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F.E.A.R.

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There is noise everywhere around her, the kind of sound that is felt more than heard. It tingles over the skin, dances over the nerves, weighs down the chest as no physical object can.

An ominous, low humming; crackling energy zipping through the air; rocks crunching- cracking as they smash into the ground. Sharp cries, inhuman and haunting, punctuate the dull roar of the ambient sound, echoes bouncing on for what seems like days.

Air floods her lungs as she gasps, eyes snapping open, nails digging into the dirt as consciousness returns to her. Just as soon as the air enters her lungs, it leaves, frantic gasps soon the only sound she could hear. The gasping does nothing though, the air feels wrong, and it only adds to the panic she feels as she tries to stand.

Everything is blurry without her glasses, but it’s easy to tell that the fuzzy landscape she’s staring at is NOT the backyard she had been walking towards moments before. Sharp spires of stone are the only solid features of this place, stabbing this way and that into the cloudy sky. Eerie green fog swirls around them, making the sharp points look toxic.

She shakes her head, clumsily turning around, looking for a door, a path- anything!- that might lead her away from here. But behind her is more of the same dark spires and green fog. Another sharp wail pierces the air, and she screams in response, her hands trembling as she slaps them over her mouth. Too late to stop the scream, but maybe not too late to prevent any other sound she might make.

When the sound of skittering started to echo back and forth from the spires, she runs, her mind conjuring up every worst-case scenario of what could be making the noise.

The rocky ground tears into her bare feet, but she continues, running as her lungs burn and her muscles ache, running harder than she ever has. But no matter how fast she runs, no matter how far she thinks she gets, the skittering, the wailing, the terrors hiding in the fog never get any farther away. A roar blasts out from behind her, and suddenly she falls, a sharp stone on the ground cutting into her thigh. Still, she stands and starts limping away, trying so desperately to run again, but the blood and sweat and pain made it hard to get anywhere.

A helpless sob finally brakes free, her lungs protesting as more sobs follow. Tears mix with sweat as they fall, all of it getting smeared as she pitifully rubs her eyes. A loud crackling sound made her scream again, her tears falling faster as she hesitantly opened her eyes to what surely would be her death.

Twists of bright green energy hang suspended in the air, softly hissing as they fluctuate. But in the blurry twists of power, she sees something white and gray, not green, or black, or terrible. She steps forwards but ends up tripping over her own feet. With a yelp she passes into the energy, falling and flailing for what seems like an eternity before crashing into a solid surface.

Then everything fades, her consciousness getting whisked away to oblivion as the green light vanishes from the sky.

Chapter Text

The prisoners close another rift, both of them shaking their left hands out as if it would get rid of the excess pain. Commander Cullen, more than a little weary from fighting off the endless horde of demons, rushes over, trying to catch his breath. Before Cullen can get closer to the pair of prisoners, the last sputtering’s of the rift catches his attention, stopping him in his tracks. It flickers, and for a moment he fears it might reopen, but instead, it vanishes, a body taking its place.

There was no time for the Commander to even think of reacting before the demon lands on him. His loud grunt echoes over the quieting battlefield, his hands tightening around his sword and shield as he shoves away from what knocked him down. With practiced moves he rolls to his feet, warily facing the last of the demons from the Fade.

But once he looks, he sees that it is no demon, at least none like he had seen before. A young woman in strange, torn, clothes lay there. She is unconscious-obviously- maybe even dead from whatever had happened to her in the Fade.

The prisoners, the Seeker, and the rest of their rag-tag party soon surround her, all curious about the newest arrival on the field but their reactions vary.

Seeker Cassandra’s typical noise of disgust is loudest, a frown twisting her features as she glares at the woman.

Varric just rolls his eyes, cursing quietly as he puts his crossbow back into place. He really shouldn’t be shocked by anything anymore; the world is apparently going to shit.

Solas gasps, his staff hitting the ground as he rushes forwards. The woman just adds to the complications he already faces, ones he hadn’t foreseen and now needs to adjust for. He isn’t sure how many more surprises he can take…

The twins Tivvin and Linril slowly but surely edge away from where Cassandra stands, glancing at each other and shrugging. Maybe it was someone else for the crazy humans to blame for the mess they found themselves entangled in.

The commander, still on guard before the new threat, starts barking out orders to the soldiers around them. There were more rifts to close, more demons to kill, it seems they would never get a break.

“You should get going, I pray you can stop this madness, we’ve lost enough good soldiers today.”

“You’re not the only one hoping that, trust me,” Tivvin says, his signature smirk tugging at the corners of his lips. “Only one way to find out though.” Without waiting for a reply, he starts walking, only to have the Seeker grab the back of his jacket and turn him in the right direction. Light glints off the small daggers he has, the curved blades making a dangerous looking X on the back of his hips where they stay secure. Linril, on the other hand, keeps her bow handy, her grip on the dark wood tight as her other hand stays ready to grab arrows from the quiver on her hip.

Cullen grumbles, he’d much rather the prisoners didn’t have their weapons back, but it's better than them getting ripped to shreds by demons. His eyes flicker back to the woman on the ground, a light dusting of snow starting to cover her.

“Lieutenant Rylen, take the seriously injured and head back to Haven, have them send what reinforcements they can, this is going to get worse before it get’s better. And take her back too, place her in the cells with some Templars on guard. Until we are sure who or what she is, we can’t be too careful.”

Rylen sharply nods, his hands too busy putting pressure on his left shoulder to give a salute, the cut from a demon’s claws still oozing blood. After tying up the woman, they carry her out of sight, and Cullen runs a hand through his hair.

“People needed to stop falling out of the Fade, it’s just getting ridiculous at this point.” He mutters as he turns, gathering up the few remaining soldiers and pressing on to secure more rifts. With a lingering glance to the Breach still in the sky he draws his sword and readies his shield, the demons certainly aren’t going to kill themselves...

~~~~~

Tivvin, still leading the way despite getting lost every few steps, keeps up a steady stream of chatter with Varric, the dwarfs dry wit and sarcasm matching his own at every turn. Cassandra, being Cassandra, makes the same disgusted noise so often Linril begins to wonder if she even knows how to talk properly.

“You are Dalish, and clearly away from the rest of your clan... did they send you here?” Solas’ comment catches Linril off guard; the quiet mage has said little since they met, she had figured he just wasn’t the talkative type.

“Yes, well, no... um, you see...” Linril’s grip on her bow tightens as she tries to spit the words out. She's never been good at talking with those she isn't familiar with, and she certainly doesn’t know this mage.

Solas, unimpressed, raises a brow and waits, already making snap judgments in his mind about the twins. Linril’s vallaslin, red twisting branches under her eyes signifying Mythal, are a dead giveaway of the Dalish, even if her brother has no vallaslin of his own.

“What do you know of the Dalish, you’re from a city, aren’t you?” Tivvin breaks in, noticing his flustered sister.

“No, I am not, though I have wandered many roads in my time, crossing paths with your people on more than one occasion.”

“’Pfft, ‘crossed paths with,’ huh?” Tivvin snickers, imagining just what could have gone down between him and some random Dalish clan.

“I offered to share knowledge and was attacked for no greater reason than superstition.” The outburst of laughter from Tivvin had not been the reaction Solas had been expecting, and instead of questioning he merely waits.

“Yeah, they don’t like being told they’re wrong. Whether you are part of the clan or not makes little difference to them. If it was clan Lavellan, I hope you got a few good shots in for me. Can’t say I know where they’re roaming around these days though, so who knows which clan you messed with.”

“So... you are not part of a clan?”

“That’s a long story, my friend, one I don’t think me or my sister wants to tell. So the short answer is no, they didn’t send us.”

“Then why were you at the Conclave?”

“We like to know which way the wind is going to blow, never hurts to be prepared,” Linril speaks up, her voice almost not loud enough to hear.

“I see, well...” The word hangs in the air, everyone unsure for a moment about what to say next. But before they could break the silence, the crackling energy of a rift interrupts them, and they spring into battle.

Linril quickly hops up on some nearby rubble to get a better view of the area, Solas freezing one demon solid before it could even move. Tivvin takes the opportunity to jam his daggers into it’s back, effectively shattering and killing the monster. Varric quickly dodges past the many swiping claws, dropping all sorts of traps for the demons to set off the second they move, the dwarf ending up on the opposite side of the field before using his crossbow to attack in earnest. Linril aims for the weak points, joints, heads, any place her arrows will do real damage. She takes it upon herself to make sure none of the others get hurt, a well-placed arrow always stopping an attack against Cassandra or Tivvin just in time.

As the flow of demons begins to slow Solas takes a moment to watch the twins, their fighting styles complimenting each other perfectly. Tivvin, usually loud and a bit obnoxious, is deadly silent. His daggers a blur as he dances around the demons who never get the chance even to see him coming, his sharp eyes missing nothing. Linril peppers the demons with arrows, keeping their attention on her but Tivvin makes sure none of them ever made it near his sister. Solas wonders if the two of them even needed the others here, they seem more than just capable at fighting, it is damn near an art form with them.

While Solas is lost in thought yet again, the twins reach for the rift, green energy connecting their marks to the twisting magic. They hold that connection, letting it grow stronger until they yank their arms back, the line snapping as the rift shuts. Both of them grimace, the pain of that connection enough to make them reach for each other, squeezing one another shoulders tightly as the burning subsided.

“Look on the bright side, Linril.” She tilts her head expectantly, only to have her brother point to where the sun was starting to shine through some clouds. It was her turn to make a noise of disgust and shake her head, Tivvin snickering as he begins to lead the way towards their destination once again. If the small rifts stung this much, he doesn’t want to think about how much closing the Breach- or trying to- will hurt.

Chapter Text

“If I set the bedroll on fire, she’d wake up,” Cassandra mutters, angrily pacing in front of the cells again. It was just the other day she was here for the elves; now she's stuck down here trying to get answers from someone else, someone who has yet to even open her eyes. The twins managed to stop the Breach from expanding, it is stable for the time being, but there are still so many questions. They aren’t responsible for it, but that doesn’t mean this newcomer isn’t.

“The elves are still resting; the people have taken to calling them the Heralds of Andraste,” Leliana speaks up as she enters, her Orlesian accent softening the words.

“Leliana, I swear if you make me bring you one more report I’m going to lose it,” Cullen growls out, angrily shoving a small stack of papers into her hands.

“I told you, Commander, not all of the messengers have been verified since the… since the explosion. Until I am sure they pose no threat, I cannot have them seeing these reports.”

“The prisoner- I mean, the newest prisoner- has still not woken up?” Cullen nods to where the woman lay behind the bars of the cell, her hands still bound. Two Templars standing watch at the door, stoic as ever in their watch over the new prisoner, try not to flinch at the Seekers furious response.

“Obviously not. I would not still be here if she had.” Cullen bit back his reply; no good would come out of poking the already furious Seeker.

Soft mumbling shocks them all, everyone in the makeshift dungeon turning to watch as the prisoner regain consciousness, seeming to have heard Cassandra’s not so subtle hints of waking the hell up.

The prisoner moans as she sits up, trying to rub her eyes but freezing when she notices her hands are tied. Ever so slowly her eyes open, glancing at the ropes first, then the dark cell she is locked in, and then at all the people beyond the prison bars watching her.

The only sound she could manage was a pitiful squeak, her breaths coming short and fast as she waits for something to happen.

“Who are you?!” Cassandra, having waited long enough, wastes no time. Her fists slam into the iron bars, causing the prisoner to flinch back, not so gracefully landing in a heap at the back of the cell.

“Wh-wh-what?”

“Who are you, where did you come from, what did you do?” The questions fly out one after another, but their prisoner can't follow them, her eyes still focusing on the armor and weapons everyone outside the cell had.

“Where am I? I-I don’t remember what... how did I get here? Is this some... some renascence fair or something?”

“Answer my question, prisoner; I am not in a patient mood.”

“Prisoner?!” Her voice cracks over the word, her eyes so wide it almost hurt. “What did I do?! I’ve-I’ve never done anything against the law! I haven’t even gotten a speeding ticket! Is this some joke? Did my brother put you up to this? It- it isn’t very f-funny!”

“Do I look like I am joking?” Cassandra leans in closer to the bars, giving the prisoner a good long look at her furious expression. That’s when the tears start, showing no sign of stopping any time soon.

“I don’t know what’s going on!” She cries, trying again to rub her eyes with her bound hands.

“What. Is. Your. Name.”

“Charlotte St. Clair.” She sobs, her sniffles and gasps almost blocking out the sound of her soft words.

“What were you doing in the Fade?”

“What’s the Fade? I don’t know; I’m telling you the truth, I don’t know what’s going on. Please, I swear I don’t. Where am I?”

“You are being held in Haven for your crimes.”

“Crimes?! What crimes?! I haven’t done anything!”

Leliana frowns, this circular conversation is getting them nowhere, Cassandra has gone about this all wrong... again. Leliana steps forward, resting a hand on Cassandra’s shoulder.

Charlotte sits there on the cold ground, trying desperately to remember what happened and how she got into this cell but there is nothing there. Just a gap where all her memories should be. The world begins to twist again, the blurry picture getting even hazier with each gasp. The anxiety of the situation sets her fingers frantically tapping against her palms, the rhythm almost matching her breaths. But no matter how fast she sucks the air in it doesn’t help.

Cullen, standing the furthest from the cell, watches the scene unfold, feeling almost sorry for the woman subjected to Cassandra’s wrath. He sees her eyes flit about, her body jittery as she breathes much too quickly. They have truly terrified her...

When Cassandra steps back, and Leliana takes her place, she doesn’t even get out two words before Charlotte falls over again, once again passed out.

“Was that truly the best way to go about this, Lady Cassandra?” Cullen shakes his head, rubbing the back of his neck as if that’d make the tension in his body vanish for good.

“How was I to know she’d pass out?!”

“You terrified her, a woman who looks like the softest kind of noble. Of course she’d faint.”

“There is no use arguing about it now; we will have to wait until she wakes up to try and question her again. Commander, have your men bring the items they found from the rift she fell out of to the Chantry, I’ll have a room set up for her up there. With any luck, the change of scenery will help smooth things over.”

~~~~~

The next time Charlotte wakes up she’s in bed, a thick green blanket loosely tucked around her. From the moment she opens her eyes, her head is pounding, and she whimpers in response. Waking up with a headache always means the rest of the day is going to be crap. Shit, I need to focus today, I’ve got the World Religion exam today... though I studied enough last... night? Her entire body freezes as her eyes start to focus on the blurry room around her. It’s not her room, not even her hideout. Cold stone walls surround her; the dark room lit only by a few candles. Where am I?

Charlotte sits up only to wince and fall back down. With labored breaths she lifts the blanket to see that her shirt is gone, replaced with clean white bandages wrapping around most of her torso, a bit of her midriff the only skin visible from her shoulders down. She can feel the bruises and cuts underneath it all, the throbbing pain worse with each breath. Her arms are not much better, and the sharp pain from her thigh quickly leaps to the front of her mind, making her whimper again as she bites her lip. What happened? Is this some kind of hospital? How did I get hurt, I was just... I was... going to the hideout... but... what... The more she thinks about what had happened, the more pronounced her headache gets. There are no memories there, not a single one.

When the door opens, the eerie squeaking hinges like something from a horror movie, Charlotte yelps, flinching away. In walks a red-haired woman dressed in some strange armor. Charlotte’s eyes grow wide, even in their blurry state, she can make out the bow and arrows slung across her back, the dark looking dagger at her side.

“You are awake.” Charlotte’s brows furrow. What kind of accent is that, French? How did I end up in France?

“I- No, before that, where am I? I- I can’t remember-”

“I am Leliana.”

“That’s nice, but I- I really need to know where I am. I have... I have an exam I need to get to; I need to pass this class.” Try as she might, her voice still shakes, her hands gripping the blanket tightly to try and remain calm.

“What is your name?” Charlotte wants to scream with frustration; it's like this Leliana doesn’t even hear her. What part of important exam did she not get?!

“Charlotte, I’m Charlotte St. Clair. Now please, I have to get to school, the exam-” Tears fill her eyes, making her blind. The exam is 25% of my final grade, if I miss it I- I can’t just make something like that up! Professor Murray already hates me; this will seal the deal for sure…!

“You are in Haven, Miss St. Clair, do you remember how you got here?”

“For the love of- No, I don’t remember! Why do you think I asked where I was?! … wait… Haven? Where’s Haven?” Charlotte hands, too jittery to remain on the blanket, roughly rake through her hair, pulling too hard. Pain, she needs the pain to focus. Her wrists have just started to heal from the last time, but these new injuries will do well enough. Her breaths come quick and short as one hand clamps down on the other forearm. The burst of pain chases the tears from her eyes, and slowly her breaths relax. You can’t freak out, not now. You need to think, rationally, logically, you can do this. Where is Haven? Surely you know a Haven, think.

“Where are you from, Miss St. Clair?” Leliana’s sharp eyes stay focused on Charlotte, unnerving her even more if that's possible.

“That doesn’t matter! I need... Where’s Haven? I can’t think of a Haven...”

“I must know where you are from.” The calm in her voice bothers Charlotte more than a little, how can she not understand how freaked out she is?

“Tenby, Minnesota; what the hell good does that do you?!” Charlottes’ grip on her arm tightens, but even the pain isn’t keeping her calm anymore. “Where am I?! Please, where am I...?” The floodgates finally brake, the salty tears burning as they get into the cuts and scrapes on her face.

“As I already said, you are in Haven, in the Frostback Mountains. Do you remember anything from the Fade?”

“Frostback Mountains? What- where even are those? Europe, am I somehow in Europe?”

“The Fade, Miss St. Clair, do you remember-”

“Continent! What freaking continent am I on right now?!”

“Thedas, of course.”

“Thedas... that’s... that’s not a continent... North America, South America, Africa, Asia, Australia, Antarctica, and Europe are continents on Earth, not Thedas. None of those even start with a ‘t’… This is a dream; I must be dreaming. Studied too much and passed out, that has to be it.”

“You are not in the Fade now, but I do need to know what-”

“For all I know I might be in the Fade, whatever the hell that is!”

“You fell out of a rift not far from the Temple of Sacred Ashes; you were physically in the Fade. I need to know what you remember, Miss St. Clair.”

“I don’t remember anything, for the love of God would you get that through your skull! I was- I was heading to my hideout to study, I had my backpack with my books and notes in it. I got to the door, and then, there’s just nothing! I don’t remember walking out, I don’t remember getting here, I don’t remember anything, and it’s fucking terrifying me! How could I not remember coming here, how do I forget something like that?”

“This is yours then?” Leliana holds out Charlotte’s backpack to her, it's seen better days, but for the most part, it's still intact.

“Yes! Thank God, those textbooks cost a small fortune.” The backpack, a small piece of sanity in this whole mess, calms Charlotte somewhat, her arms quickly wrapping tight around it. The corners of the various books within bite into her arms and chest but it doesn’t matter to her.

“Can you open it?”

“Of course I can, it’s just a zipper, it’s not like it’s locked.”

Leliana's eyeing it like it’s a bomb, warily waiting for it to go off and kill them all. When the zipper is pulled open, Charlotte sees Leliana reach for her dagger but stops when she sees that there are indeed only books within. There is an Anatomy and Physiology textbook- the most expensive book she's ever bought- and it takes up a great deal of the space. Her History of World Religions book also takes up a large chunk of the bag, about the same amount as her British Literature book. Her small Bible and two five subject notebooks are snuggly tucked in the back, various worksheets and syllabi sticking out of the pages. Last are her well-worn copies of Lord of the Rings, she never goes anywhere without them, that world always seemed a fair bit better than the one she was stuck in.

“I have an exam for my history class and a crap ton of homework in my other classes, I needed to study, so I was going to my hideout to get some peace and quiet. Then I woke up here; I swear that’s all I know.” The scent of notebook paper and pencil shavings puts her at ease, even as confusion clouds her mind.

“Josephine, could you bring Solas here?” A quiet reply comes from the other side of the door, and Charlotte wonders just how many people are listening out there.

“Who’s Josephine and Solas?”

“Our Ambassador and an elven apostate, an expert on the Fade.” How many times do I have to say I don’t know what... the Fade... is... wait, did she say elven? No, I must have misheard, that’d be... no, that’d be too much. A few minutes of awkward silence later two more figures step into the room. One woman in a gleaming dress, some sort of clipboard in her arm, and a bald man in what looks like a very comfy sweater. A comfy looking bald man with very distinctive pointed ears. He turns his gaze towards her, and although his posture says unassuming, his stare is much too intense.

“Are those real?” Charlotte mutters before she can really think, her eyes locked on his pointed ears.

“Are what real?” His soft accent, something Charlotte can’t place, only adds to the whole unassuming figure of the man.

“Ears.” She points a finger, ignoring just how much she is starting to shake again.

“My... ears? Yes, my ears are real, why would they not be?” He looks confused by the question, maybe even offended. I’ve gone insane. It’s finally happened. An elf is talking to me, a bald elf no less. I thought they all were supposed to have long, luscious locks, what the heck...

“Elves aren’t real, so elf ears also wouldn’t be real... aren’t real... it’s just...” Charlotte rubs her eyes, the headache pounding with each pulse. “I’m dreaming, or maybe I’m insane, or dead, I don’t know. But this... this can’t be real... there’s just no way…”

“We are as real as the humans are.” Now he really sounds offended.

No! No, no, no, no, no...” Ignoring the pain as she moves, Charlotte grabs the pillow from behind her, curling around it as if that alone could save her from what she is going through. She continues to mumble, shaking her head as she rocks back and forth. “This isn’t real; it can’t be. Earth is it. There isn’t anything else. No Thedas, no elves, no freaking fantasy world, it’s not real. I just... I need to wake up, or... or…!” Charlotte stands quickly, any discomfort from the motion lost as her mind spirals out of control. “I have to... I have to get home, I’ve got an exam, the professor will hate me if I miss it. Oh crap, Richard will kill me if I mess up again, shit, I’ve gotta go... shit, shit, shit!

She brushes past Solas and Josephine, even Leliana is not quick enough to catch her. She keeps running, heading towards the large door she sees at the other end of the very churchy looking building. The others shout at her, not that she pays them any mind as she makes a break for it. The bright sun, reflecting off the snow-covered ground, is blinding, not that it makes her stop. Charlotte winces but keeps running, stopping only when she runs into an armor covered chest, hands quickly grabbing her arms to keep her from falling.

She glances up, seeing a man looking at her with more than a little concern. His eyes flicker down to get a look at her only to shoot up to the sky, his cheeks flushing.

“Maker’s breath, what are you thinking?” He mutters, slipping off the thick cloak he wore to wrap it around her shoulders. “Running around in nothing but bandages, you must be mad…”

“Commander!” His head shoots up when he hears his title, Leliana, Josephine, and Solas all rushing out of the Chantry.

“I just have to go home... please, I need... I need to go home...” Charlotte whimpers, Cullen’s eyes landing back on the woman in his arms. Tears streak down her face, her body trembling whether from the cold or a mental break he can’t be sure.

“She just ran for it. I was wrong, she needs-”

“-to be inside, she’s in no state to be walking around like this.” Cullen interrupts Leliana, and as gently as he can he nudges Charlotte back towards the Chantry. He isn’t sure what to make of the newest “gift” from the Fade, but she seems harmless, at least for the time being.

Once they are back in her room, and Charlotte is back in bed under the covers crying softly, Cullen turns to face the others. Solas is gingerly sifting through the books in her strange looking bag, Leliana and Josephine murmuring with each other, occasionally glancing at Charlotte.

“I’ve never heard of a Tenby, much less a Minnesota. And she doesn’t believe Thedas is a real place? Where could she possibly be from that she doesn’t even know Thedas- or elves! They are not that uncommon.”

“The obvious answer, Ambassador, is that she is from a different world,” Solas mutters, putting the books back just as he found them. “There is no Minnesota here, no Earth; even in my journeys through the Fade, there is not even a whisper about any place such as those. Her clothes, her lack of connection to the Fade, her speech, they all point to another world. The Breach, in particular, the explosion that caused it, must have affected more than we can even know. That much magical energy so violently released… There is no telling how much damage it did, no telling the extent of its effects, obviously.” He motions to Charlotte.

“You can’t just... That’s a lot to take in. I mean, we’re talking about a whole other world. This means… Maker, what does this mean for our world? What will the Chantry have to say? This-” Cullen starts to pace, his mind racing to think of all the possible outcomes this information will have.

“-must be kept quiet, at least for now. We have enough to deal with, there’s the Breach in the sky, the repercussions of the explosion, and whoever killed the Divine is still at large. There is barely enough time to worry about our world, let alone another.” Leliana’s voice is hard, absolute, as she stares at the woman on the bed.

“Couldn’t we just... send her home?” Josephine asks, turning towards Solas for an answer.

“It took an incredible amount of magic to get her here, magic that had a devastating effect on this world and likely her own. Getting that much power would be difficult and using it to try and send her anywhere would likely end... poorly for all involved. I am afraid she is stuck here, at least for now, likely forever.”

“No! I n-n-need to go-go h-home! P-Pl-Please, I- I- I-” Solas slowly walks up to where Charlotte is trying to wriggle herself free from the blanket and gently rests a hand on her head. A soft magical glow fills the room for a moment, and as quick as it comes it fades, Charlotte falling back down on the bed as it does.

“She needs rest now, and we will need to explain... the situation to her when she wakes. Hopefully, she will be in a better state of mind after some sleep.” Everyone but Solas nods, glancing at Charlotte before heading back out. They all have more than enough work to keep them occupied. Solas sits down after situating Charlotte comfortably on the bed. “I am sorry...” He mumbles, relaxing in the chair before slipping into the Fade. There are many questions he still had. Hopefully, the spirits will start wandering back this way now that the Breach is slightly more stable.

Chapter Text

Leliana and Solas take it upon themselves to take turns watching Charlotte, waiting somewhat anxiously for her to awaken.  There have been a few false alarms where she starts thrashing about under the covers, muttering and crying about skittering noises, but no matter how violent she gets she never wakes.  Just when Solas is beginning to think she might never wake her, Leliana comes into the room with a cup of what looks like tea but smells so much worse. 

“What is that?”  Solas mutters, his nose wrinkling up even from across the room.

“She needs to wake up, we have wasted enough time like this just sitting around.”  The elf wants to say something, argue against such a course of action, but the determination and frustration in the spymaster’s eyes shut him up before he can even open his mouth.  With little finesse, Leliana makes Charlotte drink the tea, or what tea doesn’t end up splashing out of the cup and onto her face and the pillow.  The pair watching don’t have to wait long for the results, Charlotte waking up sputtering not moments later.

“Ew!  Ew, ew, ew!! The heck was that?!”  Using the corner of the blanket she unsuccessfully tries to scrub the taste from her mouth, stopping only when she notices the other people in the room staring at her.  Like before her eyes flicker around the room, locking onto Solas’ ears, and once again she stares with wide, unbelieving eyes.

“Hello.”  Solas stands slowly with a soft smile, moving his chair closer so he can talk with her, trying his very best to look as unassuming and harmless as possible.  “My name is Solas.”

“I’m Charlotte.”  She speaks on instinct, trying to be polite like her parents taught her.  She can’t string three words together in her head to save her life, much less speak them, so her name will have to suffice for the moment.

“Do you remember how you got here, Miss Charlotte?”  She only shakes her head, eyes zoning out as she thinks back to try and bring up any memories. 

“Where?” 

“Haven, in the Frostback Mountains, in Ferelden.”  Leliana steps in much to Solas’ dismay.  He wanted to ease Charlotte into the knowledge that she is in another world, not just slap it right in her face. 

“Ferelden?  I’m really sorry, but is that in, like, Europe or something?”  Charlotte’s hands clench the blanket so tight her knuckles are white, trying to stop their shaking and stay as calm as she can.

“You said that earlier, your-rope, what is it?”

“Europe?  It’s a continent, connected with Asia…?  Above Africa?  On Earth?”  Her voice cracks, not that she took any notice of it.  “Did my b-brother put you up to this?  Everyone knows Europe and the continents, this is some p-prank right?  It-it’s not f-funny.”

“I am afraid this is no prank, Miss Charlotte.  You were... transported here after the explosion and the Breach, you were sent physically through the Fade.  Anything you could remember could-”

“No.”  The single word cuts Solas off, Charlotte shaking her head non-stop as tears start to fall again.  “No, there is no other world.  There is home, and I need to get there.  I’ve got classes and exams, they’ll be so angry if I miss them.  So stop lying and let me go home.” 

We are not the ones lying.”  Leliana steps forward as if to threaten Charlotte like Cassandra had.  Solas’ has other plans though, and quickly moves between the two women.

“You’re not helping right now.”  Solas is taller than Leliana, and most likely stronger after his constant wanderings, though that doesn’t stop him from being intimidated by her fierce glare.  “I will talk to her, and you will hear every word of it when we are done.”  He motions for her to leave and after a brief staring contest she does just that.  After a long sigh, Solas turns back to the bed only to find it empty.  Charlotte’s moved to the corner, huddling under the cloak and blanket as she sobs.

“There is no other world, no fantasy realm with elves and wizards and orcs, there is just home, just Earth.  I mean, I guess there’s a Heaven and a Hell, but- but that’s not... is this Hell?!”  Watery eyes flash up to meet Solas,’ but he has no answer.

“I... I don’t know, what is Hell?”

“Where the bad people go!”  Charlotte wines, hiding her face in the blankets as more sobs echo through the room.  “But I prayed and- and went to church, I did the whole accept the lord as your savior thing... I did it all, I believed... why am I here then?” 

“This is not the Void.”  Solas once again moves his chair so he can sit and talk with the woman.  “You’re not dead, you are alive and well... for the most part.”

“Can I go home?” 

“I... I do not know.  If you are feeling up to it, I have some questions-”

“Solas, the Heralds are leaving for the Hinterlands, we are to accompany them with Varric as well.”  Cassandra can’t keep the disgust from her voice at the mention of the dwarf.

“I- yes, of course.  We will have to speak another time, Miss Charlotte.”  He quickly stands and exites the room, leaving Charlotte in the corner still crying, still trying to come to terms with what is going on. 

~~~~~ 

It’s been two days since Charlotte has woken up again, and she feels as hopeless as she had at the start.  “If you are going to stay here, you are going to have to work.  Of course, you can always try and make it in the world on your own, do be careful of the demons wandering around lately though.”  Leliana walks away after that, her accent softening the harsh words.  Nevertheless, Charlotte's scared out of her wits.  She’s never fought anything, she has the hand-eye coordination of a snake.  Her foster parents, Richard and Denise, have always been on her case for screwing everything up.  Charlotte can’t cook well, she can’t do sports, she can’t clean well, she can’t do manual labor- she is too small and weak.  No matter how she tries, Charlotte can’t make them happy, not in anything.  And now her life depends on working here in some medieval world! 

Charlotte is ushered out of the Chantry and pointed in the direction of where the food for the Inquisition was being made, a small building tucked back in a corner of Haven.  She looks down at the clothes they gave her so she will at least look like she kind of belongs.  Rough pants with a belt keeping them up, a shirt with sleeves too long for her short arms, and the cloak she had when she woke up, though she doesn’t know where it came from.  She hears Leliana’s voice as she calls out to someone and immediately Charlotte starts walking faster, remembering the threat.  Work or get tossed out as demon food. 

By the end of the day, she’s ruined two pots, messed up an entire batch of bread, and dropped enough flour on the floor to make a small mountain of it.  She's kicked out, the angry cooks demanding that she stay away.  She spends the night lugging around her backpack in the Chantry, reading anything and everything she can find about Thedas.  Studying seems to be the only thing I was ever good at...

The next morning, she heads over to the requisitions officer who sends her off to gather elfroot, iron, and anything else that might be useful.  But after unknowingly stomping through someone’s herb garden she is quickly told to go away.  Working with Harrit and the smiths doesn’t go any better, she ends up dropping several bars of some heavy metal on his unsuspecting foot.  She offers to help try and make him feel better but ends up stepping on his other foot.  Charlotte runs off, apologizing as she goes. 

Charlotte doesn’t know how many days pass like that.  She tries to help, works so hard, but it always ends the same.  People mad at her for ruining something or injuring someone, or just being a general nuisance.  She hasn’t slept in days, the bags under her eyes clear evidence to that simple fact.  However, every time sleep tries to overtake her she digs her thumb into a freshly bandaged cut on her arm under her sleeve, the pain keeping her awake, focused. 

I’ve got to work, I’ve got to be useful.  I don’t want demons to eat me, I don’t wanna die...!  Shit, I gotta do something...  When she begins to panic as she read up on the history of the Chantry, she digs her thumb into the cut once more.  She keeps digging in until she whimpers, grimacing as she leans down and presses her forehead against the table.

She pulls the last of her granola bars from her bag, slowly eating it.  She hasn’t dared go back to the kitchens after all the trouble she caused, Charlotte isn’t sure what she's going to do after she is out of food.  Hunger seems to grip at her stomach all day long, she is sure she’d lost weight.  A few granola bars aren’t enough for the past week...  A hand tightens into a fist over her stomach.  I’d kill for the steamed broccoli... or chicken... God, bacon!  ...hell, at this point I’d eat brussels sprouts...

“What are you doing?”  A yelp is her answer, Charlotte spinning around so fast she makes herself dizzy.  Cullen stands there, a stack of paperwork in his hands and a frown on his face.

“I- I- just working!  I mean, reading... well, I just, I want to know about here.  But don’t worry!  I- I work during the day, the whole day, I’m not slacking off, I swear.”  His brow lowers further making Charlotte's heart hammer in her chest.  Crap, I said something wrong, did something wrong.  I’ve messed up too much!  He’s gonna throw me out to the demons!  When tear filled her eyes, she once again digs her thumb into the wound, pressing until the tears vanish.  His own eyes flicker down as he watches her, widening when he sees blood dripping down her hand onto the floor.

“Have you been reading every night, Miss St. Clair?”

“Yes!  The faster I learn, the better, don’t worry, I’m- I’m good at studying.”  She tries to smile, to reassure, but it sounds wrong even to her own ears.  “Don’t throw me out, please, I’ll get better, I promise…”

“Throw you out- of course, we won’t- why would that...  No, never mind that.  Do you sleep?  Why are you carrying your things around with you?  Surely you could leave them in your tent...”

“My... tent?”  Cullen’s stomach sinks, an invisible hand tightening around his chest as he takes a good look at the woman before him.  She had been tiny when she got here, short and soft, with healthy curves and bright- if sad- eyes.  Now she looks... terrible.  She is sickly pale, her cheeks sunken and eyes dull, dark circles under them emphasizing how little rest she seemed to have gotten.  She’s nearly a skeleton walking around!

“Yes, your tent.  Where you can rest, keep your things…  Have you been eating properly?”

“I- yes, my granola bars.”

“Granola?  What is- no, wait, you don’t eat breakfast and supper from the kitchens?  You’re provided two meals a day, Miss St. Clair.  You mean to tell me in the week you’ve been up you haven’t had a proper meal or rest?  What have you been spending your money on?”

“M-money?”  Charlotte is frozen in her place.  What is he talking about... tent, food, money... don’t I have to actually work to get those? 

Cullen pinches the bridge of his nose as he sighs.  He grabs a messenger passing by, shoves the paperwork into his arms, directing him towards Josephine before turning back to Charlotte.  We terrified her, the poor woman hasn’t slept or eaten since she got here, working herself to the bone for fear we would throw her out.  Just what had Leliana told her?

“Come, Miss St. Clair, you need some rest.”  He holds his hand out for her bag which she reluctantly hands over.  It almost hits the floor when she passes it.  How does she carry this around all day?  It must weigh as much as she does!  Cullen rests a hand lightly between her shoulder blades, guiding her out of the Chantry and off to the side, walking up to where several tents were set up.  “This is your tent, you can keep your things here, should anything go missing you can inform Lieutenant Rylen or me.”  They walk in, Charlotte’s eyes immediately land on the cot in the corner.  A small table sits in the opposite corner with an equally small stool.  A chest is there as well, Cullen quickly tucking her bag inside of it before directing her towards the stool.  “They serve food at sunrise for everyone and a meal later at the end of the day.  You will be on your own for lunch, though your pay will more than cover it and anything else you need.”  He speaks quietly, feeling more and more guilty with each passing moment.  Charlotte’s eyes have been shocked since he’d started talking to her, but now they're wide enough that they might fall out of her skull.  She looks so confused that it hurts...  “You should eat some real food now though since you haven’t recently.  The kitchens have already closed, but I’ve got some rations in my tent you could eat to hold you over until tomorrow.”  Before he can get more than two steps towards the entrance of the tent, Charlotte grabs his arm.

“I... I can sleep, and you won’t get mad and th-throw me out to die?”  Tears drip down her cheeks unbeknownst to her, and they feel like a punch to the gut for Cullen.

“Maker, of course, we won’t throw you out for sleeping!”  He runs a hand through his hair, messing up the styling he worked so hard on that morning.  His curls break free, giving the commander a softer look.  Charlotte nods, still crying, before falling to the ground and crawling to the cot where she collapses, passing out in mere moments.  Cullen tucks her in before heading out to find Leliana, his brow once again furrowing.

