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A Promise of Convenience

Chapter Text

“Inquisitor.” Josephine extended her arm, handing Chrissie the envelope from across the war table. It was plain white with swirling designs drawn along the edges, complete with the Trevelyan noble house wax seal accompanied by the moto: Modest in temper, bold in deed.

Eyes fixated on the correspondence as though it were a wild animal tempted to bite, Chrissie retrieved it hesitantly. It was no secret she and her family were not on speaking terms and receiving any word indicated bad news. She inhaled deeply before removing the dagger affixed to her belt, penetrating the crease and slicing along the seam.

Brows knit, she withdrew the parchment, the rustling filling the silence. Fine hand with impeccable filigree mocked her, reminding her of the station she would have had, were she not a mage. Unsurprisingly, it read like a missive, disconnected but professional and not remotely personal, except for the portion which would permanently change her life, forever.

Crumpling the parchment, she gritted her teeth, sheer willpower prevented her from setting it alight in a fit of pique. Her advisors’ gazes bore into her, full of curiosity and concern. This would not be the time nor place to have a tantrum. Her posture stiffened and she concealed the hurt and rage under the facade of a professional. She was the Inquisitor, it simply would not do for her to act human. No, she had to be superior, worthy of the title of Andraste’s Herald, regardless of whether she believed it herself, or not. “Present a plan of action, please.” Chrissie placed the vellum in the middle of the map.

Josephine leaned slightly over the war table, her face contorted in surprise before she announced aloud the letter’s content. “With great pleasure we announce the betrothal of our daughter, Lady Inquisitor Christalyne Trevelyan to former Knight Commander of Ostwick Circle, Cedric Kahler.”

Cullen quirked an eyebrow but remained silent, resting his hands on the pommel of his sword. She noticed the sympathy in his eyes. He likely had no recommendations on the matter, given how often he had to fight off his own betrothal offers.

The Ambassador and the Spymaster exchanged glances before Josie cleared her throat. Peering over her clipboard as though she were using it as a shield, she continued. “This is...”

“Not good.” Leliana finished. Her lips downturned into a frown.

“Apparently,” Chrissie placed her hands behind her back, “my parents decided to accept on my behalf. This is informative, it is not an offer.” Chrissie watched, speculatively. Whatever their thought process, she failed to decipher it on stoic features. “Solutions?” She shifted her weight and dreaded the lack of options she knew would be forthcoming.

“Well,” Josie’s nose scrunched and the tone gave Chrissie pause. The contemplation of how to address whatever in a tactful manner was clear enough by her hand smoothing out imaginary wrinkles on her dress. “You cannot agree to an arranged marriage if you are not available.”

Tilting her head to the side, Chrissie mentally repeated their words until she heard what the Ambassador hadn’t said. “I see, Thank you for your insight. Council adjourned.” She turned abruptly with a wave of dismissal. Quick steps carried her through Josie’s office to the desk in her quarters. Lighting the candles with her magic, the room illuminated. She sat with a huff and slid open the drawer before pulling out fresh parchment, an ink well and a quill. Carefully, she scrawled her response to the Trevelyan house.

 

It had been weeks with no further word from the Trevelyans and as time passed, Chrissie had forgotten about the entire ordeal. Immersing herself within the Inquisitor’s work was a taxing endeavor. Coordinating with the Commander on nonstop troop movements, the Ambassador to appease visiting dignitaries and the Spymaster regarding the Inquisition’s dirty secrets proved to pile more on to an already full plate.

A horn blasted, resounding through the keep and announced the arrival of another noble at Skyhold’s bridge. It was standard process, though it didn’t help Chrissie hate it any less. The incessant blaring meant the onset of a migraine. Mind flitting to war council earlier that morning, she couldn't recall her Ambassador informing her of any guests. Surely, were it someone important, Chrissie would have known and been adequately but unnecessarily prepped —an endeavor which would have taken hours.

Curiosity caused her to venture outside. The brisk air stung her face but provided clarity, alleviating the dull throb between her eyes. She inhaled deeply and concealed herself under the guise of professional decorum. With poised posture and grace, she descended both flights of stairs to greet her guests. Though she despised playing the games the nobles adored, it was quite clear this was a requirement of her appointment. Taking it in stride, she dealt with the inconveniences as they occurred.     

The Commander stood next to the gate. With little thought, Chrissie took her place beside him, mimicking his stance at attention, thoroughly unsurprised to see him present. An unannounced guest could pose a security concern and as Commander, safety was his mission. He’d taken the attack on Haven as personal as she, providing his word that no such event would befall the Inquisition again. Despite their differences in opinions and their pasts, the determination in his eyes and the sincerity in his tone had allowed her to trust his promise without question.

Servants lined up, prepared to carry luggage to the Inquisition’s guest wing. Spectators gathered, pining for gossip. A contingent of soldiers were on stand by, presumably per Cullen’s orders, should this prove to be a trap. As the black carriage pulled by two horses trudged under the arch, the sun illuminated the Trevelyan coat of arms emblazoned on the side. Fear seized her momentarily and she stared doe eyed and mouth agape. A shudder crept up her spine as the cold air penetrated to her bones. Instinctively, she stood straighter, not allowing her parents’ presence to ruin her composure.

Jaw clenched, she inhaled slow, deep breaths, in through her mouth and out her nose. One of the guards opened the door and extended their hand. A white laced glove accepted it, lavish rings of silver and gold worn over the fabric, a vulgar display of wealth and power. Whispers, indiscernible from the distance, were exchanged between the guard and the person connected to the hand.

The announcement rang out and it took all the willpower Chrissie possessed not to wince as though stricken. “Introducing Lady Aida Trevelyan and Bann Paul Trevelyan of Ostwick.”

Lady Trevelyan stepped out of the carriage dusting imaginary debris off her dress. It, like her, screamed of a life of privilege. Painted with kohl and carmine, her face was that of a stranger. The deep purple didn’t suit her tanned complexion, nor did the lavender color palette she used for eye shadow to contrast green eyes. A white bodice embroidered with lace was fitted, partially concealed under a matching half jacket. Fanning out to the floor, the beige of the skirt was decorated with a plethora of unnecessary frills and ruching.

Following behind was Bann Trevelyan, dressed in a black suit with golden buttons and a sash spanning from shoulder to waist, with breeches and boots of the same color. His facial hair hid wrinkles except around weary eyes. Chrissie’s gaze flitted between the two, though they shared a same name, their similarities ended there. She wasn't entire certain if it provided more comfort or distress —or which she would have preferred.

“Bann and Lady Trevelyan,” Chrissie began, eliciting looks of concern by her professionalism.  

Quashing the dread that flourished in her chest, she stood taller. This was her keep and she would not allow their presence to diminish her title. She ruled as Queen of this castle; in Skyhold, she was untouchable. The little girl who had sobbed as she was torn from her home, betrayed and taken to the circle by templars she considered trusted family friends while her mother had stood by, unfazed and indifferent to her child's horror —that little girl no longer existed. “Welcome to Skyhold.” A plastered smile spanned her features.

Bann Trevelyan combed his beard, taking in the sight. “This is the Inquisition?”

The hardened glare in Adia’s eyes reflected her disinterest as her lips pressed into a hard line. She looked around, seemingly making mental inventory, cataloging everything she saw while maintaining her disapproving look. “It’s a dusty old ruin filled with battered soldiers.”

Chrissie felt her smile droop and shifted her weight, suddenly uncomfortable as her heart sank into her stomach. For a moment, she was a little girl again, eager for praise that would likely never come. With one sentence, her mother destroyed all of the resolve she’d built up, shattering it like glass. Why after so many years did she even care? How was it the vile woman still had the power to make her feel so damn small? Trying to contain the burst of self-hatred in her chest, her voice wavered, indicating her hurt. “Construction is ongoing but we’re on course.”

A disinterested “Mmm” reaffirmed Lady Trevelyan’s displeasure.

“Why are you here?” Chrissie murmured, her voice nearly a whisper. Fidgeting with her hands in her nervousness, she averted her eyes. As if asking the question why they arrived unannounced with no word was her speaking out of turn.

“Well, Christalyne, when we received your letter indicating that you demolished the long negotiated arrangement we carefully established, we had to come and meet your betrothed, of course. He will be family after all.” Adia’ smirked, her words dripping with disdain, as though believing that anyone would want to marry her was absurd.

Chrissie opened her mouth to respond but snapped her jaw shut so hard her teeth clattered. Having forgotten about it, a sigh escaped her. When she had written to her parents, Josephine’s words resounded in her head. You cannot agree to an arranged marriage if you are not available. It was a simple lie to say she was already betrothed, solving the gravest problem at the time. Never once did she think her estranged parents would try to verify the matter, an incredibly foolish mistake. As she stood, caught in her deception, she realized she had no choice. She would have to tell the truth, further straining an already demolished relationship.

As Chrissie’s mother’s smug gratification bore into her, nothing would have been more satisfying than proving her wrong. She scanned the area of those in attendance, wondering if any would be an acceptable fit. Most were standard Inquisition soldiers, there was Blackwall, but as a Warden, he’d basically held a looming death sentence. Plus, there was the tryst he and Josie currently had. No, she couldn’t impede on that. Dorian was with Bull and her cousin somewhere down the line. Then, a glare of light reflected off silver plate, momentarily blinding her. The idea struck her and before sense could reassert itself. The words tumbled out of her mouth, “Meet Ser Cullen Rutherford, Commander of the Inquisition forces, former Knight Commander of Kirkwall and my betrothed.”

“I, uh, what?”

A pointed look cast in her direction indicated both confusion and anger. Clearly, he was less than pleased at being put on the spot and introduced before a number of people, his soldiers included, as the man involved with the Inquisitor. Especially because they were barely friends. Her professional decorum rivaled his and so did her temper, which she generally hid. It wasn’t the most logical choice, nor the most compatible, but it was a solution when she’d had none. Chrissie silently pleaded with her eyes, or tried to, hoping he would have sympathy. As amber met blue, his expression softened slightly. It wasn’t much, but it may have been enough. She certainly prayed so. A discussion would take place, of that she had no doubt, but perhaps she could allay his hesitations on the matter.

To his credit, Cullen recovered quickly, performing a full Ferelden bow in greeting to her parents. “Bann and Lady Trevelyan, a pleasure.”

“You’re betrothed to Christalyne?” Adia’s eyes grew wide, a quirked eyebrow revealing her skepticism.

Thankfully, the question was rhetorical, one asked from disbelief instead of seeking a definitive answer. Internally, Chrissie smacked herself, regretting the terrible position she was in. The very one she’d dragged poor Cullen into as well. If she knew him half as well as she thought, he would be downright furious and for good reason. Slipping her hand around his already bent elbow from the bow, she felt him stiffen, almost uncomfortably, despite the metal and cloth which separated them from actually touching. With no complaints, at least none vocalized, Chrissie took it as a sign of acceptance, for now at least, and gestured with her free arm forward to lead the Trevelyans to their guest room.

As they walked, arm in arm, Cullen passed her a sideways glance causing her to wince. Surely, he wouldn’t be enraged at her, would he? The public exchanged comments and she was certain that her fake news had already traveled throughout Skyhold via the gossips. She sighed and closed her eyes, allowing and trusting him to lead her to their destination as she continued blind for a moment as a thought occurred to her.  

If she was Queen of her castle, Cullen was just crowned king.

Chapter Text

After more unpleasant parting words to the Trevelyans, hurried steps led Cullen and Chrissie to his office. The dim light casted shadows making it difficult to read the expression on her face. He took the position behind his desk, distributing his weight. Cullen leaned forward and bowed his head slightly before his gaze met hers.

“Inquisitor, explain.” Cullen inflected the tone he often took with his soldiers, a clear order. If she dragged him into this, he deserved to know why. She owed him that much.

“Commander, I am so sorry.” Her hand ran from her forehead down to her chin, genuinely apologetic.

There was truth in her tone, leaving no room for doubt. Gone was the professional decorum he’d come to know: she sounded hurt. The appearance of her parents had caused her to stiffen, uncomfortable with their arrival. Clearly, she feared them. An hour ago, he would have wagered against her being afraid of anyone. What was it about the Trevelyans that made her off balance? They were nobles, certainly and as such, there was a distinct precedence, a common assumption of expectation regarding their actions but even so, there was no doubt the relationship was strained.

“I will,” Chrissie sighed, “I will be honest.” Crossing her arms as if comforting herself, she averted her eyes.

Still downcast, she seemed fixated on the floor as though not looking at him hid her shame. Never having seen her in this manner, Chrissie appeared completely vulnerable. Somehow she was no longer the headstrong leader of the Inquisition, but undoubtedly human. After all of her accomplishments, it was hard to forget why so many placed her on a pedestal.

“I tried to maintain the disconnect.” A tilt to her head indicated contemplation. “The past followed, looming like a storm cloud. It's a constant reminder of what you can never truly escape from.”

It struck a nerve how precise she was in describing his predicament with lyrium. He related, more than he had ever admitted, worse yet, he hadn’t managed to inform her. As Inquisitor, she should know he ceased use, but there hadn’t been time with her recent return. Now, he found, strangely enough, that her deception, led to a common truth. A mutual appreciation for someone with the same perspective despite different circumstances.

With fists clenched, she trembled in anger. “After being taken to the circle, my mother disowned me. Said she would not allow a mage to stain the family name. Years passed with no word. Now, she wants to show up acting like a parent, arranging marriages and such?” She shook her head. “Why? Because I'm Inquisitor, now I'm worth something? Now I'm not a disgrace?” Her face contorted in disgust. “I lied. Told them I was already betrothed so I wouldn’t have to deal with it. They showed up and I dragged you into it.”

“I,” Cullen shifted his weight, “I understand.” Somehow, he respected her more for her admission and pride flourished in his chest. It wasn't a requirement she confide in him, but she did so without argument and little prompting. She trusted him. Granted, she had also involved him without consent but once the situation was rectified, what would be the harm? “I would appreciate ensuring this error is corrected, sooner rather than later.”

“I will inform them at dinner.” Chrissie nodded curly. “Good day, Commander.”

Chapter Text

After an incredibly lengthy debate over Skyhold’s most scandalous rumor, Chrissie announced to the war council her mishap and promised, as she had Cullen earlier that day, to clear the air over dinner. Once her duties were tended to, she retired early to prepare, wanting to give her mother as little to comment over as possible.

Admiring herself in the mirror, Chrissie adjusted the straps to her dress. It was a simple gown, deep purple and flowed to the floor with excess fabric cascading around the toes of her black heels. Embellished with a faux-diamond encrusted pin of the Inquisition symbol, it fit snugly, but simply, hugging her curves. Her hair was down, parted to the side and straightened via heat from her own spell.

Since being dragged out of Haven’s dungeons by chains, the opportunity to dress in finery hadn’t presented itself. Compared to her scuffed, blood crusted armor which had taken a beating during her ventures, this was a massive improvement. Haven was far too small to entertain with lavish parties. Skyhold however, provided them with more options. Though appeasing nobility, her parents in particular, wasn’t her idea of a grand time, the ability to dress as though she were Empress or Queen, was something she relished. Wrapped in luxury and pampered was a welcome respite from musty tents and crumbling keeps.

With black kohl around her eyes and burgundy carmine on her lips, she felt beautiful, determined and planned to show the world —namely her parents— what an astounding force she alone, could be.

“Confidence.” She spoke aloud to no one, straightening her posture and smoothing her dress. It was one thing to be Inquisitor, it was quite another to appear the part. After all, she was supposed to be the epitome of elegance and grace, not that her mother would ever concur with that assessment.

Quickly, she made her way from her quarters to the grand hall where she stared in wonder. She halted, taken aback by the sight. The room had been morphed into what could have doubled as an artist’s painting worthy of an exclusive in one of the Orlesian nobility gossip rags.

Tables were draped by silk cloth embroidered with silver, colorful floral arrangements acted as centerpieces highlighting both roses and lilies. Servants bustled, offering platters of hors d'oeuvres to various guests. The roar of the voices hushed to quiet murmurs at the sight of the Inquisitor as everyone stood. That’s the Inquisitor? Someone questioned. Gorgeous. Another answered. Chrissie smiled, pleased the whispers reaffirmed her confidence, she would need it when facing her mother.

In truth, the remainder of the inner circle was nothing to scoff at either. They wore black jackets, finery embellished by purple to match her ensemble, with elegant embroidery at the cuffs, hem, and collars. For the first time since declaration, the Inquisition didn’t appear the ragtag band of volunteers they were, but a uniform force, deadly with power and influence. Even Bull cleaned up nicely, though the sight of him actually wearing a shirt prompted her to believe this was all an elaborate but vivid dream.

“Inquisitor.”

Cullen’s voice caught her by surprise, breaking her out of the haze of admiration. She turned to look at him and had to do a double take, hoping it wasn’t anywhere near as noticeable as she’d suspected. Despite red being his primary color, purple was an excellent substitute. Turns out, the standard plate he donned didn't add much bulk to his muscular figure, given how tightly his jacket stretched across his broad chest. Losing all train of thought for a moment, she recomposed herself.

“Commander.”

Both half bowed in greeting and he gestured forward to continue. His long strides proved a challenge for her to keep up in heels, but she managed, praying it didn’t appear clumsy. Cullen was on the exterior as they walked, closest to the people. Josephine had prepared them for events such as this and indicated per nobility standard, the driving fist of defense was to be present for any formal affairs as well as the acting first line of security. It only dawned on Chrissie after the fact, Cullen’s wax seal on his war reports reflected such.

Before finding her chair in the dead center of the dais, she remained standing, motioning for everyone to sit. After welcoming those in attendance, offering well wishes, she spouted a few diplomatic lines learned from Josephine and ordered the feast to begin.

Cullen sat to her right and Josephine to her left, the remainder of the inner circle spread out around the lengthy table that replaced her throne with her parents directly across from her. After introducing them all, a smile pulled at her lips. It would not be possible for her mother to comment on her company, given their appearance, or the interior of the keep with the lovely job Josephine did orchestrating the decor despite minimal notice.

As the servants filled their glasses with the chosen wine for the evening, moderately awkward silence filled the area. She debated on speaking but nothing she could say wouldn’t be spurned back in her face. Instead, she took a sip from her goblet, noting the robust flavor, faintly earthy and small hint of sweetness, with not nearly enough alcohol content to get her through the evening.

Dorian broke the silence, proper posture and etiquette instilled in him from his birthright on display.“Your daughter is a hero, you know.”

“Saved a number of people back in Haven, refugees, the Boss does good work,” Bull added, his goblet hilariously small in his large hands while swirling his wine.

“You must be proud.” Cassandra mused, leaning back to allow the servant room before placing soup in front of her.

“Actually, we had resigned ourselves to Christalyne’s failure to live up to the family name years ago.” Lady Trevelyan spurned her nose at the salad served. She frowned, absently scratching the plate with her fork; the shriek piercing.

Chrissie opened her mouth and closed it, sinking against the back of her chair. She looked away, not even bothering to hide the hurt. Lips pressed into a firm line before meeting her mother’s gaze. Why did she care to have their approval at all? “Lady Trevel-”

“Tell me, my dear,” Adia interrupted. “Is it normal for someone of your station to dress as a woman of negotiable affections? It hardly befitting for someone who is to be married, much less a leader.”

Biting her lip so hard it nearly bled, she pinched the bridge of her nose with her index finger and thumb hoping to subside the tears welling in her eyes. She could not give her mother the gratification of seeing her cry. Ignoring the jab, she knew this was her best opening for the truth. A quick glance to Cullen reaffirmed the necessity of her task. “About that, you see-"

Warm and soft leather wrapped around her hand, he offered a subtle nod and turned his full attention to her parents. “As lovely as this evening has been thus far, there is something I believe must be said."

Dorian interjected, glaring at Cullen from across the table, "Commander, perhaps now is not the best time.”

"On the contrary, it is a necessity for I fear I may have offended."

Dorian blinked but stilled his tongue, clearly concerned.

“He’s right, Dorian. It needs to be said.” Chrissie noted the furrowed brow as her mother stared impatiently. Darkness shrouding what could have otherwise been deemed as elegant features. “Let me explain-”

"You must allow me to apologize for keeping the truth from you.” Cullen interrupted, causing confused expressions along the table complete with quirked eyebrows and smirks. “It was at my insistence that our engagement remain secret until such time as a proper announcement could be made. You understand, of course. My obligations to the Inquisition and the restoration of Thedas had to come first." Bringing her hand to his face, he brushed his lips against her knuckles.

Bewildered, Chrissie found herself lost in thought. Replaying the last thirty seconds within her mind and wondering if she imagined it. Yet, her hand was still firmly encased within soft brown leather and Cullen held it tightly, confirming reality.

"Tell me, Commander, what makes you think our daughter is good enough for you? You are aware, she is a mage. Surely, as former Knight Commander, isn't that, beneath you?" Bann Trevelyan inquired, quiet until this moment.

Somehow, Chrissie couldn’t believe her father had the gall to ask such a question, though she figured she should’ve known otherwise. The entire table sat in uncomfortable and shocked silence.

Attempting to withdrawal her hand from Cullen’s, he held firm disallowing her action. His eyes narrowed and he sat up straighter, clearly unintimidated. “I once considered mages as you do, but realized such embittered and close-mindedness is what led to this bloody war and the loss of innocent lives.” Pausing to take a sip of wine with his free hand, Cullen continued. “Some of us have learned to embrace the Maker's will and see to the protection of all those under Andraste’s gaze and not just those who believe themselves above reproach.”

Chrissie stifled a snicker, impressed with the Commander’s candor and admiring his ability to put her parents in their place. There was a reason he was known for keeping his recruits in check.

“What I admire most about your daughter is her ability to look beyond station or entitlement and see to the survival of all —not just those who have grown soft seated on gilded cushions and prospering on the blood of those beneath them.”

Cullen’s tone was clear but soft. Despite his edged words, Chrissie couldn’t help feeling as though he truly meant it and her stomach fluttered. He’d never indicated he admired her. Their relationship was and had been strictly professional other than a few conversations in Haven when she asked about templars and where he grew up. It had been more about knowing those you work with, rather than idle conversation.

“Commander!” Josephine’s tone was scolding but her eyes reflected her approval. After tugging at the sleeves of her jacket, she unfolded her napkin, laying it across her lap. “Perhaps we should discuss other matters.”

“How long do you plan on staying exactly?” Too long, Chrissie thought but didn’t vocalize.

“A month’s time,” Adia announced, taking a bite of her leafy greens with small mouselike nibbles.

Chrissie’s breath hitched in her throat. How could she deal with her parents for an entire month? Much less, how could she expect Cullen to maintain his ruse for that long? Though she appreciated what he tried to do, there was no way he signed up for this. He likely thought it to be a matter of days, a week at the most, but a month? No, she couldn’t ask that of him. Exhaling sharply, she shook her head and patted Cullen’s hand with her free one which still held firmly to her opposite. She wriggled her fingers to get him to release and felt the absence of warmth immediately but offered a small smile. “The truth is-”

Cullen interrupted, allaying her mother’s narrowed gaze with his calming tone.“Christalyne and I were waiting until after the war. As I stated earlier, our duties come first.”

For a moment, Chrissie realized how pretty her name sounded passing his lips, wondering if it was indeed the first time he’d ever called her by something other than her title.

“Mmm,” Lady Trevelyan hummed in disinterest. “You aren’t afraid while you wait he will find someone better suited?” The question was directed at Chrissie, but she had no response.

“There isn’t any better suited.” Cullen’s jaw clenched, Chrissie noted the slight tremor of his hand, subtle but there. “There’ll be no further discussion on the matter.”

As dinner progressed, Josephine kept the Trevelyans engaged in conversation regarding trade and treaties the Inquisition maintained with Ostwick, giving Chrissie a much-needed reprieve. They would have to discuss this in the war room and she would no doubt have to ask Cullen what in the Maker’s name he’d been thinking. Otherwise, he remained silent, listening attentively to the conversations which droned on around them, as did she.

For various reasons, she found herself stealing glances of Cullen whenever possible. Somehow over the course of their time working together, she’d failed to notice exactly how handsome her Commander was. Striking really, with the short stubble accentuating a strong jaw, fair complexion, slicked back blonde hair with one uncooperative lock curling above his amber eyes and the scar that completed the entire package. It was no wonder Cullen received a plethora of marriage proposals.

The darkest parts of herself contemplated if her mother had been right, perhaps she wasn't worthy of someone like him. Not because of his looks, but Cullen was a fine man, one of character. Indeed, a prize fiancé for any. As her mother's poisonous words settled into her heart, she contemplated if he would have given her a passing glance were she not Inquisitor. Would it even be believable for the two to be betrothed under normal circumstances?

Internally, she scolded herself. There was nothing wrong with her, she was beautiful but an evening with her mother allowed room for self-doubt. She would have to make it a point not to let that woman get under her skin. Adia was nothing and no one, Chrissie was the Inquisitor. Strong, brave, loyal, intelligent, a force of fucking nature.

The entire concept would prove much easier said than done.

 

As anticipated, the Spymaster informed them at the conclusion of dinner of an urgent matter which required the advisors' attention and thus, an impromptu war council was called. They hadn’t even had the luxury of changing from their formal attire beforehand so the moment Chrissie entered Josie’s office, she slipped off the heels crunching her feet, picked up a pinch of her dress fabric and carried both into the war room. Not entirely Inquisitorial, but it would do after the day she had. Because she bid adieu to the dinner guests, she was the last one to arrive, her advisors already in their proper places.

“Well,” Josie broke the silence, “that was, unexpected.” She wrung her hands in the absence of her clipboard.

“Congratulations are in order,” Leliana announced with a bemused smirk.

“But why?” Chrissie’s brows furrowed, confusion the most prevalent emotion running through her mind. Cullen owed her nothing. “I told you I would tell her the truth. I planned to fix my own mistake. Why continue the ruse?”

“I’ll not tolerate the disrespect.” Cullen shook his head, a scowl on his face. “At the time, agreeing provided the opportunity to say something whereas acting as Commander, it wouldn’t have been my place, necessarily.”

“And how much do you regret letting that temper flair now?” Chrissie set her heels on the floor, the fabric of her dress trailing her barefoot steps towards the war table, cold against the stone.

“It may not have been the wisest choice,” Cullen admitted, placing his hands firmly on the pommel of his sword. “But it was necessary.”

“Because?”

“Because after everything you’ve done for Thedas, I could not allow the disparaging to continue.”

The bite in his words proved there was no argument on the matter, so any efforts she posed against it would be quashed before she could adequately make her case. “And now, we are stuck pretending for at least a month to be betrothed.”

“Maintaining this will require more than simply declaring you are an item,” Josephine announced. “Since you insisted on this ruse, it must be convincing.”

Leliana smiled. “Indeed.” 

Whether the smile was good or bad, Chrissie couldn’t be certain.

“Public outings, displays of affection, shared quarters, you need to be seen and heard to sell this. The rumors must fly, even some borderline scandalous!” Josie explained.

“Fictitious or not, you are now very much a couple and you must act the part.” Leliana's tone rang with amusement.

Cullen pinched the bridge of his nose. “You cannot be serious.”

Leliana continued. “We are quite serious, Commander. You are now a soon to be married man. It must be played perfectly.”

Cullen's eyes and jaw were set, staring forward. A pang of guilt hit Chrissie’s heart and she offered him another out. “Or we can stage a lover’s quarrel and call off the engagement.”

“But then,” Josie pointed out, “the Trevelyans will try to enforce the marriage to the Ostwick Knight-Commander.”

Chrissie’s face set in narrowed determination, scowling at the idea. “Then give me someone else, anyone else. Some Antivan dowager, some Orlesian prat. I will not so much as look at the Ostwick Knight-Commander much less be betrothed to him. I’ll sooner impale myself on my staff.”

“Don't be ridiculous.” Cullen nearly spat. “You deserve better.”

I do? She thought. More to the point, Cullen determined it so. If her parents were able to get on his bad side so easily, it wasn’t her paranoia fueling her hatred. It wasn’t the past casting light on old wounds. Those feelings were justified, validated. “Are you certain you wish to pursue this?”

Cullen flashed a smirk and a curt nod. “I’ll not leave you without support amidst battle.”

“Very well.” Chrissie relented, it was a game of pretend. She’d been doing that since she walked out of The Fade. Plastering on a facade of the Inquisitor, burying the person she was underneath the guise of decorum. This, as far as she was concerned, was merely another mission and like all the others, she and her advisors would emerge victorious. “What is the best course of action?”

Leliana and Josie exchanged glances, eyes glimmering with delight.

 

The first order of business was to move all of Cullen’s personal effects into Chrissie’s quarters, which, as it turned out, wasn’t much, according to him. Though she probably should have taken more offense to the encroachment on her space, it hardly bothered her at all. Having lived in the circle, an area of one’s own was nonexistent. She’d slept in a room of twenty or thirty with the closest person merely three feet away on the other bunk. Men, women, it hadn’t mattered. There were also many nights she’d spent on the road sharing a tent with Dorian, Varric, Bull, any other members of the inner circle. This was a more than adaptable change. The only thing that gave her pause were her nightmares, provided she was actually able to sleep and she wondered how much more difficult it would make things on Cullen. According to Josie, adding a second bed would draw too much suspicion, therefore, there was only one that could be replaced for something larger. Not that she minded sharing but the probability was, Cullen would decline.

Secondly, they were supposed to spend nearly all their time together. Chrissie would bring work with her while he trained the troops and Cullen was to be in the general area as she handled Inquisitor business, save for times she would be gone at length, giving them both a much-needed reprieve. In public, they were to link arms or hold hands, flirt and praise one another, giving the impression they were truly, madly, a couple in love to be wed.  

It was frivolous but neither she nor Cullen were about to back down from the challenge. Leliana warned the Orlesians could spot a scandal a mile away, so convincibility was a necessity. They would receive instructions detailing events which needed to occur to successfully put on the show. Casual conversations required the use of their name, whereas work duties were appropriate for use of title. The main intention being to fuel gossip around the keep and across Thedas. There were other requirements as well: coordinating outfits for special occasions, wearing something to signify the relationship with the other, rehearse lines to finish each other’s sentences, in addition to other details they still needed to determine.

On a positive note, the Ambassador speculated the arranged marriage contracts would cease for both the Commander and the Inquisitor as news of their everlasting love and fairy story romance spread. There was no doubt that after this nonsense was over, Chrissie would owe Cullen at least three months paid leave. But none had any illusions as to what this was: a mission, another task to fulfill and it would remain as such. After the Trevelyans departed, they would return to their own quarters and arrange a brutal but necessary break up, complete with tears and anger and be done with it after the war was over.

Together, they’d formulated a sound plan.

 

Chapter Text

Cullen paced his office. He hadn’t realized that placing the Trevelyans in check for bashing their daughter would cause so many repercussions. Yet, he knew with every fiber of his being the disrespect and blatant disgust they had for Chrissie was undue. The Inquisitor saved the entire Inquisition, helped refugees, and assisted every one of the inner circle. He never doubted her appointment or her ability to see the Inquisition through. After all of that, he could not sit idle and allow falsities to fall from their lips. Especially when they had no right to judge anyone.

Though this particular arrangement was far from what he envisioned, he would have to make do. As her Commander, he was in charge of all aspects of defense and it included preventing her parents from belittling her. The Ambassador and Spymaster ran away with the plan despite his protests and it had the potential to be a colossal waste of time and resources. But, if it helped alleviate any of the Inquisitor’s stresses, then how could he possibly have refused, even when she asked if he was certain.

In truth, he regretted the necessity of the endeavor, not his agreement. However, it was likely Leliana and Josephine would cause him to reconsider that stance. Their rules and recommendations already tested his patience and worsened the headache still throbbing between his eyes. If nothing else, the Inquisitor was the most professional person in the Inquisition, rivaling himself. It would be business as usual with little personal endeavors. A strategic plan implemented until the mission was over. He could do that with no problems, he hoped.      

Carrying the chest containing his meager possessions through the keep of Skyhold, he arrived at the Inquisitor’s quarters. Initially, he set it down to knock before remembering he was expected and walked through the door from the main hall after picking it back up.

Around the railing, he was thankful to find her door open, but rapped his foot against the wood to announce his presence anyway.

“Open door policy.”

Ascending the stairs, he arrived at the landing, taking in the room. Maker, it could easily be three of his office. Lavish furniture decorated the space with comforting touches. Faintly, he could smell elfroot and honey, the scents reminding him of his own quarters. Stacks of books were piled high next to the sofa and he wondered how she found time to read at all, given the amount of work they both saw on a daily basis.

Curtains were pulled down, concealing the moonlight trying to bleed through the windows and balcony doors. Candles flickered in soft glows, casting shadows across the area. The familiar darkness provided comfort, much in the same way his own office had. Buried behind a plethora of reports, she sat at the desk, scribbling a response on parchment. It was so silent he could hear the scratching of the quill against the vellum despite the distance.      

“Inquisitor” His voice rang louder than expected, perhaps due to the quiet.

“Commander, welcome.” Looking up from the missive, Chrissie pushed her dwarven spectacles up to the bridge of her nose and peered at him with blue eyes through the glass.

Black locks were tied back hastily, giving an unusual disheveled appearance and she’d changed from the dress she wore into a cotton shirt and he presumed breeches though he couldn’t see from where he stood. For the third time that day, Chrissie appeared unnaturally human. Gone was the immaculate nearly untouchable beauty in the purple gown replaced by a leisurely loveliness. There was an aura of normalcy about her, a casualness that he hadn’t been accustomed to seeing with her continual professional nature. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but he appreciated being witness to it.

“Make yourself at home.” Her voice was but a whisper and lost all tone of Command. She gestured around the room while remaining seated. “There are two closets, feel free to take whichever you please, most of my items are in the eastern, but there’s plenty of space. My personal stash of alcohol is hidden behind the books on the shelf, help yourself. Between work and leisure, there is plenty of reading material. The garderobe is beyond that door.” She motioned to the one beside the staircase. “A tub is available and runes are in the cabinet as well as herbs and bandages for healing purposes. The bed is yours or we can share, it matters not.”  

The nonchalance gave him comfort. Clearly, she too understood this was a mission and nothing more. Even so, he would not allow his presence to uproot her life. He set down his chest of personal effects in an empty space he presumed was cleared out specifically for him, but didn’t ask.

“Oh, I forgot to mention. I have several armor stands in my closet, you may take a couple for your gear, should you wish.”

Whatever it was he’d been expecting, it wasn’t her being quite so accommodating. In fact, she hardly seemed bothered or inconvenienced by the Ambassador's and Spymaster's plan at all. Likely, it was yet another issue she had to contend with as Inquisitor.

Whereas, he was moderately and understandably uncomfortable. Despite her attitude and generosity, he didn’t want to encroach, Maker knew she dealt with enough as it was. Having a colleague constantly around until this endeavor was over would have troubled him, were it anyone else. 

Her gaze fell on him but she remained quiet and he assumed she anticipated an answer of some sort. Completely taken in by his surroundings and her demeanor, he’d forgotten to acknowledge she’d spoken at all. “I, uh, Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Before turning her attention back to her work, she offered a warm smile. It was genuine, as it reached her eyes.

“The bed is yours. The sofa will suffice.” Cullen sat and began removing his boots.

“That won’t work. Either you sleep in the bed and I sleep on the sofa, or we share it. There is only one and per the Ambassador, that won’t change, but she did promise to order the largest available bed in Orlais. Something about the gossip that would spread over the scandal. In the interim, the sofa is entirely too small for you. Truly, I insist.”

“Inquisitor, I will not impose.”

“Were it an imposition, Commander, I wouldn’t have offered.” A smirk tugged at her lips, subtle but efforts in the war room allowed him to recognize it. “Would you feel better if I made it an order?”

Perhaps it wasn’t going to be as easy as he thought. “That won’t be necessary, Inquisitor.”

“Chrissie.” She corrected. “Whatever you’re most comfortable with is fine with me.”

He had no intention of kicking her out of her bed and making her sleep elsewhere. It would be exceptionally poor manners. Yet, she nearly ordered him to do so. Realizing that comfortable rest of any sort would not be possible on a two-seat sofa and would be no different than sharing a tent in the field, he relented. “We will share. However, if I am required to address you by your first name, I would hope for the same.”

“Very well, Cullen.” Despite enunciating his name as if it were a foreign word she tried to learn how to pronounce, he found it odd how unfamiliar though pleasant it was.

Opening the door to the closet, he grabbed the gear stand and brought it closer to the sofa. After taking a seat, he disassembled his armor piece by piece and hung it on the mannequin. Chrissie paid him little mind, focusing on her work occasionally humming or murmuring to herself. Once he was down to his cotton shirt and breeches, he placed his boots in the corner with his armor stand next to them and his chest of belongings.

Having no other immediate tasks, he was very out of place. His casual dress caused him to feel naked and he realized the absurdity of the situation. He was in the Inquisitor’s quarters, with the Inquisitor, because they would be sleeping together for the foreseeable future. Platonically, of course, though he wasn’t certain if it made the arrangement better.   

That was also assuming that he could rest at all. Outside of being in an unfamiliar space, his symptoms of withdrawal hit him with flourish of late. His hands had even trembled at dinner despite his attempt at concealment. How would he even begin to tell her of the nightmares and thus his aversion to sleep when he hadn’t told her about the reason behind them? At least to provide her with fair warning, he would have to disclose the information.

Clearing his throat, he took tentative steps towards the desk. He exhaled shakily and began. “Inquisit- Chrissie, there is something I must tell you.”

As she provided him with her full attention, she listened, her lips slightly downcast into a barely noticeable frown. Explaining both the symptoms and the cause, he detailed his choice to cease lyrium use. Keeping the more gruesome reality of Kinloch and his torture to himself, he educated her on the side effects and the daily struggles. Ensuring that lastly, but most important, should he be unable to perform his duties, Cassandra would intervene.

Silence shrouded the room like a dense fog. Cullen shifted his weight, anticipating her professional acknowledgment. As her eyes met his, he noticed sympathy, but not pity, and he appreciated that.

“Are you all right?”

“I can endure.”

“I respect what you’re doing.” Concern befell her expression and he was touched at the sentiment but wondered if it was more for him or for the Inquisition as a whole. A good thing either way, he supposed.

“Will you let me know if you need anything?”

“Of course.”

With a resigned sigh, she stood, removing her spectacles. “In the interests of full disclosure, I don’t sleep much either. I’ll try not to keep you up, but often I am awake at odd hours and when I do manage, it is unrestful. I have nightmares too.”

“Then perhaps we’ll be spending more time together than anticipated.”    

“So it would seem.”

Chapter Text

It was strained and moderately awkward, but their first night together was over. After her desk had been cleared and a chair pulled up to make room for Cullen to work as well, they delved head first into missives until the early hours.

The last thing she remembered was the flickering candlelight and the scratching of the quill against vellum before stretching, rubbing her eyes, and opening them to find herself tucked into bed. Sunlight streaming through the curtains acting like a knife, piercing and she winced, trying to shut out the brightness.

Allowing her feet to dangle over the side of the bed, she felt her muscles pop and crack, cringing at the sound. With little thought, she headed over to her bureau, pulling a pair of undergarments, a breast band, breeches, and cotton shirt from within and set them atop. Grabbing the hem of her nightshirt, she crossed her arms prepared to pull it up and over her head before the sound of a throat clearing stopped her mid-action.

“Inquisitor.”

“Commander!” she jumped, surprised. In her morning haze, she’d forgotten her quarters were now shared and she turned to see the slightest tinge of pink on his fair-skinned cheeks. Releasing the fabric, it fell down to its normal position. She grabbed the change of clothes and headed to the garderobe, spouting apologies the entire way.

Once composed and looking the part of a professional, she emerged after tossing her dirty linens in the hamper for the cleaning servants to retrieve later. “Here we are.”

“Yes, right.” Cullen stood from the sofa. Had he been dressed in his plate and ready before she’d changed; she couldn’t remember.

A silence fell between them. This was the first time they'd have to face their respective tasks and carry on with a lie. What was such an easy concept at first, now seemed daunting.

“Well,” Chrissie wrung her hands. “I haven’t the first clue what to do. How about you?”

Cullen chuckled softly. "None, I'm afraid. Something to eat perhaps? I could-"

“We could.” She corrected, cracking a smile and meeting his eyes.

“Oh, right. We.” He amended.

Perhaps this was going to be as tragic as she’d pictured. Now that anger mixed with hurt and nervousnesshadn’t been coursing through her veins, the spontaneity that sparked this idea had dwindled. Why Cullen ever agreed to it in the first place eluded her. Now look at what they’d gotten themselves into. Surely, the rage felt in the moment couldn’t have been worse than the current awkwardness.

“Maybe we should just do what we normally do and start there,” Chrissie suggested. Granted, it was hardly a brilliant plan, but neither one could think of anything better. The instructions from Leliana had yet to arrive leaving the betrothed parties to their own devices. “We are strategists, we can be convincing. Damn right persuasive!”

A hummed response from him indicated agreement but additional contemplation. “What do you propose?”

“Hmmm” Chrissie paced, a subconscious reaction while thinking. “We are supposed to be together all the time, but our duties wouldn’t permit that continually.” Wracking her brain, she nearly jumped at the revelation. “Oh! I'll give you a wave if I see you and you can do the same.”

“Yes, good thinking.” Cullen rested his hands on the pommel of his sword, standing at soldier’s posture despite the fact they were the only two in the room. “Give me your schedule, I'll make a point to memorize it. To give the appearance that I’m fully vested in your day.”

With a clap, Chrissie exclaimed. “Great idea.” Pulling out two pieces of vellum, she placed the parchment across the surface, grabbed a nearby quill and began to write down her daily activities. “You also.” Retrieving another quill from her desk, she offered it to him.

He accepted and did the same, handing one another their completed itineraries.

“See? We've got this!” She attempted to be reassuring, she wasn’t certain if it had worked.

A cross between amusement and concern flashed across his face but he smiled slightly nevertheless. As the gesture tugged at his scar, she noted how it gave him a boyish charm.

“Chris-Inquisitor?”

She watched his mouth move but it was his words that startled her back to reality and she'd realized internally she may have been staring. Even if for only a few seconds, it was a few too long.

Trying to play it off without appearing the fool, she changed topics. “Food then.” Motioning to the stairs, she took a step forward, halted by his extended elbow. They were supposed to be together, right! She would have to continue to remind herself of that. Cullen frowned as if unsure, but she linked her arm with his regardless and they made their way to the main hall for breakfast.

Thanks to the early hour, few had a chance to loiter, allowing them to ease into the pressure which would be thrust upon them. Chrissie took the seat at the end of the lengthy table and Cullen sat adjacent to her right. A habit she noticed, but if it was out of professionalism or preference this time, she didn’t know.

As if she’d personally called the runner, the young girl one of Leliana’s people, indicated by the little you could see under their hoodmade her presence known. “Report for you, Inquisitor.”

The envelope changed hands and Chrissie thanked the scout before tearing the seal open with haste.

Inquisitor and Commander, (I address this to you both because if you are not together, you should be.)

I have outlined the following topics which need to be addressed as soon as possible to ensure success.

You must discuss:

Previous romantic interests and the outcome of those relationships. Preferred terms of endearment so you may use it for one another in public. Favorite items, hobbies, food and drink, etc. What is it about one another that drives you crazy? What do they dislike in general?

How did the Commander sweep you off your feet and how did the Inquisitor steal your heart? You must know the details. Who proposed and who accepted, how? When did you know that you loved one another? Which of you said it first?

All other topics including but not limited to personal matters such as allergies, aspirations, fears, and so on. You must practice answers until they flow with little pause or effort.

Behavioral changes required to ensure success:

Once discussed, enforce agreed upon endearments when not engaging in Inquisition related business. You must be together often and publicly. The Commander has a tendency to bolt from war council once dismissed, refrain from doing so, stay behind to linger. Touching should be near constant in some way, hands, arms, et cetera. Kisses should be sensual and goodbyes long, as if you do not want to leave one another’s company. (Practice, practice, practice!) Meals are taken together regardless of location with frequent early excuses to ‘turn in’ for the evening. Though not different, the Commander is still required to be present for every arrival and departure, messages and notes are to be delivered to one another publicly to spread gossip.

You cannot pursue any other romantic interests while ‘together’ and do not forget the necessity of a matching wardrobe. We will discuss more as need requires.

-L

Chrissie handed the letter to Cullen for his review.

After scouring the details, his brows crinkled and he rubbed the stubble on his jaw. “Preposterous. She cannot seriously insist on a matching wardrobe.”

“Is that a thing?” Chrissie wondered, did couples really do that? Coordinate their ensembles when not attending a group event as one organizational representation?

“No,” Cullen announced sternly. “It is most certainly not a thing.”

“Good.” Chrissie shook her head. “I don’t want to make it one.”

“Thank the Maker!” Cullen exclaimed a bit too loudly, drawing attention to them from those meandering through the hall. “I agree to everything else but I'm am no doll to be dressed.”

The brief thought of Cullen being poked and prodded by one of Josephine’s Antivan tailors flitted through her mind and she stifled a snicker. Retrieving the letter from his hand, she re-reviewed the details. “Look, I appreciate all you’ve done so far, but this,” she motioned to the parchment, rapping her finger against it, “this, is a lot. You already give so much, I wasn’t asking for more. I didn’t mean to put you in this position.”

The touch of soft leather against her hand was oddly soothing. “I gave you my word.”

Their eyes met, lingering longer than necessary. “I’ll not abandon you in the presence of challenges. If you still wish, we will see this through.”

“I- Thank you, Cullen.”

Chapter Text

Other than the Inquisitor being at Cullen’s side for the majority of his tasks until duty called her away to her own, the day had gone standardly. Training for the recruits started shortly after he and Chrissie finished their breakfast and they learned a bit about one another. Favorites were their choice of topic and they’d spoken at length.

Cullen discovered that she loved to cook but hated to clean. He preferred the opposite, joking that everything he touched burned before declaring pastries as his favorite dessert. They both had a mutual appreciation for coffee and tea as well as simple sentiments. Despite her station, the Inquisitor was a practical, non-materialistic person. Once engrossed, the discussion became casual, easy, almost second nature and he inadvertently allowed a training drill to extend ten minutes longer than necessary while preoccupied with conversation.

He found himself laughing more often than he had in recent years and he couldn’t recall her giggling so much in the entire time he’d known her. Regardless of Leliana’s list of demands being extravagant and overmuch, the two had managed to tackle a discussion with moderate comfort. When she was called away to attend to other duties, he almost felt sorry for the abrupt ending. All of the romantic topics still remained as items of importance, but at least he didn’t hate being in her presence. Liked it, a little, in truth, were he honest with himself, and grateful for the companionship. If the Inquisitor was anyone else, well, he couldn’t have imagined it going so well, or even agreeing in the first place.

Meanwhile, he’d retreated to his office, reviewing multiple reports regarding troop movements, requisition requests from soldiers in the field, and delegating searches for area resource location. As time got away from him, he peered out the arrow slit, noticing the sun’s position. So wrapped up in his work, he had forgotten to meet Chrissie for lunch as previously arranged. It was only the first day of many and he’d already managed to skip their appointment. That would neither appease the nobles nor help their cause.

Dinner would be but an hour or so away and he could meet her then, apologize, and make an appearance. In the interim, he would finish the small stack of urgent missives on his desk and proceed with the standard priority requests back in her quarters. Per usual, parades of runners traipsed through his office, delivering more and adding to his pile. His mind flitted to Chrissie’s workload and he wondered if she would be spending the night catching up again.

When she’d written down her schedule this morning, he hadn’t realized the full extent of activities she was to complete. How she managed to make herself not only presentable but handle all of that plus the surplus of paperwork and the fleet of nobles continually descending upon Skyhold, he truly had no idea. He almost felt guilty for extending war council on a number of occasions when he fought passionately for her to see his side. Almost.

Cullen locked the doors to his office to get some work done in peace only to have loud rapping interrupt. “What now?” He questioned curtly, swinging it open with more force than necessary.

“Hi! Um, you missed dinner.” Chrissie sounded almost sheepish as she pushed the tray in her hands forward to him.

Biting his lip, and regretting his outburst, apologies fell from his mouth. “Maker, I,” pinching the bridge of his nose with his index finger and thumb, he continued, “lost track of time.”

“It’s all right, but this is a bit heavy, so, would you mind either helping or stepping aside, please?”

“Oh!” Cullen shook his head. “Of course.” Grabbing the platter from her, he carried it to his desk and set it down. “What’s all this?”

When the door closed, she followed behind, gesturing to the utensils and food filled bowls in front of him. “Homemade Orlesian garlic bread sprinkled with cheese, Ferelden Lamb and Pea Stew, pickled eggs, and apple pie with cinnamon for dessert.”

A smile reached her eyes with a subtle twinkle in the candlelight. Averting her gaze for a moment, she rubbed her forehead. “About lunch…”

Once again, the apologies fell, but as they said “I’m sorry,” in unison, they both gave each other questioning glances.

“I admit, I have been kept busy today. I hadn’t attended lunch.”

Her expression was a mixture of shock and relief. “Oh!” Chrissie chuckled. “Me either!, I overworked through dinner and the kitchens were closed. I thought I left you waiting both times. I’m so glad it wasn’t the case.”

“I shall strive to be more punctual in the future.” Pulling a chair from against the wall, Cullen lifted it, firmly placing it on the floor on the opposite side of his desk and dragged his over next to her.

He waited until she sat before taking his own seat, staring at the steam rolling off the soup as his stomach growled, eager for sustenance. Immediately embarrassed, a nervous chuckle escaped his lips.

With a quirked eyebrow and an amused smirk she looked at him, “hungry?”

“Perhaps a little.” He admitted, taking the bread and dipping it into the soup, the smell permeated his nose. Faintly earthy with mixed vegetables and charred lamb. The flavor hit is mouth like an explosion, spices and hearty broth worked cohesively. It had been a number of years since he had the traditional Ferelden dish made in this manner. “Maker.”  

“Do you like it?” She asked, swirling her soup with her spoon.

“I do.” A small noise affirmed her approval at his admission. As if a horn went off in his head, the realization dawned on him of her words. The kitchens were closed. “Did you make this?”

“I did.” Chrissie affirmed.” I was hungry. There wasn’t any left from dinner, I managed to avoid my parents and spent the last few hours cooking. Consider it an apology for not keeping our lunch and dinner and a thank you for putting up with all of this.”

As far as he was concerned, missing meetings may not be intolerable were she to continue cooking. It was only after she explained the rationale behind the feast that he’d recognized he too was at fault. And thus far, hadn’t rectified the situation to begin making it up to her. He wasn’t very good at this.

They chatted casually, asking about the others day as dinner progressed. Mostly the detailed work reports, troop movements, and Chrissie’s efforts. Once Chrissie was finished, she withdrew Leliana’s letter from earlier, unfolding it and holding it next to the candle to read.

Cullen shifted in his chair slightly, preparing himself for the conversation to turn uncomfortable. He reminded himself it was another mission, nothing more.

“Thoughts on terms of endearment?” Chrissie questioned, setting the parchment down on the desk. She stacked the used silverware into her empty dishes.

After swallowing his bite of food, Cullen offered, “Sweetheart?”

Chrissie shrugged. “Works for me, what should I call you?”

“It matters not.”

“Darling, Dear, Love?”

“Those are all right.”

“Okay, we will stick with those then.” Rapping her fingers against the table, she crossed one leg over the other. “Next on the list… Are you a virgin?” 

Cullen nearly choked on his pie, attempting to veil his surprise with forced coughing. He patted his chest with his hand and covered his mouth with the opposite. Thinking there would be some transition of easing into such personal matters, he hadn’t expected her to be so forward. After regaining his composure and assuring her he was all right, he responded. “No.”   

“Me either, past relationships?”

“Nothing worth mentioning.”

“Her name?”

“Sarah.” Though Chrissie didn’t push for an explanation, he offered it regardless. “You cannot build upon a foundation of mistrust.”

“I’m sorry.” She reached over and placed her hands on his for a moment. The touch practically searing through his gloves.

“You?”

“Killian. Together three years, a circle mage with an affinity for fire.”

“What happened?” For whatever reason, he felt inclined to ask before thinking of how insensitive it may have been. Three years was a long time to spend with someone and Cullen couldn’t help wondering what happened to the man who held a woman like Chrissie’s attention for so long.

Tears welled in her eyes, and she looked away from him before exhaling shakily. “He died when the rebellion began.”

Not that he would dare say, he furthermore pondered if the mage’s actions lead to the outcome or not. “My sympathies. I-” His words stuck in his throat as a tear fell down her cheek. Without thought, he reached out, wiping it away. Normally, he would have felt the action a bit brazen given the circumstances but for whatever reason, he couldn’t deny the subtle pang in his heart which caused his movements. Ignoring it for now, he focused on her. She hadn’t jerked back or made any move to shy away from him and he accepted that as confirmation his actions were all right.

“I’m okay.” She sniffled, signifying with a hand gesture that he could return to his seat; not wanting to push the matter, Cullen complied. “Thank you, it’s hard sometimes but it’s been a few years now.” Her opposite hand came up and wiped away the on the other side and she returned her attention to the list. “Ever been in love?”

“No.”

“Lucky, you can’t get hurt that way.” Chrissie nearly spat the response. “I didn’t mean for that to sound so bitter.” She sighed. “I have, the aforementioned.”

Cullen tried to sound as reassuring as possible. “We can continue this another time.”

“Another time then.” Casting an appreciative look his way, she began to gather together all of their finished dishes.

After a myriad of frivolous questions having nothing to do with Leliana’s list, they brought the used dishes to the kitchen and ascended up the stairs arms linked in companionable silence to their quarters. The late hour appeared to be irrelevant as the nobles in attendance spoke in hushed tones at their passing.

“Well, we have people talking. Do they bother you?”

Cullen sighed. “I would rather my,” thinking back to the Spymaster’s note, he corrected, “our private affairs remain that way but were there nothing here for them to talk about, I’d regret it more.”

Without a doubt, it was true. He’d agreed to be convincing, had they been so thus far? Time would only tell. But he figured it couldn’t hurt to have the gossips running about. Were they not, they’d have been unsuccessful and the thought of failure bothered him.

Pushing open the door to their quarters, Cullen held it, allowing Chrissie to enter first before he followed behind, as he had any door they passed through all day. Gradually, he’d been accepting the concept of their togetherness and found himself thinking of her more than normal, but he supposed that was appropriate.

“I’m going to bathe and I’ll be right back out. If anyone comes to the door to deliver missives, accept them and send them on their way.” Answering Cullen’s question before he voiced it, she continued. “They shouldn’t, but anything urgent doesn’t wait. Again, make yourself comfortable, you know where things are.” Slipping into the garderobe, she disappeared from sight.

Cullen removed his armor, placing it on the stand as he had the night before. Meandering over to the bookshelf, he reviewed the various titles on display. Most were books regarding Thedas’ history, some she’d found in her travels, as well as an entire shelf dedicated to works by Varric. He found a few on strategy and scanned through them, reading passages pertaining to battle and tactics. Running his fingers along the spines, he stopped as he felt the cool wood. After removing it from its rightful place, his fingers traced the intricate whittled chess set. Upon opening, he found each and every piece carved to perfection, small but fine details ever present. So enthralled in his own thoughts, Cullen didn’t hear the door or Chrissie standing behind him until she spoke.

“Beautiful isn’t it?”

Startled, he turned in surprise. Her hair was down, wet black tresses darkening her cotton shirt. It took him a moment of staring to avert his eyes and for his brain to catch up that she wasn’t talking about herself. The weight of the chess set in his hands pulled him from his thoughts.

“Indeed.”

“I thought so as well. A gift from Blackwall,” Chrissie walked up and stood beside Cullen, admiring the craftsmanship, “as congratulations for my appointment to Inquisitor. I understand he made every piece by hand. It was most thoughtful.”

“Would you care for a game?” Cullen questioned. He too was a strategist, it was a part of both their jobs.

“Prepare the board, Commander.” A smirk fell upon her lips.

Stifling a chuckle at what he interpreted as her intentional use of his title, he readied the pieces.

“Generally, I play with Dorian. He’s not much competition, likes to cheat.”

“You don’t say?”

“Perhaps you’ll prove a worthy opponent, instead. Provided you enjoy being defeated.”

Tilting his head to the side, he quirked his eyebrow and gestured to the prepared board. “We shall see.”

Chapter Text

As far as mornings go, it was all right considering Chrissie was not a morning person. Similar to the previous day, she awoke alone in bed and Cullen was sitting on the sofa geared up. She felt guilty for making him wait for who knows how long and wondered if he managed to sleep at all. Even if he had gotten into bed, she was a sound sleeper and it likely wouldn’t have disturbed her either way. At least she hadn’t nearly stripped in front of him this time. Other than exchanging pleasantries, they hadn’t said much. Wise, since she generally was a grouch before coffee.

A number of their chess matches from the night before ended in stalemate and she’d found a renewed appreciation for his intelligence. Seeing him in simple clothes without the armor had been different, not that she thought he slept in it, she just never thought she’d see it. Maker, it was a glorious sight.

Full of politeness and professionalism, he’d been pleasant. The possibility of her fielding his complaints had worried her, but he said nothing of the sort. As arranged, they’d spent breakfast eating together in the main hall as before. But unlike the previous day, they engaged in unstrained idle chatter. It was companionable, nice even, and she found she genuinely enjoyed his company.

