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Of Love and Duty

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Alistair sent a silent prayer to the Maker, hoping that his decades of combat training would guide him.

It didn’t.

He managed to dodge enough so that the blow hit him in the upper thigh and not the groin, but ow. That hurt. His armor, of course, was packed away. Not that it would have been much help.

He vastly preferred darkspawn.

“Noooo!” Elodie screeched, louder and higher-pitched than a high dragon, every hit of her flailing legs against his abdomen reminding him of sparring with Sten. Maker, she was three, how was she so strong?

No one had told him parenting would be like this.

“I don’t wanna!” Elodie wailed as he tried in vain to pry her fingers from the door of the carriage. “I want Munda!”

“Five minutes ago you couldn’t wait to get out of the carriage!” Alistair knew his appeal to logic was pointless in the face of such a temper tantrum, but it gave him a nonviolent outlet for his frustration. “And in case you haven’t noticed, Munda is not in there!”

Unfortunately, his words only enraged her more, and he immediately regretted engaging her. He was conscious of stares and muttering behind his back, and he dearly wished they were somewhere, anywhere else — the top of Fort Drakon fighting an archdemon, for example, or the palace in Denerim during the Landsmeet.

Anywhere but the fucking Winter Palace.

The Orlesian accents took him back to one of the worst moments of his life, when he’d almost lost Elodie to that horrid Orlesian couple, and the words of Comte Pelletier came flooding back to him.

“No child under my care will receive this ... coddling. Discipline and strict rules are what a child needs.”

That, more than anything else, provided him with the burst of renewed patience he needed. No child of his would worry that her parents cared more about what people thought than about her well-being. He’d been that child, and he refused to do that to his Elodie.

“Ellie, sweetheart,” he said gently, but loudly enough to be heard over her cries, “do you want to go see Munda?”

“Yes!” she cried, but at the volume of a only a dragonling now.

The distraction weakened her grip, and he took advantage of the opportunity to remove her hands from the door and bring her into his arms.

“Me, too. So let’s go, huh?”

“Noooo!” she wailed, realizing she’d been played and grappling in vain for the carriage that was now out of her reach.

He grinned, a little too pleased with himself. “I’m a Grey Warden. You’ll have to get up earlier than that to outsmart me, missy.”

That got him a swift kick to — ow, the groin — as she renewed her flailing with all four limbs plus her head. He gritted his teeth and breathed through it while he moved toward the driver.

The carriage was the Inquisition’s, so the driver and the two guards hand-picked by Cullen to accompany them didn’t require payment, as such. Nevertheless, he pressed several coins into each of their hands, only slightly hampered by Elodie’s continued tantrum.

Before the men could protest, Alistair shouted over Elodie, “Buy yourselves a drink or three, on me. Consider it thanks for not abandoning us in the Frostbacks after twenty minutes of …” He readjusted the still screaming Elodie, her struggles having caused her to slip in his arms.

“But ser,” one of Cullen’s men began.

Alistair smirked. “I won’t tell the Commander if you don’t.” When they still didn’t move, he said, “Go now, before he gets here and explicitly forbids you from any sort of fun or relaxation after that miserable trip!”

They didn’t need telling twice — or, rather, thrice, since they’d at least attempted to argue — and then he was left with just the driver, William, who actually smiled at him.

“I have five young-uns meself, ser,” William said. “Though they an’t as young as Miss Elodie anymore. Trip like that’s hard on little-uns. I know it an’t much comfort now, but she’ll grow out of it.”

“That’s what everyone keeps telling me,” Alistair said with a sigh and then a grunt as Elodie’s fists pounded into his back. “Can’t come soon enough.”

“That’s what you think now,” said William. “But a’fore you know it she’ll be striking out on her own, and you’ll wish for these times back again.”

“I want Munda!” Elodie screamed, and Alistair highly doubted he would ever want to return to this moment. But he nodded and thanked William again before turning around and finally taking in their destination.

The Winter Palace never ceased to amaze him, and somehow it seemed to glow like lyrium crystals in the Deep Roads, rising into the beautiful dusk sky.

He only realized he was gawking when he heard a “Ser,” spoken in a tone that indicated annoyance with having to repeat itself.

Alistair dropped his gaze and registered the gathered crowd of perhaps twenty Orlesians, whom he now realized were gawking at them, not at the palace.

Maker, but he hated Orlais.

“Ser,” came the annoyed voice yet again. “Your name, so we may have the servants send the luggage to your quarters.”

How Orlesians could show such intense distaste with their faces covered by those ridiculous masks, Alistair would never understand. But he didn’t miss how the chevalier’s eyes looked him up and down before settling on Elodie’s still-flailing form.

Alistair bit back a few choice words — something along the lines of, “Do you beat the Game into Orlesian children before or after they start to smile?” only with more profanity — when he thought of the fallout from Elodie’s temper tantrum, and made an uncharacteristically calculated decision. The Inquisition, and therefore Cullen’s current position, was in a delicate situation, and the last thing either needed was Alistair running his mouth and making Elodie’s scene actively worse.

So, even though it went against everything he valued and stood for, he forced his posture into his closest approximation of relaxed and smiled his Game-iest smile.

“Of course,” he said, loud but otherwise acting as though he were on a quiet stroll and all their ears weren’t being assaulted by Elodie’s insistent calls for Munda. “I’m here as a guest of the Inquisition’s commander, Cul —”

“You’re a guest of the Commander!” The chevalier immediately perked up, eager and earnest. Behind him, Alistair could practically feel the tension as the crowd strained to hear their conversation over Elodie’s ear-piercing screeches. “You and your … companion are most welcome to the Winter —”

Alistair almost lost it as the chevalier’s impressive commitment to the Game was drowned out by a particularly loud wail from Elodie. But he bit his tongue hard and managed to keep his polite smile in place. “Thank you, ser knight. If you could direct me to his quarters?”

The chevalier’s eyes drifted again to Elodie. “Surely you’d prefer to visit your own quarters first?”

The question hit Alistair like a shield bash to the face, and he barely kept his smile in place. He’d been so worried about Elodie’s behavior that he’d forgotten to steel himself against the judgment he and Cullen usually received by simply … being themselves.

But he rallied and, amid Elodie’s continued cries, tried to sound casual. “No, we’ll be in the same quarters.”

To his immense surprise, the chevalier didn’t even blink. “Of course. If you’ll take this path to the doors, a servant will escort you.”

Huh. That was a point in Orlais’s column. Their score was now negative nine hundred ninety-nine, but still.

“I — thank you,” Alistair said, too surprised to pretend not to care.

“Of course, ser.” Was that … disappointment in the chevalier’s voice? Ugh, apparently the Orlesian nobility hadn’t gotten over their obsession with Cullen since the last time he was here. Alistair couldn’t blame them — well, actually, he could. Orlais lost the point they’d just gained for being accepting by not accepting “No, please stop, leave me alone” for an answer.

With that, he turned his back to the chevalier and faced the gawking crowd. He shrugged with one shoulder, his other holding Elodie like a potato sack, and grinned.

“Don’t worry, the Mabari’s in the next carriage.”

And, clinging to William’s advice that he wasn’t the absolute worst father in the world, Alistair hoisted his kicking and screaming daughter into a more comfortable position and proceeded to leisurely stroll through the crowd of gawking Orlesians to the doors of the Winter Palace.

Chapter Text

In spite of the chevalier’s insistence that a servant would meet him, the path Alistair followed was deserted and led him around the outside of the palace walls, which had no doors much less any guards or servants to ask for assistance.

As Elodie continued to kick and scream, he wondered if that chevalier had given him bad directions as a punishment for not playing the Game right, or for being with Cullen, or maybe just to get him to leave, and now the crowd was laughing their stupid Orlesian laughs about the dumb Fereldan and his shamefully coddled and undisciplined child who, gasp, yelled in public and probably didn’t even know what spoon to use for dessert or which houses were the most respected or —

“Down, down, down! I want Munda! Munda now!”

He slumped against the palace wall, defeated, unsure if he wanted to scream or cry or bash his head against the wall until he plunged into the blissful silence of unconsciousness.

“Please, honey,” he begged, actual tears in his eyes. “I’m trying, but I don’t know what you —”

“Alistair!” came a familiar voice.

He stood abruptly and rubbed his face on Elodie’s dress as two people approached. Two of the people, in fact, he was here to see.

Unfortunately, not the person he needed to see.

“We heard the racket in the courtyard,” said the Inquisitor. “We had a feeling it was Elodie.”

Alistair didn’t respond; he wasn’t entirely sure he wouldn’t burst into shameful tears.

“Oh, Ellie.” Josie walked around him to address Elodie directly. “Can Auntie Josie help you feel better?”

Alistair tried to force her into Josie’s arms, but of course now she clung to his neck in a death grip.

“No, no, no!” Elodie wailed, shaking her head with each word. “Munda! I want Munda!”

“Where’s Cullen?” Alistair asked.

“In a meeting!” Trevelyan shouted as Josie cooed in an admirable attempt to soothe Elodie. It failed, of course, but Alistair loved her for trying.

“Without —” Alistair flinched as Elodie let out a screech, exceedingly unimpressed with Auntie Josie. “Without you?”

Inquisitor Trevelyan, leader of thousands, slayer of a dozen high dragons and Corypheus himself, actually put her hands over her ears. Alistair almost laughed. Wimp. “Orlais and Ferelden’s generals wanted to talk about Inquisition forces, so he left dinner early to meet with them! I sent a messenger! He’s probably on his way now!”

“No!” Elodie screamed. She was inconsolable now, crying so hard she was hiccuping and gasping for air.

“Elodie.” Alistair was going for stern, but it came out more desperate than intended. He pulled her around until she was facing him. “Stop this. You’re going to make yourself sick.”

She screamed as though he’d burned her. “Munda! Munda! Munda!” She continued her chant, perhaps hoping to summon Munda from thin air. At this point, Alistair was half-ready to join her.

Unfortunately, with the chanting came renewed flailing. Josie wisely backed out of range, and it was all Alistair could do to keep from losing his grip — both physically and mentally.

“Ellie, honey,” he pleaded, not even trying to hide his desperation anymore. “Please, calm down.”

“Is that my sweet girl?” said a deep, mellifluous voice, gentle yet loud enough to be heard over Elodie’s cries.

Alistair spun toward the voice, and there stood Cullen, unruffled as always, not a hair out of place or a wrinkle in his sharp red dress uniform, wearing an adoring smile that made Alistair want to simultaneously kiss and punch him.

How dare he look so happy and handsome right now, when Alistair was one toddler-screech away from committing mass murder?

Elodie fell immediately silent at the sound of Cullen’s voice, as she always did, as she always had, from the first time he’d spoken to her as an infant. Alistair loved and hated that voice, ached to hear it always but also never again; he was comforted by its calm, tempted by its promises, and reduced to nothing but an envious rage at the way it could soothe their daughter when his own inevitably failed.

“Mun — da!” Elodie gasped, out of breath from her incessant crying. “Mun — da!” She reached out for Cullen, as Alistair knew she would, and he let her go, unashamedly happy to be rid of her.

He collapsed against the palace wall with a rather indecent groan, relishing the Maker-blessed silence. Only the tiniest shred that remained of his dignity kept him from collapsing onto his knees in gratitude.

Cullen pulled Elodie into his arms, and she wrapped her pudgy ones around his neck, laying her head on his shoulder as he rocked her. Waves of adoration and jealousy crashed against each other in Alistair’s chest at the way she calmed and quieted down for him, leaving behind when they receded only guilt for the glee he himself felt at relinquishing her. When it all threatened to drown him, he squeezed his eyes and mouth shut in an effort to stay afloat.

“Mun — da,” Elodie cried softly, calmer but still gasping. “Mun — da.”

“Shh, I’m right here,” Cullen said. “What happened to make you cry so, my sweet girl?” His soothing voice began to calm the storm inside Alistair, too. “Was Papa mean to you?”

But those words, from Cullen, slashed through Alistair like a dagger. With a gasp like Elodie’s, he shoved himself upright and advanced a few steps. “Yes, I’m so mean that I traveled alone from Skyhold to Halamshiral with that little archdemon, just like you asked, even though I told you it would —”

Beyond the finger he was jabbing in Cullen’s direction, he saw what had been a smile fade into a concerned (and guilty) frown. “I was joking, Alistair.”

Except it wasn’t a joke to Elodie. She hated him right now.

But Cullen had been trying (albeit poorly) to commiserate with him.

Damn it.

Alistair ran a hand through his hair and leaned heavily against the wall again. “Sorry. Long day. The past hour especially.”

“You do certainly know how to make an entrance,” said Her Most Holy Divine Victoria, from just to Cullen’s right.

Alistair started from his thoughts and roiling emotions and gaped. She was in her full garb. How could he have missed the arrival of the damned Divine?

“When did you get here?”

Trevelyan snorted, earning her an elbow from Josie, who, ever the diplomat, at least attempted to hide her smile. Cullen’s brow furrowed deeper, which annoyed Alistair in a way he couldn’t pinpoint, and Her Most Divinest Blessed Holiness Victorliana smiled her trademark placidly patient smile.

“I arrived just behind Cullen.” Her eyes twinkled with mirth. “I’d say you were losing your touch in your old age, but awareness of your surroundings has never been your strong suit. Though I suppose you can be forgiven for not noticing me this time. You were distracted.” Her gaze flicked to Cullen. “In more ways than one.”

Since Cullen had only distracted Alistair by finally silencing Elodie, he ignored her frankly pathetic attempt to embarrass him. But Cullen’s free hand moved in the direction of the back of his neck before he busied himself with whispering to Elodie and wiping her tears.

“Plus,” Leliana added, “just because I no longer work as a bard does not mean I forget how to blend in.”

“You’re the Divine.” Trevelyan voiced Alistair’s thoughts almost exactly, minus a profanity or two because she was a devout Inquisitor. “You’re literally the most important, recognizable person here!”

Mischief danced across Leliana’s lips as she smiled once again. “I’m very good at what I do.”

Everyone rolled their eyes at that except for Cullen, who just stared at her in disbelief like he always did whenever she managed the impossible.

“Though I must say, Alistair,” Her Holy Divinestness added, flashing an impish smirk. “I find it hard to sympathize with your plight. Oh, how awful it must have been to travel for one whole day with a companion who does not understand the value of silence.”

He understood it for the joke it was; he really did. And in any other situation, he would have enjoyed a happy reference to the time they’d spent together over a decade ago — and Maker knew they needed the reminder that there were happy times, the sadness of the destination tending to drown out any enjoyment of the journey, as it were.

But now, today, when he was exhausted and already feeling like a failure as a father, partner, and friend?

Now it hurt nearly as much as Elodie’s kick to the groin had earlier. Just another way he wasn’t good enough.

But he’d already shown too much with his earlier outburst, so he fell back to what he did best.

“Now that’s just mean,” he said, forcing a smile. “Are you even allowed to say things like that now? I thought you were the Most Holiest Chantry Former Spy Sister.” He shook his head sadly. “What would the Maker say?”

That smile again, that ornery twinkle. Damn, he’d missed her. “We are all sinners in the eyes of the Maker. Even the Most Holy. I will pray for his forgiveness in my nightly prayers.”

“Oh, well, now that you have a direct line, put in a good word for me, will you?”

Her smile faded into something far more understanding, and she seemed to stare directly into his soul. “I always do, old friend.”

Something tightened in his chest, making it difficult to breathe for a few moments. He had no response, no witty retort, to that, so he looked away, hoping no one would notice the tears blurring his vision.

“Now,” Leliana said, practically rubbing her hands in glee, “for the main attraction.”

“Elodie.” Cullen’s tone was the one he reserved only for her, quiet and gentle and full of such adoration and love it made Alistair’s heart ache. To think that initially Cullen had wanted nothing to do with the orphaned baby girl Alistair had saved from darkspawn. “Do you know who this is?”

In control of himself once again, Alistair turned in time to see Elodie rubbing her eyes and burying her face in Cullen’s neck.

Cullen chuckled. “Oh, don’t be shy now. Not five minutes ago you were screaming loud enough they could hear you back at Skyhold.”

“She’s not shy, she’s tired,” Alistair corrected wearily. “A day-long tantrum will do that.”

Cullen’s eyes widened. “All day?”

“Well, there was that glorious half-hour when she cried herself to sleep, but she woke up fully refreshed and continued on with renewed vigor until about five minutes ago.”

He said it with a smirk, but he’d always had difficulty hiding his emotions. It was why he always lost at Wicked Grace.

It was also why every person was staring at him with various looks of horror, pity, or guilt. Or all three, in the case of Cullen.

He shrugged. “Like I said, long day.”

“Who, Munda?” Elodie said, pointing at Leliana. “Ma Zel?”

Cullen laughed. “She does look a little like Mother Giselle, doesn’t she?”

“Oh, that’s just the hat!” Leliana said animatedly, addressing Elodie directly. Then her fingers performed some complicated dance around her neck and chin, and she removed the hat from her head to reveal her still short, vivid red hair.

Alistair let out an exaggerated gasp and brought a hand to his face. “Quick, avert your eyes!”

Most of the adults at least smirked, but Elodie, his darling Elodie, actually giggled.

In that moment, it was the best sound he’d ever heard.

“Sih-ee Papa,” she said with a shake of her head, and he burst into a tearful laugh of joy that she didn’t hate him.

“Yeah, silly Papa,” he said with a relieved smile. “El, that’s Aunt Leliana.”

At that, his beautiful little girl lit up like the Winter Palace, eyes widening. “An Yayana?” she asked Cullen, her inability to pronounce the letter L as adorable as ever.

Then she made a gesture that Alistair knew well; he’d taught her, after all. She brought both her little fists together and pulled them apart, then said, “Zing!”

“Maker!” Leliana’s hands flew to her mouth. “Did she just shoot an arrow?”

“Zing zing!” Elodie made the motion again. “An Yayana soot dah-pah!” The last two syllables were said in a deeper, more dramatic voice and accompanied by two hands waving above her head.

At Leliana’s confused look, Cullen clarified. “Darkspawn.”

Elodie actually rolled her little eyes — which made the women laugh and Alistair beam with pride, since she almost definitely learned that from him, too — and placed a hand on Cullen’s cheek, pulling his gaze to her.

“No, Munda,” she said seriously. Then she waved her hands and said again dramatically, “Dah-pah!”

“So cute!” Leliana cooed.

Cullen shot Alistair one of his Stern Commander looks out of the corner of his eyes. “You can guess who taught her the melodramatic hand gestures.”

“She has plenty of time to have nightmares about darkspawn,” Alistair said, head throbbing as if to say, Don’t worry, I’ll never let you forget about archdemon nightmares and your shortened lifespan! “I didn’t want to scare her, in case she …”

Elodie was still too young to understand what had happened to her natural family, but Alistair knew that one day they would have to tell her, and he wanted to delay that as long as possible.

He cleared his throat. “Anyway, I’m not the one who thought tales of Papa and Auntie Leliana heroically slaying darkspawn would be good bedtime stories.”

“And what about our Commander?” asked Leliana, thankfully taking the cue and changing the topic. “Any good stories about him leading Inquisition forces at Haven or Adamant?”

Cullen succeeded this time in rubbing his neck awkwardly. But Elodie smiled and said, “Cumda Inkishin!” before gently patting Cullen’s cheek. Then she laid her head on his shoulder and snuggled into him. “Yuv you, Munda.”

For just a moment, the stoic Commander of the Inquisition completely melted away, leaving a man few who knew him would recognize. Only with Elodie had Alistair ever seen him that vulnerable, that open with his emotions. He brought a hand up to stroke Elodie’s hair and kissed her forehead. “I love you, too, my sweet girl.”

