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Of Love and Duty

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By the time they entered the meeting room, the entire Inner Circle was present except for Her Most Holy, which didn’t surprise Cullen at all.

“You see?” Josephine said. “They were just sleeping in after their long day yesterday.”

“Oh no, El!” Alistair mock-gasped. “We’ve kept our adoring fans waiting!”

Chuckles accompanied the scraping of chairs as everyone stood to greet Alistair and Elodie.

Alistair blinked in surprise as they all swarmed him first, and Cullen remembered what he’d overheard of his discussion with Josephine the previous night.

“For what it’s worth, we’re all happy you’re here.”

“You mean that Elodie’s here.”

Cullen had assumed the comment was due to his mood, but now he wondered if Alistair actually believed that the Inner Circle thought so little of him. Did Alistair still think so little of himself that he didn’t see the respect and affection they all felt for him? For Maker’s sake, they’d all pestered him so much for news of when he would arrive that Cullen felt — not for the first time — like these people he’d considered friends were only really Alistair’s.

He heard Alistair laugh and saw between Blackwall and Sera’s heads that his cheeks were tinged with pink. Cullen smiled. Alistair deserved to be fawned over for a bit, especially after yesterday.

The first to approach Cullen and Elodie was Vivienne; she had never cared for Alistair — and the feeling was mutual, Alistair’s annoyance with her outstripped only by his well-known feelings about Morrigan — and so she walked right past the group and straight to Cullen.

“My, my,” she declared. “Josephine was quite correct. Why, I hardly recognize you, Miss Elodie.”

Elodie, for her part, eyed Vivienne with skepticism — which, in her defense, had been her reaction when she’d last seen Vivienne. Cullen tried to hide his smile.

“Very good, my dear.” Vivienne smiled her approval. “Always be cautious around newcomers, whether you know them of old or not.”

Cullen shook his head in confusion at her back as she returned to the table. Cassandra caught his gaze and smirked with a roll of her eyes.

“Hello, Elodie!” Cassandra underwent her usual transformation upon seeing Elodie — smiling and cooing, she barely resembled the hardened Seeker that over three years ago had come to the Gallows in Kirkwall to recruit him to the Inquisition. “Do you remember me? It’s your Auntie Cassandra!”

Elodie shrank back against Cullen before looking up at him with a look that seemed to say, Is she serious?

He laughed out loud at that, which drew the attention of everyone in the room, including Alistair, who appeared at his side in an instant.

“Are you all right, my Ellie?” Alistair asked.

“She’s fine,” Cullen said, though he couldn’t help a fond smile at Alistair’s hovering. “I think she’s a bit overwhelmed with all these people she doesn’t remember.”

Cassandra’s face fell. “She doesn’t remember me?”

“She remembers.” Cole’s voice on his other side nearly made Cullen jump out of his skin. “Laughter and love left sadness behind, but home isn’t home when it’s empty. New home, old friends, always different. Maybe they’ll be happy with their friends back.”

Cullen’s heart stuttered to a stop, and the look he exchanged with Alistair told him he felt similar. Cullen cleared his throat and tried to pretend his face wasn’t burning.

“Kid, we talked about this.” Varric’s gravelly voice came from the group that had been mobbing Alistair. “It’s too early for you to be freaking everyone out. Prince Charming hasn’t even inhaled his breakfast yet.”

“Exactly!” Alistair said eagerly. “Yes, yes, it’s very nice to see all of you, but I am starving, so kindly step aside.”

Everyone laughed as they returned to their seats, and even Cullen was unsure whether Alistair was clinging tightly to Varric’s lifeline or genuinely meant the eagerness in his tone.

“I hope we saved enough food for you, Charming,” said Varric. “We tried to leave about half of it.”

Cullen decided Alistair must have been driven by his hunger, he’d served himself a heaping plate and hadn’t even rolled his eyes at the nickname he hated so much.

As with most of the nicknames Varric bestowed, Alistair’s was built upon a perfect blend of cleverness and focused teasing (bordering on mockery) of the traits Alistair was least proud of. The full nickname was Prince Charming — “Because I’m a prince. And charming,” Alistair had once said deadpan. “Get it? Ha ha” — but Varric usually shortened it to merely Charming, which Alistair had never found to be much of an improvement despite the fact that it was actually complimentary. Cullen, however, secretly believed Varric’s full nickname was perfect, and not merely because both parts were actually accurate. Deep down, in a part of him that he’d thought had been slaughtered in Kinloch Hold along with his friends and most of his sanity, a part that had been awakened when Alistair had reentered his life a little over three years ago, Cullen was a romantic. And in spite of the fact that the idea was cliche in the worst way, Cullen loved Alistair’s nickname because when he and Alistair had finally admitted their feelings for one another, Cullen had found his Prince Charming. Alistair was everything he wasn’t — positive, while Cullen was pessimistic; lighthearted, while Cullen was melancholy; fun, while Cullen was serious; and, of course, utterly charming while Cullen was the epitome of awkward. Their differences were what made them work as a unit, and Cullen couldn’t imagine a person more perfect for him.

