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Cassandra arrived with far more fanfare than she would have liked. To be certain, she didn’t care for any amount of fanfare, but the frustrating reality was that her comings and goings demanded the appropriate ceremony. She thought she had grown used to the theatrics over the years, but when the guards scrambled to assemble in a welcoming formation--jumping to attention so violently she was sure the entire retinue sprained themselves--and the wave of voices started rolling through the fortress, she was already grinding her teeth into dust. Everything was always such a damn production. She was glad she hadn’t given anyone prior notice to her arrival. Maker knows what would have been waiting for her if they’d had time to plan.

She weaved through the gathered crowd, waving awkwardly from her saddle and nodding at the words of blessing shouted up at her. Skyhold’s lower courtyard was teeming with people and far more populated than she remembered it being when she left several months ago. The story of the final battle against Corypheus and how Thedas had been saved from the tear in the sky had spread faster than wildfire, and the Inquisition’s reputation grew twice as fast. She supposed the population explosion made sense; people had always flocked to the Inquisition’s banner.

And to its leader.

Anticipation fluttered in her chest. She dismounted and passed the reins to an unfamiliar stable boy, although she kept her hands clasped around them for an extra moment while she studied him. He looked up at her with eyes wide in awe, a slight tremble in his lip. This she had grown used to as well. She tried to offer a reassuring smile, but that only seemed to make the situation worse. The boy darted off, leading her mare towards the stables as fast as his legs could carry him.

She did not enjoy being famous.

The whispers and stares continued as Cassandra made her way up the steps to Skyhold’s main hall. She offered a few half-nods in response out of politeness, but her focus narrowed the moment she entered the hall. The flutter in her chest turned into a steady, relentless beat as she cut a path straight towards the door that would lead to Josephine’s office, and past that, the War Room. Towards her Inquisitor.

She had been gone longer than she intended. Investigating rumors of additional rifts and tentatively reaching out to begin rebuilding the Seekers were both endeavours worthwhile enough to command the attention of one of the Inquisition's top leaders. Weeks had stretched into months, almost without Cassandra realizing it, until she woke one morning with an ache so deep in her bones it stole her breath away. It was time to return home.

Her last communication, outside of the personal letter she had enclosed for the Inquisitor's eyes only, had been characteristically blunt. Her work had gone well, she would begin the journey back to Skyhold, and would make good progress if the roads were clear. She originally intended upon a steady pace, but the larger the Frostbacks rose over the horizon, the faster she rode, an unnamed urgency propelling her at a pace she hadn’t maintained since she was a much younger woman. She arrived at Skyhold a full fortnight before she was reasonably expected.

And now, pushing the door open to Josephine’s empty office, the sharp twinge in her back and cramping thighs were all but forgotten, erased by the promise of soft grey eyes and a shining, lopsided smile.

Cassandra hovered outside the War Room door, leaning close to listen to muffled voices on the other side. The daily midday briefing. She could make out Cullen’s disgruntled rumbling, followed by Josephine’s melodic accent. Leliana had to be in there too, no doubt observing with her usual inscrutable expression. Cassandra heard a thump, then a groan, and a familiar voice rose above everything else, pitched low and firm and utterly aggravated with whatever was going on.

“...I don’t care what his Worshipfulness Marquis von Fancy-Pants says about that, I’m not going to--”

The voice quieted. Cassandra bit back her smile, picturing the scene inside: Josephine sweeping in front of a pacing Inquisitor, holding up a placating hand to cut off the rant before it even got started, Cullen rolling his eyes at whatever absurd request had triggered the outburst. Everly’s distaste of politics had only grown the longer she served as Inquisitor, a fact that she enjoyed vocalizing often. And loudly. Cassandra found that more amusing than anything; the cheerful, easy-going Inquisitor waving her arms and bitching up a storm every time her advisors so much as breathed a word about Orlais. Her smile grew as she recognized the irony of falling for someone prone to the theatrics she normally hated.

That had always been the case when it came to their relationship. They were the opposite in so many ways--personality, background, stature, age--yet it worked. Remarkably so. And she could not imagine the Maker sending her anyone else.

Heart thundering, she pushed open the door.

Everly was bent over the war table, both hands splayed flat on the map of Thedas as she grimly watched Cullen place a line of figurines around the Western Approach. It took her half a breath to realize someone else had entered the room. Her head snapped up.

Grey eyes widened. Everly’s mouth dropped open, Cassandra’a name crossing her lips in a soft, aching whisper that hung in the air. Then she was nothing but a blur of motion, springing over the war table in one leap, closing the distance between them in a flash and leaping into Cassandra’s arms.

