and she only spoke in her first tongue all the while they hunted.
The first two ventures were slow and dragged like sand as Cullen fumbled with the conversation and sentence structures. It was like conversing with a toddler. On the third, he seemed to grasp things better as they hunted a wild goat up a ridge-side. She had embarrassingly been rambling on, and had mentioned casually that she liked the light look he wore on their ventures moreso than the armour he wore in the yards in front of his troops. In the secluded mountains, he only carried a pack, and wore a light tunic that peeked out from under brown leather armour. He wore gloves, and a small sword was strapped to his waist, but he carried a bow rather than his regular shield, and his boots were light leathers, laced up and perfect for hiking. He looked fit, and Almai could appreciate his broad shoulders without all of his armour hiding his frame, and she said as much
And he had caught her in her rambling, letting out a light chuckle.
“Thank you for your compliment.” He replied, albeit a bit formally due to his unfamiliarity with the tongue.
She looked up from her concentration on her steps around the forest floor, and realized he had fully understood her rambling, pausing while holding onto a tree branch on a steep ridge, the goat some 20 feet ahead of them. Her face turned an embarrassing share of red, and she sped up, looking away from Cullen as she muttered in elvish too quickly for him to understand.
Cullen himself watched as Almai scurried away, and cursed his vocabulary. He of course was blushing at her compliment, but seeing Almai flustered at all was a delight he wanted to revel in. He had known since their time in the snowy mountains that he admired Almai, but with each day that passed in her company, he grew ever fond of her. He had picked her language to learn for the reasons suggested to him by Leliana of course, but also at Dorian's drunken suggestion that he spend more 'quality' time with Almai. 'Adorable' crossed his mind too many times, and he yearned to have enough words to tease her, to gently win her adoration.
Instead, he quietly followed her, drawing his bow when she did as they came near the goat. She glanced over her shoulder at him, and motioned for him to take the kill. He drew, crouching amongst the bushes on the hillside, and let an arrow fly.
Almai had travelled without Cullen again, and found her heart wandering back to the walls of Skyhold as she walked the emerald graves with Solas, Dorian and Bull. She wrote letters that she would send with scouts, mostly on business matters, but she would always include a small bit at the end of letters to Cullen, illustrating the things she saw and felt during the day. A barrage of words filled with longing that never quite revealed her feelings. Sometimes she would write in elvish to challenge him, and would smile thinking of his furrowed brow at the complicated sentences.
It was one night, sitting by the fire on the Storm Coast that Dorian sat beside her, looking over her shoulder at her scrawled penwork. She looked up at him.
“Writing to your commander again?” Dorian asked with a knowing smile. Thankfully, Bull had gone hunting, and Solas with him to forage.
“Well, we must update Skyhold on what we see here.” She said matter-of-factually, trying to play cool.
“Mmh. And that is why you addressed it specifically to Cullen?” Dorian smirked, sitting down on a log beside her. He looked perfectly groomed despite living in the wilds for a week, and he smelled like lavender, Almai thought quietly. He had always been a good friend, and they had only gotten closer over the months, spending long hours in the library researching the Venatori and their ties to Corypheus.
“Remind me again why I brought you along?” Almai sighed, rolling her eyes in his direction. Dorian chuckled.
“To keep your ego from inflating. You and the commander are in love, a blind man could see that.” Dorian said. Almai stumbled with the quill in her hand. A few drops of ink landed in the corner of the letter, and she frowned.
“Nonsense. I have no such time for those things.” Almai said in a quiet tone, trying her damn hardest to not think about the way Cullen looked with dirt on his face and hovering over her, smelling like mint leaves.
“And yet you have time for the Commanders nightly lessons, and your hunting trips.” Dorian said, edging closer. Almai scoffed, busying herself with cleaning her quill, but blushing furiously in the firelight of the camp. She thanked the gods it was just them, and that she had not brought Sera on this trip.
“I am teaching him Elvish. No more, no less.” Almai said stiffly, shoving at Dorian’s shoulder.
“And what sweet nothings are you whispering him, Inquisitor?” Dorian egged on until Almai laughed, burying her face in her hands. She was thoroughly embarrassed in front of her best friend, but it felt like relief to have someone see her, and want nothing more than to tease her about it. Friendship, she was learning, was singularly beautiful, and she had not truly known it until joining the Inquisition.
“I will say nothing more than nothing has happened, and nothing will happen, because I am far too busy,” Almai insisted, blushing still, looking at him pointedly. “But I will finish writing my letter, good sir.”
Dorian threw his hands up in defeat as he laughed, the firelight illuminating his handsome features to show his joyous warmth in her company. She felt foolish lying to Dorian about the fleeting moments that she and Cullen had shared, but she dared not mention them aloud for fear that they would disappear like dust in the wind.
“As you wish, Almai. Good night.” He bowed in defeat, gracefully moving to his tent.
Almai poked her stick into the fire and tried not to think about the Commander for the rest of the trip.
It was the last letter she’d received before heading back to Skyhold in a rush that had worried her so. He had signed it in a way that was not him. He had spoken about the keep, Leliana, Josephine, and the troops’ movement. But he did not ramble on into how the trees reminded him of those in his homeland, or how he had felt terrible yelling at a new recruit who had burst into tears. He had just written about business. And signed it in a way that made her feel...wrong. He had just put his name. His others letters had ended with warmth and well wishes.
They were nearly to the edge of the Storm Coast when she decided to turn around, worried by the words left unsaid in his letter. She had connected enough between Josephine’s undertone of worry for Cullen’s health, and Cullen’s own shortened writing that did not look like his own. Solas and Bull protested, but Dorian saw the look in her and knew it immediately. They stood camped above a cliff, rain beating down on them in the misty mountain side just before the beach.
“Send word once you reach the Coast. Tell me what you find and be careful.” Almai insisted, looking at the three of them carefully. “And for the Gods’ sake, work together.”
“Yes, Mother. Now go home.” Dorian mocked. Bull laughed and Solas looked smug, but she knew they would get the job done.
“I will pack my things. Thank you, all of you.” She said, looking to them. How she had come to trust and confide in each of them over the last months; the Inquisition was becoming something she had never truly had before. A family. And now she had to leave part of it behind, and head for home.
She travelled alone, and it was a long road with no communication. She had travelled this life before the Inquisition; she had been a part of spy networks, some of which were now her own, she had ridden across countries and through forests for weeks on end without seeing another soul, but the loneliest part came when she would stop to sleep at night, bedroll sprawled on long grass, and look towards the stars. That was when the memories flooded in, and one of Cullen stuck with her as her heart reached out to him, making her toss and turn by her campfire.
“There. Do you see it? Great Bear.” He said, pointing it out in the night sky. One of those sleepless nights when they had found each other by accident on the walls of Skyhold...though she had begun to wonder if it was truly an accident anymore considering the number of times it had happened.
“Yes. Your constellation names are different than ours.” She said, explaining it to him in Elvish as they stood on the walls of Skyhold, staring at the stars together. Almai wrapped her house coat tighter around herself against the cold night air.