He was jolted from his foolishly romantic thoughts by Alistair who, now shoveling food into his mouth, let out a highly inappropriate groan. Cullen felt himself redden in discomfort and not a little embarrassment. Alistair, either oblivious or indifferent, began to speak with his mouth full, much to Vivienne’s (and Dorian’s and Josie’s and Cassandra’s) distaste.

“You have no idea,” Alistair babbled. “I didn’t even have dinner last night. Just a little more than half of my reward cheese.”

Cullen, now seated with Elodie in his lap, turned in concern to his not-currently-very-charming prince. “Reward cheese?” Had Alistair truly not eaten dinner last night?

“Oh, yes,” said the Inquisitor, walking toward him. “It was his incentive not to impale himself on something sharp and stain the expensive marble with his bastard Ferelden blood.” She smirked at Alistair, who returned it with an acknowledging tilt of his head.

Cullen frowned at the unpleasant reminder that Alistair had spoken with everyone except him about his frustrations last night.

“And you, Ellie,” the Inquisitor continued, taking Elodie from his arms, “will eat with me and Auntie Josie while your fathers enjoy a warm meal for once.”

She retreated to her spot at the head of the table and Josephine pushed a plate with various items cut into small pieces in front of Elodie, who clapped and said, “Yay, beffast! Papa yuvs beffast.”

“Mmm, I really do,” agreed Alistair, once again in a tone more befitting the bedroom than the dining room. “Breakfast is my favorite meal.”

He began serving himself a second plate. No dinner, and he’d had to incentivize himself with cheese? Guilt roiled in Cullen’s stomach, turning even the thought of food sour.

“I thought you said dinner was your favorite meal,” the Inquisitor said, raising an eyebrow.

“When did I say that?”

“The night before we left Skyhold. So, three days ago.”

“Were we eating dinner?”

“Well … yes.”

“Then that’s why.”

The table laughed again, and Alistair grinned. Cullen’s heart lightened, and he met Alistair’s gaze with a genuine, if small, smile of his own. Whatever else he’d been through the previous day, Alistair seemed to be back to his normal, goofy self now. Cullen suddenly felt overwhelmed with gratitude for this man, his Prince Charming, who loved him so, and he hoped nothing he did would ever again provoke the reappearance of that bitter, angry side of Alistair.

“Ellie,” Josephine said. “What in Thedas happened to your hair?” She glared at Cullen and asked accusingly, “You didn’t cut it again, did you?”

Cullen threw up his hands, annoyed. “Why does everyone blame me for that? It’s not my fault she got into Alistair’s secret honey stash — which he swore she would never find” — he addressed that last to Alistair, who didn’t even pause his eating — “when he was away for a week. It was all over her hair! What was I supposed to do?”

Alistair did look up from his food at that and pointed a fork in Cullen’s face on every word. “Wash. It. Out,” he said, not a glimmer of humor in his eyes.

“I washed her hair six times! I looked around for potions and anything else that might help, and even Morrigan said it was a lost cause.”

That did not help his case. Alistair turned back to his food and muttered, “I can’t believe you went to her for help. She probably did it on purpose! Cut off my little girl’s hair …”

Cullen was conscious of everyone watching their discussion, likely waiting to see if it was a serious argument or not. If they figured it out, Cullen hoped they’d let him know. He was pretty sure it wasn’t, but Alistair’s previous foul mood had caught him so off-guard that doubt niggled at the back of his mind.

There was a test for that, though.

“You do remember that I had to cut my own hair after that mess, right?”

Alistair lifted his gaze to the ceiling. “Maker, what did I do to be punished twice like that?”

Varric laughed, and everyone joined in. Alistair smirked, and as he finished off his second plate, he looked sidelong at Cullen and winked.

“He’s right, Curly. I was in Kirkwall. The short hair is not a great look for you.”

Cullen rolled his eyes at his own annoying nickname, but it was only for show. Alistair fake-arguing with him in front of their friends — now that he understood that it was fake — was normal for him. A tightness in Cullen’s chest he hadn’t been aware was there loosened.