Proceeding to the war room as scheduled, he escorted her, holding doors open and pulling out chairs, waiting to be seated before she sat. Not entirely certain if it was because of professionalism or the ruse, his chivalric attitude was a warm welcome.

They debated matters in the war room and despite the potential for them to become heated, everyone seemed to take the issues in stride. By the end, they’d determined that she would be setting forward to meet Hawke’s Grey Warden contact in Crestwood within the week, received requests from monarchs in Orzammar and Ferelden, delivered instructions to ensure safety acquiring an arcanist in Skyhold and the best trainers for her magic skills would be summoned on her behalf. Overall, a productive day. It was only after she declared council dismissed that she lingered behind as instructed with Cullen, but so did Leliana.

“Now. We have a small matter to discuss.” Amusement twinkled in Leliana’s eyes.

“Which is?” Chrissie questioned, crossing her arms.

“Displays of affection.” She stated matter of factly, her hands behind her back. “Convincing displays of affection. The usual is not going to convince those starved for lurid details.”

Exhaling breath, and immediately regretting it before she bothered to ask, Chrissie voiced the question. “Lurid details?”

Leliana hummed. “Yes. So, as previously mentioned in my notes, we must address your comfort level with one another to be persuasive in your kisses.”

“Now, just a moment. Those were merely suggestions.” Cullen rubbed his forehead and shifted, clearly discomforted at the necessity.

“Commander, I know exactly what must be done to make the gossips prattle on regarding your,” the Spymaster paused and an expression of mischief flashed across her features, “association. So, I suggest practicing. Go ahead. I'll wait.”

“Now? You can’t be serious.”

“No time like the present Commander.” Leliana’s gesture indicated they should close the distance between one another.

“Must you watch?” Cullen’s tone was laced with irritation, but he rubbed his neck and his cheeks tinged pink.

Fidgeting with her hands, Chrissie thought about it. They knew it would likely have to happen sooner or later but it felt forced. Not that she wouldn’t want to kiss Cullen, he was handsome enough, certainly, but it seemed wrong to invade his personal space when he was so vocal against the matter. Though, if it was because of Leliana’s presence or the idea entirely, she couldn’t be sure.

Tentative steps led her closer. In order to kiss him, she would have to lift to her tiptoes or he would have to bend down and allow it. She placed a hand on his bracer and the other on his cheek. Cullen touched her waist, moving back slightly as if he questioned the action, before replacing it in the original location.

The cool metal of his bracer was great contrast to the warmth radiating off of his skin. Cullen must have recognized the height difference. He leaned forward, hunching slightly to where their lips were only a few inches from the other.

Leliana’s gaze bore into Chrissie, feeling both paranoid and guilty at not only forcing Cullen into the ruse, but subjecting them to an audience for a fake first kiss. His breath was warm on her face and with his free hand, he placed a finger under her chin so lightly, she wouldn’t have known it was there were she not hyper aware of their proximity and attuned to every movement.

Their lips were an inch from touching, Cullen’s eyelids near closed and something flourished in her chest, a small spark of desire sending her into a tizzy at the realization. She may have actually wanted to kiss him. His stubble scratched her palm and the absurdity hit her in full force leaving her terrified of crossing the line. Remembering she was the Inquisitor, and he, her Commander, she couldn’t prevent the laughter that ripped from her throat before their lips ever touched. Pulling away, she felt his absence immediately but ignored it. Thinking she may have heard a disappointed grunt from Cullen, she quashed the thoughts before they progressed further. “This is preposterous. He’s my General.”  

Her announcement caused wildfire to spread like mad within her mind. Cullen was her Commander, feared and respected. Would his efforts on her behalf pose problems for him in the future? Could this ruse come back to haunt him? No matter what, after agreeing to this, she would not allow that to happen.

“Inquisitor?” Cullen’s voice returned her to the present.

“Oh, I, yes, what was I saying?”

“I’m your General…” Cullen supplied.

Chuckling nervously, she waived it off. “Oh, right. Apologies, I,” she swallowed thickly, “was lost in thought for a moment.” Shaking her abnormal feelings, she gathered her composure and stood straighter. “I have an alternative solution.”

“An alternative?” Leliana seemed skeptical, but nodded for continuance.

“The near kiss.”

“The, what?” Cullen asked, brow furrowed.

“Something we used to do in the Circle as a tease to make others jealous. It was silly, but it works and it’s effective. We won't really have to kiss but to any watching? They'll think it’s true.”

“That would require perfect placement, gestures and concealment; it would only be convincing for so long."

“Perhaps, but it would alleviate any discomfort in the interim while we practice if absolutely necessaryon our terms. That's my final word on it Leliana. It'll work. Trust me.”

“Prove it.” She challenged.

“All right.” Chrissie shrugged, grabbing Cullen by the fabric of his mantle, she guided him to turn, inserting herself between him and the wall. With her back fully pressed against the stone, she tugged, pulling him forward, nearly flush against her. She inhaled deeply, pretending the thought of him so Maker damn close wasn’t flustering. “You’re tall enough that your mantle will block the view of my face from Leliana.” Cupping his cheeks within her hands, she gently brought the distance to a close as he leaned forward, cooperating. Little space separated them, equal to before but she continued instruction Thank the Makerwithout faltering. “Now, tilt your head slightly as if we were kissing, subtle movements will make it seem like it’s really happening.”

Cullen followed instruction but his movement was too jarring and she corrected it, his cheeks warmed her hands, the soft stubble tickling her palms. “Good, see? Our lips never have to touch.” Elevating herself on her tiptoes, “For the finish,” she wrapped her arms around his neck compressing the fur of his mantle, “a simple, yet, moderately intimate hug.”

When her head screamed at her about the closeness, she abruptly stepped away, ceasing all contact. She wondered if the flush in her cheeks was as prevalent as it felt. “And thus,” Chrissie rolled out the tension in her neck before smoothing out her shirt, “the near kiss, always a success.”       

“It may work, for now,” Leliana warned, making her way to the war room door. “But sooner or later preferably soonerit’ll have to be the real deal.”

“Actually, Spymaster, a word before you go?” Turning her attention to Cullen, Chrissie noted his confused expression. “Commander, would you excuse us, I’ll be but a moment.”

Cullen left without a word, offering only a subtle nod in response. Chrissie’s voice lulled to a whisper. Per their arrangement he was likely right outside and she did not want him to overhear. “I need you to ensure, Cullen, his reputation, his authority, isn’t damaged because he was roped into this. Whatever it takes.”

Contorting her face somewhere between curiosity and amusement, she agreed. “Consider it done, Inquisitor.”

As the door closed behind the Spymaster, Chrissie followed, seeing Cullen converse with the Ambassador while he waited. Offering his arm to her, she accepted and when Josie was out of earshot, Chrissie whispered. “I’m sorry I didn’t mean to invade your personal space and um-”

“It’s all right. It’s uh, a requirement of the ruse.”

His words stabbed at her and she dismissed the feeling again. “Exactly.” Though she knew he was correct, she mentally checked herself. There was a drawn line of professionalism and crossing it would be disastrous, plus Cullen wasn't experiencing this attraction. If he could maintain the ruse with ease, she would as well. All she had to do was outwardly pretend to be madly in love with him while inwardly quash any impulses. She was attracted to a gorgeous man, nothing more.

Should be simple, right?

Chapter Text

A wave, as agreed upon; it was nothing more. Or at least, that’s what he told himself when he saw her briefly while monitoring the soldiers’ progress this morning. Since, he’d been busy trying to coordinate a half days’ worth of work into a few hours before his and Chrissie’s lunch with the Trevelyans. An endeavor he was not looking forward to but under no circumstances could be late for.

A few hours later, a runner arrived, reminding him of his required presence. Staring down at the paperwork he was unable to finish, he offered a nod and dismissed the scout before exhaling deeply, knowing catching up would mean another long night. For once, it didn’t seem as daunting, the thought of working alongside Chrissie in their shared quarters, chatting casually and asking for each other’s opinions or recommendations until daybreak comforted him, gave him something to look forward to.

Smiling to himself, he organized the remaining missives into piles to resume later and confident steps led him from his office to the main hall. Chrissie wore a different ensemble than the one he'd seen that morning, sometime during the day, she must've changed from the deep blue into the white blouse. 

Upon seeing him, she placed a hand on his bracer and immediately linked her arm with his. Both Chrissie and Cullen performed a half bow taking their seats for lunch. Whenever he was in the presence of the Trevelyans there seemed to be an aura that loomed over them like a storm cloud. Tense atmosphere added weight and additional discomfort and Cullen could sense Chrissie felt it too. She stiffened, her movements and words became practiced and deliberate when addressing the Trevelyans.

His plan of action was to deter the Trevelyans from speaking about Christalyne any ill manner. Firstly, because it was undeserved, but moreover, not every interaction with these people necessarily had to be unpleasant. If Cullen could take control, command the situation as he did his soldiers, they could maintain civility. He hoped.

Wasting no time forgoing pleasantries, Bann Trevelyan spoke first as the servant placed lunch before them: finger sandwiches with a side of chopped fruit. “You don't act like you're in love."

To Chrissie’s credit, she didn't flinch at the accusation, picking up a piece of fruit and bringing it to her lips. “No, how so?”

“You aren't affectionate.” Bann Trevelyan stated simply before drinking his water.

“Well,” Cullen chimed in, not allowing Chrissie to field their questions on her own, something he hoped she appreciated. “Our duties come first, as I explained before. While working, we don't publicly display. It would be unnecessary. We save affection for our personal quarters.” Cullen felt the heat creep into his face.

“Yes but even so,” Adia interjected, eyeing her sandwich with disgust, “what is a peck on the lips to bid each other adieu?”

“Very well.” Chrissie leaned to her right and soft, warm, lips touched Cullen's left cheek. She held for a few seconds to ensure the Trevelyans were convinced. Or at least, he assumed it was the reason. “There, are you happy?”

“No. It's standard practice to give a more passionate kiss to a stranger in Orlais out of courtesy.”

“I, uh” Chrissie fidgeted with her hands under the table.

Cullen glanced at their surroundings. Considering the number of people present as well as their position at the table in the far corner plus the Trevelyans sitting across from them, he acted on the best strategy he could formulate.

With outstretched hands, Cullen cupped Chrissie’s cheeks. Ensuring he shifted correctly, his mantle blocked the Trevelyan’s view giving nothing more than the sight of his back; he positioned himself between Chrissie and the table. Slow deliberate movements gave the illusion of the infamous near kiss maneuver. After a full count of ten slow seconds, he pulled back, lingering a moment.

Chrissie placed her cheek against his. Hot breath accompanied by whispered words tickled his ear. "I'm so sorry I pulled you into this. I'll make it up to you, I swear."

Cullen felt his cheeks flame. The act was personal, intimate, though he knew it was the point.  Providing a subtle nod, he returned to his seat, “Now, if you're pleased, there are other matters to discuss.” In truth, Cullen had no idea what those other matters were, but as long as they're nearly anything else, it hardly mattered. Lady Trevelyan seemed satisfied enough with the display, leaning back against her chair, a slight pink tinge to her ivory complexion.

Cullen would have been amused too, had he not felt momentarily disheveled himself.

Chapter Text

An entire kettle of coffee awaited them in their shared quarters per Chrissie's orders. Any time they had to manipulate their day to accommodate anything extra, she knew the workload was pushed back and Cullen appreciated the thoughtfulness. Over the course of a few days, their nighttime routine had regulated, it had become pleasantly predictable. Chrissie would excuse herself to bathe, then they would work at the shared desk, converse, or take a break with a game of chess as duties permitted. Almost consistently, she would fall asleep hovering over the mountain of missives and Cullen would gently lift her and carry her to the bed. 

Whereas Cullen would spend the remainder working until he too succumbed to exhaustion. Despite her insistence, he'd hadn't slept in the bed once. He fell asleep later than she, but always awoke earlier, bathing and dressing before Chrissie started her day. Somehow his nightmare riddled rest never bothered her and hers only troubled him when he was already awake as he struggled with wanting to provide comfort, soothing them away, and maintaining his position as Commander. 

Often, he would venture to the balcony for fresh air to calm his pounding head and cool the sweat from waking abruptly. Most of the awkwardness had settled and less important portions of their ruse became second nature. Holding hands and linking arms, lingering to chat with one other after the council meeting or accidentally skipping meal arrangements and laughing about it later.

Under the taciturn shell, hidden behind professional decorum, Chrissie was a warm, caring person. Cullen almost wished the world could see it but occasionally, a small portion of himself liked that he was one of few people with the privilege on a personal level. Finding throughout his day, he enjoyed their developing companionship and looked forward to their mutual appointments. 

Chrissie was set to leave tomorrow and he pondered the appropriate actions in her absence. Was he still expected to stay in their quarters without her? He assumed so, but surely, if he fell asleep in his office, nobody would mind. Mostly, the ability to get more work done without breaking for other scheduled activities appealed to him.

At least it was a great theory, had Cullen not been informed at the Council meeting of the Trevelyans’ request for a traipse around Skyhold. He wondered if it was purposeful, having been within the fortress for a number of days, they wanted a full tour only after the Inquisitor would be gone and by himself, personally? Convenient.

Though he tried to make up excuses to avoid it, he remembered his promise and if entertaining her parents would aid in their ruse, he would do so, even if it meant moving around meetings to accommodate. After briefing Chrissie with updates on mission status, he had taken a trip to the stables and the quartermaster's office to ensure all items would be prepared for her departure the following morning.

At the beverage bar within their quarters, Cullen asked if Chrissie needed a refill of coffee before taking a seat on the sofa next to her, outstretching his arm to hand her the cup. With her right leg crossed across her left, her eyes flitted side to side, reading the pages of the book open in her lap. She’d hardly looked up from the text to accept the drink.

“How are you?”

Seconds passed and Cullen smirked, Chrissie was so engrossed in the material, she hadn’t heard. A light touch to her forearm caused her to refocus her attention on him.

“Is everything all right?” Chrissie asked, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear.

Cullen ignored finding the action endearing, vocalizing to silence his thoughts. "Mhm. Interesting reading?”

“Oh,” Chrissie exclaimed, her cheeks tinting pink. “Yes, actually. I acquired the newest chapter from Varric of Swords and Shields for Cass, but I wasn’t going to hand it over without reading it first. It’s quite,” Clearly uncertain of her word choice, she paused then finished, “colorful.”

“Perhaps I should give it a chance, I read Tale of the Champion and enjoyed it.”

A nervous chuckle escaped her. “It’s Varric’s romance series, it’s nothing like Tale of the Champion or calibrating trebuchets.” She bit her lip, peering at him through long lashes with an expression Cullen interpreted as awaiting judgment.

Chrissie always seemed such a practical woman, he’d never taken her for one to indulge in fantasies and whims contained within a fictional story. “I would not have expected you to read that sort of thing,” he explained, taking a sip from his mug and placing it on the end table.

A furrowed brow indicated her curiosity. “Why?”

“I read the reports on your endeavors, are your own adventures not sufficient? What is the purpose of engaging in fantasy when your life is shrouded in mystery and intrigue?”

“Well, that is true.” She explained, gesturing with her hands to the book. A starry quality lit her eyes as she gazed at him. “But it’s chivalry, knights in shining armor, rescuing the damsel, emerging from battle victorious, what isn’t there to like about it?”

Cullen shrugged. “Wouldn’t it be better to have a woman who is strong, fierce, and more than capable of handling her own battles?  Someone who proves time and again she is far more than those around her realize.” His eyes met hers and they locked, perhaps longer than appropriate. His mind flitted to the number of missives he’d received detailing Chrissie’s bravery, and what he’d seen firsthand in Haven. “She is the heroine I prefer."

Realizing his error in divulging too much, he quickly amended, “or would… prefer, if I read such things.” His hand rubbed the back of his neck and he felt the heat creeping into his cheeks. If it wouldn’t have been so blatantly obvious, he would have smacked himself in the forehead, chiding his own stupidity.

“It isn’t about her needing to be saved, it’s about someone caring enough to step in to save her knowing she doesn’t require it. Not because they have to, but because they want to.” A tinge of pink flushed her ivory cheeks. “Similar to what you did for me.” A gentle smile spanned her face. “Perhaps it isn’t as bad as you think. Here,” she stretched, placing her legs across his lap, picked a page and began reading aloud. “The Knight Captain…” 

The rest of what she said fell on deaf ears as Cullen recognized she’d casually draped her legs across him. Ordinarily, it would seem so meaningless, so mundane, he likely wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Yet, he couldn’t help but question the simple action and her motivation behind it. It wasn’t any sexual advance nor did it make him uncomfortable, but it required a nonchalance, an aura of informal domesticity and relaxed nature with present company. Thinking back to their first night in the room, the conversation was stiff and strained, professional decorum prevalent in all aspects. Now, it was easy, simple, natural to arrive, prepare coffee for them both and casually chat about their day and reading material. He couldn’t be certain if it pleased him or slightly scared him, either way, it was welcome.     

Cullen rested his head against his fist on the arm of the sofa, contemplating. Was it simple camaraderie, if it wasn’t could it be something else? Should it be? Quashing the thoughts before they crept further, he stifled a chuckle at his own ridiculousness. Their newfound comfort with one another would add to the ruse. That’s all it was, nothing more. Every action was part of the mission, the end goal in convincing others they were madly in love and to be married. Only a fool would read into something nonexistent.

Whether he wanted to be a fool or not, was the question.

Chapter Text

Chrissie woke in her bed, finding her quarters empty. As she stretched her arms across Cullen’s pillow, the sound of parchment crumpling caught her attention. The small slip of vellum laid on his side. Squeezing her eyes shut to dull the blur in her vision, she hoped they would focus when she opened them. The black ink in fine hand momentarily danced on the page before becoming clear.

Chrissie,
Apologies for my absence, spontaneous barracks inspection. I shall meet you shortly for our morning meal.
Cullen

Cullen wasn’t required to leave a note on her behalf, but it was considerate and somehow, she expected nothing less. A small smile tugged at her lips. He had been exceptionally great regarding the entire ordeal. If he harbored complaints, he held his tongue on the matter, never indicating his displeasure with the arrangement. Though she knew how much being required to conform to a fake public relationship must have hindered him. Often, she’d wondered if he stayed awake with her because he genuinely had a plethora of work, if his sleep habits were that poor, or if he, like she, had grown to enjoy the company. Perhaps it was all the above, but she didn’t dare ask. To question it would mean voicing her own inappropriate attraction, admitting the flutter in her chest when he spoke to her, the butterflies in her stomach at his smile, how she found his boyish charm and awkwardness endearing, and his commanding persona incredibly sexy as if that wasn’t distracting during war room debates.

To Chrissie’s credit, she tried to ignore it but it festered. She’d found herself starting for perhaps a moment too long. Occasionally, she would catch him looking at her as well, but whether that was because he was anticipating an answer regarding work related topics, or because he too had been feeling an attraction, she couldn’t be certain. Truth be told, she wasn’t positive she wanted to know.

Were she to admit her attraction to him, would he feel obligated because she is his superior? Would it make their work lives challenging? The possibilities that could happen were endless. Multiple times, she had to check herself back into reality. The metaphorical line that could not be crossed was daunting. Cullen was an excellent Commander and gave his all to the Inquisition, how dare she ask him for more? It would be at best, selfish. She could never. Not to mention his challenges with lyrium withdrawal. Requesting anything could be construed as taking advantage of the situation, adding more struggles onto an already burdened man. For now, the ruse kept them together. If that was her only way to keep him nearby, then it would have to do. 
 
Slapping her palm against her forehead, she groaned and muttered under her breath. “Stop it, right now.” She commanded herself.

“Stop what?”

Cullen’s voice caused her to dart to a sitting position, startled she hadn’t heard him enter. He stood, holding a tray of Orlesian cinnamon rolls. From the smell alone, she didn’t need to see the steam rising from the pastries to know they were fresh.

“Uh, it’s nothing.” Waving off the concern, she felt her cheeks heat as if he’d heard her admitting her embarrassing thoughts, she scrambled to her feet and took the tray from him, setting it down on the table. “How was inspection?”

Following behind her, he separated the stacked plates, placing one roll for each of them on top. “Inspection was as expected. One would think soldiers would have the propensity to be more organized, but otherwise, I’ve few qualms with the current status.”

“Good, glad to hear it.” Accepting her plate from him, she turned and seated herself, noting that Cullen waited until she sat before taking his place across from her. “I’ll be gone a week, provided everything remains on schedule. Should anything happen to cause delays, I’ll write to inform you.”

“Which reminds me,” Cullen said, swiping crumbs off of his armor, “Leliana gifted us a raven.”

“Let me guess, this bird is uniquely identifiable and anytime the nobles see it, they will speculate over our love letters.”

“Something like that, yes.”

“Very well, then we'll endeavor to write each other when duties permit on personal matters.” Personal matters like what, Chrissie wondered at her own statement. Surely, Cullen would have other interests more important than hearing of her day. More likely, he wouldn't have the chance to read it anyway. But what was fake romance etiquette? What would be the appropriate address in such a letter? “I suppose as long as the raven is seen, it hardly matters the content. Just in case, perhaps we should endeavor to maintain the ruse in our correspondence.”

“I agree.” Cullen nodded, stacking their finished plates on the empty food platter. “Were the letters intercepted, appearances must be maintained. Speaking of, how did you want to handle the display for your departure? Depending on the number present, we may not be able to successfully perform the near kiss.”

“Mmm.” Chrissie hadn't given it much thought, but Cullen was right. There were a number of people who loitered at the gates. It was the most public place in Skyhold.
 
“We might achieve a similar reaction with a simple lean, but it requires contact. With your permission, allow me to demonstrate.”

A small gesture with her hand indicated her approval. Cullen stood, walking towards her side of the table, bent down and pressed his forehead to hers. Pushing strands of raven hair, he tucked a tressel behind her left ear and rested his finger under her lobe, covering her cheeks with his hands, his thumb feather light against her cheekbone. The leather of his glove smooth against her skin as he cradled her face.

“Now,” Cullen said, his voice but a whisper, a mellow tone that he often used in private, “slow movements will lend credence to the illusion and I’ll block our lips with my hands. It should fool them.”

Chrissie’s chest tingled as warm breath from hushed words heated and tickled her face. Cullen’s nose nuzzled against her own as they touched. For a few shameful seconds, she debated on closing the distance, nearly melting into the amber of his eyes. One wrong move and she could swear it was an accident, apologize profusely even though she wouldn’t mean it and go about her day acting as normal. It would be laughably easy to allow instinct to take over and crash into his lips.

Instead, she leaned back in her chair with force, nearly tipping it to get away from the temptation and rising to her feet, ceasing contact and proximity. Embarrassment stained her face red followed by guilt when he asked if she was all right. “Fine.” She murmured, remaining turned away, facing the balcony to hide her self loathing. “I should pack.”

“Indeed.” By the clinking of his armor, Cullen must’ve stood. “Inquisi-,” with a resigned sigh, he corrected. “Chrissie, if I caused you any discomfort, I apologize.”

Sounding slightly hurt and dejected, a pang hit her heart. Discomfort wasn’t the problem but how could she begin to tell him? “No, it wasn’t that. I, it wasn’t your fault.”
 
How many ways were there to call yourself stupid? Chrissie didn’t know but ran through a number of them in her mind. Maker, getting as far away from Skyhold and Cullen would do her some good, she just had to test her willpower at departure and refrain from acting on every instinct her body was screaming at her to make and do the opposite.

Yes, she would do anything necessary to get her mind off of Cullen and his gorgeous good looks. Time away would provide exactly that.

Chapter Text

There were a number of things Cullen despised about the ruse. First, he hated the public, the prattling gossips who had nothing better to do than shroud his day with curious glances, inappropriate comments, and speculation. Second, the Trevelyan’s treatment of their daughter was abhorrent. The situation started by their interference and having to entertain them during meals, or even seeing them at all made his head pound, gearing up for an anticipated battle of wits and words. However, the largest issue at hand was uncertainty.

Yes, it was a facade, but underneath it all, he’d begun to feel things. Subtle, but undeniable. The way his heart leapt because of their proximity; actions he found endearing and the casual nature in their quarters when she wasn’t being the Inquisitor, hadn’t gone unnoticed. Despite trying to dismiss the oddities, there was much he could no longer ignore, even though he should. His feelings breached their arrangement and he found, he’d genuinely come to care for her.  

With her departure complete and their forehead touch near kiss going off without a hitch, at least he could refocus, immerse himself in work while she was away. There would be no blue eyed, black haired, lovely woman to distract him. No, the only thing he had to contend with was the tour. Never one to halfway complete any job, Cullen planned for a full venture throughout Skyhold. Not wanting to leave anything out on the off chance it would give the Trevelyans excuse to request another, he spoke with Solas and brushed up on his knowledge of the fortress they’d made their home. Given the lack of history, he was as prepared as possible.

Cullen met Chrissie’s parents in the main hall. With the path laid out in his mind, he allotted two hours for a full tour of the keep. It should have been plenty of time to ask questions, inform them about each area and leave some to spare. Though he dreaded it inwardly, outwardly he plastered on the usual decorum of a professional. Greeting them with a bow, Cullen forced a smile on his face, wondering how the Ambassador endured these tasks regularly.

He'd taken extra care to ensure his armor was shined. His mantle sat squarely on his shoulders, and the lock above his right eye which would often fall out of place after sweating during trainingwas firmly styled; giving Adia no reason to critique his appearance. Though he wasn't the target of their ire and hadn't been, it was better to avoid any and all possibilities which could later haunt Chrissie or compromise their ruse.

After exchanging half-hearted pleasantries on both sides, Cullen gestured to the door and led them to the war room. As a man of strategy, all pertinent or sensitive Inquisition reports had been removed before their arrival as a precaution. He still couldn’t be certain of the Trevelyans’ motivation and made it a point to be leery. Whether it was attributed to paranoia from lyrium withdrawal or general cautious nature, he didn’t know. But he couldn’t shake the feeling there was still something off about their intentions.

The presentation was brief but effective as few questions were posed. Both nobles had commentary and most of it unflattering. The fortress was too dusty, the lack of light was excessive, and so on. Cullen led them back out to the main hall. There was a minor interruption by Josephine and in her questioning but diplomatic tone, she ensured Cullen’s known lack of patience for nobility hadn’t strained efforts. Hushed reassurances seemed to soothe the Ambassador and she returned to her duties.

Escorting them room to room and all over the grounds, Cullen provided various tips and information on Skyhold’s history. Whenever the discussion turned disparaging, he didn’t engage, opting to digress from the topic at hand. Bann Trevelyan inquired about the soldiers, a welcome change and within Cullen’s expertise. He detailed security and training efforts, praising the men under him, spoke highly of the Inquisition’s mission, and credited Chrissie’s efforts with no exaggeration as a reason for success. The tactic worked successfully thus far, or had until they ventured to the tavern, the last stop on the tour. Ascending the stairs to a lesser populated second floor, the three took their seats for an already prepared lunch arranged by the Ambassador. 

The spread was simple, but refined, including sandwiches with higher quality meats and cheeses, salad, various fruits and other finger foods underneath a protective glass cloche. Despite his lack of appetite, he began to fill his plate with food. Refraining from pinching the bridge of his nose to alleviate the onset of his headache, he hoped the conversation wouldn’t fuel it.

Bann Trevelyan unfolded his napkin, stuffing it with a practiced hand into the collar of his shirt. “Commander. Surely you can see how this… association with Christalyne could be detrimental to you. We seek an amicable agreement. Lady Trevelyan and I are prepared to do whatever is necessary to protect your good name and ours.”

It shouldn’t have surprised Cullen that within moments, the casual conversation soured. Mouth closed, he ran his tongue across his top teeth, tilting his head and narrowing his eyes before placing his plate in front of him and halting. “I see no detriment to my name. Only a rather poorly veiled threat.” His tone came out calmer than expected, but the intentional bite remained within his words.

“No, Commander you misunderstand,” Adia explained, shaking her head and preparing to use utensils to cut into her finger sandwich. “We would honor your achievements, not risk exposure. With a few well-placed words, you could have any command you desired. We are not without influence.”

It took Cullen a moment longer than necessary to quash his disbelief at the absurdity. No, they weren't actually trying to bribe him, were they?

“Or perhaps a well timed introduction to a prominent family where you would do well in both match and future prospects.” Bann Trevelyan added, a hardened stare on his features.

They were definitely bribing him or trying to. Cullen wasn't certain which he was more offended by: the Trevelyans thinking he would agree or the continual undermining of their daughter and her choices. Technically, Cullen hadn't been her desired suitor but tried not to let that fact bother him for the moment.

“The point is,” Adia chased an elusive grape on her plate with her fork, “everyone can be bought.”

“Precisely.” Bann agreed, “Name your price.”

Jaw clenched, Cullen engaged in the conversation, wanting to determine how far the Trevelyans we willing to venture to ensure success. “What do you propose?”

“Coin for your pockets, a deed to your name?” Lady Trevelyan offered.

“A woman or women to fill your bed, Commander.” Bann Trevelyan supplied.

With a quirked eyebrow and a smug smirk, Cullen challenged. “This is to save me from your family's reputation and lack of prospects. Am I correct?” Their stunned silence provided additional, though unnecessary, confidence. “While I appreciate the warning, I am committed to Lady Christalyne. Nothing you could offer is worth breaking my word, regardless of how generous it may be.” Cullen stood, placing his hands against the table to balance his weight, meeting the Trevelyans with an unintimidated gaze. “I do however, thank you for your interest in my future. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve other matters to attend.”

If they said something behind him, he didn’t hear it, nor did he even manage a bite of food. Even so, it was best he remove himself from the situation and direct his aggression towards a training dummy. Anger flourished in his chest, radiating down his limbs and exacerbating the now full on throbbing in his temples. How dare they think he could be bought?

 

The brisk air did wonders to alleviate his headache and Cullen took Cassandra’s standard place of practice while she accompanied the Inquisitor. He felt the comfortable weight of his sword within his hands, jabbing left and right using the newly implemented techniques for his soldiers.

A sparring partner would have been preferred over a dummy who couldn’t strike back or pose a true fight. However, Cullen would accept what little victories were afforded. Sweat draped his brow, his efforts making the shirt he wore under his breastplate stick to his skin. Feeling a chill, he wondered if it was the breeze or the symptoms of withdrawal taking charge.

Relieved at the sight of Bull, Cullen sighed. Perhaps he would be interested in being his opponent for a sparring match. If nothing else, it would provide a welcome release of pent up aggression against a worthy competitor. However, the Qunari simply leaned against the exterior wall of the Quartermaster’s office, crossing his arms, eyeing Cullen as though he were trying to obtain information.

“So Cullen. You've been spending a lot of time with the Boss. I've gotta ask. You think she'd want to ride the bull?”

The question was so blatant, it nearly stunned Cullen, causing him to redirect his attention.

“Don't you prefer Dorian's company?” It was hardly a secret the two had a dalliance of some sort. Though Cullen never pressed for details, and he hadn't wanted to. The rumors flew about Skyhold like a blizzard and their accuracy unreliable.

“It’s casual but irrelevant. Think the boss might want to get her feathers ruffled, after your ruse is over, of course.”

Briefly, the thought of the large qunari and the Inquisitor flitted through his mind, disgusting him but he couldn’t put his finger on what seemed so repulsive regarding such a pairing. “Enough!” Cullen snapped, waving his sword without conscious thought.

“Hey now!” Bull stuck his hands up in feigned surrender. “Getting a bit flustered over a fake relationship there, Cullen.”

“What?” Cullen asked, incredulous. He hadn’t meant for the question to be so loud, but after the day he had, Bull’s presence had been less welcomed than he’d hoped.

“Just sayin'. I can see it. You're into her.”

“I,” Cullen started, but the words died in his throat. The Iron Bull was Ben-Hassrath and similar to Leliana, had a tendency to be knowledgeable about matters without ever being informed. Though an asset to the Inquisition, it was a quality he failed to appreciate at the moment. A scowl set on Cullen’s face. “Not a word.” He warned.

Bull slapped Cullen’s back, crushing the fur of his mantle. "Yeah. I get it. Admitting you're into the boss. Definitely a terrible thing."

 

Bull’s statement haunted Cullen. So what if he was starting to develop feelings for Chrissie? It was normal, natural, likely to happen when two people spent time together. They'd moved from colleagues to companions. It could be nothing more, and Cullen knew that. No doubt, it would complicate already challenging matters. 

The Inquisition was at war; Chrissie was the Inquisitor. Under normal circumstances, it wouldn't be possible or appropriate. Thus, there would be no admission to anything, much less telling Chrissie or anyone else this was the start of, whatever this was

He did, however, need to speak with the Spymaster regarding the bribe. What little trust Cullen had for the Trevelyans was immediately eliminated upon their offer. Were it not for the ruse, he would have washed his hands of the entire ordeal. Yet, he’d given Chrissie his word and meant what he told them earlier, nothing was worth shattering their partnership over. Whether he liked it or not, they were stuck in this mess, working as a team towards a common goal.

Through the rotunda and the library, Cullen ascended the steps to the rookery, finding Leliana in the middle of composing a missive. Without looking up from the parchment, she greeted him and he wondered if he made an excessive amount of noise upon entering or if she’d known he’d arrive.

Cullen scanned the area with his eyes, questioning if they were secure enough to have a private conversation or if they needed to speak elsewhere.

“There is no one about. You may speak freely, Commander.”

Though he knew otherwise, he often contemplated if Leliana had some type of magical ability with her unparalleled talent for reading people and seemingly, minds. “The Trevelyans attempted to trade boons in exchange for a dissolution of our arrangement.”

“I heard afterward.”

Of course, she had heard; he shouldn’t have expected less.

“That's just the way things are.” Leliana looked up from her work, finally meeting his eyes. Performing her trick again, she answered before he voiced the question. “You should be pleased; it means they believe.”

Funny how the conversations with the Spymaster always seemed one-sided. It wasn’t that she articulated his thoughts incorrectly, but that he appreciated being able to vocalize them himself. There was gratification in stating an opinion and being heard, he’d had more than enough of things tampering with his head. Between Kinloch and his nightmares, he found it ironic Leliana hadn’t picked up on that tidbit. Or perhaps she had and it was a display of her own power, her nearly inescapable reach. Either way, it was equally as frustrating as her stoicism and nonchalance. 

“There is another matter of concern which has been brought to my attention.”

Cullen’s brows furrowed, unsure of what she referred to. Crossing his arms, he stood in wait, anticipating her answering without asking. Naturally, it was the one time she did not. Seconds of silence passed before he reluctantly took the bait he knew she had laid. “Oh?”

A smirk tugged at Leliana’s lips and Cullen found it disconcerting. 

“Keep your wits about you. The act is not reality, I suggest you endeavor to separate the two.”

Ironic: after wanting to speak, the moment she allowed him to, he couldn’t string together a sentence. He could play coy, pretend he was oblivious to her claims and meaning, but what good would it do? There was little anyone could hide from the Spymaster; she was quite skilled at her duties. “Your concern is misplaced. I’m well aware of my actual status with the Inquisitor.”

“You are her Commander, nothing more.”

A simple nod indicated his agreement and Cullen departed, bidding her a nice night. Seeking to clear his head, he found himself within his shared quarters on the balcony, not realizing he subconsciously walked there amidst his swirling thoughts. He rested his arms against the railing, leaning forward and glimpsing over his shoulder, half expecting to see Chrissie pouring over paperwork at the desk.

Upon realizing the chair was empty, he frowned. Leliana’s voice echoing internally. “You are her Commander.”

Had Leliana really emphasized the word her, or was it merely his own mind reflecting potential possibilities? “Nothing more.” He repeated aloud to no one, hoping that if he said it enough, he would believe it.

Chapter Text

Chrissie exited the bandit hideout, utterly star struck. As if meeting Marian Hawke, The Champion of Kirkwall, hadn’t been surreal, she couldn't believe she had the honor of being introduced to The Alistair. Initially, upon entering, she gaped and her eyes went wide, mentally forbidding herself from vigorously shaking his hand or allowing her knees to buckle in his presence. Maker, she must’ve looked the fool, stammering and fidgeting like a restless child.

A number of stories had been told over the past decade indicating the adventures of the fabled Hero of Ferelden, Warden Surana and her companions. It was a shame Chrissie would never have the opportunity to know the woman who died saving Thedas. Alistair, however, was the surviving Warden and a veteran of The Fifth Blight. Similar to Leliana, meeting him was like greeting royalty. Though, she supposed it was true regardless; as rumor indicated, he was the bastard son of a King. 

Alistair was considerably more handsome than the history books depicted. Mussed brown hair fell lazily over a tanned complexion with subtle scruff spanning his face. Much like herself, he was battle worn and weary despite the responsibility thrust upon his shoulders and continued to prevail through humor and dedication; a quality which she admired.  

Riding side by side on their mounts for the journey back, the more they chatted once she regained her ability to formulate words
the more she related, finding numerous things in common. His ability to crack a joke and charismatic nature was welcome warmth to the rainy and dreary area of Crestwood. Taking advantage of the circumstance, she prodded him with questions. What’s it like to be a Warden? What do the Wardens know? Tell me about the Blight. 

Thoroughly enjoying Alistair’s company, Chrissie found herself smiling frequently, so engrossed in the conversation she hadn’t noticed the daylight dwindling until Varric suggested they camp for the eve and reminded her of her turn to cook. After pitching her tent, she rifled through her spare bag to grab the appropriate utensils. Her hands ran across soft cotton and she furrowed her brow in confusion. Having a separate one for her armor and clothes, the question of how the foreign item was placed there was most prevalent. 

Chrissie withdrew four pairs of thick clean socks, Cullen stitched on the cuff. It was more than possible their travel gear had been switched since they had been sharing quarters, assuming she'd grabbed the wrong bag on the way out. An easy mistake to make since both were identical in color, complete with the Inquisition insignia. A small corner of parchment protruded from the middle of the pile. She unfolded it, recognizing the familiar, fine hand.

Chrissie,
Wanted to ensure you were adequately prepared.
Cullen        

Without prompting, a smile spanned her features. As part of troop allocation, Cullen would be familiar with the weather in the area, if only for safety concerns. Crestwood rained nonstop since they’d arrived. Dry feet were a necessity out in the field and in his own Commander-like, practical way, Cullen’s gesture may as well have been a box of chocolates and equally as sweet.

A kind and thoughtful present offered because of concern for the Inquisitor. Was it because of the ruse? Her vivid imagination could lead her astray from time to time. As she suspected, space served her well, she hadn’t dwelled on the handsome Commander while spending the day with Alistair. She should, however, make it a point to write Cullen. They planned on it as part of the act and she could thank him simultaneously.

Running her finger across the red thread which spelled his name, she squealed in delight. The nearby log doubled as a seat, allowing her to change her damp socks. 

“Part of templar training, back at the Chantry.” Alistair pointed to the stitching. “The men were always getting their socks mixed up.”

“You know,” Chrissie scoffed playfully, “I had wondered. My Commander knows the value of clean, dry feet, it seems.”

“I’ve always seen the value.” Alistair smiled, the cheeky grin and light laughter filling the air. “We don’t exactly travel in the lap of luxury.”

“You aren’t kidding.” Breathing an over exaggerated sigh of relief at the fabric on her cold, wet feet, she continued. “Once I change the other, I’ll prepare dinner.”

“Leave that to me.” Alistair gestured to her bag. “May I?”

“By all means.”

“Now, I’ll need the biggest pot we can find, so I can cook everything as long as possible until it reaches a uniform grey color.”

Assuming, it was a jest, she chuckled at the time. She regretted that later; it proved to be as completely bland and unappetizing as it had appeared.

 

My Love, Cullen,
We are in Crestwood,

Chrissie stared at the text, pinching the bridge of her nose and shaking her head. He already knows where you are. No matter what words she strung together, it didn’t sound correct. It was supposed to be a message between lovers and she and Cullen, were not. Thus, the letters she had written sounded like a missive, one of numerous composed with a practiced finesse; others were obvious she was trying too hard.

Darling,

With a disgusted grunt that could’ve made Cassandra proud, she ripped off the portion of the parchment and set it ablaze in her hand, the ashes scattering in the wind. Returning quill to vellum, she tried again for the fourth, or was it fifth, time.

My Sweet Commander,

“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” Chrissie grumbled aloud. “Who cannot compose a letter for Maker’s sake?”

Leliana had once said, “The most effective lies stem from a shred of truth.” Chrissie wished her Spymaster were here to tell her exactly what to say. Without a doubt, she could provide clear instruction. 

She wondered if Cullen struggled with the same thing, considering she hadn’t received any correspondence other than the note in the socks he must’ve packed before she departed. Then again, she also had the designated carrier raven with her, which easily explained why. Burying her face in her hands, a hearty laugh tore from her throat at the absurdity of the situation.

Here she was, in Crestwood, the rainiest area in Thedas, composing a letter to her fake lover to reaffirm their nonexistent betrothal, meant to be carried by a specifically identifiable raven with a white feather and could not send the standard bird to the man who also doubled as the Commander of her armies to say thank you for presenting her with, of all things: socks. Simple socks which were practical and inexpensive. Yet, were also the most beneficial in current circumstances. Wiggling her toes inside her boots, her gratitude increased at the warmth in her feet and chest when she spotted the red thread with his name stitched visible behind the tongue.

A shred of truth, Chrissie thought, before attempting once more.

Dearest Cullen,

Knowing the possibility of the address being checked, she nodded to herself, satisfied it was sufficient.

I hope this letter finds you well. If I’ve never before said, I wanted to thank you, for everything you have done and continue to do.

As she wrote, the words flowed on the vellum, smooth as magic. Though to the point and practical, it melded and fit exactly as intended, applying dual meaning of truth and fictional misrepresentation.

Your gifts were a pleasant surprise. The thoughtfulness astounded me and there was no question of the sender, reminding me of how perfectly you, they were. Practical, appreciated, and appropriate in all circumstances.

Be home soon; miss you.
Chrissie

The validity of that statement occurred to her as well. Their chess matches, their normal nightly routine, their conversations about work and idle chatter had been missed. She longed to return home, to their shared quarters.

At that point, the revelation struck her like lightning. Everything, even within her own mind, had been theirs. Jointly possessive, no longer sole ownership. She wasn’t certain if that helped or hindered matters. She and Cullen, the Inquisitor and her Commander, were a team and they would see this through.

“Inquisitor.” Alistair’s voice broke her of the internal debacle, pulling her back to reality.

Physically, she shook her head concealing it behind an elaborate stretch, hoping it appeared purposeful and not as clumsy as it felt. As if the action alone would cause convoluted thoughts to escape her brain if only she rattled it enough. After greeting Warden Alistair in return, she stood and rolled the small parchment, securing it to the designated raven and sent it towards Skyhold. The white feather stark against the remaining black was still apparent even as it flew high into the sky. Scandalous gossip from the nobles would reach the Anderfels in a matter of hours, or so she suspected.

Turning her attention back to Alistair she couldn’t help but laugh at the disgusting grey slop in the bowl he thrust in her direction. Clearly leftover from the night before, she cringed without conscious awareness. Her brow furrowed and her teeth pressed into her lip so hard she nearly bled, biting back both worry and words in an effort to spare his feelings. She managed to utter, “Thank you, Warden Alistair.”

Returning an eye reaching, genuine smile, he seemed undeterred from what must have been her appalled expression. Alistair performed a full Ferelden bow, with extravagance and flourish that rivaled Dorian’s. “At your service.”

Chapter Text

Cullen glanced at the parchment, the second of two letters received which he had no idea how to address. For most of the day, they sat at the corner of his desk mocking his indecision, drawing his eyes like a beacon. He ran his hand from his forehead to his stubble, rubbing the lengthy scruff he hadn’t shaved.

The first was from Chrissie, thanking him for the socks and seemingly everything else. Warmth and pride flourished in his chest, happy she was pleased. With the number of items she coordinated anytime she left, something so trivial could have easily eluded her. Overall, he was glad she found them both practical and necessary and his efforts alleviated some of her stresses. However, what grabbed his attention the most, was that she missed him. Or had said so, he had thought of her often as well and wondered how much of the contents of the letter were part of the ruse and merely lies to please the masses. The concept of the letter being a fabrication yielded an unsettling feeling of disquiet.

Sensibility was also in short supply. As the advisors suspected, the nobles clamored for the distinguishable raven and though it avoided injury, the note itself had been crumpled and nearly torn, in a complete state of disarray before it was ever delivered. By the lunch hour, rumors circulated Skyhold regarding his gift and speculations in hushed tones and loud accusations were heard across the keep over the scandal.

Mia, his eldest sister, composed the other letter. Properly scolding him for the lack of information provided regarding his betrothal. Through a colorful vocabulary, she’d indicated her distaste in being told by a prattling gossip and not himself directly. Truthfully, Cullen couldn’t blame her considering his propensity to neglect sharing details or news. Although, for all her reprimands, she expressed excitement in one-day meeting Chrissie and congratulated him regardless.

With the Spymaster coordinating efforts and patrols to allocate personnel to Caer Bronach the Inquisition’s newly acquired keep according to Chrissie’s last missiveand Varric accompanying the Inquisitor, he sought Dorian for assistance with an equally scandalous reply.

He found the Tevinter mage in his usual area within the library. Perched at his chair, he flipped through the pages of a worn book before closing it hastily and tossing it to the ground. Upon seeing him, Dorian’s eyebrow quirked and a small smirk played at his lips. “I heard the rumors,” he said, smoothing out his moustache, “quite scandalous, tell me, what was this gift?”

“Irrelevant.” Immediately regretting the decision to request aid from Dorian, Cullen crossed his arms and sighed. Reluctant, but left with no other choice, he explained the situation. 

“Now now, Commander.” Dorian tried to reassure, failing in his efforts. “Clearly, you need my expertise. More people should seek my counsel. I give excellent advice.”

Cullen said nothing, but disbelief must have been apparent. Without permission, quick steps allowed Dorian to grab Chrissie’s note, smoothing it out on the nearby table. “Hmm,” Dorian mused, “simple, yet, open to interpretation. Clever woman, that one.”

“I cannot seem to formulate an appropriate reply,” Cullen confessed.

“Well, that is precisely because you are trying to be appropriate.” A disconcerting smile made Cullen shift his weight. “These things require finesse, or as the Orlesian’s would say, a certain Je ne sais quoi, or some other such rubbish.”

Brandishing a quill and parchment as though he was waiting for applause, Dorian wrote a response to Chrissie. Occasionally, he would stop, as if he was deep in contemplation, before announcing an “Ah ha!” and jotting more down. After roughly ten minutes while Cullen stood idle, Dorian passed the parchment. “Voila!” Bringing his fingers to his lips, he kissed them and blew the kiss into the air, thrilled with his work. 

My Sweet Chrissie,

Your hair is the deepest color of midnight and I long to tangle my fingers within those raven strands. The scent of honey lingers on your pillow and wafts over to me when I inhale, laying on our shared bed. I miss the warmth of our bodies as we intertwine, tangling legs against silken sheets and sweat coalescing, gleaming within the candlelight on your perfectly toned stomach and plump breasts. Breathy gasps and moans will tear from your throat as I ravage you with each thrust harder and deeper than the last.

I could lose myself within your eyes for days. The way they harden to ice during the throes of passion fascinates me and I endeavor to melt it away with each sensual touch, merging and colliding as one in intense, soul-searing, heart-stealing pleasure.

It is very cold here in Skyhold and I cannot wait for the warmth of your presence to alleviate my burning desires, claiming you the entire night through.

All my Love,    
Your Lion in the sheets.

No doubt, Cullen’s cheeks flamed fifteen different shades of red by the time he finished scouring the text. He looked up, suddenly grateful he hadn’t heard more detailed rumors regarding Dorian and Bull. Swatting the page with his gloved hand, his face contorted in disgust. “Sweet Maker! I cannot send this! It’s completely unprofessional and wildly inappropriate.”

“Only wildly?” A frown and knit brow indicated Dorian’s displeasure. “Perhaps a bit more lurid detail, the nobles are a sordid bunch.”

Shaking his head, Cullen repeated Dorian’s choice of signature. “Lion?” He questioned, incredulous.

“Like that, did you?” Dorian mused. “The disgusting fur you wear has purpose, Commander.”

Throwing his hands up in disbelief at the insanity, he huffed. “Disregard.” Cullen murmured under his breath and retrieved Chrissie’s letter, “I’ll figure it out.”

“There’s nothing wrong with what I composed,” Dorian announced after Cullen despite his departing footsteps. “You’re smitten, Commander. Stop hiding behind decorum, it does you no favors.”

Cullen wished for Varric’s presence to request his expertise, something he never thought he would need. Running through the list of possible options in his mind, he came up empty. Cassandra, Varric, Solas, and Blackwall were with the Inquisitor. Dorian had been little help and he doubted Vivienne would be willing to assist with writing an eloquent letter on trivial things like affairs of the heart. Though she may appreciate the scandal, Cullen didn’t want to risk too much exposure. Leliana was preoccupied and Josephine had a number of meetings with visiting dignitaries which he would be a fool to interrupt. Certain that doing so would prompt an interrogation he was ill-prepared for and fuel gossip not in their favor. Sera hardly voiced cohesive thoughts half the time, Bull would likely be more descriptive and sexual than Dorian had been. Therefore, Cullen decided to respond by his own wit. A task which didn’t inspire confidence in such matters. 

The door to his office resounded with a heavy thud and Cullen sat behind his desk, returning her note and Dorian's letter to corner; lighting a single candle to prevent exacerbating his headache. Dipping his quill into the ink jar, he glanced at the page, hoping inspiration would strike. “Maker, where do I begin?” Hands trembling from withdrawal symptoms, ink dripped onto to otherwise blank parchment, splotching it like an amateur painting. 

“Lies conceal a hidden truth. If one doesn’t end the other can’t begin. It intertwines, crossing and combining, melding to the same.”

Startled by the voice, Cullen nearly knocked over the lit candle. Scowling, he scoured the room for the source, stopping at the pale-faced boy who invited himself in of his own accord.

“Cole,” he hissed, “I haven’t time for riddles.” Cullen, irritated at his own failure, closed and rubbed his eyes, as if it would cause a revelation after opening them.

“You focus on what it isn’t.”

Pale blue eyes met his, piercing despite the darkness and it sent a shiver down Cullen’s spine. He’d never quite gotten used to the odd boy, regardless of his assistance thus far. “Was there something you needed?” Cullen asked, regretting his clipped tone. 

“I want to help.” The boy responded with a smile that did little to allay Cullen’s concern.

Regardless of his discomfort, Cullen conceded. He hadn’t gotten anywhere and surely, it couldn’t make matters worse. A simple hand gesture provided Cole permission to continue, hoping whatever his suggestion, it would possess merit.

“Silence the noise. Protecting and proud. Safer, stronger, in her presence.” Cole shook his head, averting his gaze, seemingly confused. “No one knows what isn’t said.”

The uncanny ability to delve into his inner thoughts and feelings unsettled Cullen, but practicality remained prevalent. Perhaps the boy had been on the right track. 

Remembering the agreed upon address, Cullen finally put quill to parchment, allowing the ink to flow from truth.

Sweetheart,
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, so they say. There’s wisdom in such words; Skyhold is not the same without you.

Perhaps it was too far, he wondered but shrugged. They were supposed to be together, love one another. Keenly missing her presence would be appropriate.

Our conversations have been replaced by quiet as I sit alone in our quarters and pray for your well being.

The room had been eerily silent and though he generally relished the peace the night offered, he found it missing something, someone, as of late. As expressed, he did speak passages of The Chant on her behalf but had done so since her appointment to Inquisitor, though much more frequently now than before. 

I’d hardly call them gifts, but I am pleased you found them beneficial. 

When he added the socks to Chrissie’s travel bag, he feared repercussions and discomfort from rummaging through her wardrobe, so he’d provided her with his own instead, certain they would be effective and necessary given her current mission. Apparently, he’d been correct in that assessment.

Return soon, safely.
Cullen

Chapter Text

Chrissie folded up the parchment, petting the raven before returning him to his travel cage. The response from Cullen had been sweet, kind, and she tried her best not to read too much into his words.

Skyhold is not the same without you.

Of course, it wasn’t. Without her presence, war council updates were likely far less heated and shorter than normal. Which no doubt, provided a welcome reprieve.

Naturally, he would pray for her. Cullen was a devout man, some would even consider faithful to a fault. Regardless of his nonchalance, why he sent his own socks still puzzled her. Truthfully, it hardly mattered. He even said, he didn’t consider it a gift. Only a fool would think otherwise.

One day’s travel was all that stood between Chrissie and Skyhold. Given the close proximity, she didn’t bother to draft another response to Cullen. The first attempt had been headache enough as it was and the missive had detailed their productivity.

Despite the persistent horrible weather and tedious tasks on this mission, the silver lining was Chrissie found a new friend in Alistair. In front of the roaring fire, the two had sat watch, guarding the camp the previous night. Casual conversation segued into heavier topics, and they spoke at length, related and unrelated to the Inquisition. He’d mentioned Neria after she'd asked about some of his adventures. Sharing stories of love and loss between Neria and Killian, they bonded over the bindings of grief. A decade had passed since Neria’s death and Alistair’s voice still broke, misty-eyed as he recalled the little elf who’d captured his heart. The loss of Killian hit her in full force and Chrissie’s chest ached, longing for a face she’d never see again. She dabbed away tears on the sleeve of her shirt before Alistair wrapped his arms around her in a hug.

Since the companionship between the two felt like decades in the making. Alistair quickly became her closest friend and confidant. The first assignment of the morning was to hunt for breakfast; to which, she and Alistair accepted the responsibility. Wooded terrain shrouded the area, mud caking their boots as they stepped over brush and fallen leaves from the changing seasons. Yellow and orange speckled the clearing with pops of green, illuminated by the rise of the sun between the trees. Birds chirped overhead, movement rattling bushes as a fennec ran across their path.

Alistair seemed content with the fennec, pleased it proved an easy endeavor, but the ram standing alone and unsuspecting caught Chrissie’s attention. The small creature would have to stretch to feed a party of seven: Chrissie, her four companions, plus Alistair and Hawke. A ram would be much more suitable and could last longer, providing multiple meals, eliminating additional hunting trips and allowing them to return to Skyhold sooner. 

A subtle shush and wave of Chrissie’s hand signaled to Alistair to let the fennec run, motioning towards the animal. Cautious steps led her forward, crunching leaves underneath her boots. She was careful to avoid making any more noise than necessary and alerting it to their presence, lest it scurry away. 

An aura of blue crystal-like shards flourished from her fingertips, propelling ice and encasing the ram with Winter’s Grasp as Alistair ran forth to complete their task. Following behind, she took less care, never expecting the hole concealed on the ground beneath the leaves. Her boot plunged into the open space, and she fell backward firmly on her ass. “Maker’s breath!”

“Are you all right?” Alistair’s voice filled the air.

The gnarly squelch of the killing blow made Chrissie cringe. She rubbed her bottom, sore from the hard landing on cold grass and attempted to pull her boot free. The tugging gave way to pain and she winced, her ankle throbbing. “Fine.” She lied.

With the dead ram in tow, Alistair approached her, kneeling and prodding the dirt for release. When that didn’t work, he requested and received permission to gently grab her calf, guiding her leg and boot in slow motions out of the gopher hole. Finally free, she stood slow and cautious, easing weight on the injured ankle. She hissed under her breath, swaying until Alistair offered his hand to steady her. 

“Can you walk?”

A nod indicated her confirmation but she said nothing else, fearing a string of very unprofessional expletives would fall from her lips should she vocalize her thoughts. 

“We can wrap it in camp.” Lifting the ram over his head and spanning it across the width of both shoulders, Alistair trudged forward alongside a hobbling Chrissie.

Chapter Text

The horn within Skyhold resounded, announcing the return of the Inquisitor. As standard as well as part of the ruse, Cullen met the party at the gates. Varric, Solas, Blackwall, and Cassandra were in front, an oddity since the Inquisitor was normally the first to venture through the threshold.

Cullen's brow furrowed. “Lady Cassandra, where is the Inquisitor?”

Cassandra pointed behind her, and through the space the horses created, Cullen saw glimpses of Silver and blue armor, reflecting light from the sun. Once the mounts were walked into the keep, his line of sight was no longer obscured. He gaped and swallowed thickly. They made a pretty picture, like something out of a child's story book. Chrissie was cradled securely in Alistair’s arms, hers wrapped around his neck as they laughed over some shared joke.

“They’ve become quite friendly.” Cassandra mused, patting Cullen on his pauldron.

Unless blindness was an impairment from which one suffered, it was blatantly clear the care Alistair took to ensure her comfort.

Concern gave way to jealousy and spread within his chest, followed by anger over the unreasonable emotion. Their entire relationship was a fabrication. What cause would he have to be angry and bitter over the Warden holding yet another mage Cullen had feelings for? He’d remembered the tragic fate that happened to the last one.

It was undue, inappropriate, and still, Cullen couldn’t shake it. “What happened?” He demanded, his voice clipped and curt, betraying him.

“An ankle sprain,” Varric explained, “from a gopher hole.” A soft chuckle escaped his lips.

The light laughter grated Cullen, finding nothing of this even remotely amusing.