Alistair couldn’t help the pang of jealousy that was soon — but not quickly enough — overwhelmed by a fondness for the two people he loved most in all of Thedas. In the beginning, when he’d first grown to love Elodie, Alistair had shared a similar bond with her. But more recently, perhaps for the past year, Cullen and Elodie had grown closer, to what felt like his own exclusion. No longer did she cease her cries at Alistair’s hold and comforting words; on the contrary, he was often the main victim of her ever-increasing tantrums until Cullen arrived to save the day and Alistair’s sanity. Three was a crowd, as they said, and more and more Alistair had begun to feel like an extra foot — unnecessary, distracting, a hindrance. Something that wouldn’t be missed were it cut loose and left behind.

Cullen, with his deep, soothing voice, told the bedtime stories; Alistair had to resort to increasingly antic gestures in order to be included at all. Cullen had meant well, of course, telling stories of Alistair’s heroism rather than his own, but by the time Alistair realized that even Cullen had been fooled by his cheerful façade into thinking the memories of the Blight no longer pained him, Elodie had already fallen in love with the stories and could not be swayed toward others. The “melodramatic” gestures served several purposes — a distraction for himself as well as Elodie, and a vain attempt to remind his daughter that he could tell stories, too.

Megan and Cook — his first and only sources of guidance (and gossip) since he’d begun this unexpected journey — had told him that such behavior was normal in children Elodie’s age, prompting Megan to launch into a half-hour diatribe about how her Henry loved his papa so much he wanted to follow the man everywhere, but never seemed to show her the same level of devotion. (Henry, of course, was Megan’s son, not much older than Elodie, thanks to whom Megan was able to feed Elodie for her first year or so at Skyhold. The day Alistair told her it was probably time to start weaning Elodie, the poor woman had sobbed in his arms for ten minutes, grateful for an end to more than a year of nursing two children on opposite schedules. Her husband’s displeasure at her declaration to have no more children in the near future was as much the subject of their gossip as Henry’s adoration of him.)

Cook had assured Alistair that every one of her eight children had favored the late Mr. Cook at that age. “Aye, dear. It’s about familiarity, y’see. The commander an’t take care of the girl as much as ye. Imagine spending all day with one person. Ye’d jump at the first new one ye saw, aye?”

Alistair had tried to argue that she did see other people during the day, including Cullen, but couldn’t dismiss the concept; after all, Elodie wasn’t the only one going crazy after spending most of the day with a single person. But as his worries about Elodie’s apparent favoritism faded into the background, new ones replaced them.

It was clear how everyone, from the anonymous whisperers behind his back to Megan and Cook, saw his relationship to Elodie — in spite of his designation as her Papa, Alistair was the mother figure in her life. He woke and dressed and fed her most mornings. He spent the most time with her during the day. All by choice, of course! He loved carrying her around with him as he performed his duties, and his Wardens respected him no less for it (likely due to his intentional cultivation of rapport to avoid awkward and undeserved hero-worship of “the Alistair”). Cullen rarely had time for lunch with them, and if he was particularly busy, wouldn’t share dinner either. So Alistair also spent most days trying to get Elodie to eat her vegetables or attempting in vain to calm her tantrums or cleaning up her, er, potty-training messes, while Cullen, with his deep, soothing voice, sang the lullabies and told the bedtime stories. And what Alistair got in return were more tantrums and screams for anyone who wasn’t Papa, while Cullen received the most precious smiles and declarations of “I yuv you.”

The worst part was that Alistair had known all that when they’d decided to raise Elodie. He’d known that Cullen truly, honestly wanted a family, and that he wanted that family to be him and Elodie. But he’d also understood that Cullen needed to command the Inquisition, that his guilt compelled him to fight on the right side in order to make up for all those years he’d spent on the wrong one. And with his lyrium addiction, Alistair knew the best thing for Cullen would be to keep busy and have something happy to come home to at the end of the day.

And if he were honest with himself, in the beginning Alistair had believed he’d fought enough darkspawn for ten lifetimes and would have been perfectly content leaving the Wardens behind to raise Elodie. What he hadn’t expected was to feel a renewed desire to slaughter every single one of them for nearly killing his little girl. And he certainly hadn’t expected to enjoy the time he spent away from Skyhold alternately commanding the Wardens of Orlais and Ferelden, protecting Thedas from themselves as much as the darkspawn.

But worst of all, he’d never even considered how it would feel to come home after fighting darkspawn to hold his daughter in hands that only an hour earlier been drenched in Tainted blood. He’d been wholly unprepared for the feelings of pride and guilt and disgust, unsure whether they were due to how happy he was to be home (even though being a Warden was his job and his life) or how quickly he fell back into their routines afterward (because it should feel wrong to be in close proximity to Elodie after easily committing such violence).

And then, once back into said routines, his baby girl spent at most a day excited to see him before reverting back to her temper tantrums and preference for Cullen.

But Alistair loved Cullen as much as he loved Elodie, so when Cullen had confessed in a helpless rage how worried he was about the fate of the Inquisition and everything he had fought so hard for, Alistair had wanted to do whatever he could to keep him from hurting. And when Cullen had stoically, save for the telltale tremble in his hands, asked him to come to the Winter Palace because he didn’t know if he could stand watching nobles pick apart their good work and rip his hard-won redemption and pride and (though he didn’t mention it) sobriety to shreds, Alistair couldn’t refuse. So even though he knew it would mean misery for him and Elodie and everyone within a half-country radius, he’d agreed to make the trip, leaving a few days after Cullen did.

And now Elodie, who’d literally kicked and screamed at him all day, was blessing Cullen with her unbearably sweet smile and agonizingly rare declarations of “yuv.”

But as much as it hurt — and Maker, did it hurt to feel unwanted by the little girl he’d die for in an instant — he couldn’t blame Cullen. Maker knew how terrible his day had been; he probably needed Elodie’s love more right now. Maybe Elodie knew that somehow.

Maybe … maybe he wasn’t being fair to her — well, obviously he wasn’t being fair to her, she was three and wasn’t intentionally trying to hurt anyone. But maybe she, like him, just wanted to make Cullen happy, except she was only a child who sensed her Munda was sad and needed her Papa’s help to do it. Yes, he needed to stop being so selfish and do what had to be done, like he should have done — or rather, tried and failed to do — during the Blight.

It was Josie, of all people, who shook him from his pathetic pity party.

“Oh, it’s a wonderful story!” she was saying excitedly to Leliana, who laughed aloud. Cullen looked embarrassed, although it never took much for that to happen, and Trevelyan just smiled fondly at the three of them. Alistair realized it was probably the first time the four of them had been alone together as friends since before Leliana was made Divine.

He sighed. Third wheel, fifth wheel, royal bastard, the “other” Warden — it seemed like his destiny to always be the unwelcome spare.

“Although,” Josie said, looking toward him rather ... shyly? “Alistair tells the story best.”

Shit. He probably should have been paying attention instead of wallowing in his misery like some sort of … miserable wallower.

“Nonsense,” he said, conjuring up his Quick-hide-your-feelings-and-lack-of-attention grin. “You hardly ever get to bard anymore. Tell away.”

Cullen shot him a raised eyebrow before returning his attention to a fidgeting Elodie; Leliana merely regarded him with her head cocked slightly.

Josie looked ready to explode with joy, but diplomatically restrained herself to only a couple of excited bobs on the balls of her feet. “It’s so adorable! It all began perhaps six months after my dear Lady defeated Corypheus.”

“We, Josie,” Trevelyan corrected. “After we defeated Corypheus. I didn’t do it alone.”

Josie continued as though she hadn’t been interrupted by her boss (and love). “Alistair was off fighting darkspawn in eastern Ferelden and had been gone for over a week, so little Elodie became a frequent attendee of our war table meetings.”

Alistair smiled softly.

Oh. That story.

.

.

.

“I’m going to enjoy this sitting down,” said Trevelyan (or Trev, as Alistair affectionately called her, much to her delight and Cullen’s chagrin).

And she promptly walked a few paces to a bench that Alistair hadn’t noticed until just now.

Maker, he really was getting old if he’d missed his old-friend-who-was-also-the-Divine and a place to sit down.

Since he was exhausted and Trev had already made the first move, as it were, he joined her, sitting heavily and resting his forearms on his knees.

“Alistair gone and Cullen bringing Elodie to war table meetings?” Leliana asked. “Why did no one send me a bird when this happened?”

Cullen rolled his eyes. “I believe most of us were under the impression you were busy overturning ages of Chantry history and tradition. Clearly we mistook your priorities.”

“Clearly,” said Leliana.

Elodie, who had calmed enough that she tiredly rested her head on Cullen’s shoulder, whimpered softly but Cullen hushed her and began swaying. Soon her eyes drooped, and Alistair gritted his teeth through another wave of jealous anger.

“At that point,” Josie continued, ignoring Cullen and Leliana like she always did when the two started their verbal jousting, “Elodie had christened Alistair officially as ‘Papa,’ but hadn’t settled on anything for Cullen, although he kept trying to get her to call him ‘Father.’” She shook her head in disapproval. “So stuffy.”

Leliana smiled. “And yet so very much our Commander.”

“‘Father’ is a perfectly respectable form of address for a child to her father.” Cullen sounded annoyed, but Alistair could tell there was little real heat behind it.

“‘Respectable form of address’?” asked Leliana. “Well, you’ve certainly convinced me you’re not at all stuffy.”

Beside him, Trev giggled behind her hands and whispered, “The only thing this show is missing is a snack.”

At the mention of food, Alistair’s stomach grumbled noisily. He’d been so focused on Elodie that he’d forgotten how late it was and that he had yet to eat something for dinner. He pulled a small bundle from his pocket and unwrapped it.

“I have some cheese,” he said, breaking off a piece from the wedge and offering it to Trev.

She raised an eyebrow. “You’re carrying cheese on your person now? I wonder if you might have a problem, Alistair.”

“It’s my reward snack. An incentive not to impale myself on something sharp before we got here. It’d be so uncouth to get my filthy bastard Fereldan blood all over Celene’s marble floors.”

“In that case, keep it. Consider it a thank you for sparing me the delight of having to explain that to the Council, too.”

“Oh, I’m going to eat most of it,” he clarified. “I’m only offering you a small piece.”

She laughed and took the proffered chunk. “I appreciate your sacrifice.”

“So then,” Josephine was saying, “she began to cry, ‘Munda! Munda!’ until Cullen took her from Dorian. She calmed almost immediately in his arms, and Dorian asked, ‘What is a ‘munda,’ and why in Thedas would she want it more than me?’”

Leliana laughed, and Cullen spared a look from gazing at Elodie’s almost-sleeping form to smile. Alistair didn’t miss how relaxed he was, and realized it had been a long time since Cullen had truly enjoyed himself around someone that wasn’t Elodie, or himself sans clothes. After the defeat of Corypheus, most of the Inner Circle had left Skyhold, and Alistair wondered if Cullen didn’t miss them more than he let on.

“You okay?” Trev nudged him gently with her shoulder.

“Hmm?” Alistair shoved a chunk of cheese into his mouth. “Yes. Why?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because not ten minutes ago you looked like you might run your sword through everyone in range and then yourself if you heard the word ‘Munda’ one more time. And get filthy Fereldan blood all over, et cetera.”

“Well, sure, but I have cheese now.”

She gave him her Unimpressed Inquisitor look as Josephine said, “But then Vivienne said, ‘No need to be so touchy, my dear Commander. We all want to know what ‘munda’ means.’”

“Because Maker forbid anyone suggest doing actual work at the war table,” Cullen muttered.

Alistair tsked loudly. “So touchy, Munda.”

Leliana and Josie’s smiles turned into actual laughter at the look of betrayal Cullen shot him. Alistair supplemented his grin with a wink, which turned Cullen’s cheeks an adorable shade of pink.

“That was when we all heard it.” Josephine paused, really reveling in the drama. “In Vivienne’s lilting accent. The room went so quiet you could have heard a rogue’s footsteps, all of us repeating the two words together in our heads: Munda. Commander.”

Trev opened her mouth to speak to Alistair, but he nodded at the advisers. “You’re going to miss the best part.”

She rolled her eyes. “I’ve seen shield bashes deflect more subtly than that.”

Alistair took an enormous bite of cheese in order to avoid responding to whatever came next.

“I know we’ve never been close, exactly,” Trev said softly. “But I hope you know that if you ever need a friend to confide in …”

That … wasn’t what he’d expected when he’d taken the bite. He swallowed a little too quickly, coughed, and shook his head. “You’re his friend, not mine.”

“I can’t be both?” Her voice carried the slightest undertow of hurt.

Alistair felt a hard lump in his throat that he was pretty sure wasn’t the cheese. “Of course you can.” He bumped her shoulder with his and offered her an extra piece of cheese. After she took it, he added, “But it’s not fair to put you in the middle of things. And he needs your confidence more than I do.”

Josephine was approaching the grand finale. “Varric refused to let Cullen interrupt until Elodie had named every single person at the table except for him. Finally —”

“After several unnecessary dramatic pauses,” Cullen cut in, hypocritically inserting his own unnecessary dramatic pause.

“— he pointed at Cullen and said, ‘All right, Nugget, who is that?’ And Elodie immediately said —”

“Munda!” Leliana nearly jumped up and down in her excitement. She was enjoying this far too much. Maybe as Divine she wasn’t allowed to have fun anymore.

Actually, this was the Chantry — that checked out.

“I suppose that makes sense,” said Trev, almost definitely still disappointed since she hadn’t even eaten her cheese. “It’s just — watching the two of you and Elodie — it gives me hope. That if you two can have a family and be happy, in spite of Cullen’s lyrium addiction and you being a Warden, then maybe Josie and I …”

She closed her left fist, but the eerie green light was no longer doused by so simple a gesture. She traced at the point where the Anchor now stopped.

Her wrist.

Alistair’s stomach dropped like a rock. The two women, like he and Cullen, had been through so much to get to this point. They deserved to be happy. He wanted to ask if she was in pain or, Maker-forbid, in danger, but that wasn’t what she needed right now. No, now he’d do what he usually did, and ask Cullen about the rest later.

Shifting his leg until it playfully bumped hers, he asked, “Didn’t you duel an Antivan lord in the middle of Val Royeaux for her hand in marriage?”

Trev gave a shy smile, and it made her look a decade younger. “Not a whole duel. She interrupted, and then he gave up when we declared our love for each other. Drama, romance, diplomacy — it was all very Josie.”

Alistair couldn’t help a goofy smile at that. “I’m pretty sure anyone with a story that romantic is guaranteed a happy ending. Even I’m not that romantic, and I once gave Cullen a rose I found in the snow and told him it reminded me of him.”

“The rose on his desk?” Trev asked. “That was from you?”

“My point,” Alistair said, ignoring her comment, “is that a duel for her heart is Swords and Shields-level romantic. In fact, didn’t Varric use it as a storyline for the Guard Captain and the pirate?”

She smiled shyly again. “It was the Knight-Commander and the mage.”

Which of course Alistair knew because he devoured those trashy novels. “I’d never do that. Cullen’s probably better at dueling than me, and he’s such a control freak he’d insist on doing it himself.”

“Half of that is true,” she said, nodding pensively. “But I actually think you two are pretty evenly matched.”

“In fighting styles? I suppose we did have similar training …”

The advisers laughed — or rather, Leliana and Josie laughed and Cullen sputtered in protest — having proceeded to the relentless teasing portion of the story.

“In every way,” Trev said. “You should know that he’s been sullen these past few days.”

“Now you know why my nickname for him in bed is Sullen Cullen.”

She looked at him seriously, and his smile evaporated. “Is he okay?”

“Yes,” she said quickly. “He just wasn’t his normal grumpy and irritated self. Like he was … homesick.”

That was surprising. Cullen Rutherford didn’t get homesick. He did his duty and kept everything else tightly locked up, all healthy-like. And then forgot to write home about important things like still being alive.

“I know,” Trev said in response to whatever non-neutral facial expression he’d made. “He was like pre-Haven Cullen, all business and formality, and he skipped dinner with the group even though we haven’t seen them all in years. I think he missed you two. Because today over lunch, when Leliana asked about you, he lit up and talked non-stop the rest of the time.”

Alistair’s eyebrows shot up his forehead. “Non-stop? You mean that Cullen? And he wasn’t talking about calibrating trebuchets?”

The man in question stood nearly at attention, stoic and silent if mildly perturbed as Josephine told Leliana about the Potty-Training-Accident-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named.

Trev smiled. “And at dinner tonight, Varric asked him about Elodie and Cullen talked his ear off until he was called to the meeting.”

“A double win, then, since Varric finally got a taste of his own medicine.”

“Careful who you say that to. The same could be said about you.” She popped the piece of cheese in her mouth. “So, even if you can’t confide in me, know that my commander was moping for you. Hopefully that will at least partly make up for the terrible trip.”

She stood to join the chatting group, and Alistair sat for a moment, stunned and not a little touched by what he’d learned, before following her.

Just in time for some prime Cullen-mocking. Leliana clearly hadn’t lost her touch.

“Admit it,” said Leliana. “You love it that her name for you is essentially ‘Commander.’”

“Of course I do!” Cullen’s tone was defensive. “I’d love whatever she decided to call me.”

Leliana and Josie stood side-by-side, arms crossed, and shared a long look before turning identical skeptical gazes to back to Cullen, whose face was nearly as red as his uniform.

“It’s cute,” he muttered, avoiding the twin gazes by smoothing non-existent wrinkles from Elodie’s dress. “And unique. And she came up with it herself.”

“I’m just trying to decide if ‘Commander’ is more or less stuffy than ‘Father.’” Leliana tapped her lips, as if in thought.

“It’s not ‘Commander,’ it’s ‘Munda,’” Cullen corrected sternly. “She can mostly pronounce ‘commander’ now, but that’s not who I am.” Though his cheeks still blushed, he lifted his chin, bravely refusing to cower at the friendly teasing of Divine Victoria and the Ambassador of the Inquisition.

Silence fell as the Inquisition’s three top advisers engaged in what had to be the most low-stakes staring contest in Inquisition history.

“I take back what I said earlier, Josie,” Leliana said. “Finding out this way was much better. You, Munda, are adorable.”

Cullen threw back his head and looked to the heavens, as if begging the Maker for the strength to live down such embarrassment.

Elodie stirred at the movement and Alistair tensed, preparing for Daylong Tantrum, The Epilogue: Surprise Twist!

“Munda,” she whimpered, rubbing her eyes.

“Hush, my sweet girl, I’m right here,” Cullen whispered.

“Weh mondo?” Elodie tugged at one of the sashes on Cullen’s dress uniform.

“I’m not wearing it right now,” Cullen explained, earnest with her as always. “It’s part of my armor, but when I’m here they make me dress up like a doll in this silly thing that has no protection at all.”

Alistair snorted at the un-subtlety of Cullen’s passive aggression.

“Not this again,” Josie grumbled. “You’re not going to be attacked at the Winter Palace!”

“The last time we were here, the Inquisitor foiled an assassination attempt,” Cullen pointed out.

We foiled an assassination attempt,” Trev interrupted. “Why does everyone do that?”

“And you let the her bring her armor last time,” Cullen said sullenly.

“As the Commander of the Inquisition, you must be dressed —”

“Mondo now!” Elodie clenched her fists and scrunched up her face, the signs of an incoming tantrum. “I want my mondo!”

“What is she saying?” asked Leliana.

Alistair moved to Cullen’s side, hands out to take Elodie, as Trev said, “You know how some children have a favorite blanket or doll? Ellie has Cullen’s mantle.”

“That is so adorable!” Leliana squealed at nug-loving levels. “Will the cuteness never cease?”

Unsurprisingly, Elodie jerked away from Alistair and shook her head back and forth so hard he was worried she might get whiplash. “No, no, no! Weh mondo? Wan mondo now!”

“That’s our cue,” Alistair said. “Unless you all want to lose court approval points by association, we need to get to our room and ready for bed now.” He turned and headed in the direction Cullen and the others had come from.

After a moment, he stopped. “Uh, Cullen? I have no idea where I’m going.”

Cullen was miraculously keeping Elodie from exploding again. “What?” he snapped, holding both her hands in one of his to prevent her from smacking. “I can’t —”

Alistair gritted his teeth and didn’t even try to hide his eyeroll. “How do you give commands during a battle if you can’t even have a conversation with loud noises in your ear?”

