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Andraste's Asta

Chapter Text

"Her name is Evelyn Beatrix Andraste Trevelyan," her mother proclaimed to the Chantry mother accepting the sleeping child. The carriage had put her to sleep long ago, and her mother was relieved to be spared the otherwise inevitable tears that would have come at parting.

"That is a very unusual name," began the Revered Mother, slightly shocked.

"She was a gift from the Maker's bride herself," Lady Trevelyan cut in, "and her name was chosen to reflect that. It declares her family's devotion and reverence."

The Revered Mother looked solemn. It was hard on a child to be raised as a symbol, but she had seen it before. They tended to either rebel outright or embrace the objectification fanatically.

"I feel I should warn you that Evelyn was not happy about leaving home. She is likely to be quite emotional when she realizes that we have arrived and left. But such a parting would do neither of us any good. She knows her duty to the Maker and she needs to learn to submit to it."

The Revered Mother inwardly cringed. She could see this little one's life stretched out in front of her, and couldn't help but pity her. "As you say, my Lady. We will see her settled in the dormitory with the other girls, then."

"Yes," and Lady Trevelyan looked relieved at her efficiency, "There is no sense in prolonging the inevitable. We will be in the village until tomorrow morning if you need to reach us, and will write regularly, of course. Not often, no point in distracting Evelyn from her studies, but regularly. She is a Trevelyan, after all." She hesitated, briefly, letting her mask drop. "She sometimes has night terrors, Mother. Spiders and the like, running after her. If that happens, don't wake her, just hold her. She can get quite violent if awakened, and it just prolongs the nightmare."

The Mother nodded. "I'm not unfamiliar with such dreams, though," she hesitated, not wanting to offend, "you are sure that she is not a mage?" Just last month a child had been taken to the Circle after freezing all the windows shut in midsummer.

Lady Trevelyan looked shocked, and a little bitter, "None of my children are Magi! Are you suggesting..."

"Not at all my Lady," the Mother soothed. "I should not have said anything."

"Quite right, I will take my leave then." The room seemed warmer after she left, and the mother carried the little one to the outbuilding that housed the Chantry's children. Settled safely in a cot, the little one didn't wake, and the Mother wasn't sure if that was a blessing or a hardship. Perhaps, it was both.

****

"Evelyn Beatrix And..."

"Don't call me that!" Her fist slammed into the little bitch's face, bloodying her nose, surprisingly enough. The brat ran off crying to find a Sister. No doubt to tattle and receive sympathy. Asta, as she insisted on being called - Maker, who wouldn't, given her other options - was used to this. This girl was new. The others had learned that the normally studious and quiet girl could be brought to peak temper with the simple mention of her name. Soon after they learned to leave her alone. This was the first time she had drawn blood, though.

Asta was always alone when she was at the Chantry. Her Great Aunt Lucille had her visit occasionally, and had provided her with lessons in deportment and dancing, but those had been curtailed when her parents had learned of her reluctance in weapons training. She was supposed to be training to be a Templar, but instead of spending the time necessary to learn those skills, she mostly had her head in a book, tome or scroll. Even her mother was pleased at her erudition, but they still wrote rarely, and when they did the letters were filled with words like duty and sacrifice.

Asta had learned early to despise one and scorn the other.

****

"I will have to write to your parents, Evelyn,"

"Don't. Call. Me. That." Asta said through clenched teeth.

"Nonsense, your parents gave you a name before the Maker and I will use it."

"I won't answer to it," Asta said, almost by reflex, thinking more about the latest publication by Genitivi and how it corresponded to what she knew about the Daughters of Song than what the Mother was actually trying to talk to her about.

Realizing this, the Revered Mother leaned onto her hand, hiding her eyes and sighed, "Asta, sometimes we do not get to choose our own fate. You need to accept this, cease this rebellion. Your research is dangerously close to heresy, child, and your destiny as an initiate is at stake. What would you do, where would you go, if you didn't have the Chantry? You've been here for most of your life. You are more than intelligent. Think of the good you could do, turned to a constructive purpose, instead of undermining everything that the Chantry stands for."

The words had penetrated Asta's preoccupation, "What, by donning a chastity belt, shunning elves and dwarves, imprisoning and torturing mages, leading Templars into addiction, all while singing nothing but the edited, censored and abridged version of the chant? Because you know they took all the interesting parts out and banned them. Oh yes, quite a fat lot of good that does."

"Your parents have insisted that you be sent to the Divine's conclave. They have no idea of the misbehavior or the heretical research you've been involved in. I have tried to keep it from them all these years, but even in Ostwick they have been hearing rumors. My child, you want to make a difference? This conclave is the first and only real chance for peace between the Templars and mages since that... insane, misguided abomination blew up Kirkwall's Chantry. At your parent's insistence, and against my better judgement, we are sending you." The audience over, the Mother stood, and motioned for Asta to leave her.

Asta smiled. The Chantry might send her to the conclave, but it didn't mean she would stay.

Finally, a way out.

Chapter Text

When she awoke, her mind was filled with hazy monsters, sickly green light that tainted everything it touched, and a glowing woman who was fading away. The light seemed to continue to glow around her, even once her eyes were fully open.

Groaning, she attempted to move and realized she was chained on her knees. The stone floor had done a number on her legs, and between the chains and her shackled wrists, she couldn't move anything except her head. She let her eyes focus on her hands - that light, it was coming from her left hand. Her brain stuttered in horror and attempted to refocus. They had used mage shackles. That was interesting. Stone floor, a room with no windows, and bars. Bars on the cell. Her brain was starting to catch up, she was relieved to notice. Cells - so she was in a dungeon? Wasn't she in Haven? Since when does a chantry have a dungeon? But then again, that interesting cult that thought Andraste had been reincarnated as a dragon had lived here before the Hero of Ferelden had found the Temple of Sacred Ashes. So maybe they had the cells put in? She shuddered. Not a pleasant cult, then. She vastly preferred the Daughters of Song.

Shaking her head at her own irrelevancy, she continued her assessment of her surroundings. None of it was good. Only one door that she could see, and since she couldn't stand, reaching it to see if it was locked was out of the question.

Then the door slammed against the wall and a raven haired woman marched in surrounded by an aura of command.

"Give me one reason why I shouldn't kill you now," the woman demanded. A second lady, hooded, slinked around the shadows. Asta followed her with her eyes briefly, and didn't respond. If she was to be questioned, she needed more information before she could answer wisely. "Everyone at the Conclave is dead, and the Temple is in ruins! All except for you," the woman obliged.

"And you think I did it," Asta stated, prompting, hoping for more.

"Why shouldn't I?" the woman glared.

"I remember running," Asta tried to concentrate on her dream that may not have been a dream, "and a woman?"

"A woman?" The shadowed woman responded.  "Interesting."

"All those people..." Asta's voice trailed off, "Dead?"

"Yes, and you are our only suspect!" The dark haired woman snarled, and slammed her hand against the bars of the cell.

"Stop, Cassandra, you know we need her," The shadowy woman stood, "Bring her to the forward camp.  I'll meet you there."

Cassandra - and why did that name sound familiar - unshackled her, roughly, and pulled her to her feet without any sign of effort.  Without giving Asta time to get her blood recirculating, she opened the door and pulled her outside, through the chantry, and into the harsh light of day.  Only to be met with a sickening green gash in the sky that somehow echoed into her bones.

Asta fell to the ground, face contorting in pain and horror as the sky crackled through the mark in her palm.

"We call it the Breach," Cassandra said, watching, but not without a trace of sympathy.  "It is a connection between this world and the Fade, a rip in the Veil.  It's connected to the mark on your hand.  It is spreading, and it is killing you."

"And you still think I did this - to myself?!" Asta gasped between the splinters of pain and what must be magic running through her hand.

"Not on purpose," Cassandra looked her in the eyes, "Something must have gone wrong."

Asta managed a snort as she stood, weakly, and brushed the snow off her inadequate clothing.  "This day just gets more bizarre.  But for what it's worth, I will help if I can."  Cassandra stalked off towards the village, the villagers glowering in the background, making Asta shudder with more than the cold.  Such open animosity - she had never encountered such a thing before.  This was the type of hatred that allowed burning at the stake - and it was directed at her.  "Especially since I don't appear to have much choice unless I want to be hung or burnt alive."

Cassandra spoke again, "They have decided your guilt.  They need it.  The Divine's death has hit all of us hard.  I can promise you a trial, however."

Asta, trying hard to keep up with the far more athletic woman, gasped, "Are you trying to reassure me?  Because you are a little short of the mark."

They were through the gates shortly, and the landscape only looked worse. Green bolts of what Asta surmised was Fade energy shot down from the sky, broke the bridge they were crossing and morphed into demons on contact with the earth.  Cassandra shoved her behind as she engaged, and Asta was forced to watch helplessly.  And then she saw them - twin daggers from a broken crate.  Did she dare?  Asta hadn't used any kind of weapon for more than three years - not since the Qunari left Kirkwall and she had to abandon her research there.

Then a fiery claw swiped across her back and her mind was made up for her.  Spinning, she slashed and stabbed the demon in its excuse for shoulders.  It collapsed, and she shook in horror at it and what she had done.  She heard a voice, but it didn't register for moments.

"I said, drop your weapons!"  Asta's shell-shocked eyes met Cassandra's.

"All right, have it your way," Asta gurgled in confusion.  Something changed again in Cassandra's face.

"Wait," she stopped her, picking up the daggers and handing them back, "I cannot protect you.  You'll need these."

Asta gulped and accepted the smeared daggers, "Do you think you could try? I don't know what I'm doing."

"Somehow, I think you'll have a chance to figure it out," Cassandra commented, wryly.

More running, this time up a flight of stairs, Asta wheezing and grunting with her effort at trying to keep up.  At the top of the hill there was a smaller version of the Breach, spitting out demons and wisps.  Cassandra leapt into the fray, fighting alongside a dwarf that looked vaguely familiar and a bald elf mage.  Asta remembered how to use stealth this time, and managed to take out a couple of wisps with only a few bruises.  And then, as she was looking for another target, the elf randomly grabbed her hand.  Power pulsed through and snapped back at her, and the little breach closed.

Still out of breath, Asta gasped, "What did you do?" and stared at her palm as if it were going to attack her next.

"On the contrary, that was all you," the elf replied, not even breathing hard.

"So I can help," Asta breathed in relief.

The dwarf spoke up, "And here I thought we'd be ass-deep in demons forever."  He grinned engagingly, "Varric Tethras, at your service."

Asta immediately started gushing, a well of energy she had thought exhausted pouring through her.  "THE Varric Tethras?  The author?!  I have all your serials, and a signed copy of Tale of the Champion!  It's an honor!"

Cassandra made a disgusted sound.

"My name is Solas, if there are to be introductions," the elf interjected, "I am pleased you still live."  Asta blinked at him blankly.

"He means that he kept that mark from killing you as you slept."

Cassandra's patience was up, "Do you think we could keep this pleasant conversation for another time?  I need to get the prisoner to the forward camp."

"Absolutely, and Bianca and I will be fine company on the way." Varric winked.  Cassandra made another disgusted sound, but didn't protest too much.  The four were off and running, again, before Asta could even catch her breath.

Varric was physically capable of trying to have conversations while climbing steep stairs.  As Asta assured him that she remembered nothing, between gasps for oxygen and ice in her lungs, he advised her on lying believably.  She could only wheeze in reply, as Cassandra chastised him.

Finally, they reached the forward camp, and Asta collapsed onto the ground with a health potion.  Her body would never be the same.  Only to realize shortly thereafter that some jumped up clerk was recommending her as a scapegoat.  And even more oddly, Cassandra was defending her.

"You'd think Val Royeaux would be more concerned about the Breach," Asta muttered to herself.  "But I'm not surprised.  The Sunburst Throne needs a butt, after all."  Varric raised his eyebrows at that, and Asta realized that with her Chantry clothing he had drawn certain conclusions.  Cassandra looked vaguely disapproving, but continued her defense as if she hadn't heard the interruption.

"Leliana, we need to get the prisoner to the Breach.  We need the Commander to clear the path."

"Leliana?" Asta's memory finally kicked in.  "You two are the right and left hands of the Divine."

"Yes, what of it?" Leliana narrowed her eyes at her.  "The valley is the shortest way, but not the safest.  The mountain path..."

"Is too risky!  We lost an entire squad on that path."  Cassandra turned to Asta, and sized her up, "What do you think we should do?"

"Now you are asking what I think?!" Asta asked incredulously.

"It's your mark," Solas pointed out.

Asta took a deep breath.  There was no way she could climb another mountain path, safer or not.  "I say we charge.  My thighs can't take any more climbing."  Varric snickered, and Cassandra made yet another disgusted noise.  Asta glared, "I'm an initiate!  The most exercise I get is kneeling several times a day!  I do research on ancient texts!  You try jumping into running up a mountain after spending most of your life in a chair or on your knees!"  Varric was openly laughing now, and even Leliana was smirking around the edges.  Solas appeared to only have one facial expression.

Asta relaxed a little.  At least none of them looked like they were going to stab her in the back on the way to the Temple now.  And the day couldn't get any worse, right?

Chapter Text

The gated entrance to the Valley of Sacred Ashes was lined with bodies.  Asta counted the cost of bringing her here, and wished desperately that she could do more.

Once through the gate, Asta's eyes were drawn to another rift bleeding more of that sickly green light from the Fade.  Soldiers were fighting demons, occasionally winning, but mostly falling.  There were so many to fight.

Her companions had leapt into battle again, reacting with what had to be years of trained reflexes.  Her eyes focused suddenly on a soldier in maroon, with a golden Mabari helm.  He wasn't falling, but he was being flanked by a demon.  Slipping into stealth, a little belatedly, she snuck around and stabbed at them, landing the daggers on either side of the thing's neck, and recoiled a bit, surprised at the resistance.  This one didn't go down right away, but the screech it let out had made the golden soldier aware of its presence, at least.  Pivoting efficiently, almost gracefully, he thrust and slashed and the demon went down.

Asta tried to focus the rift energy, to see if she could close it before all the Fade entities were down.  It was worth a try, and while it didn't work as she intended, the manipulation stunned the creatures temporarily.  Asta noted that without the demons fighting back, the soldiers had a much easier time removing their opposition.  She closed the Fade tear with a little more efficiency than the last time, hoping she was becoming more proficient.

The golden Mabari approached Cassandra with praise.  "Seeker!  You've closed the rift.  Well done."  He took his helm off and Asta's mouth went dry.  With the winter sun behind him and glinting off his armor he looked like... well, Asta was fairly certain she was meeting an honest-to-Maker knight in shining armor.  Andraste's Ass, he was beautiful.

"Not me, Commander.  This was the prisoner's doing."  Cassandra indicated Asta, who drug herself reluctantly back from her daydreams of white horses and sunsets to smile shyly.

"Really?" He sounded incredulous, but smiled grimly in return, "I hope they're right about you.  We've lost a lot of people getting you here."

Asta's face fell, remembering the bodies stacked outside the gate, "You aren't the only one hoping that."  The Commander stared, shook himself slightly, and turned to give further orders to his remaining troops.  Asta couldn't help but follow him with her eyes, watching him single-handedly support a wounded soldier as he retreated past the gate.  With a sigh, she turned as he left the Valley.  Oh, that wasn't going to be trouble, at all.

***

Cullen heard the screeching of the demon behind him, knowing he would too late to avoid injury.  When the blow didn't come, he spun and slashed his sword through the creature.  As it fell, he saw the prisoner, brow furrowed, connecting her mark to the rift in some way.  There was a muffled explosion and the enemy stopped momentarily.  Suppressing his surprise, Cullen efficiently dispatched the rest before they could recover from their incapacitation.  Strangely reluctant to approach the obviously worn out prisoner afterward, he called out to Cassandra instead.

As expected from the forthright Seeker, she deflected and shifted the responsibility to where he already knew it was due.  Cullen opened his mouth to thank her, and his brain stopped working.  Her cheeks were flushed becomingly, she was staring at him with a sweet smile on her face... and his gratitude came out of his mouth as an accusation.

Immediately he cringed, seeing her face fall.  Hearing her meek reply, he felt like he had just stomped on a puppy.  To cover his chagrin, he threw himself into responsibility, ordering his soldiers into a retreat and carrying one casuality from the field on his own.  He didn't even dare glance back at the woman dressed in Chantry robes.  Once again he had made a complete ass of himself.  Maker's Breath, why did that have to keep happening?

***

Asta shook off the encounter as best she could as they approached the Temple.  Why should it matter what he thought of her anyway - everyone already thought the worst of her and only her future actions would help to make a difference.  She gagged, smelling the sulphur and choking on the ashes still floating in the air with every gust of wind.  Some parts of the Temple were still on fire, even days later.  Stunned, she compared the scene with the last time she had been in the temple, all filled with heraldry and banners of the attendees, topped with the crimson sun of the Sunburst Throne.  The old Temple had been impeccable, filled with beauty and steeped in ages of piety.

Now, it was just a graveyard.  Charred bodies giving off the worst of odors, blackened husks of armor, grotesque remains of what used to be Magi, Templars and chantry members.  Representatives of all Thedas were now entombed in Andraste's last resting place, never more aptly named as the Temple of Sacred Ashes.  Asta sighed, and shuddered, simultaneously wanting to throw up and cry at the wasted lives.

Soon, but not soon enough, they reached the heart of the Temple, and stood on a balcony overlooking the Breach.

"How can I even reach that thing," Asta muttered, looking at the height of the Breach, even more dwarfed by it, now that she was up close.

"No, if you seal the rift below, I suspect that the Breach will follow.  It's the first, and the key to the rest," Solas opined.

"Then let us find a way down," Cassandra affirmed, turning down the adjoining rocky passage.  Varric was noticeably disturbed, to the point of shaking by the red crystals that seemed to be growing out of the walls.

"What's it doing here, Seeker?"

But Cassandra had no answers, and Asta filed away her questions for another time.  She could feel the malevolence of the stones, making her stomach churn even more, and wondered if she even wanted to know.  And then the voices started.

"Prepare the Sacrifice!"

"Tell me that you are all hearing this too?" Varric whimpered.

"Echoes from the Fade," Solas claimed, almost reverently.  "Reflections of what happened here."

"What's going on here?" Asta's voice rang out around her, and dropped a dagger in surprise.  Cassandra turned on her, suspicious.

"Run!  Warn them!"

Cassandra's face turned murderous, desperate.  "That was the Most Holy!  And you, you were here!  What happened?!"  Her grief had tipped her over the edge, and she moved threateningly.

"I don't remember!" Asta protested, backing up, missed the drop off, and fell to the floor of the chamber.  Cassandra watched her try to regain her footing.  The rift shifted, and showed a woman, the Divine, restrained by red magic, hovering in mid-air.  Asta opened the door, looking cleaner and well-rested.  "What's going on here?" the other Asta asked again.  Cassandra choked back a sob.

"Run!  Warn them!" the Divine shouted.  Asta collapsed again.  She had been there, but had no memory or recollection of the event.  She tried, futilely to collect herself, her thoughts.

And Cassandra reached out a hand, and helped her to her feet.  "The Most Holy, she called out to you," she said in wonder.

"I still don't understand," Asta protested.

"First the Breach," Solas suggested.

"Yes," Cassandra agreed, gathering herself.  "Yes.  The Breach, and then answers."

Once again, Asta faced a rift, terror slamming through her with every heartbeat.  "Once you connect with the rift, there will be attention from the other side," Solas noted.

"That means demons," Cassandra summed up.  "Prepare yourselves!"

Asta reached out her hand, shaking uncontrollably with adrenaline and fatigue, and the rift opened.  And promptly spit out a massive Pride demon.  Asta threw herself into stealth, ran around the back of the thing, and reconnected to the rift.  As a fighter, she wasn't worth much, but if the rift outside was any indication she was more help disrupting the rift and stunning the enemy.

It worked, and Pride was brought to its knees.  The soldiers threw themselves at it, and Asta followed, as well as she could, diving in and out of stealth and stabbing wildly at what passed for its thighs.  She barely put a dent in its defenses, and she felt more useless by the moment.

Some smaller demons appeared, so she worked on them instead, taking their attention away until the archers could refocus.  Back into stealth, and reconnecting to the rift, Asta lost track of how often she had to do so until at last -

"Quickly!  Close the rift!" Cassandra cried out.  Asta raised her palm one last time, and lost consciousness.

Chapter Text

Asta woke, groggy and confused wondering why she was still dreaming about spiders the size of Mabari at her age.  Her head ached dully and she had no idea where she was.  Certainly not another cell - there was a fire, and windows with winter light streaming in, and even a picture of Queen Elissa, the Hero of Ferelden, on the wooden wall.

As she tried to collect her thoughts, the door opened and a sweet faced elf with a box entered, intent on her duty.

"Hello," Asta began.  The elf immediately dropped the box and fell to the floor, prostrating herself.  Asta stared at her blankly.

"I beg your forgiveness!  I am just a humble servant!"

"Don't be frightened," Asta tried again, only to have the elf cringe.

"I've said something wrong, haven't I? Oh!" and the elf, face contorted in anxiety, scrambled to her feet, "You are all anyone's been talking about for the last three days, your worship."

"Your... what?"  Asta shook her head, wondering if she was still asleep after all.  "I don't think you've said anything," Asta attempted to put the strange conversation on a track that made sense, to no avail.

"I must go!" The conflicted elf backed up slowly, as if afraid to turn her back to Asta.  "The Lady Cassandra, she wanted to know the moment you awoke!  At once, she said!"  The elf echoed Asta's fear of the Seeker, and they shuddered together.  "She's in the Chantry when you are dressed, milady."  And she backed out of the open door quicker than Asta would have thought possible, never taking her eyes off of Asta, still sitting on the bed, rumpled and confused.

Without a doubt, this day was going to be strange, Asta thought.  Her stomach was waking up and she had no idea where she could find something to eat.  And the Seeker's ire if Asta did not report to the Chantry 'at once' - well, she couldn't even imagine.  Someone had cleaned her Chantry robes whilst she slept, so she put them on, thankful to have something clean to wear.  It also solved the problem of her hair - there wasn't a comb in the room, and the hat was very good at disguising such things.  Once dressed, she took a deep breath, collecting herself for an uncomfortable interview, and opened the door.

She had no idea what uncomfortable meant, she decided at once.  The entire village of Haven was either kneeling or saluting her.  Her first impulse was to run back inside the house, shutting the scene away in denial.  The icy wind whipped through her inadequate robes, making her shiver with more than apprehension.  She hadn't found a cloak while looking for a comb - just a set of ostentatious armor that clearly belonged to someone illustrious.  She would just have to make do, and find out where she could get a cloak later.

The people weren't moving, she realized.  Maybe they were frozen in place.  She would, if she didn't move soon.  Dropping her head, she started walking, her long-asleep muscles protesting the sudden movement.  She walked quicker, trying to escape the uncomfortable stares and whispers that followed her progression.  She hoped Cassandra would explain.  None of the onlookers made a move to touch her, so she relaxed slightly.  It didn't seem like they were intent on making her pay for her crimes, at least.  She strained her ears trying to hear the mutters, and thought she heard 'Andraste'.  Maker's Breath, how had they learned her name?

After that, Asta sprinted - or what passed for sprinting in a Chantry sister with more brains than speed - to the Chantry, overhearing some other sisters she didn't recognize muttering about her work on the Breach.  Stable, but not sealed.  But no more demons, for the time being.  Asta sighed with relief at small blessings.  She dove into the Chantry leaning against the door, making sure it was firmly closed, hoping none of the people would try to follow her inside.  She took a deep breath, and instantly felt better.

She smelled books.  Old books.  Glancing around, she found the expected copies of the Chant, but also a book about the Fade.  Her face lit up.  Just what she needed!  She began to read, wandering idly down the corridor, barely noticing the other sisters and clerics eyeing her warily.  She could hear voices - louder than those reciting the chant, but the book was as fascinating and informative as she had hoped, so she ignored them.  She opened a door at random and walked into an argument.

She had found the Seeker.

***

Chancellor Roderick was an ass, the worst kind of cleric, trumped up on his own power, real and imagined, and convinced that his opinions were those of the Maker.  Asta's only comfort was that obviously the Left and the Right Hands of the former Divine disliked him as much as she did.  The argument continued with Asta in the middle of it, now, as the Chancellor ordered her to be arrested and the Seeker defended her.

That was very disturbing.  "Wait, you think I'm innocent?"  Asta met the Seeker's eyes shocked into direct contact.

And the Right Hand apologized.  Actually apologized, "I was wrong about you.  I might still be.  But there is no denying you are exactly what we need right now."

Asta snorted, "You need a bookworm Sister with few fighting skills who is scarred by something from the other side of the Veil?"

"Yes, we do," the Seeker confirmed, and the Chancellor flew into another hissy fit, which Cassandra broke off by slamming a book so thick that it made Asta's mouth water onto the table.  "Do you know what this is, Roderick?  It's a writ from the Divine declaring the Inquisition reborn."  The Chancellor blanched.  "We will close the Breach, find those responsible and make them pay."

The Left Hand, who seemed supernaturally talented at making herself fade into the background, spoke. "Whoever was responsible for the Conclave explosion had allies who may yet live."  Her demure tone and calm face belied the implicit threat and Asta hoped that she wasn't on the Left Hand's bad side.  Even the Chancellor visibly recoiled.

"And you think I am a suspect?"

"You, and many others," she countered.

The Chancellor left soon after, and Asta hugged the Fade book to her, trying to quell her shaking.  Her best defense mechanism kicked in.

"When I woke up this morning I didn't think this was how the day would go."  Asta realized she had spoken out loud when the Left Hand snickered. 

"Neither did we," the Seeker narrowed her eyes.  "We need your help," she added bluntly.  "You are the only one who can close these rifts."

Asta took a deep breath. "The Inquisition has a very checkered reputation.  At worst it was made up of zealots and imperialists, and at best it was a group of idealists.  Chantry history hasn't been kind to it.  And you want to bring it back?  Start another holy war?"

"We are already at war.  Mages and Templars are fighting each other, Orlais is embroiled in chaos of its own making... we are hoping to stop the madness and bring sanity back to Thedas."

Asta nodded, somewhat reassured, "If you are truly trying to restore order..."

The Seeker nodded, "We are."

"Then I will help in whatever way I can."  Asta held out her hand, noticing it was still shaking.  The Seeker grasped it firmly.  "Now, where can get something to eat?  And maybe a cloak?  Mine apparently didn't survive the explosion."

***

Several hours later, Asta, fed and outwardly calmer, watched as the Commander nailed the Seeker's decree to the door of the Chantry.  She wasn't displeased when he came to stand beside her at the top of the steps.  The Left Hand was sending letters off via ravens, more of a formality than anything else, but it made a nice spectacle for the people gathered.

Many of the clerics and sisters looked visibly upset, and Roderick openly scowled.  The man meant trouble, but Asta couldn't see what could be done about it.

She was a little surprised to be included in the War Meeting afterward.  The others were all famous in their own rights, and she felt like a country mouse visiting a city cousin.  They were gracious, however, introducing their Ambassador, Lady Josephine Montilyet.  Asta thought she looked vaguely familiar, but couldn't place her.  But with the introductions over, she soon forgot the niggling feeling with the announcement that she was apparently "The Herald of Andraste".

Asta stopped breathing for several seconds.  She managed to choke out, "Just how am I the Herald of Andraste?" Her brain ran through the bizarre morning, "Though that would explain the mutters and scared elves running around."

"The soldiers that recovered you from the Temple witnessed a glowing woman.  They believe that was Andraste, and that she delivered you from the Fade."  Asta's eyes swept over the group, stopping on Cullen's, who seemed to be suppressing mirth.

"It's quite a title, isn't it?" He poked fun, "How does that make you feel?" He smirked, and Asta's mind went down for the count.  Merciful Maker, he was deadly when he smiled like that.  She wondered idly if that was how he had defeated Meredith in Kirkwall.

And then she realized he was waiting for a response.  "It's a little disconcerting," she stammered.

He laughed and she decided he needed to do that a lot more.  "I'm sure the Chantry would agree."

Leliana frowned, "Yes, well, it has some declaring you to be our salvation," she started.

"And some declaring you a sign of everything that has gone wrong with the world," the Ambassador finished.  "The Chantry has excommunicated you, and disavowed all connection with the Inquisition," she sighed.  Asta sympathized slightly with the Ambassador's plight, but couldn't help the surge of happiness.  Her smile lit up the room in response.

"Well, it's about time!  Up until now I was only threatened with excommunication.  It's nice of them to follow through for a change.  How else will I learn?"

"I'm sure once the Breach is closed," Josephine began.

"Oh no, I am a heretic!" Asta beamed with enthusiasm.  Cassandra and Josephine blanched as Cullen chuckled.  Leliana raised her eyebrows, waiting for more information.  Asta shot an appreciative look at the Commander, and sighed, ready to explain, "I am - was - a Chantry archivist.  I worked under Sister Dorcas Guerrin for decades - I was her apprentice.  I've been in contact with Genetivi since was sixteen, and before the Blight started.  I specialize in old, obscure Chantry texts and scrolls.  Because of this, I've come to certain conclusions regarding Andraste, the Maker, and many other personages.  I have a particular interest in Andrastian cults."

Leliana was now looking intrigued despite herself.  "What kind of conclusions?"

Asta hesitated, but the desire to talk about her passion won out, "It's well known that Andraste was a Tevinter slave.  Most Tevinter slaves are elves, and that was no different a thousand years ago.  It's possible that she was human, but unlikely.  Given that, she was likely never married to Maferath.  She would have been his lover, at best, but a concubine is more probable.  Explaining why his sons with another woman would have been his heirs.  As for her blood children, I find it likely that they were full-blooded elves, and not Maferath's at all!  Shartan is the logical father, and their parenthood would explain why they were not allowed to marry, and even why one 'disappeared at sea'.  Of course, I think that given the circumstances she chose to disappear, though I have little evidence besides the excision of elves in general after the Exalted Marches." She paused for breath, and surveyed her audience.  "But you didn't come here for a lecture."

They were horrified, and more than a little titillated.  Cassandra was breathing heavily through her nose.  Cullen burst out laughing, "Sister Trevelyan,"

"Sorry, you can't call me that any longer," Asta smiled cheekily up at him, "Excommunicated heretic, remember?  Officially a dangerous person.  Thank the Maker, ever so ironically.  I think I'll go have a drink to celebrate, and find some clothes that don't make me look like a demented chess piece.  Not in that order."  Her eyes slid to Cullen again and grew wicked, "Care to join me?"

The former Templar bowed mockily, "With pride, Lady Trevelyan."  And with that, the war room meeting ended, with the other advisors left in their wake.

Cassandra spoke first, "Do we dare send her to speak to Mother Gisele?"

Chapter Text

The next morning dawned clear and bright, the sun threatening to blind the recruits by reflecting off the snow and ice that surrounded them.  The light bored into Cullen's eyes like a drill, and he regretted the drinks of the night before.

But it wasn't just the drinks, the glare, or the lyrium withdrawal today.  The former Sister Trevelyan was a puzzle, and he hadn't been able to solve it overnight.  They had had a drink, after she changed into what she was assured was armor meant for her use.  It looked ridiculous, all shoulder pads and something that was supposed to be a dragon's spine - but no doubt was quite serviceable.  And could he talk, with his fuzzy cape and Mabari helm?  Probably not.  In any case, they had that drink, and then two more, laughing and joking as if they had known each other for years.  They had been surprised to discover a few acquaintances in common, despite Cullen's time in Kirkwall limiting him to the Gallows.  But the Chantry was only so big, and Asta... Sister Trevelyan, he corrected himself, had been cloistered for her adult life.  So their circles had overlapped a bit.

He had discovered a few other things, as well.  Nothing useful, per say, but she loved fruity drinks, but could only handle two.  She read everything - from Swords and Shields, which made him blush, to ancient Tevinter military history.  She had never felt suited to the Chantry, but loved her work, despite it's limited application. And she didn't resent those that were drawn to the Chantry, either - though she believed parents shouldn't be able to just surrender their children into its service.

She believed in the Maker, but wasn't convinced of Andraste's divinity.  Cullen knew that alone should have had her kicked out years before, but apparently her parents were devout and influential.  She hadn't seen them in years.

She thought he should write to his sister.

She was also a very... friendly drunk.  He saw her to her door, telling himself that despite her status as a religious icon he was worried about someone taking advantage of her state.  While he escorted, well, carried her, she had draped herself over him in a not unpleasant way, apparently trying to ruffle his hair.  Then she tried to get him to come inside.

He had, slightly to his sorrow, maintained his chivalry.

In response, she had pouted.  Like a child.  Her lips were pink, and shiny, her cheeks flushed with alcohol and the cold.  His were red, but it wasn't the cold or the alcohol.

"Herald," he started, avoiding her gaze.

"Ugh, don't call me that!"

Cullen reacted in confusion, "Sister Trevelyan, then?"

Asta shivered in horror.  "Maker, no.  Not appropriate anyway.  Heretic, remember?"

"My Lady Trevelyan," Cullen tried again.

"Oh, you do say it well," she purred.  Cullen rolled his eyes.  This was going nowhere good.  "But I haven't been a Lady anything since I was four and my parents delivered me to the Chantry.  You can try to call me that, but I'm afraid I won't know who you are talking to."  Her smile was brighter than the stars.  And then it fell, and she asked almost pitifully, "I don't suppose you could just call me Asta?  I haven't been just Asta to anyone in a long time."

Cullen rubbed the back of his neck in discomfort.  "Is that short for something?"

"Yes," she replied, smiling, but firmly, "but I'm not going to tell you for what."

Cullen gave in.  "Very well, my Lady Asta, I will try.  Now, I should remind you that you have a reputation to maintain." And was he channeling Lady Josephine now?  It's not like he cared two brass nugs about her reputation. But once again he was continuing his knack for saying exactly the wrong thing, despite what he really thought. "And we have to continue our meeting tomorrow.  We need to expand the Inquisition's influence, and as the Herald you are the best suited to do so."

"My reputation can kiss the Maker's Balls," Asta muttered.  "I'm supposed to be excommunicated.  You'd think that would mean that I could have a little fun."  Cullen started to insist that fun was fine - but she interrupted him.  "Of course, Commander.  I will retire and see you in the Chantry in the morning.  Good night, and thank you for seeing me home safe."  And she had shut the door in his face.

Cullen shook his head of the memory, and started towards Leliana's tent.  No doubt her curt dismissal was for the best, but Asta... Lady Asta, was a puzzle he needed to solve, and he knew where to find the solution.

***

"Her full name?  That's simple enough," Leliana eyed Cullen with a face suitable for Wicked Grace Night at the Singing Maiden, and pulled the Herald's scroll over.  She read for a moment and smiled evilly.  "Oh this is too good."

"Why would you say that?  What is it?"  Cullen reached out for the scroll, but Leliana slapped his hand away.

"Now, now, Commander, I can't tell you all her secrets.  You have to find out some yourself!  But I can tell you the Lady Herald's parents were devout indeed."

Recognition flooded Cullen's face.  "They didn't.  They wouldn't dare."

"Oh yes, they did.  Obviously they intended the Herald for the Chantry since her Name Day."

"They named her after..."

"Evelyn Beatrix Andraste Trevelyan, at your service, Ser and Madam."  Asta had been to the blacksmith's, newly outfitted with shiny daggers on her back and nugskin armor.

Cullen blinked.  She was lovely.  He hadn't noticed her hair or eyes last night.  Her hair looked almost red with the morning sun behind it, and her eyes were a lovely shade of greyish-blue.  Her lips looked just as pink as the night before and he shook his head again to try to clear it.

"Now do you see why I prefer Asta?  At what point does devotion turn into blasphemy?  And I hardly need to have the entire village of Haven or all of Thedas learn my real name - for obvious reasons."

"Then why not just go by Evelyn?  Or even Beatrix?" Leliana wondered.

"Beatrix has always seemed too politically charged within the Chantry.  And there were already those who thought I was putting on airs, dining off my title.  Being a Beatrix would have made it worse.  And I hate Evelyn.  My Great Aunt was an Evelyn.  It's an old lady name.  I'm only 28.  No need to sound geriatric. And the rhyming! Evelyn Trevelyan? My parents must have hated me."

Cullen laughed and even Leliana smiled.  He couldn't seem to help it when she was around.  She smiled at the sound, and to cover his embarrassment pointed to her daggers.  "Do you know how to use those?"

"Sort of?  Hypothetically?  There was a brother from Starkhaven, Brother Sebastian..."

Leliana interrupted, "The Prince of Starkhaven taught you how to fight with daggers?"  She sounded dubious.

Asta blinked, and rambled, nervous, "Well, yes.  He said a bow wasn't much use in a self defense situation - I guess he is the Prince now, isn't he?  And he said Kirkwall was no place for a Sister or anybody, really, to be wandering around without knowing how to protect herself.  Themselves.  He gave classes to all the Sisters that were interested.  I have no real experience, but Cassandra - she said she couldn't protect me, that I need to be armed."

Cullen nodded, satisfied.  "I knew him slightly.  He ran with the Champion occasionally."

Asta smirked, "Did you know that Varric calls him Choir Boy?"

Cullen blushed.  Again with the blushing, this had to stop. Commanders just didn't blush.  "There is nothing wrong with being in the Chantry Choir." 

He saw her face light up.  "Do you sing, Commander?"

Leliana interrupted, again, impatient at their leisurely conversation, "Many of us sing, Herald.  Perhaps at a later date we can organize something to boost morale?"

Asta smiled again, sweetly, "Yes, a Singquisition!  Who could we find to organize it?  Maryden, perhaps?"

"As that may be, we need to have a war table meeting to discuss our next steps.  A heretical movement cannot start from nothing.  Commander, would you collect Cassandra and Josephine and meet us in the War Room?"

"At once, Sister Nightengale."  Cullen bowed and turned to leave.

"Wait, Commander, do you prefer the Ballad of Nuggins or Andraste's Mabari?"  Asta called after him.  His shoulders shook in silent laughter, though he didn't reply.

This woman - no one had ever made him laugh like this.  Andraste's ass, he was in trouble.

***

After he left, Asta turned back to Leliana, with a feeling like she was about to be interrogated, be it ever so gently. Instead, Leliana just gave her a mild look. "What? I was just asking! Morale is important, isn't it?" Leliana raised one eyebrow. "Oh, all right. I'll pin him down after the meeting, then."

"Oh I have no doubt that you will," Leliana snickered, her mask breaking for the first time.

Asta stared, and then burst out laughing.  This felt a bit like having a girl friend.  It felt good.  And then her face grew thoughtful.  "Leliana, Cull-, I mean, the Commander was a Templar, correct?"

"Yes, that's right."

"Do you know how devout he was?  Is?"

"Why, Asta!  Why ever do you ask?"  Leliana's mask was back on, innocent as ever.  "Such things are between him and the Maker, are they not?  I'm afraid you would have to ask the Commander yourself."  With a sweet smile that never hinted at the years of experience behind it, she led the way into the Chantry.

***

Cullen had never felt so grilled, not even when the Seeker came to investigate the disaster that was Kirkwall.  How did they get on this topic?  When the meeting adjourned, Asta had asked to talk to him, privately, which had made his heart race on it's own.  And yes, his voice cracked.  Maker's breath, was he 18 again?  He tried deflection, he tried answering her questions logically and informally, warming to his subject, thinking her truly interested.  He found himself telling her how much he loved to learn, strove for perfection in his Templar training, only to have Asta, the Herald, he corrected himself.-Andraste's ass, when did he start having problems with due respect?- ask him about celibacy.  "Why would you ask?"  He somewhat panicked.  Asta sweetly reminded him that as a declared heretic she no longer felt herself bound by any vows to the Chantry or Maker.  And she had confessed as much up front.

So he gave in.  "No, I have taken no such vows.  And I am not a Templar any longer, as I have said before.  Maker's Breath, can we talk of something, anything, else?"

Only to have Asta -the Herald- Maker's Balls, he had a problem - beam at him like the sun and say "That's all I wanted to know!"  And skip - which inevitably drew his eyes to her backside - away, with a heart not much lighter than her feet.

This woman was going to kill him.

Chapter Text

“You want to contact my parents?”

“Yes, in a nutshell. The Inquisition needs funds and support, and your parents are known to be wealthy and influential. Should I write to them?”

Asta had shrugged, pondering. “I haven’t seen them in years. But from their letters I could see this going in one of two ways. No, three.” She proceeded to count them out. “They may be so proud of their daughter, the Herald of Andraste that they shower you in funds and spread the news far and wide that they knew all along I was destined to be hand-picked by the Bride of the Maker herself. My mother might go so far as to make up a dream she had while she was carrying me, and so on. That would justify many of their choices about my life.”

“Do you find that likely?”

“Not so much. I could be surprised, though.” Asta continued, “They could also proceed to denounce everything the Inquisition stands for, including me in the deal. They could use their limited contact with me as evidence that they knew all along I would go bad, mad heretic that I am. I could see my former Revered Mother using my research as evidence - though I brought copies with me, it was destroyed at the conclave. At least it’s coded - that will take her a while to decipher. Not long enough, but buy some time at least.”

“You should tell Leliana that you have experience with ciphers. She can use that.” Josie made a note.

“Gladly. It would be nice to be useful beyond being a holy symbol with a green hand. I make up my own, actually.” Asta continued to think. “The third option is the most likely. I find it probable they will likely try to play both sides. Support the Chantry from their front door, while funding the Inquisition from the back. They may use any information we provide them to make them look better, more holy, more in touch with the Cathedral in Val Royeaux. It’s a risk, and one that you and Leliana will have to decide on.”

“I see. Are you not on the best of terms with your family then?”

“I heard from them about twice a year. They sent Satinalia gifts. But the closest I was to a family member was my Great Aunt Lucile.” Asta’s eyes flashed in recognition. “That’s where I know you from! Great Aunt Lucile’s Summer Ball!”

“Were you… oh my, this is embarrassing. I can’t believe I didn’t recognize you. I remember the talk - a Sister who could dance like that!” Josie made another note. “That’s something else we could use.”

“Oh, don’t feel guilty about not remembering me. People tend to see sisters as faceless non-entities. I was no different. We are trained to have as little presence as possible,“ Asta paused again, “Yes, Great Aunt Lucile always did love a party. She insisted I attend. She thought I needed an outlet. Thought my parents were imbeciles for sending me away. We got along so well.” Asta’s throat closed up. “I was devastated when I learned of her illness. I couldn’t get permission to leave in time. I would have liked to say good-bye.”

“What about other relatives?” Josie tactfully changed the subject.

“Well, I would interact with a few family members at the Ball, of course. But none wrote to me. Most I haven’t seen since I was four. It’s unlikely, I think, unless my parents lead the way with singing my praises. That is a thought, though. I wonder if Philliam…”

“Philliam?” Josephine thought a moment. “Isn’t he a bard?”

“He most certainly is. And a distant cousin. We did write. I loved to hear about his travels - he made it as far as the Hissing Wastes! I believe he’s mostly retired at this point, but you could write to him. His skills would be invaluable to both you and Leliana.”

“I have to admit, Lady Trevelyan, that I am surprised that you are so proficient at the Game,” Josie hesitated.

Asta laughed, “My Lady Montilyet, I am an admitted heretic that was ensconced in the Chantry for over two decades! I spent my entire life hiding what I really thought, saying what needed to be said, doing what I believed to be necessary in order to continue with my research. Trust me, I’m a master at the Game. And I could tell you and Leliana stories… but some other time, perhaps.”

“Of course, I need to get back to work in any case. Are we in agreement?”

“Yes, you have nothing to lose except what little information the Revered Mother can glean from my research. Contact my parents and see how they counter. I’m curious myself. I do believe the Inquisition is in good hands, Lady Montilyet.”

“I could say the same, Lady Trevelyan.”

“Just call me Asta.”

***

Asta was dragging her feet. Her next appointment was inevitable, but anything - physical - was not her forte. And this was going to be humiliating. In front of Him. The Commander. Cullen.

Her mind rolled around his name as if it were an Antivan Chocolate on her tongue. Maker’s Breath, he made her want to do the naughtiest things. She had spent her whole life in restraint, true, but little was from her own self control. Evidently she was going to have to learn some, or die of embarrassment long before she made her wishes come true. She had scared him the other night, after he carried her home.

But first, training. Cullen and the Divine’s Right Hand - would she ever be able to call her Cassandra? - had both indicated she needed to be, if not battle ready, than at least adequate. And she knew how far from adequate she really was. Yet they were determined to send her to the Hinterlands to meet this Mother Gisele.

She approached the training yard with trepidation. Cullen saw her, and took an eager step forward, as if to meet her. She continued to walk in his direction, noticing his progress being impeded by several runners and a hapless recruit.

“You there! That’s a shield in your hand, block with it! If this man were your enemy, you’d be dead.”

Asta mouth dropped open, and she shut it hastily. It was entirely unfair that a single human should be so blessed with looks, a quirky smile, a throaty laugh and a commanding voice. What she wouldn’t give for that voice to command her to do a few things… and then she realized that was exactly what she was there for. Maybe this would be fun after all.

***

Cullen asked her to walk with him briefly, since he wanted to see what she could do away from the raw recruits.

He was speaking of the Inquisition, and his decision to leave the Order. Asta was an excellent listener, making eye contact while trying to dodge sparring recruits. He got a little too enthusiastic, speaking so passionately about the good they could do, and seeing her rapt face, he was embarrassed, smiled slyly and said, “But you didn’t come here for a lecture.”

Asta smiled in return, recognizing her own phrase from the day before. “No, but if you have one prepared, I’d love to hear it,” in a sultry yet cheery voice. Cullen nearly dropped his clipboard. He rubbed the back of his neck, awkward, staring into her eyes, those eyes. His own dropped again to her impossibly pink lips, and he stammered.

Andraste’s knicker weasels, it was happening again.  He hadn't stammered this much since... “Uh, there’s… a lot of work… left to do…” he trailed off, watching her smile bloom with his shyness. And then a runner. Thank the Holy Maker for the runner, he could have kissed the man, for giving him enough time to recover. “As I was saying,” he smirked, looking blankly at the clipboard and signing off without reading it. Surely it wouldn’t matter this once, and Asta, the Herald, he corrected himself, would see that he was busy and important. He would make a good impression for once.

The runner took off back to Leliana’s tent immediately.

The two found themselves back in the woods beyond the Chantry, in a small clearing. Cullen cleared his throat.

Asta started, her mind obviously elsewhere. “So where should we begin?” She asked, shyly. “I really don’t know hardly anything.” She started to shrug out of her cloak for better movement.

Cullen tried to find a train of thoughts, “Did Brother Sebastian teach you any thing about stealth?”

Asta’s face lit up, “Yes, I can do that. Before I had to go back to Ostwick, he was starting to teach about knockout powder, but I never got that far. Too bad, it sounded useful.”

Her arms were bare now, and she was wearing a loose tunic with nothing but a breast band beneath. Cullen cleared his throat again, trying to stop staring. “Aren’t you cold?”

“We will be moving soon enough, won’t we?” Asta looked surprised. “This is what I always wore during the Brother’s classes.”

Maker’s Breath, those pants were tight. Cullen dragged his eyes away from her form, with extreme difficulty. It was no wonder the Brother had left the Chantry to take back the throne, if he was being tempted weekly by that… Cullen reigned himself in. He had a job to do. An important job to do. He was very busy and important. Yes. That.

“Okay, then I want to you slip into stealth, and try to attack me.” His voice sounded deeper, much more assured. This was a very good thing. He was competent and… she had wrapped her arms around his neck from behind.

“Like that?” She breathed into his ear. Cullen swallowed.

“Yes, very good.” She let him go, slowly sliding down his back. Cullen mentally recited a short portion of the Chant, to keep his focus. “You are quite fast.”

“Yes, Brother Sebastian said I could use that to my advantage.” She was in front of him again, a picture of an attentive student. “But it’s only good for short distances. I don’t have any endurance.”

“Well, stamina comes with practice.”

Asta rolled her eyes back up to him, concentrating on his mouth. He licked his lips nervously. “I suspect I’ll need to practice a lot.”

Cullen rubbed the back of his neck, and then drew his sword. “Okay, now I’m going to attempt to attack you. I want you to dodge or parry only, understand?”

“Yes, Ser.” Asta saluted with one of her daggers. Cullen’s mind went blank again. She was impossibly cute. And he had to get it together. So he lunged, and she dodged. He slashed, and she parried. He slowly increased his speed, until she was missing regularly, resorting to dodging all the time.

Stopping, without even breaking a sweat, he said, “I think you have the basics, but like you said, we need to work on your stamina and parrying speed. Also, I think we need to try to find a few more attack formations for you to use. Overhand is not always practical. How do you feel about poison?”

Asta blinked, “I have no thoughts about poison. Isn’t it dangerous to run around with poisoned blades on your back? What if you scratched yourself accidentally?”

Cullen laughed, “Ideally you wouldn’t carry poisoned weapons without carrying the antidote as well.” Asta relaxed at that.

“That does make sense. I really have no idea what I’m doing.”

He smiled, more in control now, more in charge. “I wouldn’t say that. You know that you are most effective when you get in fast, attack, and get out of the melee. Stealth is your best friend, speed your second. Flanking is best, when you can, otherwise if someone comes at you directly, dodge or parry.” He cleared his throat to take the next step, wondering why it felt so inappropriate to suggest. “I believe when you are in Haven we should meet every day, if possible. You need to feel comfortable around your blades. Right now, I think you are too aware of even carrying them around.”

Asta laughed, and he resisted the urge to do the same. “You could say that,” she agreed. “Just carrying them around this morning has made my shoulders chafe terribly.” She turned, and dropped the shoulder of her tunic slightly. “See?”

See? All he could see was a slight red line underneath where the harness would lay, and beyond that a large creamy expanse of white skin. Maker, she looked soft. His fingers twitched, and he looked up at her, as she peeked coyly at him over her shoulder.

“Uh, I’d better get back to the recruits. And that report from Leliana probably needs following up on,” he stammered, again. Asta’s face fell, and he wanted to give in more than anything, to spend the rest of the afternoon right there. But she was already shrugging back into her cloak, and strapping her weapons back on.

“I understand, Commander. I can’t take up any more of your time.” She wouldn’t meet his eyes. Maker, why did he feel like such a heel?

“Will I see you tomorrow? At about the same time?” He asked gently, wanting to at least try to make up for his inevitable bungling.

She smiled at that. “Tomorrow, yes, but the day after we leave for the Hinterlands. Mother Gisele shouldn’t be kept waiting, Leliana says.”

“Then tomorrow then,” Cullen bowed slightly, half smiling. “I look forward to it.”

***

Upon reaching the Chantry, he noticed Leliana smiling that evil smile again. He detoured, intent on finding out what had her grinning. Hopefully she would tell him.

Instead of speaking, Leliana just handed him a report with his signature, claiming that he was the rightful heir to Par Vollen, declaring that Chancellor Roderick was a nug-humping hack, and his undying love for the Herald of Andraste.

“We really can’t afford that level of distraction, Commander.”

Cullen ripped the report into shreds, smiled too sweetly at Leliana, and replied, “It’s a bit too late for that.”

“At least watch what you sign in the future?”

“That I can do.”

“And maybe someone else should oversee her training?”

Cullen immediately protested, “It’s not going to be often enough to inconvenience someone else.”

“I could do it. We have a similar skill set, even.”

Cullen protested, knowing while he did it he was being pushed in a certain direction, “Exactly why she should practice against a different opponent. We both know her real challenges will be from warriors, not other rogues. However, if you have any suggestions, since I have no doubt your scouts were observing us the whole time, I would like to hear them.”

“Hmm, the best one I could make is that next time, you should take your shirt off, too.” Leliana stood up with that, and left the tent to take care of her other responsibilities.

 

 

Chapter Text

Mother Gisele was Orlesian.  Asta knew how to handle an Orlesian Revered Mother - she'd been doing just that for decades.  Most important to remember was that they are always convinced that what they want to happen is the right thing.  They won't change their mind, but you can sway it, as long as you keep in mind they will try to sway yours as well.  Deflection of direct questions, never too honest, but a little humor is safe, and ask obvious questions so they underestimate you.  Always appear humble, even when you know that they are less intelligent than you are.

With that kind of knowledge, Mother Gisele was putty in Asta's hands.  She hadn't gotten much out of her, except for the feeling that she wanted rather than believed her to be holy.  And at least as far as the refugees were concerned, Mother Gisele's motivations were pure.  After she got back to Haven... well, Asta would let Leliana deal with her then.  And she would be returning to Haven, with rather convenient lists of Chantry members that would assist the Left Hand and the Ambassador.  It had been a little too easy, and why did Gisele need her to come all the way here to see her? But Asta was in no position to ferret out the Mother's secrets.

Still, Asta considered it a victory, and Maker knew they needed a victory.  No sooner had they arrived in the area than a scout, obviously overworked and worried, informed her that the Crossroads was a battlefield.  Asta had swallowed, looked at her companions, and thanked the Maker that Cullen had taught her to use knock-out powder before she had left.  She had been sparring with Cassandra every night when they stopped to camp.  She wasn't ready, would never be ready, but she didn't have much choice.

The Crossroads was filled with cold, hungry people, caught literally in between mages casting spells down the hills and Templars coming through from a nearby Valley.  Innocents were being slaughtered by those sworn to be their protectors and mages that were both power hungry and never had the chance to learn restraint.  It was a powerful message for Asta, of the responsibility of her new found liberty.  So many of the ordinary people were dead, dying or injured.  The rest were starving, living in caves and ruins - and that's if they were lucky.

After the skirmish had been cleared in the most bloody way imaginable, Asta stared up at the statue of Andraste that had been erected on the mountain behind the waterfall.  Had this been what she intended?  These people's faith in Andraste hadn't done them any favors that she could see.  She tried to shake off her melancholy.  Someone had to take care of these people, and evidently, thanks to Mother Gisele, that someone was her.  She had to be useful somehow.  In the battle, she had been useless.  She tried, but her lack of strength and only relative quickness left her a hindrance rather than a help.  In the end, a Templar with a tower shield had knocked her out.  She had revived after the fracas to a pounding headache and a frantic Cassandra. 

Andraste's Ass, what could she do?  Gritting her teeth, she marched off to find a quill and a scroll.  She took stock of their resources.  There was clean water that could be boiled from the waterfall that fed the small river that flowed through the settlement.  She wrote that down, feeling better for having something, anything on the page, and then started talking to people. 

They needed everything except water, apparently.  Medicine, healers that knew how to make it and use it.  Food, blankets, warm clothing.  Protection from mages, Templars, bandits and wild animals that were just as hungry as the people.  Asta's notes were getting longer, but she was getting some ideas.  Corporal Vale was training people - perhaps they could assist with the protection side of things.

Many of the people there had skills of their own, but were too scared to use them.  She spoke to a mage healer, Ellandra, who had been helping, until a Templar had targeted her and killed her patients just for being there.  Asta was beginning to understand.

It was all about fear.  Templars and refugees feared the mages with powers they didn't understand, even if they wanted to help rather than hurt.  Mages feared Templars because they had been systematically preyed on and oppressed for ages.  Thedas had become a world of fear, and Asta hated what it had become.  She had to try to stop this fear - it was more dangerous than the Blight.

So she wrote the Commander to ask for troop assistance.

Commander Rutherford,

Greetings from the Hinterlands.  Truly, there was never a place so aptly named.  No matter where we visit it still seems like the middle of nowhere.

Honestly, Commander, things are much more dire than you or even Leliana have been led to believe.  The day I arrived the refugees had eaten their last loaf of bread - and that had been provided by Corporal Vale's people, who aren't much better off, since they have been sharing what little they have.  Mostly the people here are living off of water and pond weeds.  Most of them have been burned off their farms with nothing but the clothes on their backs.  And it was only mages starting the fires half the time.  Templars are locking mages and innocents inside houses and committing murder by arson.

The tragedy here oppresses me.  We have already provided what assistance we can - we've hunted with Varric and Bianca's help, since baking is beyond our skills, and the local baker is ill with a breathing sickness.  We've located several rebel mage caches that have helped with blankets and winter clothing.  But without removing the threats apparent nothing we can do for these people will last.

As I have said, Corporal Vale has a small force here, mostly scouts, but needs reinforcements.  We've pinpointed both the Templar and Mage main camps, but lack enough manpower to break them permanently.  And as desperate people are wont to do, some refugees have turned to banditry in an attempt to survive.  In short, we need soldiers, Commander.  A four, or may I say, three and a half, person team isn't enough to make a difference.

I miss our training sessions, Commander.  The knock-out powder has been invaluable for capturing informants.  I eagerly await my return to Haven and the other knowledge you may choose to impart.  Not to mention I am very tired of losing consciousness at the worst possible moments.  One of my so called 'close calls' may end me.  I'd hate for that to happen before... but perhaps I say too much.

Leliana, when you decipher this, please make the copy without that last line?  Or even delete the entire last paragraph?  Whichever you think is best.  I rely upon your discretion.

Sincerely yours,

A. Trevelyan

Asta rolled the scroll and attached it to the raven.  She should write to Leliana about the suspicious Giles, if nothing else, but she was road-weary, disgustingly gory, sore from hiking all over the hills and just wanted to sleep.  And while she could appreciate the fact that she had a bedroll when so many refugees did not, she longed for a real bed, or even her cot at Haven.

The Right Hand of the Divine entered the tent at that moment, and threw a jar at her.  It hit Asta in the head, naturally, but she still picked it up.

"It's liniment.  A... friend of mine used to make it for me."  She said, almost shyly.  "It will heal your muscles, dull the pain, and allow you to rest."

Asta blinked, "I have a hard time believing you ever needed such a thing, Seeker Pentaghast."

Cassandra sighed, "I was born into Nevarran royalty.  My uncle treated me like a porcelain doll on a shelf.  Until I was a teenager I barely saw a sword, much less used one.  I assure you, when I was training to be a Seeker, there were many nights I needed such a thing.  And if I am to call you Asta, Herald, then you should call me Cassandra."

"Will you hit me if I don't?"

"We've already sparred for the day.  I will not take further advantage."

"Was that a joke?" Asta smiled.  "Very well, Cassandra.  It's nice to be something other than a title."

"I quite agree."

***

She was trying to use the basic map that Cullen had provided to find a way to Master Dennet - apparently a rancher in the area who was known for his superior horseflesh - without having to go by the main Templar encampment.  They just weren't prepared for that, no matter how out of practice the Templars were, in Solas' opinion.  If they got the horses, they could go home.

All infatuation with a certain officer aside, Asta was longing for a real bath, and food that had something other than hunger to season it.  Varric was whining about ale almost every night now.  Even Solas was hinting at delivering the roots and herbs they'd been gathering to people that could use them.  But the horses - Cullen had asked specifically for the horses and she wasn't going to let him down.

If she brought him horses, he might be grateful.  And she would have a good excuse to talk to him, instead of babbling about how he thought the recruits were coming along, or if he liked working with Josephine.  And it had been a week since she had sent her letter.  And no reply had been forthcoming.  He probably didn't have time to reply to silly girls that didn't know which end of a sword to hold.

They turned around a large rock and suddenly Asta's head was under water.  Gasping, she floundered back to the surface, and grabbed the hand that was in front of her face.  It pulled her effortlessly to solid ground, and whacked her back while she spit up stagnant water.  She focused on her savior, with difficulty.

"Thank you, Ser..."

"Dennet.  Master Dennet.  These are my lands, Miss..."

"Trevelyan.  Asta Trevelyan.  And you are just the man I'm looking for.  I'm an agent for the Inquisition, and we need some horses."

Master Dennet burst out laughing.  Asta blushed, knowing his opinion was being colored by her, dripping wet and covered in Druffalo pond scum, apparently incapable of watching where she was going.

He recovered eventually, and invited them to camp on his land, while he discussed his terms.