“Interesting.” Cullen said, genuinely pleased.
“Cullen?” Almai asked, breaking the comfortable silence between them. She looked over at him, leaning on the wall.
“Yes, Almai?” He asked, using her name in the quietness between them. In the public halls, it was still always Inquisitor. He seemed to lean in, and she could smell mint on him. It made her dizzy with sensation.
“...I...I leave tomorrow for my trip north. Will you be alright? Can I trust I can come back to you?” Almai said in a moment of weakness. She knew that Cullen’s symptoms of withdrawal from the Red Lyrium were getting worse lately, and yet, duty called. Even now, she knew he could not sleep for the nightmares that plagued him.
Cullen looked over at her; He did look tired and a bit haggard, but hopeful as he gave her a smile and reached out to take her hand gingerly in his. He closed his other hand over the top of it and looked at her steadily.
“I will not leave my post, Inquisitor.” He said. Almai wanted to kiss him.
Why hadn’t she kissed him.
Almai reached Skyhold in record time, and a squire came running to grab her horse as she entered the courtyard. Swinging down from her steed, she could see all the regular sights of Skyhold: troops practicing, horsemaster Dennet tending to the stables, scouts reviewing a map over a table...but no Cullen. It was not uncommon however that she would not find him in the yard, but he hadn’t been waiting for her on the walls either. She feared what it meant as she dismounted and handed her steed to a nervous looking stable boy, keeping her eyes on the figure of Cassandra descending the main hall stairs.
“Inquisitor.” She greeted, official and stiff as always.
“Cassandra, you know why I am here.” Almai said steadily. Cassandra stopped a few steps above Almai.
“Yes. He--” Cassandra began, but Almai touched her arm lightly, casting a knowing glance about the yard full of soldiers and rebels and mages alike.
“Speak no more.” She whispered lightly, a gentle hand on Cassandra’s elbow as she reached her, moving to ascend to Skyhold with her. Their heads bowed in acknowledgment until they were safe behind the walls of the keep, confronted by Solas’ bright paintings that stretched from the floor to the next level of the rising tower where voices whispered in secret conversations. It was not only Leliana’s crows who lived in the tower, but rather the secrets of her inquisition and all whom held them. She kept her gaze low as she passed by hooded figures who nodded at her in recognition. It was odd being thrown from the wilds for weeks on end, into the Inquisitions other side, one of intrigue and secrecy and diplomacy. A dance she did not care for, particularly. She would rather be on the field than in the ballroom.
Before Almai realized, Cassandra had stopped at the door to Cullen’s tower. She turned to face her, and Almai looked up at Cassandra’s serious expression.
“Inquisitor, I must warn you. This is not the Commander you left behind. He is very ill.” Cassandra said in a steady, serious tone. Almai felt a lump form in her throat.
“Of course. Let me go alone.” Almai said. Cassandra hesitated, seeming like she wanted to say something, but didn’t. Almai swept past her with a quiet ‘thank you’ as she pushed open the wooden door to Cullen’s tower.
It was dark. That was the first thing she noticed; only a single candle was lit on Cullen’s desk, and peering above where the ladder went to his quarters in the rafters, she could see only darkness. She closed the door behind her, and let her voice float softly upwards.
No reply. Almai’s heart gripped, thinking all sorts of terrible things.
“I’m coming up.” She called before ascending the ladder. She held her breath in anticipation as she crossed the threshold.
She had to let her eyes adjust for a moment before she got used to the darkness. The curtains were drawn over the only small window, and a single candle burnt low, wax dripping over a book beneath it. Almai pulled herself up, and whispered towards the huddled figure under furs on the bed.
“Cullen...Oh, Cullen…” She said, looking down at him as she came around the bed. He looked a mess, sweat on his brow and his pallor sickly grey. He was so weak from the withdrawal, he shivered even beneath the furs. The fire in his room in the hearth had gone out just recently, it seemed, as the remains of it were still smouldering.
Weakly, Cullen stirred, and Almai instinctively sat on the edge of his bed and reached out to his brow. She pushed his blonde curls back from his face, and she could see the beard that had begun to grow on his haggard face, blonde peppered with a few grey pieces.
“Do not speak. Let me light the fire for you. I am here.” She said gently. “It is my turn to take care of you.”
Cullen seemed to stare at her for the longest time, but seemed to accept his defeat as he lie back in bed with a sigh, groaning as he turned on his side and pulled the furs tighter around himself.
Almai took to the fire and tended it to life in moments, throwing a fresh log on and some tinder. She warmed her own hands to it, removing her riding gloves and setting them on the stone mantle. She slid her coat off in the already warm room, and draped it over top of Cullen, though it admittedly only seemed to cover his back, far too small for him. Her dark hair tumbled over her face as she let it loose, comfortable around Cullen even if he wasn’t in a feverish haze of a sleep.
“What have you done to yourself, da’lin…” She sighed, thinking of her urging him in a calm tone that he did not need the lyrium his body craved. He was stronger than that. But seeing him so weak and undone by it all made her stomach sink. She was enormously proud of him for going without, but a life without him at all...
She felt selfish, instantly.
“Ar’m min.” She replied, reaching out to his outstretched hand. She took his cold fingers in hers and held them gently, warming them against her skin.
“I did not mean for you...to see me like this…” He said quietly as she sat next to him on the edge of his bed. She put his hand in her lap, and brushed the locks of golden hair sticking to his brow back from his face. He closed his eyes against her hand and she felt her heart grow weak.
“I will not leave you.” She said quietly. “Rest, now.”
Cullen let himself relax into his pillow and Almai pulled the blankets over his shoulders, watching as he dozed off into a light sleep.
She had not meant to fall in love with a human, but Almai spent the next two days by Cullen’s side, leaving only when healers pushed her from the room, and to talk in hushed voices with runners who brought news to her night and day of Inquisition movements. When Cullen would wake for the briefest of moments, he would see her sitting by his bed, legs crossed with a writing board perched on her lap. She looked so deep in concentration, he didn’t dare bother her in those moments. He would instead drift off to a fretful sleep.
On the third day, he could finally sit up in bed and hold conversations, his body no longer exhausted by the effort of fighting. The demons in his mind had quieted for a time, and for that Cullen was grateful. He had awoken to Almai, climbing the ladder with a backpack over her shoulder. She grinned when she saw him awake, sitting up in bed, and he felt his heart stop at the sight of her smile.
“You look well.” She said, pulling herself up into the room. He thanked the Maker that she didn’t make a big deal of it, evaluating as she went.
“Yes, I think the fevers broken.” He said. And indeed, his head felt clearer than it had for a week, as if emerged from a red haze.
“The healers will want to know right away.” She said with a raised eyebrow. Cullen groaned, waving a hand in dismissal.
“Please, let me be a while longer without anyone poking or prodding at me.” He said, looking over at her warily. She chuckled with her back turned, rummaging in her bag on the table.
“Then play chess with me.” She said, pulling a chess board from her backpack. Cullen’s interest was renewed.