Cullen heard that, if his glare — complete with mouth in a thin line — was any indication.

“I can lead,” Josie said diplomatically. “Your room is fairly close to ours.”

Alistair followed the ambassador, lacking the energy or the will to look back at Cullen and their daughter.

Chapter Text

Alistair liked Josephine well enough, but since the only things they had in common were the Inquisition, high-ranking partners in said Inquisition, and Elodie, they rarely spoke outside of their professional capacities, and then merely pleasantries.

Tonight, though, Alistair truly appreciated just how good she was at what she did.

Even knowing she was talking with him to head off what she saw as a brewing fight between him and Cullen — even though Cullen would never argue in public, and certainly not in front of the Inquisitor, and most definitely not at the Winter Palace during something as important as the Exalted Council — Alistair actually enjoyed their conversation.

Maybe that was because she was the only person he’d spoken to all day about something unrelated to Elodie or Cullen. Or maybe because she laughed, if not honestly than at least convincingly, at all his jokes. Either way, he carried on a full conversation with an adult that wasn’t interrupted by a screaming toddler, and it was glorious.

“This is your room.” Josie stopped outside a door. How she knew, Alistair had no idea, since it looked like every other one in the hallway. “I’m sorry your trip was so difficult. I hope you and Elodie rest well.”

“Thank you,” he said sincerely. “I appreciate it.”

She glanced behind him, where he didn’t need to look to hear Cullen approaching with a whining Elodie.

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

“You mean that Elodie’s here.”

She frowned, and she at least looked earnest. It was hard to tell with her.

“I hope you don’t really believe that. You are highly respected in the Inquisition, as much for your tenure as Warden-Commander as for your heroism at Adamant and during the Blight. Every single member of our old group asked about you specifically. I believe Varric’s exact words were, ‘You left half of the Wardens responsible for defeating the Blight at home on babysitting duty? That’s cold, Curly, even for you.’”

Alistair smiled at that, just a little. Varric was good people.

“The others were not nearly as colorful, but just as eager to hear about you. They’ll expect to see you tomorrow.” Once again, Josie’s gaze flicked behind him before she placed a gentle hand on his arm. “It’s good to see you. I hope you can get a good night’s sleep.”

“Mondo now!” Elodie was dangerously close to screeching.

“Elodie,” Cullen said in his Commander Voice. “Stop that. We will be there soon.”

Tossing Josephine a smile accompanied by a good-humored eyeroll, he turned around. “Ah, logic. The last defense of the sane man. I gave up on that years ago, around lunchtime.”

Cullen sighed. “Is there any chance she’s not too excited to sleep?”

“No,” Alistair said. “But I do have some of those Crow paralysis poisons Zev taught me to make during the Blight.”

Cullen’s eyes widened. “Don’t say things like that. He’s joking,” he said to the women.

“We should probably head to bed,” Trev said to Josie, “before we accidentally become accomplices to something. Good night, and I hope you all get some rest after your long day.”

She and Josie continued on down the hall, entering a room a few doors away.

“Is your room nearby, Your Holiness?” Cullen asked Leliana, who had stealthily accompanied them all this far. “I didn’t realize …”

Alistair cocked an eyebrow. “Your Holiness? We’re alone, she’s a friend, and she’s not even wearing her fancy hat.”

“It’s called a miter,” said Cullen sternly, although Elodie crying in his arms ruined the effect slightly. “And I know you know that.”

“I’ve also slept next to her half-naked around a fire, so —”

“My room is just this way,” Leliana said with a smile, pointing after Trev and Josie. “But I was hoping I could speak to Alistair before you retire.”

“Uh.” Alistair suddenly felt like he was back in the Chantry being called to the Grand Cleric’s office; he was always being called in there for something, and it was never good. “Am I in trouble?”

“Considering your remark,” Cullen said, “I’m surprised the Maker hasn’t smitten you yet.”

“Smitten? Is that really the correct word?”

Leliana cleared her throat, polite but insistent, quiet yet able to be heard over Elodie’s increasingly shrill cries.

Cullen’s eyebrows raised for a moment, then he nodded. “Of course. Hush, my sweet girl, my mantle is just inside. Good night, Your Holiness.”

Alistair rolled his eyes at Cullen’s back.

“Good night, Elodie!” Leliana waved. “And you, Cullen.”

Cullen gave a small smile before he closed the door behind him and Elodie.

.

.

.

Alistair turned to face Leliana and asked, “So, am I in tr —”

He was cut off when she embraced him.

After recovering from his shock, he readied another joke, but it died on his tongue when she squeezed him tighter.

Alistair wasn’t touch-starved; if anything, he was the opposite, having been smacked and manhandled all day by a toddler. And it wasn’t that he wasn’t shown affection — even with Elodie around, he and Cullen found time to themselves and made an effort to be physically intimate.

But it had been ages since he’d been hugged for comfort and nothing else. Not as a greeting or accompanied by loving words or with any expectation of sex, and without the danger of being interrupted by Elodie.

After the Maker-awful day he’d had, silent, solid comfort was exactly what he needed.

So he relaxed into Leliana’s embrace and even laid his head on her shoulder. He squeezed his eyes shut to keep his tears in, although a few escaped anyway, and some of the tension and frustration leeched from him. She rubbed her hand up and down his back and didn’t loosen her grip or pull away until he did.

Even then she didn’t let go, only held him at arms length, a hand on each shoulder. The look in her eyes was too understanding, too perceptive for him to bear, and a lump burned in his throat.

He forced a grin. “So, if the Divine gives me a hug, do I get bonus points after I die?”

Somehow ignoring his rapier wit, she said, “I am sorry your trip was so difficult, but I am pleased you are here. I’ve missed you, and wish we both had time to write more often.”

He frowned, concerned at her sudden seriousness. “Are you all right?”

She laughed. “That’s what I missed. Frustrated, exhausted, and in dire need of someone to talk to, and you ask if I’m all right. This will likely not surprise you, but many in the Chantry are not so selfless.”

“Shocking,” he deadpanned. Then he thought about all his jealous thoughts and nasty comments this evening. “And I’m not selfless.”

“Humility, too, is a trait I’m hoping to see more the longer I serve.”

“Please don’t.” He dropped his gaze, choosing to focus on just how muddy his boots were. Had he been tracking filth into the palace after all? (Aside from his bastard Fereldan blood, of course.) Wonderful, he hadn’t even deserved all his cheese. “I appreciate what you’re saying, but I’m not —”

“Alistair.” Leliana laid a hand on his cheek and tilted his head up until their eyes met. “Wanting validation for the hard work you do is neither selfish nor prideful.”

He straightened at that, wary. “I don’t know what —”

Now she placed her other hand on his other cheek, her expression so penetrating it made him squirm. “You are a good father, and it is abundantly clear how much Elodie adores you, no matter how much she cries for her Munda.”

He jerked back with a gasp, but she held him fast.

“What — how did you —”

Chuckling, she pulled his face down and placed a kiss on his forehead before releasing him. “You are one of my oldest friends, and you’ve always worn your heart on your sleeve. Is it truly that difficult to think that after over a decade of acquaintance, including a year of traveling with each other, I might be able to tell what brought you to your wit’s end?”

He sighed, shaking his head. “I’ve been such an ass tonight,” he said, glancing at the door to his and Cullen’s room, where Elodie’s cries had ceased at some point. “I just …” He rubbed his forehead roughly. “I never thought it would be easy, but I didn’t think it would be this hard.”

“Nothing worth doing is ever easy.” Leliana’s hand rubbed up and down his arm. “And struggle is not the same as failure. And I promise you, you’re not failing.”

Alistair sighed heavily. “How do you know? You saw her for fifteen minutes with Cullen, half of which she spent sort-of sleeping.”

With a grin, Leliana raised her arms, waved, and said, “Dah-pah!”

One side of Alistair’s mouth quirked up; it was all he could muster at the moment.

“She even corrected Cullen for saying it wrong,” said Leliana. “I assume you also taught her the bow motion. You clearly have an effect on her, and I’ve been around enough children to know that she wouldn’t have laughed at you and called you silly if she didn’t love you.”

Alistair’s vision blurred.

“Not to mention, the very fact that you’re worried about whether or not you’re a good father means that you are one.” Leliana squeezed his bicep. “In spite of your lack of even a halfway decent role model as a child.”

Her voice hardened at the end, and Alistair decided not to jump to Eamon’s defense this time. Occasionally he forgot that although he’d forgiven the man, the people who cared about him most, like Cullen and Leliana, had not, and likely never would. And Maker, did he love them for it.

“Or perhaps because of it,” Leliana mused. “You’re determined to give Elodie a better childhood than you had.”

Alistair’s stomach roiled as he thought about his primary emotions since he’d arrived, and he hung his head. “You give me too much credit. I’m a far more selfish bastard than that.”

“Why? Because you were upset that she wanted Cullen? Of course she did!” Her words stung; he might have flinched. “She has him wrapped around her little finger.”

He looked up at her sharply, but she continued before he could respond.

“Which I’ll admit was a surprise. I’d have thought it would be the other way around, although the more I think about it the more obvious it becomes. Cullen’s rather like a mabari — stern and intimidating at first glance, but once you’ve gained his love, he’ll do anything to make you happy. I’m half afraid if she batted those big blue eyes and said, ‘I yuv you, Munda,’ he’d invade Ferelden if she asked.”

Alistair scowled and folded his arms petulantly. “And I wouldn’t?”

“Oh, no. You’d swoop in —” She grinned at that, and Alistair gritted his teeth. “— and tell her that Orlais would be far better to invade because they’d give up right away since they love Cullen so much. Then you’d do a silly accent, give her a snack, and send her to bed before she even remembered what she’d originally asked for.”

“So I’m the mean one who never lets her have any fun?” He knew he sounded defensive, but she’d hit it on the head — the exact reason he’d been feeling jealous all evening. “Swooping isn’t a good thing.”

“Alistair, if you think invading Ferelden would be fun, I’m sure Cullen would also do it for you if you asked.” She raised an eyebrow. “I daresay you’d do a better job than Anora right now.”

He definitely flinched at that, as if she’d slapped him. Like he didn’t constantly wonder if he should have gone along with Eamon’s original plan for the Landsmeet rather than throwing his support behind Anora; or didn’t spend nights awake after hearing about one of Anora’s controversial decisions, wondering what he’d have done instead. If Leliana thought he’d made the wrong choice —

“I was joking, Alistair.” Her tone was serious, and she once again placed a gentle hand on his arm. “If you’d become king, you and Cullen would never have reconnected, and who knows what would have happened to Elodie. Do not doubt your decision. I never have.”

Knowing the tightness in his throat wouldn’t allow him to speak anyway, he just nodded. He’d never thought of it that way before, but it was true — and not even Anora bringing Ferelden to the brink of ruin would be worth giving up Elodie and Cullen.

“And you’re not the ‘mean one,’” Leliana said. “Cullen would do anything to give Elodie what she wants, but you’d do anything to give her what she needs. Like riding hard in the rain for an entire day to make sure an infant you barely knew was safe and fed, or insulting Orlesian nobles so she would never go unloved. Or swooping in with silly gestures to save her from nightmares about darkspawn. And don’t give me that look,” she added, mouth twitching. “You’ve always been too hard on swooping. One can swoop in to save the day, you know.”

The only look he’d given her was one of disbelief and gratitude for her kind words. But he appreciated the joke nevertheless.

“I regret many things in my life, Alistair, but kicking that horrid Orlesian couple out of Skyhold because Elodie already had a loving family is not one of them. Far from it.”

Then Leliana did something he hadn’t seen her do since just before they went their separate ways after the defeat of the archdemon.

She crossed her arms in front of her chest, hugging herself tightly, and dropped her gaze to nothing in particular other than Not Him, somehow managing to seem only half her normal height. He was no longer standing in front of Divine Victoria or even the Spymaster of the Inquisition. No, he was staring at the grieving woman he’d held as she’d cried herself to sleep for nearly a week after the Battle of Denerim.

“These stories of us fighting in the Blight,” she whispered. “It’s not just the two of us, is it? Do you talk about —?”

“Yes,” he said softly. “I insisted. Elodie knows that she led our group, and that she was the Warden who killed the archdemon. We just haven’t explained about …”

“Of course.” Leliana’s voice shook with emotion. “She’s far too young to understand. I just wondered, since she didn’t mention …”

Guilt made his stomach roil, and this time Alistair initiated the hug. He enveloped his old friend in his arms, and she turned her hands so that her palms lay flat against him on either side of her face, where he felt wetness soak into his shirt.

He held her tightly as he said, “I didn’t bring her up because Elodie would have babbled about her, and I didn’t know if you would want that. But Elodie knows all about what she did, collecting her band of misfits and saving us from the Fade and pushing me out of the way to kill the archdemon even though we’d agreed that I …” The way his voice shook surprised him. It had been over a decade since the end of the Blight, and he’d told the story before without getting upset. Maybe being near someone else who missed her renewed his own grief.

“Good,” Leliana said. “Elodie should know everything.”

“The only other thing she doesn’t know is how much you loved each other,” Alistair whispered. “I wanted to, but I knew when we saw you again she would ask about her, and I didn’t want to put you through that. But I promise, when she’s older, I’ll tell her. Watching the two of you fall in love while we traveled around Ferelden is one of my favorite memories.”

He felt Leliana’s lips curl into what he hoped was a smile against his chest. Then she sucked in a shaky breath. “What do you think she would do if she saw us now?”

“Burst with pride at how the crazy little Chantry sister we met in Lothering is now the Divine and overturning centuries of awful traditions?”

She gently smacked her palm against his chest. “She never thought I was crazy. Only you and Morrigan.”

“In my defense, I thought you were only the harmless kind of crazy.”

“And look how wrong you were.” She laughed, then added quietly, “She’d be tickled pink to know you found someone who made you happy. And she’d have loved Elodie to bits.” She pulled away just enough to look up at him. “She’d tell you that you’re a wonderful father, too.”

The thought that his life might finally be worthy of her sacrifice (and Hawke’s) made Alistair’s stomach flip. The grin that sprouted unbidden on his face was almost giddy, even if he was so honored his cheeks nearly burst into flame. And he didn’t even have a joke to distract her from it.

He bent down, kissed the top of Leliana’s head, and decided to grace her with his rarest of comebacks — earnestness. “Thank you.”

She worked her arms free and wrapped them around him. “And thank you. I didn’t realize I needed that. I really do miss you. No one around here jokes about anything.”

He mock-gasped. “Even when you select them with your nug test?”

“I’m beginning to think that maybe I need to add a few more layers to my interviews.”

“I suppose you could borrow Elodie,” he pretended to muse. “Although one time she laughed when she farted, so that’s kind of a low bar.”

Leliana smiled as she stepped out of his arms and pulled away fully. “I’ll take that offer into consideration, especially since it would mean I’d get to see you all more often.”

She straightened her robes, bent down to pick up her miter — of course he knew what it was called, Cullen — which she’d dropped at some point during their conversation, and began to reattach it.

“If you want,” he said, as gently as he could, “you can ask Elodie about her tomorrow. I’m sure she’d love to share what she knows, complete with hand gestures.”

Leliana, now Divine Victoria once again, smiled. “What is the hand gesture for Morrigan?”

He sighed dramatically. “I wanted it to be” — he made a vulgar gesture with his hand — “but Cullen said that was inappropriate.” The last word was accompanied by an eyeroll and a mocking tone. “Then I said she didn’t deserve a hand gesture, but Elodie wouldn’t have that. So in the end, I decided on —”

He crossed his arms and rolled his eyes in annoyance.

Leliana laughed. “That is uncannily accurate. And …” Her voice softened. “Her hand gesture?”

Alistair grinned and brought both his arms up as though he were showing off his (admittedly incredible) biceps.

Leliana’s smile was a little sad and a lot proud. “Our hero.”

“Damn right,” he whispered, letting his arms fall back to his side.

Leliana brushed a hand over her face and cleared her throat. “But I should let you get to bed now, after such a long trip. Good night.”

“Wait.” He reached out to stop her, which she did, looking mildly concerned. With all the seriousness he could muster, he asked, “If Cullen’s a mabari, what does that make me?”

In the garb of the Divine, her mischievous smile made him squirm — likely due to all that Chantry guilt he still couldn’t shake.

“A nug,” she said, bright eyes twinkling. “So sweet and cute and funny that it’s easy to forget how formidable and smart you can be when necessary.”

He snorted. “As long as you aren’t breeding little Alistairs on the side, I think I’m okay with that.”

“Perhaps I should. Nugs are my favorite, after all.”

Alistair found himself grinning at her back as she turned and walked in the direction they’d approached from.

“Leliana?”

She turned, eyebrows raised.

“I thought you said your room was that way?” He pointed behind him, in the direction of Trev and Josie’s room.

“It’s possible to get there going that way,” Leliana said, face unreadable. “But I’m only a few doors this way.”

So the only reason she’d followed them to their room was …

Tears stung his eyes. “Thank you.” Then, he bowed with a little flair and added, “Your Holiness.”

“Please.” She rolled her eyes. “I relish being Leliana whenever I can.”

“Then good night, Leliana.”

.

.

.

“I’m sorry about that,” Alistair said as he entered his and Cullen’s room. “Leliana wanted to —”

The sight that greeted him made him fall silent, and not just because Elodie needed the quiet.

On the (delightfully) large bed, Cullen lay on his back, bare-chested except for his mantle. Elodie snuggled atop the fur, on her stomach with legs tucked underneath her, butt in the air, sucking her thumb. Cullen’s arms cradled her, gentle but protective.

Both were sound asleep.

Alistair forced himself to focus on the preciousness of the scene and not, as his guilt urged, on the fact that he hadn’t kissed Elodie good night or gotten the chance to apologize to Cullen for being an ass. Or, for that matter, actually greet Cullen in any manner other than handing over their toddler and making snide remarks.

The exhaustion of the day, which he’d forgotten during his talk with Leliana, reasserted itself with a vengeance, so he undressed as quickly as possible.

He got into bed, but just as he was about to blow out the single candle that was lit when he entered, Cullen shifted next to him.

“Alistair?” he asked groggily.

“I didn’t mean to wake you,” Alistair whispered. “Go back to sleep.”

Cullen’s eyes fluttered closed again, but he asked, “Is Leliana all right?”

“Yes. She just wanted to catch up a bit in case we didn’t get the chance later.” It wasn’t a lie, even if it wasn’t the whole truth.

“Mmm.”

When Cullen didn’t say anything else, Alistair blew out the candle and settled in to sleep.

“Alistair?”

Alistair’s eyes snapped open to meet Cullen’s, which shone bright in the moonlight filtering in through the windows.

“I’m sorry the trip was so miserable.” Cullen’s voice rasped, although from sleep or something else, Alistair wasn’t sure. “You told me it would be, but I asked you to come anyway, and —”

“Shh,” Alistair said, the way he did when Cullen was upset after a nightmare. Cullen wasn’t always fully awake afterward and often sounded like he did now. Alistair stroked Cullen’s cheek as he did those times. “It’s all right. I’m sorry I was such an ass. Get some sleep, and we’ll talk in the morning.”

Cullen nodded, and his eyes drifted closed once more. He probably wouldn’t remember this the next day. As if Alistair needed any more reasons to feel like a total dick.

“’M glad you’re here,” Cullen murmured. “Missed you.”

Alistair inhaled a shaky breath and leaned his forehead against Cullen’s. “I missed you, too. I love you.” He kissed Cullen on the lips, a lump forming in his throat when Cullen’s lips moved to return it.

“Uvoo too,” Cullen said, barely getting the sounds out before falling back asleep for good.

Alistair settled in next to his family, arm cradling Elodie, face snuggled into Cullen’s neck.

He was aware of one final thought before he, too, drifted off to sleep.

He was one lucky bastard.

Chapter Text

Elodie’s scream made Cullen’s blood curdle, drowning out the incessant cacophony of horror emanating from the Harrowing Chamber.