Blackwall nodded in Alistair’s direction. “Insisted she was fine, walked on it anyway. Hobbled and fell, making the damage worse. Her mount did most of the work, but she was jostled on the pass. For fear she harm herself further and be unseated, Warden Alistair offered to carry her up the mountain the remainder of the way. Good man, that one.”

Clenching his fists, Cullen snarled. “You let this happen?” Whether he was referring to the injury or the relationship, even he wasn’t certain.

“I am not her keeper, Commander. That responsibility falls to you.” Cassandra retorted.

Cullen opened his mouth and closed it, teeth clacking as he bit back unprofessional words to her comment. Turning his attention back to the Warden and Inquisitor, he saw two smiling faces, churning the pit in his stomach further.

“Commander.” They greeted in unison.

Sheer willpower prevented Cullen from stepping back as if he’d physically taken a blow. Wondering when and why he had come to care so much and the extent of emotion plastered on his features.

“I’ll take Chrissie to the healers.” Alistair lifted her slightly as if to validate the reason for the request. “If you could show me where they are.”

Chrissie, not Inquisitor. Either Warden Alistair was disrespectful or the professional bonds had been broken, allowing him ease of informality. It was another concept that rubbed Cullen the wrong way. Feeling unjustly slighted when she didn’t blink twice at her name falling from Alistair’s lips, Cullen stiffened. “I’ll take her, it's part of...” Stopping mid-sentence, he pondered the justification. Alistair was the guest, not the other way around. Cullen didn’t have to explain himself over matters not pertaining to Inquisition efforts.

“Ah, yes. To your betrothed, then.” Alistair said to Chrissie.

At least he knew they were together, but did Alistair know it was a ruse?  Would it be less disconcerting or more if he did? Shifted from one man to the other, Chrissie gave thanks to the Warden who in turn responded with “Anything you need, my dear,” before parting with a smile.

Cullen’s blood may as well have been on fire. Jaw clenched he took Chrissie into his arms, and she mimicked the position Alistair had her in, securely holding on around Cullen’s mantle, though the action didn’t cause comfort. Ordinarily, he would have been off balance due to the closeness, but within days, Chrissie and Alistair developed a relationship he hadn’t achieved in a few weeks and it bothered him. Perhaps unreasonably.

Chrissie smiled as Cullen ascended the steps to Skyhold, carrying her to their quarters. “It’s good to see you.”

“Is it?” Cullen asked, using his shoulder to push open the door to the main hall, careful to avoid accidentally colliding Chrissie into anything.

“What does that mean?” She lifted her head from his mantle, looking at him with a quirked brow.

Meeting her eyes, he sighed before directing the guard to open the door to their quarters. He followed behind, awaiting the interior one as well. Once his soldier, Joey if he remembered the new recruit correctlydeparted, Cullen placed the Inquisitor down on the plush, extravagantly large, newly delivered bed from Orlais.

Chrissie seemed patient despite his failure to answer her question. Hearing the thud of the door close, she sat up in bed as he sat to the side, unlacing her boots.

“I agreed to this endeavor.” Cullen hastily pulled the laces from their loops. “I must Command the armies and if you disrespect my person by making me look the fool, it gives all the impression of weakness.”

Face scrunched in confusion, she winced in pain at his quick movements. Guilt melded with Cullen's frustration.

“What are you talking about?”

“Warden Alistair, there’s clearly…”

The knock at the door interrupted their conversation. An irritated growl escaped his lips, but Chrissie announced for the visitor to enter, seemingly not attuned to the extent of his foul mood.

Within moments, Leliana and Josephine both came into view. “Inquisitor, we heard of what happened.”

“Of course you have.” Ivory cheeks flushed in embarrassment. 

“The healers are gathering herbs and will be back in an hour," Josephine continued. "Since it is not urgent, there will be a delay.”

“That is not all we heard.” Leliana teased. “Apparently, gossip has spread through the keep regarding your relationship with Warden Alistair.”

Chrissie shook then cocked her head. “Relationship with Ali…”

The nickname panged at his heart. Even though as part of the ruse they had designated terms of endearment for one another; she’d hardly used any of those agreed upon. Yet, with little effort, she spoke so casually of Alistair. Why in the Maker’s name did this bother him so? Hoping to portray a stoic expression, Cullen said nothing, standing aside and crossing his arms, allowing the other three to continue their discussion.

“We’re friends,” Chrissie announced. “Nothing more.”

“That is not what is being said,” Leliana informed. “It has spread like wildfire, Warden Alistair and you are having a dalliance of some sort since he was overheard flirting in the courtyard.”

“Flirting in the courtyard?” She spoke slowly as if trying to make sense of the news before the realization struck her. “Sweet Maker, you’ve met the man. He breathes and it’s flirting!” Chrissie rubbed her forehead before dragging her hand down to her chin.

Leliana leaned against the stone wall next to the new bed, seemingly in admiration. Mischief flashing within her eyes. “He is charismatic but awkward. It is endearing and adds to his charm.” 

Josephine waved her clipboard as if it accentuated the validity of her words. “We will need to correct these rumors should the ruse continue.” 

“And I have just the plan.” Leliana smiled, wickedly, “a very public kiss during a romantic stroll along the battlements. I can send a scout to interrupt deliberately to spread the gossip to the others. It will overshadow any other rumors of Alistair. Once new information passes the lips from person to person, the old is quickly forgotten.”

“Speaking of news...” Josephine filtered through multiple parchments, licking her pointer finger and thumb to find the one she searched for. “An engagement party: to celebrate the union of the Herald of Andraste and the Commander of the Inquisition. It is only fitting we would host the soiree.” Nearly humming with delight, she flipped to another page. “We will send invitations to all the noble houses. They will clamor to be part of the festivities.” Pausing for a moment, the Ambassador directed her words to Cullen. “The Rutherford family as well, since it was Mia’s suggestion.”

“It was?” Cullen questioned, before thinking better of it. There was still an unanswered and colorful letter sitting on his desk. “Of course it was.”

“Best of all,” Leliana added, “gifts are customary. Expensive ones, like shoes, chocolates, wine.”

“We’ll discuss it later and coordinate the public display for tomorrow.” Josephine smiled, clearly pleased with her efforts. “But oh, it will be grand.”

“Indeed.” Leliana concurred before both women ducked out of the room. The heavy door thudding behind them.

Resuming his task, Cullen retook his seat on the side of the bed. Once the laces were finally loosened, he wiggled the tongue of the boot, seeing his name stitched on the cuff underneath. She’d worn them, was still wearing one of the pairs. It was one thing to say you were thankful for something, but another to put it to use. Despite his anger, a spark of warmth replaced it. Small, but there.

“I’m sorry, Cullen. Alistair and I are friends, but it isn’t, nor will it ever be anything more. There wasn’t intended disrespect, ruse or no.” Chrissie’s eyes met his. “Are you angry?”

Though his expression softened, Cullen refused to lie, but the outright truth didn’t need to be spoken either. “I believe you, but it doesn’t help matters. We must stand united or this will never work.”      

“You’re right.” She agreed without argument. “From here forward, nothing is off the table.”

Cullen understood the implied within reason he assumed was tacked onto that statement. “If we are to be convincing, it would have to be so.” Cullen wiggled the boot off her ankle before turning down the sock slowly for more comfortable removal. Beneath the soft cotton, an angry purple and black bruise blossomed over pale skin. No wonder she couldn’t walk. “You are aware, should you find someone you wish to pursue romantically, this ruse prevents it.”

“Won’t happen.” Discomfort apparent by her hiss in pain at Cullen’s light touch. “I’m madly in love with you, remember?”

Cullen stared, gaping for a moment too long at the nonchalance in which she said important words. While he didn’t love her and knew better to believe she loved him, he wondered briefly what it would be like were they both in a position to say such things and truly mean them. “And, I, you, it seems."

As she continued, Chrissie's voice pulled him from his swirling thoughts. “We simply make everyone believe that, including ourselves.”

Cullen nodded agreement. “Since you cannot move from your position, now seems an appropriate time to reiterate the necessity of healers during travel.”

Chrissie leaned back against the bed with a groan and covered her eyes. “I didn’t come here for a lecture.”

Taking advantage of circumstance, Cullen would use her injury as an example, the reason why she should endeavor to be safer in the future. Since she was immobile without his help until the healers arrived, she would listen to every word he said on the matter. “Nonsense. I have one prepared and I'm certain you'll be happy to hear it.”

Peeking through spread fingers, she glanced at him, a sheepish smile on her face. “Another time, perhaps?”

“No.”

Chapter Text

“Maker's breath!” The curse woke Chrissie from her slumber. Her concern grew by the loud clamoring and various thuds that followed.

Sitting upright, she bolted from the bed. The pressure caused a hiss of pain from placing weight on healed but tender ankle tissue. Tracking the source of the distress, she headed to the garderobe. Without thinking about the possibility Cullen could have been otherwise indisposed, she flung the door open, surprised it wasn't locked.

Cullen stood over the wash basin, balancing himself. A trickle of blood ran down his cheek mixing with the shaving soap lather shrouding his face. Sweat coalesced on his forehead, or water; she couldn’t be certain which. “Inquis-” He shook his head and sighed before correcting in whispered breath. “Chrissie.”

Averting his eyes in shame, he wouldn't hold her gaze. The trembling in his hands apparent despite the ironclad grip on the straight razor, rapping against the counter top with every shake, clinking incessantly.

Chrissie noticed the lengthy scruff upon arriving yesterday, but hadn't given it much thought. Clearly, he’d been struggling and either hadn’t thought to ask or figured he didn’t need assistance. It was probably the latter. Her features softened, a mix of sadness and understanding, sorry for all he was enduring. Fair warning had been provided the night he moved into their quarters but guilt took root. What had he struggled with alone while she was away?

A cautious step forward prompted a stern and commanding, “Don’t.”

Wondering how to best approach the situation, she stilled; heeding his order momentarily.

As a proud man, Cullen would never want this known, nor would he want aid but every fiber of her being wanted to rush to him and combat the issue side by side. They were a team, after all.

Without a word, Chrissie closed the distance, placing her hand overtop his which held the straight razor, steadying it and retrieving the blade. He looked at her uncertain, fear melded with embarrassment and she would not bring attention to it. There was no need to speak, to add to the uncomfortableness, to give Cullen the impression she conjured judgment of any kind. He refocused on her, something similar to defeat shone within amber eyes. 

Cullen leaned forward, compensating for the height difference, the action permitting both reach and consent. A nearby washcloth served the purpose in swiping away the blood from the minor cut as she took the razor to the lather. Gentle but even strokes against his face left his stubble the normal length. With the clean water in the basin, she rinsed the soap, mentally critiquing her handiwork. Subtle pressure directed Cullen to look left, right, up and down and she deemed it sufficient. Not perfect, but it would do and nobody outside of this room would know Cullen hadn’t performed the task himself.  

Cleaning the blade and gathering the hair clippings for removal, she inconspicuously paid attention to Cullen who stayed in the same spot. Either unaware of her presence or content to ignore it, she figured he needed space. Drying the razor and preparing it for later use, she sat it aside, briefly organizing the items as normal to give no indication of the occurrence and went to depart.

A shaky hand caught her arm, fingers still trembling. The touch was light, but enough to cease her movement. Her gaze flitted to Cullen, his eyes were fixated on her wrist, as if she would notice the trembling because of his action. With her free hand, she again placed it over his, hoping to provide unspoken reassurances. 

He peered at her in wordless thanks before Chrissie nodded. Cullen cleared his throat and she released him. His hand dropped lazily to his side as she stepped outside the door, the latch clicking behind her.  

With a knock that could disturb the dead, three loud raps echoed within the walls of their quarters like thunder. “Inquisitor.” The voice resounded. “War council has convened.”

There was no way she would subject Cullen to that, not today. He was in no condition and the thought of making him suffer through hours of debate in his current state, appalled her. Time would be necessary before Cullen regained composure. With the number of nobles watching their every move, if she told the scout the truth and word spread, it could negatively impact him. His ability to lead would come into question. Which was unfair, even with Cullen’s ailments, he was excellent at his job. 

She creaked open the door, peering out at the nervous scout. Clearly, interrupting the Inquisitor had not been his choice assignment. “What is your name?”

“Scout Reese.” He saluted in full formal Inquisition style.

Chrissie repeated his name for good measure. Informing him in a roundabout way: she knew exactly who he was and would find him should he fail in his impending instruction. “Listen.” She spoke in a whisper, but commanding nevertheless. “You never saw me. You knocked and the Commander answered, providing you with a direct order.” In a firm and even tone, Chrissie announced the change of plans for the day.

“Send regrets to the Spymaster and the Ambassador. Council is postponed until further notice. The Inquisitor is under the weather and the Commander is overseeing her welfare. We are not to be disturbed except for breakfast at 0900. All immediate concerns requiring military attention are delegated to Knight-Captain Rylen. You will return here and await additional instruction.”

“Now,” Chrissie explained, “raise your voice so they can hear you in the hall and announce:Yes, Commander. Right away, Ser. Be convincing about it.”

The scout did exactly as ordered and Chrissie provided a nod of approval before closing the door. 

Chapter Text

When Cullen couldn’t perform a menial task, he became angry. The dizziness that followed caused him to accidentally knock things over, waking Chrissie.

After she opened the door, he’d been mortified. Cullen wanted to shave in his loft, but thought being seen walking through Skyhold with personal care items would give the wrong impression, especially after the Alistair concern. Yet, she casted no judgement. Steady hands assisted him regardless of his protest. She hadn't acted as if it were an inconvenience or a burden and he appreciated that more than words could articulate. 

Cullen stepped out of the garderobe, reluctantly, having no idea how to approach the subject. What could he say which didn’t make him appear incompetent? Apologies Inquisitor, I’m occasionally unwell and it prevents me from performing my duties. He’d informed Chrissie as a precaution, but was adamant she would never see the side effects. He had promised it wouldn’t interfere. How wrong he’d been.

Now, he would have to explain, allaying concerns and rightly so, regarding his ability to lead. The Inquisition must take priority. Knowing this to be true, he couldn’t help but wonder, would she remove him from his post? Had she already informed the other advisors? Would it be a matter of minutes or hours, before the Ambassador showed up with coin and paperwork for severance and request he tender his resignation?

Cullen expected a lecture and a number of demands. He’d envisioned Chrissie standing outside the door, hands on her hips and tapping her boot impatiently. Truthfully, were it one of his men, particularly a high ranking official, it was easy to picture himself doing something similar. He wouldn’t have been able to blame her, were it so.

However, his worry was for naught. Chrissie paid him little heed. Laying on her stomach on the bed, legs crossed in the air, an open book, and dwarven spectacles slipping from her nose, she announced a cheerful, “coffee’s ready,” as if none of the morning’s events had taken place. An act which he could not have been more grateful for, had he asked of his own accord.   

Reaching to grab the mug, he noticed the oddities. Despite the daylight which normally streamed through the windows at this hour, the curtains had been drawn, shrouding the room in darkness. Healers cloth generally used to alleviate fever were folded neatly nearby. Various sprigs of medicinal herbs were laid out on the counter next to the sugar. Adjacent to the flora were containers of salves for muscle aches. Buckets were stacked in the corner, which he suspected were for losing the contents of his stomach and extra water. Cullen quirked an eyebrow, aware these items had not previously been here but understood their purpose. 

All things considered, Cullen was well enough. The throb between his eyes had lulled to a minor hum, the tremors subsided, and the sweat cleared as his body returned to normal temperature. Heading to the armor stand, Cullen began to assemble his plate. “There’s a lot of work ahead.”

“Nope.” Chrissie announced defiantly, not bothering to look up from her book. “It’s your day off. Inquisitor’s orders.”

The response she provided didn’t deter him from his task, securing the buckles on his chest plate. “There’s much to do, I’ll not sit idle while work mounts in my absence.”

“Take the day, rest, relax.” She gestured to the shelf. “Find a book, make a strong drink, enjoy not working for a change. Rylen has it well in hand.”

Cullen rarely drank anything stronger than ale, and if he did, it was never more than one, having no want to trade one addiction for another. Though it sounded nice, there was far too much to do. To make a point, Cullen deliberately used her title, indicating there would be no argument on the matter.

That got her attention as she snapped her book closed in front of her face, the force blowing her bangs slightly. “You would disobey a direct order, Commander?” Raising both eyebrows higher than the frames of her spectacles, she peered through the glass.

Cullen thought to Meredith, a smirk playing at his lips. “I have before.”

“Think you’re clever, do you?” Chrissie’s light laughter filled the air at her rhetorical question. “Fine, work if you must, but I’m coming with you.” 

Within moments, she was at the dresser pulling a pair of socks from the drawer and grabbed her boots out of the corner by the time Cullen put on his vest. He ignored the warmth in his chest at seeing his name on the cuff for the second time. “That isn’t necessary.”

“But it is, you are taking care of me, after all.”

“What?” Cullen asked, incredulous.

“Oh, right.” Chrissie murmured, waving it off. “No matter. Come now, work and such.”

The two linked arms with natural ease, almost from habit before Cullen opened the door allowing Chrissie to pass through and followed behind. Around the walkway, a scout separated them from the entry to the main hall. Scout Reese, if Cullen remembered correctly, and he briefly pondered the requirement of a scout's presence in lieu of an armed soldier should they need protection he could not handle himself. Then again, given his current state, perhaps it was a wise idea to have someone stationed.

Performing the Inquisition salute, the scout announced. “Pleased to see you’re better, Inquisitor.” With a small nod to Cullen, he addressed. “Commander.”

Cullen responded in kind, curious as to the nicety. The healers had been by the previous evening and Chrissie’s ankle had been healed well before dinner. He escorted her as normal and she walked with no trouble.

“Thank you, Scout Reese. It was a minor sickness, nothing more.”

As they entered the main hall, whispers resounded, some louder than others, perhaps deliberate. “The lure of command, noble names, classically arousing.” After that, Cullen stopped listening to the conversation. Though he was relieved the betrothal didn’t seem to be the topic of every person’s lips, as he overheard some mention of a child, likely in the camps at the bottom of the mountain. Some rumors pertained to Alistair, but one noble posed the question of gifts. An indication their correspondence served their purpose. Maker, their incessant prattling would never end.

Cullen always hated it for that reason and otherwise ventured to stay clear. However, with their shared quarters located by her throne, he had little choice in the matter to deal with the daily topics, hearing far more tales of gossip than he appreciated. 

Slipping through the rotunda and making it to his office was a chore, but no one stopped them for an interrogation. After asking for and receiving permission, Chrissie waved her hand, fire erupting from the wick of every candle within. Now outside earshot of the nobles, Cullen posed a question weighing on his mind since greeting Scout Reese.

“Are you well?”

Chrissie looked at him, incredulous, before grabbing a stack of missives near the corner of his desk and shrugging. “I’m all right, why?”

Cullen saw through the act. She had more than enough of her own work to complete. Yet, she brought none and took half of his. Either she decided and didn’t trust him to perform his duties as he’d feared, or she was attempting to verify if she should.

“You took responsibility.” It was a statement, not a question. Of course she did, saving face for the Inquisition was part of the Inquisitor’s job. With a resigned sigh, he pulled a chair out for her and offered it before taking his own. "For this morning, I mean."

"It wasn't a big deal. As far as anyone knows, I was sick, you took care of me. End of story. Protects you from more unwanted attention." Sorting through the missives within her hands, her gaze met his from across the desk.

Cullen sat in stunned silence. She’d been protecting him? Ignoring the absurdity of the concept, he found himself grateful. In truth, Chrissie had done several things on his behalf today. Articulating with any accuracy what it meant to him, whatever her reasons, was more difficult. No words seemed sufficient. “I, uh, thank you.” His hand rubbed the back of his neck and he looked away, burning shame lingering in his chest. 

Chapter Text

Chrissie didn’t trust Cullen, not with this.

If the issue pertained to allocating troops, debating strategy, or charging with his men on the front line, he was without a doubt, the best suited.

When it came to matters regarding eating habits, sufficient sleep, or personal health, Cullen was the shining example of what not to do. Thus, the Commander was relatively predictable. Which was why, Chrissie knew Cullen would insist on working despite this morning’s episode.

Stealing glances at him from across the desk, she tried to be inconspicuous in her efforts. Fiddling through a stack of missives requiring attention, she sought his counsel more than normal to keep him engaged, cataloging any differences in reactions. Checking on, without outright asking about his state of distress.

Though she knew little, there would be signs. Chrissie read about the symptoms in her books. Shortly after Cullen confessed ceasing lyrium, she remembered the tremor in his hand at dinner with her parents and kept watch. Any abnormalities in his behavior or action caused worry but so did common mannerisms. She could never be quite sure what was Cullen being Cullen or what of his gestures were caused because of symptoms. Since her ruse added stress, she swore to be prepared should Cullen need assistance. Need her, whether he would admit it or not. Which if she knew him as she thought she did, he would not.

Cullen seemed all right after regaining his composure and emerging from the garderobe but she wondered how much of it was a front. For a man who hated Orlais’ Great Game, he too often wore a mask of his own. Concealing all he must endure. For purposes more important than his handsome features, she studied his tells, trying to learn any mannerisms which subconsciously revealed truth.

Often, Cullen rubbed his forehead, attempting to alleviate a migraine caused by hours of continuous work. He stammered, occasionally, but only when he was uncertain of the appropriate words within the realm of professional decorum. Wit and a sharp tongue proved more successful than volume in a debate, where Cullen could deliver a fuck you without ever allowing an explicit word to leave his lips. When he was angry, it reflected in his amber eyes. It was ironic a former templar possessed a stare equally as powerful as a mage’s fireball.

Cullen requested Chrissie snuff out the corner candles, shrouding the area in darkness. The tremor started half an hour ago, the trickling of sweat across his brow came ten minutes after. She became acutely aware; his struggle would only worsen.

He inhaled deeply and stood before leaning on his desk. Alarmed, she was at Cullen’s side providing support within moments. As the scouts entered set to deliver another stack of missives, Chrissie spoke softly in a soothing tone. The need to get Cullen out of his office most prevalent. “Cullen, let’s get some air.”

Shaking his head, Cullen muttered under his breath. If his actions hadn’t given voice to his words, she wouldn’t have heard. He cleared his throat. “There’s work.”

There’s always work. She wanted to correct, but thought better of it. “Air, now. You need it. That’s an order, Commander.” Chrissie said, meeting his decorum with her own. Cullen was a private person. Making this a personal matter bordered on disrespectful.

Cullen blinked in the light but didn’t speak. Stepping forward, he held onto her as they passed through two of Skyhold’s towers in silence before stopping. 

“Talk to me,” Chrissie pleaded, “How can I help?” 

"You," Cullen paused, “can’t.” His voice was strained as if it exerted all his energy to ground out the words. His trembling hand massaged his neck and didn’t meet her gaze. Embarrassment or shame crossed his features and guilt flourished in Chrissie’s chest. Had she been too demanding? What was the appropriate course of action in this situation? 

Thinking the brisk chill of the Frostbacks would benefit him could have been more of a detriment. It was then that the faint whispers drew Chrissie’s attention, realizing her stupidity. They were supposed to do things for the public eye to prove a ruse. By demanding Cullen get out of his office, she’d inadvertently put him under scrutiny. Now, as they stood on the battlements, every noble, scout, soldier, or onlooker could see Cullen was unwell. She may as well have screamed Cullen’s health issues from the balcony of their quarters.

Cullen’s eyes closed. Despite the cold, sweat still accumulated on his brow. Had she set off a panic attack by her ignorance from parading him in front of everyone? Any abrupt departure would only draw more attention. His breathing grew ragged and intense in quirk bursts as a small, almost inaudible groan escaped him.

Pulling him to the farthest side, Chrissie hoped to shield them from gossips in the courtyard, at least. Cullen’s uneven panting panicked her. Every second seemed to fly by while simultaneously moving in slow motion as she stood in inaction feeling like the center of attention.

With a tug, Chrissie positioned herself against the stone parapet and turned Cullen to face her. If nothing else, it would block his pained expression, avoiding questions and concern he’d be bombarded with later. Cullen's eyes appeared glazed over, as if, despite his person, he was not present. She cupped his cheeks within her hands and pulled him closer, nearly touching. Despite her earlier decision to keep it professional, she couldn't maintain it any longer, opting to use his name. “Cullen, listen to me.” Keeping to a dulled whisper as to not be overheard, she tried to ground him. “We need to get you calm. Breathe with me. Nice and slow.”

Likely without conscious thought, Cullen’s forehead pressed to hers and he listened. Eyes closed, it was clear he tried to focus. Short rapid breaths began to slow. “That’s it, just breathe with me. In,” Chrissie inhaled deeply, “out.” She exhaled.

“Focus on me and let me bring you back.”

Chapter Text

Cullen clung to every word, soft whispers of reassurance an adhesive for his sanity. The withdrawal symptoms often served as a trigger, allowing flashbacks of Kinloch to seep into reality, pitting memory against present thought and circumstance. This was why even he believed himself foolish at times, having had a number of conversations within his head regarding the struggles he would endure by deciding to stop. A feat requiring exceptional willpower in a never-ending fight against both body and mind.

But, there could be no life outside the Order if he didn’t try. Caged and helpless, he recalled the horror in the eyes of his friends as they released silent screams, begging for assistance he could not provide. Sometimes, it started as a familiar noise or a simple unintentional turn of phrase. Other times, the onset of withdrawal symptoms themselves began the onslaught of memories, willingly participating in the agony and torture his thoughts could conjure. His current lyrium withdrawal reminded him of the one he endured in Kinloch forcibly. 

Initially, it was a sudden sensitivity to light followed by trembling and sweating. A common occurrence of late and ones he paid little attention to, trying to alleviate its persistence by throwing himself in work. Cullen thought to get air before Chrissie suggested it. He stood too abruptly losing his balance and leaned against his desk for support.

Cullen protested his own idea before deciding she was right. Generally, the chill did wonders, often providing nearly instantaneous relief of some sort. To his shame, he allowed her to lead him onto the battlements, requiring the escort. For a moment, it had worked. The cool wind tamed his internal temperature and he felt better. But that was before he noticed the gossips.    

Prying eyes were at every turn: the landing of the stairs, the courtyard, the Inquisition’s soldiers, his own men, on patrol. Metaphorically encircled, he felt hunted. Faces of the grotesque abominations were all he could see, blood stained from their endeavors. His friends’ brain matter and tissue were splattered on the floor around him and a lingering metallic scent burned his nostrils. The knot in his chest tightened as he struggled to breathe; inhaling to force any air in his lungs. It didn’t work. Guilt settled like a stone in his stomach. He closed his eyes, mentally reciting passages of the chant to banish his demons.

It could have been minutes or hours. The duration of time Cullen stood there with Chrissie while he regained himself, he had no idea. But her voice broke through. Breathe with me, Cullen. Let me bring you back. He did as instructed. Chrissie’s hands emanated heat into his cool cheeks. The soft touch of their foreheads, the calming aura she radiated effectively eased his troubled mind. He had enough episodes to know, they didn’t simply stop once started. There was little choice but to endure through them, hoping to make it out the other side. Before, he always tackled it alone, but Chrissie had battled it by his side.

Cullen’s breathing matched hers, the trembling minorly subsiding as well. Slowly, his eyes opened to see hers closed. Where he anticipated pity, he saw sympathy on softened features as she continued speaking soothing words. “Just a few more moments yet. I’m still here.” For a while, he only listened, allowing her voice to further calm him. 

Feeling more himself, Cullen thought to thank her. “So you are,” he whispered. No one had ever seen Cullen in such a state. He hadn’t allowed it. To let someone know his torment, to request aid, to put anyone in a position where he may be a burden. “It seemed too much to ask.” He said aloud, not realizing until blue eyes met his. More than anything, he needed to articulate how appreciative he was. Chrissie hadn’t run, hadn’t left him to his own devices when she easily could have and tried to protect him. It was ironic because the opposite was his job. “I want to-” His words were cut off abruptly by a resounding thud of a nearby door and Chrissie jumped, startled.

“Commander!” The voice rang out. “You wanted a copy of Sister Leliana’s report.”

Irritated at the intrusion of a personal moment and embarrassed at the situation, Cullen turned. Angry he finally began to articulate gratitude and had been interrupted, Cullen's fists clenched at his sides. His gaze bore into the scout. “What?”

“Sister Leliana’s report. You wanted it delivered without delay.” Scout Jim looked up from the missive, seemingly unaware. 

Though it didn’t deter Cullen’s ire, it added to his confusion. He couldn’t remember requesting an immediate report. Not within the past few days, at least. Unless it was dire, a personal messenger to hand deliver a single report hardly ever happened. Even with Rylen acting in his stead this morning, Cullen would have been made aware of tasks requiring urgency. He had not been informed of any such matters.

Glance shifting between Cullen and Chrissie, it was as if someone lit a candle in a dark room, awareness falling over Jim’s features. “Or… to your office.” Jim backed up, cautious steps leading away as he maintained eye contact with Cullen. "Right."

A curt nod dismissed Jim before Cullen turned his attention back to Chrissie. 

As Cullen closed the distance, his boot caught awkwardly and he stumbled forward. He tried to compensate, balancing himself with the parapet behind Chrissie the only thing available to grab onto. In what he presumed was a means to assist, Chrissie reached out, catching him. Cullen’s weight shifted and Chrissie released a muffled groan. “Mmmm.” 

Realizing their bodies were flush together, his eyes met hers. They were locked into place as breath swept from both their lungs. Thinking of the incredible woman before him and all she’d accomplished for the Inquisition, Thedas, and himself, he leaned in, closing the distance to conceal his words. Within an inch of her face, apologies profusely poured from his lips as he remembered their positions and what Leliana had said. You are her Commander, nothing more.

Cullen’s cheeks burned and he wondered if it was their proximity or the contrast of his increased body heat compared to the cold air coupled with lingering lightheadedness. Hopefully, she wouldn’t notice either way. Though it seemed illogical. How does one not notice a large man in heavy armor nearly sending you off the battlements? Worried he offended or if his plate had hurt her, he whispered. “I’m sorry, that was, um…” Unexpected, accidental, a miscalculation? Instead of any number of practical choices his brain could have picked, he stammered, “really nice.”

If Chrissie wasn’t between him and the parapet, he may have thrown himself over out of mortification. Cullen backpedaled. “Of you.” Eyes growing wide, sheer willpower prevented him from smacking his forehead to force sense to reassert itself. “I mean, it was really nice, of you... to provide assistance.” The words failed him, so he borrowed hers. “Thank you for bringing me back.”     

“Well, are you all right?”

“Fine!” Cullen said too quickly before clearing his throat and attempting to regain composure. “Fine.”

“Good, that was what I wanted.” Her shifting caused him to realize he hadn’t taken a step back, hadn’t moved an inch since he’d put her in this position crushed between him and the parapet. Yet, Chrissie hadn't asked him to back away either.   

“To work?” Cullen turned, feeling the absence immediately. The air around him even colder than before.

“Absolutely not.”

Chapter Text

The postponed war council from the previous day had been rescheduled for this afternoon. Tentatively, provided Cullen was better health wise. Chrissie would have no issue cancelling it again or carrying on in his absence and asking him about work matters privately. After a number of requests and an issued order, Cullen reluctantly allowed her to take charge of the situation. As long as it wasn’t work-related, he could do whatever he wished and Chrissie kept close by. Not that she didn’t trust him, but the man was married to his work. Ironically, she felt like the mistress keeping him away and smirked at the ridiculousness.

After a number of chess matches with various outcomes, he’d picked a book to read falling asleep on the giant bed. Cullen hadn’t been kidding about his nightmares, though this was the first time she bore witness to the extent of his thrashing. It was fitful, at best and it was no longer a wonder why her poor Commander always looked so tired. Periodically, she would place the back of her hand to his forehead, monitoring his temperature. When required, a cool cloth was draped across to temper the heat radiating from his skin. 

Having no idea what else to do when his nightmares took hold, she spoke to him, hoping hearing something from reality would dull the severity. Even during the calm moments, he talked, speaking random phrases or words which didn’t form coherent sentences.     

As sunlight attempted to permeate through the drawn curtains, she glanced at Cullen, noticing his finally peaceful sleep and didn’t have the heart to wake him. The downside to having everyone banned from their quarters the previous day meant she didn’t have her favorite laundered blouses and breeches, so instead she choose a more upscale outfit. It was slightly bigger than the rest and kept for nice occasions, but it would have to do. 

Before she left, she scribbled a note and placed it on her pillow to inform Cullen of her whereabouts.

The first item on the agenda was breakfast with her parents. Though she wished Cullen could be with her, given his recent episodes, there was no need. It would not be fair to add extra stress over her own selfishness. Chrissie met the Trevelyans in the main hall and attributed Cullen’s absence to an important meeting. Surprisingly, the appointment proved pleasant. Her mother’s question, "Needed better fitting clothes, my dear? ” was brushed aside as a jab at Chrissie’s weight and ignored. Otherwise, it went as well as possible, given the bad blood between them. Almost too well, and the festering oddity lingered like a stone in her stomach.

After breakfast, she opted to check on the construction of Skyhold’s new sparring ring for Cullen. A declaration of the Inquisition’s investment in the recruitment and training of its soldiers. All who wish to fight will be put to their best use. He’d been adamant in his proposal and oversight since she agreed. It seemed the least she could do to handle something simple on her Commander's behalf. Perhaps fewer matters to be concerned with would alleviate his stresses.

Soldiers carried boxes of wooden planks from the tavern to the stairs; beginning to construct the exterior fence. In seeing such, she wouldn’t stand idle. Even as Inquisitor, Chrissie would never be above doing hard work. Walking over, she picked up a box, moderately heavy but nothing she couldn't handle. The action seemed a beacon to a nearby soldier, who nearly ran to her side.

“Inquisitor! We have this well in hand, allow me to take that from you.” Though his face was shrouded under a helmet, a cheeky smile could be seen in between the slits. Chrissie didn’t know his name, but would never be afforded the luxury of knowing everyone under her service a point Iron Bull made after settling in Skyhold.

Appreciated but unfounded, she thanked the nameless soldier for the concern. “It’s quite all right, I can carry a box. Being Inquisitor doesn’t prevent me from assisting with other tasks.”

“The Commander will not be pleased. Truly, I insist, you must be more careful in your state.”

My state? Chrissie thought, incredulous. It was an ankle sprain, days ago. It’s been healed and I’m fine.

Without waiting for an answer, the soldier took the supplies. He chuckled nervously. “I’d prefer to avoid the Commander’s ire. Good day, Inquisitor.”

Chrissie stood, dumbfounded. Why would Cullen have said anything to his men over an ankle sprain? Was he just being protective? Perhaps it was a matter of being over cautious. He was notorious for over preparation. Since she clearly would not be able to provide any assistance here, Chrissie decided to check on Cullen. It had been several hours since she left their quarters this morning and between the current question and his health, they had a bit to speak of.

The door to his office opened with a resounding creak. Candles were lit and sunlight streamed through the windows gleaming off a head of blonde hair. No sensitivity to brightness this morning. Chrissie observed; a good thing.

Cullen looked up from his report, meeting her with a smile. “There you are!”

“Were you waiting for me?”

“No, I mean, yes.” Cullen cleared his throat. “I was hoping you might accompany me for a walk.”

Immediately, Chrissie’s mind jumped to the worst. Was he still suffering this morning? “Is something wrong?”

“No. No, not at all. There’s something I wish to discuss, if you have the time, of course.”

A sense of dread settled in her stomach. He may not have been acting ill, but off. And Chrissie wondered how bad this talk must be. Was he angry at her for encroaching on his personal space yesterday? They’d spoken a little but mostly, she’d put her foot down insisting no work. Had he prepared a lecture regarding crossing drawn lines of their ruse? She’d justified it because she was taking care of him, but Cullen never had been one to allow others to do so.

“I believe there’s time now, and I wanted to speak with you as well.”

“Oh?” Cullen’s expression seemed surprised, but he gave a subtle nod before closing his ink well and laying his quill on his workspace. Stepping around his desk, he offered his arm. “Shall we depart, my Lady?”

Amidst the nervousness was a tiny flutter in Chrissie’s chest. Something about the way Cullen said, my Lady so proper, so eloquent, warmed her heart, particularly because he used it to address her. Chrissie accepted his arm and felt the burning in her cheeks. Casual steps carried them down the battlements from his office, the long way around the main hall, and through the door to the garden.

Whereas the place was ordinary largely populated, there wasn't a soul in sight. Blooming flora decorated the garden providing pops of color against a sea of green shrubbery. A table set for two was draped with a cloth under the gazebo.

“I've reserved the area. We've an hour before council. If you have the mind to join me, I would be grateful for your company.” Cullen gestured to the chair. 

“You had lunch prepared?” Chrissie's brows raised, taking in the scenery.

Cullen massaged his neck, averting his eyes momentarily. “I wasn't certain when we would both be available, given our inconsistent schedules. One word to the kitchen and they'll begin preparation.”

“I'd love to join you.” 

“You would?” Cullen seemed pleased, a small smile playing at his lips and scar. “Ah, right this way.” 

Of all the things she expected, it hadn't been this. Cullen pulled out the chair allowing her to sit before taking his own. “What's the occasion?”

A twinkle among the amber sparkled despite the shade. “I wanted to thank you.”

“You did.” Chrissie insisted, “you said it yesterday, repeatedly.”

“It didn’t seem sufficient.” Cullen exhaled shakily. “I’ve something for you. May I see your hand?”

“All right.” Chrissie extended her hand across the table, leather gloves gently turned it palm up. Cullen placed a coin in the middle before laying his own over top of hers, the coin sandwiched in between both.

“A gift from my brother the day I left for templar training,” Cullen explained, “said it was for luck. I hadn’t invested much in it at the time. But it’s kept me alive, despite all odds.”

The weight of both his words and the coin sat heavily. The Inquisition wouldn’t have been the same without Cullen or his leadership. To think there was a possibility, a very real one, he could have not been here today sent a shiver down her spine.

“Humor me, I know it’s foolish, but you don’t know what you’ll face. This can’t hurt.” Cullen spoke softly, in a tone seemingly reserved for her alone.

How could she accept such a gift, leaving Cullen without what little luck he’d been afforded. Chrissie mulled over the ways to politely decline. Accepting such a sentimental item as part of the ruse seemed in bad taste. Almost as if she’d somehow taken advantage of their situation and coaxed Cullen out of a priceless valuable. “Cullen, I” Chrissie looked away, trying to find the words. She didn’t want to hurt him, but accepting this under the wrong pretenses didn’t sit well.

When he removed his hand from atop hers, she felt the absence immediately. Chrissie gazed upon the face etched into the surface of the silver coin in the middle of her palm. Soft leather encompassed her fingers, closing them around the metal. 

Amber eyes sparkled meeting her own and Cullen offered reassurances to her unspoken concerns. “Our duties carry certain responsibilities and expectations as Commander and Inquisitor. This is more than a professional requirement. It is a gift, from me to you.”

Cullen’s expression softened and Chrissie felt a flutter of warmth spread through her chest, truly touched by the sentiment. Apparently, her silence concealed her feelings, prompting Cullen to add more reasoning behind his already thoughtful gesture. “I would be honored were you to accept.”

Realizing the silence that fell between them, she spoke quickly, hoping to ease the discomfort. “Thank you, Cullen. I will keep it safe.”

Chapter Text

Cullen wanted to show gratitude. Provide a symbol of luck and protection and his solemn wish for Chrissie’s continued safety. He could think of nothing more appropriate. After Cullen saw the concern on her features at accepting something with such sentimental value, he wanted it to be clear it had nothing to do with the ruse and everything to do with her. The smile she gave him could have lit up the darkest caverns and provided sunshine on the darkest of days.

Because of the ruse, she hadn’t always seen him in the best light. Cullen couldn’t help but wonder if her opinions of him had changed because of it, though she never gave any indication of such. No, Chrissie had always treated him with compassion and understanding and that’s why it was put upon his heart to try to reciprocate the same. Even the night before, when she thought he didn’t notice the level of care she’d given him, she remained firm in her order of no work and still tended to him partially to his shamewithout complaint. 

They enjoyed their meal in casual conversation, having forgotten it was once so strained between them. Other than curious questions regarding her ankle injury and what he may have informed the soldiers about the matter which was nothingthe topics were not work-related. Arm in arm, they made for war council, genuinely laughing the entire way.

However, there was work to do. Inquisition agents had been successful in locating smugglers among trade routes, requiring Chrissie to venture to the Emerald Graves in the coming days. Cullen hoped it would lead to where red lyrium was being mined, a priority which must be taken care of. Eventually, it could even lead to Samson. 

Cullen’s duties kept him in Skyhold, but Chrissie was sent all over Thedas. As such, he couldn’t protect her there. He would have to rely on her companions for that. Though he knew it was an unfair assessment, placing the trust of her well being onto others was not a thought which provided comfort of late. Were something to happen, his hands would be tied.

Three hours was the length of time spent debating in the war room. Chrissie issued edicts only after fully listening to each proposal supplied by himself and his fellow advisors. Cullen would watch her, trying to be inconspicuous, finding her compelling. The way Chrissie would tuck a lock of raven hair behind her ear, the sparkle in the sea blue of her eyes, the determined smirk at a manipulative tactic were all signs of her underlying casual nature. The one hidden behind the professional she morphed into as soon as the door thundered behind them, not unlike himself. At the close of the meeting, the Ambassador brought attention to some of the scandalous rumors flying about Skyhold.

“In other matters,” Josephine shifted her weight, the skirt of her dress swaying slightly, “I must inform you, the rumors regarding your affairs have been most scandalous.”

Leliana stood, hands placed behind her back. Her lips curved into a smile that made Cullen suddenly uncomfortable. “It seems your efforts have bore success.”

“Wasn’t that the goal?” Cullen rested his hands on the pommel of his sword as Chrissie took a drink from her mug.

“Rumors indicate Chrissie is with child.” Turning abruptly, Chrissie spat her mouthful of water against the wooden door. Cullen, in any other circumstance would have found it amusing to see such a breach in decorum, were he not equally as shocked himself.

“What!?” His tone came out harsh, clipped, and he struggled to breathe. The possibility placed a metaphorical weight, heavy on his chest. Clearly, for her to be with child, she would have had to have engaged in activity to result it. Yet, she’d made no mention of anyone recently.

Apparently reading his features, Leliana reiterated. “Your child.”

Cullen stood in stunned silence, allowing the words to wrap within his brain as he fully comprehended what the other two advisors were saying.

Josephine chimed in, her voice gratingly chipper for the circumstances. “The general populace believes that your display on the battlements was Chrissie informing you of the matter. After embracing her with such fervor, they believe you are positively thrilled at the news.”

“That wasn’t” Cullen’s words died abruptly in his throat as he paced. Maker, the nobles would jump to the most ridiculous conclusions. 

“How did they deduce that from a stroll on the battlements?!” Chrissie, who regained some of her composure though not all of the color in her faceasked incredulously.

“Which Jim conveniently interrupted.” Cullen grit his teeth and stopped pacing, casting a stern look in Leliana's direction.

“I informed you he would.” The Spymaster beamed with pride.

“Well, the display on the battlements was not the only cause.” Josephine pointed out, amusement twinkling in her eyes.

“Speculation is you were carried to your quarters when you returned due to a dizzy spell.” Leliana explained. “Coupled with the abnormal wardrobe and your requests for sick buckets, most assumed you were unavailable due to child sickness. It made sense why Cullen would not leave your side.” Smiling, she continued, “They believe the ankle injury was a cover.”

“Sweet Maker!” Chrissie swore. “They're mad.”

“The ruse has been going on for some time now,” Leliana added.

“Almost a month.” Josephine used her quill to punctuate her words. 

“Isn’t it possible you and,” Leliana nodded towards Cullen, “Mhm?”

“For the timing to be accurate, we would have had to jump in the sheets the first night!” Chrissie shook her head in disbelief. “Your insinuation is ridiculous. You can’t seriously be accusing me of fu” Her cheeks turned vibrant red and she would not meet his gaze. “Intimacy with the Commander.”

“Why not? He is your betrothed.” Leliana insinuated.

“In name only. I’ve taken witherstalk for years. I’m not with child, Cullen’s or anyone else’s!” 

Cullen couldn’t help but wonder if the witherstalk was the only reason it was unlikely. Had there been someone else he hadn’t been aware of? If she was using the plant as prevention, was it because she had regularly engaged in dalliances before the ruse started? In truth, it was hardly his business. A fact that didn’t dissuade his curiosity.

“Still not impossible.” Leliana declared, singsongingly.

“To be with child, you have to, I haven’t, we haven’t,” Chrissie waved dismissively, agitation increasing. With clenched fists, she raised her voice. “It's all pretend! Fake! The feelings, the closeness... None of it is real! It's an act. ”

Cullen stiffened at her words. Though he conceded her point, it hurt, more than it should, more than he dared to admit. A piercing blow straight to the heart. He swallowed thickly and exhaled slowly. 

“Is it?” Leliana challenged, her eyebrow raised.

“What?”

“All fake, Inquisitor?” 

Chrissie opened her mouth to speak but snapped it closed, her teeth clacking audibly. Pinching the bridge of her nose with her index finger and thumb, she sighed and ignored the question Cullen desperately wanted an answer to. “I am not with child and I will not pretend such. Ruse or no.”

“The rumor has already spread,” Josephine announced, the scratch of her quill against parchment grating in Cullen’s ears.

Stoicism was plastered on the Spymaster’s features. “Which makes you a more desirable target.”

“That’s abhorrent.” Cullen retorted. “Would they actually…” His words trailed off. Evil knew no bounds. If she wasn’t in danger enough before, Chrissie certainly was now.

Chrissie’s expression twisted in determination. “Then we level the rumor and the opposition.”

Within moments, Chrissie announced the end of council. Normally, she waited for him, but as Cullen emerged through the door and noted her absence, he leaned against the wall and rested his head against the cool stone. The voices of his fellow colleagues carried to the outside where Cullen stood. He wasn’t certain if they were aware of his presence, but he assumed not, given their choice of topic.

“You were a bit hard on her, don’t you think?” Josephine asked.

“Perhaps, but sometimes the truth requires such measures.”

“I know that look,” Josephine announced excitedly, “do share what you discovered!”

“She claimed it was all part of the ruse. Act as you might, but you cannot fake feelings, Josie.”

Chapter Text

Chrissie stormed from the war room taking a long brisk walk on the battlements though it did nothing to alleviate her angerbefore returning to her quarters. She was furious, at the situation, at Leliana. The Spymaster’s timing was off considerably. Leliana was trying to make a point though Chrissie wasn’t certain what it wasprying with questions she had to have already known the answer to. Some test in the Grand Game the Inquisitor likely failed.

With a flick of her wrist, the balcony doors shuddered open and she hurled a fireball into the sky. Pacing, her anger hadn't subsided in the cool breeze as she'd hoped. It hadn’t worked during her walk and it wasn’t working now. Generally, she was much better at keeping her emotions in check than this. By all definitions, she should be the epitome of professional and yet, what had her efforts wrought?

“It’s only a rumor.” She spoke aloud to no one in an attempt to self soothe. But it felt like an attack. Chrissie, and therefore the Inquisition, felt attacked. She huffed, remembering her advisors' words in Haven, how they seemed to fit so perfectly with the current predicament.

“Could they attack us?”

“With what?” A shake of Cullen’s head indicated the absurdity of her question. “They have only words at their disposal.”

“And yet,” Josephine’s tone full of concern, “they may bury us with them.”

The party in question was the Chantry, but now it was all of Thedas. Every gossip monger wanting to defame the Inquisition, wanting to dismiss their efforts, would be able to use the rumor to do so. Imagine the scandal. A newly appointed Inquisitor supposedly with child amidst a war they’d hardly begun to fight.

Bad for morale was an understatement.

She’d been around Leliana and Josephine long enough to know the right gossip among the right circles could demolish lives, careers, people.

It would reflect terribly upon her and the Inquisition as a whole. The history books would depict her mockery of her own organization. A disgrace. Funny how often that name fit. Shaking from rage, she clenched her fists, cracking bolts of lightning into the clouds. A stain on the Inquisition like the one upon the Trevelyan family.

All because of this ruse, which was her bright idea to begin with. She could have simply told her parents no. They could not force her to marry the Ostwick Knight-Commander. Worse than anything else, there was no logical rationale behind why she pretended in the first place. Striving for acceptance and understanding from parents who would never support her didn’t seem like sufficient cause. Instead of standing firm and speaking her mind, Chrissie hid like a coward behind poor Cullen, whom she’d also made a laughing stock. She had no one to blame for this but herself.

With a creak, the door announced a presence. Heavy footfalls resounded, echoing Cullen’s movements a sound now instantly recognizable-- before he emerged at the top of the stairs.

“I’m not pleasant company right now,” Chrissie muttered. “I’ll go elsewhere.”

“You don’t have to

The soft voice he used only further fueled her self-disgust. A feather-light touch to Chrissie’s arm halted her steps. Not able to meet his gaze, she couldn’t allow herself to see the disappointment in his eyes. Talking to Cullen would only make matters worse, make her hate herself more. How could he even stand to look at her?

Chrissie expected him to be enraged, same as she. In truth, she could have dealt with that, would have preferred it. Who would’ve blamed him? Single-handedly, every piece of their hard work had been thrown to the wind with the mockery her presence and leadership caused the Inquisition. Over a rumor, a lie.

She went to pull away, but Cullen’s light touch turned into a firm grip. Not enough to hurt but enough to prevent her departure. Of course, he would want to address this immediately. Yanking her arm away, Cullen stepped back as though stricken. As if he’d crossed some unspoken boundary between personal and professional, adding more guilt onto her conscience.

“Apologies.” They muttered in unison, eyes only meeting at the surprise at the other’s word.

Where she expected disappointment or ire, softened features and a furrowed brow indicated compassion and concern. Undeserved, she thought, sighing wearily.

“Do you wish to discuss this?”

No. “We probably should.” It was the truth, but Maker how she hated the truth. Certainly, let’s jump into an awkward conversation about how I’m not actually carrying your child but the populace believes so and the best way to combat that rumor. While we’re at it, let’s get Josie and Lel to weigh in on how to prevent the Inquisition from looking ridiculous. You’re my advisor, advise. What is the best battlefield tactic to use here, Commander? I’m all ears.

Chrissie needed to stop while she was ahead. None of this was Cullen’s fault, but her lingering rage made him the target of her ire. It wasn’t fair, none of this had been fair to him, and she regretted ever throwing him into this giant mess she created. 

Hesitantly, he reached for her hand, drawing back momentarily as if he wasn’t certain she would want him to touch her. Given that she’d just withdrawn from him like a petulant child, it was an appropriate reaction. Providing unspoken permission, she reached for his hand as well.

Soft leather encompassed her fingers and he led them both to the sofa, taking his seat only after she took her own. Even still, under the weight of the situation, he was acting the gentleman, acting his part of the ruse. For some reason, the thought made her bitter despite a lack of comprehension why.

“They’ll make a jest of it, Cullen. The Inquisition, all of us. We’ll be the laughing stock of Thedas.” Her tone was harsh, and even she winced. “I don’t mean to be short with you. I know this isn’t your fault. I did warn you I wasn’t pleasant company.”

“That you did, ah, provide warning, I mean.” A light chuckle escaped his lips as they morphed into a barely noticeable smile. “I’m confident in the abilities of our Spymaster and our Ambassador. They will ensure the Inquisition remains respectable.”

“Does this not bother you? That our leadership will be called into question over nonsense and accusations of irresponsibility? Your ability to lead?”

Cullen patted her hand. “It’s ridiculous, but it isn’t true. The Inquisition remains dedicated to our cause. We’ve not lost sight of what’s at stake.”

Naturally, Cullen would be so Maker damn practical.

“And what about your honor? Being betrothed to an unmarried woman with child is...”

“My... honor?” He repeated, lips parted in surprise. “Not something worth concern.”

“Well, it is of concern to me.” Chrissie protested.

How could a man with a reputation like Cullen, not be concerned about the potential damage? Why was he treating this with such nonchalance? At what point would enough be enough and he would finally tire of her and this ruse? Days, months, years? Maker, hopefully it wasn't necessary for that long.

"Why are you indifferent about this?"

"I'm not. But I know the importance of choosing the right battles. Not all need to be fought with sword and shield."

“And some cannot be settled without them.” Chrissie’s eyes met his in unspoken challenge at her quip before she sighed. “Not pleasant company, remember? That was unworthy of me, I apologize. I don’t want them to disrespect you. It’s far too easy for them to manipulate the situation to paint you in the worst light. It’s wrong. How is this different than the rumor Alistair and I were together?”

“At least they think I fathered...“ Cullen’s cheeks tinged pink. He cleared his throat and waved off the thought. “Allow our actions to silence their words.” He used the same inspirational inflection he often reserved for his men.

Our actions. As if they could be a team in this. As if the fault hadn’t rested squarely on her shoulders. Resign, her conscience whispered. You don’t have to be the Inquisitor. You can still seal rifts without the added burden. Ask Hawke to take on the mantle; she was the first choice anyway.

“I will tender my resignation in the morning.”

“What?” Cullen’s voice grew louder and he gaped, eyes wide. Seemingly regaining his composure, he lowered back to the soft baritone. “Your concerns are valid, but I believe you may be overreacting. Now is not the time for division. Calm and level heads are needed.”

Immediately defensive, it stirred the subdued anger from within. Overreacting? How was it overreacting to want to spare the Inquisition from further humiliation? To desire to be the cause of praise instead of detriment? To not want their work, Cullen’s hard work, to be in vain?

Chrissie would remove herself from the situation. It was logical, was practical, an easy solution to a compounding problem. The ruse could no longer hinder the Inquisition as a whole. Prattling gossips couldn’t question their leader, their intentions, their cause.

Cullen’s eyes met hers and he encompassed her hand within both of his own, dwarfing them. “We, the Inquisition,” he corrected, “would not be here without you.”

That sense of indebtedness made her cringe, though she tried to hide it, having no idea if she was successful. Of course Cullen would tell her that. It was basically the official response. Cullen didn’t have the luxury of being impartial on such matters. Not as her friend, advisor, a Haven survivor, and her fictitious betrothed. His opinion would be biased. She needed someone excluded from the crazy of their daily lives.

Alistair. He would know exactly what to say in this situation. They were friends, he’d have no qualms telling her if she was acting daft, and he wouldn’t have any obligation to kiss her ass as part of the Inquisition. He would be objective in a way no one else in the keep could be. 

 

No answer.

Chrissie knocked on the door again.

Nothing. No quiet scuffling, no creaking movement of someone sleeping on the bed.

The brisk air chilled her nose as she awaited a response. Skyhold was quiet. Ordinarily, she longed for the silence which she now found unsettling. There was an aura about the keep which seemed to turn cold this evening, matching the weather. Perhaps it was a reflection of her inner thoughts. Perhaps she simply hadn’t noticed before.

Alistair clearly wasn’t in his guest quarters, so she ventured up the battlements, dragging her fingers across the coarse stone of the parapets. Through a few towers and down a few steps, she found the Warden sitting on a crochet blanket and staring at the stars
speckling the sky like diamonds. 

Standing abruptly, a smirk spanned his features, visible despite the dark. “So I hear congratulations are in order! Are we crossing our fingers for a little mage-ling or a little templar-ling?" Alistair quirked a brow, rubbing the stubble on his face. “Is that a word? Ah, temp-ling!” he corrected before shrugging. “Well, if it isn’t, I’m making it one.”

Alistair elicited a genuine smile from Chrissie; they embraced in a hug. “If you were anyone else, I’d throw a fireball at you for that comment.” 

As he returned to his seat on the blanket, he patted the spot next to him -an invitation. “You would inflict harm, upon me?”

Chrissie nudged his elbow and they chuckled. “Clearly, you’ve heard the rumor.”

“Is that all it is?”

A pointed look cast in his direction prompted him to throw up his hands in mock surrender. "I just wanted to be sure!"

“I’m contemplating resigning.”

A quirked brow indicated his surprise. “And you’re here for me to tell you why it’s a bad idea?”

“No,” Chrissie reiterated. “This is the part why you tell me it’s a good idea and disagree with Cullen.” 

“What did he say?”

“You know, Cullen being Cullen. Told me I was overreacting. I can’t take stock in the merit of his words under the circumstances.” Absentmindedly, she outlined the intricate stitches in the blanket pattern with her finger.

“I’m inclined to agree with him.”

That was a slap. She was certain Alistair would have seen her side of the argument. Rallied in her defense. Was positive the man who deferred the throne of Ferelden would know when a leader should appropriately take a step back.

“What would Killian say?”

That was another. The stinging of the wind against her cheek left her skin feeling raw as if he had actually hit her. This was what she had wanted, wasn’t it? Honesty in the advice given, a conversation completely transparent in both motivation and intention. Rubbing her cheek to alleviate the phantom pain, she exhaled sharply. 

“Were he here, none of this would have happened.” A painful laugh emerged and her chest constricted; re-tearing open the hole left behind from his loss. “Cullen wouldn’t be involved. I wouldn’t even be Inquisitor Trevelyan; if I were ever Inquisitor at all. No lie would have been necessary.”

“I’m aware.”

Of course, she’d forgotten she’d already told Alistair that Cullen wasn’t her first betrothed.

Alistair cleared his throat, placing his arm around Chrissie’s shoulders. “What advice would he give?”

The simple gesture provided comfort, and she moved closer to him, squeezing her friend into a hug. “Even doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons shows you tried to make things better, or at least different.”