The sharp angles of Cassandra’s breastplate stymied a proper embrace, but Everly didn’t seem to care, crushing herself against it with an unmasked joy that made Cassandra’s heart stutter. She lifted Everly into the air easily and was rewarded as their bodies molded together as if they had never been apart. Everly clutched Cassandra’s face with both hands and kissed her.

Everly tasted just as she had the last time they kissed--at dawn in the stables, one final goodbye before Cassandra departed Skyhold. Cassandra was awash in cardamon and clove, mixed with the smell of fresh mountain pine from Everly’s tunic. There was also a lingering, deep red sweetness to her Everly’s lips that Cassandra recognized as a few midday sips of wine, something about which sent every one of her nerve endings alight. The heat of the Anchor against her cheek paled compared to the energy surging through her bloodstream.

“What are you doing here?” Everly pulled back just enough to smile against Cassandra’s mouth, breath warm. “I thought you were weeks away yet.”

Cassandra smiled back, restraining herself from capturing Everly’s full lower lip between her teeth. “I wanted to see you.”

“How hard did you ride?” Everly laughed, pressing their foreheads together.

“Hard enough.”

Reluctantly, Cassandra released her hold and Everly slid back down to her feet. Hunger rose between them even as they stepped apart, and Cassandra couldn’t control the subtle growl that bubbled up from her throat. Inappropriate, graphic images flooded her mind, involving her and Everly and the nearest flat surface. Even though she was tired and dirty and trail worn, and probably smelled of horse and sweat, a burning need eclipsed all else.

Just as she was giving serious consideration to carrying Everly over to the war table, a gentle throat-clearing reminded her they had an audience. Leliana was shaking her head at them both, wearing an indulgent smile. Josephine was trying to hide her amused giggle behind her writing tablet, while Cullen grunted and looked away, cheeks flushed, still holding a miniature trebuchet.

“You always did know how to make an entrance, old friend.” Leliana greeted her warmly. “Welcome back, Seeker.”

Reluctantly, she loosened her hold and Everly slid down to her feet with a sigh. “It’s good to be back,” Cassandra said.

“I take it you’re here because of the news? Among other things, of course.” The feathered end of Josephine’s pen flicked in her direction.

Cassandra’s brow furrowed. “What news?”

“The Divine has convened an Exalted Council at the Winter’s Palace. It’s to be held before summer’s end.” Everly’s reply was hardly more than a civilized grumble. Josephine’s pen flicked again, a silent admonishment at the less than professional tone.

Cassandra scoffed. The Grand Enchanter had departed the Inquisition on good terms, however her reign as Divine was fraught with controversy. Relations between Val Royeaux and the Inquisition were, to put it mildly, strained. While Cassandra had always respected Vivienne--it would be foolhardy not to, frankly--her individual motives remained inscrutable. Even more so now that she was Divine.

A sudden pulse through her gauntlet interrupted her thoughts. Everly’s left hand had brushed against hers, wreathed in green and crackling with energy. The sight nearly caused her to jump backwards.

The Anchor was a fickle thing, prone to outbursts and displays as if it had a mind of its own, but when she had departed Skyhold a full season ago the mark had been calm. Dormant, even, like the battle with Corypheus had finally sated the raging magic. Now it was angry again, spitting fire in the same manner it had just after the explosion at the Conclave. She peered into Everly’s face.

Grey irises still shone, sparking with the same wit and intelligence that had first drawn Cassandra to them, but dark circles lined her eyes. Everly’s cheeks were gaunt and there was a pallor to her skin that seemed impossible given the amount of time she spent on expeditions outdoors. Cassandra realized now that Everly had also lost weight; she felt lighter in her arms than she remembered, and on such a slight frame, even a small amount made a difference.

Desire was immediately tempered, replaced by a clawing fear in her chest. Her Inquisitor was beyond exhausted. Everly stepped back and crossed her arms, an unfamiliar twitch in her jaw. A sheepish look flashed across her face.

“I had not heard. About the Council,” Cassandra managed to reply. One of the advantages of her travels was that she remained insulated from most political news, which she did not mind in the slightest. “Has its purpose been revealed?”

The three advisors all exchanged quick, perfectly-timed glances, an indictment of how long they had been working together. Sometimes Cassandra imagined the group of them all sharing a single brain. The thought used to amuse her. It did not do so today.

“It’s to determine the fate of the Inquisition,” Josephine said.

“Oh.” Cassandra looked back at Everly. The twitching in her jaw had turned into more of a spasm, and tension rippled through the steely muscles of her forearms. Green magic crackled against her bicep. Perhaps the announcement of the Council was the reason for the Anchor’s resurgence--a reaction manifested by Everly’s obvious stress and anxiety. The shadows under her eyes, though, suggested this had been going on for quite some time.