Right now, nothing mattered but Elodie, and on instinct, he hurled himself in her direction.

As his rational mind knew he would — because he always did — he slammed into the impenetrable, transparent wall of magic holding him prisoner and bounced backward onto the floor of the tower.

“Munda!” Elodie cried, and he saw her, writhing in pain, tears streaming down her face.

He scampered to his knees and pounded on the barrier with his fists. “Please! Don’t hurt her!”

The figure behind her, hunched and skeletal and cloaked — a despair demon — hissed, “Then let me in.”

Cullen shook his head, clutching it in both hands. “No! I won’t!”

“Elodie!” cried a nearby desperate voice.

Alistair, his Warden in blue and silver shining armor, burst through the door, coming to save both Elodie and Cullen as he’d always promised he would. Cullen watched as his love — a hero of the Fifth Blight — cut down a dozen reanimated corpses (which Cullen tried and failed not to recognize as those of his friends) and a few lesser demons while Cullen could only look on in shame and pride and awe.

Meanwhile, their sweet, innocent Elodie screamed again, the demon hissed, “Let me in!” … and just as Alistair cut down the last foe and raced toward Cullen, a large shadowy figure rose behind him.

Cullen shouted a warning, but he was too late.

A sword sprouted from the griffon on Alistair’s breastplate, accompanied by a fine, red mist that sprayed across the solid but invisible barrier between them.

For a moment, Alistair stood frozen, and Cullen wondered if this wasn’t just one of his elaborate pranks, that in a moment he would grin and laugh at Cullen’s gullibility.

But then Alistair gurgled, and his shield — Duncan’s shield — clattered to the ground, followed by the starmetal sword that had been gifted to him by the Hero of Ferelden.

“No!” Cullen slammed against the barrier with all his weight, but he might as well have been trying to shove a brick wall.

Alistair collapsed, blood dribbling from his mouth. But even then, he wasn’t finished — with one arm, he dragged himself in the direction of Elodie. The other grasped his sword and, with what strength he had left, slid it across the floor toward Cullen.

He was giving Cullen a weapon — his weapon — to save Elodie. But the sword merely bounced off the barrier, and Cullen’s helplessness felt like twin blades to the chest: one for being unable to save Alistair, and another that Alistair’s last act had failed.

“Alistair!” Cullen cried, pounding on the barrier, his chest ripping open at the thought that, although they were separated by mere feet, he couldn’t save his love, or even hold him as he died.

Alistair went limp, breaths rattling and far too shallow. He managed, as only Alistair could, to summon a final, bloody grin for Cullen, which somehow stayed in place after the ever-present twinkle in his eyes faded and blinked out.

Elodie screamed again, and Cullen’s heart shattered.

He slid down the barrier until he lay prostrate in front of his lost love, the man who had stolen his heart and gifted Cullen with his own.

“Alistair,” he said, vision blurred with tears that would never cease. “No, no, please get up. Elodie needs you. I need you. Maker, please.”

But it was a prayer he knew would never, could never be answered. Alistair was gone. Cullen had failed him.

Nearby, their daughter sobbed, every cry of pain lancing through Cullen as if he, too, had been stabbed through the chest. Again and again and again. Staggering to his feet, he rammed into the barrier once more, and once more, it denied him the ability to save his sweet girl. If he received any physical injuries, he didn’t notice amid the sheer agony of failing Elodie, too.

He lay on his back, face to the heavens, and cursed the Maker for His cruelty.

“Please,” he begged. “Take me instead.”

“I can save them,” hissed the demon. “Let. Me. In.”

He opened his mouth to assent — he would give anything to save Alistair and Elodie. Including his soul.

And yet, he clutched his head and rocked back and forth. “I won’t!”

Even with nothing left to lose, he failed them. He was a coward. He deserved the Maker’s worst.

“No, no, no,” he sobbed. “I won’t! It’s not real.”

But wishing didn’t make it so. He could barely breathe, as if a weight was pressing down on his chest.

“No. Leave me. Leave me!”

With a gasp, Cullen awoke, covered in cold sweat.

He gaped at the ceiling and then around the room, failing to quell his growing panic when he didn’t recognize them. Large room, gold and marble, floor-to-ceiling windows, dark curtains. Not Skyhold, or Haven, or Kirkwall or Kinloch Hold or Honnleath.

His vision tunneled, and the weight on his chest nearly suffocated him. He moved to shove it off when it squirmed and let out a whimper. Feeling with his hands and looking down his chest, he finally understood what it was.

Elodie.

She was on her stomach and sucking her thumb, the fur of his mantle fluttering as she breathed.

She was real, and she was alive.

He clutched her as tightly as he dared without waking her, ran a hand through her soft hair, breathed in her sweet baby scent, rubbed up and down her back as though she needed comforting and not him.

Then he turned to his left and found Alistair, shirtless, eyes closed, relaxed. A low noise emanated from his chest, rhythmic and repetitive. Fast asleep and snoring. Breathing.

Cullen clutched at the space between them until he found Alistair’s arm, which was draped over him and Elodie, the way Alistair preferred to sleep. He felt for Alistair’s hand and twined their fingers, squeezing. Alistair didn’t wake, but his hand squeezed back.

Cullen’s thoughts slowed, and the final bits snapped into place.

The Winter Palace. The Exalted Council. Alistair and Elodie arriving by carriage, Elodie’s cries ceasing the moment he took her into his arms.

Relaxing slightly at the knowledge, he focused on slowing his breathing, clutching Alistair’s hand and cradling the back of Elodie’s head like the lifelines they were.

Both asleep. Breathing.

Alive.

Only then did he let his tears fall, careful not to wake them. Partly because he didn’t want them to bear witness to his moment of weakness, but mostly because Elodie would be frightened because she wouldn’t understand, and Alistair would do what he always did — stroke his hair, assure him he was safe, try to make him laugh, and whisper heroic, romantic promises in his ear.

But right now, even the thought of Alistair’s comforts made the sharp, empty pressure in his chest expand until he was forced to expel them as sobs.

He clung to them both, face buried in Elodie’s hair, thanking the Maker again and again that it was only a dream. That they were safe.

But the horrific images and emotions of his nightmare were too vivid, and the ache in his chest refused to recede. So he began to recite parts of the Chant, more to give himself something else to focus on than as a prayer. Between the rote recitations and clinging to his family, his sobs finally began to release the pressure that was so painful he worried it might actually kill him.

When the tears had run their course, leaving him with only a dull ache and bone-deep exhaustion, he dried his eyes in Elodie’s hair and kissed the top of her head before turning to Alistair. With some careful shifting and shuffling of himself and Elodie, he turned enough so he could rest his forehead against Alistair’s. He lay there with his eyes closed for a moment, Elodie precariously balanced, so close he was breathing in the air Alistair exhaled.

He kissed Alistair’s lips gently. Alistair snored in response, and Cullen let a few more tears fall to the sheets.

Although Alistair refused to tell him everything about the Joining of the Grey Wardens (both irking and impressing Cullen), he had explained what he’d claimed was the worst part — a Warden had, at most, thirty years to live after taking the Joining. That number, of course, decreased the more a Warden was exposed to darkspawn, and not only had Alistair fought during the Blight, including against an archdemon, he’d continued to serve as a Warden for the last decade, during which he’d fought darkspawn regularly, if not constantly.

Which meant the love of Cullen’s life had at best twenty years remaining, and considering his high exposure, the odds were not in Alistair’s favor.

Elodie was a little over three years old now. In all likelihood, she would lose her Papa before she reached adulthood.

And that was assuming nothing happened to him before that. Like getting run through by a demon while trying to save Cullen and Elodie.

Cullen swallowed a sob, but allowed himself a few more tears before whispering, “Don’t you dare leave me before you have to. I couldn’t bear it.”

Muscles beginning to cramp in odd places, he kissed Alistair once more and shuffled himself and Elodie back into their previous comfortable position.

.

.

.

Having finally regained control, Cullen could only stare wide-eyed at the ceiling, wondering what in the Maker’s name had happened.

It had been nearly three years since he’d stopped taking lyrium and two since they’d defeated Corypheus, when the immense stress of commanding forces to save the world had finally ebbed. In what he’d never dared imagine when he left Kirkwall and the Templars behind, nowadays he rarely suffered the nightmares that had tortured him of old. He might wake up in a cold sweat once every few months at worst. In spite of everything, he’d actually begun to heal, and he knew that Alistair and Elodie had played no small part in that.

And yet here and now, in the Winter Palace, he’d had three nightmares in three nights. He’d been alone for the previous two, which had been difficult but not impossible; after all, until Alistair reentered his life, he’d only ever slept alone.

But tonight … he didn’t remember the last time a nightmare had terrified him so. It had felt so real, and yet made no sense in retrospect. Neither Elodie nor Alistair had been at Kinloch Hold — well, Alistair had been, but as a companion of the Hero of Ferelden, not as his Alistair.

Occasionally, Cullen tried to remember where Alistair had stood, or if he’d said anything, but he always came up blank. He’d initially believed their group had been part of the demons’ torture, so most of what he remembered blurred with the rest of the horrific memories. He did remember arguing with the Hero of Ferelden about killing all the mages in the Harrowing Chamber, including the ones who had been tortured like himself, but he felt shame now at his cold, cruel insistence and wished he could forget it. Alistair assured him that the Hero of Ferelden had thought no less of him, considering what he’d been through, but he still worried that wherever she was, she disapproved of him as her friend’s partner and co-parent.

Tonight’s nightmare was a dreadful combination of old trauma and new anxieties, and Cullen knew it would not leave him anytime soon. He couldn’t imagine anything worse than losing Alistair and Elodie at all, much less in the same way he’d been tortured all those years ago. Except, perhaps, the utterly terrifying notion that if he did lose them he wouldn’t hesitate to make a deal with a demon to get them back.

The ceiling blurred again; he was not a weak man, but he knew that the loss of both his love and his daughter would kill him. Even the thought of eventually raising Elodie without Alistair — without whom, he could never forget, she wouldn’t even be theirs — made his heart ache. He worried sometimes that he would break irreparably when Alistair left for his Calling, and wondered if it wouldn’t be better for Elodie if he accompanied Alistair to the Deep Roads, that losing both fathers would be better than being left with one broken one.

Alistair would never allow it, but he wondered all the same.

He turned to Alistair again, watching for any sign of the inevitable, but Alistair slept just as peacefully and noisily as he did most nights. In spite of being a light sleeper, Cullen didn’t mind the snoring; it was an instant reassurance upon waking that Alistair was next to him and safe.

He thought he remembered Alistair coming to bed after talking with Leliana, but the memory was such a blur it might have been a dream. Alistair had looked so much more relaxed than at any point since he’d arrived that Cullen didn’t even care (much) that Alistair should have been talking to him. It was his fault, after all, that Alistair had made the trip, and although he felt terrible for both Alistair and Elodie, he was grateful for their presence; had he been alone when tonight’s nightmare came, he’d have saddled a horse and ridden to Skyhold himself to ensure they were both safe.

Maker, he didn’t know if he’d ever seen Alistair in such a foul mood. His humor had been as sharp as a dagger, and aimed at him. Alistair hadn’t wanted to tell the Munda story, which was his absolute favorite Elodie story, and he’d practically thrown Elodie into Cullen’s arms before stalking away, chatting and laughing with everyone but him. The only thing that had gotten Cullen through the day’s preparations and that interminable meeting with Orlais and Ferelden’s generals was the thought that he would see Elodie and be able to kiss Alistair for the first time in three days.

In that maybe-memory, he’d apologized to Alistair, who assured him everything was all right and he was sorry, too. Maker, Cullen hoped it was real and wished he’d been more awake because Alistair had kissed him and told him he loved him. Cullen had gone three days without that and every second had felt like a year. He’d tried to distract himself with work, but there wasn’t much to do on his own, and working and visiting with old friends just reminded him that Alistair and Elodie weren’t here, especially when said friends kept asking about them.

So he’d channeled most of his energy into a private distraction that wasn’t exactly a distraction — his plan. Or rather, plans plural, if he counted his two contingencies. The latter were complete, only waiting on the final touches for the primary plan. They each had their own color-coded folders, organization providing his whirling thoughts and emotions with the structure they needed to serve as a proper distraction from his loneliness. The only missing piece was an appropriate mission name, but he hadn’t yet found anything worthy, so the folders were labeled as the shamefully uninspired Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C. Alistair would be highly disappointed in him. And the last thing he wanted was to disappoint Alistair, especially after their interminable separation.

Was that why his nightmares had returned? He couldn’t remember the last time he’d spent longer than a few nights away from Skyhold; commanding, particularly after the defeat of Corypheus, was largely a matter of advising and making decisions, which was best done from a central location. Alistair had been gone often for days or even weeks at a time, but those times Cullen had still had Elodie. Whenever Papa was gone, Cullen allowed her to sleep with him in their bed, a fact that Alistair neither knew nor needed to know about.

Had the past few nights really been the first he’d spent away from them both since they’d adopted Elodie? Aside from the ones he’d spent in camps while leading his troops, that is, and those had been their own sort of distractions.

Not to mention the added stress of the Exalted Council and the unknown fate of the Inquisition — and therefore the job that had kept him sane for the past three years, in large part because it was through the Inquisition that he’d found Alistair, who had found Elodie.

That would certainly explain the two previous nights’ nightmares, which were so tame in retrospect that Cullen felt almost cowardly.

And perhaps tonight’s horror had been a response to the previous nights without his family combined with their not-so-happy reunion this evening.

Maker, he prayed there was no deeper reason than that.

.

.

.

Exhaustion weighed down his eyelids, but every time they closed, images of Elodie screaming in pain or Alistair bleeding on the floor returned.

No. He wouldn’t let them haunt him, and he certainly wouldn’t allow himself to fall asleep so that they could torture him all over again.

Careful to jostle Elodie as little as possible, Cullen scooted himself into as much of a sitting position as she could withstand before falling off his chest. Then, as though handling one of Sera’s jars of bees, he carefully and so, so slowly shifted Elodie so that she lay in the crook of his arm, just as she had when she was a babe.

He never tired of watching her sleep. There was something so achingly pure and innocent about her when she did, and right now that something spread a blanket of calm over him, allowing him to finally fully relax. Not for the first time, he wondered how such a thing was possible without magic. In the beginning, he’d worried she might be exhibiting signs of significant power, to be able to unconsciously conjure enough magic as to calm him, whose mind and heart always seemed to be in turmoil.

He’d been so concerned that he’d risked eternal mockery to ask Dorian during one of their chess games. Or rather, after he’d unintentionally lost their game due to his incessant overthinking about how he might ask Dorian such a question without sounding an utter fool.

After some initial jokes about how much he disliked even the idea of babies, Dorian had listened patiently and without any judgment; in retrospect, Cullen was grateful for his restraint, given that he’d likely identified the issue a few seconds in.

When Cullen had finished, Dorian had leaned back, stretching out his legs and crossing one over the other. He twined his fingers and placed them behind his head, and the smile that blossomed on his face was so uncharacteristically kind and genuine it made Cullen squirm.

“I should congratulate you,” Dorian said almost lazily. “Though many have tried, you have officially surpassed the bounds of my magical expertise.”

Cullen slumped. “You’ve never heard of this?”

“Oh, I’ve heard of it, though I’ve never seen it for myself. I admit that I find it rather …” Dorian’s smile faltered, and his voice hitched. “…fascinating.” Then he leaned forward again, and the smile, almost sweet, returned brighter than ever. “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that little Elodie is not in danger from the Templars or Circles or whatever you lot eventually decide on here in the South.”

“Thank the Maker.” Cullen hadn’t realized until that moment just how worried he’d been for the safety of his daughter — his daughter! — had she been a mage. “What’s the bad news?”

“The bad news,” Dorian said, standing, “is that she does have you under her spell, and I’m afraid it’s almost definitely unbreakable.”

Cullen frowned. “What sort of spell?”

Dorian shook his head in mock-disappointment. “Don’t make me say it, Cullen. I don’t think either of us could survive the embarrassment.”

Cullen thought about his little girl — his and Alistair’s little girl! — and that same calm spread over him. He felt too warm, and he smiled before he even realized it.

He looked up at Dorian, who was standing next to him now with that same kind smile.

“Not magic?” he asked with a grin.

“Oh, it’s definitely magic,” Dorian said. “Just not the sort I work with.” Then he placed a hand on Cullen’s shoulder and added, “And don’t let anyone try to tell you otherwise.”

Cullen had never forgotten that exchange, and now he smiled down at Elodie’s sleeping form, caressing a finger down her chubby cheek. Love was a sort of magic, he supposed; at least, it had been for him. Between Alistair and Elodie, he was happier than he’d ever been in his life.

The image flashed in his mind once again: Alistair bleeding on the floor, still trying to save Elodie, dying with a grin on his face.

Cullen shook his head to dispel it and with his free hand reached over to Alistair. He was alive and snoring, right next to him, Cullen told himself. When he began to run his fingers through Alistair’s hair, Alistair sighed an “Mmm” as his lips curved into a soft smile.

“Oh, Elodie,” Cullen whispered. “What will we do without him?”

Because Elodie adored Alistair. And it made sense — he was the person who had saved her, the comforting arms and soothing voice that had calmed her after the loss of her family. He had insisted on adopting her, spent the most time with her, knew the nuances of every squeak and cry, and could translate even the most dizzying of gibberish into actual thoughts.

Whereas Cullen was always working; he left early and got home late, although he always tried to make it home in time for bed. She was always excited to see him, and he would never, ever tire of hearing her call him Munda. He’d hated it in the beginning, the idea that even his daughter saw him as a title and not a person, until he’d realized that she didn’t understand what a commander was — or a title, for that matter. He started to embrace it when he decided that perhaps she understood him better than anyone; she alone saw that Cullen the man and Cullen the commander were two inseparable parts of a whole, so why should she call them separate things? He was her father, and he was the — not ‘a’, ‘the’ — commander, her commander, and she would address him however she pleased.

Because Munda was under her spell. He didn’t spend as much time with her as he wanted, but he did his best to make the most of what time they had. He sang her lullabies that he’d grown up with, and they calmed her when she was upset. He told her exciting stories of heroism, and she begged for them every night. He knew that he didn’t and might never know her like Alistair did, or she know him like she knew Alistair, but he was content to be who she needed him to be. Munda filled in the gaps that Papa couldn’t; he and Alistair, in parenting as well as their relationship, fit like two pieces of a puzzle.

But he worried about how she would deal with the loss of Papa. Alistair was funny and silly and loved her the only way he knew how to do anything — loudly and completely and full speed ahead. Cullen was slower and more private with his love and affection, but even he sometimes didn’t understand the depth and intensity of his feelings. He worried that, although he tried to be as open as Alistair, Elodie didn’t feel his love as strongly as she did Papa’s. Sometimes it seemed that she saw Alistair as her father while he was reduced to a series of sense memories — a deep voice singing her to sleep, strong arms keeping her warm, a soft place to snuggle (and that was his mantle, not him), the rumbling tone of adventure that accompanied Papa’s far more exciting hand gestures. Because even the bedtime stories weren’t something he and Elodie alone shared.

He wasn’t jealous of her and Alistair’s relationship; on the contrary, his love for them both grew every time he watched them together. But what would happen when Alistair disappeared, and all she had left were lullabies and strong arms, a furry blanket and boring bedtime stories? Would those be enough?

Would he be enough?

“Stop it,” he scolded himself. As far back as he could remember, he would fall into bouts of worry and melancholy. Mia used to call them moods — “Cullen’s in one of his moods, Branson. Go dump this basket of birdseed on his head and see if the pigeons will cheer him up.”

Surprisingly, pigeons following him around as birdseed fell from his hair for the next three days did not cheer him up, although simmering rage and plans of vengeance did succeed in banishing his mood for a while.

“You’d love your Auntie Mia,” he whispered to Elodie. “She wants to meet you, but I worry what schemes she and Papa would plan if they ever found themselves in the same room.”