“If you have coffee in that bag of yours as well, we’re made.”
It was a week after Cullen was back on his feet, resuming his duties with varying availability. At times, it would be Cassandra barking orders at the soldiers in the yard, while Cullen hid away with a splitting headache.
Today though was a good day. Cullen stood at his bookshelves, looking for a book on the Forbidden Oasis, an ancient heaven of beauty and life they’d found in the middle of the desert. Information on it seemed scarce, and he hoped the books that leliana had just had delivered would prove useful. Unbothered by cravings or headaches, he nearly missed the small knock on his door in his concentration.
The door opened a bit and Almai’s face appeared in the gap. She looked beautiful, but tired, her dark hair pulled back into a braid that fell over her shoulder, and her green eyes brightened as they landed on him, an action that made his heart flutter. She smiled as she stepped in, hand still on the door.
“May I come in?” She asked. Cullen closed the book in his hand, and nodded.
“Of course.” Cullen said gently. He watched with curiosity as she closed the door quietly behind her, and Cullen set his book on his desk.
“It’s been a week. I wanted to see how you were feeling.” She said, focused on him as she made herself comfortable in the space. She reached out and played with the feather of his quill which sat in the inkwell, waiting to be used on the mountain of correspondence he had yet to reply to. His focus however, for the last while, had been on the woman who now stood in his office. Every time he tried to write a letter, he thought of those fever-ridden days when he would wake to see her in the corner of his room, writing letters by candlelight in the middle of the night. He had heard her refusals to leave to the mage healers who came and went, and his heart yearned for the woman he’d met in the wilderness of Haven. He thought of her so often, letter writing was the least of his worries.
“Oh, thank you. Fine.” He said, rubbing the back of his neck, nervous. Almai eyed him suspiciously and stopped playing with the quill. Instead, she touched his arm, and looked up at him.
“Would you like to take a walk? Alone?” She asked, her voice gentle but heavy with implication. Cullen, his stomach turning like butterflies, looked at her in surprise, but nodded.
“Yes. Sure, I mean, of course.” He stumbled. She nodded and led the way, folding her hands behind her back as they headed to the ramparts. The tension between them was taught like a string, words unsaid and both of them knowing without saying that something had grown between them both.
Cullen followed as they passed by a pair of guards gossiping. It was Almai who stopped first, leaning against the wall, looking out towards the mountains surrounding Skyhold.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” She asked, looking down at him from her spot on a higher step. A few strands of her dark hair escaped her braid in the light wind, and Cullen couldn’t help himself in that moment. He reached out and pushed her hair behind her pointed ear, and she looked surprised at the sudden, gentle action. A deep red blush formed on her freckled cheeks, and Cullen realized what he’d done, a blush forming on his as well, a mirror.
“You...ah...you wanted to talk?” Cullen asked. They were close now, Cullen’s right foot on the step below the one she stood on, looking up at her.
“I...wanted to…” She began, green eyes focused on his golden ones. Neither of them could look away as words failed them in the sunny morning light. Somehow, her hand found his shoulder, as he moved forward.
Cullen lingered, and his hand moved to her waist, his heart hammering in the moment as he stared up at her from his lower step. He had thought of kissing her for so long...
“Commander! I have the report you wanted!”
Cullen froze in the moment, and Almai’s green eyes went wide with surprise. She shyly turned her head away from the scout who waited for Cullen, looking at the report instead of the people in front of him. Cullen turned, glowering, and exchanged a quick glance with the scout who looked up in alarm from the report. His eyes darted from Cullen, to Almai, and he blushed before turning on heel.
Almai looked over at Cullen as the scout hurried off, quick with her words, embarrassed that someone had caught them.
She was cut off as suddenly Cullen’s lips were on hers.
Almai’s breath was taken away, and the butterflies in Cullen’s stomach were silenced as he took the last step, closing any gap between them. His lips glided over hers in an eager kisses, gentle and loving as his large hands cupped her face. Almai’s hands found him at last, and she wrapped her arms around him, playing with his golden curls at the base of his neck as he deepened the kiss.
Cullen was overwhelmed by her; she smelled like lavender and pine, and her lips tasted like the tea she must have just had. Her hands were soft on his neck, and made his hair stand on end as her body seemed to curve to fit with him. She was soft and warm and everything Cullen had imagined for far too long.
When Cullen let her go, there were no words exchanged between them. Just Almai’s face, blushed red, breathless as she stared at him, and Cullen wearing a sly smirk that made her want more than his kisses. Shy, though, Almai stayed where Cullen had left her as he gave her a small bow at the bottom of the steps.
And as quickly as he’d taken her breath away, he was gone.
Almai didn’t know how to approach Cullen after their meeting on the ramparts, but she couldn’t get the thought of his lips on hers from her mind a day later. The moment she’d been wondering about, that had been keeping her up for days, had finally passed in a flurry of kisses and a warm embrace. Staring at the fireplace in the middle of the night now in her lonely room, Almai looked out her large windows. She could see the light on in his tower, flickering gently through the slit windows.
Almai sighed and cursed under her breath, drawing her robe tighter over her body, the velvet sleeves heavy but warm as she turned from the window. She wore light slippers that muffled the sound of her steps as she made her way down her stairs and through the deserted hall, managing to sneak around the single guard on duty by sticking to the shadows of the unfinished walls and scaffolds. Sneaking around her own castle made her feel like a girl again, and not like the titles she now held whether she liked them or not.
She let the cool night air whip around her exposed ankles as she made her way across the bridge to Cullen’s tower, taking a breath before she pushed the door open without knocking.
She heard Cullen’s movement before she saw him, her eyes looking to his desk, then to the fireplace that had been newly installed. Two wingback chairs sat there, and Cullen had occupied one before he had obviously gotten to his feet. Almai glanced quickly, then closed the door behind her before daring to take another glance, her heart hammering in her chest.
“Almai?” He asked, his voice gentle and floating across the room with the crackle of the fire.
Almai glanced at him. He was handsome and comfortable looking, wearing a white undershirt with strings undone at his neck, and pants that had drawstrings loose. His golden hair was ruffled, curling at parts that framed his face in a gentle way and the shadow on his jaw was more prominent than usual, unshaven in these early hours. He held a book, his thumb marking the page he’d been on. His eyes moved over her, and a blush crept onto his cheeks as he finally held her gaze.
“I...I saw your light was on.” Almai blurted, unsure herself why she’d come to his tower, suddenly aware of her nervousness. She’d come to his quarters in the middle of the night, in her pyjamas, an auspicious move by any means.
“Oh...yes. I couldn’t sleep.” He said, setting his book down on the side table.
“Nightmares?” She asked. She took a step closer.
“Yes. Unfortunately. Would, ah...would you like to sit?” He asked, motioning to the empty wingback chair beside his. She glanced at it, then nodded. She approached the warm fire as Cullen sat down. She followed suit and tucked her feet under herself as she curled into the large chair. He seemed to wait until she was settled, pulling the rabbit furs that had been slung over the back of the chair down onto her lap to keep herself warm. He swung a bottle of golden liquid and flashed her a smile.