“Oh, do you see?” Josephine asked the Inquisitor. Cullen wondered if she’d heard any of the previous conversation. “It’s rolled and tucked and tied in the back. That’s very clever, Alistair!”

Annoyed but not surprised, Cullen merely closed his eyes for a longer blink than usual. Alistair was usually the one who did Elodie’s hair, so the assumption wasn’t something he could blame anyone for.

Alistair, however, stilled for a moment in the middle of serving up his third plate. When he unfroze, the smirk he wore was sharp, not unlike the one he’d worn the previous night.

“That one’s all Cullen.” Alistair’s tone was bitter, too. “He’s the patient one.”

Alistair didn’t look at him, and before Cullen could say anything, Josephine exclaimed, “Cullen! How long have you been capable of this?”

“Yes, Cullen,” the Inquisitor said dryly. “How dare you withhold such a mockable fact about yourself?”

“Aw, Cully-Wully,” Sera singsonged. “Bull wants you to do him next, yeah?”

Everyone laughed as Bull swept imaginary long hair back over his shoulder.

Everyone except Alistair, that is.

Elodie asked, “What do you sink, An Yosie?” and, as she had before, patted either side of her hair.

“Oh, it’s very nice,” Josephine said. “Munda did a wonderful job.”

“Yes, vey nice, Munda!” Elodie mimicked.

Cullen’s heart did a little flip in his chest, and he could have sworn his cheeks heated, but they also could have been sore from the goofy smile he was probably wearing. His sweet girl always had that effect on him.

A chorus of “Aw”s and “So adorable”s swept the room. Cassandra wore the same moony look she got when she read Varric’s silly romances; Bull and Blackwall, hardened warriors both, grinned; Cole smiled placidly, Varric laughed out loud, and even Vivienne’s cool exterior melted enough that her eyes crinkled a bit around the edges.

Sera sniffed and said, “That’s unfair, that is, being so small and cute and, and, and whatever, Elodie!”

And Alistair, although he didn’t look up from his rapidly emptying plate, at least softened his smirk to something far gentler, and his shoulders slackened. Cullen just wished he didn’t know Alistair well enough to tell they did so not out of relief or love, but what looked disturbingly like defeat.

Dorian, who for all his grumbling about disliking babies had taken a particular shine to Elodie, grinned and walked to where she sat in the Inquisitor’s lap. He crouched next to the chair and spoke, not in his usual disaffected or tired tone but far more animatedly than Cullen had thought possible before Elodie.

“Now, Inquisitor, who is this darling girl in your lap? I thought I would get to see Elodie this morning! Where is she?”

As before, Elodie eyed Dorian suspiciously, although she didn’t pull away as she had with the others. She did, however, look up at the Inquisitor, who smiled and nodded, before returning her gaze to Dorian.

“I’m Ayuhdee,” she said with a frown.

“Nonsense!” Dorian melodramatically — which was to say, as usual — swept away her suggestion. “My Elodie is a tiny little thing with short hair who can barely string a few words together! You, my lady, are far too tall and well-spoken to be Elodie.”

“No,” Elodie whined, slapping her chest. “I’m Ayuhdee!” Distressed, she looked wildly around the room. “Munda …” she whimpered, dangerously close to bursting into tears.

Cullen stood and moved toward her. “I’m right here, my sweet girl.”

Behind him, Alistair sighed. “If you give her what she wants, it just encourages the tantrums.”

The caustic edge to his words sliced deep into Cullen, but he clenched his fists, reminding himself that yesterday had been truly insanity-inducing for Alistair, and he had clearly not quite recovered.

So his own voice was calm and patient as he continued toward the head of the table and said, without looking at Alistair, “I rather think this morning is an excellent time for bending the rules a bit.”

Elodie reached up for him, and he scooped her into his arms. As always, she buried her face in his neck while he stroked her hair and hushed her.

“You’re quite all right, my sweet girl. Uncle Dorian is just teasing. You remember Uncle Dorian, don’t you?”

He was aware of the entire room staring at him while he comforted his daughter, but right now he didn’t much care. Yesterday had been horrible, for both her and Alistair, and it was his fault; the least he could do for them both, especially after how they’d comforted him last night and this morning, was to keep them both sane for as long as possible.

Cullen glanced up at Dorian, who stood with arms crossed, grinning. “Still under her spell, I see.”