Alistair, of course, could always bring him out of his moods with a joke or a laugh, and he usually did after Cullen’s nightmares. But Cullen needed distance from tonight’s dream before braving the full force of Alistair’s humor and love.

Arms full with his sweet girl, Cullen somehow managed to light the stub of a candle on the bedside table before grabbing the book he’d brought from Skyhold and opening it to the last page he’d read.

Chapter 9: The Dalish of the Brecilian Forest

“Nothing like the Blight to banish your melancholy.” Alistair’s voice delivering the joke sounded as real as if he’d been awake to make it himself, and Cullen smiled at his love’s sleeping form.

The book, A History of the Fifth Blight, was Alistair’s, gifted and inscribed to “The Warden Alistair, Hero of the Fifth Blight” as a thank you for the dozens of letters he’d exchanged with the author over the years, telling his version of events and (according to Alistair) answering inane questions like, What sort of soup did the Hero of Ferelden prefer?

So far, the book was so detailed that Cullen hadn’t figured out whether or not Alistair had been joking.

Although he’d received the book years ago, Alistair had never read it. He’d told Cullen once that living it was painful enough, and reliving it in the aforementioned dozens of letters even more so, that he wasn’t sure he’d survive the pain of experiencing it a third time. Cullen had asked why, if it was so painful, Alistair had bothered responding to the author in the first place, but he wished he hadn’t; Alistair, never at a loss for words, had fallen silent for several long seconds before explaining haltingly that assuring her story was told, and told right, had literally been the least he could do for the friend who had died in his place.

Cullen assumed that was why the book, unread and untouched, held a special place of honor — top shelf, first book, the only one not sorted alphabetically — on the bookshelf in their Skyhold apartments.

But Cullen enjoyed histories (including those of the First through Fourth Blights), and when he’d asked Alistair if he could read it, Alistair had laughed.

“Last week you wore my underwear, Cullen. I think we’re long past asking permission to use each other’s things.”

But when he’d explained that he wasn’t asking permission for the book as an item but rather checking that Alistair was okay with Cullen knowing about such a painful part of his past, Alistair’s smile faded.

“It’s not as if what happened is a big secret.” Alistair had shrugged. “There’s nothing in there so personal I don’t want you knowing, if that’s what you’re asking. And I do —” His voice had hitched, his eyes a bit too bright. “I do appreciate you asking.” Then his grin reappeared, and he ended with, “But someone should read it to see if it’s any good, and I know how much you love histories. Denying you that would be like denying me Skyhold’s juicy gossip or Varric’s trashy novels.”

To Cullen’s surprise, Alistair soon began asking how far he’d read, and if he’d gotten to this or that event yet. Their conversations had become a nightly ritual of sorts, after Elodie had been put to sleep. And despite his claim about its lack of too-personal information, Alistair had begun to share what Cullen thought of as emotional footnotes — opinions and feelings on particular events like Ostagar or Redcliffe, or information he’d purposely left out because it had been too personal. Mostly gossip about who had slept with whom (and Maker, there had been an awful lot of sex, according to Alistair) and which of them didn’t get along, the latter of which consisted mostly of ranting about Morrigan. Cullen hadn’t intended it when he started reading, but their discussions seemed to be helping Alistair come to terms with his role in the Blight and the memories that haunted him.

Cullen slowly rocked Elodie in his arms and began to read. After a few pages, his jaw dropped.

“An ancient oak tree that spoke in couplets?” he whispered to Alistair’s sleeping form. Every chapter he read crept steadily closer to the territory of Varric’s novels.

He sighed, twined his fingers once again with Alistair’s, and continued to read, releasing his grip only to turn the pages before closing his hand around Alistair’s once again.

Chapter Text

Just as the light from the coming dawn filtered into the room, Elodie stirred in Cullen’s arms.

“Good morning, my sweet girl,” he said, grinning from ear to ear at the way she rubbed her eyes.

She straightened, blinked, and seemed to scream into the stillness, “Time to potty, Papa!”

Cullen chuckled as he shushed her. She almost exactly mimicked the inflection of the morning pronouncement Alistair insisted upon — and highly encouraged Cullen to join in with —  all in the name of training her young bladder.

“Papa’s still sleeping,” he whispered. “He’s very tired, and we don’t want to wake him.”

“Okay,” she didn’t-quite-whisper, but at least she was trying.

He helped her through her morning routine. Potty, bath, wardrobe selection — she was old enough now that she wanted to choose her own clothes, which Alistair only occasionally allowed but Cullen didn’t understand enough to forbid. A dress was a dress to him.

Then came Elodie’s favorite part: her hair. Both Alistair and Cullen had quickly had to learn female hair styles because Alistair’s insistence that Cullen’s hair was practice enough did not satisfy Josephine, nor did Cullen’s protests that he knew how to braid due to his sisters. Apparently, a young lady needed to have dozens of different styles at her disposal. Josephine and the Inquisitor’s endless teasing during their “practice sessions” had been fun until Josephine didn’t have time to redo her hair before their morning meeting and showed up to the war room in one of Cullen’s attempts. It hadn’t been his best work, and after that, Bull, Varric, and Dorian commented on the status of Elodie’s hair constantly, while Sera had taken Cullen aside and said, “Show me how to cock up mine like that, yeah?” To this day he didn’t know whether she’d intended it as an insult or a compliment.

He’d improved dramatically in the past couple of years, if not yet as quick as Alistair. Unfortunately, Elodie was insisting on the impossible this morning.

“I cannot make your hair look like Aunt Leliana’s without cutting half of it off, and Papa forbade me to do that ever again.” It hadn’t been his fault, and in his opinion his actions had been entirely justified, but Alistair had a soft spot for Elodie’s wavy brown hair and to this day considered Cullen’s response a capital offense.

When his logic failed utterly and Elodie’s whine threatened to become a tantrum, Cullen decided to experiment with a facsimile. It took him nearly a dozen attempts, but finally the way he rolled and tucked her hair at the back before tying it into a small knot at the nape of her neck received a mimic of Josie’s stamp of approval:  “Vey nice, Munda.”

Now ready for the day, Elodie patted her belly and loudly announced, “Time fuh beffest!”

Cullen hushed her again, doing his best to hide the lump in his throat as she seemed to channel Alistair once again — even pre-Elodie Alistair had never seen a food he wouldn’t inhale. (That, too, was a part of the Taint that would eventually kill him, but Cullen took Alistair’s consistently large appetite as evidence that all was well. The day Alistair stopped eating was the one he dreaded.)

“We can’t get breakfast yet,” Cullen whispered. “Papa’s still asleep.”

“Wake him up,” Elodie said simply. “Papa yuvs beffast.”

“I’m aware.” Cullen smirked. “But he’s tired after everything we put him through yesterday. So let’s play quietly until he wakes up on his own.”

“Stowee, Munda!” she insisted when she saw Cullen’s book sitting on the bed, breakfast forgotten. “Stowee!”

Cullen chuckled. “Okay, but quietly.”

“Okay,” she tried to whisper.

He sat in the spot he’d occupied since his nightmare and lifted Elodie onto the bed. She spent an impressively long time gathering his mantle and spreading it across his lap, carefully smoothing every wrinkle. As she moved to fix one, she inevitably created more, but she patiently worked until she was satisfied. Then she situated herself in his lap while attempting to hold the rather large book. He caught it a few times when she lost her grip, but once she’d settled, she reached for it and placed it on her lap. Finally, she tilted her head up to look at him upside-down and said, “What stowee?”

“What story do you want?”

She opened the book and began turning pages dozens at a time, as though she were reading. “Wuhs pahna time …” she began, and proceeded to tell her own story.

He only understood bits and pieces between her babbles. Things like, “Papa An Yayana” (Papa and Aunt Leliana), “Fehden” (Ferelden), “dah-pah” (complete with hand gesture), and various weapon sound effects: “zing” was a bow and arrow, “zap” was magic, “kang kang” (clang clang) a sword and shield, “wsh wsh wsh” daggers, and “SUNK” an ax.

Cullen listened, enraptured by the intensity and seriousness of her story. He was constantly amazed by how much of Alistair manifested in her personality and mannerisms. When they’d first adopted her, one of his (many, many) concerns had been that no one would believe that she was his and Alistair’s, not just because their situation was unusual, but also because, with her dark wavy hair and bright blue eyes, she was very clearly not the natural child of either of them.

But as she grew, he realized how foolish he’d been. Sometimes she seemed to be a miniature version of Alistair, which never failed to fill his chest with warmth and pride; other times she stood a certain way or gave a certain look, and everyone present would insist that she was the spitting image of Cullen. He didn’t usually see the resemblance, but eventually stopped denying it, mostly because of the way his heart swelled until he thought it might burst.

At regular intervals, Elodie would point at a random spot on the page and ask, “Whassat wode, Munda?” in the same tone both he and Alistair used when they asked her, “What’s that word, Elodie?” while reading picture books to her.

Cullen would come up with a random word; whether she knew it or not, she would always ask, “Whassat mean?”

“You know what an apple is,” he would gently tease, and she would giggle back, “Oh, appo!”

If she didn’t know the word, he would explain.

Cullen didn’t know how long they sat there, lost as he was under her spell. At one point, triggered by nothing in particular except everything about Elodie, Cullen found himself overwhelmed by some ineffable but visceral emotion. He nearly burst into tears — ecstatic or mournful, he didn’t even know — and he clutched her close to him, holding her tight and burying his face in her hair.

“I love you so much, my sweet girl,” he whispered.

Oblivious to his extreme emotional distress, she wriggled and whined, “Mundaaa,” annoyed at the gall of his interruption.

He loosened his grip, but adjusted her so that she was as close to his heart as possible, clutching her around the middle and gazing upon her in sheer awe and adoration while she continued her story.

.

.

.

“Whassat wode, Munda?”

Running low on familiar words to test her with and, if he was honest with himself, continued patience with and interest in the exercise, Cullen read the actual word on the page. “Werewolf.”

“Whassat mean?”

“Er …” He already regretted his choice. “A person that turns into a wolf.”

She let out an adorable gasp and twisted until she could see his face. “Wiv mazhic?”

“I would assume so,” Cullen said. “I haven’t gotten that far yet.”

“Yes.” Alistair mumbled into his pillow without opening his eyes and barely moving his mouth. “An ancient elven curse, in revenge for —”

“Don’t spoil it for me,” scolded Cullen, while Elodie ordered, “Ssh! Seep, Papa!”

“Okay.” For once, Alistair seemed unwilling to argue.

Elodie giggled, leaning over so her face was right near Alistair’s. “No, Papa, wake up!” She gently tapped his cheek.

Eyes still closed, Alistair smiled lazily.

“Time fuh beffast!” Elodie patted her belly once again.

Alistair’s eyes shot open and he sat up in an instant. “What? I’m awake!”

Elodie giggled again and wrapped her arms around him.

Pulling her away to see her better, Alistair said, “What is happening with your hair, missy?” He sent Cullen an aggressively inquisitive glare. “You didn’t cut it again, did you?”

Cullen threw up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “None of us want a repeat of that, least of all me.”

Alistair’s eyes narrowed. “Then how —”

“What do you sink, Papa?” Elodie turned her head back and forth, patting her hair on either side in a spot-on impression of Josephine. “It’s An Yayana!”

“Uh-huh.” Alistair nodded, though clearly still suspicious. “Turn around, let me see.”

Elodie stood on the bed and twirled until Alistair had inspected every angle.

“Huh,” he said, comprehension dawning. Then he grinned at Cullen and declared, “Not bad. How long did that take you?”

Alistair loved to tease him about how long it took him to tend to Elodie, and her hair was a favorite subject. But the last thing Cullen wanted to do was give Alistair more ammunition, so he shrugged and fibbed a bit. “I had to play around with it, but not terribly long. She was ready to have a fit if I didn’t.”

Alistair snorted. “I would have just put it into an easy knot and been done with it, fit be damned.”

There was an edge to Alistair’s voice, and Cullen wasn’t sure if it was judgment at his surrender to Elodie’s demands or resentment after yesterday’s day-long tantrum. Maybe a bit of both. Either way, he felt annoyed and slightly ashamed, unable to meet Alistair’s eyes.

Elodie, who had continued to twirl throughout their discussion, lost her balance and fell, laughing riotously, into Alistair’s lap.

Alistair raised his eyebrows at her. “Someone’s in a better mood than yesterday.” The edge in his voice, thankfully, was gone.

“I imagine it would be difficult not to be in a better mood than yesterday,” Cullen said quietly.

Alistair looked into the middle distance and blew out a long breath.

Cullen placed a hand on Alistair’s cheek, turning his face toward him, and leaned in. “Because I didn’t get to last night …”

Alistair’s gaze flicked to Cullen’s just as their lips met.

The kiss was soft and lingering, and Alistair melted. So did Cullen, for that matter.

When he finally pulled away, Cullen rested his forehead against Alistair’s and whispered, “Thank you. For making the trip. I know it was awful, and I’m sorry, but I’m glad you’re here. I missed you.”

Alistair grinned. “Well, how can I still be mad at that?”

“So you were angry with me.”

“Kisses!” Elodie climbed in between them, stepping on body parts of various tenderness and eliciting grunts from them both, and kissed them each several times on both cheeks.

“No, I wasn’t —” Alistair’s frown evaporated in the wake of Elodie’s kisses, and he kissed her back. When Elodie finished and turned to Cullen, he resumed his expression and his sentence. “I wasn’t exactly mad at … you. I was just frustrated and upset, and I’m sorry I was such an ass.”

“Ass!” Elodie pronounced, and Alistair’s eyes widened in alarm.

Cullen backed away, hands up. “That’s your fault.”

“Yes,” Alistair said animatedly to Elodie. “Ass, ass, ass!”

“What are you doing?” Cullen demanded.

While Elodie chanted, “Ass, ass, ass!” Alistair explained.

“Cook said that when they repeat a bad word, you should treat it just like any other word because once they get a whiff that it’s bad, they want to say it.”

“I think she meant to ignore it, not encourage it!”

“I’m not encouraging it,” Alistair insisted. “We always repeat new words.”

Cullen pinched the bridge of his nose. “Yes, to encourage learning. Congratulations, she’s learned it now.”

“Ass!” said Elodie. “Papa, whas ‘ass’ mean?”

“Time for breakfast!” Alistair announced.

.

.

.

After Alistair had dressed and successfully distracted Elodie from her brand new vocabulary word with thoughts of breakfast, Cullen walked with the two of them towards the room reserved for the Inquisition’s private meetings. Because the Exalted Council officially began today, the Inner Circle would be breakfasting together. Since everyone had specifically asked after Alistair and Elodie, Cullen thought it would be the perfect time for them all to catch up.

Before the Council started and everything inevitably fell apart, that is.

Since Elodie had been cooped up in a carriage the previous day and Cullen had forced her to sit quietly for nearly two hours this morning while Alistair slept, they elected to allow her to walk the long way to their destination. The more energy she expended now, the more likely she was to behave or, Andraste save them, nap later during the Council itself.

So now Cullen and Alistair walked together a few feet behind Elodie as she wandered down the hall humming to herself, stopping every now and then to look at a pretty statue or pick up something from the floor (confiscated before she could put it in her mouth). Occasionally she would encourage them to look at something, which they did with, if not feigned, then at least exaggerated enthusiasm.

They didn’t hold hands as they might have at Skyhold; although Alistair had mentioned a chevalier’s surprisingly unblinking acceptance the previous night, they didn’t want to risk any public displays, particularly if it might embarrass the Inquisitor — not that she would care, but others might, and Cullen would rather be safe than sorry. They did walk close enough that their arms and hands brushed against each other, although that wasn’t remotely close enough for Cullen. Especially this morning.

“Why didn’t you wake me up?” Alistair asked.

“Because you were exhausted,” Cullen replied. “You deserved some sleep after yesterday. And I was more than happy to tend to her for a bit. I missed you both far more than I had expected.”

“No,” said Alistair quietly. “Why didn’t you wake me up after your nightmare?”

Cullen’s head whipped toward Alistair. How had he — ?

Alistair smiled sadly and brushed his finger against his bottom lip.

Cullen ran his tongue along his own lip and sure enough, he felt the sting of saliva against a small but fresh gash.

“I may play the idiot sometimes,” said Alistair, “but I’m not one. Not to mention you’re already at the Brecilian Forest, but when you left Skyhold you’d barely finished the chapter on Redcliffe. Like you’ve been reading a lot, even though you’re supposedly busy with preparations.”

Cullen knew if he didn’t say something, Alistair would continue listing evidence until he did. “It wasn’t bad enough to disturb you.”

“The last time you bit your lip so hard during a nightmare that it bled was ages ago.” Alistair’s tone hardened. “Just because they’ve been getting better doesn’t mean I don’t remember what it was like when they were really bad. Is that why you missed me so much?”

Maker, how did this man know him so well?

“It’s always killed me to watch you struggle with this,” Alistair said, as if in response to Cullen’s thoughts.

His horrific choice of words actually made Cullen flinch.

Alistair took his hand in spite of where they were. “Talk to me,” he whispered.

Elodie distracted Cullen from the topic at hand — or at least, he allowed her to. “Sweetheart, wait for us to go down the stairs.” He ran to her and held out his hand. “Hold my hand.”

Elodie shook her head fiercely. “No, Munda. I go down.” And, placing her tiny hand on one of the banisters, she stepped down to the next step, first with her right foot, then with her left. She released the previous banister and grabbed the one next to her, and repeated the process.

“She’s okay,” Alistair said from behind him. “She’s slower than a darkspawn hit by a pitch grenade, but she can do it. Nice try, though.”

Just the sound of the smirk in Alistair’s voice conjured the terrifying image from Cullen’s nightmare — Alistair, bleeding, grinning before he — before he —

“I’m fully capable of dealing with a nightmare on my own,” he snapped. “I don’t always need to be consoled like a child.”

Alistair sighed. He was silent for a few moments before saying, so softly Cullen had to strain to make it out, “I have never thought you incapable of anything. I know you can deal with it alone. I’m just worried about why, after all this time, you feel you have to.”

Cullen’s chuckle was bitter, and he wasn’t proud of it. “I could say the same to you. But that would require a commensurate trust and openness you aren’t willing to give.”

Alistair’s pause was short, but significant, and had its intended effect — Cullen immediately regretted his words. And, instead of having the decency to get angry and leave him alone, Alistair didn’t take the bait, the bastard. Instead, the calm, almost accepting hurt in his tone was so palpable Cullen’s chest ached with it.

“I never thought to tell you the extent of my Taint nightmares because I barely notice them anymore, and you know that. Pretending that deliberately keeping your horrific flashback nightmare from me is even remotely similar is like calling lyrium a delightful beverage. It’s unfair, disingenuous, and unworthy of you.”

Cullen winced as much at the last words as the awful disappointment in Alistair’s voice; the fact that Alistair was also correct didn’t help. Although he had been distressed by the relatively recent revelation of the frequency and severity of Alistair’s darkspawn nightmares, Cullen understood that they were in a different category than his own. Even if he hated that the kindhearted, loving man who had always comforted him had evolved to endure beyond the necessity of comfort himself.

Alistair joined him on the step above Elodie. “Is it because of last night? I know I was a dick, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t —”

“No.” The way Alistair’s words shook made Cullen meet his beautifully golden-brown, watery eyes. “That’s not why. I just …” He dropped his gaze. “I didn’t want to talk about it. I still don’t. I just want to forget it.”

“That bad?” Alistair took Cullen’s hand again and squeezed, just like he had in his sleep. “You never have to talk about it. Just please don't pretend they don't happen. And I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — I’d never let a demon touch you.” The smile returned to his voice. “I’d burst through the door, your Warden in shining armor, and mow down everything in my path to save you. And I’d make sure to say something cool when I killed the last one, like, ‘Sorry you have to Fade out so soon!’”