Which also suggested that in all of the correspondence Cassandra had received from Skyhold, both personal and professional, no one had seen fit to inform her.

“Come, Cassandra.” Cullen appeared at her side, clapping a hand on her shoulder. “Let’s get you sorted. I’m sure you could use a meal and warm bath. We can walk the battlements after; the men will be glad to see you have returned.” He lowered his voice conspiratorially. “Let us save the political maneuverings for tomorrow. Maker knows there’s no shortage of them.”

Cassandra huffed. A ball of frustration had wedged itself underneath her ribcage. She wanted nothing more than to steal Everly away to her quarters, to equal parts ravage her and demand answers about the Anchor. She exhaled roughly, her breath emerging as a discontented growl.

Everly’s demeanor shifted. She gave Cassandra a broad, crooked grin and reached out with her right hand, lacing their fingers together. “Go. You need rest and food. I will find you later.”

Cassandra knew the display was for her benefit, but it did nothing to assuage her rapidly-darkening mood. How many times did they have to talk about this? Everly’s aversion to discussing the Anchor was almost pathological--and always tied to the excuse of “not wanting anyone to worry.” Hiding the Anchor’s presence was simple when not staring down a fade rift; the glowing magic was easily concealed underneath an archery glove, and of all the advisors Cassandra was the only one who knew the extent of the pain it caused. Even after they became intimate, Everly still tried to hide her hand from Cassandra’s knowing look. It was as if she were afraid to let Cassandra know how much the Anchor truly bothered her.

Numbly, Cassandra nodded and followed Cullen out of the room. She made it two steps after the door closed before turning on him with a snarl. Ever the strategist, he had placed himself to her right, just out of reach, palms raised towards her in a placating gesture he’d used many times before.

“I know, I know,” he said. “It started getting bad right after you left. She demanded that we keep it secret. She didn’t want you to worry.”

“I’m not worried, Commander. I’m absolutely livid.”

Cullen wet his lips. “Ah, yes. Perhaps she didn’t think that part through.”

Cassandra let out a disgusted noise and stalked down the hall to Josephine’s desk, looking for something to throw. Pristine as usual. Josephine made sure to keep all her supplies locked away ever since Cassandra had smashed one of her nicer inkwells in a fit over some news about infighting between the Nevarran royal families. Luckily it had been nearly empty, and Cassandra had immediately apologized and purchased a replacement on her next journey through Val Royeaux. Still, Josephine was not one to make the same mistake twice. Unlike her Inquisitor.

Leather creaked in protest as Cassandra tore off her gauntlets and threw them down at her feet. It was not nearly as satisfying as shattering an inkwell. Cassandra raked a hand through her hair, dislodging one of the pins that kept her braided crown in place. She yanked out the remaining pins and let her braid fall, grit and grime catching under fingernails. Placing her fists on her hips, she glared at the fire. In addition to the frustration in her chest, a tension headache was beginning to work its way up the back of her scalp and her back twinged again, a reminder of her near-maniacal pace to return to Skyhold.

“Is she in pain?” She stared into the flames.

Cullen came up to stand beside her, hands clasped behind his back. “No more than usual, she says.”

“She hasn’t been sleeping.”

“Yes.” Cullen’s heavy exhale indicated surrender. There was no point in denying it. “There is much still asked of her--too much, in my opinion. The alliance in Orlais is tenuous. We still receive requests for Inquisition forces to intervene in all manner of disputes. And, of course, Divine Victoria and her Exalted Council.”

Somehow, Cassandra managed to restrain herself from punching through a wall. Everly was one of the most powerful individuals in all of Thedas, yet she could not manage to even take care of herself. She did not say that out loud, however; catching herself before her temper overtook her and she accused Cullen and the other advisors of malpractice. Or worse.

Cullen filled the silence. “We’re all worried. Josephine watches her like a hawk. Leliana has trained an entire squad for personal protection duty. She sees a healer weekly. She eats and sleeps as best she can but it’s that damned mark. Only one of us understood that magic.”

Cassandra inhaled sharply. Her jaw tightened. “And what news of Solas?”

“None. Leliana has agents scouring all of Thedas, but there is no sign of him.”

The pain in her skull continued to grow. She scrubbed her face with sweaty palms, smearing accumulated dirt around her cheeks and forehead. Solas’s disappearance was yet one more item to deal with.

“The Inquisitor is fine, Cassandra, and will do all the more better now that you’ve returned.” Cullen handed over her gauntlets. “If anything, I finally get a reprieve from listening to her complain about missing you.”

She whacked him on the shoulder with the buckled end of her gauntlets. Two years ago, the suggestion that someone would so publicly declare their affection for her would send scurrying out of the room in embarrassment. As time passed, she learned to accept it with a modicum of good nature.

