Cullen blinked and looked around in amazement as if he’d woken from a dream, unsure how exactly he’d arrived in this time and place. One moment he and Alistair were standing in the courtyard of the Winter Palace watching Elodie and their new mabari play; in the next, he and Alistair had their arms around each other and their friends were congratulating them on their upcoming marriage. He vaguely remembered getting down on one knee and saying some very romantic things that made Alistair cry, but most of the past fifteen or so minutes were a complete blur aside from the important parts.
“Marry me, Alistair.”
Tearful, vigorous nodding. “Yes.” That grin that would always make Cullen’s heart leap in his chest. “I will.”
After that, Cullen had been overwhelmed by such joy that he might have been convinced he was dreaming but for the fact that his dreams had never been this good.
His heart, once so broken and empty and hopeless he couldn’t believe he would ever feel anything again, was now filled to the brim with such happiness that even the idea of being sad sounded impossible. His chest felt close to bursting, and Maker’s breath, his cheeks were aching from from too much smiling. Until this moment had hadn’t realized that was physically possible.
“Everyone lost this bet,” Varric was saying to the rest of their gathered friends. “I don’t think that’s ever happened before. We all went in on how long it would take Charming to get sick of waiting and just pop the question himself. You were a dark horse, Curly.”
Cullen dearly wished the idea of said friends placing wagers on his personal life was surprising, but he couldn’t even pretend to be upset about it right now. Neither could Alistair, whose seemingly permanent grin was unlike any Cullen had seen before. He would have to add a new category for this one.
(And yes, Alistair had so many types of grins that Cullen sorted them into categories, including Genuinely Happy, Fake Happy, Disguising Pain, Laughing at His Own Stupid Joke, Wicked, and Post-Orgasm, to name a few. There were around a dozen, each containing a variety of subcategories, such as Wicked (Public), which was similar to but distinct from Wicked (Private), or Post-Orgasm (Own), which was vastly different than Post-Orgasm (Cullen).)
“So that means Cullen wins the pot, then, right?” Alistair’s grin shifted to one in the familiar Wicked (Public) category, and he opened and closed his free hand — the other having been securely intertwined with Cullen’s since he’d answered in the affirmative. “Fork it over, dwarf. Consider it a wedding present.”
“Cullen.” Josephine, uninterested in the discussion of wagers (though not, apparently, uninterested in predictions, if the Inquisitor’s earlier stage-whisper, “This is not at all how you predicted it would go,” was any indication), nearly swooned. “That was one of the most romantic declarations of love I’ve ever seen! When word of this reaches Antiva, they’ll write songs about it.”
Sera snickered. “Prolly not as good as the ones they sing here about your —”
Rainier coughed loudly, nudging her roughly with his shoulder. She stumbled and said, “What?”
Cullen averted his gaze — he loathed the mortifyingly explicit songs the Orlesian bards had been writing about him since the Inquisition saved the Empress from assassination. They only ever referred to “the Commander,” but everyone knew who they were about. From the corner of his eyes, he caught sight of Alistair, whose grin morphed, just for an instant, into one of the Wicked (Private) persuasion.
“I only saw the end,” said Cassandra, who had the same moony look on her face she wore whenever she thought no one was watching her read one of Varric’s novels. “But I didn’t know you had it in you to be so —”
“Romantic?” Cullen’s smile faded somewhat at that, and he rolled his eyes. Just because he wasn’t as effusive as Alistair or Cassandra or Josephine or Dorian or Varric(’s novels) or — well, anyone, didn’t mean that he didn’t feel and love with the same intensity.
“— spontaneous,” Cassandra finished pointedly, cocking an eyebrow. Somehow even that action could make him feel guilty for interrupting and assuming her answer. Probably because it reminded him of Mia. “Usually you would have had a twenty-five point plan and at least two contingencies, and your entire speech written out far ahead of time.”
“Oh, he had a plan,” Alistair helpfully provided, giving Cullen’s hand a squeeze and gracing him once again with that heart-stoppingly beautiful, as-yet-unnamed grin. Cullen’s own smile returned at once. “He said it was supposed to be just us, with no dog or Elodie, but he didn’t get around to telling me what it was.”
“Prolly all color-coded and organized in different folders,” Sera grinned. “With a code name, yeah?”
Cullen merely shrugged and, to distract from just how correct she was, addressed the latter part of her comment. “No, I did not give it a code name.”
She didn’t need to know that that was because he hadn’t been able to come up with something worthy of a proposal to Alistair.
“Aw!” Alistair’s now-grinless expression was so disappointed that Cullen decided to tell them the truth as soon as they were alone. “You missed a great opportunity to take this proposal from a simple plan to a war table operation, Commander! You could have called it something like Capture the Warden.” Cullen’s heart stuttered in protest just as Alistair seemed to realize what he’d said. “No, scratch that. I was on the wrong side of that mission a couple years ago, and it is no fun.” His brow furrowed in concentration. “What about Operation Griffon?”
“You really don’t understand how code names work, do you?” Bull asked. “The idea is to not be glaringly obvious to a passing observer.”
“Operation Blue and Silver!” Sera announced. “Colors make good code names.”
Cullen frowned. That was actually a good one.
“Ohhh, Cullen!” Josephine was bobbing up and down on the balls of her feet, giddy as a schoolgirl. He’d had no idea she was so invested in his and Alistair’s relationship. “Is that why you haven’t joined us for meals much these past couple of days?”
“And here I thought you were just moping because you were homesick,” said the Inquisitor, the traitor, and everyone laughed. She usually kept the others’ teasing in check — after, of course, she started it with a single jab of her own — but she was in a particularly mischievous mood this morning. They’d all come out here to see the mabari at her urging, after all
The only thing that kept Cullen from hiding behind his free hand was that beautiful, ecstatic, loving grin and the chaste kiss on the cheek that Alistair bestowed upon him.
“Ah, well,” said Dorian, looking up from his intense and animated conversation with with toddler in his arms. “If that’s why you abandoned us the past two evenings, Commander, then I suppose we’ll have to forgive you. Wouldn’t you say, Miss Elodie?”
“Did you tell her to agree with everything you said?” Rainier asked.
“Bah, as if that’s necessary!”
“Bah!” Elodie mimicked Dorian exactly, which of course made everyone laugh again.
She flashed her own grin, which Alistair had crudely dubbed Shit-Eating, but Cullen privately categorized as Reveling in Too Much Attention, and Cullen worried about difficult the transition would be when they returned to Skyhold and she no longer had such an easily amused audience.
“As lovely as this all is,” Bull said, “when do we get to the drinking portion of this celebration?”
“At dinner,” said Josephine, slipping easily back into her role of ensuring everyone was presentable. “The Council will be starting soon, and everyone must be on their best behavior. Go freshen up and comb your hair and go to the bathroom before the Council starts. Everyone needs to be in their red dress uniforms — yes, Sera, that means you, too. And no pranks!”
And with that, their temporary celebration was over. Their friends moved to follow Josephine’s directive, but not before congratulating Cullen and Alistair in their characteristic ways. Bull, Rainier, Varric, and Cassandra (still wearing her romantic smile but otherwise back to herself) shook their hands, and Sera surprised them by jumping into a pseudo-hug, wrapping one arm around each of their necks. Even Vivienne graced them with a genuine smile, a kiss on both cheeks, and a “Bravo, my dears. Long overdue, and well-deserved.”