~~~~~ 

“You didn’t tell her she got paid?” Cullen doesn’t even bother with a greeting, his hands resting on the pommel of his sword as he waits for an answer. 

“It is a given, why would I say it?”  Her reply only fuels the anger bubbling up in his chest.

“She’s not from here, for all we know things are completely different where she’s from.  Someplace she cannot go back to, might I remind you.  Miss St. Clair had no idea she got paid, that she got food or a tent, Maker, she thought we’d throw her out into the wilderness if she even dared to rest!  Work has been the only thing she’s done, and it’s killing her.”

“She’s not been doing very well if my reports are to be trusted.  At this point, she costs the Inquisition more money than she could possibly make.”

“That’s- That’s not the point!  The Breach affected her just as much as the rest of us - no, more!  She’s been taken away from her whole world, literally.  Her family and friends, any life she had or might have had are gone, and we are in a position to help.  That’s what the Inquisition was meant to do, help in this time of chaos.”

“What is with this sudden interest in her, Commander?”  The unwavering gaze he had pierced her with flickers away.  In a great many ways Miss St. Clair reminds him of some of the mages taken into the Circles, isolated away from their families and lives, their future in shambles.  After his time at the Ferelden Circle he had treated such mages... poorly to say the least.  The Inquisition is his chance to atone for his actions, for his past.  He has to start somewhere and ensuring Miss St. Clair is taken care of seems as good a way to help as any, and it's a great deal simpler than he thought it would be.   Commander Cullen isn’t known around Haven for his gentle personality or kind words, and towards women especially he bumbles around useless as anything.  But so far in the few interactions he’d had with the very jumpy Miss St. Clair, he hasn’t put his foot in his mouth.  Maker willing he will continue in his good luck, though he isn’t going to hold his breath.

“It’s not so strange to worry about someone working themselves to death over nothing.  Good night.”  He spins around before he starts bumbling or she gets angry, stopping by the infirmary on his way back to his tent.  There is a recruit, a young elven lad named Soren, who was injured in training when he literally fell onto his opponent’s sword. He’s optimistic though, trying hard to be a warrior when he is not suited for the job. 

“Recruit Soren, I’ve got a job for you while you recover.  Have you met Miss St. Clair?”

“Yes, Ser, she elbowed me in the ribs when she was trying to sweep the tavern.  Nice enough, but not exactly good at... well, at anything I’ve seen so far, Ser.”

“Yes… she is resting in her tent,” he waves a hand towards the small cluster of tents before continuing, “and will be for some time I imagine.  She’s not to be disturbed, and I want you to ensure that happens.  When she does wake, I’d like for you to come get me so I may speak with her.  Don’t let her go to work before that, no matter what she says.”

“Yes, Ser!”  Soren hops to his feet to salute only to double over clutching his still very injured side.

“Don’t overdo it,” Cullen mutters as he walks back to his own tent.  There are mountains of paperwork waiting for him to do.  From troop movements to requisitions for various tools the army would need, he has a lot to sort through.  Just thinking about it gives me a headache...  He rubs the back of his neck, pausing in his walk to look up at the Breach.  Maker, let the Heralds find some sort of support from Mother Giselle, we need somewhere to start, or things are only going to get worse.

Chapter Text

Charlotte wakes up slowly, stretching out her stiff body only to end up rolling herself off the narrow cot.  She hits the ground with a yelp, rubbing her back as she sits on the cold ground. 

“Um... hello?”  Soren pokes his head in, curiously glancing in to see if Charlotte is really awake this time.  She’d had some nightmares, muttering and crying, but never waking up.  When he sees her eyes open, he smiles and steps inside.  “I’m glad you’re awake!”

“Who… who are you?”

“Soren, recruit Soren.  Commander Cullen had me watching over you while I recovered from an injury.”

“Oh right, I remember, you were in the tavern... wait, I hit you that hard?!”  Charlotte leaps to her feet, eyes wide as she stares at his side.

“Oh no, don’t worry.  I... I made a mess out of my training, kind of... fell onto a sword, by accident!  I didn’t realize- never mind.  You-” Before he can finish Charlotte pushes past him, staring in horror as she sees the sun already high in the sky. 

“How long have I been asleep for?”

“A bit more than two days!  I couldn’t believe it, I've never seen someone sleep so much!”  Soren laughs, unaware of the terror gripping Charlotte's stomach.  Two days, I’ve been laying here- useless!- for two days?!  They’re gonna kill me!!  Work, I have to go and work, have to prove that I’m not slacking, that it was just a one-time mistake.  Without a single glance behind her, she heads towards Threnn.  She’s the only one who is still willing to find odd jobs for her to do, though the quartermaster makes sure the tasks are as far from other people as they can get.

“Whoa, hold on now, Miss St. Clair!”  Soren grabs one of her arms, pulling her back towards the tent, not that she goes willingly.  “The Commander wants to talk to you before you go to do any work, made a point of saying it!  If you’d wait here-”

“I can’t!”  The fervor with which the words were spoken shocks Soren.  “I have to work, I don’t- I don’t want to die!”  She keeps tugging.

“We’re not going to kill you, what- please, Miss St. Clair, you’re going to hurt yourself if you keep pulling like that!”  His plea falls on deaf ears, Charlotte continuing to fight until he lets go, her body lurching forwards into the snow-covered ground.  She stands quickly, dusting herself off before nearly sprinting towards the quartermaster.  Soren takes off running in another direction, groaning as he thinks about how angry the Commander is going to be when he learns of what happened.

~~~~~

Charlotte goes towards to a cabin in the woods, the home of the previous healer or something.  It’s a mess, and Threnn said she could clean it, get it ready for someone else to live there if she could.  It didn’t look that bad, dust and dirt everywhere, but mostly tidy.  The quartermaster probably wants to get rid of her, not that she blames her.  Still, this is a job and one she can probably manage.

She grabs a forgotten towel on a bed and begins wiping everything, melting some snow with her hands so she can scrub at the counter covered in leftover herb mixes.  That’s how Cullen finds her, putting all her might into trying to clean a stain left by elfroot from the wood, something he knows will most likely never come out.

“Miss St. Clair-” She screams, even though Cullen made quite the racket getting into the cabin, trying to alert her to avoid this very situation.  Her back is pressed harshly into the edge of the counter, one hand gripping the rag, the other pressing over her heart.  Cullen looks into her wide, frightened eyes and sighs.  “Miss St. Clair, have you eaten?”  The words are said as softly as Cullen can manage, as he makes sure he stays as still as possible to not frighten her again.

“I, you see-  I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to sleep for so long, I’ve missed, oh God, I’ve missed so much work I didn’t... truly, I didn’t mean to.”  Despite his efforts to keep her calm, Charlotte starts to shake again.

“You didn’t answer my question.  Have you eaten?”  He steps closer, gently tugging the towel from her grip and setting it on the table behind her.  She opens her mouth, starting to apologize again but Cullen cuts her off with a look.  “Yes, or no?”  He nods and shakes his head as he speaks, waiting for her to answer in kind.  When she shakes her head, he sighs again.  “Come Miss St. Clair; we’ll go get something to eat before going to talk with Josephine about your pay.”

“But I have to-”

“It can wait, Miss St. Clair.”  Cullen leaves no room for argument and gestures towards the door, nodding to himself when she starts walking.  Rylen’s taking care of the newest recruits for the moment; he has enough time for this at least.  A tense silence hangs between them as they walk, both of them glancing at the other, utterly unsure of what to say.  He catches her staring, but she immediately snaps her head away, a blush rising to color her cheeks.

“I’m sorry.”  She mumbles, her hands fidgeting restlessly.

“You don’t have to apologize; I was watching you too.  I mean-!”  Cullen clears his throat before trying again.  “That is, I was looking at you also while we are walking, but not like- Never mind...”  Now it’s his turn to blush.  Of course, he’d stutter and say something creepy like he’s watching her too.  Cullen mentally kicks himself, just barely keeping his hand from coming up and nervously rubbing the back of his neck. 

Once in the kitchens, he shows how to go about getting food, and they both quietly eat, each of them nervous for different reasons.  When he sees Charlotte inhale her food, he pushes the rest of his bread across the small table to her.  Her hand pauses halfway to the bread, her eyes finally meeting his own.

“I’m not too hungry, please, go ahead, Miss St. Clair.”  She snatches the bread off the table and hastily takes a bite, pausing to meet his eyes once again.

“... Are you feeling okay?”  The question is so quiet he almost misses it.  The genuine concern he sees in her eyes shocks him.  The poor woman's convinced that everyone here wants her dead, but she’s still worried if I’m feeling well?

“I... will be fine, Miss St. Clair, it’s nothing to worry about.”  He smiles, once again shocked when a small grin tugs at her lips in response.  But too soon her eyes flit back down to her hands as she scarfs down the food.  Cullen takes the time to study her, all her focus on the food in front of her, no chance he’ll be caught staring this time.

Her black hair is short, only just barely going past her jaw.  Most of it’s tied back, some of it spilling out, resting against her neck.  It... needs to be washed, and Cullen adds the bathhouses as another thing he’ll have to show her before going back to his duties.  She’s pale, though he believes part of that was from the recent lack of rest and food.  And from what he has seen of her before and what he observes now, Cullen knows she's soft, in almost every sense of the word he can think of.  Her body is fragile, with no defined muscles from fighting or manual labor, no scars or calluses on her tiny hands.  She’s quick to cry and apologize; he wonders if she ever stands up for herself or just let others push her where they please.  Cullen watches as her big brown eyes- he would have asked if she was maybe part elvish if she wasn't from a different world- flicker towards the different foods as she reaches for them, noticing a pattern in how she eats.  A bite of bread, a mouthful of stew, a few berries, a gulp of water and repeat, no variation from the pattern.  She’s beautiful; she’d be stunning if she were healthy again. Cullen thinks for a moment, idly trying to picture it only to shake his head with a frown at the direction of his thoughts.  Surely such a pretty young woman is a noble where she’s from. 

The idea of nobility leaves a sour taste in his mouth.  He cares little for political matters and even less for most people involved in them.  The everyday people are just pawns to most of them, their lives of little consequence.  Orlesian nobility especially bothers him, hell most all of Orlais rubs him the wrong way.  Them and their blasted Game.  Still, Miss St. Clair hadn’t shown the snobbish attitude he’s come to expect from nobility, hasn’t refused to work or demand special treatment just because of her bloodline.  Maybe nobility is different where she’s from.

It isn’t long until Charlotte finishes her food, downing her third mug of water before shyly looking up at Cullen.  With another nod to himself, he stands, motioning to the door and leading the way to Josephine.  From within the Chantry, he can hear Chancellor Rodrick’s angry protesting about the buildings use, not that Josephine is really paying him any mind as she continues to pen a letter on her small clipboard.  Charlotte seems to shrink behind Cullen the closer they get; he suspects she’s been on the receiving end of his harsh words before, most everyone in Haven has. 

“Lady Ambassador, if you have a moment?”  Rodrick is about to spit something out at them, but Josephine beats him to the punch. 

“Of course, Commander, right this way.  Chancellor, your concerns have been noted.”  With a pleasant smile, she directs the pair into her office of sorts, turning away from the Chancellor with a roll of her eyes.  “I do apologize, the Chancellor was just making his concerns about the Inquisitions appropriation of the Chantry known... again.  That man does not know when to quit; I’ll give him that.”  Charlotte breathes a sigh of relief when the door’s shut on the angrily mumbling Chancellor, Josephine offering her a hesitant smile as she waves to a chair.  “What can I help you with?”

“Miss St. Clair was unaware she’d be getting paid while she works here.”  Just one of the many things Leliana withheld from her... I still want to know why, how can she possibly have a grudge against Miss St. Clair?  She’s from another world!  Cullen’s talking to Josephine for a moment before turning to look where Charlotte sits perched on the chair, ready for anything.  “Miss St. Clair, this is Josephine, the Ambassador for the Inquisition.  I head the army, Leliana the scouts and spies, and Josephine covers the rest.  She also oversees our finances for the most part as well as deals with the nobles.” 

“Lady St. Clair, I had wondered when you would stop by for your pay.  Most of our forces stop by every few days, although if you would rather do it weekly, that would be doable as well.  It is up to you.”  Her accent is both familiar and foreign all at once; there are so many similarities between this world and hers and yet they are completely different.  She still isn’t convinced she’s not in a coma dreaming this all up…

“I... okay, that works fine.”

“How were you paid in your... world...?”  Josephine’s unsure how to bring it up, or if it’s even a wise decision to try and speak of it.

“Well, I guess, it was every other week. They were different days though.  One job was every other Wednesday, another was every other Friday, and the last was just a... I don’t know; I just got paid in cash when I finished for the day.” 

“Do nobles work where you come from?”  Cullen askes before nearly slapping himself again.  Charlotte looks up at him, confusion painting her still painfully thin face.

“I’m... not sure?  I’m not a noble or anything, just a... just a nobody I suppose.  A student.”

“Would you like to pick up your pay every other week then?”  Josephine, seeing Cullen’s shame at speaking his mind so plainly, tries to draw the conversation back to the topic at hand.

“I don’t know... what would work best?”  Her gaze flickers between the pair of strangers in the room with her, settling on Cullen before nervously wringing her hands.  His own gaze flickers to Josephine who merely shrugs.

“I suppose since you don’t have any money now, getting it every few days should suffice.”  Charlotte nods, and a part of Cullen is bothered by her immediate acceptance.  She needs to start doing what she wants, or people are just going to continue walking over her.  “If you ever decide to change that, I’m sure Josephine will be happy to discuss that with you.” 

Josephine nods, scribbling something down on some paper before turning to a locked chest.  She pulls out a pouch, double checks it’s content before handing it over to Charlotte.  She simply weighs it in her palm before shrugging and setting it in her lap.  Cullen manages to hold in his sigh, but only just barely.

“Miss St. Clair, while I know Josephine wouldn’t cheat you out of your pay, it would be wise to double check the amount anyways.”

“But I... I don’t know what you guys use for money.  I doubt it’s nickels and dimes and quarters.”  Cullen wants to hit himself again.  Of course, she wouldn’t know about the money here, you moron!  Maker’s breath, Seggrit is going to take the poor woman for everything she has if he get’s the chance to try and sell her something... 

“I’ll... I’ll teach it to you back at your tent tonight after supper.  I’ve got a few more things to show you around Haven, but then I really ought to get back to the recruits.” 

“Am I interrupting your duties or something?  Oh God, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know!  I’ll- I’ll be fine, really, you can go.”

“Miss St. Clair, it’s no bother.  Truth be told, the recruits are probably happy that Rylen is training them right now.  It will only be a little while longer, I promise.”  With one last glance at Josephine, Cullen leads the way back to Charlotte’s tent.  With the coin purse safely stowed away, he shows her the bathhouses and the small makeshift clinic they had set up as well as a few of the smaller shops, making a point to stay away from Seggrit’s stop near the gate. 

“Thank you, for showing me everything and for the food.”  Charlotte awkwardly tries to bow, but Cullen cuts her off with a quick gesture.

“You don’t need to bow or anything, Miss St. Clair, it was nothing, really.  I’ll see you later to teach you about the money.  Have a good rest of the day.”  With a small smile and a nod, he walks off, back to outside the gates where Charlotte can hear the sounds of an army training. 

She stands there, in the middle of the gate, unsure for a moment how long she should wait before following him out of the gate.  Following him and running into him so soon after saying goodbye would be so awkward… but I need to go work, at least I can’t mess up what I’m trying to clean now.  No iron bars to drop or flour to spill...  When she starts to hear whispers from those around her, watching her just stand there, she quickly walks through the gate.  Charlotte’s gaze never leaves the ground, determined not to embarrass the commander of an army with her fumbling personality.

Nothing’s changed in the cabin since she left, and with an energy she hasn’t felt in what seems like weeks, she starts to clean again, attacking the tables with a vengeance.

Chapter Text

Cullen’s glad for the recruits that show up every day, the Inquisition will surely need every single soldier they can get before the end, but if he must teach another soldier not to grab the sharp end of a sword, he’ll scream.  Even as he lectures them in his head, he reminds himself he shouldn’t be complaining, beggars can’t be choosers after all.  The bright light of the sun starts to fade, the headache that’s been lingering all day fading along with it.  Most days, thanks to the snow-covered ground, the bright light of mid-day feels like spikes hammering through his skull. 

Once in the safety of his tent he carefully takes off the various pieces of his armor.  He always feels safer and calmer wearing it, but he doubts it gave Charlotte that same sense of security.  Maybe if he appears a little less threatening, she won’t be so jumpy and on edge.

“It’s worth a shot, at least...”  He mumbles as he heads towards her tent, making sure to loudly cough before tapping on the flap.  When no response comes, he peeks inside, finding it empty. For a moment he panics, where else would she be as the day winds down, but then he remembers just who he was looking for.  Cullen walks to the cabin in the woods, seeing the telltale flicker of a candle through the open door.  Again, he’s about to make a racket as he got closer, but Cullen stops when he hears the soft notes of Charlotte quietly singing.

 

There is a house built out of stone

Wooden floors, walls, and window sills

Tabes and chairs worn by all of the dust

This is a place where I don't feel alone

This is a place where I feel at home

Cullen’s helpless to move as he listens, her clear voice drifting through the foreign melody with ease.  She’s good- more than good!- she’s... it’s...  No words come to mind that could sufficiently encompass how she sings.  Through the open door, he sees her pass, sweeping the rough wooden boards of the floor, swaying as she effortlessly moves into the next verse of her song.  She might not be able to fight, or cook, or anything else that is of much use to the Inquisition, but Maker, can she sing.

If he could have his way, he would stand there and listen to her softly sing until the sun rose again in the morning, but he knows that can’t happen.  He has no qualms about being outside of Haven after dark, but- like with his armor- he doubts Charlotte thinks the same.  With a loud cough, he starts walking forwards again.  Charlotte’s head pops up from around the corner, her eyes wide as her melody is cut off.

“Oh, um, Commander, hello.  I’m just finishing; I can meet you a little later, there are just a few things left-”

“Miss St. Clair, you don’t have to clean this whole cabin by the end of the day, what’s left can wait for tomorrow.  Have you eaten supper already?”  He honestly isn’t even sure why he asks the question when he already knows the answer was going to be something along the lines of ‘no I was working.’ 

“Well...”  She at least has the good sense to look abashed as she tries to find an excuse to cover up the sounds of her stomach growling.

“Come along; they’ll be cleaning up shortly.”  Cullen tries not to sigh when her stomach rumbles again, but there’s no helping it.  He isn’t sure what he can do to put her more at ease here, to let her feel safe enough to take breaks or eat when she’s hungry, but he’ll need to figure something out soon. There’s an army for him to train, reports for him to read and sign, so many depending on the Inquisition and its forces... he can’t very well stop by and make sure Charlotte eats every meal.

They’ve barely left the small forest when a messenger spots Cullen, the several reports in his hand fluttering as the young man dashes towards them. 

“Reports from Leliana, Ser.  They seem urgent.” With a nod the messenger is dismissed, the man running off to deliver some other pressing message.

“I apologize, Miss St. Clair, it seems I have more work to do.  Go ahead and eat, I’ll find someone to explain the currency and such tomorrow.  If you’ll excuse me.”  With a short nod, something Charlotte’s coming to expect from the Commander, he hurries to his tent, eyes already scanning the reports. 

The desire to go back and keep cleaning is strong, but while she wants to show she can be of some use, she doesn’t want to anger the Commander of a whole freaking army.  With guilt building in her stomach, she walks towards the kitchens, lost in thought as she goes.

She still isn’t on board with this whole “different world” situation.  Stuff like this is just fiction, just stories to pass the time, other worlds don’t exist, not like this.  But every time Charlotte tries to convince herself she’s in a coma or dead, she gets all the reminders that she can’t be.  She feels pain and hunger and the cold; she feels emotions so strongly- namely fear and depression- that there’s no way she could be sleeping through this. 

“Careful!”  Charlotte nearly screams as she bumps into someone as she rounds the last cabin in front of the kitchens.  Hands hold her shoulders steady, her eyes locking onto what looks like some sort of jaw bone necklace the stranger’s wearing.  She glances up to meet the gray-blue eyes of the elven apostate she met earlier.

“S-sorry!  I was just thinking, obviously not watching where I was g-going.  Are you alright?  I didn’t step on your foot or anything?”

“I am fine, Miss Charlotte, tired but fine.  Were you going to eat?”

“I- the Commander reminded me that- well, I mean, I knew I had to eat, I just... yes, I’m going to eat.”  Her face burns as she glances down at her feet. 

“If you have some time, I would like to ask you some questions...”  Solas trails off as Charlotte starts to rub her eyes.  “What happened to your hands?”  Without waiting for an answer, he takes one within his own, a healing spell glowing softly through the gaps in their fingers.  Charlotte wants to jerk away from the strange tingling sensation, but it feels good in a weird way, the skin slowly knitting itself back together where it had been rubbed raw.  Charlotte’s amazed by what she’s seeing, feeling, and she completely misses the furrowed brow as Solas tries to heal her.  The magic is getting pushed back, and it isn’t until Solas puts quite a bit of force behind the spell that it takes.  Once one hand's done, Solas quickly sets about healing the other, as oblivious to his patients look of awe as she is of his frustration.

“That’s amazing...” 

His eyes finally flicker to hers as the spell slowly disperses, and he’s taken aback at the open expression of wonder on her face.  Solas has gotten used to being treated poorly, with anger or fear, when he’d use his magic.  With curious eyes, he watches as she lifted her hands to examine his handy work, turning them this way and that, making sure what he’s done worked. 

“You really do have magic here...  What I wouldn’t do to bring some of this home, all the good that can be accomplished with healing magic like this...  I wonder if it could cure cancer?  How does it work?”  She mumbles more questions, using large words Solas is unfamiliar with before she finally turns her gaze back to him.  “Thank you very much.”  And she means it; he can hear it in her voice, see it in her small smile.

“You’re very welcome, Miss Charlotte.”

“Just Charlotte is fine Solas.” 

“You remembered.” 

“Of course I remembered, you don’t meet an elf every day.”  She had meant it as a joke, but she realizes a little too late that people here probably see elves all the time.  “Well, I guess here you do, I just meant that where I from... I’m not trying to offend you or anything, I swear.”

“It is fine Charlotte; I know what you meant.”  Solas motions for her to keep walking, falling into step beside her when she does.  “I am sorry I did not get more time to try and explain things after you woke up.”

“No, you were busy, with the Heralds of… Ondrastay…?  I...  I think I’m saying it wrong; I’m not too sure who that is.”

“That answer can vary quite a lot depending on where you are from and what religion you believe.”

“Oh, like Jesus and what not, then.  Son of God, or prophet, or nobody.”

“...Maybe. I do not know your world any more than you know this one.”  He smiles, more than a little eager to learn all he can about this entirely new world.  “I hoped that as I explain Thedas, you could explain your Earth.  If that is alright with you of course.”

“Yeah, I don’t see why not.  But, um, fair warning, I wasn’t the best at history.  The dates and names always got mixed up so, I mean, I can tell you the main stuff, but not like, who exactly participated in the Hundred Years War.”

“That is quite alright, Charlotte, anything you can tell me would be much appreciated.”  They both sit down with their food, and the questions begin to fly.  They go every other for the most part, Solas giving a basic explanation on the mage and templar situation, and then Charlotte explaining the different countries and political systems to the best of her abilities.  He speaks a great deal on the Fade, and she gets into a long spiel on modern medicine and vaccines.  Solas tells of the oppression of the elves, and she likens it to the history of the African American people in her own country.  Both are eager to learn, to understand the very different worlds, and the food is cold before it all gets eaten.

“As much as I would like to continue, I fear we have overstayed our welcome.”  He nods to where the kitchen staff is waiting impatiently for them to leave so they can clean up.  Charlotte’s first response is to blush and try to help clear the table, but they kick her out before she can break more dishes.  “We’ll have to talk some other time.  Good night, Charlotte.”  She gives Solas an awkward little wave before turning and walking to where she desperately hopes her tent us.  It gets so much darker here than on Earth when night fell, the small torches around doing little to help her navigate.  Before she can even think about finding someone to ask for help, she’s lost in a mess of cabins and tents.

Her heart beats faster, breaths coming shorter when she realizes just how lost she got in the small village.  The fragments of frantic thoughts swirling around in her head do little to help the situation, Charlotte takes a few steps then second guesses herself, walking back before repeating that action in several different directions.  Tears finally fall, and she hits the ground with them, hugging her knees close to her chest as she tries not wake anybody who might be sleeping nearby.  With jerky movements she manages to scoot up against the wall of a cabin and duck under her heavy cloak, crying until she passes out.

~~~~~

Nightmare’s plague Cullen’s dreams that night as they do every other, what little sleep he does manage to get is restless and, all in all, rather useless.  To top it off he feels incredibly guilty for not explaining money to Charlotte.  He’s gone and made sure she not only got her past earnings but knows how to get them in the future and then just leaves her to look at what she can’t use.  There are many things he’s sure she’ll like to buy since most of her possessions didn’t make it with her to Thedas.  Once his unruly curls are tamed and his armor in place he purposefully leaves his tent to find Charlotte and correct the situation.  He should have time before the recruits all show up. 

He isn’t surprised to find her tent empty; the woman works too much for her own good.  As he walks towards the cabin, he tries to figure out the quickest way to thoroughly explain the money and a general sort of guide to how expensive things should be in case Seggrit ever gets a hold of her.  He’s not an expert in finances, but he ‘ll be able to explain the bare minimum at least.

When he finds that the cabin is also empty, worry begins to pool in his gut, but he pushes it down.  If Charlotte isn’t in her tent or here, she must be eating... hopefully...  His steps are quick as he makes his way to the kitchens, praying that he’ll find her sitting there.  Worry shifts to dread in no time flat when he doesn’t see familiar black hair and pale skin.

“Is something the matter, Commander Cullen?”  Solas just finished his meal, feeling much better after some rest the night before.  As much as he wants to help the Heralds, running around the Hinterlands gets old.

“Have you seen Miss St. Clair?”

“We talked a great deal last night over supper, but I have not seen her today, no.  Why?”

“She’s...  I mean, she wasn’t in her tent or the cabin she’s cleaning.  I was going to explain how money worked here so she could use her pay but...”

“I am sure there is nothing to worry about, Cullen.  She must just be wandering for a bit-”

“You don’t understand; she doesn’t do that.  She starved herself and worked herself to the bone without any rest since she woke up.  For some reason, she think’s we’ll feed her to demons or some nonsense if she doesn’t continuously work.  I had to almost drag her away from her work to get her to eat something yesterday.”  Her appearance yesterday suddenly makes a lot more sense to Solas, he’s been wondering why she looked so much worse than the last time they spoke when she was safe- relatively speaking- here.  Cullen is about to walk off in search of her when Solas stops him.

“I noticed last night when I was healing her hands that her... soul, spirit, consciousness, whatever you wish to call it was not only severed from the Fade but almost seemed to reject it.  I had noticed a lack of her presence in the Fade while I was away with the Heralds, last night confirmed my theory.  It took longer to heal her than it should have, she was pushing the magic back, though I do not think she's doing it intentionally.  If you give me a moment, I should be able to feel her pushing against the Fade around Haven.”  Cullen just nods, knowing that it’s probably quicker than running through the maze of tents and cabins.  But try as he might to justify just standing around while Solas concentrated, he can’t.  Just as he’s about to set off on his own, Solas’ eyes snap open, and he takes off.

They stay close as they both run through Haven, Cullen only brushing past Solas when he sees Charlotte curled up against a cabin wall under the thick cloak he had left with her when she tried to run.  Her body is covered with a thin layer of snow, shivering violently even though she looks to be peacefully asleep. 

“Miss St. Clair!  Can you hear me?  Miss St. Clair, I need you to wake up.”  Cullen throws his gloves onto the ground, brushing the snow from her face, the skin paler than he’s ever seen it before.  As he tries to warm her a little, Solas starts barking orders at people passing by, getting the cabin she was leaning against ready to try and pull her back from the brink of freezing to death. 

Cullen smiles when her eyes begin to open, though that small fragment of hope quickly vanishes when her eyes, unfocused and hazy at best, close again.  He shakes his head, gently tapping her cheeks with his thumbs.

“You need to stay awake, Miss St. Clair, we need to get you warmed up.  Can you open your eyes again for me?”  After a tense moment, she does just that.  “Good, good.  Do you know who I am, Miss St. Clair?”

“Wanna go home...”  Her quiet words slur together.  “Need’a take a’tes…” 

“We need to get you inside.”  He tries to pick her up, but she clumsily starts to fight against him.  “I’m not going to hurt you Miss St. Clair, I swear, but I need to get you into the cabin.”

“Who’re you?!”  She slurs as she tries to wriggle away.

“Cullen, I’m Cullen Rutherford.  I work for the Inquisition, and so do you.  I know you’re scared and tired, and you want to go home, but you need to let me help you.”  When she finally calms down Cullen lifts her into his arms and walks as carefully to the front of the cabin as he could.  Jarring her will only make things worse, gotta keep her still and gotta start warming her up.  She starts mumbling big words he doesn’t know and certainly doesn’t have time to think about as he rests her on the cot Solas has ready for her inside.

“We cannot warm her up too quickly, or we risk her losing her for completely different reasons.  I’m going to use magic and start the process slowly.  If you could go and find some more blankets, it would be a great help.”  Cullen stands to leave, but a fumbling hand bumping into his leg stops him.  He glances down to see Charlotte’s eyes, wide with fear and confusion, staring back at him.

“Don’t go...”  She tries to grab his hand, but her frozen fingers don’t seem to be listening to her.

“I’ll get them,”  Linril says from the door, having followed when she saw Solas and Cullen running through the village. 

“Alright, thank you.  Now, let us begin.”  An orange glow emanates from Solas’ palms, scaring Charlotte even more.

“It’s magic, Charlotte, I’m going to help-”

“Not real!  Magic’s not real!”  This is the quickest way to get her warm; they really don’t have any other choices.  Cullen hesitantly takes one of her hands between his, drawing her frightened gaze.

“It’s going to be okay, I promise.”  Ever so slowly he starts to rub tiny circle on her hand with his thumb, hoping that she can feel it and that it’s in some small way reassuring.  Something he's doing must have been working as Charlotte doesn’t even flinch when Solas starts his treatment.  Whenever she begins to close her eyes, Cullen coaxes them back open, his thumb never stopping its circles, his voice gentle and soft as he murmurs to her.

Linril returns with arms full of blankets, Varric and Soren behind her with wood for a fire and the makings for some hot tea.  They silently go about their work, Varric pulling a worried Soren out once they finish. 

A flash of bright blue catches Cullen’s gaze, his sentence cutting off abruptly as Linril hands Solas a small lyrium potion.  Charlotte lets out a little squeak when Cullen’s grip tightens around hers, his body rigid as Solas uncorks the bottle and downs it.  Once the lyrium is out of sight the song fades slightly from Cullen’s mind, but a headache he’s been trying to ignore pushes its way to the front, demanding attention.

With renewed energy Solas sets about warming Charlotte, slowly rolling her onto her side so he can warm her back and neck. 

“It’s okay.”  The quiet whisper pulls Cullen from his thoughts, his eyes focusing back on Charlotte’s.  She can barely keep her eyes open, but she manages a small smile and a squeeze of her own.  The frown melts from his face, a smile tugging at his lips instead.  Here she is on the verge of freezing to death, and she’s trying to comfort me…

“It will be.”

Chapter Text

As guilty as Cullen feels about having Rylen do the training again, he just can’t leave Charlotte’s side.  In his mind she’s in this whole situation because of him, if he had just helped her like he promised himself he would then none of this would be happening.  She’d be back to cleaning the cabin, or dropping metal on people’s feet, or just nervously flitting about trying to help.  Instead she’s sleeping like the dead in the very warm cabin they saved her in.  Solas has long since gone, his job done, and Cullen sits alone in the room making sure that Charlotte eats and drinks a little whenever she wakes for a moment.

It's now well into the night, and Cullen feels his own eyes growing heavy.  With a groan he moves himself to sit on the floor, his head resting back against the foot of the cot.  Cullen's arm lays at an uncomfortable angle, so he can keep holding Miss St. Clair’s hand.  Reliving his nightmares is the last thing he ever wants to do, but what little sleep he might manage to get between them is better than no sleep at all… if only just.

 ~~~~~

Aching muscle is what eventually wake the Commander, and when his eyes finally open he sees Solas sitting in a chair studying them both with unsettlingly sharp eyes.

“Sleep well, Commander?”

“I- yes, actually.  Usually I wake up from the... but I didn’t.”  He tries to recall any of the horror’s that typically visit him at night, but last night is a blank slate.  His sleep hadn’t been haunted by his past, not even the rare pleasant dream came to him last night.  He just... slept.

“It’s alright, Commander, I have felt the ripples from your nightmares when I visit the Fade.  Last night, when I did not sense any, I came to relieve you of your duty, believing you were still awake.  I was shocked to find you resting here peacefully.”

Terror grips Cullen at the thought of Solas bearing witness to the horror’s he constantly must relive.  Word will spread quickly of his past, of the horrendous things he’s was party to... he’ll be lucky if they just ask him to leave the Inquisition without demanding some form of punishment.

“Calm yourself, Cullen, I have never watched your nightmares, only felt as the negative feelings warp the Fade around them.  They have occurred every night since I got here, that’s why I was shocked to find you sleeping.  When I sat here and tried to visit the Fade like normal to see what may be keeping the nightmares at bay I found that I couldn’t enter.  I slept, but there was an invisible wall between me and the Fade.”  Cullen’s eyes fall to Miss St. Clair’s still peacefully sleeping form.  “Indeed.  It seems that her... rejection, if you will, of the Fade is like a bubble, affecting those close enough.  I imagine if you had an injury that I could heal it would have taken me longer to heal it because of this strange affect.”  The Commander doesn’t like uncertainties, especially when it comes to magic.  Without a second though he pulls out a small knife and slices it across his palm, holding the now injured hand out for Solas to heal.  The elf doesn’t say anything as he tried to heal the injury, though the look in his eyes says that Cullen’s being reckless without reason.

Solas finds it’s was easier to heal Cullen than it was Charlotte, but it still takes more effort than it should have.  Before Solas can stop him, Cullen cuts his hand again, dragging Solas just outside the cabin for him to heal his hand.  It goes quickly, just as it should have before, and Cullen nods.  The area of the bubble, as Solas called it, isn’t very large.  They both walk back inside and shut the door before continuing their conversation.

“She was the reason you didn’t have nightmares or any dreams at all I’d wager.  It is fascinating; I’ve never seen someone with this kind of ability.  It’s not like what you Templars do, reinforcing reality to make it less susceptible to changes from the Fade, she is completely blocking out the Fade.  I wonder if all people from her Earth are like this or if it is some sort of side effect from the Breach like the Herald’s marks...”

“Can she be possessed?”

“Only if the spirit or demon found its way here physically and got around her built-in protection, and even then, it would have to find some way to keep that ability in check, or it would be wiped out at its return.”

Once again words fail him, and for once Solas is in the same boat.  Her ability is both incredible and disastrous.  If any of the Templar order get their hands on her, they will surely experiment and dissect her until they pinpoint her unique ability.  Then they’ll use it against the mages and this war will escalate far beyond what it is now.  If any other mages find out of her Fade blocking ability, they’ll kill her to keep her from the Templar’s weaponizing her strange power, regardless of weather or not she would ever try and use her abilities against them.

“As if this world weren’t dangerous enough to her...”  Cullen drops his head into his hands as his headache rushes back to the front of his mind, things just keep getting more and more complicated.

“Indeed.  We should keep this information quiet, for obvious reasons, and perhaps once she is slightly more...”  Solas struggles to find a word, something Cullen has rarely heard from the elf. “-stable in this world, we can explain her ability and caution against getting into situations that might oust her.”

 ~~~~~

Charlotte awakes to the sound of Solas describing some sort of fantasy landscape to someone.  Something about floating castles and glass spires.  With a groan she rolls over to hear him better, his soft voice perfect for telling stories such as those.

“Charlotte, I’m glad to see you awake.”  Instead of fanciful stories, she gets a greeting, much to her dismay.  Whoever he’d been talking to quietly excusing themselves, the open door quickly filling the warm room with a gust of freezing air.