“Drink?” He asked.
“Yes, Please. I need one.” She said with a sigh. Cullen stood and grabbed an extra glass where a carafe of wine and spare glasses sat, ready for use.
“Nightmares?” Cullen asked as he poured two fingers for her. He handed it to her, and his fingers brushed hers. She lifted the glass to her lips and downed the entire shot at once.
Cullen looked down at her with wide eyes as she breathed in through her teeth, then handed the glass back to him.
“Another. And no.” She said. Cullen hesitated, but took the glass and poured another. She took it slower this time, and Cullen sat down across from her, setting the bottle aside.
“Cullen. Perhaps we should...put a hold on...us.” She said suddenly. The liquor had given her a sudden burst of courage and she did not waste it.
Cullen stopped, his hand still on the lid of the bottle as he glanced up at her quickly. His golden eyes were confused at first, then it happened slowly, like watching his heart break in slow motion. Almai wanted to soothe his fears, brush his curly hair out of his face and kiss him until every fear was silenced, but instead she sipped at her drink.
“Ah. Well.” He said. He looked at his drink in his hand.
“I don’t...I mean to say, I don’t want to do this. I want..us, to work. But in the middle of a war…” She began.
“It may not be the best time. I understand, and surprisingly...agree.” Cullen said, lifting his drink. He looked defeated, but understanding, if not tired.
“May I...stay a while, though?” She asked, looking towards the fireplace.
“I was only reading. I would be happy for your company, Almai.” Cullen said with a warm smile towards her..
Almai looked over to him. She had only felt him once, so briefly, and already she missed him. She reached out with her free hand, and Cullen, wordlessly, took it in his, his callused fingers rubbing the back of her hand with his thumb. They stared at one another, connected by entwined fingers, and she sighed, looking away to the fire.
“Just a while longer.”
After Cullen had gotten better, their next venture was one Almai was not inherently comfortable with. Their travels had brought them on the long road from Skyhold, to the halls of the Orlesian palace, and the bright red uniforms that Josephine had gathered for them all made their party stand out even more at the event than their mismash possy already did. Almai, used to keeping quiet and to the shadows, had walked out in front of hundreds of watching, judging Orlesians, her hands in fists at her side with nerves.
It wasn’t until the evenings events had resolved that Almai had found a quiet minute to herself on the balcony while music played inside the great halls. The stars shone bright above the city below, lit up beyond the palace gardens, and she was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. Celene had solidified her rule in tumultuous times and Almai had gained a powerful ally in the fight against Corypheus. Josephine had approved greatly of the newly cemented alliance, and Almai had taken her chance to slip away while she and Celene hashed out some details in agreements.
“I’ve finally found you.”
Almai looked over her shoulder as a familiar figure joined her, speaking in her own tongue which was a welcome relief. Cullen looked dashing in his red suit, his blue sash draped over his broad shoulder. Almai gave him a warm smile, and turned back towards the city below as he joined her, leaning against the stone rail.
“You did. I thought my escape went unnoticed.” Almai said. His shoulder touched hers as he settled beside her, and the light touch did not go unnoticed by Almai. She looked over at him, and couldn’t help but remark to herself how much better he looked as of late. He had gained back some of the weight he’d lost last month after being violently ill, and he held himself with a strength of stature that assured her of his health.
Since her sudden return from the Storm Coast, something else had solidified between them besides just a common companionship. Almai felt attached to Cullen in a way she hadn’t felt since she’d been a girl pining over the clan’s resident mage. With Cullen, she had found a commonly shy soul, quiet in nature but fierce in his passion for his work. Lone hunting trips and evening lessons before bed over a shared board of chess pieces had cemented a love for Cullen that Almai didn’t think possible for her to hold for a human. And more nights than not, the thoughts of Cullen’s lips on hers had kept her up at night, and on the road, with their tents pitched next to each others’...well, the temptation had nearly been too much.
“You did well tonight. I reckon you just saved the Inquisition and the Orlesian empire all in one go.” Cullen complimented with a chuckle.
“I would have rather done our work in quiet, but not much can escape the drama of the empire, it seems.” Almai said, smiling back at him. Cullen held her gaze for a moment before he coughed and rubbed the back of his neck.
“There was...something else I wanted to ask you while we were here.” He said. Almai had seen him nervous like this a few times, and she reveled in the way he blushed, but he composed himself enough to look her in the eye.
“Would you dance with me, Almai?”
Almai lifted an eyebrow, leaning against the stone railing as she looked at him.
“I thought you did not dance. At least, that’s what I overheard you telling every nobel women who approached you.” Almai teased with a smirk. Cullen looked serious though as he held out his hand to her.
“I do not dance, usually, but when the occasion calls for it...I think a celebration is appropriate. Privately. And It seems we are quite alone.” He said a bit too seriously, obviously nervous. Almai looked at him for a moment, her own heart pounding out of her chest at the idea of being in his arms for even a moment. Taking in a breath, she put her hand in Cullen’s, and smiled as his expression softened and brightened.
“It would be my pleasure, Cullen.” Almai said.
His hand was callused, much like her own, from holding a sword for years. He smiled gently, his scarred lip turning upward in an endearing fashion as he towered over her short stature. He let his hand slip around her waist, and his other wrap around her hand as music floated through the slightly open door. Almai let her hand rest on his shoulder, and exhaled when he pulled her close to his chest, warm and familiar in a comfortable way that eased the nerves Almai felt being at the palace.
They set off at a slow pace, matching with the music, and Almai quietly let herself relax into the movement of a slow waltz. Cullen led with surprising expertise, and she felt a sort of relief for once at being the one to follow. She didn’t have to think, instead she relaxed against his chest and let herself enjoy the warmth of him against her, private and hidden away from those inside.
Cullen too seemed to find himself at ease as he relaxed his hand on her back, sliding it gradually to her waist as she leaned against his chest. He let himself breathe in the scent of her dark hair, smelling lavender, and moved to the slow pace of the waltz with a lazy sort of lead. He was aware of his heart pounding, but his anxiety was at the lowest it’d been all night.
Both of them knew that moment was quiet, and more intimate than they’d ever dared be with one another besides a hesitant kiss. And most importantly, they were comfortable. They had vanquished any threats that had lied in wait for them tonight, and any troubles could wait at the doors of tomorrow. And so the comfort they had found in one another had finally found fruition in that intimate moment on the balcony.
And as the song came to an end, it was Almai who slipped from his arms, albeit with hesitation. She looked up at him, longing for him to reach down and brush his callused hand against her cheek, but it became clear that wouldn’t happen as voices came closer to the slightly ajar door. A group burst through the door, and Almai and Cullen jumped away from one another as the drunken nobels seemed not to notice them hovering by the doorway.
They hesitated near the doorway, the curtains blowing at their ankles in the night breeze. Almai looked up at him, and gestured inside.
“I’m sure we’re missed.” She said, nervous herself. She didn’t have the courage to do as she felt. Almai could fight demons and monsters with no problem, but this? This seemed impossible.