Cole didn’t touch them or look at them directly, but as he walked along behind the rest, he softly whispered, “Light. Bright. Banishing the darkness. Almost too much, but never enough.”
That, of all things, caused Cullen’s vision to blur for a moment, but Cole was gone before he could respond.
He was shocked back to reality when the mabari at his side — which they would not be calling Barkspawn because that was ridiculous — let out a single, sharp bark.
“Uh, Dorian?” Alistair said to the retreating back of their loudest, yet now suspiciously silent, friend.
Dorian did not turn around fully, in a poor attempt to hide what, or rather whom, he was carrying in his arms. “Yes, Alistair?”
“Aren’t you forgetting something? Perhaps that belongs to us?”
Cullen couldn’t help a small smile as Elodie peeked around Dorian’s head with a giggle.
“No, no,” Dorian said with a straight face. “I believe I have everything I need right here. I’ll see you later at the Council.”
“See yayta, Papa,” Elodie waved over Dorian’s shoulder.
“I give it less than five minutes,” Alistair said to Cullen. “You?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Uncle Dorian’s got a good handle on her,” Cullen said with a smirk. “I say more than five, but less than ten.”
“Definitely less than ten,” Alistair agreed. “He’ll be done the second she has to potty.”
“Time to potty, Unca Doyan!” Elodie chirped.
“All right! I surrender!” Dorian threw up one arm and walked back toward them. “You two are absolutely no fun.”
“Baby steps, Dorian.” Alistair earned an eye roll from Dorian as he released Cullen’s hand to take Elodie into his arms, much to Cullen’s disappointment. “You have to potty before you can tantrum.”
“Please stop saying ‘potty,’ I beg you.” Then Dorian turned a sudden glare on Cullen. “And I cannot believe you decided to propose and didn’t have the decency to ask me for advice!”
Cullen opened his mouth to argue, but Alistair shifted Elodie to one arm so he could point in Dorian’s face. “Don’t you dare. It was perfect.”
And he turned that gorgeous grin on Cullen and twined their fingers once again.
“I suppose it was acceptable,” Dorian admitted, but even he couldn’t keep up his affected disdain and smiled, placing a hand on each of their shoulders. “Congratulations to the both of you. You deserve it.”
His hand and smile lingered on Alistair, and something seemed to pass between them because Alistair nodded, eyes a little watery. That surprised Cullen, given their antagonistic exchange concerning Alistair’s frustrations with Elodie not an hour earlier at breakfast.
Then, as quickly as it had come, the moment between the two was gone, and Dorian — Dorian Pavus, Tevinter altus and avowed hater of children — kissed Elodie on the cheek and said, “Goodbye, my dearest Ellie. I shall see you later this afternoon.”
“See yayta, Unca Doyan!” Elodie waved, and Cullen could have sworn Dorian’s cheeks pinked slightly.
But Cullen wasn’t going to let Dorian’s earlier hostility toward Alistair go unchallenged. “Actually, Dorian …”
Dorian’s eyes darted up, and he seemed to know what was coming because he frowned, but Alistair squeezed Cullen’s hand hard enough to hurt and grinned, half at Dorian and half at Cullen. This one was of the Everything is Fine (Shut Up, Cullen) variety. Cullen was intimately familiar with that one.
“See you later, Uncle Dorian!” Alistair mimicked Elodie.
Dorian’s gaze flicked between the two of them before landing on Alistair, and he nodded, only the hint of a quirk at the edge of his lips. “Indeed.”
And with a quick spin, “Unca Doyan” swept away and into the Winter Palace, leaving Cullen mildly confused, his joy at the proposal now dissipating and replaced by nerves about the Exalted Council.
Josephine, who had been watching this all in an ecstatic silence while the Inquisitor looked on amused, hugged them each tightly. The Inquisitor followed with hugs of her own, whispering, “Nice job, Commander,” in Cullen’s ear before she moved on to Alistair.
Then Josephine coughed politely. “I’m sorry to interrupt your, er … moment.” She beamed at Cullen, who felt his face heat. “I was going to say, before Cullen proposed …” At that, she let out a small squeal, which caused the Inquisitor to snort, and then gathered herself again. “I apologize. Alistair, I know you don’t have a red uniform, but I think it would be best if you could wear your Warden armor. If you’re here, we should at least let people know whose side you’re on.”
Alistair deflated, suddenly looking several inches shorter. “Wonderful. I was just thinking how much I missed being a political pawn.”
Cullen knew how much Alistair despised being in the spotlight, and his guilt at being the cause was only outweighed by his pride in Alistair’s selflessness; he knew that Alistair would do as Josephine requested because it would help him. As repayment, he attempted to distract both Alistair and Josephine.
And if he also benefited, well, that was a bonus.
“Excuse me,” he said sternly. “You’re letting him wear his armor? I’m the one who’s going to be facing down angry nobles!”
The Inquisitor burst into laughter, although Cullen was unsure whether it was at his comment or the way Josephine inhaled to prepare a retort before Alistair intervened.
“But think of how distracting you look in this.” Alistair plucked at Cullen’s jacket and waggled his eyebrows suggestively. “They’ll be too busy ogling you to remember to ask you any difficult questions.”
Like he hadn’t been ogled enough since his arrival. That was another reason he’d missed Alistair — after days of being treated like a piece of meat or a prize to be won, it was nice to remember that there was one person in Thedas (if not Orlais) who loved him for who he really was, which just so happened to also include his physical appearance.
He sighed. “Wonderful. I was just thinking how much I missed being gawked at like a …” He didn’t actually have a good analogy for that.
“Like a mabari in Orlais, perhaps?” Alistair’s grin fell into the Genuinely Happy category, and he nudged Cullen’s shoulder with his own. “Pretend it’s just me gawking, then.” He kissed Cullen on the cheek, which would have been enough to make Cullen’s face heat because they were in front of the Inquisitor; when he rested his forehead against Cullen’s temple, Cullen could have sworn his face caught fire.
“All right, El,” Alistair said with only a small decrease in enthusiasm. “I need to go up and change. Let’s go.”
“I’ll go with you,” Cullen said, attempting to follow without making eye contact with anyone else.
But Josephine grabbed his elbow. “Cullen, do not, I beg you, do not change into your armor. This is a political council, and showing up dressed for war could very likely start one, so please —”
Cullen placed a hand on her shoulder. “You have my word that I will not.”
“I know you don’t, but —” Josephine blinked. “What?”
He gave her a gentle smile. “This is your battlefield, not mine. I might complain, but I’ll follow your orders, Commander.”
Josephine’s jaw actually dropped, then moved wordlessly up and down, before she turned to look questioningly at the Inquisitor.
“Take the win,” the Inquisitor whispered. “And don’t ruin his good mood.”
“I’ve no doubt the Council will take care of that soon enough,” Cullen said dryly. “I’ll meet you outside the hall.”
He snapped his fingers and the patient, well-behaved, yet-unnamed mabari followed him as left to catch up with Alistair. His fiancé, he thought with a grin.
Cullen ignored the dirty looks he received from everyone he passed for having a mabari trot at his heel, in spite of said mabari’s excellent decorum in the Winter Palace. Perhaps, if he was lucky, all those obnoxious Orlesians would remember he was a Fereldan commoner and leave him alone to marry the man he loved.