“If you resign, would you be able to use your horrible decisions to influence others? And who would lead instead?”

The lightheartedness despite the seriousness made her laugh, diluting unease and self-doubt. Alistair had that way about him. It was a talent. “No, I would not.” Chrissie paused before answering the second question. “Hawke.”

“Hawke? Talk about terrible decisions.” Alistair gave her a sideways glance. “She started the mage rebellion and tore Kirkwall apart!” 

“She is the Champion and was the first choice.” 

With a shake of his head, he dismissed Chrissie’s words. “You’ve built a grand thing with this Inquisition. You were, and are, the best choice to lead it."

“Thanks Ali,” Chrissie released him, wiping her eyes. “I don’t care what they say about you; you’re kind of all right.”

Alistair scoffed playfully in return as Chrissie stood, prepared to depart. 

“May I say something?” He questioned.

“If I said no, would it stop you?” She winked, noting his amused expression.

“Of course not.” Alistair smiled. “Cullen...”

“What about him?”

“I see the way he looks at you. When he thinks no one is looking. I know it,” Alistair explained, his voice breaking. “I lived it. There's something there.”

Chrissie’s expression softened, hearing the complete and utter hurt in his tone. He meant Neria, but from her own experience, there would be nothing she could do to stop the stabbing sensation that split his heart. It would have to linger until it subsided on his own. A quick step closed the distance and she hugged Alistair, rubbing soothing circles on his back until he exhaled shakily, waving off her concern.

“Anyway.” Alistair cleared his throat. “You and Cullen…” 

“It’s fake.” Chrissie sighed, shaking her head.

“Is it?’

“Why does everyone keep asking me that?” Leave it to Alistair, a fellow romantic to see romance where there was none. Were it anyone else, she would have been flattered regarding the effectiveness of the ruse. “I said as much in the war room.”

"And did the Commander agree?"

Chrissie thought back. So enthralled in her anger, she hadn’t paid attention. “Well no, no he didn't. He didn't say anything at all for that matter.”

“Interesting.”

“It’s nothing.”

“Repeating that to yourself won’t make it more believable, Chrissie.”

Staring in stunned silence for a moment, she couldn’t help but contemplate. Could Alistair be correct? Was there something more than friendship between them? No. There couldn’t be. Cullen was a gentleman, a good man, and everything he did was part of the ruse. An underlying need to aid the Inquisitor, as a loyal Commander would. It was nothing more.

It wasn’t a new concept; she’d quashed this idea before, because it was mad, because it was impossible, because…

Though the more curious parts of herself wondered.

How did Cullen look at her, exactly?

 

When Chrissie returned to their quarters, there was a sinking feeling in her stomach at seeing it empty. But she assumed it was for the best. The note on her desk was simple, informative, nearly professional.

Chrissie,
I’ll return soon.
Cullen.

How vague and nondescript of him, but still considerate. 

Venturing to the fireplace, Chrissie shifted the interior panel, revealing the small box inside. Her heart ached as she opened it, the onyx bands gleaming in the firelight. Wedding rings, kept but never worn. She and Killian had decided if the day ever came where mages were free from the circle, they would exchange them, say vows, have a luxurious event far from Ostwick. He died when the rebellion started, never experiencing freedom. They were the most valuable thing she owned in sentiment, comparable only to the coin in her pocket. Which, as Cullen’s gift and personal request, she would always keep on her person.

After shedding a few tears, she returned the rings, carefully replacing the secret panel. Beginning her nightly routine, she ventured to the garderobe, intent on soaking her aches and stresses away in a piping hot bath. She found upon entry that the bath had already been drawn, a fire rune used to keep the water appropriate temperature; the symbol of red flames was glowing, though distorted within the water.

Though the most eye-catching thing was the note left on the counter.

Prepared for your return.
C.

Cullen’s kindness knew no bounds, sweet and simple, but meaningful in all the right ways. Warmth spread through her chest and this time, she couldn’t ignore the flutter.

Guilt flourished, bubbling underneath the surface. Feeling anything for Cullen was wrong. A templar, a former (de facto) Knight-Commander of all things. Killian would not approve. And why would he? It was a betrayal of the worst kind. To entertain a possibility of any real relationship would void every promise and discard every kiss. Would make their love a lie. No, she could not think of Cullen as anything more, would not, for Killian. Chrissie was many things, but a liar wasn’t one of them.

At least, not where it truly mattered.

Chapter Text

Eavesdropping was a continual recurrence of late. In the past three hours, Cullen had overheard two conversations he couldn’t tear himself away from. The first, as he stood outside the war room, he hadn’t meant to hear at all. Between Leliana and Josephine prattling on about Chrissie and the rumor mill churning about, Cullen couldn’t separate fact from fiction. Left dumbstruck by the revelation Chrissie could have feelings for him, he shook it off in disbelief. He doubted her phrasing was pertinent. She was angry, and any number of words would have been appropriate. It wasn’t the confession the Spymaster claimed it was.

But, Leliana hadn’t been wrong... yet.

Chrissie having any real feelings for him was speculation by the two biggest gossipers in Skyhold, nothing more. Cullen didn’t allow himself to think about that, about the possibilities. Okay, so maybe he did allow himself to think of it, but he tried not to dwell on it. The entire situation was a mess of confusion and he couldn’t discern what was real.

The ruse was a ruse and it simply wasn’t possible. She may as well have been his charge; it was equally inappropriate. Though the pretending had grown comfortable, habits once forced had become familiar with ease and became easier daily. In the past month, Chrissie had shown a strength which even his most veteran soldiers couldn’t equal, between managing every threat within Thedas, dealing with her parents, and catering to his health needs. It was not a new revelation, but one which painted a more complete picture. Cullen had seen firsthand her passion in helping people, the seriousness with which she took her position, and the person underneath. He had borne witness to it all; no one else had received that honor. And it made him like her all the more for it.

After his conversation with Chrissie in their quarters, he sensed he hadn’t made it better. She had excused herself politely from their discussion, utilizing tense silence to her advantage. Without a doubt she was correct, the rumor was damaging. To her, to the Inquisition, but it was Cullen’s fault. Had his symptoms not flared at the most inconvenient time, and had she not volunteered to take care of him, the rumor wouldn’t have been fueled. The laundry would have been delivered as normal, the sick buckets wouldn’t have been requested, and she wouldn’t have had to walk him through a panic attack on the battlements in front of everyone.

Cullen had plastered on a brave face for her benefit, but he knew she was right to be worried. He was as well. After she had left, he tried to distract his mind with a book, but the words swam on the page, crisscrossing over one another and blurring beyond comprehension. As he often had, he sought to clear his head.

Before he left, he thought to help alleviate Chrissie’s stresses: having her nightly bath prepared for her return, just in case he wasn’t back, leaving informative but simple notes. The mountain air was usually successful in both calming and taming his headaches before they started. With the events of today, he would need a longer walk than normal, and started from the farthest reach of the keep, intending to make three rounds before returning to their quarters.

Cullen hadn’t expected to walk through a tower and overhear whispered voices. At first, he debated if he’d finally gone mad. He figured his nightmares bled into his waking hours, haunting him while fully alert. Due to the hour, the soldiers knew to keep their voices down, offering only silent salutes as he passed by. But this couldn’t be any of his men, as he knew their postings like the back of his hand, committed every soldier to memory on each shift every month. There was a process to such things, and Cullen planned the rotation schedule with careful meticulousness. Without a doubt, these were not his people.

Chrissie’s soft voice called to him, beckoning him closer as he placed an ear to the door, listening in again on a conversation he had no business being a part of. Cullen was the farthest thing from a gossiping Orlesian as one could get, but it was less what they were speaking of though that was of genuine interest as welland more who was speaking that garnered his curiosity. Despite his better judgment, he couldn’t tear himself away. It was one thing to overhear a discussion by mistake, but another to quite deliberately place yourself in a position to spy on every single word. Knowing it was wrong, knowing if Chrissie wanted to talk about this with him, she would have, Cullen stood, frozen in place, unable to force his muscles to move. 

Part of it was fear, tearing away his sensibilities. Alistair was a highly praised (rightly so) Grey Warden and other than a minor bout of something that was definitely not jealousy that flourished in Cullen’s chest upon his arrival, Cullen respected the man. Yet, Alistair held power he didn’t even realize. Not over Chrissie, but over Cullen. Warden Alistair was in Kinloch with Neria when she saved him from his nearly maddened and tortured state. 

All Chrissie would have to do was ask the right questions and everything Cullen hadn’t told her could be exposed. He had explained ceasing lyrium, but withheld his experience in the tower. If anyone were to tell her, it should be Cullen. Even without knowing the horrific details of all Cullen endured, Chrissie had helped him regardless. She calmed his nightmares, settled the panic attacks, and comforted him through the memories haunting him. Did that speak more about her character, or his for still keeping the details of all he endured in the tower close to the chest even after? Perhaps it was presumptuous, to assume the conversation would have anything to do with him at all.

Of course, then he heard his own name and his interest was piqued. Were he a mabari, his ears would have pointed upwards, stilled but intent on listening. Chrissie’s concern over being able to trust his word caused Cullen to bristle, though he supposed in fairness he understood why. His mind flitted back to when they first arrived in Skyhold, and the first time he’d seen her appear nervous.

“Inquisitor Trevelyan. Sounds odd, don’t you think?”
“No, not at all.”
“Is that the official response?”

The official response was probably what Chrissie thought she had received from him earlier and she wasn’t entirely wrong on the matter. Cullen had kept his anger (and mortification), which rivaled hers, inside, offering the Commander persona he’d thought she needed at the time, instead of the friend (or fake spouse). That was seemingly an error on his part, since she still sought Alistair regardless. Not that it would have changed his responses any, but the delivery could have been modified. At least Alistair defended Cullen, seeing his side of the argument. That was a plus. Were he to have agreed with Chrissie, Cullen may very well have exposed himself as the prying deviant he was currently acting as, storming out and sternly commanding some sense into both of them. Thankfully, it wasn’t necessary.

“I wouldn’t even be Inquisitor Trevelyan.”

Cullen heard the unspoken if only her words implied and he sympathized. There had been a number of times he’d asked himself the same thing, mulled over the possibilities of what if  and wondered how his life would be different if certain events hadn’t come to fruition. Chrissie never told him, despite their long discussions, both voluntary and required. He had no idea she was ever previously betrothed. Remembering the hurt in her blue eyes when she mentioned Killian the night she made him dinner, he should have suspected as much.

Cullen understood Chrissie had a life from before. There were people, places, experiences that brought them all together under Skyhold’s roof. The path laid out by divine providence intent to lead them to this point. At least, Cassandra would say as much. The diversity made the Inquisition the successful organization they formed. Under no illusions, Cullen was aware Chrissie was as were many others in their own waysjust as scared as he. However, the admission churned in his chest. It wasn't jealousy, as Cullen saw how unreasonable it was to envy a dead man. But it left him feeling very much the substitute. The sub-par replacement.

Somehow, it made matters worse. Cullen already believed he wasn’t good enough for Andraste’s Herald, but knowing he was in essence, a replacement, created more bitterness. He was broken, weary, a recovering addict, suffering from nightmares and reliving tragedies of mistakes past. How could he have ever for a single secondthought he was worthy of her time?  

And of course, she had told Alistair, but not him. Chrissie owed him no explanations, he knew, but being the kind-hearted person she was, would have spared his feelings on the matter. In truth, she owed him nothing at all. But he wanted her to want to be able to express her concerns, hurt, fears, past and present, to take comfort and reassurance in knowing he would rush to her aid, that he would always stand behind her in support and step in front of her for defense. As he always had. As he always would.

Clearly, he hadn’t articulated his support well enough, if at all. He was slowly falling within the swirling vortex of his mind. Boundaries and limitations, professionalism and personal all bled into the other in a coagulated mix of emotion and turmoil. 

Funny how advice from dead men always resonated the most. The crack and ache clear in Chrissie’s voice pierced him like a lance. All the wrong things for all the right reasons. He related, had lived it in Kirkwall, following the wrong belief systems in an attempt to better the Order and the Community. The number of times he had turned a blind eye to the ongoings, never wanting to press the matter, never asking the questions on the tip of his tongue, never giving a voice to his concerns, were countless.

It was also part of the reason why he hadn’t told her the full extent of his guilt. She knew of his time in Kirkwall, but didn't know all he had turned a blind eye to. The unnecessary persecution of mages on accusation alone, the number of people Knight-Commander Meredith made Tranquil unjustly under his watch. He had let those things happen. Would disgust contort her expression, revealing the hatred in her eyes after she found out the things he did? What he was accomplice to? Would she look upon him like so many other magesseething with rage? He had handled, and could handle, a lot. He would endure, no matter the cost. Yet, the prospect of her disappointment was enough to instill a lightning strike of fear. The Inquisition served as his atonement. But he yearned for Chrissie’s approval as well. If the leader saw something anythingin him at all worth saving, he would strive to be worthy of it. How could he give any less?

“Hawke,” Chrissie said.

Cullen had to stifle a snort at the preposterousness. If he thought Chrissie and he disagreed over war table missions, he could only imagine how badly those same interactions would have been with Hawke. The Champion was known for her wit, humor, and often anger. Chrissie was a much better choice to lead than Hawke, assuming the Champion would have even wanted to lead at all.

“You were, and are, the best choice to lead it.” Alistair reiterated.

Maker, truer words were never spoken. Even without being the Herald, the Inquisitor had earned her title. And if she couldn’t accept the truth from him, as long as it came from someone she believed, it would be enough. It would have to be.

Breathing a sigh of relief now that the greatest concern was gone, Cullen turned away, only to halt in his tracks the moment he heard his name again. Tilting his head to the side as if it would allow him to better listen, he stilled.

“I see the way he looks at you. When he thinks no one is looking. I know it,” Alistair explained, his voice breaking. “I lived it. There's something there.” 

At least the question he had about Alistair’s knowledge of their relationship had been answered, but the weight of the Warden’s observation washed over him. It was so spot on accurate that Cullen wrung his hands, stricken with anxiety, eagerly awaiting her response to the accusation. Though this wasn’t the news he initially worried over Alistair revealing, it seemed to have an equally heavy effect. Stifling a groan as to not be overheard, he raked his fingers through his hair.

“Well no, no he didn't. He didn't say anything at all for that matter.”

Of course he hadn’t. He had been so in his own head over the situation, he hadn’t mustered a word. Between the shock of the rumor and worry over her well being and the rage bubbling his blood, no, he hadn’t mentioned anything. It had been better that way, to allow any words to die before they passed his lips. In his swirl of emotion, he could have easily said something regrettable or revealing.

But now, she knew. Or at least suspected. She would be watching for the admiration he couldn’t prevent. Now, he needed to step away from his feelings. To ensure Chrissie felt no obligation, he could apply no pressure. There would be no coercion. It could never truly be and he’d been careless, allowing himself to be swept away in a fictitious scenario, a world where Cullen and Chrissie were betrothed.

A world where they were together.
Where she could love him.
Where he would be worthy.

And Maker, it stung worse than the chill of the Frostbacks on their hike from Haven.

Chapter Text

The music played, stringed instruments filling the air with soft melodies and jovial tunes. Skyhold’s main hall was decorated simply, enough to show they put forth an effort, but not to the degree the impromptu welcome dinner had been. Elegant but casual white cloth lined the long tables, offering place settings for those who wished to serve themselves from the food display. According to the Ambassador, the best musicians had been summoned from Orlais to provide a grand performance to celebrate the Trevelyans’ final night with the Inquisition, as well as a general boost for morale. As far as Chrissie was concerned, it was a frivolous event. The only thing worth having a soiree for in honor of the Trevelyans was slamming the Skyhold gates closed behind them. This celebration should have been reserved for after.

Despite their attempts at quashing the rumor, it had spread like wildfire over the course of a few days and nearly everyone across Thedas had heard the Inquisitor was with the Commander's child. Therefore, Chrissie had since fielded a number of questions regarding the nonexistent impact to the Inquisition. Multiple nobles throughout the evening had taken the glasses of champagne from her hands after commenting on her poor decision to consume alcohol in her condition. Despite correcting them, no doubt rumors would persist. Not only was she with child, but now unfit to care for it.

Thankfully, with her parents’ departure and thus the end of the taxing requirements of the ruse drawing near, she and Cullen could resume their normal daily routines. They’d spoken more and she apologized again for her uncharacteristic outburst in the war room, but this ruse —as it had him—weighed heavily on her. Cullen had been distant of late. Seemingly distracted and not quite himself. Though she couldn’t place what exactly had changed between them, she assumed it was the rumor taking more of a toll than he let on. Heeding Alistair’s words, the past few days she had tried to draw the same conclusions as he had, to either confirm or deny the existence of anything really developing, all to no avail. 

The plan would continue as originally intended. Her time in the Emerald Graves would allow Cullen to move his necessities back to his loft, maintaining minor public appearances and fulfilling the ruse until the war was over with minimal effort. Though Cullen hadn’t vocalized it, Chrissie was certain he felt the same sense of relief at the prospect of normalcy. 

This evening’s festivities were moderately dressy, though nothing requiring lavish formal finery. To Chrissie’s surprise, Josephine had kept it a quaint little fete —well, as quaint as Josephine would ever allow. There were still a number of dignitaries in attendance and honored noble guests Skyhold was hosting. Chrissie wore a lacy knee-length dress with black heels and silver accessories. Cullen and the rest of the inner circle matched her, donning uniforms of black with a silver Inquisition symbol on the back.  

Mostly, it was an excuse to chat and gossip. Trade heroic tales of the Inquisition and its leaders to paint them in the most complimentary light possible, doubling as an attempt to keep their reputation respectable —as Cullen put it. At least she didn't have to continually please her parents, who were busy chatting with important company. Thank the Maker for small victories.

“Inquisitor.”

Chrissie nearly jumped at the voice, placing a hand to her chest to dull the sudden thrum of her heart. Leliana’s ability to emerge from the shadows was both remarkable and scary. 

“Spymaster.” Chrissie greeted more tersely than intended, still upset over the embarrassment at Lel’s line of questioning and insinuations in the war room.

“Where is your betrothed? Should he not be at your side?” Leliana stood next to Chrissie, hands behind her back with an unreadable expression.

“Is this the part where you pretend to have no idea where Cullen is?” At Leliana’s quirked eyebrow and slight smile, Chrissie relented. “The Commander is in a meeting with his men. It was prearranged and he was here but stepped away momentarily.” 

“A rather formal address for the man you love, no?”

“I don’t—” Chrissie stopped at the sight of Leliana’s finger pressed to her lips before tapping her ear twice.

Leliana whispered, “This is the first time there’s been an occasion where people may ask. You should be prepared, as should he, for the questions that will come. Anything you’ve practiced,” her eyes narrowed, “and you should have been practicing, will be at play here, Inquisitor.” 

“Great,” she murmured. “Could you refrain from embarrassing me?”

Leliana seemed to offer an apology with her eyes, though the words never emerged. “If that embarrassed you, Inquisitor, I suggest you prepare yourself for the gossips.”

As the Spymaster sauntered away, Chrissie grabbed a flute of alcohol off a passing servant’s tray. Maker, I am nowhere near intoxicated enough for this. Just as she raised the glass to her mouth, the bubbles touching her lips, the drink was removed from her hand and she was once again scolded about her need to refrain from alcohol.

Marching over to Bull and Dorian, standing in Varric's normal spot, she inserted herself into their conversation. “I need your flask.” Her glance flitted between them, twisting her neck up and down to compensate for the height difference. “Boss, I don’t think that’s smart.”

Scowling, she demanded. “Alcohol, booze, liquor, spirits, grog, whatever stiff drink you have in that flask of yours, I need it.”

“They have drinks here.” Bull crossed his arms, leaning against the wall.

“But every time I get one, they’re taking it from me! If I’m to spend the night chatting up nobles, I need a coping mechanism.” Especially since Cullen gets the luxury of avoiding this by actually working.

“Inquisitor, I am shocked and dismayed.” Dorian grinned mischievously. “A woman in your—”

“Dorian.” Chrissie scolded, eyebrows furrowed. “Do not finish that sentence.”

“I was going to say,” Dorian said, clearing his throat, “a woman in your heralded position shouldn’t be drinking the contemptible swill Bull has in that flask.”

“Mhm,” she murmured unamused. “I bet that’s what you planned to say.”

Bull handed it over with reluctance. “You owe me a drink, Boss.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Chrissie waved off. “I’ll pay up.”

“So, inquiring minds want to know,” Dorian said, brows wiggling in false flirtation. “Where do you plan on stashing your contraband?”

Chrissie unscrewed the cap, downing a full swig. The alcohol was strong, sharp, warming like fire from her throat and settling into her stomach. Securing the lid, she turned away from the prying eyes of the nobles around her, using Dorian and Bull to shield her from view. Hiking up the skirt of her dress to expose thigh, she used the stone of the wall to balance her bended knee. Unthreading the leather strap which secured Cullen’s coin in a hidden pocket, her nimble fingers worked the laces until both the coin and the flask were held firmly against her skin. She pulled the skirt back down, returning to proper posture in her heels, dusting invisible debris.

“Well, Boss, that was hot. Cullen’s a lucky man.” Bull winked at her, or she interpreted it as such. With the eyepatch over the opposite eye, it was always hard to tell. 

“And how do you expect to pull that out and drink it? Unless you plan on putting on a show?” Dorian mused. “The nobles would be most pleased.”

“It’s more that I have it available. No one will take it away, and I can excuse myself to drink as necessary. Now,” Chrissie huffed, plastering on her bravest Inquisitorial face, “I will refrain from immolating the next person who decides to touch my stomach.”

With a chuckle, the qunari quipped. “Yeah, probably a good plan.”

Teasingly, Dorian reached out. 

Chrissie caught him by the wrist, halting his movements. “That includes you.”

Dorian smoothed his mustache. “How dare you consider me part of the general populace. You wound me!” With a dramatic pause, he scoffed, sauntering away towards the crowd.

Chrissie turned her attention back to the fray. She would have to dive right in, mingle, be Inquisitorial. A string of expletives ran through her mind as she braced herself, or tried to. Could one ever truly prepare for the Orlesian onslaught?

 

“What drew you to the Commander?” The voice came from one of the women clamoring around the table. Chrissie sat, staring at the expressionless faces painted on the ridiculous Orlesian masks —unable to determine which person asked. 

“Well,” another sourceless voice provided, “he is quite handsome.”

“Disciplined, honorable, skilled,” someone added.

If they knew all of that already, why were they pelting her with these questions? “Indeed.” Chrissie agreed in complete honesty. Cullen was gorgeous and had a number of great qualities. “Those things are certainly enthralling.”

She fielded and answered the questions with ease, surrounded by masked faces with beady prying eyes. More and more seemed to gather, like children flocking to a bon-bon merchant. But Chrissie was in her element. Skyhold was her castle, and acting as queen, with Cullen her king, she put on the show of a professional, despite none of this interrogation pertaining to Inquisition matters. Why would it, when there was gossip to be heard? Most questions were ones that she and Cullen had practiced responses to. Certain in both answer and delivery, Chrissie remained confident. But the scouring vultures moved onto the more personal, more intimate questions. Which, of course they would because she and Cullen had never thought to discuss answers regarding their bedroom endeavors.

It started out innocently: "Is your paramour impressive?"

What in the Maker’s name kind of question was that? She wanted to quip, have you seen him? Between the aura of strength he emitted on the battlefield, the sound advice he provided, the sweet gestures, and the support he gives all his men, how could Cullen not be impressive? That would be a shorter list, if such a list was possible. “Of course. Commander Cullen is exceptional in his duties." 

"Tell us about his swordsmanship skills." 

Swordsmanship skills? Cullen was the Commander of the Inquisition. Of course he possessed superior fighting ability. A quirked brow indicated her confusion, but she addressed the topic regardless. "He trains and practices often, sometimes alone, sometimes with others. Stresses the importance of footwork and proper shielding techniques as well as ideal positioning. Delegates. Ensures all his men and women reach their peak.” 

"So the bedroom life is," the commenter cleared their throat, "saucy then.”

Chrissie’s eyes widened and her mouth formed into an unspoken O. She replayed every word back in her head and realized how incredibly wrong everything she said had been. How easily the Orlesians would misconstrue and twist her innocent responses. Perfect. She thought. Now the rumors will be Cullen is bisexual, loves masturbating and group sexual encounters. But at least he always allows his people to finish and encourages safe sex. Well, of course, except for me, since I'm already 'with child.'  Sweet Maker, what had she done? 

“How large is his great sword?"

Recognizing the true question, it was one no amount of training and rehearsal would have prepared her for. No amount of alcohol either. How could she even maintain a straight face and provide any answer? Chrissie’s cheeks burned. So much so that she wanted to cast Winter’s Grasp to return them back to normal. She would likely look less ridiculous with frost across her face than she did at this moment.

What should she say? Cullen was… well-endowed? That seemed too boastful. It was pleasurable? That sounded equally ridiculous, though not because of his skill. Which she should not be thinking about, at all. Adequate sounded insufficient. Certainly, she’d never given much thought to his penis before. Maker it felt odd even wondering about it now, as if she was somehow disparaging her Commander by letting the thought of his size —which yes, she was now curious over, much to her shame— run rampant through her mind.

“That is quite literally between me and Cullen.”

Well, were they really having sex, his penis would be between… Maker stop thinking about Cullen’s penis!

Banishing the thought, she mentally praised herself for the jump in public approval the scandalous response received. Whispers filled the air. Various murmurs and admiring oohs and ahhs resounded loudly, echoing throughout the grand hall.

Someone from the crowd yelled over the voices. “What's the sweetest gift the Commander has ever given you?”

Chrissie’s eyes fell to the floor as an unexpected smile tugged at her lips. At least they picked an easy one this time. “His socks.”

Even behind the masks, she could see the stunned looks, turning their gazes as if she had sprouted three heads. At their silence, she explained. “You have no idea how important clean socks are in the field. I opened my pack to find extras that were big and warm. I knew who they were from because they were labeled with his name.” A bark of laughter escaped her throat, as she waved her hand and shrugged. “Templar thing, I’m told.”

“Socks? Not the coin?” Unmistakable, Cullen’s voice —the voice of command— hushed the crowd as they turned to gaze at her (pretend) future husband who stood by the door, hands resting firmly on the pommel of his sword. A crooked smirk was on his features. 

Surprised, Chrissie wondered exactly how long he’d been standing there. Hopefully not long, or at least, if he had been, she was thankful she hadn’t been aware when answering questions about his manhood. But moreso, he seemed pleased, the smirk a clear indication. Was it what she had said? 

Despite his expression, she feared she offended him by announcing socks were more meaningful than a coin which held so much sentiment. It wasn’t so, but she clarified. “I love that, too! But, the socks were the first gift you ever gave me…”

“Actually,” Cullen said with a hand held up, closing the ten-foot distance with smooth steps, “they weren’t.”

Chrissie gaped. She tried to remember, but couldn’t fathom to what Cullen referred. Her confused expression prompted him to explain.

“Gloves.”

Not much of an explanation. Then, it dawned on her.

The first thing Chrissie had done after the Inquisition was officially reborn was take a trip to the blacksmith, ordering ram leather fingerless gloves. People stared at the mark and she felt awkward and self-conscious. Few looked at her face, eyes fixated on glowing green. Most days she spent deflecting questions about if it hurt or what it was like to be chosen. Chrissie wore them constantly, battle or otherwise. By the time Corypheus attacked Haven, she’d worn holes in the soft black leather but refused to take them off; they’d become a second skin. A fire spell in the tunnels burned the remaining pieces into ash as she fought a handful of demons alone, desperate to catch up with the group.

The first time she had stepped into the Inquisitor’s quarters, newly her quarters, after construction was complete, she noticed the plain white box on the bed. No card or tag was attached, but she lifted the top off. Chrissie pulled a brand new set of gloves from the box —black leather and fingerless as before, but made of softer material, accented around the knuckles and cuff with silver thread, and the Inquisition symbol embroidered in bloodstone red. A note tucked in the box simply stated: Fire-resistant. Every time she had left Skyhold, she’d worn them, and they still appeared brand new.

Despite not wearing them currently, she looked down at her hands, realization causing a wide smile to bloom across her face. Her tone was hushed. “I didn’t know.” 

Cullen had gifted them, had given them to her, well before the ruse had ever started. Why? It was such a simple gesture that meant so much. She was unable to stop herself from questioning what else Cullen was responsible for. Chrissie looked at him in wonder. Something changed then, as she recognized that the Cullen she’d come to know had always been the friend she believed she’d recently acquired.

A mechanism clicked in her brain, bathing Cullen in a completely new light. You’re wonderful. Cullen’s lopsided smile snapped her back to reality and it occurred to her, she might have said that aloud. 

Cullen kissed her cheek. The soft brush of his lips caused warmth to spread down to her toes. “Apologies for the delay, my love.” 

Her heart hammered at the endearment. She must’ve looked ten times the fool, still smiling at him like he hung the moon. “That’s all right, darling,” she said, accepting his hand. Because of the ruse and because she wanted to.

But the feeling fell away, quashed by guilt. Killian’s face at the forefront of her mind. The flutter in her chest was wrong. The adoration she looked at Cullen with was wrong.

Styled curly blonde locks were replaced with longer jet black hair and the soft amber turned ice blue —almost silver— and pierced her very soul. How could you? Killian accused. Am I so easily forgotten?   

The aw from the crowd was a lightning jolt and she quickly regained her wits. Killian’s visage morphed back into Cullen. “I have been answering questions,” Chrissie explained, voice low. “The public is most curious about our,” she swallowed the lump in her throat before enunciating, “relationship.”

Chapter Text

“You’re wonderful,” Chrissie said, amazement in her tone.

She seemed grateful for the gift she hadn’t realized came from him. Cullen wasn’t even certain why he’d decided to tell her. He’d never planned to. Perhaps it was the admiration from the crowd fueling such brazen confidence, though he was not sure why that would matter either, given he was never one to put on a show well, other than the ruse itself, of course. More likely, it was how she had handled a blatantly rude and personal unpracticed question about his manhood and flawlessly put the topic to rest with a witty retort, simultaneously protecting both their reputations. Cullen had been appalled but suspected that Orlesians would ask. After all, they were Orlesian. When Chrissie silenced them, he couldn’t help the smug satisfaction and following adoration as she put every prattling gossip in their place recovering quickly after composure slipped.

Maintaining some semblance of distance had been a requirement. The past few days, he’d kept everything bottled up, hyper-aware of his emotions and preventing his features from betraying him. He hadn’t realized how difficult an endeavor it was. Cullen was not the Spymaster and though stoicism was his standard, consistently veiled emotions at the Grand Game level were not.

Fire ignited in Chrissie’s eyes and she had never before looked at him like she did now.

In fact, Cullen had never seen her look at anyone the way she looked at him now. 

And suddenly, he forgot why he had decided to maintain space.

Ivory cheeks flushed a subtle pink, and her lips parted as though she wanted to say something, but couldn’t formulate the right words. Maker, how often he related. Heart lurching and stomach flipping, he leaned forward on impulse, brushing his lips against her cheek. “Apologies for the delay, my love.” 

My love?

Love was an agreed upon endearment, but my love was not.

No, Cullen didn’t love Chrissie. Felt fondly for her, certainly. Trusted her, implicitly. But love her?

No. That was ridiculous. 

Maker, what would possess him to say that? Or kiss her cheek, so publicly for that matter? He'd never done that before. It wasn’t like he had grounds to lay claim, pretend ruse or no.

Laughing at his own expense for the brazen display, he took the seat next to her as she grabbed his hand, their fingers naturally interlocking. The warmth penetrated his gloves. 

“That’s all right, darling.” They’d discussed it and Darling was on the list of approved endearments, but Cullen sat straighter because of it. He liked the way it fell from her lips: simple, easy, and comfortable. It shouldn’t have meant so much.

In an instant, Chrissie’s mood changed from bright and vibrant to dark and distant. His laughter and lightheartedness fell away and he wondered if he’d offended her. Perhaps he had been a bit too brazen. She shifted uncomfortably and averted her eyes from him, but still held onto his hand firmly.

“What do you miss most when you’re apart?” The voice came from the far back corner of the hall.

“The humming.” Chrissie said before Cullen threw her a sideways glance. “He hums from time to time while working. I don’t get to hear it when I’m away.”

Cullen would indeed hum on his better days. When his head wasn’t splitting and his symptoms weren’t too much. He never knew she’d noticed. He thought about the question, churning over the possible answers. There were so many: her laughter, the smell of honey in their quarters her scent, the fire she constantly had burning he would scold over as a safety concern, her warmth, the list could go on. Finally, he settled for simplicity. “Her.”

The crowd gave a collective aw and Cullen had to refrain from rolling his eyes. 

More questions were asked, thankfully, most of which were practiced. Between the two of them, they recited their answers with ease. Every now and again though, a question they hadn’t prepared for would prompt some quick thinking. At the same time, it would also prove interesting, hearing some of the responses Chrissie could come up with. All too often he found himself wondering if she meant them or if it was a means of cover.

After a half hour more, Chrissie announced no further questions would be accepted, and instructed the guests to continue enjoying the musical entertainment. 

In step with one another, they strode away from the crowd for space, only to be stopped by the Ambassador outside the door to her office.

“Shall we step inside to practice your display for the evening?” It seemed almost unnatural for Josephine to not be clutching her clipboard, but she imposed just as much authority without it.

“Is it really necessary? We answered their questions.” Chrissie asked, the faintest hint of nervousness in her tone.

“The public will want a display of affection.” Josephine explained.

“Well, we had expected this.” Chrissie folded her hands in front of her skirt, showing no further concern. “We practiced in preparation.” She turned her attention to Cullen. “Do you think we’re ready?”

“As prepared as possible.” Cullen still hated the idea of placating the masses. It was his least favorite thing about the entire situation. But, he would do as he must whatever he mustto ensure the ruse remained believable.

And they had practiced, but it was on the battlements. As scheduled, Chrissie would appear in his office, tell him he'd completed enough work for the day, and they would venture just outside. Using the open space and limited view to their advantage, a casual kiss was faked. Then, they would return to their duties as though nothing happened.

Here, in the grand hall, they didn’t have the benefit of limiting the view to one side. A point Chrissie must have been aware of also, hence her reluctance.

Cullen kept his voice low. “The corner will compromise visibility.”

Chrissie looked over her shoulder before nodding. “The corner then.”

She grabbed Cullen’s shoulder. The heat from her hand and radiating up his arm as they step by step made it to the far corner of the room, next to Varric’s normal fire. 

Positioning herself in the crease of the wall, Chrissie gave Cullen the go-ahead in the form of a wink. Cullen did as rehearsed. Leaning to his left until his shoulder touched the wall, Cullen blocked the view and bent forward to compensate for the height difference. Warm fingers lightly settled on his face. Cullen placed his right hand to her left cheek and went to whisper in her ear as he always had during rehearsal, providing reassurance and hopefully settling any of her nerves. 

Honey permeated his nostrils and her warmth washed over him in waves. The entire process was intoxicating and always left him dizzy. Cullen wondered why he subjected himself to such torture, being so very close and simultaneously so terribly far away. Often, to his shame, he enjoyed the act a bit too much. Sheer willpower kept him from reacting on instinct and impulse every time, and he refrained from bridging the divide and kissing her for real.

However, unlike rehearsal, a voice called for the Inquisitor and Chrissie jumped, shifting her position to her right. Instead of whispering in her ear as normal, Cullen’s lips touched the soft skin of her neck underneath her earlobe. He stilled, fear paralyzing him at the misstep.

Chrissie shivered in response and Cullen snapped back to his senses, realizing he hadn’t moved for a few seconds too long. He pulled away slowly needing to apologize, to express regret for his error. Their foreheads nearly touched as he inched towards her face, speaking words only for her as their eyes met, lingering. “Forgive me, I

“It’s all right,” Chrissie whispered, no irritation in her tone. She didn’t seem angry and that provided some sense of relief. “It was an accident.” 

Her breath was hot on his face, and he felt like he was standing in front of a dragon as his heart beat wildly against his chest. Ready and welcoming the possibility of fire. “Yes.” He breathed.

Neither made any move to separate.

The cheers fell away behind them as Cullen stood, mere inches apart. It would be so impossibly, shamefully easy to kiss her right now, to close the very small gap between them. No longer having to wonder what it would be like, but to know, to have experienced what he had only day-dreamed of.

But he would never do such a thing without explicit consent. Forcing himself upon any woman, especially Chrissie, was not something Cullen would ever dare. He would have to be certain she wanted it as much as he and he was not. Therefore, he took a step back, willing his muscles to move away, breaking their intimacy. 

“Inquisitor.” The same voice that made Chrissie jump spoke again.

Cullen turned to find a fearful Jim, holding a report in his hands. Maker, he should have known of all scouts, he would have been the cause for the interruption.

Jim handed Chrissie a sealed envelope and she tore it open with haste, scouring the parchment. Her brows furrowed and she raked her bottom lip with her top teeth before dismissing the messenger.

“Something pressing?” Cullen inquired, curious as to why a formal missive would be delivered amidst an event for most of Skyhold’s visiting nobility.

Chrissie hissed a curse under her breath. “It’s a formal notice of extended stay from the Trevelyans.” 

“How long?”

Chrissie’s head drooped. “At least, three more months.”

Cullen felt compelled to reach out and hug her, offer reassurances, but refrained placing a light hand on her elbow instead. The ruse would be required to continue for three more months. At seeing Chrissie’s distress, he should have shared the same disappointment. Selfishly, a part of him liked the fact they would still be maintaining their living situation. He wouldn’t be required to go back to his tower and spend his nights alone again.

“Excuse me,” Chrissie looked up at him, “I’ll need to inform Josie so the proper arrangements can be made. See you after a while?”

“I would hope so,” Cullen responded automatically. He bent forward, placing an almost kiss to her cheek as practiced. She smiled at him, sweetly, with the same smile that warmed his heart earlier before she pulled away suddenly.

He planned to ask if she was all right as guilt weighed on him, but quick steps led her in the opposite direction before he had the chance.   

“Commander,” Bann Trevelyan greeted with a jovial tone Cullen was certain was faked, “might I have a word, privately?”

Cullen braced himself for the likely unpleasant conversation he expected would follow. With a gesture towards the door to Solas’ rotunda, he nodded. “After you.” 

The two stepped into the circular room, art on display shrouded in shadow by the few candles lit within the space. It seemed eerie vacated and unusually cold as a sense of uncomfortableness fell upon Cullen. He scanned the surroundings checking for signs of anything odd. When nothing seemed out of place, he maintained a sense of caution just in case.

“So,” Bann Trevelyan leaned against Solas’ desk, “a child out of wedlock,” he tsked, “the things they'll say. Surely, you wouldn't want your marriage built on such a reputation.”

Ignoring the minor detail that Chrissie was not with child, Cullen threw the Bann a sideways glance, already positive he did not like the direction of this discussion. “I’m unconcerned with reputation and could care less what others’ think. Character is more important and I know who I am.” 

“Christalyne and this babe will only hinder you, holding you back.” The Bann stroked his beard. “How certain are you the babe is yours? Are you the type of man who would care for someone else’s bastard?”

Seconds. It took seconds for this exchange to turn sour. Cullen’s blood boiled and he reflexively squeezed the grip of his sword. Hold him back? Exactly how would it be anything other than a blessing, especially for a man like Cullen? “A babe would do no such thing. However, it isn't true, so it matters not.”

A look of disappointment crossed Paul’s expression before stoicism replaced it. “So you still intend to wed?”

“Why wouldn’t we?” Cullen asked, incredulous. “What kind of man would I be to leave her now? Not that she ever needed me, but I won’t abandon her. As I’ve stated before."

“I am simply saying, Commander. Such a burden would weigh on you no? Children are necessary to carry on the family name or be promised into a life of prosperity to bring their parents wealth and power. They’re good for little else. Even if she is not with child now, think of the responsibility. How dreadful it would be.”

Cullen did as asked, contemplating a possible life with an actual wife and child. But the Bann miscalculated; Cullen saw nothing dreadful about it. Instead, the prospect filled him with hope. Though he never actually thought a family would be in his future, he’d always been open to the concept. Were he completely honest with himself, he adored the concept. But there were always duties, always a war to be won; it was neither possible nor feasible.

Cullen shifted from angry to enraged. His eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched. “That’s it, is it?” He scoffed, feeling like a caged animal wanting more than anything to strike. “You vastly underestimate my feelings for her. A child would not deter me... but you thought it would,” Cullen paused, the conversation filtering through his brain as the realization hit him stronger than a lightning bolt, “it’s why you started this rumor.” 

The Bann said nothing at the accusation but seemed displeased. The disappointment awarded Cullen a smug sense of satisfaction. “Good evening, Commander.”

“Try as you might,” petulant, yes, but Cullen was determined to have the last word, “I’ll not leave her. As long as she'll have me, nothing will change that.” Though he suspected the Trevelyans would accept that as a challenge.

Chapter Text

If Chrissie never saw green again, it would be too soon. A concept which proved particularly difficult considering her hand glowed with the wretched color. The Emerald Graves were a contradiction. Trees were as far as the eye could see stood tall amidst the pops of color from fruits and various flora adding almost a whimsical quality. Winding paths twisted around like those in a fairy story with serene ponds and slow flowing rivers adding to a calm atmosphere.

But with all the trees came roots. 

Protruding from the ground, they raised up and twined around the earth like claws. Though not normally a clumsy person, if there was a root anywhere to be found, she would undoubtedly trip over it. The Inquisitor, full of grace and finesse. Definitely not among her finer moments.

And insects. Lots of insects.

Maker, Chrissie had bites where she didn’t know it was possible to have bites. In places she wouldn’t dare scratch even in front of Bull or anyone else otherwise deemed impolite company. They itched and festered and she wanted nothing more than to claw the skin off her body to make it stop.

And giants.

Which she absolutely hated fighting. Not because they were so large that they towered over some of the smaller trees, but because if even a speck of giant blood splattered on armor or clothing, the stench reeked. Despite bathing habits and the amount of time scrubbing, it lingered. For days.

Then there was the heartbreaking reality that every tree served as a grave. Every. Single. Tree. The heavy realization was enough to strip the place of any beauty it may have possessed upon first glance.

But at least Chrissie found the red lyrium smugglers and their correspondence. Cullen would be pleased.

More than anything, she wanted to go home. To her Castle, to her quarters, to her copper tub and to her… well, to Cullen.

The lingering guilt from Killian’s memory had kept her in check. Chrissie had tried to deny she missed Cullen. The silly humming stayed with her, as did his stern contemplative expression with every move on a chess board.

She absently touched the side of her face hiding a smile. The thought of his oh-so-meticulous method of hanging his mantle precisely on the armor stand nearly forced a laugh, but it faded thinking on the exact smell of his hair, faintly earthy and hint of chestnut. She knew it came from the wax he used to style, but it too had become familiar, like home.

There would also be no admission over the accidental kiss to her neck. No admission that it did things to her, shocking her like lightning straight to her core. No, she would not admit that, ever. To anyone, for any reason.

Two letters awaited her when they returned to camp with the red lyrium smugglers in tow. After shipping the captives back to Skyhold with a complement of Cullen’s soldiers, Chrissie took a seat by the logs and lit the fire with a flick of her wrist. Unsealing the parchment, she ripped open the first letter.

Inquisitor,
Headed to the Western Approach.
Meet you there.
Warden Alistair & Marian Hawke.

Chrissie hissed a colorful expletive under her breath which would have even shocked Dorian, had he overheard. Maker, she wouldn’t be coming home. At least, not anytime soon. It was a colossal disappointment.

The second letter was opened with careful movements, not wanting to risk a tear in the parchment.

Sweetheart,
Skyhold is quiet, an oddity. It’s as if the entire keep holds its breath until you return —not unlike myself.
I remain occupied by my duties but my thoughts are with you.
Stay safe,
-Cullen
P.S. Would you care for a game? King's pawn to E4.

Running her hands across the parchment, she couldn’t prevent the wide smile. Her pack contained the quill and vellum she used to pen her response. Ignoring that despite her tired, hungry, and weary state, her first instinct was to write a reply. 

Dearest Cullen,
You're not concerned about a threat to your chess superiority? Perhaps you should be. Remember who won our last game? Pawn to E5.
I don’t know if you were informed before you composed your letter, but it will be some time before I am home. We will be leaving the Graves and heading straight for the Western Approach. Though, by the time this reaches you, I can only assume you already know. A Tevinter Ritual Tower, sounds interesting.
Anyway, please take care of yourself.
-Chrissie   

 

Over the course of a few weeks, letters were sent to and from Skyhold. Some were more personal in nature with references to the ruse, others were work related and as time allowed. The back and forth had been a welcome reprieve from Chrissie’s duties as she and Cullen discussed a number of topics.

Darling,
Pawn to F4. King's Gambit.
The soldiers arrived with the smugglers and the correspondence. Interrogating them should lead to a location on their main source of red lyrium. Though, I defer to Leliana for her expertise in such matters.
Fairbanks and his men are a welcome addition to Inquisition ranks.
We have the name of the red templar lieutenant who was dealing with Maliphant and the Freemen: Carroll. Do what is necessary to stop him, but for my sake, make it quick. I knew him once, a long time ago.
-Cullen

 

Dear Cully Wully,
Sera says you hate that, I think it’s cute.
Accepted. Pawn takes pawn.
Condolences over Carroll, it was swift and not prolonged. If that’s any comfort.
Have I ever mentioned to you how much I hate bears? Since I presume your mantle is made from bear fur, surely you share my feelings on the matter. Unless of course, you didn’t slay the beast you parade around in like a trophy. In which case, sort of gives it less meaning, taking a cheap way out and all.
We’ll be finishing up in the Graves soon and headed for the desert. Hopefully it’ll be better than the current conditions.
Speaking of, any knowledge of magical spells used to alleviate itching? I have insect bites innevermind. My point was, know of any remedies?
-Chrissie

 

Darling,
Mage to C4.
Maker, that name is worse than Curly. And though most things normally are, it isn’t better coming from you. Somehow, it’s worse.
Yes, the beast was slain, but it’s druffalo, not bear. It’s warm and practical, not a fashion statement.
I inquired with the healers, there are some salves which may help. The ingredients required are attached separately as well as instruction on proper preparation. Please exercise caution, I've grown accustomed to your witty correspondence. It would be a terrible shame if a simple brewing mishap ended it all. Carefulness would spare me long winded explanations.
-Cullen

 

Curly,
There, is that better? Now the nobles can contemplate some scandalous reason why you’re being dubbed Curly. I bet it will be wildly inappropriate.
Oh and Queen to H4. Check.
Was that humor I detected? Are you unwell?
I confiscated a book from Dorian today. Normally, I wouldn’t bother as most of his reading material pertains to Tevinter magicks and Magisters and so on. But apparently our love has inspired a number of fairy stories. The author is unknown, supposedly. Though, I’d wager my salary Leliana knows who it is.
As it turns out, we are always the main characters. Some are romantic. Others are… well, they’re very Orlesian, complete with graphic pictures of different suffice it to say they are very detailed regarding intimacy.
All right, it’s literature. Smutty literature. About us. It’s disturbing, but I hear Cassandra is a fan. Perhaps you can see where she obtains her copies?
We’re supposed to arrive at the approach in a number of days. The journey has been long and I miss home, miss you. Write more as time allows.
-Chrissie

 

Sweetheart,
An aggressive move: King to F1.
Thank you for that, it was bad enough Varric started it. I am not pleased to hear it among the gossip mongers.
When asked, Cassandra informed me it was ‘nothing to concern myself over.’ An answer that I found completely unacceptable. I have taken a number of anonymously posted and explicitly detailed drawings down in the barracks and ensured their destruction. Should I find the culprit, they’ll be on latrine duty for a month.
I also found the accounts and depictions overly exaggerated and in poor taste.
There’s a report that requires my attention. Next time, I’ll compose a longer letter.
-Cullen.

 

-Cull,
Pawn to B5.
So… you have read them then. Interesting. Did you learn anything new?
I should have known Cass wouldn’t give up her guilty pleasures. Although, considering the content, does she now blush at you during every conversation? I think Varric is upset he didn’t come up with the idea first. He was grumbling about the amount of coin the author must be ‘raking in.' You’d think he lost at our weekly Wicked Grace with his level of displeasure. I understand Josephine wants to join in for a hand one of these days. You should too. It would be fun.
You know what is not fun? The desert. It’s hot, sweltering and there’s sand everywhere. Everywhere! I had complained about the color green in the Graves, but now, it’s all brown as far as the eye can see.
-Chrissie

 

Dear,
All right. You have my curiosity. Mage takes Pawn.
When you return to Skyhold, at least the change in scenery should be pleasant.
The smugglers we interrogated gave up their primary source of red lyrium. It’s located in The Dales near a town called Sahrnia. Destroying the mine there will cripple Samson’s operations. It will be a loss Samson won’t soon forget.
I apologize for having to send you on another endeavor, but it benefits all. In the interim, I’ve sent soldiers to secure the area as best we can until you arrive.
Might I raise a question? How is it that you manage to keep the positions on the game board so precisely? I suspect carrying a game set to be impractical.
-Cullen

 

Darling,
Knight to F6.
I noticed you avoided my question on if you learned anything new within the stories. Most curious.
When you said you'd compose a longer letter next time, I should have assumed it would've been work related. Sahrnia will have to wait until after I deal with the Western Approach and return home. I appreciate the importance, but the Warden issue is also a priority.
The game is drawn on parchment so I can evaluate my options and best you.
-Chrissie

 

Chrissie,
Knight to F3.
Yes, the question was avoided because of its irrelevance. The location was informative for when time allows. Your return sooner, rather than later, will be a welcome sight in Skyhold.
-Cullen

 

Cull,
Queen to H6.
Alistair and Hawke say hello. We’ll be investigating the Ritual Tower tomorrow. Maker willing, things aren’t as bad as they seem.
Say a prayer for us.
-Chrissie.

 

Sweetheart,
Pawn to D3.
I always do.
Please keep me informed.
-Cull


Commander,
Knight to H5. Hah! All right, take some time. For a man so keen on strategy, you may want to re-evaluate your life choices.
In heavier, work related news: Blood Magic. The Warden mages bound themselves to demons and sacrificed the warriors. They were trying to prevent future blights and were manipulated. Hawke and Ali will be scouting to the west. There’s an old abandoned Warden fortress, Adamant. Within a few days, we should receive word of their findings. There is still much to do here.
-Inquisitor.

 

Christalyne,
Knight to H4
A dragon! You didn’t think to inform me of this matter? You allowed the news to reach Skyhold before sending direct word of your safety? Were you adequately prepared? Have enough healing draughts at the ready? I don't appreciate being left in the dark on matters regarding your welfare.
-Cullen.

 

Cullen,
Calm yourself, Commander. I can practically hear your lecture popping off the parchment. I know when anyone starts anything using my full first name what will follow. I didn’t mean to worry you, but you tend to, well, worry. So yes, I may have neglected to mention it, but you slept better, didn’t you? You’re welcome.
Iron Bull was happy about the dragon. Why can't you be too?
Queen to G5. So, are you giving up the mage at B5 or the knight at H4?
-Chrissie

 

Christalyne,
Neither. Knight to F5.
-Cullen

 

Cullen
Pawn to C6. Left your mage unattended. How very un-Templar like of you.
-Chrissie

 

Christalyne,
And you, your Knight. Pawn to G4.
I was a Templar. I no longer serve the Order's (or the Chantry's) interests.
-Cullen

 

Love,
Clearly, you’re pissed. Even with minimal words, you are able to fully express the extent of your rage across long distances. Impressive.
Knight to F6.
The altercation with the dragon only left a minor burn. You should be proud.
However! I have a gift for you. Consider it an apology instead of begging for your forgiveness. We’ve acquired a keep Griffon Wing. All yours for use for the Soldiers. We’ll be here a week to ensure everything is prepared. See, I always have your best interests at heart.
-From your favoritest mage ever. (Alistair recommended I use that for when you’re super angry. Did it work?)

 

Christalyne,
A burn? How severe? Where? No, it most certainly does not make me feel better.
Tower to G1.
-Cullen

 

Cullen Stanton Rutherford,
See, how do you feel being scolded? Not very nice, is it? I too can use a full name to portray my disapproval. Seriously, you can’t stay mad at me forever. Er, well maybe you can.
It was a bit of dragon’s fire breath to the side. Dorian said something like 20% of my body was burned initially, but between the healing draughts which yes, I had more than enough ofand his magical healing, you can’t even tell. Dorian said not to worry, I’ll still have a pretty face when we marry.
Your game is slipping. Pawn takes your Mage.
-Christalyne Trevelyan

 
Christalyne,
Pawn to H4
My concern is not limited to your appearance. I should not need to explain this to you, and why am I only hearing about this injury now? This justifies my worry.
-Cullen

 

Darling,
Queen to G6.
Still with the first name. As if a keep wasn’t a fantastic let me make it up to yougift! Dorian owes me 5 gold over that wager. He thought you’d go for it. I knew better. Isn’t it grand that we’ve come to know one another so well I can earn coin on your predictability? You my dear, are as reliable as ever.
Again, there was no need to worry. Your current reaction is why you were not informed. I am fine, clearly well enough for you to lecture me. Be thankful, Commander. It could have been worse.
-Chrissie.

 

Chrissie,
Pawn to H5. Careful.
That’s not a comfort.
-Cullen

 

Dear,
You're the one who lost his Mage. Queen to G5.
Well at least we’re back to normal informal address.
-Chrissie

 

Chrissie,
Queen to F3.
-C

 

Cull,
Oh, clever. Almost trapped my Queen. Knight to G8.
Look! I can brood like you.
-Chrissie

 

Chrissie,
Mage takes Pawn, threatens Queen.
I do not brood.
-C

 

Cullen,
Queen to F6.
You absolutely do. Rylen and the men arrived today. It’s the first chance I’ve had to speak with him at length. Is he always so… blunt?
-Chrissie

 

Chrissie,
Knight to C3. You've developed nothing but your Queen.
Yes.
-C

 

Cullen,
Don't get cocky, you're still one mage down. Mage to C5.
I’ve secured a water supply for Griffon Wing, cleared out vargheists, immolated a pack of bandits, and observed a number of training sessions among your ranking officers. We’ll require forces to build a path to avoid the sulfur pits and get to the root of the Darkspawn problems. Unless of course, you want me to charge in blind. I can only imagine how displeased you’d be if I contracted the taint, seeing how upset you were over a dragon. Oh and by the way, since you loved the idea so much, some men collected the head. It should be on display in Skyhold as a trophy. Like your mighty druffalo slaying. The sooner the bridge is up, the sooner I can come home.
-Chrissie.

 

Darling,
After careful consideration: Knight to D5.
The men will have the bridge up in short order.
-Cullen.

 

Cull,
Queen takes Pawn at B2.
That changed your tune, did it? Don’t think I didn’t notice the endearment. Welcome back, I missed you. Next time, stop being so stubborn and we can have more nice conversations.
-Chrissie.

 

Dear,
Mage to D6.
We can still discuss matters despite concern.
-Cullen

 

Love,
Queen takes Tower. Check. What are you doing, Cullen?
No, we cannot when you only reply with curt phrases. Not even complete sentences sometimes! Do be careful, your decorum is showing again.
-Chrissie.

 

Darling,
King to E2.
Would you have me compose a lengthy sonnet with each reply?
-Cullen

 

Dear,
All right, Mage takes Tower. Your last Tower, by the way.
That would amuse me to no end, actually. I would gladly spend the entirety of the Inquisition’s resources on a sonnet written by your hand. I don’t think anybody would even question my actions. Seriously, if that was an option and you are skilled in the art of poetry, why am I just now being informed?
-Chrissie

 

Darling,
Pawn to E5.
It was a jest. Since we are being ridiculous, why not a song in your name?
That was a joke do not ask for a song in your name.
You want a song in your name.
-Cull

 

Cull,
Really. I've got my whole army bearing down on your King, and you're moving a Pawn? Are you even trying anymore?
I swear I heard the sigh you made as you wrote your last letter.
But yes, I would love a song in my name.
You are the sweetest!
-Chrissie

 

Darling,
Think about it, love.
No. Should you desire a song, discuss it with Maryden. I've other duties to attend. We'll speak of this later.
-Cullen

 

Cullen,
All right, I've thought about it. Ready to finish this? Knight to A6.
And what could possibly be more important matter than our eternal love?
I know! Styling your hair, right? Am I right? And before you even begin to answer, we both know it doesn't get that way on it's own.
Oh, Varric and I came up with a new nickname for you. Sullen-Cullen. Personally, I think it's as cute as Curly! Consider it a term of endearment.
-Chrissie

 

Chrissie,
Knight takes Pawn at G7. Check.
Not entirely.
No. The answer is no. That wasn't agreed upon.
-Cullen
P.S. I am not cute.