“My apologies. I will remind the Inquisitor to be more discrete.”

Cullen waved a hand and led them out of Josephine’s office. “You can make it up to me by joining Rylen and I for a pint at Herald’s Rest. There should be enough time before the feast.”

Cassandra stopped mid-stride.

“The what?”

***

Staring into the depths of her cup, Cassandra swirled the last dregs of her wine and knocked it back with a gulp. One of the servants hovering around the long banquet table immediately rushed forward to offer a refill. She downed half of her fresh cup in one swallow.

There was always a damn feast.

After a bath, a meal and a quick nap that afternoon--all very necessary, all frustratingly taken without Everly--a runner had appeared at the foot of the staircase leading to the Inquisitor's quarters, brandishing a note and a dress coat with matching breeches. In the note, Josephine had apologized for not mentioning it sooner, but that now Cassandra had returned her presence would surely be expected at the dinner tonight honoring a visiting duke, the importance of which was laid out in detail so excruciating it made her eyes glaze over. The conclusion, however, was an offer: in exchange for her attendance this evening, Josephine promised to clear the Inquisitor's entire schedule tomorrow.

(Everly must have gotten a hold of the letter just before it was sent off; those final sentences were underlined three times and a small heart was drawn in the corner of the parchment. Unless Josephine was trying to awkwardly confess something, Cassandra didn’t think the ambassador had anything to do with those edits.)

Sighing, Cassandra had shrugged into the outfit and gone off find Cullen. He, too, was dressed for the event and they walked the battlements in matching finery, Cullen briefing her on the more important news she missed. Afterwards they had met Rylen in the tavern, both enduring his snickers at their outfits. At least they weren’t as stuffy and formal as the dress uniforms Josephine had insisted upon for at the Winter Palace. Cassandra still had nightmares about that damn blinding red coat. Though she remembered fondly how Everly had looked in her uniform, and how the deep blue of the ceremonial sash made her eyes shine.

Cassandra took another drink of wine, slower this time, and let her gaze drift across the table. She was seated at the end farthest away from the duke, sandwiched between Cullen and Leliana and only half paying attention to the conversations around her. The duke--whose name she couldn’t care less about--was at the left of the head place setting, chortling loudly about something that she doubted was as entertaining as he made it out to be. Next to him, at her place at the head, was the Inquisitor.

Everly’s jacket was the same dark midnight blue as hers and Cullen’s, but with just enough gold trim to make her stand out, although not elaborately so. The top two buttons were undone, revealing the curve of her collarbone. A mild look of interest was set across her face, the same expression she always wore when forced to entertain. The Inquisitor smiled and nodded politely at whatever the duke was saying, although even across the table Cassandra could see that the smile did not reach her eyes.

Still, Everly looked better than she had earlier. The shadows under her eyes were no longer so pronounced and color had again returned to her cheeks. Cassandra wondered if Josephine had made her apply a hint of makeup before the dinner to brighten her complexion, but even if that were true, the sight was heartening. The concern that had lodged itself in Cassandra’s ribs began to slowly unwind, as she watched the easy grace in Everly’s movements as she shifted in her chair. Everly leaned back and hiked one foot onto the seat of the chair, draping her wrist over her knee, wine cup dangled from her fingertips. Her other hand was hidden under the table, the faint green glow visible from Everly’s lap. After another polite nod for the duke’s benefit, Everly found Cassandra’s gaze. She smiled, bright and unguarded, then raised her chin ever so slightly and bit her lower lip. The playfulness in her look transformed into nothing but sheer heat.

Tension slipped from Cassandra’s chest to her abdomen, where it started pooling urgently as she imagined running her mouth along that exposed collarbone.

“Not hungry, Cassandra? Or perhaps your appetite is for something else?”

Cassandra turned back to the table. Leliana gave her a knowing look, nodding at the untouched plate in front of her. Eyes narrowing, she shot a glare at Leliana even as a flush worked up her neck.

“That’s hardly your concern,” Cassandra replied, after taking a sip of wine to wet her suddenly parched mouth. Observant, as always. Too damn observant. Leliana just smiled and said nothing.

“It’s a shame you didn’t get here a few days earlier,” Cullen said around a mouthful of venison. Either he was completely oblivious to Cassandra’s staring or didn’t care. Knowing him, it probably was a little bit of both. “Bull and the Chargers left just before you arrived. They would have loved to see you.”

“I’m sorry to have missed them.” The twinge of regret distracted her just enough from the maddening game Everly was clearly trying to play. Cassandra was happy to be back at Skyhold; the fortress was the closest to an actual home she’d had in years, and her time with the Inquisition had not only been influential beyond measure, but had resulted in her making the truest friends she’d ever known. Everything felt just a little smaller, a little sadder without Bull’s booming voice, or Sera’s antics, or even Varric’s constant, needling commentary from his spot in the main hall. She also wondered if that may have had something to do with the melancholy air about Everly.