His cheek-aching smile returned again.
Having carried Elodie in his arms, Alistair had unburdened himself of the requirement to move at a toddler’s pace as they had this morning, so Cullen didn’t catch up with him before he arrived at their rooms. The door was closed, and since he didn’t know if Alistair was mid-change or not, he opened it just enough to let the mabari through before following him in.
Someone grabbed him by the collar, yanking him fully inside and shoving him up against the door, slamming it shut. Cullen tensed in preparation for a counterstrike, but before he could move or even protest, a body pressed against him and a mouth crushed against his.
As their lips met, Alistair moaned and rolled his hips, his erection rubbing against Cullen’s rapidly growing one. Cullen didn’t resist, and he couldn’t resist wrapping his arms around the man who had just agreed to marry him. This was how he’d imagined greeting Alistair the past few days, how he’d wanted to hold Alistair last night before everything seemed to go wrong and they didn’t even get the chance to speak privately. He tightened his grip, pulling Alistair as close as possible, but not nearly close enough. He’d been worried, while he planned, that maybe Alistair would say no. There was an ugly, cowardly part of him deep down that still didn’t think he deserved the love that Alistair clearly felt for him, and he found himself suddenly overwhelmed with such emotion that he had to hold back a sob.
They finally broke for air, and Alistair kissed up his jaw toward his ear. “Are we really engaged?” he asked. “I’m afraid I’m going to wake up and this will all be a dream.”
Having no hands free for a pinch, Cullen did the next best thing — he nipped Alistair’s ear with his teeth, just a bit too hard to be enjoyable.
When Alistair let out a growl that made him throb with desire, Cullen realized his mistake.
“Maker,” Alistair hissed. “I’m going to rip this dress uniform off you with my —”
“Bah-pah!” Elodie’s sing-song voice and subsequent giggle sliced through the mood so cleanly it was dead before it hit the floor.
Cullen sighed, head falling back against the door, while Alistair slumped against him. Cullen ran a hand through Alistair’s hair and whispered, “Later.”
“Can’t you just pretend to be sick or something?” Alistair whined. “It’s not like this dumb meeting is important.”
Cullen chuckled. “You don’t think I’ve spent the past few days trying to think of a sufficient excuse?”
Grumbling, Alistair straightened and pulled away, but only far enough to rest his forehead against Cullen’s. “Why couldn’t you be spontaneously romantic at a more opportune time?”
“Next time I’ll be sure to plan my spontaneity more carefully.”
Alistair laughed. “Being spontaneous, proposing, buying a dog, making jokes at your own expense — who are you and what have you done with my Cullen? Actually, you know what? Don’t answer that. This is all just …” His smile softened, and he cradled Cullen’s face in his hands before breathing, “Perfect.”
And then he kissed Cullen. Just once, just gently, before pulling away for good.
Cullen shivered, and the fluttering in his stomach was so intense he couldn’t move, merely leaned against the door with his eyes closed for a moment after Alistair’s warmth left him.
When he finally opened them, Alistair was laying out his armor with Elodie’s help.
“Here, put this on the bed,” he said, handing her a gauntlet. She took it and did as he asked.
“Yook, Munda, I hep!” she exclaimed as Alistair handed her the other gauntlet.
Her beautiful smile brought one to Cullen’s face as well. “You’re such a big helper, my sweet girl.” Then he crossed to Alistair and wrapped his arms around him, resting his chin on Alistair’s shoulder. Alistair melted in his arms, and Cullen spoke into his ear, “I’m sorry about this. If I’d known Josephine would insist you —”
“It’s fine.” Alistair turned around, kissed Cullen once more, and stepped out of the embrace, returning to his armor. “I meant it. If supporting you means I have to play dress up and put on a show for a while, I’ll do it. It’s the least I can do after my awful behavior last night. So.” As was his wont when Cullen might argue, Alistair changed the topic before Cullen could say anything. “How many plans did you have, and will you let me see them?”
Cullen rolled his eyes but walked around the bed — ogling Alistair in his undershirt before he put on his breast plate — and pulled three folders from under the mattress.
“You know, that’s the third place I look when I’m snooping somewhere,” Alistair said as Cullen tossed the multi-colored folders next to his armor. “It’s a good thing you went off-script and proposed early, otherwise I’d have found them.”
Cullen crossed to the mirror and straightened his slightly disheveled uniform. “This is our room. Why would you be snooping?”
“Because we’re in Orlais? Don’t even pretend you didn’t check the room before you settled in to sleep the first night.”
“For security purposes.” Cullen ran his fingers through his hair, unmussing it and making sure it laid properly. “Not to snoop.”
“Did you check under the mattress?”
Cullen paused and looked back at Alistair before returning his gaze to the mirror. “Yes.”
“I think the word you’re looking for is touché. That’s Orlesian for Alistair wins.” Before Cullen could even begin to protest either of those statements, Alistair added, “Here, put this on Elodie.”
In the mirror, Cullen saw Alistair toss something before picking up the Plan A folder. He turned to catch it before it hit him.
“She’s already dressed.”
“In the filthy dress she wore yesterday,” said Alistair. “This is why I never let her choose her own clothes.”
Cullen rolled his eyes but let the remark slide as he unfolded the outfit Alistair had tossed him and held it up. “What is this?”
Alistair didn’t look up from reading the contents of the folder. “It’s the dress that Megan knitted her. I told you about it.”
“No, you didn’t.” The blue and silver dress matched the pattern of Alistair’s armor, right down to the blue griffon on the chest, and Cullen’s blood ran cold. “I would have remembered.”
“Oh, oops.” Alistair shrugged. “It’s cute. We can match!”
Cullen swallowed painfully. He was none too thrilled at the idea of Elodie wearing the colors and insignia of the order that would one day kill her Papa. But he wasn’t going to get into an argument about it right now.
“We can mass, Papa!” Elodie slammed into Alistair’s leg and wrapped her arms around it. He patted her head without looking away from the folder.
Cullen called Elodie over and attempted to remove her current dress and replace it with the new one without messing up the hair he’d spent so long on this morning. He was moderately successful.
“You really didn’t have a code name?” Alistair sounded even more disappointed than he had in front of their friends.
Cullen threaded Elodie’s arms through the armor-patterned dress. “Not for lack of trying. I …” He shrugged, unable to finish, because even though they were alone, now he felt self-conscious for some reason, and his mind whirred with the possibilities if he’d continued to strategize until everything had been perfect and —
“What?” Alistair asked, and Cullen glanced over to find him looking up from the folder, which now sat open on the bed while he finished putting his armor on.
Cullen spent an unnecessary amount of time straightening and smoothing out Elodie’s dress that, lovely and soft as it was, made his stomach twist. “Nothing that I thought of felt …”
He smiled at Elodie and kissed her nose. She nuzzled it against his before running off to play with Barksp — the mabari.
Fully armored now, Alistair crossed his arms and waited expectantly as Cullen stood up from his crouch.
Cullen shrugged again. “Worthy of you.”
Alistair’s expression melted into one Cullen knew well; a look so open and earnest, so full of adoration and love that it always froze Cullen in his tracks. Over the years, his feelings of guilt and unworthiness had slowly faded, but the strongest feeling never did — the knowledge that he would do anything for this man, no matter the cost.