Cullen’s face heated, but he couldn’t keep the likely foolish grin away. He said to Elodie, “You see? Uncle Dorian’s just being silly.”

Elodie perked up at that. “Yike Papa?”

Cullen smiled down at her and prayed that Alistair could see the adoring look on her face right now. “Yes, silly like Papa.”

“Uncle Dorian’s more than welcome to deal with her like Papa the next time she throws a tantrum,” Alistair muttered. Cullen’s heart sank.

“Yes, Alistair, we’re all aware of the nature of your hardships yesterday.” Dorian, as he had with Elodie, swept his hand dismissively. “But do quit moping about it. It’s unbecoming.”

“Yes, Dorian,” Alistair mocked, affecting a posh-sounding Tevinter-ish accent. “We’re all aware you’re a pompous ass, but do quit flaunting it around.”

“Ass!” Elodie clapped and chanted, “Ass! Ass! Ass!”

Which was, of course, when Her Most Holy arrived.

.

.

.

“Oh my,” said Divine Victoria, smiling. “If there was ever any doubt you are Alistair’s daughter, Elodie, you have certainly eliminated it!”

Cullen knew she was joking, and that she and Alistair had a relationship that leant itself to such ribbing, but he tensed nonetheless. Alistair didn’t deserve to be teased so incessantly, and especially not today.

So when Alistair shoved his plate away and buried his head in his arms with an honest-to-Maker whimper, Cullen spun around to, yes, chastise Her Most Holy Divine Victoria, consequences be damned.

As always, however, Her Most Holy — er, Leliana — saw both more and more quickly than Cullen ever did. Even with Alistair, the man he loved most in the world.

“Tell me who, Alistair, and I’ll wield the knife myself.”  Her tone was granite, the glint in her eyes sharp enough to cut diamonds.

“Me,” Alistair whined. “It’s always me.”

Leliana crossed her arms. “What would she say if she were here?”

A pause, then, voice still muffled by his arms, Alistair said, “‘Alistair, stop playing with the mabari and help us pack up camp.’”

Sera let out a far-too-loud “Ha!” and everyone else smirked; except for Vivienne, of course, who couldn’t be bothered, and Cassandra, who rolled her eyes.

Cullen, though, saw the remark for what it was — avoiding the tough discussion, whether internal or external.

Leliana wasn’t impressed, either. “And after that?”

Alistair sighed. “‘Will you and Morrigan just fuck already? You’re driving us all nuts.’”

More laughter. Bull said, “She was so hot, though. You should have tapped that, Al!”

Cullen frowned. One deflection was normal; two meant something was truly wrong. Not to mention that joking about sex with Morrigan was beyond the pale for Alistair. Cullen’s heart ached to fix what was hurting him.

Leliana rolled her eyes. “I was thinking something a tad more relevant.”

After a moment, Alistair rubbed his face roughly with both hands and turned to Leliana with a hopeless look that nearly broke Cullen’s heart. “Mabari are just so much … more. And most people think nugs are annoying.”

The rest of the room mirrored Cullen’s own confusion. Nugs and mabari?

“Those people have no soul,” Leliana said simply.

“You have a problem,” Alistair said. “I know it’s been a while since I studied it, but I’m pretty sure the Chant doesn’t mention nugs, and I doubt the Maker would want his Divine saying such things.”

Leliana’s mischievous smile slowly revealed itself. “What if I said it without the fancy hat?”

With that, she quickly performed a series of complicated motions and removed her miter, setting it on the table and holding out her arms as if to say, Now what?

“Well, now you’re just the crazy Chantry sister we found in a tavern in Lothering.”

“Alistair!” Cullen couldn’t help but scold.

Elodie brought a hand to her face just as she said, “Ass-steh!”

The room froze, Cullen and, yes, Alistair included. All heads turned toward Elodie, who looked at her fathers proudly.

“What did you say, sweetheart?” Alistair asked, neutrally as far as Cullen could tell. He stood and walked to the end of the table, where Cullen still stood with her. “Can you say that again?”

Elodie grinned, slapped her palm against her forehead, and repeated, “Ass-steh!”

Alistair nodded. “That’s what I thought you said.” Then he covered his face with both hands and bowed his head.

After a moment, his shoulders began to shake. Tentatively, Cullen laid a gentle hand on one of them.

“Alistair,” he said softly. He was once again acutely aware of the room’s attention and knew that Alistair wouldn’t want to look foolish or weak — whether or not Cullen agreed with that assessment, which he didn’t — in front of an audience of friends.