 

Sully Cully,
King to D8.
You're doing that thing again where your sentences get shorter.
Ah, you know you look pretty!
-Chrissie

 

Darling,
Queen to F6, Check.
Commanders do not look pretty. It's battle, war, not a bloody Orlesian ball.
-Cullen

 

Cullen,
My Knight takes your Queen. You've no remaining Towers. You're down to a single Mage. Too bad you wasted time moving that Pawn to…
You sneaky… Ugh. There's a reason you're the Commander and military strategist and I do all the grunt work. I suppose after figuring out your trap, I could have fibbed and changed my mind, but I, unlike Dorian, do not cheat.
Battle can be like dancing, just with different steps. I’m sure you’d excel at it.
It seems luck favored you today. I'll be home tomorrow.
-Chrissie

 

Darling,
Mage to E7. Checkmate. You'd have only delayed the inevitable.
I’m not one for dancing. Templars never attended balls.
So it has.
-Cullen

Chapter Text

Tomorrow. Chrissie would finally be home, tomorrow.

She’d been gone for an eternity or so it seemed. In truth, it wasn’t anywhere near as long as it felt. Cullen knew exactly the number of days and hoursshe’d been away, not that he had kept track or anything.

The acquisition of Griffon Wing keep did prove as a welcome reprieve from the standard worry. Allocating troops to the area and ensuring the issues were resolved with the vargheist pests to secure the water supply had taken up most of his time. As did a handful of meals with the Trevelyans. Since accusing the Bann, they’d said little of it. Opting not to confirm nor deny the accusation, seemingly content to pretend it never happened. Most of their interactions had even been shockingly pleasant. Too pleasant. And it set him on edge. He contemplated if it was a measured tactic, to provide a false sense of assurance in an attempt to lower his guard. Just in case, Cullen remained vigilant. However, it was also possible they finally heard his declaration, loud and clear.

“I’ll not leave her. As long as she'll have me, nothing will change that.”

He said and meant those words. Giving them the same ferocious ring of Command he used on his soldiers. Only time would prove if they held as much weight as intended.

The nights had been harder. Chrissie’s absence hadn’t triggered his withdrawal symptoms or made his memories more vivid. He always had them, he always would. However, without her voice to ground him with soothing words and gentle reassurances, he’d had to manage on his own. Coming back to grips with reality far longer than what it would have taken with her present.

Often, the highlight of his day was receiving her correspondence. Cullen wondered if she’d missed him as much as he had her. Or perhaps, that was wishful thinking. The letters were both a source of stress and a sense of comfort. As much as he enjoyed hearing of her endeavors, at least the ones not pertaining to dragon burns, and he found himself curious not for the first timehow much of the content was on account of the ruse.

Cullen had left war council moments ago after delivering a two-hour presentation regarding the most effective strategy to march on Adamant Fortress for the Ambassador and Spymaster. A report which would be represented after Chrissie’s arrival though condensed considerably. 

Casual strides led him to his office. He didn’t want to return to their empty quarters only to be reminded Chrissie wasn’t home. If she knew he’d spent so little time sleeping, she probably would have given him a proper lecture equally rivaling one of his own. But working passed the time and preoccupied his mind, so that’s what he did.

Flickering flames from the lit candelabra in the corner illuminated a small portion of the room. The moonlight streaming through the arrowslit drew attention to the stacks of missives on his desk. Deeming visibility sufficient, Cullen took his seat and began sorting the newly delivered by priority.

Movement by the ladder to his loft caused him to still and refocus. Reflexively, he grabbed the hilt of his sword. “Announce yourself.” Eyes narrowing, he stiffened, prepared for anything which may come. Anything, except for what he saw. 

A woman’s silhouette emerged from her hiding place. Sauntering forward, she approached the desk. It was only as the shadows diminished did Cullen realize the woman wasn’t wearing clothes. None at all. The soft light fell upon pale skin nearly shimmering despite the darkness. Waist long black hair draped, framing her face. Deep purple eyes peered at him through long lashes and her finger rested seductively against blood red lips. Slightly curvy in all the appropriate places, her other hand was placed firmly against her hip. 

“Hello, Commander.” She purred.

Cullen didn’t know her name, couldn’t recall ever having seen her before. She was a beautiful sort and pleasantly attractive, but he held no interest whatsoever. The woman seemed to beckon him forward. For a moment, he sat, utterly shocked until his brain caught up the situation.

Had she not just used his title, Cullen would have been positive she was in the wrong room. “Sweet Maker, cover yourself.” Picking up a clipboard haphazardly strewn across his desk, he used it to shield his eyes.

A wicked grin spread slowly across her lips, and she pushed her hair over her shoulder. "I am as the Maker made me, with no shame."

Cullen could stare down a foe, smite them in battle, and handle blood mage rituals with practiced strategy. There was, however, no response at all he could formulate to that. Instead, he took a wide path around the woman, hastily ascending the stairs using every other rung. Taking spare bed linen from his chest, he returned down to his office, tossing the cloth at the woman. “Cover yourself.” He repeated, the inflection of command unmistakable.

Ignoring the linen that fell to the floor at her feet, a quirked eyebrow indicated her amusement. 

Whereas Cullen was not remotely entertained. Whoever this woman was, he needed her out of his office. Once she was clothed, other soldiers, not himself, could interrogate and determine the purpose of this, whatever this was.

Cullen peered out the eastern entry and called a nearby guard ordering the soldiers immediate response and demanded the indecent woman detained and interrogated. There was nothing he could do but wait and avert his eyes until back up arrived. He was not about to try to touch her in any manner. The gossips would have a field day were a rumor to circulate. If he made any move at all, he was certain it would be misconstrued. Perhaps, that was the point.

The western door thundered open, the light streamed in illuminating Cullen, his office, and the naked woman present. He turned to reprimand the scout for their intrusion but found Chrissie staring at him. The smile on her lips fell into a frown and Cullen saw the change in her expression, speculating what thoughts must have churned in her mind as her gaze shifted between him, the woman, and the cloth gathered in a heap on the floor.

Chapter Text

Chrissie had been excited to see Cullen. Wanted to surprise him with her early return, it was why she’d instructed the guards at the gate to refrain from announcing her arrival. The entire party consented to forgo sleep and press on, finding their beds preferable to a bedroll on hard ground and unpredictable weather, despite a tent.

Yet, of all the ways she thought this exchange was going to go seeing Cullen for the first time in a long whilestaring between him and a naked woman hadn’t ever crossed her mind.

“InquiChrissie. You weren't expected until tomorrow.”

“Plans change.” Chrissie motioned towards the naked woman. “Who is she, Commander?” Jealousy flourished through her chest. Fists clenched, she tried to maintain composure with slow even breaths.

“I discovered the intruder. I know little else other than this was neither requested nor is it accepted.” Cullen explained, unwavering and meeting her eyes.

“Come now, Commander. The night is young, she can join us if she wants, I don't mind.” The woman taunted, running her fingers down her bare skin as if to signify the open invitation.

“Join you?” Chrissie questioned, quirking an eyebrow and tilting her head to the side. A disgusted noise to rival Cassandra's escaped before it could be stifled. This woman had a lot of nerve. Lucky for her, Chrissie was a reasonable, level headed sort, usually. Preferring to ask first and attack later instead of the opposite. Though, the thought of violence had crossed her mind once or twice in the last few seconds. To say otherwise would be an outright lie.

“Enough.” Cullen held his hand out to silence the woman as she began to speak. “Nothing occurred nor will it.”

Ignoring Cullen's command, the woman merely laughed. “You’ll have to excuse the lack of introduction.” The woman casually pushed some of the papers on his desk aside and slid on, stark naked atop the surface.

An action which set Chrissie's blood to a boil, burning with jealousy.

"You must be the Inquisitor, yes? Do forgive him," she teased with a glance at Cullen, "he forgets his manners amidst passion. My name is Hera, Cullen's courtesan."

“I said enough!” Cullen roared. He stopped in his tracks, turning towards her before shielding his eyes. “My what!”

“Oh. Cullen’s courtesan?” Chrissie nodded. “Right. So, you and Cullen are… involved?  Out of curiosity, how much were you paid for your services?”

“That is not what happened here.” Cullen’s voice boomed, filling the space within the tower. Clearly agitated as he pinched the bridge of his nose. “As if I needed coin to fill my bed.” He shook his head and began pacing, keeping his eyes fixated on the ground, looking at neither woman in his presence.

The words hurt, stinging like a wound exacerbated by the cold. However, they were true. Cullen was nothing to scoff at in title or appearance. Handsome, respected, commanding: all traits which would lure in any number of women. Had lured many women. Orlesians offered him boons for his favor as indicated by the marriage proposals he still received and burned frequently.

“At this point, given his skill level, my services are free. Our relationship has been ongoing for so long, it’s of mutual benefit.” Hera explained, turning her attention towards Cullen. “Isn’t that right, darling?”

“No,” Cullen stood firm in his protest, “we have never been acquainted in any manner.”

Keeping her attention on Hera, Chrissie glared. “But you're telling me, you and Cullen have had an ongoing dalliance?”

“No, we have not.”

“Of course we have.” Hera insisted.

It took every ounce of willpower Chrissie could muster not to plow forth and grab the little bitch by the hair on her head but she refrained. As Inquisitor such displays were beneath her, especially over a man. Though, if staring at the woman were to cause her to spontaneously combust, well, no skin off her teeth.

“Inquisitor,” Cullen announced, lacing his tone with the professional decorum and resulting disconnect Chrissie had come to despise. “This is madness. Clearly, I do nothing but entertain every harlot and courtesan who happens upon our stronghold. I’ve apparently become exceptional at hiding them thus far.”

“Do not play me for a fool.” Chrissie crossed her arms, tapping her foot expectantly. “If you’d ever met the Commander before, you would know who your client is.”

The laughter that tore from Chrissie’s throat elicited strange looks from the two in attendance. Like she had perhaps gone mad. “Cullen could have his choice of any woman he wished. Have you looked at him?” She waved her hand next to Cullen as if she were showing a display of goods at a merchant's cart. “He’s gorgeous! Maker's breath, he's more attractive than the actual prince I know!"

Cullen opened his mouth to speak but closed it; his teeth clacked.

“I am aware of his... finer qualities.” Hera purred.

“But even so,” Chrissie continued, ignoring the woman, “he is my betrothed and wouldn’t do this to me. Not even for someone like you. Whatever your game, it didn’t work.”

“You’re not angry?” Cullen questioned, seemingly stunned by her words.

“Not at you.” Placing a light touch to his bracer, it seemed to grant Cullen relief. “But it would be best for all involved if I did not see this woman again.”

“Oooh, aggressive!” Hera winked. “I like that.”

Soldiers hurried through the eastern door stopping abruptly at the sight of the naked woman splayed on the Commander's desk. “Ser?”

“Escort this woman to the dungeons and inform the Spymaster her skills in the art of interrogation are required. I'll debrief her on the situation, personally.” Cullen ordered. “And for Maker's sake, ensure acceptable attire is provided.”

“Yes, Commander!” The soldier saluted.

Chrissie chimed in. “Have a servant requested to thoroughly clean the Commander’s desk as soon as possible. If for no other reason than to eradicate the stench, though more likely, the Commander may contract something unseemly without.” The insult was petty and borderline childish, but oh-so-gratifying.

Cullen snorted, likely at the absurdity of the situation but her gratification increased as a result.

“Yes, Inquisitor, right away.”

“We will speak of this later?” Cullen asked Chrissie.

“Absolutely, Commander.” 

Hera smiled and provided a subtle wave as the soldiers tried to figure out how to apprehend the woman before Cullen tossed the sheet in their direction. Chrissie closed the door behind her and slipped out. She hurried down the steps, her mind racing, all the while she resisted the urge to turn around and drag that wretched bitch from Cullen’s office, soldiers or no.

It wasn't like she had a place to feel so bitter anyway. She and Cullen weren’t real. As she told herself, how many times now? Why hadn't she listened? The jealousy lingering in her chest was unfounded and inappropriate. Especially when she continually checked herself because of Killian and Cullen hadn't done anything wrong. Yet, the feelings festered as she made her way to the tavern.

Standing at the door to the Herald’s Rest, her hand hovered over the latch. “ You handled that well,” she said in reassurance to herself before entering, “completely sober too.” Even before she could step inside, hands raised in greeting.

The tavern was warm and welcoming. The crackle of the fire roared among the quiet and calm atmosphere. Mellow, even for a weekday, she thought. Sliding onto the stool, she paid little attention to those around. When a strong presence invaded her space she nearly jumped.

“Hey. Easy Boss.”

It’s Bull, she scolded herself, nodding instead of answering him.

“Come on, you need a drink.”

Was her anger blatantly obvious by her face alone? Even if it wasn’t, Bull likely would have noticed, being a spy and all.

“You've no idea.” Chrissie murmured as Bull led her up the stairs to a table where Dorian and Varric sat, tankards in hand.

“Lovely to see you, dear.” Dorian greeted with a wide smile. “Is the Commander gracing us with his presence as well?” Dorian took a drink and Chrissie situated herself in the seat next to Varric.

“Nope, he has mistress issues to tend to.”

Dorian began to laugh despite his mouth being full, coughing to clear his airway. “You are lucky I'm not one to spit like an inexperienced strumpet, or else you may have found yourself bathing in swill after that remark.”

Varric chuckled. “I'm sorry, come again? It sounded like you just said Curly has mistress issues.”

Chrissie smiled in spite of herself. “Yeah, I didn’t believe it either, and I walked in on it.”

“She still breathing, Boss?”

A tankard was placed in front of her and she gulped it, feeling the intense burn down her throat and settling to her stomach. “For now.” She mused, coughing. “What in the void is this?”

“Put some chest on your chest, Boss. Drink up, we’re celebrating! To killing a high dragon like warriors of legend!”

Thrusting their mugs into the middle, they clanged off each other in ‘cheers’.

“Now, do share all the sordid details.” Dorian declared, smoothing his mustache.

Chrissie rolled her eyes. “Came home, went to say hello. Opened the door to find Cullen, fully clothed standing near a naked woman.” She shrugged. “What else is there to say?”

“What isn’t there to say?” Varric announced. “The storyteller needs clear descriptions.”

Dorian complained about his drink, swirling it in the tankard before asking. “Well, was he tempted by this mysterious temptress?”

“It’s Cullen. What do you think?” Chrissie looked at Dorian with a quirked brow and a smirk.

“Nah, Curly wouldn’t.” Varric agreed.

“But if ever there’s a guy who needs his cork popped, it’s him.” Bull gulped the alcohol until his cup was empty, announcing his drinking skill by clinging the glass against the wooden table.

Bull’s words struck a chord for Chrissie and she sat in contemplation. Cullen did the work of ten people, perhaps he would desire a reprieve of sorts.

A resounding belch proceeded Bull’s comments. “But you have to wonder why. So far, all efforts have to been to get Cullen to leave you.”

“But walking in on your betrothed and a mistress. For most normal people, it would be enough to cause a spat heard all the way in my homeland. A lover’s quarrel of violence and tragedy. They’d sing tales of the scandal in Tevinter.” Dorian explained.

“Sabotage.” Varric took a swig. “Someone wants you to leave Curly and since he refuses to leave you...”

“Refuses?”

“Said he wouldn’t abandon you, for as long as you would have him.” Varric shrugged, feigning innocence. “The doors to the rotunda are not as thick as you all think they are.”

Chrissie scrunched her nose, the smell of the alcohol permeating her nostrils and making her eyes water. So professional, she thought. “Why?”

“Well, that my dear, is the question of the age,” Dorian announced before sauntering to the bar.

She wasn’t certain which question Dorian was referring to. In truth, Chrissie was afraid of the possible answers to either, opting not to get clarification.

Chapter Text

A knock came at the door to their quarters as Cullen descended the steps to open it.

“It’s my quarters too.” He heard Chrissie's slurred speech through the door.  

Swinging the heavy wood open, Cullen noticed Alistair holding onto Chrissie steadily. “Somebody’s been drinking!” He announced jovially. “Hawke and I just arrived, found this one in the tavern. Voila Commander, your Inquisitor is thoroughly sloshed!”

“She’s your Inquisitor too.” Cullen crossed his arms.

“Ah, ha, well, yes, but she isn’t my betrothed.” He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

“I don’t need a keeper.” Chrissie attempted to walk up the step, tripping on the first one. Falling forward, she caught herself and began a fit of laughter at her own expense.

Cullen looked at Alistair who mouthed ‘yes she does’ before as he turned away, smiling. “Well, I’ll leave you lovebirds to it.” He called over his shoulder as he shut the door.

A sigh escaped Cullen. After the very long albeit confusingday he’d had, there was no desire to play nursemaid to Chrissie. Although, even he couldn’t deny it would prove to be amusing in some aspects. “Not the wisest course of action," he scolded. Following behind, he prepared himself by steading his hands, ready to catch her should she fall backwards as she swayed up the stairs.

“Bullllllllll. S’its his fault. T’was the meras look.” She shook her head, as if the words didn’t sound correct. “The moros lack… maeris like…?” Eventually, she gave up waving it off. “Strong drink.”

Cullen stifled a chuckle. Must have been a very strong drink, he thought but didn’t say. He had never known Chrissie to be one to consume alcohol too often and when she did, it certainly wasn’t anything excessive, much like himself.

At the top of the landing, she used the wall to stand upright. “I meant to talk to you. There’s much to discussssss.” The hiss at the end of her words caused Cullen to clear his throat to cover his snort. 

“The courtesan. Lel said Hera didn’t know who hired her.”

“If she’s innocent, she knows nothing,” Cullen admitted with a sigh.

“Apparently she was paid well, anonymously, with instruction to ensure it appeared you two were or had been together for some time. That is, if her seduction attempt was unsuccessful.”

“Which it was.” Cullen had to hand it to Chrissie, it looked bad. For him, for their ruse, it would have made sense for her to be furious. Yet, she handled it with relative calm and did not direct any anger towards him. She assumed from the beginning he was telling the truth and allowed him the benefit of doubt.

In his own fury, he had been a bit harsh, stating things he normally would not have. Though, Chrissie said he was gorgeous more handsome than Alistair and looked like a prince. Cullen wasn’t certain what he thought about it, but the flutter in his chest and the flush of his cheeks betrayed him, indicating what he felt at the time. Thank the Maker he kept his office dark.

“Hera was here to perform a service, with no service to perform and no reason to keep her, I let her go. With a warning, of course, that it would be best should she never darken my doorstep again. Anyone who knows you knew otherwise than to believe her rubbish. The Commander, ever the gentleman.”

Cullen smiled to himself over the compliment. He tried but wasn’t always successful. A part of him loved that she noticed. Another portion reminded himself he still had much to atone for and could always strive to do better.

“Which reminds me, do you think about women, CommCull?” Whether she corrected herself on purpose or simply couldn’t make out his title, Cullen couldn’t be certain.

But how in the Void did one answer that? Only you, he thought.

“Of course you do,” Chrissie responded for him. “You mentioned before, our ruse hinders the ability to pursue romantic interests. You’re too shhhivalreschivalrous,” she sounded out, “to accept the courtesans offer. But if you’ve need, it’s only right since by taking up this time with me, you cannot pursue someone who may actually be worthy of you.”

Cullen tilted his head, positive she could not be serious. Though other than the symptoms of her drunkenness, she appeared sincere in her ridiculous offer. “Pardon?”

“A woman Cullllllll,” Chrissie extended the L too long, “to fill your bed, as you put it earlier. Would you like one?”

“A proposition?” He gaped before shaking his head and held up a hand to stop any argument. “No, it’s unnecessary.”

“Are you certain?” She questioned, incredulous. “I know there are rules to the ruse, but you’ve already done so much on my behalf. Someone in Kirkwall perhaps? I can arrange...”

She would arrange...? Cullen wasn’t certain what offended him more. That she would even think he would accept such an offer or her indifference on the matter. “I’ve no desire to

“No one special caught your interest, Commmmmmmmmander?” Chrissie turned to him, throwing her arms around his neck, laughing into the fur of his mantle.

Cullen looked down at her. The slight blush tinting her ivory cheeks, the close proximity, her long hair tickling his armorless arms as he stood feeling nearly naked and vulnerable in his cotton shit. It was enough to drive him insane. He couldn’t discern if she was being flirtatious or just holding onto him for balance but it was doing things to him and he needed to step away. But he remained still, frozen within the forcefield of her presence. Even under the circumstances, he couldn’t outright lie to her. “Not in Kirkwall.”

The unspoken seemed to register as her laughing ceased. Her eyes met his, bright and blue as the Waking Sea, the depths bore into him at his not entirely completehonesty.

“Have you ever thought…?” She leaned towards him, standing on her tiptoes as if to close the distance, never finishing her question. The smell of her hair faintly sweet wafted as she moved. To his shame, he considered kissing her for a single second, but remembered her state. No, were anything to ever happen, it would not be like this. It would not be because he took advantage. As often as he longed for the moment where she looked at him as if he were the only person in Thedas, he took a step back separating the space between them. “I cannot.”

Visibly swallowing, she averted her eyes. Turned and plopping on the bed, she continued as if a kiss hadn’t almost happened. “No one caught your interest in Kirkwall, but was there someone in Ferelden?”

“There was once, but it hardly matters.” Cullen sat on the sofa, relaxing against the back, the cushion relieving his sore muscles.

“Who was it? Would I be familiar with them?”

“I’ve heard she and Warden Alistair grew quite close once.”

“Neria. You knew her?” Chrissie asked.

Cullen thought back to the dainty little elf, her pointy ears poking through a mess of blonde hair with black streaks, secured into a braid by her forehead. Teal eyes peering through long lashes as she’d casually wave anytime she passed by his post down the hall from Irving’s office. She was the brief spot of light amidst the darkness, but the demons manipulated that, preying upon his feelings for the woman, twisting and using them against him. He shuddered at the thought but tried to hide it, having no idea if he was successful. “I attended her harrowing actually, she was a lovely woman.”

“Lovely?”

“There was some youthful infatuation on my part.” He confessed. “I found her... compelling.”

“Compelling… huh?” Chrissie made a face as if repeating his words left a foul taste in her mouth. “Everyone loved her, it seemed. Hopefully when the worst happens, they’ll tell tales of my positive influence. Though, I suppose I’ll never know.”

“What do you mean?” He asked, certain she wasn’t alluding to what he thought she may have been. 

“I mean, I’ll probably be dead by the time our work is done.” 

It was said so simply, so casually, despite her slurring, it was clear this was not a new revelation, but one she had come to terms with. An acceptable outcome.

“You can't be serious!” Cullen raised his voice, unintentionally allowing his disbelief and anger to seep through his tone.

An expression of guilt crossed her features. “Why do you think the ruse isn't a big deal? You’ll never have to actually marry me. I probably won't even be here by the time the war is over to stage our break up.”

Cullen moved to the bed next to Chrissie. “Acting like a martyr doesn’t help matters.”

“I'm not being a martyr, just realistic.” A subtle nod indicated her belief in her words. “Practical. How long do you think it'll be before my ‘divine luck’ runs out? We face assassins, demons, red templars, dark spawn, magisters, darkspawn magisters…to name a few.”

“Nothing will happen, I gave you my word.”

“To protect our people and your word is worth its weight, but you can't guarantee my safety, Cullen. You know that.”

“It does not mean you won’t see us through!” He snapped, immediately regretting his harshness. There was a truth in her words he could not ignore. “There are who care for you and won’t allow it.”

“I appreciate your concern, but you cannot always be around. Your duties keep you here.”

She said it as if he could possibly concur with the frivolous opinion she was condemned to die. No, were there anyone on the face of Thedas who could muster the sheer fortitude to stay alive despite the odds, it was her. But she was correct; he could not always be there to protect her. No matter how much he may wish to. “Promise me something.”

“What's that?” She fidgeted with her hands, clearly nervous about what he may request.

“Should you find yourself in a predicament…” Cullen huffed, finding it harder than normal to formulate the appropriate words for the level of emotion he wanted to convey. “Return home: to me, Skyhold, your family.”

Chrissie scoffed. “What family? You've met my parents.”

You have me; he almost, wanted to, but didn’t say. “I'm not referring to the Trevelyans.” He reached to place a hand on her shoulder and pulled back hesitantly before convincing himself the added touch was necessary. “Promise me.”

“Cullen…”

“Promise,” he ordered, as if he had place to delegate to the Inquisitor. Or to Chrissie at all, for that matter.

“I do.”

She neither said she promised nor indicated what she was agreeing too. An unacceptable response. It was selfish to be sure. Knowing he had no right to ask, to demand such a request. He didn’t care. To lose her now, after their efforts for the Inquisition, what they’d endured together, would be devastating. No, right now, he needed her word more than he needed to breathe. Casting a pointed look, her eyes met his. “Do not force me to ask again.”

“I promise, I will do whatever necessary to try to make it back to you and our home.”

Our home. It was a placation, he knew. But her words held merit and though demanded, he at least felt better. Especially when she smiled at him so sweetly, providing false reassurance. She’d given him exactly what he needed to hear, as she always had. Cullen was an honest man, even if he may not always tell the entire truth, he knew Chrissie was the same. She would not have promised anything she would not try to keep.

Resting his back against the wall, he wrapped his arms around her, hugging in an un-vocalized ‘thank you’. She snuggled against him, the cotton of his shirt the only material separating her body heat from his own. Cullen held her for as long as she would allow, completely content in the moment. It became slightly uncomfortable sitting still for such a duration, though he hardly minded until her laughably loud snoring pulled him from his swirling thoughts of the upcoming march on Adamant. With a chuckle, he maneuvered her to her side of the bed and tucked her in. If only to protect her or so he convinced himselfhe grabbed a separate blanket, and slept next to her throughout the night.

For the first time, even after the ruse began, they simultaneously shared the giant Orlesian bed.

Chapter Text

With a stretch and a yawn, Chrissie blinked open bleary eyes. Nuzzling against the warmth her bed provided, she reached across the sheets, pulling the blankets up to her shoulders. War council hadn't been announced, the scouts had yet to deliver the daily missives. She had no idea what time it was but with the throbbing in her head, she feared the full force of the sun to risk looking.

Shifting, she groaned at the mere concept of being awake. Mornings were not her favorite. In fact, she’d often agreed with Dorian on the matter: one should not be required to muster the will to be awake before noon. As her awareness increased, she suddenly stilled at the heavy arm draped across her midsection. Her line of sight followed the limb to Cullen, who had apparently lain and slept beside her during the night. His face was smashed against the pillow, mouth agape and snoring quietly. The normally properly tamed golden locks were strewn about in unruly curls. All in all, an endearing picture and one she could hardly believe was associated with the buttoned-up Commander of the Inquisition.

Since when had he begun sleeping in the bed with her? Not that she minded, of course. It had been an open invitation since the first night but she found it odd he would suddenly decide to start. Or perhaps he had always slept in the bed and she failed to take notice given her own atrocious sleep habits. Either way, a sense of comfort settled over her, knowing the man self-proclaimed as her protector had indeed stood guard or well, slept guardin close proximity.

Chrissie laid there, facing him, unable to avert her eyes. Neither wanting to disturb him, since he often slept so little and fitfully, nor draw his attention to his arm keeping her securely in place, it was best to leave him be. She was content to return to the Fade herself in hopes for some pleasantness instead of the normal nightmares.

“Mmm.” Cullen murmured something indiscernible. He’d often spoken in his sleep, she’d heard it before as she tended to him, so she paid it little mind. “Lovely,” he said, as he shifted slightly, burying his face in her hair while still dreaming.

Jealousy spread in an instant as she remembered how Cullen had described Neria. They’d spoken at length of her last night; it could have easily carried over into his dream. To be angry over a man dreaming of another woman as he platonically slept in the same bed was petty and ridiculous. Why did she even care? Yet, it bothered her much more than she would ever admit. There was nothing between them, he’d even ensured they hadn’t shared the same blankets. If that didn’t prove the point, what else would? Last night, could she have been any more daft? To think, in her drunkenness, she had used the liquid courage and made a move on a man who clearly had feelings for another woman. The identity of whom didn’t matter, Hero of Ferelden or not.

No wonder he had rejected her advance. She’d pretended it hadn’t hurt, changing the topic and ignoring it as though it hadn’t happened, but now it was suddenly quite clear she had read the situation wrong and everyone else who said otherwise had too. In her drunken stupor, she had put to the back of her mind every reason Killian wouldn’t have approved, had been willing to separate herself from the restraints which prevented her from speaking of her blossoming feelings, if only for the moment. Especially after discussing the matter with Alistair in the tavern before she returned to her room. He had told her she should try to move forward, to allow herself to see where she and Cullen could go. Now, Chrissie was relieved she hadn’t proclaimed any feelings, as confusing as they were, in a declaration of truth but devoid of wit and had only tried to kiss him.

Chrissie could not allow these subtle gestures to continue, not when they weren’t intended for her. When she grabbed his hand, his eyes flew open. Though he showed no indication of pain, he did appear surprised, as if he realized he was no longer dreaming.

Now free, she sat up abruptly and Cullen did the same, hastily swiping the sleep from his eyes. Chrissie darted out of bed faster than an arrow, and made her way to the garderobe with a clean change of clothes. The door closed with a subtle click and she leaned her back against it. Sinking to the floor, she wondered how she could have been so foolish. With her sensibilities back to normal, she remembered every reason why crossing such a line would have been a horrendous idea. Not only would it interfere with the Inquisition and their duties, but it would be disrespectful to Killian for several reasons. Thank the Maker she didn’t do something she would have regretted.

 

Bathed and dressed, Chrissie emerged from the garderobe with a newfound confidence after giving herself a pep talk. First on the agenda: issuing an apology to Cullen for her wildly inappropriate behavior last night and assuring him such actions would not happen again.

Cullen sat at the desk, fully immersed in paperwork despite remaining in casual attire, squinting as if he strained to read the report. She’d forgotten he bathed in the mornings and had taken up his normal allotted garderobe time. Another reason to feel guilty and apologize, it seemed. “Cullen.”

He diverted his attention from his missives, standing abruptly upon realizing her presence. Nervously, his hand flew to the back of his neck and he rubbed incessantly.

She could tell he’d wanted to say something, but blurted her apology without allowing him the chance to speak. She hoped that by doing so, despite her embarrassment, it would be less awkward and they could move past it. “Please accept my apologies for my inappropriate behavior last night and I assure you, it’ll never happen again.”

An altogether fancy way of saying, I am sorry I almost kissed you and made unwanted advances against your person.

“Oh, I uh.” Cullen cleared his throat. “It’s all right. I should apologize as well, this morning...”

“It’s all right,” she interjected without allowing him to finish, “truly. There’s no need for further discussion.”

Cullen's furrowed brow indicated confusion but also relief as his shoulders visibly unstiffened.

Chrissie nodded curtly, appreciating that he’d made things so easy and she released a breath she hadn’t realized she’d held. “To work, then?”

Cullen agreed. “To work.”

 

Flurries of snow fell, drifting down and sticking to the glass of the war room’s window. A perfect day to be doing anything else other than working, but alas, she’d been here for, was it going on two hours now? Hawke and Alistair had joined this meeting, taking their places opposite Leliana and Josephine as Chrissie stood in her normal position across from Cullen.

Moving the markers on the war table, Cullen finished his presentation. “Give the word, and we march on Adamant.”

Chrissie ran her hands through her hair. The plan was detailed, meticulous and from Cullen, she had expected nothing less. But the entire thing was a timely endeavor. “How long will it take our troops to be in position?”

“Given the vast number traveling, roughly a month, minimum.”

An entire month. Every day the demons in the Warden ranks grew. Their numbers would be strengthened in hours, but a month? A complete 30 days while the Inquisition awaited troops to cross Ferelden? The plan would cost a lot of lives, both in the Grey Wardens, who could be extinct by then, and her own people, many of whom would undoubtedly fall. Surely, there was an alternative. There had to be. Not that Cullen’s plan wasn’t sound, but it proved costly in both time and lives.

Glance shifting between Alistair and Hawke, Chrissie posed the question. “Can we go ahead of the army? Breach the gate with explosives instead? Use ladders or rope to climb the walls?”

Cullen protested, not even allowing her to support her reasoning. “Absolutely not.”

“Why?”

He cleared his throat before explaining. “Because the trek is over mountains and sand. The fortress is protected; trebuchets and force will be needed to breach its walls. If it is true and Wardens have allied with demons, the strength in numbers is a must. Anything less is an unacceptable risk.”

Yes, all of those things were needed but this endeavor would get a lot of good soldiers killed. “We can bring in a small contingent, they’re easier to move than the entire army and between them, the inner circle,  Hawke, Ali and myself, we should be able to infiltrate until the troops arrive...”

“If something goes awry,” Josephine interjected, she shook her head and a concerned expression crossed her face. “Then the other Hero of Ferelden, the Champion, and the Inquisitor are all simultaneously lost.”

Alistair held his hands out in protest, “Woah. I don’t think so. There was one Hero of Ferelden, may the Maker rest her soul.” His voice remained calm and he deflected in his usual way with self-deprecating humor. “I’m just a bastard and a Warden, and don’t you forget it.”

“Well,” Josephine cleared her throat and corrected, “the um, Warden, the Champion, and the Inquisitor would all be lost.”

Chrissie chimed in, crossing her arms as a statement of defiance. “Which could still happen anyway. It would be easier to maneuver men where appropriate with a smaller compliment and the sooner we can put a stop to it, the less we will have to battle.”

“Which would leave you without adequate support.” Cullen pinched the bridge of his nose. Apparently, she was giving him a headache and shoved down her guilt. “It would be far more difficult to ensure your safety the safety of all involved,” he corrected. “You are the only hope of closing the rifts. Are you so eager to condemn Thedas over speed and recklessness?”

Feeling very much like a disobedient child, she continued her petulance. “I’m trying to save lives. Mine is no more important than anyone else out there.” She knew that wasn’t entirely true, but still hated the idea. Overall, the fewer men to accompany them on this endeavor, the fewer service members who were likely to die in her name.

“That is a matter of opinion and incorrect.” Cullen returned his hands to the pommel of his sword, standing firm in his statement.

Alistair smirked, “And that’s a fact.”

Chrissie threw him a sideways glance, narrowing her eyes. “So you agree with him? You don’t see the merits of a smaller party? Weren’t you one of only two Wardens to save all of Ferelden, and subsequently Thedas from the Blight?”

He shifted his weight and rolled his shoulders. “That last bit wasn’t by choice. We had to conscript to get what you already have. Which is, an army.” A quick glance to Chrissie and then to Cullen and back occurred before his lips downturned into a frown. “If there’s any way to avoid… don’t make an unnecessary sacrifice.” Switching from serious to joking, he chuckled. “But I am simply a lowly Warden, merely pleased that the Inquisition finds our problems worthy of discussion and will defer to your judgment.” 

Trading glances with Cullen despite their disagreement, his narrowed eyes showed him equally perturbed at Alistair’s snark.

Using his comment to her advantage, Chrissie exclaimed. "Unnecessary sacrifice is what I'm trying to avoid!"

"Making yourself the martyr in the process. We have an army! This is what it's for!" Cullen raised his voice to prove his point.

Hawke shrugged. "Having an army does seem nice, would have been helpful with the battle against the Arishok in Kirkwall. But I'm not in charge anymore, so I'll do whatever you decide."

How very unlike both of them that now is when they chose to agree with the plan set before them and want nothing to do with an alternative ‘high risk’ option. Chrissie scoffed. She tried to appeal to Leliana, positive she would be aware of the value of what a small group could accomplish. “Spymaster?” Her voice rang as a plead. “Care to share?”

“While I do see the merits of a small contingent, it’s not the best approach here. The Commander’s plan is sound.”

She released a disgruntled sigh. It wasn’t that Cullen’s plan wasn’t a good option, but she would just prefer a different strategy. The more people marching, the more potential for lives lost. Maker, how in the Void was it that three of the most opinionated individuals in Skyhold had no alternate options on an important and complicated matter pertaining to saving lives?

Chrissie bit back an inappropriate and unworthy expletive. But if she knew Cullen, and she liked to think she did, there would be one point that may allow him to deter from his current plan. “The soldiers.”

Josephine looked up from her clipboard, using the quill to punctuate her words. “Our soldiers know the risks, Inquisitor. And they know what they’re fighting for.”

Thanks to the Ambassador, her last shot appeal to Cullen hadn’t worked.

If only to get the last word, Cullen added, “It’ll be hard fought, there is no way around it, Inquisitor.” 

The use of the title was detached; a declaration of victory in their argument. Damn if Cullen couldn’t be a confident bastard when he wanted or needed to be.

Chrissie relented, though still planned on continuing this discussion with Cullen. If she could adequately prepare an alternative option, he may be willing to listen. “Then we march on Adamant at first light, no exceptions.” Either way, the sooner they arrived, the better off they would all be. “There is much to prepare, council adjourned.”

Hawke and Alistair left first, with Chrissie trailing behind. She had half a mind to scold both of them for their silence when Leliana’s voice chimed in. “A moment?”

Inwardly, she groaned, wanting more than anything to not have to see Cullen’s smug expression. Yet, she did as requested, turning to face her Spymaster with an expression she hoped inflected the message of ‘this better be good.’

As Cullen reached the door, Leliana added. “You as well, Commander.”

Raised eyebrows and the twinkle in her eyes indicated the amused expression. “The public is concerned regarding the mysterious woman.”

Of course, this was what the Spymaster would have a Maker damn opinion on. “And that matters because…”

Josephine’s smile shined brightly. “Another display to profess your love would be cause to hush many whispers. Specifically, something scandalous!”

Chrissie regretted the question before it passed her lips. “Like what?”

Leliana’s eyes shifted between Chrissie and Cullen. “Intimacy.”

“What?” they both exclaimed in unison.

“Absolutely not,” Cullen muttered.

With a nod, Josie smoothed her hair despite the quill in her hand as if she ever had a hair out of place. “You do not have to engage in, well, engage. It must seem like you are amidst the throes of passion.”

Leliana shifted, rocking on her feet. “Perhaps your office, the soldiers alone could easily spread the word.”

Chrissie rubbed her forehead wishing for elderberries to dull her headache. “You want me and Cullen to pretend to have… to consummate the relationship?”

Leliana smiled in response, something Chrissie found unsettling as she could never tell what motivation prompted it. “I can think of no other way to repair the damage the mysterious woman caused. Clearly, if the Commander is having his needs fulfilled, he needn’t seek it elsewhere.”

“You cannot be serious.” Cullen protested, his face as red as his mantle.

“Dead serious.”

“All right.” Chrissie reluctantly agreed, throwing her hands up in mock surrender and lacing her words with as much sarcasm as she could muster. “Excuse me while I go ravage my General. If that will be all.”

“Do tell us how it goes. Though if done correctly, we will hear.” Leliana hollered after as Chrissie tugged Cullen by the hand out the door. Josephine's giggling was the last thing she heard.

Chapter Text

Cullen still couldn’t believe he’d been roped into this endeavor even as Chrissie closed the door to his office and pulled him inside. She latched all three entrances, moving towards him. As she waved her wrist magically lighting some of the candles, they illuminated a portion of her face, the flickering firelight danced across her features. Though she wore an expression of irritation, her eyes were intense, boring into him.

Muttering under her breath, she explained while gesturing with her hands, “I disagree with your plan for Adamant but if we have to hide in here, at least it can be beneficial and you can hear me out.” She was angry then, but calm and still seemingly content to argue. Good, Cullen thought but didn’t speak aloud, it would prove a welcome distraction from this ridiculous task given by the other advisors.

Cullen remained unwavering in his counsel, “Your disapproval doesn't change the fact it's the best strategic approach.”

Hands on her hips, Chrissie was unamused. “And what are your recommendations on the best strategic approach for the current predicament?”

“None, I’m afraid.” As if there would be a sound plan of action for making intimate noises to put on a public display. "Let’s do what we must and be done with it," Cullen muttered.

"For what it’s worth, this is just as uncomfortable for me as it is for you." Chrissie averted her eyes and her cheeks tinged pink.

Cullen doubted that very much. The simple act of her biting her lip with her top teeth was almost tantalizing, teasing as he drank the sight of her in. A simple but form-fitting cotton shirt with the top two buttons undone at her collar bone exposed soft flesh and clung to a toned midsection that highlighted every curve of her body from the swell of her breasts to the flare of her hipswith every move. Maker, she was lovely in royal blue. In lieu of no other appropriate vocal response, he merely nodded.

Apparently seeing his displeasure, she frowned before trying to point out the bright side. "The sooner we do this, the sooner we can leave." Tugging at her sleeve, she dusted off imaginary debris and sighed.

She was correct in her assessment and Cullen couldn’t fault her logic.

“Well,” she continued fidgeting, “It'll be uncomfortable but we can still have fun with it, right? Laugh at ourselves? Make it intentionally and deliberately absolutely ridiculous. How about this?” Grabbing him by the pauldrons, Chrissie turned him towards the entrance he hadn't moved from since they arrived. “We'll need to get closer, may I?”

Cullen gestured his approval with a wave. She slid between him and the wooden panels, placing his hands above her shoulders, equal distance on both sides of her head.

Once they were both situated, she exhaled slowly. “You can make a loud thud by hitting the door,” she whispered so no one could overhear. 

“What?” Cullen questioned, “I don't see…” She was very close to him, too close. Their bodies merely inches away from one another and blue eyes peered at him through long lashes.

Chrissie's hot breath fell in short rapid bursts quickening Cullen's pulse. “It’ll sound like we’re uh, shaking the door.”

He drooped his head, careful to avoid smacking it into hers and relented, pounding his palm against the surface three times each harder than the lastif only to subside the thrumming in his veins. Nearly touching his forehead to hers, he muttered, “There.”

“You know, we could try to have fun with it.”

She couldn’t be serious. “How does anyone have ‘fun’ pretending to…”

Chrissie shrugged. “I mean, what other choice is there to make this less…”

“Awkward?”

“Yes. That would also be my word for it.” She tilted her head before chuckling. “I suppose we could always just do the deed.”

‘What?” Cullen’s eyes widened in shock. No, he shoved the inappropriate thoughts beginning to stir back down.

“I was kidding, Cull.” Chrissie’s cheeks blossomed a perfect shade of rosy pink before looking to the stone floor. “It was only a joke, trying to lighten the weird a bit and get you to laugh. Clearly, it didn’t work.”

Oh, right. Of course it was a jest. “Apologies, I...”

Waving him off, she exhaled a long breath. “So let’s give this a try then, yeah?” She banged the fist at her side backward against the door, releasing a loud groan.

It was, well. Maker, it was awful. Nowhere near believable and if this is what they were in for, it would never work. Though, Cullen doubted he could do any better. Truth be told, he was relieved it wasn’t remotely close to what it was supposed to be, given their proximity and the inappropriate thoughts running through his mind right now.

Nose wrinkling, she winced. “That was dreadful. Hopefully the thud muffled it. You’re having your way with me, not committing murder.”

A chuckle escaped him and he shifted, uncomfortable. No, he would not lend credence to the thought of ‘having his way’ with her because that would not bode well for him.

"Okay, how does this sound?"

She moaned; loud, raw and pleasurable, it shocked his nerves and unsteadied him for a moment. He stilled, forgetting the response hanging on his tongue.

"Was that better?" she asked.

Define better, he wanted to retort, but unable to trust the strength of voice he said nothing. Did it sound sexual? Sweet Maker.

"Good. I'll keep at it," she nodded once and placed a hand on his bracer. If she'd meant to reassure him, the contact was everything but.

Despite the plate separating them, Cullen's awareness of his body's reactions warned of impending discomfort. He swallowed a sigh. If she persisted, if these noises and affections continued, he would have to keep control.

Closing her eyes, a few seconds passed before they snapped open. “As for Adamant, my approval should be what matters most,” she explained, resuming their initial argument parallel to their charade. “I am the Inquisitor.”

“Your approval hardly matters when” Cullen focused his mind on the debate or tried to. It was proving more difficult by the second as he felt the heat creep within his cheeks at their closeness and her moan still resounding within his head, “when you cannot supply a better method.”

“I did provide an alternate solution,” she hissed, “but you aren’t willing to entertain it. Let me lead a small team in, thwart their plans and there won’t be as many for the army to take care of.” 

“Which leaves the bulk of the demon army on you in the interim. I will not allow it.”

Her eyes narrowed and her lips pressed into a hard line. “You’re being overbearing.” Another deliberately loud gasp caused Cullen to internally swear, Maker’s breath. “I think I’m getting the hang of this.”

You don’t say? He bit back the sarcasm, allowing the words to die on his tongue.

She sighed, resuming her fidgeting. “As ridiculous as this is, you could act like you’re being pleased too.”

Cullen looked at her, bewildered at her ability to seemingly remain calm and maintain clear thought. "What?"

“You could make it seem less one-sided,” Chrissie admitted, averting her eyes, “I think my exaggeration makes you seem quite skilled, so the least you could do is act like you’re uh, enjoying our…” She stopped, letting the unspoken linger in the air as a subtle pink tinge crept into her face.

“I, uh, how?” He questioned, his cheeks burning at this point.  He knew what she was asking for, but Maker he didn’t want to consider how he was supposed to accomplish it!

“I don’t know.” Her voice was sheepish, ringing at a higher pitch than normal. “Would it be easier if we closed our eyes and thought of the Inquisition? Or you could imagine... someone else.”

Why would I want to? He almost blurted but retained enough sense and will not to. If he were to imagine anyone, without a doubt, it would have been her. Remembering his dream that morning, an involuntary smile tugged at his lips. It was good, one of the few he had. Featuring the same woman he woke up next to, the very one he was standing extremely Maker damnclose to now. This was the exact reason the current endeavor made him particularly concerned.

Cullen cast her a pointed look; there was no way to appropriately respond. Were he to tell the truth, it would reveal too much, but he wouldn’t lie to her either.

“Anyway, back to it then, I suppose.” She chuckled nervously, moaning once more and Cullen jerked as though stricken.

This entire process was doing things to him. His breathing quickened and his heart pounded in his chest. Oh Maker, this was a bad idea. A very bad idea.

He banged on the door again in frustration. An angry grunt was the most he could muster and he wondered if it was loud enough, or close enough to an intimate noise to serve the purpose.

Chrissie shook her head, muffling a high pitched laugh. “That was good, I think,” her bangs brushed his face as she moved and she visibly swallowed. Raising her voice, she let out another moan, this one breathy and weighted.

Shifting on her feet between him and the door, her thigh pressed her thinly covered flesh against his leg, brushing across his
thankfully, not fully hardenedgroin. It was brief, but impactful tearing a very real and unintentional moan from his throat. The contact set his skin tingling, but the moment the sound ripped from him, she apologized. “Sorry, the door handle was digging into my, uh it doesn’t matter.”

Silence settled between them, lingering for a few moments.

Cullen scowled, ignoring the shiver that shot down his spine and the gooseflesh spreading across his thankfullyplated arms as an aftereffect of her movements. 

She provided a half smile, nodding with satisfaction. “That was convincing, you should do that again!” As if the situation wasn’t arousing enough, she made it worse. “Commander!” Gasping and enunciating his title, the sexuality in her tone sent a lightning bolt through him, surging within his veins.

How could he ever, ever, unhear that now? Every time she called him by his title for work, he would think of that inflection, of this moment, of how close they were to one another. Could such a thing ever be banished from his mind?

“Was that all right, you think?”

He cleared his throat, hoping she would accept his meager blink in response. Was that all right? It was more than all right!

Cullen pulled from years of Templar training to keep his body in check. Or tried to, and found himself failing. He swallowed thickly. Even the most subtle nod or blink from her may as well have been an invitation to taste her lips and experience the heat of her body. Trying to refocus, he continued their argument after taking far too long to remember what she actually said instead of groaned or moanedlast. “The strategy is sound. I apologize you disapprove, but it changes nothing.” He protested, his own breathlessness betraying him.  

When it was clear she was waiting for him to continue their ruse, he shut his eyes tightly and warbled out a strangled moan. Opening his eyes again he found she had seemingly been satisfied and nearly breathed a sigh of relief that she didn’t need to touch him again to elicit it. Not that the contact was unwanted, but under the current premise, it was already causing discomfort because it was desired.

“Your plan will cause the loss of many lives.” Her expression flashed with irritation, but the reprieve lasted seconds before she began making increased panting noises and guttural moans. “Okay, don’t laugh at me.” She rolled her eyes and exhaled deeply. “Here we go, again.”

Don't laugh at her. Like any part of this was amusing.

She bent her knees, rolling her back into the door and sliding up and down as she pressed her breasts to his chest plate to move accordingly, the friction of her back against the wooden panels making more sounds for those listening in.

The blood rushed to his groin as he became hyper-aware of Chrissie's every motion. Unable to bear looking into her face as she made those sounds, Cullen turned away from her. He strode to his desk, leaning against the surface to balance himself and regain his composure. But the feel of her thigh across his pelvis and the sounds she made still haunted him. Unable to master himself, he roared his sexual frustration into the air, but she misinterpreted it as encouragement and increased the volume of her voice, gasping and groaning in rhythmic succession and banging against the door.

“I feel foolish,” she murmured.

Foolish was not the word he would have chosen. The argument was slipping further and further from his thoughts, and he balanced more of his weight onto the surface before him as a result. Surely, she had to know what this was doing to him, how this was affecting him. Was it not just as cruel to her?

Bringing her voice to a dull whisper but edged, she continued. “Will you not even consider discussing any alternative?”

Maker, how was she doing this?  How could she call out such wanton sounds and then instantly return to their disagreement?  Mounting sexual frustration frayed his control, resulting in a broad sweep of his arm throwing all the items violently to the floor. Thank the Maker his actual work was stored in their shared quarters. She played into it, giving a shriek of delight and Cullen stifled a groan. His tone was low but curt and his words a bit harsher than intended as he tried Blessed Andraste, did he tryto focus on the argument. “Your plan puts you at risk, and that will not happen.”

The little reprieve the desk swipe granted dissolved as she moved towards him, leaning against the same desk. Inches away. She leaned closer, causing his muscles to roll reflexively. “You are being ridiculous; I have to do my job and that is to save as many lives as possible. Especially, our own people.” Then, within the same breath, she said, “I’m going to use your name.”

Before Cullen registered her words to protest, Chrissie moaned, increasing her volume, “Oh, Cullen! Please!” Her voice cracked in the most intoxicating way.

At least she warned him first, though nothing on the face of Thedas would have prepared him to hear it. If he thought his title was bad, his name shot through him like an arrow. Cullen looked at her before dropping his head and exhaling sharply, allowing his own voice to break through in a breathy moan. He would need to check himself, to maintain control while contributing to this mad scheme.

“You would be placing yourself in unnecessary danger,” he scolded. Her proximity, the inflection, her breathlessness, and Maker, even the argument was arousing, ripping a growl from his throat. Strained and low, it was a mix of desire and anger. “Which is what you promised not to do!”

“That was not my promise.” She placed a hand overtop of his and he jerked it away hastily. The last thing he needed right now was for her to touch him again.  Maker, he was already so close to abandoning reason...

“Are you all right?” Concern laced her tone.

Guilt flourished in his chest: for his current state, for his thoughts, for making her worry, but it was impossible to look beyond his body burning with need. It wasn’t as if he could explain this to her, confessing that her efforts were so convincing they caused actual desire.

Waving her off, he grumbled, “I’m fine,” his voice unusually husky. Realizing that his self-control was reaching its breaking point, he decided to place some space between them. Quick steps led him up the ladder to his loft where it was colder due to the open ceiling. Fresh air slammed into his face and momentarily, he was able to breathe. But his armor smothered him; his undershirt clung to his damp skin. He needed it off, needed to calm down, regain control over himself and his sensibilities.

So involved in his task of removing his plate and focusing on taking slow even breaths, he hadn’t heard Chrissie follow. “Good idea, this should be perfect,” she announced. Her eyes flitted around the sparsely decorated room and Cullen felt self-conscious at his prior domain. Slow steps led her from the ladder to the bed where she proceeded to sit on it, bouncing lightly up and down to elicit creaking sounds. “It’s noisy enough. We can make the screech louder and faster and the gossips will think we’re nearly, uh finished...Thank the Maker it's cooler up here Is that a hole in your roof?”

Given his current state of intense sexual frustration, the mere thought of her sitting on his bed strained his erection. The sight of Chrissie not only seated but bouncing on his mattress lit a fire within his blood, negating the reason he'd come up here in the first place.

The door downstairs thundered open almost simultaneously. “Commander!”

“I locked those doors!” Chrissie whispered, her eyes wide pools of panic, where she had just been a calculating temptress.

“They don’t all lock.” Cullen ground out through gritted teeth. “My open door policy isn’t by choice.”

“You didn’t think to mention that sooner? What do we do? They won’t think we’re having sex if they see us clothed!”

“The noise should have dissuaded entry,” he exhaled, relieved. Thanks to the interruption, he’d begun to mellow out; the fever in his blood dying, taking the blush from his face. That all changed when, thinking quickly, Chrissie removed her shirt, hastily dropping it, leaving her standing in only her breastband as she maneuvered herself onto the floor and scooted towards the edge remaining modestly concealed from anyone else’s view. The act of pulling off her shirt tousled her hair, spanning long raven locks down her back when she peered over the ladder with bare shoulders poking over the side. “The Commander is…” She moaned, muffling a laugh in between borderline obscene noises, “indisposed!”  Her perfectly round rear wiggled in the air as she writhed slightly against the floorboards for their audience and Cullen found himself incapable of tearing his eyes from the scene.

Worse. Suddenly, it was irrevocably worse and any arousal that subsided returned with flourish. Stammering words and receding but heavy footfalls indicated the scout had been sent running from office as the door closed with a resounding thud. Chrissie stood, laughing, shirtless and mussed. “How did I do? Think they bought it?” Amidst his clouded judgment, Cullen drank her in: noting the curves of her breasts, the softness of her skin, and a toned but scarred midsection.

After almost a year of knowing Chrissie, months of respecting her and weeks of getting to know her pretending to be betrothed
 he couldn't take it anymore. It was all too much: the temptation and intimate gestures from his dreams coming to life in a wickedly cruel and ironic way. 

It had since become more than physical attraction, but emotional as well. He cared for her, deeply. Never would he dare do what he was about to otherwise. What would be the harm in charging forth, telling her he wanted this them? Needed this her? The realization hit him: sometime amidst this ruse, he’d stopped pretending assuming, of course, he’d ever been at all.

Cullen dropped his breastplate to the floor with a clang and grabbed her. He scooped her into his arms and stifled her surprised gasp with a heart-pounding, searing and starving kiss.  

He held her firmly, not wanting to let go. Should she squirm or move away, give any sign his gesture was unwanted and his feelings not mutual, he would release her, let her be. Clearly, he’d gone mad. Worry settled as to what she may think of him, of the line he had now crossed which was explicitly and previously forbidden due to position. Chrissie was the Inquisitor, the Herald of Andraste who in the Maker’s name was he to dare lay such a claim to her? Ruse or no. It was one thing to keep his desires concealed but quite another to actually act upon them. Perhaps he should apologize for losing his senses, for not thinking and obtaining verbal consent or permission.

As doubt settled inside him, she reciprocated to his complete shock. Chrissie jumped, throwing her arms around his neck and wrapping her legs tightly around his waist. Her tongue swept the inside of his mouth and he moaned; his voice blending with the sounds she had been feigning downstairs just a few minutes previously. Only now they were real; as real as the lips pressed to his and the fingers tangling into his hair.

He’d wanted this for so long now he could hardly believe it was actually happening. 

Maneuvering them both to the bed, he set her down gently, peppering kisses from her jaw along her neck as she panted in his ear.

A breathy moan escaped her when she spoke his name.

He kept kissing, relishing her softness against his lips. Moving from her neck to her chest, he watched the goosebumps ripple across her skin at each touch. “Maker, you are... “ Beautiful, amazing, compelling… None of the words were sufficient enough.

“Cullen.”

Something about the way she spoke his name this time gave him pause. He stopped his journey over her body, looking into the deep blue of her eyes. Sadness flashed across them. “Cullen, I’m so sorry. I can’t do this.”

Confused and dejected, Cullen hastily backed away from her and off the bed. Despite his heart breaking in his chest, he was enraged with himself. Maker, what was wrong with him? He should have known better! Losing control of his urges. The ruse was never supposed to come to this. This was the answer to the earlier question he'd been too preoccupied to ask. This was the harm! Now, it was more than likely he’d ruined everything real and fakeand lost his best friend. The only woman who had ever truly seen the man behind the decorum and had stood beside him regardless. Scrubbing his face with his hands, he turned towards the far wall. He couldn’t bear to see whatever emotions she must’ve felt plastered on her expression. Not daring to look behind him while he waited for her footsteps to recede. At the sound of the door closing, Cullen exhaled, wondering how in the void he could go on pretending like none of that just happened.

Like his heart wasn’t shattered.

Chapter Text

Cullen's smoldering amber eyes bore into Chrissie, lingering without wavering as guilt flourished in her chest. Were it anyone else, under any other circumstance, she wouldn’t have put a stop to their sexual endeavor. Were it anyone else, she could have had a great time, content to pleasure and be pleasured for an evening and leave without ever looking back.

But Cullen wasn’t just anyone and he deserved better.

The fake noises were initially amusing as she tried to alleviate the awkwardness of the situation. It was no secret Cullen was attractive and she had found him so for quite some time. Half of Ferelden and all of Orlais concurred with that assessment. Yet, the very real sounding guttural moans he elicited sent heat blazing through her and she continued the exaggeration of the ruse as a joke meant to conceal her own actual sexual frustration. Which, in hindsight, hadn't worked out all that well.