Cullen launched into the most recent update of the Charger’s adventures, his cheeks ruddy and tongue loose from the wine. Cassandra chuckled along with the ridiculous story involving some pirates along the Storm Coast--half of which surely had to be exaggerated--but couldn’t stop glancing at Everly. The Inquisitor had abandoned all pretense and kept her eyes on Cassandra as if she were the only person in the entire hall, smiling every time a laugh bubbled up from the opposite end of the table, looking like she very much would rather be seated next to them than their guest. The duke continued droning on, his gesticulations looking more and more desperate, as if he knew he was losing the Inquisitor’s attention. Cassandra couldn’t help but feel a little smug.

Josephine appeared at Everly’s elbow, bending to whisper something in her ear. Grey eyes flicked away from Cassandra, listening. Everly nodded once, swirling the wine cup barely grasped in her fingertips, then her burning gaze was back on Cassandra. Without breaking eye contact, she raised the cup to her lips and sipped slowly. Still gripping the cup, Everly dragged her thumb across her lower lip, then, very deliberately, touched it to her mouth and sucked off the last drop of wine with a wicked grin.

Cassandra’s insides turned molten. Her face felt hot, her jacket stifling. Her fingertips dug her into the top of her breeches. Sweet Andraste, how much longer would she be forced to endure this? Not only was she suffering through another pointless dinner, she was actively being tormented. She let out a long, unsteady breath. No matter. When they were alone, she would take her revenge. Everly was not the only one who could tease. The thought of Everly underneath her, restrained, eyes wide and begging for her touch, sent a shudder down Cassandra’s spine and she took a hasty gulp of wine to steady herself.

When she looked back at the head of the table, Everly was gone.

Cassandra didn’t have time to consider how exactly the Inquisitor managed to slip away without anyone noticing. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, and she followed the source of the sensation to the front of the hall, near the ostentatious throne Everly avoided sitting on at all costs. A slim figure in gold was slipping into the Inquisitor's quarters, tossing a look back at the banquet table just as the door closed.

Cassandra glanced around the table. Cullen was absorbed in another helping of food, carrying on with Leliana about the newest class of recruits. Apparently the Inquisition was overflowing with applications of people wanting to join. Leliana was listening intently. At the head of the table, the duke was still going, now directing his monologue towards a member of his entourage. Josephine was standing off in a corner, eyes skyward, as if beseeching assistance from the Maker himself.

She waited a few moments longer, leg tapping impatiently under the table. After what she hoped was an appropriate amount of time--even though it felt like an eternity--she stood and left the table without a word. She caught Leliana’s gaze as she walked away, convinced she saw a look of pride in the seneschal’s eye.

The second the door latched behind her, a pair of hands gripped the front of Cassandra’s jacket and pushed her back towards the wall of the small entryway. She could have easily fought, but in that moment she felt generous and allowed herself to be pressed up against the cool stone. The length of Everly’s body sank into her, the Anchor flaring as Everly clutched the short hair at the base of Cassandra’s neck, pulling her head down. Their lips met, hot and insistent.

“I missed you so much.” Everly kept her voice low, but raw need made the words catch in her throat.

“I missed you, too.” Cassandra’s response was equally low, though it sounded like a growl to her own ears. Her fingers dug into the back of Everly’s jacket, hands aching to feel the warm, taut muscle underneath. To feel the rise and fall of her chest, the beating of her heart. To know, unequivocally, that she was safe and alive and that the Anchor had not taken her away. Yet.

Two small pops sounded a moment later, followed by a clatter at Cassandra’s feet. Unlike the Inquisitor, she had buttoned her jacket all the way to the top of her neck, and apparently Everly was too impatient to just undo them. Everly’s mouth trailed down her jaw, over the pulse point of her neck, until her teeth claimed the top of Cassandra’s collarbone. Cassandra hissed and grabbed a fistful of Everly’s hair, pulling her away to find her mouth, sinking her own teeth into Everly’s bottom lip like a ripe fruit. Lingering hints of wine blossomed over her tongue.

Everly let out a gasp but quickly recovered, grinning into Cassandra’s bite. “Did I put too much of a show on at dinner? I was trying to be discreet.”

“So you enjoy tormenting me?”

“Oh, yes. Very much so.”

How it was her burden to fall in love with someone who was such a tease, Cassandra would never understand.

“You’re incorrigible,” she said hoarsely. She swiped her tongue across Everly’s lip, tasting the last of the wine, and was rewarded with Everly’s shiver.