But when Alistair finally dropped his hands and looked up at him, Cullen was surprised to find him laughing.

“That,” he said, hitting Cullen playfully, “is your fault. Now literally everyone in my life says my name like that.”

He grinned, as though Elodie (and Cullen, by teaching her) had given him the greatest compliment he could possibly receive. And maybe, to Alistair, they had. Because Cullen never expressed the exasperation Elodie emulated without undertones of his true fondness. Perhaps affectionate exasperation was love to Alistair, who had experienced annoyance, intense distaste, and even loathing from nearly everyone growing up. Maybe he expected or even wanted some amount of irritation from the people who cared about him, and the fact that they loved him in spite of or, more accurately, because of his quirks was the best gift he could ever receive.

The thought threatened to overwhelm Cullen with both joy and sadness simultaneously. Alistair’s childhood had been truly terrible; the fact that he had grown into the best kind of man and father in spite of everything he’d been through never ceased to amaze him. In that moment, Cullen vowed to himself to tell Alistair that more often.

Starting now.

Still grinning, Alistair began to turn away, likely to brush off his earnestness with a joke.

Not this time.

Cullen shoved Elodie back into the Inquisitor's arms and grabbed Alistair’s elbow, spinning him around and toward him. Before Alistair could lose his balance, Cullen snatched his face and kissed him.

A series of wolf-whistles and jokes hit Cullen’s ears, but they didn’t matter right now. He kissed Alistair with a passion intended to show all the amazing things he loved about and felt for his Prince Charming, who had lightened his load with humor during their Templar training, who had helped save him in Kinloch Hold, and again by falling in love with him, and yet again by saving and falling in love with their little girl and showing him how to open his heart and do the same. This man who had braved the dangers of the Frostbacks, eastern Orlais, and toddler rage to be here simply because Cullen had asked. This man whose love and humor and entire being had transformed Cullen into the man he was today.

No, their audience didn’t matter right now. What mattered was that Alistair understood just how grateful Cullen was for everything he had given and done for him, and that he was loved, and far more than Cullen, who had never been good with words anyway, could ever fully express.

When they broke apart, which seemed like an eternity later, Cullen found himself breathless from a mere kiss for the first time in a long while. Judging by the blush on his cheeks, the twinkle that shone in his too-bright brown eyes, and the lovestruck grin on his face, Alistair felt the same.

“Oy! No one wants to see that, yeah?”

Sera’s shout startled them both, and Alistair, who was hardly ever embarrassed by anything these days — “Once you’ve been covered in baby vomit and baby shit at the same time, nothing else really comes close,” he’d once said — turned completely away from everyone and rubbed the back of his neck, a gesture he’d definitely picked up from Cullen.

“Speak for yourself,” Bull said with a grin.

Varric laughed. “Yeah, the Seeker’s looking pretty hot and bothered by it all.”

Cassandra’s eyes went wide before she glared down at her empty plate and blocked her face with a hand. “I am not! I just think it’s romantic.”

“Romantic and adorable!” Leliana gaped at him, that infuriating smirk on her face again. “Since when do you initiate public displays of affection, Munda?”

“Ellie, my dear,” Alistair deftly deflected, scooping up their daughter and reminding Cullen yet again why he loved him so much. “Don’t you have something to show Aunt Leliana?”

“Yes!” Elodie, by now realizing the reactions it garnered, once again patted her hair like Josephine. “Yook my hah, yike An Yayana’s!”

Leliana clasped her hands over her heart and melted into a Cassandra-like puddle of goo. “Like mine?”

She turned to Alistair, but Cullen caught her eye and shook his head slightly. Her eyebrows twitched in recognition just before elated surprise flooded her face when Alistair stepped forward and placed Elodie in her arms.

But it was what he said that shocked Cullen.

“Yes, Aunt Leliana!” Alistair’s voice was as animated as it always was when he spoke to Elodie. “Munda was very patient with her this morning and spent Maker knows how long trying to make her hair look like yours.” His tone softened to something approaching normal and smiled, adding, “Because she wanted it.”

“While giving Papa the rest he needed.” She responded with a knowing smile of her own, while her gaze flicked quickly to Cullen with another twitch of her eyebrows.

 Yes, Cullen was definitely missing something, likely related to her and Alistair’s earlier cryptic conversation. He’d have to ask Alistair about it later.

“Yes, Munda, vey nice,” Elodie said, prompting another chorus of Aws and Leliana to emit a high-pitched noise that Cullen had never heard her make before.

“Just like your Aunt Josie!” Her Most Holy cooed at his daughter.