“Wha-” She finds her throat sore, scratching painfully as words are trying to form.  Solas is there with a cup of water before she can even try to ask.  After a few gulps she tries again.  “What happened?  I don’t remember anything again.”  She’d be lying if she said she wasn’t hoping to wake up and have the last week or so be nothing more than a fever dream.

“I apologize, Charlotte, had I known you did not know they way to your tent I would have never left you alone to wander.  The fault is mine, and I can only ask for your forgiveness at my oversight.”

“I don’t... what?”

“You got lost that night we spoke over supper, the clouds hiding what little light may have helped you find your way.  Sleep overtook you, and when the Commander and I found you in the morning, you had nearly frozen to death.  He watched over you yesterday, making sure you warmed and drank or ate when you would briefly wake.”

“Oh...”  The single syllable is the only sound she can muster as guilt crashes through her chest.  “I’m so sorry; I didn’t... I’ve caused trouble again and I really... W-where is the Commander; I need to- to apologize...”

“Charlotte, you’ve nothing to apologize for, the fault is mine.”  Solas is expecting some anger or resentment from her, not for her to place all the blame on her shoulders somehow.

“No, it’s not, I shouldn’t have... shouldn’t have...”

“You shouldn’t have had to face almost freeing to death, and that blame lies at my door and no other.”  He leans forwards, taking her small hands within his own larger ones, his eyes desperately trying to convey the guilt he feels at Cullen’s description of the woman before him.  He honestly hadn’t known how bad things where for her here, he foolishly assumed since she’s human she’ll do well, fit right in.  It’s his fault she’s here in Thedas in the first place, he at least hoped that she would be safe here.

“But-”

“No if’s, and’s, or but’s, Charlotte.  You do not need to apologize, you need to only regain your strength.”  The fervor in his words takes her by surprise.  She’s used to being blamed for the smallest mistake whether it is her fault or not.  Since her parents died all those years ago she’s become a scapegoat for those around her; classmates, foster families, anyone and everyone seems to have deemed her as the cause for all the troubles in the world and treats her as such.

“I... okay, I- I will try.  Thank you.”  Solas gives a small, disbelieving snort as he sits back, an equally small bemused grin tugging at his lips.

“I got you into this mess, thanking me is-”

“I forgive you.”  It’s Charlotte’s turn to interrupt him, and the smile falls from his face as quickly as it came, replaced with a healthy dose of shock.  “Though I am still not convinced that you did anything wrong.”

“...Thank you, Charlotte.  If you wait a moment, I’ll go and get something for you to eat.”

 ~~~~~

Solas has made it perfectly clear that Charlotte isn’t allowed to leave the cabin for any sort of work for several days.  Food, as were her books, is brought to her by Soren who is, for all intents and purposes, her guard.  It bothers Charlotte that she’s once again sitting there useless, but she has to admit the rest feels amazing.  She’s no longer looking ragged, though she is in desperate need of a bath.  The small basins of water left for her to wash with are alright, but she needs to wash her hair before dreadlocks start to be her new style.

After much begging Soren acquiesces to her demands.  He even goes and gets all the essentials for her to bring with her to the bath house.  A large soft towel, a comb, and some nice earthy, floral smelling soap.  Once the sun begins to set and everyone makes their way to get dinner, Charlotte heads to the bathhouse.  The fewer people there the better.

The small cabin of sorts holding the baths is on a hot springs, and while it doesn’t smell the greatest, it’s hot and relatively clean water.  After glancing around to find the room, empty Charlotte strips her clothes off and quickly darts for the water.  It’s hotter than she likes typically, almost too hot for her, but she stays submerged and tries to let the hot water seep the tension from her body.  Once accustomed to the temperature, Charlotte takes the small bar of soap in hand, wondering briefly if it’s for her body or hair. 

“Guess it doesn’t really matter, it’s going to be used for both...”  She mutters as she viciously begins to scrub her entire body.  When she’s close enough to clean for government work she once again relaxes back into the comforts of a hot bath.  Some loud laughter from just outside the cabin reminds Charlotte that this is not in fact her bathroom and anybody can come wandering in at any moment.  With that thought in mind she rushes from the water, mostly drying off before slipping into some clean clothes she brought with her.  Combing her short hair is easy, and not moments after she finishes does she step back into the frozen wasteland that Haven was built on.

As Charlotte tucks the rest of her belongings into a bag Soren had got for her, she heads towards to the cabin she knows she has to return to, lest Solas and Soren find her and drag her back.  When the cause of the raucous laughter that had driven her from the baths stumbles around the corner of the bathhouse, Charlotte freezes.  The three men are clearly already deep in their cups, the wobbly steps and slurred words a dead giveaway.  Their attention has been flitting about the village, laughing at this or that, but all go silent as they see Charlotte sanding there looking at them with terrified eyes.  The oldest of the three starts walking towards her with a leer and she can do little but stand there and wait, her feet refusing to move a single inch away from the drunk. 

“Look who it is, boys, the refugee who's made a cock-up of the whole village since she got here.”  He slings a casual arm over her stiff shoulders, the smell that permeates the air around him making Charlotte want to gag.  “Probably ought to teach her what her place is.”  The mans hand drifts down and roughly gropes her chest.  The single movement sends her heart racing, adrenaline pumping through her system as she shakes him off and finally starts off running.  More laughter is the only thing Charlotte hears over the sound of her harsh breaths; the sound of their stomping feet chasing after her lost in the sound of blood rushing past her ears.

She gets lost quickly but that matters little in the long run.  The only thing she can think of is how desperately she doesn’t want to be caught.  The men have the clear advantage in the situation, they have the numbers and they know all the twist and turns of Haven’s layout.  It isn’t long before they have her cornered, filthy hands grabbing her from all directions.  Tears trail down her cheeks as she tries to fight, to get away.  When it proves useless she does they only thing left that she can.

She screams.

Louder than she has ever thought herself capable of, the cry almost echoes back to her from the mountains.  One hand clamps down on her mouth to cut the sound off, but that ends in the palm being bit.  Charlotte snaps her teeth shut on whatever part of the hand she can, and she bites until it brakes the skin, the tang of blood making Charlotte nauseous.  A curse is shouted as the hand withdraws, another hand colliding painfully with her face.  She’s knocked to the ground, but she’s on the outside of the group and makes a mad scramble to get her feet beneath her and run.

Charlotte makes it around two more corners before she runs into a solid body again, and she fights against the grip on her shoulders until she sees familiar golden eyes.

“Maker’s breath, Miss St. Clair, what-” The words catch in Cullen’s throat when he sees her rumpled appearance; the smear of blood near her mouth nearly washed away by tears, the beginnings of a bruise already forming on her pale cheek.  His gaze jumps up when he hears the men round the corner, zeroing in on the injured hand one of them is holding close to his chest.  The commander, though not in his usual armor, makes an imposing figure, the fury blazing in his eyes lets the drunks know that there is no saving themselves.

“S’not what it looks like, we’s just havin’ a bit a fun.” 

“Silence!”  Cullen’s voice sounds like a clap of thunder, all three of the men wincing despite the Commander having not made a move against them.  “Guards!”  He shouts out another word and from behind him come several men dressed in Inquisition armor.  “Take these men into custody, inform Leliana of they crimes thus far, I’m sure there will be more charges to add later.”  The guards salute and instantly surround the men before hauling off.  Once they’re out of view, Cullen turns his full attention to the shaking woman in his arms.

“I-I-I d-di-didn’t m-mean to h-hurt them!  J-just w-wanted th-them to-to s-stop.  Th-they were- they were...!” 

“You’ve done nothing wrong.”  He insists gently as his hands flutter around, unsure of what he’s supposed to do.  Surely she wouldn’t want to be held right now-

Not seconds after that thought flickers through his mind does Charlotte push her way into his arms, crying into the soft fabric of his shirt as her arms wrap as tightly around him as she can.  For a moment Cullen stands there entirely frozen.  If he was confused about what to do before, he is utterly lost with what to do now.  Hesitantly his hands come to rest against her, one smoothing over her back, one stroking her still wet hair.  Guilt once again threatens to crush him.  It’s my job to keep people safe, to protect the Inquisition and those it has taken in, and I have once again failed Charlotte.

“I’m so sorry.”  His apology only makes Charlotte sob harder.  Cullen had been on his way to the cabin she’s taken up residence in, finally ready to teach her of the currency of Thedas, when he heard a shrill cry.  He rushed towards the sound only to have the cause of the terrified scream come running straight into him.  “Come on, let’s get you inside.”

Slowly the pair make it back to the cabin, Cullen’s patiently leading the way, supporting Charlotte when her legs temporarily give out.  Thankfully most of the small village is turning in for the night or busy spending their pay at the tavern, having people stare and whisper at the already traumatized woman isn’t going to help anything.  By the time Cullen opens the door to the cabin Charlotte has nearly cried herself asleep on her feet.  Soren helps get her into bed, efficiently braiding her short, wet hair before letting her head hit the pillow.  When she’s soundly asleep, Cullen lets the fury from before rush back to him.  The door is nearly kicked open when he leaves, those men- monsters- will pay for what they’ve done to Miss St. Clair and undoubtedly countless others.

Chapter Text

For several days Charlotte isolates herself in the cabin, eating only a few bites of any given meal, hardly speaking two words to any visitor that enters.  It isn’t the first time something like that happened to her, though the last time it did was when she foolishly wandered around the campus late one Saturday night.  Pepper spray saved her that time, getting away with only a few bruises and a hefty dose of fear for evenings and large groups of people.  And like last time she does the only thing she can to get the dark images from her mind. 

Charlotte locks them away, shoves down with every other unpleasant experience in an increasingly full corner of her mind.  She isn’t sure how to deal with it all isn’t sure she even can, so she doesn’t.  Somewhere in her mind, she knows it isn’t healthy, that in the long run, it will likely only cause her more harm.  That tiny voice is always drowned out by fear, the fear of having to sort through it all, the fear of coming to terms with the shit she’s lived through, the fear of not knowing if she can handle it.

When Solas comes to check up on her again, he finds her dressed and sitting at the table, flipping through one of the large books she’d brought with her from Earth.  Charlotte gives him a small wave in place of a greeting, her eyes locked firmly on the text as she flips between pages.  He expected her to be in bed, nearly catatonic as she has been.

He glances over at what she’s reading, more than a little confused at the many diagrams and pictures mixed in with the text, large words in bold drawing his attention though he has no idea what they mean.

“Might I ask what you are doing?”

“Reading about the brain. We were supposed to start the nervous system section of lectures at the start of December but then I...”  She trails off, her hands pausing momentarily before resuming her messy note taking and page flipping.  “The brain is weird, like really, really weird.  The smallest changes in the chemical balance can have incredible and devastating side effects.  Hallucinations, changes in mood or disposition, coma’s, the list is endless, and that’s just what it can do to the brain, not even what those changes mean for the rest of the body.”  As Charlotte continues to babble about the central and peripheral nervous system, randomly throwing in facts or changing subjects fast enough to give whiplash, Solas gently sets about finishing the healing process.  He tunes out most of what she’s saying, the strange words lost on him, though he makes a mental note to remember to talk of it later.  “I’m just... I don’t know really.  I can’t... this can’t be...”  She stumbles over her words as Solas’ spell finishes its work.

“I am afraid this is very real, Charlotte.”  She wants to argue with him, she wants to shove science in his face and prove that this isn’t possible.  But deep down inside she knows he’s right.  She’s in Thedas, a place with elves and dwarves and magic, a place currently facing what looks like the end of the world, a place where she’s useless.  Slowly and with shaking hands she shuts the A&P textbook, glancing up at the elf with only one question in mind, one question she doesn’t want an answer too but demands to be asked anyway.

“... Am I ever going home?”  Solas wants to say yes, that he will find a way for her to travel back to her Earth, that he will fix at least one of his mistakes, but he knows that he can’t.  When this mess is over, he’s still going to go through with his plan, a plan that will devastate this world and likely her own.  Messing with the already fragile Veil and Fade will likely ruin his own plans and he can’t do that, not when he’s sacrificed so much already.

“No.”  Though the word is spoken softly it is absolutely resolute, that single syllable punching the air from her lungs.  “No, you will not be able to go back to your home.  This world is now yours.”

“It’s not so bad!”  Soren is quick to interrupt from the door, the small tray of food he’s got for Charlotte set down on the table in his haste to get his point across.  “I mean, I guess it’s not great right this second, but you’ll see!  The Inquisition will fix it, we’ll fix it, and you’ll see Thedas like it’s supposed to be.  It’s beautiful and magical and there’s so much to see.”  Soren has been quick to accept the fact that Charlotte is from another world.  Most everything about magic goes over his head, he finds it simpler to just accept it and move on.

“I’m useless.  All that I know, everything I’ve learned from school is absolutely useless here!  There aren’t computers with data need analyzing, there aren’t huge hospitals with washing machines that need to be tended too, there aren’t giant lawns here that need to be mowed with an equally giant lawnmower.  There aren’t any sort of microbiological studies going on that I can help with, no anatomy and physiology students that need a tutor, no random Marvel fanfiction that needs proofreading.  I suck at cooking, I suck at cleaning, I’m a klutz who can’t do most normal shit without dropping something.  I don’t know how your currency works, or your politics, or your religion.  I’ve no idea about why mages and templars seem so at odds, or why elves are discriminated against.  I don’t know how your stereotypical gender roles work, and I certainly don’t want to offend people by doing one thing when it’s common knowledge here that women don’t do that.  And this is after I’ve talked to you two ad nauseam about everything!  After trying to study all the books I could find in the Chantry at night when I didn’t know I was given a place to sleep.”  As her rant continues her heart races, hands shaking, eyes wide as she tries to get across how alone, isolated, terrified, she feels about it all.  When she pauses to catch her breath, she finally looks at the pair before her, shock and concern in equal measures filling their eyes. 

You’re making a mess out of this, calm down and apologize. 

Charlotte’s hand grabs the knife Soren brought with the food, her fingers wrapping tightly around the sharper end.  It’s a fairly dull knife, but it’s enough to break the skin and stop the panic.

“Da’len!”  Solas nearly shouts, scolding her as if she were a child acting out.  He pulls the knife from her hand, handing it to Soren to keep out of reach from Charlotte.  A quick spell closes the wound and another spell sets about healing the tissue and trying to keep a scar from forming over her fingers.  “I understand you are frightened and upset, but that is no reason to hurt yourself.”

“No, you don’t understand!  You have no idea what it’s like to wake up in a completely different world!  You’re trying to be nice, and- and I appreciate it and everything, but please don’t... don’t... I don’t know!  I just don’t know...”  Solas just barely conceals the derisive snort; if she only knew just how much he understands that feeling.

“Charlotte, I’m an elven apostate, an expert on the Fade with opinions that go against everything the Chantry says, surrounded by said Chantry’s forces and their followers in what looks like the end of the world.  If I can find a place here, then surely you can as well.  And I know you feel alone, none of your family or friends are here, but there are people here for you.”

“I just don’t want to be a burden...”

“We’ll work it out, don’t worry.”  Soren gives her an encouraging smile as he pushes the food- minus the knife- closer to her.

 ~~~~~

Charlotte takes to doing small tasks for people; running simple notes for the runners with other much more pressing notes, passing out blankets and food to the new refugees who couldn’t make it to the kitchens, feeding the few horses early in the morning so others need not wake up earlier than then necessary. 

“It just goes to Solas, you know, that weird bald elf?”  Charlotte nods, trying not to grin at the messenger’s description, and takes the stack of books from his hands.  She’s slowly learned the layout of Haven, it’s taken two months to get it all down, but she can’t deny how much safer it feels to know where everything is.

“Solas, I’ve got-”

She opens the door to his cabin only to freeze.  Linril sits across from Solas at the table, leaning across and listening intently to whatever he’s been talking about.  Charlotte hasn’t seen much of the fabled Heralds of Andraste, the pair of them often gone on missions with Solas and the rest of their small team.  The rumors don’t do her justice.  Linril’s stunningly green eyes stare into her own, more than a little peeved that Charlotte has interrupted her story time with Solas.  The apostate, in the meantime, is trying very hard not to smile and laugh at Charlotte’s reaction.

You’re staring, stop staring!  The thought is loud in her mind, and Charlotte can’t even argue back with herself, she’s making a mess of this.

“I’m so sorry!  I just... the rumors... you’re very pretty.”

Stranger danger, stop being creepy!

“I-I mean, not like... I’m not into that... I like guys-” She waves a hand towards Solas, and Linril’s eyes go wide with shock at her confession.  “No, not Solas specifically!  I mean, he’s great and all, and I like him just fine but he’s not my cup of tea-”

Why not weird out everyone in the room?  Start discriminating against them as elves while you’re at it.  Since you’re obviously trying to burn bridges, you might as well go out with a bang.

“Not because he’s an elf!  Elves are great, and… and...  Ugh, h-here are your books Solas...”  Charlotte winces as she holds out the stack, waiting for shouting, or snide comments, or maybe to just be ignored for her stupid fumbling.

“I like you.”  Are the words that reach her ears, however, and at the soft confession, her eyes pop open.  Linril sits there grinning like the Cheshire cat as she continues.  “Not like that of course, just as a person.”  She teases before giggling, Solas’ soft chuckle joining in.  “Would you like to join us?  Solas is telling me of different spirits he’s met in the Fade.”

“... Really?”

“Yes, he travels the Fade every night!  The things he’s seen, it’s amazing!”  Linril’s whole face lights up as she talks about it, Solas’ answering expression softening as he watches Linril.

“No, I believe that, but you really want me to join you?”

“Of course, I wouldn’t have asked otherwise.  It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who stumbled over my words when nervous.”  She gets nervous?  Seriously!?  But she’s... she’s everything I’m not!  She stunning, and smart, and funny, and good with a bow, and... and... Surely, she has everything down pat!

“Oh, I- yes, thanks.”  Still, with a stunned look on her face, Charlotte sits next to Linril, turning to focus as Solas picks up where he left off.

Chapter Text

It’s been three months, give or take, since Charlotte arrived in Thedas and so long as she keeps herself busy she doesn’t think much about the life she left behind.  She forgets about class and exams and the shifts she used to work, in no time it feels like the most natural thing to head to the bathhouses early in the morning or late evening to avoid a crowd in the small building or the kitchens for breakfast and dinner.

The Herald’s have almost finished stabilizing the Hinterlands, heading off to somewhere called the Storm Coast for a meeting or something.  They’ve been gone nearly two weeks taking most of the people she’d befriended with them.  With the newly fixed section of Fereldan comes an influx of trade just in time for the start of spring in Haven.  The very top of the mountains still have snow, but the weather has been getting much more bearable, the wildlife and plant life flourishing in the absence of a weekly blizzard.

But with the new season comes warmer temperatures, and Charlotte’s heavy clothes, while perfect in the dead of winter, now make her melt.  With her pouch of coins, she heads to find where most of the merchants set up their stall.  Some lighter shirts and a nice pair of boots are on her agenda, though she can’t stop herself from staring at a small selection of little wooden carvings an elderly elvish woman is selling.  They vary in size from no bigger than a penny to intricate pieces bigger than her palm.  Charlotte’s smitten with one figure, a little puppy with large eyes and fluffy fur.  She’s always wanted a dog, but it was never in the cards back home.  She’s about to ask for the price when a loud slap echoes through the bustling area.  The sudden loud sound startles Charlotte, and the figurine falls back onto the table as she jerks around to find the source.

Seggrit stands menacingly over the form of a small elven woman, one of his hands tight around her writs; his other hand held ready to strike again.  He hits twice more before Charlotte makes it to the pair and stopping the fourth hit from landing.

“What are you doing?!”  Seggrit sneers down at Charlotte and wrenches his arm free, throwing the elf to the ground at his feet.

“This filthy knife-ear was going to steal from me; I was teaching the animal a lesson.”  The venom in his tone startles Charlotte more than the slap.  She glances down at the crying woman, recognizing her as one of the kitchen staff.  In one of her hands she holds the most adorable pair of little socks, and in the other, she holds a pouch of coins much like her own.

“She’s not an animal, and she wasn’t going to steal.  Why bring out money if you’re going to steal something?”

“The knife-ear-”

“Stop calling her that, she’s got a name.”  Everyone’s now silent around them, and it makes Charlotte sick to her stomach that no one else even tries to intervene.

“She’s a savage-”

“Kara, her names Kara.”

“You’ve no right to-”

“No, you’ve no right just to start beating on people.  Apologize.”  For a moment, just one single second, he looks shocked.  Then he laughs.  And to her disgust, several other in the crowd laugh with him. 

“I don’t owe that thieving knife-ear anything.”  Before Charlotte can say that he owes her a great deal more than just an apology, Rylen and several guards push through the crowd.

“What’s going on?”  He asks sternly, looking between the merchant and where Charlotte is helping Kara stand.

“Nothing,”  Seggrit mutters, walking back to the other side of his stall.  Rylen looks to Kara who just swallows hard and nods.

“It was nothing, just a misunderstanding.”  Kara knows what happened to elves who make a fuss about how humans treat them; she’s seen the results back in her alienage. 

“It wasn’t nothing-” Charlotte begins to protest, but Kara desperately grabbing her arm stops her.  Rylen sighs at Kara’s refusal to speak of what happened.  He can’t do anything to Seggrit or the others who mistreat the elves if they never tell him or the Commander. 

“Well, see that this ‘misunderstanding’ doesn’t happen again, Seggrit.”  Rylen levels a hard glare at the merchant who stares right back, completely unafraid of any consequence.  With a quick nod, the other soldiers leave, Rylen glancing between the crowd and the two women before giving them a winning smile.  “Ladies, seems I’m done for the day, don’t suppose you’d like some extra company while you finish up shopping?”  Kara nearly slumps over in relief.  Rylen’s always kind, if a bit flirtatious, to her in the kitchens, and never has she seen him treat other elves with anything less than respect.

“We’d love the company,”  Charlotte answers, Kara eagerly nodding, words failing her as relief replaces terror. 

With that the trio sets back to the task of shopping, Kara finding kids socks at another merchant, Charlotte buying a few tops from the nice man as well.  Rylen keeps up a steady stream of conversation, and when Kara finally laughs at one of his jokes his answering smile is brilliant.  The pair of them leaves when the bell rings signifying that the evening is close at hand.  Rylen offers her an arm and escorts her to the kitchens, the both of them laughing as they go.  Charlotte can’t help but smile as they leave, glad that Kara’s day got infinitely better. 

The last stop Charlotte wants to make before leaving is back to the stall with the little figurines.  The tiny puppy is still calling her name, and she’s helpless to resist.  While sifting through the many figures, Charlotte picks out a few more to give as gifts.  Solas has been patient with her since the beginning, and no matter how many times she thanks him it never quite feels like enough.  The same goes for Soren, his happy go lucky personality is enough to drag her from her dark thoughts most days, and Charlotte will be eternally grateful to him.  For Solas she picks out an owl who, even though carved from wood, looks wise, his eyes seeming to hold countless stories just like Solas’ own.  For Soren, she picks out a cat sprawled out playfully on it’s back.  Just as she is about to pay for her trinkets her eyes land on a proud looking lion, head held high as if surveying the world.  Without thinking twice, she grabs it as well before turning to the elven woman. 

After paying for them she hurried to her tent, writing short quick notes for Solas and Soren before wrapping the figures in notebook paper and dashing off to leave them on their beds.  Hopefully, it’ll be a pleasant surprise before they went to bed that night.  Charlotte is, however, unsure if Cullen would appreciate a mystery package on his bed, so she decides that, even if she dies of embarrassment, she’ll give it to him in person. 

Charlotte hides on the other side of the gate to Haven, waiting for the troops to stop running drills before embarrassing herself.  The fewer people bearing witness to it, the better.  Every so often she peeks her head around the wall trying to find the Commander in the mass of soldiers, only to duck back behind it when Cullen barks out another order.  For nearly half an hour that little dance continues, giving Charlotte time to work up the nerve.  But when she hears him dismiss the men, her heart starts pounding again.

Just walk up, hand it to him, say thanks, and leave.  Easy peasy, nothing to worry about. 

When the soldiers began to file past the gate, Charlotte ventures out, pushing through the crowd to find the Commander.  When she sees ; she blond hair, she raised a hand to try and be seen through the soldiers passing.

“Commander!”  She calls, and his head turns in time to see Charlotte pushing her way through the last of his men.  What Charlotte sees, however, makes her heart painfully skip a beat.  At some point he’d taken off his armor, the thin shirt he wore almost sticking to his body.  He is entirely too handsome, Charlotte decides at that moment, it ought to be illegal for anyone to look that good.  To her utter embarrassment she can’t take her eyes off him, and as if she isn’t flustered enough, her feet decide that now would be an excellent time to trip over nothing.

Cullen watches as Charlotte freezes for a moment, eyes widening though he doesn’t understand why.  Then as she takes a few steps forwards, he watches as she starts to fall, tumbling down the side of the small hill towards him.  He lurches forwards, trying to catch her but instead getting knocked to the ground as well, his arms holding her tight as they roll.  The disorienting trip cut short when Cullen’s back slams into one of the thick posts surrounding their makeshift sparing ground.  With a grunt, the air is knocked from his lungs, but that hardly matters to him right then.

“Miss St. Clair are you alright?”  Worry saturates his tone when she’s entirely too still in his arms.  “Miss St. Clair?”

“I’m so sorry.” She mumbles, and as she tries to sit up Cullen’s eyes lock onto the bright blush covering her cheeks. 

“You didn’t get hurt, did you?” 

“I ought to be asking you that, you broke my fall and the impact with the fence.”  He sees her hands shaking as she tries to smooth her hair back into place.  “Man, this was not how this was supposed to go… now or never...” She frowns, mumbling so quietly he wonders if she’s even speaking to him, glancing down at her hands as Cullen sits up.

“What was supposed to happen?” Before even finishing the question, Charlotte reaches into her pocket and pulls something out, thrusting her hands forwards to him but misjudging the distance and clumsily punching him in the chest instead.

“I’m so sorry!!”  She looks on the verge of tears, while Cullen can’t stop the smile from tugging at his lips.

“I’m fine, Miss St. Clair, it’s going to take more than that to hurt me.”  He tries to look reassuring, but when she seems anything but, he turns to look at her hands, still hiding whatever it is she wants him to see.

“I-I saw it and thought of you, and I wanted to say thank you for everything, and I s-swear I didn’t mean to push you d-down a hill or-or hit you.”  All her words mush together as she opens her hands, a small lion resting in her palms.  It looks strong, resolute, proud; everything Cullen never feels when facing the day.  He’s amazed she was reminded of him when she saw it, surely, he resembles an old, sickly, grouch of a cat more.

“You got this for me?”  His voice is soft as he picks up the lion to get a closer look, in awe that anyone would get him anything.

“Yes, but if you don’t like it I can get something else!”  Cullen smiles and shakes his head. 

Always so eager to please everyone, why don’t you look after yourself for once?  He wants to ask, he so desperately wants an answer as to why she deems herself less than everyone else, but he keeps silent. 

“It’s wonderful, thank you.”  When the bell rings again, telling the town that it’s time for dinner, Cullen stands much too gracefully for a man his size and offers Charlotte a hand.  She blushes some more but takes the offered help.  With a quick tug, she’s on her feet only to fall to a knee when sharp pain lances through her leg.  Charlotte roll up her pants to see her left ankle already starting to swell. 

“Of course, I messed up my ankle, just my freaking luck-  Commander!”  He’d seen the swelling as she did, but instead of mumbling about it he picks her up bridal style, setting off for the healer’s tents.  “P-put me down; I can walk!”

“You can hardly stand, Miss St. Clair.”

“I’ll be fine, just put me down, where are we going?  Put me down; I’m too big to carry like this!”  If she thought her face was burning before, it’s nothing compared to the blaze now.  His effortless strength sends butterflies dancing in her stomach, his face so close to hers, too perfect to be looking at this closely.  Her brain’s going to short circuit any moment now; it’s all too much.

“The seems.  We need to make sure you didn’t break anything when you fell.”

“I-I-I’m not that fragile!”  Cullen can’t help the little snort at her comment.  She is precisely that fragile in his mind.  When they pass through the gates, people start staring at them, whispering to each other as the pair pass.

“Commander, th-they’re all staring... please put me down, I swear I’ll be okay.”  But Cullen doesn’t care if they’re staring or not, his only concern at the moment is getting Charlotte help, onlookers be damned.

“Then don’t look.”  With a bolder move than he thought himself capable of, he gently presses Charlotte’s head against his shoulder, her nose lightly brushing his neck with every step he takes as she reluctantly closes her eyes.  Nothing she says is going to stop him from carrying her; she might as well save her breath. 

Charlotte’s gently set onto a cot when they enter the large healer's tent, a very stern looking young man quickly looking over her injury.  A glance at Cullen’s face, worried even though it’s just a sprained ankle, has the healer rolling his eyes.  One simple spell sets everything back to normal but before the healer can send them on their way Charlotte stands and pushes Cullen down onto the cot.

“His back was hurt when he caught me and slammed into the fence post.”

“No, I don’t need any magic, it’ll be fine in a few days.”  Charlotte glances at Cullen confused at his nervous fidgeting.  Before she can demand some sort of treatment for him, a pair of people burst into the tent, the woman very pregnant and seems to be in labor.  The healer tosses a small jar of ointment to Charlotte, barking out instructions before rushing the woman and her husband into the back of the large tent.

For a moment Cullen and Charlotte stand there silently, both of them staring at the small jar held in her hands.

“I can-”

“You-” They both start speaking at once, wide eyes meeting and skittering away, cheeks heating up.  “Go ahead, Miss St. Clair.”

“I can help if you need it.  Unless you don’t, then I’ll-I’ll just leave it here.”  She can’t meet his gaze as she speaks, though truth be told, neither can Cullen. 

“I... thank you...”  His words are just as quiet, and after only a moment's hesitation, he pulls the thin shirt over his head. 

What’s he taking off his shirt for?!  D-does offing to help mean something different here!?  …Wait, no, duh, of course he has to take off his shirt, the wound is ON HIS BACK!  Mistake, mistake, this is a horrible idea, you’re going to make a FOOL of yourself!!  But I can’t back out now; I already said I’d help, HE’S ALREADY TAKEN HIS SHIRT OFF!!

For a couple tense moments, Charlotte argues with herself, slowly forcing herself to sit behind Cullen on the cot.  Her hands, shaky and sweating, are unable to get the tight lid from the jar.  The longer she tries, the more desperate she gets to get it off, only making her clumsy hands less efficient at the job.  Warm fingers gently stop her fumbling, taking the jar from her hands and quickly removing the lid.  With a mumbled thank you, she takes the jar back, waiting for Cullen to turn back around before scooping out a generous amount of the ointment.

“Tell me if it starts to hurt more.”  Charlotte gives the quiet order before rubbing the ointment onto the growing bruise on his back.  Little does she know he can hardly think of his name, much less try and tell her to stop for any reason.  His face burns, body tense as he feels her small hands all over his back.  But as the pain eases so does the tension, soon he finds himself shutting his eyes, just barely leaning back into her touch.  The embarrassment is still there, but quickly it’s becoming nothing more than a tickle in the back of his mind.  

 Charlotte, on the other hand, can still feel the embarrassment keenly. 

Too much, way too much going on right now...  WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!  TOUCHING A SHIRTLESS, HANDSOME-AS-HELL, COMMANDER OF AN ARMY!?  Stop shaking, fingers!  Don’t fuck this up!  Don’t creep him out!

“I-If it starts to hurt again later I can- can help... if you like...”

NO!  What are you doing?!  Stranger danger, stranger danger... and you’re the stranger!  Charlotte Ivy St. Clair, shut your damn mouth and leave the poor man alone!

“I should... um, I mean, thank you, but I think I’ll be alright.”  Charlotte almost sags with relief, trying her very best not to think about the small shard of disappointment that digs into the back of her mind and what it might mean. 

“Yes, alright, s-sounds good.  Well...”  Try as she might, Charlotte can’t get the lid back onto the small jar, and in hindsight, she’ll berate herself for trying to put it back on while some of the ointment still clings to her fingers.  The cap goes flying off, landing on the colorful rug talking up most of the floor.  The blush staining her cheeks can’t get any worse, it’s physically impossible, she’s amazed there’s enough blood left for the rest of her body when so much seems to be making her embarrassment painfully obvious.  Once again warm hands take the jar from her gently before reaching for the cap.  To her embarrassment she can’t silence the tiny whimper that escapes as she watches the man before her stretch out. Before Cullen can even react to the sound he hears, Charlotte is up and dashing out of the tent, not bothering to notice the Commander’s equally red face.

No more interacting with the Commander, you are apparently incapable of handling it.  He’s got enough going on without constantly looking out for you and being harassed by your fumbling attempts at regular human interaction.

Chapter Text

For several moments, Cullen sits on the small cot, oblivious to the sounds of healers working tirelessly around him.  The only thing he can think of at the moment is the soft sound Charlotte made just before running from the tent.  It was barely anything at all, just a tiny whimper, but it keeps playing on repeat in his mind, fueling every thought he keeps locked away.  Thoughts of what she would look like tangled up in sheets and little else.  Thoughts of her glancing up at him through her lashes, her teeth worrying her lip.  Thoughts of every sound he might get her to make if he only had the chance.  Thoughts of how she would look if he-

Cullen jumps to his feet, stuffing the small jar of ointment into a pocket before heading back towards the training grounds.  The setting sun paints the sky a lovely color as it always does, but even that doesn’t distract Cullen from his goal

You are unworthy; you know you are unworthy!  You know you can’t have her, can’t have anyone! 

With angry movements, he grabs his sword from where he left if before, turning to face the training dummies with a fierce expression.  He wastes no time as he starts to decimate them one by one.  Once the sun has fully set, he tears off his shirt, the thin layer too much now that he’s training in earnest.  The only reason he keeps it on while sparing with the recruits is the scars he has.  There are ones he got while chasing apostates, from training; ones from Kirkwall and ones from Kinloch.  Most he doesn’t care about, any warrior worth their salt has scars from practice and real fights.  The scars he cares about are the ones made intentionally, made to cause his as much agony as possible without him losing consciousness.  And it’s all too easy to tell them from the other scars.  They aren’t jagged and rough like where many blades had cut him.  They aren’t chaotic and frenzied like the ones left from desperate mage’s he’d let just a little too close.  They are clean and precise, making cruel patterns across his skin he knows he’ll never forget.

As if anyone would want a broken ex-Templar... 

Cullen doesn’t stop until the training dummies are in pieces on the ground, his chest heaving as he tries to catch his breath.  It’s only once he calms down that he realizes what a bad idea this little outlet for his frustration is.  Not only do they now need to requisition more, but Cullen has to explain that it was, in fact, he that ruined them all in the first place.  With a groan he stomps back to his tent, a fierce headache pounding behind his eyes.

The village of Haven is mostly asleep now, supper having long since finished.  Cullen nods to the last of the wanderers, on their way home or to the tavern for some fun.  He grabs a towel from the chest by his bed, tossing his sweaty shirt haphazardly onto the ground in the same breath.  Maybe a hot bath will relieve some of the tension, should help him relax enough to sleep through the night.

He can only hope.

For once he’s thankful for the clouds in the sky.  The light of the intermittent torches alone sends a spike of pain through his skull; he knows the moons would have been ten times worse.  He presses one hand against the door to the bathhouse, the other coming up to shield his eyes from the light of the fire inside.  When the door abruptly stops he lowers his hand only to frantically run it through his hair a moment later.

He just hit someone with the door.

No, not just someone, Charlotte.

Of all the-!  

He rushes forward to catch her as she sways, her small hand gently rubbing the bright red spot now on her forehead. 

The rational part of his mind says he should probably just make a run for it.  Charlotte would never have to know it was him who hit her with a door, and he’d spare himself the embarrassment of having to own up to it.  Instead, though he pulls her closer, steadying her as she tries to get her bearings again.

“What the...”  She trails off as she opens her eyes, her mouth falling open and eyes going wide as she gets an eyeful of the shirtless Commander.  She squeaks, blood rushing to color her face for an entirely different reason.  Cullen isn’t any better as he tries so hard not to think about her, to think about anything but her. 

He fails.

Charlotte is soft in his arms, just like he knew she would be.  Her gentle curves fill his arms perfectly, and Maker, she smells like heaven to him.  Warm and floral and he never wants to let her go.  She’s shorter than him, but it would be easy- so easy- to lean down and kiss her, pull her closer until the lines between them blurred. 

Maker, is this some kind of punishment?  Did you bring a woman from another world just to torment me?!