When he kissed her, it was unexpected, but also powerful, electrifying, and the world around her stopped, if only for a moment. His lips were searing, eyes smoldering as his gaze lingered with burning intensity. Even through the rough brush of his cotton tunic the warmth emanated from him and she would have melted in his arms were she not held securely in his safe but supportive grasp. His scent, faintly earthy and honeyed permeated her nose as her mind registered it wasn’t her imagination but had actually happened. It was not an idle daydream as she stood across the war table, or a welcome reprieve from the stack of missives on her desk. No, she really had been in Cullen’s loft and the second his lips touched hers, it sent shockwaves through her. It had meant something.

Swept up in the moment, she had reciprocated. Quite literally jumping into his arms as he moved them to the bed with ease as though she were weightless. He set her down carefully, protectively, and she allowed him to place oh-so-soft kisses against her body. The slight indentation from the scar she adored was just as prominent as the rake of stubble delightfully grazing her sensitive skin.   

Were she to give in, consent for intimacy to happen, she couldn’t just leave afterward. Things couldn’t simply return to the way they were, with he her Commander and she his Inquisitor. It would never not mean something. So despite every nerve in her body telling her to stay, she whispered her apology before fleeing.

Leaving in a rush, she haphazardly threw on her shirt avoiding him and forcing herself not to look back. She felt like a tease and Maker, he must have hated her for what she’d just put him through. Worst of all, she couldn’t even blame him if he did.

They should talk about it, but what would there be to say? If she had thought the morning’s apology for almost drunk kissing him was difficult, how would she explain her reciprocation while sober? No, there would be no sweeping this under the carpet.

They would have to re-establish the lines they’d drawn. Reaffirm the need to separate the professional and the personal. Start over from the beginning with Cullen as nothing more than the Commander of her forces and she the Inquisitor. In order to avoid getting hurt, she would have to pretend she felt nothing for him, hoping she hadn't also done irreparable damage to Cullen. As a strategist with a need for self-preservation, that’s exactly what she would do.

Passing through the Grand Hall, most gossips shot speculative looks. Her cheeks burned despite being used to attention. Pushing through a horde of people who wanted to stop and ask her questions none of which were Inquisition-relatedshe reached her quarters.

Taking a seat at her disheveled desk, she fought the reminder of how sexy it was to see Cullen clear off the one in his office and exhaled a long, slow breath. Burying her face in her hands, she raked her fingers through her hair. Maker, what in the Void did she just ruin?

Everything.

She’d ruined everything.

Finding herself with little other choice of distraction, she did what she knew best, defaulting to the professional attitude which caused her to overcome so much in the past. Withdrawing a quill from the drawer, she found the normalcy comforting as she began to immerse herself in work. Though the reprieve was short-lived because a few moments later, Cullen’s heavy footfalls announced his presence ascending the stairs. Through no fault of his, she wished he would leave her alone. If only they could forget and pretend like the kiss hadn’t happened. The discussion alone would only refocus her attention, stirring up lingering emotions.

Cullen halted in the middle of the room, resting his hands on the pommel of his sword. Dressed simply, he still donned his cotton tunic, breeches, and boots, not bothering to fully assemble his formal Commander plate. Several seconds passed as Chrissie tried to decipher which of the two personas she would be addressing, his casual attire in stark contrast to his professional mannerisms. He cleared his throat. “Inquisitor.”

She lifted her gaze from the missives, meeting his eyes, but said nothing. Having no idea what to say, she hoped he would steer whatever conversation they were about to exchange.

“Please accept my sincere apologies for…”

He wasn’t the offending party, she thought. Not allowing a stammered and undue apology to fall from his lips, she interjected, standing to her feet and holding up her hand. "Cullen you don't need to"

Brow furrowed, he exhaled sharply, a set jaw indicating his irritation. "Would you please allow me to finish without interruption?" Cullen’s tone was clipped, a harsh edge to his words despite the politeness. Chrissie tilted her head, but merely nodded for him to continue.

"I admit this is not the proper time; but given my," he paused, running his fingers through his hair, "questionable behavior of late, I fear it cannot wait."

"Please don't. I. . .the fault is mine.” If he wasn’t looking right at her, she would have smacked herself for interrupting him again. Instead, she prompted his continuance with a wave.

“No, it is not.” Tentative steps closed the distance between him and the desk. Cullen went to place his hand on hers before retracting. “The truth is,” he turned away, shoulders slumped.

Concern replaced awkwardness as Chrissie ventured around the solid oak to ensure his well being. Abruptly, he faced her, meeting her gaze as his posture straightened back to standard Commander form. 

Despite the professionalism, his voice was slightly shaky having lost all harshness. “The truth is, I have come to care for you…” Cullen nodded as though reassuring himself. “Christalyne.” Reaching out, he encompassed her hand within his. “The time we have spent has meant far more than I ever expected and…” His eyes remained downcast before flitting to meet hers briefly. “I don’t know what you, that is, if you…”

Chrissie withdrew, slowly, noting the absence of the warmth from his hands as she pulled away. Though she had no desire to pile on more rejection, she had to be as honest as possible. Sighing, she rubbed her forehead and avoided looking at him. “Cullen.”

Something in her tone must have given her intentions away, as Cullen was fast to backtrack. “Say no more. I overstepped.”

“No, it isn’t that. I want to return the things you have said but I…” Exhaling sharply, she couldn’t muster the appropriate words. She settled, finding nothing else better suited, “can't.” It was true, she simply, couldn’t. For reasons and words she could never truly articulate, things he may never understand. “It wouldn’t be fair for you to be with someone who cannot truly commit.”

Cullen cast her a sideways glance. “What's stopping you?”

Leaning against the desk, she gestured with her hands. “You're the Commander, we're at war.” She shook her head. “It isn’t possible.”

“Why?” Cullen asked, though no inflection of command came from his tone. Confusion shrouded his handsome features. “The ruse proves it is possible.”

Internally, she prepared herself to tell him the worst. Her lips downturned into a sympathetic frown. No matter how much she may want to, there would always be something holding her back. “Whatever is between us, there’s no future in it. I’m sorry.”

“I see.” Cullen shook his head, “I thought weI was mistaken.” His lips pressed into a hard line, and his eyes flickered with an indiscernible emotion but accepted her apology nevertheless. “Very well, Inquisitor.”

The sudden use of professionalism made it worse. The disconnect prevalent. The title hurt, shooting pain through her heart. He may as well have stabbed her, but she was determined for stoicism to reflect on her features. With a curt nod, she feigned approval, pretending her words held merit.

Cullen departed as quickly as he had appeared. 

Chrissie’s heart sank to her stomach. Shoulders hunched, she closed her eyes, trying to contain the burst of self-loathing in her chest.

Chapter Text

The entirety of Chrissie and Cullen’s conversations over the course of the past few weeks had been minimal at best largely in part because of the departure for Adamant. Nightly pleasantries were often not afforded due to time and work constraints. Pretending a divide hadn’t further separated them after his admission had been easier than anticipated, but even without seeing her, his mind often wandered to her whereabouts. The avoidance wasn’t purposeful, he knew, though it offered little comfort. As he always would in times such as these, he commanded the army, relying on work to prove a successful distraction.

Thus far, Cullen had coordinated every contingent, ensuring both melee and ranged defenses as well as a healer and multiple mages accompanied each one. Though he did hesitate on that decision considering the number of demons they anticipated being present. However, all personnel was necessary in this call to arms. Maintenance and calibration of the siege equipment to ensure it would reach the proper range during the assault was a priority. He had held multiple meetings with his highest ranking officers over rations and appropriate portions and guaranteed his soldiers would not fail the Inquisitor with continual daily training drills.

It was late in the eve, the fires crackled amidst the camps as Cullen performed equipment and personnel inspection before heading to their shared tent. Despite the strain his actual feelings caused, Chrissie and Cullen maintained the ruse after both agreeing to continue. On the way, Cullen would periodically stop and observe the men asking questions pertaining to morale and the overall spirit before battle. 

Chrissie had been right about one thing; the siege would be bloody and a great number of those marching would not be returning to Skyhold. As the man required to order them to charge, Cullen acknowledged the grim responsibility which only added to his stresses. As the world weighed heavily upon his shoulders, he turned to the Maker finding comfort in faith and praying harder than he could recall in recent memory for their success.

 

Adamant was a bloodbath. There were more demons than Cullen anticipated. The men couldn’t get a foothold, and despite the choke points, the field of battle being limited may have been more of a hindrance than a benefit. Fighting was endless. Metal clanging, demon shrieks, and curdling cries of agony from the soldiers as they fell filled the air as more and more monsters poured out of the open rift.

Somewhere beyond the debris of the partially destroyed fortress, the Inquisitor pursued the Warden Commander and attempted to put a stop to the madness. The same dragon who left Haven in ruins appeared and his heart sank into his stomach as he split his worry between his men and his (fake) betrothed.

They’d spoken briefly once Cullen fulfilled the promise he made in the war room: ensuring they got the gate open. However, it was strictly battle strategy and nothing of the concern he actually wanted to voice for her wellbeing. Had the soldiers not needed him, he would have insisted on accompanying her. But his presence was required elsewhere, leaving little choice other than to trust her companions and Warden Alistair would guard her back.

Through the flurry of battle while the spray of blood speckled his armor and the gnarly squish of pierced flesh resounded in his ears, the whole world stopped. Even amidst the fighting, he'd maintained as much of a visual of Chrissie as possible. So when the stone crumbled and she ran, the pieces falling behind her heels, his breath caught in his chest. Cullen watched her gain ground only to return towards danger and help pull Warden Alistair dangling from the ledge. He could have and would have cursed her for that, were he a lesser man. Perhaps a strict lecture was in order, but he knew she was a good person and should have expected nothing less. In truth, he would find it hypocritical to scold her when he would have done the same. An eerie silence shrouded the area. The only sound was his heart beating faster and faster watching the scene unfold.

Cullen gaped, swallowing thickly when the fortress shifted and the Warden, the Champion, the Inquisitor and her companions plummeted to what would be certain death. Only then, did green light illuminate the sky and in an instant, they had vanished. Chrissie had vanished.

Chapter Text

The three heroes stopped abruptly, gaze falling on the massive spider demon before them. Its pale and pasty skin or was that a shell, Chrissie couldn’t be certainhoused thousands of eyes seemingly watching their every move and blocking the path to the exit rift her other companions had just run through. If only they’d been a bit faster.

“How do we get by?” Alistair asked, fixated on the giant creature.

His question only identified the obvious. Clearly, there would be no way to pass. The spider demon hovered over the area, and with the visual angles Chrissie assumed it could perceive, there would be no sneaking around either. 

Hawke came to this realization as well, turning and directing. “Go, I’ll cover you!”

With a shake of his head, Alistair explained his disapproval. “No, you were right. The Wardens caused this mess, a Warden must…”

Hawke interjected, not allowing him to finish, only a shred of fear seeping through her tone. “A Warden must help them rebuild. That's your job!” Eyes set, her lips smirked before pressing into a hard line. “Corypheus is mine.”

Corypheus is mine, Chrissie corrected mentally. The iridescent hue coming from the rift illuminated a lighter shade of green amidst the saturated singular color of the Fade. Chrissie’s gaze shifted between the giant spider demon, Hawke, and Alistair. How could she possibly decide to condemn one of Thedas’ heroes to death in the Fade to cover her own escape? After all they'd suffered and persevered through, she was supposed to decide their fate? Who in the Void was she to do that? She was merely a circle mage with divine bad luck. These two were the Champion of Kirkwall and Alistair, a Hero of Ferelden not that he would ever acknowledge such a title.

No, absolutely not. Contrary to popular belief, she was no extension of the Maker and it wasn't her place to gamble with anyone else's life.

The Divine’s instruction resounded within her head. “Slam it closed with all your strength. That will banish the army of demons and exile this cursed creature to the farthest reaches of the fade.” 

It was then Chrissie knew what she must do. Given Alistair and Hawke were plan A and B, and she would not allow either of those would happen. She would have to pray to the Maker plan C worked. Should that fail, there was one other option, plan D as the last resort.

“Alistair.” Chrissie's voice broke. She would have to make him think he was staying behind. Though it pained her, she would apologize later provided she had that luxury. 

He nodded affirmation, a glint of sadness in his eyes, but also acceptance that Chrissie was positive had something to do with Neria. 

Hawke offered a swat to Alistair’s back, pausing momentarily and wrapping him into a hug. He hesitated before reciprocating, Alistair clearly hadn’t anticipated the gesture. Tears filled her eyes as she whispered, “Maker be with you.”

As Hawke stepped aside, Chrissie turned to him, placing a kiss on his cheek and hugging him. If she dared meet his eyes, she may spill the entire plan. He needed to believe it. If he knew what she was really up to, he would never let it happen. No words passed between them, she allowed herself to embrace him in a silent goodbye.

Catching him by the wrist as Alistair turned, Chrissie raised her left hand. Sparks of green emanated as the Mark of the Rift held the spider demon in place. Crackling and popping of lightning filled her ears and blinded her temporarily. Regaining her wits, she tugged him forward, trailing behind Hawke and seizing the opportunity to run towards escape. Due to the sheer size, the demon roared, breaking from its temporary paralysis. Chrissie narrowly avoided one of its legs as it came down to crush her as Hawke jumped through the rift, separating Chrissie from Alistair and the way home. 

Her eyes widened and she realized she would have to implement plan D. She’d hoped that the Mark would have allowed them more time and thus the successful execution of plan C where everyone made it out. Yet, it failed, despite her efforts.

By his mixed expression, Alistair came to a similar conclusion knowing one of them would indeed be left behind. Drawing his sword, he sliced a chunk of flesh from the creature’s leg. The demon squealed a piercing shriek as blood sprayed Alistair in red ooze. Chrissie yelled to be heard over the noise as Alistair wiped the excess blood from his face. “Tell Cullen I’m sorry.”

Chrissie placed her hand to her forehead. Mindblast wouldn’t hurt Alistair, only forcibly remove him and allow his escape from this Maker-damned place, whether he agreed and liked it or not.

Alistair shouted, “No, don’t!” but it didn’t matter.

The spell was effective, his voice carried, echoing as he was propelled through the rift to Adamant. After seeing him land on the other side, Chrissie used the mark, slamming the rift closed as she’d been instructed, sealing herself inside.

A gust of wind blew with the strength of a natural disaster, hurdling her backward as her head smashed against Veridium. The world went black.

Chapter Text

Cullen spotted Cassandra maneuvering through the ruins of the once proud fortress, stepping over bodies of wounded and dead. The remaining demons had been banished or cut down, and he sought Chrissie, knowing in his heart she had done something to eradicate the demon army. He wasn't certain how, but he worried at what cost.

After she vanished, he'd been distressed, wondering if he would ever see her again, but he prayed fervently amidst the fighting for her safety. Now, the return of an accompanying companion gave him hope. Seeing the raven locks of Chrissie’s hair whipping in the wind, blue eyes sparkling despite the darkness of the eve, and a triumphant smile after again performing the impossible was exactly what he needed.

Frantically, his eyes darted around trying to catch a glimpse of her hair, a mud-caked boot, her staff, only to find nothing. Logic snaked its way into his thoughts, hinting at a much darker outcome. When he was able to view the Seeker up close, the expression Cassandra wore halted him.

Her face was blotchy and her eyes were swollen, her lips pressed into a hard line. They locked gazes and worry immediately pulsed through him in time with the rapid drumming in his ears.

He bit the inside of his lip, eyes widening as his mind ran wild with possibilities. Quick steps closed the distance. Despite her insistence they go elsewhere, he refused to budge.

“Cassandra.” His voice croaked, and if he wasn’t certain it was he who spoke, he would have suspected it was someone else.

She hugged herself, keeping her head down and shuffled her feet until he repeated her name. "The Inquisitor," she said hesitantly, not meeting his eyes and taking a deep breath. "Chrissie-" Exhaling shakily, she finally looked at him, "did not return."

The Inquisition had resources, men. He would scour every inch of Thedas and find her. Perhaps it had been foolish to assume they were transported to the same place. The mark was ancient magic and as experience had instilled in him, magic of any kind was unpredictable. The idea she wound up elsewhere wasn’t far fetched.

Halting immediately, he stopped a passing soldier mid-task. ”You there!” Asserting his Commander inflection, he barked orders. “Inform the Lieutenant we need the strongest for a search and rescue.”

The man looked at him, stunned.

What in the Maker’s name was he waiting for? “Now!” Cullen demanded.

Eyes growing wide, the soldier saluted sloppily, but as long as he rushed to do as requested, Cullen would spare him the lecture on ill form.

“Yes, Sir!” He sputtered before weaving through the sea of bodies.

Cullen paced, running through the checklist of necessities. The mounts would need prepared, messages sent to every Inquisition camp, rations proportioned, undamaged weapons requisitioned… if the Maker smiled upon them, they could have a lead within the week.

Cassandra’s brow furrowed. “What are you doing?” 

He held up his hand stopping her. Signaling to one of his officers, he beckoned the soldier forward and detailed his requirements.

“Commander!” 

Despite his title being called by one of the few women whose presence of command could rival his own, he continued addressing his officer and paid it no heed.

Cassandra placed a hand on his bracer, tugging at his armor to garner attention while he continued delegating. “Cullen!”

Irritated at the interruption, he turned, forgetting decorum. “What?”

“What do you think you're doing?” she repeated.

“There's troops to coordinate, supplies to gather. We must make haste.” He signaled to another soldier, watching the man’s helmet bob among the masses as he approached.

“Cullen,” She said gently, “there is nothing to be done.”

He blinked slowly as he understood what she was saying. Anger came hard on the heels of realization and he sneered at her. “You want to what, resign her to her fate? Leave her alone to fend for herself and hope she returns unaccompanied?” Disgust dripped from his words. How dare she want to give up! Unacceptable. To have the audacity to even insinuate such and idea made him furious. Diverting his attention back to his officer, he was caught firmly by both pauldrons.

“You aren't listening!” Shaking him, Cassandra's eyes met his. Speaking slowly, she enunciated the words. “Cullen, we cannot save her. There is a reason walking physically in the Fade has been impossible; it is not an accomplishable feat.”

Mouth gaping, her words hit him with full force. The Fade. They ventured physically into the Fade? Chest tightening, an invisible weight crushed him.

He wanted to protest, to tell Cassandra she was wrong and detail why and how he would manage to save the woman he cared so deeply for. But it occurred to him then that he, too, had no answers. “So, I'm supposed to just accept…?”

A sigh came from his left as Alistair came into view, “Trust me,” his voice was low, nearly breaking, “it changes nothing whether you accept it or not.”

Noting the lack of eye contact, the appearance of the Warden only compounded his emotions as Cullen stifled his anger. Clenching his fists until his knuckles turned white, his immediate response was to lay blame. It was all because of the Wardens. Their mad plan to cease Blights before they started caused this to unfold.

Then again, were it not for a Grey Warden, one of whom stood before him, he never would have lived to see this day, or perhaps, would have been far too mad to have participated.

That aside, Cullen had trusted Alistair, Hawke, and the inner circle too, which proved to be a colossal mistake. After all, Neria died while Alistair was an active member of her party. His support hadn’t changed the fate of the woman he loved, why would it have changed Chrissie’s? To Cullen, the Inquisitor was merely another Alistair had failed to protect.  

Rationally, he knew the blame was unfounded but his mind waged war. He needed a cause, a justification, a solid reason the Maker would allow this to happen.

“You left—” Cullen stilled, stiffening as the accusation died on his tongue.

Exhaling deeply, the Warden ran his hands from his hair down his face, covering his mouth momentarily as if he were physically holding in his words. His expression contorted, a furrowed brow showed anger but his eyes reflected sadness. He shook his head, “I’m so sorry she’s gone.”

Cullen’s heart hammered like a caged animal trying to break free. Blood rushed to his ears drowning out everything else. He swallowed thickly, breath rapid as he stared, while the words gave life in his heart to what his head comprehended.

Alistair placed a hand to his pauldron, interrupting his raging thoughts. If it was supposed to comfort, it had failed. Cullen jerked away and the Warden’s arm dropped to his side.

“No,” he said, voice hoarse, “tell me this is a jest. An odd, cruel trick at my expense and you and Varric have wagered gold on my reaction. Inform me this is nothing more.” Cullen grit his teeth, water welling in his eyes and blurring his vision while he tried to blink them back. Too raw and entirely too personal, he could not allow himself to fall apart here.

“What happened? Be specific. Omit nothing.” His demand emerged a cross between a whisper and a whimpered plea, forcing him to clear his throat to muster the question.

Interlocking his hands behind his head, Alistair paced. The entire story spilled from his lips as his babble accompanied exaggerated hand gestures. The Warden rubbed his eyes, preventing the unshed tears from falling down his cheek.

The actual realization was a slap to the face, leaving just as raw of a sting. “Did you watch her...” He couldn’t even formulate a cohesive question —die, depart to be with the Maker?  

Cassandra shrugged before wiping the tears that fell, “Although no one saw her death, given the size of the demon, we suspect she is no longer with us. Even were there a way for us to return, there would be nothing to recover.”

When Cassandra had said Chrissie hadn't returned, he interpreted it as not present, or any number of possibilities that didn’t equate to dead. That was when he held neither a solution nor explanation and he needed certainty, had to find her.

A body would’ve made it real, provided a reason to build a pyre or prepare services but from the sound of it, he doubted a proper funeral was possible.

Even the death of his parents hadn't hit Cullen so hard —lyrium had been a comfort during that time, dulling the ache of the loss. He had been at Kinloch when Honnleath was overrun. But today, he was here and could have done something to alter the outcome. If he’d been more vigilant, wiser, anticipated… If his senses and abilities hadn’t been so dulled from not taking lyrium, perhaps the events could have been changed. Maybe if he insisted on accompanying them, deferred to another to lead the charge, he could have made the difference.

Alistair stepped forward, leaned closer and whispered, “With her last words, she asked me to tell you she’s sorry.”

He frowned, confused and then flinched as if stricken. Sorry? She apologized? Anger flourished, bubbling and threatening to make an appearance. Because what, the sentiment of an apology was supposed to be enough to make her irrational behavior acceptable? As if her actions were forgiven simply because she indicated remorse?

Cullen stared at Alistair as if he spoke a foreign language. What was she even sorry for, specifically? His mind replayed the night he had held her in their quarters, the subtle scent of her hair permeating his nostrils and her soft skin warming his own. He grew increasingly enraged. This was why he’d made her promise. He didn’t want to be put in this exact position —one of complete and utter powerlessness.

Relying on years of training and decorum, the only things that never failed him, he stood straighter and cleared his throat. “I see,” his voice came out harsh, clipped, “we will need a replacement. Inform the others, I must tend to the soldiers.” Cullen turned to walk away as a firm hand caught his bracer.

“Commander,” Cassandra said, “I’m—”

Holding up his hand, Cullen silenced her, unable to hear any more apologies from those who left her behind. “Don’t,” he commanded.

She frowned, but accepted his order. “You need to accompany us. This involves you, like it or not.”

Cullen relented. The three walked in step with each other, winding around the pathways of the crumbled stone, mentally making a list in his mind of the men he recognized had fallen.

After a long trek through the ruins, Cullen’s gaze fell on the Inquisitor’s companions and Hawke. He swallowed thickly, eyes scanning the area, still hoping that it was an elaborate jest, that Chrissie was being treated for a non life threatening concern nearby. Yet as he searched, he became increasingly more devastated at each familiar visage he saw, for none of them were the one he so desperately wished to see.

They stood in a circle conversing in whispers. Even with his view of their faces obstructed, by the slump in their shoulders and lack of attention to their wounds, he knew without a doubt, they too grieved.  Avoiding the pools of blood —or trying to— he maneuvered over the obstacles in his path, pushing through Wardens and Inquisition soldiers. He could have forced them to separate using the inflection of command as he often did. However, amidst his racing thoughts, he’d momentarily forgotten how to speak.

One voice —an exhausted, half-mumbled Commander— drew the attention of the masses and resulted in others following suit, echoing and saluting as they passed. 

Cullen’s eyes met Hawke’s and his heart plummeted to his stomach. “Who will lead in her stead?” He choked out in a strangled whisper, pleasantries the farthest thing from his mind.

 “She mentioned to me once," Alistair grimaced, either from pain or the choice of topic —Cullen couldn't tell. "She believed Hawke could take over the mantle, should something happen.”

Cullen opened his mouth but closed it. Brain still in a fog, Marian asked before his lips could form the words. “Why?”

Hawke wanted to know why her; he wanted to know why Alistair thought it was a good idea to mention it. Cullen’s eavesdropping had once caused him to overhear Alistair inform Chrissie what a terrible idea Hawke leading would be. To which, Cullen concurred. His stance had not changed on the matter. Neither had Alistair’s, from what he understood.

Cassandra answered, “It makes sense. We had hoped you would accept the title first, before…” she cut off her words, letting the unfinished sentence linger. “If it was the Inquisitor’s wishes, we shall honor them.” She crossed her arms, shifting her weight, “That is, if you accept.” Motioning to Hawke, the Champion gave a simple nod as confirmation. There hadn’t and wouldn’t be any further official induction as there had been for Chrissie. They would make nothing more than an announcement via parchment to spread the news of their new interim Inquisitor.

He wanted to protest, but citing anyone else would be better a better fit wouldn't be productive. Cullen bowed his head in his hand. Maker, help them all. 

 

It had taken months to arrive with the full army. For the return trip, the plan was to follow the Imperial Highway, rest and resupply in Verchiel, bypass Lydes and spend a night in Halamshiral before returning home. Since Cullen and the inner circle could travel ahead of the remaining forces, it wouldn't be as lengthy.

Numb, Cullen was devoid of emotion. Like a tranquil, all he knew was duty as he trudged his muddy boots forward, headed towards Montsimmard and ultimately Skyhold without their leader. Every step felt like lead weighing him down as the blood rushed in his ears and the drum banged in his head. It had a slow and melancholic rhythm, reminding him of templar funerals and how gutted he had felt standing vigil during those at Kirkwall. It should have been a blessing that for once, he hardly noticed the persistent withdrawal symptoms plaguing him, except he had been preoccupied with other concerns so severe, they outweighed his daily struggles. 

Cassandra tried to speak with him, as had Varric, then Alistair shortly after. But there was nothing to talk about; they could neither provide peace nor lighten a heavy heart. The Inquisitor — Chrissie — was simply gone and he would have to handle that, professionally and personally.

Now was not the time to show his troops defeat. No, he would conceal the pain with decorum and provide a stable, unflappable facade. They may not believe it —he didn't— but they needed strength and reassurance after the loss of their brethren. And he would set the example, as a Commander should.

He had no other choice.

Days passed while he immersed himself in work, even taking on menial tasks he would have ordinarily delegated to a subordinate. When he busied himself, the toil prevented fixating on her absence. Long after the sun set and his responsibilities settled, he retired to his tent.

Before the ruse, the seclusion once concealed nightmare-induced outbursts. Then during, the tent was deliberately placed outside the main encampment to prompt light-hearted teasing. Now, maintaining distance was necessary to hide his grief.

Haphazardly tossing his mantle onto the bedroll, he sighed wearily. It landed next to the empty space where Chrissie’s pack should lay. Looking around, he noticed every single, simple thing missing and raked his fingers through his hair while tears formed.

It was too quiet. His ears lied, hearing the approach of Chrissie's soft steps come toward the tent before turning into the heavy footfall of a soldier on patrol. Her perfume lingered, as plainly as if she'd been here a moment ago. Only his eyes could see the truth, tears speaking in place of memories and hope. Haunted by images, he squeezed them shut, trying to dispel the crying. In the tower, closing and opening his eyes had proven effective at escaping the games of the desire demon. But here and now, it failed.

He could not erase the lines of Chrissie’s face burned into his memory, how her expression would soften in private when she removed the mask of the Inquisitor. It hurt, worse than being run through by any blade or felled by any foe. Honestly, if Corypheus won, he wondered if even that could compare. Then again, he would be much busier and therefore distracted. It saddened him to realize such a horrific and depressing thought could provide him with a reprieve.

“You’re a fool,” he whispered to himself as a tear crossed his lips, “You cannot mourn what was never yours.” He hung his head.

They weren’t truly together, never had been. Yet, he grieved for not only Chrissie, but the falsities the arrangement enabled. An idyllic routine with an incredible woman who had agreed to marry him. After all, it had been a long time since he wanted anyone in his life and he wasn’t expecting to find it here, or her.

But that was the problem, wasn’t it? He wanted her in his life, for as long as she would have him. Though it was impossible and according to their last relationship discussion, she’d made her choice clear.

“A ruse, a lie,” his voice hissed, sounding foreign to his own ears. “Nothing more,” he whispered, knowing damn well his words were false. It was a mad notion, and he should have known he would not be afforded such things.

The opportunity to pursue anything more had been stripped from him, ripped away, like his parents by the Blight, or his Templar brethren by Uldred and his abominations. Stolen, the way the lyrium took his restful nights and dominated his days of endless duties. Everything in his life was pilfered. Each tragedy, piece by piece, chipping away at what remained of his heart until finally he was certain he no longer possessed one. The only sign it had ever existed was the empty hole in his chest where it should be. Not that he could see it, of course, but the moment it shattered, its absence was prevalent.

Placing a hand to his plate, the coolness of the metal seeped into his nerves. Ironic, he thought, that the best armor coin could afford couldn’t truly protect such a valuable organ. Its ghostly beat mocked him like an echo from the Fade. No matter how much he wanted to shake Alistair’s words, they repeated like his nightmares. It changes nothing whether you accept it or not.

The rapping against the tent flap pulled him from the horrid memory and back into the present. Unashamed, he refused to wipe the tears away. Dripping from his chin, they fell, darkening his black pants. 

Cautiously, he moved toward the entrance, prepared for anything. The candlelight cast an indiscernible silhouette against the exterior. Peeking his head through, he saw Josephine standing outside, clipboard in hand, smoothing imaginary wrinkles out of her non-standard apparel —a simple but professionally appropriate shirt and trousers.

Even though she hadn’t attended the siege of Adamant, the Ambassador still was present on Inquisition business. Having several negotiations in Val Firmin, she solidified trade agreements while the army pressed on. She offered a sympathetic smile, and greeted him. Emerging from the tent, he reciprocated half-heartedly.

“Lady Ambassador,” his voice cracked, “to what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Ah, Commander. Well, there are several things to discuss. They can wait until morning if you'd rather be alone," she offered, putting a hand on his arm, “but I noticed the candle and thought you would prefer to be informed sooner, rather than later.”

Cullen motioned towards the tent and held it open while she passed before offering her a seat on the bedroll. After a polite refusal, she choose to stand. He matched her decorum regardless of whether the visit would prove professional or personal. “What is there to discuss?”

“As you know, word of the Inquisitor’s fate has reached Skyhold.”

Cullen wondered if the use of title was deliberate on his behalf. Was she worried he would crumble if she so much as said her name? Possible, or she’d seen he’d been crying and attempted to ease his discomfort.

There was also the likelihood that she was barely holding herself together as well. He had seen many of the inner circle openly give in to grief over the last days. Either way, he appreciated the sentiment and nodded. More or less, all of Thedas would have heard by now; it had been nearly a week.

“Many are offering condolences for our loss. Others are more demanding.” Her tone shifted moving from the even speech of a professional to being edged with disdain, “The Trevelyans have declared the Inquisition responsible for Christalyne’s death and desire compensation from the Inquisition coffers.”

Rage caused his blood to boil, “They’re trying to lay claim to her entitlements?” The family had tested his patience repeatedly, and he tried to be cordial, but this left him seething. Unwilling to handle their nonsense, he would be certain to inform them of his thoughts on the matter once they returned.

“They also wish to obtain any funds she has in Skyhold’s vault.” Her eyes twinkled mischievously, “trying being the operative word.” She stressed her point with her quill in the air. “Alas they cannot. It doesn’t cease their demands to Leliana, but their case is not as strong as they present.”

“Oh?” He quirked his eyebrow. At least that was positive news.

“Indeed. In fact, several weeks ago, she ensured a contingency was in place for this very reason. Any coin saved and the majority of possessions fall to you and your family, leaving the Trevelyans a generous single copper piece.”

He blinked, dumbfounded. Chrissie never even met his family but they were regularly discussed. “I—” he paused, having no idea what to even say— “What? Why?”

“She said she wished her family was as wonderful as yours. That were anyone deserving, it was both you and them.”

Cullen licked his lips, “All right," he said, brow furrowing, "but why leave the Trevelyans just one copper?”

Josephine smiled at the question, a genuine one, as it reached her eyes. “Ch—,” she stopped abruptly before frowning and corrected “she may have been informed any attempt at exclusion could allow the family to dispute, citing they’d been forgotten as an oversight.” Shrugging, she winked, “This removes their ability to contest. Though, I’ve no idea where she might have heard such a crucial detail.”

Inhaling sharply, he offered what he hoped was a reciprocated smile. If it wasn't as intended, the Ambassador made no mention.

“The official document is at Skyhold with her signature and that of two witnesses, myself and Leliana.”

Releasing a strangled noise, he half chuckled, half scoffed. He couldn’t even properly thank Chrissie for this. As far as he was concerned, he needed nothing more than her. It seemed a disservice not to accept. But at the same time, he would be damned before any of the Trevelyans inherited anything else, even were he not the beneficiary of this arrangement.  

“There is one final matter.” Clearing her throat, she looked away, “the announcement of death, how shall we refer to you? Do you wish to be presented as her betrothed specifically, or no?”

She may as well have stabbed him with his own sword. Everything flooded back at once, it was overwhelming. The memories, the reminder, the sight the smells, all he lost. Tears burned his eyes.

“I...” He contemplated the decision, a question that possessed more weight than it would seem. “Wouldn't it compromise the integrity of the Inquisition?”

“Oh no,” she reassured, “I will guarantee that does not happen. We can keep it personal or professional and explain with a brief but vague, she will always be loved by many.”

Should he remove himself or would it be better to ensure it’s included? To omit his name would prove nothing of their ruse, but to list him specifically when they weren’t truly together? Maker, he had no idea the best course of action. He bit down on the inside of his lip until he tasted blood and closed his eyes. “It was real for me, Lady Montiliyet. It has been for some time.”

“I suspected as much.” Nodding, she touched a hand to his shoulder, breaking decorum. “Shall I name you then?”

Exhaling shakily, he breathed, “If there was no mention, I would regret it more.”

“Are you all right?” the Ambassador asked, concern bleeding through. “All things considered, of course.”

“Fine,” he lied, the first one he could remember telling her. He shook his head and ran his hands over his face.

After a pointed stare proving her disbelief, she hugged him and departed with an offer to speak anytime he’d like. He sat in his tent, completely alone with his thoughts, a dangerous place to be.

Kneeling, he prayed. “Have I not suffered, endured enough?” Though logic dictated otherwise, one had to question if, after so many travesties, Chrissie’s death wasn’t a personal slight. His lips quivered, “I have tried to atone. I’m working on it,” he explained, shaking the horrific memory of Kirkwall from his mind. “but you know this. Do not punish her for my transgressions.” He paused, contemplating what to say to turn the Maker’s gaze on him, “I have fought and bled in your name. This cannot be what my efforts have wrought.” 

The tears fell freely, leaving a trail down his cheeks. “I,” he stammered, an old habit he’d ceased years ago, “can’t even arrange a proper funeral.” Strangled sobs escaped him, “bring her back and I will leave her be.” Folding his hands as if it gave validity to his words, Cullen pleaded with the Maker for the woman he loved. “Just bring her back. Please. Breathe life into her once more.” Hanging his head in defeat, he assumed his ask fell on deaf ears. “I will never burden you with another request if you just grant me this.”

For once, not even faith was enough when life offered little.

Chapter Text

A commotion in the distance startled Chrissie awake. “What happened,” she murmured aloud, blinking slowly to clear her bleary eyes. Head throbbing, she touched the injured area, hissing when she pulled her blood covered fingers away. Perhaps that last bout of heroics wasn’t one of her finer moments, but she held no regrets. Well, almost none.

She shifted and her pack rustled, the empty potion vials inside clinking together a bit too loudly. Her eyes darted around to see who or what might have heard. A light touch to her shoulder caught her attention and she turned, startled.

Piercing ice blue — nearly silver—  eyes peered at her under a mop of dark black hair. He spoke softly, but urgently, though she couldn’t discern the garbled words. She recognized the black surcoat draping on the ground as he knelt, the white tunic embellished with black and the matching trousers and scuffed boots. Rubbing her eyes with her clean hand, she closed them and shook her head, positive the man would not be there when she opened them.

He could not be.

Yet, he was. A sudden hollowness settled in her chest, reopening a would long scarred. Swallowing thickly, her voice cracked upon saying his name. “Killian?”

“There’s my girl.” He offered a cheeky smile followed by a wink.

"I'm dead? The color drained from her face and panic set in. “I'm dead, aren't I? Shit. That's why you're here."

“Nope, not if I have anything to say about it.” He slowly helped her to her feet catching her as she wobbled. “We need to move. The spider demon can find us.”

The singular green color of the Fade filled her vision as she recalled what happened. The memory hit her like a maul and she exhaled sharply. Jerking her arm away, she sidestepped and faltered but tried to regain equilibrium. More clumsily than she would like to admit, she grabbed her staff, pointing the bladed end to the impostor’s throat. “Demon!”

How dare he, this, whatever it was, appear as Killian. She snarled, intent to kill the creature on principle. As if the mimicry wasn’t enough cause, his looks down to his mannerisms were exact. If she didn’t know better, she could easily have been fooled.

Hands raised in surrender, he stood still. “Hey, talk to me. I can help you.”

That’s how it always starts, she thought, with an offer of assistance. “What do you want?”

“Listen to me carefully, Lynne,” he explained, speaking slowly but clearly. His expression turned grave, “you need to get out. You do not belong here; your life is in danger.”

There was only one person who had ever used that nickname. “My life has been in danger since…”

“Since you last walked out of the Fade,” he finished.

She tilted her head, eyeing him warily. Of all the cruel tricks the demon could play, this one hurt the most. Her eyes burned with tears but she declared firmly, “Killian wouldn't know that.”

“Just as the Divine wouldn’t have known you’d been made Inquisitor,” he countered, still not making a single move.

Chrissie opened her mouth to protest but closed it. He was right, the Divine had helped and wanted nothing in return. Perhaps not every creature in the Fade was malevolent. Could the same apply to Killian too? Or maybe, that was the demon's plan: to provide a false sense of security before striking when she least expected.

It was also possible he did just want to help. Moving slowly, he grabbed her staff and directed it away from his throat. “Much better, see, things work out well when we get along. Now,” he gestured to the path ahead, “are you ready to get away from the actual bad guys?”

If nothing else, he certainly had a knack for Killian’s sarcasm. She was alone, in the Fade, if he truly wanted to assist, her refusal would only condemn herself. Though that didn’t mean she was about to let her guard down.

“Fine,” she said gathering her bag and affixing her staff to her back — it wasn’t as if she needed it to be dangerous anyway. “Shall, we?”

“Why, I thought you’d never ask,” he smirked. “After you, Mi’lady.”

The two ventured onward. The path wound for hours amidst a never ending sea of green. Broken stone intersected and cut off the way forward, causing her and Killian to maneuver around. Chrissie navigated as well as she could, but no matter how many times she changed direction, they didn’t make any progress outside of going in circles. 

It was like walking through a desert. At the end of every road was a new illusion, every turn a mirage, the false hope shimmering away as they approached. Sometimes she heard voices, some from her past, others from her present.

Cullen had called out to her, she was certain of it. The baritone rang with the inflection of command, frantically searching to ensure her safety. She had stilled, catching a pair of brown boots and a streak of red walk behind a mirror in the distance. For a moment, she thought the Inquisition may have found a way to re-enter the Fade and had come on a personal rescue mission. She ran towards it, pushing her muscles near to strain. By the time she arrived, everything had once again grown dim. The voice was no longer heard, the person never again seen, and the entire scene, as well as her hope, dissipated.

Her practical mind insisted it wasn’t logical and Killian waived it off as a trick of the Fade. After all, only she had the mark; only she was the one with the power to manipulate rifts. Manipulate being the keyword, not manifest from nothing. She supposed she could try to leave as she had entered, but creating the rift that sent her here was done in a time of crisis. It was instinctual, the anchor took over and acted as a means of defense when she had no other. Even if she wanted to duplicate it, completely rip a new tear in the veil to emerge on the other side, she didn’t know how to replicate it.

Never one to give up, it didn’t stop her from trying. Holding her hand toward the sky, she pooled every ounce of magic within her being, focusing and redirecting it through the mark. It illuminated, lightning crackled around her arm as Killian watched from afar. “Come on, you can do this,” he assured with a nod.

Power flowed through her fingertips and a small orb of green light appeared in the air, popping and cracking. As it expanded, a thundering boom shook the ground beneath them before disappearing from sight. She inspected her fist; it appeared normal. “It feels heavy here, odd, like it’s simultaneously overloaded and underpowered.” She rubbed her forehead, “which I realize makes no sense whatsoever.” 

“How long as it been since the Conclave?” Killian quirked an eyebrow and crossed his arms, “you’re expecting things to start making sense now?”

“Yeah,” she muttered, “fair point.”

His shoulders hunched, “I’m sorry, sweetheart. You’ll get it.”

Taking a break as often as possible without risking themselves, she continued to try. Every attempt afterward sputtered and died out, as all things eventually did in the Fade.

Hanging her head in failure, they continued on, while her mind wandered to Skyhold, her friends, Cullen. Their relationship had been at a standstill, neither good nor bad since their last substantial conversation. She owed him more answers than what could be provided at the time, having to let him down hadn’t been easy. In large part, due to the man whose presence she was in right now. As if sensing her thoughts, Killian spoke.

“So,” Killian said, “are you going to tell me about him?” The slightest hint of envy in his tone. 

Chrissie halted mid step; he earned her full attention. Guilt settled in her heart, a cold and sour weight she was all too familiar with lately. She should have anticipated the question, but was thrown off by the brazenness. No need for small talk since he clearly knew more than he had when he died. Naturally, that would be his most pressing inquiry. “Why, are you jealous?”

“No,” he scoffed. “I don’t do jealous.”

Liar. "Well that’s good then,” she said, keeping her features stoic, “since there isn't anything to be jealous about. Ergo, there’s nothing to say.”

“Nothing to say,” he parroted, disbelief apparent in his tone. 

She was not about to divulge to her dead fiance that she had feelings for another man. Regardless of if it was true. It was rude and insensitive. And were she entirely honest with herself, she wasn’t certain how deep her affections toward Cullen went. She never allowed herself to succumb to their thrall, always pulling away when things became progressively more serious.

“Come now,” he said, egging her on, “I died, you moved on. That’s okay.”

She grit her teeth, a harsh edge lined her words, “you didn’t just die. It wasn’t a carriage accident or even a magical misstep. Let’s not pretend it was.”

He shook his head, walking in stride with her, “The details of my demise are not relevant to the current topic of discussion.” 

“But your death is. It’s the reason I’ve never, I couldn’t…” Damn him for getting under her skin; he always had a talent for that.

“Me?” he feigned ignorance, “why? It’s almost like you love me or something.”

“I did!” she defended, “I still do. I, it’s complicated.”

“Not really. You, as you always do, my dear, are making things far more difficult than they need to be.”

“I am not!” She picked up the pace, walking past him and held up her hand, “we’re done talking about it, this discussion is over.”

“Really, Lynne, a bit dramatic, wouldn’t you say? Just humor me. It isn’t as if I don’t already know.”

Right, she reminded herself, mentally cursing him. If you know so much, then why don’t you tell me?” It was an attempt at being stubborn, a way to call him out on his bullshit and redirect the conversation, but it didn’t work. 

Accepting the question as a challenge he smiled genuinely. “All right, I will. And you can tell me if I’m wrong… but I won’t be,” he said singsongingly.

Nostalgia washed over her in waves. She missed his arrogance, the cocky demeanor he always possessed and seeing the dead return to — not quite— life was jarring.

If you didn’t know who and how Killian was, it was easy to dub him as a self serving asshole. And perhaps, outwardly, he may have deserved the title. But those he was closest to were aware of his propensity to do all the wrong things for all the right reasons, having the best of intentions at heart.

“Where to start? Where to start,” he hummed, rubbing his clean shaven face. “Though we look nothing alike, completely opposite in nearly all regards, he’s a good looking guy. You know," he shrugged, "if you’re into that sort of thing.”

She rolled her eyes which only reinforced the validity of his assessment.

“He’s honorable. A man of his word.” The rubble they stepped over crunched under their boots as they made their way down the path into the next area. “You like that, an important trait.”

She remained silent, annoyed at his uncanny ability to know her better than she knew herself. And of course he would. Spending your life together in the circle would do that. Halting in place, Chrissie stared at him, searching for any signs of hurt in his features. Even though he was the one who insisted on this topic, it still seemed distasteful.   

“And one I respect.” He continued, gesturing toward the path, “We must keep moving until we can find a safe place to camp. Assuming that's even possible.”

Wordlessly, she stepped forward, finding a renewed interest in Killian’s slight approval.

“Cullen always did right by you. Before the ruse ever began." Diverting off to a secluded area, he analyzed their surroundings, “Here seems as good of a place as any. There’s only one entrance and one exit to this clearing. If anything comes at us, we’ll know. Plus,” he grabbed her arm and brushed a stray lock away from her face, “I need to dress that head wound.” 

The brush of his fingers caused gooseflesh to ripple across her skin. She remembered the lonely nights and the prayers she once recited requesting the Maker allow her something as simple as this. Given the fact Chrissie still wasn’t certain what type of spirit he was, she resisted the urge to hug him. Still not allowing herself the relief she would have ordinarily felt at seeing him again. 

Setting down her pack and staff, she kept them close at her side. Killian sat on a nearby log, and motioned for her to follow suit on the ground between his legs, facing him. Nimble fingers traced the injury. Despite the occasional grunt or gasp of pain, his touch was gentle, reassuring, reminding her of a number of stolen moments in the circle. Also, the treatment of several injuries, she thought, wincing at the past.

“Back to the topic, my dear,” he murmured, pulling a few poultices from her bag.

“Really?” Chrissie sputtered, “we’re doing this?”

He nodded while handing her the last potion. “Yes, we are really doing this. Now, before I start, drink up. It'll help expedite the healing process.”

Brow furrowed, her words were harsh, “why does it matter?” She drank but stood, storming forward and allowing the glass to shatter on the ground. He hadn't even begun to tend to her injury. What was this anyway? Some form of Fade mind game, meant to place a victim in awkward and uncomfortable situations? The intention seemed deliberate to cause dismay. 

Even before he made contact, the echoes of his footsteps could be heard trailing behind. He stopped and spun her toward him. Cupping her cheeks, those ice blue eyes peered into her soul. He looked at her as he used to, as if she was the only woman in the world worth looking at. “Because it matters to you,” he whispered, placing a chaste kiss to her forehead. 

Hugging her, his body heat radiated through the unarmored portions of her apparel. Odd, she thought, he’s still so warm. Even his scent was as remembered, earthy with a bit of smoke, like the kind you get from roasting dinner over an open fire.

Regaining her wits, she pulled herself away. “What is it you want from me, exactly?”

He stepped closer, removing the distance she’d put between them, “You need to remember what’s worth fighting for.”

She crossed her arms, “and how does talking about Cullen achieve that?” 

His brows raised, “Why ask what you already know the answer to?”

“I don’t…” she paused despite being well aware of what he referred and corrected, “Stop answering a question with a question!” Maker, he was insufferable.

“You’re deflecting.” Making his way back over to the medical supplies, he motioned for her to follow, “In fact, I’d dare say you love him.”

Now that, she flinched, that's preposterous. She couldn’t. That would mean, well that would be confessing the ultimate betrayal to Killian’s face. To be with a former Knight-Commander, what a ridiculous notion. Shaking her head, she allowed her thoughts to wander, not moving despite his beckoning. 

But it wasn’t just any former high-ranking templar. It was Cullen. A man who always maintained professional decorum, even in private. The one who had been so incredibly thoughtful before the ruse ever began, as Killian had pointed out. Cullen was the Commander in shining armor who swooped in the save the day regardless of necessity. The hero she always had but never realized she needed.

Maker, she missed him. The scent of oakmoss and armor wax that filled her nose as he held her. His strong arms making her feel safe, secure, protected. Absentmindedly, her fingers ghosted over where his lips seared against hers in their heated kiss, how the charged emotion surged through her like lighting. She closed her eyes, recounting every detail of what occured in his office and then subsequently how she later let him down —as gently as possible— in their quarters. 

Gritting her teeth together, her lips twitched. She still despised seeing the hurt on Cullen’s face, an expression that would haunt her all her days. Even if she did love him, which she certainly was not admitting to, he deserved far better. Sighing, she crossed her arms, holding herself in a feeble attempt at self comfort, “I do not,” she swallowed, as if speaking it would leave a foul taste in her mouth, “L-word him.” 

Looking over her shoulder, Killian was tapping his boot. “You going to let me dress that wound or not? Is your plan to venture through this unsavory place in dirty dressings where you’re liable to get an infection?” Impatiently waiting for her to follow his instruction, he waved the bandages to prove his point, “nasty stuff.”

Chrissie conceded, touching the area with her fingers and looking at the red stains, the remnants of half coagulated blood. She trudged over to him, taking a seat on the cold, hard ground. 

Rifling through the bag, he pulled out an almost empty bottle, “Rum, it’ll help take the edge off.”

She smiled, recalling his penchant for that particular alcohol. “I haven’t had rum in… Maker, years. Since you-”

“Died,” he supplied, “stop trying to spare my feelings. It happened, I’m over it,” he shrugged, “mostly.” He took a small sip and handed the rest to her. “Why carry it, if you don’t drink it? A pity to let such a fine alcohol sit and be unappreciated.”

“Sentimental reasons.”

“I'm a bit disappointed, Because if you knew me how I thought you knew me," he said, glancing at her skeptically, "you'd know I would have said to enjoy the rum.”

“Fine, stop being a pain and let me enjoy then,” she took the alcohol and rolled her eyes. The gentle pull of the adhesive keeping the current dressing in place tugged at her skin and hair. She inhaled deeply before taking a swig. 

“Not all of it,” he warned, “we need to pour some on the wound too.” He discarded the bandage; it fell next to the side of her leg. A deep crimson stain lent credence to a harsher injury than she realized.

“The bleeding hasn't yet stopped.” He grabbed the bottle, pouring the remainder on the laceration. 

Chrissie jumped at the stinging sensation, alcohol sizzling on her flesh. She hissed; a string of curses spewed from her lips.

“Now now,” he chuckled, “that’s hardly language befitting of the Inquisitor.” Tisking her, he continued, “not very ladylike at all. What would your Ambassador say?”

“You know what, Kill?”

“No,” he offered a cheeky smile, “but I’ve no doubt you’re about to tell me.”

She huffed, swatting his leg. “Do you ever grow tired of hearing your own voice?”

He feigned hurt, frowning, “but it’s so melodic, I can’t imagine anyone could.” Exchanging the material for a clean replacement, he ran his free hand through the strands of her hair and whispered, “I missed this.”

She turned toward him, “changing my dressings?”

“No.” Killian’s expression contorted in disgust. “Not that, never that. But this,” his finger stroked her cheek and he followed the curve of her face until it rested just under her chin, “you.” Leaning closer, he tilted her head upwards and he bent forward, warm hot breath against her skin.

Bridging the distance, his lips touched hers. It was gentle, sweet, neither pushy nor forceful by any means. Despite it being everything she remembered, had imagined, and more, it was wrong, completely and utterly wrong.

The spark that had always been between them was gone, and without it, the kiss didn't mean as much as it once had. Pulling away, she frowned, hoping to convey sympathy. Chrissie loved Killian and always would, but things were far from how they used to be. She was a different person now. 

He nodded, understanding what wasn’t said, and applied the new bandage, “because of him?” 

She opened her mouth and closed it making a squeaking noise similar to a mouse. Hanging her head, she whispered, “I,” she exhaled shakily, “L-word him.”

“I know,” he said, matching her tone, “that’s why you need to get back. You, Mi’lady, have a promise to keep.”

Her own words to Cullen resounded in her head, I will do whatever necessary to try to make it back to you and our home.

"Huh," she mused, "I absolutely do."

Chapter Text

The scouts descended, seemingly appearing from out of thin air. Leliana had a schedule to maintain, which kept them arriving and departing at all hours, even while on the Imperial Highway.

The stop in Verchiel to resupply had been an error in judgement. Roughly ten days had passed since the Inquisitor’s death and the topic was on everyone’s lips. Roaming a country who exchanged gossip like they did currency, Cullen couldn’t escape. 

Maker they were everywhere —like a plague of locusts. People who wanted something from him. Not even his higher officers could handle their affairs it seemed, as it wasn’t one but three, yes, three of them, sought his expertise in frivolous matters, issues they were educated and trained to handle. 

It started in the town square. The merchants put on a grand display, showing their wares to anyone who cared to see what they peddled. An arrangement of flowers caught his eye, and he wondered briefly if Chrissie would have liked them. They were a dark, musty looking yellow — an unappealing color, but there was a delicateness he appreciated. A fragileness that made him want to buy one and protect it, to prevent such simple beauty from wilting. There was so little of it in the world, after all.

An elderly lady dressed in finery stood beside him, conversing with the nearby bookseller. Being an educated man, Cullen knew enough Orlesian to grasp the gist of what she said, but was limited in his own verbal ability. Catching a glimpse of him out of the side of her eye, her full scrutiny fell upon him. Apparently recognizing the Inquisition insignia and identifiable uniform, she asked, “Excusez-moi, Monsieur. Vous êtes Le Commandant de l’Inquisition, n’est pas?”

She spoke quickly and he had to process the translation, running the words through his head several times. Excuse me, Ser. You are the Commander of the Inquisition, right?

He nodded, wondering what assistance he may be able to provide her and asked one of the few Orlesian phrases he knew by heart. “Parlez-vous la langue du roi?”  

“Ah, yes, I speak King’s tongue.” Her thick accent made her common difficult to discern. And he wondered if he wouldn’t have been better off sticking with her native language. He cleared his throat, “Was there something you needed?”

“Oh no.” She touched an unwanted hand to his bracer, but he thought it rude to jerk away. The feeble woman didn’t mean any harm, but it resulted in him having to refrain from shifting uncomfortably. “I wanted to express my condolences for your betrothed and your unborn child.” 

His teeth made a sharp click as he closed his mouth and stared. Never one to aid in falsities being deliberately spread, he corrected her. Perhaps it was the language barrier, but no matter how Cullen phrased his response, the woman believed he grieved for both the woman he loved and a child  —as if he could have survived losing both.

He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose between his eyes, hoping the welling tears would dissipate. Maker, why was this happening?

Leaving the flower stand, he sought the blacksmith, his true purpose for venturing through the square. Upon arrival, the process repeated. Others also offered condolences. His heart pounded in his ears, thundering against his chest in tune with the Smith's hammer. Again, he corrected the details but none heeded and he found the efforts futile. By the time he left, he remained adamant he was being watched, like all eyes were upon the one who'd lost so much. It could have been paranoia, but the sensation was real enough.

Ducking into the alley, he planned to regain his composure. Chrissie’s voice rang in his head, We need to get you calm. Breathe with me. Nice and slow. The cruel tricks his mind played only further dismayed him. His breath became more rapid and he squeezed his fists, digging his nails into the palm of his hands despite his gloves. He closed his eyes and rolled his shoulders as her memory haunted him. In, she whispered, out. Focus on me and let me bring you back. 

But she couldn’t bring him back when she wasn’t here herself. When she wouldn’t be here ever again. There would be no lecture about her carelessness and no stern reprimands about her sacrifice. Cullen couldn’t even confront her about breaking her promise! 

He would never have answers to the questions he wanted to ask. Why was she content to be a damn martyr? Chrissie wasn’t daft, she couldn’t have been ignorant to such things. How in the Void did she think the Inquisition would triumph without her? How did she think he would persevere without her? The most closure he achieved was angrily spewing his accusations into an empty tent and breaking down when only silence answered. 

Slinking to his bottom, Cullen buried his face in his hands. A rustling to his right caught him off guard and he maneuvered to his feet, grabbing the hilt of his sword. The man emerged from the shadows, head cocking side to side like a bird. Dusty brown in color, his cloak was ragged as if it hadn’t been laundered in quite some time. Upon seeing Cullen, he quirked an eyebrow and smirked, “Templar.”

Curious to the method of identification, Cullen remembered the Order’s flaming sword on his bracers. He huffed, positive that nothing this shady character offered could garner interest. Yet, as the man pulled the cloak’s draping outward, he revealed several draughts lining the interior secured by stitched pockets. 

”You interested?” 

The blue liquid swished in their vials with each move. Suddenly, Cullen's throat was dry and the tremor in his hand started. Need and desire burned from within the pit of his stomach. 

As Commander of the Inquisition, he could easily send this addict enabling fool to the gallows for his transgressions. The Inquisition had both legitimate and underworld lyrium supply lines. But, this stock would be separate. He could purchase one and no one would ever know he had it in his possession. Just to keep for when situations deemed absolutely necessary. 

Averting his eyes to the floor,  he inhaled deeply before looking up. “How much?”