He shook his head slowly.

What was it about the Winter Palace that made everything so … strange?

.

.

.

Alistair’s mood hopefully improved for good, Cullen reached for his arm to lead him back to their seats. If he’d skipped dinner last night, Alistair would need to eat more than he already had in order to last until lunch.

But Alistair straightened and turned his attention to Dorian, who was currently watching Elodie with an intense and uncharacteristically sober expression.

“Dorian,” Alistair said. “I —”

Dorian blinked, stared blankly at Alistair for an instant, and then smiled, although the expression seemed wooden somehow. “Ah, yes. We were interrupted by Her Most Holy’s entrance before I could say that you are absolutely right, of course. I am, as no doubt everyone present can attest, most definitely a pompous —” His eyes flicked to Elodie and back. “— you-know-what. And you are, as ever, quite kind to inform me of it.” He spread his arms wide and bowed, as if presenting himself to a crowd of admirers. “Your Elodie is quite the precocious young lady these days, and I daresay we are all honored and grateful for her presence and yours.”

That … was the closest thing to an apology Cullen had ever seen from Dorian. From the looks on everyone’s faces, the rest of the room seemed to be of the same opinion.

It was suspicious.

Alistair, who rarely found anything too serious to joke about — thus why he and Dorian had always been such good friends — didn’t, for once.

Instead, he rolled his eyes. “I doubt the Orlesian ponces who gawked as we arrived last night would agree. But —” he continued before Dorian could respond. “— do you know what they apparently don’t find odd here? Me and Cullen.”

“Well, yeah,” said Sera, grinning wickedly. “They’d dip Cully-Wully in chocolate and lick him off a stick if they could. And then lick his —”

Blackwall — or rather, Rainier, as he apparently went by now — coughed loudly. “There is a child present, Sera.”

Sera shrugged. “So?”

“Hold on,” said Cole. “Lick his what?”

Cullen dearly wished he could melt into the floor. Maker, he hated the Winter Palace.

“I meant,” Alistair said loudly. “Me and Cullen. I told the chevalier I’d be sharing quarters with the Commander and the only thing he did was sigh in disappointment.”

“My dear,” said Vivienne. “If you’re referring to the fact that you are both men, that should hardly be a surprise. Orlesians are not as barbaric and bigoted as you Fereldans when it comes to bedroom matters.”

“Vivienne, darling, I missed you so.” Alistair grinned, tone saccharine. “Thank you for reminding me why I told the Pelletiers to shove it when they wanted to take Elodie. The only reason she should ever be talked down to is because she’s short.”

The few chuckles were quickly extinguished by the iron gaze of Madame de Fer.

Alistair and Dorian, however, remained unaffected, Alistair having (perhaps intentionally) taken advantage of the distraction to turn them away from the group and continue in private conversation.

With Alistair and Elodie both occupied, Cullen found himself standing at the head of the table with nothing to do. That was neither unusual nor unwelcome, since he far preferred not to be the center of attention, so he returned to his seat as inconspicuously as possible.

Which, unfortunately, was not particularly inconspicuous.

“Have you eaten anything this morning?” Cassandra was one of his dearest friends, but ever since he’d tasked her with assuring that his lyrium withdrawal didn’t interfere with his work, she’d decided to act more as the big sister he already had — and avoided writing to as long as possible for this exact reason.

“Yes,” he lied. In truth, he never had much of an appetite after a nightmare, and especially not after last night’s, but he didn’t want to get into an argument.

“He’s afraid,” Cole said. “Last night stole love and breakfast.”

Cullen rolled his eyes. “Thank you, Cole.”

Cole not-quite-whispered to Rainier, “I think that is what Maryden calls sarcasm.”

Rainier chuckled. “I think you may be right.”

“What happened last night?” Cassandra frowned.

“Did you and Al have a fight?” asked Bull.

“Here, eat this.” Sera handed him a pastry. “It’s scrummy.”

“Nothing, no, and absolutely not.” He’d been the victim of enough of Sera’s pranks to know better.

Sera merely grinned.

“You should eat, my dear Commander,” said Vivienne. “You’ll likely need the strength for your time in the spotlight.”

Cullen blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

“Aaaaand, he didn’t know,” said Varric. “Because he got here late?”

For once, Vivienne looked abashed.

“Someone explain now,” Cullen ordered in what Alistair called his Commander Voice.

“Cullen!” the Inquisitor called from the end of the table, having apparently heard their discussion. “I meant to —”

And, because she was the Inquisitor, everyone fell silent. Even Alistair and Dorian.