“I’m sure.” Cullen agreed, but hesitated with her. She bit her bottom lip, and Cullen gave a sigh. It seemed that was his last straw.
“Oh, Maker take them.” Cullen said, reaching out to cradle Almai’s face with callused hands. He stepped towards her and pressed his lips to hers, his hands moving to her dark, half-up hair as he guided her with his other hand on her waist. She realized what he had done in an instant--hid them behind the cornered curtain, away from any prying eyes at the ball, making her feel safe in his arms.
For a moment, Almai let herself go, moving her lips against his and pressing her body into his. She was vaguely aware of his hand brushing against her back as he took her breath away, kissing with a hunger that she knew too well. She too was starved for touch, his touch, and let her hands weave into his golden hair, deepening the kiss as her tongue played against his lips, his stubble rough but welcome against her cheeks. He pushed her against the wall gently, pressing his body against hers, and that was what brought Almai back to the moment.
“Cullen…” she whispered against his lips, her hands moving to his chest. She pushed gently, but kissed him sweetly, breathing heavily as they opened their eyes. She could see the need in his golden brown eyes, and she let her hand brush against his cheek, brushing over the scar on his lip.
“As much as i’d like to continue, we’re in the middle of an Orlesian court ball.” Almai said in a whisper as he brushed a piece of dark hair from her face. He gave a small chuckle, keeping quiet behind the curtains as the music changed to something more upbeat.
“Skyhold. As soon as we return.” Cullen said with insistence in his voice. Almai felt a sudden surge of joy at being so wanted, and kissed him once more, slow and sweet. When she backed off, she slipped from his arms in the same way she did when they sparred, quick and lithe. It was her greatest ability as a rogue on the battlefield, her quick and quiet ability to move before one would often even notice her in the shadows. And it seemed to benefit her in leaving him stunned, feeling her on his lips still.
“War be damned. See you then, Commander.”
looong chapter and nsfw
Almai sighed as she looked at the mountain of paperwork on her desk. She was tired of looking at it, and stood up; ever since she’d set foot back in Skyhold at the crack of dawn, she’d been sat at her desk, with mounds of letters that had been waiting for her return. Almai felt her back crack as she stretched, walking around her desk to see the mountains, silhouetted against the fading light. She leaned against the railing for a moment, appreciating the view and quietness. She could just barely hear the sound of chatter from the pub in the yard below, soldiers done their shifts for the day looking for a beer and each other’s good company.
Almai’s mind wandered to Cullen; she had promised him a visit once they reached skyhold, and she wondered if he’d gotten just as swamped with work. She had seen him briefly on the road home, but their duties had kept them busy enough along the way. She touched her lips absentmindedly before slipping on a pair of boots and leaving her quarters.
She slipped through the great hall, the number of people already dwindling after dinner hours. Varric raised a pint to her as she passed by the fireplace, and Solas was painting atop a scaffolding when she entered his study. He too gave her a quiet acknowledgement with a nod and whispered “Lethallan.” She returned his greeting with a returned “Lethallin,” but carried on her way towards the commanders tower.
She pushed the door to outside, the evening having become chilly as the sun had long ago set behind the mountains, and Almai jogged across the bridge towards his door, the inside looking warm with flickering firelight inside.
She pushed the door open, but found no one there, to her surprise. Almai sighed as she closed the door, hands on her hips as she took in the room she’d been in a thousand times. It’s familiar walls were stone and cold looking, but the room had been made more welcoming over the past months with the addition of a red carpet and bookshelves pushed against the wall. Candles that were beginning to dipped low flickered in their holders, but the warm fire was fresh and roaring in the hearth. She hesitated by it a moment, knowing that Cullen must be coming back soon with it burning so brightly.
His travelling chest lie open near the ladder to his quarters in the loft, as if he too had barely had time to unpack before being swept off to business. She looked at the letters scattered on his desk, looking much like her own, correspondence from scouts and soldiers across Thedas, wherever the Inquisitions reach had landed. Her fingers brushed over the parchment, but left them where they were as she heard footsteps echoing outside, and Cullen familiar voice floating in, talking to what sounded like his troops.
Quietly, she slunk to the shadows of the rounded room and stood with her back to the wall, near the door. It sprung open and Cullen strode through boots heavy against the wood and still in full uniform. He glanced at the two scouts who stood at attention in front of his desk, ready for orders as he pulled a map from under some letters, pointing to certain spots.
“Here and here. We'll be able to assist most effectively with the relief effort should we take these points. Is that understood?” he asked, looking across his desk at them. Suddenly his gold brown eyes caught sight of her with her arms folded, leaning against the wall behind the door, and Cullen quickly cleared his throat, surprised as he looked back to his troops.
“Why are you standing here? You have your orders!” he barked. The scouts jumped to life and Almai had to stifle a laugh as they scurried from his office, not noticing her hiding behind the open door. Cullen leaned on the wooden door and closed it with a sigh behind them.
“There’s always something more…” he sighed, striding to his desk as Almai hung back.
“Long day?” she asked gently.
I shouldn't complain...this war won't last forever. ” He began, pacing about the room. “When it started I...I hadn’t considered much beyond our survival. But things are different now.”
“What do you mean?” Almai asked curiously. She noticed the way his shoulders tensed as he took a book that had been sitting on the hearth, and put it back on the bookshelf. He kept his back to her as he leaned on his desk, fists clenched, and Almai felt the need to soothe his stresses away.
“I find myself wondering what will happen when this is over... I won’t want to move on, not from you. But I... I don’t know what you, that is, if you…” Cullen began.
Almai smiled gently as she reached out and put a hand on his arm, brushing it in a comforting way as she slid in front of him. She looked up at him, letting her fingers entwined with his as she stared up at him. She could see the surprise there, but she just smiled, trying her best to make his worries disappear.
“Cullen, do you need to ask?”
Almai bumped against his desk, and a glass that had been sitting there went topping to the floor, shattering. Almai looked in surprise to the mess shed caused, but Cullen didn't miss a beat, taking the opportunity to brush everything else off his desk. She watched him smirk as papers went flying, his hungry lips meeting hers as he pushed her onto his desk.
Almai breathed heavily as Cullen stole kiss after kiss, hands moving in her hair as she wrapped her legs around his waist. She reached up and unclipped his feathered coat from his shoulders as she kissed him, letting it fall to the floor. Cullen undid the leather braces on her arms and tossed them aside, and they broke their kiss only to take their armour off. It too went clattering into the corners of the room, and sitting atop his desk, Almai wore nothing but her small clothes.
“You have no idea how long I've waited for this.” Cullen whispered against the skin of her neck, laying sweet kisses there as his hands rubbed against her thighs. He had been surprised to see that her valassalin was not just on her face, but rather she'd had it done all over her body, following down her chest and hips to the tops of her feet in a winding pattern that disappeared with her freckles in certain places. He wanted to trace the vine-like pattern with his lips for a thousand years.
“I do.” she breathed. Cullen felt his heart jump at the simple statement. The idea that she too wanted this just as badly as he spurred him on.