As Cullen had expected last night, Alistair’s usually comforting words felt like a sword to the chest, like the one in his dream that had pierced Alistair’s, the blood spreading quickly in a pool around him, Elodie crying for help —

“Or maybe something better than that,” Alistair babbled. “That was just off the top of my head, but I’ll give it some thought so I can —”

“Shut up!” Cullen rasped. “Please …”

Maker, why was Elodie so slow? She was only halfway down the steps, and Cullen wanted nothing more but to run down the rest and hide in a corner until he could regain control.

But Alistair, who knew Cullen nearly as well as Cullen knew himself, grabbed his hand and pulled him down the stairs. Passing Elodie, Alistair said, “Munda and I are just going to the bottom of the stairs El. Take your time.”

“Okay,” she said, tongue sticking out in concentration and she placed both feet safely on a new step.

Once on solid ground again, Alistair pushed Cullen around the edge of the railing and settled himself at the bottom of the stairs, facing up towards Elodie. Cullen found himself in a small alcove just outside a door with an ornate ribbon draped across it, indicating it was not open to guests and hopefully that no one would be exiting through it, either.

He leaned heavily on the wall of the staircase, Alistair’s hand still squeezing his, a reminder of his constant presence, grounding him in reality.

“Going by how shaken up you are,” Alistair said softly, meeting Cullen’s eyes but clearly keeping Elodie in his peripheral vision, “I’m guessing this one was different from the usual shitty flashbacks.”

Cullen nodded, turning away and blinking back tears as that horrible pressure built up in his chest again.

“Cullen.” Alistair used his other hand to brush Cullen’s cheek and turn his face toward him. Though slightly blurred, the concern and softness in Alistair’s eyes was clear. “I am not going anywhere anytime soon.”

Cullen shook his head. “Don’t say that.”

Alistair took Cullen’s face in both his hands and said, “I promise you, my dear, that I am not going anywhere anytime soon.”

“What if Elodie was in danger?”

Cullen watched as Alistair cycled through emotions almost too quick to catch — surprise, shock, horror, and then a deep grief that Cullen felt acutely in his chest, and had since his nightmare.

His gaze dropped to the floor. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”

When Alistair’s hands dropped from his face, he moved to pull away only to back into Alistair’s arms, which yanked him until they were pressed against each other. Alistair cupped the back of Cullen’s head, and they stood like that for a few silent moments.

“You know,” Alistair whispered in his ear. “Your mind is being a real asshole, and I don’t think I like it very much right now.”

Cullen snorted. “That makes two of us.”

“Finally.” Cullen felt Alistair smile against his neck. “I thought for sure my Fade joke would break you. That was comedy gold.”

In spite of everything, Cullen chuckled softly into Alistair’s shoulder.

“I also feel compelled to remind you that I’ve been in the Fade three times now, one of those physically. That pretty much makes me an expert, so those demons can fuck right off.”

At that, Cullen clutched Alistair closer and buried his face in his neck. Alistair had fallen into the Fade at Adamant along with the Inquisitor, her team, and Hawke. The interminable wait for their return — which Solas seemed certain would happen — had been unbearable. It had only been a few hours at most, but felt like an eternity, and Cullen’s distress was not, as it should have been, for the Inquisitor.

It had been for Alistair. For that was when he realized that the friendship he’d rekindled with the Warden while they planned the assault on Adamant was far more than that. The Inquisitor, Cassandra, Dorian, even Varric — they were his friends, and he was concerned about their safe return. But his worries for Alistair’s safety were so overwhelming as to be debilitating, and he was sure he’d never felt true relief until the moment he saw Alistair jump out of the Fade rift. While everyone, especially Varric, mourned for Hawke, Cullen could only feel shamefully overjoyed that Alistair was safe.

“I’m sorry.” Alistair’s voice, thick with emotion, brought Cullen back to the present. “I didn’t mean to make it worse. I only wanted to —”

He pulled away abruptly with a cough, and Cullen followed his gaze downward to Elodie, who had finally reached the bottom of the stairs.

“Sweetheart, you did such a great job walking down those stairs by yourself!” Alistair swept Elodie into his arms. “But I have a very special job for you,” he said conspiratorially. “Munda had a bad dream last night, and what do we give him after bad dreams?”

Cullen had been upset at first, when nearly a year ago, after a particularly horrific nightmare, Alistair had simply explained the situation to Elodie without even a discussion between them.

“Sometimes Munda has very bad dreams that make him scared or sad, even when they’re over.”

“Alistair —”

But he’d been cut off when Elodie had rushed toward him and slammed into his legs, wrapping her arms tightly around them. “Jussa deem, Munda. Hugs an kisses?”

“That’s right,” Alistair had said. “It’s just a dream. Hugs and kisses will make him feel better!”

Cullen still worried about her knowing too much, but he never planned to tell her the true severity of his nightmares. In the meantime, her consolations provided comfort, and he wasn’t sure he’d be able to give them up even if he wanted to.

So this morning, when she exclaimed, “Hugs and kisses!” and reached for him, he took her in his arms. As she had when he’d first held her the night before, she wrapped her own arms around his neck. But instead of laying her head on his shoulder, she grinned and nuzzled against his cheek, less kissing than making kissing noises, like Alistair always did with her after her own bad dreams.

Then Alistair performed his part of the ritual and wrapped his arms around them both, his head on the other side of Cullen’s face.

“We’re all safe,” he whispered in Cullen’s ear. “It was just a dream. A horrible, awful nightmare that wasn’t real. This is.”

“I yuv you, Munda,” Elodie tried to whisper in his other ear. Mostly she ended up talking normally while blowing lots of wet air into his ear.

The jolt made him laugh, and he held them both close as the aching hole in his chest filled to bursting with joy.

“I love you, too.”

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

“Let me get this straight,” Alistair said, crossing his arms and attempting to ignore the mabari eagerly jumping around Cullen. “You, Cullen Rutherford, just happened to find a gentleman trying to get rid of a mabari. And you decided, on a whim, to take it off the gentleman’s hands, even though after we adopted Elodie you went back on your promise to get me a mabari, and have since refused dozens of times because we, and I quote” — he made quotation marks with his fingers — “‘have quite enough on our hands as it is.’”

“Yes.” The Commander of the Inquisition stared at the ground with his hands at his sides, attempting to ignore (but still glancing from the corner of his eyes at) the mabari who kept eagerly nudging those hands, likely in the hopes of treats or pets or praise. From what Trev had described, Cullen hadn’t stopped showering the dog with all three during most of their interactions yesterday, and had even played with her.

Cullen Rutherford! Playing!

Behind him, Alistair heard snickers. The rest of their breakfast companions had followed them to the courtyard to witness this showdown, with the exception of Vivienne (who didn’t care) and Leliana (who, as Divine, probably couldn’t afford the political capital to be seen associating with them right now). Cullen had brought the mabari here, away from the eavesdropping ears of camped soldiers, and since all the Orlesians who usually stood around gossiping were all still abed because the Exalted Council didn’t start until noon and the Fereldans, who woke up at a decent time, likely had better things to do, the courtyard was deserted except for their little group.

“Don’t you think we still have quite a bit on our hands?” Alistair motioned behind him, where Elodie wriggled in Trev’s arms and pointed at the mabari.

“Doggie!” she shouted. Trev shushed her, though Alistair wondered whether she did so to actually calm Elodie or to better hear his and Cullen’s “discussion.”

Cullen, for his part, was unbelievably weak when it came to Elodie, and, though he carefully avoided eye contact, couldn’t seem to keep his mouth from curling into the lopsided grin that drove Alistair crazy, which was just unfair.

To compensate for his own weakness when it came to that smile, Alistair snapped, “What in Thedas were you thinking? And don’t tell me you weren’t, because you’re always thinking ten steps ahead.”

At that, Cullen’s cheeks pinked, and he rubbed the back of his neck. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, his glance bouncing between Alistair and the ground before he finally shrugged.

“The merchant said she was abandoned.” His hand dropped heavily to his side, where the mabari nudged it with a whine.

This time, he seemed unable to resist, face cracking into an animated smile as he squatted to her level and scratched behind her ears and under her chin, which she enjoyed an inordinate amount, if her wagging tail and half-closed eyes were anything to go by.

Maker, it was almost too much. Alistair clenched his fists to keep himself in control.

Continuing to pet and scratch his new friend, Cullen sighed and murmured, “Another Fereldan trapped at the Winter Palace, at the mercy of Orlesians who see her only as a superficial novelty. I couldn’t leave her to that fate.”

Leave it to Cullen to adopt a mabari because he identified with it. How utterly Fereldan. He really wasn’t making this easy, damn him.

Giving the dog one last scratch, Cullen stood abruptly. “Alistair, I know you’re angry, but —”

Alistair held up a hand, and Cullen fell silent.

He knew he wasn’t being entirely fair, but he so rarely held the moral high ground when arguing with Cullen that he wanted to savor the moment.

Plus, something about Cullen’s reactions just brought out this side of him.

He bit the inside of his cheek and said, with as close to a straight face as possible, “Oh, I am beyond angry,” and if he hadn’t already planned his finale, the look of distress on Cullen’s face would have convinced him to hurry it up, already.

“Come here, El.” He turned and took her from Trev’s arms, attempting to ignore the slightly disapproving looks from Josie and their less fun friends. Crouching down, he set Elodie on her feet, and finally let loose all the quivering excitement he’d barely held in since he’d first seen the mabari.

“El, Munda got us a puppy!” he practically squealed. The mabari eagerly ran toward them, and Alistair embraced her. “I’ve always wanted a mabari and Munda got us one! Isn’t he the best?”

Out of the corner of his eye, Alistair saw Cullen slump and let out a fully audible sigh. Maybe in relief, maybe in exasperation at Alistair’s ruse and antics, although it was really his own fault for ever believing Alistair could be angry about becoming the proud owner of his very own mabari. Still, he prepared for Cullen to say his name in that affectionately frustrated way that he’d passed on to Elodie, and his already enormous grin widened.

Elodie clapped. “Yay, puppy!” The mabari very gently nuzzled her cheek and then licked her entire face. She nearly collapsed in giggles.

And Alistair had thought his little girl couldn’t possibly get more adorable without everything around her spontaneously combusting.

Behind them, Varric said, “All right, everyone, pay up.”

“Aw,” Sera pouted. “I wanted a real row. Stupid Fereldans and their adorable dogs.”

“Didn’t you grow up in Ferelden?” Bull asked.

“So?”

Cullen crouched next to Alistair, who finally dared meet his gaze to find a twinkle that hadn’t been there before. With that lopsided smile that did things to Alistair’s insides, Cullen said, “You’re a real —” A slight pause for a glance at Elodie, then he lowered his voice. “You’re a real ass sometimes, you know that?”

“Elodie, guess what!” Alistair said, eyes never leaving Cullen’s warm amber ones. “Munda said I could name her!” He turned to the mabari with a small bow. “And I shall name you: Barkspawn.”

“No,” Cullen said sternly.

Elodie waved her hands and said, “Dah-pah!”

“No, Barkspawn,” Alistair corrected. “With a ‘buh.’”

“Bah-pah?” Elodie asked.

Cullen pinched his nose. “Alistair …”

Elodie slapped her forehead and said, “Ass-steh!” followed by a chorus of laughter behind them.

Barkspawn barked.

And, in spite of the less than ideal events of yesterday and last night and this morning, Alistair had never in his life been happier.

.

.

.

At some point their friends dispersed, leaving Alistair alone with his family while they became acquainted with their newest member.

Elodie and Barkspawn had become fast friends, dog chasing toddler until toddler inevitably fell, her peals of laughter ringing through the courtyard and filling Alistair with so much pride and happiness he thought he might burst. Then Barkspawn would take Elodie’s dress in her teeth and gently lift her to her feet before they started again. Sometimes Elodie threw a ball Cullen had acquired from somewhere, and Barkspawn would loyally fetch and return it, much to Cullen’s chagrin.

“Catching won’t help you in battle,” he attempted to explain, adorable in his insistent frustration. “You should be dodging!”

“Why do you hate fun?” Alistair asked.

They both still squatted, ready to intervene in an instant if things grew too rough for Elodie, but Barkspawn seemed to understand the precious fragility of her new friend. Alistair had never seen a mabari so gentle before, though he’d always heard they were as safe and kind with children as they were dangerous and deadly on the battlefield. He remembered Leliana’s comparison of Cullen to a mabari and couldn’t deny the perfection of the analogy.

“I don’t hate fun,” Cullen said. “I just want her to understand that not everything is friendly.”

“She’s a mabari. I’m fairly certain that’s in her blood. And if she’s around Elodie, I’d rather she try to catch something dangerous to keep Elodie safe than dodge it and risk Elodie getting hurt instead.”

Cullen’s eyebrows rose. “Do they do that?”

“Why do you think they’ve been used as battle hounds for centuries? They’re incredibly loyal and protective.” Alistair shook his head in amused disbelief. “What kind of Fereldan doesn’t know that about mabari?”

Cullen looked back at Barkspawn and Elodie, and his face softened. “The poor kind that only read about them in books.”

Alistair followed his gaze. “Wait, you mean most people weren’t sent to sleep with the arl’s dogs at the ripe old age of seven?” He slapped his forehead in pretend self-rebuke. “Why do I keep forgetting that?”

Cullen didn’t say anything, which Alistair preferred to his usual platitudes and pitying frowns. But after a few seconds of watching their daughter play with their new dog, he noticed from the corner of his eye that Cullen was watching him. Turning, concerned that Cullen was thinking about that horrific dream again, he prepared to be the steady voice calling him away from the edge.

But Cullen surprised him, gazing at Alistair with an open adoration he hadn’t shown since the early days of their relationship. Like Alistair was something incomprehensible and beyond precious, instead of a man desperately trying and too often failing to do what was right for the people he loved most.

Moments of truly earnest affection like this, especially in public and most definitely after embarrassing himself in front of their friends earlier, always made Alistair nervous. And when he was nervous, he cracked jokes.

But, for perhaps the first time in their entire relationship, Cullen spoke first, lips curving into a lovely smile.

“Marry me.”

.

.

.

Alistair blinked and replayed the words in his head.

No, they sounded the same as they had the first time.

He couldn’t help the chuckle that escaped him, because they didn’t make sense. He had to have heard wrong. “What?”

Cullen’s eyes widened, smile evaporating. “Did I say that aloud?”

“Yes, you most definitely did.” In spite of the lightness he forced into his voice, Alistair’s heart was pounding.

Cullen’s hand shot up to rub the back of his neck. “I just …” He sighed. “I had a plan. No Elodie, just the two of us, and there wasn’t a dog, but —”

Alistair gave his head a good shake, as if that would knock loose whatever had lodged in there and kept him from thinking straight. “You’re not serious.” With a bit of an effort, he pushed to his feet and laughed. “This is revenge, right? For pretending to be angry about the dog? Good one.”

It had to be a joke. The alternative was far too much to hope for.

Cullen stood more smoothly than Alistair had and shook his head. “I would never joke about something so serious.”

“Then you’ve gone absolutely mad.” Alistair looked around to make sure no one was in easy eavesdropping distance (and that Elodie and Barkspawn weren’t causing trouble) and lowered his voice. “Because otherwise you’d never have forgotten that the Chantry says this” — he waved between the two of them — “is a sin. One of the big ones, right after corrupting the Golden City, burning Andraste, and wanting mages to be free.”

“I’m pretty sure Leliana fixed that last one,” Cullen said, the corners of his mouth twitching. “And I never said we had to get married in the Chantry.”

Alistair threw up his hands. “What other way is there? Are you feeling all right? Because last night you were normal, Elodie-soothing, bitching-about-formal-dress Cullen, and this morning you’re adopting dogs on a whim and proposing?”

“Technically I got the dog yesterday, so your theory isn’t quite right.” Cullen’s tone was drier than the Western Approach. “And why is it so difficult to believe that after seeing you last night for the first time in days, and then everything that happened this morning, I might have realized just how lucky I am to have you in my life and want to take pains to keep you here?”

Alistair dropped his arms to his sides and, although it ran counter to everything in his nature, decided that some topics required seriousness. “Is this about your dream? Because I told you, I am not going anywhere. I love you, and I love Elodie, and I love Barkspawn —”

“We’re not calling her that,” Cullen said.

“— and you don’t have to do anything to keep me here.” Alistair closed the space between them and grinned. “You’re already stuck with me. And no official ceremony would ever change that, even if it were possible, which it’s not.”

Cullen placed a hand on Alistair’s cheek. “It doesn’t have to be official. Just us, making a promise in front of Elodie and our friends. I don’t care what the Chantry thinks about it.”

Alistair raised an eyebrow. “You don’t care what the Chantry thinks?” A disappointing thought occurred to him, and his voice fell. “Are you really so worried that something’s going to happen to me that you need me to promise in front of people that I’ll stay safe?”

Cullen shook his head, and his smile was part affectionate, part melancholy. “Nothing I could say would extract from you a promise you couldn’t keep. I know I’m going to lose you some day long before I’m ready.” Those warm amber eyes shone, and though his voice thickened just a little, it remained as strong as he ever was. “But I know you, and I can tell that something hasn’t been right since you arrived, and I think that’s my fault. Because I don’t tell you nearly enough how wonderful you are, and how much both Elodie and I need you.” The last few words shook, but Cullen didn’t stop; instead, he rested his forehead against Alistair’s and continued. “You’re the glue that holds us together, Alistair, and you take care of us both and you’re a wonderful father and the best partner I could ever have asked for. And I never want you to feel like you’re not appreciated or wanted. Because I love you, and I’d be lost without you.”

Alistair’s eyes brimmed with tears as Cullen continued to stare at him with that same expression of wonder and love. That right there, the appreciation and need and want, was what he’d been missing for the past … he honestly couldn’t say how long. Deep down, in a place he buried under so many jokes and hopes and lies that he sometimes convinced himself it wasn’t there at all, was a lifelong fear of not being enough. That fear had manifested in numerous ways over the years, but at this point in his life, it manifested as doubts about Cullen and Elodie. That they loved each other so much they didn’t need him anymore; that it would be better for them to leave now rather than wait for his Calling; that he was unwanted, as he had been with Maric and Eamon and Isolde. He was afraid that Cullen and Elodie would leave him, just like everyone else in his life — Duncan and the other Wardens; all his companions during the Blight, especially her; friends he’d lost to the Calling or the mage rebellion or the Conclave or red lyrium; the Wardens Clarel had murdered; Hawke; the friends he’d made in the Inquisition. They’d all left him behind in the end, and at some point simple logic dictated that he was the problem. He just wasn’t worth it.

So why wouldn’t Cullen and Elodie, the two people he loved most in all of Thedas, do the same as all the rest?

He opened his mouth to ask. He had to know, had to check, because no one else —

“Yes,” Cullen answered. Both hands cradled Alistair’s face now, thumbs brushing away the stupid tears he couldn’t stop. “I mean it with every fiber of my being, and I’ve never been more sure about anything in my life.”

Alistair leaned in to kiss him, but whimpered when Cullen pulled away, hands releasing Alistair’s face and trailing down his arms before clutching both Alistair’s hands in his own.

And then Cullen Rutherford did something that Alistair had never dared imagine in his wildest dreams.

He got down on one knee and repeated, with the same adoring look and soft, assured tone as before, “Marry me, Alistair.”

.

.

.

Alistair couldn’t breathe. His heart stopped. This couldn’t be happening. Cullen would never —

“Alistair!”

Both he and Cullen startled as Josie approached them, Trev trailing behind.

“Alistair,” Josie said, all business, “we need to discuss your —”

Then she froze, eyes wide, eyes flicking back and forth between them.

“Maker’s breath … are you —?”

“Yes.” Cullen’s eyes never left Alistair. His hands didn’t get go of Alistair’s. He didn’t move at all.

“And did you say —?”

“Not yet,” Cullen answered, a slight edge to his voice. “We were just getting to that part.”

“Wow, Jose,” Trev whispered. “This is not at all how you predicted it would go.”

“Shh!” Josie said.

Alistair shook his head. “Cullen, I —”

Just the smallest flicker in Cullen’s warm, amber eyes betrayed his steady exterior, a moment before his grip on Alistair loosened a fraction.