Just in time for her to finish with, “Damn it.”

“Damn it!” Elodie repeated.

The Inquisitor winced, but Alistair crossed his arms and said, “Ignore it. What’s going on?”

“I’m so sorry,” the Inquisitor said. “We were all distracted by Elodie when you came in, and I forgot …” She sighed and spoke directly to Cullen. “I received a message this morning that the Exalted Council expects to question you this afternoon.”

“Question me? What does that even mean?” Cullen wasn’t sure what he’d expected from the Exalted Council, but interrogation wasn’t even on the list.

“It means you’ll be front and center, Curly,” said Varric. “While Orlais and Ferelden’s representatives pick apart every decision you ever made.”

“Why?” Alistair’s tone was hard as granite.

Cullen sighed and looked to the head of the table, where the Inquisitor, Josephine, and Her Most Holy sat or stood with grave expressions. “That’s what the meeting last night was about. The representatives from Ferelden were particularly interested in Haven and Adamant.”

Leliana nodded. “The Inquisition’s army and its commander scare them almost as much as the Inquisitor herself does.”

Cullen rubbed his face roughly, taking his time hiding behind his hands. He should have expected this. But he’d been distracted by his nightmares, his planning, and missing Alistair and Elodie, whose arrival last night had actually given him an excuse to leave the meeting, which he’d mistakenly believed had just been talks among fellow military men about his strategies. In battles like Haven and Adamant.

“They’ll be fishing for anything they can use,” Bull said softly. “Be prepared for questions to get specific. And personal.”

“Personal like what?” Alistair demanded. He had moved to stand right behind Cullen’s chair.

“Lyrium personal,” said Bull.

“Meredith personal,” Varric added.

Cullen looked to Leliana, and in her nod he understood what they hadn’t mentioned.

Kinloch Hold.

Alistair.

Elodie.

That kind of personal.

Cullen couldn’t help himself — he laughed. It was bitter, to be sure, but it was laughter. He blamed it on Alistair’s influence.

Everyone stared at him like he’d lost his mind. Including Alistair.

“Look at the bright side.” Cullen smirked. “Fewer marriage proposals.”

“Don’t be so sure,” Josephine said. “It’s Ferelden that pushed to question you today, not Orlais. And they —”

“Want to disband the Inquisition,” Cullen finished quietly, as the full ramifications finally set in.

If Ferelden couldn’t build a case based on the Inquisitor, they would turn their attention to the Inquisition’s army and its commander.

His shoulders slumped under a familiar weight, one he hadn’t carried since the defeat of Corypheus two years ago.

The fate of Thedas.

He let his eyes close for a long moment. He was just so … tired, and the exhaustion settled in his bones, too deep to be caused by his recent lack of sleep.

“I know what you’re thinking, Cullen.” He opened his eyes to regard the Inquisitor. “Don’t. Nearly all your decisions were ordered or approved by me, and nothing could have prepared us for what happened at Haven. You gave me your word that nothing like that would ever happen again, and it didn’t.”

Cullen was unconvinced, but nodded anyway.

“Who’s the representative from Ferelden?” Alistair asked. “If it’s someone we know —”

“It is,” said Josephine. “And he owes much to the Inquisition and many of us personally.”

“What did we do for him?” Dorian asked. “Close a rift? Kill a dragon? Chase a lost druffalo halfway across the Hinterlands?”

The Inquisitor shot him a mild glare; Dorian never missed an opportunity to bring up that damned druffalo.

Leliana, who was currently cooing at Elodie, spoke loudly, but without changing her smile or animated tone. “We’ve saved his castle and his village a few times. Maybe you know about them, Elodie? Once from rebel mages, and a looooong time ago from undead and demons and —”

“Uncle Teagan!” Alistair exclaimed. “You’ll be fine,” he added to Cullen with a playful smack on the arm.

Vivienne raised a delicately shaped eyebrow. “I didn’t realize Maric had any living blood left aside from you.”

“He’s only sort of his uncle.” Cullen, Leliana, Varric, Dorian, Bull, Josephine, and the Inquisitor all spoke at the same time as Alistair, who grinned.

“Aw, you do listen when I talk!” Then he launched into his full explanation. “Technically he and Eamon were Cailan’s uncles, but since they practically raised me until I was ten …”

Cullen, who didn’t need to hear the story for the thousandth time, allowed his thoughts to wander. Teagan Guerrin was a good man, but he was also an arl of Ferelden who officially served the Queen, and if he had received specific orders regarding the Council, his personal feelings would be irrelevant.