Her small hands are soft where they rest on his arms.  She’d put them there to help steady herself, but he finds himself wishing she’ll never let go.  Or better yet, she can use those hands to-

Enough!

 “I- I am so sorry, Miss St. Clair!”  Cullen jerks back, trying to put some distance between them, but there isn’t a whole lot of room to be in.  Most of the building’s space is for two halves of the baths, leaving little for the entrance. 

“I- I- I… um... ah...”  He watches as she stutters, her eyes wandering over him and he feels his heart drop to his feet. 

The scar’s, she can see the scars, she’s disgusted... as she rightly ought to be.  She doesn’t belong with me, and I certainly don’t belong anywhere near her.

“H-have a good night.”  Cullen rushes into the men’s half of the bathhouse, pressing his back into the rough wood of the door.  It’s a long moment before he hears the outside door open and close, and another long moment before he undresses and dunks himself in the hot water.

Relaxation is the furthest thing from his mind as he sits there.  Every other moment his mind drifts back towards Charlotte only for him to scold himself and focus on something else.  He can’t shake her from his head, and with a groan, he dunks under the water again.

Maker, why?

~~~~~

It was supposed to be safe going that late, but it... he... I almost died just looking at him!  It’s unfair, how can he look good, and be kind, and be smart, and be successful, and… UGH!!

The whole way back to her tent- Solas having finally deemed her alright enough to go back to normal- Charlotte very nearly screams.  He’s too perfect, way to god dang perfect, and if she keeps running into him like this, she’s going to explode.

For a brief moment, she wonder’s what it would be like to be the one who gets to stand next to him, to be a part of his life.  She pictures herself standing next to him, and she cringes.  No, he certainly won’t want anything like her when there are people like Cassandra and Linril walking around single. 

The night is long and restless, her inner demons pointing out every flaw, every part of herself she wishes were different, every reason someone like him would never go for someone like her.  It’s no surprise in the morning she feels as shitty as she’s sure she looks.  The past few days Harrit’s let her help him again, searching around Haven and the surrounding lands for any ore other might be able to mine out. A tedious job to be sure, but it beat standing around uselessly while people glare at her.

She’s trudging around the forests outside of Haven near the mountains, failing at her job.  Not a single glitter of iron was anywhere to be seen. 

“Fucking useless... stupid... fuck up... goddamn piece of...”  Charlotte continues to mutter angry names directed at herself, her mood as dark as the ore she’s looking for, and much too preoccupied to hear the shouts of the Herald’s return from the Storm Coast.  She also misses the sound of several people stomping through the woods around her.

In fact, she only realizes that people around surrounding her when a huge monster comes jumping out at her, roaring so loud it nearly shakes her bones before it cuts off with what sounds like an “oh, shit.”  Her responding terror filled scream is just as loud, though she’s cut off for a different reason as she passes out.

Cullen, off training recruits as always, freezes when he hears a loud war cry only to start sprinting when he hears the answering scream.  He knows that scream, that voice, that person, and he’ll be damned if anything else happens to her while she’s here. 

Rylen, the Herald’s, Solas and several soldiers follow just behind them, everyone with various weapons at the ready.  Cullen skids to a stop when he sees a massive Qunari stepping out of the forest with Charlotte in his giant arms. 

“What-” Cullen raises his sword, having forgotten his shield when he ran to get here, but he doesn’t get two steps before Tivvin and Linril run in front of him, stopping him with pleading eyes.

“No, wait, it’s not what it looks like!  Bull is the mercenary we- the Inquisition- just hired.  He’s with us-” Before Tivvin can finish Cullen is stepping forwards, his sword still raised as he interrupts him.

“Then why is Miss St. Clair unconscious?!”  The question is little more than a growl, Cullen’s wrathful gaze firmly set on the Qunari and his men behind him.

“Uh, yeah, that’s my bad.”  Bull, who looks like he could kill a man with his little finger, manages to look abashed as he continues to hold Charlotte.  “You see, me and my boys were gonna catch some nugs for... well, for nug racing tonight in celebration of getting hired.  Thought it’d be good fun, and I was gonna scare them out of hiding while the boys caught them in the chaos but... well, obviously it wasn’t a nug I scared.”

“Wasn’t a- are you serious?!  In response to the question, all Bull can muster is a shrug, Tivvin’s hand on Cullen’s the only thing stopping him from slicing the giant to pieces.

“Honestly, he’s done weirder shit for less.  I’m sure he didn’t mean to scare little Charlotte.”  Tivvin gives Bull a meaningful look, and the giant quickly nods.

“Nope, didn’t mean to at all.”  Even that doesn’t appease Cullen, his sword still aimed for the Qunari’s heart.  It stays there until Charlotte starts to shift in Bull’s arms with a groan.  She opens her eyes only to see the same person who caused her to pass out, to begin with.  With a strangled cry she wiggles her way out of his arms, Cullen and Rylen leaping forwards in time to keep her from hitting the ground too hard.  They try and help her to her feet, but she’s too busy trying to get behind them, behind anything so that’s she’s not face to face with Bull.

“What- what- what- what!?”  Charlotte isn’t sure was to freak out about first; the sear size of the giant before her, his distinctive horns, the menacing tattoo’s covering his massive arms, or the enormous axe strapped to his back.

Solas shifts closer, tapping Cullen on the shoulder as he tries to calm down the frantic woman scrambling to get behind him.

“We never told her about Qunari.”  This time it’s Cullen’s turn to groan.  Her reaction, while exaggerated for just meeting a huge Qunari, makes perfect sense if she’s never seen one before or even knew that they exist. 

“It’s alright, lass, come on, let’s get somewhere else.”  Rylen tugs her away from the crowd, motion for the others to disappears before they drew a bigger crowd.  But Charlotte doesn’t want to turn her back to Bull, not after the way he scared the ever living out of her.  She only cooperates with him when Cullen gently takes her hand in his and tugs her along. 

“You see... it, right?”  Charlotte whispers to Cullen, every so often glancing over her shoulder to make sure Bull isn’t there with his axe ready to take her head off.

“Yes, he... I promise I’ll explain, Miss St. Clair, just let us get someone a little less public.”  Cullen gives her hand a small squeeze, and after a moment of hesitation, Charlotte returns the gesture with a tiny smile. 

Much to her dismay, Bull follows after the trio, waving off the rest of his group and walking next to Tivvin and Linril.  Solas quietly speaks to Linril, trying to convince her to send Bull away.

“He’s Ben-Hassrath, a spy!  He’ll send word home, and then the least of your worries will be the hole in the sky.  We can’t give the Qun any more of a reason to invade!”

“I told this to them, but I guess I’ll repeat it.  Whatever I am, I’m on your side.  The whack-ass magic ripping the sky apart needs to be stopped.”  Bull interrupts them, though his eye stays locked on where Rylen and Cullen are trying to comfort the woman he scared.  “Besides, what’s there to send?  An elven apostate and a skittish woman are hardly report worthy.”  Bull finally turns away, casually eyeing up the angry elf.  Unassuming, quiet, average looking despite the bald head, but his eyes... He’s hiding something; his eyes don’t match the rest of the act he’s putting on.

“It’s because he’s Ben-Hassrath that we need to tell him up front.  He’s going to figure it out eventually.  He looks like a blockhead, but trust me; he sees way more than he ever lets on.”  Tivvin finally breaks in, watching the scene before him unfold with a small grin.  He’s been wondering just how to explain this since they brought Bull on, he just didn’t think he’d have to explain so soon.

“What’s so special about her?”  Bull nods to where Charlotte sits staring at him with wide eyes, flinching as he takes a step closer to sit down at the table. 

“Charlotte, this is The Iron Bull, he’s the leader of a band of mercenaries, The Bull’s Chargers.  He’s here to help the Inquisition, I promise.  He’s a Qunari.”  Linril brushes of Solas’ worries, much to his dismay, and takes a seat next to Bull. 

“He’s a- a demon or a giant Tiefling...”  Charlotte whispers back, still shaking in her seat as the giant studies her.

“Hey, that’s a little uncalled for.”  Bull’s smile does little to put her at ease, quite the opposite in fact. 

“Miss St. Clair, you know there are elves and dwarves here, you have tales about them where you come from, correct?”  Charlotte nods to Cullen’s words and finally manages to turn to meet his gaze.  “There are four races in Thedas, and I’m sorry for not explaining this earlier.  There are humans, elves, dwarves, and Qunari.  Qunari are from farther north, not a lot of them... break from their society, their people.  The few that do mostly stick to themselves or go mad from what I hear.  I know he’s quite large and scary looking, but I promise you he’s just a person, not a demon or a monster here to haunt you.”  Cullen makes sure to glare at Bull as he makes his promise to Charlotte.  And Bull, for his part, gets the message loud and clear. 

You hurt her; I’ll kill you. 

Charlotte takes several long moments to search Cullen’s eyes, making sure she understands what he’s saying.  If Cullen think’s he’s okay, then he has to be, right?  Cullen wouldn’t trick me...  But damn, what the hell?!  Giant guys with horns are just insane! 

“A-alright, I understand.  I- I- um...”  Charlotte takes several deep, steadying breaths before raising her head to look at Bull with as much courage as she can muster.  She’s still shaking, her face is still pale, but her eyes convey the fact that she is trying to be strong, and that’s all that matters.  “I-it’s nice t-to me-meet you, The Iron B-Bull.  I-I’m so-sorry for my reaction earlier.”  Her left-hand squeezes Cullen’s hand with more strength than he thought she possessed as she stretches her right hand across the table to Bull.

“No harm done, I’m sorry for shouting at you.”  Bull’s large hand completely envelopes Charlotte’s much smaller hand, and she doesn’t like it much.  When Cullen holds her hand, it’s comforting to have his hand surround her own, but she can still hold his hand back to some degree.  But with Bull’s hand, it’s barely even a handshake anymore; her hand is just being held in his.  “You must be from pretty far away if you don’t know about Qunari, we’re usually pretty hard to miss.”  He winks at her with a toothy grin, through how Charlotte can tell it’s a wink instead of a blink with his eyepatch on, she’s not entirely sure.  She turns to Cullen, knowing that they wanted her to keep as quiet as possible about Earth, and he reluctantly nods.

“I’m from Tenby Minnesota, in the United States of America, on Earth, in the Milky Way galaxy.” 

“And you got here...?”

“Around the time the Breach was created, shortly after the explosion.”  This time Cullen answers, knowing that Charlotte has a hard time remembering everything from around then.  “She was pulled from another world into this one when the Breach exploded.”

“Huh…”  For a long moment, that single syllable hangs in the air before Bull heaves a huge sigh.  “Magic shits everything up.”  Solas scoffs at him, turning from the rest of them to walk out of the cabin.  They have everything under control for the moment; he has to get back to his studies.

“Are you kidding me?!  It’s amazing!  Do you- do you have any idea how many lives we could save if we had healing magic back home?  You all are lucky beyond belief, and you don’t even know it.  We only have stories we make up about what magic would be like, we can only dream of it.  You guys actually have it and you just... I don’t understand how you can have such negative opinions about it all.”  Cullen looks away, trying hard not to let the memories of every horror he had to live through because of magic.  Instead, he focuses on her words, now loud and sure, no longer timid and stumbling.  She always get’s like this, she’ll defend everyone, anyone, with such passion, but the second she needs protecting, she stops.  She takes it as if she deserves it.  How can she think that?

“I would not waste your breath, Charlotte,”  Solas mutters as he walks away, shaking his head as he goes. 

“What a people person...”  Bull snorts as he stands, ignoring how Charlotte flinches away.  “If it’s all the same to you, me and the boys are going to round up those nugs now.  You two are welcome to come and help if you’re all done saving the world for today.”

“Hell yeah!”  Tivvin rushes out the door, heading to where the rest of the Chargers are waiting, leaving Linril behind in a flash.  She’s been silent since Solas walked out, unsure how to apologize without changing her stance.

“I really am sorry, Charlotte, I didn’t even think about it all until you screamed.  I hope you can forgive me.”  She bows her head slightly, but Charlotte waves her off.

“I-it’s alright, I mean, I c-can hardly expect you guys t-to be able to explain e-everything to me in one go.”  Linril offers a smile in return to Charlotte’s words before leaving after everyone else, Rylen quick on her heels.  Once the door shuts behind them, Charlotte sags with relief, leaning heavily on Cullen’s shoulder.  “... I was so scared...”  She whispers, tears quickly filling her eyes now that she can allow herself to let them go.

“I know...”  It feels as natural as breathing for Cullen to shift her just a bit closer, to wrap his arms around her trembling body as she cries into his mantle.  The gentle passing of his hand across her back is soothing, though it does nothing to stop the waterworks.  “I’m so-”

“Not you too...” 

“I can’t be sorry?”  A small smile greets Charlotte as she pulls back to look at him, and she gives him a watery grin in response.

“Nope, tough luck, buddy.”  Cullen’s low chuckle does wonders for her frazzled nerves, and for a few more minutes she allows herself to relax against him. 

Chapter Text

“Lady St. Clair, do you have a moment?”  Josephine catches Charlotte just before she walks through the main gate, her ever-present clipboard and quill at the ready.

“Um, yes, Ms. Montilyet?  Wait, I mean, Lady Montilyet.”

“Either work, Lady St. Clair, you needn’t worry about such details.  As you may have heard, the people of the Hinterlands are having a small festival of sorts, as thanks to the Heralds and the Inquisition for all their work.  The Heralds will be going, along with most of the inner circle, for several days at most.  The Inquisition needs a positive image among the people if we are going to accomplish anything, this will be a good start.  I was wondering if you perhaps wanted to join them?  You have not gotten to see much of Thedas here and believe me; there are much more pleasant places beyond this frozen wasteland.”  Now and then Charlotte can still hear Josephine complain about the cold through the door of her office, even though it’s now spring in earnest. 

“I, well, I guess so.  I mean, if that’s alright with you all, I’d love to.”

“Excellent!  I shall pass the word along.  They will be leaving tomorrow morning just after sunrise; it shouldn’t take more than a day’s travel to get there.  Master Dennet and his apprentice will see about getting you a horse for the journey.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I really must go talk with Ser Farrin about his use of the Inquisitions forces in his late-night tournaments.”  She’s gone before Charlotte can mention that she’s never really ridden a horse before, small ponies at a petting zoo her only experience and she’s reasonably sure that’s probably not what they’re going to be giving her. 

Maybe I’ll just go and take a look at the horses; they can’t be all that bad… 

With the oddly optimistic thought bouncing around in her head, Charlotte heads off towards the newly refurbished stables.  Master Dennet had done wonders with the supplies given and in little time had made a fully functioning stable with many a mount within.  Charlotte peeks around a corner, making sure no one was busy trying to clean the stalls lest she is roped into it, before stepping into the large building.  She’s not expecting to come face to face with a majestic- if menacing- elk of sorts.  It looks like it belongs in a Tolkien movie exploring an ancient forest more than in some stable.

“H-hello.  You’re q-quite t-the pretty fellow, a-a-aren’t you?”  The creature gives a loud snort and turns its head away, almost hitting Charlotte with its many antlers.  She opens her mouth to keep talking, but all that comes out is a shrill yelp when someone puts their hand on her back.

“You really are as jumpy as they say, yeah?  Thought they must be lyin’ or somethin’.”  The blonde elf Charlotte quickly came to know as Sera stands there, a large grin plastered to her face and a mischievous glint in her eyes.  “He’s not so bad, well for an elf-y Hart, just takes him a while to warm up is all.”  Sera opens the gate to the animal’s stall, its eyes flickering to the strange elf as it squeaks open.

“O-oh, th-that’s cool, b-but I r-really don’t want to-” Charlotte backs away when the massive Hart steps out, another yelp yanked from Charlotte when the creature starts sniffing much to close to her.  It’s not satisfied though, and soon it’s head bumps into Charlotte who keeps backing up.  When the Hart doesn’t give in, Charlotte turns and starts to walk away entirely, her heart pounding loudly when the sound of hooves follows her.  Before she can consider her actions, she starts running, fear’s voice louder in her ear than her own heartbeat. 

And so begins Charlotte’s adventure through Haven with a Hart close on her tale.  Sera’s cackling is heard throughout the town as she follows the pair, nearly losing them when she doubles over in fits of giggles.  It’s not long before every breath burns Charlotte’s lungs, before all the muscles in her body are protesting the continued exercise.  The large Chantry doors come into view, and Charlotte pushes herself the last little bit, squeaking in through a small gap before slamming the door behind her.  She lurches when the Hart bangs into the door and when she can finally manage to look up she is met with the surprised and angry expressions of a great many Chantry sisters, clerics, and townsfolk.

“What is the meaning of this?!”  Chancellor Roderick storms through the crowd, his face already red with anger.  “You dare to interrupt us in the middle of the Chant?!  You dare to mock the Maker?!”  He raises a hand, but that’s as far as he gets.  Cullen, having rushed from his own spot, takes the Chancellors wrist in hand before he can act, his angry growl filling the room.

“You will not lay a finger on her, Chancellor.”  His stern gaze falls to Charlotte.  She had better have a good reason for interrupting, Roderick’s going to demand ridiculous punishment as- Cullen’s mind goes blank as Charlotte once again lurches with the large wooden door.  “Miss St. Clair, what-”

“Deer... pointy antlers… chasing me... help...”  Her plea punches Cullen in the chest, Charlotte’s trembling body and wheezing breaths a testament to how frightened she truly is, how desperate she is for help. 

“Why is it chasing you?”  Cullen doesn’t need to hear her response to know the answer; it comes in the form of cackling right outside the Chantry doors.  “Sera!”  At the roar the cackling stops, replaced by the sound of Sera falling on her ass and then making a run for it.

“...What?”  Charlotte turns to look at the door as if she’d understand what was going on if she stared at the dark wood long enough.  Something’s dangling off the back of Charlotte’s shirt catches Cullen’s attention as she turns, the thing turning out to be several sugar cubes on a string securely pinned to the fabric.  Well, that explains why the Hart chased her, but not why Sera did it.  Surely, she knows what Miss St. Clair is like, Maker knows she get’s frightened by a great deal here as is...

Cullen releases the Chancellors hand, using it instead to steady Charlotte as he unpins Sera’s sugar cubes.  With a motion to get Charlotte to move, Cullen slowly opens the door, offering the treat to the Hart outside who happily chomps down and heads back to the stables.  The Commander holds the pin out to Charlotte in place of an explanation, the small bit of metal resting in her palm harmlessly.  Charlotte barely has time to comprehend what happened before the door is yanked open wide, a furious Leliana filling the space not moments later.  Her frigid gaze snaps to the people filling the Chantry.

“Leave. Us.”  They know exactly how frightening the Left Hand of the Divine can be and don’t need to be told twice.  In record time the faithful filter out of the large room, leaving Charlotte to face the fury of Roderick and Leliana with Cullen.  “I have had quite enough, you have done nothing but cause trouble for the Inquisition.  You create more work than you could ever possibly make up for, it was a mistake to let you roam free in a world you could not be more useless in!”  Her harsh words cut straight to every dark thought Charlotte thinks to herself at night, and even though Leliana’s words echo the feelings, it hurts worse hearing someone else say them.  Charlotte ducks her head down, unable to meet the fierce glare the spymaster is leveling her way.  The pain in her chest intensifies, her throat closing tight around sobs as she tries not to make a sound.

Useless, stupid, worthless, fuckup, of course they hate you.  You’re an idiot for ever thinking otherwise.  You had one job here, and that was to make yourself useful, not useless.  You can’t do anything right, you never could.  They don’t want you; they certainly don’t need you. 

Cullen tries to defend her, but Roderick starts on a rant, and for once Leliana agrees with the man, emphasizing points of his argument with examples of every way Charlotte’s made a mess of Haven.  Every new accusation, every example painted in the worst possible light adds to the guilt Charlotte already carries around daily.  What the pair is shouting at her is nothing new, in fact, Charlotte is quite confident Richard and Denise have told her the same words on countless occasions.  How the wished they hadn’t been saddled with her after her parents died, how she couldn’t even pass the simplest of classes, how she never worked hard enough to earn real money. 

They’re going to kill you. 

Charlotte falls to her knees; fists closed tight around the fabric of her shirt as if it were the reason she can get no more than a gasp of air into her already abused lungs.  Wide eyes flash up to where Roderick and Leliana stand over her, uncaring of her distress, and suddenly Charlotte sees Richard standing there, belt in hand as Denise stands behind him egging him on.  He pulls his arm back, belt held high, the silver buckle glinting in the light. 

Cullen moves to stand between Charlotte and the others, but she doesn’t see him, can’t see him.  He watches in horror as she starts to claw at her throat, using her nails to try and get air into her lungs any way possible.  When her eyes widen further, snapping to something else, Cullen jerks to see what’s scaring her more than what she’s already going through, but he's met with nothing but air.  Her mind is breaking, mixing reality and recollection, and apparently the later is worse than the former, though Cullen can’t imagine how.  His frantic words are lost on her, though if it’s from the noise of those behind him or whatever her mind is playing he doesn’t know.  When he moves closer to the violently shaking woman though, she snaps.

“NO!”

The mangled cry that tears from her throat is barely even recognizable as human, the agony in the single words stopping everyone in their tracks.  Charlotte curls in on herself, as if expecting an attack, her wheezing pants and broken sobs the only sound to follow. 

The answer to that cry is almost immediate, an eerie green light filling the Chantry, the twists of a rift beginning to form above Charlotte.  Cullen can hardly believe his eyes, glancing from the broken woman to the shifting energy in the air.  The demons on the other side of the rift push against the Veil, desperate to find the source of such negative emotions, blind in their pursuit but no less determined to find it.  She’s not connected to the Fade, for her grief and panic to punch through the Veil all on their own and call out to demons is-  The rift crackles with energy as the demons get closer and the sound pulls Cullen and the other from their minds.

“Get the Heralds!”  Cullen orders the Chancellor in his most commanding voice, and for once the man listens, running as fast as his legs can carry him.  Cullen grabs a sword from a nearby table filled with the personal effects of those they lost in taking the Temple, Leliana doing the same with a bow and some arrows.  The weapons aren’t in great shape, but they’re going to have to do.

The first thing Cullen does is physically drag Charlotte away from where the rift is tearing the Veil, his sword aimed at it and ready for anything.  A wraith is the first thing that manages to break through, though Cullen’s blade sends it right back to the Fade.  Charlotte’s sobs are distracting, and he wishes he could listen to her in an attempt to figure out what exactly happened to her before, but he can’t spare her even a single glance.  She and the rest of Haven are relying on him to keep this contained until the Heralds can get here and close it. 

Failure is not an option.

Leliana deals the next few wraiths swift deaths as Cullen cuts down shade after shade, pausing only when a despair demon blasts him with a burst of elemental ice and sends him flying back.  He can feel the chill seeping deeper and deeper into his bones, slowing him down, but he rolls to his feet, warily facing it.  Maker, what I wouldn’t give for a shield.  There were few weapons Cullen didn’t know how to use, but he preferred a sword and shield in real fights, especially against demons.

Charlotte’s shrieks rival the demons’ and show no signs of stopping.  Richard and Denise stand above her screaming, the belt coming down and beating against her.  Her mind spins out of control, replaying every beating she ever received in vivid clarity. 

The door slams open, the Heralds rushing in with backup.  Suddenly the Chantry is filled with the sound of fighting; Bull’s loud war cry echoes off the walls, magic from Solas and Vivienne racing through the air and crashing into demons.  Linril and Tivvin do their usual dance, the pair killing seamlessly together as they work their way close enough to the rift to close it.  Varric takes Cullen’s place in front of Charlotte, any demon foolish enough to make even a step in their direction gets a bolt from Bianca in the face.  Sera has somehow managed to get herself up into the rafters and rains down arrows with deadly accuracy.  Cassandra is at the entrance of the Chantry, commanding the soldiers and making sure not a single demon makes it past them and into the heart of Haven. 

Solas manages to fight his way through the mass of demons pouring through the rift to Cullen, the both of them covered in Maker knows what from the dying and dead demons.

“What happened?!”

“Charlotte was scared, a Hart-” A terror demon takes a swipe at the pair only to have Solas freeze it solid and Cullen to smash it with a swift downward slash.  “Sera got a Hart to chase her through Haven.  Disrupted the Chantry service.  Chancellor and Leliana started yelling at her, and she just broke.  I didn’t think- because she’s not connected to the Fade- but she somehow... and then the rift opened.” 

Solas glances back at the woman who was still curled in on herself, still clawing at her throat to try and breath, still screeching at something to stop, to go away.  She begs for her life; her voice far from human after all the suffocating and shrieking.  The mage can only imagine what all she holds within herself on a daily basis for her to become like this when she cracks. 

The demons are drawn to Charlotte’s anguish; the fact that it’s completely free of the Fade only makes them fight harder.  Solas purposefully walks to where she lays and hastily casts a spell, Charlotte’s strange barrier fighting it for just a moment.  Unconsciousness finds its way to her and as she passes out the demon’s flounder furiously at the lost source.  Using the distraction to their advantage, everyone makes one last push to finish the fight.  The rift easily closes once Linril and Tivvin get to it.  There is a brief moment of silence as Cassandra shoos the soldiers away, so the rest of them can have a somewhat impromptu meeting. 

Cullen can’t even catch his breath before Leliana spins on her heel, an arrow already knocked on her bow and aimed at Charlotte’s neck.

“Don’t!”  Just before Leliana releases the killing blow, Cullen dives between them, sliding into place as he slips on what remains of the demons.

“She caused a rift to open in the Chantry, she’s-”

“You pushed her into this state; you broke her!  Don’t act like none of the blame is on your shoulders.” 

“If she is so easily broken by words then she has no right to-”

“Enough!  What fucking happened here?!”  Tivvin breaks into the conversation quickly, the usually cheerful elf scowling at the two advisors. 

“Lady St. Clair has been nothing but trouble in Haven, and her outburst today caused the rift we just dealt with.  She is too dangerous to keep here, and certainly too dangerous to let wander Fereldan.”  Leliana’s tone is dark, and it’s clear to everyone, even if she wasn’t holding a bow aim at Charlotte, that ‘dealt with’ means death.  Everyone’s eyes stray from Leliana to Charlotte.  Every one of them has been the victim of her clumsiness at one point or other, and they all know she usually makes a mess of the jobs she’s given.

“You’ll have to kill me first.”  Cullen almost snarls at her, golden eyes blazing with fury.  “Sera played a prank on Charlotte, tied sugar cubes to the back of her shirt and let a Hart chase her around Haven.  Charlotte was terrified when she interrupted the service here.  Roderick and Leliana then proceeded to yell and scream at her, tearing her down piece by piece until she finally broke.  She was hallucinating by the end of it, cowering from something that wasn’t even there but was somehow more frightening than the utterly vile treatment she was already receiving.  That, Heralds, is when the rift opened.”

“What happened here?!”  Josephine’s shocked words echo in the silence left after Cullen’s explanation.  “Is Lady St. Clair alright?  Oh dear, what happened to her throat?”  The ambassador rushes forwards; clipboard clutched tightly to her chest as she get’s a closer look.  Everyone steps up to see what she’s talking about.  Blood covers her neck, Charlotte’s blunt nails having gouged out chunks of her own skin in attempts to breathe. Solas curses and quickly falls to his knees to start healing her.  

“Step away, Solas.”  The look the mage gives the Spymaster is filled with as much rage as Cullen’s.  “She-”

“That’s enough Leliana; no one's going to start killing innocent people on my watch.”  Linril sits next to Solas on the mucky floor, quietly asking Solas if she can do anything to help.  When Tivvin follows with Bull and Varric taking places beside the unconscious woman as well, Leliana nearly snaps the bow in her grip.

“You will regret this, Heralds.”  Without another glance at Charlotte, the spymaster leaves the Chantry, her icy glare stopping anyone who might try to talk to her.

“And she was so excited about joining you all in the Hinterlands...” 

“She still can, Josie, if anything, we should take her away from here now more than ever.  I honestly wouldn’t put it past Leliana to set up some ‘tragic’ accident for her at this point.”

“Surely not!”  Josephine’s hand flies to cover her mouth, and as she fights against such an idea, she has to admit she’s never see Leliana so furious save for when the Divine was killed.  “Well... Alright, I’ll get a cart ready for your trip as well, that way she can rest at least while traveling.  I’m afraid it won’t be very fancy, or comfortable, but it is better than nothing and the best I can do in only a day.

“Thank you, Lady Montilyet.”  Cullen’s quiet in his response, his eyes now locked on where Solas tries to heal Charlotte.  He had been unsure whether or not to join the Heralds in the Hinterlands despite the invitation.  Now, though, he knows without a doubt that’s where he’s going.  Rylen and the others can handle training for a while, Cullen would be next to useless anyways trying to train recruits while he constantly worries about Charlotte off in a foreign land.

Chapter Text

Charlotte’s body uncomfortably bouncing is what wakes her after nearly half a day of unconsciousness.  When she opens her eyes, she’s met with the sight of Solas leaning over her, intently muttering words Charlotte has no hope of understanding. 

“We’ve got to stop meeting like this...”  Her throat is sore, and every word hurts, but she can’t help a small smile as his head pops up.  Blue eyes meet brown, and Solas nearly falls over he’s so relieved.

“You will hear no argument from me, Charlotte.  How... how are you feeling?”

“Alright I guess, my throat is kind of sore, I hope I’m not getting sick.”

“Beyond that, though, everything else is good?”

“I mean, I think?  Where am I?  I don’t remember getting into a carriage... or going to sleep... or anything after walking towards the stables...  S-Solas, what happened?”  Panic slowly starts to rise in her chest, the absence of memories and the fear of not knowing suddenly as fresh as it was when she first arrived in Thedas.

“Nothing!  No, not really nothing, but until you are truly better, I’d rather not try and dig it up.”  As Solas watches Charlotte start to freak out, he quickly tacks on a, “I’ll explain it soon, I promise.”  A wave of magic washes over her and in an instant, she feels more relaxed. 

“A-alright, that seems... fair I suppose.  I’ll agree if you can bottle up that magic for me.  That’s the kinda stuff I need on a daily basis.”

“Hey, Elven Glory!  Whatcha blabbering all that nonsense for earlier?”  Sera, begrudgingly brought on the trip to the Hinterlands to meet with some Red Jenny contact, keeps her distance from the cart as much as she can.  But she can’t keep it in any longer watching Solas’ “weird whispery elfy nonsense.”

“Nothing you need concern yourself with.”  Solas’ tone is clipped, he- and a great many of the others- are still upset about what she did to Charlotte, knowing full well what her reaction to such a prank would be.

“I do so!  You’re doin’ bad magic near me; I’ve a right to know what it’s gonna do!” 

“Sera, leave him alone, he’s not doing anything bad.  He’s healing Charlotte, and you know it!”  Tivvin calls back, stopping Varric in the middle of an entertaining story from Kirkwall, only to have Sera urge her mount to the front to get in his face.

“I do not ‘know it!’  No other mage mumbles shite like that when they heal!  He could be- well, I don’t know!  Magic stuff’s all bad, best to not do it at all.”

“Enough.”  Cullen’s voice ends the conversation.  He’s said only a select few words to the elf, and none of them showed any sign of future forgiveness or even a tense state of ceasefire.  Every time he sees Sera all he can picture is the claw marks on Charlotte’s neck or hear her screams echoing through the Chantry.  He stayed with Charlotte through the night again, Solas and Linril joining him in his vigil.  Throughout their entire journey Cullen’s eyes flash to Charlotte on a regular basis, and while he usually prefers to be at the head of groups leading them, he’s taken up position near the carriage to ease his worry... if only just a little. 

When she woke, he was expecting more screaming and crying, still in shock over what happened.  Instead, he finds her sitting up and glancing around, her eyes eventually landing on him.  For a fraction of a moment, their eyes meet only for both of them to skitter away, a blush coloring both their faces. 

“H-hello, Commander.”  Cullen gives her a nod, though doesn’t dare to look in her direction.

“Miss St. Clair.”

“Well, aren’t you to just ado-” Cullen grabs Varric’s arm in a vice-like grip before he can finish the sentence.  “Now Curly, it’s better to be honest-”

“A word.”  It’s not a question though, and Cullen waits for no answer before dragging Varric to the front where Iron Bull and his Chargers are leading.  Charlotte glances at the pair as they ride away, mentally kicking herself for stuttering again.  He must already think you’re stupid, why do you keep making it worse?!

Try as she might she can’t stop herself from continuing to glance at the pair while they have a heated conversation.  Or, more accurately, Cullen talks to Varric with a fierce expression while Varric flat out laughs in Cullen’s face.  Meanwhile, Solas continues to flood her with wave after wave of healing magic, hoping to keep whatever is letting her forget work for just a while longer.  Her neck has long since healed, Solas is just afraid that if she’s not giving enough time to recover from the snap in her mind, she might not come back after another.  At Charlotte’s loud gasp, Solas’ heart drops to his stomach.

“What’s wrong?!” 

“I can see!”  Solas’ head tilts to the side, unsure of which of the many questions bubbling up to his attention he should ask first. 

“You’ve always been able to see, haven’t you?”

“Yes, but I mean- before it was all blurry, without my glasses that is.  But now it’s clear!  What did you do?!”  She turns to him, grabbing his shoulders to pull him closer.

“I’ve just been healing you.”  Almost continuously since the accident with the help of lyrium.  He leaves the last part out, knowing it will only make her feel guilty about being a burden and causing trouble again.

“Seriously, what people on Earth wouldn’t give to have even a fraction of the magic that you guys have here...”

“Your world has greatness of its own, many here would be desperate to get their hands on such weapons as you’ve described.  Or the vast amount of technology.”

“Yeah, but people here will get there eventually through science and inventions.  There is no way to invent proper magic into Earth.”  Charlotte and Solas continue to debate about the basis of magic, whether or not Earth has some form of it if the Fade can suck her in and bring her to Thedas.  As they debate, Charlotte takes in the surrounding as they steadily change from the foothills of mountains into dense green forests straight out of a movie set.

The farther they get from Haven, the more nervous Charlotte feels.  She’s heard of the unrest in the world; she’s eavesdropped in on the horror stories of rogue mages and Templars going wild and killing anyone and everyone.  And while having the rest of the party with her is comforting, she can’t shake the feeling that she shouldn’t have left Haven after all. 

Despite her fears, though, the day goes smoothly, and as they set up camp for the night, the mood is immensely cheerful between Varric’s stories, Tivvin’s endless jokes with Sera, and Bull’s merry band.  Charlotte watches on from her little cot in the cart, having decided to sleep under the start since the weather was good.  It also means nobody has to waste time setting up a tent for her.  She knows this trip is going to be mostly her mooching off everyone else, so the less they have to do for her, the better.

“You can join them at the fire; I’m sure they won’t mind.”  Cullen, having finally worked up the nerve to talk to her, breaks Charlotte from her people watching.  He offers her a rough wooden plate with some sort of cooked meat piled high.

“Well, y-yeah, I could, but I don’t, I mean, I- I realize I’m not super important, so it’s not like they’ll pay me much mind, but I didn’t want to distract from their fun with m-my presence.”  She takes a long pause before hitting her forehead against the short wall of the cart.  “That makes it sound like I think a lot of myself, but that could not be farther from the truth, I swear!” 

“I understand, Miss St. Clair, really.  I, um, that’s why I’m over here too, actually.  No soldier can unwind with his commanding officer across from him.”  Cullen tries to laugh, his hand anxiously rubbing the back of his neck.

Silence hangs heavy in the air between them after that.  Neither looks up from the ground, both of them convinced that the other surely wouldn’t want to listen to what they have to say.  As the group around the fire grows louder, the awkwardness between the pair intensifies. 

Say something, ANYTHING!! You're being weird again; you need to freaking stop because come on man!  He’s taking pity on you, bringing you food and talking with you; you could at least thank him for his efforts by having a normal conversation with him!

“Charlotte!”  Her name bursts from her lips before she can think about how mental it sounds to start shouting one's name.

“…I’m sorry?”

“Y-you can call m-me Charlotte if you want.  I mean, Miss St. Clair was what everyone called m-my mother, so it feels kinda weird, you know?  But if, um, if you’d rather call me that, that’s fine too!”  Charlotte’s voice is high and thready as she stumbles her way through an explanation, blood rushing so quickly to stain her cheeks it’s a wonder she hasn’t passed out.

“Oh, yes, of course, um, you too.”  This time it’s Cullen who blushes and rushes to continue.  “I mean, you too can call me by my name, if you want to.”

“Okay... Cullen.” 

Oh, this is wrong, you shouldn’t call him that!  He probably meant you could call him Ser Rutherford or like Commander Rutherford, not Cullen.  God, what are you thinking!?

“Right, good, um, you really should eat something, you didn’t eat much for lunch.  I’m sorry, I’m not trying to-”

“T-Thank you, for the food.”

“You’re welcome… Charlotte.”  She just about melts on the spot, hitting her forehead against the wall of the cart once again.  “Charlotte is something wrong?”  It’s too much, hearing him say my name all quiet and gentle like.  Why does he get a pleasant voice on top of everything else God blessed him with?

“Nope.”  It’s barely even a word, the squeak Charlotte makes almost painful to hear.  “Fine, just dandy.  Do you know what exactly this is?”  She motions to the meat on the plate making sure not to meet Cullen’s eyes.

“No, does it matter?”

“I mean, no, it doesn’t, just curious.  I don’t want to dig in, and all of a sudden hear that I’m eating Tod.”

“We aren’t going to feed you people!”

“No, no, no, I know that, that’s not- Tod’s a fox from a movie, a story, and he makes friends with a dog- not that that’s important right now- and I know not all foxes are Tod because, you know, he’s not real, but I’m just...  Never mind, humor has never been my thing."

Dumbass, of course, he’s going to think of a human when you say Tod, most people even from Earth would.  No one here is going to know Fox and the Hound or Anastasia or Lilo and Stitch or Winnie the Pooh, not a single Disney song in sight.  He probably thinks everyone on Earth is a crazy cannibal now...

Cullen watches as she picks at the meat, never taking a single bite as her expression steadily darkens.  So, as he’s unsure what he can do to make her feel better, he reaches over and grabs a bite, chewing slowly as he thinks.

“It tastes like fennec... I think.  It’s not so bad with the seasonings the Heralds use.”  Reluctantly Charlotte tries a bite, not wanting to seem rude for turning her nose up at the meal. 

“Tastes like chicken.”

“It does not.”  Cullen snorts out a laugh, taking another bite from her plate. 

“It does so!  Then again, frog legs taste like chicken too, so I guess that’s not really a whole lot of help.”  The food Cullen is chewing almost gets coughed up into his lap.

“You eat frog legs?!”

“No, at least I’ve never had them.  But that’s what everyone says back home.  Everything tastes like chicken; that includes frogs, though I have no idea how you can confuse the two.  I feel like its more of a rich person kinda thing, but I don’t know.  I can give a critique on a McDonalds- or a great many other fast food joints- you’re on your own for frog legs and caviar.”

“It does sound like a very Orlesian thing to eat.”

“Orlesian’s sound gross.”  Charlotte grumbles as she tries to finish what’s on her plate.

“You have no idea, Charlotte, no idea at all.”  Once again his quiet laughter calms her nerves, and she enjoys the rest of the makeshift meal in comfortable silence.