Laughter drifted through the hall. Heavy footfalls sounded on the other side of the door, then gradually faded away. An Inquisition guard, taking a lap around the hall. The sudden reminder that there was still a formal banquet just a few feet away made Cassandra pause, but Everly showed no such hesitation. Surely their absences were noted by now, and Cassandra was surprised Josephine hadn’t broken down the door in an attempt to drag them back to their seats. The proper thing to do was return, certainly, even if her jacket was torn and Everly’s lips were red and swollen. In the very least, they should make their way upstairs to Everly’s bed, where the sound would be muffled--

The heat of the Anchor snapped her back to the present, a sharp contrast to the cool stone at her back. Everly had worked the rest of her jacket open and her hands were under Cassandra’s light tunic, running over her stomach and settling in the small of her back. Warmth from the Anchor spread through her entire body.

It was a surprise at how quickly she had grown accustomed to the magic against her skin. It was wild and unpredictable, but as much as part of Everly as the blood that ran through her veins. She had accepted that fact two long years ago, and now had come to almost welcome the sensation of heat that followed Everly’s palm. And with each stroke of her hand, with each kiss, Cassandra lost the ability to form coherent thought. Any protest she could have hoped to mount was being stolen away, and soon she couldn’t bring herself to care.

Once, not long ago, she would have dismissed such indulgences as distractions, underwhelming and unworthy of her time. Yet Everly sparked something in her that inspired a passion and recklessness she never thought possible. Maker help her, she wanted this. Needed this.

She gripped the collar of Everly’s jacket and pulled. Buttons ricocheted off the stone wall. Everly let out a small huff of surprise and grinned as she shrugged out of the mangled garment. Cassandra had missed that smile beyond words--lopsided, cocksure, and utterly infuriating--and she wrapped her arms around Everly and kissed her hard.

The heat vanished from Cassandra’s back. Quick, nimble fingers undid her breeches and slipped inside.

A choked gasp filled the alcove and Cassandra wasn’t sure if it came from her or Everly. A sharp jolt ran through her limbs as those fingers began to stroke her in slow, firm circles, completely unhurried, like nothing else in the entire world mattered. Cassandra’s head fell back against the wall, breath ragged, and Everly pressed closer, keeping a maddeningly steady rhythm as she kissed the column of Cassandra’s throat.

Cassandra had almost forgotten about the deceptive strength in Everly’s upper body, the tightly corded muscles through her hands and forearms sculpted from a lifetime of archery training, the dextrous fingers that could nock two arrows at once and let them both fly straight and true. Her hand fell to Everly’s bicep, feeling the muscles move and shift as those fingers slid through her wetness, wringing pleasure from her with such ease it was almost embarrassing. But still, Cassandra’s hips bucked forward shamelessly, craving deeper contact, too far gone to gasp anything other than a single word.

“More.”

Everly kissed her, slow and deep, teeth grazing Cassandra’s lower lip, before shifting her hand and pushing two fingers inside of her.

The sound that followed could only be described as a whimper, and this time Cassandra was sure it came from Everly. The fact that she was responsible for drawing that broken noise from Everly’s throat was nearly as satisfying as the fingers filling her, thrusting roughly.

Everly ‘s voice cracked. All the pretense of teasing was gone now, replaced by raw, overwhelming desire. “Sweet Maker...Cass…”

Another laugh rose above the drone of the banquet, just loud enough to bring Cassandra back to her senses. She clutched the back of Everly’s head and tugged to draw her attention.

“Quiet. Someone will hear.” She swallowed her own moan as she spoke, their hips moving together in unison as Everly’s pace increased. Everly buried her face in Cassandra’s neck, grunting softly. The Anchor burned against Cassandra’s hip where Everly was straining to keep her pinned against the wall. Cassandra ignored the quaking in her thighs and held tighter, fisting Everly’s hair and gripping Everly’s arm so hard she was certain it would bruise, each ripple of hard muscle flexing underneath her palm somehow making her even wetter. She rocked into Everly’s hand, drawing Everly’s fingers into her deeper with each thrust, a sweet ache building within.

Everly added another finger.

Heat flared behind Cassandra’s eyes and shot through the length of her body, pooling between her legs. Everly’s slick thumb began moving in circles. Once, twice, three times. On the fourth, teeth sank into the muscle of her collarbone and Cassandra barely choked back her sharp cry of pleasure.

Everly held her there for a moment longer, chest heaving, before gently slipping her hand from Cassandra’s breeches. Her breath grazed over the bite mark, leaving a trail of soft, soothing kisses along Cassandra’s shoulder and neck before pulling back to look at her. Grey eyes were alight, still bright with lust, cheeks flushed, but her grin faltered and became almost shy.

Cassandra unclenched her hands and brought them up to cup Everly’s face, brushing their lips together. “I have waited too long for that.”