"Watchtowers?"  Asta put her still wet head on her still wet arms.  "You want us to build watchtowers."

"And take care of the wolves," Elaina, Master Dennet's wife threw in.  "That's prime horseflesh you are asking for, and not wanting to pay for it in coin, either.  I heard what my man said, and some towers and a pack of wolves and a rift or two on the property isn't too much to ask."  Master Dennet nodded, arms crossed.

"Do you have a quill and some paper?"  Cassandra made a disgusted noise.  "I swear, I'm never leaving without writing tools again.  But I have to write a letter."

Commander Rutherford,

Greetings from Master Dennet's farm.  I'm currently writing to you with my boots - my white nugskin boots, mind you - caked with Druffalo and horse shit, and my hair full of pond scum.  Build this man some fucking watchtowers, please.  He saved me from drowning in his Druffalo pond.  I'll kill the demon-cursed wolves - Maker's Balls, I hope I'm not being literal right now - and close his rifts.  But I don't know anything about construction.  And we can't have the horses before we start the towers.

I'd wish you well, but I know that you have to be better off than me.  You are probably sitting in a warm place, with a flask of whiskey or rum, reading my letter between reports.  Hell, you are probably in a warm bath right this second.  I might hate you.  And regards to Leliana.  I hate her too.  And Josie, sweetheart?  Antivan chocolates would be nice.  I'm saving the Inquisition a ton of money with this deal.  My parents raise horses, and these are the best of the best.  Don't tell Dennet I said so.  He's got too much advantage already.

Filthily yours,

A. Trevelyan 

Chapter Text

Cullen was trying to write a letter. It wasn’t going well. He had been trying to write the letter for three days. Half a dozen drafts were in the waste basket behind him - and those were from today alone. Maybe he was doing this wrong, he thought. Maybe he should just treat the letters as another report, however informal in tone.

He started again,

Lady Trevelyan,

Ugh, already he was in trouble. He could just see the faces she was making upon reading her title. Too late, he had to get this written. Leliana would nag him about it again if he didn’t, and then threaten to write it herself and sign his name. Maker only knew what she would write if that happened.

I have received your correspondence and fully agree with your assessment.

He paused, nibbling his quill. So far so good. Stuffy, but concise. It was late, and he was tired. He raked his hand through his hair, and moved a candle closer, for the better light. He needed to get this done, so he could try to sleep. He slept so little that every hour was a gift. He re-read the single line, painfully aware of how cold and detached his words sounded compared to hers. But press on. A letter, any letter, would be better than Leliana taking matters into her own hands.

I’m sending who we can spare, and they are under Lady Cassandra’s command upon their arrival in the Hinterlands. Unfortunately, that will delay your own return until the objectives have been reached and the dual encampments quelled.

I have attached a Master Builder to the corps, who should, with the manual labor of the soldiers, be able to build the requested watchtowers.

Lady Asta, I would like to enquire about the necessity of you killing wolves…

And he stopped, his desire to communicate his worry warring with his need to be professional. And then declared aloud, “To the Void with it!” and continued.

…and while I am glad you are finding my instructions, limited as they have been, to be useful, Minaeve has recently begun to suspect that all animals are affected adversely by the rifts. Please, Lady Asta, be cautious. Let Cassandra be your shield, as I cannot be.

Maker’s Breath, that was too forward. He nearly crumpled this draft as well, but he braced himself. Was he afraid of a few words?

I, too, miss our sessions, and imagine there is much we can teach each other, given time and opportunity.

He wanted to add something about how her description of herself, covered in shit and pond scum, dripping with water while negotiating an important contract for the Inquisition had made him laugh out loud, startling his lieutenants and several recruits, but couldn’t think of how to phrase it. So instead…

Lady Josephine informs me that, in her words, she is ’exceedingly grateful at your personal sacrifices for our cause.’ I suspect that means that Antivan chocolates are beyond her at this point, but that perhaps in the future, she will be able to express our gratitude in other ways.

Now, my bath has been drawn, so I will sign off. After all, Cleanliness is next to Holiness, as they say.

Sincerely yours,

Commander Rutherford

Before he could regret it he left his tent for Leliana’s, attached it to a raven while she watched, impassive. And left, saying nothing, and trying very hard not to think of Asta curled up in a warm bath in his tent, dripping of pond scum.

***

Her return was understated, as they had sent a raven ahead after ousting the Templar and Mage camps, informing them first of their success, and second of their imminent arrival.

The bath was waiting for her, no doubt Josephine’s doing, since she and the Commander apparently worked so well together. She stripped quickly, swearing that she could still smell Druffalo shit and algae on the once white, now grey and green, leather. Maybe she could burn them. Would leather burn? Even if she had to wear her Chantry robes, she was never putting those things on again.

Dunking her head under the water in a attempt to dislodge the dirt in her hair, her thoughts strayed. The Commander’s letter had been surprising. All business, it had appeared, almost formal, until his not-so-subtle hints right at the end. The line about the bath had been cruel, but because of it her group had made record time on the return trip. Her thighs were proof of that, still stinging where the hot water touched them. The copper tub gleamed in the firelight, casting off a soft glow as she worked shampoo, blessed shampoo, into her hair and rinsed. Maybe she was reading too much into their relationship. After all, ‘I enjoy working with her’ could mean anything. Just because he called her by her given name in a letter. They saw each other every day. Just friendship, nothing more.

And it’s not like she had any claim on him. Little flirtations, a bit of teasing. A massive infatuation on her part, to be sure, but it didn’t have to go anywhere. Though it would be nice if it did, could, go somewhere. Asta reined herself in. Restraint. Self-control. She would not be like the other ex-Chantry sisters who had elected to stay, only to promptly start sleeping their way through the soldiers. That was okay for them, but if she was going to do this, she was going to be picky.

It was Cullen or no one. No one had caught her eye like that in years, and if she had even the slightest chance with him, she was going to take it. But she had to learn discretion. She couldn’t scare him away again. Obviously he was shy. Slow and steady would win this race.

She only hoped she didn’t have to compete against Josephine. Because slow and steady versus fast and Antivan? Antivan would win every round.

She got out of the tub, stretching and examining her chafe marks, gingerly. She needed to report to the advisors, Antivan or no Antivan. And she rather liked the woman. Maybe luck would be on her side.

And there might be chocolates.

She walked over to her chest for something to wear, and upon opening it, busted up laughing. An entirely new set of armor, but in Druffalo hide. It also happened to be shit brown. She put it on immediately. Harritt must have kept her measurements, because it fit perfectly, boots and all.  She owed Josephine more than just her thanks.  She wouldn't have thought the woman would have such a sense of humor.

***

For once, the war meeting was over quickly, despite the little fracas at the Chantry doors upon her arrival. Asta was destined for Val Royeaux, accompanied by Cassandra in an effort to rein in her more heretic tendencies. Josephine had been quiet, after she thanked her quite sincerely for her efforts and apologized for the lack of chocolates. Asta had decided to be the better woman, despite her little surge of misguided jealousy, and told her not to worry about it, and thanked her for the bath and armor. Josie looked confused, and glanced at Leliana who shook her head and nodded at Cullen. Asta caught the exchange and started laughing again.  She should have known.

After that, the three women left, shaking their heads.

Cullen spoke, almost shyly, “When do you expect to leave?”

Asta started, lost in her own world as she played with one of Cullen’s map markers. “Two days from now, I suspect. We all need a rest and I need to let my thighs heal.”

“Are you injured?” Cullen forehead creased in concern. His eyes looked shadowed, like he hadn’t slept for several nights. “Do you need a healer?”

“No! I’m just… saddle sore. I’m unaccustomed to riding for such long hours. I’m… chafed.” She blushed, and he blushed along with her confession, trying not to think about her thighs.

“Will you be up for training with me tomorrow?” Cullen asked, fiddling with another marker.

“I imagine so. I need to train in any case. There may not be much chance of being attacked by rogue Templars in Val Royeaux, but I got the message in the Hinterlands loud and clear - the Inquisition is no place for a scholar.”

“Nonsense, the Inquisition needs your skills, Asta… Lady Asta.” Cullen cleared his throat. “The quartermaster told me of the fine notes you had kept on our resources, and even Revered Mother Gisele spoke highly of your help with the refugees. Apparently you saved more than one life.”

“And I killed several trees, I’m sure, using up paper to do it with!” Asta shook her head. “I couldn’t just let them starve or freeze. They were so desperate for anything to hope in. It backfired, though. I’m now irrevocably the Herald of Andraste to the entire Hinterlands.”

“Is that such a bad thing?”

“Cul… Commander, I am not anything divine. I am not even sure Andraste was divine, or touched by divinity. I am human, and weak, and blessed with a little intelligence. That is all.”

“You are also kind.” And Cullen rubbed the back of his neck, “That is to say…”

“Thank you, Commander.” He met her eyes, and she was smiling, softly. “So are you, to spend your busy hours writing to me while I’m away, and training me while I’m in Haven. I appreciate it.”

“Don’t thank me.” He held her eyes, “It’s all self serving.”

She colored, again, not sure what he meant. “For the Inquisition?”

“That too.” He suddenly lost all confidence, and blustered around gathering his papers in his haste to get out of the room as soon as possible. “Now, to work?”

And with his absence Asta let out a breath she didn’t know she had been holding.

***

Training the next day culminated in Asta being backed up against a tree with a sword to her throat. Apparently the little confidence that she had gained with participating in the recent campaigns was false confidence. She still needed Cassandra’s shield, and still needed Solas and Varric to rain down terror from above to distract her prey.

She sighed, and slumped, defeated. “I’m not getting any better, am I? Despite the sparring with Cassandra, and the fact that I haven’t been knocked out in two weeks. I’m just not any good at this.”

“On the contrary, it took me twice as long to corner you this time. Your parrying has much improved. And don’t judge yourself against Cassandra. She is a remarkable warrior, and has been training for a quarter century.” Cullen sheathed his sword, and looked pleased.

“And I’m a 28 year old glorified librarian who once took a self defense class.” Asta mocked herself. “I know my limitations, Commander. But it’s nice to think that perhaps I can get a little better. I worry that Cassandra or others may get hurt while trying to protect me from my own foolishness. Solas’ barrier spells are good, but not that good.”

“You are still doing all the right things. You just need…”

“Practice. And stamina. And upper body strength.”

“Exactly.”

“I feel like I should thank you again,” and she peeked up at him through her hair, “for taking this time.”

“It’s a nice break in my day, honestly. When you aren’t here, it’s easy to just lose myself in my work and forget to eat.”

“Or sleep, from the looks of your eyes,” Asta stopped, “Nevermind, I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“No, you are right, I don’t sleep much these days. I didn’t think it was that obvious, though.”

Maybe just to me, Asta thought. “You should try to carve out more time for taking care of yourself. After all, I’ll be in and out of Haven all the time because of rifts. You can’t count on me when you need to take a break.” She poked him in the side, and he winced. The pain was worse today.

“Easier said than done,” Cullen gritted his teeth. “Well, since you haven’t eaten, and I haven’t eaten, should we eat together?” Nice, he thought. That was smooth, lady-killer. And he wasn’t even hungry - he had thrown up his breakfast. No doubt from the feel of things his lunch would follow. But he didn’t want to even waste a moment of what little time he could have with her before her next trip. If that meant eating, just to throw up soon after, well, he would do just that.

But she smiled, “I’d like that.”

Totally worth it.

 

 

Chapter Text

Val Royeaux was majestic, steeped in history and culture. Asta was more than a little intimidated as she gawked like a tourist at the endless towers, sculptures and gardens. Her first impression was that Val Royeaux was a place of grace and beauty.

Her second was that it was rotten to its core. An Inquisition scout met them just on the outside of town, spouting warnings of a trap - the remaining Revered Mothers had asked the City Guards to arrest Asta on sight, and hand her over to the Lord Seeker, who had taken control of the remaining Templars at the White Spire.

“That doesn’t sound like the Lord Seeker,” Cassandra puzzled.

“How well do you know him?” Asta pointed out. “Personally, I don’t want to be arrested and handed to a group who has already determined my guilt.”

“I agree,” Solas affirmed. “Entering the city now will nearly guarantee at least two deaths. I doubt the Templars will be merciful to an elven apostate, either.”

“What other choice do we have?” Cassandra sighed.

“Easy for you to say, Seeker. They haven’t signed you up to be executed. Yet.” Varric huffed.

Asta paced mindlessly. “If we don’t enter the city, we’ve wasted the trip, but we haven’t lost anything. If we enter, is there any chance they’ll listen to you, Cassandra? As the Right Hand…”

“I have raised up a heretical figurehead and started a cult following that is determined to tear apart the foundations of the Chantry itself. They will have no mercy upon me.” Cassandra was as blunt as a training sword.

“Then we must leave, now.” Asta determined. “There is nothing for us here but a not so swift trial and probably death by burning.”

“I thought you would say that,” a familiar voice said.

Asta turned slowly, her face pale and suddenly a million times more frightened. “Revered Mother Victoria, you are a long way from Ostwick.”

“Evelyn, child, you should have realized that they would send for me as soon as they identified you. Seize her and her companions!” Guards stepped out of the shadows and held them fast. “Take them to the Spire.”

“My dear Victoria! How well preserved you look! How long has it been, darling?” An elegant woman stepped out of the gates, and swept into the midst of the group like she belonged there. “Whatever brings you of all people to Val Royeaux?”

“Madame Vivienne,” sneered the Mother, “You certainly did well for yourself. Your council member keeping you well, is he?”

“He certainly is,” Vivienne assured her. She turned to the Guards, imperious. “I want you to take the prisoners to the Ghislain estate. They are to be paroled there, under Duke Bastien’s and my word.”

“Very well, Madame de Fer,” the Guards nodded, and Cassandra furrowed her brow. Speaking quickly to the scout, “Return to Haven. Inform Leliana and the others of our situation, post haste.”

Asta scrutinized Madame Vivienne. “It seems we owe you a debt, Madame. However can we repay you?”

“Darling, I’m sure I’ll think of something,” Vivienne smiled coolly, and Asta tried to ignore the shiver of apprehension that crawled up her back.

***

Commander Rutherford,

Here is where I admit it was a massive misjudgment for us to visit Val Royeaux, and say those three little words, “You were right.” Not only has our entire party been arrested, pending trial by a Divine that doesn’t exist, but we were to be sent to the Spire. And if not for the timely interruption of Vivienne, the Madame de Fer, a mage of no little talent, a lady of great physical presence, and mistress to the Duke de Ghislain (have Leliana fill you in on Orlesian politics), we would be there now instead of comfortably ensconced at Ghislain’s residence in Val Royeaux. I apparently cannot leave, since Vivienne and her Duke have vouched for me, but I cannot stay, either, between the fact that there is no one to try me and in the meantime rifts are spitting out demons all over Thedas.

In addition, upon Vivienne’s intervention, we were informed by a reliable source that the Lord Seeker threw a hissy fit, punched my former Revered Mother, and led all the remaining Templars out of the city. I would just leave, but it would reflect poorly on my hosts.

Perhaps Leliana has some thoughts?

Sincerely Yours,

A. Trevelyan

Leliana lifted another letter out of her stack of reports and smiled slyly. “I have just the thing.”

***

“Calm down, Commander!”

“She’s been arrested, Leliana! I knew this was dangerous and ill-advised. Even Cassandra couldn’t protect her. And now all four of them…”

“Are having a lovely time at one of the finest homes in Val Royeaux. Possibly feeling a bit of cabin fever, but hardly subsisting on bread and water. Madame de Fer, by reputation, is a consummate hostess. They are guests, not prisoners.”

“I should have gone with her.”

“They would have arrested you, too. And probably given you lyrium. You’ve come too far…”

“How do you know about…”

Leliana just looked at him, “Commander, do you really want to ask me that?”

“Never mind. Forget I asked.”

“My point is, within two weeks I will have Asta and her team headed back to Haven, Vivienne as a major agent of the Inquisition, and at least a dozen other minor players in Val Royeaux and the vicinity.”

“And how are you going to do that?”

“I’m going to call in the Red Jennies.”

***

“It was my plan all along to join the Inquisition, darling. Otherwise I would not have intervened.” Vivienne watched Asta as she paced the garden alcove where she was supposed to meet the Jenny, nervous, but ready to get back to Haven. The group was packed and ready to travel. “I wish you wouldn’t furrow your brow like that. You’ll get wrinkles. You should think of such things at your age.”

Asta snarled at her wordlessly. “They were supposed to be here half an hour ago.”

“And here we are!” Yet another familiar voice spoke up, and Asta’s face went white.

“Maxwell?

“Little Sister!”

Asta pulled a dagger on him. “What the Void is going on?!”

“I’m Red Jenny. One of them, anyway. Your other contact will meet us just outside of Val Royeaux. She’s tying up a few loose ends. The plan is, ostensibly, you are released into my supervision as a relative. That gets you out of the city with no toes stepped on.”

Asta put away her dagger, a little self-consciously. “And what is really happening, if I’m not truly being ‘released into your supervision’?”

“Once you are back in Haven, Leliana will make use of the Red Jenny network, and I get to escape my fate as the Trevelyan heir for a little longer.”

“So Mother and Father?”

“Are playing both sides. I have gifts for you and your Inquisition, however, and while I have to report back to them occasionally, I assure you I will not murder you in your sleep.”

“I knew they’d pull something like this. I warned Josephine…”

“Quite. Shall we leave this fair city, Sister? Or should I call you Herald?”

“Don’t you dare.” Asta sighed. “Everyone, this is Maxwell Trevelyan. My oldest brother and a complete arsehole. I apologize to you all for subjecting you to his company.”

“Charmed, I’m sure,” Maxwell’s eyes twinkled.

“Can we get on with it?” Cassandra groaned. “I cannot abide.”

***

“You must be the Herald-thingie! I’m supposed to make sure you glow.” Asta waved her hand around idly.

“Right then. And you are?”

“Right here, in your face, I’m Sera. My group, the Red Jennies, sticks it to nobles we hate. So I’m a ride-along, back to Haven to make myself useful.”

“Charming,” Vivienne rolled her eyes.

Sera stuck her tongue out. “My point is, you glow, we get the hole in the sky fixed or whatever, and the world gets back to normal. A nice, well-paid normal.”

“Sounds like a plan, Sera. Let’s get out of here.”

“Just a mo. I have a bag full of Guard breeches that I have to bring with me. We stuck it to the blighters that arrested you. Oh, and an entire shed of pointy hats?”

“Leave the hats, take the breeches,” Asta ordered.

“Oh, this will be grand!”

***

Asta and her expanded company trudged back into Haven, leading the horses. Vivienne and Sera had bickered the whole way. Cassandra’s glowering had affected the whole party. Maxwell had flirted with everyone, especially Cassandra, and it had put her in a horrible mood. He had also bothered Varric about The Tale of the Champion until even the garrulous dwarf was anticipating solitude.

So the entire group split like a banana as soon as they could. Asta led Cassandra, Vivienne and Maxwell to the Chantry, intending to report in and get resettled.

The war meeting that followed was charged. Cullen was pissed off.

“No one ever listens to me.”

“I already told you that you were right!”

“And not listening to me almost got you executed!” The shouting match was only going in circles, and everyone had a headache.

“This is getting us no where,” Leliana stated. “Cullen is right, Asta, you need further protection. We’ve been contacted by the Bull’s Chargers, a mercenary group. They’ve sent a representative inviting us to meet with their leader, the Iron Bull, at the Storm Coast. Before the Commander lost his temper,” and she shot him a quelling look that made him throw up his hands, “he was supposed to suggest you meet him there as soon as possible.” She placed a marker at the Storm Coast, and walked to the other side of the table, placing another at the Hinterlands. “Also, I continue to be convinced that the disappearance of the Grey Wardens is connected somehow to the death of the Divine.”

Cullen groaned, “Not this again. Wild theories and suppositions.”

Leliana glowered, and Cullen shut his mouth. “I have word of a Grey Warden in the Hinterlands,”

Asta groaned this time, “Not the Hinterlands again, Leliana…”

Another look had her stopping mid-sentence. “In the Hinterlands, a Warden Blackwall. This may be a chance to determine where the Wardens have disappeared to. If nothing else, if he can be recruited to our cause, then he will be another reliable warrior to take point and shield the Herald.”

“And what are your plans for my charming brother?” Asta narrowed her eyes at Leliana.

“Beggars can’t be choosers, Asta. You needed a rescue, and your parents had offered his services,” Leliana pointed out diplomatically.

“They, much like you predicted, are playing both sides of our conflict. Publicly backing the Chantry, and disavowing all knowledge of your brother’s involvement, but privately sending the heir and funding our cause,” Josephine added.

Cullen sneered, “Despicable.”

“But smart,” Josie sighed.

“Either way, they win, and they still have Leonard if Maxwell is executed for treason.” Asta sighed and rubbed her forehead. “I need a nap.”

She didn’t get one. The meeting ended, but Cullen was not finished. “You have to take better care! Marching into traps, trading on your birth to spare you from…”

“I have never traded on my birth, Commander!”

“Nevertheless, I cannot be responsible for training such a careless, foolhardy…”

“Are you quite finished, Commander?” Asta’s eyes were all ice and dagger points.

“Yes, I suppose I am.”

“Very well, since I require more protection from myself, I must prepare to visit the Storm Coast. I take my leave.” Asta hissed and left the room.

“Lady Herald.” As soon as she was gone, Cullen paced and rubbed the back of his neck. He punched the war table. It didn’t help. Why did he have to always say the wrong thing?

“I find punching things only breaks them. Try a training dummy,” Cassandra suggested drily.

“She is maddening. Why won’t she admit…”

“If I remember correctly, she did admit you were right. Multiple times. You didn’t listen.” Cassandra looked at him closely. “How are you?”

“Not good.” Cullen’s hands were shaking, with emotion or withdrawal, he couldn’t tell for sure. “I can endure the pain, but suspect I’m having mood swings. And the nausea is… bad.”

“You only suspect you are having mood swings?” Cassandra barked a laugh. She eyed him, “You should tell her what you are attempting.”

“Why? Why would she care? I’m a broken shell of an ex-Templar who can’t even control himself.”

“On the contrary, your control is excellent. Perhaps too much so. And as someone who has also left behind everything she has ever known, I suspect she would understand.” Cassandra stood to leave.

Cullen stopped her. “Cassandra, I want you to watch me. If I cannot do my job…”

“It will not come to that But I will watch you in any case.” As she left, Cullen sank to the floor, head in his hands. He hadn’t felt so at sea in his emotions in a long time. He told himself he would apologize to her in the morning.

But in the morning, she was already gone. Cullen had been delayed by dry heaves and the shakes. He cursed himself while wondering if it were for the best.

Leliana wandered in, almost at random.

“I’m not in the mood,” Cullen growled at her.

“I was just going to tell you to write to her, or I would.” Leliana said, and left immediately.

Later that day, Maxwell came into Cullen’s tent without announcing himself.

“Yes?” Cullen was still tense. The letter wasn’t going well and paper was everywhere.

“I wanted to tell you that if you talk to my sister like that again, your intestines will be wrapped around your neck,” Maxwell looked closely at his manicured fingernails. “Just because my parents don’t care about her doesn’t mean no one does.”

“Oh, yes, a brother that doesn’t write or visit her for years at a time.”

“Funny, several people have given me the impression that sort of thing was fairly common in the Inquisition. Pot meet kettle, I suppose.”

“How did you know…”

“Asta wouldn’t stop talking about you. She didn’t mention some obscure text, or talk about Shartan fathering Andraste’s kids, or discuss the true meaning behind Transfigurations. She talked about you. I know enough about you to have your family killed. I could blackmail you… but I won’t. Because my only sister, whom I care about, whatever she thinks, is taken with you.” Maxwell leaned in, dagger at Cullen’s throat. He hadn’t even seen it coming. “But, Maker and all his children, if you hurt her, I will end you. Is that clear?”

Cullen couldn’t help but be impressed, in a strange way. He hoped Branson had taken care of their sisters like this. “Perfectly.”

“Great. Take a break and have a pint with me.” Maxwell sheathed his dagger efficiently. “I’ll help you write your letter of apology to Asta.”

 

 

Chapter Text

The Storm Coast was desolate, wild and rocky and Asta loved it. It fit her mood. The Iron Bull and his Chargers were another happy surprise. A Qunari spy, to be sure, but very open about his intentions.

“How many double agents does an Inquisition need?” Asta grumbled pointlessly.

Varric scratched his chin, “As many as we can get, if we can control the information flow.”

“Right. Sorry I asked. Ask a stupid question…” So Asta signed him on and sent him and his Chargers back to Haven while the smaller group headed back to the camp. The cliffs were steep and slippery, and Asta was winded when she finally arrived, sometime after the others.

“Word for you, Ser,” and the requisition officer handed her three letters. The seals looked like Leliana’s raven, her brother’s horse, and Cullen’s Mabari.

Asta gave in to her impulse to cuss at both her brother and Cullen. “That ass. Not a single letter in twenty years… And what is the Commander playing at?” She marched into the tent, still winded from her climb, flopping down on her bedroll and opened Leliana’s letter first, as the least likely to make her furious.

Herald,

Haven is positively gloomy without you. A certain officer is putting the latest recruits through the Void. I know he wrote to you. Maybe take pity on him and write him back before the recruits quit and decide farming is the better option? Just a suggestion.

Did you realize your brother flirts at anything that moves? If he hurts Josie, I will kill him. I think she likes the distraction though. She certainly approved of the gifts your parents sent, so that might be making her slightly more tolerant of his antics.

When you return, we should discuss allies for closing the Breach more thoroughly. We have pinpointed the Templars withdrawal to Therinfall Redoubt, and may have an idea or two for contacting the mages at Redcliffe.

Hope to hear from you soon,

L

Asta gritted her teeth. As if she had any control over a brother she barely knew. She should just let Leliana kill him. Good riddance. But instead she opened his letter next, bracing herself.

Dearest Little Sister,

I am very pleasantly surprised at the quality of female company you’ve provided for me at Haven. The barmaid Flissa is delicious to look upon. Too bad she only has eyes for your Commander. No worries upon that account though, I am keeping him company quite often, and he only thinks of you. It’s a little tiresome, honestly. I hope you appreciate the letter. He agonized over it for days. Despite his little temper tantrum he seems a decent sort. I think he isn’t entirely healthy though. Just a suspicion.

Oh, and about the ladies… Leliana is a bit too scary to be enticing, but Lady Josephine… she’s delightful. Do you think our parents would approve? No matter, I suppose, since while I'm here I’m persona non grata. I can do as I please, if the lady is willing…

Hope you are staying dry! I hear the Storm Coast lives up to its name.

M. T.

Asta’s hands shook slightly over the last envelope. Taking a deep breath, she broke the seal.

Lady Asta,

I should probably be more formal with you, after my boorish behavior. I intended to apologize in person before your departure, but was detained unavoidably. I could make any number of excuses, but they would all be empty.

Instead, I offer my apologies. You did nothing but try to further our cause, and I should have supported and encouraged you, instead of taking my fears for your safety out on you. I am more of an asshole than your brother, and that’s saying something. You are not careless or foolhardy. In every situation you have shown yourself capable and eager to improve.

Asta, forgive me. I hope we can resume your training upon your return. If not, I understand, and can recommend a few likely instructors beyond Cassandra, if you will allow. I will leave the list with Leliana if you do not wish to speak with me more than is strictly necessary.

Again, I beg your forgiveness.

I remain yours,

Cullen Rutherford

Asta let out a breath that she didn’t realize she was holding. She was still mad, but she would use her anger wisely. Clever Leliana. Her stupid brother. Idiot Cullen. She would show all of them how capable she was.

“Pack it up! We’re going to find a Warden! And bring me some ink and paper, please.”

Right after she spoke to Warden Blackwall, they were going to Redcliffe. But first she had to write a short letter.

Commander,

Apology not accepted. Do it in person, or not at all.

Sincerely,

A. Trevelyan

***

Blackwall was eager to be recruited, so the slightly larger group made their way across the Hinterlands. In other moods, Asta would have taken the time to appreciate the area’s natural beauty while riding. As it was, even her companions were disturbed by her relentless focus.

When they took a right at the Crossroads instead of heading for Haven, Varric spoke up. “Little Sister? Where are we headed?” He sounded nervous.

“We are going to Redcliffe,” Asta bit out.

“Um, do the advisors know? That whole place is locked down with the rebel mages inside.”

“No, they don’t, and no, I don’t care. They will speak to me one way or another.”

“Curly ain’t gonna like this, Little Sister,” Varric tried one more time.

Asta spun her horse around to face him. “Don’t call me Little Sister. My brother thought it was funny when I took my vows. It is not cute, it is a reminder that I have no family and a future that only revolves around Andraste. Just stop.”

“Sure, Asta. Sorry, I didn’t know.” Varric was taken aback. He’d never seen her angry for so long. Usually her temper blew out like a candle in a draft.

Cassandra spoke up, “It is good we are going to Redcliffe. We’ve delayed getting help with the Breach for too long.” Asta glared at her, too. “Not that our other tasks were not important as well…”

Varric chuckled. Asta when angry even made the Seeker recoil.

“Why the mages?” Vivienne asked smoothly. “Surely the Templars…” Asta turned her glare on her, and Vivienne raised an eyebrow. “Have I missed something?”

“Sensitive topic, Madame. I suggest you drop it,” Varric shook his head.

“Very well.”

But Redcliffe did not provide Asta’s hoped for revenge. 

“Really, I had no idea Fiona was so incompetent at her job! Indentured to a Tevinter magister?” Vivienne tossed her head. “She should have retired years ago and taken up gardening.”

Asta sat by the docks, thinking deeply.

Cassandra spoke up next. “We cannot let a Tevinter magister remain on Fereldan soil. And there is no sign of Arl Teagan.”

“I can tell you about Arl Teagan," A young man stepped around the corner.  "My uncle rode for Denerim to ask for King Alistair’s assistance."

“Uncle?” Cassandra asked, confused.

“I’m Connor Guerrin. Teagan is my uncle. Please, you’ve got to help us - the mages, I mean. Surely enslaving us all to Tevinter isn’t the way to stop this conflict!” He was obviously distraught.

Asta stood up, no longer waffling. “You are both right. And Redcliffe is filled with children. Trap or no trap, we are going to meet this person at the Chantry.” She shook her head, “Andraste’s Tits, why is it always the Chantry?” Refocusing, she stared down Varric. “In the meantime, Varric, get everyone out that you can. Quietly. Concentrate on the Tranquil and other innocents. It won’t be many, I know, but maybe the healer close to the gates can help? Maker’s Balls, this is a disaster. Blackwall, Cassandra, Vivienne, you are with me.” She braced herself. “It’s time to light a candle.”

The Chantry itself was a mess - partially looted, pews askew, with a massive rift inside spawning demons. Demons that were being repelled for the moment, by a rather flamboyant mage. Asta paused to appreciate the irony of a single mage fighting to preserve the Chantry.

“There you are! Help, please!” The mage chirped, almost cheerily. The warriors were already engaging with the demons, so Asta just did her best to disrupt the rift. With only a minor delay, the rift was sealed. “That was bracing! How did you do that?” The mage looked at Asta and laughed. “You don’t even know, do you? You just wiggle your fingers and ‘poof!’”

Asta scowled at him, but liked him in spite of everything.

“Careful, Herald, he’s another Tevinter.” Cassandra warned.

Instead of being warned off, though, Asta looked at him with greater interest. “I was expecting Felix. Are you a magister?”

The mage sighed in an exaggerated manner. “Dorian Pavus, at your service. I’ll say this once, I’m an Altus, not a member of the Magisterium. Alexius was my mentor, a long time ago. I’m here to try to stop him.”

Asta frowned. She wanted to like this man, but she knew better than to trust blindly. “You’re asking me to take a lot on faith.”

Dorian demurred. “On the contrary, I have details on the magic Alexius used to get here so soon after the Conclave. This magic is wildly unstable. I have no idea why he would go to such lengths…”

“I told you, Dorian, he did it for me.” Felix stepped into the Chantry and shut the door.

“Took you long enough. Is he getting suspicious?” Dorian looked concerned.

“No, but I shouldn’t have played the illness card. I thought he’d never stop fussing.”

Dorian nodded and turned back to Asta. “I can’t stay in Redcliffe. Alexius doesn’t know I’m here and I need it to stay that way.”

Asta stopped frowning and decided to take a risk. “Very well, speak to the sister, Sister Tanner, right outside the Chantry. She’s a smuggler for the Inquisition. She’ll see you safely to Haven. We will speak more there.”

Dorian’s eyebrows shot up in amusement. “Smuggling Chantry Sisters? The South is full of diversions!”

Asta grinned at him, her foul mood finally broken. “Altus Pavus, you have no idea what our Sisters are capable of.”

***

In Haven, Cullen was pouring his heart out to Asta’s brother. Again. Maxwell was drinking. Again.

“Or not at all, she said,” Cullen gulped his ale as if the answer would be at the bottom of the mug.

Maxwell rolled his eyes. “Never has a single written line caused so much angst. Look, just the fact that she wrote at all is promising. I’ll tell you what to do.”

Cullen looked up, bleary eyed from lack of sleep and alcohol. “You will?” He looked a little like a lost puppy.

“First, you need peonies.”

“Flowers? Isn’t that kind of trite?”

Maxwell sighed. It was for his sister, he reminded himself. He’d do this for her. “Just any flowers, yes. But peonies have a meaning. Most flowers do. Presented properly, they mean ‘I am ashamed’. Then, you need purple hyacinths.”

Cullen looked skeptical. “And those mean?”

“'Please forgive me.' Round the whole thing off with some white tulips for forgiveness and you are set.”

“And she won’t just think I’m giving her flowers.”

“I guarantee this will work.” Maxwell smiled and stretched. “I’d guarantee you’d get laid, but it is my sister you are talking about. Remember you like your intestines where they are.”

Cullen snorted, “Don’t worry, I’ll be a gentleman.”

“No, I’m a gentleman. A gentleman would have had her two months ago.” Maxwell looked at him, critically. “You need to be yourself. Relax a little.  For some reason, Maker knows, she likes you.  Quit second guessing yourself.”

***

It was two weeks later, and Cullen had never felt so awkward, not even at his first barn dance in Honnleath at the age of twelve. Asta had been back just long enough to report on Redcliffe and look at him as if he were a bug.

All the advisors had been surprised at her proactively contacting the mages. Cullen suspected it had been out of spite, but was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. He hadn’t been subtle about his preferences. But after the update on the situation in Redcliffe, Asta had told them to get off their collective asses and make a decision, and then retired to bathe.

So an hour later Cullen found himself outside her cabin, bouquet in hand, with her brother, Varric, and surprisingly Cassandra, cheering him on from the shadows.

He rubbed the back of his neck and knocked.

“Enter!” Panicked, he saw Varric flash him a thumbs up, so he opened the door.

It was evening, and the setting sun was dying the room golden. She was drying her hair in front of the fire, the golden and orange lights casting interesting shadows about her form.

Cullen swallowed. “Um, Ast… Lady Trevelyan?”

“Yes, Commander?” She didn’t turn.  Maker's Breath, she was still angry. 

“These are for you.” The flowers, especially the tulips, had started to droop, but considering the circumstances - having peonies, hyacinths and tulips delivered in a mountain pass was difficult - he had done his best, as had Josephine. And he had the chocolates in his desk in his tent as a back up plan.

She finally turned, and stared blankly at the posy he held out. He had another flashback to being a farm boy from Honnleath, awkward and shy, offering dandelions to a giggling girl.

She didn’t move to take the flowers so he decided to leave. “I’m sorry. This was a stupid idea.”

Inexplicably, Asta’s face softened then. She took the flowers gently, their fingers touching just a moment in passing. “I had forgotten,” she nearly whispered. “Hyacinths are for…”

“Please, forgive me,” Cullen said, looking down.

“Peonies say…”

“I am ashamed,” he continued.

“And white tulips are for forgiveness.” She plucked a single tulip out of the bunch and handed it back to him.

Cullen took the flower and finally looked her in the eye. Did this mean what he thought?

“You are forgiven,” then Asta smirked, “However, you should tell my brother that while it worked this time, he should have warned you about tying it up with a purple ribbon.”

Cullen sighed, defeated. “And a purple ribbon means?”

She laid the flowers aside, pausing to remove the ribbon. Slowly, she twisted it around her fingers, looking up at him and moving closer. “It stands for passion. You gave me a bouquet to apologize, like a gentleman, but tied it in a way that told me you had suppressed desires.” Her eyes were candle flames, reflecting the light of the fire.

“Oh.” It would be so easy to kiss her, he thought. “Well, your brother did say that a gentleman would have had you two months ago.”  Damn it, I just said the wrong thing again.

The flames in her eyes died. “I need to have words with my brother.” She moved to leave the cabin, but Cullen stopped her with a hand on her arm.

“Lady… Asta, before you go…” Cullen swallowed again, “He wouldn’t have been wrong. If he had told me how to bind it, I mean. I do… have…”

Asta laid her hand on his, and smiled. “That’s good to know.”

“It is?” Cullen’s voice broke. “It is! Of course it is. Good to know. Right.” He stepped, closing the distance, daring himself to take the final step.

And then a crash from right outside the door made them jump apart. “And that would be my brother, I imagine,” Asta said in a loud voice, meant to be overheard, “Determined to intervene before we consummate our love! Ser Knight! I cannot resist you any longer! Pray, have your way with me!” Her eyes twinkled at him to play along.

“My lady,” Cullen’s voice deepened, and it made her mouth go dry, “never would I dream of defiling such a flower, when her family is so against our passion.”

Another knock at the door, louder this time, and a muffled voice that sounded like Cassandra’s. “Move over, dwarf! I can’t see!”

Asta kicked her performance into a gallop. “Alas, for I cannot bear to be apart from you! Please, Ser Knight, take this favor,” and Asta handed him the purple ribbon. “To remember our impossible,” and she winked, “attraction.”

“With pleasure, my lady,” and Cullen kissed the ribbon, deadly serious beneath his smirk. Asta was biting her lip, trying not to laugh or lunge at him, and undecided as to which was more likely.

And then the door fell in, followed by three adults, shocked, sheepish and suspicious in turn.

Maxwell was the first to bounce back. “So have you two kissed and made up?”

“No,” Asta said, glaring. “And since you were listening at the fucking door you already know.”

Cassandra stood, looking wistful and ashamed. She started to say something, but left instead. Varric just winked and closed the door after him.

“Just being a responsible brother,” Maxwell rocked back on his heels, unrepentantly.

“Responsible, Andraste’s Ass, you voyeur!”

“Now, now, Little Sister. You shouldn’t take your name in vain like that.” Maxwell’s eyes shot to Cullen. “Can I see you out, Ser Knight?” His lips twitched.

“Die in a pile, Maxwell,” Asta gritted out.

“Sleep well, Little Sister.”

Cullen was the last to leave, ribbon still in his hand.  "Good night, Asta."

"Good night, Ser Knight."

Chapter Text

Asta faced Maxwell the next morning. “You took a risk. How did you know that I would remember Mother’s obsession with hidden messages?”

“Oh please, you were just as obsessed. And I know that you and she had discussed them at least once when you were barely in your teens.” Maxwell was lounging on her bed, head in his hands. “And I knew from your work that you still played with ciphers.”

“My work?! How closely has the family been watching me?”

“Asta, you were always watched. In Kirkwall, I know of at least two mugging attempts that never happened thanks to the family’s surveillance. Just because you were serving the Chantry didn’t mean you weren’t family any longer. Mother was horrified for years by your research. But even she came around, in the end.

And that’s the thing. You think the family is betting that you will fail? Quite the contrary, we are all taking the odds that you will be successful. No one other than you knows how much the Chant of Light has changed. No one else even cares. Little Sister, you are the last great hope for the Chantry, and probably for Thedas itself. The only one that doesn’t realize it is you.”

Asta scowled. “I don’t want to be the savior of Thedas. I want to travel and study.”

“You are thinking way too small, Little Sister. Play your cards right and you could end up the next Divine.”

“That’s the last thing I want. And you are insane. I’ve been excommunicated, didn’t the Ambassador tell you?”

“Yeah, but seal the Breach, save the world - I think you’ll find yourself a little less excommunicated and a little more in a position of asking for whatever you want.” He angled himself off the bed. “Well, I have an Ambassador to harass, and now that you have brought Cassandra back to Haven, I want to talk to her as well. I’ll see you later, Little Sister.”

“Stop calling me that.”

“Not until it stops bothering you.”

***

The advisors had been arguing again. Sleep hadn’t brought clarity to their decision about Redcliffe, and Asta was fed up.

 

“The mages are also sheltering children and Tranquil, neither of which can protect themselves,” Asta pointed out for what felt like the dozenth time. “Between that and the political situation of having a Tevinter magister hold Redcliffe Castle, we have to intervene. You don’t just let a foreign power take root like a weed on your doorstep. Commander, I expected you at least to understand that.”

 

“Redcliffe is one of the most defensible strongholds in Thedas! We cannot just lay siege and expect it to crumble!” Cullen’s irritation was growing with every word. “And our ultimate goal is not defending Fereldan from Tevinter, or even saving the mages from their own short-sightedness. It is closing the Breach, and the Templars…”

 

“The Templars are adults - they didn’t take recruits with them, all our sources say so. The mages aren’t the greater threat, but the magister controlling them is.”

“Has anyone thought of the fact that King Alistair would likely not welcome an Orlesian army marching through his country?” Josephine added, pinching the bridge of her nose. “That would definitely cause a diplomatic scene, if not outright war. The mages have made their bed, perhaps now they should be allowed to lay upon it.”

“There has to be a way,” Asta said, desperate. “These are children. Varric only got half a dozen Tranquil and youth out. They didn’t vote, they didn’t sell themselves into slavery. And none of the mages deserve this, whatever their misguided leadership has agreed to.”

“Misguided? Is that what they are calling it now?” Cullen nearly roared.

“I would have expected better of Fiona,” Leliana interjected. “She was once a slave, long ago. Before she became a Grey Warden.”

Cassandra pleaded, “The magister…”

“Has outplayed us.” Cullen spoke firmly, his knuckles white on his sword’s hilt.

“Can we contact Arl Teagan? Connor said that he was in Denerim…” Asta trailed off, realizing that she was gripping at straws.

“Wait,” Leliana spoke again, memory clearing her mind, “There is a way. An escape route for the family. A small force could infiltrate the castle, but we would need a distraction. Perhaps the meeting with the Herald that Alexius desires so much?”

“No,” Cullen put his foot down, “You said yourself he wants this meeting so badly it cannot mean anything but attempted assassination. Absolutely not.”

Asta thought hard. “Cul… Commander, you were sworn to protect. If I don’t do this, the Tranquil in Redcliffe will die, and their skulls made into Ocularum. The mage children will be transported and turned into cannon fodder for Tevinter’s campaign against the Qun. I have that from Alexius himself - they are destined for the military. Yes, this is a trap. And I’ll be walking into it with my eyes open.” Asta looked at him. “I don’t see any other option.”

“And fortunately, you’ll have my help!” Dorian slammed the war room’s door open, a chagrined scout at his heels protesting his entrance futilely. “Asta, my dear, your smuggler friends put me in amongst the cabbages. I will never get the smell out of my robes.”

“I recommend avoiding nugskin in the future,” Asta joked, “Now then, Altus Pavus, how can you help?”

“Asta, don’t do this,” Cullen eyes spoke volumes. “You don’t have to play the bait. We can still go after the Templars.”

“If we did that, we would be selling the mage children into slavery.” She looked away. “I will not be complicit. I am sorry, Commander, but my path is clear. The Templars are on their own. We will not turn any away that seek asylum, correct, ladies?” The other advisors nodded. “But they will have to make their own way here.”

***

Two dead guards lay in the water at Asta’s feet. “I should never be allowed to make decisions again,” she said, hyperventilating. “What happened? Where are we?”

“Not where, but when!” Dorian was giddy, muttering about displacement, almost excited with what had just happened. “We must still be in Redcliffe. But Alexius’ spell, probably meant to erase you from time entirely…”

“You mean it meant to kill me…”

Dorian waved away such a trivial concern, “Well, yes, but that’s such a crass way of putting it. As I was saying, I countered it and it sent us through time instead!”

“We traveled through time.” Asta felt faint, and tucked her head between her knees in an effort to improve blood flow. “What date is it? How much time has passed?”

“Those are excellent questions, Asta. May I call you Asta?”

“Whatever. You can get us back, right?”

“I have some thoughts on that. They are lovely thoughts, like little jewels…” Dorian trailed off, looking dreamy eyed, as Asta stripped the keys from the dead guard’s belt and stood up.

“Good, because I have a future, and this isn’t it.”

***

Asta threw up when they found Fiona, somehow alive but more lyrium than flesh. She panicked more upon realizing that all of the destruction had happened over the course of a single year. As if that encounter had opened the floodgates, she cried when they found Lysas, the elf from Redcliffe, chanting about how Andraste had blessed him, when she had merely told him to be careful.

Cassandra, glowing and injured brought her back to her knees. Dorian had to help her up after that. And the Iron Bull, seeing her distress, kept her talking and talking about anything and everything, seeing how it helped her cope long enough to function.

And then they found Cullen, his once strong form emaciated and hanging upside down from the ceiling, completely enclosed in lyrium, with new scars and a look on his face that suggested he had died screaming.

Asta heaved, there was nothing else to bring up, no water to offer, even if they could trust it in this corrupted keep. Dorian rubbed her back and Cassandra said a prayer to honor the dead. When she was done, the Iron Bull took his axe and destroyed the pillar of lyrium with one blow.

He spoke, “Boss, I don’t know about you, but I know a ‘Vint who should die for this.”

Asta nodded, and stood, shakily, but on her own. “Let’s find Leliana. Maybe she still lives.”

The Iron Bull agreed, “Yeah, the Nightingale is one tough broad. Too tough to die.”

Asta whirled on him, “And Cullen wasn’t?”

“Love makes people vulnerable, Boss. There is a reason there is no room for love in the Qun.”

“He wasn’t in love.”

“You just keep telling yourself that, Boss. Whatever gets you out of here.”

Leliana lived, but was a changed woman. If she had been harsh before with traitors, now she was a spirit of death incarnate. She refused to talk about her experiences, for which Asta was grateful. They were written on her skin in any case, scars upon scars over shrunken skin pulled over her bones.

Asta stumbled almost blindly through the castle, fighting when necessary, and watching horrors play out in front of her eyes. She watched Connor commit suicide, saw children being used as blood sacrifices by a mage she had talked to in the tavern. Rifts upon rifts she closed, leading to a courtyard that glowed green from an omnipresent Breach.

She slumped against the ground again, nearly defeated, yet knowing she couldn’t give up. “All this happened because I wasn’t here.” She was finally out of tears, dry eyed and empty.

“Yes,” Leliana said, ruthlessly. “It did. More people died for you than you can ever imagine.”

“Stop it, Leliana,” Cassandra leapt to Asta’s side, supporting her weight. “It was not her fault.”

“Perhaps not, but her absence had these consequences,” Leliana shot back.

The Iron Bull broke in, “Ladies, let’s just get to the ‘Vint. We can argue about whose fault it is later.”

Asta stepped away from Cassandra, a little more stable, a little more focused. “Yes, let’s do that,” but blaming herself the whole time. Cullen had been right, again.

When would she learn to listen?

***

“I want the world back,” Leliana slit Felix’s throat, ending his suffering. Asta watched the whole thing, eyes blank and emotionless. Felix wasn’t there, after all, only his husk. And watching his son die had taken the fight out of Alexius.

With Alexius gone, Dorian started casting. Asta had to argue with her friends, who were absolutely determined to sacrifice themselves for her. One by one she watched them fall to demons, the Iron Bull tossed aside like a rag doll, Cassandra crumpled like waste paper, and then heroic Leliana saying the chant like she believed it, shooting arrows until they were gone, and then fighting with what remained of her strength until at last even she was overwhelmed.

She tried, at the last, to run to them to help somehow, but Dorian restrained her. And then, at last, he shoved her through the spell and they landed, where they began, dizzy and disoriented, in a world more grey than red and green.

Alexius fell to his knees in surrender. Asta wanted to do the same. Instead, she ordered him taken into custody, just in time for Fereldan’s sovereign to march in and give Fiona an ultimatum.

“When I offered the mages sanctuary in Redcliffe after the circles fell, I did not expect you to invite Tevinter to the party.” King Alistair’s famous wit had lived up to his reputation. “You are hereby exiled from Fereldan.”

“But where will we go? What will we do?” Fiona was well and truly trapped.

“Your problem, not mine,” King Alistair replied. “You have abused Redcliffe’s hospitality for long enough.”

Asta saw her opportunity. “You could join the Inquisition. We still need assistance in closing the Breach.”

“I suggest you take her offer. It’s far more generous than any others you are likely to receive.”

Fiona’s ears drooped. “Very well,” she answered, resigned. “It appears we have no alternative.”

“I expect you to be out of Redcliffe by the end of the week.” King Alistair turned to Asta. “Herald, I would like to speak to you privately, if I may.” Pulling her to the side of the room, he muttered, “Elissa would have my hide, exiling like that but it serves her right, leaving me to deal with everything on my own. Better to ask forgiveness than permission.” He looked at her. “I thought you’d be taller. No matter, I want to ask you to keep an eye on Connor, Teagan’s nephew.”

“We’ve met,” Asta began.

“Good. He’s my cousin, of a sort. He’s never been the same, after the Blight, after what happened here. I suspect you’ve heard the stories. No wonder, really. I would tell you the Crown of Fereldan is in your debt and all that, but… blah, blah, gratitude. And honestly, I still have to deal with Teagan who is beyond angry at the damage done to his lands. So… we’ll be in touch. Say hello to Leliana for me.”

Asta’s head spun. “Certainly, Your Majesty.”

He smiled wickedly, looking more like a small boy than a sovereign ever should. “Hang in there, Herald. Saving the world can take a lot out of you. I’m sure my wife would agree. After all, she has to put up with me.”

***

Asta made it back to camp, since Arl Teagan was in no mood to offer hospitality to anyone associated with the mages. Dorian and Cassandra made her eat and drink something. She crawled into her tent and stared at the canvas walls, seeing only green light and red crystal, Cullen inside. And then Leliana with a broken neck. All the people, including her now living friends, dead from protecting her.

And then she saw herself, for the first time, as the savior of the world. She wept, at last, for the loss of her friends, for their sacrifices, and for her own - the ones she had yet to make.

She was trapped by more than vows, now.

***

The worst part of returning to Haven was that no one knew anything about that future except for Dorian. When Cullen reprimanded her for making the mages allies she burst into tears, knowing that it was pointless, that he hadn’t seen what she had seen. That he, no doubt, had his own nightmares to deal with.

It happened again when Connor arrived. He just looked bewildered and confused, as Asta ran off to deal with her outburst alone. When Lysas walked through the gates several days later, she had to lean up against a scaffold before her knees gave out.

She tried to thank Leliana, who blew her final sacrifice off as a good bargain. Solas seemed merely envious and disbelieving, as if it were a fairy tale adventure and she had left him behind.

She kept trying to talk about it, but no one understood. She even tried speaking to Mother Gisele, in a last ditch attempt to be heard. But her platitudes and well meaning calm just grated on Asta’s nerves, and she left her without saying goodbye.

But Dorian was there. He let her blab on about never wanting to make decisions again. About sacrifice, about how she hated the word duty. About how she was trapped in a religion that she didn’t believe in. And eventually, they started to compare notes, and Asta found herself wishing for a sheet of paper.

“So in Tevinter they think Andraste was a mage? That makes so much sense! Have you heard the saga of Tyrdda Bright-Axe?”

“I know, right?” Dorian looked at her. “You know, even saying that in the South could get you tossed out on your pretty little ass.”

“Good thing you can’t be excommunicated twice.” She laughed, then stopped, aware that it was the first time she had laughed since Redcliffe. “Not that it matters. I’m bound to the Inquisition until this is over. And it may never end.”

“Now, now, my dear. Everything ends. And don’t think about it like that!”

She gave him an evil stare. “How should I think then?”

“You should be looking over that direction,” and he moved her chin so that she was facing the training yard, where Cullen was facing them, watching them talk, “And telling yourself that you may be stuck here, but at least it’s a nice view.”

 

Chapter Text

Cullen had been distant to Asta since she left for Redcliffe. The trouble he had staying professional, separating Asta from the Herald, was only getting worse. His violent rejection to her playing the bait for Alexius at the war table was evidence enough. She was Asta to him almost all the time now, and his work was suffering for it.

It wasn’t safe for him to think that way. He had other lives to think of besides just one woman. But he wanted… for one of the first times he could remember he wanted something of his own. He flipped his coin over and over in his fingers, a nervous habit dating nearly from the day his brother had given it to him, so long ago. The picture of Andraste on the face was worn down with his fingers. Over the years he had nearly rubbed her away.

He rolled over on his cot, restless with the temptation. Ever since he had quit taking lyrium it seemed his mind and body delighted in bringing up things he would have rejected in Kirkwall. Fancy armor played to his vanity. Commanding forces toyed with his pride. A beautiful, intelligent woman stringing along his lust.

And now, seeing her with that mage, smirking at him when he was caught looking, his envy was threatening to overthrow him entirely. He should have been more forward, should have been clearer. He should have kissed her when he gave her the flowers, as soon as it was evident that she had forgiven him. Eavesdropping brother or not, he had lost his chance, all because of a mustached Lothario from Tevinter of all Void-begotten places.

The crux of the matter was that he had caught them embracing earlier, and his heart had split between jealousy and rage. He had imagined himself, in the magister’s place, wondered how warm she would be compared to the cold in the snow-blown air. Would she kiss his neck as he held her? He imagined cupping the curve of her ass with one hand, soft and supple beneath the leather. Would she be bold, squeezing back? Or just press herself tightly against him as he kissed her?

He had to stop thinking about these things. His body and mind had long since turned traitor and he had only meant to lay down for a moment, just to close his eyes and let his headache recede before he went to organize the mages and meet the others for the war meeting before the Breach.

He groaned, knowing that dealing with the mages was already driving Cassandra insane. He only expected more of the same. Circle mages were not used to being autonomous like Solas or even that Altus. And it appeared many more than originally thought now missed their gilded Tower cages versus the reality of life outside the Circle. Apparently the grass truly was always greener on the other side of the fence. He groaned again, half pain, half dread.

“Was that groan on my sister’s behalf?”

“Max, would you please announce yourself before entering?”

“Why? Afraid I’ll catch you doing something inappropriate?” Maxwell looked interested for a moment, and then shook his head. “No, you are far too uptight. It’d probably do you good, though.” He sat down at the corner of his desk. Cullen opened one eye and peered at him resentfully. “Fine, I’ll go. Just wanted to tell you that from what I can tell it’s innocent.”

“What’s innocent?” Cullen’s thoughts were only on the mages and the troubles they brought with them. His mind flashed to blood magic and abominations, body tensing.

“Pavus and Asta. Yeah, they bonded in the future and all that, but, my uptight friend, the two of them have spent more time checking you out together than they have embracing in private corners. And the embracing, which I know you witnessed, was accompanied by tears.”

“How the hell did you get close enough… Never mind. I don’t want to know.” Cullen sat up, ignoring the stabbing pain in his head. “Maker’s Breath, you mean…”

“Yep, Pavus bats for the other team.”

“Not that, I don’t care about that.” Cullen rubbed his head, cursing the fact that he had missed something so obvious. “She’s hurting.”

Max rolled his eyes. “Yes, I’ve heard it all. Pavus is way more patient than I would be. Not that she’s tried to talk to me. I’m literally the only one she hasn’t tried to talk to, except you.”

“Why not me? I mean, I can see why she would avoid you like the plague, but surely…”

“You yelled at her. Again. She saw you dead in that twisted future - I stole Leliana’s report - and the first thing you did when she got back to Haven was fucking yell at her about the mage alliance and make her cry. Seriously, if Josie hadn’t convinced me you were necessary to the Inquisition’s success you would probably be dead at the bottom of the lake right now.”

Maxwell stood, brushing off miniscule dust motes. “You really should stop making my sister cry. Everyone is worried about her, and not just because we need her hand in order to seal the Breach. For that matter, sealing the Breach could fucking kill her - it knocked her out for days before, didn’t it?”

Cullen put his head in his hands. He had never felt so inadequate.

Max nodded, “My work here is done. Go speak to Leliana, and take those Antivan chocolates Josie says you’ve been hoarding.” Max hesitated. “She still likes you.”

“She shouldn’t.”

“I know. But she’s always made up her own mind about things. And let’s face it - if you wait too long she will be in Val Royeaux, fenced around with even more vows, unattainable in every way. This is your chance, Cullen. Don’t blow it.”

“Val Royeaux? Why would she be in Val Royeaux?”

“My parents are posturing with the Chantry for a reason. They want Asta to be the next Divine. I don’t think either of us wants that to happen, and I know my sister doesn’t. Give her what she does want, Cullen. One of the only things she’s ever let herself want.” Max shook his head. “Look at me, I’ve turned into a blighted love expert. The Chantry certainly fucked up both of you. Good thing I’m not in charge. I’d be inclined to let the whole thing fall to pieces.”

After he left, Cullen sat for a moment longer. Max was an annoying jerk who was far too fond of doing exactly what he pleased when he pleased, but… damn it. He stood up. He had to find Asta.

He found her half-hidden sitting in a patch of elfroot next to the Chantry, accompanied, of course, by Pavus.

“Well, look at that! Reinforcements!” Pavus struggled to his feet, encumbered by Asta clutching and glaring at him. “Asta, my dear, I’m freezing. I’m used to temperatures far more temperate. Please, let me go inside and warm up before the next round of angst?” Dorian left them alone, winking at Cullen cheekily.

“May I sit?”

“No one is stopping you.”

The stone was cold behind his back, but her voice was colder. He shivered, knowing which bothered him more. “It really is freezing out here. Aren’t you cold?”

“No. Druffalo hide protects pretty well.”

“I’m glad you liked it, or at least found it useful.” Cullen ran out of small talk. He picked up her hand, encased in a rather large mitten. “I have to apologize again. But I don’t have any flowers to do it for me. Is that okay?”  He cursed himself for forgetting the chocolates in his desk.

“I guess. It depends what you have to say.” Asta’s voice didn’t betray any curiosity.

Cullen picked a stalk of elfroot. “In the language of flowers what does elfroot stand for?”

“Restoration and healing.”

Cullen snorted. “That’s kind of obvious, isn’t it?”

“Nobody said it was always subtle.”

“Right.” Cullen quit putting it off and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry I yelled, and made you cry. That future didn’t seem real, just reading it on a page. You faced horrors that none of the rest of us will ever understand, and it isolated you. We… no, I didn’t intend for that to happen.” He stopped for a breath. He had to stop there. If he went any further this would be about his feelings, and there were too many for one conversation. She didn’t need to carry his burdens.

“Thank you for apologizing.” Her voice still sounded numb.

Cullen stifled his disappointment. What had he expected? It had been a week since her return, and he had made himself unavailable in every way. “I am sorry.” He stood to go.

“You died screaming.”

Cullen’s face went blank. “What?”

“Your face, it was obvious. You were encased in red lyrium from the ceiling, they hung you there like a fucking chandelier and you died screaming.”

Cullen’s nightmares rose to meet him. He swallowed hard, “That sounds sadly familiar,” and thought of Meredith in the Gallows at Kirkwall.

Asta reached out suddenly and hugged him around the legs. “Don’t go. I can’t be alone right now. All I see in the people of Haven is their twisted futures, and the green of the Breach and the red of the lyrium…” Cullen eased himself back down after detaching her gently.

“I understand, a little. Some of the things that happened during the Blight… well, I’ve never forgotten. I don’t like to speak of it, but if you need to, I’m here.”