~~~~~

That night Charlotte wakes with a start, her heart racing, a cold sweat covering her shaking body, her panting breaths seem loud in the dead silence of the night.  Nothing comes to mind as she tries to recall what her nightmare was about, not even a hint of some traumatic experience or hellish dreamscape linger.

“Charlotte?”  Unsurprisingly she starts when Cullen’s head pop up from the side of the cart.  He’s been keeping watch for several hours, knowing that sleep was going to elude him anyways.  The others might as well catch up on some rest; there’s no need for everyone to be dead tired in the morning.

“Cullen!  I- I can’t remember.  Why can’t I remember?”  Tears stain her face as she turns to him, the wet trails highlighted by the dying light of the fire.  Cullen is up off his makeshift seat in a heartbeat, nearly vaulting himself over the side of the cart to sit next to her. 

“It’s okay; it’s going to be okay.”  Cullen doesn’t even question it when he opens his arms, and Charlotte rushes to fill them.  He holds her as she sobs as quietly as she can manage, babbling about not remembering the entire time.  “Maybe it’s a blessing from the Maker that you can’t remember, I know I wish I could forget the nightmares that plague my every dream.”

“But I can’t ignore it if I don’t know!  W-with everything else, I just sh-shove it down and forget about it; I kn-know it’s there but I know I d-don’t have to deal with it.  Can’t d-do that if I don’t know!”  In his head, Cullen debates his next words.  He can assure her that everything is going to be fine until he’s blue in the face, but that doesn’t mean that it will be.  On the other hand, he can ask what all she hides, let her release what looks to be a lot of tension, and hope that she doesn’t snap again. 

Neither of those is really any good right now...  Maker’s breath, I’m not trained for this!  Training foolish recruits and planning attacks is my area of expertise, comforting beautiful crying women is something so far from that it’s almost laughable!

“You need to rest, Charlotte.  I know,” He sighs as he fishes for the right words. “I know it’s scary to think about what you might see when you close your eyes, but it’s not real, and it can’t hurt you anymore.  You’re safe here; you’re safe with me.  I promise.” 

“I know.”  Her quick answer stills his hands as they gently rub her back.  Cullen’s promise is enough for Charlotte, at least for now, because not moments later does she drift back to sleep, her arms tight around Cullen.

She trusts me...  She trusts me!  How in the world did that happen?  I’ve done nothing but bumble and blush since I met her, I haven’t been able to keep her safe in Haven, I’m a monster for crying out loud!  But she says she trusts me, she asleep in my arms...

He can’t wrap his mind around the idea of her- or anyone really- trusting him so entirely like this.  Sure, they trust him to run an army or swing a sword, but that’s the extent of it in most cases.  Most people have at least heard of his time at Kirkwall, and whether they look up to him for what happened there and his anger towards mages or curse him to the void for letting things get so bad matters little.  Regardless of what they think of him personally, they know that he can command men and lead an army, they know that because that’s what he’s shown himself to be capable of.  He’s never proven himself good at giving advice in relationships, comforting the lost and depressed, and certainly not in dealing with the opposite sex.  But here he is with- hands down!- the most easily scared woman he’s ever met completely at ease in his arms despite having woken from a nightmare moments before.

“I’ll take the next watch.”  Bull’s speaks softly so as not to startle the pair, taking up Cullen’s previous seat without waiting for an answer.  And Cullen knows he should let Charlotte go and sleep in his tent, that it would be far beyond improper to just sleep here with her, but he can’t find it within himself to move.  Not because he doesn’t want to chance waking Charlotte, though that does cross his mind.  It’s more that it feels so utterly right to be here comforting her that he can’t bear to move a muscle. 

“I will keep you safe,”  Cullen whispers his solemn vow as he presses the lightest of kisses to the top of her head, his heart nearly singing when she mumbles something and snuggles that much closer to him.  Given his current position propped against the side of the cart with a woman curled up in his arms, he assumes sleep will be hard to come by, but as he matches his breaths to hers and relaxes, it overtakes his exhausted mind with ease.

Chapter Text

“Don’t you dare wake them up!”  Linril whispers harshly to Sera, the loud elf barely containing her snorting laughter.  “I’m serious Sera, leave them be!   They can rest for a while longer; we don’t need to leave just yet.” 

They mean well, but from the first whisper, Charlotte’s been awake.  Awake, but more than a little confused and incredibly afraid to open her eyes.  She can feel warm arms around her, and a slow, steady heartbeat beneath her ear, but she can’t for the life of her think of who she might be cuddling with or why.  She’s heard Linril’s voice along with Sera, Varric, and Tivvin, which left Bull, Solas, any number of scouts and soldiers, and of course, Cullen.  None of which would want to sleep with her, so back her mind goes through the list, wondering if she forgot someone or if maybe this was still all just a dream.

It takes her a moment, but eventually, she realizes the heartbeat she’s been hearing is speeding up, nearly racing in the chest of whoever she’s with.  Their body is tense, arms shifting from holding her tighter to almost letting go and back, the calm breaths having come to a halt as whoever it is holds their breath. 

They’re awake!!  Shit, shit, shit, shit!  Okay, so either you open your eyes and apologize first, or you wait for them to wake you up and feign surprise at the position… is it feigning surprise if I really have no idea what’s going on?  I mean, I know someone’s here, so that’s not a surprise, but the rest of it- THIS IS NOT IMPORTANT RIGHT NOW!!

“Makers breath.”  It takes everything Charlotte has to keep faking sleep and not jump up screaming like a lunatic.  

No, no, no, please, anybody but him!

Ever so slowly Cullen starts to shift Charlotte, so she’s laying back on her makeshift bed, taking a moment to calm himself before gently shaking her shoulder.  Charlotte tries to stretch and whatnot as convincingly as she can, all while trying to banish the fierce blush working its way from her neck up to the tips of her ears.

“G-good morning, Cullen.”  She makes the mistake of looking up at him, her words catching in her throat as she takes in his sleep-rumpled appearance.  His cheeks are more stubbly than usual, his hair a mass of messy golden curls, and seeing him out of his armor is almost too much for her to take.

“Good morning, Charlotte.  You slept better I take it?” 

“Y-yes I did, th-th-thank you.”  She can barely remember waking up that night, but it doesn’t really surprise her.  Nightmares are nothing new.  Waking up snuggled into the arms of easily the most handsome man she's ever known, now that was new.

“Good, that’s… good.  Well, I should really...” he motions over to his tent, wondering what he could have possibly said to make her blush so much.  “We’re going to do some scouting today, and if all looks good we’ll probably just stay here for our visit, keep out from under their feet.  People need to know that it’s not just the Heralds that can help, but the rest of the Inquisitions forces as well.” In a flurry of activity, the camp is quickly emptied of most of its people, leaving Charlotte to borrow Linril’s shared tent with Cassandra and Sera to change.  She nearly screams when she steps back out to find Bull sitting close by waiting for her.  Charlotte is still very much unsure of how to act around the giant, much less how to treat him without seeming like a frightened nug.

“Just wanted to talk, don’t worry.” 

His tone is quiet, though he leaves no room for argument.  Trying not to wince, Charlotte sits down, twisting to attempt to meet his eye.  Something about his serious demeanor makes Charlotte suspect she isn’t going to like where this conversation went.  Though to be fair, she isn’t sure she's really “enjoyed” any conversation with him so far.  No matter how much she tells herself not to be afraid, to not be rude and treat him as if a he's monster like a great many others in Haven do, it just never does the trick.  Each time she flinches away, each time she sees his eye jump to her shaking hands or nervously tapping feet she feels guilt punch her in the chest.

“You act like this back home?”  For a moment Charlotte just sits there staring at him.  This is certainly not the line of questioning she thought she was going to get.

“I’m sorry, what?”

“All hesitant and mousy, making sure you make everyone happy regardless of yourself.” 

“I- yeah, I was.  Why?”  Defensiveness rose up within her, who is he to judge her, after all?  He’s known her for maybe a month if that, what gives him the right to bring this up?

“Did it work for you?”  He pointedly ignores the defensive tone, calmly continuing his line of questioning, carefully watching her body language as it goes from scared and closed off towards angry, doing his best to push it farther and farther into angry with every word.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Exactly that.  Did acting this way work for you?”

“I’m alive, aren’t I?”  Charlotte crosses her arms over her chest, feeling more like a child throwing a tantrum and an adult defending herself.  Bull grunts in response, his mouth lifting a fraction of an inch as he stares at her.  “What’s that supposed to mean, huh?  You don’t even know me-”

“I just thought that if you’ve got a fresh start free from your past life that you should take advantage of it.  But you aren’t.  You’re living just as you always have when it clearly hasn’t been doing you any favors.”  He states it so plainly, not with anger or disappointment, but as if he were merely discussing the weather with her.  “You’re alive, sure, but there is a big difference between living and surviving.” 

“I know that!”  She snaps before her eyes go wide.  Charlotte slaps her hands over her mouth as if it could take back her words.  “I’m sor-”

“No, I don’t think you do.  You seem to be fine stuck like this when it’s slowly killing you from the inside out.  You’re fine with whatever people do to you, say to you, push you into becoming.  You don’t care so long as you live.”  Her fear is forgotten as anger rears its ugly head again.

“I don’t know about you, but I happen to like living!”

“I’m not saying it’s a bad way to think when shit’s going down, you do what you’ve gotta do to make it through, but then you stop.”

“What do you know about it?!  You're not a doctor!”

“No, I’m Ben-Hassrath.  It’s my job to read people like you, people who can be broken and reshaped to anyone’s will.  People like you are a problem for the Qun, a problem for me, a problem for the Inquisition.”  He can see the pain as clear as day in her eyes, her anger fizzling in the face of anxiety, so he continues to push.  “That’s how traitors enter ranks.  They don’t start out a traitor, but when they want safety or power or money, they bend themselves to fit whatever role they need to get it.  In cases with people like you, other people do the bending, and you go along with it because that’s all you’ve ever done.”

“How dare you call me a traitor!  I’ve- I’ve never done something like that, not ever!  I’m not like this because I want to manipulate people, or because I want power, or because I want to be some pathetic pushover!  But this is how I am; I can’t- I can’t change how I am, what I am.”

“You can, it happens all the time, and that’s not even talking about the re-educators my people have-”

“No, you don’t understand!  I can’t change- I can’t deal with it, I can’t...  I can’t relive it all in the hopes that something will change this time around.  I’m alive, that’s enough, more than enough, it’s fine.”  He watches as she digs her nails into her thighs in an attempt to distract herself. 

“This is fine?”

This is because you brought it all up!”

“No, this has been there for a long time, simmering just under the surface of your mind.  You’re angry about what’s happened to you, and you should be, but it’s never going to leave if you don’t let it out and work through the shit.”

“What do you even want?!”  Tears burn as the run down her cheeks, her arms thrown wide as she almost screams at Bull.

“I want to help you because you could be so much more.”  Bull is a little surprised when an unhinged giggle is what his good intent it met with. 

“You want to help me?  You can’t; nothing can help me.  You want me to get angry?  What good is that going to do?!”

“What good is holding it in doing?”

“I don’t have to suffer through it if it’s buried!”

“Yes you do, you’re lying if you say it doesn’t keep you up at night or eat away at you every time you shove it back down.”

“Fine!  You want to hear about how my parents died when I was just a kid?  You want to hear about how my foster parents were the worst?    The nights they locked me in the basement?  The things they made me do so that I could eat?  You want to know about how I could never make friends because I was such a pushover?  How they hated that I never cared about what happened to me?  How I would work myself to the bone just to avoid having to deal with people because I didn’t want to be a burden to them like I was to everyone else?  You want to hear about the physical abuse?  How badly it hurt?   How I was so confused because I didn’t- I didn’t do anything bad!  They would flip between indifference and anger so fast even if I did nothing.  And it wasn’t fair!  Dammit, it wasn’t fair or right, but that’s what I was stuck with, so I dealt with it the only way a kid knows how, and I ignored it, I blamed myself for everything because clearly, I must have done something.  And I know I didn’t- I know!- but the feelings never go away, the thought that maybe I did do something wrong, maybe I was bad, maybe I did deserve every beating I got… It never goes away!  As an adult, I know it had nothing to do with me and everything to do with them, but it was easier just to take the blame, easier to take the pain and move on than fight it.  It seeped into every aspect of my life, and people just went with it.  The assignment the class was assigned didn’t get done?  Charlotte fucked up.  The computers aren’t letting anybody punch in?  Charlotte fucked up.  It’s raining?  Charlotte fucked up.  And they’re wrong!  I know they’re wrong, but it doesn’t help.  It doesn’t stop the pain; it doesn’t change anything, so what fucking good is me getting angry and ranting about it going to do!?”

“Because you need to deal with it before it poisons you from the inside out.  Not all in one go, not in a day, but piece by piece you need to work through this.  You deserve as much of a chance to be happy as anyone else.”

“How?”  Her voice cracks as she raises her head to meet his calm gaze with desperation.  “How do you fix shit like that?  It’s- it’s broken me, I’m broken.  T-there’s no coming back from this stuff...”

“Piece by piece.  I’m not going to lie, it’s going to suck, it’s going to be uncomfortable and painful.  You’ve got to relive it all, you’ve got to get angry, and you’ve got to let it go, let their mistakes and problems be theirs.  You don’t need to hold all this on your shoulders.” 

“What if I can’t?”

“What if you can?  Wouldn’t you want to live a life free from this shit?”

“It’s safer if I-”

“It’s killing you, how’s that safer?”

“But I don’t know how...”

“That’s what I’m here for; the know-how and the shove to get you started.”

“Why?  Why do you care?  What did I ever do to you to warrant this?”

“You tried to shake my hand despite being terrified of me.  You’ve got the spine for this; you just need to learn to use it for yourself and not just for everyone else.  I’ve been thinking about how to piss you off for a while now.  It just seemed like as good a time to start as any.”

 ~~~~~

For the next several hours Charlotte pours out her life’s story for Bull, more than a little unsettled just how easy it is for her to spill all the secrets she’s dedicated her life never to give away.  She told him of the good times with her parents, the bad times with her foster parents; she spoke of the few friends she’d made but always felt too awkward around to share her feelings with, of the parts of her jobs that she loved and hated.  He offers his advice when he needs to, stopping her when she starts to take the blame and working out who the responsibility really ought to go to.  Just like he said, it hurts, it feels like hell going through everything again.  And although she would have a hell of a time admitting it, she does feel better after sharing the burden she’s been shouldering for years.

By the time the others return Charlotte is exhausted despite having done little to no physical labor.  When Solas sees the state, she’s in he rushes over, healing magic at the ready for her along with a glare for Bull.  That glare is quickly adopted by Cullen who floats around the edge of the scene, equal parts angry and curious as to what happened while they were gone.  He never get’s the chance to ask though, the rest of the day and the following is filled with nothing but reports, training, and inspections of the Inquisitions forces outside of Haven. 

The next time he sees her is when their whole party is headed towards the Crossroads for the celebration Josephine was so keen on getting them to attend.  He’s happy to see her looking better than she has in days and awkwardly tries to include her in random conversations so that he can hear her voice.  Cullen seems to lose all ability to hold a conversation when it comes to her though, and on more than on occasion, he’s nearly facepalmed at the foolishness that leaves his lips. 

When the road gets steep as it heads down a hill, Cullen offers her his hand, not really expecting her to take it.  When she does, he curses the fact that he wore his gloves again.  They’re both red in the face as they walk, almost slide, their way down the hill, hanging near the back of their group because of their pace.  Both are beyond grateful for that though, knowing how stupid they looked tightly holding hands while doing their damnedest to not look at each other.  Once the people in front of them begin to take notice, they quickly let go as if burned.

“Come Charlotte, let’s look at what the merchants here have.  Surely it’s a better selection then what you see in Haven.”  Solas tugs Charlotte away towards the many merchants that have come to the Crossroads in hopes that they can pick up some good business from the Inquisition as they stay.  And they’re not disappointed.  Between Tivvin’s money burning a hole in his pocket, and Cullen’s orders for the army, they get more sales in a day than they usually do in a month.  Charlotte mindlessly sifts through goods laid out on a table while Solas barters for a better price on some books.  Her hands stop over a dark blue dress, timidly holding it up for inspection. 

The fabric is more delicate than anything she currently owns, the dark blue soft under her fingers instead of the rough, scratchy feel she’s almost gotten used to.  The shorter sleeves are perfect for the warm weather, and with a nice pair of shoes, it probably wouldn’t look so bad.  Still, when the merchant pauses from his cyclical argument about prices with Solas to bring up the cost of the dress, Charlotte immediately sets it back on the table.  The merchant though, is very persistent, trying to badger her into buying it.  It takes everything she has to meet the man's gaze, and to her surprise words fall out of her mouth.

“I really don’t need the dress.”  Apologizing and buy the dress is what she wants to do, what will make the horrible anxiety in her chest go away, but as Bull said, she needs to use what little spine she has for herself sometimes too.  When the merchant starts to get angry, Charlotte’s hands latch onto the back of Solas’ coat as she hides behind him.  “I s-said n-n-no.”  With a stealthy flick of the wrist Solas sends a gust of air from behind the man, knocking over several crates filled with goods, and using the distraction to their benefit, the pair makes a quick getaway.

“I’m impressed, Charlotte.”  Solas’ soft voice is comforting, and as he slowly leads her away, she tries to crush the feelings of anxiety and doubt about what she just did. 

It’s not working yet, but in time she hopes it’ll feel more like a knife to the hand instead of a bazooka to the chest.

Chapter Text

 “Thank you, Solas; I’ll pass the note along to Josephine about the merchant.”  Cullen knows that going and tearing the merchant apart- either verbally or physically, he isn’t picky- isn’t going to help anything, but he can’t deny how badly he wants to.  She hasn’t stopped pacing since they got back, but Cullen doesn’t know what he can do to make her calm down.  The few times he’s ventured closer to her all he could make out was her frantically mumbling to herself about the man’s ruined livelihood. 

“You could try showing her around the rest of here.  She could do with a distraction.” Somehow Bull, with his massive frame, manages to sneak up on Cullen as he watches Charlotte pace.  It takes every bit of his strength not to turn around and hit the giant for startling him out of his thoughts. 

“Maybe Solas or the Heralds can take her; she wouldn’t want-”

“Oh, I think you’d be surprised by what she wants.”  Cullen doesn’t know what to make of Bull’s oddly knowing smile, so he settles for looking at him like he grew a third arm.  “I’m just saying, maybe you should get to know her before deciding everything for her.”  With that, he walks away, back to where the Chargers have started drinking despite the sun still high in the sky. 

Okay, offer to show her around, if she looks even a tiny bit put off by the idea, backtrack like your life depends on it. 

As he walks towards her, he keeps repeating his plan of action.  Cullen opens his mouth to start only to stop when Charlotte quickly grabs two fists full of his surcoat, her wide, frantic eyes boring into him.

“I’m so sorry!  I-”

“Would you like to go on a walk?”  He cuts her off before she can freak herself out, offering her an arm before he can convince himself not to.  All at once his racing heart stills; the anxiousness clawing its way from his chest fading as she slips her arm through his, her small hands holding on tight as he starts to walk. 

“Good idea, t-thanks.  Walking will keep my mind off of, well, I-I’m sure you heard a-about it.” 

“I heard about a merchant behaving quite rudely towards Solas and yourself.  Rest assured, the Inquisition doesn’t need such people under our banner.”

“He was just doing his job-”

“No, he wasn’t, and I think you know that too, Miss St. Clair.”  They stop walking for a moment, her gaze flickering to his before skating back to her feet.

“I... I know, I’m just- it’s hard to convince myself that it’s, you know, not always... me that’s the problem.”  Cullen barely catches the last of her words; her mumbles lost in the sound of people bustling around them getting ready for the feast planned.  “You don’t need to keep calling me Miss St. Clair, you know.”

“Of course, I apologize, I forgot.”  Cullen bows his head, rolling with her change in conversation.

I didn’t forget; I’d never forget something like that.  But I don’t deserve that right; if you only knew about me, you wouldn’t want me acting so casually towards you.

~~~~~

The first night the Inquisition spends at the Crossroads is relatively quiet, most of the festivities planned for the next few nights.  Charlotte makes a point of trying to spend more time with people, even if that’s just sitting on the edge listening to their conversations.  Her walk with Cullen around the small village eased her nerves as they fell into a pattern of innocuous questions and short replies. 

Linril invites her to come with them as they “make their rounds” tomorrow.  From the sound of it, they have several people they make a point to visit every time they’re in the Hinterlands.  After a meaningful look from Bull, Charlotte agrees.  By the time they make it back to the Crossroads, it should be just about time to celebrate.   

They’re group heads out, the Heralds leading the way followed quickly by Solas, Varric, Cassandra from the Inner Circle, Soren and Willow- two recruits getting some field training- along with Cullen and Rylen who needed to speak with some lord in a cult... or at least that’s what Charlotte gets out of her casual eavesdropping.  She tries not to think too hard about going to visit a cult group in the middle of the forest.

“Be careful, Butterfly, you know we never got all the smugglers out of this area...”  Varric says with Bianca already in hand, but Linril keeps the steady pace, undeterred by the thought of possible attacks.  His eyes flicker from side to side, ready for anything, as the rest of the group follows suit.  Most weapons are still down, but everyone watches the ever-moving forest around them as they travel.

“You worry too much, Varric!  No one would try and take us on now, not with so many of us here.”  Tivvin’s loud laugh startles Charlotte, and she wants desperately to slap a hand over his mouth and make him shut up.

“Now that you’ve said that you know we’re going to get mobbed.”  Charlotte can’t disagree with Varric’s exasperated grumble.  The second someone says something like that; the worst-case scenario isn’t far behind.  To be safe Charlotte moves closer to the middle of the group, walking between Cullen and Soren as her head whips back and forth with every little noise that surrounds them. 

“What does he mean by smugglers exactly?”  Charlotte leans closer to Soren so her whisper can be heard, but he just shrugs, looking to the Heralds for an answer.

“Just run-of-the-mill riffraff.  Nothing that poses any kind of a problem with me around.”  Tivvin flashes the pair a cocky grin before starting the group down another wrong path.  It takes the elf no time at all to get lost; it would have been almost funny to Charlotte if she wasn’t still worrying about smugglers in the woods.

“He’s being stupid, but he’s not wrong.  You don’t need to worry Charlotte.”  Linril tugs him back into line, slapping him lightly on the shoulder for his attitude.  Charlotte nearly glues herself to Soren’s side, her arms tightly hugging one of his until Willow pipes up.

“You’re slowing us down; you should have just stayed behind.  Or at least learned how to defend yourself.”  She looks on in disgust as Charlotte’s frightened eyes snap from her to a rustling bush.  “The guys were right; you’re usel-”

“It’s a good thing we're not in a hurry, right, Commander?”  Soren interrupts her, moving both himself and Charlotte a little farther away from Willows irritation.

“Indeed.”  Cullen glares at Willow, effectively cutting off any further conversation.

“S-she’s not wrong though...”  Charlotte mutters to herself as the rest of the group walks in relative silence.  She is useless in this party of warriors, mages, and rouges.  The most she can do is try not to scream too loudly during a fight. 

What was supposed to be a more carefree trip through the Hinterlands for Charlotte is quickly overrun by her gloomy thoughts and the fear of certain death should anything attack them.  The beauty of the world around her is mostly lost in the mix of emotions, and she wishes she could come here again when there isn’t a war being waged by too many factions to keep track of. 

As they wander, the Heralds stop every so often, checking in on people, making notes on their maps, or just collecting random bits of metal or plants.   The last stop for the day before heading back is the cult in the woods that Charlotte has been dreading visiting since she heard of it.  And sure enough, she doesn’t enjoy it one bit.  Everyone is either busy praying to the Breach or trying to convince people to pray to the breach. One cultist too many tries to get her to pray and she spends the rest of her time there acting as Soren’s shadow, at one point even gripping the back of his shirt so as not to get separated when a particular pushy group of cultists try and get her to go to a shrine.

Charlotte’s safety net is taken away when Soren, Willow, and Rylen all follow Lord Berand home to help in moving both him and his men to the Inquisition camp.  As they leave, several cultists notice her standing there alone, and quickly start to walk over to her.  She nearly jumps out of her skin one someone behind her taps on her shoulder.  She spins around only to come face to face with a familiar shirtless torso.

“You know where the twins are?  Sera and I found their Grey Warden.”  When she shakes her head, Bull sighs with a shrug and starts to walk off in search of the pair.  He stops when Charlotte lets out a shrill kind of whimper.  He turns and sees her frozen in spot, her face devoid of all blood, her eyes wide enough to pass as saucers.  His gaze softens and gives her a small wave.  “I never said you couldn’t come along.”  Charlotte’s knees nearly give out in relief.  On wobbly legs she trails after him, tripping over the uneven floor and into him only a few times. 

“What’ve you got to be worried about?  They’re just a bunch of prissy nobles and nutjobs.”  Charlotte doesn’t get a chance to give a response, Bull’s warning glance at Sera is enough to send her up ahead to find the Heralds. 

“We’re almost done here, but I do need to find the Heralds pretty quick.  The Warden wants to talk to them, and I’m not sure how long he’s going to wait.  Do me a favor and go to Cullen and tell him we found the Warden; he’s just over there.”  Bull waves across the big courtyard in the middle of the crumbling fort the cultists called home to where Cullen in standing reading a very large book.

“O-okay.”

“Thanks!”  Bull gives her a light thump on the back and a laugh as he goes off in search for the Heralds. 

Just walk over, tell him about a Warden and stop.  NO FUMBLING OVER YOUR WORDS!!  He already thinks you're pathetic, let’s not make him even more confident in his diagnosis.  Just say his name, then that Bull found a Warden, and stop.  Easy, super easy, you can do this.

Out of the corner of his eye, Cullen sees Charlotte walking towards him, and he can’t help but smile a little as she gets closer, clearly looking to talk with him. 

“Hello, Charlotte.”  She is brought to a screeching halt a few steps from him at the sound of her name.  Not “Miss St. Clair” or “Miss Charlotte” or “Lady Charlotte” just plain old Charlotte and she wants to kick herself for enjoying the sound of it as much as she is.

“The Warden.”  She blurts out, pointing over her shoulder despite not having the faintest idea where the Warden might be.  “I m-mean, Bull and Sera found a-a Warden, and- and they just thought that I sh-should tell you.”

“Oh, I see.  Leliana got the Heralds on board with that wild goose chase, wonderful.  I don’t know why she’s so interested in them right now; the Inquisition has a few bigger problems to deal with.  Well, let’s go see what all the fuss is about.”  And to Charlotte’s surprise, he offers her his arm again with a small hopeful smile. 

“Sure.”  Charlotte winces at how squeaky her voice sounds.

The next thing we work on is not sounding like a small rodent when talking to him... after the whole fumbling-over-words thing is fixed though.  Or maybe the squeaking should be first?  I guess it doesn’t matter as long as something get’s fixed.

In no time at all, they are outside the front of the fort, meeting up with the rest of their group, now joined with Bull, Sera, and a grumpy looking man with an impressive beard.  Cullen reluctantly releases Charlotte's arm so he can talk with the Warden, leaving her near Solas who he knows will watch over her until they leave. 

“I think next time; I’ll just stay at the camp and not get out of bed.”  She whispers to him, every so often glancing behind them to make sure none of the cultists followed them out.

“I can’t say I wouldn’t rather be in the Fade as well.  Though, the waking world has its benefits.”  Charlotte doesn’t miss how Solas’ gaze follows Linril as she laughs with Tivvin and Bull.  She noticed he often follows her with his eyes when they’re not with each other, which admittedly is not often.  Charlotte almost always sees the pair together; heads bent over some ancient text or map, or the both of them relaxing as they trade stories of their travels.

“You don’t say?”  Charlotte looks at him from the corner of her eyes, a teasing and knowing smile gracing her features.  Solas, who finally looks away from Linril, catches her smile and the meaning behind it.  He immediately clears his throat and looks away, but not before Charlotte sees pink tint his cheeks. 

“Shall we?”  He motions forwards as the rest of the party starts to walk back down the hill and Charlotte nods, giggling as Solas still refuses to meet her eyes.

“Don’t worry; I won’t tell,”  Solas mutter something in elvish under his breath, only making Charlotte laugh more.  Cullen turns around when he hears the sound, offering an awkward wave when Charlotte catches him staring.  After a moment she returns the wave, her cheeks nearly flaming.  This time it’s Solas’ turn to laugh.  He leans closer as they walk to whisper in her ear.