Alistair crossed the space between them and wrapped his arms around Cullen’s neck; Cullen’s own arms fell instinctively to Alistair’s hips, their usual position.
“I love that you had a plan and two contingencies and tried to come up with a code name,” Alistair whispered, gaze so intense Cullen almost had to look away. “But this way couldn’t have been more perfect.” Then, as if that gaze wasn’t bad enough, Alistair’s voice dipped into the lower register that always did strange things to Cullen’s insides. “I find myself deeply attracted to this new spontaneous Cullen.”
Just as Cullen started to think that Josephine would probably forgive him if he was a few minutes late, Alistair grinned and lightly slapped Cullen’s cheeks. “So be sure to pencil in some spontaneous time later, okay?”
Cullen attempted some of the meditation exercises that had helped him through some of his worst withdrawal episodes.
They didn’t work.
Alistair turned from packing Elodie’s bag just enough to eye him up and down. “And maybe try to get yourself under control. That uniform doesn’t conceal anything.”
“Maker’s breath,” Cullen growled. “You drive me crazy.”
Alistair grinned again, as if, like when Elodie had said his name earlier, Cullen had just given him the greatest compliment. Cullen decided to place that one in the same new, as-yet-unnamed category as his post-proposal grin. “You have only yourself to blame. If you hadn’t been so romantic earlier, I would have just been excited about Barkspawn.”
“We’re not calling her —”
“Bah-pah!” Elodie shouted.
The mabari barked.
“See?” Alistair said. “She likes it!”
Cullen pinched his nose. He knew he was fighting a losing battle at this point, but he didn’t have to be happy about it.
Ten minutes later, the mabari-who-he-refused-to-call-Barkspawn lay in the corner after eating, drinking, and taking care of her business; Elodie was eating a snack; and Cullen swept the room for items that might potentially keep her occupied in the afternoon once she’d grown sick of her own toys. Although both he and Alistair prayed she would nap during the Council, neither were naive enough to think that would actually happen after such an exciting morning and with so many interesting things and people to watch later.
After a few minutes, he’d collected half a dozen shiny, too-large-to-be-swallowed baubles from various surfaces and dumped them in a pile next to the bag Alistair was packing.
“Ooh, nice!” Alistair picked up a rather abstract silver something and looked at it in disbelief. “What is this?”
Cullen, who had been trying to figure that out since he’d first noticed it four days ago, shook his head in resigned ignorance and chuckled. “I have no idea.”
Alistair tossed the item into the bag in disgust. “Thanks, Orlais, for your useless crap, I guess. At least it’ll keep our toddler occupied.”
“Do you think that will be enough?” Cullen asked, eyeing the bag filled to the brim with the entirety of Elodie’s possessions in Halamshiral.
“It’ll have to be.” Alistair tied the bag closed. “With this and all the aunties and uncles wanting to hold her, I’m hoping she’ll be distracted enough that she won’t get too restless.”
Cullen hesitated. What he wanted to offer Alistair wasn’t what he would prefer, but it would be better for Elodie and, by extension, Alistair.
“It’s not necessary for you to be in the Council,” Cullen said. “I know it will be easier for you both if —”
“Shut up,” Alistair said without heat. “Yesterday, I’d have agreed with you. But I won’t leave you alone to face difficult personal questions in front of Orlesian nobles. One of those would be bad enough, but both? Haven’t you actually had nightmares about that before?”
Alistair’s tone was teasing as he nudged Cullen’s shoulder with his own, but they both knew he wasn’t joking. Secretly (and shamefully), Cullen was grateful for Alistair’s refusal.
He offered Alistair a smile, but he could tell his nerves warped it into more of a grimace. “Thank you. I know it won’t be easy, but I’m glad you’ll be there.”
Alistair flashed his Smitten (Goofy) grin. “An archdemon couldn’t keep me away.” His grin faded into something much sadder and too complex to categorize, but it lodged painfully in Cullen’s chest. “Though I do appreciate you offering. Truly.”
Alistair heaved the bag — with all its contents, it was quite heavy — off the bed and onto the floor, allowing Cullen to see the unmistakable, slightly crooked white letters which spelled Alistair Theirin.
Cullen shook his head fondly. Alistair put his name on everything: shirts, pants, bags, socks, small clothes. He always said that it was a “Templar thing” that he learned in training; he wasn’t wrong, and had thus been stunned to find that Cullen didn’t. But Cullen had stopped anything related to the Order when he left, even down to the little things. He had always found it ironic — while Alistair, of course, found it hilarious — that Alistair, the non-Templar, labeled everything like he was one, while Cullen, who had actually served as a Templar for over a decade, no longer did. Alistair was, however, quick to point out its usefulness when they moved in together. Cullen had agreed, because while he never had difficulty telling his and Alistair’s clothes apart, Alistair had needed the labels on every one of his garments. Not so he could find his own, though; Alistair loved wearing Cullen’s clothes. Most of the time, Cullen loved it, too.
Alistair noticed him taking in the bag’s label, and Cullen was treated to his Wicked (Private) grin, as well as a whisper in his ear. “Guess what I’m wearing that doesn’t have my name on it.”
Cullen burst into laughter. “Do you know how ridiculous that sounds?”
Alistair shrugged and sat on the bed, smoothing the sheets casually-but-not. “We’re all ready for the Council and still have an hour left. How will we pass the time?”
But that sad smile Alistair had let show a few minutes ago nagged at Cullen to the point of distraction. He couldn’t help but connect it to the rest of Alistair’s unusual behavior last night and this morning.
“Actually,” he said, attempting to keep his tone light. “I think we should talk about last night.”
Alistair shrugged in that nonchalant way he always aimed for but never quite hit, grabbing his (or rather, Elodie’s) bag and carrying it to the door. “What about? I was horrible to you when we hadn’t seen each other in days because I had to deal with a screaming toddler in an enclosed space for over eight hours. I was an ass, and I’m sorry.”
His back was to Cullen, and his voice was pitched just slightly higher than normal. Honestly, they’d been together for three years and known each other for nearly two decades, did he really think Cullen couldn’t tell when he was lying?
Cullen crossed his arms and widened his stance, as if he were interrogating an enemy soldier — which, when he thought about it, was probably not the general feeling he wanted for this conversation, but sometimes Alistair needed to be pushed. “You were in a justifiably foul mood, which you apologized for when we were walking with Elodie this morning. But that doesn’t explain what happened at breakfast.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.” In addition to the eye contact avoidance and rise in voice pitch, Alistair’s syntax grew more formal when he was attempting to pretend he was fine when he wasn’t.
“Don’t play dumb with me, Alistair. That might work for the Orlesians and most of Ferelden and some of our friends, but I know you better than that. So why don’t you drop the act and tell me what in the Maker’s name is going on?”
Alistair froze in the middle of setting the bag next to the door. After a second, he stood up straight, took a deep breath, and spun to meet Cullen with the grin he was most familiar with: Disguising Pain, subcategory Nothing is Fine. Cullen hated that one; it was one of the first he’d ever seen on Alistair’s face, although it had taken him a shameful number of years to understand its true meaning.
“No,” Alistair said, and that blunt refusal surprised Cullen. Normally, he didn’t need to push Alistair very hard. “I don’t want to talk about this now, when you need to focus on the Council.”