She slumped against him, as if her muscles refused to hold her up for a moment longer. “I’ve talked a lot. It was unfair to Dorian. He didn’t know any of you, but he was the only one that remembered. And that’s a good thing.” She drew a shuddering breath. “It was horrible. And when I got back…”

“I was an ass.”

She snorted. “Well, yes.”

“Thanks for the honesty.” Cullen bumped his shoulder with hers.

“You can be a real jerk. I mean, I’ve known you for a couple of months now, and you really are excellent at saying exactly the wrong thing.” She was giggling, actually giggling, and Cullen’s mood lightened at the sound.

“It’s a gift. Someday you should ask Varric the kind of stuff I said to the Champion in Kirkwall. And Leliana knows what I said to the Hero of Fereldan right after she saved me at Kinloch Hold. It’s like my brain stops working, and when I open my mouth only the worst possible thing gets said.”

“Wow, with a gift like that I’m surprised you talk at all.”

Cullen squinted at her. The light was failing and he couldn’t see her face clearly enough. “Well, I don’t much. It’s safer that way.”

They sat, watching twilight fade into dusk, and the twirling snowflakes fall through the torchlight cast from the Chantry’s sconces. She leaned further against him and shivered slightly.

“You know what? Don’t talk to Varric or Leliana.” Cullen said, gloomy. “You’ll just hate me afterward. And I don’t want you to hate me.”

“We all say stupid things. I keep telling you that you’re wrong just before I walk into a trap and nearly get myself and everyone else killed in an apocalypse.”

“What I said then, it wasn’t stupid. It was prejudiced and wrong. You have a poor enough opinion of me as it is. I don’t need to add to it.”

Asta turned her head and met his eyes. “I don’t have a poor opinion of you.”

“Really?” Once again, she was right there. But he didn’t dare ruin this moment. “Could have fooled me.”

“Ahem!” Leliana cleared her throat, a sheaf of reports in her hand. “You both are late. Herald, Commander, surely there is a more appropriate place for whatever intimacies you are indulging in than a Chantry courtyard?” Asta rolled her eyes as Cullen blushed. Leliana continued, “When you two are done acting like teenagers, please join us inside. The most senior mages have organized themselves and are ready to approach the Breach in the morning.” She started to move away, back into the warmth of the Chantry.

Cullen and Asta looked at each other.

“Teenagers, huh?” Asta smiled.

“More appropriate settings? What would those be, with your brother haunting your every move?”

“Only when he’s not harassing some poor female. He needs a better purpose for his time.”

“I wonder if we can convince Leliana to assign him elsewhere?”

“It’s a thought.” Asta clambered up and offered a hand to Cullen. He took it and stood as well, hardly needing the assistance. “Until then, I’m thinking we should find one of these ‘appropriate places’. Any ideas?”

“You know, Leliana should have experience with teenagers. When the Hero and Alistair were at the Tower they couldn’t keep their hands off each other, despite all the demons. I remember. It was embarrassing.  I almost took her down thinking he was under the thrall of a desire demon.”

Leliana popped her head back out of the Chantry door. “I heard that. For the record, it was cute. Adorable, even. But you two are adults. Act like it.” Considering a moment, she added. “And I’ll think about someplace to send your brother. He’s bothering Josie. And Cassandra. And Scout Harding. Everyone but Flissa is complaining about him, and I bet that’s just a matter of time. Just get your asses in here.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

Chapter Text

The Breach was closed, the Breach was closed. The words hammered with his heartbeat against the pulse in his ears.

Asta had lived, they all still lived, and anything was possible. Cullen had taken a turn at watch, to enable another of his soldiers a chance to celebrate. There had until now been so little to celebrate, but with the Breach closed, morale was at an all time high. The bonfires were brilliant, ale was flowing, and even Adan the sour alchemist was dancing.

And she was alive. He watched her, not bothering to be subtle, talking to Cassandra, overlooking the revelry around Varric’s campfire, without participating herself. She looked disturbed, worried even. Surely she didn’t doubt the place that she had earned amongst them? He would speak to her in a moment himself and set in stone what was beginning between them. The anticipation, the hope of it almost made him smile.

And then everything fell apart. A single scout ran through the camp, shouting at the top of his lungs. “Commander! There is a massive force coming over the mountain!”

Cullen sprung into action, years of training overcoming his shock. “To arms, to arms!” Cassandra and Asta both were at his side in moments. He demanded that someone to find him a spyglass, and with the knowledge it gave him he almost sunk to his knees. There were so many, swarming over the mountain like ants on their hill. Haven wasn’t defensible, had never been meant to be. This was going to be bloody.

Josie of all people was right there. “Commander, what banner are they flying?”

“None,” he gritted out.  Did she honestly think they could negotiate with a superior force such as this?

“None?”  In another time and place he could have laughed at her incredulity.

A fierce knocking at the gate pulled them all out of their reverie. “I can’t come in unless you open!”

In no time, Asta was at the gates, opening them, and Cullen’s protests died against his lips. An awkward looking man stood on the other side of the door, a dead Templar fallen at his feet, his daggers dripping with blood.

“I’m Cole. I’ve come to warn you. The Templars, they want to hurt you.” The disturbing man looked up through his stringy blond hair. “You probably already know.”

“The Templars?” Cullen snarled. “Is this their response to us treating with the mages?”

“The Elder One is very angry that you took his mages,” Cole said seriously, pointing.

Cullen looked through the spyglass again, and saw two figures, one familiar that made his stomach drop, and the other, twisted and sharp and taller than any man should be. “That is Samson, but that… What is that thing?”

Asta snatched the spyglass from his hands, his hands that were suddenly too limp to do anything. She looked and whirled upon him, suddenly. “Cullen, give me a plan, anything!” She snapped, desperate in her fear and shocked into using his first name.

“If we are going to survive we need to control the battle!  Man the trebuchets!” Cullen found his inner commander again, set aside his wonder at what had become of Samson in favor of fighting back. “Give them everything we have!” Cullen spun to the gathered soldiers, scouts and mages. “Mages! You… have sanction to engage them!” He swallowed the ghost of his fear and kept going. “That is Samson. He won’t make it easy on you. For the Herald! For your lives!” He roared, thrusting his sword into the air.

***

Asta’s knees were weak with fear and something else, watching Cullen plan the attack. As soon as he roared, she sprinted out of the gates and into the waiting madness. The closest trebuchet was under attack, and she ran for it.  She furiously fought, dropping in and out of stealth, only distantly noting the monsters she was slaying, more than she had ever been capable of taking on before.

The Iron Bull yelled at her in an all too brief lull, “Pace yourself! There are reinforcements. If you use all your energy and stamina now, you’ll be dead before you are of use!” Asta nodded, took a deep breath, and jumped back into the fray.

She heard the trebuchet release and the officer directing her to the next. Her group ran through the village. This one was loaded, but unmanned and not targeted, the soldiers that were meant to be in charge of it dead on the ground. Asta looked at her companions and knew what she had to do.

“Dorian! I need you with Chain Lightening - it arcs from their armor and temporarily paralyzes them. Hit as many at once as possible. Use glyphs to fence off a safer area around us. I have to aim and fire this thing. It’s going to take a while. I don’t have much strength, but you and Bull and Cassandra will be of better use fighting them off. Cassandra and Bull - keep their attention. Do whatever you can!”  She tossed them the remainders of her grenades and potions and got to work.

Dorian immediately started zapping the Templars that were still over the hill with a little too much glee. “Oh, I could do this all day!”  His enthusiasm made her smile, despite the terror that ran through her veins.

With all her upper body strength, which she noted hadn’t improved much since she stepped out of the Fade, she ponderously turned the machine toward the forces on the mountain. She hoped Cullen had calibrated the thing recently, since she had no idea exactly how accurate this hit would be. It moved slower than she would have believed possible, giving her way too much time to realize her companions were nearly overwhelmed, until at last…

“Firing!” She yelled and watched with something like pride as the ammunition arced through the air, and an entire mountain of snow fell on the approaching forces.  She smiled. Cullen would be so proud.

***

Cullen watched her run - at his direction - towards the trebuchets in an attempt to protect them. How far she had come from that shaking girl at the Temple. Did she even realize? He pulled himself out of his thoughts, praying to Andraste to let her return. Too many would not.

His own strategies took all his attention and energy for quite a while, and he lost track of her group until an entire mountain collapsed and buried two thirds of the attacking forces. Cullen couldn’t help but stop and smile. He had a feeling that he knew exactly who was responsible for that. With that one stroke, the tides had turned, despite the Templars fighting with supernatural strength.

His relief was all too short lived. A dragon came. Because of course there would be a blighted dragon. It flung fire and death as it winged through the night. Cullen shouted pointlessly for a retreat, looking desperately down the path, hoping against hope that she would appear out of the darkness. He held the gates open longer than he should have, praying she would make it back.

Miracle upon miracles, she was there and he slammed the gates shut right behind her. He cut directly to the point. “Any time you might have bought us with the avalanche is gone. The Chantry is the only building that might hold against that beast.” Asta started to hyperventilate, and Cullen grabbed her arm to ground her and grab her attention. She would be better off with a focus than fighting her own demons. “Some of the villagers are trapped. Round up the survivors. Bring everyone to the Chantry! Go!”

He flung her away, as if impatient, but she stumbled only slightly, breathing more normally as she ran up into the village.

He felt like he had stabbed himself in the gut as he sent her back out into the firestorm. He needed every person, but... Sweet Andraste, let her come back.

He fought his own way through men too red, too monstrous to be Templars until he reached the Chantry door with his small group of survivors. Flissa and Harrit the blacksmith ran through, Harrit carrying what looked like a hammer. Cullen shook his head, not wanting to ask.

And there she was a minute or two later, gasping and winded from exertion and smoke, and slightly singed, as the Iron Bull carried Minaeve into the building, and Cassandra limped through with Threnn the quartermaster. Dorian shook his head, regretful as he confessed, “I couldn’t save Adan. The pots exploded.”

“Fuck the Maker and all his children,” Cullen cursed, counting heads. They had already lost so many, mostly civilians. The strange boy, Cole, he remembered vaguely, came in carrying a very pale, very bloody Chancellor Roderick and Cullen shut the Chantry doors behind him.

“He tried to stop a Templar’s blade. It went deep. Red, inside and out. He’s going to die.” Cullen nodded in understanding and despair.

Asta was gathering grenades and potions, ready for another assault that he couldn‘t stand to plan. “Cullen?” She asked, awaiting her orders. He forced himself out of his thoughts realizing only one strategy remained, and it wasn’t a good one. In his mind, all his earlier hopes for the night, for his life, crumbled into dust, defeated by Samson, a dragon and red lyrium. In despair, he spoke, “We could turn the remaining trebuchet, cause one last landslide,” he started.

“To do that we’d bury Haven…”Asta looked shocked.

“The Elder One doesn’t care about Haven.” The odd boy blurted out. “He only cares about the Herald.”

“If it will save Haven he can have me,” Asta started to say, and Cullen’s protests died in his throat, he felt them, stuck and smoldering halfway down, like the smoke and fire that covered the remains of the village and the people that had lived there. They were all dead, just some of them didn't know it yet.

“It won’t. He’ll burn and destroy it anyway. I don’t like him,” The boy opined as an afterthought, turning his attention back to the Chancellor.

“You don’t…” Cullen shook his head, tossing the momentary distraction away with the movement. “Asta, nothing about this situation is survivable,” Cullen confirmed. He took her hand, gently. “We can choose the manner of our death. Many don’t get that chance.” He looked at her longingly.  He didn’t want to die without saying it, without tasting her lips just once.  "Asta, I..."

The strange boy drew their attention just in time. “Chancellor Roderick wants to help. He wants to say it before he dies.”

“There is a path. It was overgrown when I walked it on a whim. It must have been Andraste who showed me,” the Chancellor’s eyes locked with Asta’s who swallowed visibly at his inference. “To be the last who remembers…  Andraste must have...”

Asta flung her attention back to him. “Cullen, will it work?”

“Yes, if he can show us the path, but…” Cullen looked at her, hope in his eyes but pleading silently for her not to do this again. But if she didn't... “What of your escape?”

Asta only looked at him, squeezed his hand, and smiled. He felt his heart break under the weight of duty and sacrifice, both welling up from his chest to choke him.

“Maybe you will…” he started tentatively, “Find a way,” he ordered, forcing his transition from Cullen to the Commander. There was no room for Cullen here right now. He had to command. He turned, facing the survivors, now his primary focus, even while retaining his firm grasp on her hand. “You heard me, people! This is not a drill! Grab everything you can carry! Stick to necessities! Move!” He flipped back to Asta, needing one last goodbye, knowing in his heart of hearts that he would never see her alive again, but denying the knowledge all the same. “Asta, if we are to have a chance, if you are to have a chance, let that thing hear you!” He squeezed her hand back, fiercely, as if trying to leave the heat and the pressure of his hand upon her, so that she would feel it the rest of her days. “Asta,” he said softer, “Find a way.” He released her hand, and she backed to the door, slowly. She brought one of her daggers out, and saluted mockingly.

And then she was gone, disappeared into the red and orange night.

Cullen turned back to his charges, focused and despairing. Sweet Andraste, bring her back.

 

Chapter Text

Asta woke, cold and disoriented at the bottom of what appeared to be a mine shaft. She sat up too quickly and promptly threw up the contents of her stomach - mostly health potions. Her head hurt and spun dizzily, like she had had too much wine. And her arm felt wrong, weak and detached.

It was her arm that brought her memory back in a flash. She remembered that thing, Corypheus, dangling her by her marked hand, angry at her ‘flailing it against rifts’, undoing his work, making it… permanent. Her mind stuttered on that, but she forced it to keep going and made herself stand.

It had thrown her, tossed her to the trebuchet’s platform. She had seen Cullen’s signal arrow, knew that they were safe. And then she had picked up the sword, powered on adrenaline alone, taunted the creature and kicked the trebuchet’s release, flinging its burden into yet another mountain and starting a slide to bury Haven. She sunk back to her knees, knowing exactly who she had failed to save, counting every life she had caused to be lost.

Maker, what had she done?

***

Cullen was angry, and using his anger to good purpose. He kept them all moving, kept the scouts lighting fires ahead of them so that they never got too cold to function. He had them traveling as quickly as possible, to keep them warm, to keep them moving away from where Corypheus might decide to return. They were sitting ducks in this mountain pass - one fly-by from the dragon and the Inquisition would be gone.

He tried to care, knew that he had a higher duty. But it felt very empty. Sweet Andraste, let her live.

Every pause in his movements drew his mind back to her, to her inevitable sacrifice. Even as he prayed he knew it to be pointless.

A Chantry sister, inadequately dressed and carrying one of Haven’s few children, stumbled as she muttered, “Make me to rest in the warmest places…” Cullen silently took the child from her and placed him in one of the remaining wagons. They had to torch a couple at the start of their trek, due to broken axles and not enough horsepower. The child was slight, surely the horses wouldn’t struggle with such a little burden added to it.

“Thank you, Ser,” the Sister attempted, but Cullen was already onto the next straggler.

They finally stopped to camp the next night in a narrow valley that blocked most of the wind and snow. His urgency to find Asta, to search for her despite the odds of finding anything in a snowstorm and the fallout of an avalanche, was set aside once more while he helped civilians set up tents and allocated bedding. He was bone-weary but wouldn’t, couldn’t rest until his work was done. The last tent was finally set up, the injured that survived were being treated by a mixture of mages and Sisters. Now he had a choice, he could stop and sleep, or he could go find her.

His body knew his decision before his brain had registered it. Cassandra caught up with him as he grabbed rope, a shovel, some potions and other basic first aid supplies, as well as a blanket.

“Cullen, what are you doing?”

“What does it look like?” He stated. “I’m going to find her.”

“This is madness,” Cassandra started. “You haven’t slept in two days. You can’t possibly…”

He spun on her, “Cassandra, do you believe she was sent by Andraste to save us all?”

Cassandra stopped, faith warring with common sense. “I am not sure. I would like to believe so.”

“If that’s the case, then do you think Andraste would let her chosen savior die in an avalanche?”

Cassandra was already shaking her head, “Cullen, it doesn’t work that way.  Andraste let herself be burned at the stake.  We can't understand what she intends...”

He was already marching out of camp into the snow, “Well, if she’s dead, I’m going to make sure she gets the funeral she deserves. And if she’s not dead, I’m going to make sure she doesn’t need one. Are you coming?”

Cassandra fell in with him as he left. Neither of them said a word as they trudged back up the slope, calf-deep in drifting snow. “I know it’s hard,” Cassandra said, softly, “There was a mage at the Conclave. I will always grieve for him. But when hope is gone…”

Cullen ignored her, scanning the white horizon. Already it was hard to tell where the survivors had walked just a few short hours before. And then, a slight flash of fade green caught his eye. “There! It’s her!” He yelled and started to run, nearly tripping over the snow in the attempt to reach her sooner.

Cassandra gasped out, “Thank the Maker!” Cullen pushed the snow aside with every step, frustrated at it’s ability to keep her from him. She had fallen, face half covered with ice crystals coating her hair and eyelashes, her eyes glazed, her lips blue.

“We’ve got to get her back,” he said, taking her pulse, slightly reassured by its beat, too slow, but still beating. He started to wrap her in the blanket, but noticed her arm, “Her shoulder is dislocated. Hopefully not broken. She’s going to need healing. I don’t dare try to pop it back in while she’s this cold.”

Cassandra agreed, “She is hypothermic. We must hurry. Warmth is the only thing that will save her, and that is more important than her arm right now.”

The trip back to camp went faster with a half-broken trail ahead of them and the wind behind. Once back in the valley, the campfire lights guided them back in, promising safety, however illusory.

The entire camp gawked at his armful as he pushed his way into the healer’s tent on the far side. “We found her,” He had found her, his heart sung. He placed his burden gently onto a free cot, and dropped onto a stool, scared to look away as the healer and surgeon jointly triaged Asta. “I think she has a dislocated shoulder.”

The surgeon looked at him and Cassandra. “One of you needs to strip. She needs body warmth, now.” Cullen stood to leave and Cassandra grabbed him.

“It should be you. The lyrium withdrawal keeps your temperature slightly higher. That would be very useful right now.” Cullen started to stammer, but the surgeon stopped him.

“Fine, I don’t care about your false modesty,” the surgeon bit out. “Just strip and get under the blankets. I have a patient to save.” She consulted with the healer, “Yes, I suspect a slight concussion as well. Can you tell whether she is in a coma or is this a more natural rest? We might have to try to wake her if you can’t tell. And the arm is definitely dislocated, possibly fractured. That will have to wait until she is warm. We can’t keep her warm and reset it at the same time. Let’s save her life and then worry about her bones, shall we?”

With that in mind, Cullen divested himself of his armor and clothing, embarrassed but knowing it was logical. It was hard to fight logic, skin or no skin. With luck, he wouldn’t be needed long, and he could get away before she woke up. He curled himself around her, gingerly.

“Don’t be daft, man, she needs your body heat,” the surgeon scolded. “Maidenly distance isn’t going to get her warm!” Obeying without thinking, he shoved himself up against her. “That’s better. Now, Ellandra! Come cast your spells and figure out what you can. We’ve got to figure out how bad this head wound is.”

Cullen lay there, awkward and stiff against her cold body, a little afraid to move lest the surgeon snap at him again. The healer cast spells all around him, but for once he could only think of her, in his arms, cold as a block of ice and unresponsive.

He prayed once more, but this time in gratitude.

***

Several hours later, Cullen was still very uncomfortable. He knew basic first aid, and knew he was logically a good choice for body warmth. He could even put up with the inevitable giggles and smirks from the other advisors and Asta's inner circle once they knew how he had been trapped into this… situation.

But the noises that Asta was making now… they were making him hot in an inappropriate way, in a very inconvenient place. And he had been fighting her attractiveness, her humor and her intelligence for months now. This... position was not making anything easier. The healers had said he could leave and find them when she woke up - but she wasn’t awake yet. In the meantime, thanks to the surgeon, he was spooning her, knees behind her knees, and her ass right up against the problem area.

So Cullen tried to think of cold things. Showers, icy horse troughs, waterfalls, but in each case a naked or nearly so Asta popped up front and center - just like something else was attempting to do. He tried focusing on the moment he had found her, icy and limp, only to remember the pleasant weight of her in his arms as he rushed her back to camp, and how she looked with the fur from his cape against her cheek. Less erotic, yes, but hardly helpful.

She moved suddenly, flipping herself and flopping a leg over him, and it was Cullen's turn to freeze, scared to disturb her much needed rest or hurt her still damaged arm. She was half on top of him now, both laying on their sides, facing each other, his hand on her thigh, and another under her head.

Her lips were so close, rosy rather than blue now, and soft looking. She moved again, a sudden stretching movement that put her lips right over his. His eyes bulged at the contact, and other parts of his body reacted in turn, the tingling intensifying in a very pleasant way.

Her eyes opened, bleary but surprised. “Cullen,” she breathed, her voice sounding better than any daydream, sleepy and happy.

He jumped out of the cot, nearly knocking it over in his haste to be elsewhere, and trying to hide his half-erection. He stammered out an explanation, an excuse, an apology, but he wasn’t even aware of his words. He was gone from the tent in moments, somehow cold beyond the chilly air, and feeling inexplicably lonely.

***

Asta was having the most wonderful time. The party shone like diamonds, milling with colorful people dancing and talking like so many tropical birds. Her own gown was… sheer… she was shocked to note, but no one seemed to notice but her, or even think that it was odd. They must be Orlesian, she thought idly. She was warm enough, to be sure, surprising for such a large ballroom with so many windows, despite the number of people in it. They pressed against her, kissing her hand, whispering compliments.

And then she saw him and everyone else disappeared. It was very convenient, Asta thought, as she glided across the room to where he stood. She was distracted for the moment at whether her feet were even touching the floor, but decided that in the end, she was there in front of him and it didn’t really matter.

“My lady,” the man said, bending over her hand. He looked familiar somehow. With the contact of his lips to her hand their clothes disappeared - had he even been wearing any to start with - Asta asked herself, confused. But again, she was distracted by the fact that she now was in a far more intimate embrace than before, his long, lean and hard - in what felt like all the right places - body up against hers. He shifted to stand behind her, arm across her stomach, hand brushing against her lower breast, closer than before. She moaned slightly, enjoying the sensation, but wanting to see him. She spun around, more slowly and awkwardly than her movements had been thus far. Almost by accident, his lips pressed tenderly and firmly against her own.

Her eyes opened gently, to find her dream was reality. “Cullen,” Asta breathed, confused and undeniably aroused.

His eyes were as big as saucers, his pupils blown wide, their lips a breath apart.

Cullen threw himself out of the cot, stumbling towards his clothes and armor. “I apologize, Herald! The healers suggested that body warmth… and Cassandra that I… Nothing happened!”

“Oh,” Asta sounded detached and disappointed. She still wasn’t fully awake and didn’t look away as he dressed himself hastily, and without the precision he might normally have applied to his appearance.

“Excuse me, my lady,” Cullen had to escape, “I will let the healers and surgeon know.” And he was gone in a moment. So Asta closed her eyes and let herself drift off again.

It had been such a nice dream.

***

The next time she woke she was clearheaded, and covered with only a light blanket.  She went to sit up, and Mother Giselle was instantly at her side to help her, since her arm was still in a sling.

"What is this for, Revered Mother?"

"You had a dislocated shoulder and a slight fracture of your forearm.  The sling is to help keep it immobile.  The healers were far more concerned with your concussion, mild though it was.  You kept falling asleep.  Luckily the healer Ellandra were able to assure us that it was a natural sleep, not a coma.  That was the extent of your injuries, Herald.  The Maker has been kind to you, or perhaps it was his Bride."

Asta knew that she was likely just trying to be kind, but her injuries still ached and the memories of Corypheus attacking her home, her friends made her short tempered.  "The Maker had nothing to do with it, Mother.  Corypheus... do we even know where he is?"  Her eyes were dilated strangely from the aftermath of the concussion, and they searched the Mother's face for answers.

"We aren't even sure where we are."  The mild-mannered Mother looked her over gently.  "There has been no sign of him since he flew off on the dragon."  At that point, the noise from outside the healer's tent began to intrude on their conversation.

The advisors were arguing again.  Their discussions penetrated her preoccupation with Corypheus.  "I should be out there planning."  She made to stand, shaking slightly.

But the Mother wasn't finished.  "The uncertainty of our situation has made many question.  They saw you leave, sacrificing yourself for all of us, saw you confront Corypheus, saw you fall, and then, saw you return.  To many, it seems like a miracle."

"I didn't die and come back to life, Mother," Asta was horrified at even the suggestion.  "I am not the Herald of Andraste.  I'm not the Herald of anything except maybe extreme bad luck.  Corypheus claimed himself that I was an accident, in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"Or the right time.  Just because you don't see Andraste's hand on what has occurred doesn't mean it is not there."

Asta stood up finally, impatient, "Mother, I don't see how what I believe has any bearing on what needs to happen next.  Please, excuse me."

Her first instinct was to make a beeline for Cullen, who typically, was shifting and rubbing the back of his neck, and trying not to look at her.  Then she saw Leliana and Josie, looking dejected and forlorn, and Cassandra frantically trying to figure out where in the Void-begotten Frostbacks  they were.  When the song started, Asta had to close her eyes.  She knew better than to ever trust an Orlesian Revered Mother.  They always thought they knew best.  She would pick this hymn, of course. 

Shadows fall and hope has fled.  Steel your heart, the dawn will come.  But no one ever said that it would be better in the morning.  Asta had a strong feeling that for her, this morning was just the beginning of a very drawn out end.

And it wasn't likely to be her happy ending.

In the end, Solas reached her first, like an elf with a mission, and commanded her attention.  The story he told of an orb, a foci, seemed like something she would have read in a Tevinter fairy tale.  "The Creepy Magister and his Stolen Orb of Power", perhaps.  Asta shook her head, trying to concentrate on what Solas was saying.

"So you want me to direct the Inquisition north.  That's not much to go on, Solas."

"I promise you will find what you need, Herald."

Asta eyed him, "What we need, or what you need?"  Her conversation with Mother Giselle was forefront in her mind, and Andraste's knicker weasels, she was tired of being manipulated.

"Does it matter?  Right now our goals are the same.  It does me precisely no good to allow all of these people to perish in the snow, after all."

 "Very well," Asta considered carefully, "It's not like we have a ton of options after all.  I will discuss this with the other advisors.  Thank you."

"Certainly, Herald."

"Please, don't call me that," Asta closed her eyes again, weary.  "Though at least you don't believe in Andraste."

"Not in her divinity, perhaps."

***

Asta's next stop was Cullen, who was still trying not to look at her and failing.

"Herald!  Should you be up?"  He wouldn't meet her eyes.

"Cullen, is something wrong?"

"Wrong?" His voice cracked.  "No, not at all.  I'm relieved to see you are up and about."

Now she knew something was wrong.  Asta eyed him dubiously.  "Cullen, what are you not telling me?"

Cullen blushed up to his ears.  "Nothing!  I mean, nothing happened, I swear.  Cassandra said, and the surgeon... but I... you were... Andraste's Tits!  No!  That's not what I meant!  Damn it to the Void, Asta!  You were naked!" Cullen hid his face in embarrassment.

Asta blinked, trying to follow the string of non-sequitors.  "All right, then," she suddenly remembered her hazy dream.  "Wait, did I?  Were you... Andraste's tits is right."  She looked amused, "Did you like what you saw?"

"I didn't look!"

Asta's face fell, "Wait, you were naked in a cot with me and you didn't look?"

"Yes!  I mean, no!"  His face was cherry red.  It was a good look for him, Asta decided.

"Can you answer one thing in a clear and concise manner?"  Asta's eyes narrowed dangerously.

"Maker's Breath, I will try."  He finally met her eyes, bashfully.

"Did I... kiss...you?"

Cullen blanched, "Yes..."

"Damn it!"  Asta  was furious.  "And I can't remember a thing!  Maker's Flaming Ballsack!"  She stormed away.

Cullen sat down on the ground.  She hadn't been angry.  Well, she had been angry, but only because she didn't remember.  He smiled, a little wickedly.

He certainly did.

Chapter Text

Skyhold certainly appeared to be exactly what the Inquisition needed. A large main hall for pomp and circumstance certainly satisfied Josie, a dark rotunda in a tower offered Leliana a place to keep her birds close and her secrets closer. It would take a while to get everything cleaned out and repaired, and it definitely needed some crucial upgrades, like a study tower for the mages and a place for the wounded, but the keep’s bones were perfect.

Asta surveyed all of this after her induction as Inquisitor. She had been waylaid by the request, apparently unanimous, which shocked her more than actually being offered the job. How the disparate opinions of her advisors had managed to coalesce into agreement upon her fitness was the real miracle, not surviving the avalanche.

She had to admit that it was nice to have a title that wasn’t associated with the Chantry or her family, but it still sounded weird. The grounds had rung with people that couldn’t wait to call her Inquisitor, and she still didn’t know who they were addressing half the time.

After the ceremony she had been left halfway up the stairs, holding an overlarge sword that she didn’t know how to use, or where to put it. So she made her way back down to where Cullen had set up a temporary desk. She watched him work for a few minutes, knowing they had just a little while until their first war meeting in Skyhold. She was feeling uncharacteristically shy, and decided to wait for him to be free before she grabbed his attention.

But of course he already knew she was there. “Inquisitor!” Asta winced a little.

“Are we going to have to go through all that again?” She asked, “I told you to call me Asta. You were doing so well.”

His smile was distracted but friendly. He gave some scattered orders to a soldier about the armory and Asta grabbed her moment. “Here, you can take this with you as well,” and she handed off the enormous sword to the random recruit. “Find it a safe place in there somewhere.”

Cullen turned back, “Now, what can I help you with?”

“I just wanted to see how every one was settling in. Have you found yourself an office yet?”

Cullen indicated one of the towers in better repair. “Up there, I’m afraid. It’s central to the battlements, at least, and accessible to the soldiers. It’s seen better days, but is mostly intact.”

Asta had avoided him for most of the trip there, between being busy and still angry about missing the kiss, such as it was. She had also started to wonder whether his bashfulness was really disgust.

It had all seemed so easy back at Haven. Girl meets Knight. Girl wants Knight. Knight likes Girl. Girl and Knight talk and drink too much. Knight carries Girl back to cabin. Knight is entirely too perfect of a gentleman. Girl travels too much and tries to overcompensate when she is around. Girl gets village attacked, Knight saves villagers, Girl sacrifices herself to save people…

Asta could see that it wasn’t so easy after all. Maker’s Breath, their love story - was it even a love story?- was messy. And now she was sort of his boss. Was this fraternization? There were usually rules about that in armies, she had read about them. Worse yet, was she pressuring him into something he didn’t want? The dream kiss had been sort of an accident, after all.

But when she remembered sitting in the courtyard at Haven and joking about finding appropriate places… surely she hadn’t been reading him that wrong?

And if her dream had any truth to it, he had been just as aroused as she was. She sighed loudly. Why was this so difficult?

Cullen had kept talking, almost babbling on about morale being higher since she accepted the post of Inquisitor. That brought her back to the present, blushing slightly.

“Inquisitor Trevelyan. It sounds strange, don’t you think?”

“Not at all.” He was smiling at her again, with those lips quirking upward on one side, and those eyes shining. She had to try to focus on something besides those lips.

“Is that the official response?”

He laughed. Damn it. “I suppose it is.”

Asta dipped her toe into the figurative water. “I am glad that you… that so many made it out of Haven safely.”

“As am I.” He looked sad, momentarily, and then something changed. His glance altered to that strange magnetism that kept drawing them back together. Her brain had stopped dead, so with nothing else to say, she turned to leave, despite the polarity of their gazes trying to yank her back.

And then he stopped her, a hand on hers. “You went back.” His voice was deeper, and she could have drowned herself in it. “You could have… I will not let what happened at Haven to happen again. You have my word.”

And Asta rolled her eyes. “Yes, I know. I need to stop running headfirst into traps, using myself as bait, or otherwise potentially compromising the primary goals of the Inquisition. Especially now that I’m supposed to be leading this merry band of rebels.”

Cullen stepped back, involuntary, but retained his hand on hers. “Not at all! Well, I do want those things, but mostly I just wanted…”

“To tell me to be safe?” Asta suggested.

“Well, yes, and also…”

“To tell me that you care what happens to me?” Asta was sick to death of tiptoeing around the issue of Them. She leaned over the desk to be closer to him.

“Quite right,” Now he looked nervous and Asta decided that she wanted to see him in cherry red again.

“And maybe, that I’m not the only one who keeps thinking about what happened in the healer’s tent?” A couple of his recruits stopped and looked interested in their conversation.

“As you were!” The cherry red Commander ordered them along.

“At ease, Commander,” Asta cocked an eye at his breeches cheekily.

“Maker’s breath, Asta,” Cullen groaned. “Would you stop teasing me?”

Asta leaned further over. Despite the altitude, she had been working before the ceremony, and she had been hot. Her tunic clasps were undone, so her uniform was a little less formal than intended. It was having the desired effect, because Cullen was looking right down her cleavage. “Whatever makes you think I’m not serious?” She looked around and spotted the Iron Bull.

“Bull!”

“Yo, Boss!”

“How many times have I flirted with you?”

“None, boss.” He sounded slightly regretful.

“And how many times have you come on to me?”

“At least a dozen. Why, you offering? ’Cause you are the last holdout of the ex-Chantry sisters.” He shook his head, smiling at the memories. “Those girls are wild.”

Cullen looked a little shocked. “Inquisitor, I hardly need…”

“No, you need to hear this. Varric!” Asta waved him over imperiously.

“Yes, Inquisitor?”

“You are my self-proclaimed life chronicler, correct?”

“Sure, why not?”

“How many men, or women, let’s not discriminate, have I flirted with since I joined the Inquisition all those months ago?”

Varric blinked, “One.”

“And that one is?”

“Curly, here.” Varric looked interested, “Should I get my notebook?”

“Don’t bother. Thanks, Varric, I owe you.”

“No problem,” Varric left, grinning widely. “See ya, Curly.”

‘Curly’ cleared his throat. “So, you are saying…”

“All along, since the first time you killed a demon for me.” She had maneuvered so that she was on the same side of the desk now, and she shoved him, gently. “So get over yourself, already. If you don’t want to be wanted, we need to talk. Otherwise, I’m ready when you are.” And she walked away, not sure whether or be angry or invigorated. And then something occurred to her, and she turned and came back. Cullen hadn’t moved an inch. “Actually, there is one thing I haven’t asked, and I should, just to make sure. Did you leave anyone behind in Kirkwall?”

Cullen stood there as if he had been hit by chain lightening while wearing full armor. “What? No, I fear I made few friends there, and you know my family is in Fereldan.”

“No one special caught your eye?” She was smiling again, and he knew, just knew that this woman was going to be the death of him and that he would go to his death willingly.

So he smirked, a little half smile. “Not in Kirkwall.”

***

Maxwell found him considerably later that evening, still making requisition requests and allocating armor and weapons to the recruits.

“So! Some of the soldiers tell me you and my Little Sister are finally making some progress.”

Cullen glared at him. The light had failed a while ago and his headache had started. “Only because a certain brother has made himself scarce.”

“Well, don’t worry about stepping on my toes. Leliana is sending me out - back to Ostwick. She wants me to recover Asta’s research. Has some idea about it being useful. So I’m heading home to steal a ton of dusty scrolls and books out from under an overly suspicious Revered Mother, and check in with Mother and Father. Who knows, maybe I’ll get laid, considering all of the choice women around here are either otherwise entangled, grieving, apparently celibate or not attracted to men.” Maxwell leaned back against the stairs, “Seriously, Josie is engaged to some Count. And Cass? She’s grieving for some mage who died at the Conclave. Leliana says she has taken vows, and Sera swings the other direction. I can’t win.”

Cullen snorted. “Well, maybe if they were actually attracted to you their responses would be different. What about Flissa? She survived Haven.”

“And so did Harrit. She’s hung up on him now that you’re taken.”

Cullen blinked. He was ‘taken’? He needed to think about this. “That’s a shame,” he answered automatically. Asta had been very clear earlier that day, but it was just that morning. Surely gossip wouldn’t have spread that quickly?

“Hey, Thedas to Cullen. You there?”

“Yes, sorry.”

“So, what happened in the healer’s tent? The sentries couldn’t stop talking about it today. You carried her in, all icicly, you were in there alone for several hours and…”

Cullen managed, for one of the first times in his life, to keep a straight face. “Nothing.”

Maxwell scanned his expression, looking for weakness. “Nothing?”

“Nothing. The healers requested my assistance, I stayed until she woke. At that point we knew that she would recover so I left to resume my duties.”

Maxwell raised an eyebrow. “Right.”

“Now, speaking of duties, I have a million things to do. Safe trip home, Maxwell.” And for once, Cullen left having said just the right thing.

***

A few days later, Cullen had been invited to the tavern, dubbed ‘The Herald’s Rest’ by Varric who thought he was being clever, for it’s opening night, by Iron Bull and his Chargers. He had been impressed by how professional they were, despite their appearances to the contrary. They did good work, and the Iron Bull certainly knew how to keep Asta safe. His only complaint was more personal, especially since he knew that the Iron Bull had hit on her in the past, refused or not. Still, he didn’t think the Bull would be the sort to force himself where he wasn’t wanted.

So he found himself sitting next to the Qunari, drinking a bit too much ale and talking about the Inquisitor who had left for Crestwood some days before, intent finding Hawke's Warden friend. Her first letter had been full of undead and rifts under water and suspicious floods. She wouldn’t be back for weeks at this point, and he hadn’t been able to have more than a professional discussion with her over the War Table before her departure.

The Iron Bull didn’t pull any punches, “So, you and the Boss, right?”

Cullen slumped against the table, glad they were in the corner of the room, rather than at the bar. “Not really. We haven’t discussed anything of the sort.”

“What’s to discuss? You two are goofy over each other. Dorian keeps threatening to be sick over how she gushes about you in the field. Why aren’t you already fucking each other senseless?”

“It’s more complicated than it seems.”

“Why?” Bull took a drink. “The Qun did this right. We don’t have love, and sex is a transaction. Like seeing a healer. Wham, bam, see you next week. You people get yourself way too twisted up about it.”

Cullen couldn’t deny that. “That does sound easier.”

“So make it easy! Unless…” the Bull narrowed his gimlet eye on him. “Wait, are you a virgin?”

“That’s… complicated, too.”

“Cullen, how complicated can it be? Have you or haven’t you?”

“Does sex with a desire demon count?”

The Iron Bull scooted back in his chair, squealing it against the stone floor. “Damn, Cullen, that’s some freaky shit!”

“Yes, well, it is not my intent to tintillate.” Cullen scowled into his glass. “It was not my choice or in my control.”

Iron Bull grew serious. “So you were cock-teased by a demon. Fuck, that’s screwed up, Cullen.”

“Yes, rather.”

“So, you are all in your head about doing it with the Boss. It had to be something. A blind man could see that you wanted her.  I get it now.”

“I hope so. I’d hate to have to go into detail.”

“No, even my sexual proclivities have limits.” Bull stopped for a moment “Did you love the girl? Desire demons, they take other faces, right?”

“I thought I did. At the time.”

“Okay, so a first love thing.”

“Sort of. She was a mage at Kinloch Hold.”

“Whoa, you are a kinky bastard.”

“It wasn’t like that!”

“Of course not. If it had been you wouldn’t be all confused about whether or not you were a virgin. Do you still have nightmares?”

“Yes.” Cullen drank deeply, once again lost in his own thoughts. “Only, they’ve changed.”

“Changed? How?”

“Before, it was always things being done to me. As an object, almost.” Cullen couldn’t quite believe he was talking about this, and not even to a healer, to a seven foot tall Qunari. When had his life become unrecognizable?  And why did he still think this was better than what he had before?  “Now, my nightmares are more personal, and far scarier. About what I could lose or drive away.”

“Hmm,” Bull took a drink and called for another round.

“But it isn’t just the idea of having sex. Sex with Asta, that would be…” Cullen sighed. “I can only imagine.”

“For now. We’ll get you there, my friend.” Bull tapped his mug against Cullen’s.

“Thanks, I think,” Cullen slurred. “It’s very kind of you.”

“So what is it? The lyrium thing?”

“How did you…”

“Ben-Hasserath, Cullen. I know lyrium withdrawal. It was used as an interrogation technique under the Qun. Damn ‘Vints overindulge in everything. Their Templars don’t take it, though.”

“Am I surrounded by people who know everything about me?”

“Probably. You’re good at your thing, but spies, well, we’re good at not getting noticed, while we notice everything. You have precious few secrets, I’d wager.”

Cullen slammed his head into the table this time, a little harder than he had intended. “Ow.” He rubbed his forehead. “Well, I haven’t told her what I’m attempting.”

“How’s the pain?”

“Constant, but endurable. I’ve been through worse.”

“I’ve got to hand it to you, Cullen. You are one tough guy. But telling her, that’s easy. She’s the Inquisitor now. She should know.”

“Easier said than done. I’m not good with words around her.”

“Nonsense. You’re just stuck in your own head. Just tell her what you’re thinking. Who cares if you stumble a bit before you find your stride? Boss is so into you, I know she just thinks it’s sweet.”

Cullen scowled, “Sweet is not the way I would like to project myself.”

“Too late. Better get over it. Being ‘sweet’ is like icing on a cake. It usually happens when they like you or want you first. It’s just what they use to justify their attraction to something they think they shouldn’t find sexy. Like, my horns. Orlesian women don’t want to find them attractive, so they describe them as ‘virile’ or ‘phallic’. Whatever lifts their skirts up, I say.”

“You think the Inquisitor finds my stammering attractive?” Cullen found that extremely unlikely.

“That and you rubbing the back of your neck when you are trying not to look at her. And the way you blush.” The Iron Bull’s eye twinkled. “Cullen, she already told you she’s waiting. So talk to her already about the skeletons in your closet that are waiting to jump out, and get on to the parts where you are grinding your bodies together in every closet in Skyhold instead.”

Cullen shook his head, and stood up, slowly. “I’ll think about it.”

“Don’t think too long. I’ve got good money riding on whether or not you are making the beast with two backs by Satinalia.”

“What!” Cullen sputtered.

“What? I’m at least betting in your favor. Varric says it will take at least three years. Dwarf acts like he’s talking from experience. Thought Hawke would have moved faster than that, personally.”

“The Champion? Never mind, I don’t want to know,” but Cullen suddenly did feel a little better at their slow progression. It had only been months, not years.

“That’s right! Apparently you are a smoother mover than the Champion of Kirkwall.” The Iron Bull winked, or blinked, it was hard to tell for sure. “Surprising, maybe, but the facts don’t lie.”

And with that, Cullen left the tavern feeling slightly more confident and greatly indebted to the Iron Bull.

 

Chapter Text

Crestwood had potential, Asta thought. Despite the destroyed Chantry that smelled like burned corpses, the undead, the mayor who seemed a little too desperate to blame a flood on darkspawn, and the Maker-be-damned rift under the lake, it still had potential.

Because Caer Bronach had a library. A lovely, well-stocked library with real bookshelves. A little oasis of knowledge in the midst of disaster.

Oh sure, Leliana’s scouts had locked her out of it in order to play Wicked Grace, but Sera’s lock picking lessons had come in very handy. She had let herself in, told them in her best ‘Inquisitor’ voice to carry on, and promptly lost herself in words, glorious words.

It felt like ages since she had been this close to a printed page. It was heavenly. She breathed deep, ignoring the pointed stares of the scouts across the room. The smell of ancient glue and dust and ink and leather bindings… how she had missed it.

She was lost for an hour before Dorian found her, buried deep in a tome about the Anderfels and their king who loved cats.

He shook her shoulder and she came back to herself with a shudder. “My dear Inquisitor! Where were you?”

“In the Anderfels!” Asta laughed. “I’ve missed my books a little too much, I fear. This one reached up and grabbed me.”

Dorian understood, “Oh, how I’d love to show you the library at Minrathous. But then, once inside I’d probably never see you again. We couldn’t have that. I’m far too valuable an acquaintance to ignore in favor of a good book.”

Asta sighed wistfully, “I doubt that the Inquisitor will ever be welcome in Tevinter.”

“True, it wouldn’t know what to do with you. Tevinter does have a way of not knowing what is in its best interest. After all, they made me a pariah! Their loss, on both counts.”

Asta stretched. “I suppose I should get changed and eat something before we meet Hawke. I just got so sidetracked. And it was nice to do something for an hour that didn’t involve stabbing something, or hiking over hills the size of mountains.”

“That would probably be wise. Oh! I had almost forgotten. Charter said you received a letter.” Dorian raised his eyebrows, “It’s from the Commander.”

Asta hesitated and looked thoughtful, “Had it been opened?”

Dorian laughed, “Of course it had! We have a keep full of spies, my dear! Everything here has been pried into, peered at, and replaced as if it were never touched at all.” He handed her the letter and left her alone with a wink and a smile.

She opened it, and a single half-opened, rather wrinkled, red rose fell into her lap. She blushed, hoping the scouts playing their game weren’t watching too closely.

Dear Asta,

Skyhold’s library is improving, I am happy to report and you’ll be even happier to hear. Amongst the books that you, Solas, Vivienne, Dorian and Varric ordered was one on the Language of Flowers. It made its way into my office, and proceeded to educate me. I hope you enjoy the results. It has informed me that red roses are, despite being associated with love, also symbolic of respect, courage and beauty. Naturally I also noted that half-opened blooms are for blossoming feelings. The enclosed, therefore, seems appropriate.

I will say no more than that for fearing of scaring you away. I know that we have much to discuss upon your return, and I have many things I both wish and need to tell you, things that you should know before…

And once again I assume too much. In any case, now that you are the Inquisitor, there are things I want you to know. I would have told you eventually, even without your new title, but…

Damn it, and this started out so promising. Even in letters I apparently lose my grasp of language when addressing you.

Inquisitor, no, Asta, I miss you. If I could find a pomegranate flower in the middle of the Frostbacks, I would send it to you. Instead, I can only write “Come to Me” and hope you will.

Please, be careful. The last report you sent said you saw a dragon in the area. Please don’t fight the dragon. I’m pretty sure that there is no flower that indicates “Don’t fight the dragon, you aren’t ready.”  I thought maybe the snapdragon, but it's apparently 'deception'.  Not what I'm looking for.

I await your return,

Your Commander

Asta barely finished the letter before she was down the stairwell yelling for Dorian and ignoring the knowing smiles of the many spies who had also read her letter. It didn’t matter. She needed to meet Hawke, kill a wyvern, observe a dragon and get the fuck back to Skyhold.

Back home, where there was someone waiting for her. That was new.

***

Cullen was practicing his words. He was going to be fluent, concise, and competent, all while letting the Inquisitor know exactly why he was not taking lyrium. He could do this.

She had been back for an hour, though. Surely that was enough time to bathe, dress, cover the essential things that needed to be done and come to his office? He adjusted the lyrium kit on his desk so that it was perfectly aligned with the corner. At least today the lyrium’s call wasn’t loud - just a whisper, a gossiping hint.

There was a knock at his door and she entered, hair wet and shining.

“Afternoon, Commander,” she said, beaming.

“Welcome back, Inquisitor. I hope your trip was successful?”

Asta snorted, “Yes, considering we had a mayor framing darkspawn for mass murder, a rift under water in a Dwarven Thaig that made Varric piss himself, and a whole keep full of spies reading my mail out of boredom until the bandits were taken care of and travel through the area could resume. What’s not to love?”

“They read your mail?” Cullen blushed. He was really glad he hadn’t told her about the lyrium in the letter. He had been so close.

“They read yours too. No secrets from the Nightingale.” She came around the desk, somewhat interfering with his plan, and took his hand. “From the way they looked at me they enjoyed your most recent letter as much as I did.”

Cullen cleared his throat. It was time to get this back on track. “I have something I need to tell you.”

Asta purred, still holding his hand. “You can tell me anything.”

This was getting more awkward, not less. “Yes, thank you. What do you know about lyrium?”

Asta tilted her head, puzzled about where she had thought this conversation was going versus the direction he had taken it in. “Not much. It restores magic, if you are a mage. Templars take it. It’s addictive.”

“Exactly. Templars take it to enhance their abilities to cancel magic.” He took a deep breath and plunged into the most difficult part of the topic. “I no longer take it.”

Asta dropped his hand in shock. “Cullen, won’t that kill you?”

“It hasn’t so far. I stopped when Cassandra recruited me in Kirkwall, when I decided to leave the Templar Order. I will not be bound to that life any longer. I think you understand.” This is going well, he thought. I’m tough, I’m confident, I’m in control.

Asta freaked out. “Are you in pain? Maker, your headaches - I never realized! Do the healers know?”

He reached out and touched her shoulder. “I can endure the pain, Asta. The point of this conversation is that I needed you to know. Not just as the Inquisitor.”

Understanding flooded her face and she stepped back. “Of course, Commander,” at once professional. “I understand and respect what you are doing.” Her face was down, looking at her feet. He tried to meet her eyes. Something had gone wrong, but he couldn’t tell what it was.

“I’ve asked Cassandra to watch me. Her Seeker abilities can monitor the lyrium in my blood. She thinks that I can do this.” Do you think I can do this? He wanted to ask, so badly, but the words got in the way.

Asta’s face crumpled, and forgetting professional distance she rushed into his arms. “Cullen, you could die. I found so many Templars dead to no obvious cause in the Hinterlands. The healer, Ellandra, her lover was among them.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Cullen felt extremely awkward, not knowing where to put his hands. “If my symptoms get worse, Cassandra will recommend a replacement.”

Asta hit him on the arm, face still buried in his fur. “I don’t fucking care about the Inquisition. I care about you. This better be worth it, Commander.”

“It will be.” Cullen promised, “I have no intention of dying, but even if I do, I’d rather die than be leashed to the Chantry.”

“Right,” Asta pushed herself away and repeated, “I respect what you are doing. I never thought lyrium should be used as it is. Stupid Chantry. Maybe my brother is right and we should just let it fall to pieces.” There were tears on her face, Cullen noticed, and he longed to wipe them away, but something held him back. “We’d better head to the War Room. There were developments in Crestwood, I need to have you or Leliana track down their former mayor, and we need to discuss the dragon…”

“Asta, I am…”

“No, Commander, it’s all right. I will be fine. We have work to do. I’ll see you in the War Room shortly.” She left him alone, and feeling that maybe being in control and competent wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

***

Leliana nearly broke down his door that evening. “What did you do to her?”

“Who?” Cullen had a feeling that he already knew.

“The Inquisitor. You know, Asta, the woman you’ve been writing love letters to?” She was furious, and Cullen started to watch her body in case she decided to pull a dagger on him.

“It was one letter. And I did nothing! I only told her that I wasn’t taking lyrium any more!”

“She’s been crying all afternoon in that decrepit library in the depths of the keep, asshole. She missed dinner, not that you’d notice since you apparently don’t eat.” Leliana didn’t pull a knife, but Cullen knew that she didn’t need a knife to make him very dead. “Go make it right, or I’ll kill you and make it look like an accident.” She vanished from his office like a spirit into the Fade. Cullen blinked, and went to obey her.

The library in question was a dusty, spider-ridden place, with a lone candelabra and a raised dais that was surrounded by bookshelves. Cullen had only been there once, by accident, when he had gotten lost looking for the kitchens. He found Asta huddled behind the reading desk covered in cobwebs.

“There you are! I thought you were afraid of spiders?”

Asta just glared at him, “Why did you write me that letter?”

“Because I wanted to say…”

“Cullen, you led me on. You sent me a red rose, knowing exactly what it meant, and then told me to come back.” Asta’s eyes were tear streaked, rivulets running through the dust on her cheeks, a picture of tragedy. “And then as soon as I returned, looking extremely forward to seeing you, thinking we were on the same page, seeing where this,” and she waved her hand between the two of them, “was headed, you tell me you’ve sentenced yourself to death rather than be chained to the Chantry any longer. That’s really… Maker’s Children, Cullen. Why did you even write?” She buried her head in her knees.

Cullen shifted on his feet. “Well, when you put it like that, it was a poor decision.”

Asta snorted, “I really want to throw something at you right now. But I’m surrounded by books and I don’t abuse books.”

“But you’d abuse me?”

An eye peeked through her hair. “Maybe. If I didn’t feel guilty about hitting a dying man.”

Cullen held out his hand. “Come on.”

“Why should I? Where are we going?”

“We are going to talk to Cassandra. And then we are going to the healers, where you will witness me getting a full physical. I expect the sight will leave you speechless.”

Asta snorted again, “The dying shouldn’t crack jokes.”

“He’s not dying.”  The door clicked shut behind Cassandra, who strode into the room with authority.

“Ah, Cassandra, Leliana notified you too? Thanks for saving us the trip. Would you please inform the Inquisitor that I am going to survive?”

“He’s relatively healthy, yes. I can sense the lyrium slowly leaving his system. He hasn’t hit the worst of it, yet, but there isn’t much information on the subject of lyrium withdrawals.”

Asta fully looked up at that. “So he will get worse?”

“Yes, he will, and then he will either get better, or die.”

"I'm standing right here."

Cassandra ignored him, "But I am watching him, and so far I have seen nothing that leads me to the conclusion that his death is imminent or inevitable."

“But the Chantry says…”

Cullen laughed. “Look, Asta, you of all people should realize how falsely the Chantry has led us all in the direction they want us to move in. It’s been ages of half-truths, lies and omissions. Why should lyrium addiction be any different?”

“But Ellandra’s Mattrin…”

Cassandra butted back in, “I was with you that day. He committed suicide. His death was caused by the lyrium only indirectly. Your argument is invalid.”

Asta chewed on her lower lip. Cullen sighed. “Let’s go to the healers. I’ve been trying not to let this get out, but now you know, Cassandra always knew, Bull guessed, and Leliana has spies everywhere. My privacy is at an end.”

Asta shook her head. “No, I don’t want this to affect morale. If you are successful,” she stopped to take a breath, shuddering, “then we can consider making it public. Even offer the other Templars the same option.” She turned her attention to Cassandra, “Thank you, Cass. I feel a little better, knowing. Would you leave us, please?”

The door clicked shut behind her and Asta and Cullen stared at each other for a moment.

“So…” Cullen started.

“Yeah?” Asta looked passive and resigned.

“I guess I’m not the only one who worries?” He grinned.

Asta’s eyes narrowed. There was a cobweb in her eyelashes. “Dolt. Was that ever not obvious?”

“Obvious to you, Leliana and Cassandra, maybe. I’m a big dumb male that might not have even realized you were down here if Leliana hadn’t come and threatened my life.”

She smiled with that, and his heart grew a little lighter. “She threatened your life? I owe her a drink,” Asta pushed herself up on one hand, dusting herself off from head to toe. She had missed the cobweb. He reached out and brushed it away, letting his hand linger a little too long on her face.

“Wait, she threatens my life and you buy her a drink?”

“Well, yes. Because otherwise there would be no ‘us’.” Asta waved her hand again between them vaguely. “I would have ended whatever this is today. Hoping it would have hurt less in the end. When you died.”

Cullen pulled his hand back, finally understanding. “I see.” His fingers twitched nervously. “And now?”

Asta fiddled with the hem of her tunic. “I don’t know. I’m questioning a lot right now. I was prepared when I came back from Crestwood to jump in with both feet. This blindsided me.”

Cullen didn’t want to pressure her, but… “Seems like a waste of a drink if you buy Leliana one for threatening my life and then refuse to have anything to do with me.”

Asta snorted again, “So logical.”

He took a deep breath and took the plunge, “We could buy her one together.”

Asta looked at him out of the corner of her eyes. “Hmm, maybe.” She shoved him, gently. “I’m still scared.”

“So am I. We just aren’t scared of the same things.”

“That’s probably for the best.” They looked at each other, searchingly for a few moments. “I’m going to go change and get cleaned up. Again. Meet you in about fifteen minutes?”

“Sounds like a plan, Inquisitor.”

"Is the offer to watch you get a physical still on?"  She lifted one eyebrow suggestively.

"One step at a time, Asta."

"Damn."

 

Chapter Text

Apparently after a couple of drinks Leliana was capable of telling wonderful stories about her days with the King and Queen of Fereldan, before they were royalty. They had made Cullen blush, and Asta approved whole-heartedly. It was adorable.

“The noises that came out of that tent!”

“So attacking each other in the Circle was only the beginning?” Asta was delighted.

“Oh, absolutely.” Leliana laughed. “I remember after the Landsmeet in Denerim. Elissa had just announced her intention of marrying Alistair in front of the Banns. Only she hadn’t told him yet! And I doubt that he would have thought to ask. The look on his face!” She eyed Cullen, “Rather the same color as our Commander, here, actually. But with his mouth wide open in shock. He all but fell on her right after the vote. Barely made it out of the room before the moaning started. But the real scandal started that night. No one in Denerim slept that night, they were so loud! Several of the more conservative Banns were livid. But they had been traveling together for months. Anyone that expected them to be… pure, shall we say, was deluding themselves.”

Cullen had moved past cherry red and into burgundy, Asta was pleased to note. His face matched his cloak perfectly.

Soon after that, Leliana had gone back to her tower and Cullen and Asta had found themselves alone. They wandered up to the battlements, Asta stumbling slightly on the stairs. She really had drank too much trying to keep up with Leliana, so she leaned into Cullen for support, looking up at the stars.

Cullen was watching her, she could feel his eyes on her when he spoke. “I really want to kiss you right now.”

Asta’s body reacted to those eight words in a completely ridiculous manner, heat pooling between her legs. But she reined herself in. “And yet you aren’t going to.”

Cullen had had a bit too much as well, and leaned in, an arm next to her head, pressing her against the stones, too close to be comfortable, but close enough to be very tempting. “What makes you say that?”

“Because the last time you kissed me I was in a coma!”

“It wasn’t a coma, you were asleep! And I didn’t kiss you, you kissed me!” Cullen protested.

“Like that makes it better.” Asta looked down at his breastplate, where it was pressed against her. “The point is, I want to remember.”

Cullen grinned, full of liquid courage, “What if I told you that you would never forget the way I intend to kiss you?”

Asta rolled her eyes. “Cullen, we are both drunk. The next time…”

“Oh, so there will be a next time…”

She shoved him slightly with one knee, “The next time we kiss I want us both awake, sober and fully aware of what we’re doing. If you were sober, you would agree.”

Cullen dropped his head to her shoulder. “I know you are right, and I’m trying to care that you are right. But I still really, really want to kiss you.”

Asta’s mouth was by his ear. He could feel her breath on it as she spoke, puffing and moving his hair slightly. “There will be a time. I promise that. Maybe we can meet tomorrow?”

Cullen groaned, head still on her shoulder. The vibration echoed through her. “I’m supposed to play chess with Dorian tomorrow. I promised.”

“Then I’ll meet you two in the garden.” She bit her lip, trying to be strong.

“You’ll distract me. I’ll lose.”

Asta laughed, disbelieving. “Have you played chess with Dorian? He’s terrible.” She teased, “I would distract you enough to lose to the worst chess player in Skyhold?”

Cullen looked up at her, head tilted to catch her gaze, “You have no idea.”

Asta huffed, “Fine. I can plan to arrive after you have him cornered.”

“That will work. And then you’ll kiss me?”

“A kiss for the victor, Ser Knight?” She was back to teasing again, and he could barely stand it.

“That would work for me. Nothing like a little positive motivation.” He lifted his other arm, and propped himself up against the battlements. She was trapped, his arms on both sides of her body, and she didn’t care. Her breath quickened and her body tingled in pleasant places.

“Maybe. Let’s see what happens, shall we?” She couldn’t resist teasing a little. “After all, Dorian might win. And I doubt he would be interested in a kiss from the Inquisitor.”