Cullen lips were like fire on her skin, making her hips writhe as his lips moved from her neck to her collarbone, to her chest. Gently, with care she'd never truly experienced, he grazed her chest with his lips. She sighed at his kisses, hands gently raking his back as he swirled a nipple between his lips, his other hand that had been on her legs finding her warmth.
Almai gasped. It had been too long since she'd last had sex, and sex that felt this good. Cullen seemed to want to worship her body, letting his hands and mouth do the work as Almai was free to relax into the sensation of it. Cullen fingers danced around the edges of her underwear until she let it an audible moan of desire, tightening her legs around him and pulling herself into his hips. She could feel how hard he was through his pants, and she burned with desire.
“Not yet.” Cullen said in a low tone, lips against her skin as he slipped away from her. She would have protested, but as Cullen fell to his knees at the edge of the desk and tore her underwear off, she knew better. It was when his lips brushed against her inner thigh as he spread them open that Almai blushed profusely, feeling exposed but loved in his arms. When his lips and stubbled face found her wetness, she let out a cry of pleasure, resting her legs over his broad shoulders.
She breathed heavily and grabbed a handful of his golden hair as he ate her out, licking her wetness as she breathed his name, which only seemed to make him want more. He tasted her sweetness as he slipped two fingers inside of her, moving his hand with her hips as she moaned, her voice echoing off the keep walls. Both of them seemed to be lost in the moment as Almai came to a quivering climax, stifling her own cries by biting on her hand.
When Cullen came to his feet, Almai was already left blushing and breathing heavily, her hands supporting herself against the desk. She moved towards him and let her hands brush down his fit chest as his hands trailed down her spine, their lips finding one anothers again. Cullen’s tongue moved against her own, and she could taste herself on him, which only made her want more of him. All of him.
She pushed his smallclothes off and wasn’t disappointed by the size of him as her hand wrapped around his length. Cullen let out a moan into her lips as she stroked him for a moment, kissing him fiercely, until he could take it no longer.
His hands found her ass and pulled her to the edge of the desk in a sudden movement that made her remember just how much bigger he was than her, and she let out a small giggle. She could feel Cullen smile against her lips as she felt his cock press against her wetness, and Almai wanted nothing more than to feel him inside of her. She reached down and guided him, gasping as he pressed himself into her, hands fluttering up to his shoulders and letting her fingernails grip into his light skin.
Cullen let pleasure overtake his actions, his nerves gone in the moment with Almai. She was gorgeous, dark hair a mess around her heart-shaped face, cheeks flushed red and her lips parted, letting out small moans as Cullen began to move slowly at first. Her fingers grasped at his back as she pulled at him, urging him closer as he fucked her, and her lips found his neck, nipping at his soft skin in a way that made him let out a low growl. Almai’s tongue swept over his ear lobe as she whispered his name in between breaths.
Cullen wanted to see her face, though, and he gently pushed her shoulders. Almai took the cue without missing a moment, lying back against his desk, wrapping her legs tightly around his waist as his hands fell to her waist. Their eyes found one anothers, and their gaze stayed locked in a fiery moment of passion as he picked up the pace. Almai cried out, not bothering to stifle her moans now as his fingers found her clit, moving in small circles that made her grip at the edges of the desk in pleasure. She was gorgeous, biting her lower lip, moaning his name as his cock filled her entirely, and Cullen found himself moaning with her, enjoying the moment.
Almai felt herself reaching her peak again, and she could feel Cullen beginning to tense as he moved against her, his hands at her waist now, thumbs pressing into her hip bones as he breathed heavily. She could see the perspiration on his brow as his blonde hair had lost it’s perfect fixture, and she loved the thought of her hands gripping at him again.
“Almai I--” He began, looking down at her. Almai tightened her legs around his waist, a signal for him not to stop as he came to his climax at the same moment as her, both of them pushing each other over the edge of pleasure. Cullen held her as close as he could with her sprawled out on his desk, gripping at her hips as she lifted her lower half off the desk towards him, calling out his name. Cullen held on for a moment before doubling over onto her, collapsing in pleasure and exhaustion.
He heard her giggle as she slipped off of him, re-positioning herself beneath him. Both of them were quiet, trying to catch their breath in the warm room. It was Cullen who moved first, standing up and stretching his shoulders before offering a hand to Almai, who had been watching him. She took it, and he pulled her up. The sudden movement made her head spin, but she rested her hands on Cullen’s broad chest.
Cullen kissed the top of her head, breathing in the scent of her hair as his hands slid down her neck to her back, feeling her breaths as she relaxed against him, her feet lazily wrapping around the backs of his knees. They stayed like that for a moment, quiet, until Almai mumbled into his chest.
“I don’t want to go.” She said, wrapping her arms around him. He brought her into his chest, holding her. He didn’t want her to go either. His hands trailed down her spine, rubbing her back in long, comforting strokes.
“Stay, then. At least a while.” He said, trying to coerce her by playing with the ends of her dark ahir. She leaned into his touch, and sighed.
“A while. If I stay all night, someone will notice.” She said. Cullen chuckled.
“If they didn’t notice you already, it’d be a miracle.” Cullen teased. Almai blushed and buried her face in her hands, embarrassed, and Cullen laughed, taking her hands in his immediately. He placed a gentle kiss on her cheek.
“Come to bed. Don’t worry about them.” Cullen said, tucking her dark hair behind her ears. She sighed and patted his chest.
Waking up to someone in his bed was not something that Cullen had experienced in some years. He had forgotten how sweet it felt to have a warm hand wrap around your waist in the early hours of the morning, and as he felt Almai’s lips press into his back, Cullen’s worries of the day melted away. He felt more well rested than he had in weeks, and as he shifted, Almai yawned.
She settled on his chest, and his arm wrapped around her, bringing her close. He pressed a gentle kiss to her dark hair, and pulled the blanket over her bare shoulders.
“I should have left already…” She mumbled.
“So should I.” Cullen said, chancing a glance at the colour of the sky through the hole in his roof. It was a lovely shade of pink in the early morning light. Neither of them moved, despite the time, unwilling to wrench themselves back into reality. It was Almai who shuffled first, pushing herself up to look at him. He glanced at her, raising an eyebrow as he brushed her dark hair behind her pointed ear, resting his hand on her neck. She leaned forward and pressed a sweet kiss to his lips, both of them enjoying the gentle warmth of the moment in the early morning light.
When she released him, Cullen only wanted to pull her back into bed and hold her longer. Duty, however, called for both of them, and instead he admired her lithe form from afar as she collected her clothes. He sat up in bed, back resting against his headboard, and ran a hand through his blonde curls.
“Meet me here tonight?” Cullen asked. He felt nervous asking, but with her, her didn’t want to hesitate. They had done that for long enough.
She looked over her shoulder as she pulled her tunic on over her head. She smiled, but shook her head.
“I leave this afternoon to the Exalted Plains.” She said. She stepped into her breeches and laced them at her waist, looking down at him as she dressed.