“I won’t tell either.”

~~~~~

The walk back towards the Crossroads is better, or at least not quite as nerve-wracking.  In fact, Charlotte might even venture to say the walk through the many hills is almost pleasant.  Once the embarrassment wears off, Solas entertains her imagination with tales of the elven empire long gone, of their feats in magic that make the magic of present look like cheap parlor tricks.  She’s lost in the wondrous tales until a piercing cry echoes through the trees. 

She knows that sound all too, she’s made that sound.  Somewhere there is a kid in agony, and before her brain can kick in and tell her to wait, she off and running towards the cries.  Her entire focus is on where that sound is coming from, her body somehow weaving through the trees and bushes with ease.  It isn’t long before she spots the child and the source of their pain.  One man has the screaming child in his arms, though he is not in any way comforting the boy.  He’s holding the child’s hands over a tree stump as another man holds a rock in his hand, poised to strike down on the boy's hand again.

“Filthy savage mage!”  The man spits as the rock comes down again, further crushing the boy's hands. 

“Stop!”  Charlotte screams, not that they listen, but before they can hit the boy again, Charlotte throws herself at the man with the rock, the force of it knocking him down.  In the confusion, she quickly grabs the boy away from the other man.  He squirms in her arms, sobbing and screaming wordlessly as he tries to hold his broken hands to his chest.

“What do you think you’re doing?”  The man who had been holding the boy asks as he recovers like it’s not obvious.

“What the fuck are you doing?!”

“Teaching the mage a lesson.  That savage tried to use his magic on us, to lure us to the rest of his clan so they can kill us, use us for some dark ritual.  Let him go, or you’ll be getting a lesson in how to behave too.”  He reaches for Charlotte, but his attention gets torn away when he sees the rest of the Inquisition party coming up behind her. 

“We ain’t gonna to ask twice.”  The man Charlotte had shoved has recovered and walks closer, a knife replacing the rock in his hand.

“You lay another fucking finger on him, and I swear to God it will be the last thing you ever do in your miserable lives!”  She screams at them, more venom and hate in her words than she can ever remember having.  And she’s completely serious.  She’s never killed before, but if they hurt the boy in her arms any more than she’d fight until her last breath and take them with her.

“You’re protecting that monster?!”

“He’s a kid!  I don’t care if he’s Lucifer reborn, he’s still just a kid!  The only monster here is you fucking bastards.” 

“You-” The man with the knife reaches for her, but he stops when his hand hits a barrier.  Blue light surrounds Charlotte, and she doesn’t need to turn to know Solas and the others are there ready to fight, the look of utter terror on the men’s faces says it all.  They turn and run, Sera, Tivvin, and the Warden quickly following them.

“What in the world is going on?”  Cullen asks, but Charlotte completely ignores him.  She focuses on the still screaming child in her arms. 

“It’s okay now; they won’t hurt you anymore, I promise they’ll never hurt you again.  Shh, sweetheart, they’re gone.”  He tucks into her, trying to hide his hands from view, trying just to fade away.  “I know it hurt, I know, but my friend needs to see your hands so that he can heal them.”  The boy shakes his head, stubbornly keeping his hands tightly wedged between his body and hers.  “Watch, he’s outstanding.”  She reaches out to where Cullen’s sword is still drawn and drags her palm across the edge despite his shouts.  Charlotte shows the boy her palm and then holds it out to Solas.  He sits down near the pair and heals her hand for the boy to see, offering him a small smile when he looks up.  “Good as new.  See?”  She holds up the newly healed palm for the boy's inspection, and after a moment he holds out his own bloodied hands.

Charlotte’s stomach rolls uncomfortably as she looks at his hands.  The rock they’d used thoroughly crushed his tiny hands.  Solas starts to heal his hands, but his crying gets louder, his body trembling as he tries to keep his hands still.  She can only imagine how bad it must hurt to have all the bone fragments grinding against each other as they work and get into the correct place.  Gently Charlotte presses the boys face into her shoulder, starting to sing quietly as she rocks him back and forth.

 

A gentle breeze from Hushabye Mountain

Softly blows over Lullaby Bay,

It fills the sails of boats that are waiting,

Waiting to sail your worries away.

 

It isn’t far to Hushabye Mountain

And your boat waits down by the quay.

The winds of night so softly are sighing

Soon they will fly your troubles to sea.

 

So close your eyes on Hushabye Mountain,

Wave goodbye to care of the day,

And watch your boat from Hushabye Mountain

Sail far away from Lullaby Bay. 

After that, she sings every slow, calming, lullaby type song she can think of.  As the healing progresses, the boy's sobs slowly fade into quiet sniffles and then into calm breaths in and out as he sleeps.  With help, Charlotte stands, keeping the sleeping boy in her arms as they continue back towards the Crossroads, although now everyone is deadly silent.  Whether that’s because the boy is sleeping, or because no one has any words after what they all just witnessed, she doesn’t know. 

Once back at the camp, everyone splits up, but Cullen stays near Charlotte, watching as she sways back and forth while singing, the boy still held in her arms.  If she’s tired, she doesn’t show it.  As quietly as he can, Cullen walks closer, trying very hard to banish all the thoughts swirling in his head about how right it looks for her to take care of a kid.

“Charlotte, if you need to rest I can take him,”  Cullens whispers to her once he’s closer, but Charlotte shakes her head, continuing her song in a language he’s never heard before.  “You need to rest too.  Most everyone is heading down to the festival; please let me help you.”

“I can’t let him go...”  She whispers, tears filling her eyes as she glances down at the boy.  “I was him; I can’t just hand him off to someone else.”  Cullen slowly nods, a plan quickly coming together in his head.  He motions for her to follow, quietly telling her to wait when they reach the campfire.  He walks off to his tent with purposeful strides even as his heart races.  With practiced moves he takes off his armor, changing into a heavier coat and some trousers, grabbing a blanket and his pillow before walking back out.  With the pillow against a log, Cullen sits on the ground and leans into it.  He pats his lap, trying hard not to blush any more than he already is.  With some finagling, Charlotte ends up in his lap with the boy still sound asleep in her arms.  Cullen pulls the blanket over them all, his arms coming up to hold both Charlotte and the boy.

“Get some rest, Charlotte.” 

Charlotte, instead of embarrassing herself by stumbling over her words or refusing because she was embarrassed, listens to him.  Her head falls back against his shoulder, her face turning towards his neck as she lets go of the tension that’s been holding her together for the past several hours.

“Thank you, Cullen.”

Chapter Text

It’s so warm... why is it so warm?

Charlotte can barely open her eyes to see why she’s nearly melting in her sleep, and once she pries them open, it takes several more moment before anything comes into focus.  Small arms and legs are sprawled out over her as a little body tries to cover her like a blanket, a second set of arms from behind holding both her and the smaller body tightly against a chest that feels more like a fire than a human.

Can’t take it, I’m gonna die at this rate! 

Without much thought to anything apart from the heat, Charlotte frees an arm and tears the blanket that covers them off, halfheartedly throwing off to the side.  The brisk morning air feels like heaven to her.  The second she can feel the air, though, so does the small body clinging to her.  Arms and legs tighten around her almost painfully as the small head flies up, confused blue eyes fearfully glancing around from under a mop of blond hair. 

The kid!  You fucking idiot!  Get it together!!

“I’m sorry, sweetie, I got too warm.  I didn’t mean to wake you up too.”  After a moment of hesitation, she reaches up and brushes the hair from his eyes, ignoring how he flinches away and the answering pang in her heart.  When his stomach rumbles loudly, Charlotte grins, her stomach quickly echoing his.  “I’m hungry too; we should probably see what there is to eat!”  The last word comes out as a loud squeak as the second set of arms suddenly tightens around them.  And finally, the question she probably should have started with jumps to the front of her mind.

W-who am I sitting on?!

It doesn’t take long for an answer to present itself, not that having an answer makes her feel any better.

“Good morning, Charlotte...”

AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!

“C-C-Cullen!”

Again with the squeaking!  Knock it off, you gonna make the poor man deaf at this rate...

“I-I-I’m so s-sorry!  I don’t k-know what c-c-came over me l-last night!”  Both Charlotte and the boy get slightly shifted as Cullen sits up straighter against the log.

“No, no, it’s not… I mean, I was… you’re no trouble- in no trouble.  I thought that m-maybe you’d sleep better if- well if someone else was here to watch over the boy too.”

“Well, t-thank you very much, Commander, I- I should go and f-find something for us to eat.  Yes, I think that’s a good plan.  I’ll see you later.”  Without waiting for an answer, Charlotte stands with as much grace as a baby giraffe on a trampoline, the boy somehow still in her arms at the end. 

“Charlotte- Miss St. Clair!”  Cullen, desperate to fix the mess he made last night when he clearly wasn’t thinking straight, grabs her arm, stopping her dead in her tracks.  “I’m am truly sorry if I’ve made you uncomfortable.  Last night you just, you wanted to take care comes yourself- which is fine- but I didn’t want you losing rest because of it.  It won’t happen again; you have my word.”

Okay, deep breaths, calm down.  No more contorting yourself to everyone else’s whim.  Tell him how you feel, just like Bull said.  No one is ever going to respect my boundaries and decisions if I can’t even respect them.

“It’s n-not th-that.  I just don’t w-want to cause y-you any pro-problems.  Th-th-thank you very m-much for w-watching o-over us l-la-last night.  I h-ha-haven’t slept that g-good in a-a while.”  It sounds like more like Charlotte just ran a mile, her breaths coming shallow and fast as she tries to talk.  And like smoke, she slips through his grasp, rushing towards where food is being served on the other side of the camp.  Once she’s out of earshot from Cullen, she lets out a frazzled, breathy laugh.  “I’m not very good at this am I?”  She asks the boy she’s balancing on her hip, who responds by rest his cheek on her shoulder, his thin arms coming up in attempts to wrap around her.  With a wobbly smile, Charlotte squeezes him in return.

The pair sits down and not moments later do two bowls of some kind of stew get shoved into Charlotte’s hands.  The boy balances himself on her lap, cautiously accepting the bowl and spoon before shoveling it in at an alarming rate.

“Hey, hey, it’s not going anywhere, and we certainly don’t have a deadline to meet.  I don’t want you to burn yourself.”  Charlotte giggles as she wipes a smudge of stew from his cheek.  When he’s inhaled his portion, Charlotte starts on hers.  “Can you tell me your name, sweetie?  I feel bad calling you kid or boy all the time.”  His large blue eyes gaze up at her, confused for only a moment before shaking his head.  “You don’t want to?”  Again, he shakes his head, and her heart sinks.  “You don’t have one?”  A timid nod is his response, and he glances up at her as though he expects her to be angry at him.  “Well, that’s no good, is it?”  Charlotte tries to swallow around the emotions clogging her throat with little success.  “A handsome man like you needs a name, so all the girls have something to call out as they chase you.”  She brushes the hair from his eyes again, but he ducks his head.  “To be honest, I’ve never been good at giving anything names.  I named my cat Mr. Whiskers, and my dog was just... well, it was Doggy.  Do you have anything you particularly like?”  This time, the head shake she expects.  “Fair enough.  How about you and I get cleaned up a bit by the little lake I’m pretty sure we walked past?  And while we walk you can think.  I’m sure some can point us in the right direction.”

It takes some searching before someone can point them in the right direction.  On the outside, Charlotte looks cheerful, maybe even confident, but on the inside, she is running through every worst-case scenario that can possibly befall them on their short journey.  It isn’t until Solas makes an appearance does she feel better.  As expected, when he hears of their plans he offers to escort them, much to Charlotte’s relief.  Not only does she not have to wander the woods, but she can also have the mage check up on the boy’s hands to make sure everything is healed or at least is healing as it should.

As they walk, the boy clings to Charlotte’s hand, walking as close to her as he can without getting stepped on, Solas leisurely keeping pace on her other side.  They only stop when the boy tugs at Charlotte’s hand, giving her a look while doing a variation of what her mother would have called the potty dance. 

“Could you-” Solas nods, motioning for the boy to follow him into a more wooded area off the path.  In record time, at least Charlotte thinks so, the pair comes back, the boy running back to his place almost frantically, quick to clasp his hands around hers. 

He expected me to be gone when he was done... 

The thought digs into her chest, trying to pull memories from the dark corners of her mind.  Memories of being shifted from house to house in the foster system, memories of her hoarding any good thing she was offered because she never knew when it would be taken away.  Blinking away tears, and clearing her throat, Charlotte starts walking again.  She sees a lot of her younger self in the boy, maybe too much because every second she spends with him makes her more determined to make sure he doesn’t grow up like she did after her parents died, that he has some sort of childhood to look back on fondly.

“I need to collect some blood lotus; I’ll see you back at the camp in a while.”  Just like that Solas leaves the pair at the shore of the small lake, wandering around the edges as he picks small flowers from the water. 

“Shall we?”  Charlotte rolls up her pants, planting herself on a large rock near the edge of the lake.  “Come on, sweetie, let’s get cleaned up before everyone start mistaking us for little forest gremlins.”  She helps the boy out of his dirtied shirt before splashing him with a small wave. A playful grin is only the start, a full-blown laugh bursting forth at the look of utter shock on the boy’s face.  It doesn’t last long though, a handful of the brisk water hitting her chest taking her breath away.  It’s worth it when the boy grins triumphantly.  Their epic water fight then begins in earnest, the pair joyously splashing water back and forth as they chase each other around the shallows of the lake.  They don’t notice how Solas stops picking his herbs to watch them play; they don’t see the bittersweet smile on his face or the way his eyes shift back and forth between another time long ago and the present, blending his memories with the scene unfolding before him.

Even after they’re washed up, they keep playing in the water, neither of them caring that their clothes will most likely be wet for quite some time after.  Eventually, the boy catches on to how Charlotte makes bigger waves and copies her with great success.  But they both freeze when they hear someone pointedly clear their throat from the shore.  There stands Solas, water dripping down his robes from where an errant wave crashed into him.  Charlotte, who can’t remember having as much fun as she just had, doesn’t have it in her to feel embarrassed or upset about what happened.  The only thing she can do is dissolve into a fit of giggles.  Solas rolls his eyes, not truly upset by the water, and with a flick of his wrist, he sends a small wall of water to knock Charlotte sputtering back into the lake. 

“You did not...”  Charlotte wipes the water from her eyes, utterly shocked at the turn of events.  She shares a look with the boy before the both of them grin and race to splash Solas.  They chase after him with handfuls of water until they end up back at the camp, bursting into the small clearing in the middle of all the tents. Everyone looks up, having heard the infectious laughter from the lake, but not expecting the source to come running into camp.  Certainly not when Cullen ad Rylen are in the middle of talking with Lord Berand and his men. 

“We’ll... finish this later, dismissed.”  Cullen talks to his men, but his eyes stay fixed on the Charlotte and her companions.  Both she and the boy are wet from head to toe, the both of them dripping excess lake water onto the ground.  He looks her over quickly only to look away just as quickly.  Her light shirt is made even lighter due to the water, and it clings to her a little too well for comfort. 

“Apologies, Commander, as I’m sure you can see we were just having a bit of fun at the lake,”  Solas speaks up, thankfully giving Cullen someone else to look at as he tries to stop his gaze from wandering back to Charlotte.

“It’s,” He clears his throat, trying very hard to get both his emotions and thoughts back on the right track, “It’s quite alright.  I’m sure the men wanted a break anyway.  I-”

“Looks like we missed all the fun!”  Bull's loud laughter cuts Cullen off as he walks into camp followed by the Warden and Sera.  Charlotte picks the boy up, resting him back on her hip before flashing Bull a confident smile.

“Yeah, you did.  If you’ll all excuse us, we need to dry off.”  Before Charlotte can even take a step away from everyone, Solas waves his hand again, water seeming to fly off the pair and into the air above his palm.  “God, that’s amazing...”  Charlotte stares in wonder, her gaze flickering to Sera when she starts swearing up a storm.  “Well, I guess... I guess we don’t need to dry off anymore.  I do need to head to the market though.  Solas, when you have a moment, can you take us back there?”

“We can head off as soon as I put the herbs away.”  Charlotte nods, turning from everyone as she sets the boy back on his feet.  As if oblivious to everyone watching her, she starts to try and get the boy's hair to lay flat, not that she has any real success.  Not a word is spoken between the onlookers; even Sera can’t find the words to say at what they’re witnessing.  Everyone watches as they don’t believe their eyes.  Here’s the woman who has problems forming complete, coherent sentence when talking to most of them, acting as confident as can be with the boy before her.  They watch as she carefreely laughs when the boy tries to brush her hands away, then tickles the boy until he collapses into the grass. 

Charlotte only notices the crowd watching when she sees the boy cautiously glance at them before tugging on her arm, motioning for her to come closer.  She leans in close, but that doesn’t stop the boy from cupping his hands to make sure not a sound is heard by anyone except Charlotte.

“I think Julian is a fine name.”  Charlotte nods with a grin down at the boy.  “You want it?  I dare say you’d make a fantastic Julian.”  For a moment everyone watches as the boy carefully thinks over the name, his face looking more serious than a child his age has a right to.  Then, a look of determination settles over his face, his chin coming up as he holds his head high and nods.  “It’s wonderful to meet you Julian, my names Charlotte.”  She offers the boy her hand, her smile as bright as the sun, but Julian rushes straight into her arms instead, knocking the both of them into the grass.

“Alright, shall we?”  Without looking back, the three of them head back towards the small market at the Crossroads.  For several moments the rest of the camp is silent.

“Makers breath...”  Cullen watches, his jaw almost on the ground, as Charlotte walks with Julian, holding the boy’s hand and swinging their arms as they get farther and farther from camp until they vanish from sight altogether.

“It’s a good thing she came with us yesterday.”  Bull chuckles before starting to talk business with the Commander and his Lieutenant.  Try as Cullen might to focus on his job, he can’t get the image of Charlotte playing with Julian, laughing as they roll in the grass, out of his head.  He doesn’t want to admit just how badly he wants that now.  He never thought he’d want a family, never thought he could even have one.  But now, the idea of it keeps him up at night.  Images of Charlotte smiling at him as carefreely as she had with Julian, images of kids running around him with her black hair and warm eyes, images of her with a small child- his child, their child- in her arms.

If only...

~~~~~

“I don’t know; I think we should get both, don’t you Solas?  Its warm enough now, but I’m sure winter will be knocking on our doors soon enough.  And it’s a well-made little cloak...  You look more dashing than even Legolas.”  Julian shakes his head, trying to pass the cloak back to the merchant who, while not having been outrightly rude to the trio, is just a tad too easy to read.  His discomfort at the apparently mixed-race family before him more than a little evident in his forced smile and stiff movement.

“She’s right, Julian.  Haven is quite frigid come winter.”  Solas crouches down so he can look him in the eyes, motions for Julian to come closer like he’s going to share the worlds biggest secret.  “And if you want, I can teach you how to use your magic to make it stay warm all the time.”  Julian’s eyes, wide with wonder at the prospects of Solas’ lessons, now bore into Charlotte’s, silently begging her to let him have the cloak. 

“That sounds fantastic, doesn’t it?  You’ll be a proper mage in no time!”  Charlotte picks Julian up, swinging around the giggling boy before balancing him on her hip again.  If she thought the merchant looked tense before, it’s nothing compared to how tense he is after hearing the boy is a mage.  “We’ll take the both of these and two pairs of pants, please.  Also some of the sugar candies too.  I’m craving something sweet.”  It’s not a milk chocolate truffle, but it beats nothing... hopefully.  Charlotte passes across the money, Solas buying several chunks of some rare ore before the three of them head back towards the original camp they stay at.  It’s not even seconds before Linril is peaking her head out from her tent and calling out to Solas, waving some old looking text excitedly and talking almost too fast to understand. 

Julian, decked out in his new clothes, nearly struts out of Charlotte’s tent when he’s finished changing.  Even though it’s warm enough to wear lighter clothes, Julian has his cloak pinned around his neck.

“Hold on, Julian, it’s a little crooked.”  After several attempts, the two of them finally get the cloak looking mostly not skewed off to the left. 

When lunch rolls around, Charlotte and Julian have nearly worn themselves out with a long game of tag.  Julian has the obvious advantage of being small and not a total klutz while running.  The sound of their continued laughter brings the spirits up in camp, nearly everyone smiling and joking with each other.  Varric snags the seat on Charlotte’s free side, Julian having staked his claim on her right side since the morning, his plate sitting on the log while Julian chases after some kind of butterfly looking bug.

“You’re great with him.”

“Um... I, well, I don’t think I’m that good with him, there’s- there’s probably better people.”

“Are you kidding me?  Yesterday he was scared so bad he’d rather his hands stay broken then let someone else see them.  Now he’s running around laughing as he subtly shows off his new cloak to anyone who glances at him.  You’re phenomenal with him, I’d even wager you’re good with most kids.”

“I don’t know; I’ve never really been around kids before...”

“Well, you’ve got me fooled, and most of the camp as well.  Just take the compliment, Kitten.”

“... Thank you, Mr. Tethras.  Wait, kitten?”

“Yeah, small, adorable, and easily frightened, but you’ll fight if you need to.  Word is you were seconds away from killing the men who were attacking Jules.”

“Fucking shit-sticks would have deserved it.”  Anger rushes through Charlotte just at the thought of yesterday. 

“No argument here, though maybe leaving the ass-kicking to someone who might actually be able to pull it off.”

“I could have hurt them, at very least.”

“Now, now, I was just suggesting it.”  Varric them launches into an entire story on why she should call him just Varric, though most of the story is about as believable as flying pigs.  When a sleepy Julian comes back to finish eating, Charlotte excuses them.  Taking both the boy and his food back towards her tent.  Once settled in and full, Charlotte tucks him into bed, his little eyes shutting the moment his head touches the pillow. 

“Miss St. Clair?” 

“Shh...”  She carefully crawls out from the tent, face to face with Cullen’s boots until she manages to stumble her way to her feet.  “H-hey there, can I help you with s-something?”

“No, I just wanted to make sure you know that we’re leaving in an hour or so.  The tensions seem to be rising back in Haven, and we need back there as soon as possible.”  Cullen stares at a tree behind Charlotte, knowing that if he meets her eyes, he’s going to make a fool of himself.  “I- you’re bringing Julian back with us, yes?”

“Yes, that is, if the Inquisition would be alright if-if I did.  I realize that it’s a-another mouth to feed, but I promise that I’ll work more, we won’t j-just freeload off everyone else.”

“That’s not an issue; I can promise you, Miss St. Clair.  It would be nice to hear children laughing around Haven instead of the eerie silence that follows a great many of our people.  When we get there, I’m sure Lady Josephine will be thrilled... Actually, if you’d be open to it, I think there’s a job opening you’d be perfect for.  In the aftermath of the Conclave, there were a great many orphans with no one to turn to.  Right now I believe that Chantry is looking after them, but something tells me you’d do a much better job than Roderick and his misguided followers.”

“R-really?  You think I could do that?”

“You seem rather gifted with children, at least from what I’ve seen since yesterday, which admittedly isn’t much.  I’m not saying it’s a given, but I’ll ask Josephine if that’s something we could look into.”  Excitement and fear flood Charlotte’s mind in equal measures.  On the one hand, not only will she have a real job to help the Inquisition- more or less- but she’d get to spend her days with children who usually are a lot easier to deal with than adults.  On the other hand, she will be responsible for raising who knows how many kids and she is fairly sure that she shouldn’t be giving anyone lessons on how to function when she can barely manage it.  “I’ll let you think about it, Miss St. Clair.  Don’t forget we’re leaving soon.”  Cullen starts to walk away, Charlotte’s eyes locked on his back as he gets father and father from her.

Say it, say it, SAY IT!

“I-I would really l-li-like it if y-you would call m-me Charlotte, Cullen!”  She says to his back, watching as he freezes, his whole body going stiff. 

“I... I’m not sure that’s wise...”

“Please.”  Without answering, Cullen walks away, and Charlotte can only hope that he’ll listen to her.  Once he’s gone from sight, Charlotte collapses into a boneless pile on the ground, on hand pressing over her heart to try and slow it down.

To no one’s surprise, Julian doesn’t want to get out of the tent when it’s time for Charlotte to start packing up.  She leaves the breaking down the tent to some scouts after she nearly punches a hole through it as she tripped.  In one arm she carries her backpack stuffed with the blankets and such she’d brought, and in the other arm she carries Julian who’s still half asleep.  She is once again in the cart and their off at a steady pace, trying to make good time on their way back to Haven.  They stop only once for a short break to get some water for the horses, everyone in the group dispersing out to stretch their legs while they have a chance.  Julian insists that he can go to the bathroom by himself, but Charlotte can’t seem to quell the unease that rises in her chest when he’s out of sight. 

When a dull thunk comes from where Julian wandered off, adrenaline rushes through Charlotte.  Without a second thought, she grabs a dagger someone had left in the cart with the other supplies and rushes after Julian. 

“Not a sound.” A hand covers her mouth as an arm wraps around her whole body, but Charlotte can’t be bothered to care when she sees a man holding an unconscious Julian up by an arm.  With as much force as she can manage she cracks her head back into what is hopefully the man’s nose, but again she doesn’t really have time to care.  She ignores the stars that burst into sight as she frees herself from the mans grasp.

“Let him go!”  She screams, hoping that everyone from here to Haven hears her loud cry.  The guy holding Julian laughs, saying something mocking to her if his expression is anything to go by, but she can’t hear a word over the blood pounding in her ears.  To Charlotte's surprise, the man actually let’s go of Julian’s arm, only to start raising an arm holding a nasty looking mace, aiming for the small boy’s head. 

The next thing Charlotte knows, she’s standing not even inches from the man, the dagger she’s holding in both hands now buried deep in the man’s side.  Warm blood seeps out and stains her hands, the man looking genuinely confused as he stares at her, just as shocked as she is to be in this position.  The small group of bandits, poised to ambush the Inquisition’s men as they made their way home, are no match for Bull and his Chargers, much less the rest of the forces traveling with the Heralds.  Tivvin drags the man Charlotte had stabbed away, leaving her there with a bloody dagger still pointed out in her shaking hands.  She’s vaguely away that Solas quickly takes Julian back to the cart to check him over, but even that doesn’t get her to move.  Everything blurs around her, the ringing in her ears painfully loud as she tries to get a solid breath into her lungs.

“Charlotte!  I need you to let go of the knife.”  Cullen rushes up to Charlotte, talking to her with no reaction from her until his hands wrap around the blade.  Her eyes flicker up, and for a moment she looks so lost it breaks his heart.  “Sweetheart, you have to let go, please.”  A gentle tug is all it takes, the dagger slipping from her grasp and hitting the ground as huge, heaving sobs are pulled from Charlotte when she stares at the blood on her hands.  Cullen doesn’t think twice before pulling her into his arms, gently rocking back and forth as he strokes her hair.  “It’s okay, Charlotte, you’re okay. I’ve got you, and I won’t let go, I promise.  Oh Charlotte, I’m so sorry, sweetheart, so sorry.”

Chapter Text

It isn’t long before Charlotte passes out, Cullen carefully carrying her back to the cart.  They begin their trip back to Haven, but Cullen stays in the cart with Solas and Julian, Charlotte held tightly to his chest.  Charlotte will settle for an instant only to fight her nightmares moments later.  When her unconsciousness starts to stir, he talks to her, his voice low and quiet in her ear.  If nothing else, Cullen is grateful Julian is still unconscious only because at least this way he doesn’t have to worry over Charlotte.  Cullen is quite sure that’s the last thing Charlotte wants.  The hours slip by without notice, and soon they are stopping for a few hours rest in the night, but still, Cullen sits in the cart keeping watch over Charlotte.  He only looks away when quietly giving orders to his men, choosing to ignore the looks on their faces when they see him still cradling Charlotte.  When the last of his soldiers leave, Cullen glances down at Charlotte, startled to see her eyes open.

“I’m sorry.”  Her words, though quiet, seem to echo through the night, at least they do for Cullen.  He’s been stuck imagining every worst-case scenario where she never wakes from the shock, where he never hears her voice again, never sees her timid smile.  Cullen’s breath leaves him in a huff, and without thinking he buries his face into the side of her neck, trying to remember how to breathe.

“Thank the Maker...”

“I’m sorry Cullen, I-I didn’t... he was… I know th-that I should have-have just gotten help but Julian, they had Julian and I don’t know what... I couldn’t think straight and...”  Cullen listens to her rambling for a while, content to keep breathing in the floral scent of her hair until he felt tears fall onto his cheek.

“Charlotte, please believe me when I say you’ve done nothing wrong.  If you hadn’t screamed, we might not have come looking for you until it was too late.  You saved Julian; you saved him.”

“But I killed that guy!”  He hears the panic rising in her voice, feels it in the trembling of her body and the thundering pace of her heartbeat.

“You definitely didn’t kill the bandit.  You shocked him, sure, and injured him enough, so it made running away from us hard, but he’s still alive.”

“I- I didn’t kill him?  I’m not a murderer?”

“Andraste preserve me, of course, you’re not a murderer!  Charlotte, I can’t think of a kinder, gentler, or more self-less person than you.”  Cullen finally pulls away to at her, hoping beyond hope that she’ll listen to him this time around.  What he sees in her, however, is a look of such profound relief he’s rendered as speechless as she is.  For a while, they are content to simply stare at each other, any embarrassment from their current tangle of limbs as far from their minds as possible.  In the low light of the nearby fire, it’s hard to see much of anything, but they take what they can get, both of them committing their other to memory like this is the last time they’ll see each other. 

It’s not long until Solas is back in the wagon, beyond relieved when he sees Charlotte awake and sane.  He, like Cullen, has been stuck in a constant loop of dark thoughts, dreading coming up with ways to explain to Julian why Charlotte was unconscious and not responding to magic. 

Before they start back on their way to Haven, Cullen makes sure to situate Charlotte nears Julian, so she can help Solas keep watch over him.  And once he’s sure she’ll be alright, Cullen hops off the wagon and onto his horse.  Once again Cullen ignores the looks everyone is sending his way when he insists on riding near to the cart.  At the start of the trip, he had hoped Charlotte would be able to enjoy more of the scenery on the way back; now he just hopes she manages to make it back to Haven in one piece.

They push the horses the last leg of the trip, making it back to Haven early afternoon.  Everyone is exhausted from the traveling, and while most everyone can go and rest, Cullen hits the ground running, immediately demanding reports on the activities of Haven since his departure.  In an instant several scouts and messengers surround him, giving both paper and verbal reports on the last week.  He’s sidetracked for only a moment when he sees Charlotte making her way towards Solas’ cabin with a still unconscious Julian in her arms.

“Ser?”

“Continue.”  Cullen physically gives himself a shake, desperate to get Charlotte out of his mind for a few moments to work. 

At least now that we're back in Haven I won’t be seeing much of her…

~~~~~

“Why isn’t he waking up?”  It’s the fifth time Charlotte has muttered that question to herself as Solas quickly starts searching for different ingredients.  He’d been trying magic to get the boy back to the waking world with little success; it’s high time to try something a bit stronger.  Pinches of this and bits of that all get tossed into a mortar, Solas efficiently using the pestle to grind it all up into a fine powder before adding more ingredients.  When the green dust is just as Solas wants it, he transfers it into a small bottle, plugging it with a stopper before giving it a good few shakes.  With Charlotte’s help, Solas gets Julian sitting more or less upright and carefully opens the small bottle under the boy’s nose.  For several seconds nothing happens, and Charlotte starts to wonder if she was too late in saving him, but all thoughts are wiped from her mind as Julian starts to cough.

“Julian?!”  Charlotte tries to stay calm, she really does, but as his eyes start to flutter open she can’t help but pull him into her arms, tears already falling as she thanks every god she can think of.  It doesn’t take long for Julian to return her hug, though his head is still muddled.  Once Solas is sure Julian isn’t suffering from any side effects from being woken, he too relaxes, sitting on the floor next to them, watching Charlotte fuss over the boy. 

“If it’s alright with you, I’d like for you both to stay here for at least the rest of today and tonight.  Just to make sure everything is alright-” He’s cut off when Charlotte, already with her arms full, desperately hugs him.

“Thank you, Solas, thank you so much!”  Julian struggles away, looking on a little confused as Charlotte starts to cry into Solas’ chest, one of her hands still gripping his arm.

“You hardly need to thank me, Charlotte, but you are welcome none the less.”  After the shock wears off, Solas returns the hug, smiling over at Julian when he tugs on Charlotte’s sleeve.  The boy tilts his head, silently asking what was going on, but Charlotte waits until he’s settled in her lap again before starting the story.  She glosses over the fact that she too passed out and had at least one little meltdown. 

Linril, with arms full of food, is the next person to join them on the floor.  They pass around stories as the hours slip by, content to sit there, snack, and relax.  It isn’t long after dark before Charlotte and Julian are asleep again.  Solas and Linril move closer together on the other side of the room, talking quieter as the night drags on.  Solas stops his story of ancient elves when he feels Linril’s head softly rest against his shoulder.  For a long moment, he sits there frozen, not even daring to risk a breath as he watches the peaceful expression dance across her face as she dreams.  Deep down, Solas knows he needs to stop the feelings growing in his chest, knows that she won’t- can’t- change anything.  But still, he sits there, unwilling to move away from her, sighing when she shifts closer, her arms wrapping around one of his.  Ignoring the guilt clawing its way to the forefront of his mind, Solas drifts off to sleep and steps into the Fade.

It’s easy for him to feel her dreams, the mark shines out like a beacon in the dark, a thin line tethering it to the mark Tivvin has.  Solas is still unsure how both have the mark, but to be honest, that’s really the least of his problems.  With ease, Solas slips into Linril’s dreams, watching the landscape change as he does.  Ever so slowly, rolling hills form, covered in a dense, green forest.  No path exists for anyone to follow, the only clue that people are nearby is the sound of laughter.  As Solas ventures closer he sees aravels positioned in an open circle, several elves working quietly on repairs for one that has a broken wheel.  When he looks around further, he can see the source of the laughter.

A little girl with vivid green eyes and a mess of auburn curls is running with an equally little boy with eyes and hair to match.  The pair runs hand in hand from a woman who chases after them, a huge smile plastered in place.  With threats of tickles and kisses, the woman follows the children until she finally catches up, gently tackling them to the ground and making good on her threats.  Solas turns to see a man watching the three play much like himself.

“Linril, you wanted to learn how to shoot, right?”  The man holds up a bow, the weapon a perfect size for the child.  She squeals excitedly and breaks away from the woman to snatch the bow, running wildly back and forth showing off her newest possession.

“Mother, look!  Look at what I got!  Father said he’d get me one, he said so, I knew he would!  Look how perfect it is!  I’m gonna- I’m gonna be the best!   Just you wait, you’ll see.”  Linril’s parents laugh indulgently as little Linril moves into different poses, pretending to shoot targets like a pro.

As touching as the scene before him is, Solas feels something in the background, hovering just under the joy waiting to strike.  And while he is expecting an attack of some sort, he’s not expecting the violent shift of her dream.  All at once the forest and aravels are gone, no longer is Linril thrilled about the prospects of learning from her father.  She sits collapsed on the ground, a war-torn hellscape her backdrop as she stares at a broken bow in her hands.  He tries to move closer, but the demon torturing her is strong, it’s magic fighting against his every movement.

“You said you’d be the best...”  A voice hisses and Solas catches a glimpse of a figure laying in wait at her back; its claws inches from slicing into her slumped shoulders.  “You were supposed to keep them safe...”  Linril starts to cry when the bodies of her parents and Tivvin now lay before her, half burned and mutilated almost beyond recognition.  She reaches out for them, stopping when she sees her hands covered in blood.  “You weren’t strong enough... you’ll never be strong enough...”  Again, the scene shifts and now Linril is forced to look on as the Inquisition and its forces are overrun by demons.  She watches as Cullen is cut down, as Leliana’s throat is cut, as Josephine is incinerated.  The Iron Bull is broken as he’s forced to watch his Charges fall victim to possession, Cassandra murdered as she tries to usher civilians into the Chantry.  Sera is nothing more than a puppet to a demon, magic twisting her to move even as she screams and cries.  Varric is sitting hunched in a corner, driven mad by the red lyrium he so despises.  And finally, Solas watches as his counterpart in her nightmare is torn apart by a rift created inside him, the only thing remaining of the apostate is a pool of crimson in the snow.  “You could save them...  I can help you save them...  You just have to let me in... let me help you.”

By the time Solas makes it to Linril, the demon has its claws sunk into her back, Linril doing little more than sobbing, scrambling to get closer to her friends, to save them, but she can’t move an inch.  The fury building in Solas at her torment finally bursts forth, his eyes flashing brilliantly blue as magic in its purest form explodes from his person.

“You hold no power here.” 

Magic flows through every word, amplifying it, and the elvish echoes through the Fade, a warning to all else that might seek Linril out.  The demon snaps its head around, its beady eyes focusing on Solas before stumbling back, Linril forgotten.  It tries to run, but Solas’ magic gives it no chance to escape.  A wolf, many times larger than the cabin they all slept in, catches the demon in its jaws.  The many eyes of the wolf, red as the blood that coats the landscape, quickly scan for anything lingering in the shadows.  Once satisfied, it and the demon it captured dissolve into nothingness, Solas’ eyes shifting back to his normal gray-blue.  With little more than a thought, Solas shapes the Fade around them, calling up memories of a long-forgotten forest, of magic humming through the air musically.  He sits on the ground next to Linril, his long, slender fingers gently twining with hers as he whispers to her.

“You are strong enough.”

~~~~~

Julian wakes with a start, his breath coming short and fast as he tries to forget about his dream.  Usually, they are nothing of consequence, but this time something different happened.  He hadn’t felt the Fade like he often did and when a small fragment of it did break through to him, it was in the form of a huge wolf.  It was made from smoke and shadow, the only color in the darkness was its red eyes, and there were so many eyes.  Everything froze as Julian stared at the wolf, wondering if it was some kind of demon, but as quickly as it came, it left, leaving only an echo of a language Julian never knew in its wake.

He disentangles himself from Charlotte, crawling quickly across the floor to Solas.  He’s the only other mage Julian knows if he can’t help them, nobody can.  With perhaps too much urgency, Julian shakes Solas’ free arm, the other having firmly snaked around Linril.  He’s pulled from the Fade easily, used to traveling back and forth at a moment’s notice.

“Julian, what’s wrong?”  Immediately Solas’ eyes jump to Charlotte, fearing the worst, but he finds her laying right where she had been, still soundly asleep. 

“... wolf...”  He only whispers out that single word, but it’s more than enough for Solas to understand.  The aftershocks of his magic spread throughout the Fade, of course those closest to him would have heard his warning, if not also seen the wolf.

“The wolf is no demon, do not be afraid.  It was just a powerful spirit, staking a claim over the Inquisition.  It will protect us; it wants to keep us safe from the demons.”  It is an oversimplification, and it leaves out several important details about the origins of the wolf, but it’s enough to set the child at ease.  “Go back to sleep Julian; I’m sure you and Charlotte will have a big day tomorrow exploring Haven.”  Julian nods, his little heart beating slower now that he does not fear for his life.  He moves back across the floor and into Charlotte’s arms, drifting off to sleep almost before he’s settled in.

~~~~~

Surprisingly, Charlotte is the first one awake.  She stares at the rafter’s for several long seconds, getting her bearings, before sitting up, this time careful of the child curled into her side.  Across the room, she sees something that makes her heart warm up and a smile tug at her lips.

Sprawled across the floor n the opposite side as her is Solas, his body bending around Linril’s.  The Herald has her arms twisted around him; her face pressed close to his chest.  The pair sleep soundly, their slow breaths matched as they travel the Fade.  Solas has told Charlotte many times of his journeys there, of how he can go into people dreams to see what they see if he so wished it.  And every time he talks of his experiences, questions flood her mind.  Do the chemical reactions that make her dream not affect them?  How exactly is the Fade connected to people, specifically mages?  Do people here suffer sleep paralysis to keep themselves from acting out the Fade dreams or is that not a concern?  How is it Solas can enter others unconscious minds?  Is it his spirit or soul that goes?  While he’s off visiting is his body soulless?  What happens if he or the person he’s watching wakes while he’s there?  Can he be trapped outside of his body?

Charlotte shakes her head, knowing she will likely never get an answer.  Instead of continued pondering, she shifts her attention to where Julian lays fast asleep, his arms attempting to wrap around her waist.  Cullen’s job offer, or rather the idea for a job, floats around in her mind.  A part of her whispers to herself that she shouldn’t even entertain the thought, that she’d make a mess out of those kids’ lives.  It whispers that they deserve better than her, better than a broken orphan who know nothing of love.  But, for once, that voice is not the loudest.  She knows if they offer to let her care for the kids she’d never say no.  If she can offer even a moment of relief, of care, just a second of letting the kids know that they’re not alone in this mess, then it would be worth any negative thoughts on her part.  Maybe she’s not the most qualified person to be teaching kind about life, maybe she will mess up, but she’s at least going to try.  They deserve that much at least.

With a resolute nod, Charlotte settles back down on the floor, snuggling closer to Julian as she lets her mind drift.  She watches as sunshine slowly starts to shimmer through the cabin windows, the light painting the walls and softly bouncing off in every direction.  It isn’t long after that that Solas begins to stir.  Charlotte watches as discreetly as she can to see his reaction to his current position almost spooned around Linril.

He seems relaxed as he slowly wakes, but when he opens his eyes and sees Linril snuggled close, he damn near melts.  There is such longing in his gaze as he silently traces over her features, Charlotte’s heart skips a beat.  It’s obvious to anyone with eyes that they are perfect for each other in almost every way.  How they still are just friends when both want more confuses Charlotte to no end.  If someone looked at her the Solas looks at Linril- all soft and loving- she just might die from feels on the spot.  To her eternal embarrassment, her mind suddenly conjures just that.

She sees Cullen as clearly in her mind's eye and she might if he were standing before her, the amount of detail that it’s putting forth in this imagining more than a little disconcerting.  She isn’t sure why in her mind his hair isn’t slicked back like normal, but she’s isn’t going to fight it.  His mop of curls are all over the place, and he looks at least ten years younger.  The sheer amount of warmth in his amber eyes nearly stops her heart, his small half smile sending enough blood towards her cheeks she feels light-headed for a moment.  Before Solas can see her flaming face, Charlotte rolls to the side, nearly crushing little Julian in her haste.

“Good morning, Charlotte.  You’re doing well?”  Solas pauses for a moment, composing himself before offering the greeting.  Ever so slowly does he detangle himself from Linril, her small frown at the separation sparking something deep in his chest.

“Y-yeah, I’m good.  Just, you know, w-waiting for Julian to wake u-up too.  Thought he deserved to sleep in a little.”  Try as Charlotte might to will the blood back to the rest of her body, it doesn’t listen.

“They both deserve a rest, I think.  If you’d like to go and get some food with me, I was planning on bringing some back for them.”

“Well... normally I’d be all in for helping you, but... it’s just when Julian wakes; I don’t want him to be alone.  I mean, it’s an awful feeling waking up to nobody when you thought someone was going to take care of you.”  Her voice gets softer as she continues, all the happy, warm feelings in her chest swiftly dying as darkness grips her chest.  It threatens to choke her, to bring up every unpleasant, horrible memory until she’d rather die than remember.

“I apologize if I brought up any painful memories Charlotte.” Solas starts to bow his head, but Charlotte cut’s him off with a wave.

“It’s not your fault, Solas, and you certainly needn’t apologize for anything.  I’m going to have to deal with all the stupid emotions eventually.  When I look at Julian, I just see so much of myself in him, and I hate that.  I hate that there are kids out there living through the same hell I did, I hate that they’re being taught their worthless and unwanted, I hate how cruel adults are to children who’ve done nothing wrong.  Fuck, even kids who are bad don’t deserve the kind of shit some people deal out to them.  That’s why I want to help them if I can.  I know-” her voice cracks and she takes a deep, semi-steadying breath before trying again.  “I know what it’s like to get a beating for no reason, but then spending hours after the fact coming up with imagined slights that I might have done wrong.  I know what it’s like to be abandon time and again, each time worse than the last.  I know what it’s like to watch good things slip away because you’ve been broken, and nobody wants to put in the effort to get you back together.  I want to help...”  Charlotte finally looks up at Solas, tears gathering in her eyes but bared from falling.

“You will, you are.  And for what it’s worth, I’ll do all I can to help.”  Instead of getting into things farther, Solas leaves with a kind smile, his kind words giving her the final push she needs.  Once Julian is awake and the both of them have eaten, she’ll find Cullen and ask about that job.  The more she thinks about it, the more excited she gets.  It’s her chance to shine, to show everyone that orphans aren’t useless, aren’t burdens.

What could go wrong?