Cullen backed off with that, straightening up and offering her his arm, “Until tomorrow, then, Inquisitor. Let me see you back to your rooms?”

Once behind closed doors, neither felt very much like being responsible. Cullen paced in his loft, trying to shift his erection into a more comfortable state, too restless to lay down. He was torn between thinking he had screwed everything up and hoping against hope that tomorrow would go differently. That whole evening she had sat close to him, brushing up against him, even holding his thigh toward the end of the evening. By the time Leliana had finally left them alone, after telling them bawdy stories about his sovereigns, he was half-erect and not thinking with his head.

Not that it was a valid excuse for pushing her up against the battlements and threatening to kiss her in a way she’d never forget. And once he started, he doubted he’d be able to stop with that.

Maker, he really needed to stop drinking around her. Or maybe at all. The Iron Bull had been flashing him thumbs up from across the tavern all night and… ugh. Cullen leaned his head against the tree growing through his wall and ceiling. Asta was very cute when she was drunk. She always laughed easily, but after a few it was as if she really relaxed, let down her guard.

Only to slam it right back up as soon as they were alone.

Cullen decided, palming himself idly, that he needed a strategy. He was supposed to be playing chess tomorrow. They had already agreed to meet after it was almost over. He would pick her friend’s brain, beat him at chess, look intelligent and manly, sweep her away, claim that victor’s kiss and…

His fantasy stuttered to a stop, just like his hand on his cock. He still hadn’t told her the rest of his baggage. But kissing… kissing was a start. If he could just get to that point.

One step at a time.

***

Meanwhile, back in her own tower, Asta was picturing Cullen naked, having a physical. She was the healer. After all, in fantasies lack of training and magical abilities didn’t apply. There was a lot less angst involved in her daydream, a lot more touching, and no barriers, clothes or otherwise, to get in the way of her imagination, except perhaps for lack of real life experience.

Of course, that lack of experience was making her body restless just picturing him out of his armor in nothing but small clothes. Not for the first time she mentally cursed the Chantry robes that so many men, excepting the Iron Bull, apparently, never looked beyond. Had she the opportunity, she wouldn’t be in the state she was now.

She flipped over on her bed, mentally running her hands down Cullen’s body. The lyrium withdrawal would make his joints and muscles ache. Massage would help with that. She wondered to herself if they would ever reach the point where she could touch him casually without the thought heating her up to a point past caring about propriety, or if anyone was watching. If he had kissed her tonight, she would have kissed him back. And probably wouldn’t have let him stop at kissing.

She slammed her face into her pillow. Why was this so hard? From the sound of Leliana’s stories it had been easier for Queen Elissa. Was it just because they were younger? Free from all but the Warden responsibility of the Blight? But they had lots of time on the road away from civilization, convenient tents to fall into that at least gave an illusion of privacy, and understanding companions instead of being watched constantly by spies that may or may not be reporting to her brother or parents.

She needed a plan. Maybe the flirting was too indirect. Maybe she needed to be blunt - like Cullen had been today. She thought she had been, but maybe…

Maybe she just should have let him kiss her, drunk, sober, recovering lyrium addict or not.

She was really tired of being responsible all of the time.

***

The next day dawned bright and way too early for at least two of Skyhold’s denizens. For once, Cullen’s headache wasn’t cause by lyrium withdrawals, and he knew it as he growled at the recruits. Morning training ended soon enough, several of the recruits limping away. Dorian was waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs.

“Good morning, Commander!” The mage was way too loud, the sun was too bright, and his voice was too cheery. “How’s your head?”

Cullen snarled wordlessly.

“I do hope it won’t interfere with our game. I’d hate to checkmate you too easily. It would make it seem as if I were taking advantage of your overindulgence last night.”

Cullen slumped, “Maker, everyone has heard about it already.”

“Right up to the point where Leliana turned you down for a threesome, and then you pressed our lovely Inquisitor up against the battlements and fucked her senseless.”

“I… Andraste’s ass, we never asked… I didn’t even kiss her.”

“Commander, most in Skyhold know not to believe everything they hear. And why the fucking Maker and all his Children didn’t you kiss her?”

“She told me not to. So I didn’t.”

Dorian shook his head. “Obviously I need to have a word with our lovely Asta.”

“Don’t. She had her reasons, and they were good ones.”

“Or they sounded reasonable to you, anyway.”

“We were drunk, and she wanted us both to be sober when we…”

Dorian busted out in laughter. “Cullen, I would never kiss or do anything else with anyone if I waited until I was sober!”

“But you are rarely sober.” Dorian’s face fell, and Cullen raced to apologize. “I’m sorry, Dorian. That was uncalled for. I’m hung over, and I told Asta that I’m not taking lyrium yesterday in the most insensitive way possible. It upset her. I thought we were making progress, moving towards an understanding, and now…”

Dorian smiled, “You are forgiven. Many things are said the next morning that one would like to forget. Believe me, I understand. And I can probably help you with the moving forward. What you and our resident idealist fail to understand is that part of being with someone is recognizing that there are always issues to overcome. You snore and have to have a silk pillow, he can’t sleep on his side because of his horns, and so he takes up too much room in the bed. One of you is vain, the other doesn’t bathe enough…”

Cullen was confused. “Horns? Dorian, who are you talking about?”

The mage waved his hand, “No matter, the point is, you both have issues. Asta is… an innocent. For all her forwardness she has also never had someone that cares about her, just her. Either she’s a symbol or a nobody. And you…” Dorian sized him up. “You are no innocent, but I wager it’s not by choice. Was it Kinloch or Kirkwall?”

“How did…”

“Demons mark people, if you know how to look. No matter. My point is, between your lyrium issues and… intimacy issues, and her fear of being nothing but a symbol forever, you need to quit just talking about it. Do you want her?”

Cullen slumped further. They had reached the garden, and he knew a million eyes were upon them. “Yes, more than anything.”

“Good, she feels the same way. Now, let’s play chess. I’m sure she’ll show up after a while, unable to keep away from two such paragons of manhood, just in time to witness your crushing defeat at my hands. Until then, we strategize. After you lose, I’ll depart gracefully and you can make some necessary overtures.”

***

The day was not going well for Asta. Her head was pounding, and Leliana’s unruffled demeanor wasn’t making her anything but bitter about it. She didn’t want to be planning a trip to the bloody Western Approach. She wanted to be in the garden, watching her two favorite men trash talk each other as the better player ripped the other to figurative shreds. Cullen’s intelligence and excellent sense of tactics were so… and then Leliana’s voice pulled her back into the here and now.

“Fine, I’ll take Blackwall, Dorian and the Iron Bull. A small party will travel faster, Blackwall may be a helpful liaison with the Wardens, Dorian can help with the Tevinter ruins out there, and I suspect that having Iron Bull around will keep Dorian from complaining too much about the sand in his shorts and relieve Cullen about my safety. After a couple of weeks, we can arrange to have Dorian and Blackwall rotate out in favor of Cassandra and Vivienne. Will that work, Leliana?”

Leliana stifled a smile, but Asta caught it. “Yes, I think so. What about a rogue, though?”

“You are sending scouts ahead. If we need them, I expect I can find them. In the meantime, thanks to Sera I can open most locks. Hawke wants me to keep Varric away from the Wardens if I can manage it. I don’t want to take a larger group that could tip the Wardens off on our presence. And I expect if Griffon Wing goes the way Cullen wants it to, our presence will be more than adequate in a month or less. Besides, the extra muscle will be necessary when I get drawn into my research. I tend to get distracted. And there are a lot of really interesting ruins out there.”

“All right, I’ll send the requisitions to Ser Morris, and start having scouts work on the fastest route and copying our best maps of the area. Three days?”

Asta breathed out, “Three days. Thanks, Leliana.”

“No problem, Inquisitor. I suggest you get to the garden. My scouts are signaling that Cullen has Dorian in quite a bind.”

With a wave, Asta was already down half the steps and across the main hall, running like Corypheus himself was after her. She slowed right before she hit the gardens. Didn’t want to seem out of breath, after all. So she glided into the garden instead, like a breath of fresh air, coming up behind Dorian without the two men noticing.

“Gloat all you like, I have this one,” Cullen was beautifully smug, crossing his arms over his armor like he couldn’t lose.

“You will feel much better if you come to terms with my inevitable victory,” Dorian obviously knew he had lost, but wouldn’t admit it.

“Are you boys playing nice?” Asta said, teasingly, relieved at last to be exactly where she wanted to be.

“I’m always nice,” Dorian pouted.

“Inquisitor! We were… that is…” Cullen started, half out of his chair.

“Don’t stop on my account,” Asta looked over the board. “Someone has to teach Dorian humility.”

“Humility is boring,” Dorian talked back. “Your turn, Commander.”

“Oh really? Because I just won. Are you sure you don’t feel humbled?”

“Don’t get smug. There will be no living with you,” Dorian stood, “I’ll leave you two to the garden.”

With his friend’s departure, Cullen rubbed his neck, bashful over his memories of the night before. In the daylight, they seemed too pushy, but Dorian had been very approving. Still, he should give Asta an out in case she regretted anything she said, “I should get back to work. Unless you would care for a game?”

“Prepare the board, Commander.” Asta leaned back in Dorian’s chair, and crossed her legs. “You know, this garden is filled with Leliana’s scouts. It’s nearly impossible to have a private conversation. Much less give you your due reward as the victor of the match.”

“I suspected as much. And that’s probably true of most places in Skyhold, Inquisitor.” Cullen moved his knight.

“It does create a challenge for us, however. In Haven, we started a discussion of ‘appropriate places’. I was hoping to continue that conversation today.” She moved another pawn to counter.

“I think I’ve found a place. I refuse to discuss it here, however. Perhaps once we finish our game we can discreetly adjourn?”

“That would be lovely, Commander. In the meantime, where did you learn to play? In the Circle?”

“No, sooner than that. I don’t know when, but I do know that I used to play against my sister all the time. She used to get this stuck up look on her face when she won, which was all the time. My brother and I practiced together for weeks. The look on her face when I finally won…” Cullen laughed, at ease and headache forgotten.

“Have you written to her yet?”

“Yes. Naturally she scolded me for not writing more often. Apparently I’m an uncle, though, twice over.”

“How long had it been since you wrote her a letter?”

“I may have failed to tell her I was being transferred to Kirkwall,” Cullen was avoiding her eyes. “She was always very good at tracking me down.”

“Cullen Rutherford, you are a terrible correspondent!” Asta paused. “And yet now I feel quite privileged that you write to me so often.”

“You, Inquisitor, are a pleasure to write to. You don’t scold me, inform me that I’m getting too old to be fighting demons, demand that I visit at inconvenient times, tell me I should never have become a Templar in the first place if I was just going to quit and go home, and understand that I have a very important job to do.” Cullen moved his bishop. “Also, you seem to grasp some of my more unusual challenges, which I can’t discuss with my sister, loquacious as she is.”

“I see,” Asta was taken back. “Anything else that I am doing right, Commander? I rather like hearing positive things about myself rather than being put down for needlessly throwing myself into traps.”

“Or down cliffs, or into bear and wolf dens, both possessed and non-possessed…” Cullen tilted his smile back up at her. “But if you are looking for compliments, Inquisitor, I could go on. How much time do you have?”

Asta flushed, “That’s okay. I’m not our resident peacock. I’m unused to hearing nice things about myself.”

Cullen met her eyes, “That’s something I would love to remedy.” Another move, and he took another pawn. “You know, we really haven’t talked about much except the Inquisition or related matters. That’s something else we should remedy.”

Asta flashed him a smile, more secure again, “Are you saying we should spend more time together, Commander?”

Cullen’s face grew sincere instead of flirty, and he put his hand over hers, resting on her queen. “I would like that.”

“So would I,” Asta breathed, focused almost entirely on the heat and weight of his hand on hers as her face flushed again.

“Perhaps we should quit trying to back each other’s game pieces into corners, and find a secluded corner of our own?” Cullen’s eyes were serious and dark, and he leaned over, elbows on his knees, clasping his hands together.

“I’d possibly like that even more.” Asta glanced at the board. “I think you are checkmated in three moves in any case. Am I wrong?”

Cullen knocked over his king without looking. “I hardly care. This one,” he said, never dropping his gaze, “is yours, Asta.”

 

Chapter Text

They put the game away, slowly, deliberately, as if teasing each other with how long it could take. Cullen’s mouth came near her ear as she handed him the board, “East Battlements, next to the broken section. Scramble across, then drop down over the edge on the far side. Meet me there in ten minutes.” He stood up and slightly bowed. “Have a good afternoon, Inquisitor,” he said louder, more properly, meaning to be overheard.

Asta peeked around. More than half of the people in the garden were pretending not to listen. So she took the long way. She stopped to visit Cole for a moment, but when he immediately broke into his mind reading saying, “Hotter than the Sunburst and real enough to touch. Maker, let me touch you…” she cut her visit short out of embarrassment and said good-bye.

She wandered through his office - he was already gone, but she went through the pretense of leaving a message with his runner anyway. It would throw their observers off the right path, perhaps. “Tell him that I was here, and I’ll see him in Council later.”

“Of course, Inquisitor.” Then she was across his office and next to the broken section of the battlements. She could see at least three sentries, but none of them were paying attention to her just now. As quickly as possible she was over the far edge of the dip, dangling off the inward side, and looking over a small landing inaccessible any other way, with walls screening it on two sides and Leliana’s tower on the other.

Cullen caught her on the way down, his hands sliding distractingly up her body as gravity did its best work. They stared at each other for a minute, as if unsure how they got here.

Asta finally spoke, feeling the moment getting awkward. “Are you ready for…” And then Cullen’s mouth was on hers, hard, passionate. All words went directly out of her head as she kissed him back almost desperately. His tongue teased against her lips and she opened readily to admit him, winding her arm around his neck and grabbing his hair. Long moments passed as they wove themselves around each other.

Without realizing she was moving, Asta felt her back hit the tower wall, and used the leverage to wrap a leg around Cullen’s hip. This was better than any silly fantasy, or heated daydream. This was real, Cullen was kissing her and… he had stopped. She felt him pull away, eyes closed. She whined involuntarily and opened them. He was still holding her, his hands at her waist, breathing heavily, much like herself.

“Maker, Cullen. That was perfect. Why did you stop?”

Cullen laughed lowly, “I had to get control of myself. That was… nice.”

“If that was your version of nice I want to be around for mind-blowing.”

Cullen leaned his head in against her forehead. “So would I.”

Asta broke apart in laughter, Cullen had to hold her up as her knees buckled. “Andraste’s flaming knickers…” she stopped, “No, that’s just a little too accurate right now.”

“Glad it’s not just me. Should I make a joke about the Maker’s Balls?” Cullen laughed again, feeling more relaxed now that the first hurdle had been cleared.

Asta pressed against him, aware of everything that he had going on beneath his waist. “Hmm, I think I’d prefer yours.”

Cullen choked, relaxation gone, “What, already?”

“Well, we’ve known each other for months. But we can take it as fast or as slow as you like,” Asta leaned her head back. “Unless my kissing performance wasn’t as good as yours. I’m rather inexperienced at this sort of thing.”

Cullen closed his eyes, the tension was there, but he had no panic feelings at the moment, “I would never have guessed.”

“Really? That’s good.” Asta leaned back in and started running her mouth along his jaw. “I like the way your stubble feels on my lips.” She smiled against him, and he tightened his arms in response.

“I like the way your lips feel against my neck,” Cullen commented, sighing. “I think I… need to take it a bit slow. I’m… inexperienced in many ways and have some things I’ll need to work through. It’s been a long time since I wanted anyone in my life. If I seem unsure, that’s why.” He was getting distracted by her sucking on his earlobe. Why in the world did that feel as good as it did?

“Fine,” Asta said into his ear, breathily. “So you should tell me your limits. What’s allowed? Or would you rather tell me what I cannot do, Commander?” She snickered, “After all, that's worked for you so far, hasn’t it?”

Cullen groaned in response to the way she had breathed his title. “Anything that’s off limits for you?” He deflected while he thought quickly.

“I probably don’t know enough to tell you what I don’t like. I’m pretty open to experimentation.”

Cullen swallowed. Did she have to be so… honest? “Okay,” he said hoarsely. Honesty… he thought. “Let’s keep it clothed, at least for now. I need to tell you why, but it’s hard to talk about.”

“Right,” Asta said, more seriously. She pulled back a little bit. “Is that better?”

“No. Yes.” Cullen let go of her hips to rub the back of his neck. “I can’t think when you're near me.”

“That’s a problem. Now that I’m near you, I don’t ever want to leave.” Asta laughed and let go of his waist. “I’m listening, Cullen.”

“Yes. Thank you.” Cullen took a deep breath, intent on getting this over with. “I told you where I was during the Blight. At Kinloch Hold. There… was a girl. A mage.”

Asta whistled, “Wow, you did some major rule-breaking, you rebel, you!”

“On the contrary. We talked, which was unusual enough for a mage and a Templar, and I believe now that we had… mutual affection for each other. She tried to get me alone once. I ran.” Cullen blushed.

Asta stifled a laugh. “Sorry,” She said, contrite, seeing Cullen’s expression.

“Right, so… then Uldred, ugh, this is hard to explain. He was a senior enchanter. He was practicing and training others in blood magic on the sly. And he attempted to overthrow the Circle. Apparently, Teryn Loghain had gone so far as to promise him freedom if he complied with his wishes. It seems like a long shot, but… well, he nearly succeeded.

“Long story short, all my friends amongst the Templars ended up dead, or in thrall to demons. Sloth, Rage… and Desire.”

“Oh,” Asta said, beginning to understand.

“Solona was dead. I knew this, had seen her fall in the Library in the first attack. But the demons, they could feel her pull on me, and my regret. They used it.

“Uldred… trapped me in a magic prison - I’m not sure how. I was there for days, maybe a week. I still don’t like enclosed spaces.” Cullen took another breath. This was the hard part. He needed to say it quick, like ripping a bandage off. “In that time, he allowed the demons to… amuse themselves with me.” He shut his eyes, seeing the memories play out. “At first it was fairly innocent. They masqueraded as Solona, kissing me, teasing me, making me try to think she was alive and we had a future together. Cruel, but mostly benign. I found out fairly soon that I didn’t have to make the first move for them to be able to touch me. That what I said didn’t matter, that what my thoughts held was irrelevant. They taunted me with her body.”

Asta was silent, her heart breaking for him, her strong knight. She wanted to hold him, but knew it wasn’t the right time.

Cullen continued, “After that… they really got into it. They showed me Solona and a whole slew of her friends from the Circle. Mages that I knew. Her and her elf friend, her and Anders - yes, that Anders… they changed their appearances like changing their clothes and… cavorted themselves in front of me. I tried not to look, tried to close my eyes.

“And then,” Cullen looked up, face haunted, “they tried to touch me again.” He took a deep breath. “I tried to fight back, tried to smite them. But it had been days without lyrium, without food or water. It barely knocked them back. I fought, and they bound me. At the end, all I had was the Chant and my good luck charm.”

“The Hero of Fereldan came at that point and rescued me. In all my brokenness and despair I told her the worst thing I could have said - that she should kill every mage in the Tower. That it was the only way to be sure the Circle was cleansed. I told her to annul the Circle.” Cullen closed his eyes again. “She didn’t listen to me. She was kind, but firm, told me that she would not be guilty of killing innocents.

“Because though Solona was dead, and Anders had escaped - he was good at that, nine times total, I heard later in Kirkwall - and all my friends were dead, there were children, Tranquil and innocent mages that had done nothing wrong still alive. And I wanted them dead. All of them.” Cullen slumped against the tower wall, lost in his memories. “The demons didn’t possess me, or even have me in a complete thrall. But they turned me into a monster all the same. One who does the wrong thing for what they believe is right.

“And that’s one of the reasons why Kirkwall happened. Only, I started to wake up. Not soon enough to stop the rapes, the Harrowed mages made Tranquil for the pleasure of other Templars. Not soon enough to stop anything but Meredith’s last mad push for control, after Anders had already blown up the Chantry. He didn’t even use magic to do it - it was an alchemical formula, did you know? But because he was a mage, magic was responsible.

“Maker, Asta, I am an abomination, corrupted by my own choices. Can there be any redemption for me? I swore to protect, and turned the blindest eye to those that needed it most, absorbed in my own struggle.”

Asta fell to her knees alongside him, reached out, hesitated for just a moment and then she grabbed him, and pulled him tight, tears running down her face.

“Now do you understand why I want nothing to do with that life?” Cullen was crying too, bleakness captured on his face.

“Of course I do,” Asta said into his hair.

“Then you should leave me now, and find someone whole. I don’t deserve you.”

“Maybe not,” Asta risked a smile, “But I want you anyway.” She pulled back. “It’s not that I don’t care about the people that died, the Tranquil, the victims. I do. It’s tragic, and you might have been able to help them. But you are here now. Working towards your redemption in the way that presented itself. Tell me, if Cassandra hadn’t recruited you in Kirkwall - what would you have done?”

“I don’t know. Rebuilt Kirkwall, without the Gallows. Maybe joined the Guard, if Aveline would have had me. Maybe joined the Inquisition anyway, if they would allow.”

“Would you have gone to Corypheus in search of power and lyrium like Samson?”

“No. I would have found another path.”

“Then there you go,” Asta hugged him again. “That’s enough for me.”

Cullen pulled back, tired. “I fail to follow your reasoning.”

“A worse man would have followed Samson into corruption to gain power, or to feed his lyrium addiction. Instead, you chose heresy and weakness and possible death by lyrium withdrawal over all of that. You hardly picked the easy road, Cullen. And all because Cassandra offered you an alternative.”

“You have more faith in me than I have in myself.”

“I’ll just have to have enough for both of us then, for now. Keeping in mind that the one having the faith is hardly a devotee of any divinity. But I can choose to believe in you.”

“Why?”

Because I love you. Asta bit down the automatic answer. Did she? Maybe it was just infatuation, heady and sweet, or lust, hot and heavy with actions yet undone. But wouldn’t those have evaporated under the pain of his lyrium or the tale of his abuse?

Cullen picked up on her reluctance and stiffened. “I see.”

“No, you don’t.” Asta straightened her spine. “Listen up, Commander. I’m not sure what this is between us. It’s changed, just since yesterday, and it’s changing again. I know I care about you. Your pain is my pain, and… all this sounded way better in my head. I’m not willing to give it up, just so you can throw yourself onto a pyre of self-flagellation and bury yourself in your work. I want you, and while in the past I rarely got what I wanted, this I will have.” Asta grabbed him by the shoulders. “So, we will take this by a snail’s pace if we have to. But you are mine, scars and all, and if you want me, I am yours.”

She took a breath and swung her leg over him, so she was sitting on his lap. “Now, unless you are calling this off, kiss me again until neither of us can think straight. We think too much anyway. Dorian says so.”

Rather stunned, Cullen obeyed. This one was different from before. A little less chaste, yet more tentative, slower, with longing and heat behind their lips and tongues. His hands held her waist, and then moved lower, cupping her ass, squeezing gently. He moved his lips along her jaw, biting and suckling her neck. Oddly, he wanted to leave a mark there. Perhaps it was her words, if you want me I am yours, echoing in him.

He wasn’t sure how long it had been since he had something of his own, besides his little silver coin and a lyrium box that he hated. This woman, this amazing, stubborn woman offered herself and he barely dared to claim her, and he hated himself for his cowardice. He bent his knees up higher, sliding her down closer to his core. She gasped at the contact of his hardness against her, and ground down to feel more, whining when it worked.

Cullen moaned and stopped her. “Asta, I…”

“I know, I’ll stop.” She whispered over his lips. “I should let you get back to work in any case. Can’t have the Commander of the Inquisition gone half the afternoon passing time with his lady friend. What would the Inquisitor say?”

Cullen barked out a laugh, “I can’t go back to work like this!”

“Like what?” Asta asked innocently, while she leaned and ground down on him again, making him bite off an expletive.

“Andraste’s ass, Asta, I ought to…” Cullen’s imagination stalled.

“Yes, well, we’ll get to that when you are ready. In the meantime, to work?” Asta climbed off him, a bit stiff from the awkward position and hard floor, and brushed her knees off carefully. “At least this stupid uniform hides dirt well,” she commented.

Cullen watched her and stood up in one swift movement. He pulled her into him from behind, and kissed her neck again. Asta leaned back, wishing they could stay like that forever. “Will I see you tonight?” He asked hoarsely, mouth still against her neck and an arm against her stomach.

“Wild Mabari couldn’t keep me away,” Asta assured him. “Where will you be?”

“The Sing-quistion is meeting tonight.”

“Oh really? Are you participating or in the audience?”

“Participating…” Cullen ground out, in between the neck kisses he couldn’t stop giving her.

“Mmmm, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

 

Chapter Text

Asta floated through her afternoon, beaming at all her advisors during the War Council and congratulating herself when she failed, in her opinion, to moon over Cullen, even when he blushed when she walked in. All in all, it was unremarkable in every way, except for the ballooning emotions that kept a perpetual smile on her face.

The Sing-quisition was meeting in the tavern that evening. The group had several choral numbers planned, as well as a few solos from featured members. The rumor was the Nightingale was going to sing, so the tavern was fuller than usual. Asta found a place near the door, facing Maryden’s usual spot. It was good, even if she did feel exposed. For a moment, she considered listening from the third floor, but she wanted Cullen to know she was there. It was a bit lonely, though. None of her friends were attending, not interested in music, or at least not the mostly Fereldan music that the group was showcasing.

The casually dressed group had arranged themselves on the stairs, murmuring and rustling as they prepared to perform. Asta caught Cullen’s eye, and he twinkled at her, half-smiling before the director called them to attention, ready to begin. The group was diverse, she was delighted to note, ranging from two of her advisors to Chargers and a few dwarves and raw recruits. Not large, by any means, but enthusiastic. Most of the songs were folk songs, with a hymn or two thrown in. Asta was relieved that none were specifically about Andraste. They made her feel so awkward. The Nightingale’s version of a well-known Dalish lullaby brought most of the room to tears, including Asta. Not knowing the meaning didn’t detract from the beauty of the melody or from her rare bird-like soprano, so often exchanged for the harsh squawking of ravens.

The group swung merrily into the crowd favorite of the Ballad of Nuggins. The tavern happily sang along with the chorus. Asta didn’t bother - she enjoyed the audience participation and was familiar with the words, but singing anything wasn’t her field. But this, this was fun, seeing her Inquisition as something other than an army, and separate from the purpose for which it was founded.

Asta and most of the audience figured that Nuggins was the end of the evening, so when the Commander stepped forward, presumably to perform on his own, the crowd muttered, and settled back into their seats. Maryden had stepped up to accompany him on her lute, as well as a red-headed drummer she didn’t know. The crowd moved restlessly in anticipation. Apparently the Commander didn’t usually perform on his own.

A rollicking tune kicked up between the musicians and after they found their balance, Cullen jumped in, setting a deliberate pace.

Gentlemen, it is my duty to inform you of one beauty,

Though I’d ask of you a favor not to seek her for awhile.

Though I own she is a creature of character and feature

No words can paint the picture of the Queen of all Argyll.

Cullen bowed towards her without missing the transition to the chorus. Asta nearly laughed aloud, stopping herself at the last minute, blushing slightly.

All the roses in the garden, they bow and ask for pardon,

For not one could match the beauty of the Queen of all Argyll.

The beat picked up and the musicians rhythms grew more challenging, the drummer moving with the beat and Maryden’s fingers flying over her strings. But the entire tavern was clapping and whooping along with them as Cullen’s voice almost danced into the second verse and the chorus again without stumbling once.

As he begun the last verse, he grew more serious.

So my lads I needs must leave you, my intentions no’ to grieve you,

Nor indeed would I deceive you, Oh, I’ll see you in a while.

I must find some way to gain her, to court her and attain her.

I fear my heart’s in danger from the Queen of all Argyll.

His eyes never left her face as he sung the chorus twice more, Maryden and the drummer joining in this time, and then bowed to her once more to raucous applause. Then the bastard winked at her, striding over to offer his arm. Asta took it, laughing at last, and they left the tavern together.

“I guess the cat is out of the bag then,” Asta couldn’t stop laughing, propping herself up against the armory’s wall, breathless.

“Yes, well, I find as much as I would like our private affairs to stay private, soldiers gossip worse than anyone.” Cullen laughed along. “At least this way they are informed my intentions are honorable. Maybe that will cut back on the gossip.”

“Hmm,” Asta hummed, “I can’t decide if that’s a good thing or not. My intentions are a little ambiguous.”

Cullen leaned against the wall with one shoulder. “I figure if one of us has good intentions we won’t stray too far,” he took her hand in his and kissed it.

“Well, I am yours, Commander,” Asta purred, “So if you stray, I follow.”

Cullen turned and kissed her lightly. The rest of the audience was trickling out of the tavern now and dispersing across Skyhold, talking cheerfully.

“But where is Argyll? Is it near Ostwick?” A young male recruit asked, confused.

“Don’t be daft, man, it’s not a real place. It’s one of them metaphor thingies, ain’t it?” A female recuit sighed.

“Then why’d the Commander leave with the Inquisitor, then, if she ain’t this Queen of Argyll?” A slapping sound followed by an “Ow! That’s my head!”

“Idjit,” muttered the female soldier, irritated.

Cullen stifled his laughter, “Though my meaning may escape some of them, I fear.”

“Maybe it will at least keep us from being followed day and night?”

“Not likely. Now they know there is something to watch for.” Cullen leaned out of the shadows, observing the loiterers.

Asta sighed, “I just want to be alone with you for a little while before I leave for the Western Approach. I’ll be gone for at least a month.” She tugged at his hand, listlessly. “Any ideas?”

Cullen glanced around again on the ground and up at the sentries on the battlements. No one appeared to be looking. He grabbed her hand and drug her across the courtyard, past the blacksmiths and through the door to the dungeon. He pulled her down the long flight of stairs, waited for the bored guard to look the other way and dashed through the second door as stealthy as any assassin.

They were directly underneath the Undercroft and the waterfall was loud enough to drown out any outside noise. They were alone and private, albeit in a dungeon full of cells too precarious to entrust even prisoners to.

“Eventually we will wall this off, I think,” Cullen stated. "But in the meantime, what do you think of this as an ‘appropriate place’?

Asta sighed, “It’s perfect.” She tentatively stepped towards the massive hole. “Will it fall apart if we sit on the edge?”

Cullen blanched and pulled her back. “Let’s not test it.” He led her around the edge to a section that looked stable. He took off his cloak and spread it out on the ground, gesturing grandly. “Your seat, my lady.”

Asta fluttered her hand and curtseyed. “You are too kind, Ser Knight.” She plopped down unceremoniously. “You know, in Crestwood I ran into this young couple in the abandoned tavern. My whole group caught them in a compromising position.” She laughed, remembering. “I’m beginning to sympathize with their plight.”

Cullen agreed, and wrapped his arm awkwardly around her shoulders as he settled down. Asta leaned into him, sighing again. “Cullen, when you kissed me earlier, for how long had you wanted to do that?”

“For longer than I should admit,” he looked down at her, head tucked under his chin. “I still can’t believe I even got this far. You’re the Inquisitor and I…”

“Am the Commander of my forces.” Asta snorted, “It’s not like there isn’t a precedent. Maferath himself…”

“Maker, I hope I’m nothing like Maferath.” Cullen shuddered. “Bastard had his wife burned alive.”

“Yeah, not exactly the best role model. Wife or not, and you know what I think.” Asta looked at him. “Will the gossip bother you?”

“It would bother me more if there was nothing to talk about,” Cullen’s eyes were twinkling again.

“Well, you’d better get to work on that, then, Commander. Should I get a map marker from the War Room?”

“Only if you have plans for that marker besides placing it on the map…”

“Why, Commander!” Asta’s eyes laughed as she feigned shock. “What a dirty mind you have!”

Cullen’s mouth captured hers again and quickly turned from chaste to heated. Asta moved her hands from her lap and rested the palms on his lap, leaning into his mouth. She was a supplicant at his altar, but she wouldn’t move further without his approval. Cullen picked up one of her hands and moved it to his chest, so that she could feel his heart pounding beneath the fabric. He broke off their kiss to confess, “I really want to touch you, Asta. May I?”

Asta chuckled, “Cullen, all this hesitation is endearing, but I’ve made it clear. I’m yours.” Cullen groaned and slowly, tentatively pushed his hand up under her loose tunic. His fingers stroked the soft skin that lay underneath and he kissed her sweetly. Asta became the aggressor, as she teased her tongue into his mouth to make him moan against hers. She wasn’t prepared for the rush of his passion, and the way her center ached to be filled in response. He devoured her lips, her neck, dipping his mouth between her collarbones with a lick so small she wasn‘t sure it even happened, before moving back up to catch her lower lip in his teeth. He pushed gently and Asta felt herself recline, with his arm behind her head and his other hand tracing patterns against her stomach. One of his legs came to rest over hers and she arched against him involuntarily, desperate for pressure.

Tentatively, his fingertips grazed the underside of her breast, and disappeared at her pleased gasp, as if frightened of its own bravery. He paused his assault against her neck at that point.

“Cullen?” Asta asked gently, once she found her voice. Her hand stroked reassurement against the back of his neck, teasing his hair.

“Is this getting out of hand?” Cullen swallowed, trying to slow his heartbeat by breath alone.

“I don’t care,” Asta answered honestly, “do you?”

“I’m not sure,” Cullen looked at her, a little line in between his eyebrows. Asta reached out to rub it away.

“Then we should stop,” she said, practically, but with an inward groan. “You don’t look comfortable.” She sat up on her elbows. “Besides, logistically, that guard could walk in here at any time. That does put a damper on the removal of clothing.”

Cullen shook his head, shifting awkwardly away. “Asta, you are either hopelessly practical or completely wanton.”

“Well, someone had to say it. I do assume that eventually we will be removing clothing, right?”

“I certainly hope so,” Cullen’s face relaxed with a touch of humor. “I have nice memories of your body undressed. I’d like to make more.”

“You bastard! You did look!” Asta shoved him. “I’m looking forward to it too, Commander. Maker, why didn’t we get here sooner? We could have already reached the naughty bits if we had started right after Haven.”

“Because I am a clueless man with a dark past I must overcome and I can’t quite believe my good luck?” Cullen offered.

Asta stretched up and kissed him again. “That must be it.” She looked him up and down, and eyed the bulge in his pants. “Maker’s Balls! Are you going to be able to walk with that thing?”

“Asta!” Cullen hissed, embarrassed, all the relaxation in his face disappeared with one word.

“Look, Cullen,” Asta stated bluntly, “I’ve had to change my smallclothes twice today already. You did that to me.” Cullen sat up further, and rubbed the back of his neck. Asta continued, “I, apparently, am having a similar effect on you. It’s a good feeling, isn’t it?”

Cullen considered it, blushing. “Yes. It is.”

Asta smiled. “Maybe when you can answer that question without thinking so hard we can start removing clothing.” She kissed him one more time for good measure, and Cullen groaned into her lips.

“I hope it doesn’t take that long,” He laughed, burying his face in her hair. “Maybe I’m already making progress.”

“I certainly hope so, Commander,” Asta beamed, “In the meantime, have you eaten? No matter, I know the answer is no. Besides, I’m hungry. Let’s go butter up that bitch of a cook and get something to eat.”

“You’re the Inquisitor! Surely the cook is…”

“A cook rules the domain of the kitchen, Commander. She bows to no one, Commander nor Inquisitor. When she’s really bitchy, though, I just have Cole snitch things. It’s very effective.”

“Good to know. I tend to miss meals.”

“I’ve noticed.” Asta pretended to heave him to his feet, and shook out his cloak. “Now, come on!”

***

"What’s this I hear about a serenading Commander?” Dorian’s eyebrows were nearly to his hairline as he strolled into Cullen’s office the next day and leaned against the wall haphazardly.

“I wouldn’t call it a serenade. I… just thought it would make our relationship clear without embarrassing either of us. Much.”

“So you sang to her. In front of the entire Inquisition.” Dorian shook his head, impressed. “How quickly you learn, Commander.”

“Nonsense. Leliana was there, but Josie was entertaining nobles who wouldn’t have been seen dead at a gathering like that. Sera hates singing, so she wasn’t in the pub. In fact, none of the inner circle was there. It felt remarkably private, in retrospect.” Cullen looked pointedly at Dorian who elected to ignore the hint.

“Well, half the soldiers are humming the tune and the other half are arguing about whether Argyll is a kind of Plaideweave.” Dorian lurched upright. “So have fun explaining to your men and women that your Inquisitor is not the Queen of Plaideweave.”

Cullen rolled his eyes. “Of course. Don’t you have somewhere to be?”

“Actually, I do. Uneducated Fereldans aside, I have to pack for the Western Approach.” He turned to leave and Cullen called after him, “Dorian?”

“Yes, Commander?”

“Thanks for your help in the garden. If you hadn’t…”

“I know. You are quite welcome. You can name your first child after me.” Cullen snorted. “Oh, Commander, it will happen. Asta has her hooks firmly in you now, and I’ve never met a more determined fisherman.”

Cullen hesitated for a moment and then asked anyway, “You’ll watch out for her in the Approach, won’t you?”

“I always do, Commander. I always do.”

***

Asta was in the Undercroft, consulting with Dagna and Harritt on new armor, and Bull swanned in.

“Hey, Harritt! Thanks for the work on the new axe. Can’t wait to try out the blood grooves.” Harritt humphed grumpily and turned away. “Dagna! Looking good, little lady! When are you going to let me buy you a drink?”

“Maybe once I don’t have to worry about Dorian zapping me into ozone if I get too close?” Dagna said cheekily. “No offense, Bull, but I’ve known a few possessive mages and I never want to get on their bad side.” Bull picked up his weapon and tested the edge against his fingernail, grunting in approval when it cut like butter.

“Glad I caught you, Boss,” Bull said. “Finalizing the armor?”

“Trying. Resources are still so limited and this is all so new to me. But even I know we likely won’t need a ton of cold protection in an arid climate.”

Bull nodded thoughtfully. “Makes sense. Those Venatori bastards might try, though.”

Asta waved a hand in dismissal. “I’m more worried about Grey Wardens. We need protection against the heroes of the Blight, demon armies and mind control. Dagna informs me that’s a little too specific.”

Bull shuddered visibly. “Not what I like to hear, Boss.”

Dagna chirped, “You’ll be fine! Demons from a rift are more likely to attack physically anyway. They don’t need a host!”

“Not helping, Dagna,” Bull growled. He started to exit, axe strapped to his back and stopped. “Speaking of demons, you talk to Cullen, Boss?”

“A few times, Bull. I think it’s good for now. Thanks for asking.” Asta looked him directly in his eye and smiled dreamily.

Bull nodded, satisfied. “Good to know, Boss.”

 

Chapter Text

The night before Asta’s departure she stopped by Cullen’s office hoping to catch him before bed. And if he just happened to be shirtless…

Unfortunately, he was not partially undressed. Instead he sat at his desk, still in his armor, head on his arms, surrounded by paper, sleeping. Asta watched him for a moment before she noticed one of his candles was about to drip all over his arm. She moved it quickly, and Cullen, either sensing the movement or her presence, sat up.

“Asta? When did you get here?” He yawned, jaw cracking.

“Why aren’t you in bed?” Asta scanned his desk. “Cullen, these aren’t for the Western Approach or even the Hissing Wastes. Why are you looking at the Exalted Plains? We won’t be ready to make a move there for months.”

Cullen hesitated slightly, grabbed her wrist and pulled her in to stand between his legs. “Just forward thinking.”

“Well, your Inquisitor says that forward thinking can wait until morning.” Asta moved around the room, blowing out all the torches save one. “Up the ladder you go, Commander. Double time.”

Cullen cracked a smile and yawned again, too tired to argue. He detached his armor piece by piece and placed it meticulously on its stand. He frowned. “I should polish it.”

Asta rolled her eyes. “Commander, if that armor is any shinier you’ll blind people. Bed, now.”

Cullen swung up the ladder like a sailor into rigging, his ass on display for Asta to ogle. It made her catch her breath. One he safely reached the top, she followed, less gracefully.  She reached the top and looked around.  It was austere in its simplicity, just the bare necessities of bed, table, chest, and a red rug that had seen better days.

Cullen watched her looking around, somehow regretting it wasn't more welcoming.  He hadn't noticed how barren it seemed when it was just him falling into bed exhausted at the end of the day.  Seeing it through her eyes, he judged himself for not making his quarters more habitable.

“Cullen, there’s a hole in your roof. And a tree?” Asta grinned. “Too busy to notice or too busy to have it fixed?” She realized belatedly that he was standing awkwardly by his bed. “Cullen, what’s wrong?”

“It’s nice having you up here,” he blurted out.

Asta smiled, “I admit I was curious. You do realize that both Leliana’s and Josie’s accommodations are far more luxurious?”

“I like the hole. I don’t like feeling trapped.” He was rubbing the back of his neck, again. Asta stepped over and touched his jaw lightly.

“Do you want me to go?”

“No!” Cullen grabbed her hand. “I want… that is, would you like to stay for a while?” He looked around, as if noticing there wasn’t a chair for the first time. “I’m afraid you’ll have to sit on the… bed.”

Asta laughed, “It’s fine, Cullen. Don’t worry so much. I’m not going to attack you.”

“Oh,” Cullen looked mildly disappointed, Asta was cheered to note.

“Unless you want me to?” She queried, curiously.

Cullen grinned, a little more at ease. It made him look rakish and a little dangerous. Asta’s stomach tightened in response. “That might not be so bad. I am tired though. None of the recruits knew the right way to load an expedition wagon today.”

“You realize that they were pleading ignorance to get out of work?” Asta was skeptical. Farmer’s kids and experienced soldiers, even merchants knew how to load wagons.

“Well, yes, but now when they try it the next time I can discipline them for not paying attention. Someone has to do latrine duty.” Cullen looked pleased with himself.

Asta sat down on the far side of the bed, back against the headboard. She crossed her ankles and looked up, “Oh! You can see Judex!”

“Yes, and sometimes the Maiden just before dawn.” Cullen eased himself onto the bed as well, as if he was afraid to displace her, or accidentally touch. He positioned his head on the other pillow gingerly, with his hands underneath. Despite his cautious manner, he had a small smile on his face. “I think in summer I might be able to see Draconis.”

“Don’t you get snowed on?”

“Hasn’t happened yet.”

“Doesn’t mean it won’t. You should ask Dorian to cast a barrier or something.”

“Dorian is never coming near my bedroom.” Cullen joked. “I’m surprised you aren’t jealous enough to forbid it. He is a very handsome man, after all.”

“Somehow I don’t think that would happen. Besides, if not Dorian, then Solas. Vivienne would just turn up her nose at the ladder and refuse to climb it.” Asta dropped the subject and flipped onto her side to face him. “Cassandra is staying here for the next couple of weeks. Did you know?”

“Is that for my benefit?” Cullen raised one eyebrow. “I don’t want you to worry.”

“You can let me worry a little, Commander.” Asta continued. “She will be reporting to me. I’ve given instructions for meals to be delivered. Eat them, Commander.”

“Is that an order from the Inquisitor?” Cullen snickered, maddeningly.

Asta put a hand on his chest. “It’s an order from your Inquisitor.” She paused, thinking. “Also write. I know you are busy, but hope that I’ll have a letter waiting at the next camp is a powerful motivator. Please?” Her eyes were large and pleading, and Cullen couldn’t refuse.

“I’ll do my best.” Cullen picked her hand up and brought it to his lips, retaining his hold on it afterward. “What should I write in these hypothetical letters?”

“What ever pops into your head,” Asta shrugged. “I don’t really care what they say, I just want to know you are all right.”

“Do you think it’s likely they will be read by others?” Cullen turned to face her. “Some of the things that pop into my head may not be… fit for general consumption.”

“Well, I could try to assert my authority, I suppose,” Asta breathed shallowly, titillated at the thought of naughty letters from the Commander. “If you promise to make it worth my while?”

“I can certainly try,” Cullen stretched to kiss her. Then he yawned again. “Sorry, it has been a long day.”

“I know. It was my day too.” Asta sat up. “I’ll let you get some sleep.” She swung her legs over the side of the bed. Cullen tightened his grasp on her hand in response.

“Stay with me?”

Asta looked at him warily. “Cullen?”

“Not… necessarily like that.” Cullen blushed. “Just, you leave tomorrow, first light, and I’ll miss you and…” He felt unusually hot and cleared his throat. “I’ll understand if you don’t want to, or need to get a good night’s rest in your own bed.”

Asta snorted. “Cullen, my own room is palatial, drafty and empty. Do you know I’ve never had my own room before? As a child, I shared with my nursemaid. At the Chantry, I shared with four other Sisters. I can barely sleep at all up there with the quiet and the cold.” She had already lain back down to face him again.

“Do you normally sleep clothed?” She asked. “Is it a ‘fitness for battle’ thing?”

“No,” Cullen replied, smirking slightly. “Quite the contrary.”

“Mmm, there’s a picture I can take with me into Western Orlais…” Asta teased.

Cullen had to ask, “Do you?” he countered, a little breathless at his own bravery.

“Do I what?” Asta threw back at him, just to make him say it out loud.

“Sleep with your clothes on.” Cullen looked away slightly, blushing yet again.

“Sometimes in the field, if there might be trouble. But in safety? Or in Skyhold? No…” Asta’s voice lowered, sultry, “Quite the contrary.”

Cullen’s throat tightened, his imagination and his memories supplying him with a picture of Asta, shoulders freckled, tangled and naked in his sheets. He cleared his throat again. Was he brave enough to ask? Would she expect him to do the same? He cursed his cowardice, not for the first time that evening.

He started, “I want you to feel comfortable…”

“Likewise.” Asta pulled her hand from his to trace his lips. “How about a compromise. I’ll strip to my smallclothes. That will help me rest easier. And if you are comfortable, you can do the same. If you aren’t, no worries, no pressure. I will not touch you unless you ask.”

“You are far too patient.” Asta didn’t feel patient. Just the thought of him laying there, nearly bare and vulnerable made her want to do things she had only read about. At length and explicitly.

“And you are worth waiting for,” she said at last, realizing a response was required. Asta stood. She didn’t intend to be alluring, but to Cullen, she managed to be any way. Each undone clasp, each lace unraveled, each inch of exposed skin seemed to reveal the forbidden. Finally he closed his eyes, already half-hard and not wanting to objectify her. He felt her slip under the sheets. “Okay, I’m in. I’ll close my eyes, if you like,” Asta added, realizing that his had been shut.

“That’s okay,” his voice broke slightly. He sat up, and fisting his hand behind his neck, pulled his shirt over his head in one smooth movement. The light of the single candle made every hill and valley of his muscles define. Asta caught her breath audibly, and he laughed slightly. “It’s not like you haven’t seen it before.”

“Ass, you know that I don’t remember much.” He slid off the bed, and loosened his trousers, slipping them off and folding them over the foot of the bed with his shirt. He stepped back to the bed, fighting the urge to rub the back of his neck, but giving in as he pulled the blankets back. He was gold and shadows in the glowing light now, and as he slid into the sheets Asta bit her lip in order to resist touching him.

He blew out the candle and the stars above their heads shone all the brighter. Cullen reached out and took her hand as it was resting on her pillow. “You are lovely. Have I told you that?” His eyelids were drifting shut already.

“And they should sculpt statues in your image. Never have I regretted a lost memory more.” Asta rubbed her thumb against the back of his hand. “Sleep well, Cullen.”

“Goodnight, Asta.”

***

Cullen awoke in the middle of the night with a start, cold and disoriented. He wasn’t alone, and his blankets were missing. He was also spooned around a very bundled Asta, who by the light of the moon was everything he imagined the night before, sleeping hard, hair strewn about her pillow. A certain organ with a mind of its own was pressed into her back, cushioned slightly, Thank the Maker, he thought, against the many covers she had managed to steal from him while he slept. He smiled playfully, grabbed an edge of the blanket and tugged, making her groan and roll against him, following the warmth and the pull of the covers. Instead of fully waking, she curled a leg over his and nestled against his chest. He could smell the scent she used in her hair, something herbal that he couldn’t identify. He wrapped an arm around her middle, and stroked her back. It was easier to touch her in the dark, where he didn’t have to fear being judged. She moaned slightly, and pulled herself into him more.

Cullen kissed the top of her head, and went back to sleep, at peace and warm. He could get used to this.

***

Asta woke next, eyes snapping open and freezing at the presence of a person lying against her so familiarly. Remembering, she melted, and scanned his face in the dim light of false dawn. He looked so content, did he always look like this when he slept? He muttered in his sleep, nothing clear. Asta pulled her fingers through his hair and he quieted. She took stock of their positions, his arms around her loosely, her leg over his, and his between hers. They were wrapped around each other like an iron blacksmith’s puzzle. How could she undo this knot without waking him? She glanced at the sky. She probably had only half an hour before she had to be in the courtyard, though at least she wasn’t traveling with Cassandra. The others were less strict about punctuality. Blackwall might glower a bit, but she could take that.

Just five more minutes then, lying here with Cullen pressed against her in such a pleasant way. She wanted to remember, to take this with her into the cold desert nights to come. It was becoming harder to ignore what the position was doing to her body, though. Her breasts tingled, wanting to be touched. He was made of temptation itself, and she had to resist him, for his own sake.

For the first time in a long time she thought about the Chant of Light. “Comfort is only yours to give.” Merciful Maker, she could use some of that comfort right about now. Maybe it would be better for him to wake up and move himself?

Randomly she wondered if there were any books written on this sort of thing. “101 Ways to Wake Your Would-be Lover Up When He Has Been Tortured by Desire Demons”. Somehow she doubted it. All she could do was try it and see his response. She stroked his hair again, gently, but a little harder than before. He had seemed to like it when he was awake. He made a sweet moan, that shot directly into her groin. She echoed it internally. Damn, this was going to be even harder if he kept making noises like that. Maybe talking to him would work out better.

“Cullen…” Asta whispered. “We need to wake up.” His eyelids fluttered. “Cullen?”

“Mmm, Asta…” Cullen groaned. “Don’t leave.”

“I’m not going anywhere right this second, Cullen,” Asta bit her lip. “But you need to wake up all the same.”

He retaliated by clutching at her harder, pulling her into his morning erection, impossible for her to avoid. “Asta, I want you to stay. Please.” He was still caught in a hazy dream, that was obvious.

“Cullen…” Asta was growing wetter by the moment, between him pressing against her, and his thigh in between her legs. “Oh, Cullen…” she breathed. How could she not touch him? She stroked his hair in compromise, and when he thrust against her suddenly, she grabbed his hair and arched her back, gasping.

Cullen finally jerked awake with the pull of his hair and the pressure against his member. “Maker! Asta!” He was panting, wild-eyed and aroused. “You’re here? This is real?”

“Good morning?” Asta was a little unsure, and trying not to pant herself. “I think this is real. Maker, I hope it’s real.” She tried not to move against him, the heat trying to crawl itself up her body and choke her while she tried to breathe normally.

“It must be real.”. Cullen groaned, moving again. “Maker’s Breath, this feels…”

“I know,” Asta choked out. “Cullen, I…”

“Asta, I want you so badly,” He bit out as if it was painful to admit. “What can we do?”

This is going to take longer than five minutes, Asta thought wildly, her mind running through the possibilities. “Can I touch you?” Maker, let me touch you!

“Andraste’s tits, Asta, please!” Cullen ground out. Asta reached between them, and cupped him through his small clothes. She moved herself against his thigh at the same time. “Asta!”

“Shhh, Cullen. I’ll try… do you trust me?” Asta looked him in the eyes, and for the first time he noticed her eyes, so human, not anything like a desire demon’s in their completely normal color of brown surrounded by blue, pupils blown wide with wanting him.

“Yes, Asta.” He closed his eyes, tight. He felt the heat from her hand against him as she pulled him gently out of his smallclothes, grinding against his leg slightly the whole time.

“Show me how to stroke you, Cullen,” He stopped breathing for a moment. “I need to know.” He hesitated, and then wrapped his hand around hers at his base, the head still pressed against her stomach. He guided her hand, pumping while she moved against him, the tip of him pushing distractedly against her warm belly. He bent over and kissed her, almost frantically, desperate she was going to just disappear and leave him alone. She met the kiss with equal fervor, their tongues twining around each other like their bodies longed to do. He added a slight twist to the pumping, jerking his hips up and fucking her hand, tipped over the edge with lust and want.

Asta ground against him, their lips parting at last, her smallclothes soaked through and the liquid between them and his thigh gliding her along almost without resistance. He came, suddenly, with a incoherent cry into her ear, and nearly stopped breathing with the violence of it. Asta stopped pumping him abruptly, gritting her teeth against her own arousal as he regained himself.

“Asta, I’m…” Cullen thought for a moment. “No, I’m not sorry. Can I… help you?”

Asta breathed out in relief. “Andraste’s flaming knickers, yes.” She took his hand. “You’ll have to touch me, though.”

Cullen looked at her deeply. “I want nothing more right now. Asta, you are so…” Amazing, beautiful, intrepid, kind, sexy, funny… his mind couldn’t stop on just one.  "But, how..."

“Hush, Cullen, I’ll show you.” She teased aside her own smallclothes, and placed his hand at the source of her heat and wetness.

“Maker, you are so wet. Did I…” his voice trailed off again in wonder and a touch of fear.

“Cullen,” Asta leaned her head against his chest, “It’s a compliment. Please, Cullen, touch me?”

He started to stroke her, gently, back and forth. She bit her lip against the teasing, needing more, needing him. She covered his hand. “Like this,” she started him drawing small circles against her clit with his thumb, with just the right amount of pressure. She moaned, and he grew bold, increasing the pressure and moving downward slightly, hesitating over her entrance. She caught his eyes again, the inner plea something that he could not ignore, and he pressed in with a finger, breaching her.

She snapped back, her hand grabbing his butt, moaning. “Maker, Cullen, don’t stop. Don’t ever, ever stop.”

Cullen looked at his lady love as she came undone around him. “Why would I ever want to do that, my lady?” The passion in his voice was unmistakable. “You are everything.” He thrust slightly harder, thumb still tracing heat against her.  Seeing her response, seeing the power he had over her body - it was heady, and he savored it.  There was nothing to fear in this.

The pleasure was so intense now that it felt like ice inside her, but heating and freezing in equal amounts. Asta’s breath was shaking. “Cullen, just like that! Please!” And then she lost her voice entirely to moans, her hips jerking against his thigh and his fingers, her hand clutched around his ass, fingernails sinking in. Cullen hardly felt it, so absorbed was he in bringing her to completion.

“Let go, Asta,” he breathed, bringing his head to her ear, and she did, coming so hard and so suddenly that they were both shocked - Cullen with his fingers clamped between her thighs so tight he wasn’t sure he could move them even if he wanted to, and Asta in riding the waves of orgasm against his body.

They came back to themselves slowly. Asta was a mess, his seed and her own juices everywhere and he wasn’t much better. Cullen grabbed his old shirt off the end of the bed to wipe her down. “Asta, I’m…”

“Don’t you dare say you are sorry,” She grabbed his face. “That was nothing to be sorry for.” She kissed him, pressing him against her, squeezing and kissing his misplaced regret out of him.

Cullen chuckled against her lips afterward. “All right. I’m not sorry. That was…”

“I know. Same here.” Asta looked at him, blushing for the first time. “That is definitely better with someone else.” She looked up at the sky. “Damn, I’m going to be late. Blackwall will glower halfway to Val Royeaux at this rate.”

“Let him wait…” Cullen leaned against her, holding her tightly. “I don’t want you to go.”

“And I don’t want to leave.” Asta peeked up at him, “And yet I must. Will you miss me?”

“Every waking moment and I suspect nightly in my dreams.” Cullen sighed. “I wish I could come with you.” He remembered briefly saying something like that to the Hero after she liberated Kinloch Hold, and wondered how different his life would have been had he left with her, missed Kirkwall’s madness.

For the first time, he didn’t wish he had. Kirkwall had led to Haven, and Haven had led him to her.

 

Chapter Text

Dear Asta,

Cullen paused, already running into trouble just with the salutation. “Just write what’s in your head,” he muttered to himself. “Like that’s easy. What if all that is in your head is lyrium, guilt, troop movements and sex?” He shook his head. “I can do better than this.”

Are you my dear? He started. Our… Maker how do I say this… goodbyes were rather familiar. I find myself concerned now what you must be thinking of me. Are you even thinking of me? Should I apologize for taking advantage of you and your presence in my bed? For having such dreams about you, that led to such a - wonderful - morning? Perhaps I should, I decide, and I even start to express them, and then such thoughts run through my brain, remembering your face as you called out…

Cullen had to take a break and a few deep breaths with his head against his desk. Every time he thought about that morning he was brought low, reminded just how weak he was against her. But this weakness… it was delicious.

…as you called out to me. My name. Maker’s Breath, Asta, I feel like I could rip a hole in the fade myself if you would only look like that for me again.

Cullen stopped again and took a sip of whiskey. He didn’t usually indulge in such hard liquor but when he wrote such things liquid courage was necessary.

So, Asta, if apologies are necessary, I offer them. I hope they aren’t… I have never felt so…

Cullen realized that he was being redundant, and finished the sentence rapidly.

…alive.

I find myself entirely obsessed with your return, though I know it cannot be for weeks. We had such a short time together, and if you will forgive the double entendre, squeezed so much in during that time.

Cullen ran out of words at that point and grabbed the copy of The Language of Flowers that he had borrowed permanently from the library and rifled through the pages for what he was looking for.

I find it unlikely that I will find a tea rose (I will remember - always) in Skyhold. Milk vetch (Your presence softens my pain) used to grow near my family’s home in Honnleath before the Blight, but I’ve never seen it in the Frostbacks. So instead you will get a simple purple pansy for ‘You occupy my thoughts’ even during your absence.

There are so many flowers I would send you. Some I’ve never even heard of - they seem to have Tevinter names so I doubt I will ever come across one - but have this as well, courtesy of the Skyhold gardeners - a deep pink rose to ‘Thank you for being in my life’.

I wasn’t looking for a relationship, Asta, you know that. But I am so glad I found you. Please tell me in your next letter that my assumptions are not wrong. That you are one of the few things that I can call my own.

The tone of the letter had taken on a pleading note that he didn’t care for, but he couldn’t deny its truth. So he left it and poured himself another tumbler of whiskey and then nibbled his quill and tried for a bit of humor.

I am worried that the latest recruits won’t last the month without your presence to distract me. They are already complaining to the captains that I’m unrealistic, grumpy and need a hobby. And it has only been two days.

So for the sake of your armies and their Commander, hurry home.

I remain,

Your Commander

Well, it was a letter anyway, he justified, wondering if he dared have Cassandra read it and tell him if it was acceptable. He shuddered, realized that at some point the whiskey had run out and decided it was the alcohol that had even made him consider it.

This woman had all the power over him, and didn’t even know it. She could crush the world around them and he would die happy just because she had taken notice of him.

And he would still consider it a happy ending.

***

A long ways away, Asta was starting her own letter, completely oblivious to the tortures her Commander was putting himself through.

Dear Commander,

The Western Approach is crap. Sand everywhere - and I do mean everywhere. Use your imagination. Today was better, however, because I found a lovely little oasis down at the bottom of a canyon. After the Iron Bull cleared out the neighboring cave of giant spiders - WHY is it always giant spiders? - I indulged in a real bath. Actual immersion. It was heavenly. The Golden City itself could not have such pleasures. The only thing that would have made it better was your presence… preferably naked and ready for action. Don’t worry - I sent the Iron Bull and the others away before I stripped down. I know you would be concerned for my modesty. It is preserved, as much as camping in the desert can preserve it.

I wonder, are you blushing right now? Imagining me naked in a sea of sand dunes and cliffs, with water against my bare skin? Hmmm, I’ll have to stop thinking about it or I won’t be able to sleep. Such is the effect you have on me. And I don’t want to make you uncomfortable after all.