“I would come with you, but I have troops moving West soon to prepare.” Cullen sighed as she put on her boots.
“We will hunt when I return.” She said. She straightened up, finally dressed, and braided her hair to the side with quick fingers as she looked at him.
“Until then.” Cullen said with a nod.
“Will you miss me?” She asked suddenly.
Cullen, taken back by the bluntness, looked surprised for a moment, but softened as he looked at her, waiting for an honest answer.
“Yes. Dearly.” He admitted. She beamed, and turned to the ladder, taking the first few rungs.
“Until then, commander.” She said before disappearing below. He laid back in bed, listened to her light footsteps on the wood floor, and the sound of the door opening and closing. Cullen sank into the pillows on his bed and sighed.
Almai pulled her cloak tight around her shoulders as she stepped over the rough, wet grasses of the Exalted Plains, Solas walking beside her and speaking of the spirits that dwelled in these lands. Admittedly, she’d felt them around her, heavy like a presence of sadness in the air, but it had been Solas who brought it up first. And she was always willing to listen and learn about the cultures of long ago, eager to understand the happenings around them. It didn’t hurt to have a person who spoke her tongue either, giving her brain a break from the constant translation that she had to keep up with.
“You did not return the other night through the keep.” Solas said quietly, knowingly with a smirk. Almai blushed, looking over at Solas before hitting him in the arm.
“Quiet.” Almai said, cursing him under her breath. Solas snickered as he leaned on his staff as they climbed up an upwards slope. Dorian and Bull travelled behind them, chatting between themselves and looking a bit more than amicable.
“If you should worry about being discreet, your secret is safe with me, Lethallan.” He said with a snicker, smirking down at her. Almai sighed as they came to even land, keeping pace with his long strides.
“You’re a gossip, Solas.” Almai said with a laugh, still embarrassed someone had already noticed.
“I enjoy intrigue.” He admitted with a shrug.
“I would appreciate we keep this quiet.” Almai said, looking over at him a bit more seriously then. Solas nodded respectively.
“Of course. You must fill me in on a few areas, however.” He smirked. Almai rolled her eyes, but conceded to his questions for the duration of the hike, heading into the wilderness of the battlefields. She would admit later in her tent that it was nice to have kin to confide in; she hadn’t enjoyed such a luxury since she’d been younger. Solas, she decided, was a friend and vaguely a part of her family.
The castle seemed empty without her. Everywhere what Almai usually resided, be it in the garden reading and tending to plants with Morrigan, or circling the War Table like a keen-eyed hawk, it all felt lonely without her presence. Cullen hadn’t noticed it at first, of course, but as he awaited her return to Skyhold from the Exalted Plains, each day seemed to pass by slower and slower, agonizing him. And when the day passed for her expected return, he began to worry, his gut sinking.
This is what it was to love. The aching longing when she was gone, and the worry when the party had not sent word ahead about their delay. It was staying awake with worry, and what if’s running through his brain.
And finally, in the middle of the night nearly three days late of their expected return, Cullen could hear the gate being drawn up for visitors. Usually, it stayed closed until sunrise on all accounts, and he could think of only one party admitted past that rule.
Already awake and lounging in the chair by his fireplace, he quickly grabbed his coat and boots, lacing them as quickly as possible and heading to the door, exhausted and stumbling a bit over a footstool.
He swung the door open to the ramparts, his jacket half on, and looked down at who had entered his grounds. To his immediate relief, he saw her.
She had her dark hair piled atop her head in a messy bun, loose from riding her black steed. She looked fine, her shoulders squared and her bow slung across the right side of her steed, her quiver on her back. The others dismounted behind her, Dorian, Solas and Bull leading their steeds towards the stables while Almai disappeared behind hers as she dismounted, tiny thing that she was.
Cullen shuffled forward, heading down the steps to the ground as he managed to pull on his coat. When a stable boy took the reigns of her steed and led it off, he finally caught sight of her face.
She had new scars.
He should have expected something like this would happen eventually, but it still took him by surprise and made him want to reach out to her, his stomach dropping. The scars were noticeably large, stretching down in long lines over her right eyebrow and over her left jaw and neck in three lines, like a claw. Surrounded by scouts and a few lingering page boys who took their bags and loot, Cullen hesitated, but Almai caught sight of him and smiled.
“Cullen!” She said, waving to him as she approached across the yard, leaving everyone behind as she strode towards him. Cullen noticed Solas nod to him as he passed by, and Cullen knew he likely had Solas to thank that his lovers face wasn’t in shreds at the moment.
“Almai...Welcome back.” He said, deciding upon a gentler approach. Almai stopped a foot away from him, but he could see the same desire to come closer lingered there.
“Thank you. You didn’t have to come greet us.” She said, looking at him sincerely.
“I was awake. How was your trip?” He asked, wanting to know every moment, including whomever or whatever had hurt her.
“Well, it certainly didn’t go as planned. Should I fill you in tomorrow?” She asked. Cullen looked quickly around them, and took a step forward, seeing no one looking their way. He could feel the warmth of her, radiating, magnetic, but he hesitated. He kept his hands folded behind his back.
“If you’re not too tired…” He began.
“Give me 20 minutes, then come to my quarters.” She said. Cullen smiled and nodded, his heart aflutter.
Whatever worries of her injuries were cast aside by Almai’s desire as soon as he knocked on her quarter door. She had answered in her smallclothes and the rest of the evening had disappeared in a fury of kisses and impatient hands. It was only when they lie in bed at the end of it all that Cullen traced gentle fingers over her new scars, worrying, beating himself up over them. If he had been there, perhaps he could have--
He stopped that thought in it’s tracks. If Almai couldn’t take care of herself, he could certainly do no better. She didn’t need a protector; their sparrs had shown that.
“What creature did this?” He asked in the quiet moment, curiosity nagging at him.
“A baby dragon. Poison tailed too, the brat.” Almai said, leaning into his hand and closing her eyes. “Is it terrible?”
“Of course not! I simply wondered who I may have had to kill.” Cullen said, smoothing her hair back with a gentle hand. He breathed out, quiet relief washing over him just to have her in his arms. She chuckled lightly and nestled her face into his bare chest, cuddling closer to him in the dim candle light. He began to count the freckles on her back.
“A creature cannot control when it is frightened.” She said. “It was but a small thing.”
“I’m sure.” Cullen said, unconvinced, but Almai merely smirked and lay her head on his chest. He let his fingers brush through her dark hair, his gaze roaming from the dim fireplace across the room. He saw bits of Almai everywhere; plants that hung from the rafters exposed above, trailing downwards. In the sewn fur blanket that was draped over her large bed, out of place amongst all of the Orleasian-influenced furniture pieces. Her bow and belt of knives hung on the end post of her bed, as if that were its natural home when she lay her feet up at night. And in the trinkets at her bedside; a houndstooth necklace on a long leather string she’d gotten from Solas; A book from Dorian on Venatori history; An apple, a likely favor from Cole; Cullen looked over at her and kissed the top of her dark hair.