“Do not use that as an excuse to avoid —”
“I’m not! I know you’re nervous about being questioned, and so am I! The last thing you need is to be distracted by something we can deal with later.”
Alistair’s grin was gone, which wasn’t a great sign, and his voice rose in volume, which was worse. Alistair rarely yelled, so when he did, he was one of two things — extremely angry or protesting too much. Cullen wasn’t quite sure which one Alistair was now, and if he was honest with himself, that worried him.
“I will be far more distracted by not knowing,” Cullen said quietly, as if that would keep whatever was brewing contained. “If something is wrong — Maker forbid, if I’ve done something wrong —” He swallowed, and only then did he notice his heart was racing. He hadn’t realized until he said it out loud that Alistair’s behavior scared him so. “I will not pay a whit of attention to whatever or Orlais or Ferelden are blathering about. You are more important to me than the damned Council.”
Alistair sighed, and when he spoke, it was at a normal volume. “You haven’t done anything wrong, Cullen, I promise. But I don’t think we have time before —”
“Then start talking.” Although Cullen didn’t intend them to, his words came out as an order.
But Alistair, Maker bless him, didn’t flinch or even blink. He merely nodded agreement — not because Cullen had ordered it, exactly, but because they had an unspoken understanding that if one of them needed to talk about something, they would talk about it.
“Ellie, sweetheart.” Before Cullen could protest the change in topic, Alistair shot him a glance that said, Trust me. “Can you come here?”
Elodie ignored him, continuing to play with her favorite toy, a griffon Cullen had given her for her first birthday, while Not-Barkspawn watched with apparent enthusiasm.
“Elodie.” Alistair’s voice grew sterner. “Come over here now.”
“No,” Elodie said without turning away from her play.
Alistair looked at Cullen and nodded his head in Elodie’s direction. “Now you try. Like normal.”
Cullen frowned, unsure where this was going, but did as Alistair requested. “Elodie, my sweet girl, can you come here?”
Elodie immediately looked up at him and smiled before dropping her toy, pushing awkwardly to her feet, and toddling over to Cullen, who bent down to pick her up.
As he rose again, he saw Alistair spread his hands, as if to say, See?
Cullen shook his head “I don’t —”
“Kiss, Munda!” said Elodie. Cullen obliged, and then she laid her head down on his shoulder, gazing up at him with her precious smile. Cullen returned it reflexively.
“Can I have a kiss, sweetheart?” Alistair asked, reaching out for her.
“No!” Elodie squeezed her eyes shut and turned away as if Alistair had offered her a foul-tasting medicine.
Alistair’s grin was now Disguising Pain, subcategory Bitter. “That’s what’s wrong,” he said to Cullen.
And he turned away to sit glumly on the bed, forearms resting on his knees.
“Elodie,” Cullen said sternly. “Why don’t you want to kiss Papa?”
“I don’t wanna!” she said, shaking her head.
Alistair rolled his eyes. “She doesn’t know why. But the answer’s pretty obvious.”
The implication made Cullen nauseous. He returned Elodie to the floor, and she didn’t need urging to go back to her griffon. The mabari, in an act that proved she was far more aware than Cullen had given her credit for, picked up her toy and moved to the attached sitting area, leading Elodie away and licking her face to elicit a giggle.
Cullen returned his attention to Alistair, who was watching him.
“Whatever you’re going to say,” Alistair began, “don’t. It won’t be anything I haven’t already told myself. She loves you more because I’m the mean one who’s always around and makes her eat her vegetables and go to bed. It’s totally normal for kids her age, but I’m still jealous because I’m a shitty father and partner.”
His words shook at the end, and he buried his face in his hands.
Cullen’s heart ached. He hurried to sit at Alistair’s side and rested a hand on his back.
“I wasn’t going to say any of that,” he whispered. And it was true.
But the full truth was that he didn’t know what to say that wouldn’t make this situation about him — how much it hurt to see Alistair feel this way, how guilty he felt for not noticing in the first place, how he would trade Elodie’s apparent favoritism for even a fraction of the way Alistair knew their sweet girl.
So he settled on the most neutral comment he could. “How long have you been feeling like this?”
“I don’t know.” Alistair shook his head, hands covering his eyes, voice filled with the tears he wouldn’t let Cullen see. “A few months? Maybe six?”
“Oh, my love.” Cullen didn’t attempt to hide the pain in his own voice as he shifted his arm to wrap around Alistair’s shoulders, his other hand moving to cradle Alistair’s face. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Alistair allowed himself to be pulled into Cullen’s embrace, but still wouldn’t meet his gaze, and laughed bitterly. “How exactly? ‘Hey, hon, I know you’re busy fighting a war and lyrium withdrawal, but our daughter loves you more than me and I hate it.’”
“That would have been a good start, yes.” Over the years, Cullen had discovered that sometimes the best way to deal with Alistair’s sarcasm was sincerity.
Alistair snorted, but said nothing.
“I assume, since you said it’s normal, you’ve talked to someone about this.” He failed to keep the bitterness out of his words; it hurt that Alistair felt he couldn’t talk to him about this. “Cook and Megan, I imagine?”
Alistair nodded. “And Mia.”
Cullen released Alistair’s face to rub his forehead roughly. “You wrote to my sister about how you think our daughter favors me?”
Alistair wrote to Mia more than Cullen did these days, which was good for all three of them; Mia knew what was going on, Alistair could satisfy his need for gossip, and Cullen wasn’t required to write constantly. He’d known that one day he would regret that too-easy convenience.
“It’s not like I have an abundance of friends who have kids,” Alistair said defensively. “The people we know aren’t exactly the settle-down-and-have-a-family type. So yes, I wrote to her. And she convened the Council of Rutherford Women, and they all agreed that kids Elodie’s age always favor their … well, their fathers over their mothers.”
Cullen tensed. They’d never spoken directly about the topic, but he heard enough gossip to know that some implied Alistair was … “womanly” was the term he’d heard. And he didn’t like it one bit. Even if it was true — and Cullen wouldn’t have cared a bit if it was — the term wasn’t intended as a compliment. But it wasn’t true; Alistair was one of the most fearsome warriors Cullen knew, perfectly sculpted and tall and handsome and incredibly masculine.
“Alistair.” He took Alistair’s face in his hands and looked him in the eyes for the first time since they’d begun this conversation. “You are not —”
Alistair pulled away and rolled his eyes dramatically. “I know. That’s not what I or they or anyone was saying. But it’s about proximity. I’m the one she sees all the time, and I get the brunt of her tantrums. By the time you get home, she’s a perfect angel who can’t get enough of the person who didn’t take care of her all day.”
Cullen wanted to argue that he knew what her tantrums were like, that he took care of her all day when Alistair was away for the Wardens, that Elodie favored Alistair whenever he returned from a trip.
But he knew it wasn’t a fair comparison. Alistair cared for Elodie far more often than Cullen did, merely due to the nature of Cullen’s job. And he’d been content to let Alistair do that, which, now that he knew how Alistair felt about it and that he didn’t feel like he could talk to him about it, wasn’t fair at all.
He took Alistair’s hands in his and turned on the bed to face him. “You’re right, and I’m sorry.”
Alistair jerked his hands away. “You don’t have anything to be sorry about! I’m the one who gets so frustrated I can’t wait to get away from her and so jealous of the man who got down on one knee and proposed this morning that I lash out at him like it’s his fault!” Then he buried his face in his hands, scrubbing it before gripping his hair far too hard.