The cliffs in the Approach are the same color as your eyes. It’s hard to believe that such a desolate place was fruitful before the second Blight. It’s just so empty, except for ruins. The ruins are spectacular. Remarkably well preserved probably due to the arid climate and not being disturbed for ages. I was hoping to find some interesting scrolls inside them, but all I have to read so far is a journal of a Tevinter Blood Mage. Dorian was very dismissive. He says he hasn’t kept a journal since he was a child. So not a Tevinter thing, then.

Speaking of Dorian, he is very… conflicted. He is due to exchange with Viv (don’t tell her that I call her that when she’s not around. I don’t want to be fried when I get back. At least not until I’ve slept with you properly. Then I will die happy.) as soon as she arrives, and he HATES it here. The whining is nearly killing me. That said, I have reasons - very loud reasons - to believe that he and the Iron Bull have reached some sort of understanding - possibly assisted by this bottle of West Hills peach brandy we found in a ruin. It was cloying, I thought, but Dorian loved it. Too much.

Blackwall had to yell at them to get them to stop. I’m not sure they actually did, by the shaking of the tent, but at least the noise stopped.

As much as I adore Dorian, he has been difficult to travel with on this trip. Also, I am jealous. I might as well admit it. I am bitterly jealous that he gets to have HIS lover along while mine has to stay immured in Skyhold instead of sharing a tent with me across half of Thedas. It isn’t worthy of me, and it is putting a strain on our relationship.

Vivienne is difficult, too, however. Perhaps it’s a mage thing? Are they all such strong personalities? Even Solas is not exactly tractable. Don’t argue with him about Blood Magic or the Dalish. He has views.

I miss you horribly, Cullen. I miss your lips, and your smirk, and the look on your face and the sounds you made just before…

Asta had to stop writing down her stream of consciousness letter, and pull back. She was making a lot of assumptions. What if he regretted their morning together? Regretted everything? It was hardly the best timing, for them to come together like that just to have her up and leave right afterward to travel across Orlais. She had just taken the moment at face value. Was he suffering? Was it because of what she did? Or didn’t do? She should have said no, but he was begging her… She slumped down on her bedroll, defeated and nearly convinced that she had ruined everything by being impulsive. So much for self-control. And then she decided that no matter what, she owed him honesty.

just before you came. That was quite honestly the sexiest thing that had ever happened to me, and I’m so glad that you felt comfortable enough with me to allow me to touch you. And to touch me in return. Every night - for until Vivienne and Cassandra arrive I have a tent to myself - I touch myself, thinking of you, that morning - that beautiful morning when we woke tangled together and made ourselves even more disheveled. I have a very active imagination and that was enough to send it into overdrive, Cullen. I think Blackwall has yet to forgive me for being so late.

I don’t miss you physically alone, never fear. I miss knowing that I can lean on you, share my thoughts, get your opinions. The Grey Wardens out here, they are doing blood magic - we had hints before, based on Venatori projects and letters we intercepted, but after meeting with Hawke and Stroud… well, we have proof. That whole demon army is an army of Grey Wardens, bound to demons and controlled by a Tevinter mage - one of Corypheus’ minions, Livius something or other. As Dorian said, he’s a tool. Worse, it’s entirely backed by their Warden Commander Clarel. It’s a nightmare, and I’m scared. I want nothing more than to get back to you and hear your amazing plans for wiping out this threat entirely. I know you’ll impress me, you strategic thinker, you.

The Red Lyrium operation here is mostly controlled, mines seem like their modus operandi. I know you have a personal interest in stopping the flow, so talk to Varric and see if he has any dwarven mining contacts that might help us narrow this down. They are using people for something… not sure, yet, but there is a red templar connection, that is obvious. The correspondence that I and the scouts have picked up are being sent back with Dorian and Blackwall. I have to get him out of here before the other Wardens decide to use his blood in a summoning ritual.

Oh! And I have a gift for you. My team has taken Griffon Wing Keep. You are welcome. It was very exciting - we climbed up an ancient stinky well into the keep proper and wiped the Venatori out with one fell blow. I’m very proud of myself - I may not have been much use in the actual assault but the plan was mine. And now you have a base of operations for marching on Adamant Fortress, if that is indeed where the Wardens are headed to. I wish you could come out and oversee it yourself, but know that is wishful thinking.

I will be home in about three weeks, I think. Sooner if I can manage it. I’m trying to convince a professor of Dracology to join the Inquisition, but right now all he is doing is making me run random errands. I’m not kidding. All his staff was killed by raiders and he just won’t leave without finishing his definitive work on draconic habits. I respect his dedication, but I’m not kidding when I say that he is a bit too dedicated to his research. I know - I was excited to come here hoping for old scrolls and tomes, but too much is too much.  Once Cassandra gets here we have to investigate a series of odd Chantry symbols. They are leading somewhere, but I need her expertise on this. We found this cave that looked liked someone was trying to reverse Tranquility. I didn’t know that was possible. Did you?

Asta knew she needed to end the letter before it was too heavy for even Baron Plucky to carry. Maker, she missed being able to share her thoughts with him in person. How she wished… but it was not to be. He had to stay in Skyhold, he was needed there for the bigger picture. Someone had to coordinate and command… but surely it wouldn’t hurt to express one final wish for his presence.

I wish you were here to bathe with me in the Lost Wash Creek, to sit upon a ruined tower and kiss and watch the sunsets together - they are lovely here. I long for you, Cullen, as I have never longed for another. I didn’t know I was capable of feeling this way. I both hope and dread you feeling the same way. The ache of being without you is torture and I never wish to cause you pain.

I will be home soon. Home, with you. It’s an odd feeling to be able to return to someone. I think I like it.

Your Asta

***

Their letters must have crossed in midair, Asta realized, opening Cullen’s letter. She rolled her eyes. How many time could one man apologize for something that didn’t need apologizing for? She ran her fingers down the ink, smearing it slightly with sweat and the heat.

She read it again. It was a lovely letter, full of things that must have been hard for him to put into words. The flowers were in her lap, still smelling faintly. The parchment smelled slightly of whisky - had he been drinking when he wrote it? The thought of him marshalling his courage with liquor made her smile.

And his confessions… Asta called out to her companions, “I’m heading to my tent!” Vivienne and Cassandra had decided to share with each other rather than her, which suited her fine. The Iron Bull always got his own tent, just due to size restrictions - though before Dorian had left it had been Blackwall sleeping by himself more often than not. A little privacy, a sexy love letter, however full of angst… she thought a little tension could be released, however unsatisfying it would prove to be. Who knew it could get so much better with someone else? But soon, just a matter of weeks, and she would be home with him.

***

Back at Skyhold, Cullen held her letter, his hands shaking, headache forgotten for the time being. She missed him. She missed him like he missed her, the ache she spoke of… her thoughts were with him as much as he thought of her. Perhaps she was thinking of him right now…

And she saw him as home. He hadn’t had a place to call home since he was a child. It wasn’t a fling. She was serious. She was his. He beamed a little, alone in his office where no one would see him. He wanted to write to her, declare all sorts of things that his self-doubt and guilt had prevented before. He wanted to go out to the highest guard tower and shout everything to all of Skyhold.

Compared to that news, the imminent demon army and the prospect of planning a siege on an ancient Warden fortress was nothing. He had her. He could rip holes in the fade if she so much as asked.

Now all he needed was some time to retire to his bed or maybe a bathtub so that he could think about bathing with her amongst sand dunes and sunsets. Unfortunately, that wasn’t likely. He had to debrief the soldiers who had returned with Dorian and Blackwall, and mobilize a force to hold Griffon Wing Keep. It would have to be Rylen - his common-sense attitude would be just the thing for such a distant post. He’d have the soldiers standing inspection night and day, but that would be all for the better, especially since it was hardly a sinecure. He folded the letter and placed it over his heart, near his coin. His thoughts drifted back to her letter one more time. She wasn’t the only one who would die happy having their heart’s desire.

***

Dorian was being a jackass to everyone. Cullen folded his arms and scowled at him. “You cannot just demand that staff be reassigned. You may be the friend of the Inquisitor, but this isn’t like you. Tell me what is this about?”

Dorian eyed him, dubiously. “That’s very perceptive for a jackboot, as Sera would say. What brought this on, Commander?”

Cullen sighed, already frustrated with his friend. “Dorian, just admit you miss him. Write him a letter. From Asta’s letters the Approach sounds like an absolute hole. I’m sure it would lift his spirits. He probably misses you too.”

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” Dorian blustered.

“Asta wrote me a very long letter. Practically the first thing she said was that you and Bull had an understanding.”

“Bull and I?” Dorian attempted a laugh and failed, “That hulking barbarian? Who never bathes?”

“Dorian, she heard you. From her words, the whole of Western Orlais heard you. I don’t think you can dodge this.”

Even Dorian’s moustache drooped with that. “It’s complicated. In Tevinter, people like me… they don’t get to have long term relationships. It’s not proper, acceptable. And my father… well, that’s a long story that you don’t want to hear.”

“That’s a big deal in Tevinter, then?” Cullen was confused. Why should it matter?

“You have no idea.”

“Apparently. Well, at least in Fereldan we have a pretty strong tradition. Some marry, certainly, to insure heirs and so on, but…”

“It doesn’t matter. Commander, Bull is a Qunari.” he said, with an air of pointing out the obvious, “And I’m a 'fucking 'Vint'. Our people have been at war since forever,” Dorian gesticulated randomly. “I’m literally sleeping with the enemy.”

Cullen frowned, “Not our enemy, unless you’ve picked up a Venatori or Red Templar lover. Bull is an ally, Dorian. I think you need to adjust your thinking.”

Dorian went on the offensive, “Look who is talking! Everyone knows why the Inquisitor was late when we left, Commander. She came down glowing from your tower wearing yesterday‘s clothes and dove into her room hoping no one would notice. And then she left for the Approach without you so much as glancing her way.  Maybe you should pay attention to your own love affair and butt out of everyone else’s.”

Cullen was taken aback. “Dorian, I didn’t mean… I just wanted to help. You helped me.”

Dorian hissed, “I don’t need your help, Commander. I’ll work this out on my own. I always have.”

“Very well,” Cullen turned and opened the door. “Just try to tone it down. I can’t have any more complaints from Josephine.”

“Just get out,” Dorian was facing his window, arms crossed. “I need to be alone.  I'm better alone."

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Cassandra’s face had gone pale, confronted with the journal before her. “This was a Chantry secret. How, why… what do they think they are attempting?”

“Apparently,” Vivienne’s voice dripped scorn and disapproval, “reversing Tranquility. What fools.”

Asta was confused. “How?” Cassandra shook her head. “I do not know. We must try to find the Lord Seeker. This is dangerous and important. If Tranquility can truly be reversed…”

“It will lead to more madness,” Vivienne claimed authoritively. “Why, every two bit mage ever made Tranquil would…”

Asta cut her off. “Vivienne, have you ever spoken with any Tranquil? Most are convinced that they did something to deserve it.”

“My dear, trying to speak with the Tranquil is like trying to converse with a dog. There is hardly any point to it. You give them orders, and they follow them. It’s all they are capable of.” Cassandra’s brows lowered menacingly at the mage, and Asta put her foot down.

“Vivienne, go back to camp.” Asta gritted out. “Just go.” The mage exited the cavern, graceful as ever.

“Should I go with her, Boss?” Bull asked, concerned for her safety.

“No, Bull, let her take her chances.” Asta shook her head. “This is bad. And good, but mostly bad. Cassandra - the timing of this attempt - it’s right before the Circles started to fall. Is that coincidence or…”

“No.” Cassandra looked pained.

“This trumps everything,” Asta spoke assuredly. “We leave for Skyhold tomorrow. Let’s go get packed.”

***

After Asta had packed what she didn’t need in the morning, she sat down to write one last letter to Cullen.

Commander,

I’m afraid this will not be a happy letter. The cave I mentioned prior - where a group of mages were attempting to reverse Tranquility - I showed it to Cassandra. Maker, Cullen, Cassandra knew. Knew they had found a way to reverse it, though not how. The Spire fell because Tranquility could be reversed. All those Oculara, all over Thedas, how many were innocents, or those afraid of their own power, too frightened to go through their Harrowing? Or just had the misfortune of catching the wrong type of Templar’s eye?

I’m haunted this evening by the Tranquil we were too late to save. The ones we did save, Helisma, Clemence… how can I meet their faces knowing what I know now?

Vivienne is being a bitch about it. I can’t take her opinions right now. She may have to leave the Inquisition unless she can update her antiquated thinking. Never have I seen such self-hatred. It seems that as long as she is at the top of the Circle’s totem pole (you won’t know about those, they are something the Avvar do, to tell stories) she doesn’t care what happens to those underneath her. I’m beginning to think even Fiona was a better leader, and she sold them all into slavery.

I wish you were here with me, Cullen. This mess, it goes clear to the top of the Chantry, of the Circles, of the Seekers, of the Templars. Who am I to stand against it? A silly little girl with more books than sense.

Cassandra says we must try to find the rest of the Seekers, that even if the Lord Seeker has betrayed Thedas, that there must be others like her to stand against the tide. It will have to wait until after Halamshiral, but she is insistent.

Andraste’s Ass, Cullen, how many fronts must this war be fought from?

We leave the Approach tomorrow morning. Expect us in a week. We will ride hard. I will attempt not to kill Vivienne. I doubt my Assassin skills are up to the challenge of snuffing her out. And I still don’t want to end up fried. Not until after I have sex with you. It is my new life goal. After saving Thedas, of course. We must have priorities.

I need you, Cullen. I’ll be home soon.

Asta

***

Much to Asta’s surprise, Vivienne didn’t seem to be able to keep her mouth shut. “Honestly, my dear, if you think every Tranquil in Thedas is an innocent subjugated by evil Templars and a more evil Chantry you must break away from your idealism. Tranquil are made for a reason.”

So much for being a Master at the Game, Asta thought bitterly as she spun around on her horse to confront the short-sighted mage. “I spent time in Kirkwall’s Chantry, Viv. I am fucking...” Maker, forgive me for the exaggeration… “...that blighted Circle’s former Knight-Captain. Tranquil are made for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes just because a Templar thinks they’d like to shag them but the mage said ‘no’. Is that a good enough reason, Viv?” She spun her confused horse back around. “There have been abuses. Cassandra admits it - she had to investigate quite a few of them. She experienced the aftermath in Kirkwall. Perhaps the rite of Tranquility itself is an abuse. That is what the Inquisition is for. It’s our job. And I am the Inquisitor. Maybe you should figure out what side you are on, and decide if power at any price is worth it.”

She rode far ahead, trying to compose herself and failing completely.

***

Cullen crumpled her letter in his fist, remembering Kirkwall. Remembering Anders using Justice to bring his friend Karl back from Tranquil, and actually succeeding, if only for a moment. Kirkwall, with Qunari taking the city, fighting Orsino, endless blood mages: those driven desperately to it and those who would have power where they could find it. He was there, again, with the fire and blood raining down on him from every direction, caught in a shitstorm of epic proportions. He remembered finding his own men, captured and possessed by demons. Keran, just a lad, being killed because of the suspicion of possession. Hawke comforting the boy’s sister as she wept. He fell to his knees, pain lancing through his legs and into his skull. Killing Meredith. Statues of red lyrium that whispered paranoia mixed with temptation.

He should be taking it, the statue whispered. Why wasn’t he taking it? It was logical. It was wise. He was better with it than without. Why did he ever think he was strong enough to go without it? He who had known true strength.

He couldn’t do this any longer. His hands shook against the flagstones on his office floor, the paper of her letter fallen between his knees. That morning he had nearly fallen during morning training. He had forgotten to post patrol duty rosters for the week and thrown up multiple times behind the Herald’s Rest. He couldn’t even keep tea down.

It all just needed to stop. He’d write and recall Rylen from Griffon Wing immediately. He tried to stand, to reach for his quill and the nausea hit him again, hard. He grabbed the pail he had long since kept handy for that purpose. How long had it been since he had been able to do anything without planning where he could run to vomit in solitude?

He hated himself, for thinking he could be strong enough to overcome his past choices.

He heard an echoing horn faintly in the background. The Inquisitor’s party had returned. Cassandra was back.  Asta was back.

When he could finally stand, significantly later, he left his office, not even bothering to clean up. He had to find the Seeker, now. It was time and past.

He only hoped Asta would forgive him for being so weak.

***

Asta stood just inside his doorway, the remains of his lyrium kit strewn about her feet. She was trying to understand, to hear his explanation running through his broken words.

“It’s like being in thrall.” He held the little blue bottle, the last one in his kit, as if it were fascinating. “I’ve been in thrall, or nearly so, with the desire demons at Kinloch. Chains… so many fucking chains. At the Gallows, at the Circle in Fereldan. The demons, they throw everything at you, just to see if something will stick, make you react in a way they can understand.”

He needed to say this, so she listened, heart broken like his kit, splintered.

“With the demons, until they found a weakness, it was easy to resist. Mine was Solona Amell.”

Asta felt an irrational surge of jealousy against this dead mage she had never met, and pulled herself back. This wasn’t about her. It was about Cullen, fighting his demons one more time. She bit her lips. For Cullen, she reminded herself, yet again.

“The bottle holds me in thrall, now. I know that it will feel good. It has felt good. I want it, but I hate it, resent it for making me want it so badly.”

Asta nearly reached out to tear the bottle from his hand, wanting to smash it against the wall. But it couldn’t be her to do it. It had to come from him.

“I’m scared of it,” Cullen looked at her, and she could see truth in his eyes with the fear. “Just as I’m scared of feeling good with you, of being happy. I have to ask myself every time I feel pleasure, joy… is it real? An illusion? A demon’s trick?”

“Since I met you, Asta, my nightmares have changed,” he confessed brokenly, “it’s not Amell any longer.” His eyes searched hers for something, scared and tentative. “It’s you, showing me all the ways I could be fucking happy. And I wake up in a sweat, scared shitless,” he laughed bitterly. “I’m the only man in the world haunted by a chance at my own happiness.” Cullen slammed his fist into a wall. “And you are nothing like her.”

“I imagine not,” Asta swallowed the lump in her throat, trying at levity and failing.

Cullen slammed his fist into the bookcase this time. “You don’t understand. You are better. These dreams… I could have them all, if I were brave enough, if the fucking blue bottle wouldn’t tear it all away.” He threw the bottle in his other hand against the far door in the room, and watched the dripping blue liquid run down the wall with longing in his eyes. “And yet, I shouldn’t give less to the Inquisition than I did to the fucking Chantry. I should be taking it!” He slammed his head into the shelves, making them shudder. “I should be taking it,” he nearly whispered.

Asta approached him gingerly. “Cullen, this doesn’t have to be about the Inquisition. Is taking lyrium again what you want?” Please say no, she prayed.

“No, but these thoughts… what if I’m not strong enough. I have to be strong. What if…”

“You are strong,” Asta said, hand over his heart, right over where her letter and his coin rested. “And I will be here.”

He looked at her like she was his personal salvation, such adoration that she realized that she never needed to be jealous of Solona. He leaned his forehead against hers, eyes closed.

“Thank you,” he breathed.

“Anytime,” Asta said, heart still aching.

“I’m sorry you came home to this… I’m making a habit of having a scene waiting when you get back.”

“Cullen,” Asta hesitated. “Was this my fault? Was it the letter I sent? About Tranquility?”

“No, of course not…” Cullen tried to deny it. Asta looked at him, disappointed. “Okay, maybe? But this… reaction… had been building. The letter - it might have tipped the scale? Perhaps. The worst happened after I received it, anyway.” Then he grabbed her wrist, “But you have to keep writing to me. Talking to me! Asta, I…”

“Shhh, Commander,” Asta soothed. “I’ll write. I promise. I’ll always write. I’ll just have more of a filter. How long have you had that letter?” She picked up the crumpled piece of paper from the floor, smoothing it out.

“Three days.”

“And you read it how many times?”

“I… don’t know.” Cullen averted his eyes. “A lot. I couldn’t stop.”

“So, if I tell you in person, then it won’t be as hard, maybe. You won’t be able to dwell on a letter, written while I was upset and angry. I’ve had a week to calm down, get over my desire to kill Viv, even. Well, mostly. You read it, and from the looks of things, couldn’t let go, literally.” Asta straightened. “I’m going to do better. I will not be responsible for you having a relapse again. You’ve come too far.” She marched over to the door and opened it. “The Commander has spilled some lyrium in his office. Send someone to clean it up, please.”

“At your order!” The waiting runner took off towards the kitchen at a dash.

“Now, you are taking the rest of the day off.”

“I can’t! We have to prepare for the Winter Palace! The logistics of…”

“The logistics can wait. I just got home, and I want to spend the day with my lover. And I’m the Inquisitor. What good is the job if I can’t abuse my power?” Asta leaned in closely, “Hawke is definitely right about that. There ought to be some perks other than a drafty tower and a chance to the see the world, meet interesting people and kill them.”

Cullen snorted, forgetting his angst for just a moment, still supporting himself on the bookshelves.

“Now, can you get yourself upstairs? Or should I just lock your doors, bring down your blankets and make a nest for you right here?”

Cullen blinked at her. “A nest?”

“What, you’ve never made a blanket nest? Not even as a kid?” Asta shook her head, “Honestly, Commander, what a wasted childhood you had. Even I made nests and forts with the other kids at the Chantry. We all had the pox one summer, and after some of us started to get well, the Sisters were so busy with the sick that we tore our entire room apart, put the mattresses on the floor and strung up blankets everywhere. It’s one of my favorite memories.”

“One of your favorite memories is getting over the pox?”

“Well, it was better than the alternative. I mostly didn’t get along with the other kids - they thought I put on airs because of my title, read too much, and, well, they made fun of me. A lot. That was one of the few times they were kind.” She thought back, “That summer there was hardly any punching. Good times.”

Cullen wanted to laugh, but took her hand instead. “I’d like a nest. Not just because of the ladder, but… will you stay with me in it?”

“Commander, I did say I wanted to spend the day with you. If you are in your nest, than I will definitely be in it with you.”

The cleaning staff and the returning runner arrived at that moment. “Excellent,” Asta beamed. “Please empty this,” and she handed off his pail. “Also, the lyrium is against that door. Please use soap. Scrub it well.” She guided Cullen to his office chair as they got to work. She addressed the runner, “The Commander is indisposed. Please inform the guards that they will need to find another route to cross the battlements, as I am going to lock his doors so he can rest without interruption. Also, inform Cassandra that she will need to take charge of the forces for the day, at least. If the Commander is improved tomorrow, she will be relieved of duty then.” She looked at Cullen, “Have I forgotten anything?”

“Incoming correspondence,” He croaked, a little amazed at her take charge attitude.

“Oh, right. Should I send it to Leliana or to Cassandra?”

“Cassandra…”

“Right,” She faced the runner. “You heard him. Hop to it. And after that, inform the cook that we will need a tray of light food and tea sent to his office. Just knock and leave it. Thank you.”

“At your order!” The runner left quickly.

“Well, he’s an earnest sort, isn’t he?” Asta laughed.

“Yes, he’s very good at his job.” Cullen leaned back in his chair, uncomfortable. Asta climbed up the ladder, pulled all the blankets and sheets off his mattress and tossed them down, without ceremony. The pillows followed, one landing square in the middle of the desk, just missing the ink. “Asta, be careful!”

“I’m already done. Maybe I should have the staff bring us some more blankets. I think that would be wise.” Asta slid down the ladder. “I think I’m getting better at going down, at least. Ladies, please bring more blankets, and maybe a comforter once you are finished. Take them from my bed, if necessary.” They bowed, and left. “Now, off with your armor, and where is your key?”

Cullen pulled out the middle drawer. “Here.” he hesitated to hand it over. “I’ve never locked my office before.” He obediently started removing his bracers, hands still shaking. He couldn’t make it over to the stand, so just stacked it on his desk as neatly as possible.

“Well, there’s a first time for everything,” Asta raised her eyebrows, “I imagine you’ll be doing it a little more frequently in the future.” She was tossing his blankets in the air, spreading them out to her satisfaction. “The mattress was too heavy to lift. I’m going to use the comforter they bring to cushion this. Like a massive bedroll, but cozy.”

Cullen watched her, amused, if tired. “What will we do all day?”

“You will rest, and I will read to you. You have a ton of books in here, something must be worth reading.”

“Mostly military histories.”

“Hardly sickbed reading material. Hmmm…” She stuck her head back out the door. “Ask Dorian to send us a few books for light reading, please? Thank you!”

“Asta, this is all getting a bit elaborate…”

“No comments from the ill, please.” Asta spun and mock-glared at him. The blankets arrived and she dismissed the women, who were hiding smiles. There was a knock, and Asta answered it, bringing a tray over to the blankets on the floor. She spread out the comforter and threw a sheet over it. “There! Now, in you go, Commander.” Cullen didn’t fight, just drug himself over and lay down, head on the pillow. She tossed the remaining blankets over him, temporarily covering his face. He glared, fighting his way out. “Now, now, less grumpy, Commander.” There was another knock, and Asta bounced over. “Excellent! Dorian sent us Sword and Shields! Just the thing!” She locked the doors quickly and brought the small pile of books over next to the food. She slid under the blankets next to him, and flipped over on her stomach. “Not bad! I did a good job on this.” She grinned. “Guess I still have the knack.” She turned the book’s cover open.

"Now, ‘Chapter One: The Guard’s Promise. The Captain stood with her back to the sunset, silhouetted against the dying sun. Her breasts heaved with purpose and dignity, her wild red hair streaming behind her in the wind. Her sword was bloody, and her shield was dented, but her honor was intact. This was a day to remember…”

 

Chapter Text

When Asta woke the next morning, dawn just barely peeking through the windows in his office, Cullen was nowhere to be found. She stretched, worried, but not alarmed yet. She stood and pulled on the trousers she had slipped out of in the night and went looking for him.

She found him quite easily, standing by the battlements watching the sun rise, breathing deep and looking far more peaceful than the day before. She watched him for a little while, stalwart against the stones and captured the picture in her mind.

He stretched, and his shirt rode up - too early even for the Commander to put on his armor, she noted - and she could see the angle of his hips dipping into his pants. He turned and saw her, face lighting up in response. “Asta! Good morning!” He hesitated slightly, “I hope I didn’t wake you?”

“Not at all. I was a little concerned you were missing, though. Feeling better, I take it?” She slipped her hand into his, and he held it, tracing patterns with his thumb.

“Much.” Just the little contact had him stammering again, unable to process his thoughts into words. “I never thanked you… when you came to see me…” he sighed, exasperated with himself. “This sounded much better in my head,” he echoed her words from months before, laughing at himself.

“Hey! I know that feeling!” Asta bumped him with her shoulder. “I understand.”

He paused and pulled her closer to him, shyly. “Can I offer you a good morning kiss? I promise I’ve cleaned my teeth…”

Asta snorted. “I’d be insulted if you didn’t kiss…” his lips stopped her flow of words and left her weak in the knees.

“Good morning,” Cullen murmured against her lips, eyes shut, holding her against him.

“You said that.” Her brain was definitely broken, she decided.

“Yes, well, I didn’t welcome you home yesterday, either.” He kissed her again, a little longer this time, with a flick of his tongue against her lips, subtle enough that she might have imagined it. “So, welcome home, Asta.”

Asta was breathless. “Anything else you needed to say?”

“Just one thing.” Cullen pulled her in, hard against him now, and kissed her torridly, mouth demanding entrance, all subtlety lost. Asta obeyed eagerly. He kissed her like no one was watching, as if guards weren’t patrolling wide-eyed, the Commander and his Lady confirming every piece of gossip they had heard over the months, storing up the stories to pass on in the barracks and to the Nightingale. When it finally ended, Asta’s hands were dug deep into Cullen’s hair and he was holding her up against the battlements. “That was ‘thank you’. For taking care of me. No one has… you came and found me. I told you the worst… and all you did was make me lay down and take care of me.” He shook his head, amazement in his voice, and deepened slightly with the effect the kiss had on him. “And I was thinking that… if you wanted…” he broke off, noticing the increasing groups of gawking guards strolling by a little too leisurely. “Why don’t we take this to my office?” He grabbed her hand again, pulling her along in his wake, blushing but determined.

“Cullen, what is going on?”

“Just a minute.” He relocked the doors and turned to face her. “Asta, I…” he stopped again. “Maker’s breath, it still isn’t easier. I thought at least if we weren’t going to be overheard…”

“Cullen, what are you trying to say?” Asta was still half-asleep and bewildered. He had literally kissed her senseless, drug her back into his office and then promptly stammered himself into even more confusion.

He took her hands and a deep breath. “I’d never spoken about Kinloch before. Or what happened in Kirkwall. I thought if anyone knew, they would… judge me. I’ve been judging myself for a very long time for everything that went wrong. If I had been stronger, wiser… But you know, and you’re still here.”

“I told you yesterday I would be,” Asta reminded him gently.

“I could never have expected this. You are so…” Cullen was losing it again. “Just let me…” he pulled her in again and kissed her one more time, slower, powerful, like she was air and he was a drowning man. Her mouth opened almost before his thought to ask. Feeling the warmth, he groaned and pressed her against him, hand cupping her backside, molding her into his increasingly hard body.

Asta could feel the body reacting to the kiss, her presence, but Cullen didn’t stop, didn’t hold back this time. He groaned again into her mouth and between the sound and the pressure against her abdomen she felt warmth pooling between her thighs. She moaned, and Cullen buried a hand in her hair, still wild from sleeping, and tilted her head for better access. Far from stopping her brain, this kiss was feeding it - a million and one scenarios playing through it.

Cullen suddenly dropped the hand in her hair, cupping the other side of her ass, and lifted. Now she was pressed against him intimately, in what felt like all the right places. She mewled, more than a little desperate. Her mind raced. Was this it? Were they… she didn’t mind. He was walking them back towards the silly nest she had built.

Maker’s children, her whole body felt warm. He fell to his knees in a smooth controlled movement at the edge of the makeshift bed, still holding her. She gasped a bit at the simple show of strength, and moaned when his lap came up to slide her harder into his core. He laid her down, slowly, carefully, on the pile of blankets, still mussed from earlier, kissing her throat as he went.

Asta returned the favor, nipping him slightly. It was his turn to gasp, and paused, catching his breath. Asta mentally groaned, but controlled herself very reluctantly. “Cullen, what are you thinking?” Cullen looked at her, an angel against the blankets, and smoothed her hair slightly.

“My thoughts…” He flashed a wicked grin at her. “Everything.” He leaned over her, supporting himself on his arms like he could do it forever. “You read me a naughty book yesterday.”

Asta blushed, “I wasn’t even sure you were listening.”

“Oh, I was listening. My head was killing me, my stomach was churning and all I could concentrate on was your sweet voice.” His voice was much deeper now. “One thing in particular stood out.”

Asta swallowed, nervous all at once. “And that was?”

Cullen smirked again. “I think maybe I’ll just show you.” Then he questioned himself, “Is that okay?”

Asta’s mind whirled in confusion. How could he go from tempter to questioning in the drop of a hat? “It’s hard to say without having any idea. I did a lot of reading yesterday.” Her brain tried to run through the various positions the book had shoved its characters through the day before, Cullen appearing in every single mental picture. That severely hindered her progress.

“I understand… from the soldiers’ gossip, you know, that women usually like this.”

Asta was a little impatient, her heart racing. “Cullen, can you just spit it out?”

He sighed and ran a hand through his hair, finally coming up with a euphemism, and leaned over her ear. “I want to taste you,” he whispered, trying to be bold.

Asta’s eyes went wide. “Oh,” was all she could manage. “That’s okay, I guess.” The very thought sent another pulse through her body.

“Really?” Cullen’s voice broke again. “Okay, then.” The two stared at each other for a moment, Cullen wondering how it could be just that easy. He waved vaguely at her clothes, rumpled and disheveled from sleeping in them. “Um, would… do you want me to… help?”

Asta smiled, “I’ll manage. At least this time.” She cleared her throat, trying to make the awkwardness a little more straightforward. “Maybe you could… watch this time?” The thought of his eyes on her made her more nervous, but if they were going to get anywhere, he would eventually need to see her naked.

Cullen coughed, “I’ll try,” laughing mentally. “did you think I didn’t watch last time because I didn’t want to?” The words and a little snigger were out before he could stop them.

Asta narrowed her eyes, defensively. “Well, what was I supposed to think? You announce demons made you watch them… cavort, I believe was your word, then tell me you are afraid of being happy, of feeling pleasure, and then after a good night’s sleep - I am assuming you slept - after listening to me read a ‘dirty’ book, decide you want to act out one of the scenes. I’m a virgin, Cullen, not an idiot. I’m trying to give you space, but you are sending some serious mixed signals here.” She relented, seeing his stricken face. “I’m not angry, just confused. I want to sleep with you, I meant it before and I mean it now. Well, we’ve done that… technically.” Exasperated, she blew some hair away from her face. “I’m no better at this word thing than you are.” She grabbed his hand and placed it on her breast, squeezing slightly to encourage him and then dropped her hands down to her laces. “Honestly, you… tasting me, sounds like a fucking fabulous idea. Let’s do it. Please?”

Cullen blinked and opened his mouth. She honestly thought that he didn’t want her desperately? Thought he was sending mixed signals? He started to say so, but she stopped his words with another kiss. “Please, Cullen,” she said, after he started to respond again. “Just assume I talk to too much.”

“I was just going to say, I looked,” Cullen confessed, guiltily, “in the healer’s tent. And I only closed my eyes the night we… slept together at the last minute.” He looked at her earnestly. “I wanted you. I do want you. You were nearly irresistible. So I shut my eyes. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to look. Or because I’m some sort of gentleman.”

Asta snorted, “We’ve had this conversation. You’ve already established that you are the opposite of what a real gentleman is like. A real gentleman would never have closed his eyes, or denied looking out of misplaced guilt.”

“I just don’t want you to feel like an object,” Cullen protested.

Asta laughed, “I could use a little objectification, versus being worshipped or sent on a pedestal to be admired. Feel free to tell me as often as you like that I’m lovely or irresistible.” She punctuated the remark with a kiss. “I treasure those words like jewels on a chain. No one has ever said anything like that to me before.”

Cullen shook his head in confusion, “Every man you’ve ever met is a fool or blind.” He started to unclasp her tunic, hands shaking a little.

“Blinded by the stupid hat,” Asta agreed.

Cullen’s eyes were on her chest, tunic half undone in no time. Her breast band peeked through, and he just kept going, inch by inch. “I found myself wondering what was underneath the Chantry robes when I first met you.” Her shirt was undone and hanging on either side of her breasts. Asta sat up slightly and shrugged it off, nonchalantly. Her laces were proving difficult, but knot finally freed, she reached around to unwind her breast band.

It unwound in slow motion, to Cullen’s way of thinking, his mouth a little dry. Asta was a little self-conscious with his stare, but hid it with a good-natured tease. “Have a thing for Chantry Sisters, Commander?”

“Only one,” his voice strangled out, barely even recognizable as his own.

“Tis a pity, then…” Asta stood, one arm covering her breasts, and let her trousers fall to the floor next to the blankets. “Since I’m not a Sister any longer,” Her smallclothes were pink, Cullen’s mind informed him helpfully, and instantly he started to ache as his body reacted faster than his brain.

“You are a goddess.” The words fell from his lips. Surely nothing from the Fade or beyond, nothing from the Golden City or Andraste herself could compare with her.

Asta flushed red. “Maybe you could… return the favor?” She waved vaguely at his clothes.

“Oh, yes, of course.” Cullen had never stripped so fast in his life. In record time he stood before her in his dull, Inquisition issued smallclothes. Asta’s eyes wandered all over him, not sure where to look first. He rubbed the back of his head, unsure what to do next.

Asta decided for him. “Oh, fuck it,” she proclaimed and hauled him up against her, enthusiasm trumping skill in the kisses she aimed at his neck, lips, chest, anywhere she could reach. She reached one hand behind his neck and the other around behind to find his backside and squeezed.

Cullen let out air in a strangled noise and his resolved snapped. He cupped the back of her hair again and tilted her neck, sucking hard. She moaned under him, her core aching now, throbbing its need. “Lay down again,” he breathed against her neck, realizing too late it didn’t sound like a request, but Asta complied anyway, sinking to her knees, and then resting her head on her pillow. There was no nervousness now, he realized, just anticipation and passion vivid in her eyes.

And then she beckoned and he nearly fell over in his desire to reach her, touch her again. He met her lips and kissed her like the meaning of life was found there in her mouth, her tongue. He pulled away, slowly, kissing her chin, her neck, her collarbone. He paused by her breasts, her divine breasts, and stroked one, gently with his thumb. Asta caught a moan in her throat before it could get loose. So he rubbed it, harder, between two fingers this time, and the trapped moan escaped. He bent his head over and kissed her nipple with that, teasing it between his lips, and then his teeth. Asta’s hands flew to his hair, “Maker, Cullen!”

Cullen smiled against her breast, a little more confident, and kissed his way to the other side. Skipping the teasing entirely, he mouthed her and sucked, hard.

Asta’s back arched off the blankets, a sound escaping her that was not a moan or even a whine. Cullen ran his tongue back over the tip, licking upwards, experimenting more. He was loving the sounds she made and decided to tease her more. “So, is this where I start to make jokes about Andraste’s tits?” He sucked again, hard, at the same time as he rolled her other nipple between his thumb and forefinger. “I’m sure hers were not half so beautiful.” Asta managed a weak glare, so he sucked hard again and she reacted accordingly, back arched, eyes closed. “Perhaps I should just worship you instead?” He bent back to work, playing, teasing, sucking. Cullen wondered at the possibilities as she writhed underneath him. “Could you come for me just like this?” he asked, and nipped the underside of her other breast impulsively. She cried out. “Sorry! Did that hurt? I didn’t mean…”

“Maker’s Balls, Cullen, don’t stop!” Asta was barely coherent at this point, body all sensation and emptiness waiting to be filled. “It didn’t hurt!”

“Oh, all right then.” Cullen moved on, leaving a hand on her breast to play there. They were so soft and sweet, he nearly hated to move on. “Maybe another time, if you would like?”

“Right, fine.” Asta gritted out, ages it seemed between his kisses. “Whatever you would like to try. Too much talking.” He kissed and licked a pattern under her navel and she giggled and bucked up. He did it again, unable to resist.

“Asta, are you ticklish?” He couldn’t believe his luck.

“Cullen, if you don’t get a move on…” Her threats were cute. Maker, he had it bad.

“Another time then,” he answered. Confronted with her smallclothes, he kissed along the edge and hooked his fingers on the side, catching her yes as he pulled them down to her knees and off entirely. She was went to the point of dripping. He felt a certain amount of pride at that and traced her lips with a finger, gently, trying to remember how he had touched her before.

Asta’s teeth were ground together against his sweet teasing, and but flew apart in a gasp as he slid a finger inside, watching her face. Her noise then was indescribable, “Are you okay?” He asked, not moving.

“Yes, just fine! Please! Thank you!” Asta choked out. He slid his finger out again and adjusted himself with his other hand. This was more difficult than he thought it would be, the level of anticipation having peaked for both of them. Asta’s eyes opened, “Cullen?” She felt rather vulnerable, suddenly, naked and spread out on the floor beneath him.

“Asta…” Cullen breathed, as he knelt down and took one of her legs, lifting it over his shoulder. He shut his eyes, nose and lips floating over her center, and tasted, a little lick with the tip of his tongue, and then a larger one, delving between her folds more bravely. Asta was moaning, he registered through his own experience. That was good, right? He licked harder, with a flat tongue up her slit. She shuddered against him and he made a mental note. Experimentally he closed his lips around the bud he had found last time they were together, and traced little circles around it. Then he closed his lips like he had around her nipples and sucked just as hard. She came unglued, digging her hands back into his hair. “Cullen!” Yes, that was a good thing, his throbbing body told him, despite the possible hair loss. He licked around the nub again, and then over with a flat tongue, repeating the action when her hips jerked up in response. He put her other leg over his shoulder and spread her a little wider.

She had never felt so vulnerable, she thought, as she panted, eyes shut. “Asta?” She could only moan, as he continued to tease her with his fingers and mouth. “Can you look at me?”

He needed to see her eyes, was all he could think. His mind was trying to betray his body. If he could see her eyes, he would know this was real, not a dream, or a scam cooked up by a desire demon. Without a word she snapped her eyes open, locking them with his, over her pelvis. He smiled, those blue brown eyes nearly black with passion. He dipped back into her, filling her with his tongue, watching her carefully. He had never seen anything so gorgeous, “Maker, Asta, you are beautiful.” She smiled, still tense and he bent back to work, humming against her. “You taste… incredible.” With that, he circled her clit again with his tongue, and slid one finger and then another inside of her, placing the other hand on her stomach, hoping to keep her still longer. His tongue slid up and down between bud and fingers, tasting, rubbing, trying to match his rhythm to his thrusting.

This was magic, Asta decided, not caring if it was impossible for a Templar to perform such a thing. It had to be, the sensations sweeping through her body weren’t of this world. They had to be from the Fade, or somewhere else.

Cullen curled his fingers slightly, remembering the phrase from the book, and Asta shattered around him, bursting. He lapped at her, eagerly, hardly recognizing the man who performed the action, and trying to ignore his own need as she rode her own pleasure out under his hands. She was lovely, delectable, and he had done this beautiful thing to her.

Asta reached down, grabbed his arm, and pulled him unresisting back up to her lips. Cullen kissed her, and she tasted herself for the first time on his tongue, his lips. He groaned, just the thought of it nearly enough for him to come, his still clothed erection throbbing against her thigh. “Asta, I…”

“I know,” she was still kissing him madly, intoxicated with her own taste mixed with his. “What can I do?”

Cullen nearly choked - after all of that she was still leaving him the option? He ached for release, for her… was he brave?

“Cullen, please, let me help you?” Her voice did him in. He couldn’t, not that - it would be too much after this sweetness, but… he eased himself out of his over restrictive smallclothes gingerly. Asta looked at him for permission and he nodded. It wouldn’t take much - the torment had affected him just as much as her. She touched him, and let go, stroking herself a little between her legs and then wrapped her now-slick hand around him. He moaned, already gone with the little pressure and friction it provided and with one thrust and a second he lost all his thoughts, tumbling after them like snowballs down a mountain. He cried out her name as he came violently, and she kissed him quiet, moving her hand through his release.

As he lay there, sated and drained, she drew her finger through his seed and brought it to her mouth as he watched. His groin clenched again in reaction, but she wasn’t lascivious - simple curiosity painted her face. He raised his eyebrows and found his voice. “Well?”

She frowned. “It really doesn’t compare with anything, does it?”

Cullen laughed. “You know better than I do.” He shifted toward her, “You, however, taste like a spring in Bloomingtide. May I do that again, sometime, my lady?”

“Maker in the Golden City, yes.” Asta curled into his arm. "Whenever you like. Consider me at your disposal. I’ll draw up a requisition and deliver it to Ser Morris immediately.” Her voice was trailing off and Cullen realized she was falling back asleep. He shifted and pulled covers over them both, and closed his eyes.

Already this was a very good day.

 

Chapter Text

Cullen awoke again midmorning and discovered Asta had slipped out while he slept. His headache and nausea were still vastly improved, so he sat up and took stock of his surroundings, pulling himself to his feet.

The first thing he had to do was to get rid of the major distraction in the corner of his office. With Asta’s nest sitting there, he’d never get any work done. It took several trips to get the pile of bedding removed and replaced on his bed, not the least reason being that the blankets still smelled like Asta and their… experiment that morning. Cullen shook his head. He couldn’t quite believe he had been brave enough to ask for such a thing, much less that she had said yes. Just the fact that she was still there after everything was a miracle in itself. He braced himself, noticing he was holding her pillow against his nose, inhaling the sweet scent of her hair. He tossed it back on the bed, trying to find his discipline that had abandoned him so quickly. Damn it, just the memory of her hair splayed out and her body stretched before him like a buffet table had made him half hard. He slid back down the ladder, determined to move on, but unable to actually do so.

Only to find himself held at knife point against his own bookshelf, arm twisted behind his back. “Maker’s Breath, Max, when did you get back?” Cullen wasn’t scared - he knew at least three ways to break this hold, and only one would result in a dislocated shoulder - if he cared to use them.

“Max, is it? Already part of the family?” Max didn’t seem upset, much the contrary, Cullen was pleased to note. “I just got back this morning, only to hear from certain - friends, shall we say? - that the Commander was indisposed upon the return of the Inquisitor, that they had requested extra bedding, and clean-up of smashed objects.” Max sheathed his knife at his hip. “I have just one question, Commander. Are you screwing my sister?”

Cullen closed his eyes, preparing for a reckoning. He should have known the morning was too good to be true. “Yes, and no.”

Max eyed him, outwardly bemused. “Explain.”

“We are… involved.” Just that admission made his heart leap in his chest. “Last night we were together. I was sick, she took care of me. I was unable to climb the ladder to my quarters, so she made up a makeshift bed on the floor. Look, how many details do you want here?” Cullen was blushing already. Surely he wasn’t going to have to explain explicitly.

“And how far has that… involvement gone?” Max’s eyes narrowed.

Cullen’s mind raced. “How can I put this? She… We… She’s still a virgin.” He offered. “Maker, don’t make me go into details!”

Max spun and threw a dagger into Cullen’s training dummy. “Maker’s Balls fucking Andraste in the Fade! Damn it! Cullen, you are too… ugh!” He threw another dagger. “Cullen, I see I’m going to have to be straight with you. It goes against my crooked nature, but… I think you won’t understand if I keep playing games.” Max leaned on Cullen’s desk, aping the Commander’s posture when addressing his officers. “If I don’t put it this way, I… well, hear me out before you stab me, will you?” He took a deep breath, “I want you to seduce my sister.”

Cullen blinked. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“I’m not. The Trevelyans… we’ve used our influence in the Chantry for generations. Ages. But there has never been a Trevelyan Divine. My parents want that to change. My sister’s influence is strong right now - it’s spreading across Thedas at a rate that my family wants to take advantage of. With my sister on the Sunburst Throne, they would control an entire continent, they think.” Max drooped. “I think they underestimate my sister’s stubbornness.” He stiffened again. “My mother has gained an invitation to the Winter Palace, and intends to start influencing key people there. It’s less than a month away, correct?”

“Two weeks and a few days.” Cullen’s mind whirled.

“Andraste’s Tits!” Max cursed. “I took too long. That bitch of a Revered Mother really… oh, well, we work with what we have. My mother is going to be at the Winter Palace. Any Inquisition successes there she will weave into her plot to have Asta confirmed as the next Divine.”

Cullen felt as dense as Max accused him of being. “And you want me to seduce her because… what, to give her a taste of freedom before she is chained to the Sunburst Throne for life?” Cullen was furious and reached for his sword and realized too late it wasn’t on his hip. Of all the mornings not to put on his armor first thing…

“No!” Max reached out his hand. “You mistake me. I don’t just want you to seduce her. I want you to ruin her reputation, heck, even get her pregnant. Anything that will hurt her chances with the Chantry!”

Cullen thought hard, it took effort this morning, like diving in mud. “You don’t want your sister to be Divine?”

“Ding, ding, ding! Give the man a sovereign!” Max said dryly, clapping slowly.

“Why?” Cullen’s eyes narrowed again. “Why act against your parent’s wishes? They could disown you.”

“I can think of worse fates. As for my reasons, would you prefer the roguish answer, the facetious answer or the noble answer?”

“I want the truth.”

“Oh, all at once then.” Max sat down on Cullen’s desk. “First, my parents and their ambition are an example of the worst of Thedosian politics. My sister doesn’t even believe in Andraste‘s divinity, and would probably make a better Divine in Tevinter, assuming they would accept a woman, given her leanings. My parents don’t care - all they see is her influence, her position, her circumstances. With me so far?”

Cullen nodded.

“Second, my sister doesn’t want to be Divine. She’s rarely had anything she wants, so it would be easy for her to just give in, thinking it’s the right thing to do. She has a backbone, but she is very used to rolling over for the family. She’s been thinking the Inquisition is her way out of the Chantry, but instead it’s being used to root her in it even further. And she has little to no idea of the way strings are being pulled behind the scenes.” Max rolled his eyes. “She’s in love with you. It’s a way for her to finally get her to take what she wants instead of accepting what she’s given. But you have to play along.”

“I have not heard from the lady herself that she… loves me,” Cullen didn’t quite believe it was true. This morning was enlightening.

“No doubt she is trying not to scare you away. You have a reputation of being shy.” Max moved on. “Anyway, an unwilling Divine is a weak Divine. As Dorian would say, ‘Chaos for Everyone!’” Max paused, more seriously, “I would like her to be happy. She’s never been truly happy.”

“That all sounds fairly noble. And the facetious answer?”

Max sighed. “She’s 28 and a virgin. Before you, she never even had a chance. I know, I’ve been tasked with chasing away every male and a few females who tried to get close enough. My parents are very pleased with me. I’m sick of it. The way I see it, with your help, we can knock Asta off her pedestal in Val Royeaux, maintain the integrity of the Inquisition as an independent entity rather than a branch of the Chantry, prevent her ascension as Divine, possibly knock her up because an unexpected pregnancy would probably be the best way for her to be disqualified or just completely trash her reputation and then let her retire to whatever she damn well pleases once the Inquisition is no longer needed. My parents and their goals can go be fucked in the Fade for all I care.”

Cullen sighed and pulled a hand over his face. So much for it being a good day. “I’m not going to use Asta and toss her away, Max, no matter what you or your parents want.”

Max beamed, “Yes! And that’s the best part! You love her! This story could have the happy fairy tale ending - wedding included - if you play your cards right. Maker’s Flaming Sword, Cullen, my sister marrying a farmer’s son who happens to be an ex-Templar turned Commander, risen above what my parents consider his natural station in life… that would be the icing on the cake of the failure of their ambitions! They wouldn’t even be able to marry her off to some ancient nobleman with a prick like spindleweed! It’s perfect!”

Cullen was growing slightly alarmed. “Does Leliana know what they and you are up to?” He did not want the spymaster slitting his throat while he worked on sabotaging the Inquisitor’s good name.

“Yes, and I told Josie as well. They’re both in. They like Asta and agree she’s not the best choice for the next Divine, but all too logical if my mother gets to have her say. Josie is panicking a bit about the ramifications, but…”

“But?” Cullen shook his head. “Has anyone asked Asta what she wants?”

“No,” Max swung his legs off the desk. “We think you should. I’m off to speak to Dorian. And maybe Vivienne. She’s scary, but she plays the Game like Maryden plays the lute. Leliana and Mother Gisele should already have broken the news about her candidacy to Asta by now. So, you go talk to her, pick up the pieces of her despair, bed her by nightfall, make me a little niece or nephew…”

Cullen gritted his teeth. “I am NOT going to get Asta pregnant for the sake of your demented plan.”

Max waved his hand in dismissal. “The rumor of a pregnancy should more than suffice in any case.” He eyed him closely, “But you will have sex with her?”

Cullen was getting suspicious. “When I’m… when she’s damn well ready.”

“Cullen, brother… may I call you brother? She’s been ready for that for months.”

“Max,” Cullen had to know, “Where do you land in the betting pool?”

Max’s eyes were wide and innocent. “Me? Bet against my sister’s virginity?” He laughed.

“Dorian is more of her brother than you have ever been. He’s placed a bet. I’m not privy to the details of the pool, but… when, Max?”

“Okay, I admit I had a few sovereigns down, but I honestly thought that once I and everyone else stopped cock-blocking you it would happen. So my date came and went while I was in Ostwick. Actually, with her staying over with you there are a few people claiming they’ve won. I should go and tell Varric not to pay out. Vivienne says that she had it straight from Asta herself that she was fucking you. I knew that bitch was lying.” And with that, Maxwell was gone, headed for the Great Hall and Varric‘s fire, leaving Cullen exhausted and overwhelmed. This was going to be a very, very long day.

And it had started so well.

***

“You’re joking.” Asta’s face was pale, greenish around the edges. She wasn’t sure that she wasn’t going to vomit. Her eyes searched Leliana’s and the Orlesian Mother’s for some sign. “You’ve got to be,” she pleaded.

“I’m afraid not, child,” Gisele firmed her lips. “You are a valid candidate, despite your youth, excommunication and… unusual beliefs. Your backing from your family and the Inquisition makes you formidable. There are only a handful of candidates in any case, but as the Inquisition grows your candidacy grows as well.”

Leliana was expressionless. “How do you feel about it?”

“No! I won’t do it! Maker’s Breath, Leliana, I just got out from under a lifetime with the Chantry. Why would I ever…” Leliana’s face grew stern. “I’m sorry, I know you chose to serve, but Leliana, I didn’t! I was caught in a cage!” Asta wrapped her arms around her body. “I don’t want to go back.”

“I see.” Neither Mother Gisele nor Sister Nightingale seemed very impressed with her reluctance. “You could right a great many wrongs as Divine, Asta,” the Sister noted, more gently.

“Then you do it, Leliana.” Asta spit out. Already regretting her reaction she apologized. “I’m sorry, what do you want me to say? That I’ll consider it?” Asta spun away from them both. “Fine, I’ll think about it. But no declaring anything about such nonsense to the Inquisition until I give you an answer. Understood? Or the people here alone will have me tied hand and foot to the Sunburst Throne before I can say ‘Andraste’.”

“Of course,” the Mother and Sister left her quarters with their hearts lighter. Asta fell to the floor in her empty, empty room, and then stood up against her despair. She had to get out of there. She grabbed her cloak and headed for the battlements. It was time to do some serious thinking.

***

Cullen couldn’t concentrate. This mad plan, this distortion of the Game and it’s key players… how did he get involved in such things? One thing was clear, Asta would not end up as Divine or the Void could take him. But why the subterfuge? Why not just have Asta say she didn’t want it?

He called out to a runner, “Wait in my office and take messages for me, please. I will be back shortly.”

He had to find Asta. He ran to the end of the battlements and dropped down into the odd little alcove they had kissed in a month or more ago. She was there, huddled into the far corner, out of sight of sentries, shaking. He sat down next to her. “Are you… no. Stupid question. Never mind. Want to talk?”

“Not really.” Now he knew just how bad it was. Asta always wanted to talk.

“Too bad.”

Asta’s laugh died in her chest. “They want to make me the next Divine.” Her eyes were tear-streaked and desperate. “Cullen, this was supposed to be my way out. My excommunication should have been the final nail in the coffin. It shouldn’t have led to me being drug back in kicking and screaming to lead the entire mess! I don’t want to spend my entire life in Val Royeaux, playing the Game and hating everything and everyone I’ve become.”

Cullen took her hand. His feelings were warring with his faith, his head with his heart. For once he was going to let his heart win. “You would be an excellent Divine, Asta. You’ve already done so much for those who need it. And with the Inquisition you will no doubt do more.”

Asta glared at him, “Fucking Maker, Cullen, you think I should do it.” She went to stand up, to run away, bracing herself into the wall to keep from touching him.

“No!” He protested, trying to explain. “That’s not it. I don’t want…”

“Is this just a diversion? I thought you were serious! I actually thought that meant you wanted to… never mind. I was mistaken, obviously.” She posed, preparing to run, vault the wall and get away from his betrayal.

But Cullen was angry now, and found his words. “Asta, sit!” And he grabbed her hand again and yanked her down next to him, making her sit hard on the stone ground. He held her hand a little too tightly, scared that if he released the pressure she’d run out of his life forever. “You know that you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. If you don’t want to be the Divine then tell them no. Now, before everything gets too complicated. You can do that. They’ll listen.”

Asta was still bristling. “No, they won’t! They never have before! Do you think I didn’t try to tell them I didn’t want to take vows? I spent most of my adolescence trying to find an out! I’m tired of having to make these decisions all the time. I’m tired of no one listening to me! I’m tired of being strong, of giving up what I want so that I can make good choices. I’m tired of being alone!” She turned her anger on him, a convenient target, “And you! I’m tired of trying to figure out what you want! What the hell do you want, Cullen? Why the fuck won’t you just say it?”

“Asta, you know what I want…” Cullen rubbed the back of his neck.

“No, you know what I want. I’ve been fairly obvious almost since the day we met. You’ve been more subtle, almost as if you are just along for the ride. I started all of this,” She was yelling now, furious at herself and him, “I declared myself… what do you want from me?” Her eyes were shrewd, but filled with tears.

Cullen swallowed, “I want…” Maker’s Breath, why was this so hard?

“Spit it out, Commander,” Asta was cruel in her insistence.

“I want to be your shield.” He blurted. Asta’s mouth dropped open. He took advantage of her silence and kept going. “I want to be your best critic, the one who brings you back to reality when you get lost in another world, written or literally,” thinking of how she had fallen out of the Fade at Haven. Asta snorted at that. “I want to be with you, whether that’s beyond the Hissing Wastes or in the Deepest of the Deep Roads.” His voice deepened with his confessions, “I want to feel your ass against me in the night, to wake up every day to your bad hair and bleary eyes. I want to remind you to wear your reading glasses when you inevitably end up needing them, and to make you yell at me when I dog-ear your books and leave them face-down. I want to trip over your boots when I work too late, and feel your arms around me when I finally slip into bed, trying not to wake you up.” He hesitated, they had never talked about any of this, and Max’s conversation was ripe in his mind, but he was being honest. “I want to see you pregnant, and know the child is mine. MINE. I want to see it grow, brilliant and bright like its mother, probably fluent in four languages, at least one of them dead.” Asta’s mouth was still open, and he closed it, gently, with a touch. “I want everything, Asta. Everything that I can have. The Templars - we were never allowed to have anything personal or precious. Nothing that could come between us and our holy duty. When I left the Order, I didn’t realize at first what that could mean,” He laughed, a little bitterly with remembered ire, but relieved at the same time, “and now I am greedy, gluttonous, lustful,” Her eyes grew a little wider with that, he was pleased to see. “I’ve completely fallen from grace, Asta. And if regaining grace means losing you, I never want to be there again. So, Asta Trevelyan, that is what I want.” He rubbed the back of his neck again. “What are my odds?” He was incredibly self-conscious now that the words had been said, and he let go of her hand.

Asta grabbed his face and kissed him, passion and sorrow and guilt and desire rolled out onto her lips and tongue. He met them equally and slowly spelled out his everything without using letters or words. She was the first to pull away slightly, only to whisper, “I think even Varric wouldn’t take those odds.” She moved to straddle his lap, leaning her forehead against his. “You want to have a family… with me?” She was shy, almost whispering.

Cullen laughed, breathless with relief. “Asta, if I have you, we are already a family. But yes, if you wanted, someday I’d like to have a child. Maybe after the Hissing Wastes? Might be hard to cross the desert with an infant.”

Asta snorted again. “I see your point.” She peeked up into his eyes. “I never got a chance to reject the Chantry. They got there first. I was at the Conclave to try to find a patron, you know. I wanted to leave the Chantry, travel and do research. I didn’t realize either how much I could want, how much I was missing. I never considered that a family… a real family, an every day constant instead of just for Satinalia and special occasions was even an option.” She shook her head in wonder. “The world is our oyster, isn’t it? We could do anything. Have six kids and four dogs, a summer home in Orlais, a house in Antiva. A cottage in Starkhaven that we can come home to after we travel.”

Cullen cleared his throat, slightly alarmed. “I’m not sure about that many kids. I love you, but…”

Asta blinked and sat back. He loved her? “The kids were just an example, Commander.” Asta moved closer again, sliding her hands behind his neck and into his hair.

“Also, I bloody never want to live in Orlais, in summer or otherwise.”

“Duly noted,” She was kissing gently up his neck now, nibbling every other kiss, and grinding into his lap. It was very distracting.

“Will the dogs be Mabari? Mabari kennels take up a lot of time and manpower, and I’m not sure…” Cullen teased, reaching around to hold her backside.