“Me too.” Everly swallowed thickly, still catching her breath. “I thought about just taking you on the war table, right then and there.”

Cassandra arched a brow. “I thought the same thing, although in my mind it was the other way around.”

That lopsided grin was back, as charming as ever. Everly casually swiped her hand on the back of her breeches then grabbed Cassandra’s backside. “Looks like I won, though.”

Now that remained to be seen. Hunger stirred within her again, reigniting the pent up frustration she had felt at dinner. She rose to her full height and spun Everly around. In the blink of an eye their positions were reversed, Everly pinned up against the wall, Cassandra’s thigh rocking between her legs.

“You think this is over? Presumptuous, even for you.” A lone bead of sweat had trailed down Everly’s neck and settled in the hollow of her throat. Cassandra yanked Everly’s head to one side and dipped down to lick it away, following with her own claiming bite to Everly’s neck.

A shudder wracked Everly’s slender frame and Cassandra pressed harder to keep her upright. And yet, despite losing the ability to stand, Everly refused to let her have the last world. “M-merely stating facts, Seeker.” The reply came between strangled gasps. “I did attack first.”

“True. But any attack can be successfully countered, if one is skilled enough.” Cassandra bit softly at the shell of Everly’s ear, grinning at the accompanying whimper. “I suggest taking this upstairs. If you can manage.”

She stepped away. Everly staggered forward, nearly collapsing into a puddle at Cassandra’s feet. Gathering herself, she clutched Cassandra’s hand and pulled her up the stairs.

They came together again when they crested the stairs, tearing off what remained of their battered clothing as they staggered across the room. There was little doubt now they would not be returning to the dinner--which Cassandra was hardly disappointed by. They tumbled onto the bed, Everly landing on top for the briefest of moments before Cassandra threw her onto her back. An unabashed groan slipped past her lips at finally feeling Everly underneath her, the warmth of her body, the way she melted into Cassandra. She worked her way down Everly’s neck to her breasts, smelling sweat and and sex and a slight hint of cologne--a deep woodsy scent that was Cassandra’s favorite. Everly gasped and arched into each touch of Cassandra’s lips, her hand flying to the back of Cassandra’s head as her mouth finally closed around Everly’s nipple.

Cassandra grinned. She should draw this out, she knew, and enact her revenge for being teased at dinner, but she didn’t have the patience. She gathered both of Everly’s hands into her own and shoved them into the mattress above Everly’s head, pressing her full weight onto Everly’s wrists to keep them pinned. Everly squirmed against her grip, and even though it felt like the protest was more playful than anything, Cassandra paused and looked down into Everly’s face. Her eyes were blown wide, lips full and red and slightly parted, the corner of her mouth curling into that irresistible grin. She met Cassandra’s gaze directly and without shame; nothing but love and trust staring back up at her with such openness Cassandra’s heart almost split in two.

She slipped her left hand between Everly’s legs and slid inside, watching in amazement as Everly bucked underneath her, head thrown back, hips rising to meet the rhythm of her fingers. She was rougher than she had originally intended, but no rougher than how Everly had treated her earlier, and soon Everly was moaning Cassandra’s name and a deep flush had broken out across her skin.

Heat surged through her hand, strong enough to make Cassandra tear her eyes away from Everly’s face. The Anchor was crackling in Everly’s palm, green magic swirling around their joined hands. Everly craned her neck to see. Her eyes darkened and became distant, a different kid of tension now in the line of her jaw.

No. This she could not allow. Not now. Not ever.

Cassandra slowed her pace but did not stop. “Look at me, love. Please,” she whispered. When grey eyes snapped back to meet hers--still wide, but pain now seeping into the edges instead of lust--she dipped her head to kiss Everly as fiercely as she could.

She drew her focus inward, honing in on the surge of energy coming from Everly’s hand. Although the magic went far beyond any Templar training, she could still feel the pull of the Fade enveloping Everly, as if trying to draw her in. In her mind’s eye she saw green tendrils twisting around themselves like a braided rope, curling over Everly’s hand and pulsing with each beat of her heart. The magic had burrowed farther into her than Cassandra had realized. But there was something that ran even deeper, that bound them together down to the marrow, something that no ancient magister could overcome. The strength of that bond sharpened like a razor, and she imagined it slicing through each poisonous strand one by one.

The rope snapped.

Everly hissed against Cassandra’s mouth. The magic evaporated, withdrawing back into her palm with one farewell crackle. Cassandra released her grip and Everly’s arms flew around her shoulders, squeezing so tightly the air was almost forced from Cassandra’s lungs. Their bodies molded together and they moved as one, the strength of the union forming a shield that no outside threat could penetrate. It was an act of defiance as much as it was of love, and as the banquet went on below and magic whispered in the air above them, Cassandra refused to stop until Everly was spent and shaking underneath her.