But Cullen couldn’t resist the urge to touch him. While he hadn’t been comfortable with casual touch for years after Kinloch, his time with Alistair had slowly changed that. Alistair nearly always comforted him with a hand on his shoulder or back or arm, and Cullen had learned that, while he rarely touched anyone, comfort or no, he never found it difficult to do so for Alistair.
So he wrapped his arm once again around Alistair’s shoulders. “If everyone you spoke to said that Elodie’s actions are normal, did they not also say that your feelings are, as well?”
Alistair shrugged. “Not in so many words, but … I guess so.”
Cullen kissed Alistair’s hair and pulled him even closer. “And I’m sorry because I didn’t notice you were feeling this way. And because I shouldn’t have let you shoulder so much of the load. That’s not fair to you.”
“Will you stop being nice about this?” Alistair whined. “I just told you I’m jealous of you because our daughter loves you more! Can’t you just be upset at me like a normal person?” He contradicted his words, though, by gripping Cullen’s uniform and burying his face in it.
Cullen couldn’t help a chuckle at that. “You say that as if I haven’t felt the same about you on occasion.”
Alistair looked up with a glare. “Don’t patronize me.”
Cullen sighed, taking a moment to mourn Alistair’s lack of self-worth. “I wish, love, that you could see yourself the way others do. The way I do.” He cupped Alistair’s face. “The way she does.” Alistair rolled his eyes, but didn’t pull away. “I love watching the two of you together. I might make her smile, but you can make her laugh. I tell her bedtime stories, but you make them fun with your adorable hand gestures. She might say she loves me or want to kiss me, but it’s obvious when she looks at you how much she loves you and how much she feels loved by you. Maybe not every time, but last night she called you silly, and she did this morning, too. I wish you could realize how important that is.”
He had more to say, but unlike Alistair, who had always been far braver and stronger than he, Cullen couldn’t admit it while meeting his gaze.
So this time he was the one who pulled away, watching Elodie babble to her new best friend about her stuffed griffon. “You understand her like I never have. She’s been in a routine since you brought her to Skyhold, but whenever I feel like I understand it, I miss something. Her latest favorite food. Certain words or phrases when she speaks too quickly. Why she shouldn’t be allowed to choose her own clothes.” He risked a quick glance at Alistair, who frowned at that last part. “You might think I’m her favorite, but everyone can see which of us knows her best.”
“And that’s not your fault,” Cullen interrupted. “It’s mine. I should be more …” He paused, trying to think of the word, but realized he’d already said it. “I should be more. I have to be. I need to be good enough when …”
He watched Elodie point at the griffon in her hand, and then tap the one on her chest, and his vision blurred.
“When what?” Alistair’s tone was soft, but not gentle. Maker, was he going to make Cullen say it?
Cullen blinked rapidly before turning to the man he loved more than anyone else and tilted his head slightly.
That was all Alistair needed. He closed his eyes and rested his forehead against Cullen’s. “Give me an estimate — in a standard month, how often do you think about that?”
His lovely golden-brown eyes opened, and there was a pain there Cullen ached to see. He didn’t want to lie, but he didn’t want to tell the truth, either.
So he shook his head.
Alistair sighed. “You think about it every day, don’t you?”
Before Cullen could answer, there was a loud knock at the door.
“Come in!” shouted Elodie.
Alistair pulled away quickly, and it was a good thing they were all decent, because Cassandra didn’t wait for an adult to confirm before opening the door and glaring at Cullen. “Are you ready? We’re going to be late!”
“The Council doesn’t start for another half an hour!” Alistair protested.
“Some of us prefer to be punctual, Alistair,” she said, glare upgrading to a full-blown glower.
“Hey, I’m punctual …” Alistair insisted. “… ly ten to fifteen minutes late to most things. That’s not a crime.”
“No, but it is often an insult to those kept waiting,” Cassandra replied. “Especially if one of them is Her Holiness.”
“Oh, please. During the Blight, I slept next to her half-n —”
Cullen coughed loudly. “I’ll be right down, Cassandra.”
Her gaze flitted suspiciously between the two of them for a few beats before she settled on Elodie, melted into her Auntie Cassandra smile, and said, “See you soon, Elodie!” Then with a final glare at Cullen, she left.
“I told you we wouldn’t have time,” Alistair muttered. “I knew this was going to be a bigger thing, and now you’re freaking out about my damn Calling when you should be focusing on —”
“I love you,” Cullen blurted, because he needed Alistair to know. “And I —”
Alistair grabbed a few chunks of his uniform near his neck. “You are an excellent father, too, Cullen. I have complete confidence in that, if nothing else.” Then he smiled and shook his head. “And all this conversation tells me is that we need to talk like this more often, and that Lels was right. Of course.”
“About what?” Cullen asked. “And what in the Maker’s name were you talking about before? Nugs and mabari?”
Alistair rolled his eyes. “It’s all part of it. She wanted to talk last night because she could tell I was upset and even exactly what I was upset about. I swear, it’s like she can read minds.”
Cullen snorted. He was pretty sure she had that effect on everyone.
Alistair released his uniform and stood. When Cullen followed, Alistair began smoothing out the bunches he’d made.
“She said of course El wanted you more than me because she has you wrapped around her little finger.”
Cullen opened his mouth to protest, but he couldn’t — even Dorian said he was under her spell. So he shrugged and gave an apologetic smile.
Alistair laughed. “She said she was half afraid that if El batted her eyes and said she loved you, you’d invade Ferelden if she asked.”
“I would not invade anywhere for —”
“Relax.” Alistair grinned his Making Fun (Cullen) grin and smacked Cullen’s cheek lightly. “That’s the joke, Commander.” He grew serious again and dropped his gaze, continuing to smooth Cullen’s uniform even though there wasn’t anything left to smooth. “She said we’re a good team because you give her what she wants, and I give her what she needs.”
Cullen’s stomach did a somersault; that description was perfect. Because he and Alistair were truly pieces of a puzzle that had finally found their perfect fit, not just in their relationship with each other, but as fathers, as well. And maybe that was okay. Or it would be, until —
Alistair smacked his cheek again, a little harder this time. “Stop,” he scolded. “We’ll talk about your need to fixate on the negative later, but you need to get downstairs. So let’s sum up — we both think we’re terrible fathers but neither of us are, we need to talk more, and we both love each other. Sound right?”
Cullen chuckled and nodded.
“Great. So stop panicking about me dying and start panicking about all the deeply personal questions you’ll apparently be facing soon.”
Cullen raised an eyebrow. “Or maybe I could not panic at all?”
Alistair gave a mock-gasp and spread his hands. “That’s the best idea you’ve had all day. Except for the proposal thing. That was an excellent idea.” He grinned that uncategorized, ridiculously happy grin again. “You had it all impeccably planned, disturbingly organized, and I saw the drafts of a speech in there. But you threw it all out in one crazy moment of passion, and it was the most adorable, romantic, perfect proposal I could imagine.”
And, hands cradling Cullen’s head like something fragile and precious, he blessed Cullen with a kiss — tender, grateful, loving, and everything else Cullen wanted to say as well, but couldn’t put into words. So much was expressed in that simple meeting of their lips that when Alistair finally broke away to rest their foreheads together, Cullen was too overwhelmed to do anything but meet the lovely golden-brown eyes that told him Alistair felt the same.