“Andraste’s Ass, Commander! It was theoretical!” Asta sat back on her heels, scowling. “I’ve never had a single dog,. I don’t know if I even like dogs.”

Cullen decided to poke her once more, just for fun. Her scowl was darling, and he wanted to kiss it off her face. “How hot does it get in Antiva?”

“It’s colder there than in the Hissing Wastes!” With that, Asta tackled him and he couldn’t ask any more questions for some time. His mouth was too busy against her neck, and his mind was too busy trying not to strip her right there and take her against the cold broken stones. He wanted to keep going, but his conversation with Max intruded into his mind. He groaned, and stopped.

“I have to tell you something.”

“You can tell me anything.”

“Your brother is back. He threatened my life with a dagger this morning, confronted me about our relationship and asked me to…” Cullen swallowed, hard.

“Asked you to do what?” Asta’s eyes narrowed. “He didn’t challenge you to a duel or something, did he?”

“No! He asked me to…” Cullen blushed, “deflower you.”

“Deflower?” Asta burst out laughing. “I bet he didn’t use that word.”

“No, actually he told me to seduce you, knock you up and ruin your reputation.”

“Wow.” Asta tilted her head slightly. “He doesn’t want me to be Divine. He‘s going up against our parents.” She grasped it so easily, Cullen noticed, and wondered just how dense he really was compared to this brilliant woman. “Are you going to do it?”

“No!”

“You aren’t?” Asta was disappointed again. Maker’s Breath, this woman was confusing.

“Well, not all of it…” Cullen temporized.

“Which parts of his diabolical plan are out?” Asta breathed into his mouth, so close, so tempting.

“I refuse to get you pregnant just because you don’t want to be Divine,” Cullen started. “A child shouldn’t be brought into the world just for political reasons.”

“So far so good.” Asta pressed her breasts against his chest.

“He wanted me to seduce you today.” Cullen took a breath. She was nibbling on his ear again. Maker give me strength… “That will not be happening.”

“Why not?” She was still nibbling but sounded resigned.

“Because I won’t let him win.” She burst out laughing, squeezing his neck in a massive hug.

“Oh, Cullen. That’s… perfect.”

“Also, I think we can quite thoroughly ruin your reputation without me necessarily having to… debauch you.”

“What if I want to be debauched?”

“Then we will get to it when we both are ready. We’re doing quite well on that front, I thought.” Cullen moaned as she moved against his erection pointedly.

“Yes, I think that front is covered. What did you have in mind?”

“Max brought your research back. Straight from the hands of Mother Victoria in Ostwick.” Asta sat back, squealing.

“He did! Why didn’t you say so before?!” She jumped up and pulled him up. He tried to take her back in his arms, and she spun away, laughing. “None of that, now. I have to show you what I’ve learned! This is so exciting!”  He tried to pull her back to him, and she protested. “You already said that you aren’t going to deflower me today, Commander. So let’s head to my room, and spend the day amongst my dusty tomes and scrolls.” She cocked an eye at him and threw a smirk to equal his own. “You might even learn something.”

Cullen sighed, “Asta, I’ll follow you anywhere.” He boosted her over the wall, admiring the view.

“As long as I’m not in Orlais?” He vaulted over the top almost effortlessly after her.

“Exactly.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Cullen, Dorian and Asta were surrounded by dust, scrolls, books and records. Asta was in heaven, Dorian was trying not to get dirty, and Cullen was overwhelmed by the chaos. The first thing Asta had done was plop down on the floor and unload the crates, spreading the entire haul around her. Cullen felt like he was under siege, trapped at his spot on the bed.

“He brought everything!” Asta was giddy. “Maybe my brother does love me!”

“Only you, dear girl, would be this happy about having your work back,” Dorian said indulgently.

“Whatever, Dorian. I know you miss yours too. You know, that new librarian that Leliana hired would be more than happy to supply…”

“No thanks, Asta. Work would interfere with my heavy drinking schedule. One must have priorities.” There was a note to Dorian’s voice that Asta didn’t like, but she decided to ignore it for now.

Cullen picked up a copy of a record gingerly. It looked new, but the dates on it were ancient. “What’s this?”

“Genealogy Chart. Andraste’s daughter’s line. The one that survived Maferath’s betrayal. Neither daughter was allowed to marry, if you recall, but both had lovers. One died of the plague, and her child was shipwrecked, or so the story goes, just a month later. The other daughter’s lover was human, a Tevinter mage, actually.”

Dorian made a surprised sound. “Obviously she had good taste.” Asta flicked a piece of sawdust at him.

“Remember, Dorian, I believe Andraste was an elf. The inheritance nonsense?” Both Dorian and Cullen had very blank looks on their faces. “Come on, guys, we’ve talked about this! Do I need to give you a lecture?”

“Perhaps that would be best,” Dorian said dryly.

Asta rummaged through her papers and found the rest of the chart. “Fine, let’s start at the beginning. Originally, Andraste was a Tevinter slave. That is accepted by the Chantry as canon. She escaped and the Chantry says she married Maferath, an Alamarri warlord. Maferath had three sons who were not Andraste’s, but Maferath’s concubine‘s. Those sons inherited, even though Andraste eventually had children of her own, and as wife instead of concubine, her children should have taken precedence. In addition, Andraste has been described by her contemporaries as ‘too frail for children’.” Asta snorted. “Too frail for children when she fought battles all over Thedas with a holy sword? That’s one of the reasons I think she was an elf. The inheritance issue makes me think Andraste was never Maferath’s wife at all, but his concubine. With me so far?”

Cullen nodded and Dorian whistled. “That’s enough to make some Mothers very angry.”

“Good!” Asta beamed in approval. “Next generation. Andraste has two daughters, Ebris and Vivial. Neither is allowed to marry. Now, the history is vague as to why. Were they mages? But we already know that Maferath was an asshole, even if one of the Dissonant Verses indicates that he showed remorse later. Possibly it was a power trip on his part, or Andraste’s influence made her daughters’ permanent alliances too politically charged. Personally, I think they weren’t Maferath’s at all. I think they were full blooded elves, and possibly mages as well. Tevinter’s Chant asserts that Andraste was a mage. That makes a lot of sense to me. That whole ‘Andraste’s Flaming Sword’ sounds a lot like Vivienne’s Knight-Enchanter abilities to me.”

Cullen shook his head, “It does seem rather… damning.”

“No, it’s just coincidental evidence. I can’t prove it. Not yet. But if we found Tyrdda Bright-Axe’s staff, proving she was a mage, maybe someday we can prove this as well. Imagine the shock and horror!” Asta’s face grew dreamy, seeing visions of the entire Chantry in ruins over their Maker’s Bride being proven to be a mage. She came back to herself, realizing that her two favorite men were staring at her, bemused. “So, to take a side trip, the Second Exalted March, through the Dales. That led to the removal of the Book of Shartan from the canon of the Chant, and the expulsion of elves from the Chantry entirely. Some of that book indicates a… closer relationship. Andraste actually made him her champion and gave him her mother’s sword. Two things stand out here. One, why would an amazing warrior woman with divine powers give up her mother’s sword? And why the hell would she make anyone her champion at all if she was this divine warrior? Surely she knew the right end of the blade to hold?”

Cullen snorted.

“Unusual, don’t you think? She was totally a mage. Anyway…” Asta took a breath, her audience wide eyed with amusement at her enthusiasm. “It’s all right there in the Chant, my boys. Shartan was killed trying to protect her from her husband’s betrayal. Her children - probably the sons, but the Chant isn’t specific - gave the elves the Dales as a reward for Shartan’s faithfulness. The New Cumberland Chant of Light actually is including the Dissonant Verses again. It’s progress of a sort.”

“Asta, this is…” Cullen stared at the heaps of knowledge before him.

“Heretical? Madness? Self-damning?” Asta sounded hopeful.

“Amazing! I have a million questions! What about Maferath’s Dissonant Verse, with the dream from Andraste where she forgives him his betrayal? What about Hessarian?!”

Dorian laughed, “You two are nearly too perfect for each other. You must spend your time in the evenings listening to her tell you stories, Commander, instead of just having sex. No wonder you haven’t…”

“That’s enough, Dorian.” Asta quelled the mage. “I’ll tell you my theories on that some other time, Cullen. For now, let’s move back to Andraste’s natural children, versus her adopted sons. Ebris and Vivial. Ebris had a child - interestingly, the records do not state whether Alli Vemar was male or female. Ebris died of the plague, and Alli died at sea less than a month later. The timing is very coincidental, don’t you think? Now, Vivial was involved with the Tevinter mage, as I said, all before her mother’s death. When the Exalted March started, she, her lover, and her daughters went into hiding. They survived. I believe that after Ebris’ death, Alli saw the writing on the wall and faked her own death, knowing it was just a matter of time until Maferath’s allies caught up with her. Vivial’s line went on. But… she only had daughters. That line only ever had daughters, for age upon age. There are no sons in the line clear up to when I lost track of them during the Second Blight and the chaos that caused.” Asta sighed, frustrated at the lost knowledge.

“Impressive,” Dorian said, “But what do you think happened to Alli Vemal if she or he didn’t die at sea?”

“I truly believe she - I’m inclined to believe she was a girl, just because of her sister’s inclination to daughters - joined a Dalish clan and had lots of elf babies.” Dorian snorted. “What?! It makes sense! The only one of Andraste’s adopted sons that survived Maferath’s betrayal was Eviron. He went into hiding, as did his family, in the Free Marches. The ones that stayed - they were killed. One by his own wife. Vivial and her family survived because they went to ground. Alli just did it better.” Asta started stacking the geneology pages together neatly on her desk. “And if they were all mages…”

“You can sink a lot of boats with enough fireballs,” Dorian looked haunted. “Tevinter sinks Qun dreadnoughts all the time.”

“And it was a voyage to Denerim. Even in those days hardly sailing beyond the Beoric Ocean. It’s believable, but just barely. A freak accident, a terrible tragedy. If she did die, I think it was murder, anyway.” Now Asta was shelving books and stacking scrolls while speaking, moving with practiced efficiency. “So, what do you think? Is it enough to keep me from being Divine?”

Cullen looked at Dorian, “It should be, but…”

Dorian was more blunt, “It’s not. You’ve just proven to me that you would be an amazing Divine, open minded and dedicated to restoring lost knowledge of Andraste. Asta, I’d make you Divine in a heartbeat. I’m sorry.”

“Thanks for nothing, Dorian. Good thing you are a subject of the Black Divine, I guess. Cullen?” Asta’s eyes pleaded with him for a different answer.

“It’s heretical, Asta, you know that. You know more about the Dissonant Verses and Andraste’s bloodline than… but I’m afraid you are too popular with the common people, and even the Grand Cathedral is singing your praises right now. If even your belief that Andraste was never the Maker’s Bride can’t keep you from becoming a candidate…”

“Well, shit.” Asta slumped, and then got a wicked grin. “I guess you’ll just have to knock me up.”

Cullen rolled his eyes. “That’s not going to happen. We have two weeks! Not enough time to…” Dorian was watching the exchange with great interest.

“Don’t mind me,” he said blithely. “Is there something you want to share, Asta?”

“It’s just a thought, Dorian. The Divine Theodosia was expunged from Chantry records and the title of Divine stripped from her because she gave birth on the steps of the Grand Cathedral. And, no, Cullen and I are not having sex.” Asta sighed. “Yet.”

Cullen blushed, “That’s private, Asta.”

Asta waved her hand, “Not really. I suspect most people in Skyhold know more about our sex life than we do.”

Dorian hummed an affirmation. “Yes, I think you are right.”

Asta threw it back at him, “And what about you?”

“My dear, at the moment I am free of any such encumbrances. It’s better that way.”

“What about Bull?” Asta caught Cullen’s frantic hand gestures out of the corner of her eye.

“Oh, that was a momentary lapse of judgment. No more.” Dorian wouldn’t meet her eyes. Asta frowned, glancing at Cullen, who nodded at her to drop it.

“Very well, I’m sorry to hear that. I thought you were cute together.”

Dorian stood abruptly. “Well, this has been fascinating, my dears, but I must get going. There is wine to be drank and none of it is here. Adieu, my friends.”

The two waited until the door slammed shut.

“What the Void was that?!” Asta asked. “They couldn’t keep their hands off each other!”

“I don’t know,” Cullen mused. “Dorian came back from the Approach and nearly bit my head off. He seemed lonely and bitter, but wouldn’t talk about it.”

Asta sighed, “It’s pretty sad if we’re the most successful love affair around Skyhold.”

Cullen laughed and pulled her into his arms. “Perhaps you’re right.”

***

The War Room was full, Asta’s entire inner circle, plus her brother, recruited for the planning at the Winter Palace. And the women were running the show, Cullen propped uselessly against the wall behind Asta.

“Fortunately, many of the things that the Chantry will not condone will actually improve your standing with the court. As for Chantry approval, or disapproval, it’s going to take some work. Your standing with the general populace is quite high - you’ve been assisting those who are impacted by the civil war, clearing out red lyrium deposits, feeding the hungry, and healing the sick, if you ask some of the more superstitious of your followers,” Josie was blunt, “Blackening your name is going to take a lot of work.”

Leliana cut in, “So, we need a rumor mill. Starting now. Sera, Varric? Any ideas?”

Varric spoke up, “How about illicit relationships, plural? I can hint that my next issue of Swords and Shields is based on truth…” Cassandra made a disgusted noise, but Varric just carried on, “and drop some of the story line as a teaser.” Asta didn’t miss the flash of interest in the Seeker’s eyes, and her mouth twisted wryly.

“It’s a start,” Leliana approved.

Sera blew a raspberry. “Her precious Ladybits? There’s enough gossip around Skyhold alone to fill all of Orlais. Let’s just dress it up a little, like. Dorian and the Inquisitor, to start…”

“What?!” Asta squealed, oddly delighted. “Really?!” Dorian groomed his moustache while Cullen glowered.

“Oh yeah, evil Tevinter mage seduces Chantry Sister from her vows. You two were awfully clingy back in Haven. Word got around.” Sera seemed thrilled with her reaction.

Bull grunted in the background. “Yeah, I don’t buy it.” Dorian narrowed his eyes but ignored the Qunari entirely.

“Mix that up with the threesome with you, the Commander and Sister Nightingale… two Sisters and a Templar…” Sera’s eyes got wistful. “Pretty picture, that.”

Asta’s face paled. “You’ve got to be joking. I had no idea…” Cullen glowered more.

“Soldiers gossip,” he growled, trying to shrug it off. “There doesn’t have to be any truth in it.” He met her eyes and relaxed, feeling better.

Varric piped up, “And you and the Commander are a well-known item.”

Asta took a deep breath, “How well known?”

Varric shrugged. “I’ve had inquiries from my contacts from as far away as Antiva. Skyhold knows fairly well that you are… exclusive, shall we say, but the rest of the world has yet to catch up. I think we can work with it.”

“Our parents have heard the rumors, Asta,” Maxwell spoke for the first time. “You should be prepared for parental disapproval.”

“Mother should be prepared for my disapproval as well, Max.” Asta spit at him, bitterly. “If she messes with Cullen in any way I will not be responsible for the aftermath.”

“Good,” Max shifted on his feet. “That’s what I like to hear.” He shot a quick grin at Cullen who almost grinned back.

Josie continued, “Personal rumors aside, we must be careful about political implications. We are going into the Winter Palace to save the Empress’ life. Try to keep all permanent alliances out of it. No rumors about allying with Fereldan, the Imperium or the Qun. Stick to Chantry doctrine and personal relationships. Expect those relationships to be challenged. Those of your involved will likely be importuned, groped and perhaps accosted during the course of the evening.” Josie turned to Asta, “Inquisitor, you must feed the rumors, but not fully confirm any of them. Can you do that?”

Asta clenched her fist. “As long as no one accosts my Commander in a dark corner, yes.”

Vivienne was amused. “Darling girl, the accosting will be public, I assure you. And if it does go too far, the further you go in retaliation, the better. The court loves a good scandal.”

Josie took a deep breath, “Yes, well, let’s not take it too far, please. One more thing, our invitations are from Duke Gaspard. He is… intrigued with your availability. I believe your parents might have something to do with that.”

“They do,” Max said, sharply. “They love to hedge their bets. If the ultimate goal of the Sunburst Throne fails, my mother wants Asta on the throne of Orlais as the Emperor’s consort.”

Cullen lost his temper, “That would have been good to know before now, Max!”

“Why do you think I wanted you to get her pregnant?” Max threw at him, “Gaspard, like most noble weasels, wouldn’t look at her twice if she was carrying someone else’s bastard child.”

“Is that the ‘ancient noble with a prick like spindleweed’ you mentioned?” Cullen roared. The entire War Room, including Asta, was watching the shouting match like a tournament.

Max shrugged, “I still think it’s a valid…”

“NO,” growled Cullen. Asta took his hand to calm him down.

Josie hesitated, not wanting to add fuel to the fire, but… “The rumor would keep Gaspard off your back, Asta. If you were to avoid alcohol, fish and soft cheeses…” Josie suggested softly, Leliana nodding along in thoughtful agreement.

Asta thought, quickly. “I won’t lie, but I can suggest. Perhaps a high-waisted gown? Vivienne, you mentioned your seamstress before…”

“Absolutement, my dear. It would be a pleasure to get you out of that… uniform.”

Sera giggled, “Viv, I didn’t know you swung that way.”

“Don’t be vulgar, dear.”

“Anything else?” Asta was starting to feel overwhelmed. She had played the Game for so long, but she was out of practice. It was so easy to be herself at Skyhold instead of who she had to be. “This could turn into a clusterfuck if we aren’t careful, my friends. Remember, our goal is to save the Empress and uncover the assassin. The rest of this is secondary.”

“On the contrary,” Dorian asserted, “What happens if we fail to besmirch your good name and you end up elected to the Sunburst throne? What happens to you, then?”

Asta took a breath, “If worst comes to worst, I disappear. That throne has no power over me. Not any more.” She met Cullen’s eyes and squeezed his hand. “I’m not a Sister any longer.” He blushed, remembering the last time she had said that, but smiled.

“Keep saying that, sweet thing,” Dorian drawled. “It can only help your cause.” He smiled bitterly, “At least my part of everything has the possibility of me being groped. Don’t stop it too quickly, Asta, please.”

Bull grunted irritably, “Figures you’d care about that.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Dorian bristled.

“Gentlemen, get a room,” Asta advised. “Keep the War Room professional, please.” Bull grunted again, uncharacteristically taciturn.

“So we are done here. Clear any new rumors with both Leliana and Josie. Otherwise, Maker help us all. Tear me to pieces, people, that’s an order.”

“Aye-aye, Captain Ladybits!” Sera saluted and exited, the others following her alone and in pairs, Dorian cutting Bull off in his haste to get out of the room, Cullen squeezing her hand and leaving for his office alone.

Asta leaned heavily against the table. “Am I doing the right thing?”

Cole spoke, noticed for the first time. “The Sunburst burns you. Why does it hold me so close? Why doesn’t it give light? Darkness in delivery, trapped by morning. Maker, let me live in the sun.”

“Yes, Cole, thank you.”

“He has his chains, too. He wasn’t hung there, he can still walk away.” Cole peered at her. “So can you.”

“Can I?” Asta met his eyes, desperate.

Cole tilted his head, “You are bright, brighter than the Sunburst. You explode and the world is fixed. They build and it is broken.” He shook his head, “Your only chain is the one you make for yourself now.”

Somehow, that was encouraging. “Thanks, Cole.”

“I helped?” The boy smiled.

“Yes, you helped.” Asta smiled back, reassured.

***

The dress was perfect.

“It’s an empire waistline, my dear, which will enhance your bosom as well as hide any… well, indiscretions, shall we say?” Vivienne was triumphant. “Also, that blue-grey matches your eyes so well, and shows subtle support for Celene. That will throw Gaspard a bit. Every little thing will help.”

The seamstress was paying avid attention, Asta noticed, and she eyeballed Vivienne, tilting her head. “Don’t worry my dear, the Inquisition pays well for her secrecy. If any of this comes to light beforehand, Sister Nightingale will take care of her.” The seamstress blanched and went back to the hemline.

Asta adjusted her breasts. “I’m a bit on display here, Vivienne, don’t you think the neckline…”

“That’s the point, Asta! You must show your assets! And I’m sure Cullen would agree that your breasts are superb. Besides, that’s what a fan is for.” Asta noted too late that Vivienne’s own neckline was never covered with such a thing.

“Still, one good fight and they are going to pop right out.” Asta worried.

“Well, they’ll never make you Divine if that happens! Wardrobe malfunctions are death at court, my dear.”

“Hmm, I wonder if I can orchestrate…”

“No!” Vivienne blanched in horror, “Court approval, Chantry disapproval, remember! Racy, fine. Scandal, better. Embarrassing behavior…” Vivienne leaned in, deadly serious, “Better to be dead.”

“Of course,” Asta murmured, chastened.

“Now, dancing…” Josie stepped up, quill at the ready. “Your card can’t be too full. You have assassins to quell, after all. However, you should dance with Cullen, Leliana, Gaspard, Bull, Dorian and Sera.”

“Sera?”

“She has been approved to start a rumor that you only like,” Josie cleared her throat primly, “Ladybits.”

“Oh,” Asta frowned thoughtfully. “I hadn’t thought about that…”

“Unfortunately, there have been several Divines with female lovers,” Josie dismissed. “So, not exactly useful on it’s own, but every little thing could help.”

Asta shifted uncomfortably on her stool. “Do we know how my mother procured her invitation?”

“The same place we did, unfortunately,” Josie sighed. “She will be part of Gaspard’s party.”

“Well, shit, Josie, that would have been nice to know before now.” Asta choked, “Can I cut her dead or is that a mistake?”

“Aim for polite poison, my dear,” Vivienne recommended, “Far less likely she will know how to handle it.”

“I’ll need to arrange a nosegay for her, then. Actually, my mother will probably be using flowers as weapons and codes as well. Make sure Leliana’s scouts know. They should study the Language extensively.”

“Excellent plan, Inquisitor,” Josie made a note.

“Tell Cullen and the other they will be expected to dance with me, will you? I’m not sure Sera or Cullen have much experience…”

“Of course,” Josie looked at the dress. “It’s very flattering, Asta. Cullen will be speechless.”

Asta laughed, “That doesn’t take much.”

“Your relationship, it is progressing well?” Asta felt Vivienne’s eyes on her and she winced. That would teach her to exaggerate.

“It is.” Asta groaned in realization, “Maker’s Breath, Josie, not you too!”

“Never bet against an Antivan, Inquisitor!” Josie winked.

“What are you down for?”

“Oh, I have the entire week of travel to and from the Winter Palace blocked out. With a double bonus if it happens at the actual ball.” Josie grew serious, “I do rely on your discretion, Inquisitor.”

“Of course, Josie.”

Vivienne humphed, “Honestly, I can’t believe you lied.”

“It wasn’t a lie, it was an exaggeration! We haven’t…” Asta blushed. “Look, how much detail do you want?”

Vivienne and Josie looked at each other and sat on the sofa, Josie leaning forward eagerly and Vivienne leaning back, at ease. Asta sighed, “I’m still a virgin. Technically. But we’ve been… intimate.” Josie made an encouraging noise.

“Cassandra will be sorry she didn’t come for the fitting,” Vivienne observed.

“It’s been fun. We are taking this slowly, though. Cullen’s past - I’m not at liberty to go into it -”

“He was at Kinloch, dear. And Kirkwall. I can imagine,” Vivienne sounded almost sympathetic. “But go on.”

“Well, we are easing into sex. It might be a while,” Asta sighed. “It’s very frustrating, honestly. The man is temptation personified. He’s built like a statue and hung like…”

“Asta!” Josie laughed.

“Well, it’s true!” Asta got a little dreamy-eyed, “He’s all golden muscle and his lips, Maker, his tongue…”

Vivienne stood, cutting her off. “Well, my curiosity is satisfied. I’ll take my leave, ladies.”

Josie snickered as Vivienne swept down the steps. “I know she misses her Duke.”

“At least she has the freedom of missing him. Hard to miss what you’ve never had.” Asta sighed again, daydream ended.

“It will be soon, Asta. Cullen looks at you like…”

“Andraste reincarnate?” Asta said dryly.

“Well, I was going to say something else.”

“I doubt anyone has actually masturbated to thoughts of Andraste, Josie.” Asta shook her head. “I’m human, all too attainable. The hero worship is exactly my problem. Am I a symbol to him, too?”

“No,” Josie thought, “More like something he wants to touch, but is afraid to get dirty.”

“Well, if he asks, I’ll get dirty for him any time.” Asta caught Josie’s eye and her frown released with a small laugh. “Thanks.”

“You are welcome, Inquisitor.”

 

Chapter Text

The Winter Palace loomed, Asta decided. Not like Griffon Wing loomed, menacing against the horizon of dust and poisonous gases, but loomed all the same. Surely, it wasn’t originally meant to look so dangerous and yet so… gilded. Flowers were everywhere in the courtyard, fountains sprayed merrily, nobles floated like butterflies amongst the beauty and yet all Asta could think of was the jeweled viper hidden somewhere, ready to strike.

The Commander and the rest of her party had gone inside, save for Josie, who was panicking in Asta’s general direction. Apparently her sister had shown up, rather unexpectedly, and as far as Josie was concerned their carefully crafted plan had already fallen apart like a house of cards before Asta had even met the Empress.

Asta was stuck outside waiting for the Grand Duke. As part of his party, it would be rude if they were all indoors waiting for him to finally appear when his coach arrived. So it was Asta and Josie, waiting in tandem for the Duke - and her mother. “It’s okay, Josie. Your sister will be fine. Your part of the planning was done weeks ago. She’s not in any danger. Go remind Sera to behave herself.” She watched Josie’s eyes glaze over with politeness and turned slowly, gracefully, painting a welcoming smile on her face. “Grand Duke Gaspard, my pleasure,” Asta dropped into a shallow curtsy. “Mother,” she kissed her mother’s cheek, managing to miss.

Lady Trevelyan’s eyes dropped to her waistline with a practiced eye. “My dear daughter, how well you look.”

“Thank you, mother,” Asta held out a wrist corsage to her, upside down. Time to fire the first arrow in the war. “It is lovely to see you here. I was so surprised to hear you had been included in the party!” Her mother took the flowers and fastened them to her wrist, as politeness demanded.

“Cinquefoil and Wood Sorrel, Asta? What an interesting combination.”

That’s right, Asta thought, watching her mother think out the message. Maternal Affection, reversed. Her message had been received from the look of her mother’s tight lips and her mother was most displeased.

“As a matter of fact I have a posy for you as well,” her mother’s smile glinted like a dagger, sharp and hidden. She handed her a nosegay of purple columbine and a white lily.

“Why, mother, it’s lovely!” Asta sighed, fastening it to her wrist. Crap, crap, crap, crap. Asta tried not to panic. A lily for virginity and purple columbines - mother is playing to win this Game. The seamstress talked. Leliana will have her taken care of by morning. SHIT.

The Grand Duke was confused. “I had no idea that flowers were traditionally exchanged in the Free Marches,” he protested. “Had I but known,” he bent over Asta’s hand, “I would have prepared something to suit such a rare beauty.”

“Not at all, Your Grace,” Asta said lightly, as if she hadn’t just resigned herself to losing the most talented seamstress she had ever met in her life. “It’s a family affectation, no more.”

“I confess myself relieved,” The Grand Duke stepped closer, too close, as far as Asta was concerned. “I detest the Game but we must play it well in order to succeed. Together, my dear Inquisitor,” his eyes roamed the tops of her breasts instead of meeting her eyes, “we could bring back the Thedas of days long gone.”

Maker, he can’t play the Game at all, Asta realized in disgust. Her mother wasn’t even managing to hide her curled lip. “Now, Your Grace,” Asta laughed airily, “Let’s just see what the evening has in store, shall we?” It’s no wonder the Council chose Celene over him - Orlais lives for the Game, founded itself on it. And their Grand Duke, first in line for the throne is crap at it. Ugh, at least now that pleasantries are accomplished we can move on.

Gaspard seemed to have reached the same conclusion. “Shall we?” Gaspard offered his arm to Lady Trevelyan and Asta relaxed as soon as his back was turned. Thank heaven he at least had the manners to escort the married woman first, leaving her to follow.

It was going to be a long night.

***

Cullen fidgeted inside the vestibule, pulling at his collar. “I need to have this let out,” he muttered to Cassandra.

“Why couldn’t we just have worn dress armor?” Cassandra muttered back, equally uncomfortable.

“Stand still," Vivienne snapped, straightening the flowers in his buttonhole. Cullen was wearing a sprig of white heather, a message to defecting agents, they hoped, that he could be trusted to protect them.

“Quit fussing, Madame de Fer,” Varric stepped up. “Curly looks grand. He’s not going to be left alone all evening.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Cullen growled.

“Hush and just look pretty, Commander,” Leliana teased, swanning over. She was wearing Prophet’s Laurel and parsley for treachery and useful knowledge, hoping that would loosen a few lips if the word had gotten around. “Already the gossips are circulating. The rumor mill is working perfectly. You won’t be alone for long.”

At that moment Asta entered behind her mother and Gaspard, her eyes sweeping the room for her friends. She found Cullen first and visibly relaxed, smiling tightly. He smiled back and froze, the lily on her wrist sending a message he understood all too well. “Her mother knows,” he commented to Leliana.

“Shit. Get that lily off of her as soon as possible.” Leliana waved Sera over. “Go tell a scout to ‘fire’ the seamstress. And grab some flowers out of the garden. The Inquisitor cannot be seen in white tonight.”

Sera cackled. “I know just the thing.” And she almost danced away towards the courtyard, laughing the whole time.

Asta excused herself to go greet the rest of the Inquisition. Cullen couldn’t take his eyes away from her. “You look lovely,” he said, staring. Despite the essential shapelessness of the gown she looked regal and poised, her hair twisted up in an impossible style and held in place with a silver band. “Oh! This is for you.” He held out the small box he had tucked into his pocket.

Leliana’s face lit up when she saw what was inside. “Oh, yes, this is much better, Commander.”

Asta’s face softened, holding the small corsage of white violets and petunias. “Commander! You shouldn’t have!” She exclaimed aloud. Quieter she nearly whispered, “Taking a chance on happiness, Commander? Do I soothe you?” She smiled a smile for him alone, wishing they could take a moment together without the world literally ending.

“What are my odds?” Cullen met her eyes, hope expressed in his gentle expression. Asta ripped her mother’s gift off her arm without looking and let it fall to the floor as Leliana smirked cheerfully.

“Would you do the honor, Commander?” Asta breathed. Cullen carefully pinned the nosegay to the fragile silk and lace at her shoulder, and then bravely trailed his fingers along the top of her breasts at the neckline. Asta held her breath. Maker, she needed to get this man alone.

“Lady Trevelyan looks like she just stepped in something!” Sera reported, slipping back into the group. “Oh, damn, you already replaced it!” She whined, a bush of Citronella surrounding a massive Peony.

“Sera, she couldn’t have worn that in any case. It’s bigger than her head!” Leliana’s eyes laughed. “Though points for finding flowers that represent ’homosexual love’. That should definitely feed some rumors.”

“Sorry, Sera,” Asta murmured without dropping Cullen’s heated gaze. “You got here too late, I’m afraid.”

“Ah well, better late than never,” Sera quipped. “I’m going to ground, Leliana. Catch you lot later.” she blended into the crowd effortlessly, just another elven servant.

“Gaspard’s frowning and your mother is whispering in his ear,” Leliana breathed. “I’d say it’s time to go meet the Empress, wouldn’t you?”

“Quite, won’t you join me?” Asta’s smile was all grace and professionalism, but it still made Cullen’s heart ache.

Mutters followed the group as they trailed along.

“She is definitely glowing, and it’s not just her hand!” tittered one lady.

“Do you think she’s pretty?” A young woman asked her friend, enviously.

Her friend laughed nasally. “Hardly, what is she wearing? It looks like a silk flour sack.”

“Lady Trevelyan is playing her cards pretty close, isn’t she?” Whispered one older lady to her escort.

“She has to. The Inquisitor’s reputation… they say she’s involved with that Tevinter magister.”

“More than involved from the looks of her. Do you think the baby is a mage?”

“With that hand linking her to the Fade? How could it not be!”

Asta was fighting to keep a straight face. This was too much fun. Dorian swam through the crowds to kiss her hand and look at her fondly. “Perfect timing, as always, Altus Pavus,” Asta smiled. She pitched her voice louder, “Altus Pavus, allow me to introduce you to my mother, Lady Penelope Trevelyan of the Ostwick Trevelyans. Mother, this is Dorian Pavus. Believe it or not, we are related! Apparently the Trevelyans were originally from Tevinter! Isn’t that exciting?” Asta’s eyes danced as her mother froze with her hand halfway to Dorian’s lips.

“Tevinter? Surely not,” Lady Trevelyan protested. “There have never been mages in our family. Not for generations!”

“Oh, it’s ages past, madam.” Dorian finished kissing her hand and turned on all his charm and added a little wickedness to his grin. “Far enough away to be kissing cousins, I assure you.”

The Grand Duke was looking impatient, and signaled to a servant, grabbing the first flute of champagne he offered, gulping it down like water. “I had no idea you had… connections in Tevinter, Penelope.”

“Nor did I.” The Lady’s eyes narrowed. “It’s fascinating how the Inquisition brings people together, is it not? I heard that you have a Qunari mercenary serving you as well.”

Asta hummed sweetly at the double entendre. “In more ways than one.” She will take that one way, where I know the truth is that he’s both spy and bodyguard. She may have spoken to the seamstress, but we are sowing some serious doubts on my continued purity. Oh, this is so much fun! She allowed herself to touch Cullen’s sleeve, and smiled at Gaspard. “Don’t you find holding court diverting?”

But Gaspard didn’t get to answer for the crier had come to prepare to announce them.

The long, slow walk of the entire ballroom lasted forever for Cullen, inching slowly, an aching procession to stand and be presented to the Empress of Orlais. The advisors had positioned him so that he would be behind and to the left of Asta as she addressed the Empress, bantering wittily about oncoming storms and summer breezes. He had full reign to follow her with his eyes, drink in her movements and he took advantage. Leliana had assured him that the more heated his looks were the better in the eyes of the court, and the worse in the eye of the Chantry. So he allowed himself to look at the line and movement of her breasts as she gestured around her, his flowers displayed so prominently, marking her, he knew, as his by choice, whatever her behavior might say during the evening. He watched her be dismissed to the pleasure of the ball, and closely watched Gaspard take his leave after claiming a dance almost perfunctorily.

He wished his jacket was slightly longer, however, as he realized his pants were going to be too tight for most of the evening to come if he watched her that way. Cullen swallowed, and took a glass of champagne from a passing servant. “Psst, Commander Tightpants! Not that one, jackboot! The ones on the left!” Sera hissed and he exchanged the glass without asking. He didn’t really want to know. “Right then, Commander, there’s a mess in the kitchen and servant’s quarters. Dead mages everywhere.”

“Venatori?” Cullen murmured around his glass.

“Yes, Ser,” Sera curtseyed.

“Take Dorian, Bull and Asta, if you can find her and she can manage to get away.” He had lost her in the press of bodies almost immediately upon finding an open piece of wall near Leliana.

“She’s talking to the witchy one that replaced Viv as Court Enchanter. We’ll go as soon as she’s done.” Sera spun away, and Leliana moved in.

“Already I’ve heard rumors of the Inquisition’s hedonistic tendencies. So far, so good. Expect company, Commander. Friendly company.” She glided away and Cullen didn’t even have time to brace himself before the void was filled with a veritable horde of curious nobles.

“Commander! Tell me about your fine… cause!”

“Do you dance, Commander?”

“You cannot just stand around all evening, Commander! I insist you dance with me!”

A familiar voice filled his ear, “Do Templars take vows of celibacy, Commander?” Asta was there. She had come to his rescue. “No? Did you?” She asked huskily, not waiting for an answer, meeting his once frantic and tormented eyes and seeing them calm slightly. “Ladies, gentlemen,” Asta trailed her slender finger down Cullen’s chest, stopping just after his waist, and he swallowed. “What do you think of my Commander?”

“He is delightful! So handsome! But he is far too shy! And he will not dance with us!” The women were like little birds, peeping for whatever he let fall, he could see now. Not precisely desire demons.

“Commander! You aren’t enjoying the attention?” Asta looked mildly concerned.

“No,“ Cullen murmured. “Yours is the only attention worth having.”

Asta caught her breath. The heat in his eyes made her bodice too tight around her breasts and his compliments were only getting better. “Come, now, Commander,” Asta murmured seductively, “Would you care for a dance with me?”

“No,” Yes… Cullen cleared his throat. “Templars were rarely invited to balls, I’m afraid.”

“What a shame,” Asta sighed, and slid around behind him, letting her hand fall further down, and squeezing lightly, made him jump.

“Did you just… squeeze my bottom?!” He erupted, incredulous.

“I am a weak woman, Commander,” Asta confessed as the girls tittered. She breathed in his ear then, “Sera has it right. Commander Tightpants. I wonder how long it would take to get you out of them?” She smiled, wistfully. “Ladies, be kind to my Commander. He’s shy, you know.” And she drifted away, leaving Cullen with an aching erection and need for another drink.

“Do you enjoy music, Commander?” A sweet smiling woman looked up at him kindly.

Cullen smiled, more relaxed despite his tight pants. “Everyone enjoys music, milady.”

***

Asta danced with Dorian, killed Venatori in the kitchen gardens, danced with Gaspard, who barely spoke to her during the dance, much to her relief, listened to gossip, reported it to Leliana during their dance, who was nearly giddy at their continued success and at the joy of being back in the thick of the Game. She escaped back to the Grand Apartments in time to kill a harlequin bard and meet Briala.

Briala had a vested interest in being perceived as a supporter of elven rights, Asta realized quickly. Without that, she was just another person the Empress had used to strengthen her hold on the Empire. And the alliance she offered was extremely tempting. She openly admitted to being the Empress’ lover, as well. Asta was taken aback at her candor. “You certainly know how to make a sales pitch, Briala,” she tossed at her as she made her way back to the ballroom. She had been gone too long.

“I’ve got to find something on her,” she hissed to Sera.

“Consider it done, milady Tits and Bits,” and Sera vanished into the night.

Asta made a show of catching her breath, hand against her stomach at the entrance of the ballroom, a number of eyes upon her. The Duke’s sister waylaid her on her way to attempt to dance with Cullen one more time. “Inquisitor Trevelyan, I was just speaking to your mother. Would you care for a dance?”

Asta could sense something behind the simple request and prevaricated, “I’m taken, Your Grace.”

The Duchess Florianne nearly giggled in amusement. “Your lover, or lovers, should I say, have nothing to fear. You may lead, however.”

Asta may have lead the dance - without a single misstep much to Josie’s relief - but Florianne tried to control the conversation, without much success. Asta turned every question back on her without difficulty, leaving Florianne mystified at the end.

“She’s up to something,” Asta muttered to Cullen, who seemed… jealous. Asta smiled inwardly at the implication. “I need more information. She wants me in the royal wing. It’s probably a trap, but…”

“Not another trap, Inquisitor…” Cullen began.

Asta stopped him, “We need this, Commander. Who is available right now?”

“Vivienne, Blackwall and Cassandra, at the moment.” She started to leave, “Be careful?” He kissed her hand. Asta caught her mother’s eye across the ballroom and let herself touch his cheek instead of nodding.

“Always, Commander.”

***

Cullen hated the senior Lady Trevelyan. Obviously her authority over her daughter, the Chantry and Gaspard was crumbling into dust, and like any bully was attempting to reassert it.

“Tell me, Commander Russetford, was it?”

“Rutherford, actually, milady.”

“Whatever,” she waved her hand at the irrelevance of getting such a nobody’s name right. “Tell me, what do you think of my daughter?” Her relaxed posture told a lie that the crease in her brows contradicted.

“She is very accomplished and an excellent leader. The Inquisition could not ask for better,” Cullen said honestly, knowing that was not the sort of answer that the Lady was searching for.

“And in other ways, besides being this perfect leader and figurehead?” Lady Trevelyan purred. “How do you find her when she’s not on duty, shall we say?”

She doesn’t know which of us has her daughter‘s interest, Cullen realized. She knows it’s one of us, but her information isn’t good enough. I’m just her prime suspect because of the flowers. His mind whirled. How could he take advantage of the uncertainty? “That would not be for me to say, milady. Perhaps you should direct your questions to someone more socially inclined?” Cullen decided his best tactic here would be to fall back on his shy reputation and seem as inept as possible.

“That’s too bad. You are a delight for the eyes, but I suppose they don’t teach the social graces in Honnleath or the Circle. I suppose I will have to ask that magister.” The Lady glided away to find Dorian, and Cullen breathed a sigh of relief.

Leliana slid up behind him. “She’s running scared. The Chantry representatives that are here are absolutely convinced now that Asta is pregnant with either a Qunari or mage baby. Asta’s chances of becoming Divine have never been so bad. I’ve barely heard a word about her heretical research, though. Just as well. I think the Inquisition should offer it to whoever does take the Sunburst Throne, depending on the successor, of course.” Leliana accepted a glass of champagne, “This evening is not going her way at all. Gaspard danced with Asta, but has not monopolized her company the way she planned. Half of the room thinks her daughter is involved with most of her inner circle, and pregnant by either you or Dorian. The group of Mothers in the vestibule are already discussing alternate candidates. One is Victoria, the mother in Ostwick. I’ve heard my name and Cassandra’s as well. Too soon to tell, but this is a battle I think we are winning.”

Cullen allowed himself a grin. “I’d kiss your hand, but then I might hurt your chances at being Divine, Sister Nightingale. Perhaps that story about our ménage a trois was a mistake, in retrospect?” His eyes found Asta, listening to the Dowager list the deaths of her many husbands. Had she really killed every single one?

“Don’t worry about me, Commander. If I want to be Divine, it will happen.” Leliana smirked. “I think your lady is trying to get your attention.” She disappeared into the crowd again.

Asta was inclining her head to her left, catching his eye. He followed her line of sight to a young elf with a partially shorn head and walked swiftly to her. She spotted the flower on his coat and breathed easier. “Excuse me, Commander Rutherford? I have some people I think you should speak to.” Cullen looked back at Leliana, partially hidden in a corner behind some draperies, who nodded that she would follow at a distance.

“Lead the way.”

***

“Of course it was a trap.” Asta said. “Mercy, doesn’t anyone in Orlais play the Game properly any more? I’ve been immured in a Chantry for my entire life and I still own this palace.”

“How sloppy of Florianne. Her and her brother are as thick as thieves, but she was certainly willing to throw him under the carriage at the first sign of power for herself. The Chalon family has certainly declined in recent years,” Vivienne shook her head, seemingly disappointed.

“Go find Commander Cullen,” Asta sighed at the mercenary she was releasing. “He will make further arrangements with you, Captain.” She turned to her companions. “Let’s wrap this shitshow up. We are going back to the ballroom, confront Florianne, throw Gaspard under the headman’s axe…”

“Why?” Asked Cassandra. Blackwall grunted his assent.

“Because he doesn’t know how to treat a lady, Cassandra. And if he managed to take power he would invade Fereldan. He told me so about five seconds after I met him.” Asta rolled her eyes. “Any objections?” Blackwall looked resigned. “As I was saying, Celene will sentence Gaspard to death for trying to stage a coup, and then we will blackmail Celene and Briala into either reconciling or working together. That locket Sera found has to mean something. Questions? Concerns?”

“Not at all, dear,” Vivienne purred. “You are very good at this. Are you sure you don’t want to be Divine?”

“Quite sure.” Asta patted her stomach mockingly. “The baby says so. Why don’t you do it, if you are inclined?” Asta was too fatigued to be polite at this point.

“What twists and turns your mind takes!” Vivienne exclaimed admiringly, more than pleased at the thought. Cassandra made a disgusted noise.

***

Cullen watched, nearly helpless as Asta confronted Florianne armed only with words. She was indomitable as she watched Florianne dragged away, drooping in her defeat. Her interview with the Empress, Briala and Gaspard was private, but Leliana drifted away from a nearby window, winking at him, and shortly thereafter Gaspard was escorted out by an armed Orlesian chevalier. Celene, Briala and Asta came in afterward and they all addressed the crowd together, declaring the end to the Civil War and a new title for Briala.

That was a shock, but Cullen approved. Gaspard was a bit of a waste, but… the man had been intending to marry his girl. All’s fair in love and war.

And best of all Lady Trevelyan was looking disheveled and deflated as she tried to argue with the Revered Mothers that had entered the ballroom for Celene’s address to the gathered. They looked very grim. Cullen bowed and flashed her a smile when she scowled at him.

It felt nice to win, Cullen reflected, plucking a bloom off an Ivy Geranium in a pot and wandered onto the balcony just as the court enchanter exited. She looked vaguely familiar, but he chalked it up to seeing her around that evening.

Asta was alone now, leaning backwards against the balustrade in that ridiculously low-cut gown, staring at the sky, the stars just barely visible with the glow that the Palace cast.

“There you are! Everyone is looking for you!” He leaned forward against the balcony and eyed her cleavage appreciatively. It was going to be hard to get out of the habit after being able to do it with the entire Inquisition’s blessing for the whole evening. “I’m glad I got here first.”

Asta took his hand. “I’m glad, too. I’m just tired.” She tried to explain. “My Chantry was knee-deep in the Game. I had to be, to keep my research funded, you understand. But this -” she shuddered slightly, tightening her grip on his hand, and shook her head, loosening a few tendrils of hair from her impeccable updo. “My family is a mess, Cullen. My parents gave me away to suit their own ambitions. And they won’t even speak to me after this, despite having saved three sovereigns from Venatori assassinations.”

“Three?” Cullen asked.

“The King of Nevarra.” Asta shrugged. “Everyone forgets about King Markus.”

“Oh, right.”

“But my brothers wouldn’t murder me. They wouldn’t sell me out to Corypheus. My parents wouldn’t plot to have me killed. They’d use me and sell me if I would have let them. But I wouldn’t, and Max actually… protected me. That feels strange, but it shouldn‘t. How does family get so screwed up? How does love turn into a weakness?”

“I don’t know,” Cullen traced patterns into her hand. She was so soft, and her perfume wafted out towards him, drawing him in. “I don’t suppose you’d accept it as an answer if I just said, ‘Orlesians’?”

Asta snorted softly in reply. Cullen gently folded her fingers into his own. “I know it’s silly, but I was worried for you tonight.”

“I was worried for me, too. I thought I was going to have to fight Florianne for a moment there. That would have been unpleasant. I’ll never wear this dress again, but still, I’d hate to see it ruined. It’s a work of art. And Gaspard is… was a power hungry imperialist who would have trapped me in marriage and gobbled up Fereldan if we’d let him. And Celene and Briala! I just feel sorry for them. Celene was truly in love with her.”

“And you gave them another chance?” Cullen tilted his head at her.

Asta laughed bitterly. “I’m not sure Briala ever loved anything or anyone. But maybe she did once.” Asta shook her head again, more hair falling over her shoulders.

Cullen smoothed it back, flower in hand. Asta saw it and froze. “I’m just tired,” she repeated, eyes on the bloom. He swallowed his disappointment. “I see.” But then the music changed and he stiffened his resolve. “Perhaps I shouldn’t ask, considering your fatigue, but as I may never get another chance…” he held the flower out and bowed, offering it to her, “May I have this dance, Asta?”

Asta lunged into his arms, fatigue forgotten in excitement. “Of course, Cullen!” She accepted the flower. “But I thought you didn’t dance?”

“For you, my love, I’ll try,” he smiled and her tired heart melted. He wrapped his arm around her waist and held her too close, and stepped away from the rail. Asta laughed with delight, her first real laugh of the entire evening.

“You are better than you think! All those sword drills gave you a sense of timing! You just lack confidence.”

Cullen stumbled then, and tried to look down to avoid her feet, hidden by the voluminous folds of the dress. “No, no! Don’t you dare look down!” Asta ordered, pushing his chin up with her free hand. “Just keep your eyes on me. Don’t you always tell the recruits that the body indicates the direction their opponent is going to move? This is no different.”

Cullen raised his eyebrows. “I can hardly stare at your breasts while we dance, Asta.”

“Why not?” Asta laughed. “This dress does have it’s advantages.” Her face softened at the warm look in his eyes. “Just keep your eyes always on me.”

“You deserve a better partner,” Cullen steered her cautiously. “Florianne was…”

Asta relaxed in his arms all at once, letting him direct her. “Cullen?”

“Yes?” She curled into him, far too close for propriety.

“Shut up and dance with me.” Cullen grinned and tried a spin. She twirled out, dress belling at the hem, hair flying from its band, and came back to him harder. She laughed again. He could spend an entire life making her laugh like that, he realized. “Besides, this time I don’t have to lead!”

Cullen pulled her in tighter yet and whispered into her complete loss of a hairstyle, “I’ll lead you anywhere you want to go, Asta.”

She leaned back, searching his face and nodded, satisfied. “I’m going to hold you to that, Commander.”

“Please do,” Cullen said, and kissed her at the Winter Palace, in front of the entire Orlesian court, the Inquisition, and her mother, not caring about the Game, the Divine or who ruled Orlais. He was dancing under the stars with the woman who had become his reason for living.

She was his destiny.

 

Chapter Text

Mother Gisele did not approve of anything Asta did. So the fact that she was standing in the main hall keeping her from all the exits except the one she came in from was ominous. And then she handed her the letter from Dorian’s father.

“I’m not going to lie to Dorian, Mother Gisele.”

“I was afraid you’d say that.” the supposed woman of faith stated, resigned.

“What is your angle?” Asta fumed, “You don’t approve of me, you don’t approve of Dorian… What in the Void are you trying to accomplish?”

Asta was making a point of wearing tight clothes around Skyhold after the Winter Palace to stem the pregnancy rumors and the Mother, from the look in her eyes, disliked that as well.

“I am merely here to serve in whatever capacity I can,” She bit out.

“Right, and why would Dorian’s family even have heard of you?”

“I do not know.”

“Whatever,” Asta grabbed the letter and went to talk to Dorian, scanning the letter as she walked. She reached Solas’ mural and stopped dead. This was bad. Her steps turned right and led her to Cullen’s office instead.

“There you are! I hoped you’d stop by!” Cullen’s sweet puppy dog look nearly distracted her from her mission, but she handed him the letter for him to read. “I see,” the puppy dog look was already gone, she noticed sadly, a far more stern and businesslike expression present now.

“Do you? Not only is Mother Gisele attempting to meddle with the structure of my inner circle and the Inquisition itself, but somehow she is well enough known in Tevinter for a Magister to write to her asking for news of his son. Leliana needs to know.”

“Absolutely,” Cullen hesitated. “But you came to me first?”

“Of course I did! Dorian doesn’t have many friends. You, me, and maybe Bull on a good day. Maybe Varric?” Asta shook her head. “I have to decide if I should even bring this up.”

“He should know. Let him decide what to do then.” Cullen handed her the letter back. “Should I come with you?”

“Do you have the time?” Asta’s eyes begged him to say yes.

“For you? Always.” Cullen kissed her lightly. They had been far more free with their affections since the Winter Palace. Mother Gisele didn’t like that, either.

But Asta did. And Cullen did, more and more. Every kiss in full sight of anyone who was looking made him aware of how he wanted everyone to know about this amazing woman and how she chose him. And the tight clothes she was wearing instead of her armor didn’t hurt either, emphasizing to everyone within Skyhold that she was definitely not expecting anything except his eyes following her hips. “Should we grab Bull?” Asta asked, a little breathless even with the subtle contact.

“No,” Cullen said, “Let’s do this together.”

The two wound their way across the bridge and through the tower to Dorian’s alcove.

“Ah! My two favorite lovebirds. Come to me for advice?”

Asta started, reluctantly, “Dorian, there’s a letter you need to read.”

“A letter!” Dorian’s eyes flashed, “Is it a naughty letter? The Dowager made quite a few amorous advances to me at the Palace. Has she proposed?”

Cullen broke in, “It’s from your father.”

“My father?” A mask fell over Dorian’s face. “Let me see this letter.” He read it quickly, storms settling in his eyes, and sparks arcing from his fingertips. “I know my son?! What my father knows about me would fill a thimble!”

“Do you think it’s a Venatori trap?” Asta began.

“Could be,” Cullen stated, ‘this faithful family retainer…”

“Who could he have sent just to wait around for me?” Dorian was past logic or tactics. “Let’s go meet this retainer, if it’s a trap, we escape and you kill everyone,” he eyed Cullen and Asta, sizing them up. “Cullen’s good at that.”

“Dorian, I want Bull to come too.” Asta folded her arms together firmly.

“Why?” Dorian examined her defensive stance. “You are adorable when you’re stubborn. Why do you want that overfed, underbathed slave to the Qun along on this little jaunt?”

“Protection. There are still bandits and a dragon nest less than a day’s ride from Redcliffe. Cullen alone won’t be able to protect both of us.”

“Ha! If Venatori have gotten back into Redcliffe after everything we did together to get them out, you’ll have to protect the bandits and dragon from me.” Dorian tossed the letter into his chair. “Let’s get moving. No point in dallying when we have people to kill.”

“Very well, I’ll speak to Bull,” Cullen stated. He touched Asta’s arm. “Pack for trouble.” Asta nodded, brow creased as she left for her rooms.

The four met at the gates in a hour, and rode for Redcliffe with a dour Dorian and an inscrutable Iron Bull. Cullen and Asta soon didn’t even try to keep up a conversation.

“Maybe we should have brought Cassandra?” She muttered to Cullen.

“No, she mostly disapproves of Dorian in general. He doesn’t take life seriously enough for her.”

“He’s serious enough right now,” Asta observed.

Cullen sighed. “It’s getting dark. Let’s find a place to camp and see if we can’t manage to break up the awkwardness.”

Nothing worked. Bull announced that he’d sleep by the fire, so not even sharing a tent would force Dorian to stem his fury.

Cullen and Asta retired together allowing their bedrolls to snug up against each other but hardly in the mood for anything else as Iron Bull sharpened his axe right outside their tent. “Maker, Cullen, what if it’s not a trap? Do you think this servant will force Dorian to go home?”

“They can’t make him do anything he doesn’t want to do.”

“Do you think he wants to go home? I know he hates Fereldan and well, just about everywhere I’ve taken him in the South except for Val Royeaux.” Asta sounded worried. “I don’t want to lose my friend.”

Cullen reached out and slid her back towards him, spooning her through the bedding. “I don’t think that’s going to happen, Asta. You heard him, he’s prepared to kill everyone to stay here.”

“That’s not a healthy thing to prepare for, Cullen.”

“Yes, but Dorian’s hardly in a healthy place. Not that I can talk.” He kissed the back of her neck, easier all the time. “We all have chains that tie us down. I think Dorian is going to have to decide to break them for himself.”

They rode harder the next day, determined to get both the uncomfortable ride and the meeting at the end over with. Dorian didn’t even complain once, and Asta was more worried than ever.

They stepped into the Gull and Lantern just before sunset, peak tavern time, but it was incredibly empty.

“There’s no one here.” Asta observed unnecessarily.

“Maybe the retainer went home?” Cullen asked. A step on the stair had Bull and Cullen whirling around, weapons drawn.

“Dorian,” An older man stood on the steps, holding the banister.

“Father,” Dorian sneered, “so the family retainer was just a ruse? A trick to get me here?”

“I just wanted to speak to you, to make you understand.”

“Understand?!” Dorian’s voice broke, and he addressed Asta, “He taught me to hate blood magic. ‘The resort of a weak mind,’ he said,” He stepped halfway across the room, “You tried to change me.” He lifted his head. “I prefer the company of men, Father.” The Iron Bull grunted in surprise and met Dorian’s eyes where they rested on him. “I refuse to play the part, marry the girl, spend my life hidden and hating myself and what I’ve become. Once I would have had a father who understood that.” Dorian turned and grabbed Asta’s arm. “Come, we’re done here.”

“Don’t leave it like this,” Asta whispered.

“There is nothing more to say,” Dorian hissed.

“Once I had a son who trusted me,” the elder Pavus said, defeated, eyes closed. “I betrayed that trust.”

Dorian looked at his father, eyes wide, and then at his friends.

Asta nodded, “We’ll be outside if you need us.” She grabbed Cullen and pulled him to the exit.

Bull spoke for the first time in days. “I’m staying right here.” Asta and Dorian both whipped their heads around. “I’m not leaving Dorian alone with this ‘Vint. Not now, not ever.” Dorian nodded in response, face blank.

Once outside, Asta and Cullen walked down the steps, confused.

“Do you think he’ll be all right?”

“Too soon to say. Maybe not. But Bull’s got his back in there, and that will help.”

They wandered down by the docks, and Cullen, feeling brave, reached out for Asta’s hand, twining her fingers in his. “You know, I grew up not far from here. About a day’s ride. I think, it was a long time ago, it might be further.”

“Honnleath, right?”

“Yes, the village was destroyed in the Blight, but….” Cullen thought for a moment. “Leliana will contact me if anything comes up at Skyhold. I left instructions… do you… would you… like to see if anything is left?”

“Cullen Rutherford, are you asking me to leave Redcliffe alone with you to wander off into the wilderness?” Asta teased. “What about bandits and dragons?”

“The dragon’s territory is in the opposite direction!” Cullen protested. “And surely the Inquisitor and the Commander of her armies can handle a few bandits on their own?”

Asta turned and faced him. “What about Dorian and Bull?”

“We wouldn’t leave until after we knew this was settled,” Cullen settled his hands on her hips. “And I suspect that those two will need some alone time of their own on the way back to Skyhold. It’ll be more comfortable for everyone that way. And together they are a match for anything.”

“Hmm,” Asta hummed, “Alone time with the Commander in the Hinterlands of Fereldan. It’s tempting…” she teased, pretending to think.

“Do I need to be more persuasive?” Cullen asked, voice deepening as he bent his head to kiss her neck.

“Maybe…” Asta prevaricated. “There is a dwarven bookseller here. I could spend a couple of days at the inn reading everything on his cart…” Cullen moved his lips up and kissed below her ear and then nipped, gently, making her squeal, much to the disapproval of the elderly elven gentleman nearby. When embarrassment made her start to pull away, Cullen tightened his grip.

“Please, Asta, come away with me? Just for a day or two?” he asked.

Asta nodded. “As soon as we know Dorian will be okay.” Her grin grew wily. “Until then, you may accompany me to the book cart, Commander Rutherford.”

“Certainly, Inquisitor,” and he followed, not that he had much choice. “You don’t think Dorian will be upset that you are book shopping while he has it out with his father?”

Asta puffed out a breath of laughter. “This is Dorian. He’s always reading. He’d be more upset if I came to Redcliffe and forgot to check if there was anything new.”

There were many things that were new, as it turned out, and Asta had spent most of her personal gold and some of Cullen’s and the Inquisition’s by the time Dorian and Bull found them.

“Oh, good show!” Dorian brightened a bit, looking at the crates being sent back to Skyhold. “Find anything good?”

“Some poetry Cassandra will like, some copies of Hard in Hightown, a few Circle tomes that will help Vivienne, I think. It’s hard to tell with her. She’s into alchemy lately. A couple of lesser works of Genitivi.” Asta shrugged. “Not a great haul, but every little bit helps.” Bull and Cullen rolled their eyes nearly in unison, but it was evident that some of the tension had gone out of the group.

“Four crates and it’s not a great haul?”  Cullen eyed the baggage.  It looked heavy, and he was glad it was being sent separately.

“Commander, it’s not the quantity, it’s the quality!” Dorian expressed passionately. “One crate of Harder in Hightown is worth nothing compared to one Genetivi letter!”