“I don’t need it,” Alistair continued. “I love you and Elodie, and we’re a family, and that’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

Cullen’s head bowed, and a pain slashed against Alistair’s heart at the thought that —

But then Cullen shook his head, giving Alistair’s hands a squeeze. When he met Alistair’s gaze again, his lips curved upward before they pressed against the back of one of Alistair’s hands. “That’s not true. Maybe you don’t need it, but you’ve always wanted it, and you gave it up when you chose me.” Cullen’s voice trembled, and his eyes shone bright once again. “The Inquisition will change after this. I’m not yet sure what that will mean. But I’ve found certainty in my life now; the Council won’t change that. And I’m certain that all that matters is you and Elodie. Elodie is ours, but I want you to be mine. Officially.”

Josie squeaked, and someone that was not Trev shushed her. Apparently they had an audience again. But Alistair didn’t care.

He also didn’t seem to have words, or even a voice to carry them.

So he nodded. Vigorously. Many, many times.

Cullen’s smile — that beautiful, amazing smile that warmed Alistair’s heart and warped his insides — bloomed bigger than Alistair had ever seen it.

“Yes,” he finally blurted. “I will.” Then he grinned. “I have to before one of these Orlesians snaps you up.”

Cullen jumped up and kissed him before he could say anything else, although he did have time to think that he really liked this new spontaneous side of Cullen when the whoops and applause started.

Alistair broke the kiss to say, so only Cullen could hear, “After. When the Council’s over, but before we all leave.”

From the way Cullen crushed his lips against his, Alistair assumed he agreed.

Barkspawn barked, which startled them apart, and they both looked down to see the mabari nudging their sweet girl toward them with her nose, even though Elodie was already close enough to hug their legs and bop up and down.

“Papa Munda kiss!” she said, wearing her precious smile.

Alistair scooped her up, and his face started to hurt from smiling so hard. “Okay,” he said, and did as she ordered.

He’d been wrong before. Now, in this moment, with his soon-to-be-husband kissing him, their daughter in their arms, and their brand-new dog barking next to them …

Now he had never been happier.

Chapter Text

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.

This perfect.

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?”

“Yep!”

“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.”

“Cullen —”

“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 …

Roses.

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.

Chapter Text

“Je suis désolée, monsieur,” the chevalier with the stick up her ass said, sounding disgustingly Orlesian in both tone and accent and not at all sorry. “But ze dog” — here the chevalier somehow seemed to scrunch up her nose while wearing a mask — “will not be allowed in ze meeting room.”

Alistair took a deep breath and let it out slowly, over a count of three. “Yes. I heard you the first four times. And I’m saying that this young lady right here” — he indicated Elodie, looking especially adorable in her rose-patterned dress — “is a guest of Commander Cullen, and I promise you that if this dog does not accompany us, she will throw a tantrum the likes of which would put a horde of darkspawn to shame.” Here he actually put his hands together in supplication, or as much as he could while holding Elodie, at any rate; his tone matched his gesture, and he was only a little ashamed. “So I am begging you, in the name of Holy Andraste and the Maker Himself, to please let her come in with us. I swear on Andraste’s sacred ashes that she’s more well-behaved than most nobles you’re letting in.”

Damn it. He shouldn’t have added that last part. It was hard to tell, but it seemed like the chevalier might have been swayed until then.

The worst part was, he wasn’t even exaggerating a little bit. After Cullen had left, he’d gathered up Elodie and her bag full of everything she might possibly need during a long, boring meeting that would knock out most adults, when his adorable, lovely, Maker-blessed daughter screamed, “Bah-pah! I want Bah-pah come, too!” Nothing he had promised or prayed for had swayed her from her burgeoning tantrum, and so he’d had no choice but to bring the (admittedly delightful) mabari with them to the room in which the Exalted Council would be held.

He refused to allow Cullen to face the onslaught of likely offensive personal and professional questions from that bastard Ceorlic without backup, but he couldn’t go without Elodie, and Elodie refused to go anywhere without Barkspawn.Thus, Barkspawn needed to be in the Exalted Council. There was no alternative.

Perhaps he needed to appeal to an even higher authority than Andraste; he had no qualms about throwing Leliana’s new(ish) title around, especially where Elodie was concerned.

“Monsieur,” the chevalier began again, in the same highly disgusted Orlesian tone as before. “I am sorry, but I cannot —”

Alistair was about to tell the chevalier where she could stick her pointless sorrys when a familiar voice called to him from behind … and a foot or so down.

“What seems to be the problem here, Charming?” asked Varric.

“I must insist ze animal stay outside, where it belongs.” The chevalier’s tone indicated she was done arguing with Alistair.

“Excuse me, Ser Knight,” Varric said in his Sit back, I’m about to tell you a Story with a capital S voice. “Are you referring to this dog here? Don’t you know who this dog is?”

Ah. Andraste be damned. Alistair’s prayers had been answered in the form of a shameless dwarven novelist from Kirkwall.

“I assure you, monsieur, I do not care.”

Varric laughed — not his genuine jolly one that was so infectious it occasionally brought a smirk to even Cullen’s face. No, this was one of his many theatrical laughs. (Though he would never tell her, Alistair knew without a doubt that Varric was a better bard than even Leliana.) Specifically, this was Varric’s Can you believe the nerve of this guy? guffaw, complete with a disbelieving look toward Alistair, who tried to keep as straight a face as possible.

“First of all,” Varric said, somehow looking down his nose at a human considerably taller than him. “This is not a dog. This is a ma-ba-ri.” He spoke the name offensively slowly. “I know you Orlesians don’t know much about the canine breeds other than those little rats you like to show off at salons, but mabari are bred to fight in battle. They’re twice as strong as the best warrior, five times more agile than the most dexterous rogue, and ten times smarter than the average Orlesian chevalier.”

Alistair bit his tongue to hold back a chuckle as the chevalier twitched and inhaled to argue.

This mabari,” Varric continued, “was sired by the Hero of Ferelden’s exceptional canine companion and dammed by the mabari that accompanied the Champion of Kirkwall into the Deep Roads, through the thickest fighting of the Qunari invasion, and throughout the battle against Knight-Commander Meredith. This ‘dog’” — Varric managed to be even more condescending with the use of air quotes and a tone so patronizing it definitely veered into insulting territory — “as you call her, is the offspring of two of the most famous mabari in history, and just so happens to be the mabari responsible for saving Commander Cullen’s life not six days before the final battle against Corypheus. She has been tasked by Commander Cullen himself with the life, safety, and happiness of this young lady right here. She is the Commander’s daughter, and if he hears that she is left unguarded for even a single moment …”

Varric indulged in one of his infamous dramatic pauses.

“Well, Ser Knight, I would hate to be on the receiving end of his righteous fatherly anger. But!” Varric threw his hands up in a deceivingly sincere gesture of surrender. “If ‘dogs’ are not allowed in the Winter Palace, I’ll just have to be the one to bear that bad news to him. Might I ask your family name, so I may inform him of the chevalier who denied his beloved only daughter of her comfort and safety in this time of great upheaval and uncertainty?”

The chevalier, to her credit, shifted from one leg to the other. “Ze dog —”

“Mabari,” Varric corrected.

“Quite.” The chevalier refused to say the breed’s name, and Alistair tried not to grin as she looked to him. “She belongs to ze Commander?”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” said Alistair, in his most neutral tone possible, though it still may have come out a little bitter. Then he unleashed his greatest weapon. “Isn’t that right, Elodie?”

“Yep!” Elodie clapped and wiggled up and down in Alistair’s arms, as if jumping. “Munda is Cummuda Inkizishin!” As if they’d planned it — they hadn’t — she turned to Alistair, face falling, lip wobbling, eyes welling with tears. “I wanna see Munda, Papa.”

Alistair soothed her for real, and Varric said, “It’s all right, Nugget. Ser Knight was just letting you go see him. Isn’t that right?”

“Can you say ‘please,’ Elodie?” Alistair urged, hoping their secret weapon wouldn’t explode in their faces.

“Peeeeez?” Elodie begged, somehow both pathetic and adorable. “I wanna see Munda!”

The chevalier had backed away a couple of steps, though in fear of Elodie or in preparation for an answer, Alistair wasn’t sure. She looked behind her and to both sides, then leaned in and murmured, “Very well, but quickly, and let no one see. If ze animal makes any noise I will have no choice but to have you all ejected.”

“Thank you.” Alistair sighed in relief and moved forward into the hall, Barkspawn at his heel, while Varric made a big show of his gratitude, complete with raised hands and deep bows.

“Maker bless you, Ser Knight, and may the eyes of Andraste look fondly on you this day! The Commander will hear of this, mark my words …”

“Nice job, sweetheart,” Alistair whispered, kissing Elodie on one of her chubby cheeks. “Your charms are even more enticing than mine.”

Varric snorted behind him, having left the chevalier behind. “She’s cute, don’t get me wrong, but you owe me big, Charming.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Alistair muttered as he weaved through the crowd. “Add it to my tab. Let’s find a seat before Barkspawn gets us kicked out.”

 


 

The four of them — including Barkspawn, who by some miracle of Andraste moved with such agility that she bumped into fewer people than Alistair did — eventually managed to find the rest of the Inner Circle. Alistair settled down with Varric on his right and Dorian on his left, who in turn sat next to The Iron Bull. Cole was on Bull’s other side, while Sera, the warrior-formerly-known-as-Blackwall, and Vivienne sat in the row in front of them.

“What in the Maker’s name —” Dorian started, but Alistair shot him one of the looks he’d long practiced but only recently, due to Elodie, perfected — his patented Do not even start with me, I’m not in the mood look.

“Barksp — oh.” Alistair was pleasantly surprised to find he didn’t have to explain anything to the mabari, who had lain at his feet and made herself as invisible to onlookers as humanly — mabari-ly? — possible. “Good girl.”

“Weh’s Munda?” Elodie whined, crushing Alistair’s hopes that she might be even remotely well-behaved.

“He’ll be sitting right over there,” Alistair said, pointing at the small table in the middle of the hall. “Aunt Leliana, Uncle Teagan, and some other not important people will be asking him and Auntie Trev questions.”

Elodie had met Teagan not half an hour ago, but he’d been in too much of a hurry to spend any real time with her, giving Alistair as much information as quickly as possible on Ceorlic and his impending interrogation before heading to the Council himself. He had been pleased to meet her, though; Teagan and Eamon were the first — and only, Alistair supposed — people Alistair had informed about his and Cullen’s adoption of her. The rest of his friends were either at Skyhold (and therefore knew already), out of contact, or contactable but not safely enough so that Alistair wanted to risk informing them of important information, i.e., Zev. Alistair hoped he could eat dinner with Teagan sometime this week and they could really catch up; he wanted Elodie to know her extended family, even if in his case they were only sort-of his uncles.

“An Yayana, zing zing!” Elodie did her bow and arrow hand gesture at the mention of Leliana, and they were off to the races with distractions. Everyone — even the Iron Lady herself, who had offered Cullen and Alistair surprisingly sincere and kind congratulations on their engagement, considering her and Alistair’s mutual dislike of each other — was enchanted by her adorableness (as they should have been) and spoke animatedly with her.

Dorian in particular had undertaken the frankly ambitious task of teaching Elodie varying sound effects and gestures for each elemental type of magic. Since it was keeping her busy, Alistair didn’t object, but in spite of the ease with which she now threw out hand gestures, he’d had a difficult enough time explaining that not everyone fought with a sword and shield; both he and Cullen were trained in that style, as were most of the soldiers she encountered on the occasions when she accompanied Cullen on his inspections or training sessions (which was often, as Elodie, Cullen, and the soldiers all enjoyed her visits).

Alistair had been surprised when, around six months earlier, Cullen had taken it upon himself to introduce her to several mages after the departure of the Inner Circle. Alistair been concerned about Cullen’s motives until El came home waving her arms and using “mazhic” to cast “pehs” (spells). “Yike Fona!” Because Cullen, a former Templar (acting) Knight-Commander, had approached former Grand Enchanter Fiona, who had once foolishly allied with a crazy Tevinter magister, about showing Elodie some simple magic. The kind older mage — whom Alistair had barely met, yet reminded him of Wynne in a vague, indefinable way — had been only too happy to assist. Alistair would never forget the conversation he’d had with Cullen that night.

“Why?” he’d asked. “There’s plenty of time to introduce her to magic. She’s so young.”

“That’s why.” Cullen had been firm and unapologetic. “Perhaps if more people were exposed at a young age, things would be —” He’d sighed. “I don’t want her growing up afraid of the unknown. That’s how we got into this mess in the first place.”

Alistair had been speechless for one of only a few times in his life because that was the moment he realized Cullen still believed he needed redemption for the things he’d done, and that raising their little girl to be the best woman possible would help him achieve it. Alistair hadn’t needed the reassurance, but a worry he’d been previously unaware of had been eased that day.

As with anything painful, he usually avoided thinking of it and cracked jokes when that failed, but he knew deep down that the day when he’d have to leave them for his Calling would come far too soon, and as long as Elodie needed her Munda and he believed he needed redemption, Cullen would fight demons, darkspawn, and even the Fade itself to do his duty to his daughter. The thought was a comforting one to Alistair, because it meant that Cullen wouldn’t, as he feared, simply give up when he was gone. Alistair didn’t say it often enough, but that day he’d meant every word he said and every tear in his eye when he’d told Cullen, “I am so proud of you, and I love you more and more every day.”

Cullen had looked at him like he wanted to call a healer, so Alistair grinned and said, “And to think I honestly thought there was a limit to your attractiveness,” and then Cullen blushed, and the world had righted itself again.

Now here he was, once again thinking of his Calling and Cullen. He hadn’t known how Cullen would react to his confession of jealousy, but what he hadn’t expected in the least was for Cullen Stanton Rutherford, who in his natural state was so consumed with guilt he shunned all occasions of sin in an effort to control what he believed to be unacceptable personal impulses, had also been feeling jealous and — in a surprise for the Ages — guilty about it.

Once he’d realized that Cullen wasn’t just placating him, Alistair felt as though the weight of Thedas had been lifted from his shoulders. This was something they could work on together — they could support each other as fathers and as two people who loved each other, and when he looked at it that way, things weren’t nearly as bad as they’d seemed before.

Or so he’d thought until Cullen had mentioned not being good enough for Elodie when Alistair finally left on his Calling. Alistair’s true worst nightmare was that the people he’d finally allowed himself to love in spite of the Taint would suffer permanent sorrow for what he increasingly feared was a foolish decision to be temporarily happy. It grieved him to the depths of his soul to think that Elodie would feel any pain from having them as fathers, which was something she’d had no real choice in (aside from crying whenever anyone other than Alistair or Cullen had held her).

Cullen, however, had chosen Alistair with eyes wide open. Alistair had told him about the insanity-inducing song of the (then fake) Calling not long after arriving at Skyhold, and Cullen had responded that he’d stopped taking lyrium, whose siren song drove him to distraction in much the same way.

It was Cullen who, in spite of that knowledge, had professed his love for Alistair after Adamant, while Alistair had kept his own feelings to himself in a misplaced effort to protect Cullen, who later told him that any time they could spend together was better than no time at all.

And this morning, it was Cullen who had lowered to one knee and asked Alistair to marry him. In spite of the spontaneity, Alistair knew that Cullen never did anything without giving it sufficient consideration, and in the end he’d decided that Alistair was worth it.

The thought blurred Alistair’s vision; he still wasn’t entirely sure what he’d done to deserve such devotion, but who was he to question Cullen’s decision? He’d just have to do his damnedest to ensure the two loves of his life were prepared to survive and thrive beyond the day he had to leave them forever.

Fingers snapped in front of Alistair’s face, and he blinked away his tears to find Varric frowning at him. “You okay, Charming? You’re looking about as serious as Curly usually does.”

“You take that back,” Alistair responded before summoning the most brilliant grin he could muster. “Temporary insanity, I assure you. See what this place does to me?”

“And this,” Dorian was explaining to Elodie with arms outstretched in front of him, “is necromancy!” Then he made a noise that sent a shiver down Alistair’s spine; it was far too realistic for his comfort.

“Kadan,” Bull said. “Maybe you shouldn’t be teaching an almost three-year-old about the dark magic of reanimating the dead?”

Dorian grinned. “It’s never too early to teach the young ones about necromancy!”

And when Elodie repeated his action and growled, “Neck-mahn-see!” Dorian shrugged and said, “Close enough!”

“While you’re at it,” said Cassandra, and they all turned to see her squeezing her way to their seats with her signature scowl, “why don’t you teach her how to rip holes in time?”

“My dear Cassandra!” Dorian placed a melodramatic hand on his chest. “That sort of magic is highly advanced. I have it planned for next Tuesday.”

Everyone laughed except Cassandra (who was hardly ever anything so relaxed as amused, though she did roll her eyes), Sera (who hated all sorts of magic unless Dagna was involved), and Vivienne (who never deigned to smile at a joke made by someone as frequently uncouth as Dorian).

“All good, Cass?” Bull asked.

“I have never seen Josephine so nervous,” Cassandra replied. “She actually snapped at Cullen for arriving late.”

Alistair threw his head back and his hands in the air. “Has the Council started yet? Then he wasn’t late!” In truth, he was exaggerating his frustration to cover up his worry. If Josephine Montilyet, whose smile hadn’t even faltered that time a noble from the Free Marches had vomited all over her dress, was nervous enough to snap at someone, then Cullen must have rubbed the skin off the back of his neck by now.

Cassandra, as she had numerous times in the past, surprised Alistair with the depth of her insight. “If you’re concerned about Cullen, don’t be.” She scowled, but it was her nice, comforting one. “I just spoke with him. He has been through harsher interrogations than this.”

“When?” The word came out a tad sharp. Alistair knew Cullen had endured too many horrific events in his life, but he hadn’t been aware of an interrogation being among them.

“Before I offered him the position of Commander of the Inquisition.”

Alistair gaped. Cullen had never once mentioned that. Given the timing, Cullen would have been in Kirkwall, meaning the infamous Seeker Pentaghast had interrogated him during one of their first meetings.

Varric groaned. “Why am I not surprised? Was there anyone in Kirkwall you didn’t interrogate? You probably questioned the bartender at The Hanged Man.”

“Contrary to what you might think, Varric, I was not in Kirkwall to charge anyone with any crime, hanging of a man or no.”

Alistair snorted, only a bit more at Cassandra’s answer than at Varric’s aggrieved, horrified expression — which quickly morphed into something far less funny and much more dangerous.

“Oh. I almost forgot.” Varric’s mischievous smirk belied his casual tone. “What’s this I hear about you and Curly having a little hug-fest in the hallway?”

Every member of the Inner Circle whipped their heads toward the pair, who were staring each other down — Varric with an impish grin and almost evil glint in his eye, Cassandra shocked and dumbstruck with her mouth moving wordlessly. They were all silent for a long moment.

“How did you — We didn’t —” Cassandra’s brain seemed to still be catching up, but when it did, her voice was low and threatening. “Hug-fest?

“Right, sorry.” Varric proceeded to speak slowly, arms demonstrating. “A hug is when two people wrap their arms around each other in an expression of affection.” Cassandra blushed as everyone laughed. “As opposed to the way I’m sure you’re familiar with, to choke or murder them into submission.” Then he widened his eyes in exaggerated shock. “Wait, you weren’t trying to choke Curly were you?”

“I was not —” Cassandra made that noise, that brilliant combination of disgusted and exasperated which Alistair was positive she had invented. “There’s no talking with you, Varric!”

“But did you, yeah?” asked Sera. “Have a hug-fest with Cully-Wully?”

“Oh, yes, do tell!” Dorian said. “Elodie wants to know if Munda and Auntie Cassandra hugged, doesn’t she?”

“Munda yuvs hugs!” Elodie announced, and Alistair knew Cullen would be blushing and rubbing the back of his neck if he were here; Munda might love hugging her, but he was not in the habit of hugging anyone else aside from Alistair. Which actually made this whole discussion somewhat concerning, now that Alistair thought about it.