Without breaking the contact or gaze, Alistair called, “El, come over here and kiss Munda goodbye.”
“Okay,” she said, followed by, “I hafta go kiss Munda now,” presumably addressed to the ever-patient mabari.
A sudden warmth spread inside Cullen’s chest, and Alistair pulled away to turn to her. “You know, there should be laws against being this cute, missy.”
Which reminded Cullen of the topic they’d lost somehow. “Wait. Nugs and mabari?”
“Oh, right,” Alistair said, bending over to scoop Elodie into his arms. “You’re a mabari because you’re intimidating at first, but if you imprint on someone you’ll do anything for them.”
Cullen’s cheeks heated, and he couldn’t argue the point. “And the nug?”
“That’s me, apparently.” Alistair stood, holding Elodie, and flashed his Making Fun (Self) grin. “So sweet, cute, and funny that I fool people into underestimating me.”
Cullen smirked. “And constantly making mildly annoying noises?”
“Only mildly? Clearly I need to step up my game!”
“Kiss, Munda!” Elodie reached for him, and Cullen took her from Alistair.
“And good luck,” Alistair prompted.
“An guhck, Munda!” She kissed him on the cheek, and Cullen’s smile began to hurt again.
“Thank you, my sweet girl.” He gave her a kiss and then passed her back to Alistair. “Be good for Papa.”
“You’re so funny, Munda.” Alistair placed her back on the floor. “Go get your griffon, sweetie.”
She did, and Cullen watched the back of her blue and silver dress. In the interest of talking more, as Alistair had summed up, he said, “It was kind of Megan, but … I don’t like the dress.”
“Then I’ll put her in something else,” Alistair said, completely serious. “Oh, and before I forget, if you see Dorian, be nice and act normal.”
Cullen gritted his teeth. “But he —”
“He found out this morning that his father died,” Alistair said softly.
Cullen blinked. “His father who attempted to control him with blood magic so he would no longer prefer men? Upon whom he wishes death at least once a week?”
“The very same.” Alistair’s tone was granite. “And now he has to go and take the bastard’s place in the Magisterium. And there I was, bitching about my kid, and he snapped. When we spoke after, he apologized, and that’s when he told me. He’s having lots of complicated feelings about it all, so just … leave him be, okay?”
Cullen nodded. Alistair grew quiet, considerably subdued, and Cullen wished Alistair didn’t personally understand Dorian’s complicated feelings quite so much. He cupped Alistair’s cheek and kissed him. “I love you.”
Alistair smiled. “I love you, too. And on that cheery note …” Yet again, he began to run his hands along Cullen’s shoulders, arms, and chest. Since he’d already smoothed the uniform to perfection, Cullen assumed he was attempting to soothe. Which of them, though, he wasn’t sure. “Take a deep breath before you answer any questions. You can take time to think if you need to. Don’t let anyone get under your skin, even if they get personal. Your record as Inquisition Commander is undeniable, so they’ll try to —”
“Alistair.” Cullen grabbed his hands, and Alistair stilled. “Stop. You’re making me nervous now.”
Alistair grimaced. “Right, sorry. When you head down, I’ll take Ellie to meet Uncle Teagan and see what he can tell me. Then I’ll send you a note with what they have planned.”
“At breakfast you seemed quite confident they had nothing planned.” Cullen raised an eyebrow.
“Then it’ll just be a good luck note!”
There it was — voice pitched higher, grin from the Everything is Fine (But Probably Not For Long) category. He’d worn that one at the beginning of the battle at Adamant.
Alistair clutched Cullen’s face pulled him in for a deep kiss. “We’ll be there, next to everyone else,” he whispered. “You’ll be great.”
Cullen nodded, unable to speak due to his sudden, overwhelming nerves.
“Go get ‘em,” Alistair said.
As Cullen turned to go, Alistair slapped his ass. He glared over his shoulder to find that Wicked (Private) grin again, and Cullen found himself, as always, helpless under its power.
With a smile, he nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Alistair rolled his eyes, sending Cullen into the hall chuckling.
“There you are!” Josephine visibly sighed in relief as Cullen approached the hall outside the meeting room. “Cassandra said —”
“I told you,” the Inquisitor said. “This is Cullen. He’s never been late to anything in his life.”
“But Alistair has.” Cassandra stood, arms crossed, leaning against the wall, looking exceedingly displeased.
Cullen almost laughed. Considering how well she and Alistair got along when discussing most things (Elodie, Varric’s novels, lyrium use by Templars), he was constantly amazed that Alistair still managed to get under her skin without even trying. Then again, Alistair often managed to get under his skin, and he was marrying him, for Maker’s sake.
“Why are you smiling like that?” Josephine actually snapped. Maker, she really was nervous.
“You do look oddly happy for someone who’s about to be interrogated.” Cassandra didn’t seem pleased about that either.
Only when Cullen said, “What?” did he realize that he was smiling like a fool. He cleared his throat and forced his face into something approaching neutral. “Apologies. I was thinking about …”
“Oh, for the love of Andraste!” The Inquisitor rolled her eyes. “The two of you were gushing not even an hour ago because he proposed, and now he’s not allowed to be happy about it?”
“I’m not —” Cullen started automatically, but stopped when he actually followed the thought through. Was he really going to protest that he wasn’t happy? What would be the purpose? Not only was it untrue, but, as much as he abhorred discussing his feelings with others, he didn’t want to keep this to himself. He felt his mouth curve into a smile again and shrugged. “I suppose I am, at that.”
And then he remembered why he hated talking about his feelings. Maker, had he just said that aloud? His face burned, and he rubbed the back of his neck.
“I apologize, Inquisitor. I should keep my focus on the Council.”
“Not you, too!” the Inquisitor groaned, although she smiled as she did. “If we go in there tighter than snare drums, we’ll snap at the first sniff of criticism. And we cannot do that. We must remain calm and collected and answer the questions as straightforwardly as possible. Isn’t that right, Josie?”
Josephine inhaled a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Yes, of course you’re right, my darling.”
The Inquisitor took her by the hands and leaned in until their foreheads were touching. At the quiet sound of, “This is where you shine, love. You could do this in your sleep …” Cullen turned away. She was giving Josephine the same assurances that Alistair had given him, and they deserved their privacy.
So he turned to Cassandra, who had reached the same conclusion he had and approached him. “Why aren’t you in there? You’re not required to answer any questions.”
“Not required, no,” Cassandra said. “But I wanted you and the Inquisitor to know that as a Seeker of Truth and Justinia’s Right Hand, I am more than willing to testify on behalf of your competencies.”
The lump that appeared in his throat surprised him. “Thank you. I —” Suddenly, the gravity of all the Council represented hit him at once, and he realized that this could be the end of it all.
The end of what she and Leliana, at the request of Divine Justinia V, had started when she came to Kirkwall to convince him — a too-young, increasingly cynical and disenchanted acting-Knight-Commander with no real military experience aside from failing miserably at keeping Kirkwall from going up in flames — to serve as commander of the newly reformed Inquisition’s forces. The end of the cause he’d only too eagerly thrown himself behind in the faint hope that it might save him from losing his faith completely. The end of this organization, this group of all-too-flawed individuals that had saved the world. Saved him by befriending him and bringing Alistair and Elodie to him and supporting him through his lyrium withdrawals and giving him something good to fight for so he could atone.