“That reminds me, I haven’t let you read my personal correspondence with him!” Asta perked up. “It’s fascinating. Remind me when we get back to Skyhold.” She eyed Dorian, but he did seem better. “Are you going to be okay?” She touched his wrist, gently.

Dorian shrugged and looked away, distant. “We’re too alike, he says. Too much pride. Once it would have thrilled me to hear him say that, but now…”

Bull spoke up, “You are nothing like him,” he said harshly.

Dorian glanced at him. “Really? I’m not so sure. I am nothing if not the product of my upbringing.”

“That’s bullshit, Dorian, and you know it,” Asta insisted. “If that was the case than the rest of Tevinter would be signing up for the Inquisition as well. You are what they should be.”

“She’s right,” Cullen cleared his throat. “Can we expect trouble from your father? Should I write to Leliana?”

“No, he leaves for home tomorrow. He only came at all because Felix Alexius stood on the floor of the Magisterium and spoke out in favor of the Inquisition. It… moved him and he wanted to… apologize.” Dorian cleared his throat in turn. “It’s not enough, and it’s not like I’m headed back to Tevinter with him, all forgiven, but it is something. I’m going back to Skyhold. I should be able to make it to an Inquisition camp if I start now. And I refuse to stay in that excuse of an inn with my father right next door.” Dorian stared at Bull as if daring him to agree. “Anyone coming with me?”

“I’m with you,” Bull said, focused.

Cullen rubbed the back of his neck. “We’re going to take a side trip.” Don’t let them comment…

It was too much to ask, apparently. “A side trip?” Dorian’s eyebrows were up to his hairline.

Asta took Cullen’s hand. “The Commander is going to show me where he grew up.”

“Or what’s left of it anyway,” Cullen muttered. Maker, let them drop it.

Dorian opened his mouth to comment further. “Drop it, Dorian,” Bull advised and shockingly enough, Dorian did, with a wink and one last comment.

“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!”

“That doesn’t leave much,” Bull laughed roughly. Dorian hit him.

“Shut it, Ox.”

“’Vint.”

“Overstuffed pillow.”

“Didn’t hear you complaining before.”

“I swear, as soon as I have you alone…”

“Is that a promise or a threat?” Bull’s voice rumbled back at them as the two, still hand in hand, watched them go.

“So they’ll be fine, then,” Asta said, stunned at the sudden change.

“Apparently so,” Cullen held her hand tighter, very aware of the pressure. “So, do you have any objections to a Fereldan excuse for an inn with a room next to Dorian’s father?”

Asta made a face. “Not so much the inn as the Halward Pavus.”

Cullen choked. “His father’s name is Halward?”

“Like you can talk, Stanton.” they reached the stables and noticed Dorian and Bull’s mounts were already gone, and their horses saddled, gear attached.

“Hey, at least it’s in the middle where I can hide it, Evelyn Beatrix Andra…”

“Don’t call me that, ass.” She attempted to bump him with her hip, but he dodged. She fell into him and he caught her before she could hit the dirt. He set her back on her feet.

“Watch your step, Asta,” he smirked.

"I thought that was your job."  She laughed and mounted her horse.  "Last one out of Redcliffe has to set up the tent."

"You don't even know what direction..." but she was already gone.  Cullen cursed and clucked his horse into a canter.  Time to catch up.

 

Chapter Text

The ride to the pond was shorter than Cullen remembered, and he was grateful. His thoughts had not made the trip from the Hinterlands camp easy. They had shared a tent the night before, but all the scouts surrounding them had left them inhibited. That and their fatigue led them to sleep far sooner than either might have liked under other circumstances.

With the dawn they were up and moving away from the Inquisition’s eyes. It only took until late afternoon to reach the quiet spot Cullen remembered. The Blight had not touched it, except for the dock being disrepaired and the ancient Alamarri shrine being more sunken in the shallow water. The late sun was behind the hills, casting the area in cool shadow, and Cullen breathed deep, smelling Blood and Dawn Lotus amongst the reeds.

Asta caught up with him and spoke, reverently, “Where are we?”

Cullen smiled, and took his coin out of his armor. “I’ve been trying to figure out a way to bring you here. I wanted… You walk into danger every day. I wanted to take you away from that, if only for a while. I grew up not far from here.” He laughed softly, “I loved my siblings, but they were very loud. This place was always quiet. I used to come here to clear my head.”

“You were happy here?” Asta could believe it. The pond was serenity itself, green and blue stillness rippling outwards, enveloping the two of them in its peace.

“I was.” Cullen ran his thumb over his coin, looking at Asta. “I still am.”

“It’s beautiful.” Asta murmured, listening to the gentle lapping of the lake against the worn dock.

“Yes, beautiful,” Cullen said, still looking at her. Asta blushed, sensing his meaning. “The last time I was here was the day I left for templar training. My brother, Branson, gave me this.” Cullen held out the coin for her to see, the figure of Andraste backed by the Sunburst nearly worn away with his thumb. “I think he just happened to have it in his pocket, but he said it was for luck.”

“It’s an ancient Andrastean coin from before the Second Blight,” Asta breathed. “Where did he find such a thing?”

Cullen shrugged. “Branson was always finding things like this. It could have easily been a Dalish arrowhead, a yard of Plaideweave or a pair of torn smallclothes. He was, is, a packrat and a scavenger.”

Asta laughed. “I suppose you should be relieved he didn’t give you torn smallclothes for luck.”

Cullen raised his eyebrows, waggling them slightly. “That might have given me another kind of luck,” he smirked.

Asta shoved him slightly. He continued, serious again. “Templars aren’t supposed to carry such things. Our faith is supposed to see us through.”

Asta nearly fell into the lake in surprise. “You broke the Order’s rules?! I’m shocked!”

Cullen grew slightly defensive, “Until a year ago I was all too good at following them. Most of the time.”

Asta snorted and spoke without thinking, “Until the whole ‘Meredith is corrupted by red lyrium, I won’t let her kill the mages’ thing?”

Cullen’s face fell and his brow furrowed, remembering all too well, “Yes, that. I…”

Asta winced, and took his hand again. “Hey, I know you made the right choice then. The past is what it is, Cullen. You can’t change it, and you are trying to atone.” His face relaxed a little. “You were saying…” she said, nodding at the coin.

Cullen was still serious. “This is the only thing I took from Fereldan that the Templars didn’t give me.” He slid it into her hand, wrapping his own around the outside of hers, holding it still. “Humor me. We don’t know what you’ll face before the end. This can’t hurt.”

Asta looked at the coin, dull in the dimming light. “I don’t want to take your luck.”

“You need it more than I do. Besides, I have a different kind of luck now.”

“Oh, really?” Asta said, curiously, “What is that? I hope it doesn’t involve torn smallclothes.”

“You make me feel very lucky, Asta.” Cullen drew her to him, earnestly. “I know it’s foolish, but it will set me at ease.”

Asta closed her hand around the coin. “I’ll keep it safe.”

“I’m glad,” Cullen said, and kissed her, deeply, warmly. Asta melted into his arms, her hands sliding around his shoulders, pulling him down into her. For once, no one was watching, no one cared about their reputations, their roles, who they were or where they came from. There was just a man and a woman alone by a pretty lake. It made Cullen feel brave, and he broke away from the kiss. “We should set up camp. Are you tired?”

“No,” Asta murmured, pressing her lips back against his again, more demanding this time. “I’m not.”

Cullen felt something strong stirring far inside, uncoiling and setting up its own camp. He wasn’t scared, he wasn’t nervous. This just felt right. Was it the lake? “Still, it’s getting dark.” He dropped his lips to her neck and unfastened the top of her cloak, locking his mouth to the exposed skin.

“Then we’ll be able to see the stars,” Asta moaned, head back.

“That’s fine, but… I’d rather not have to lay down on a molding dock,” Cullen pointed out logically, while unfastening her shirt so that it gapped underneath her breasts, exposing them to the twilight air. He kissed along her breastband, licking slightly, tasting the salt on her skin, and slowly slid a hand to cup her breast, thumbing the hard peak.

“So now we’re going to lie down?” Asta gasped, trying to arch and shove her breast further into his palm.

“It might be advisable…” Cullen dropped his other hand to her rear and pulled her against him. Asta moaned again, feeling his hard length under the layers of clothing and armor. “And I am your advisor, Inquisitor. I also have a suspicion that it might get a little chilly.” He removed her cloak entirely and pushed her shirt off one shoulder, releasing her breast long enough to pull her band loose.

Asta shivered with the sudden exposure. “You may have a point.”

“Mmm, and you have two.” Cullen dropped down against the dock’s pier and lifted her to his lap, mouth connecting to one breast and then the other with gentle, persuasive kisses. “Also, if I remember correctly, this place was terrible for mosquitoes after dark, and there were usually bats…”

Asta froze in mid-whine. “Let’s get the tent.”

“Mmm? But I’m starting to like where we are,” Cullen complained, licking around a taut nipple and biting softly. “Can’t it wait?”

“No, Cullen, it can’t. Flying rodents are not my favorite things. Build me a fire while I set up the tent.” Cullen moaned against her collarbone. “I hate mosquitoes, Cullen. Hate them, nasty little bloodsuckers. And we don’t have a mage to set up a zapping ward. Tent! Fire! That‘s an order!” Cullen dropped his head, the moment lost.

“Very well, Inquisitor,” he sighed, resigned. “I’ll make a smudgy fire, you get the tent, bedrolls and food.”

Two seconds later, Asta was cursing Dorian with the worst epithet she could think of. “That fucking Tevinter… blood mage!” Asta came fuming back from the horses. “He took my bed roll!” Cullen started laughing and almost let the small flame go out. “It’s not funny, Cullen!” Asta was actually upset. “How I am supposed to keep my distance, keep you comfortable if we are sharing a bedroll?”

“Asta, we’ve shared a bed before.”

“But there was more room!”

“Not that we’ve used it…” Cullen pointed out reasonably. “Every time we’ve shared a bed we end up right against each other by morning. And that seemed to lead to a very good morning, in both cases.” Asta was wavering. “Look, if it makes you comfortable, I’ll sleep under our cloaks. But, Asta, I was kind of hoping we’d be… I mean…” Cullen rubbed the back of his neck, and pretended to look at the fire. “I don’t mind.”

“Oh,” Asta blinked. “All right then.”

Cullen was curious. “Did it honestly not occur to you?”

“No, it occurred to me, but it occurs to me all the time, Cullen! Every moment I spend with you form the War Room to riding a horse…” Asta blushed. “Never mind. I just didn’t…”

“Think it was possible?” Cullen finished.

“No, but… that it would be this soon.”

“We haven’t had much trouble so far…”

“But that could change! Anything could trigger…” Asta was working herself up again, so Cullen stood and took her in his arms.

“I promise, if I’m uncomfortable, I will say something.” He felt her relax against him.

“Okay.” Cullen let her go struggle with the tent, reluctantly. His earlier erection was still very evident, and a little distance would be good, for now. Besides, surely after so many months of camping out she could erect a tent on her own.

“Hot shit fucking damn!” A crashing noise followed her. Cullen sighed and left the fire. “No, I can do this!” She protested. “The knots just won’t hold!” Cullen took over, and the tent was up in five minutes, Asta sulking by the fire getting the food ready. “I can put up a tent. I swear. I’m just not good enough to do it in the dark. Alone.”

“I know, Asta,” he sat down and curled his arm around her. “So, what did the fucking ‘Vint leave us to eat?”

Asta grinned, “I’m rubbing off on you.”

Cullen kissed her neck. “Not enough, I think.” She giggled and shoved him with her shoulder.

“The fucking ‘Vint left us a bottle of wine, believe it or not, some trail rations, no big surprises there, but Bull apparently decided to bless us with some of his chocolate. We‘ll have to stop in Redcliffe or the Crossroads to restock before we head to Skyhold, but still, not bad.”

“Wow, they really love us.” Cullen was impressed.

“Unless Bull stole the wine from Dorian and Dorian stole the chocolates from Bull. It’s the spicy trail rations, though. Bull loves those.” Asta handed him the wine bottle and a bag of rations.

Cullen took a sip, “I can see why Dorian keeps this hidden.” He took another and handed it back.

Asta took a sip of her own, and came to a decision. She turned slightly towards him. “Cullen, I have a question.”

“Shoot,” he turned as well and took a bite of the ration mix. It was spicy, with a heat that lingered pleasantly.

“Do you love me?” Cullen choked on his mouthful and Asta whacked him on the back. Throat clear, she handed him back the bottle of wine and let him take another sip. “I didn’t mean to put you on the spot, but it’s just, well, you’ve said it a couple of times, but off-hand. So I was wondering if you meant it. Of course, if it was just a figure of speech, that’s fine, I understand, but…”

Cullen kissed her, stopping the flow of words. It was very effective. He could taste the wine and spices on her tongue. He drew away reluctantly. “Yes, Asta, I love you.” He held his breath, but it didn’t come right back.

“Really?” Her voice sounded flat, disbelieving.

“Yes.” He was a little curt. What did he expect, exactly?

“The last time anyone said that they loved me, I ended up in the Chantry,” Asta explained. “It’s… a little hard to believe.”

Cullen winced. Why had that not occurred to him? “Believe me when I say the last place I’d like to have you is back in the Chantry,” Cullen promised, kissing her again. “At least, not as a Sister.”

Asta’s eyes got a little wide. “Do you mean… right there on the steps? In front of Andraste?”

“Thought about it.” Cullen smirked. “Haven’t you? Or do were you lying when you said you fantasize about everywhere you spend time with me?”

“I haven’t been doing a whole lot of Chanting lately.” Asta breathed. “Mother Gisele bothers me.” She met his lips again. “Okay.” She smiled against his lips and tasted them with her tongue, licking the scar up gently. “I… love you, too.”

Cullen smiled now. “I know.”

“How?”

“You do things for me that no one has ever cared enough to do before.” He kissed her again, harder this time, enough to take her breath away, lasting several seconds of heat that was not from the spices. The freedom to do so was rather addictive, he decided. “You can’t build a fire, or set up a tent…”

“I can, too! Just not in the dark!”

“…A tent, I said, but you can stop me from working for a full day, make me want to face the ghosts of my past, and make me listen to smutty literature when I’m sick.” Cullen kissed her slowly until she mewled against his mouth and tried to push closer to his body. “You hold back even when you don’t want to, just to make me comfortable.” He pulled her over to sit on his lap, and unfastened her shirt again, longing to see her breasts on display again, just for him. She hadn’t rewrapped her breastband. This time, he unclasped her entire tunic and cupped both breasts. Brave, he thought. “I know you love me because you want me to do this,” he traced her hard nipples with his thumbs and she hummed, arching back into his hands, “and I’m very tempted to take you to the tent right now, just to avoid any bats that might show up to interrupt us, and show you exactly how much I do love you.”

Asta froze again. “Is that an offer, Commander?” She was panting slightly with the effort not to grind down, or assume that what he was offering was exactly what she desired.

“Not from the Commander,” Cullen answered, and cupped her ass tighter against him and kissed her silent one more time. His body screamed at him for release and he felt very, very brave. “This offer is from Cullen, and he wants you very, very badly, my love, my Asta.” He kissed down her chest to her nipples again, and flicked them with his tongue, once, twice.

“Mmph!” Asta was starting to lose herself. “Tent, you said?”

“Unless you’d rather stay here?” Cullen bit her breast lightly again, and started fiddling with her laces. “I’m not particular, myself. Might be easier to lay down on our bedroll, though. Fewer twigs. Fewer bugs biting… sensitive places.”

“Meet you there,” Asta said, and in one swift moment that left him dizzy she was gone, vanished into the darkness behind the fire. “Are you coming?”

“Maker, I hope so,” Cullen muttered, and followed her. She had lit a lantern earlier and left it outside the tent, so he could see by it and the light from the campfire, just enough to see her silhouetted against the canvas. Lifting the flap, Cullen saw she had left her top undone but it was still on her shoulders, waiting for him to remove it entirely. She had tossed out the bedroll, not with military neatness, perhaps, but for this purpose… She was taking her hair down from her practical ponytail, it’s gentle waves falling to her shoulders. He had a sudden urge to grab it, fist his fingers in it and kiss her until she molded into him. His cock agreed with that fabulous idea, but instead of giving in, he dropped to his knees and started removing his armor. Piece by piece he took it off, deliberately going slow, and meeting her eyes as much as possible. They both knew this was different, even from the last time they had been together. Her eyes feasted on him as he pulled his shirt off in one swift movement, leaving him in just his trousers.

“It occurs to me that you have yet to see me fully unclothed. By the time we have reached that far in the past, you’ve been rather close. Considering the absolute gorgeousness that was you the last time we were together, I think it’s only fair I return the gift you offered me last time.” He stood, half bent over, and loosened his laces, and removed his pants gently. Then slowly, he removed his smallclothes, waiting for the panic that never came. He sat back down, across from Asta, still fully clothed, and watched her stare at him, all of him. She didn’t move, and he relaxed. “Asta?”

“You are too perfect to touch.” She looked at him. “Do you have an ounce of fat anywhere? Seriously, I’m a scholar. I’ve spent most of my life in a chair. I’m fitter than I was, but I’m still half pudge in unpleasant places and my thighs rub together.” She was rubbing her thighs together right then, he noticed, trying to relieve the pressure between her legs.

“Nothing about you is unpleasant, Asta,” Cullen reached out to her, and slid her shirt off her shoulders, leaving her topless. He took hold of the end of her breastband, sitting around her waist and pulled, winding it up in his hand as he went. He knelt in front of her, and ran his fingers from her navel to her breast and cupped it again, listening to her catching her breath. He leaned in and kissed her hard, with teeth and tongue. She still tasted slightly of wine and spices, but now she smelled of wood smoke too, an intoxicating perfume that mixed with her natural odor and the herbal scent of her hair. She whined into his mouth as he pinched her nipple. “Too hard?” He asked, concerned.

“No…” she whined. “I just… I want more.”

“I can do that.” He got to work on her laces while she traced his shoulders, biceps, chest, making his breath stop. “Asta, I…” She stopped, instantly. “No, don’t stop! Maker’s Breath. I just… I love the way you are touching me.” She smiled, her whole face lighting up. He finished the laces. “Lean back, love.” She did, and he reached for her waistline, as she lifted slightly to assist. He pulled them off, quickly, and saw her smallclothes were black this time. He laughed.

“What?” He had made her self-conscious, and she tried to wrap her hands around her middle. He stopped her, holding them still.

“I just… last time they were pink.”

“Wait, you noticed?” Asta was blushing. “I didn’t think you’d notice.”

“Why wouldn’t I? After all, your smallclothes and what is in them have been a central preoccupation of mine for months now.” Cullen laughed more, and his hand moved on it’s own accord reaching out to trace one of the edges, around her thigh and down underneath. They were very damp, almost slick. She made a soft noise, leaning back against her elbows. “I… think you are beautiful.” She was lovely, lit up with the light glow of the lantern outside. “I’m a little worried, I admit.” Her brow furrowed. “Not about that! I just… I’ve heard it can hurt the first time, for a woman. I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Cullen? I’m pretty sure it will hurt less than being slammed with lightening by a Venatori. I handled that fine two weeks ago. I may not be as tough as Cassandra, but I think I can handle this.” She pulled him in by his neck. “Why don’t we try and see?” She reached up to kiss him.

He hooked his fingers in her smallclothes and pulled. She helped slide them off, awkwardly, but they got there in the end, and he tossed them on top of her other clothes and looked. Maker’s Breath, how he looked. He was half leaning over her, lips inches away from her, wanting, wanting… her eyes were almost black, with just a little blue. “Asta, once we start this, I probably won’t be able to… I don’t know if… control? I’ve wanted this very badly for a long time now.” And never as badly as tonight.

“Let’s just take it minute by minute, Cullen. It’s not like I haven’t wanted this for months. Please, Cullen,” she leaned in and kissed him, and something snapped. He moved against her mouth with his, tongues tangling, jousting between them. Someone moaned, was it him? Was it her? It didn’t matter. His hands, they were behind her, lowering her down, gently, so that he was slightly over her. He dropped the left to trace between her legs. She whined and lifted her hips at the contact. He fought to find some kind of control over himself. It might hurt. She needed him to be gentle.

He could do this, he felt it inside, the sort of confidence he had lacked since he was a teenager. He traced the outline of her core between her legs and dropped down to kiss her breasts, anything he could reach. And then suddenly, she laughed.

“Will you still respect me in the morning?”

“What?” His head popped up from her breasts, brain not registering the question.

“The Revered Mothers always said…” Asta laughed, moaning when the laughter made his hand move against her lower lips, slick now with her arousal.

“The Revered Mothers are not here.” Cullen looked at her, eyes dark. “Asta, my entire wasted life has brought me here, to you. You have my honor in your hands.” As if she had been waiting for the cue, she dropped her hand down his front to his cock, and squeezed. He choked slightly.

“Is that what this is? Your honor?” She laughed again and stroked.

He groaned, putty in her hands. “Asta, I am trying to have a moment here.”

“Sorry! You were saying.” She didn’t stop, the wench, but stroked him softly, running her thumb over the tip of his cock while she listened.

“I was saying you have my honor in your hands,” he looked in her eyes, “My respect always,” she was serious now, and a little relieved, he was happy to see. “And my love for all eternity.” He kissed her, slower now, reaching between her thighs, eager to stroke her, to give her the kind of pleasure that she was giving him, stoking him so slowly, building up the fire that was threatening even now to explode. He could do this, bring her joy. He felt the source of her pleasure, rubbed it gently, keeping it very light, and then ran a single finger along the whole length of her slit. “Oh! Cullen! Do that again!” He was happy to oblige, until her fingers tightened on him.

“Let loose a little, Asta,” he murmured. She did and they stroked each other together, smiling in passion and growing anticipation. She was trying to pump him a bit now, and he had to stop her. “Love, if you keep doing that we won’t be able to get to the good part.” Maker in his Golden City, could anything be better than this?

“I know, but your face when I move it just so…” she pumped and twisted slightly, making him groan and buck up slightly in response. He took her hand off of his cock, holding it instead. “I just can’t resist it.”

“I understand. When I do this,” he thrust a finger inside her and she arched up into his chest, breasts on display, and he leaned down to suck and nibble at them, harder now to keep his strength in check. “Maker, Asta, I wish I could keep you like this forever.”

“You can…” she breathed. “How can be it be this easy?”

“I don’t know, but maybe it’s only with you.” Cullen grinned wickedly. “Though I could be wrong.”

“You’d better never find out,” and she gasped again at him adding a second finger to the first, “I don‘t want to share you with a living soul.” He worked his fingers in her slowly, slowly, and bent his mouth to her neck, kissing, stroking, tongue and fingers leading her down a path of pleasure. He was aching, her hips were moving against him without her knowledge, trying to catch something, but she was hardly sure what. Just touching her was madness, he realized, torture of the sweetest kind, seeing her unravel underneath his hands and his body.  It was time, he realized, and he breathed out in tension, wound up too tightly for it to help.

He knew there was no going back, not for him, one way or another he had to have release. But he paused, one last time, positioning himself over her prone body, sliding his hand away, and holding himself instead, shaking slightly with his lust and desire. “Are you sure, Asta?” She was breathing through her nose, frustrated with the sudden absence of his fingers, but managed to reply.

“Cullen Stanton Rutherford, if you stop now I will judge you in front of Andraste and the world.” Her eyes opened, blown wide and nearly frantic. “Please!’

Her begging made his mind cloudy. Was this real? “Asta, keep looking at me.” Her eyes, he had to see her eyes. “Try not to shut your eyes for me, love.” His voice shook as he tried to restrain himself. Asta looked right at him, and he saw trust. Trust, passion, love… nothing like the wickedness of the desire demons. She smiled at him, and he broke, dropping his hand to between her hips and pushing, hoping faster was better, to break the barrier and be able to move on.

She enveloped him all at once, a warm, slick, tight yet soft channel like nothing else, and she called out in shock tinged with pain. Damn it, he had hurt her. The urge to move was maddening, but he froze, trying to let her adjust. This was beyond anything the demons had done or shown him, so unlike the mockery they made of pleasure. Cullen groaned, suppressing his fevered desire for friction.

Asta’s eyes were round, surprised, with a depth of something underneath he thought he recognized in himself. Maker’s Breath, does it feel like this for her? As if in answer she started to move. As she rotated her hips gently, it was Cullen’s turn to call out.

“Asta,” he warned.

“I want to. Don’t you want to?” She asked curiously. “Cullen, you feel… Oh!”

Cullen finally listened to his body and hers. He started moving back and forth, slightly, a slow glide. “Yes,” he moaned. His balls tightened in response, aching more than ever. He gritted his teeth.

“Maker,” Asta gasped, overcome, her shock long over and the pull and twist of their passion returning. She rose to meet him, grabbing his thigh, forcing him deeper, trying to find his rhythm, awkwardness in her movements, but enthusiasm more than compensating. Cullen dropped a hand and started to trace a circle around her center. “Mmph!” The sounds she was making were making it hard to go slow. Cullen listened to his own need again, and picked up the pace slightly, the glide of her core pulling along, the ebb and flow taking them both to shore. “Don’t stop!” she choked out, shutting her eyes tight.

“Asta, look at me!” Cullen pleaded, just as far gone, but needing that eye contact, needing to know for sure that it was her, really her.

Her eyes snapped open, and his hand grabbed hers, and he pushed them both into the bedroll, fingers twining together. Thrust, glide, thrust, glide, both moaning each other’s name, staring at what was unwinding in front of them. His thumb danced over her nerves and she shuddered. “Cullen, I’m…”

“Asta!” She snapped her hips up against him, uncontrolled. Again, again, again, an inexorable tide that couldn’t be denied, waves rolling over her, inside and out, her voice calling out to him in words he couldn't recognize, in a tongue long dead. Cullen lost his rhythm with her release and mindlessly thrust, thrust, thrust into her, as deep as he could go. His own release followed the shout of her name, shooting into her with a pressure he wasn’t expecting. He rode it out, almost gingerly with the unexpected sensitivity that had followed, and collapsed onto her, just enough strength left to hold himself up slightly and roll to the left to not crush her.

Stunned, the two former virgins lay against each other, shaking. Every little movement made Asta moan, but Cullen was breathless in wonder as well as exertion. He kissed her neck, and she turned her head and met his lips with love behind them.

“I have never felt anything like this before…” Cullen began sometime later.

“I love you, you know that, right?” Asta murmured against his lips.

Cullen smiled sheepishly, happiness behind it. “I love you, too.”

“Can we do that again? Soon?” Asta looked very eager, though more than slightly sleepy.

Cullen just laughed with great joy, and closed his eyes, finally. “Asta, I am at your disposal. I’ll draw up a requisition immediately for Ser Morris.” He curled himself around her and they drifted off, together. And Cullen’s last thoughts before he fell asleep, a slightly snoring Asta in his arms, was a portion of the Chant of Light.

Though stung with a hundred arrows,

Though suffering from ailments both great and small,

His Heart was strong, and he moved on.

 

Chapter Text

Asta woke the next morning a bit sore in unusual places, which made for a nice contrast, she thought. Her ass was up against a very handsome, very naked Commander, with his arm under her head. She wiggled closer, because she could and pulled the top of the shared bedroll a little closer. She should rise and clean up, figure out how to rebuild a fire, make something hot to drink - perhaps with Bull’s chocolate. But right at that minute she couldn’t bring herself to leave this perfect place in the circle of his body.

Cullen started to thrash in his sleep, muttering incoherently. Asta put a hand on his chest. Unlike before this did not seem like a good dream. His brows were creased together and he was jerking. Should she wake him?

“No!” Cullen shouted, disrupting her from his arm, and Asta decided she should try.

“Cullen. Cullen!” It wasn’t working, in fact he thrashed against her harder, and the whole tent moved. Asta tried harder, “Commander!”

He jerked upright, panting and sweating, curly hair rioting in the hazy early morning light chinking through the tent‘s canvas. Asta had been displaced from her half of the bedroll, and he grabbed her shoulders, hard. “What? Where?” His eyes, confused at first found her. “Asta? Are you hurt? Where are you hurt?”

“I’m fine, Cullen. I’m not hurt.” She soothed, “maybe a little sore, but I’ll be fine.”

“Sore?” His eyes cleared completely. “Oh. Oh!” He blushed red, from his chest to his ears and smiled, remembering. “Good,” he said, lying back down to hold her, still shaking from his dream.

“Bad dream?”

“Yes,” he shuddered, “Without lyrium they are worse. Still, better the nightmares than the lyrium.”

“Are they always that bad?” Asta stroked a curl away from his forehead, teasing it tighter around her finger, turning it almost into a ringlet in her play.

“No. Sometimes they are worse.” He stated bluntly. Then he grabbed her hand, where she was playing so gently. “I didn’t mean to worry you!”

Asta stroked his hair with her other hand instead. “You can let me worry about you a little.”

Cullen chuckled, and closed his eyes. “All right.”

“Good, because in addition to allowing me to worry about you, you have to show me how to make a fire without having a mage around to assist.” Asta nuzzled into his neck.

“Mmm,” Cullen said lazily, “Maybe later.”

“Commander!” Asta drew back in mock horror. “Are you… malingering?!”

“Yes, Inquisitor.” He rolled her over, so that she straddled him. “I believe I am.” More than recovered from his nightmare by now he kissed her hand and laid it on his chest. “The temptation is just too great, my lady.” He loved this view, he decided, with her wearing nothing but a pout, sitting on top of him.

Asta eyeballed him critically. “Well, you are honest, at least,” she observed. She laid down on top of him, breasts crushed between them, hands playing in his hair again. It was getting very curly under her ministrations. “You know, I may join you. It’s not like we often get a day off at all, much less together. What shall we do while we malinger together?”

Cullen rubbed her backside gently, almost absentmindedly. Asta made happy little sounds and his cock twitched in response. “I can think of something…”

“One track mind, Commander?” Asta teased. “Can’t get enough of me now that you’ve had a taste?” She nuzzled further against his check and kissed his neck.

“As if a taste would ever be enough,” Cullen murmured against her hair. “You said you were sore, though.”

“I know, you don’t want to hurt me. Cullen, it’s sore muscles. I always have sore muscles. I spend my life on the back of a horse or climbing cliffs or running towards demons. It’s not a mortal wound. Don’t drag out the elfroot potions quite yet.” Asta sat up, and feeling a presence behind her, decided to ask. “Do you always wake up like this?”

“With a beautiful woman in my arms? Not enough.” He squeezed her buttock.

Asta rolled her eyes at how corny he was. “You know…” she blushed, “hard.”

“Usually.” Cullen sat up on his elbows and pulled her to him to kiss her. “Lately I’ve been finding it more convenient than not. But without attention it usually passes quickly.” He chose not to mention that he had been masturbating more than he ever had as a teenager lately, thanks to her.

“And with attention?”

“Do you want to find out?” He lifted his eyebrows and kissed her once, twice, and on the third she opened fully to his tongue. Her breasts rubbed against him enticing him further.

Asta could already feel pulsing between her thighs, his hard cock a happy reminder of the night before resting between her legs. She slid along him, and she realized that she was already slick, just from the suggestion and the position. “Oh, that’s… maybe I do.”

“Only maybe?” Cullen laid back down. “Well then…”

“No, I want to!” Asta realized too late he was teasing. “That’s not nice, Commander.”

Cullen smirked, and Asta leaned in to run her tongue along his scar, nipping it slightly. The action moved her along him again. “Oh…”

Cullen grabbed her hips and moved her purposefully. “That’s… nice.” He pressed up against her harder, arching his back a little, and guided her hips. Asta found his lips as if she were a compass needle and he was due north. They rocked together, Asta moaning with the gentle contact, but wanting more. She pressed down as he arched up, and Cullen groaned. “Maker, Asta, you feel amazing,” he nearly grunted against her, his scrotum tightening. He dodged her lips, and latched his lips against her collarbones, and then scraped them with his teeth when she moved against him even harder.

Asta cried out, but not with pain. He tried it again, and kissed and licked it to make her moan and jerk against him slightly. He moved down to her left breast and latched onto it and pulled with lips and teeth.

She bent backward like a bow, arcing against him, grinding down almost by accident. Cullen moved his other hand from her ass, and touched her sensitive nub, lightly, feeling his own tip between her legs as she moved upon and around him. He sat back and watched her a moment. She was so free, bare and disheveled, mouth open with moans as she chased the bliss he offered.

Asta whined at the loss of his lips on her skin, she wanted more. She wanted what she had last night. She lifted herself slightly, and his cock followed her, as if it were trying to settle itself where it wanted to be, Cullen thought in a daze, feeling the cool air against the wet slickness she had left behind.

She opened her eyes, and Cullen lost himself in them. “Cullen, I need you. Please?”

“Then have me,” he groaned, as she slid him home. It felt different, he realized, the angle, the pressure. And Asta liked it very much, from the sounds coming from her tensed lips. She continued to rock against him, almost desperately and he had to clench his teeth. He gripped her hips again, raised her up and sunk her back down onto him.

Asta gasped out, “Move me again!” He did it again, and again, her words morphing into groans. “Just like that, please!” He raised his own hips slightly with the next round and she attacked him, kissing his neck with her teeth and tongue, leaving marks that he would have to explain away… or maybe not. He drove into her harder and she arched back again, hands behind her.

“Asta,” Cullen was breathless, her passionate abandonment driving him to the edge, “touch yourself?” He wanted to see her come like this, above him, out of control, in broad daylight instead of in the shadows.

Asta shook, but she managed to reach around and touched her own breast, as it ached against Cullen’s ignorance, she pinched it and moaned again at the pressure. She pulled her other hand around and touched where she needed the pressure.

Cullen watched her fingering herself, rubbing her own breasts and nearly lost it. He bit his lip, trying to find his control. She was so lovely. The sun was well risen now, and the tent was warmer, sweat was dripping down her body and his, slicking their thighs where they moved together. He thrust up again and Asta’s release echoed around him and pulled him down into the chasm after her.

Asta fell against him all at once, and he held her tight, kissing her hair, her forehead as she shuddered.

“I would give anything to wake up like this every morning,” she said at last.

“Well, the gossip is already at a peak,” Cullen said. “I wouldn’t complain either.” Maker, to have her with me, every night, every morning when she‘s at home… I wouldn’t even dare to ask.

“It’s going to be very hard to go back to that drafty monument of a room, that’s for sure.” Asta sighed. “I’ve never been so happy in a tent before.”

Cullen laughed at that, content, and they were silent for a little longer, watching the water’s refraction on the walls of the canvas.

“So how cold is the water in that lake?” Asta asked at last.

“If I remember correctly, it’s cold, but it’s shallow. So… not as bad as it could be?” Cullen remembered running and jumping off the dock, and the shock of the cold water, but it warming around him quickly. “Just don’t dive.”

“Aye, aye, Commander.” Asta sighed again and stretched. “I’m going to go have a bath. And then we are eating Bull’s chocolates for breakfast.” Cullen laughed again as she slid away from him gingerly, as if she weren’t sure her legs would hold her up. “I’ll be lucky if I don’t get a cramp, you animal.” She gathered up her clean clothes and then grinned wickedly, tossing her smallclothes at him.

“What was that for?” Cullen asked, puzzled, picking them up off his chest.

Asta winked, “For luck, Commander.” Cullen threw his head back and laughed. He was very lucky indeed.

***

The raven found them late that afternoon, just before they reached the Crossroads where they were hoping to resupply before heading back to Skyhold. It had two messages, one for each of them, and a small bottle. Cullen tossed Asta’s letter to her and opened his own. It was from Dorian.

Dear Commander,

I do hope our offerings were adequate. Bull and I decided not to stop on our way back, and so were able to provide you with the wine and chocolates in an effort to lighten our loads.

As for the lack of a separate bedroll, you can thank me later. Dorian is a lovely name, don’t you think? Bull seems to agree considering how much he likes to yell it lately. We received an official dressing down from Josephine. Apparently certain dignitaries don’t like to be awakened by the sound of Bull yelling my name in the middle of the night. Prudes. And the fire wasn’t that big, whatever Leliana tells you.

See you back at Skyhold. Varric looks forward to settling his debts.

Dorian

Cullen shook his head and turned to Asta, who was reading her letter with a line between her eyebrows. “What’s wrong?”

“We didn’t think about something.”

“I thought we thought too much?” Cullen smirked, “Seems like people have been telling us that for a while now.”

Asta picked up the little bottle. “This is a preventative. For pregnancy.”

“Oh,” Cullen blanched. “We didn’t think.”

“I’m going to take it now, but we will have a little wait… Leliana has informed me…” Asta bit her lip. “Here, just read it.” She handed him the letter and opened the bottle to drink it, wincing at the bitterness.

Dear Asta,

I sincerely hope that you and the Commander are having a pleasant side trip. All is well here, but it occurs to me that you might need this. It will prevent the presence of a third party showing up at what would be a very awkward time. I hope I don’t have to spell it out. It should work even after the fact, Vivienne informs me. You’ll need to find something more permanent after this to prevent it in future. This is more of an afterthought.

I’m sure you wouldn’t like the rumors we spread at the Winter Palace to be based in truth after all. I doubt Corypheus would slow down his plans for a very pregnant Inquisitor. I trust in your discretion.

Josie offers her congratulations, though I believe she is disappointed that you didn’t manage to get it over with at the Winter Palace. I can’t imagine when you would have found the time, myself. She has also informed me that she is scheduling an interlude upon your return for the full details. I may attend, as well as Cassandra. Sera is disgusted and has not so politely declined.

Have a pleasant trip home.

Leliana

Cullen folded the letter and looked at Asta. “So much for being a tactician. I didn’t even think about it.”

Asta bit her lip. “I’m probably okay. My cycle… it’s due in a few days. I’ll ask a healer when I get back to Skyhold for something. Maybe the surgeon? Vivienne is studying alchemy, maybe she knows something. Though asking her for birth control would be… awkward.” She sighed, frustrated. “I can’t believe I didn’t even think about it. I could have been taking something for months.”

Cullen folded her in his arms. “It’s okay. We’ll know in a few days, and we won’t make the mistake again. Not until, or if, you want to.” She didn’t relax, but she nodded against his chest. “And in the meantime, we will find other ways, or just hold off, if you’d rather.”

“To the Void with that,” Asta pushed him, “I’m not giving up one of the few things that makes this whole thing worth it just because of… this. Other ways, yes. I’ll find out what I can do when we get back. Or… the Crossroads! There is the healer at the Crossroads! I’ll ask her!” Her face lit up. “No awkwardness, and she owes me! I provided everything she needed to stock up!”

Cullen couldn’t help but laugh. “I make it worth it, hmm?”

Asta looked at him, slyly. “You are one of the things, I said.”

“And the others?”

“Almost unlimited money for books. I can justify buying anything if it’s for the Inquisition’s library.”

“Anything else?”

“Early access to Varric’s unpublished works.”

“Is that all?”

“The food is pretty good at Skyhold. Not so much on the road.”

“So, food, books and sex? Isn’t that a little hedonistic?”

“Well, do you want me to say that saving Thedas is reward enough in itself? Maybe it should be, but there are a lot of really stupid people in Thedas. Like that mayor that flooded his village, and Mother Victoria in Ostwick, the Orlesian Grey Wardens, and practically the whole royal family and court in Orlais…”

Cullen held her tighter. “Asta, I doubt that anyone begrudges you anything that would make this situation easier for you. You didn’t ask for this, weren’t prepared. If that means that I become your sex slave, give you all of my personal income for books, and Josie orders you a private supply of those little cakes from Val Royeaux, then that’s fine.”

Asta froze. “You’d be my sex slave?” She couldn’t even believe he was making the joke.

“Well, within reason.”

“Can you be a sex slave within reason?” She asked curiously.

“It was an example, Asta.” He felt her laughing. “You really are insatiable.”

“Let’s get to the Crossroads and then hightail it to the nearest camp. I’ll show you insatiable.”

“Even with all the scouts?”

“Eh, they work hard. They deserve to be the first to know. It’ll be good for morale. Besides, I still don’t have my own bedroll.”

 

Chapter Text

The little smirks and witty one-liners didn’t last nearly long enough for Asta after their return to Skyhold. Varric admitted without ire that Dorian had won the pool, however deviously, but after the plethora of cheating by the other participants he couldn’t really say it was unfair or that the bet was forfeit. “Besides,” Varric claimed reasonably, “Sparkler doesn’t have an outside income. He needs the money to keep himself and Bull in silk pillows and curtains.” The news of the duo’s passion induced conflagration had swept through Skyhold faster than a forest fire, and had more than one new found lover of a mage acting a little more cautiously, and keeping a bucket handy.

Those rumors helped take the heat off Asta and Cullen, who, despite their mutual longing were still having issues with time, though the appropriate places had been worked out, mostly. But without opportunity, even being an open couple with an entire hold cheering them on wasn’t enough. They were back to stolen kisses - Asta doing the stealing- and longing looks - with Asta doing most of the longing. Or so it seemed.

Asta missed the tent, and the privacy of the pond. The first time she tried to sleep in Cullen’s loft upon their return, it snowed. He laughed and claimed it had never done that before. She spent the entire night curled against him, trying to get warm enough to rest. The next day she requisitioned six additional blankets for the Commander’s bed, and had to explain to Ser Morris why she needed them and not the Commander.

After that conversation Asta was fairly sure Morris was a virgin. His hair looked red he blushed so hard when he realized where she was sleeping. He needed to get out more.

And now Cullen was so deeply entrenched in planning for Adamant that she wasn’t seeing him at all. He was very late to bed at night, long after she had fallen asleep, still shivering under her mountain of covers, and up before she woke in the morning.

The advisors were leaving the siege planning in his care after the initial scouting done by Leliana’s team. The ravens flying back from Rylen in the Western Approach were a conspiracy in their own. Asta was out of her element, and Cullen was buried in his. He was excited to show her the ancient maps and blueprints of Adamant Fortress, and explained where he thought the major battles would take place. He even made time to show her how to calibrate a trebuchet… not that she would need to do so again any time soon. She hoped. But the stolen moments and the discussions around the War Table weren’t enough.

Asta decided she needed a greater purpose, and there had to be something she could do to aid with Adamant. Excursions were off the table until after the siege was over, so she ended up predictably in the library with Dorian, poring over everything it had to offer about Grey Wardens. She had interviewed Hawke and Varric until they both ran the other way as soon as she entered the room. She had grilled Blackwall until she was sure that something wasn’t right - a sword to kill an arch demon? Then they just could have shipped it during the Blight. - and then she had tackled Stroud and his terse answers instead.

“Too many secrets,” Asta seethed, closing a book on the Calling that Stroud had finally lent her in hopes of being left alone in the tavern.

“They do seem even more closed mouthed than the Chantry,” Dorian delicately read through a list of the Wardens who had died in the Second Blight. “Why is that?”

“Right now I’m pretty certain it’s because if they told the whole truth no one would want to join in the first place,” Asta rubbed her eyes. The little black squiggles on the page were running together.

“That would explain the recruitment of murderers and convicts and their basic similarity to the Legion of the Dead with their eventual death in the Deep Roads,” Dorian stated thoughtfully.

“Andraste’s dimpled buttcheeks!” Asta slammed a large tome down. “What I wouldn’t give to speak to a member of the Legion of the Dead about it all. Why doesn’t the Inquisition have more dwarves in it? All we have are surfacers!”

“That’s an excellent question, but we are located on the surface. Orzammar doesn’t exactly smile kindly on leaving, if you remember. If you leave once, you are a surfacer. Doesn’t lend itself easily to joining up. And it’s hardly worth damaging books over.” Dorian looked at her closer. “But this frenzied studying isn’t really about Adamant, is it. Or our mysterious bearded friend, or even Corypheus. What’s going on, Asta?”

“I don’t like to feel useless,” Asta slumped in her chair and put her head on the tome, buried in her arms. “Anim dmphing a woomali.”

“What was that?” Dorian blinked. “Ancient Elvhen? I thought you didn’t speak…”

“I’m dating a workaholic!” Asta shouted. The ravens one floor up cawed nervously and dropped suspicious matter, causing Solas to curse. The librarian shushed at her imperiously and she cringed in remorse. “Sorry!” She mouthed at him. He nodded and went back to shelving books. Dorian started laughing and Asta glared. “Yeah, laugh it up, mage-boy. Your boyfriend gets to hang out in the tavern until he has to hit something.”

“I’m sorry,” Dorian stifled his smile. “Come on, Asta. Let’s take this to your rooms.” He grabbed her hand and pulled her away still scowling. Once safely ensconced in her room he sat on her sofa and patted the seat next to him. She chose to pace. “What’s happened?”

“Nothing!” She fumed. “Well, Adamant is happening. Otherwise it’s been two weeks since I saw him for more than a quick kiss on the battlements. And the last time that happened the bastard smirked at me and had to run to the next meeting!” She picked up a knight chess piece and set it back down instead of throwing it. “I’ve tried bringing him meals, distracting him deliberately, telling him he needs a break… he just smiles - I’m going to punch that smile off his face one of these days - and then he accepts, every single time. But if I manage to pull him away he works all the later that night. I stopped sleeping in his bed two days ago and he didn’t mention a thing. Dorian, I don’t think he’s slept in his bed for a lot longer than two days.” Asta crossed her arms over her body. “I know Adamant is the most important battle we’ve yet to plan for. I know it’s unlike anything the Inquisition has done up to this point. I’m trying to be supportive, but the jackass won’t stop working.”

“That’s hardly healthy.”

“I know. Personal considerations aside, I think he’s trying to work hard enough to forget… things. Things that the lyrium helped him with, or he thought it did, before he stopped taking it. I think maybe I… may not be good for him. I… do you think he’s avoiding me because I remind him of bad things?” Asta had tears in her eyes as she stared at her friend.

“No, I don’t think that’s it. And if it is, I bet it isn’t consciously happening. I would put money on the fact that he doesn’t realize he’s hurting you. As far as working too hard is concerned - have you said anything? Have you watched him work? I have a thought, but it’s going to take preparation.”

“What are you thinking?”

“Let’s get your brother.”

Asta narrowed her eyes. “Why?”

Dorian shrugged. “He’s cute? He has muscles? Muscles we can use for lifting furniture? Cullen is a little scared of him? He happens to be between missions? There are many reasons, my dear. None of them are better than another.”

“You think my brother is cute? Does Bull know?”

“Asta, Bull agrees with me. Unfortunately the man is oblivious. Straight as an arrow, and what a waste.”

“I don’t want to talk about this any more.” Asta shuddered at the thought of anybody finding her brother attractive.

“Very well, let’s collect him and find you a new desk.”

They started immediately, though Max had to be convinced not to threaten Cullen’s life again. He glowered at him as he deposited a desk in the far corner of his office while Dorian watched appreciatively. Cullen sat back a little. What had he done? He ran through his brain quickly, but couldn’t think of anything, and soon enough was distracted by the work in front of him. The next delivery was a crate load of books, and another smaller one of reports and letters that Asta had been putting off since her return from Halamshiral. Asta thanked her brother, and he left after narrowing his eyes at Cullen one more time, but saying nothing. Asta got to work organizing the mess, and was quickly absorbed in the action.

It took several hours for Cullen to ask what was going on. “Oh, just building myself a little workspace! It’ll be nice to work together!” Asta trilled.

Cullen’s face creased in confusion, “Don’t you have a desk in your room?”

“Yes, but you are so busy I’ll never see you up there!” She beamed sincerely in his general direction. “This way I’ll be around even if I can’t interrupt. You won’t even know I’m here.” She plopped down in her chair. “Now, I have reports and letters that Josie has been nagging me about, and maps to go over… to work?” She brandished a quill and tackled the top of the pile.

Unfortunately, Asta did work well around Cullen. They worked in complete silence for over an hour, decreasing the amount of work left steadily. And then she reached the stack of inquiries that Josie had received on the two of them after the Winter Palace. She sorted them into her pile and his pile, and picked up his - considerably taller than her own, and smiled wickedly. She stood up and started to read aloud.

'Ambassador Montilyet, I am utterly entranced with your Commander. Such a Man, my dear, such a fine Leg, such Hair… I dream of running my fingers through it in passion. You must tell me, my darling Josephine, who is his family? Where is Honnleath in Fereldan that it grows such specimens?'

Asta giggled as she wandered by his desk. “What is that?” Cullen didn’t look up, distracted, but Asta flipped to the next letter.

'My Lady Montilyet, As I am sure you know, I respect the Inquisition greatly, and all of the good work it is doing around Thedas. As you also know, I have five eligible daughters and understand your Commander is single. At his age! Surely an arrangement can be made?'

“Maker’s Breath,” Cullen cursed, “What are those things?”

"'Ambassador Montilyet, my dear Josephine, My passion cannot be denied!'” Asta read in a throaty voice, draping herself over Cullen’s desk in a mimicry of passionate abandon. “'Your Commander, I must have him! I will give anything, titles, money, lands. He is my single shining star in a sky full of clouds!'” Asta squinted at the line, not sure if she had read it correctly. “Andraste’s ass, that’s terrible prose.”

Cullen tried not to laugh, to refocus on his work. There was so much to do. “Asta, I’m trying to plan a siege on this desk.”

Asta scanned the next letter. “Actually, this next one applies. This woman is offering her siege equipment in exchange for an hour alone with you. Should I reply favorably?”

Cullen rubbed his exhausted eyes. “Asta… no. Just burn them all.”

“Nope, Leliana wants to know exactly who pines after our Commander, besides me, of course.” She sat up off the blueprint of Adamant that she was blocking with her butt. “And I think I’ll give that one back to Josie. This lady is in Eastern Orlais. Maybe she can work something out that doesn’t involve your… gratitude, shall we say?”

“Siege equipment would be helpful.” Cullen pressed the palms of his hands over his sunken eyes. Maker, he was so tired. Asta watched him, concerned as always.

“Cullen, you need to sleep.”

“I need to get the supply lines sorted out. They have to be in place before we march.”

Asta leaned over and covered the map of Thedas he was trying to focus on. “Cullen, you need sleep.” She touched his wrist. “The supply lines can wait until morning.”

“Asta,” Cullen rolled his eyes impatiently. “I appreciate…”

“No, Commander,” Asta’s voice cracked like a whip and he sat back involuntarily. He had never seen this side of her before. “We have to take Adamant. I understand that. But you cannot serve the Inquisition if you are falling asleep at your desk just to wake up and work again an hour later.”

Cullen rubbed his neck sheepishly. “How did you know?”

“Other than the fact I’ve missed you in bed for over a week?” Asta folded her arms defensively. She was scared of what he was going to say next, but wouldn’t let herself back down. “You did say you didn’t mind me staying here. Would you like to take it back?”

“No!” Cullen finally met her eyes, recoiling from the anger in them. “Have I messed up?”

“Yes.” Asta’s voice was still sharp. “For one thing you didn’t even make time to ask if I was pregnant.” Cullen winced. “I’m not, as it turns out, not that it was even on your mind with all of this…” she waved her hand, “running through it instead. Am I in there at all?” Cullen opened his mouth to protest. But she moved on, “I mean it, Commander, I can’t have you at less than your best professionally, but personally, I won’t allow myself to be shoved to the side for work you should be delegating!” Asta flipped quickly through the reports in the massive stack on his desk. “You have the supply lines roughed out. Give them to Clark tomorrow. She can make the final adjustments and implement them. Xavier can track the lyrium shipments. He’s dating a scout, and works well with Leliana’s forces.” Cullen started to protest again, but Asta shut him up, “He’ll report to you, Commander. Not Leliana. But this should be a team effort.” Asta scanned the rest of the work. “Additional housing for troops can’t be solved in one night. Postpone until the next war meeting. Morale at Griffon Wing, alternate sources of water, varghest problems in the Western Approach… honestly, Commander, why haven’t you shared these with all of us? Griffon Wing needs to be at top performance before we descend on them in a mighty horde.” She finished sorting and delegating his entire workload in minutes, stacked neatly in piles for the next morning. Cullen gaped like a fish. “Tomorrow I will ask Josie for a recommendation for an assistant for you. What do your Captains and Lieutenants do? Even if an assistant can only sort and prioritize, you can still delegate.”

“I wanted to make sure it was done right.”

“So you don’t trust your officers?”

“Of course I do!” Cullen’s brow furrowed.

“Then give them more responsibility! Over-working aside, the Inquisition cannot afford the time it would take for you to do it all yourself.” Asta leaned back, hip cocked out insolently. “Delegate and start sleeping at least four hours a night, Commander, or I’ll replace you with Rylen.”

“Asta…” Cullen warned.

“Inquisitor, if you please. Now, go to bed. To sleep. That’s an order.” Asta was furious. These petty trials, they were keeping him away? Little pittances that any officer should have the sense to take care of? How dare he let them? It was all his fault.

Cullen was wise enough to move away and set his armor piece by piece on it’s stand. Asta watched, eyes narrowed in her ire, not trusting him to not go right back to his desk if she left the room in her anger and pique. He climbed the ladder silently, raging. She was right, and that was the worst part. He raged at himself, at the situation and how he had let it get this far, and a little at her for ordering him around like that, necessary or not.

She followed him up the stairs and started getting ready for bed. It took her sliding into the other side for Cullen to push back his sullenness to ask, “You’re staying?”

Asta bit her lip to avoid asking him the same thing. She didn’t want a shouting fight. She wanted him to sleep. “Do you want me to go?”

“No.” He bit off. And then sighed. “I’m sorry I didn’t ask. I did think about it, but figured you would say if…” he didn’t know how to finish the sentence.

“You should be.” Asta was shivering on her side, refusing to touch him.

“I don’t like it when I’m obviously wrong,” he added, unfreezing a little. “I don’t like losing anything.”

“Nobody does,” Asta agreed, coldly.

“Will you be my assistant?” Cullen rolled over to face her.

“No. I out-rank you,” but she was trying not to smile at the question. “Besides, I’m not sure we could work together.”

“We work together all the time!” Cullen protested.

“No, you report to me, and I handle final decisions and concerns. If we couldn’t tell who was in charge… it would get complicated. I’m not sure how, but we have to keep our personal life separate.”

“Will you leave your desk here?”

“If you like. It would be nice to have a place to sit.” Asta’s voice sounded funny. “But only if you promise to delegate and sleep. I like you, I don’t want you to kill yourself with work, Cullen.”

Cullen reached for her hand and kissed it. “I’ll try.”

“And you’ve got to stop trying to work so hard so that you won’t have to think. And don’t say that isn’t part of it. It is. Lyrium used to provide you a purpose, a false sense of duty. You are trying to fill that with work, with the Inquisition. It isn’t healthy.”

Cullen swallowed, “I’m not really used to anyone caring what… whether I’m healthy.” Asta nearly cried. Did he realize how pitiful he sounded?

“Get over that right now,” Her voice cracked. “If this is going to work you have to be more than a Commander. And stop assuming that people don’t care. I care. Dorian cares. Your sister cares. Maker, even my blighted brother cares, though he expresses it in death threats. Do your job. Do it well. And get some fucking sleep already!”

“In short, I’ve been an ass.”

“Yes, but now you’re my ass.”

“Andraste’s ass?” Cullen laughed rustily. Asta put her cold feet on him in retaliation. “Come here.” He reached out and pulled her in. “I did miss you.”

“And yet I’m right here. Will you notice now?” She sniffed, trying not to cry. It had been a hard week.

“I always noticed. Even in Haven. I couldn’t keep my eyes from you. And I worried about you this week, when you didn’t say anything about... I didn’t know. So I worked harder, trying not to think. Like you said.” He kissed her head. “Maker’s Breath, if you are always right it’s going to get really old.”

“Then do better. Start asking questions. Quit putting this on me.” Asta’s harsh words were belied by her cuddling into his heat, even though the blankets were around her like a cocoon. “Oh, you’re so warm. Your bed is unbearable without you, you know.”

“So you missed me? Or my body heat?”

“Both. Now sleep, you ass.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

Chapter Text

It was a bad day. Cullen had woken long before Asta, guilt and stress weighing him down onto the mattress and making him feel suffocated. So he rose instead, and making his way down to his office, he longed for clarity, or at least for the illusion of clarity that lyrium would bring him.

You aren’t enough. You can’t do everything, you can’t do anything the way it should be done. You, commanding an army? A broken man who abandoned all his loyalties? All his vows? And you think you can love her? You got back to Skyhold and ignored her, out of fear, using work as an excuse and escape. Coward. Fraud. The voices were insidious as he stumbled through his morning work, made simple by her swift organization of the night before. He collapsed, his head in his hands, thinking. He didn’t want to take it. She thought he was strong enough without it. He wouldn’t take it. She didn’t want him to. Did she?

To distract himself he walked out onto the battlements, trying to find a runner to deliver messages to Leliana regarding assigning Xavier to one of her scout groups, but it was barely dawn - no runner was evident yet. Of course. Only he, the man who couldn’t sleep, and the endless parade of guards were awake at this time of day. His mouth twisted wryly. Apparently five minutes of triage led to him being able to sleep past dawn. He could hear Asta moving around above him, now, and part of him wanted to avoid her, make an excuse and leave his office before he had to see her. But his behavior had been cowardly and she was right. So he made himself stay, to face her and the consequences.

“Morning.” Asta sounded terse.

Cullen cleared his throat. “Good morning.” It wasn’t, and an awkward silence blanketed the room like drifts after a blizzard. It filled the air around the whispers in Cullen’s head. Not enough. Never enough. Just take it and be enough. “Asta, I…”

“I’m sorry.” In the harsh light of the morning, Asta realized she had blown it. “I took it too far. You’re an excellent Commander, the Inquisition would be nowhere without you. I shouldn’t have let a personal matter influence me to threaten your position. I was out of line.”

Cullen blinked. But she had been right. “I see,” he managed.

Asta had a lump in her throat the size of a bog fisher. She swallowed it. What had she expected, for him to throw himself into her arms and kiss her madly? Silly little girl. “I’m going to have someone send up food for you. And I’ll go speak to Josephine about a list of assistants for you. Maybe I can have something by the end of the day. Any skills you require, Commander?”

“Um,” Cullen thought about what he liked about her helping him, what he liked about her reports, other than that they came from her, “Good handwriting? Combat experience - they don’t have to be a good warrior, or anything, but some training would be helpful. An organized mind? Common sense.”

“That last is rarer than it should be, but I’ll see what Josie has to say.” And she was gone, his chance to beg her forgiveness, to try to make it better was gone, vanished with the morning fog.

***

Josie was most accommodating. “Inquisitor, how did you manage to make him admit that he needed help? I’ve been trying since Haven!” She opened a drawer and rifled through it madly, as if afraid that the Commander would change his mind if she waited more than a minute to comply. “I’ve had a list for months!”

Asta sighed. “I yelled at him. Told him he wasn’t fit to be Commander of my armies if he wasn’t sleeping. Insulted his delegation skills and how he uses his officers. I threatened to remove and replace him with Rylen if he didn’t take better care of himself. Then I organized his desk, and removed about 40% of his responsibilities.” Asta looked rueful. “I was a bitch.”

“So you had a fight.” Josie finally found the sheet of parchment, scanning it quickly to make sure it was the right list.

“You might say that. We have to work on the whole personal versus professional life thing. I need boundaries. He needs to quit closing himself off when he’s unsure.” Asta shrugged helplessly. “It’s been a horrible week. Hopefully it gets better.”

“It’s a shame that’s what it took to get him to accept help. But here,” Josie laid out the sheet of names for her. “I don’t think you know any personally.”

“The Commander requested someone with an organized mind, common sense, and combat experience. Oh, and good handwriting. I think he may need glasses but won’t admit it. I keep catching him rubbing his eyes.”

“Men,” Josie sighed. “And some women. Leliana is the same way. Spends all her time in that dark rookery reading reports but Maker forbid I ever suggest better lighting.”

“Well, I’ve pushed far enough with this, I fear. Maybe when he doesn’t have to read minor requisitions for hours on end his headaches will improve.” Asta sighed. “I said terrible things. I wonder if Cole could make him forget them.”