 

With every step on the return to the inn where Josephine procured for the eve, the vial sat in his pocket, his hand brushing it. Simply to ensure it’s still there, he told himself. The substance mocked him, similar to how it felt like the people around him had in his grief. At least five more provided their apologies, two of which were his own men. He supposed he should have been grateful they cared enough to make an effort. But their heartfelt words changed nothing and alleviated no woes.  

Reaching the door to his room, a scout caught him to deliver the day’s missives. She saluted, “Commander. The Inquisitor wishes to see you when you have a moment, Ser.”

For a brief second, he hadn’t realized she meant Hawke. The hole in his chest was prevalent again. It was odd that something which wasn’t there could be felt at all. He closed his eyes and licked his lips. “Is it urgent?”

“No, Ser.”

Nodding, he took the stack, dismissed her, and entered. His accommodations were quaint, decorated in orlesian frippery, but still sufficient. The bed was centered along the main wall, adjacent to the dresser and desk. Given there was no rush to meet Hawke, he distracted himself with the reports.

Most were standard: requisition requests, a morale status report from Rylen at Griffon Wing, an updated account of lives lost at Adamant. Others were detailed mission plans requiring his signature. An hour passed while he worked through the mountain of parchment. Resting at the bottom was a sealed envelope with a note: 

For your review.
—Lady Montiliyet.

Breaking the wax seal, he withdrew the message and began reading.

We regret to inform you, Lady Inquisitor Christalyne Trevelyan of Ostwick perished in service to the Inquisition.

Beloved leader and friend, she was a brave and kind soul who sacrificed herself to save countless lives. She is survived by her betrothed, Commander Cullen Rutherford of Honnleath.

There was more but he stopped. Breath hitching in his throat, the tears spilled down his cheeks. It took every ounce of willpower in his body not to shred the parchment. Instead, he sat as still as a statue, eyes fixated on the notification.  

The knock at the door pulled him from his wallowing. “Another report for you, Commander.” Wiping his cheeks and eyes quickly, he slid the notification out of view. “Enter,” he announced, voice cracking. He cleared his throat, accepting the delivery in exchange for his completed workload. 

Scouring the new report, he slammed his fist down on the desk and stood abruptly. A jest, it had to be. Crumpled parchment in hand, he stormed out the door and down the hall, rapping loud enough to wake the dead against Hawke’s room.

“Champion,” he bellowed —because he was not about to call her Inquisitor. “Come in, Commander.” 

He burst through like a man on a mission, stomping in like he owned the place. His lips twitched in an angry snarl. 

Marian sat at her desk and Alistair was perched in the chair nearby. It was clear he’d interrupted something, though he didn’t care. Hawke greeted Cullen with a smile but it fell off her face the moment she looked up. “I wanted to see how you were doing. Are you well?”

Eyes narrowing, he scoffed. “Am I well?” Tilting his head to the side, he waved the crumpled report at her. “You ally with Chrissie’s murderers and allow the Gray Warden’s to stay in Ferelden knowing they’re compromised?” He cast a pointed look to Alistair. “Then, have the audacity to inquire how I am?” 

“Commander, be reasonable.” Hawke said, in a calm and even tone.

That was the equivalent to a slap in the face. “Your statement implies I’m acting devoid of reason,” he chuckled at the absurdity, “of which, I am not. They are a stain upon this Inquisition,” sneering, disgust dripped from every word.

“Hey now!” Alistair interjected, holding his hands up in surrender. “The Wardens aren’t responsible for Chrissie’s death.”

Trembling from rage, his blood boiled beneath his skin, “Not directly, perhaps, but you're responsible for everything that led up to it! Summoning a demon army, causing the death's of Inquisition men, good men," he reiterated, "while we fought to stop your deranged plot. You even sacrificed members of your own order and killed the Divine!”

Hawke shook her head, “Cullen. We need the Wardens. They are a valuable ally.”

“Given that Chrissie isn’t here and he is,” Cullen pointed to Alistair, “what value did he provide?" He snarled, "Or you for that matter.” 

Marian stood, balancing her weight against the desk. She met him eye to eye, unwavering. “That’s unworthy of you.”

“No," he protested, unwilling to back down, "unworthy was leaving your leader, your Inquisitor, behind so you both could reap the benefits.”

Alistair slammed his hand against the desk causing the ink well to clatter and nearly spill. “You could have accompanied us. There are more than a few high ranking officers who could have lead the charge. You're the Commander, delegate! If it was that important to you, you would have found a way. Perhaps instead of storming in here with your inaccurate accusations, you take a moment to re-evaluate. Because no,” his voice grew louder, “I may not have been able to save her but at least I was there! I,” he emphasized, patting his chest, “tried. Where were you?”

Those words washed over Cullen like an ice bath on a sweltering day. It woke him from his stupor. I was right; I could have done something.

Chapter Text

Lightning arched between the ornament on Chrissie’s staff and the three wraiths encircling her. She ducked, narrowly missing a swipe. A burst of fire expanded outward as Killian’s spell singed the creature’s flesh. It released a piercing shriek until it collapsed, dead. Quickly looking over her shoulder, she spotted him maneuvering around the Pride demon, luring it away from her position.

Winter’s grasp shot from her fingertips. Starting at the demon’s foot, ice encased its legs, rendering it immobile. Jumping, she spun her staff, bringing the bladed end down through the torso of the wraith on her right. Blood sprayed her armor. Taking advantage of the opening, she darted to attack the pride demon from behind.

Raw power surged in her veins. She halted, pulling every ounce of mana in her being. Her muscles tensed; the pressure building. Gesturing with her hands, she thrust forward, summoning the meteor storm. Fire rained, pouring from the Fade lit green Sky and shook the ground beneath her. The vibrations radiated through her boots, through her body and all the way up to her teeth, making them rattle.

Eyes scanning her surroundings, she mentally counted the corpses. Eight, she breathed, all accounted for. Killian ran, weaving through her area of destruction as the comets collided with the terrain. One landed with a thud, ceasing his stride and blocking his path. Another followed, threatening to crush him. Chrissie screamed in warning. Waving his hands, he encased himself in a barrier illuminating red. The meteor hit, the impact causing a deafening explosion of sound and rubble. Even where she stood, the force of it knocked her to the ground.

Once the dust settled, she shifted to her feet on wobbly legs. “Killian?” 

No answer. 

“Killian!” Running, or rather, limping toward the center of the destruction, she shifted the rocks, ignoring the heat searing every inch of exposed skin. “Killian!”

A cough tore her away from sifting through the rubble. “Aw, Lynne,” he said, wiping debris from his robes, “were you worried?”

She exhaled, emotions melding between irritation and relief. “I thought you were dead,” realizing the absurdity, she reiterated, “again.”

“Already dead. Plus, that’d be a bit excessive, wouldn’t you say?” Killian smiled, raising his eyebrows. “Come on, let’s go before more creepy crawlies and dead things show up. Present company excluded, of course.”

Rolling her eyes, she conceded his point. “That’s the third ambush in hours.” 

“They’re getting closer.” He explained, grabbing her pack and handing it over, “doesn’t bode well for either of us. If we can’t figure out how to get you out… Well,” he shook his head, letting the unfinished linger in the air.

The anchor pulsed green and she cursed the wretched thing under her breath. What good was it if it didn’t unlock the way home? She had continued to try opening a rift from scratch, repeatedly, almost injuring herself in the process as the shocks caved inwardly, singeing her armor. It was nothing too severe, but enough that were her life not on the line, she'd be deterred from trying again.

As they ventured forward, a handsome blonde Commander remained at the forefront of her mind. She wondered how their troops faired in battle and how much sleep Cullen had lost over the casualties. Hoping he wasn’t dealing overmuch with withdrawal symptoms or panic attacks in her absence, she prayed for his welfare. If she knew Cullen, which she’d like to think she did, he was busy directing contingents, reallocating troops, scouring the face of the planet to find any trace of her. Meanwhile, of course, marking resource locations and undiscovered rifts on the map—.  

“Killian!” she squealed, swatting at his arm. “I know how to get home.”

“All ears, darling.”

“The open rifts. There aren’t many but there are some I haven’t closed yet. If demons can enter, why couldn’t I?”

“Since you can’t seem to create one from scratch big enough to walk through,” he rubbed his chin, “it’s possible, except you’re forgetting a few things.”

“Hmm?”

“We’ve been travelling for days, breaking only to rest, and we’ve not seen a single open rift.” He gestured to the terrain around them, “We’ve seen much of the same, broken mirrors, the color green, and demons. The paths shift and we never travel the same road twice.” 

She pulled out her waterskin, taking a sip of water. Given the limited supply, they used it sparingly. “How do we combat that?”

“I’ve no idea.” He shrugged, “Even if we did find one, who knows where it’s located in Thedas. You could end up far from Adamant.”

“So the hope is that we just so happen to run across an open rift, that just so happens to be down the correct ever changing path, and the theory I can go through it, just so happens to be accurate?” Running her fingers through her hair, she sighed, “Great plan.” No, it was a shit plan, a complete and total shit plan.

“Unless you’ve one better… it’s all we’ve got.”

Well, he isn't wrong.

Chrissie deflated, the bubble of hope bursting at the bleak truth. Her eyes burned, tears exacerbated by the slight breeze. I promise, I will do whatever necessary to try to make it back to you and our home. “I swore to him, Killian.”

Looking down, he rubbed his neck, “I know you did, sweetheart.”

As sadness gave way to anger, she trudged forward. “Damn Fade.” Her boot met with a chunk of Veridium and it thudded after flying into the distance. Lightning crackled from her hands. She pushed, the spell spiraling off wildly.

“This was foolish.” She scolded herself. “I'm never going home. I'm not going to see my friends, my family. The inquisition will be leaderless while I'm here, fucking powerless!” Her mind grew toxic as she remembered the younger version of herself, terrified and withdrawn in a circle surrounded by strangers, unknown if friend or foe. “Of course it ends here.” Her shoulders slumped and she whispered, “I'm sorry, Cullen.”

Killian watched, his frown morphed into a smirk, “you know the best way to release aggression, don't you?”

Immediately, she turned, placing her hands on her hips and glared.

A cheeky smile spanned his face, “I didn't mean that. Not saying I would be opposed…”

The pointed stare must have conveyed her thoughts of his suggestion because he laughed in response.

“There's nothing quite like that tangle of energy. Mine, yours, melding together and creating the perfect,” he paused, gesturing for emphasis and clapped, “sparring match.”

Quirking an eyebrow, she stifled a snort. “We’re being hunted and you want to spar?”

“It’s all right to be afraid, Lady. Inquisitor,” Fire enveloped his hands and he held them extended, “I’d be scared of me too.”

“Scared of you?” Licking her lips before pursing them, she shot a lighting bolt, narrowly missing his feet, “Bring it on.”

Killian wiggled his brows and lunged forward, flames propelling from his hands as Chrissie dodged. 

Pulling her staff from her back, she waved it around methodically, placing a barrier for added protection. Sidestepping each attack, she dissipated his half-prepared spell. “Is that the best you’ve got?”

She ran, keeping him in sight at all times. Cullen’s instruction from a previous training session echoed in her ears, ensure you’re not giving the enemy an opportunity to strike. Her lips tugged to the side in an appreciative smile. Funny how, even separated from each other, he remained a constant source of guidance. 

Ice encased her thighs halting her and interrupted her thoughts. Killian threw a fireball. It flew, growing larger with each passing second. Slamming her fist against the ice, she shattered her confines in time to roll forward as the heat caressed her face.

Rubbing her sore hand, her eyes narrowed. Fine, she thought, dusting herself off, I’ll fight fire with fire. Yanking back, immolate flourished where Killian stood. He stepped out of the circle of flame, unphased. Chrissie clicked her tongue, Or I won’t. Well, shit.

“Will you admit defeat, My Lady?”

“Never.”

He charged and she met the advance. Pushing her muscles, she thrust with full force. Their staves clashed against one another. The clatter echoed off the rubble and stone all around them. 

Weight evenly distributed, she drove forward trying to gain the upper hand. With a jerk, Killian broke the standstill, swiping at her legs. She jumped, narrowly missing the shaft. Seizing the opportunity, she shifted, plunging the ornament side forward. It struck his midsection and he groaned.

“Prepared to surrender, Kill?” She smiled, recalling how this was daily routine in the circle. As much as she wanted to get home, she was grateful for this opportunity —to see Killian again, to finally have that sense of closure.     

“Not on your life, Princess.” He placed a hand on her side, using her for balance, “if you could give me a moment though.” 

Sighing, she rubbed her forehead, “Really? You-” Her words were cut off abruptly as the heat from his hand radiated through her hip and singed her skin. He snapped his head up, meeting her eyes and winking as she jumped back. 

“Oh, you ass!”

“Sloppy,” he chided, “you know better than to fall for that.” He sangsong his teasing, “Someone’s out of practice.” 

“Am not,” she defended, “were this a real fight, you’d already be dead.”

“I am dead!” Using his shoulder, he knocked Chrissie to the ground, but held her securely as she fell, preventing actual harm. “Now, put on your Inquisitorial trousers and hit me like you mean it.”

The air in her lungs was forcibly removed on impact. “You’re going to regret that,” she rasped.

He smiled, nose to nose with her and whispered, “Make me.”

With a mindblast, he was propelled backward. He landed with a thud and rolled several times on his side. “That’s what I’m talking about! I knew you had it in you.” he exclaimed with far too much glee. “Bet you’re feeling better.” 

A little, but she didn’t dare admit it. “I’ll be better once I kick your ass.”

He nodded subtly, standing. “Then come at me.” Holding up his hand, he beckoned her.

Having made it to her feet, she smirked, “very well then.”

A flurry of spells whipped across the gap between them, some colliding and exploding upon impact, others dissipating, most hitting their respective targets.

Lightning struck her shoulder, the bolt coursing through her veins electrifying her to the tips of her fingers and toes. For a moment, her joints seized and she was rendered immobile. Regaining feeling, her body buzzed, humming with the aftershocks.

The hit fueled her desire to win, morphing anger into determination.

“Who are you to best me?” He questioned, closing the distance as the dust settled around them.

“I am Christalyne Trevelyan.” Unintimidated, she took a step forward, ignoring her legs feeling akin to pasta. Not willing to let her discomfort show on her features, she kept her expression stoic. 

“Who?” He asked, feigning ignorance, shooting spells at her.

“Inquisitor, mage,” she deflected his attacks, “queen of my fucking castle.” The declaration rang in a commanding tone. Cullen would've been proud, even if he would have flinched at the curse. 

“And?” Killian's voice grew louder, “so what?”

Spinning her staff in a circle, she fired in rapid succession, pelting him with every elemental power she was capable of wielding. “And I've a promise to keep.”

“That's my girl!” Nodding his approval, he cheered, “Now, give me the best you’ve got.”

Clear by his tone, it was a challenge, one she was more than willing and ready to accept. The anchor flared to life, crackling. Arching green lightning jumped between her fingertips as she reached her hand towards the sky. It illuminated in a blinding flash, until the power culminated, sending projectiles flying wildly.

At a distance, Chrissie was safe, but her gaze followed the path of one in particular, headed straight for Killian. His eyes grew wide and he rolled forward, the stray spell grazed the back of his surcoat and slammed into the mirror behind him. “Killian! You said you couldn’t be hurt.”

He stood, holding up his finger, “I did not.”

“You kept saying you’re already dead, implying you can’t die again.”

“Well, if that’s how you interpreted it, my dear, that’s hardly my fault.” He winced, holding his side, “However, let’s not further test the theory.”

As she marched forward angrily, the mirror behind him illuminated an iridescent blue and shimmered to life. Her pace slowed, “is that, a door?”

Killian turned, eyes scanning the height of the mirror. “I think it is.”

She couldn’t help the bark of delighted laughter that bellowed and she covered her mouth in disbelief.

Reaching out to touch it, Killian hissed in pain and drew back. “I can’t pass.”

Extending her hand, she stepped closer pushing her fingertips through the glass. She didn’t experience any pain but she put her hand down slowly at her side. Facing Killian, her brow furrowed.

He had been ripped from her involuntarily, a life ended far too soon. I must go. She thought and meant it, though it didn’t make it hurt less. How could she leave him now? She had a choice this time, something she had not been previously afforded.  

He cupped her face, tucking a stray raven lock behind her ear. His eyes fell over her features, seemingly committing them to memory. “You must go.” He whispered, voice cracking. Stroking her cheek, he smiled, “He’s the right man, the right choice.” His lips touched hers, a ghostly sensation. Pulling away, those piercing blues penetrated her soul, “and not that you ever needed it, but you have my approval.” 

Opening her mouth to speak, a strangled noise emerged. She swallowed as tears spilled. Throwing her arms around his neck, she hugged him and squeezed, taking her time to relish the moment. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.” When he pulled back, his cheeks were wet. “Now, you need to get going before I decide to keep you here for myself.” He smiled, gesturing to the mirror. His expression turned stern. “I will destroy it once you’ve left so nothing from the Fade passes through. But when you go, there’s no coming back. You have to move forward.”

Exhaling shakily, she nodded, “I understand.” Turning, she looked at the mirror, scared but also hopeful.

“Oh, before I forget, tell your friend Alistair, Neria says I love you, I'm proud of you, I'd do the same.”

She cast him a quizzical glance, ”What does that even mean?”

He shrugged, “Not sure, I’m just the messenger.”

“How would you know that, or her? Ostwick was nowhere near the Ferelden Circle.”

“I keep watch over you, she keeps watch over him.” He winked, “can’t say anything else though, because that would give away the game.”

“Wait, if you were guarding us, how come I didn’t see you until after the battle with the fear demon?”

“As you know, the Fade is terrible to navigate. Once you pulled everyone in, Neria and I couldn’t see you any longer. Our paths split when I found you and we realized you had sent Alistair back. She followed him, of course.”

“I’ll be sure to tell him.” A quick goodbye would be the easiest and this had already been drawn out too long. As she stepped toward the mirror, his hand caught her wrist.

“Just one more thing.” He cleared his throat, “If you ever run into,” his lips and nose twitched as he snarled, “you know who.” Eyes narrowing, he met her gaze, “give him my warmest regards.”

“I will.” She nodded, jaw set in determination, “I swear it.”

He bit his lip and pulled her into another embrace, whispering, “light ‘em up.” Smirking, he pushed her backward and through to whatever laid beyond.

The sounds of shattering glass rang in her ears as Chrissie stumbled over the shards of the broken mirror trying to regain balance. She shifted, using a tree to steady herself. Unlike normal, the branches were spread oddly, curving towards the sky in the same direction. Elven, she presumed, making her best educated guess.

Covered in dense fog, she squinted. As far as the eye could see, the ground was weathered stone, spanning outward and leading to dozens, if not hundreds, of mirrors. Not a single one illuminated in the bunch. Calling out, her voice merely echoed, resounding as if the space was enclosed despite the openness.

The hair on her arms stood up. On alert, the area exuded an eerie aura. Similar to what she imagined Haven would feel like were she to visit it now. She didn’t sense any imminent danger, and the anchor wasn’t acting any more abnormal than it had been, though it didn’t mean she could rest easy.

Checking every mirror, her shoulders slumped, discovering them all broken in varying degrees. It was like finding a needle in a haystack. Perhaps she and Killian had been too optimistic. After all, even if she did find one intact, could she open it? Would it lead her right back to the Fade where she started? Maybe just happening to stumble upon an open rift would have been the better route. At least then, she’d still have Killian for backup. As she’d long since learned from Cole, a spirit made an excellent fighting companion.

For hours Chrissie walked with nothing but thoughts as company. Her limbs ached and every step seemed like it may be the one that finally caused muscle strain. Yet she pressed on. Though she encountered no hostile forces of any kind, thank the Maker, she hardly felt safe. With each destroyed doorway, her hope dimmed. Upon finally deciding to rest for the night, her eyes caught a sight in the distance. A mirror, seemingly flawless was just a bit further. She ran, despite her fatigue. A sudden burst of energy granted her the ability, her own heavy footfalls echoing with every step.

She stopped in front of the glass, and noticed the lack of reflection. Running her fingertips along the ornate frame, she admired the intricate metalwork, the swirling designs adding the perfect touch to what she suspected was an ancient piece. Her thumb grazed the surface catching on the smallest knick, nearly naked to the eye. The blood formed a small bubble on her skin and she sighed wiping it on her trousers. Of course, this mirror would be broken too. “Damn it all,” she cursed, and bannged against it with her left hand. The anchor sparked to life, and a ripple started. Expanding outward, it illuminated the mirror.

Throwing her head back, she laughed in spite of herself. A delighted chuckle mixed with a squeal. Wasting no time, she stepped through, praying this would be the way home.

More prepared this time than the last, she passed with no trouble. Chrissie emerged in a room, every item glittered with gold or silver. It screamed of wealth, with gilded floors and polished pristine furniture. Given the plethora of decorations, it took a moment before she realized she wasn’t alone. Standing against a normal door on the opposite side was a woman. Dark and mysterious, she was shrouded in magical aura. Perhaps she is not interested in offering aid. Chrissie swallowed before sighing in defeat.

“T’is most convenient, your appearance. The Inquisition will be pleased." 

Chapter Text

Cullen grit his teeth, slamming his fists against the desk. No, he could not stand for this. To be part of an organization who would allow the transgressions of the Wardens go unpunished and furthermore ally with them? After what they did to Chrissie? But it wasn’t entirely their fault, was it? It was yours. You could have done something, Cullen’s mind countered. Even Cassandra had agreed.

Storming from Hawke’s room, he pounded his fist against Cassandra’s door. It swung open, her features falling from the book in her hands at the sight of him. “Cullen?”

He barged past into her room without permission or care of what he may have been interrupting. “Effective immediately, I tender my resignation.”

“What?” Her mouth fell open and she gave him a sideways glance. “You are being unreasonable.”

“I’m not.” Why was everyone telling him that? “I cannot stand with the Inquisition if it’s mission is to exalt murderers.” He cringed, his words reminding him of Chancellor Roderick’s. The thought wasn't a comfort, but his emotions wouldn't allow him to feel any more regret than he already did.

You’re upset about the Wardens.” It was a statement, not a question. She closed the door and turned to him.

“Aren’t you?” He pinched the bridge of his nose, frustrated he even had to explain why this mattered. “Would you have let them stay? Waste our resources to supply and feed them?”

“I support the Inq-” she looked up at him hesitantly, as if the title would set him off, “Inquisitor’s decision.”

Cullen stared, stricken dumb. It was hardly believable this was the same woman who began the Inquisition, publicly declared her disapproval of the Chantry’s actions and initiated change. Where did that woman go? “You can’t be serious!”

"You asked for my opinion, and I’ve given it.” Cassandra declared, crossing her arms.

Perhaps the blind support for Hawke stemmed from fear of the organization she built crumbling from underneath them. He shook his head, and bit the inside of his cheek.“Would you rather save face than admit-”

The door opened, revealing Hawke. Annoyed at yet another intrusion, Cassandra's disgust was evident in a loud scoff.

“I can hear your muffled voices down the hall.”

He snarled; of course Marian was again interfering where she had no business to. A pointed look indicated his displeasure to Cassandra, “We will speak of this later.”

Pacing his room, his rage had not subsided. His breath grew rapid, heart hammering against his chest. Maybe he was being unreasonable. He allowed the ruse to eclipse his priorities, to provide a welcome distraction. How could he have been so foolish? In your attempt to atone, you gave less to the Inquisition than you did the Chantry. And look, look what it caused.

You could do better, be better.

Squeezing his eyes closed, he tried to expel the thoughts. He distributed his weight between his arms and leaned against the desk’s surface for balance, ignoring the missives scattered across. Attempting to calm down, he wanted to remember Chrissie’s words as he had earlier that day, how she had helped him during his panic attack, but it was drowned out by the voice which never faltered. The one always reminding him of everything he did wrong. Chrissie deserved your best and you let her die. More mage blood staining your hands while you stood, pretending things weren’t happening. Cullen covered his ears, as if it would quiet the accusations. You’ll never be able to atone for all you’ve done. 

He fumbled for the draught in his pocket. Removing it, the small vial provided comfort as it rested in his hand, a sense of certainty he had long since forgotten. While taking lyrium, his senses had been sharper and his abilities stronger. He led in Kirkwall without fear, unhindered by distractions outside of duty. The Order, for all its faults, knew how to successfully transform a nobody into a capable and proper soldier. 

You should be taking it. Placing the glass on the surface, his hands trembled. The solution to every current problem laid within. It would be so simple to drink and make it all go away. To no longer be plagued by the what ifs and could have beens. Muscles tensing, his shaking rocked the desk.

Then he spotted it, sticking out from underneath the piles of parchment. The announcement of death, her name and his, listed with impeccable filigree. 

Releasing his frustration, he yelled, knocking the missives into the air and sending the inkwell flying towards the door. It shattered, splattering the contents all over the wood floor; the acrid stench filled the air.

The breaking glass startled him, and he looked up to see Hawke hovering in the entryway. “Was I your target, or were you trying to make the door feel your wrath?” 

Cullen rubbed his forehead, and grumbled. “I didn’t know you were there. Not everything is about you, Hawke.”

“No,” she said, unphased by his snark, “only things that matter. And here I thought you were going to get this party started without me.” Crossing her arms, she leaned against the wall as if she owned the place, as if she had every right to be there. “I’d be almost offended, were I indeed, offendable.”

Rolling his eyes, he exhaled, wiping the sweat from his brow. He did not need this right now. Of all the people in Thedas who could walk in on him during his most vulnerable moments, Hawke was the worst choice.

It was funny how that kept happening, how she was always around when the worst happened. Or perhaps it was because she was around, the worst happened. Either way, it wasn’t a comfort.

“You’ve no place here.” The words held dual meaning. She should neither be present nor should she have the title of Inquisitor, lest whatever curse that followed her further impede the rest of them.

“Perhaps.” She tilted her head as if she was contemplating his words. “But I am, and you can’t do shit about it. We’re here to do a job. So, you plan on doing yours or are you giving up?”

Cullen glared. “You,” he scoffed, “have no right to judge anyone.”

“Who’s judging? It’s a question. Are you going to get your shit together or not?”

“Really, is that necessary?” It wasn't swearing that was bothersome, but her constant use of it. Everything about her lacked professionalism.

“What, the profanity? Does it bother you?” she asked, an amused smirk playing at her lips, “I tried the decorum thing you love so much. It’s why I let you disrespect me in my own room. But then I thought about it, and that shit,” she enunciated, “stops now.”

“You don’t understand what I’ve had to endure, what—”

She cut him off, silencing him with her hand. “If you’re about to get all preachy over Templar suffering, you can save it.” Moving forward, Marian swiped the vial off his desk, holding it up to inspect. “Lyrium, huh?” Putting the draught inches from his face, she offered it to him, “will this help you do your job?”

 

 

Cullen woke the next morning, better than he’d been in recent memory.

Though he owed a lot of it to Hawke, which he despised, even he had to appreciate, if not respect, she put him back on track. His hand swiped the empty vial in his pocket; he kept it to serve as a reminder of his duty. There would be no further distractions; the army had his full attention. 

Fully re-committing himself as Commander, Cullen oversaw preparations for their departure. The mounts were ready, rations and supplies were restocked, everything was on course.

As he headed outside the inn, the Ambassador stopped him. “Commander, I was hoping for a word.”

“A word,” he nodded curtly, before emphasizing, “briefly.”

“As I stated shortly after we arrived in Skyhold, we need to establish a greater presence in Orlais to attend the ball in Halamshiral,” she explained, scribbling on her clipboard. “I just received word. Given the late Inquisitor’s efforts,” she frowned before continuing, “I have a meeting to see if they will now consider extending us an invitation.”

“All right.” 

“Which I would like you to accompany me to.”

“No.” he declared firmly, holding the door open for her to pass, “I’ve not the time.” Particularly for frivolities. “Meet with them if we must, but my presence isn’t required.”

“Commander, with Leliana still in Skyhold, another high ranking member of the Inquisition would portray a more united front.”

“Then bring the Inq—” Cullen stopped himself and corrected, “Hawke.” He let out a huff of breath, “Ambassador, you are exceptionally skilled at negotiations. Accept my apologies, but other concerns require my attention. I'm of no use to you in such pursuits. I can better serve in armor and watchfulness. I will not attend.”

He left her standing without awaiting response. Walking to the stables, he saddled his mount. Attend a political meeting, he thought, had Lady Montiliyet forgotten to whom she spoke? Knowing her, she would still likely try to persuade him otherwise. He laughed to himself. No. There is absolutely nothing she can promise or attempt to alter my decision. Not a single thing could.

Chapter Text

Chrissie eyed the woman, she seemed so familiar. Turning in the light, she moved just so; it matched the portrait from the history books. “I recognize you,” She said, “I’ve studied the Fifth Blight, you’re a veteran. You helped the Hero of Ferelden.”

Her expression seemed momentarily pained, but she shook her head, “I tried to, yes.”

A brief discussion ensued as Morrigan provided an official introduction as advisor to Empress Celene in matters of the arcane arts. Chrissie however, needn’t have presented herself at all; the woman recognized her as well by the telltale mark.

“Come,” Morrigan said, beckoning her, “I shall take you to them.”

Maker, the Inquisition was here? She could have cried from sheer joy. Chrissie followed through several sets of long hallways and corridors. Her heart fluttered more rapidly with every step. Why did it feel like a lifetime had passed since she last saw any of them? The even tone of the Ambassador grew louder as they approached, and her breath hitched in her chest. “It is a pleasure. Thank you for taking the time to meet with us today.”

“‘Tis where I leave you, Inquisitor.” Morrigan motioned to the hall, “I am certain our paths will cross again.” 

After thanking Morrigan, she entered the small room, one table set had been lined up for either a meal or delegation purposes, only able to accommodate few guests. The ornate decorations and lavish finery complimented the finest detail. From the burgundy decor to the silver adornments affixed to every centerpiece, it was clearly a place of wealth and power despite the size.

Not wanting to interrupt, she had to restrain herself. Since her appearance was unexpected, no one would announce her. After working with Josie for so long, she knew better than to intervene in a diplomatic meeting and from their dress, this was exactly that. Instead she stood behind her, anxiously awaiting her turn to speak. The eyes of the Orlesian diplomat opposite the Ambassador grew wide, and he abruptly stopped prattling.

Likely to avoid being rude under clauses of social etiquette, Josephine was ever the professional, not even concerned with whatever distracted her audience. Chrissie seized the opportunity, tapping her on the shoulder. “Lady Montiliyet, a word please?”

“Just a moment, Inquisitor, I-” She paled, turning abruptly. “Inquisitor!” Her clipboard dropped to the floor while parchment flew in all directions. “Oh, Inquisitor!” She wrapped Chrissie into a hug. Squeezing her, Josie’s eyes watered and she pulled back as if to ensure she wasn’t being deceived, “forgive me, but you look dreadful.” A melodious laugh escaped her, a cross between delight and bewilderment.  

One of the dignitaries who accompanied the Ambassador had been picking up the parchment off the floor when Josie turned to her audience and promptly announced, “An important matter has come up I must attend to. We will reschedule.”

The stuffed shirt diplomats scoffed, muttering about disrespect and vowing to never again work with the Inquisition as they left.

Chrissie stared, shocked at the abrupt end to such an important meeting. “Um, Jo, was that wise?”

Ignoring the question, she redirected her attention to her attaché. “Inform the Commander the Inquisitor needs to see him right away.”

The mere mention of Cullen made Chrissie’s heart pound. “He’s here?” She would have assumed he’d stayed with his men, or even ventured onward to Skyhold to be away from Orlais as soon as possible. “He’s here,” she whispered, tears now stinging her own eyes.  

Fidgeting with her hands, she paced, awaiting Cullen. Finally, after seemingly so long, she would get to see him again. Maker, all the struggle and wandering that led her here would be worthwhile. So lost within her own thoughts, she barely noticed when the attaché returned alone. 

“Inquisitor,” he saluted, “Ambassador, the Commander is meeting with the Orlesian military leader and requested not to be disturbed unless urgent.”

Josephine’s eyes narrowed, and she pointed toward the door, “Interrupt it. Inform him it is a matter of death and life. He is needed here, immediately.”

The turn of phrase caught Chrissie’s attention, “death and life, Jo?”

Proceeding to pick up her clipboard and set it on the table, she stood straighter in an almost regal pose, “I suspect he will be quite upset with himself for failing to appear after the first summons.” 

Minutes later, Cullen’s voice resounded from the hall. “Lady Ambassador?”

Chrissie’s heart skipped a beat. It was distant, but the inflection of command carried across the space.  

“While I appreciate and respect your ability to delight in meeting nobles, I do not share it.” Heavy footfalls grew closer. “I’m well aware your appointment ended early per your attaché and Hawke ventured forth to Skyhold. She cannot be with you.” He continued, coming into view after rounding a corner. Polished, pristine, every detail about him was exactly as she remembered. Breath hitching in her throat, she couldn’t formulate words. 

“I can only assume your message was an attempt to require my presence when I already informed you,” he halted, eyes growing wide at the sight of her, “I would not attend,” he whispered, staring.  

Maker, she must have been an awful sight and a glance to her clothing only confirmed her suspicions. Instantly self conscious, she froze trying to provide an explanation for her dishevelled appearance. Her cheeks burned. She wasn’t certain if he could see the color or if the dirt speckling her person concealed the mortification, neither thought was a comfort.

He rubbed his eyes, blinking repeatedly and shaking his head, likely questioning his sanity at her presence. Turning on his heel, hurried steps carried him back the way he came.

Chrissie looked to Josephine, whose confused expression matched her own. 

Curly blonde hair peeked out first as he moved back into the room hesitantly. Stopping in the same spot he had previously, he visibly swallowed before removing his left glove and unfastening a knife from his belt.

She thought he may attack, assuming she was a demon. Freezing him was an option, but definitely not one she wanted to do, and certainly wasn’t how she thought their reunion would go. Then again, if the intent was to attack, why hadn’t he drawn his sword?   

Grabbing the bladed end of the knife with his left hand, he jerked with his right, cutting himself. Blood pooled in his palm and dripped onto the floor. Returning the weapon without bothering to clean it, he simply stared at the laceration.

“It hurts,” he murmured, though his voice concealed any pain. “It hurts,” he repeated, voice growing more excited as realization seemed to dawn on him. Gaze shifting between the cut and Chrissie, he cast her a sideways glance. Lifting a finger in the air, he spoke softly, “You’re real.”

Despite her astonishment at the self-harm, she couldn’t help the bark of laughter that ripped from her throat. She shook her head, “I’m real.” Not able to delay any further, she approached him, breaking into a sprint until they collided together in an embrace, ignoring the discomfort of her armor clattering against his.

Chrissie clung to Cullen like she held the whole world in her hands. And now that she'd finally been honest with herself, she did. Having literally fought through the veil to be with him, to see him again, there was so much she hadn’t said but how to find the right words? She’d thought the phrasing would come, be an epiphany at the moment, but alas, it had not.

The heat radiated off of him as he held her just as tightly. In this singular moment, nothing mattered more. Oakmoss, elderflower, and the smell of his armor wax soothed her, a scent she’d so dearly missed. Their foreheads touched, in an even and calm —albeit scolding— tone, Cullen ordered, “Never do that again.”

His warm right hand cupped her cheek, felt despite the glove. He pulled back, as if he’d overstepped. The happiness fell from his features, replaced by stoicism. Cullen cleared his throat, “It’s good to see you well.” With a subtle nod, he turned away.

Chrissie thought to stop him, to profess the truth of it all right here. In front of anyone and everyone who cared to listen. But he took another step, increasing the distance between them. If she didn’t do anything now, the opportunity would be lost. The most she could muster in the face of the unknown was his name.

“Cullen.”

He came to a standstill, shifting toward her. His expression was shrouded with emotion, though nothing specifically discernable. It changed, cycling through several and she wondered what exactly was going through his mind. 

“Inquisitor?”

The title, so professional, detached. Swallowing, she forced down every word as she remembered their last substantial conversation before Adamant. Whatever is between us, there’s no future in it. She had rejected him and it was possible, reasonable even, he no longer held any desire for anything more. “I—,” sighing she waved him off, “never mind.”

He repeated her title, brow furrowed. “If there’s something you wish to discuss..."  

She was going to leave. Had every intention on leaving, but the statement lingered in the air. Mentally, she berated herself, What in the Void are you doing? A nervous chuckle escaped without permission. She rubbed her forehead. If you are going to sit and stew in regret, make it something worth being regretful for.  “Fuck it.”

“Pardon?”

There was no more time to think, only to act. With a long stride, she maneuvered herself to him, grabbed fistfuls of the fur of his mantle and pulled him to her. Extending to her tiptoes, their lips crashed together, a bit more forceful than intended, but not unpleasant. Hopefully, the ferocity served to get her point across.

Cullen stilled; the sudden change unusual, even abnormal given all that occurred, and her heart skipped a beat. Each millisecond stretched as she expected him to do something, anything, but he did not. You couldn’t leave well enough alone, could you? Chrissie released him and backed away, accepting the lack of reciprocation as a sign. She closed her eyes, positive he would be rightly furious, and she’d endure a well-deserved lecture on personal space and possibly consent. Biting her lip, she wished a rift would open and suck her back into the Fade. Perhaps Morrigan would allow her to use the mirror again. At least there, she could hide from her reckless actions and the disapproval she feared she’d see in his expression.

“Maker.” The single word he said told her nothing, his tone failing to hint at any specific emotion. Generally, Cullen was transparent, but today, he seemed to have the ability to rival stoicism with Leliana.

“What prompted that?” Cullen questioned.

At this point, she may as well be honest. What else did she have to lose? “Because,” she exhaled, “I’ve had a really horrific few—” Days, weeks, how long had she been gone? She shrugged, it hardly mattered. “Because,” she repeated, still unable to meet his gaze. Tears stung her eyes, and she opened her mouth, choosing her phrasing carefully. “I needed it.” Her confession was raw with emotion, forcing all unspoken feelings into only three words. She nodded as a means of self-assurance. Finally courageous enough to meet his eyes, on the second declaration, she spoke with more conviction. “Because I needed it.”

His hand flew to his neck and a flush spread through his cheeks.“Do you,” he cleared his throat and shifted his weight, “do you require another?” 

The delighted girlish squeal from the Ambassador, whom Chrissie had forgotten was there, pulled both their attention. 

“Ah,” she smoothed her dress, “while you and the Commander become reacquainted, there is an urgent matter I must tend to. I will, however, ensure a room is prepared for you at the inn.” Josie curtseyed, “If you’ll excuse me.”

“Thank you, Josie.” Chrissie nodded, amused at the lack of decorum her Ambassador had so uncharacteristically displayed. 

The moment the door closed, Cullen surprised her sweeping her off her feet. With ease, despite his injured hand, he wrapped one arm behind her back and the other under her knees causing her to lock hers around his neck in response. He held her delicately, like a keepsake which must be handled for its fragility. Stomach fluttering, seized by the intimacy of the embrace and the man who enveloped her in his arms, Chrissie felt valued. Not unfamiliar or unwelcome, it was the first time she was open to receiving it from Cullen. She looked into his eyes relishing the deep pools of amber whose sole attention was focused on her. Mere inches apart, his warm breath heated her face.

“Maker, you’re a lovely sight,” his lopsided smile tugged his scar upward, “but you failed to answer my question.”

“Oh?” She grinned, playing coy, “remind me.”

“Do you require another?” His voice was but a whisper, though huskier than normal and she heard it loud and clear. 

“I kept my promise.”

Realization flashed across his features, “You kept your promise.”

"So yes," she smiled cheekily, "I require another."

 

True to her word, Josie ensured the room was prepared. Upon arriving, the innkeep, a short, old woman with gray hair tucked into a bun, led Chrissie and Cullen to their quarters for the night while praising their accommodations as ‘the best available in all Halamshiral.’ 

Decorated in shades of blue accented with gold, it was luxurious. Despite the exterior hinting otherwise, the place could easily rival the nobility wing in Skyhold. Not just a simple meat and cheese spread greeted them, the table was set with nesting roast, blessed apple, tea biscuits, and spiced wine. The type of meal where the preparer spent hours in the larder cooking to serve loved ones during Feastday celebrations. 

In lieu of candles, glowstones illuminated the space. The bed sat against the farthest wall from the door, draped in silks. Laid out on the coverlet were different clothing options ranging from complete ensembles to lace breastbands and matching undergarments in vibrant regal colors —purple, blue, red, and silver. Inside the garderobe was a marble tub, large enough for two, already drawn for a piping hot bath —thank the Maker for Josie. In addition, two desks were situated adjacent to one another, and a chess set rested in the middle of the room.

She’d forgotten the simplicity of such luxuries. After getting a look at herself in an actual reflective mirror, she drew back in disgust. It was if she had swum in a river of blood. Coagulated patches were caked in her hair and on her clothing amidst the dirt, dust, and demon guts. And Maker, she had to have absolutely reeked, having likely lost the ability to smell her own stench. She hadn’t returned unscathed either, noticing several small cuts, scars, and larger lacerations spanning the bare portions of her body in addition to her head wound. If Cullen was equally horrified, he gave no indication.

She set the most casual of the clothing provided —which was still considerably formal because it was, after all, Orlais—  on the counter. After a sinfully indulgent bath she dressed herself, inhaling the scent of lye used to launder the garments, finding it ridiculous something so mundane provided comfort. She emerged from the garderobe in an elegant tunic and trousers. Drying her hair with a towel, she was careful to avoid the sensitive area until Cullen could evaluate. Grabbing the brush off the wardrobe, she tousled her hair, tossing the dirty garment in the basket to be laundered.

Sitting at the vanity, she noticed the distance separating her and Cullen. Not in a physical sense, but a mental one. The medical supplies were open in a case next to where he sat on the bed, still in full armor, save for his gloves. Eyes fixated on his cut —but now stitched— palm, he pressed against the laceration, his mind miles away. 

“What are you doing?” She began brushing her hair, avoiding the injured side. 

His mouth dropped in surprise and he appeared alarmly guilty. As if he’d been caught stealing the last cookie from the larder. “It’s nothing, you needn’t worry.”

“Are you certain?” Chrissie asked, eyebrow raised, running long passes through the sea of tangles.

“Quite. I assure you.” He gathered the medical supplies and stacked them next to the vanity. “Let me see.” Cullen commanded, standing behind her to inspect the injury.

Chrissie winced when his fingertips touched the affected area. The injury bordered her hairline, spanning from the middle of her right eyebrow to the bottom of her earlobe. And though Killian did the best with what little they had, it needed actual attention with real supplies.  

“It’s good you had the forethought to apply bandages. It likely prevented excessive bleeding.” Cullen threaded the needle with a practiced finesse. “You’d benefit from stitching. Though, infection is the largest concern.”

“I should have tried to clean it more, I know. There was a small bit of rum repurposed to stave infection but only enough for one use. ” She winced, catching her hair on a stubborn knot. “But we couldn’t trust the Fade water and what we did possess had to be spared for drink.”

“Using spirits had been wise; the stronger, the better.” Tilting his head, he motioned to the table. “I’m too concerned about the contents in Orlesian wine to apply it to the wound, but you may desire it for consumption.” Retrieving the bottle from the table, the cork made a loud pop before he handed it to her. “You said, we?”

Taking a lengthy gulp, she appreciated the flavor. Not bad, she thought, a bit earthy with a cinnamon and nutmeg spice mixture similar to special brew merchants sell during Kingsway and Harvestmere. “Yes, we,” she confirmed. Her thoughts flitted guiltlessly to Killian, and she smiled, “I never would have made it back to you without help.”

“Oh.” If he wondered who it was, he didn’t pry. “I understand the necessity to use resources sparingly, but you could have lost consciousness and been more vulnerable.”

“I was knocked out when I recieved it. Still have no idea how long I was down, or how long I was there. I think time flows differently.” She shrugged, yanking the brush through her hair with more force as she recalled the unpleasant venture.

Cullen set the needle down, placing his hand around hers and halting her movement. “I’m just glad you’re all right.” Gently, he pulled the brush away and laid it on the vanity. He pointed, using his finger to move a single strand of hair behind her ear. “In order to stitch that, you must be still.”

He positioned a chair opposite her and unfastened his belt. Repeatedly matching the ends together, he then extended it in offering. If the entire situation held different context, she perhaps might have found it amusing. “As the pain comes and goes, bite on this. It’ll help.”

Chrissie thanked him. He rubbed the stubble on his chin and eyed her up and down. Removing his mantle, he folded and presented it to her. “Compress as necessary for pain management.”

A light touch to her face brought her right cheek toward him. He sat, preparing the materials. Chrissie placed the belt in her mouth and the mantle against her stomach. Her fingertip touched the area, providing partial numbness with an ice spell. Answering his ask with a nod, she confirmed she was ready. To stray her thoughts, she focused on the distinct scent and gentle eyes of the man before her.

Though, there was something strange about them, a darkness she didn't recall seeing before, their luster had dimmed and she wondered why. Before she had the chance to inquire, the needle penetrated her flesh tearing her from her thoughts. She hissed and controlled her breathing, mentally checking herself. 

“Apologies,” he whispered with a sympathetic expression.

Closing her eyes, she allowed him to work. Though she knew it would be correctly done, the length of time taken to ensure a quality performance worried her. With every poke and prod, she grew accustomed to the pain. Of course, the spiced wine might have had something to do with it. Another stab caused her to jerk back, squeezing and biting down again.

Cullen spoke both apologies and reassurance the entire time. After roughly an hour, he secured the stitching and cut the thread. “When we return home, I’ll ensure a healer inspects it. Most stayed behind with those injured at Adamant and the others were eager to return to Skyhold.” 

Using a water basin in the garderobe, he washed his hands and returned with a bucket and dry cloth. Seemingly satisfied with his handiwork, he dabbed the area and placed the bandages. As he packed up all the materials, he sorted them between those to wash and those to dispose of. 

Again, she grabbed the brush from the vanity, working at her now dry and extremely tangled hair. Fervent strokes were sufficient at tugging but not dematting and within seconds, she became irritated. 

Her aggravation caught his attention. He stopped mid-task and again removed the brush from her ironclad grip. “May I?”

“You’re welcome to try,” she grumbled, squeezing the mantle she had no intention of returning tonight. “Why didn't Josie have us both stay in your room? Instead of going out of her way to acquire another?”

“I didn't have one.” Slow, careful strokes tugged the tangle free. “I planned to stay in camp with the soldiers.”

“If you prefer, we can.” She thought on it, sure they kissed, passionately. And yes, there was a ruse to maintain, but she wasn't certain if he still felt the same about her. He could have reservations, and those concerns would be just. “Or, if you need to…” she fished for the appropriate turn of phrase, “don't let me keep you.”

“I’ll not leave your side,” he declared. There was no doubt he meant it.

“Why? It’s all right. The soldiers are just as—”

“No!” His normal melodic voice was gone, replaced by a harsh edge. “I leave you unaccompanied for one moment and look what happens!” Pulling the brush in harsh strokes, she cringed. Her shoulders raised; a reflex meant to alleviate her discomfort. "Forgive me," he said apologizing and returned to a slow and even pace.

It came as no surprise he’d been worried. It was instinctual, damn near second nature for him now, given everything he’d been through, but the oddness in his behavior caused her to question. “What’s got into you?”

“What’s-” he repeated, a hint of disbelief in his tone. The brush clattered against the vanity and he began to pace. 

Turning toward him, she pleaded, “Cullen, talk to me.”

“I thought you were dead!” He snapped. 

Dead? Her face paled. She’d been gone a while, sure, and in the Fade, time seemed to pass differently, but had she truly been missing long enough the entire Inquisition declared her deceased?

“There were no leads to follow, no trail to pursue! There was no trace, you had vanished, disappeared!” His pacing grew more frantic. “Have you any idea what it was to field condolences, to carry on in your absence?” He halted, using the armrests of the chair for balance as he leaned close to her, almost nose to nose. “You were gone nearly two weeks,” his voice cracked, and he cleared his throat before hanging his head, “and I’m still not certain this isn’t a trick of the mind.”

Reaching up, she cupped his face, stroking both cheeks with her thumbs, his stubble scratching against her skin. It was then she noticed the circles under his eyes, the weariness which had settled in deep lines, and the fear etched into his expression.

“Were it not for you, I-”

Leaving his sentence unfinished, he closed the distance. Tender and sweet, the gentle press of his lips seemed hesitant but not reluctant, an unspoken request of permission for more. Whereas their very first kiss had been heated, charged by the moment’s intensity, this one held a natural ease, like the stars aligned and the Maker granted his blessing.

And right now, she needed nothing more than him; anything outside of this room ceased to matter. She melded into his warmth. His tongue swept her lips, and she parted them in welcome. After everything, she'd finally be able to give herself to him as he always deserved without holding herself back. Each beat of her heart reverberated from her chest, making her entire body hum.

You should tell him, you know, that you love him.

But how could she? To drop an explosion of that magnitude on him now… well, it wouldn't be fair. Better to let things play out and see how it goes. When the time is right, I'll say something. She wrapped her arms around him, and they moved as one, both standing upright without breaking contact. His mantle fell haphazardly to the floor.

She hadn’t realized how desperately she’d missed him. He exuded an aura of command, as was necessary, but she’d been allowed to see his softer side —the parts he often kept hidden away under the guise of decorum. That he would share himself with her in this way was an honor she'd previously failed to appreciate. His hands rested on her hips and he pulled her flush against him. There was an urgency to it and fire spread through her veins.

The time is now. Tell him this is real for you, he needs to know. Tugging at his vest, she drew it over his head, breaking apart for a mere second to toss it in a heap across the room.

Armor acting as a barrier, it deprived her of the desired closeness. The glowlights in the room glinted off the cold steel when all she wanted was to feel his warm, soft skin. Nervous fingers trembled, fumbling with the buckles on his cuirass. She hissed a frustrated curse against his lips, then felt Cullen's gentle fingers moving hers aside to finish the task. There are no shields. Your guard is down, but so is his. Show him he's valued and how sorry you are it’s long overdue.

Severing their contact, he drew back to look into her eyes, “Are you certain?” he whispered breathlessly, resting his forehead against hers.

She searched his face for any indication of doubt, finding nothing. “Are you?”

Reaching for the buttons on her tunic, he froze. “May I?”

Chapter Text

Chrissie laid on top of him, snoring lightly, her raven locks splayed across the sheet. The gentle rise and fall of her chest against his own was a comfort and he couldn’t believe his luck. Despite evidence to the contrary, he’d have sworn her return was a dream or the result of a lyrium addled mind, nothing more.

And yet, here they were. No amount of pinching, closing his eyes, pain or pleasure dissipated the illusion. To have her back and in his arms was everything he had wanted, what he prayed for.

Too afraid to disturb her by moving, he stared at the canopy top above the Orlesian bed as realization dawned.

This was a grave mistake.

And worse, one he initiated. While he stewed in his guilt, processing the revelation, all he could think about was her hair tickling as she moved against him, the warmth and softness of her skin and the taste of her lips. How he had wanted her for so long only to have to let her go now.

To burn from his memory the intoxicating sounds he coaxed from her, —which he may or may not have compared against the ones made in his office during their argument— the reactions she elicited from him, and the look in her eyes when she finished, would be impossible. He could never forget last night or what it meant but it could not happen again. 

She shifted, nuzzling his neck. “Mmm, good morning,” she said sleepily, while using her fist to halfway stifle a yawn. Placing warm kisses to his chest, she ran her fingers through the hair and across his scars, scratching so lightly gooseflesh spread on his arms in response. Cullen squeezed his eyes closed, groaning. The noise seemed to put her on edge, and she peered at him through long lashes, a frown tugging at her lips, “Is something wrong?”

“Forgive me,” he shook his head, “a headache.”

“Oh,” her look was sympathetic; guilt settled in his stomach.

”I can,” her soft lips grazed his cheek, “take your mind,” she planted another kiss, “off it.” She chuckled, nibbling his earlobe. 

“No,” he protested harsher than intended, wincing at his own tone. Sighing, he gently shifted her off him. “We should dress and prepare. There’s much to do.”

“Or…” 

He went to get up, using the sheets as a pathetic attempt to cover himself. Why, he didn’t even know. She caught his hand tugging him with surprising strength back onto the bed.

“We can, you know. Take the day off and not leave this room.” Her hands roamed his body, the heat causing a chill to run down his spine. “We're entitled to one every few months. And, as it just so happens, I know the Inquisitor would not only allow it, but would endorse it.” Offering a cheeky smile, she winked, “Plus, that marble tub is large enough for two.”

Placing his hands over hers, he removed them. “My answer was no, Inquisitor.”

The title, though impersonal, was a deliberate attempt to accentuate his point. Her head tilted to the side, and she gaped, eyes wide. “I was only teasing, I apologize.”

Cullen shook his head, sitting upright on the bed with his back to her, “No, that’s not it.”

“So, I did do something?” The concern in her voice caused him to squeeze his eyes closed. “Were you… were you displeased with my,” she paused, “performance?”

“No!” He certainly didn’t need her thinking she was inferior in that area, or at all for that matter. “It wasn’t,” he rubbed his neck, heat burning his cheeks, “it was…”

“Then what is it, Commander?”

He grimaced at his title; his own tactic being used against him. Confusion bled through her voice and Cullen hated it. If she was questioning his intentions, he would really have to reiterate, making his challenging —but required— task even more difficult. “After much thought, I, last night, uh.” Maker how was he supposed to articulate this? Was there even a sound strategy for such things? How does one tell their fake betrothed he can’t really be with her? Everything he once fought so hard for had become moot considering what he’d done. “I will do as required for the ruse,” he said, clearing his throat, “however the intimacy cannot be repeated.”

Like a coward, he didn’t dare look at her. It was only when she pulled at his shoulder to grab his attention he forced himself to turn and meet her eyes. 

Instead of anger, he found only hurt, unshed tears glimmering in the glowlight. He tried to keep the stoicism of a professional but seeing her this dismayed ate at his carefully mended heart.

“I asked you,” she whispered, “if you were certain.”

“I was.” He had been, but now he held no other choice but to turn away. Though he doubted it would aid matters if he shared the additional insight as to why.

“Then what changed?” It was a demand, a clear order delivered by a superior, one which left no doubts, she expected an answer. 

“The army should have my attention and focus. Outside the ruse, I should devote myself to that alone.” It was a half-truth, but the truth nevertheless. Although he didn’t feel better for the technicality. She opened her mouth to speak but closed it, tears finally spilling over and down her cheeks. Cullen had to restrain himself from wiping them away. Seeing her cry, only made it worse. She was shedding them, undeserved, on his account. It didn’t get any lower.

“The soldiers’ deaths at Adamant, wasn’t your fault. I know you take everything regarding the army personally, but you can’t think...”

“Clearly I don’t know how to put the events at Adamant behind me, I’ve tried.” Frankly, all he’d done for almost two weeks was an attempt to forget about it, until yesterday. But what he omitted was the fact he couldn’t —regardless of whether he wished to. “Until that’s possible, I shouldn’t be with anyone.”

Her voice grew low, barely loud enough to be considered a whisper. “And you waited until now, until after you got what you wanted, to tell me this.”

It was another statement, but it shot through him like lightning. He would never want her to think what they shared was meaningless. That he had used her for the sole purpose of sex. Especially when he hadn't used her at all. They'd been caught in the moment and emotions ran wild. Seeing her again had been surreal and in his shock, he lost his senses. “That isn’t-”

Cutting him off, she stuck out her hand. In a calm and even professional tone, she shut the conversation down. “There is nothing further to discuss.”

“I’m sorry.” It was the first completely honest sentence he could supply in the entire conversation. He closed his eyes, swallowing hard to prevent his own emotion from showing.

“Worry not, Commander. At the first available opportunity, I will release you from your obligation and call off the ruse. Wouldn’t want my presence to continue interfering with your duties and things you actually care about.” 

Grabbing an ensemble that fell to the floor during last night’s endeavors, Chrissie turned towards him, sighing. “That last bit was unworthy of me, I apologize. But take comfort in knowing the rest still stands.” She rubbed her forehead. Heading to the garderobe, she paused long enough to look him in the eyes, “I feel like I don't even know who you are anymore. Perhaps I never did.” 

The door shut behind her; the nearly silent thud echoed in his ears. He blinked away the forming tears, and for the second time, his heart broke.

Chapter Text

Used was the word she'd select. Manipulated, dejected, deceived, to name a few more. But to her humiliation and anger, the most prevalent emotion was heartbreak.

Thank the Maker she hadn’t told Cullen she was in love with him. It was bad enough she felt it, but to let him know how deeply his actions cut would add an extra level of mortification.

The tears spilled unbidden but she was certain to stifle any sobs. No, she wouldn’t give him the gratification of hearing her cry, knowing he held such power over her. She wiped her cheeks, and splashed some water on her face. If he was still out there, she would offer a false display, act like she didn’t care, like he hadn’t crushed her soul.  

By the time Chrissie re-emerged from the garderobe, he was gone. Good thing, because right now, if she never saw him again, it would be too soon. 

Ironic. Cullen had been the reason she had fought so hard to come back, and for what? He'd been acting strangely since she returned and she noticed his odd behavior. Though she thought it had more to do with the aftermath of Adamant. But there were signs, ones she'd been content to ignore, like the curt tone and self harm. Really, it was her own fault this happened, she fucking gave him permission to do it. Okay, perhaps permission wasn't the correct word, but she allowed herself to be vulnerable for once and this was the result.