What would he do when it was over?
“Thank you for believing in me. For giving me a chance,” he began. And then finished. Nothing more needed to be said. Not to Cassandra.
She said nothing for a long moment.
And then drew back her arm and punched him, hard, in the shoulder.
“Ow!” he complained, trying to shake the growing numbness from his arm. “What was that for?”
“If you make me cry, Cullen,” she said, eyes bright with what might have been tears, “I swear to you I will — I will — I will work with Sera to get revenge!”
His jaw dropped. “You wouldn’t.”
“I would! So … do not test me!” She shoved a finger in his face, as furious as he’d ever seen her, but he’d learned to read her over the years. Anger wasn’t really what she was feeling.
Acknowledging Alistair’s influence on him, Cullen pulled her into a tight hug, something he’d never done before and would never have dared imagine when the foreboding Seeker and Right Hand of the Divine walked into Meredith’s old office — he’d never truly considered it his, since he was never officially promoted to Knight-Commander — in Kirkwall.
And, in yet another first that he’d never have imagined back in Kirkwall … she let him.
“Thank you for saying yes,” she said softly. “You were my first choice, but Leliana had several people in mind, and —”
“Who?” Cullen pulled away far enough to see her face.
“She wouldn’t tell me,” Cassandra said. “But knowing her connections, it would likely have been someone she met during the Blight. Or an Orlesian.”
Knowing (at least of) the people Leliana had known during the Blight and all the Orlesians highly ranked enough for such a role, Cullen barely suppressed a shudder. Cassandra didn’t even manage that much.
“What is happening right now?” he heard the Inquisitor whisper.
“Shh!” was Josephine’s only response.
Both Cullen and Cassandra pulled back at the same time. If Cassandra looked even half as mortified as he felt, they were both redder than their uniforms and falling back to their training in a vain attempt to seem professional.
“You ruined the moment!” Josephine hissed.
Cassandra cleared her throat and addressed Cullen as if they had no audience. “You have nothing to worry about. Answer their questions as clearly and concisely as possible. It’s no different than my interrogation.”
“When did you interrogate him?” the Inquisitor asked in spite of Josephine’s reprimand, unable to restrain her curiosity. “And why?”
Cassandra raised an eyebrow without turning around and smiled at Cullen. “How else would I know if he was right for the job?”
Cullen returned her smile, feeling oddly nostalgic. “Seekers are a Templar’s worst nightmare. When they come to your Circle, it means something is very wrong. She arrived in Kirkwall two years after the mage rebellion started and several months after the Templars officially broke from the Chantry.”
He’d never forget the way she stood in the doorway of Meredith’s office, the light from the setting sun casting her in semi-shadow, the all-seeing eye of the Seekers emblazoned on her chest. She’d introduced herself as Seeker Pentaghast, Right Hand of the Divine, as if every Templar didn’t know her by name and reputation. With a feeling of immense relief, he’d stood to meet her and his own fate.
“The first thing he said to me was, ‘What took you so long?’” Cassandra said. “He expected me to arrest him for Meredith’s crimes.”
“And instead you interrogated him before offering him a job as commander of the Inquisition?” Even Josephine couldn’t hide her interest now; this story was far too juicy. “Leliana just sent me a message that she was in Val Royeaux and invited me for drinks.”
“I admit that would have been preferable,” said Cullen.
The Inquisitor crossed her arms and whistled. “I’ve seen you fight side-by-side with your men, track down Red Templars, fall in love, adopt a little girl, and fight through lyrium withdrawal, and yet I think passing an interrogation by Cassandra might be the most impressive thing you’ve ever done.”
Cassandra made that disgusted noise she wielded so ferociously. “You say that as if you haven’t done the same.”
The Inquisitor laughed. “I didn’t pass. I survived.”
Cassandra pursed her lips, which was essentially a concession, when a messenger informed them that Her Holiness was ready for the Exalted Council to begin and Cullen’s pulse jolted to double its normal speed.
“You will all be fine,” said Cassandra. “Everything will be … fine. And please do not tell Varric about the —” Her gaze flicked toward Cullen. “You know.”
Josephine said, “Of course not!” at the same time the Inquisitor held up a hand and swore, “I would never” in a way that implied Varric would somehow learn of Cullen and Cassandra’s hug before either had reached their seat.
“Maker be with you.” Cassandra spoke to them all, but as she walked away, placed a steady hand on Cullen’s shoulder and squeezed. It had an unexpected calming effect on him, and he nodded to her as she left.
“Just answer the questions,” the Inquisitor said as she moved to stand to Cullen’s left and Josephine’s right. “We’ll all be fine, like she said.”
Cullen wasn’t sure if she was talking to them or herself.
“Leliana will only be able to help a little,” Josephine said, straightening her own uniform and also seeming to be encouraging herself. “Orlais is trying to get on our good side, and Ferelden wants us gone.”
“Alistair said he would talk to Arl Teagan and send me a message about what to expect,” Cullen explained to them as the door opened and they were announced.
“Let’s hope it’s good news.” Josephine took a deep breath, and then glanced at him. “Cullen! Smooth out your pocket!”
Frowning, Cullen looked down at his front jacket pocket, which he’d sworn had been smoothed down several times by Alistair. Reaching in, he pulled out a beautiful, only slightly rumpled red rose.
Next to him, the Inquisitor smirked. “What’s that?”
Cullen grinned, just as he had when Alistair had said yes. “A good luck charm, I think.” Where it had come from, or how Alistair had slipped it in without him noticing, he neither knew nor cared.
He slid the stem into his pocket so the bloom was sticking out.
“Is this all right?” he asked Josephine.
“Of course it is!” she nearly squealed. “You look wonderful.”
As the doors opened for them, Cullen saw her, in his peripheral vision, shoot the Inquisitor a glance, eyes twinkling. “You know, I love flowers.”
“Are you kidding me right now?” The Inquisitor said from the corner of her mouth. “I fought a duel for you!”
Cullen laughed, Josephine smirked, and the Inquisitor shook her head with a chuckle.
He didn’t know if Josephine had done that on purpose to relieve their nerves, but they were all three genuinely smiling when their names and titles were announced.
They entered the hall to polite applause; silence would have been far less awkward and patronizing, but that wasn’t the Orlesian way. Cullen scanned the crowd for Alistair and Elodie and found them almost immediately, seated, as Alistair had promised, with their friends on the left side of the hall. Elodie waved enthusiastically from Alistair’s lap, now wearing a white dress covered in …
Alistair gave him two thumbs up, but there it was again — the same Everything is Fine (But Probably Not For Long) grin he’d given Cullen earlier.
They took their seats, and as Her Holiness Divine Victoria called the Exalted Council into session and began introductions, a messenger handed Cullen a piece of folded parchment. He opened it and read Alistair’s hasty scrawl.
T official rep but QA sent another, Bn. Ceorlic — supported L at Landsmeet, advised QA to “Behead Maric’s bastard.” Watch out.
Cullen gritted his teeth but otherwise let nothing show on his face as he passed the note to the Inquisitor and Josephine, who did the same. He looked at Alistair, who flashed another thumbs up, but his grin seemed more brittle than before.
As Varric often said when events took a turn for the worse — well, shit.