Something small and soft hit his cheek and fell to the table, and when he followed its trajectory, he found Cassandra rolling another grape in her fingers.

“You’ll be fine,” she said sternly. “Just answer the questions. Your actions have been above reproach, and I will testify to that if I must.”

“Ooh, me next!” Rainier, Bull, and Cassandra all dove to keep the remaining grapes from Sera’s grasp.

“He’s wanted to meet Ellie for ages,” Alistair was saying, “so all we need to do is —”

“That is not a good idea,” Josephine responded.

“Oy, Al,” Sera said, having abandoned the grapes. “Try this tart thing, yeah? It’s scrummy.”

“You’ve been hiding tarts from me?” Alistair exclaimed, and took an enormous bite before Cullen could stop him.

Now chewing, Alistair continued, “Josie, I’ve known Teagan my whole what is in this tart?”

He gagged, spitting half-chewed pastry into his hand, to everyone’s disgust.

“Yuck!” Elodie voiced the thoughts of the room. “No pitting, Papa!”

At the other end of the table, Sera cackled. “Too easy, you are!”

Alistair gaped at her, betrayed. “What did this tart do to deserve that?” And then he proceeded to scrape what looked to be half a shaker of salt from its innards before taking another bite.

Cassandra scoffed. “You’re disgusting.”

“Never waste a perfectly good tart.” Alistair took a second bite, and Cullen shook his head. “Even if it’s not perfect or even that good anymore.”

Rainier chuckled. “Good to see your appetite hasn’t waned, Commander.”

Alistair finished off the rest of what could only technically be called a tart. “Thom, I’ve told you not to call me that. It confuses Cullen.”

“I’m pretty sure it confuses you,” said Cullen.

“It confuses everyone,” Alistair said without acknowledging Cullen’s comment, and the room laughed once again. “And since we all need our wits about us today —”

A knock on the door silenced all but one of them.

“Come in!” Elodie said.

Leliana shushed her, but the Inquisitor grinned. “You heard the lady,” she said to the door. “Come in.”

One of Cullen’s men stepped in, armor slightly disheveled. “I apologize for the interruption, but I need to speak with the Commander at once.”

Concerned at the man’s urgency, Cullen stood immediately. “What is it?”

“Well, um …” The lieutenant’s gaze roved the room before dropping to the floor.

“Spit it out, Lieutenant,” Cullen snapped.

“Pit out, ‘Tent!” Elodie mimicked. The room snickered, and Cullen blinked slowly, equal parts embarrassed and proud.

“Yes, er, it’s the dog, sir.”

Cullen froze. In all the chaos of this morning and last night, the mabari he’d unexpectedly acquired yesterday had slipped his mind. He’d tasked his men with watching after her until he could break the news to Alistair. Which he’d also forgotten to do.

He turned away from the group, barely refraining from rubbing the back of his neck (a dead giveaway of his state of mind) while the lieutenant continued.

“— won’t stop barking, you see, and both the Orlesian and Fereldan soldiers have been giving us dirty looks …”

Under normal circumstances, Cullen would have chastised the man for coming to him to report something as trivial as dirty looks, but considering the potential political and (for Cullen) personal consequences, not to mention his own responsibility for the situation, dirty looks were hardly trivial, and he couldn’t fault the lieutenant.

“Thank you,” he said quietly, hoping to avoid eavesdropping. “I’ll be right there.”

When the lieutenant had shut the door behind him, he spun and said, “Excuse me, I have to attend to an urgent matter.”

He was met with a few confused looks but mostly smug smirks, which terrified him.

“Why in Thedas do you have to personally deal with a dog?” Alistair asked, chuckling. For now, at least.

Dorian sighed. “Truly, Cullen, I expected better from you.”

“Fork it over, Sparkler,” Varric said. “I told you he’d chicken out.”

“I didn’t chicken out,” Cullen said before he could stop himself.

“Ooh!” Sera bobbed up and down in her seat. “I called that he’d forget!”

“You forgot about her?” the Inquisitor said, her own smirk belying her earnest tone, and Maker help him. “Cullen, how could you?”

“What is going on?” Alistair had crossed his arms, and he wasn’t smiling anymore.

Cullen shifted his weight back and forth. “We should talk. Why don’t we step outside —”

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” the Inquisitor said cheerfully. “I’m sure Elodie wants to hear the news, too!”

Cullen sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Alistair, there’s something I need to tell you.”

Maker, but he hated the Winter Palace.