“Old friends,” Cole said softly. “Change is coming. She should know how much she helped him. He should know how much she cares.”

“That’s quite enough, I think, Cole,” Cassandra said loudly. “Not that it’s any of your business, Varric, but yes, we — we hugged.” Her eyes grew glassy, and she stared into the middle distance. “We are friends, and he —” She seemed to realize what she was saying and cleared her throat. “You don’t all have to act so surprised. How did you even find out?”

“Oh, I have my ways.” Varric grinned, but there was a hint of underlying concern that Alistair shared. “Are you sure Curly’s all right?”

“Of course he’s all right,” Cassandra snapped. “Like I told him, he has nothing to worry about. None of them do. The Inquisition’s record speaks for itself, and no politician can argue the good we have done.”

Vivienne speared Cassandra with an iron glare. “My dear, I think you’ll find that an Orlesian player of the Grand Game can argue anything. The skill lies in the convincing. Fortunately, our Lady Josephine excels in the Game and will step in for the Inquisitor or the Commander as necessary.”

“And Lady Josephine said that Ferelden is of a larger concern,” said Blackwall. “They don’t play the Game, thank the Maker.”

“Except Anora sent another representative,” Alistair said, attempting to keep his voice low. “Bann Ceorlic. He supported Loghain at the Landsmeet and suggested I be executed. Teagan’s not sure why he’s here.”

No one, it seemed, had a response to that, aside from expressions that ran the gamut from shock to fear to confusion to serious contemplation.

“I sent Cullen a note,” Alistair added feebly.

No one had time to respond to that when the crowd hushed, and Her Most Holy Divine Victorliana entered the ballroom. Everyone stood (out of respect) and applauded (because … Orlais?) until she was seated. Duke Cyril, the representative from Orlais, approached to similar applause, followed by Teagan and then that sniveling weasel Ceorlic, who received more interested murmurs than applause.

Once they were seated on their respective sides of Leliana, some fancy guy in a mask shouted a formal announcement as if they were attending another of Celene’s balls, and the Inquisitor, her Ambassador, and her incredibly handsome Commander — if Alistair might say so himself — marched into the grand hall.

Alistair took Elodie from Dorian and pointed. “Look, there’s Munda!”

Elodie waved. “Hi, Munda!” Then she began to clap like the rest.

Cullen, though he did a fairly good job of hiding it, searched for them out of the corner of his eye. Alistair knew the instant he found them from the quirk of his mouth.

“Ah,” Dorian said in Alistair’s ear. “I don’t recall our dashing Commander wearing a rose earlier. Wherever did he get it, I wonder?”

Alistair grinned, not only at the fact that Cullen had found his gift, but that he’d decided to display it so prominently.

“We’re in Orlais.” He shrugged, still smiling and eyes never leaving Cullen. “There are flowers everywhere — inside, outside, on the ground. Maybe he picked it off a bush, or stole it from a gaudy floral piece he passed in the hallway.”

“Mmm, perhaps,” Dorian murmured. “Likely a total coincidence that our dear Elodie wears a dress covered in roses.”

“Completely.”

In truth, Cullen’s less-than-enthusiastic response to Elodie’s blue and silver Warden armor dress had disappointed Alistair; it was adorable, and Megan had made it specially, just for her. But he’d agreed to change it in an instant when Cullen had requested it. They’d just discussed how they needed to talk more, and when Cullen had admitted his dislike for the dress, Alistair knew how difficult such a confession had been for him. He didn’t care either way about the Warden theme, but if Cullen did, Alistair refused to add to an already difficult day by insisting on something as unimportant as a particular dress for their daughter.

And if he could assuage some of Cullen’s nerves, all the better.

When all the participants were seated and the awkward applause had ceased, Leliana called the Exalted Council into session and began giving a speech that immediately made Alistair drowsy.

Something something, Maker something, blah blah blah.

“In addition,” Leliana continued, “all parties have agreed that what has occurred in the past will remain in the past. Any information uncovered here will only be used to determine the future of the Inquisition. Answers given will result in no consequences, positive or negative, for any individuals questioned or named.”

Alistair frowned. “What in the Maker’s name does that mean?”

Bull leaned forward so Alistair and the rest could hear him. “Essentially, it means if anyone admits to any crimes, they can’t be put on trial for it later.”

That gave Alistair an uncomfortable feeling he couldn’t recognize. “Why is that necessary?”

“Uh, have you met us?” Varric snorted. “Collectively, we’ve killed over a dozen high dragons and probably thousands of people, conscripted hundreds into our ranks just because, and technically staged a pseudo-coup to decide who would rule Orlais. Not to mention any petty crimes or other shady dealings, like looting.”

“And it’s not as if we were all saints to begin with,” Dorian murmured.

The discomfort coalesced into something solid in Alistair’s gut, and he recognized what it was.

Fear. Because Cullen had done things in Kirkwall that not only was he ashamed of, but which could also be considered crimes by anyone wanting to make an example of a well-known Templar. And although Alistair obviously didn’t want Cullen punished, he couldn’t deny that Cullen had, at the very least, been complicit in the atrocities committed by Meredith over the years.

He let out a deep, slow breath and attempted to release his anxiety with it. Whoever had negotiated that rule was a Maker-damned genius.

“Josie’s doing?” he asked, tone tight enough to give away his pathetic attempt at casualness.

“At Red’s suggestion, most likely,” Bull answered. “Doesn’t mean someone won’t make a good argument for breaking it, though.”

Bull was clearly trying to make sure everyone was prepared for any eventuality, but Alistair wished he’d stopped at crediting Leliana.

As the woman in question passed the floor to Orlais, whose representative wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to give a big speech, Alistair’s gaze shifted to Cullen, who looked absolutely unperturbed, even bored, at the prospect of the Council.

Just as Alistair wondered if Cullen had received his message, the runner he’d sent approached Cullen and handed him a note. Alistair didn’t need to look at the rest of the Inner Circle to know they were watching Cullen as intently as he was.

As usual, Cullen’s face showed no reaction. Alistair, whose face always expressed exactly what he was feeling as though he’d spoken aloud, had always envied him that ability, even though he knew Cullen had learned it from less-than-friendly interactions with people and creatures Alistair would rather not think about. Cullen passed the note to Trev and Josie, both of whom reacted exactly as he did — only the slightest thinning of their mouths at the bad, Ceorlic-related news contained within.

Cullen risked a glance in their direction, and Alistair grinned, flashing him a thumbs-up. Cullen’s gaze flicked away too quickly to read, but Alistair could tell by the fresh tension in his shoulders that he hadn’t helped.

“Now they know,” Bull said cheerfully, “so they’ll be fine.”

But the look he exchanged with Vivienne told Alistair he didn’t believe that.

“Jah bees!” Elodie said, waving her hands wildly above her head while saying, “Bzzzzzz!”

Later, Alistair would wonder if she’d known, somehow, what the next few days of the Council would bring, and that had been her way of warning them.

 


 

Two hours, three extended potty breaks (only one of which turned out to be necessary), and nearly the entire bag of toys and trinkets later and Trev was still answering the Orlesian duke’s questions.

Teagan had already asked his, and though they more or less conjured an image of the Inquisition that they’d expected from Ferelden, i.e. an out-of-control military organization that needed to disband, Alistair personally felt Trev had gotten off easy. Anora could be, as all his companions had agreed after the Landsmeet, “shrewd” when she wanted. (He had argued she was more of a “lying, traitorous bitch,” but his fellow Warden and best friend — and far better, braver person than he, which he would learn the hard way the next day — believed such a description too harsh for the queen they’d supported.) If Anora Mac Tir Theirin wanted the Inquisition gone, there were far harsher questions Teagan could have asked about Trev’s past decisions, particularly in relation to Redcliffe.

Unfortunately, Alistair had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach about why Trev had gotten off so easy, and why Ceorlic hadn’t started asking questions yet. After all, Cullen had only been requested to be interrogated at the Council as of this morning.

But that wasn’t what was bothering the rest of their friends now.

“I understand, but the question is why,” Dorian was murmuring to the heads huddled around him as Alistair returned to his seat with a squirming Elodie.

“Yeah, Josie said Ferelden was all whassit about us,” said Sera. “Not the fops.”

“It’s possible the Empress has decided Ferelden is correct,” Blackwall said. “And now they want the Inquisition to disband as well.”

Alistair poked his head into circle. “But why wouldn’t they just say that?”

Everyone gaped at him.

He rolled his eyes with a smirk. “What, now we can’t even joke about the fops and their stupid Game? What is the world coming to?”

A few of their friends returned his smirk; Sera cackled.

Cassandra made her infamous disgusted noise. “I despise politics.”

Nearly everyone grumbled agreement as they settled back down into their seats to listen.

“Papa!” Elodie whined, twisting until he allowed her to stand on the floor. She walked down the row, passing Dorian, Bull, and Cole (all of whom acknowledged her with a smile and a quiet comment) before tugging on Sera’s hair. Sera whirled around, eyes blazing, but upon realizing the culprit was Elodie, she grinned and lifted Elodie over the back of her seat and into her lap.

Content that Sera would keep Elodie occupied and that Blackwall would keep them both in check, Alistair returned his gaze, if not his attention, to the Council, in time to see Cullen frown slightly and begin writing on a piece of parchment.

After Trev answered an accusatory question about the fate of Duchess Florianne — who had attempted to assassinate their current empress, she reminded them far more gently than Alistair would have — Vivienne spoke again.

“I will say it is odd.” Another pause, and Alistair did not like that she was thinking about this so much. Nothing against Vivienne — well, not right this second — but the Game requiring her to puzzle things out meant more complications for Cullen. “Cyril is adequate at the Game, else he would not have kept his father’s position on the Council of Heralds. But if his true purpose is to disband the Inquisition, this line of questioning is … clumsy.”

“Maybe he has trouble keepin’ it up,” Sera said, snickering.

Most of the Inner Circle rolled their eyes, and Vivienne skewered Sera with a glare that gave Alistair shivers. Blackwall and Varric both snickered, but Bull tilted his head in consideration.

“Yeah,” Bull said. “If he’s used to playing the Game around Orlesians, maybe the Fereldans are —”

“Throwing off his Game?” Varric asked, throwing a smirk toward Alistair, who returned it with a grin.

“Regardless of the why,” Dorian said pointedly, leaning forward to speak to Vivienne in particular, “the question now is whether our dear Ambassador can counter it when the Inquisitor’s questioning is coming to an end and the next man on the chopping block couldn’t play the Game if his life depended on it.”

Alistair rankled at that. Maybe Cullen hated the Game, but he could hold up under questioning. Even if Cassandra hadn’t made that abundantly clear, Cullen, through his decade of struggle, had more than earned the emotional and mental strength of ten men.

“My dear,” Vivienne said in her most patronizing tone, unveiling her most contemptuous sneer (which was usually reserved for Alistair). “Ambassador Josephine can work miracles, and I daresay the Commander is not as incompetent at politics as he appears. Remember that the Orlesian nobles simply adore him.”

That was a severe understatement, and they all enjoyed a good chuckle at that, though Alistair couldn’t muster more than a half-hearted smirk. Not because the attention Cullen received from the Orlesian nobles bothered him — although it did, even if he would never let Cullen know lest he feel worse about the whole situation — but because now he worried about Cullen being forced to answer personal questions in front of people who treated him like a piece of meat while also attempting to play and counter the very Game he despised.

Cullen, meanwhile, had finished writing and passed the piece of parchment to Josie, who read it and glanced at him with her eyebrow raised slightly, then began to write on the parchment in turn before passing it back to Cullen. Sitting between them, Trev didn’t miss a single beat of her answer to the Orlesian’s questions as this occurred in front of her; in fact, she actually helped Josie by sliding the parchment toward Cullen.

Cullen read what Josie had written, and Alistair noticed one side of his mouth quirk up almost imperceptibly before he began to write furiously on a separate piece of parchment.

“Are they … passing notes?” asked Varric.

“Unfair, yeah?” Sera said. “Josie never let me pass notes.”

“To be fair,” said Blackwall, “you were folding them into arrows and throwing them at people.”

“That just makes it more fun!”

Bull hummed. “They’re likely having the same conversation we are.”

“Think they’re having better luck?” Dorian asked.

Cullen wrote for so long that the Inquisitor provided thorough answers to the next two questions before he folded the paper haphazardly and slid it across the table back to Josephine.

“Hmm, perhaps,” Vivienne answered.

Josephine — ambassador, diplomat, and such a skilled player of Wicked Grace that she’d once actually won all of Cullen’s clothes — scanned Cullen’s note with continually, and very obviously, widening eyes. When she finished, her head snapped up to look at him just as Duke What’s-His-Face announced he was finished with his questions.

“If that will be all for the Inquisitor this afternoon,” Leliana said, “then I suggest we take a short break and reconvene in ten minutes.”

The hall almost immediately erupted into conversation, but the only movement made at the table of three below was Trev looking back and forth between her Commander and Ambassador, clearly demanding an explanation while the other two stared each other down as though in preparation for a duel.

Then Josie began to shake her head vehemently, shoving Cullen’s note into Trev’s hands while Cullen nodded and answered in what Alistair could tell even from this distance was his infuriatingly calm tone.

“Papa!” Elodie whined at an ear-piercing pitch. “I’m hun-ghee!”

The entire Inner Circle — who, Alistair noted for the second time in twenty-four hours, had all fought and killed several high dragons — flinched at the sound, and Sera snapped, “Oy, El, keep it down, yeah?” before passing Elodie down the line until Alistair took her.

He sighed and placed her on the floor while he reached for his Bag of Tricks. He spent too long digging for the crackers he knew he’d packed amid all the toys and trinkets she’d already grown bored with, which did not bode well for the next few hours they had yet to sit through. When he finally found what he was looking for, he turned to find Barkspawn nuzzling Elodie, who had sat on the floor and was now laying her head against the mabari’s body.

Elodie smiled and said, “I yuv you, Bah-pah,” patting her new best friend on the head and snuggling into her like a comfortable pillow. “Naptime, Papa,” she said, squeezing her eyes closed like she did when she pretended to sleep.

Hardly believing what he was seeing, Alistair said, “I thought you were hungry.”

Eyes still scrunched tight, Elodie thrust out a hand in her favorite gesture of all — “No!” Before Alistair could respond, she dropped her arm and gripped Barkspawn’s fur in both hands. “I seep wiv Bah-pah now.”

Oh-kay,” Alistair said with a roll of his eyes. He did not expect this to last long, but whatever kept her quiet. Wanting to catch up on what he’d missed, he began, “So what’s —”

But everyone’s eyes were glued to the three on the floor.

Alistair followed their gazes to see both Josie and Trev staring intently at Cullen, who Alistair could tell even from this distance was arguing fervently in defense of something. Probably quite stupid, he guessed from the skeptical looks aimed Cullen’s way by the two women.

That unsettling feeling in the pit of Alistair’s stomach reappeared. What could Cullen be so passionately arguing about at the Winter Palace that Trev and Josie would disapprove of?

Finally, Trev placed a hand on Cullen’s shoulder; Alistair watched as Cullen didn’t react, except for a telltale jaw twitch, which meant he’d barely refrained from jerking away.

Cullen hated being touched, and especially in such an intimate way (also courtesy of those things Alistair didn’t want to think about), except by Alistair, Elodie, and a few choice friends. Alistair had thought Trev was one of them. Either something had changed in their relationship, or Cullen was not in a good place right now.

The unsettling feeling intensified.

Then Cullen nodded once and said, very clearly, “Yes.”

Trev turned to Josie with a shrug and spoke too quickly for Alistair to read her lips, but she seemed to be asking for Josie’s opinion.

Ambassador Josephine Montilyet, avowed expert in the Game, put her head in her hands and shook it back and forth.

“That’s not a good sign,” Varric muttered, as if anyone present needed that translation.

Then Josie’s head snapped up and she pointed a finger at Cullen. At this point, lip-reading wasn’t required — it was clear she was giving Cullen a piece of her mind. Cullen’s mouth thinned, and then he interrupted her, waving Alistair’s note and pointing up at the currently empty chairs at the head of the room and then at himself.

A wave of nausea washed over Alistair, and he started to stand. “I’m going down there.”

“Uh-uh,” Varric said, grabbing his arm and yanking him back into his seat. “Bad idea, Charming.”

“There’s no time,” Dorian said, pointing to Leliana and the nation representatives approaching their seats again.

Cullen was watching Josie, and so was Trev, apparently waiting for her approval of Cullen’s idea, which she had previously so vehemently disagreed with.

Just as Leliana returned to her seat, Josie nodded. Immediately, Cullen turned to his pile of papers and scribbled something on one of them, handing it to a messenger and pointing up to where they were all sitting.

“Hopefully he’s going to enlighten us,” said Dorian. “I do so hate being in the dark.”

Alistair’s eyes never left Cullen, and for a moment their gazes met. Alistair tried to pour all his questions and concerns and emotions into his own expression, but Cullen’s was carefully blank, and in the next instant, he looked away, staring straight ahead at nothing in particular and giving no indication of what was going through his mind, save the tension in his body so intense that Alistair worried he might strain something.

Leliana banged her gavel, and Alistair turned away from the disappearing messenger to see what fresh mischief Elodie was causing.

To his utter shock, she lay against Barkspawn, eyes closed and relaxed in actual sleep. Barkspawn tilted her head at him as if to say, “This doesn’t seem so difficult,” because of course what he needed right now was to feel like an inferior parent to their mabari, who had known Elodie for not even eight hours.

“Welcome back,” Leliana announced.

She began to blather on about the Maker or whatever, while the others others babbled about strategy and a series of other things Alistair couldn’t care less about.

His heart pounded as he watched for the messenger Cullen sent him, and after an eternity of voices buzzing in the background of his attention, he finally saw the man make his way down their row.

“Are you Warden Alistair?” he asked, leaning over Varric.

“No, I’m just wearing his armor and small clothes,” Alistair snapped, snatching the note from the messenger’s hand. As he unfolded the parchment an errant thought crossed his mind.

He was actually wearing Cullen’s small clothes right now.

Cullen’s small but neat writing was far less straightforward than Alistair had hoped.

A —

Understand strategy. Have a plan. Don’t want you here for it, but know you won’t leave. Won’t be easy to watch.

Love you. — C

P.S. Fancy a Game? Knight to F5.

Alistair shook his head, letting Dorian take the parchment from his hand and read its contents aloud.

“What does it mean?” He was ready to burst into tears from worry.

“‘S a code,” Sera unhelpfully explained. “Can’t risk people knowin’ the plan.”

“Well, I’m not a spy,” Alistair snapped. “What the fuck is this plan, and why doesn’t he want me to know it?”

The line Won’t be easy to watch kept replaying in his head, and with every repeat his mind conjured a new, nastier scenario for what he would be forced to watch Cullen go through.

“This here,” Dorian said, pointing. “Knight to F5. That’s …”

He fell silent, and Alistair’s dread multiplied.

“Chess?” Cassandra made her disgusted noise, and Alistair had never felt more kinship with her.

“Chess is the code,” Bull said. “And look. See how the ‘G’ is capitalized?”

“Do you mean to say,” said Cassandra, disbelieving, “That Cullen is going to play the Game?”

“Not exactly,” said Bull. He and Dorian exchanged a look that made Alistair’s heart skip a beat.

Alistair looked at Cullen, hoping for any hint, but Cullen watched Leliana speak with a blank look that Alistair recognized as one intended to hide his most intense emotions.

“What is he going to do?” His voice shook even as he demanded an answer. Surely Cullen wouldn’t do anything stupid, would he?

Oh, who was he kidding? That sounded exactly like something Cullen would do, especially given the note and the mute argument with Trev and Josie they’d just witnessed.

Dorian was the one who answered, his voice was gentle and serious, both things that he avoided on a regular basis. “Knight to F5 is a sacrifice play.”

Alistair stopped breathing.

“Well, shit,” Varric muttered. “He’s not going to play the Game …”

"No," said Bull. “He’s going to sacrifice himself to it.”