~~~~~

“My, she certainly has a knack to get herself into trouble.”  Josephine could hardly believe the reports she was reading.  They had sent Charlotte to the Hinterlands to get her away from the troubles of Haven, but that seemed to have done little good in the long run.

“I tried to tell you that earlier.  We should have done away with her-” Cullen snarls, the animalistic sound shocking even him, though he doesn’t show it on his face.  He’s cut his lyrium ration in half again, now down to a quarter of what he should be taking every three days.  The headache pounding through his skull throbs to the beat of his heart, and the angrier he gets, the faster it beats.  His nightmares have come back without Charlotte’s ability to keep them at bay, and the night before they attacked him with everything they had.  He has noticed a slight shift in them though.  The voice he hears calling for help, pleading with him to save them as he’s tortured in that cage, it’s not Amell’s, though she is still who he sees just beyond the barrier.  Cullen tries hard not to think about who it is crying out to him, working so very hard to convince his mind that it’s just some random voice, but he knows he’s lying to himself.  He knows who it is as surely as he knows his own name.

Simply put, he’s not in the mood for any of Leliana’s bullshit.

“Not the most eloquently put, but he’s right.”  Tivvin breaks the tense silence between everyone, giving everyone his customary smirk.  “Besides, you won’t have to worry about her mucking up your carefully laid plans anymore, Spymaster.  She’s great with kids, and Cullen here had a great idea on our way back from the Hinterlands.  There are orphans here, the poor kids under Roderick’s horrible rule. She can watch them, take care of them.”

“We were thinking of where they’d all be, one tent not large enough for that many.  But then I remembered that there’s that old healers’ cabin right outside of Haven.  A lot of the soldier and refugee tents are out there, so it ought to be relatively safe.  She could have the kids there, away from a lot of the bustle.” 

The Heralds continue to discuss the plans they’d thought up for Charlotte, and for a brief moment, Cullen is shocked by just how much thought they’d put into this.  He initially thought he’d have to fight everyone tooth and nail to get Charlotte her job, but here the Heralds all, everything already planned out.  That moment doesn’t last long when Leliana opens her mouth again.  She starts throwing out every reason why Charlotte shouldn’t watch the kids, much less continue to breathe Fereldan air.  Each new reason grates on his nerves, grinding down what little patience’s remained into dust.  His fist slams into the table, the sound of the wood cracking from the blow echoing through the room.

“You have said quite enough, Leliana.”  Cullen’s menacing gaze pins her down, and he watches with dark satisfaction as he sees genuine fear flicker across her features.  “You were never responsible for her, and you never will be.  She will work under Josephine, and you will leave her and the children alone.  I don’t know what you’ve got against her, and I don’t care.  This back and forth has gone on long enough.”  Cullen gives a slight pause, waiting for anyone else to speak up.  When no one does, Cullen stands straight, giving everyone in the room one last look before turning on his heel and storming out, muttering about having an army to train.

He nearly free, just a few more steps before he’s out of the Chantry, but he stops dead in his tracks when he sees Roderick standing over several children, the small group tucked away in a room off to the side.  Their pained faces and fearful eyes of the children catch his attention first, but it’s quickly captured by Roderick when he sees the man holding a switch.  With a mind of their own, his feet abruptly change course, taking him up to the door before any more of the children feel the sting of the switch on their palms. 

“That will be all, Chancellor Roderick.  The children will be taken care of by someone else now.  We’d hate to keep you from your duties to the Chantry.”  The children, varying in ages from 4 to 10, stay where they are for only a moment before scrambling to their feet and getting behind Cullen.  They don’t need their savior telling them twice to follow.

“The nerve!  How dare-” Before the Chancellor gets the chance to say more, Josephine sweeps into the room, all smiles and pleasantries, shutting the door behind her with graceful efficiency.  The weight of what Cullen just did hits him when he looks down to see the many eyes of the kids staring up at him expectantly.

“Yes, um, follow me.”  Not a word is spoken among the children as they follow Cullen, each of the kids holding hands as they try to keep up with his brisk pace.  When they reach the cabin, he opens the door and ushers them in.  “Just... wait here for a moment.”  Then he nearly runs to find Charlotte, his headache almost forgotten as he starts to freak out.  Of all the ways to get the children away from Roderick, that had to be one of the worst.  And now he’s desperately hoping that Charlotte will take the job because he’s already started burning bridges. 

As he rushes through Haven, he finally catches a glimpse of her dark hair, accompanied by both Solas and Linril.  Charlotte happily carries Julian in her arms, nearly vibrating with excitement as Linril starts to lead them to the cabin.  Cullen wants to follow after them, but he knows he should get back to work.  They’ve got it under control; they don’t need him to be such a bother.  With stiff movements he heads off to find Rylen, hoping that the children waiting for her won’t be too much of a surprise.

Charlotte is a little surprised to see Bull, a handful of his Chargers, and the Warden waiting for them outside of Haven’s gate.  She’s further confused when she sees them lugging around wood, hammers and the like.  Before she can question it, though, Linril tugs her along. 

“Welcome home.”  Linril pulls the door to the cabin open, only a little surprised to see the kids there looking up at her with wonder-filled eyes.  For a tense moment, everyone is silent, still as stone, waiting for someone else to make the first move.  Charlotte breaks the pattern as she slowly kneels, setting Julian on his feet next to her.  With a small smile and an equally small wave, she says just one word.

“Hello.”

Chapter Text

The kids are all silent as they watch Charlotte kneel before them, the lot of them daring not even to breathe- let alone hope- as she smiles at them.  Going off of looks alone, she already seems better than Roderick.  She’s kind looking, warm, friendly, a few of the children might even say motherly. 

Charlotte, not wanting to overwhelm them, simply takes a quiet moment to get a look at them all.  It’s easy to see the hierarchy they’ve developed for themselves in the wake of losing their families.  The oldest, a boy with dark skin and almost black hair, who could be no older than ten, stand in front of everyone else, acting as the first line of defense.  The next line of defense is not the next oldest, but a small girl off to the boys right.  The fire burning in her eyes, equal parts hopeful and suspicious, bores into Charlotte’s as they wait for her to make a move.  Standing firmly behind the pair is a boy younger looking than the first, maybe seven or eight, but almost just as tall.  He’s all skin and bones, his pale face almost painfully sharp, and in his arms, he holds a baby a few months shy of one year.  And lastly, a girl about the same age as Julian rushes around everyone else to get a look at Charlotte.

“Hello!”  She says, a big smile in place as she returns Charlotte’s wave.  As she waves, Charlotte gets a look at the welts crisscrossed over her palm.  “You’re here to help?”  Before she can get closer to Charlotte, the oldest boy grabs the back of her shirt and pulls her back to the group. “Ry-”

“Stay here, Belle.”  He looks like he wants to say something else, but Bull and the others coming up behind Charlotte puts a stop to that idea real quick.  Linril brakes the silence this time around, tentatively motioning the guys forward.

“Alright everyone, this is Charlotte St. Clair, she’ll be taking care of you guys from now on.  Next to her is Julian, he’ll be with you all too.  The rest of us are going to fix up the cabin a bit so you all can live here.”

“Why don’t we go outside for a while, while they work?”  Charlotte stands, offering one hand to Julian and motioning for the others to follow.  It’s no surprise Belle is the first out the door, quickly followed by the two other girls and then boys.  After a brief moment of hesitation, Charlotte leads them over towards the small lake.  Once there, Charlotte plops down on the ground, looking back at the children.  “You’re name’s Belle, right?” 

“Yes!  I’m four!”  She holds up all five fingers, looking suitably pleased with herself when Charlotte gasps.

“Four already?!  There’s no way!  You’re almost a grown up already.”

“Four’s not that special; I’m seven.  That’s three more than four.  And I’m taller.”  The older girl, her hair a fiery orange, holds her head up high as she takes her place next to Belle as if to prove that she is indeed taller.

“Yes, I bet you’ll go even taller, maybe even taller than me!”

“When I’m as old as Adalia, I’m going to have pretty red hair too.”  Belle latches onto Adalia’s arm, grinning as the fire in the older girls’ eyes fade just a little.

“I don’t know; your caramel hair is beautiful.  I wish I had your hair... maybe one day we’ll trade.”  Charlotte leans closer, whispering as if it is some sort of secret with a grin to match.  She doesn’t flinch when Belle reaches out one small hand away from Adalia and brushes Charlotte’s short hair.  Charlotte’s attention is caught when the small baby starts to cry, the boy holding her looking near frantic as he tries to soothe her.  The boy stands off to the side, keeping his distance with the other boy, warry of Charlotte and what she might do to them.  “You know, when I was a kid, I used to make sandcastle’s all the time by the river.  Have you guys ever made them before?”  All of them shake their heads no, Julian included.  “Come on then; I’ll teach you.  It’s no fun to make them by yourself.” 

Everyone but the boys move with Charlotte closer to the bank of the lake, listening intently as Charlotte explained the basics before letting them lose to build.  It doesn’t take long for Belle and her infectious laughter to drag Julian into the mix, the pair taking turns cupping water over to their sand castle to make a moat.  Adalia works on building a single tower of sorts, finding all the pretty rocks and pebbles she can to decorate it with.  The baby calms down as the bubble of noise becomes a constant, and the little boy holding her looks more than a little envious at all the fun.

“If you’d like, I can hold her while you go and play.”  Charlotte offers quietly, watching as indecision dance across his sharp features. 

“Come on Phillip; I need your help!  They're going to beat us!”  Adalia shouts for Phillip, the boy freezing for just one more moment before ever so carefully handing the baby over to Charlotte’s waiting arms.

“Her names Tessa, and she like being held like this.”  He shows her quickly, rattling off a few more facts about the baby’s likes and dislikes before turning and rushing over to Adalia, his quiet voice offering ideas to better their tower in rapid succession.  Charlotte takes a moment to look at the baby in her arms, a little surprised to see her green eyes open.  She is small, though Charlotte doesn’t know if it’s just the way babies are supposed to be or if it’s from some malnutrition and the like.  She’s never really been around babies before, and she thought she’d be more nervous, but her anxieties are as quiet as the child. 

“Aren’t you just the cutest little baby ever,”  Charlotte mutters, her voice changing like everyone’s does when she talks to her.  Tessa manages to wiggle an arm free from the blanket wrapped around her, reaching up with tiny fingers to grab a fistful of Charlotte's hair, giving it a good yank for good measure.  “And that’s my hair, just like yours, isn’t it, sweetie?”

“Why are you taking care of us now?”  Charlotte turns to see the oldest boy standing behind her, his arms crossed over his chest as he warily watches her every move. 

“ Do you not want me to?” 

“I- I didn’t say that.  But no one’s wanted us since the Breach, why would you?” 

“Well, I guess I just want to make sure you guys get taken care of.  You don’t deserve to get lost in the mix of everything here just because there is no one to speak up for you.  That and the less power Roderick holds over people, the better.  I bet that dour old bat doesn’t know the first thing about taking care of kids.”  That finally gets the boy to crack a smile, even if it is just a tiny one.  Though, as quick as it comes, it's gone.

“You’re not going to be my mother.”

“No, sweetie, I’m not, and I'm sorry that she’s gone.  It’s hard- beyond hard- to live life having lost your parents... but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try or that it’s impossible.  I can’t replace your mom, and I am certainly not going to try.  I just want the opportunity to show you life’s not all bad.”  Charlotte waves a hand to where the others have started an epic sand castle war between two very different castles.  Sand and water fly through the air in both directions as laughter echoes up from the lake to Haven.  “Is that alright?”

“... I guess...”  He mumbles, suddenly very interested in the sand at his feet.  Soren brings them some food, wanting to keep them away from the cabin until it’s done so the reveal can be a surprise, but beyond him, their day flies by relatively uninterrupted.  They go from sand castle wars to short naps in the sun to leapfrog and duck-duck-goose before the bells for diner ring. 

“Alright, can we all hold hands?”  Charlotte takes one of Phillip’s hands, skillfully holding the still napping Tessa with the other arm.  Julian quickly grips Phillips other hand, wanting to be as close to Charlotte as possible, and down the line, everyone takes hold until they form a neat little line.  “We need to stop by Solas’ cabin to clean up, and then we can go eat.”

“Why we have to clean up?”  Belle pipes up from the middle of the line, looking first to Ry and then to Charlotte. 

“We had all that fun outside in the sand; surely you don’t want to eat the sand?”  Charlotte isn’t going to get into the existence of the microbiological flora that is not only in the water but also the sand and dirt and should not really be in the human body. 

“I ate dirt once!”  Adalia looks proud for just a moment before the smug grin slides from her face.  “It... wasn’t that good...” 

“No, it isn’t.  So, with a little help from Solas and some soap, we should be all good to eat.  Come on, everyone, I don’t know about you, but I’m starving!”  On their way back, they make a game of who can take the biggest steps, stopping when Adalia ends up in the splits wowing everyone into silence.  “Solas, would you mind if we all cleaned up a bit here?”  He shakes his head, not sparing a glance up from the old scroll rolled out over the table as he waves then into the room.  One after another, they all take turns scrubbing their hands clean, grumbling when Charlotte start’s trying to get the dirt off their faces. 

By the time they get to the kitchens, most everyone else has already settled at tables eating away at whatever the cooks made.  One by one Charlotte helps the kids through the lines, making sure each one thanks the cooks before ushering everyone to a table in the corner.  They get lots of curious glances as they eat, but for the most part, everyone leaves them alone.  It’s a fight to get everyone to eat all that’s on their plates, no one really a fan of the weirdly cooked greens, but after several reminders of the kids who don’t even have a bite of food to eat, the plates get cleared. 

“You guys ready to see your new home?”  Linril pops up just as Charlotte finishes getting everyone’s hands clean, and they nod excitedly, Adalia and Belle fighting over who gets to hold Linril’s hand for the walk over.  Julian, half asleep on his feet, finds his way into Charlotte's arms, Phillip once again cradling Tessa.  He’s good with the baby; she just wishes that the responsibility of taking care of a child wasn’t put on his small shoulders.  “After a bit of finagling, we’ve got room for all of you, plus some extra room to play.”  They all wait on baited breath as Linril opens the door to the cabin, the inside barely recognizable as the healer’s old cabin after all the work that went into it.  There are several bunk beds tucked back in the far corner, the fireplace in the back of the main room now has a table and chairs in front of it, giving the who cabin a homey feel to it.  Off to the other side, there is a bigger bed clearly for Charlotte, and crib for the Tessa.  Each bed has blankets and pillows already tucked away, and Charlotte feels the sting of tears behind her eyes. 

Maybe everything will be okay after all.

~~~~~

Everything is decidedly not fine.

It’s been several days now since Charlotte started to watch the children, and she’s already near the end of her rope.  She never realized just how much a baby cries.  And if it’s not Tessa waking her up regularly every night, it’s one of the other waking up from nightmares of the Breach and demons.  Every time Charlotte sits awake with them, gently singing to them until they are fast asleep before drifting off herself, only to wake up an hour later because Tessa needs food or a changing or just to be held.  Nights are long, and Charlotte’s care of the kids all day is longer.  They play games, tell stories, learn about random things from Earth until meal times roll around.  That is the only time Charlotte get’s any rest; the kids are too busy eating to run around. 

Charlotte stands just outside their cabin, looking up at the moons with bleary eyes as she rocks back and forth, gently patting Tessa’s back as she screams.  Nothing seems to be calming the child tonight; Charlotte has already tried all her tricks to no avail.  She doesn’t even have the energy to be startled when a hand gently taps her shoulder.  Slowly, so as not to upset Tessa anymore, Charlotte turns around, meeting the worried eyes of Cullen who looks almost as bad as she does.  Both are much paler than they ought to be, their eyes sunk in and rimmed with dark bags.  She’s noticed his turn for the worse over the past few days, not that she has any earthly clue as to why, but she hasn’t had a free breath to even ask him about it on the few occasions she sees him from his never-ending duties as Commander.

“Go back to sleep; I’ll watch her for a while.”  Without even putting up a fight, Charlotte hands the screaming bundle over.  After making sure he has her, she stumbles back into the cabin, leaving the door open for Cullen to follow when he’s done watching her.  She passes out the moment she’s laying in bed, utterly oblivious to how quickly Cullen gets Tessa to calm.  Once he’s sure she’s well and truly out, Cullen follows Charlotte into the cabin, the baby placed in her crib with such care it would have made Charlotte’s heart skip a beat if she were conscious to witness it.  Cullen unceremoniously drops to the ground near Charlotte’s bed, resting his arms and head on the mattress as he tries not to break under the weight of the responsibilities on his shoulders.

The dreams that haunt him are bad, and they only seem to be getting worse.  Visions of Haven being destroyed, of his soldiers breaking against a demon army like water on rocks, of Charlotte getting torn apart in the aftermath, they all plague him every time he closes his eyes.  The sound of her screaming for his help rings in his ears nearly constantly, and it's driving him insane.  And he knows what will make it stop; he’s always known.  Just little bit, just one drop more, just to make it stop... a little bit more isn’t really going to make a difference... just enough to get some sleep...  just a taste...  He knows where the lyrium is stored; it would be all too easy to go in and take just a small bit more.  No one would dare question him, stop him.  He could be free from the night terror’s stalking his every step.

“No...  I won’t go back!”  He whispers, his voice harsh against the silence of the night.  “They won’t get me!”  Tears burn his eyes, but they stay firmly in place, Cullen refusing to let them fall.  “Just a little more and- and I’ll be free.” 

As Cullen half lays against the bed, his mind a hazy mix of voices coaxing him into giving in and voices screaming at him to fight, he wanders back to the start of it all.  He was just a kid, a kid who wanted to protect people, to help.  A kid who knew nothing of the darkness of the world.  And they took him, they broke him, poisoned him, twisted him into everything he wanted to protect people from.  The demons are the ones who broke him, but the Templar Order are the ones who truly ruined him.  They took his pain and fear after Kinloch and used it against him.  They carefully cultivated his pain into anger, his fear into hatred.  And in the few moments he tried to fight back, they would drug him with so much lyrium he had entire months missing from his memory.  Maker only knows what monstrosities he was commanded to do is his completely compliant state. 

It was in such a state that Hawke turned Kirkwall upside down.  In the mess of things that Meredith had made, Cullen came to only to be greeted by the horrors crafted by those who were once supposed to protect mages and non-mages alike.  It was the final straw, and after the Chantry exploded, after Hawke let Anders go, Cullen was overwhelmed with a depression the likes of which he’d never known before.  The darkness swallowed him whole, and in that never-ending nightmare, he’s ashamed to admit that he tried to end it all on more than one occasion.  Cassandra pulled him forcibly from the darkness, dragging him reluctantly into the light to face what he’d done, face the man he’d become... and she offered him the chance to redeem himself.  Cullen knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but this- the withdrawals, the Conclave, the Breach, everything, this isn’t how it was supposed to be!  And no matter how he fights, no matter what he does, nothing seems to be getting better.  The Breach still hangs over their heads, the Inquisition no closer to closing it than they are to stopping the war between Templars and mages.  He should have just given up when he had the chance, just stopped the pain before it got this bad... just another taste, just a little-  Charlotte runs one hand sleepily through his hair, not even bothering to open her eyes to look at him before drifting back to sleep. 

“Sleep, Cullen.” 

Cullen is unsure of what possesses him to take off his boots and cloak, to climb into bed with Charlotte, to cradle her close to his chest like he has any right to be near here.  At that moment, though, he’s too worn out to try and fight it.  His heart tightens when Charlotte tucks herself closer to him, when she presses a sleepy kiss to his neck.  He never wants to leave, and even though he feels sleep overwhelming his senses, he finds himself trying to fight it, to stay in this warm moment with Charlotte for just a tiny bit longer.  It’s a losing battle he’s fighting, and he knows it, but every extra second burned into his mind is worth it. 

Chapter Text

“Cullen?”  A whisper is what drags him from his blissful night's rest, and the most he can manage in his blissed-out state is a hum.  “I’m taking the kids with me to see Solas; you two should rest more.”  Somewhere in the back of his mind, he recognizes the voice as Linril’s, and again he lets out a hum, let his consciousness drift once again as he listens to the kids quietly leave the cabin with Linril.  Once the world starts to come into focus again, several things jump to the front of his mind.

One is that at some point during the night he’d taken off his loose shirt.  Not entirely strange for him, especially since the withdrawals have started to mess with his entire body.  The only reason that he even notices he’s shirtless is because of the second thing that clicks in his mind.  An arm is draped over his side; a hand pressed right over his heart as the owner of said arm hugs closer to Cullen.  He feels soft hair tickling his back as it moves with each breath.  The third thought that clicks is what ties everything together into a big ball of embarrassment.  A warm, floral scent of soap fills the air, and in an instant, Cullen knows who’s pressed up against him.

His mind jumps into overdrive as he simultaneously tries to etch everything into memory and not think about it.  Cullen tries not to think about how he can feel her soft breasts pressing against him, but he knows he’ll never forget the feeling.  He tries not to imagine how she tangled her legs with his, but he can picture every scenario with vivid clarity.  He wonders how it would feel to have her kiss the scars away even as he tries to shift his back away from her to stop the fantasies running rampant through his head.  He wants to turn; he wants to hold her.  He wants to watch her wake up and see the sun dance across her skin. 

Ever so slowly Cullen turns, rolling to the side, ignoring how much he likes the feel of Charlotte’s skin against his.  Even though he tries to keep her from waking up, she ends up opening her eyes not long after, staring blankly at Cullen until she can focus.  They are so close, sharing the same pillow, tangled in the same blankets.  Their breaths mingle- back and forth, back and forth- neither one looking away, trapped in each other’s gaze.  Closer and closer, just a hairs breath away-

The loud clang of a sword on a shield shatters their soft moment, both of them jerking back, Charlotte overreacting at rolling right out of bed. 

“I-I-I’m s-so sorry!”  Her mind still isn’t awake, but everything is in enough focus that the keen sting of embarrassment spears through her chest.  Blood rushes to her face, and she keeps herself hidden from Cullen under the blanket.

“No, no, I’m- I apologize, I should- should just... good day, Charlotte.”  Cullen stumbles, his own cheeks flaming.  He barely has his shirt over his head before he’s out the door, pausing only for a moment to tell Charlotte where the kids are. 

Charlotte, more than content to stay in a huddle on the floor, tries to keep the tears from her eyes.  She may have gotten some proper rest in the last half of the night, but her nerves are still strung out, her emotions still tangled up in a mess she never wants to deal with.  More than anything else, she doesn’t want to think about how much it hurts that she came so close to a kiss only to have the moment stolen in the blink of an eye.  One more second and it would have happened, it could have happened.

He wanted it too, right?  It wasn’t just me moving... it wasn’t, was it?  God...

After more wallowing she crawls over to the chest, carefully taking out some clothes and her backpack.  It’s been on her mind these last few days to ask about what sort of schooling there is for kids in Thedas, and what she might need to learn before she can teach the kids.  With notebooks and pencils in hand, Charlotte steps out into the bright sunlight, sending a glare over to the soldier practicing not far from the cabin.  She scribbles down notes and questions as she walks, used to the weird looks she gets from other civilians in Haven. 

So, they’re going to need to learn to read and write, some basic kind of science.  Things like history are probably necessary, and maybe like economics or something?  I mean, I wish someone would have taught me something like that in school... Probably should have some kind of magical theory class, both for Julian, but also so the others aren’t brought up to fear and hate magic like pretty much everyone else here.  Do I try to teach them how to fight?  I feel like that’s just asking for problems. 

“What are you up to, Kitten?”  Varric motions for her to have a seat next to him by some tents when she looks up. 

“Just... well, maybe you’d know.”

“I do know a great deal.  And you know what they say, if you can’t blind them with your brilliance, baffle them with your bullshit.”

“That’s... not exactly what I want to here, but I’ve gotta start somewhere.  Are there public schools here?  In Thedas I mean.  Or is it more like everyone is homeschooled and then slotted into their jobs by their families?  I just don’t know how much I’m supposed to do with everyone as far as their education goes.”

“What’s it like where you’re from?”

“Well, from a young age- 4 or 5ish I think- we start going to school.  Five days a week, seven hours a day from then until the age of 18 is usually spent in school.  We learn English, math, science and biology, physics and chemistry, choir and band; there is P.E., I mean physical education.  Plus extracurricular things like shop, tech ed, agricultural classes, 2D and 3D art, all kinds of sports from football and soccer to frisbee golf and badminton.”  Varric’s eyes nearly fall out of his skull.

“Yeah... we definitely don’t have that here.  I guess a lot of how well your educated depends on your social class.  Most people can read and write, but a farmer in Fereldan isn’t going to spend his days teaching his kids how to eat a salad in Orlais.  Did all the kids where you’re from learn all that?”

“I mean, it’s different in really small or really big cities as far as curriculum goes, but yeah, there’s public school for everyone up until high school- 18 years old- and then there are colleges and universities for higher education.  Like, getting a degree as a doctor or a degree in graphic design and so on.  There are also private schools that parents can pay to have their kids go to, and they’re supposed to be better I think, but I never went so who knows.”

“That’s insane...  I mean, great that you all get to learn, that’s just a crazy amount of time spent on schooling.  You going to try that here?”

“I don’t know.  I mean, I definitely want them all to have an education, I just don’t know if I can give them that...”

“You can always ask for help, raising them is going to be hard enough without adding their education on as well.  No reason different people can’t take them for a day, or even part of a day.”

“So it’s not going to seem... lazy of me if I do that?”  Charlotte ducks her head, fully expecting him to laugh and say of course it’s going to make her look lazy, but instead, she just feels his hand rest on her shoulder, waiting for her to look at him before continuing.

“No, it really won’t.  We can all see the toll this is putting on you right now, even after just a few days.  I’m sure they never meant for you to do everything with them.  All you have to do is ask for help; I think a great many of us would gladly lend a hand if just to get away from the rest of our duties for a while.”

~~~~~

Solas offers, or rather insists that he be the one to teach of magic and its uses as opposed to letting Madame de Fer anywhere near the kids with her views on mages and templars.  Varric offers to try teaching reading and writing, though Charlotte is sure he just wants more of an audience for his outlandish stories.  After some convincing Josephine decides that once a week she can take a few hours and teach the children etiquette as well as a small bit on finances.  History is being largely overlooked as well as science, though the later is simply because they aren’t as advanced as they were back on Earth.  Charlotte is still largely on the fence when it comes to teaching them fighting, and the only person she could think to ask is Cullen... who she’s been avoiding like the plague to saves them both any further embarrassment.  She will still have the kids every morning and night, and several afternoons during the week, but even just a little help does wonders.  She’s still stressed and tired, but she doesn’t have the weight of their entire future riding on her shoulders.

For instance, right now she sits on the bench outside their cabin, cutting her old jeans and t-shirt up in various shapes, trying to make little stuffed animals from the soft fabrics.  She’d bought bits of wool to stuff them with, as well as a needle and thread to sew them up with, but she underestimated just how hard it is to make something that actually looks decent when it comes to stuffed animals.  The dog she made looks more like a chocolate dog someone let sit out on a hot summer day, the owl looking more like a 90-year-old grandma with bad arthritis tried to draw the shape of Wisconsin from memory.  Right now, she’s working on sewing up the bear who looks a bit too much like a voodoo doll.  She’s stabbed her fingertips more times than she can count, her blood likely staining every animal she tired to make. 

She’s going to buy some buttons and beads to sew on for eyes and whatnot, and when they’re finished, she intends to give them as Christmas gifts... or at least like Christmas gifts as they don’t have Christmas in Thedas. 

The sound of several footsteps getting closer sends Charlotte flying, her mad dash to get everything hidden inside the chest next to her bed ending with her in an unflattering heap on the floor.  Luckily by the time there is a knock on the door, she’s got everything mostly out of sight, a few loose ends stubbornly sticking out of the chest here and there.

“Charlotte?  Are you in?”

“Just a second!”  Her reply is panicked, her heart racing when she hears the chatter of all the children getting closer to the cabin.  Once she’s sure she doesn’t look too frazzled, she opens the door, surprised to Solas wearing all his traveling gears.

“I’m sorry to cut the lesson short, but it looks like we’re off Redcliff in search of mages.  Or rather, Linril, Varric, Bull, and I are off to Redcliff.  I do believe Tivvin is taking Cassandra, Vivienne, and Sera to look for Templar aid.  Now that the war has calmed slightly here in Ferelden, it looks like the Inquisition is making closing the Breach their next priority.  We should be back in several days if you’d like to keep up the lessons then, I doubt we’re going to find what we’re looking for right off the bat.”  He gives her a bitter smile, shaking his head slightly at the thought of all the back and forth it’s going to take to get the help they need for the Breach.

“No, that’s fine, don’t worry about it.  I’ll... it’ll be fine.”  She knows it will probably be anything but fine, but she doesn’t want to place even a fragment of guilt on Solas’ shoulders.  As they two continue to talk about how they might get the Breach closed, the children all squeak into the cabin, quickly starting up a little game of tag that spirals out of control so fast Charlotte doesn’t even have time to process what’s going on before she’s separating Ry and Adalia.  They send venomous glares at each other, mumbling under their breaths as they are sent to timeout.  Solas’, having witnessed the whole scene, tries to apologize one last time before he leaves, but Charlotte cuts him off with a hug, telling him to be safe or else.

Chapter Text

Four days is all it takes for Tivvin to return from prancing around the nobility.  He’s... testy, to say the least, and it only adds to the tensions already haunting Haven.  The Heralds leaving for different sides brought back the argument of mages vs. Templars with a vengeance.  Several merchants now refused to sell things to Charlotte and the kids because of Julian, some of the townsfolk shouting angry curses at them.  That he is also an elf doesn’t help the situation, but once they know who to avoid, it isn’t so bad.  For their part, the other kids adopt Julian into their ranks with little convincing, and they defend him just as fiercely as they would any other child.  Charlotte does her best not to engage with those bitterly throwing hate their way, instead quietly reporting them to Rylen at the end of the day when the children are sleeping.  Teaching the kids to be mean back isn’t going to solve anything, so she’s trying to teach them to ignore the nasty words and looks, but her encouragement doesn’t always mean much.  She’ll spend hours at night comforting Julian as he sobs, his crying usually causing Belle and Phillip to start crying.  Without much effort at all, the whole cabin is full of sobs and quiet, comforting words, almost everyone pairing up to keep the depression from spiraling out of control. 

While mornings aren’t generally very peaceful, they don’t usually start with screaming, and that’s what wakes Charlotte up the day after Tivvin’s return.  Charlotte hits the floor running to the door, the brisk morning air hitting her like a slap to the face.  A man in heavy armor is dragging a screaming Julian towards the walls of Haven, though he is putting up as much of a fight as he can.

“Hey!  Let him go!”  Charlotte reaches them, immediately grabbing the man’s shoulders to get them to stop, but he merely brushes her off and keeps dragging Julian.  “I said, let him the fuck go!”  A well-aimed kick to the back of the man’s knee, while it does stun the man momentarily, does nothing to deter him in the long run.  By the time they are in the middle of Haven, Charlotte has grabbed onto the armor covering the mans back, digging her feet into the ground to try and stop them.  “Let.  Him.  Go!!”  Her screaming is almost louder than Julian’s, and between the pair of them, they’ve gotten nearly everyone in Haven watching them.  They make it to the front of the Chantry before the man in armor finally loses his patience. 

“Shut your mouth!”  With little care, he sends Julian flying towards the door before quickly spinning and connecting his fist with Charlotte’s face.  Like a sack of potatoes, she hits the ground, disorientated but conscious.  And for a single moment all is quiet until Julian lets out a wail that chills Charlotte to the bone, the boy surrounded in a vivid green aura, ready to use his magic to blast the man into the Fade.

That is the moment Cullen finally makes his way to the center of the scene, rage filling his chest when he sees Charlotte crumpled on the ground, the side of her face torn open and bleed from the man’s gauntlets.  He sees Julian with swirling magic around him, and even with his current state of almost total lyrium withdrawal, he can feel the magic tingling over his skin.  Along with he magic, he can also feel the Templar guilty of the whole situation preparing a Silence, gathering as much strength behind it as he can even though he’s going to be Silencing a child who could very well die if hit with that harsh of an attack.  Charlotte tries to stand, grabbing onto the Templar to steady herself, and even without a connection to the Fade, she can feel the power rippling through the air, instinctively knowing that the Templar is going to hurt Julian. Cullen wants to shout, he wants to get in the way, but he doesn’t have time.  Instead, he musters up all the lyrium left in the body and launches a pathetic Silence of his own.  It’s not enough to hurt Julian, not even enough to momentarily severe his connection from the Fade and mute his magic, but the boy has never felt anything like it, and falls over unconscious, his magic dissipating into the air like smoke.

“Julian!”  Charlotte half runs half crawls over to the boy, holding him close, instantly checking for a pulse and a breath.  “What did you do to him?!”  But the Templar pays her no mind, instead turning to where Cullen stands almost shaking.

“Good work, Knight-Captain, the mage was-”

“That is not my title any longer. We-”

“You did this?”  The betrayal in her voice alone is enough to crush Cullen, the pain and fear he now sees in her eyes rendering him speechless.  “What- I don’t- how-”

“My dears, whatever is going on out here?”  Vivienne strolls out of the Chantry, calm and cool as always, looking onto the whole affair as if it were all beneath her.

“Lady Vivienne, I was doing as you suggested, taking the mage child into custody, but the woman got in the way.”

“Taking him into custody?!  What the fuck, he’s done nothing wrong!”

“He’s a mage, my dear, a mage without training of any sort.  His very presence outside of a Circle is a danger to others.  He needs to be-”

“He’s never hurt anyone!”  Charlotte interrupts Vivienne, moving her body to get some kind of barrier between Julian and the witch before her.

“I was not done speaking.”  She pins Charlotte with a glare, looking down her nose at her before launching back into her speech on how it is for his own safety until he can get taken to a Circle, on how the townsfolk and troops are all afraid of him and were ready to turn on them all.  When she calls him a threat for the fourth time, Charlotte finally snaps, cutting her off one final time.

“You say one more word about him like he’s a tool, a weapon, a thing, and I promise you that you won’t live to regret it.  You are not tasked with the care of the children and thank God for that.  Lord only knows what a bitch like you would do to them.  You so much as look at him the wrong way again and you won’t need t worry about the Breach or the War ever again.”

“Is that a threat, my dear?”  She wears her smile like a mask, her whole face concealed, devoid of any emotion other than mild interest.