This was why she hid behind professional decorum, why she hadn’t dared cross the realm into personal. There were those who would exploit such weakness. Just a month ago, if anyone had said Cullen Rutherford was going to break her heart, she'd have judged and sentenced them for slander. I've been such a fool. 

Catching sight of her reflection in the mirror, she grimaced. Her face was splotchy, tear trails apparent on her cheeks. Bloodshot and puffy eyes showed exactly how hard she’d cried —was still crying. The all mighty Inquisitor reduced to a bubbling mess. 

Disgusted with herself, she turned away from the mirror, eyes scanning the room. At least he had the decency to tidy up before he left. At one point, she'd probably have commended him on his courtesy, but it only prompted an emptiness in her chest.

Gathering her items, she picked up the pile of her dirty clothes haphazardly strewn on the floor by the vanity, finding Cullen’s mantle underneath. It would seem in his haste to leave, he either forgot, or couldn’t find it to have left it behind. She snuggled it to her chest and inhaled his scent. The warmth of the fur was inviting, tickling her cheeks. She hated herself for the momentary lapse, knowing better than to voluntarily submit to torture and yet had welcomed the reminder all the same. Her shoulders sagged and she climbed on the bed, clinging to it as if it were the man himself before tears fell again. 

Eyes heavy, she wanted to sleep for days. There was a tiredness which accompanied crying and she was drained. She had no idea how long she’d spent in bed, wallowing in self pity but the knock at the door from the servant pulled her from her stupor. “Housekeeping.”

Her voice cracked as she apologized and assured the worker she would be out within the hour. Drying her tears, she prepared herself for the day ahead, ensuring not a single hair was out of place. Her rouge was pristine and her ensemble didn't hold a wrinkle. No, she would not walk out of this room in shame. She was a professional, and though it may kill her, she was determined to do her job.

Picking up his mantle, she folded it, her hands grazing something inside. She ran her hands across the fabric, searching for the source. Her fingers trailed a long cylindrical object. Her heart beat rapidly in her chest. Finding a hidden pocket on the interior, she pulled out a vial. She immediately recognized it from her days in the circle as a lyrium draught. An empty one.

“Maker, Cullen,” her hands trembled. She felt nauseous, completely sick to her stomach on his behalf. “What have you done?” Her anger over the night’s events was replaced with worry. All of his progress, lost. He threw everything away, including me. Had Cullen truly gotten to the point where he believed nothing was worth fighting for?

She paced, fidgeting with it in her hands. What could she do?

Well for starters, she could march right up to Cullen and demand an answer. If not as his lover, but as his friend, fake betrothed and moreover, his superior. Although, given her current high emotions and having no desire to see him, she assumed such a confrontation wouldn’t go well. Likely, it would end up being a heated exchange and she would depart after declaring a number of hurtful things she didn’t mean.

The better course of action would be to consult someone. Her eyebrows raised. Who else would have insight into lyrium use? There was always Cassandra, but Cullen mentioned she went with Hawke to Skyhold. Someone more immediate would be none other than the man who was almost a templar.

Alistair.

 

While Josie was attending business at the Winter Palace, the remainder of the inner circle opted to camp outside of town with the returning forces or venture forth to Skyhold ahead of the rest. 

Fires were doused just a short time ago, the smoke still rising from the ashes as Inquisition personnel prepared the mounts and pulled up the tents for the journey home. The aroma of breakfast filled the air mingled with sweaty dirty boots, musty tents, and the ever-present musk of an army at camp. An almost always unpleasant, but more than welcome, scent of normalcy.

It was then she saw Alistair, standing over by his mount, Camembert, feeding her carrots. Chrissie hopped off her horse and ran the short distance to Alistair, tapping him on the shoulder to garner his attention.

“Maker’s breath! You’re not dead!” he exclaimed, eyes wide with a jovial laugh. “Unless,” he sounded skeptical, brows furrowing as he reached out to touch her.

Chrissie grabbed his hand, chuckling. “I’m here.”

“Are you sure?” He quirked an eyebrow. His hands patted the griffon on his plate, as if he was checking to see if he was real.  “What if we’re both dead?”

“I’d think we’d know. And we are not, dead. Either one of us,” she said, wagging her finger back and forth between them, “very much not dead.” Taking a step back, she eyed him, any injuries he received in the Fade had healed nicely.

He placed a kiss to her cheek. “And that is spectacular news.”

“It is, isn’t it?” She returned in kind and noticed his misty eyes. “Are you... crying?”

He coughed, shuffling his feet, “I, no. Of course not, it’s the pollen and stuff. Always in the air.”

“Mmhm,” she snickered, touched at the sentiment, “that’ll get you everytime.”

His face brightened, “Maker, it’s so good to see you, it was…” he opened his mouth, leaving his jaw hanging for a moment, “you know what, never mind.”

"It's good to see you, too," she said offering a smile. And Maker, was it ever. The scruff on his face had lengthened, longer than she’d ever seen. Strands of ginger protruded through the dirty brown stubble. Despite the armor, the rugged look reminded her of the stereotypical woodsman from fairy stories, ones who spent their days chopping down trees and carting an axe over their shoulder. 

Alistair stepped back, rubbed his eyes and wrapped his arms around her in another embrace. “You my dear, are a sight to behold. Looking lovely too.” 

Chrissie chuckled, swatting his arm, “stop.”

“So, how’d you did you manage yet another miracle? I’ve got a wager going against Varric. He says you met your quota, I said no way.” He shrugged, “I’d like to know if I have coin coming, I can take us to dinner, on me.”

An entire plate of comfort food freshly cooked that wasn’t a frilly Orlesian dish sounded lovely. “You know, I’ll hold you to that.”

“You better,” he winked.

“But to answer your original question, it’s a long story,” Chrissie explained.

From somewhere behind them, Cullen’s voice boomed, “Prepare to move out.” She had to refrain from looking over her shoulder in both instinct and habit.

Realization seemed to dawn on Alistair and his eyes widened. “Maker, does Cullen know you’re here?”

Of course, he would bring up exactly what she had no desire to talk about. “Yeah,” she said slowly, sucking her teeth, “he’s aware.”

“You say that like it’s bad because...” he left it unfinished, awaiting her to answer without further prompting. Tossing the saddle onto his horse, he walked around to the opposite side next to hers.

Offering his hand, he assisted her onto her own mount. She jostled slightly, trying to get comfortable. “Another long story.”

“Well good thing then,” Alistair said, climbing on Cam and situating himself, "we've got quite a ride ahead of us. Plenty of time for long stories."

Clicking at her horse, she directed it forward, the subtle sway of its trot rocked her back and forth. The two rode in tandem, stride for stride down the path. It wound to a clearing, a small area flourished with growing plants and trees. Water ran from the stream, trickling over the pebbles. They steered their horses through, splashing as they passed.

“So, what happened with you and Cullen?” he questioned, prying like a nosey child. 

She rubbed her forehead, “We slept together-”

“Steamy bits!” He said almost a bit too excitedly before shrugging, “what, I live vicariously through you. I don’t mean sleeping with Cullen of course, I mean, you know what, just forget what I mean. Continue,” he waved his hand.

“Cullen apparently had second thoughts.” She spoke as her voice cracked, to the point she wouldn’t be certain it was hers if she didn’t know otherwise. “Said it could never happen again. Gave no reason, no explanation.”

Surprised by the revelation, Alistair leaned back in shock, “What?”

“Mmhmm, true story. Not the most pleasant topic.”

“Well first,” Alistair held up his finger, “a three sentence explanation is not a long story. And second, has he gone completely mad?”

“Actually,” Chrissie sighed, “as much as I’d like to be angry with him right now, and don’t get me wrong, I am.” She frowned, “I’m more worried.” 

“He leaves you with no answers and he’s still your top priority,” he shook his head.

“Have you noticed anything odd?” Perhaps Alistair recognized it too. He had been around more than she had lately and if he were to bring up specifics, then her own suspicions wouldn’t necessarily feel unfounded.

“Even for the Commander, he’s been more curt. He was angry and spouted off at anyone who would listen. There’s a strange disconnect to his voice. I don’t know how to describe it. He’s still him, but, not.” He scratched his stubble. “But I thought that was the grief, it really messes with you.” His lips pressed into a hard line, “For you to return and his behavior remain the same, that’s a concern that’s well, concerning.”

Pulling the empty vial from her pocket, she verified none of the soldiers were following too closely before handing it to him, “I found this in his mantle.”

“Oh.” Alistair sneered at the empty draught, “The Chantry’s method of Templar control. How cute.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head. “What would make him think…” he questioned, before licking his lips, “actually, this makes a lot more sense now.’

Her suspicions were correct. All of the abnormalities were probably a result of retaking it. When the ruse first started, she had brushed up on the lyrium withdrawal symptoms. She never thought it necessary to review side effects of those currently on it. Given that mages handled the substance differently than non magical beings, she wasn’t even personally familiar with the struggles.

Cullen was suffering, had been, and it was likely in large part because of all the pressure Chrissie had put on him. Between the ruse and work, no wonder he held no desire to be near her. She pushed him into resuming something he was vehemently against. It was she who failed him, obliterating his progress. Tears stung her eyes, “I did this.” 

Alistair’s disbelief rang in his tone, “How?”

“I’ve been a distraction and it forced his hand.” Her mouth hung open, “I never intended...”

“Knock it off.” His sternness took her by surprise. “You're blaming yourself for things you can't control. Trust me. I lived on that path for far too long, it's lonely and dark there.” He ran his fingers through his hair.

She looked at him waiting for him to reveal his realization. 

“Oh Maker.” It was as if he had an epiphany, his eyes grew wide and his lips pursed. “You didn’t do this, but I may be to blame.” He met her gaze, “A few days ago, he charged into Hawke’s office. He was irate the Wardens were allowed to stay in Ferelden. Threw some pretty heavy accusations, then tried to tender his resignation. This was after insinuating Hawke and I deliberately left you behind so we could,” he motioned with his hands, “I don’t know,” he shrugged, “overthrow the Inquisition or something.”

Chrissie gasped, “he didn’t.” Resignation?  Cullen loved his position. It all sounded so out of character.

“He most certainly did.” Alistair averted his eyes, keeping them forward on the path ahead. He visibly swallowed, “It’s possible I was a bit defensive in response. Said several things I didn’t mean. They were not nice and I should apologize. I planned to…” he huffed, “I’ve been there, blind with grief, wanting to lay blame. I could have kept a calmer head.”

He clenched his right hand into a fist at his side, “but I've watched not one," he closed his eyes and exhaled sharply, "but two, women I love accept a fate meant for me. That's twice, twice,” he emphasized, “on separate occasions I have been powerless to stop it. To assume it was purposeful…" He sighed, "It struck a nerve. In fact, it was probably the worst thing he could have said. I know it doesn't excuse anything, but I'm sorry."

Eyeing him warily, she had to know how much damage had been done. "What exactly did you say?"

Grimacing, he sucked in breath, "Something along the lines of, if you were that important to him, he could have accompanied you."

“No,” she protested. Oh Alistair, what in the Maker’s name were you thinking? "Cullen is the Commander, his duty was to lead the charge."

"I know. It was unreasonable, but he accused everyone there of falling you. Which," he dragged his hand down the length of his face," is technically true, but it's easy to tell others what they should have done when looking at it from the outside. It's not as cut and dry when caught in the middle. And having a great failure thrown back at you is,” he shifted on Cam, “not pleasant. That's all I meant."

She gave him her best stern Inquisitorial look, the one she used in the war room to make it clear it may be an opinion, but there was no question it was also a thinly-veiled order. "I think you both owe each other an apology."

Looking very much like a kicked puppy, he put his head down, “Yes, Inquisitor.” Holding his hand up, he reiterated, “But I’ll do it because I planned to, not because you didn’t-exactly-ask me to.”

Turning her head, she peered over her shoulder, catching sight of Cullen in the distance. The metal of his plate gleaned in the sun’s rays. He looked abnormal without the mantle she had yet to return, but it seemed that was a recurring theme lately. “I’ve no idea what to do about it.”

“You can always talk to Hawke if you don’t want to ask him directly,” he explained. “As I understand it, she refused to accept his resignation. She’d know more.”

“Hmm,” she mused, “I might do that.” 

“Or you know, you could ask him yourself.”

That idea didn’t seem nearly as pleasant.

Turning their mounts from the path onto the road, a quick glance over Chrissie’s shoulder caused her to sigh in relief. When travelling with a large group, movement was slow and she and Alistair were far enough away that while she could still see the Commander, the space between them was freeing. Deciding to enjoy present company, she would figure out what to do about Cullen as an objective for later. 

“So,” she said, moving her mount closer to Alistair’s. She leaned over and bumped his shoulder with her own, “did I hear you say, you love me?”

“Did I?” He opened his mouth, “Well, yes, I suppose I did.” He smirked, “But don’t get too excited, it’s in a sisterly way.”

She offered a small smile, “I’ve never had a sibling, or family, who mattered before.”

“Huh,” Alistair raised his brows, “neither have I.”

“For what it’s worth, I love you too,” she confessed. “A brother, I like that.”

The trip allowed plenty of time for gossip. Naturally, he asked her details about her time in the Fade. He was surprised to hear of Killian, and questions about Neria followed. When they stopped, Chrissie still hadn’t told Ali the most important part. It wasn’t that she hadn’t wanted to, but had no idea how to approach it. After all, seeing Killian had been emotionally and mentally exhausting and she was there. To hear the news secondhand, well, how do you tell someone that?

Staking their mounts, they started to build camp. As the sun set, Thedas’ sky illuminated with pink and orange hues and vibrant streaks of purple in stark contrast against the snow white Frostback Mountains in the distance.

While Alistair pitched his tent, Chrissie gathered logs. He secured the ropes to the stakes, “Hey, uh, you mind?”

Dropping her armful of wood in the desired spot, she walked to where he was, “Step back.” He did as instructed, and Chrissie magically force pushed each peg into the ground.

“Thanks,” he nodded, “You need help with yours?”

“No,” she flicked her wrist, igniting the logs as flames thrust as tall as her face, “Cullen has it.”

“And since you’re avoiding him...”

“Can’t for long, I’m afraid,” she explained, looking through Alistair’s pack for food and finding little. “The army wasn’t far behind. As expected, Cullen and I will share.”

“Well, I’ve been there. Not quite exactly, but having to share a tent with someone you don’t want to share a tent with, puts you in less than a sharing mood.”

She chuckled, “You don’t say?”

“There were times I bunked with with Zev and Morrigan. Once we made a bet that she wouldn't fall for his flattery. It really kind of surprised me how easily he won that one. They… didn't get along after that. And Morrigan and I were always at odds, it was unpleasant.”

It was amusing how small the world could be. “I met her at the Winter Palace, actually.”   

“Oh.” It was all he said, and she found it interesting he hadn’t bothered to inquire over more.

“You’re not the slightest bit curious?” She raised her eyebrow, huffing at their lack of food options. “You hated each other that much?”

“I hated her then, no doubt.” He unpacked his bedroll. “More now, though. Funny thing about them grudges, they can last a long while.”

“You want to talk about it?”

Alistair tossed his bedroll into his tent and shifted his weight. Sighing, he turned to Chrissie. “Morrigan could have saved Neria,” he explained, voice raw with emotion. “From what Lel overheard,” he shrugged, answering what Chrissie hadn’t asked. “Your Spymaster knew almost everything even then. A Warden had to sacrifice their life to kill the archdemon. There was an alternative. Apparently, a ritual which could have made a difference. The witch,” his face contorted in disgust, “approached the Warden-Commander the night before the battle.”

Using Neria’s title was odd, particularly for him. He’d never referred to her by anything other than her name unless it was in a professional setting and Chrissie wondered if it wasn’t a way to leave his love blameless in whatever happened —though she thought it best to avoid asking. It could be a coping method, a way to allow his memory of her to remain untarnished. She understood that.

“While Leliana was informing me of the details, the horrible, terrible,” he shuddered, “details of what the ritual would entail, Neria was in her quarters, declining. When I sought Morrigan prepared to agree, she had already abandoned our little party, condemning one of us to death against the archdemon. Then on the rooftop, I tried to get to the dragon first, I hugged Neria, saying goodbye. She knocked me back with a spell and charged to beat me there.” His eyes met hers, "Much like someone else..."

Chrissie cleared her throat but had no words in response.

Alistair licked his lips. His eyes grew misty before whispering, “I would have agreed. She knew how I felt about her, I wouldn’t let her die if I could do something about it.” A cough was muffled into his shoulder, “But Morrigan never asked me.” The volume of his voice returned to normal, though it still cracked. “It was just more people who thought it was a great idea to make decisions about my life.” Changing his tone to a female’s he imitated, “Hey Alistair, you’re going to the Chantry.” He dropped it down to a deeper octave, “Hey Alistair, you should be king. Hey Alistair!”

“I’m so sorry.” Giving him a sympathetic glance, Chrissie hugged him, “I gather it wasn’t a pleasant ritual.”

Shaking his head, he returned the embrace, “Maker, I would have hated every second. Every single second,” he emphasized, “but I loved Neria more than I despised Morrigan, which was, is, a lot.” A half hearted chuckle escaped him, “knowing what I lost, I’d do that ritual a dozen times, if it would bring her back.”

They sat around the fire and he absentmindedly adjusted the logs, and she wondered if he was being careful enough not to burn himself.

“I once told Morrigan it would be great if she could crawl into a bush and die. Meant it then, mean it now. To be fair, I had also made it clear I had no desire to lead which was probably why Morrigan never approached me. So, it was my fault too. All of our faults, really. Damn Neria and her stupid selflessness." Alistair confessed, anger subsiding.

"But that's why I was so hard on Cullen when he burst into Hawke’s room accusingly. I could have done something, didn’t, and Neria died. Cullen could have done something for you, didn’t, and we thought you died.” 

She comprehended the concept, but debated the validity of his argument. “He was doing his duty, as he should have.”

“Yes,” Alistair’s eyes snapped up, meeting hers. “It was his job to lead, but if I've learned anything, some things are far more important than duty. And I wanted Cullen to understand if you continually put duty first, it'll strip you of anything else until the only thing remaining are your oaths."

Though she couldn’t justify the things Alistair said to Cullen, or vice versa, she understood why. All the details he provided were omitted from the history books. Which, of course they would be: these were personal, raw experiences. He’d never gone into that much detail before and while it didn’t make everything all right, it illuminated his perspective. 

Remembering what she needed to tell him, she contemplated the best way to deliver the news. The more she prolonged it, the less likely she would come up with an eloquent method. Exhaling sharply, several ways to segway the conversation filtered through her mind but she ended up blurting it out. "I love you." She paused, waiting for him to look up. "I'm proud of you. I'd do the same."

“Hmm?” he questioned, dusting off his hands.

“Killian told me to pass the message along,” Chrissie tugged at the hem of her shirt, “from Neria.”

Gaze moving to the fire, the flames danced across his irises while he stared, seemingly in deep contemplation. “Why did you wait to tell me?”

“I wasn’t certain how to.” Anger wasn’t apparent on his features. At least that was a good sign. “Are you,” she said, placing a firm squeeze to his shoulder, “are you all right?”

He repeated Neria’s words back, meeting her eyes briefly. His voice wavered and he cleared his throat, “I didn’t know how badly I needed that. Thank you.”

Though he hadn’t requested it, she assumed he would like a moment alone after that revelation. Plus, their spacious packs proved the necessity to hunt for the evening. “I’ll go hunt something to cook.”

So enveloped in their conversation, she hadn’t paid attention to the approaching forces. It was only when Cullen’s horse whinnied, she turned her attention to the right as the Commander shifted off the saddle.

“Inquisitor,” he nodded curtly. It was cold, distant, matching the chill in the air. She closed her eyes, inhaling deeply before moving and grabbing her pack beside her mount. Rifling through, she pulled out his mantle and shoved it at him without a word. Maker, just the sight of him was re-breaking her heart all over again.

Last night flitted through her mind. She remembered the scars etched into his flesh as she brushed her fingertips over them, committing every one to memory. How heat emanated when she peppered his chest with kisses, moving her way toward his neck. Soft sighs and pleasured groans rang in her ears. She shook her head, physically ridding herself of the memory. 

Glancing at Alistair, she outstretched her hand, beckoning her staff to her. “Be back soon.” As it maneuvered through the air, she grasped it firmly and rested the bladed end against the ground.

He provided a wave as if to say, by all means. Cullen however, seemed to have a problem being left out. “I’ll accompany you.”

Chrissie’s steps halted. The fuck you will, she wanted to say, but didn’t. Instead she offered him a fake smile, “That won’t be necessary, Commander.” A small part of her — the darkest part —  hoped her use of his title hurt equally as much. She sighed, rolling her neck at the unworthy thoughts. Hurting him wasn’t the objective. It was bitterness, perhaps even a bit unreasonable, but the last she checked, emotions were devoid of reason. 

She turned to leave again when his hand caught her forearm. Her gaze shifted between the contact and his eyes. Whatever it was he had to say didn’t matter. “Commander Cullen, release me.”

His grip loosened and he withdrew. Eyes wide, he shook his head. “I meant no harm.”

Hoping only stoicism could be read on her features, she calmly informed him, "Your presence is not required."

Cullen protested, "It's a safety concern." 

Chrissie expected nothing less. Of course he would argue. Why did he choose right now to be so damn difficult? Or maybe it was simply because she didn’t want to see him which made it seem like he was hovering. Was there such a thing as too protective?

"I'm capable of hunting a druffalo,” she explained. “If I’m not back in an hour or less, you can send the soldiers.”

“Inquisitor—”

Cutting him off, she straightened her shoulders and gave him a stern look, every inch the fearsome Inquisitor who'd just walked out of the Fade a day ago. “That’s an order.” It was a harsh approach, but a necessary one. 

By the frown pulling his scar downward, she could tell he didn’t like it; and she wondered if he could tell that right now, she didn’t care.

Sympathy and understanding might have went a long way, but lyrium or no, it didn’t and wouldn’t change her broken heart. Plus, if he had resumed taking the substance, who was she to tell him to stop? It was a personal decision and one she certainly could not make or have made for him. Though she would never condone it, she wouldn’t berate him for it either. 

With a nod, she tugged down her tunic and turned away, feeling his eyes on her as she departed.

Chapter Text

One of the most melodic sounds Cullen heard in a long time, was the creaking of the Skyhold gate as it rose, granting entry through the gatehouse.

The night before had been awkward and quiet as he stayed on one side of the tent and Chrissie on the other, creating as much space between them as could be allowed. But finally arriving at home would grant some distance and normalcy, he hoped.  

“Thank the Maker,” Chrissie exhaled, dismounting her horse.

Josephine, Alistair and Cullen followed suit, shifting off their mounts. The impact put strain on Cullen’s knees and he rolled his neck, thinking about muscle aches only a rest or reprieve would relieve. Ignoring a pop from his shoulder, he tugged at the reins, pulling his horse to follow.

As soon as they crossed the bridge, Cullen watched as Chrissie’s eyes scanned the front and a smile pulled at her lips. “It’s good to be home.”

A sentiment he shared, until the doors opened and a mass of people greeted them. Entertaining the public meant a display would be required for the ruse. All he had wanted to do was immerse himself in work and return to the comfortable familiarity of his office, now that wasn’t possible. He mentally cursed whichever of his two associates arranged this. 

Cullen reached out to interlink his arm with Chrissie's. She accepted, but stiffened. Regardless of her displeasure, she put on a smile. He knew Chrissie well enough to realize it was fake, but it would fool a great many. They walked in step together, handing the reins of their mounts to stable hands while the cheering filled the courtyard. The Spymaster and the Trevelyans awaited them at the bottom of the stairs.

Josephine was the first to offer greetings. Leliana stood with her hands behind her back in between Aida and Paul. “Inquisitor, it is good to see you.”

Chrissie’s expression softened, “You as well.” Her gaze shifted between her parents, “Bann & Lady Trevelyan.”

Though Cullen had several choice words for the two, he performed as etiquette required, offering a half bow. Chrissie’s parents hadn’t even bothered to pretend they were happy to see her, or him, for that matter. Their expressions remained stoic, and he’d daresay disappointed.

Alistair, whom Cullen had momentarily forgotten was present, asked the question on everyone’s mind. “Spymaster, what is the occasion?” His formality surprised Cullen, but given their audience, it was appropriate.

Leliana smiled, the one which regularly made Cullen uncomfortable —never certain if it was genuinely pleasant or if he should be fearful. “Many arrived from across Thedas to pay their last respects to the Inquisitor. Thankfully, we are celebrating the alternative instead.”     

“Leliana, a word?” Josephine politely requested. The Spymaster excused herself as the five stepped away for privacy. “We’ve only just returned.”

Chrissie looked around, scanning the area before whispering, “I don’t even know who most of these people are. Can we dismiss them? I’m fine. I’m home. There’s nothing to see here.”

Leliana shook her head. “Given the rumors of your demise, it would be beneficial to entertain the public for the time being. The sooner it is done, the sooner they will leave.” 

Josephine released a long slow breath. 

Was that annoyance coming from the Ambassador? Interesting, Cullen thought, perhaps the ride exhausted her, she’s normally thrilled to handle noble affairs.

Tipping her head in agreement, Josie nodded. “It would serve as visual confirmation the Inquisitor is well and in perfect form, allaying any worry.” 

Cullen scoffed. “This is unnecessary. The soldiers can march them out within the hour.” There were several important tasks requiring attention, a display for the public was not a priority.

“Two hours,” Leliana offered, “after two hours, you may retire.”

Chrissie flinched. Whether it was the public display or the mention of their shared quarters, Cullen wasn’t certain.

“Absolutely not,” he protested, “There is much to do.”

Leliana gestured toward the stairs, ignoring him. “You both have people to attend to. Come, more await you inside.”

“Forty five minutes.” The Inquisitor sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. “At most.”

“While you do that,” Alistair explained, “I’ll head to my room, if you don’t mind.”

Chrissie nodded before making their way over to her parents.

Aida smirked, “We have a surprise for you,” she directed at Chrissie.

“Oh?”

Exercising caution had become instinctual, but a need to be immediately on guard came over Cullen. He held his suspicions, even without certainties, regarding the Trevelyans. For them to have a surprise couldn’t have meant anything good.

After ascending the stairs, they entered the main hall. Tables of food were arranged for the guests who stood in groups gossiping. The sea of people parted, allowing them to pass. They stopped on the dais, overlooking all in attendance. Chrissie spoke a few words, assuring the public she was indeed fine, welcomed and thanked them, apologized for the misunderstanding and finished with “Enjoy the gathering.”

They unlinked elbows as the Inquisitor sat upon her throne. Per etiquette expectations, Chrissie would be required to maintain a presence and spend time with the guests. Should any wish to approach her personally, this granted the opportunity. It also however, prompted safety concerns. Cullen stood at her right and placed his left hand on her shoulder. A firm but gentle symbol of both their positions and the ruse. 

She shifted and exhaled sharply through her nose before motioning for those awaiting to come forward. Her attitude was a falsity, placating the masses, though to most, she appeared no less Inquisitorial. Cullen’s eyes scanned the room, on alert for anything abnormal. Sighting a few unknown guests, the tension in his shoulders released when they engaged in conversation with people whom he was familiar.

He began to relax as several guests greeted and departed quickly, sharing their joy in the Inquisitor’s health, offering toasts, and well wishes for the future. Clad in a full armor, a man stepped toward Chrissie. She stiffened, seemingly recognizing him before he revealed his face.

Beady eyes peered through the helmet slit; he performed a full bow. Tall and broad, he moved with practiced gestures most learned to appease nobility. The sword sheathed at his hip indicated his training as a warrior.

“This is your surprise, dear.” Aida smiled wickedly. “You may remove your helmet, Ser.”     

Slowly, he did as instructed, revealing a cropping of dark brown hair and a bushy beard. “Cedric Kahler.”

That name, there was something familiar about it, but Cullen couldn’t place it. Chrissie stiffened and she swallowed so hard, he heard the gulp. The hairs on his arms stood at the sensation of magic and the back of his throat tingled. Underneath his left hand, Chrissie radiated heat, so powerful it penetrated despite his gloves. Her eyes grew wide.

“Former Knight-Commander of the Ostwick Circle,” he finished the introduction.

Cullen thought back to what started this all. With great pleasure we announce the betrothal of our daughter, Lady Inquisitor Christalyne Trevelyan to former Knight Commander of Ostwick Circle, Cedric Kahler . This man was Chrissie’s intended per the Trevelyans, the one she was adamant about not even seeing.“I will not so much as look at the Ostwick Knight-Commander, much less be betrothed to him. I’ll sooner impale myself on my staff.”

Cedric smirked, “you do remember me, don’t you, Chrissie?” Not Inquisitor, not Her Worship, Herald of Andraste, but he’d addressed her by name and not even the full one —a blatant disregard of her authority and lack of respect and Cullen’s fists clenched in response. 

During her tenure, Chrissie had delivered orders, as sternly as the situation required. Never under any previous circumstances had he heard the edge, harshness and overall tone she acquired for this moment. “You are not welcome here, Knight-Commander Kahler.” Disdain dripped off every word, but particularly his name. She stood and pointed toward the door. Cullen released her shoulder as she shifted. “Leave, now.”

“Christalyne!” Her mother scolded and Cullen shot Aida a look he hoped conveyed a stern ‘that’s enough’. One did not address the Inquisitor in an inappropriate manner, but particularly not when she was on the dais near the throne in front of the public and dispute her choices.

When Chrissie received only a smile in response to her demand, the sensation of magic swept through Cullen again as her right hand flourished with magefire. Instinctually, Cullen reached for his sword, holding the hilt in case it was necessary to draw against the guest.

Those in attendance halted and gasped, turning their undivided attention to the scene. “May this serve as your only warning. The next time we meet,” Chrissie snarled, “one of us will die.”

Cedric smirked, “If history is any indication, it won’t be me.”

What in the Void did that mean? Cullen had known from her reluctance there was bad blood, but such was the way between mages and templars, particularly those in a position of power. A lesson he had learned firsthand.

If his words impacted her, she gave no indication. The order came without diverting her attention, eyes fixated on the former Ostwick circle’s leader. “Commander Cullen, personally escort this man out.”

A personal escort out of Skyhold by the Commander of the Inquisition? Generally, extractions were handled by a small number of soldiers. Never had there been a reason for the Commander to undertake such an endeavor. “Yes, Inquisitor.”

Motioning to two guards, they met him in the middle as Cullen stepped down from the dais and approached the offender. Though he didn’t like leaving Chrissie, at least he could report the request was done correctly and completely upon his return. And he was eliminating the threat, even if he didn't fully understand it, the notion provided some comfort. 

As Cullen grabbed Cedric to lead him out, the man jerked, pulling away from his grasp. Already suspecting how this would go, Cullen gritted his teeth, “Keep your dignity and walk or be made the fool. The choice is yours.”

Raising his hands in surrender, Cedric performed a half bow. Ordinarily a gesture of respect, it was intended as a slight judging by the mocking smile. He winked at Chrissie before turning and walking alongside Cullen out the door.

Heading down the steps, Cullen began to detail the process, “The Ambassador will ensure any possessions are secured and returned to you.” 

Cedric ignored him, changing the topic, “Your leader, she’s still fiery. How cute.”

Cute? Of all ways to describe the Inquisitor, Cullen never thought cute was applicable. She wasn’t some girl in a dress her mother crocheted or some puppy picked up from a shelter.

“That gash,” he motioned to his face, “it come from you?”

Quirking his eyebrow, Cullen shook his head, “Pardon?”

“You teach her a lesson?” He laughed, twisted and maniacal, it grated against Cullen’s ears. “She was always the most hard headed, never learned.”

Cullen grabbed his arm, spinning the man toward him on the landing of the stairs. There was no way he insinuated what Cullen thought he was. Surely, he was overreacting, reading into what wasn’t there. “How many ‘lessons’ did you impart?”    

“As many as necessary. She could have had it easy, but never agreed, despite knowing the consequences. You were a templar, you know how they get.”

Blood boiling at the realization, Cullen snarled. Grabbing him by the plate of his armor, he lifted the Knight-Commander off the ground. How dare he have abused his power, to have ever laid his hands on any woman (or man), but a mage supposed to be under his protection. That was not why the Order had been founded.

“Careful Commander, the last who rallied in her defense no longer draws breath.” Cullen thought back to his conversation with Chrissie when she’d brought dinner to his office, Killian died when the rebellion began. He had assumed it was because of the war. Not wanting to pry, he never inquired further. 

Now he understood exactly why Chrissie reacted the way she did at the betrothal offer, and in the man’s presence. Frankly, Cullen found her restraint in not executing him on the spot admirable. It would be all too easy to release him, to let go and watch the snake plummet to the courtyard. But his orders had been clear, personally escort the Knight-Commander out, nothing more. And even were they not, violence was a last resort when settling matters.

Jostling Kahler to the landing, Cullen directed him forward. “Move it.” The more the man talked, the more irritated Cullen grew as his mind ran wild with what Cedric may or may not have put Chrissie through. When they finally made it across the bridge and to the gate, Cullen issued the only formality he would say on the matter, “Do not return.” 

Chapter Text

When the doors behind Cullen and Ric closed, Chrissie excused herself from her guests and declared an impromptu meeting in the war room with only her parents. Once Cullen returned, he would undoubtedly notice their absence and come looking, so she hadn’t bothered to send a messenger. 

Standing with her hands on her hips, Aida was the first to speak, “Christalyne, shame on you. That was a completely inappropriate and disrespectful display.”

All she could do was laugh at the absurdity. After everything within the last few days, Chrissie couldn’t believe this was truly happening. She had made it through the Fade, back to a lover and fake betrothed who in real life broke her heart only to come face to face with a monster from her past. And now, Lady Trevelyan was scolding her? No, that shit was not okay.

Crossing her arms, she stared down her mother, meeting her gaze unintimidated. “Why,” Chrissie demanded, “why would you bring him here?” 

Paul stood with his hands behind his back, ”When he heard you passed, he was devastated, wanted to pay his respects.”

She scoffed, nails digging into the meat of her arms. “Devastated, is that what he told you? You cannot trust a word he says.” 

“What’s not to believe?” The Bann shifted, explaining, “Cedric is honorable. There would be no reason to question his intentions.” 

No reason to… Her lips pressed together and she squeezed her eyes closed. “He’s a liar.”

“You, my dear, are the liar,” Aida smoothed out her dress, “Always the victim, aren’t we?”

“The victim,” Chrissie repeated, tilting her head.

“You didn’t think anyone would actually believe your unfounded accusations.”

What was left of Chrissie’s heart plummeted to her stomach. She spoke slowly as the realization came over her, “You were aware of my complaints?”

Aida nodded, “The Templars launched an investigation into the matter. We were kept informed as it progressed.”

Chrissie mulled over the words, her voice growing louder, “That entire time, years in the circle being abused by him, you knew?” Her breath grew rapid. Anger so pronounced manifested as tears and she couldn’t stop them. “And did nothing! Then tried to have me arranged in marriage to that...” words sputtering, she couldn't find an appropriate name, "that Monster!"

Her lips parted and she gasped, eyes widening. “You took his side.” Why this came as a shock, she wasn’t certain. Perhaps some part of her had thought her parents truly weren’t all that horrible. 

“Your accusations were deemed baseless,” her mother said, as if it was something as simple or as minor as explaining the weather for the day.

Efforts trying to regulate her breathing failed and she wound up making herself more upset, “How could you not believe me? After everything he put me through!”

Paul actually had the nerve to argue, “The Templars proved their case.”

Even louder now, Chrissie’s words boomed, echoing within the walls, “Naturally, they’ll find no fault in their own organization. Why risk exposure when they can cover it up? Ostwick only had a reputation for being ‘sedate’, it wasn’t actually. The Templars repeatedly hid abuse and even murder.” 

“Murder?” Aida glared, skepticism etched in her features. “A bit dramatic.”

Was she being dramatic? Fuck no, she wasn’t. “Cold blooded murder,” Chrissie said, recalling the Knight-Commander’s actions. 

Eyes scouring her reflection, the violet bruise showed Ric’s shame.The cost of saying no to his sexual advances. She began to tremble, tears burning. There are always consequences.

Touching the angry purple mass, she winced. Her hand flew to her abdomen and though it left no permanent scar, it was and would always be there, as would the others. She extended her fingers across the fabric of her tunic. Breath came in short bursts.

Piercing silver, ice blue eyes stared, Killian’s expression morphing to sheer rage. “He’ll not hurt you again.” The door thundered in her ears, as it had when Killian stormed out, as if it had just happened and she jumped. Heart beating wildly in her chest, she clenched the fabric into her fist.

Hastily throwing on her robes, she ran out. Her own footfalls were quick and heavy, thump, thump, thump, thump. She looked around the war room, seeing only templars. Two on each side of her. Felt the weight and pressure of their hands as they secured her, dragging her to the Knight-Commander’s office.

A jolt of lightning shot down her spine and a distant echo of her own scream pierced her ears. The blue aura from the cleanse swirled around her feet. Trapped. You are trapped and powerless. Limbs limp, she was at their mercy.

The war room shifted to a modest office, decorated sparsely with a desk, and little storage. A looming sense of dread and heaviness weighed on her chest. That smile, the glaring white wickedly evil one spanning Cedric’s features mocked her. Just as it had in the main hall when he bowed. While it appeared so, it was anything other than pleasant. Killian’s face was battered and as he knelt, restrained by templars, he spit blood on the floor.

“We have a hero.” Cedric said singsongingly.

“Grand Enchanter!” Hard unrelenting metal covered her mouth, stifling her cry for help. Her throat seemed to close, granting no more air in or out.

“Blood magic,” Cedric’s voice resounded, lying with ease. “You know what a templars duty is, how we handle such threats.”

No, she thought, yanking her arms in a futile effort. The weight of their hands kept her paralyzed. I'll give you what you want Knight-Commander, please! She had wanted to beg, to spare Killian his life, but her plea was silenced by the cold metal smothering her face. Please don't hurt him! Her words were muted and she was unable to speak. But he isn’t even a blood mage!

Time slowed to a crawl, even though it must have only taken a moment. Killian’s snarl, his squirming as they repeatedly cleansed him. The agonizing groans and cries of pain. Metal rang as Ric unsheathed his sword and stabbed Killian through the chest, blood pouring like a waterfall from the wound and some trickling out of his mouth. The strangled gurgling filled her ears. His unrelenting gaze pierced through her as Killian maintained eye contact. “Light ‘em up.” His last words, the ones he so desperately ground out. Helpless and stuck, she couldn’t move re-watching as life left him. 

Breathe, in and out. In and out. “Light ‘em up,” she whispered, finally regaining some control. As she looked around, the war room was back to normal, her mother’s amused smirk the only thing in sight. Who knows how long she stood here enduring with her parents standing idly by making no attempt to help. Her episode diminished after playing through entirely in her mind. 

A chill shot through her. It was why the mere idea of being with Cullen, a former Knight-Commander, had seemed so disrespectful to her deceased lover, why she fought herself with acceptance on her feelings even knowing the two men were so vastly different. 

Reminding herself the murderer had just been here, in her home, because of her parents, only further exacerbated her inability to calm down. She opted not to share the details. They wouldn't care, but were they to question the validity of Killian’s death, well, she may lose all restraint. Her lips quivered and she hated the illusion of weakness brought on by her anger. “You can't trust the Knight-Commander.”

Aida tisked Chrissie, “You're a hypocrite dear, trading one for another."

She stood firm, straightening her posture despite the tears in her eyes and issued a warning, "Leave Cullen out of this."

“Tell me," Paul mused, "why is he the better choice? He has no land, no title outside the Inquisition, he can’t offer wealth or status. A no one with nothing.”

“How dare you?” The disparaging of Cullen finally broke the dam, causing Chrissie to slam her hand against the war table; the markers hopped from their position and clattered. She may have been upset with him, but there was no way she would allow them to drag him through the mud as they had so many others, herself included. “You ensured I grew up with nothing when I was sent to the circle. All the wealth and power in the world doesn’t matter to me. This materialistic shit you think defines your importance is exactly why you’re miserable.”

The door thudded closed behind her and a quick glance back revealed Cullen. Who, of course, would have walked in right at this moment, making everything worse. He eyed her, concern evident on his features. “Maker, are you all right?” 

She nodded and though he didn’t seem to believe it, he didn’t ask further.

Resting his hands on the pommel of his sword, Cullen shifted, moving forward and placing his arm around her. 

"Ah," Aida gestured to Cullen, “Convenient. If it isn't the beneficiary of this arrangement.”

“Sweet Maker,” Chrissie groaned, “You’re not listening!” What could she possibly say to get it through her mother’s thick skull? “I need nothing more.”

Her entire body trembled, enraged and upset, boiling over until finally, finally she could handle this no further. “But you would have no idea what that is or how it feels and I’m done attempting to obtain what I will never have,” she gave Cullen a pointed stare, love, she thought, “from any of you.” 

Cullen said nothing. Good thing too, because if he had, it likely would only have added salt in the wound. Then again, his silence did him no favors. Given her current mood, he was damned no matter his choice of action.

Tired of it all, she suddenly forgot why she cared about their approval —any of their approval. She had tried desperately to be a person they could be proud of but realized she didn’t need it, or them. Every effort had been futile in an attempt to acquire something they wouldn’t offer and now after so many years, she made peace with that.

There was no evidence of crime, and she couldn’t throw them in jail for being shitty people without being branded the villain herself. Devising an alternate solution, she stood taller delivering her edict with conviction, “Effective immediately,” she glared, “You are hereby banished from Skyhold. This is my fucking castle, and you’ve no place here.”

Chapter Text

Ascending the steps to his office, he spotted Chrissie standing on the battlements, watching as the gates closed behind the Trevelyan’s carriage. She looked oddly at peace despite what happened in the war room.

Cullen had entered well into the conversation with her parents, and despite the voices echoing into the hall, he wasn’t able to catch every word. Rather than interject and make things worse, he stood silently by, providing the reassurance of his presence, hoping it would be sufficient as hers had so often been for him in the past. Although he had no idea if it had worked. As he rested his arm around her in the war room holding her close to his side, her body had trembled. Shaking so hard, the reverberations from her had rippled through him.

How dare the Trevelyans bring that disgrace to Skyhold, to her —their home. The thought caused his blood to boil within his veins. Instinctually, Cullen suspected there was something off about them from the beginning. And now, he understood exactly why Chrissie, who never showed fear, buckled upon their arrival given their manipulative ways. The desires of wanting to be accepted for who you are and have your achievements recognized were not lost on him. 

He wondered why, of all the things they’d discussed, they never spoke about it before reminding himself he never divulged his experience in the circle to her either. In fact, he’d made it a point to stray from the topic and thus, had brought his ignorance upon himself. 

They should talk. For all their conversations, there was still so much to say. But would she accept the hand of a friend since it was all he could offer? After what happened between them, was a friendship even salvageable? Did he want one if it was? It would only serve as a reminder they couldn’t be together. Always so close but ever out of his reach. Though the more he thought about it, he supposed it wasn’t at all different from the ruse. In truth, nothing had really changed.

Except, Cullen now knew what it was to be with her for real. No longer just imagining her skin’s softness, her warm lips, the smell and tickle of her hair. How their bodies fit together, Maker perfectly, as if they were made for one another. And those thoughts, the ones burned into his memory, must be stricken from his mind before he could ever return to seeing her as only their leader. If it was even possible.

"Inquisitor," he greeted, chest aching in response to the forced professionalism. “Are you all right?”

The compulsion to hold her, hug her, reach out and never let her go came over him. But he quashed it down, remembering his place.

“Better now.” She nodded. “Things will only improve from here, I’m certain.”

“The Trevelyans and the Ostwick Knight-Commander have been removed from the grounds.” He gestured to the carriage in the distance. “We ensured nothing was left behind. They cannot claim to have forgotten anything as a means to return.”

“Very good,” she said solemnly. “There’s something I’d like to discuss, if you’ve the time.”

Uncertain whether to be apprehensive, he hoped she’d hint at the topic. Generally, when someone said there was something to speak of, often it wasn’t good. A wave of anxiety washed over him. “Of course.” He held the door open to his office, allowing her to pass through first. 

Taking his standard position behind his desk, she stood opposite. Perhaps it was just the candlelight casting shadows, but her demeanor shifted, an expression of determination flashed across her features. 

Most definitely not good. He waited in anticipation, resisting his urge to fidget.

“I’ve given it thought and while I understand it is not my place to speak on your life choices, I want it crystal clear,” she said with conviction, “from a professional standpoint, if you ever take another drop of lyrium, your position as Commander of this Inquisition is forfeit, permanently.”

Cullen scratched his neck. Why would you...?  He shrugged, thinking nothing further of it. “All right.” Perhaps this conversation would not be so terrible.

“That’s it?” She tilted her head, “all right?”

What was she searching for? Why would there be anything more?

“You’re acting like it’s a simple endeavor.”

He shifted his weight, confessing the truth of the matter. “It wasn’t at first, but it lessened over time. I suspect the effects won’t ever disappear completely.” Though it hardly mattered now, the worst had passed, mostly.

Awkward silence filled the room. 

The look she gave him was unsettling, as if she peered at a stranger instead of a friend, a former lover, or even a colleague. Had his actions caused so much damage there was nothing between them to reconcile? It was as if she waited for him to elaborate, but on what, he wasn’t certain.

His silence seemed to add to the problem as she bit her lip and scoffed. “Really Cullen? More dishonesty?”

Using his name and not the title was an interesting approach, given she’d made it clear this was from a ‘professional’ standpoint. Her words only lent credence to it indeed being a personal matter. Was this simply residual anger left over from dealing with her parents, or was it something more? I may have neglected to tell the entire truth but “I have never once been dishonest,” he said, finishing his thought aloud. 

Hands moving to her hips, she tapped her foot. His silent contemplation added to her ferocity, “I found it. Do you think I’m stupid, that I wouldn’t figure it out?”

Found what? His brows furrowed and he rubbed his forehead. He had never once thought such things, “No, I—”

She cut him off, holding up her hand to silence him. “The empty vial in your mantle.”

Oh, that. “It serves as a reminder, nothing more,” he said factually. It’s why he kept it on his person, why it was hidden away in the interior pocket. Without alerting others to its presence, he could brush his hand over it during the workday when necessary for a sense of comfort. He didn’t need the barrage of questions which would follow were anyone else to see it. His initial decision to quit lyrium was hardly a secret anymore, particularly among the inner circle.

Exhaling deeply, her voice shifted, losing the edges of irritation, “I wish you had consulted me.”

Cullen would have wanted nothing more. If she were present, every event since would have played out differently. But it didn’t and now he dealt with the consequences, both good and bad. “What would you have had me do?” He shook his head. “You weren’t here. As a result, Hawke and I discussed the matter.” 

She sighed, “Alistair warned me Hawke makes terrible decisions. I should have listened.”

“While I’m compelled to agree…” He halted mid sentence and his eyes grew wide. The realization of her implication finally dawned on him. “I stopped when I joined the Inquisition; it’s been months now. I haven’t taken it since.”

“What?” she questioned, confusion lacing her tone. “But—” 

Cullen recalled the memory of what happened between him and Hawke, summarizing their exchange to Chrissie.

Moving forward, Marian swiped the vial off his desk, holding it up to inspect. “Lyrium, huh?” Putting the draught inches from his face, she offered it to him, “will this help you do your job?”

He went to grab it, and she snatched it away. “The answer is no. This will not help you do your job.” Hawke’s expression shifted to one of, well, if he didn’t know better, he’d call it concern. “Look,” she sighed, “I’m not trying to replace her. I wouldn’t dare.” Her voice cracked, subtly, but there. “And I know what it is to grieve, I have lost nearly everyone I’ve ever loved.” She trailed off, eyes downcast."My point is, when you grieve, you tend to do stupid shit. And this,” she wiggled the vial, “is stupid shit. You’re better than its hold over you.”

His lips pressed into a hard line. A thank you would be appropriate, he thought. He cleared his throat, but before he could muster the words, Hawke unscrewed the lid and downed the draught, handing him the empty glass. As a mage, the lyrium wouldn't hurt her as it would him. He assumed her intention was to remove further temptation. "Let this serve as a reminder of the progress you almost ruined for your stupid sense of duty." 

Cullen understood why Chrissie would have concluded he resumed lyrium use upon finding the empty draught. It also explained the necessity for her aggressive approach. “As I said," he reiterated, "I no longer take it.”

“Well,” she muttered, looking at everything except him. A blush crept into her cheeks. The hardened mask of the Inquisitor fractured and sadness fell over her features. “That, um… that explains a lot then.” She cleared her throat, “Excuse me.” Turning on her heel, she headed toward the door.

Had he done something wrong? He would have expected this revelation to be good news, especially if she’d thought the alternative. Knowing he upset her, but not knowing why, he called her name. When she didn’t stop, his voice rang with command, “Christalyne.” 

He made it personal, as she had, then thought perhaps it was inappropriate and amended, “Inquisitor.” 

She froze as if he had cast a spell but didn’t move toward him, only stood, looking at the exit. “I thought it was because you were on lyrium. Your…” she paused and her voice cracked, “uncharacteristic behavior, but now I see otherwise, Cullen.” 

Tell her why, she deserves to know. But would she understand? Would being forthcoming change anything? She'd likely protest, try to convince him his actions were unnecessary. He didn't trust himself to allow that. Didn't trust himself to gaze into those beautiful blue eyes and not hang from every hopeful word. All it could take was one single kiss, a simple press of her lips to crumble his resolve, to demolish the carefully constructed walls he’d built around himself.

The aforementioned walls were a guard, necessary to maintain his position. As he always would, when duty called, the Commander of the Inquisition answered. Instead of the emotions he could have lent his voice to, he stuck to ambiguous honesty, “I apologize for the misunderstanding, Inquisitor. Lyrium has no impact on my actions. Not anymore.”

Nodding slowly, she gave him a sideways glance, "With the Trevelyans gone, upholding the ruse is no longer required.”

Chrissie had promised she would end the arrangement at the earliest opportunity, and Cullen saw now she meant it. He should have been relieved, should have been happy about no longer being pulled away from his work and bound by the false illusion of the life he wanted. But a hollowness enveloped him and he felt like a shell of the man she’d fought alongside him to become. "I see." He hoped his voice hadn't revealed his disappointment.

If the ruse needed to remain in tact, he could still cling to their relationship, fake as it was. He would still get to spend time with her, kiss her, be with her, hear her laugh, fight by her side. Now, he was left with nothing.  

“Congratulations, Commander. You’re a free man. I will ensure you’re adequately compensated for your trouble and time."

Free? As if she were a burden keeping him shackled, as if everything they'd handled hadn't meant the world to him. That was practically a slap in the face and he felt the sting, just as real as if she'd raised a hand. Though, he conceded he deserved it. 

When he decided to assist, there’d been no expectations. Cullen desired nothing in return and though the ruse had occasionally been a hindrance, it provided far more benefits than detriments. Despite the fact their relationship could never be, he would never trade the time spent for anything. “That’s not—” He wanted to correct her, needed to, but she interrupted while he mulled over the appropriate words.

“Necessary,” she finished on his behalf, “it is. I’ll inform the others at council tomorrow.”

Tomorrow. Which made tonight their last night together. As he suspected from the beginning, he had not wanted to have this conversation. 

 

Hours later, the door to Cullen’s office burst open. The Warden entered without permission, his furrowed brow and narrowed eyes showed his anger. It was hardly a surprise. He had expected someone, though wasn’t entirely certain which of the inner circle it would be. Cullen sighed, redirecting his attention from the missives on his desk. 

“She’s hurt.” Alistair said, the accusation of ‘it’s your fault’ was still heard loud and clear. He leaned up against the far wall, standing with his arms crossed. 

Cullen rubbed the stubble on his face, ignoring the emptiness in his chest. “She’ll endure.” After all, it wasn’t like she was in love with him. Her being upset was understandable, but he had done what he must before the point of no return.

Alistair’s brows raised in surprise. “Why’d you do it? I know you care for her. What could possibly cause you to leave, especially after intimacy and stay away, if not lyrium?”

So much for their private affairs remaining that way. Cullen’s jaw set. 

Despite his aggravation, if Chrissie required a confidant, he was happy it was Alistair. After reflecting on the events of the past few weeks, he recognized his error. At the time, Cullen needed a reason why Chrissie was dead more than he needed to breathe. Alistair was an easy target given his history and Cullen realized he had been wrong to lay blame, maybe not on the Wardens as a whole —their actions did cause the events to unfold—  but on Alistair specifically. 

However, while he may have owed the Warden an apology, he certainly did not owe him any explanations. “My reasons are my own.”

Alistair snorted, raising his hands in surrender. “Fine, don’t tell me. I’m not the one who’ll have to forgive you for this.”

Would Chrissie forgive him? Perhaps in time; it was said to heal all wounds. Then again, if his nightmares and attacks were any indication, maybe that was an inaccurate assessment.

Cullen stood still, half curious if this conversation would end in a challenge or duel over Chrissie’s honor. Knowing it wouldn’t make his predicament better, he decided against brutality, preferring civility. Say you’re sorry and be done with it. “Warden Alistair, I wanted to apologize.”

“Great, me too. I'm sorry. There, I said it.” His gaze met Cullens, intense and determined. “Now, that’s out of the way you can issue mine first, then hers.”

“Pardon?”

“You heard me.” Despite Alistair’s words, there was no edge to his voice, only confusion. He gestured to the door, “Go after her.” 

Maker, Cullen wanted nothing more and this whole endeavor was killing him. But instead, his feet remained firmly planted. “There’s work to be done.”

Dramatically, the Warden rolled his eyes. “You and your work! Do you have any idea what chases away the nightmares? What keeps you warm at night?” 

Of course I do. It’s her, Chrissie does.

Alistair seemed like he was awaiting an answer. When one wasn’t provided, he sighed and continued on, “A little hint, it’s not duty.”

While Alistair spoke the truth, it changed nothing. Cullen remained still. “I’m aware.”

“Well then why are you just standing there?" Alistair gestured to the door again. "Go. Right now. Don't think about it, because knowing you, you will, and then your feet won't move and you'll start to doubt and… it's not that hard!  Run to her with open arms. Kiss and make up or make up then kiss. It doesn't matter which comes first, as long as they're both in there." He made a shooing motion, "Go, just do it."

“I cannot.” He frowned, despite his minor amusement. Alistair is a good friend.

The Warden ran his fingers through his hair, “Would you consider listening to me? Take the opportunity to fix this before it’s too late.” Covering his mouth with his hand, Alistair rubbed his stubble. “Have you any idea what I’d give for the second chance you now have?” The one you’re squandering?” His voice grew louder, the inflection of command matching the one Cullen so often used, “Stop being daft and go.”

“You don’t think I want to? I love her!” Cullen boomed, the words tumbled out before he could catch them. His eyes grew wide. It had been the first time he said it aloud to someone else. Even when he told the Ambassador it was real for him, he never fully articulated the true depths. “I have for… longer than I should admit.” he confessed, his tone morphing to a whisper.

"Then tell her that!" Alistair pointed, "Exactly that! What you just said. Verbatim. Tell her."

“I can't..." Cullen pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and index finger. "I made a promise to the Maker.”

Alistair looked at him, stunned. “You did what?”

Cullen remembered his words, when he begged despite having lost all hope. Bring her back and I will leave her be. He had pled in a time of despair and made a deal. The Maker had fulfilled his request. 

He realized it while Chrissie laid on his chest in bed. To have her back and in his arms was everything he had wanted, exactly what he prayed for. It was then the weight of his words struck him, only after their intimacy. He never meant to deceive, and perhaps if he was in the right headspace, things would have been different. But since her return proved to be real and not a trick of the mind, he had to uphold his end of the bargain with the Maker. He couldn’t risk the creator’s wrath and her suffering consequences for his own actions. No matter the cost, he wanted to shield her. 

I can’t lose her permanently; it’s better this way, he reassured himself, or tried to, repeatedly. When he couldn’t return her affections the morning after, it wasn’t because he didn’t, but because he indeed could not without breaking his oath. Leaving was a means of protecting her, and Cullen was, in his own way, doing the best he could under the circumstances.

“Maker, you’re as serious as a Blight right now. That is,” Alistair chuckled, running his hand down his face, disbelief apparent in his tone, “completely ridiculous. How you of you.”

“Excuse me?” Cullen bristled.

“Exactly what I just said. Only you would uphold a promise to the Maker made out of desperation.”

“What do you mean, only me?”

“Only you, with your devout nature and unwavering faith would take that seriously. It’s like when you drink too much and get sick. You swear you’ll never do it again if you make it through the night. Does it ever stop you from drinking again? No.”

“I rarely drink so your logic hardly applies.”

“All right, bad example, but same principle.” Alistair rolled his eyes, “The point is: no one ever means it.”

Cullen stood firm, frowning. “I cannot break my word. My promise was not one of convenience." He rubbed his eyes and lowered his voice, “The Maker could change his mind, take her away again.” An awful crack emerged and he momentarily sounded hoarse, “I can’t…”

“You give her up now, on the chance you’ll have to in the future?” Alistair scoffed, “Sure, Cullen, makes a lot of sense.” The Warden turned away, stopping before he reached the door. “I envy what you have, shame you don’t recognize it yourself.” He shook his head, “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

It was little consolation, but Cullen was certain his apology was much the same. “You’ve no idea how much I am as well.”