“I missed you.” He whispered quietly. Almai, warm in his arms, away from the cold grasses and misty mornings of the Plains, felt at home in that moment. There were no spirits haunting her dreams here, no rock in her back while she slept. There was just Cullen; safe and warm.
“I missed you too.” She said, closing her eyes and letting sleep tug at her consciousness. She listened to Cullen’s heartbeat, letting it lull her towards a quiet sleep.
The weeks passed by in a flurry of activity; bouncing from the Exalted Plains to the forests of the Emerald Graves, and from the Hissing Wastes to the Western Approach, it seemed to Almai that she spent far more time in her tent than in her castle. And if it were not for a certain man, waiting her return, she would have preferred it.
This time, however, Cullen had come with her.
Normally, it would be a blessing to have him along on a mission, but the assault on Adament Fortress had been weeks in planning, and sitting together at night over the fire in front of her tent, Almai felt a horrible sinking in her stomach. Everyone else had gone to bed for the evening, but the two of them stayed awake late into the evening. She was sending the man she self-admittedly loved into war. She looked over at him and admired his handsome face; his squared jaw was a bit more bristly than usual after a few days on the road, and his blonde hair wasn’t so slicked back and neat. He had taken off his armour for the evening, and instead wore a black coat with fur lining that he pulled closer over himself as he shifted to warm his feet by the fire better. He caught Almai’s gaze, and looked up from the book he’d been reading from his spot on the ground.
“Something on your mind?” He asked without looking up, feeling her eyes on him.
“How can you be so calm?” She asked. He looked lean and stretched out before the fire where he lay on the sand. He looked up at her at last, and smiled.
“Because I have faith in our leader.” He said, almost sincerely. Almai rolled her eyes and gave a small ‘psht’ before poking the fire with the stick she’d found earlier.
“Truly though, Almai...I have been in far too many battles alone. I find comfort in fighting with, and for, others.” He said, closing his book and looking over at her with bright golden eyes. He was sentimental, she always knew that, but she being the quiet one between them always took her by surprise when he showed his heart to her with apparent ease. She needed to be more like him. She needed to tell him.
“I love you.”
She blurted the words, barely contained in excitement and fear for all things yet to come. With war at their doorstep, Almai emulated her lover in his boldness of heart. She took the leap.
Cullen sat up, but didn’t take his eyes from her, and Almai’s freckled face blushed a deep shade of red as Cullen reached over to her and brushed her dark hair behind pointed ear. He traced her Vallaslin that went from her neck, and sent chills up her spine as he leaned in for a kiss.
She couldn’t have cared who saw them in that moment, leaning into his kiss with ease and desire. They could both feel the heat of battle creeping at their doorstep, and Almai didn’t want to lose a moment with him. When Cullen let go, Almai realized her hands rested on his broad chest, and his hands were wrapped around her waist. Breathless, Cullen whispered against her lips.
“I love you too.”
Cullen watched as she rode in front of him. Her dark hair had been growing over the months, he noticed, and it almost reached her mid-back now. He watched as she reached with a leather tie in her mouth to lift her hair. She gathered it between her fingers and tied it back against her neck. The exposed skin of her neck pulled at his gut, and made him want to reach out to her.
Instead, he rode behind, letting his horse follow hers as he let his mind wander, thinking of her skin on his and her breathless kisses, muffled by his own in her tent this morning. And suddenly, he tried to think about what it would be like without her, without her touch or kisses to take away his cravings for lyrium, leaving only a desire for her. He had almost lost her at Adament, when she’d disappeared into the fade. What if she hadn’t returned from the fade? The feeling in his gut soured and turned into a knot of worry.
And still, quieter demons plagued her still; nightmares regularly woke her up, and the mark on her arm seemed to be spreading up her arm; she’d even taken to wearing a longer glove recently, and her healing sessions with Solas were growing longer with more risks.
Dangers were on all sides, and Cullen only wanted to take her away from it all. He knew the truth of the matter, however; Almai was the only one who could lead them, and she was not one to leave a duty unfinished. Almai would die fighting for the Inquisition, or see it to it’s conclusion, and Cullen had decided long ago he would be there beside her, whichever way it ended.
Almai breathed in the air as she stepped out of the doors to the council building. The Exalted Council had convened and finished, and the Inquisition was no more. She was no longer the Herald (although they all knew she always would be considered so), and Almai felt the burden of responsibility lifted, despite all that Josephine was telling her needed to be done and signed for.
Almai tried to listen to Josephine and Cassandra, chatting about some noble or another, but Almai’s mind was elsewhere, eyes wandering over the grounds, searching.
“I’ll be back.” She said, spotting who she’d been looking for. She walked away from them, despite Josephine’s sigh, and focused on the man across the grounds.
Cullen had kneeled down to the ground, and was playing with a dog half her size, a Mubari. She knew them to be somewhat protective dogs, but this one rolled on it’s back for Cullen, it’s tongue lolling out as Cullen scratched the pup’s stomach. The sight made her smile.
“You...adopted a dog?” She asked with a smile. Cullen chuckled.
“The merchant said he was abandoned...I couldn’t leave another Fereldan here to the Orlesians.” He replied. “Besides, I think he likes me.”
The dog barked and Cullen reached out to scratch his ear.
“Almai...I...the council has ended and we don’t exactly know what that will mean for the Inquisition, but I do know that I have found certainty in my life. That will not change.” Cullen said a bit quietly. Almai listened intently, knowing his words were peppered with worry. She recognized the tone. He put his hands in his pockets, and dug around for something, dodging her confused look as he stepped towards her. He was towering over her when he produced a small wooden box to her.
Suddenly, his Mabari jumped up and knocked the box from his hand, playing excitedly. Almai jumped back, laughing as she reached out to brace the pup while Cullen scooped up the box, cursing under his breath. She coaxed him down, and Cullen huffed.
“I had a plan and...and there wasn’t a dog, but you were...it doesnt matter.” He sighed, scratching the back of his neck and shifting from foot to foot as he dusted off the small box. He opened the top and presented a small, but beautiful ring to her. It had a gold band, and a simple white diamond in the middle on the crown.
“I’ve thought of little else and I don’t need a plan. Only to know if you would.” He said, looking at her sincerely. He waited, seeming to hold his breath, and Almai stepped towards him. Her dark hair was tied back in braids, and her pointed ears stuck out of her dark strands.
“Marry...in the middle of the exalted council? A little auspicious for you…” Almai said, reaching out and taking his hand. Cullen chuckled, smirking.
“Well, we know a few people who can help keep things quiet…” He said in a knowing tone.
Almai giggled, thinking of breaking the news to the others to seek their assistance. Josephine would complain of the headache they’d made of it all, the favors she’d have to turn in; Leliana would only laugh, but offer nothing but assistance as always. As spymaster, she was well aware of the affair between them, and this had only been an inevitability. Cassandra would likely blush and leave in a huff.
“Yes. We do.” She said, smiling up at him.
“Yes, then?” Cullen asked, already knowing the answer. Almai smiled widely.