“You bet you stupid, ruffled ass it is.”  As Charlotte watches Vivienne’s amused smile grow, and she suddenly finds herself wishing for a taser and some pepper spray so that she can wipe that grin from her face.  Cullen, ever the gentleman and wanting to not only help Charlotte stand but also explain why he did what he did, goes over to where Charlotte is trying to get up from the ground while keeping Julian as still as possible in her arms.  The second his hand brushes her arm though, her head whips around, her furious gaze locking on him. “And you, you Goddamn monster!!  I never want to see you near us ever again!”  The venom laced in her words, the anguish and the fury blazing in her eyes, it all freezes Cullen on the spot.  She storms back to the cabin with Julian, not bothering to glace at a single onlooker as she goes. 

With wooden movements Cullen disperses the crowd, stopping only to get the Templar into the Chantry after Vivienne, who remains as unaffected by what just happened as always.  Josephine, having witnessed everything from one of the windows in the Chantry tries to speak first, but Cullen cuts her off with a wave of his hand.

“It’s not your place to control the mages here, Lady Vivienne, and certainly not your place to order Templar to start grabbing children.  If I hear of such an incident again, you’ll be back on your way to Orlais, what the Heralds think of you be damned.  There’s enough tension between everyone without you stirring it up more.”

He turns on his heel, ignoring how Josephine calls after him, ignoring the looks he gets from people as he walks back to his tent, ignoring the worried glances Rylen sends his way.  He barely makes it to his desk before he collapses, the Silence having drained him of everything.  Between the withdrawals and the memory of Charlotte’s look of betrayal he feels himself getting lost once again in the darkness.  He curls in on himself, the plate armor he wears cutting into him painfully as he endeavors not to cry and not to pass out even though those two things are exactly what he wants at that moment.

I had to do it; I had to save him.  He would have died if Ser Jaxxin Silenced him... Better he lives, and she hates me, and oh Maker, does she hate me...

His mind replays the moment where she was struck down, the moment of agony when he thinks she might not get back up, the moment her fearful gaze lands on him, and he can feel the trust she had in him breaking. 

Just take some lyrium, not a lot, only enough to forget, to move on.  You used up what’s in your system for them; it’s only fair you get to replenish it.  Only a small taste, then you can stop.

Cullen reaches for the vial in his desk, ashamed at how badly his hand is shaking, stopping dead in his tracks when he hears someone approach his tent, clearing their throat loudly before announcing themselves.

“Commander, I have some reports for you.”  Rylen’s accented voice, slightly muffled by the tent, is enough to pull Cullen to his feet.  He needs to appear healthy and in control if he wants his troops to be any good.  He’ll focus on work, keep his mind from wandering.  And he’ll probably have Rylen do the training outside of Haven’s walls, just to make sure he abides by Charlotte’s wishes. 

She’ll never have to see me again, that- at least- I can do.

~~~~~

If Solas thought tensions were high in Haven before leaving, they are nothing compared to what he finds when he returns.  They come with a Tevinter mage in tow, the boisterous man having not stopped talking since he joined their travelling party.  He had been used to the sideways glances, the whispers behind his back, but for the most part people kept their opinions to themselves.  After walking through the gates though, he’s met with glares from people who had just a week ago treated him with begrudging respect.  They all go their separate ways, Linril and Dorian heading off to find Josephine to ask about a place for Dorian to stay.  Solas, after setting his pack down in the cabin, wanders off in search of Cullen.  He’s curious about what bringing Templars into the Inquisition will do, and he needs to know what to expect when they finally get around to recruiting anyone.

Solas finds himself rushing into the Commanders tent when he gets close, the sound of the man within emptying his stomach drawing him in.  He finds Cullen half dressed and disheveled from a rough night of terror-filled dreams, bent over a bucket as he heaves.  After several more times, there’s nothing left for him to bring up, but his body continues to try.  He hits the floor the moment he’s finished, shaking violently, almost seizing up.  The sound of Solas’ healing spell is what gets him up from the floor, Cullen bolting to hide behind his desk.

“No magic.”  He croaks, and Solas sees genuine terror in his eyes, not hatred like he was expecting.  “Please, no magic...”  Reluctantly Solas nods, his spell carefully dispelling before Cullen’s eyes as if to prove that he wasn’t going to use any magic.  Instead, Solas slowly reaches for a healing potion in one of the many pockets in his robes.  With his help, Cullen manages to drink the potion and get back into bed.  “I’m sorry.”  He apologizes quietly, shame and regret in equal measures painting his face.

“It is nothing, Commander Cullen.  I hope you feel better soon.  I merely wished to discuss what the changes might be with Templars possibly joining us soon.  Especially for young mages like Julian-” He’s cut off when Cullen nearly flies from the bed.

“You need to go check on Charlotte, please.  She hasn’t- not since- locked the door-” Cullen is almost hysterical as he talks, his mind all over the place, his eyes darting from one place to another, the fever burning through his body making him almost delirious.

“What happened to Charlotte?”  Solas completely forgets the topic of mages and Templars when he sees the gut-wrenching look of guilt in Cullen’s eyes.

“Lady Vivienne tried to get a Templar- got a Templar to take Julian away.  Charlotte- she was trying to protect him, to get him back.  The Templar hit her before I could help her.  Julian- he was trying to protect her, save her, he was scared, and he was going to use his magic.  Ser Jaxxin was going to Silence him, kill him, and I couldn’t let that happen, couldn’t let Charlotte see that.  So I did, just a small Silence, barely anything at all, but he wasn’t- isn’t used to it.  He passed out, she hates me, threatened Vivienne, never wants to see me again.  But!  But you need to go help her.  He hit her and I couldn’t stop it.  Please, go help her.”  Cullen’s fever driven rant ends with him passing out, Rylen stepping into the tent not long after.

“How long has he been like this?”  Solas quietly asks, and Rylen sighs, shaking his head as he looks at what’s become of his friend.

“Pretty much since it all happened.  He threw himself into work and then the withdra- then it all hit him like a rock, he’s been sick ever since.  I think the fever is going down, but there’s not much else I can do if he doesn’t want magic near him.”  Solas, finally having confirmation of Cullen’s attempt at quitting lyrium, just nods, not bringing it up.  He’s brave to try and even braver for sticking with it when it’s clearly hitting him hard.

“If you don’t think he’d mind, I can try making so potions to make his... symptoms more manageable.”

“I think he’d try almost anything at this point.”

~~~~~

It’s in the middle of story time that Charlotte gets interrupted, a soft knock on the door pausing the epic tale of the Fellowship of the Ring.  She and the children have all stayed behind the locked door since the incident, Charlotte not wanting to rick anything else happening until things have calmed down.  They’ve survived off the stash of rations Charlotte had been steadily saving up in case of emergency.  Julian had woken up not long after getting home, and after some tears, they all decide that maybe chilling inside for a while won’t be so bad.  People had stopped trying to get in after the first day, and Charlotte is sorely tempted not to open the door.  That is until she hears a soft, familiar voice from outside.

“Charlotte, please let me in.”  She nearly rips the door off its hinges to get to Solas, throwing herself into his arms the second she can.  “I think you all need to get some rest.”  A spell fills the room, and the children all walk to their beds and drift off into a peaceful slumber as Charlotte starts to cry.  “Alright, you can talk now.” 

And talk she does.  She tells him how things were getting while everyone was gone, of the stress of it all.  And then she tells him about what happened when Vivienne tried to take Julian away.  He listens carefully when she sobs over what Cullen did, about how she trusted him, and he broke that trust.  She rants about how she almost kissed him, how close she thought they were only to have him shatter that when he showed his true colors.  All the while Solas heals the wounds she sustained when the Templar stuck her.  When words fail Charlotte, she settles for just crying into the soft fur Solas always wears when he travels. 

“I’m going to tell you something, Charlotte, and I hope you listen.  Templars take lyrium, it’s how they get their abilities to fight mages.  One such ability is called a Silence.  It shuts down any attempt at magic that a mage might try.  When you got hit, Julian was ready to use magic to try and kill the Templar.  In response, the Templar was going to Silence him, but he was going to use everything he had.  A Silence like that is usually only used for the most powerful of mages, and if used on a mage as young and inexperienced as Julian, it would have killed him.  Cullen Silenced him instead, only barely knocking him out from the shock, but otherwise leaving the boy unharmed.  He was saving Julian, he knew what he meant to you and wasn’t going to let you watch him die.”

“W-w-what?”

“He saved Julian the only way he could.  And after talking with Josephine and Tivvin just now, it sounds like he also warned Vivienne that should she ever try a stunt like that again she would be cast out of the Inquisition.”  Charlotte sits frozen, her mind brings up the shock and hurt on Cullen’s face when she yelled at him, something she’d been pleased about until this very moment. 

If he didn’t hate you before Charlotte, he certainly does now.  He saves your ass- and Julian’s! - and you yell at the man?  You tell him you never want to see him again like he’s the villain when all along it’s you.  You’re the bad guy; you’re the one who’s unable to protect anything or anyone. 

All at once guilt suffocates her, her mind spiraling out of control as anxiety takes the wheel.  Her hands shake, her breaths come short and fast.  The ringing in her ears blocks out whatever else Solas is saying, her mind’s screaming the only thing she can hear over the noise.

Apologize!  Apologize!  You worthless, heartless, scum of the Earth!  How dare you!  They were right to hate you, right to want you dead.  They’d be better off without, everyone would be!  You apologize and then you walk yourself right off a cliff!  Nobody wants someone as troublesome as you, not even the kids you’ve kept locked up here.  They hate you, you could see it if you just looked.  Better to just die.

She stumbles to her feet, racing towards Cullen’s tent barefoot, still in her makeshift pajamas.  Charlotte bursts into Cullen’s tent to find him unconscious in bed, looking like death warmed over. 

You did this; I hope you’re happy. 

But before she can even try to apologize for what she’s done, Cullen’s hand latches onto her arm, gripping it with what feeble strength he has.  Foggy, bloodshot eyes meet hers, his sickly pale skin only making his dark sunken eyes stand out all the more.

“I need it... give it to me...”  Charlotte, confused as to what he’s talking about, sits there dumbly, looking at him and waiting for him to explain.  “The lyrium!  Give it to me!!”  He shouts at her, or at least he tries.  The loud croaking is the most he can manage, but it’s enough to shake Charlotte to her core.  She’s never seen him like this, so desperate and broken and angry. 

Templars use lyrium for their abilities.  Solas' voice echoes from deep in her mind.  Charlotte begins to wonder what exactly lyrium is and why Cullen seems so desperate for it.

“Get it!  I need it!”  He tries to get up but when Charlotte nods in agreement he seems to settle.  She hesitantly starts to look around his tent for anything that might be labeled lyrium.  She isn’t sure if it’s something solid he eats, or a potion, or some kind of cocaine dust he needs to breath, but that doesn’t stop her from looking.  When she sees a faint blue glow from a box inside his desk she slowly starts to pulls it out.  “Yes... give it to me...”  The crazed look in his eyes scares Charlotte, her hand freezing just inches from the lid. 

“That’s enough, Cullen.”  Rylen’s voice from the entrance to the tent startles Charlotte, and she ends up slamming the drawer shut like she was caught stealing a cookie.  “You don’t need the lyrium, that’s what you told me.  You're going to be the first to break the chain, you swore.”

“Rylen, you don’t understand, you have it.”  Cullen whines pitifully from the bed, trying to get up for a moment before he realizes he’s too weak even to sit.  “If you were ever my friend, give it to me!  I need it, just a little taste and then I’ll stop.  It’s too soon, I shouldn’t have stopped altogether.  I made a mistake, I need the lyrium.”

“Well, you won’t get it from me.”  Rylen’s voice gets thick as he clearly is having a tough time with the situation.  “And not from Miss Charlotte here either.  She came to visit you, awfully nice of her, isn’t it?”  Some of the fog clears from Cullen’s eyes as he stares at her, but the second he sees her hand still on the drawer of his desk the crazed look returns.

“I don’t care!  I order you to give me the lyrium, Lieutenant.”

“I’m afraid that’s one thing you can’t order me to do, my friend.  Get some rest; you’ll feel better after.”

“I’d feel better with lyrium!”  Rylen heaves a sigh when Cullen tries to get up again, and he opens a small bottle under his nose, not unlike what Solas did to wake Julian up after their trip to the Hinterlands.  It’s not long before Cullen is passes out, Charlotte’s wide eyes locking on him as if he might spring to life at any moment.

“Sorry you had to see that, lass.  I doubt he’s told you what he’s doing, but I guess it’s too late to keep the cat in the bag.  If you could take a seat, I’d like to explain.”  Charlotte listens, but her mind is still trying to piece itself back together after the revelation Solas had told her, she isn’t sure she can take any more news...

Rylen slowly begins to explain lyrium and Templars, telling her that he used to be one too, that he followed Cullen to the Inquisition after what he saw in Kirkwall.  After the Chantry exploded, Cullen pieced everything together as best he could.  He did everything in his power to keep everyone safe, mages included.  And when he was recruited, he swore off lyrium, made Rylen and Cassandra swear to him that no matter what he said, or did they wouldn’t give him any.  Rylen explains how addicting lyrium is, how it affects the Templars who take it for most of their life, how a lot of them end up begging on the streets for just a taste of lyrium.  Once he’s finished, they sit in silence as everything comes into focus.

Cullen’s been going from alright, to bad, to worse because he’s been weaning himself off the lyrium.  It’s a good plan, just stopping the lyrium, at least from what Charlotte’s just learned, would send the body into shock.  He’s trying to detox, he’s finally cut himself off from lyrium altogether.  And he couldn’t have picked a worse time if he tried.  Maybe if all the stress from the Inquisition wasn’t resting on his shoulders, or if the Breach hadn’t happened, or if Charlotte hadn’t wrongly screamed at him he would be able to handle the withdrawals better.  But adding everything together like this is bound to have incredibly bad side effects like what he’s going through now.

“It’s my fault.”  Rylen harsh laugh fills the empty space after Charlotte’s quiet words.

“Makers breath, lass, how do you suppose this is in any way your fault?  You weren’t even a part of this world until well after Cullen, and I were put on lyrium.”

“I- I yelled a-at h-hi-him!  I d-di-didn’t kn-know h-he saved J-Julian!  I d-didn’t know!”

“Yeah, you did yell at him.  And it hurt.  I’m sure that played a part into him throwing himself into work with abandon, but you didn’t cause this.  You didn’t know any better when it came to Julian; he doesn’t blame you, nobody does.”

“No-nothing I do is-is e-ever right...”

“Oh, I doubt that.  You’ve got a way with those kids, I’ve never seen anything like it before.  They’re lucky to have you.  And Maker, can you sing.  Plus, Varric mentioned all the schooling you get back home, you’ve got to be pretty smart to take all that in.  And maybe you haven’t noticed, but you’ve done wonders for Cullen.”

“Clearly.”  Charlotte snorts through her tears, giving Rylen a disbelieving look as she waves a hand to where Cullen lay unconscious at deaths door. 

“I mean it, lass.  You don’t know what he was like before this, before the Inquisition.  He was in a bad place, and nothing I could do would help him.  He came here, he had a purpose, but he was still broken.  You helped him see the good in people again.  You gave him something to work towards even if he’d never allow himself to actually have you.  Have you not seen the stupid smile he gets when he watches you with the kids?  He’ll be yelling at recruits one moment and then pleased as peaches the next when he sees you walk past and smile at him.”

“No, you’re wrong.  Nobody wants me; even I don’t want me!”

“Are you blind?  Half of our recruit would give their sword arm for a chance with you.  They see you all smiles and laughter with the kids and they start thinking about how much they want that for themselves.  The only reason no one’s made a move to snatch you up yet is because of how obvious Cullen is.  And you’re not exactly secretive with your attraction either!  You two are dancing around this, getting so close and then backing off... Varric’s got bets going to see how long you two can fight it.”  Charlotte is once again stunned into silence, staring at Rylen for a while before looking to where Cullen lay still as stone.  Just as she starts to believe he might be right she shakes her head, getting rid of any hopeful thoughts before they can take root.

“No.  No, you’re wrong.  He doesn’t want me; I’m just... I’m his charity case.  I’m the fuck up who can’t do anything right; I’m the idiot who can’t make bread or pick herbs, I’m the loser no one wants to be stuck with.  I’m damaged goods; I’ve got too much baggage.  Not to mention I’m a fat cow as far as looks go.  No one would want me when there are people like Linril and Cassandra and Josephine around.” 

“A fat cow?!  Andraste’s ass, who called you a cow?!”

“Oh, that’s one of the nicer things I was called in school.”

“People from your world called you a cow?  Are people there blind!?  Lass, you’re lovely!  Yeah, Cassandra and the Herald are beautiful, no one is going to argue with you on that.  But you’re stunning too!  Certainly not a “fat cow,” as you so eloquently put.  You’re all small and soft and wonderful, and if people from your Earth couldn’t see that, then they are not nearly as intelligent as you make them out to be.”

“No, it’s not lovely!”  Charlotte starts crying again, angrily pointing out her worst features as she rants.  “I have a pudgy tummy, and my thighs touch and they look so bad when I’m sitting.  I’ve got soft arms like the fucking Pillsbury doughboy, and an ugly round face.  My nose is too big; my lips are too small, I’ve got boringly brown eyes.  And I’ve got scars everywhere!  No one wants a girl with scars!”

“Alright, first things first, and I’m going to say this once.  You are not fat.  Fat is the nobles in Orlais who sit around all day eating little cakes.  You have curves, sure, and their lovely by the way, but you are in no way fat.  Secondly, you’ve completely normal arms, granted I’ve no idea what you’re talking about with doughboys, but your arms arm completely average.  And your face is adorable.  You’ve got big, beautiful brown eyes, and your nose is just as adorable as the rest of you.  Cute as a button with a little upturn in it, perfect for kissing in the morning, I suspect.  And you really need to watch Cullen the next time you talk to him, he’ll show you exactly what he thinks of your mouth.  He can hardly look away from your lips when you talk, but your so busy being nervous around the idiot that you don’t notice either.  And lastly, what in the world do scars have to do with anything?”

“They’re unsightly!  No dude wants to do a girl who looks like she went through a car wash made out of scissors!”

“Maybe things are different on Earth, but here, men don’t care about stuff like that, at least not the real ones.  I think just about every woman I know- including all the ones I’ve slept with, and I don’t want to boast, but it is quite a few- have had their fair share of scars, and no ones ever said anything about them.  Are you going to judge us for having scars?”

“Of course not, that’s... it's different.  You earned those or whatever.  You fought, and you worked, I just had shitty foster parents who beat me!”  The silence is deafening as what she just said slowly sinks in.

“I’m sorry about that, lass, I really am.  Stuff like that, it sticks with you no matter what.  My Da’s father was like that, even to this day it haunts him.  But it’s not like you can’t still live.  You have a completely fresh start.  You’ve already found a job, found friends, and you found Cullen, though one could argue he found you first when you literally fell from the sky into him.  And I know that even though I’ve told you all this, you won’t take it to heart.  You’ve been hurt badly by some Maker damned fools, and it’ll take time to get to where you can see yourself as you are.  I just hope that you know I’m not lying to you.  And while Cullen likes how you look a whole lot, you should know that’s not what he truly cares about when it comes to you.  It’s a bonus, don’t get me wrong, but you are kind, and caring, and genuine, and good, and that’s that he needs in his life, what he wants so desperately to have.”  Rylen stands, taking a moment to ruffle Charlotte’s hair like she’s a kid before heading towards the entrance of the tent.  “I’m going to go see about finding someone to watch the kids while you’re here and maybe getting some of those potions from Solas to help with the withdrawals.  You stay here and look after him, alright?  Maker knows he’d rather see your face than my ugly mug when he wakes up.”

After he leaves, and after Charlotte gets a hold of her emotions again, she slides her chair closer to Cullen’s bed.  She takes the cloth next to the water bowl, carefully wetting it before gently wiping his face, resting the cool rag on his forehead when she’s finished.  He looks better now, if only slightly.  His face isn’t as pinched up as it usually is, and she prays it’s because his headache is gone. 

“He’s right, you know.”  After an hour of sitting there pondering all that Rylen said, Cullen’s voice startles Charlotte.  “I don’t blame you, I could never.”  In the back of her mind, she’s embarrassed to say how quickly she notices that he doesn’t say anything about what Rylen said on her looks- “And Maker, but you’re beautiful.”  She tentatively meets his gaze, pleased to see they are only hazy, not crazed and delirious.  Charlotte wonders if he is even really awake or if he thinks he’s dreaming.  Color is high in his cheeks, his body burning up in response to the lack of lyrium.  “I’m so sorry about Julian.  I didn’t-”

“Shh, it okay, I’m the ones who’s sorry.  I didn’t know, I didn’t let you explain...  A-and now you’re here...”  She can feel the tears welling up and spilling over the edge, her crying only getting louder when Cullen reaches up to brush away the tears with shaky fingers.  She slumps to the floor, her face buried in the blankets covering his bed, sobbing her eyes out as he gently strokes her hair, more than content to just let her cry it all out.

Chapter Text

Cullen wakes to the sound of glass jar quietly hitting each other as they are shifted, the soft clinking almost musical, though it is nothing compared to the lulling melody of Charlotte singing just under them.

Come with me, and you’ll be

In a world of pure imagination

Take a look, and you’ll see

Into your imagination

We’ll begin with a spin

Travelling in a world of my creation

What we’ll see will defy explanation

If you want to view paradise

Simply look around and view it

Anything thing you want to, do it

Want to change the world?

There’s nothing to it…

He’s in his own bed, his own tent, that much Cullen is sure of.  What he isn’t sure of is why Charlotte is there and why she isn’t currently trying to kill him for attacking Julian as he did.  He wants to freak out about it all, he wants to beg for her forgiveness, to mend any bridge he can, but he instantly talks himself out of that.  Better to just move on, save yourself from any pain getting closer to her might bring.                                                                                                                                

Her voice, slowly drifting along the melody of a song that is undoubtedly from her world, get’s closer to him, and he’s tempted to drift back to sleep to the soothing notes hanging in the air.  When he feels a damp cloth gently scrub his shoulder and arm, trying to clean up the sweat left by his fever, he nearly chokes on his heart as it leaps into his throat.  Charlotte notices how he stops breathing, his whole body tensing up, and she freezes in turn.  She glances up at him, her eyes as wide as his when they meet.

“W-What are you doing, Ch- Miss St. Clair?”

“Cleaning you up a b-bit.”  Both their voices are high and tight; Charlotte’s nearly cracking as she forces her hands to stay where they are and not shake. 

“I... can see that.  I just... why?”

“You need it?  Rylen went to get some more potions from Solas for your withdrawal symptoms.  He thinks you got through the worst part of this episode, but he wants to make sure you have some extras in case it come back suddenly.  I’d offer to give you some acetaminophen for your fever and pains, but... well, I’m not entirely sure that our biology is the same. I’m mean, from the outside it all looks the same, but that doesn’t mean that your body breaks it down the same ways as mine does.  You probably want your liver and kidneys intact, so I’m just using what Solas has been sending over.  I’m not sure what’s all in these, but he seems to think they’ll help.”  Cullen can physically feel his anxiety dropping like a stone from his throat to the pit of his stomach as Charlotte continues to nervously prattle on.  “I came earlier to... to apologize because I’m so sorry about h-how I yelled at you.  I was in the wrong, and I hope someday you can forgive me.  But... when I got here you... you tried...”  He shuts his eyes, turning his face away from her as if the shame cutting its way through his chest might less if he did.  When she struggles to finish her sentence, Cullen speaks up, his words dripping with guilt and remorse and shame.

“What did I do?”

“You- it wasn’t- you wanted lyrium, wanted me to give it to you, and I was going to probably, but you were... it wasn’t you, you know?  You were different... kinda... scary, and I thought if the lyrium was doing that then, well, it couldn’t be that good, right?  R-Rylen came in and stopped it all, and when you were asleep again, he explained everything.”

The kneejerk reaction Cullen feels is anger towards Rylen for sharing something that was never his to share.  He wants to scream at his friend for giving away one of his secrets, but he knows Rylen was doing what he thought was best and he can’t fault him for that.  The second reaction rushing to get out is to try and explain himself to Charlotte, to try and build up his walls, let foolish bravado take the place of shame.  He could put on a show, act like it’s not that bad, like this isn’t the withdrawals fault, that he’s fine and doesn’t need pity.

But he can’t. 

He’s got zero energy to put on shows, not even enough energy to even move physically away from Charlotte as he mentally tries to put up as many barriers as possible in the limited time he’s got. 

“Cullen, I-”

“I don’t need or want your pity.”  The words come out angrier than he intends, the venom in his tone stinging as Charlotte tries not to take his word to heart.

“No! It’s not pity!  You- What you’re doing it’s... You shouldn’t feel ashamed of it, of your moments of weakness.  It’s not going to last forever, and you’ll be stronger on the other side.”  Charlotte can feel the cringe of what she’s saying, she might as well be reading cheesy inspirational posters with cats on them, but she means it.

“You can’t know that; nobody can... This is going to break me; I knew that going in.  But I’d rather be broken a thousand times again then spend one more moment in the Chantry’s claws.”

“Cullen, you’re not broken-”

“You don’t know me!  You’ve no idea the things I’ve seen, the things I’ve done!  I’ve been shattered more times than you can even imagine, and I’ve never once recovered from any of them.”  It’s all on the tip of his tongue, every dark secret, every horrible decision, every heart-breaking mistake.  The burden of it all is too heavy for him to carry, though that hasn’t stopped him from trying all these years.  “This is the final nail in my coffin, and I’ve- I’ve accepted that.”

“Bullshit!”  Her immediate and loud answer surprises Cullen, though it does nothing to diminishes the heavy feelings in his chest.  “If you accepted your fate then you wouldn’t be fighting the lyrium addiction right now, you wouldn’t be trying to make the world better, and you certainly wouldn’t be helping a nutcase like me.”

“You learn that I willingly stopped the one thing that’s been keeping me sane, and you think you’re the nutcase?”  Cullen’s bitter laugh doesn’t hide the cracks in his voice as emotions he doesn’t want to deal with threatening take over.  “How is it that I- who’s a monster in every sense of the word- am better than you?  I couldn’t count the ways you’re wrong even if I had the time to try!”

“No!  Stop it!  You- you’re not allowed to think like that.”

“I’m not allowed-”

“You’re not allowed!”  Charlotte cuts him off, having worked herself into another state, her hands fidgeting restlessly with the cloth as she fights the urge to get up and pace.  She’s been thinking long and hard about what Rylen had told her about Cullen, about the bets Varric are running, about Cullen and his possible feelings towards her.  She’s not convinced in the slightest that they’re right, but there is the nagging thought in the back of her mind.

What do you have to lose?  You’re already not friends because you’re an ass to him, it’s not like you haven’t imagined him laughing in your face and rejecting you a million times, so at least you're prepared.  You’d also have your answer to the question of what he thinks of you, so that would be good.  And if they’re right, well, that’s not going to happen, but if they are... damn, wouldn’t that be something?

“You’re n-not allowed because I- I- I think y-you’re... you’re amazing.”  She starts off boldly, her voice stuttering only slightly, but as she continues it’s like someone let the air out of her.  Charlotte’s shoulders slump down, her face dropping towards the floor, her voice barely above a whisper.  “You’re a-amazing, and you’re kind, and... and you always know w-what to do.  And you can do things, like- like fighting, and leading, and- and people respect you, and look up to you... And God, your looks!  It’s like you came out of some sports magazine, all tall, and broad, and muscular, and tan, and your face!  It’s just- how even did you get all these good gene’s?  And I know...  I know that I sh-shouldn’t say this, or feel anything, because I’m a nobody, but I... I care...  I care about you.  I’m sorry.”  She ends with an apology as if she had just insulted his every character trait, like she didn’t just give him more compliments than he’s ever gotten in his life.

Cullen sits there, stunned into silence.  All the negative emotions bubbling up, and the hateful memories trying to break him down are swept away as he thinks through her words.  He’s imagined something like this before in the few moments he would allow himself to hope, but it always started with him professing his feelings, explaining how much he liked most everything about her and she would respond with something along the lines of “meh” when looking at him.  That was the pinnacle of his daydreams about this.  Never would he have thought she could ever- would ever- think as positively about him as she apparently does.

“I- what?”  Even in the low light of the tent, Cullen can see that her cheeks are flushed red, and he watches as she squirms in the chair, getting close to looking up at him before chickening out and glancing away. 

“I r-really l-li-like you and I w-w-want t-to k-k-know wh-what you t-think of me...”  She barely gets through the sentence; her body nearly vibrated as anxiety takes the wheel.  Charlotte can’t bear to look at him, to see the cruel smile accompanying the harsh laugh.  Hearing the words or rejection will be hard enough, she doesn’t need the image of his face twisted up in hatred burned into her mind as well. 

“I-” Before Cullen can answer, Rylen walks in, arms full of potions and reports.  He stops walking when he sees Charlotte sitting absolutely mortified next to Cullen’s bed where he looks like he might pass out.

“Um... I’m just gonna... leave these... here... continue on...”  He slowly sets the potions on Cullen’s desk, almost tiptoeing his way out of the tent as if that would make the situation less tense.

Once Cullen reins in the desire to throttle his lieutenant, he focuses his attention back on Charlotte.  In her chair she looks like she’s trying to get the ground to open up and eat her alive.  Maker, does he want to confess what he feels for her, the words get so close to his lips he can taste them, but he keeps his lips firmly shut.

She deserves better than you, more than you, anything but you.  She’s just... confused right now.  She doesn’t know you, the picture in her mind that she has of you is entirely wrong.  Show her she’s wrong, drive her away, save her from yourself, and then wallow in the ‘could have been’s’ for an eternity like you deserve.

It takes everything Cullen has to sit himself up in the bed, his legs limp as they fall over the edge, so his feet rest on the floor.   He holds himself up with shaking arms, his chest almost heaving as he tries to stay upright.  He looks down at himself and almost flinches away.  He’s looked better; he knows that.  Cullen’s skin is still sickly pale, and he’s lost weight over the last several days, his skin clinging a bit too tightly to his frame.  He smells faintly of vomit, and completely like two-day-old sweat.  His hair is a greasy tangle mess, his beard getting longer and scraggly.  And his scars... maybe it’s the poor lighting in the tent, or perhaps it's his sickly color, but they look worse than usual.  They all stand out against his skin, tugging at memories best left unnoticed in the back of his mind.

“Look at me.”  His voice is weak, breathy, but Charlotte just shakes her head, eyes firmly squeezed shut.  “Charlotte, look at me.”  If he could, he’d reach over and turn her face towards him so she’d have little choice but to listen to him, but he’s barely keeping upright with both arms, Maker knows he’d fall over if he tried using only one.  Slowly, painstakingly slowly, Charlotte turns towards Cullen, peaking up at him through her lashes, expecting to see a cruel grin and hard eyes and is instead meat with a broken smile.  “This is me, Charlotte.”  He nods down at himself, keeping their eyes locked as he continues.  “I’m broken, and bitter, and sick.  You- you deserve so much more than this.  I can’t be that; I can’t be more... I can hardly be what I am now!  I’m not going to-”

This isn’t you, Cullen!  This is how you look; it doesn’t define you.  Who you are, whatever you might be, that’s how you think, how you feel, how you act.  It’s not... it’s not what’s been done to you… or at least it shouldn’t be-”

“This shouldn’t be about me, Charlotte!  I don’t matter; the Maker has made that painfully clear.  You do, and you deserve so much more than-”

I deserve more?  I let people walk all over me, I choose not to fight them, and I deserve more?  I let my foster parents beat me, I let them push me around and break me down, and never fought back even when I knew they were in the wrong, that it was all wrong.  But it was easier just to take it, safer to not step out of that bizarre comfort zone where I knew what would happen.  I knew they’d get tired eventually, I knew they’d lose interest and leave me alone.  I didn’t know what would happen if I told the school nurse what was happening, if I spoke up when the cops would stop by because of noise complaints, if I did anything at all.  I was scared, so I decided that pain and agony was better than the unknown.  I still act like that to this very day even knowing how toxic it is, and I deserve more?  I couldn’t do much beyond school in my world, and I can do even less here, but I deserve more?  I constantly cause you and everyone trouble, and I deserve more?!  I don’t deserve anything, Cullen!” 

Charlotte is halfway to standing, ready to pace it out as she rants, but Cullen starts to fall forwards, groaning as his arms finally give out.  She drops the ground, her knees painfully hitting the floor as she catches Cullen as best she can.  Cullen ends nearly doubled over, leaning heavily on Charlotte to keep himself from the floor himself.  Once again, he’s covered in sweat, the exertion from keeping himself up having affected him more than he wants to admit.  The fight drains out of Charlotte as she holds Cullen, her chest tightening painfully when she feels his fever is back, when she feels how badly he’s shaking. 

“I’m not okay Cullen, and you not okay either, and that’s... that’s fine.  It’s hard to accept that I can’t be whole, but it’s fine.  I’ve no delusion that you’re some perfect white knight from a fairy tale, and you shouldn’t think I’m some flawless angel from heaven because we're only human. I...”  Charlotte trails off as she searches for the right words, wanting to get her point across more than anything.  “The Iron Bull talked with me in the Hinterlands about a lot of things, but one thing he noticed was that I wasn’t doing well here.  I was living as I used to on Earth, and it wasn’t doing me any favors.  He said I had a fresh start and he was confused as to why I wasn’t taking advantage of it.  I’ll never forget my past, it’ll always haunt me, but I... I want to live; I don’t want just to survive here.  So, I’m trying very hard to live like I should, like I want to.  I’m not good at it yet, and maybe I never will be, but I have to try at least... And I wanted to try- or try to try to... with you, but if I’ve misread anything, everything, and you want me gone, then I’ll leave.  I certainly wouldn’t blame you if that’s what you-”

“Please don’t leave.”  For several heartbeats, neither of them says a word, the only sound in the tent their uneven breaths.

“What?”  Charlotte is back to her squeaking ways as she viciously fights back the hope rising in her chest.  They stay in their awkward hug of sorts for several more moments before Cullen can conjure up the strength to lean back a bit and meet her gaze.

“Stay, please.”

“Oh, okay.”  Their staring contest stretches on in silence, neither sure what happens next.  Cullen’s current state decides that though, when he ends up nearly falling again.  She settles him back on his bed, watching dumbfounded when Cullen hesitantly takes her hand in his and drifts off to sleep, but not before watching the blush rise to color Charlotte’s cheeks.

~~~~~

When Rylen returns several hours later, he makes sure everything is silent in the tent before cautiously entering.  Cullen is still asleep, looking no better than he’d left him, and Charlotte sits next to him as still as stone.  They only say he knows she’s even alive is from the slight up and down of her shoulders.  When he gets closer, she turns to him, her eyes wide and terrified. 

“He told me to stay.”  Rylen finally lets his grin show, pulling a chair up next to Charlotte after setting down the food he’d brought for them.

“I told you so.”

“W-what do I do now?”

“Well isn’t it obvious?  You stay.”  Charlotte turns away from him, looking back down at where Cullen’s hard is wrapped around hers.  He’s not clinging to her hand; it's not a desperate grasp, it’s barely there at all.  But just the slight pressure is enough to send Charlotte’s thoughts spiraling again.

I’ve never done this before, never done anything like it.  What if he thinks I’m too innocent or dumb?  I don’t know how to kiss or... or... and surely, he does... he’s bound to get annoyed when he finds out how inexperienced I am… I should have kept my mouth shut; this isn’t better, this is worse!  He told me to stay, but when he finds out, he’s going to send me away so fast I’ll give me whiplash.  Getting sent away is going to be a million times worse than never having a chance.  The ‘better to have loved and lost’ thing is some bullshit!  Fuck, what am I going to do?!  I can’t even YouTube how to kiss a guy or Google the top ten ways to seduce a man...  Should’ve just stopped while I was ahead!

“Hey now, lass, no need for any of that.”  Charlotte’s gaze flickers back to Rylen only to get confused when she sees his smile has disappeared, a stern look taking its place.  “You’re thinking the same bullshit he’s always thinking, I can see it all over your face.  The both of you decided to try this, so that’s what you're going to do.  I don’t want to see any of this doomed from the start, self-fulfilling prophesy shit going on.”

“But I-”

“No buts.  Well, maybe butts, but that’s a different matter.”  With a cocky grin, Rylen watches as Charlotte nearly combusts.  He falls out of his chair laughing as he watches Charlotte’s mind spiral in a completely different direction.  “Sorry, sorry, couldn’t resist.”  Charlotte slumps, trying to hide her burning face with one hand. 

“You defiantly could have resisted!”