Afterwards, Cassandra pulled the furs over them both and drew Everly into her arms. She didn’t know how long she laid there, listening as Everly’s breathing slowed and eventually shifted into the steady rhythm that signified she was asleep. Occasionally a bellowing laugh drifted up through the hall, echoing off the old stone, and she would tense, expecting someone to burst through the door and demand the Inquisitor's presence.

No one came. The Anchor remained silent. She relaxed, sinking into the bed and eventually closed her eyes, listening to Everly’s heartbeat as she fell asleep.

***

Cold air snaked through the bed covers. Cassandra woke with a shiver. Dawn was just breaking over the Frostbacks and the early morning chill had seeped into their quarters, despite the extra wood Cassandra had tossed into the fire in the middle of the night. Her entire body ached from a combination of her travels and last night’s exertion, and her legs screamed in protest at the thought of rising out of bed again. She tugged the furs up over her shoulder, then slid her arm over Everly’s waist and hugged her closer.

Two breaths later Everly bolted upright, knocking Cassandra’s arm away. She looked around the room, eyes glazed over with sleep and confusion, and muttered something barely intelligible about being late for a meeting. Grumbling at the draft, Cassandra reached for Everly’s wrist and gave it a squeeze.

“It is early yet. Go back to sleep.”

Everly blinked. Her hair was tousled, the dark circles prominent under her eyes, and it seemed to take longer than usual for Cassandra’s words to sink in. After another squeeze, she nodded and flopped down onto her back, but not before giving her left hand a shake.

The chill in the air was forgotten. Worry flared in her chest again, clamping down on her heart like a vise. Cassandra propped her head up on her hand and reached for the Anchor.

“Let me see.”

Everly looked too tired to argue. She rolled over to face Cassandra and offered her left hand, sighing in resignation.

For the first time since she had returned, Cassandra was able to really look at Everly’s palm. She forced her features to remain neutral, even as the sight wrecked her.

What was once a deep, luscious green shimmering beneath Everly’s skin had turned to ash. Blackness seeped into the creases of her palm like she had rubbed her hand in coal, the veins in her wrist dark and pulsating. Deeper though, Cassandra felt the corruption leaching into Everly’s hand and arm, pulsing through sinew and muscle straight to her heart. Cassandra bit the inside of her cheek to stop herself from screaming in frustration, from leaping out of bed and tearing the entire room apart and demanding to know why the Maker would send her such an unlikely yet perfect match, only to take it away.

She exhaled and somehow managed to speak despite her tightly clenched jaw. “Why didn’t you tell me it had gotten this bad?”

Everly’s gaze sharpened, the cloud of sleep lifted. She lifted her chin and pulled her hand back. “And what would you have done?” she asked softly.

“I could have turned back immediately, I could--”

“We talked about this. Your work with the Seekers is just as important as mine. Coming back to Skyhold would make no difference. Although,” Everly offered a shy smile, “I’m glad you did.”

Cassandra pinched the bridge of her nose, struggling to contain the emotions roiling within her. “Everly…”

“I wrote to Dorian. I went to the surgeon. I even had Dagna look at it. I don’t know what else to do.” An edge crept into her voice. “There’s nothing else I can do. This is my burden. And I will see it through to the end.”

Cassandra opened her eyes. The look Everly gave her was strong and steady, and it made her heart ache even more. She swallowed hard and gently cupped Everly’s cheek. “I know you will. But you are not alone.” Her jaw tightened again. “And I will not lose you to this.”

“You won’t.” She covered Cassandra’s hand with her own. The slightest tingle brushed across her skin but that was all. The Anchor was quiet.

Maker, how she wanted to believe that. But she had been there since the beginning, when Everly had tumbled out of the Fade, wreathed in green and gasping in pain. She had watched her collapse after closing that first rift and kept guard as Solas tried to tame the magic rippling through her. She stood by time and time again as Everly thought she had the Anchor contained only for it to awaken in a rage, and laid awake at night watching the glow of Everly’s palm while she slept fitfully, curled up against Cassandra’s side. In all that time, it had only gotten worse.

She felt Everly’s lips curve against her palm, her grin returning as she kissed the rough calluses, drawing Cassandra back to the present. Each memory of dread was also accompanied by this--playful eyes and soft kisses, moments of tenderness that belied the near constant of Everly’s pain. She could choose, Cassandra realized--choose tenderness over worry, choose the present over an unknown future.

Choose a truth she knew as surely as she knew her own name.

She returned Everly’s smile, allowing herself to sink back down onto the pillow. She opened her arms and pulled Everly in.