“Who? Oh! Cole, the strange young man. I don’t think that would be wise. A… talent like that shouldn’t be misused. It’s tempting, though, I grant you.” It was Josie’s turn to sigh. “We’ve all things we wish we could forget, but overcoming them makes us better people.”

Asta squeezed her hand and rolled up the parchment. “Thanks, Josie.”

“You are quite welcome, Inquisitor.”

***

Cullen paced in his office, food sitting untouched.

“The look in her eyes as she spoke, the pain in her voice. Cold, so cold. How can I warm her again? The slick of lyrium as it coats my throat, I’d rather taste her. Can’t forget. I’ve hurt her, hurt her, hurt myself instead.”

“Cole, this isn’t helping.” Cullen leaned against his desk with both hands.

“She’s hurting too. Said too much, meant it then but didn’t this morning. Words can’t fix everything. I’ve broken us, broken him. What have I done? Cold tower, icy wind cutting through the warmth of his voice.” Cole stopped, puzzled. “Why do you both think this can’t be fixed? Cracks can be mended, the right glue makes them stronger. She wanted to help, but you wouldn’t listen without the hurting. She’s sorry. You’re sorry about something that didn’t happen, for not planning enough, for causing her pain and fear over something that you want but Maker, not yet?” Cole looked even more confused. “You locked yourself away, working to forget. Maker, what a mess I’ve made, everything I touch is ruined.”

“Cole, please…” Cullen collapsed in his chair, head back in his hands, trying not to weep.

“But it didn’t happen. Never did. Why are you guilty? This isn’t the Gallows, she’s not trying to hang you.” Cole stepped closer. “You were happy at the lake. Coin in her pocket, she slides her fingers along it, worries over the edges, smoothing them out, like a river stone. A rare thing, made even more precious. It’s his. Am I still his? Is he mine?”

“Of course I am!” Cullen had to grab the tray, nearly overbalanced, with his abrupt standing.

“Then I helped!” Cole popped out of the office, air whooshing in to fill the vacuum he left. Cullen sat back down, shaking now with nerves. Cole was too disconcerting.

***

Asta made her way slowly back to Cullen’s office, reluctant to face him again, and Cole’s abilities still on her mind.

“You think you want him to forget, but it’s you that wants to forget. Neither of you need to. You both say you’re sorry, but you won’t forgive yourselves. You aren’t even angry at each other, though you think you should be.” Cole tilted his head, enormous hat shadowing his face. “I don’t understand. Why should you hold this in when he doesn’t blame you?”

“Because he should blame me, Cole. I was wrong.” Asta leaned against a wall, main hall thankfully empty with the early hour.

“He says the same thing. He just did. If he’s not angry with you, and you aren’t angry with him anymore, why are you so sad? You should kiss him. That makes you both glow.” His eyes drifted off to follow the dust motes that floated in the dawn light streaking through the stained glass windows. “Water shadows playing patterns across her skin. I thirst, but not for water. Her lips like wine, let me drink from them, drunk upon her taste. The smell of morning fog and the dampness of dew, she is brighter than the sun, deeper than any lake. Maker, let me be brave.”

Asta blushed, “Cole, we’ve talked about this.”

“But he doesn’t mind people talking. He’s proud, wants to shout it from the battlements, that you chose him. That hasn’t changed.” Cole stared. “And you should know, he’s told you. Why aren’t you listening?”

“It’s not that simple, Cole. I said mean things, I caused the hurt. That makes me feel bad.”

“He hurts, but not from you. He hurts himself with the wrong words. He wishes you were there. You make the words stop for a while.” Cole nodded. “That’s it, I helped now. You should go help him. I could only help a little.” He disappeared as suddenly as he came.

Asta shook her head, still fingering the coin in her pocket. What had just happened? She ran now, clearly seeing her destination, ignoring Varric, just appearing by his fire, Solas stacking books and calling out a good morning. She had to get back to him.

They met each other on the bridge between his office and the tower, his coin in one hand and the list in the other. Asta just blurted it out. “I say things when I’m angry. I mean them when I say them, but… I need to learn to hold my tongue.” Asta clenched her hand around his coin, edges digging in. “Any suggestions on how we fix this?”

“I should apologize. I have no idea what I’m doing. It’s been such a long time… I’ve been alone too long. But I want this, want you, in my life.” Cullen took her hand, and turned it face up to see his coin. “If you need to learn when to stop, then I need to know when to start. I need to quit feeling ashamed to ask. All we can do is keep trying, unless… you don’t want…” He blinked, trying to talk through the constriction in his throat.

“NO!” Asta grabbed his other hand, and gripped it tight. “I don’t want our first fight to make us fall apart. Neither of us know what we’re doing. We will make mistakes.”

Cullen laughed bitterly, “I’ve made enough mistakes for a lifetime.”

“You and me both. But we will make more. That’s life. We’re adults, even if we aren’t used to this part of being adults. We can do this.”

“Maybe you can, I…” Cullen shook his head. “You deserve better.”

“No!” Asta squeezed his hands. “We can do this. Like I said at the lake, you are one of the things that makes it worth it. I’m not losing you, Cullen. Not over this. Not as a Commander or as my… what are you? We’ll have to figure that out, too.”

Cullen smiled, more than a little relieved, “I am yours.” His smile, sweet and honest took her breath away. “And I am sorry, for everything I did and didn’t do.”

“As long as we remember that just because we fight it doesn’t mean that we are automatically going to dissolve, I think we’ll be okay. A fight can be resolved. Conflict is healthy, if we do it right.” She looked at him, shyly. “Now can I have a good morning kiss? I missed you.”

“You can have all the kisses you want,” He dropped her hands and held her, tight against his furry shoulders. “Feel free to distract me any time.” He kissed her chastely.

“Well, maybe not any time. I doubt I should interrupt you in the middle of meeting with your officers. Oh, and I have your list! Josie’s had one ready for you since Haven! Why didn’t you say anything back then, you stubborn man?”

“Come on, let’s eat the food you had sent up, and I’ll look it over. I have an idea or two myself.” She leaned against him as they walked back, Cole watching them from the roof of the tower.

“I helped,” he whispered, and smiled.

 

Chapter Text

Cullen marched for Adamant with the Inquisition forces two weeks later, weeks filled with too much busyness, and too little time for each other, as they ramped up for the most difficult mission the Inquisition had yet to attempt. He looked tired, but didn’t fall asleep on his horse as he left the gates. Even he admitted that having dedicated help made a huge difference, even if the young chevalier was Orlesian.

Asta left a week later with her smaller, faster team, dread in her heart. This would be bloody and a lot of good people on both sides were going to die. She was tired of killing people, tired of having hands stained in blood while she tried to rebuild Thedas into something better. That they were attacking to prevent ritual sacrifice did not make it easier for Asta. It was just a grim necessity, an evil made palatable by its need.

It didn’t help that the nightmares had started as soon as she left Skyhold. The first night she thought it was just a dream as she woke gasping in the blackest night, the anchor shooting sharp pains up her arm toward her heart. She had dreamt of blood, blood staining her hands as if she had dipped them in a bath full of the slimy warm liquid. When she woke she could still feel the ichor and she rubbed herself red trying to rid herself of the feeling.

The next day she was tired, and it showed in her movements. Her sleep had remained fitful, and gave her little rest. Her group inquired if she was well, nervously, knowing that it would have little impact on anything if she wasn’t - they had a deadline to keep, and only a few days leeway. She felt Solas’ and Coles’ eyes upon her, but insisted she was fine, just needed more sleep the next night.

But the next night she dreamed of Redcliffe, incased in red crystal as it grew around her slowly, first stopping her from running, then preventing her from taking a deep breath, freezing her to the wall like it did Fiona in her cell, and then taking her mouth, frozen in a silent scream, her nose, making her breathe cease entirely, muffling her ears, covering her eyes as she finally saw nothing but refracted red. She woke screaming, Cole next to her in an instant.

“Red, red, it’s all red. Died screaming, dead, dead, they all are dead. In their blood the Maker’s will is written.” Cole was distraught, and Solas came bursting into the tent.

“Calm down, Cole, it was just a dream,” Asta gasped, trying to slow her heartbeat and get enough air. The air tasted so sweet, it felt so good to move her chest.

“Not a dream, not a dream. He fights the Veil, so thin, so thin, just a little tear, a minute rip and he’ll be through.” Cole chanted, rocking a little.

“I see,” Solas rocked back on his heels at the entrance to her tent. “Cole, was it a demon?”

“Demon, yes. He is the one who feeds. The Grey turn red, dead, falling to folly.” Cole grabbed her hand. “Don’t take me with you! I need to stay with the Commander!”

“You can stay with Cullen, Cole. I won’t make you come with me.” Asta soothed, somewhat recovered. “Solas, what is going on?”

“I believe you are being attacked. The veil grows thinner, I fear. The Wardens have begun the sacrifices, and as the veil thins, you are more vulnerable. The anchor makes you an easy target, I believe.  One that is blocked with the ancient wards that are upon Skyhold.”

“Bright, so bright, brighter than you should be. They stretch for it, long for it…” Cole stopped suddenly. “Trying on your dreams, what fits, little girl?” He tilted his head, as if listening. “He’s gone for now. You should sleep again. I will stay.”

“Thank you, Cole.” Asta laid back down. “Solas, we’ll talk about it in the morning?”

“Certainly, Inquisitor.”

***

The dreams were standard for Cullen, he dreamt of dragons, ripping in the dark, watching her fall when he could not reach her, his shield shrinking until it disappeared entirely, of demons taunting him with their bodies, wearing Asta’s face, but the worst was the blood mages, corrupting him with red lyrium, slowly changing him from the inside out. It was unnerving, but he was barely phased. He had nightmares every night.

No one realized the entire camp was having nightmares every night.

***

Asta dreamt of the Fallow Mire, bony hands reaching from underneath, pulling her down under the diseased water, tasting of muck and filth as she choked on it, as her flesh dissolved and she discovered that she was one of them.

She dreamt she was a mage, held by ropes of hemp cutting into her wrists and ankles, bound and gagged, and Cullen was wielding the Tranquil brand. She woke just as he touched it to her forehead. Cole sat with her after that as she sobbed, despairing at what the demon had done in her dreams.

“It’s not real, feels real. He didn’t do it, but he knew it had happened, all too late. Too late. We can’t be too late.” Cole stroked her hair. “He melted the brands behind the wall. Never again.”

“Cole, how can we stop this?”

“We can’t. Not yet. It will happen too soon, not soon enough.”

“We have to move faster. Get there sooner. The dreams are worse.” Asta shuddered.

“What will you do when they are real?” Cole asked.

Asta had no answer.

The next night the anchor had swallowed her whole, itching like little legs as it devoured her entirely until all that was left was a green glow no one could see.

“I see you. You are Asta, bright but not lost.” Cole reassured. She held him tightly, unable to go back to sleep.

And then the spiders came, clicking madness out of a gloomy grey, drooling and spitting poison and always so large. They crawled and bit and wove her into their webs, paralyzed and numb. She couldn’t use a bedroll after that, and slept under Cole’s cloak and her own. The cold desert nights were not conducive to just light covering, but she was barely sleeping anyway. After all her lectures for Cullen to sleep, Asta couldn’t bear to close her eyes.

And then they were there, in sight of Griffon Wing, the keep a flurry of activity inside and out. It looked amazing, no longer the decrepit remnant of a forgotten Tevinter presence, the Inquisition’s banners snapping in the wind, glowing against the desert sun. Cullen’s construction teams had even dispelled the dark miasma that had haunted the far edge of the keep’s boundary. It was so crisp, so clean, in the midst of the sand and grit. It felt almost like coming home.

And then she saw him as she climbed, rucksack on her back, trying to find him, Rylen, anyone she knew in the cramped close quarters of the suddenly inadequate keep, her companions already scattered, most to find a drink and a bed. His face lit up unprofessionally, dismissing the officers accompanying him with a curt nod. Rylen’s mouth twisted wryly, seeing all too well why the Commander was so eager.

He walked quickly, never deviating, expecting others to dodge him, perhaps, in his single mindedness of reaching her. “Inquisitor!” He beamed, “Wait until you see the siege engines!”

Asta burst out laughing. “Josie came through, then? Without any - gratitude - on your part?”

The Commander blushed like a small boy caught in the act. “No, though she made me write a thank you note.”

Asta snorted, “Yes, horror of horrors to have to write. That does sound like Josie.” They fell into step together, hardly caring where their feet led them.

“When did you arrive?” Cullen feasted on her face. She looked tired, worn down.

“About fifteen minutes ago. I was just trying to find you and Rylen, find where to hang my helmet, so to speak. Any clue?” Asta babbled a bit, having him so close and not able to touch him was a small slice of torture. “I won’t keep you long, but it would be nice to wash the sand off before we go get filthy again. I hate sand, but I told you that.”

Cullen had stopped, looking around the Keep quickly. “Follow me.” He kept a brutal pace that was working the stiff muscles from the saddle out all too well for Asta. Her legs felt like limp Rivani noodles. “The intent was to keep you close to the center, with the rest of your team, Rylen, Hawke, Stroud and I. Temporary, since we march in two days, but there you go. Well, it’s all temporary - the keep doesn’t have much in the way of permanent rooms. Alcoves, lofts…” Cullen trailed off, thinking of a purpose for some of the more secluded alcoves. And then he jerked back into himself, “And here we are. Your tent, Inquisitor.”

“Commander, we already have tents! Just show us a spot to set them up,” Asta protested.

“No, but I’ll take the ones you have. Some Orlesians showed up unexpectedly and we are running a little short of accommodations. We were already sleeping in shifts,” Cullen confessed. “Well, not the officers, just the troops. It’s very tight quarters, I’m afraid.” He waved a lieutenant over “Patterson! Take this tent and see it gets to where it needs to be!” He handed it off, ever efficient. “And no, Inquisitor, you will not be sharing a tent. That would not be appropriate.”

Asta gave in. “Very well.” She slung her pack down and stored it away, not really looking. “My companions have tents as well, Patterson. If supplies are that short, I suggest you check in with them. They are probably mostly in whatever passes for a tavern.”

“No taverns, Inquisitor, but they might be in the mess. I’ll find them. Ser!” Patterson saluted and marched out.

“So how’s the water situation?” Asta asked.

“Not idea, but better,” Rylen stepped up behind Cullen. “You’re early, Inquisitor. We’re still getting set up. I’ll have the troops ready for inspection immediately.”

“That won’t be necessary, Knight-Captain,” Asta protested.

“On the contrary, Inquisitor, it’s good for morale! Inspection isn’t for you, it’s for them. Remind them what we’re fighting for, eh, Commander?” Rylen winked at him. “Well met, anyway, Inquisitor. I’ll just go and rally the troops then.”

“Off with you, old man. Go find something useful to do,” Cullen dismissed him.

Asta blinked after him. “Commander, have you known Rylen long?”

“Met him after Kirkwall. He showed up from Starkhaven literally putting out fires. With a bucket. Handy, practical fellow.”

“Old man?” Asta followed Rylen with her eyes. “He hardly looks ancient.”

Cullen grinned. "We had the same rank in Kirkwall. A little easier to be familiar with each other that way. He’s one of the few friends I made in that mess. But he’s about eight years older. So naturally, cocky sort that I am… I’m sorry, it’s a little unprofessional.”

“No, it’s fine. I’ve just never seen you so…”

“Relaxed?” Cullen prompted.

“In your element. It makes me wonder why I’m here.” Asta tried not to fidget. There were a million eyes on her, weighing her down with their respect and admiration.

“Well, if you can postpone your sponge bath, we can jump right into that, if you’d like.” Cullen led her around the grouping of tents where simple trestle tables had been set up with books, maps and reports, all weighed down with inkwells and rocks. “There’s been a lot of making do out here, as you can see. Doing a tour at Griffon Wing is becoming synonymous with being a tough bastard. The cook you sent is excellent though. Try his fish pie, if you get a chance.” Cullen looked over his shoulder, “Makes Rylen homesick. Got all teary-eyed.”

“Fuck off, Commander.” Rylen briskly rejoined as Asta laughed.

“Insubordination?” Cullen twinkled and winked at Asta.

“Just telling it like it is, Ser.”

Asta shook her head. The nightmares of the last week had not prepared her for a jovial, crisply efficient army camp. “Gentlemen? You were saying?”

“The scouts have reported that the Wardens have holed up in the center of the keep, here.” Cullen indicated. They are maintaining a watch, but none of their scouts…”

“That we’ve seen…” Rylen interjected.

“Have investigated us. It’s odd, I would have thought the Venatori involvement to be greater with Erimond in charge, however tangentially. No matter, I’m sure they still have plenty of information about our numbers and your expected presence.”

“Why is that?”

Rylen sighed. “Lost a scout patrol near Adamant yesterday. Never found the bodies, so it wasn‘t varghest or that damn dragon. Captured, probably killed. Blood magic in the air.”

Asta winced, “So the demons?”

“Are in the fortress, Inquisitor. There will be heavy resistance. Wardens are trained fighters, experienced at killing the worst that Thedas has to offer. They won’t make it easy. I don’t have to lecture you on how to fight demons, of course,” Cullen complimented, smirking her way.

“On the contrary, if you have a lecture prepared I’d love to hear it,” Asta flirted.

Rylen groaned, “Keep it in your pants, Commander. No one wants to see this.”

“I do!” Dorian slid alongside Asta. “Everyone's settled, Inquisitor.  So what’s the plan then?”

“As I was saying,” Cullen cleared his throat, “Hawke is going to be on the battlements, attempting to keep them free for our foot soldiers. Stroud is going in with you. He’s hoping his presence will cause defections amongst the Warden warriors. The mission is either to stop the ritual entirely by persuasion, or in the worst case, take out their leadership and Erimond so that we can wipe them out, or break the influence Erimond is having over them.”

“And I need to be there because…” Asta prompted.

“We have reason to believe they are tearing the veil, trying to bring something through.”

“Bigger than a demon?”

“A very big demon.”

“Pride?”

“Bigger.” Both Rylen and Cullen looked grim. “We need you to mend that rift and stop the ritual.”

“Wow,” Asta shook her head. “I am so not the right person for this job.”

“No, you are literally the only person for the job,” Rylen pointed out practically. “The soldiers will clear your way, Inquisitor. This has to happen. If the Wardens succeed, a demon army will march across Thedas. Our soldiers know the risks. They’re behind you.”

“We all are,” Cullen affirmed, catching her eye. Rylen snorted, but didn’t comment otherwise.

They adjourned after that, Asta leaving to find some wash water. She got about halfway down the steep flight of stairs before being tugged abruptly back into an alcove. “Mmph!” A hand was over her mouth. A familiar hand. “Cullen, what in the Void?” She hissed.

“Hi.” He smirked at her and kissed her, up against the wall, hidden from view, at least temporarily. “I had to figure out how to get you alone to greet you properly. If I had done it out there, there would have been cheering. Rylen is a terrible gossip and tease.” He looked indignant and Asta kissed him back, to remove the silly look from his face. “I don’t mind - he’s a friend after all - but the entire Inquisition looking on our private affairs… I thought maybe keeping them private for once sounded… nice.”

“I am a little upset I won’t be sharing a tent with you,” Asta admitted. “You have been sleeping?”

“Yes, Rylen’s like a nanny. Did you write to him or something?” Asta’s guilty look gave her away. “Oh, Asta…” he kissed her again, hardly able to keep away. “Maker, what wouldn’t I give for some real privacy.”

“Make it up to me back at Skyhold?”

“It’s a promise.” They kissed again, closer this time, wistfully pulling away and resting their foreheads together. “I have to go. Rylen will be looking for me. I probably won’t see you before tomorrow. I’m sorry.” He looked up, eyes wide with longing.

“Don’t be sorry. Work is work. I’m exhausted and will be sleeping as soon as I can manage to be horizontal.”

“You have to inspect the troops first. Rylen wasn’t kidding, I’m afraid.” He nudged her as they walked out of the alcove, Rylen surveying them, arms crossed, from the top of the stairs. “You shouldn’t have pushed so hard.”

“I didn’t mean to. But… I started having nightmares. Solas and Cole think it’s the Veil. Something is trying to get through.  I hope it's not the same thing you think the Wardens are trying to bring through.  Cole says I’m bright there, that demons and spirits can see me. Whatever it is, it’s trying me with a different nightmare every night.” Asta shuddered, remembering. “I hope I don’t have to face it. It… it’s been awful.”

“Now I really wish I was sharing that tent with you,” Cullen’s brows creased in worry. “Ask Cole to stay? He doesn’t have a tent in any case - since he doesn’t sleep.”

“Already done. He’s been very… compassionate.” Asta laughed, tired, so tired. “After the one with the stupid spiders he even gave me his coat so I could avoid being cocooned in a bedroll.”

Cullen hugged her with one arm, disregarding Rylen’s watchful knowing eyes. “I wish I could help, love.”

“I’m fine. Let’s just do this and go home, okay?” She looked at him and he nodded, brief but firm.

“You’ve got it, Inquisitor.”

 

Chapter Text

The cloudy night sky glowed with the fire of a thousand arrows. Asta waited, poised near her Commander as the ram slammed through the doors, the siege engines already mounted on the towers, and Inquisition soldiers climbing them like so many ants up a hill. The gates breached suddenly, the shiny black fortress cracked open like a nut, shining like obsidian in the flash and the smoke of the battle.

Asta had only time for a quick nod at Cullen, firm and controlled, fear in her eyes and then she jumped into the fray, her circle surrounding her, herself an island in their protecting sea.

The Wardens were formidable, but they had already mostly abandoned the courtyard, and Iron Bull and Cassandra made short work of those left, Stroud not even getting a chance to demand they stand down.

They fought their way through to the Main Bailey, hearing Warden warriors cry out against their own mages. The battle wasn’t just with the Inquisition, Asta realized, the Wardens were actually fighting amongst themselves. “Just fall back!” She cried out. “I don’t want to kill you! Our argument is not with the Wardens, but with the Venatori!”

“All right,” a Warden called back. “We will retreat. Clarel has gone mad with power.”

The group ran to the battlements, focusing hard on the soldiers struggling to find a purchase there against demons and Venatori. They found Hawke, Champion mode in place, and Asta called out, “Protect my troops! We’ll take out the rest of the demons!” Asta still wasn’t much use, but managed to take out a couple of rage demons with Solas’ help. The Pride demons had to be left to the warriors, as she slashed helplessly at what passed for their knees. It was a hard slog, but at last the battlements were clear, and at least some Inquisition soldiers lived. Asta restocked their potions and went to find the center of the keep. It was time to find Erimond and give him a reckoning he would never forget.

Clarel stood on a low dais, proclaiming the Warden’s betrayal by the Inquisition and the rest of Thedas, working her warriors up to sacrificing themselves for a greater evil. Erimond was at her side, bemoaning her delay of the blood sacrifice. Asta felt nothing but disdain.

“The Inquisition is inside, Clarel - we have no time to stand on ceremony!” He protested.

“These men and women are giving their lives, Magister. That may not mean much in Tevinter, but to them it is a sacred duty,” Clarel put the magister in his place firmly and turned to her colleague, an older Warden who had the look of a seasoned warrior.

“We have served together many long years, my friend,” Clarel affirmed.

“Too many, Warden Commander. If my sword arm can no longer serve the Wardens, then my blood will have to do.”

“It will,” Clarel breathed in his ear like a lover, and sliced his throat to the spine. Asta gagged at the blood, so much blood, and saw a glint of bone as he fell grotesquely, neck barely connected to his body.

Erimond smirked and called to the waiting Wardens - “Stop the Inquisition! We must complete the ritual!”

Asta took a deep breath and held up her hand, holding off Stroud and her friends. “What are you doing, Inquisitor?” Cassandra hissed.

“I’m going to try a little diplomacy, Cassandra. It’ll be just a moment.” Asta called out to Clarel, “Don’t do this! How will it serve Thedas or the Wardens to kill off it’s most experienced warriors?”

“We make the sacrifices no one else will, Inquisitor!” Clarel insisted. “Our warriors die proudly for a world that will never thank them!”

Stroud jumped in, “And then the magister binds their will to Corypheus.”

“Corypheus? But he’s dead,” Clarel stepped back.

“Clarel, these people will say anything to shake your confidence!” Erimond schmoozed, practically dripping with insincerity.

Clarel ran her hand over her face, confused. “Perhaps we could delay the ritual, test the truth of these accusations?”

“But you’ve come this far, won’t you see it through? The end of all Blights, Clarel, picture it…” Erimond hissed.

She popped her eyes back open, determined. “Bring it through.”

“Please! I have seen more than my share of blood magic, it is never worth the cost!” Hawke pleaded.

“I trained half of you myself!” Stroud protested, “Do not make me kill you to stop this madness!”

Erimond looked out on the collected Wardens, hesitating at the Champion and Stroud’s impassioned pleas and narrowed his eyes at the Inquisitor. “My master told me that you may come here, Inquisitor. He sent me this to welcome you.” Erimond tapped his staff deliberately a handful of times, sneering like a two bit villain out of a cheap melodrama.

“Seriously,” Dorian asked, “where do they get these characters? There must be a breeding kennel for evil Tevinter Magisters.”

Sera snorted. “Yeah, that would make sense. And it would explain the evil laugh.”

“Wah ha ha ha?” Dorian tried it on for size.

“Nope, no good. You’re not a magister, though, are you?”

“Good point. My parents have failed. Ah well, moving on.”

Corypheus’ dragon winged through the sky, each buffet from its wings sending the sickly sweet stench of red lyrium down to the Inquisitor and her companions. The mages audibly gagged as Clarel looked stunned, backing slowly, glaring at the archdemon and at Erimond equally. She attacked him in the next instant, a single lightening bolt to the magister’s unsuspecting back and he crumpled and fell to the floor of the dais. She shot him a look of disgust with her next bolt, but Asta couldn’t tell if she was more disgusted with herself or the magister.

“Clarel…” Erimond warned, but he was in no position to threaten her now. “Wait!” She threw another bolt of lightening, this one at the dragon. It fell short, but it fired at her anyway, from its perch on one of the stone spires.

Knocked back, she shouted one last instruction at the Wardens, “Help the Inquisition!” And leaping to her feet she followed the flying beast. Just in time for the Pride demon to manifest out of the rift, roaring as it came.

Asta was overwhelmed, but tried to take into account events. “Blackwall, Vivienne, Varric, Dorian, Sera, Stroud!” Asta called, “Stay here, help the Wardens and kill that demon!” Detain anyone who tries to stop you. Bull, Hawke, Cassandra and Solas, you’re with me. We’re going after Clarel, Erimond and that dragon.”

“All right!” Bull grunted, hefting his axe and shaking blood out of its fullers.

The smaller group ran for the stairs, pushing hard to catch up with the determined Warden. They were delayed, first by lesser demons and then by the dragon itself, which seemed determined to tease them, but not engage. “This doesn’t act like any dragon I’ve ever fought!” Hawke shouted around it’s red lightening.

“Is it because it’s an archdemon?” Asta shouted back.

“I don’t know - how should I know? You left all the Wardens back to kill the Pride demon! Nice going!” Hawke replied.

“Sorry! I had to make a call! I can’t be right all the time!”

They climbed ever higher, reaching the top of the keep to see Clarel popping bursts of flame at Erimond.

“Okay, good, now he’s the enemy,” Asta gasped, out of breath, leaning on her knees. “That’s something, I suppose.”

“You’ve, you’ve destroyed the Grey Wardens!” Clarel fumed, intent on Erimond’s destruction. She fired again, disarming him entirely.

“You did that to yourself, bitch,” Erimond claimed, wiping a trail of blood from his lip. Clarel snarled at him wordlessly. “All I had to do was dangle a little power in front of your eyes and you couldn’t wait to get your hands bloody.” He sneered again, pitifully, and she lost her temper, throwing a bolt that knocked him back towards the battlements. She strode towards him deliberately, outwardly calm now, with death in her eyes. “You could have served a new god,” Erimond gasped, wheezing and rocking in pain.

“I will never serve the Blight!” Clarel declared, a bit late.

The dragon swooped down and snatched Erimond up in its mighty jaws, Clarel firing bolts after it in desperation. It landed, crunching Erimond between its teeth, and watching Clarel insolently, like thinking about seconds, but Clarel continued to advance.

“In War, Victory,” she seethed. The ground beneath them all shuddered.

“The weight of the dragon,” Asta breathed. “Adamant wasn’t designed for this.”

Hawke snorted. “You’d think a Warden fortress would be designed to hold the weight and bear the attack of an archdemon.”

“The trebuchets weakened the entire structure,” the Iron Bull observed. “It’s going down. We need to get out of here.”

“Not without Clarel,” Asta insisted, as the mage fired another bolt at the dragon. The stone cracked underneath this time.

“In Peace, Vigilance!” Clarel yelled, completely focused on the dragon.

“Boss, you’ve got to get out of here.”

“If we don’t stop her, it could all happen again!” Asta put her foot down. “We’re not leaving unless she’s with us or dead.”

Clarel shot again, and Asta cried out a warning as the stone around her began to crumble. “In Death, Sacrifice!” She fired once more, realized too late her precarious position and turned, running for safety.

They all fell into the night as Asta’s hand flared green, and they disappeared.

 

Chapter Text

“Cole, why aren’t you with the Inquisitor?” Cullen was distracted, trying to watch the big picture and catch a glimpse of Asta at the same time. The spirit was sticking to him and it was hard hearing so many last thoughts of pain.

“I can’t go, not like this!” Cole refocused his eyes, “You need me more. She needs me to stay. Maker, what if I don’t come back?”

Cullen shook his head, and then had a thought. “Where is she, do you know?”

“Fall back! Fall back! I didn’t sign up for this. Is that an archdemon?” Cole’s eyes were unfocused and cloudy again.

“An archdemon?” Cullen’s eyes grew wild and desperate. “We have to find her, Cole!”

“She’s left them behind. No! Not Asta! They fight the Pride while she runs on. So many stairs.” Cole stopped and looked at Cullen. “She doesn’t like the stairs. What did they do to her?”

Cullen choked, grabbed Cole and started running, reaching the main courtyard in record time, only to be confronted by the Pride demon left behind by Clarel. Cullen and Cole dispatched it together, as Asta’s companions struggled to help. Cole handed out potions, and Cullen lifted Blackwall up by his armor, snarling. “Where did she go?!”

“She followed Clarel and Erimond,” the man panted, exhausted. “Top of the fortress, Commander, if I had to guess. Hard to hide something of that size.”

Cullen dropped him and ran again, Cole at his heels. “Soot on stone, red arcs off the walls, it takes out even the demons in its way. Victory.” Cole whispered, Cullen nearly unable to hear him over the pounding of his pulse, “Vigilance. Sacrifice.”

They reached the top of the stairs just to see her fall, green light haloed around her.

“I will never serve the Blight,” Cole whispered as Cullen fell to his knees.

“She’s gone.” His voice sounded dead, “She’s gone and I…” Cullen’s face was sunken, hollow in despair. His eyes distantly noticed the dragon fly away, back to its master.

“This is extraordinary,” Cole said, sounding like Solas. Cullen didn’t lift his head. “This is nothing like the Maker’s Bosom,” now he sounded like Hawke, and Cullen half stood, grabbing the slight man by his shoulders.

“Cole! That was… are they alive?!”

“Yes,” Cole tilted his head, focusing on the here and now. “You didn’t know? Confused, it’s not real, but too real. Not a dream now. There’s no darkspawn in the Fade, Clarel.” He sounded like Solas again, and Cullen nearly laughed in relief, and then realized.

“She… they are in the Fade. Physically in the Fade. How do we get her… them, back?” Cullen shook him ever so slightly, “How, Cole?”

“The rift. It’s better than staying here.” Asta’s cadences came through with this phrase and Cullen nearly wept. She’s alive.

“Then let’s get back to the courtyard.” He led the spirit back with him, gently. “Keep talking, Cole, whatever you can pick up.”

“Bull’s afraid,” Cole volunteered, “Stay out of my head! Yours holds no interest.” Cole shook his head, “No, that was before. This one is different.”

The Wardens gathered around Stroud. “Where is Warden Commander Clarel?” They were all young, inexperienced and other than Stroud, leaderless, Blackwall fading into the edges of the courtyard, keeping his distance.

“The Inquisitor opened a rift and fell into the Fade,” Cullen could hear his voice, detached and impersonal. “She lives, Cole says.” His voice cracked slightly and Dorian closed his eyes - in pain or relief, Cullen couldn’t tell.

Dorian snapped them back open, “Wait, she’s in the Fade? Physically? Where’s Bull?”

“How extraordinary,” Vivienne breathed in fascination.

“Yes, well, Cole can hear them, so they live, for now. He says they can come back through this rift, here. So, we wait.” Cullen crossed his arms. “Bring Rylen to me. I need a list of the dead, we need to get a makeshift infirmary set up to treat the wounded and someone tell me where that blighted dragon flew off to!”

***

Asta was very fed up with her companions right now. “Yes, we are in the Fade. Yes, the Chantry tells us that the Blight started with Magisters entering the Golden City and corrupting it. But Clarel, I don’t see any darkspawn, do you?” She tried to soothe Bull, shaking with his fear.

“Nonsense, it all started here,“ the obsessed Warden insisted. “This is our chance. Destroy the Black City and maybe…“

“There are no darkspawn in the Fade, Clarel,“ Solas confirmed. “If there were, I would have seen them. I am an expert on the Fade.“

“You couldn’t possibly have seen everything that is here,” the mage sneered.

“I am a Dreamer. Surely you’ve heard of them? Your experience is hardly that of a Circle mage, however you started out, correct?” Solas’ condescension was making Asta’s jaw ache with the clenching.

“Look,” Asta said, “We have to get out of here. There, I think that’s a rift. Solas, how much do distances apply in the Fade? If we go through there, will we be in the Western Approach?”

“It’s possible,” Solas thought. “No one has entered the Fade physically in ages. It would be impossible to say.”

“Thanks for nothing,” Asta gritted out. “Fine, we make for that rift. It’s better than staying here.” The small group started walking.

The Divine was a shock. Asta wished madly that Cole were with her, maybe he’d be able to tell who, what she - it?- really was. But did it matter? To Bull it did, evidently, but she seemed to want to help. Maker knows they needed all the help they could get. So Asta went to recover her memories, only to be waylaid.

She was knee deep in blood, sticky, viscous. She was swimming in it, drowning in it. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t reach the surface… she… Was brought back with a shock, as Bull took out a spidery looking creature that had pinned her down. “What happened?”

“It looked like it was trying to eat you, Boss,” Bull wasn’t shaking anymore, the physical release of hitting something helping him confront his fears. “So I took it down.”

“It was replaying my nightmares,” Asta said. “Prepare for more resistance. They don’t want to let me have them back.”

“Let’s prepare for a unique experience,” Solas was still too giddy.

“Can it, Solas,” Asta gritted out. “This may be your idea of a great time, but this sucks for me.” She turned a corner and creased her brow in confusion. “How in the world did these get here?” A desk and a chair sat in the middle of the area, partially cornered by rocks. “I know these… this is Cullen’s desk, Cullen’s chair.” She walked towards it slowly and read the note. Crushed, buried at Haven, trapped between the rocks and caught in darkness, monsters all around. It’s Cullen’s. This is his. She collapsed onto the chair. It seemed real enough. “It’s one of Cullen’s nightmares. I just know it.” She snapped her head up. “Get me a candle. Someone, someone must have a candle.” Cassandra handed one to her, and Asta placed it on the desk. “Solas, light it, please.” The mage complied in silence, and the Fade seemed a little less tense. Asta took a deep breath. “New plan. If we see any more of these notes, we fix what we can. Got it?” Her companions nodded, except for Clarel, who sighed impatiently. “Clarel, if you don’t want to be left behind in the Fade, you will obey me.”

The mage narrowed her eyes and nodded.

Asta continued to be attacked by the spidery things, each one replaying her own nightmares, but as they were slain by her companions she recovered her memory. “Maker have mercy, Corypheus…” she breathed, trying to set aside dreams of being encased in red lyrium. “He was there, at Haven. All along? Surely not…” She shook her head at Cassandra’s concern. “Let’s keep moving. We have to get back to Adamant.” To Cullen…

***

Back at Adamant, Cullen was trying to focus on his work, but Cole, true to Cullen’s request was keeping up a constant monologue. “She’s lit a candle for you. Just for you. The Nightmare is dragging her down, but she won’t let it get to you. Not Cullen. Cullen is safe. Shining knight in the shadows, I must get back.”

“Thank you, Cole, keep it up, please.”

“Solas is interested. The Warden Commander is plotting. No darkspawn in the Fade, but the Blight started here. Must be a way. The Nightmare feeds. Well, shit.”

Cullen narrowed his eyes. “Is she going to hurt them?” He tensed. Maker, if she betrays them there is nothing I can do.

“No, she has only one thought and that is the Blight. End it. Take it to the Deep Roads, kill it with fire, lightening. Die, die, die.” Cole paused. “Bull likes to kill the demons. It makes him feel better. He’s worried about Dorian. My mage, my Kadan… would he be my Kadan? Centered, stilled, filled. Crap, I hate demons. Not getting in my head, you fuckers.” Cole tilted his head, “Commander, what is a fucker?”

“I’ll explain it some other time,” Cullen was aware of Rylen’s amusement. “Rylen, any reports?”

“The Divine is there, and her memories are hurting her. No, I wouldn’t! I couldn’t! Wardens! Wardens did this! Clarel believes, she knew. Clarel and Hawke are yelling, fighting. SHUT THE FUCK UP! Let‘s argue after we kill the giant Fear demon!” That was so clearly Asta’s voice that Cullen blinked, and took a sharp breath.

“We have an infirmary set up and are handing out rations.” Rylen propped his hip against the makeshift desk. “We didn’t lose as many as we could. The soldiers on the battlements said it was Hawke and the Inquisitor’s doing. Apparently between them they took out all the demons up there and most of the Venatori. Also, we have a single Grey Warden who has asked to be taken into custody for war crimes, Ser Ruth.”

“She wants to be tried?” Cullen was confused, and Cole was babbling about flowers and nugs.

“Apparently so. Feels a strong sense of responsibility. Apparently she slit a fellow Warden’s throat and can’t handle the guilt.”

“Take her in, when the Inquisitor gets back we’ll have her tried then.” Cullen turned back to his endless paperwork.

Rylen hesitated. “You seem sure she will return, Commander.”

“She will, Knight-Captain.”

“She may be alive, but she’s in the fucking Fade, man. You should at least admit the chance…”

“No!” Cullen slammed his hands on the table, making it rock. “I do not. I will not. To work, Knight-Captain.”

“Yes, Ser.”

***

Asta looked at the flowers and at the vanity. “This is my vanity. Back at Skyhold. I remember this nightmare.” She set the flowers, Andraste’s Grace, down, and felt a slight release of tension again. She laughed, “Flowers in the Fade. Now I have seen everything.” Cassandra grinned at her as well. “Onward, I guess. I think we’re doing good here. The atmosphere isn’t as forbidding, don’t you think?”

“We are changing the Fade around us,” Solas confirmed. “It’s probably a product of the anchor’s influence.”

“I don’t care how we’re doing it, but it’s better,” Asta confirmed. “Moving on?”

The next dream had Clarel falling to her knees in shock. “Clarel?” Asta asked, moving to her side, “Are you okay?”

“It’s mine…” the Warden whispered. “This is my nightmare. Alone and dying in the Deep Roads. I never wanted to go that way. I’ve dreamt this for decades now.” She stood, suddenly determined. “I will not die in the Deep Roads. There will be another solution.” Asta looked around, and saw a tarot card, with a Warden mage that looked uncannily like Clarel.

“Was that there before?” Cassandra whispered, slightly disturbed.

“No,” Solas breathed. “She is creating what she needs from the raw Fade. It is…”

“Extraordinary,” Cassandra said dryly. “You said that.”

Asta dropped it into a waiting cauldron, and Clarel relaxed. “Let’s keep going.”

The next dream was bizarre, but Clarel seemed to recognize it. “It’s an ancient Warden,” she said, almost reverently. “This… was this how…” She snapped her head up. “This is a Warden secret. We need a vial of darkspawn blood. NOW.” Even Bull fell in, all of them searching, but again, it was Asta that who found it, cradling the small container, and then handing it off to Clarel, who set it down, gingerly. They all felt the change in the air, and sighed as one.

“Maker,” Cassandra sighed again. “What are we doing?”

“You are making the Nightmare angry.” The spirit of the Divine spoke. “You are changing his part of the Fade with every dream you take away, with every memory the Inquisitor recovers, with every Fear you destroy. You are weakening him, and he’s not used to being weak.”

“Fascinating,” Solas lit up, “How else can we change things?”

“There is another dream, just ahead. Calm the fears, remove the nightmare.”

Bull found the note on the little bed. “Damn, it’s a kid. A kid from Haven. Saw the world destroyed before his eyes. Wait, I know this kid. Krem made him a nug. He named it Ser Snort.” Bull laughed, “Figures we’d need a stuffed nug in the Fade. Krem will never believe this when I tell him.”

“Split up, then,” Asta said. “Search for a stuffed nug.”

“A stuffed nug with only one ear. The kid destroyed it by chewing on it.”

“Gross,” Cassandra stated.

Bull shrugged, “Eh, kids are weird. They’ll put anything in their mouths.”

Asta smiled when she found it, and tucked it in the bed gently.

“That’s the last of the dreams you can fix, Inquisitor,” the Divine said. “These were little fears, easily mended. There are more, but they are deep-seated in those that dream them. To take care of those the world will have to change.” Sure enough, they encountered more, but they were dreams of apostates and Templars, too afraid of each other to resolve. A child, abandoned during the Blight to darkspawn overrunning Denerim. Asta thought of Sera, and wondered.

Asta sighed, “We have to get back.” She faced the Divine, “How close is the Nightmare?”

“Not far. You will reach him soon.” She glided away.

“Too soon,” Bull grunted.

Then they found the graveyard. Some of the fears didn’t surprise Asta, like Cullen’s “Cowardice” and Iron Bull’s “Madness”. But Cassandra’s ‘Helplessness’… she caught the warrior’s eyes, surprised.

“Cassandra, you are the least helpless person I know!”

“It’s taken a lot of work to get that way.” Cassandra commented. “I see what I used to be, and I refuse to be that person any longer.” She shuddered. “I will never be that person again, Maker willing.” Asta reached out and held her hand, smiling in understanding.

***

“Dreamers dream gentle now, the Nightmare is hungry. Angry. Silly little girl, come to steal the fear I kindly lifted from your shoulders. Hawke, did you really think you could make a difference?” Cole said, “It’s time. She has to face the Nightmare. All of the Nightmare.”

Cullen sat down on the stool someone had found for him. “Maker, Cole. That is…”

“Yes. It is bad.”

“Keep talking, Cole, let me know what is happening.” Cullen closed his eyes, and put his palms over them. “Let me know what she’s doing, what they are all doing.”

“The spiders try to drag her down, to feed. She fears for you, for her, for her friends. They fight for her, as she is overcome. She must overcome! She fights, fights harder, fights for you. She has conquered your darkness, conquered Bull’s madness. She is no longer helpless, she is never alone. There is always something, Sera’s Void doesn’t exist.” Cole’s eyes buzzed back and forth, not seeing where he was. “Blackwall fears himself. She has defeated him, restored him. Vivienne is given purpose. I will never despair!” The spirit glowed slightly, and Cullen put his hand on his sword. “Dorian is above temptation! Varric denies his parents! SHE WILL NEVER GO BACK!” Cole collapsed onto the ground, and Cullen grabbed him, releasing his sword. “She is safe, he is driven back.” He shuddered and grabbed Cullen‘s hand. “The Nightmare is still there. Clarel wants to stay. Stay! To find the Black City, defeat the Blight. Hawke is arguing. Asta has chosen. A Warden started this, a Warden will end it. They come.” Cole went limp in Cullen’s arms, and the rift spat randomly, Bull, Cassandra and Solas tumbling out.

Cullen set Cole down, gently, and ran over. “Where is she?!”

“She’s coming,” Cassandra stumbled, and held on to Cullen’s arm, as he helped her to the ground. The rift spat again, and Hawke fell out, sprawling. Rylen ran over and lifted her, setting her feet to rights. It spat again, and Cullen was there, catching Asta, as she lifted her hand and sealed the rift, resigned and weary.

“You’re back, you made it back.” Cullen gasped out, fear choking him. Asta’s eyes were wild, she drank in his face. “You live, you’re alive.” Cullen wrapped his arms around her, “Maker, Asta, Asta…”

“Cullen, you’re… alive? The Nightmare didn’t…” She drew a shuddering breath. “It was real, so real? But not real.” She grabbed him. “You are here. This is Adamant. We made it back.” She passed out, suddenly and completely, and Cullen lifted her gently.

“I’m taking her to the infirmary. She will decide the fate of the Wardens once she has recovered. Rylen, you are in charge.”

Rylen nodded, eyes wide. “Andraste’s Shining Sword, Cullen, she came back,” Rylen wondered aloud. “She…”

“I know, Rylen. Worry about it later.” He tightened his grip around her. “Trust me, she’s human. As human as it gets.” He nodded at Cole and the others. “Take care of them. I won’t be back until she’s recovered.”

Cole breathed, “She walks into darkness again and again. Always comes back. Andraste preserves her, must, has to be.”

“Cole, keep it to yourself,” Cullen ordered. “She doesn’t need people worshipping her.”

“No,” Cole agreed, “Just you.”

Cullen blushed, and left, Asta in his arms, for the infirmary.

 

Chapter Text

Asta fought to maintain her sanity. The Nightmare had descended upon them all at once, without warning. Her last conscious memory was of the Divine trying to drive it back, so that the small group could take on one aspect of the demon at a time. But instead, Asta had fallen into some sort of waking trance, where she was aware of her friends and allies fighting around her, but she could not help at all.

“And that’s not unusual, is it, Silly Little Girl?” The Nightmare sneered, making the insult a title. “You’ve always been on the weak side. Your friends rally around you, protect you from harm. How tired they are, always having to jump in, take the hits meant for you, keep you out of the danger you make for yourself.

“Take the Bull! He follows you everywhere - how many times has he been injured as a result of your own stupidity? And you wouldn’t even sleep with him to lighten his burden, pay him back for his selfless defense. How selfish can you be? And do you think that if he dies in your service that Dorian will ever forgive you, my dear? Dorian cares for him, after all. The first person that Dorian has cared for that actually cares back.”

“That’s not true, Dorian cares for me, and I care for him. I would never hurt him!” Asta protested. “He is my family, him and Bull both!”

“And yet you keep dragging Bull around as your bodyguard, since you are so incapable. So helpless. Not like Cassandra. She has spent her entire life fighting her fear. You reveled in it, rolled in it, let it encompass you and define your life. You know she deserves better than to defend a weakling, a infant, an incompetent.”

“No! Cassandra trains me! She helps me get better! We recognize the same fear in each other and help each other overcome!” Asta was getting angry now. “And Bull is a professional. He knows the risks. He knows that I would die for him as much as he would die for me.”

“What is the price of your life, Little Sister? You aren’t concerned about him spying for the Qun? Sweeping in and taking everyone you love, turning Sera into a nothing - that’s what she fears, you know. The Void. One wrong step and everyone that follows you would fall, brainwashed and retaught, broken and frail. Sera reduced to - what was Bull’s phrase? - sweeping floors in a shop in Par Vollen? She wasn’t made to follow rules, after all.”

“Sera is stronger than she realizes. She makes the world around her better, defends the people in ways that they will never know. She will never live in an empty world with an empty mind!” Asta’s head hurt, what was truth? Were her words even helping? Was it any good to banter with a demon? But she couldn’t move, could only exercise her mind.

“And Blackwall. You know he can’t be trusted. If you only knew about how black the walls are that he has built to hide his sins. You should send him away, kick him out of the Inquisition. His kind are only fit to serve pigs their slop. If you were a better leader, you would recognize the liability. Or do you see yourself in him as well, hiding and lying from your sins? After all, Silly Little Girl, Silly Little Sister, you are responsible for the Divine’s death. You know and I know why you were in the Temple. Should I share it with your friends? Would they block arrows and swords for you then?”

“My sins are my own.” Asta gritted her teeth. “I will not judge Blackwall his secrets when I have my own. He is a good man, he saved my life the first time I ever met him. I will not send him away. No matter his faults, he has a purpose with the Inquisition.”

“A purpose, you say? A purpose like Cole’s? He is so like me - I take away the fear that people cannot handle, just as he takes away the pain. Don’t you think we are the same?”

“No! Cole just makes people forget so that he can try to help them again - so that they’ll trust him! You steal people’s fears to make them weak and yourself stronger! Cole doesn’t feed on his friends!”

“How do you know? Don’t you remember?” A series of events, her recent arguments with Cullen, a bevy of interactions with her friends scrolled through her mind. “Oh, Cole has been busy indeed.”

“Those are all ways he has helped! Cole always helps! You help no one except Corypheus!” Asta shouted.

“I see,” the Nightmare was amused now. “And who does Varric help? Raised from youth to be the spare, the extra son, his parents hardly taking notice, even when he flaunts his own misguided affair in front of their eyes. He’s more like them than he knows, obsessed with bets and money, building his own little empire while he takes care of his brother’s. Didn’t you know about his brother? For a storyteller, he certainly doesn’t tell his own stories. Just other people’s. How will he tell yours, I wonder?”

“Varric isn’t like that! He makes bets, yes, for his own and other people’s amusement. He’s done more for the morale of the Inquisition than anyone else! I don’t know his parents, but Varric is unique. He will never be like them. No one is like Varric, he is loyal and kind and funny and supportive!” Asta was tired, so tired. “Varric is my friend.”

“Is Vivienne anyone’s friend? Really? Her ambition is greater than anyone’s I’ve ever met. She is truly willing to do anything - from seducing a Duke - awfully convenient that she fell in love with him after all.“ The Nightmare paused, seemingly thinking, “Oh! Do you think Cullen is doing the same? Or maybe he‘s like Solas - who is allowing his fear of dying alone to lead him in with a ragtag group fighting against the very gods?”

“Vivienne is Vivienne. She doesn’t have to explain her plans to me. I respect her. We don’t agree most of the time, but she is powerful. Who am I to say if it’s okay for her to like the power she wields?” Asta narrowed her focus. “Solas is… reclusive. He never needs to fear dying alone. He will always have us.” Solas heard her speak, and did a double take in the background. Asta looked at him in confirmation and weariness. “And leave Cullen out of this.”

“How could I leave Cullen out of this?” The Nightmare’s voice took on a triumphant note. “Your brave Commander knows he has to be your shield else the only chance for Thedas - your own left hand - will be buried and gone forever. How far do you think he’ll go to protect your hand. Would he make love to you? Seduce you? Make it think it was your idea? When this is all over, he’ll send you back to the Chantry, alone and desperately in love, knowing he had done his duty. He’s the real hero, here, not you, for aligning himself with a silly lovesick innocent child full of her dreams. So he plays along with your hopes for a future… how long do you think those will last when you are no longer necessary? He’ll sign you over to the Sunburst Throne himself, kiss your hand and say goodbye, and probably head right to a tavern to celebrate.”

“He would never…” Asta gasped. “He loves me.” She fell to her knees. “He loves me. He said so.”

“There are all different kinds of love, Little Sister. Who is it to say that Cullen’s for you isn’t the sacrificial kind, taking you on for the greater good? There is your brother, after all, choosing to protect you - you can’t even save yourself from your family, can you, weakling? If you fail, how long will he stay?” The Nightmare paced around her, reminiscent of Cassandra’s pacing in the dungeon when they first met. “You don’t think he cares about you any more than your parents do, do you? Where was he when Adamant needed to fall?”

“I…” Asta’s brain was failing her. She fought back. “I don’t know if he loves me, but he is not like my parents. He’s his own person, and I will always give him the credit of the doubt. He reports to Leliana. She will use his skills as she sees fit. It’s better for me not to know, sometimes.”

“Then let’s discuss Cullen some more, shall we? Do you think you are enough to overcome a decade of remembered abuse, torment? Don’t you think you only make it worse with your silly fantasies, your daydreams? Do you really think he meets you with his own? Isn’t he just playing along? While you drag him down through his murky past, dredging up the worst times in his life? Who do you think you are?” The Nightmare teased. “Maybe he‘s already dead, dead in the battle he fought to reach you, killed by the Pride you left in your wake. You have too much pride. Just a Silly Little Sister who has read too much and thinks she knows it all.”

“No, I am not!” Asta rallied. “I am the Inquisitor!” I am. I am the Inquisitor, her heartbeat pounded. She drew a breath, gathered her strength. She realized her palm was spitting at her, the nerve endings ready to explode, and hatched a plan. She hated to do this, it hurt, but this once, it was necessary. They had to win. She had to save her friends.

“You are worthless!” But the Nightmare seemed lesser, Asta realized, and she could see her friends making headway, hacking away at it. Solas managed to freeze it still, and it shrieked. “You are nothing! Less than nothing!”

“I may not be much,” Asta stood up from where she had fallen, “But I’m all Thedas has. And I will NOT allow you to belittle me. I may be afraid of everything, but I control those fears, not you. They will make me stronger, and they are a part of me. You have no power over me or my friends that I do not give you.” She let her hand explode, enveloping the Nightmare and shredding it into little pieces. “I deny you, Nightmare. I am no silly child.” She watched it fragment away back into the fabric of the Fade, exhausted.

Bull spit on the ground. “Damn, I bet that felt good, Boss.” Solas started to put away his staff and froze.

Cassandra gasped. “Asta! Behind you!”

Asta turned slowly, and saw the massive spidery thing bearing down on them all. “Quickly! To the rift!” Cassandra, Bull and Solas ran for all they were worth, and made it to the rift and through before the Nightmare came between them and the portal. “Hawke, Clarel! Get through! I’ll distract it!”

“NO!” Hawke stopped Asta as she headed back to engage it again. “You have to get back. I’ll fight it. You get back! The Inquisition needs you!”

“Hawke, I can’t take you away from Thedas!” Asta’s mind boggled. “You’re the Champion! Thedas needs its heroes!”

“Let me stay.” Clarel spoke, eyeing the demon warily. “I started this mess, believing the false Calling, believing in Erimond’s foolish wishes. I didn’t want to die in the Deep Roads. My fear led us to this state. Let me atone for it, die a Warden‘s death.”

Asta stared, wild eyed at her, and then nodded. “Clarel, I know that you think Thedas will never thank you. But let me instead.” Asta saluted hand over her heart, head bowed. “Thank you, Warden Commander Clarel. We all owe you, the Wardens, our future.”

“Just go,” Clarel insisted. “You don’t have long. Get out of here before I change my mind.” She charged towards the Nightmare, while Hawke disappeared through the rift. “In Death, Sacrifice!” Clarel screamed as Asta watched, stepping backwards through the rip in the Veil, to fall into the arms of her Commander.

She lifted her hand wearily, seemingly by reflex, unaware of what she was doing, and sealed the rift at last, only then realizing who held her, where she was. Cullen was holding her, babbling at her nervously, and she gripped him. “Cullen… You’re alive? The Nightmare…” She drew a shuddering breath, “It was real, so real? But not real.” She grabbed him tighter. “You are here. This is Adamant. We made it back.” And she passed out, suddenly and completely, knowing she was finally safe.

***

Asta woke, hours later, but she woke distant, quiet in a way that Cullen had not seen in her before. A solemnity blanketed her, her mind preoccupied. He couldn’t find an excuse to stay, not with Wardens to find housing for and half the Inquisition to placate about their new allies.

“Go, Commander,” She had told him. “You have work to do. The healers say I am fine. We’ll talk later.” So he kissed her gently, as if she would break apart under his hands, and left. But later kept being pushed off by unnecessary jobs and meetings that should have been messages. It wasn’t until the night before their scheduled departure that Cullen finally caught her, curled up in an alcove behind a stack of lumber for scaffolding, crying to the point of broken sobs.

He said nothing, but pulled her close to him. She cried harder, so he held her firmer. It was a long time before she started to calm, voice still hiccupping, tears still running. “I’m…” Asta would not lie to him. She wouldn’t, but she wouldn’t tell the whole truth, either. If the Nightmare had told the truth… “just having a hard time with being worshipped. No one looks at me like I’m human anymore. No one cares that it was just an accident, that I picked up a ball at the worst time! It doesn’t matter that I was complicit in the death of the Divine!”

“Complicit?” Cullen couldn’t imagine Asta involving herself knowingly in an assassination attempt. “What do you mean?”

Asta eyed him, but this little truth was the safer one to trust him with. I can‘t tell him I doubt him. I just can‘t. It‘s not true, I won‘t let it be. But how could he want me? “This is the worst part of my restored memories. You can never tell Leliana. She’d have me killed. Yes, the Divine told me to go, she sacrificed herself to save me. It’s true. But she was reaching out to me. If I wasn’t so scared, I could have… and that’s not all. The day the conclave… ended, I was headed to a meeting with an unknown person, a noble, I was led to understand, who was interested in my research.” She said it in a rush, the words falling from her lips. “My research on cults, the Old Gods and Andraste. That’s why I went into the room where the Divine was being held, Cullen. I was supposed to be meeting with Corypheus, or one of his people, anyway. I was early, but I wanted to set up, to be prepared…”

Cullen swallowed, “But instead you interrupted -”

“and got caught up in events that led to the death of the fucking Divine! I don’t know much about blood magic - it’s not my field - but, Cullen, they were probably binding her.” Asta’s eyes were round and sorrowful with remembered shock and fear. “To control her mind, like the Wardens. If I hadn’t interrupted, she would be alive.”

Cullen shook his head, “And Corypheus would have succeeded all the sooner, love. And as for your research - all of us are responsible for our own choices. My choices in Kirkwall, in Kinloch telling The Warden to annul the Circle… I’m filled with regret. But my choices led us here. All the regret in the world cannot change them. You’ve more than made up for your innocent tendency to be overtrusting with your work. You’re hardly the same pale academic you were back in Haven, you know.” He held her tighter, pulling her into his lap, almost fiercely against his chest, wishing he didn’t have his breastplate on.

“But the damage it could have done, could still do, perhaps is doing - I don’t know whose hands it has been in while it was in Ostwick. Maybe I should stop. Maybe the truth I was searching for is too dangerous…” she said, shaking, despair in her eyes, staring up at Cullen, nearly too frightened to explain.

Cullen grabbed her hand. “No. Asta, the people of Thedas have been living their lives based on secrets, lies and half-truths for too long.” A stab of guilt shot through her. She should just ask him, told him what she feared. But she didn’t want it to be true. “They deserve the truth.” He pulled her closer, thanking the Maker silently that she was still there to hold. It had been so close. “You are the key that will unlock their chains, my love.”

She quieted a bit. My love. He’s still calling me that, even though he knows about the conclave. I should just ask. But I can’t. Could he be this good of an actor? I wouldn’t have thought so, before. I need to trust him, trust myself to know. I can’t let the Nightmare win this round, either. She smiled, feebly for his benefit. “That’s awfully poetic, Cullen.” She leaned her head in against his shoulder. “You really don’t think it’s all my fault?”

“No. If you hadn’t barged in on that… ritual the world would be in a far worse place.” You wouldn’t be in it, he wanted to say but just swallowed instead.

Asta relaxed a bit more, trying to believe him. “Okay.”

“Any other fears I can assuage?” Cullen asked, kindly. “Should we return you to your adoring public or can I keep you with me for a bit longer?”

Asta shuddered, “I don’t want to face any of them again. Even Rylen won’t even crack ribald jokes around me now. I can’t be who they want me to be, the Herald of Andraste, but they already believe I am.”

“I don’t know,” Cullen tried again. “You are brilliant, kind, forward-thinking, loud… all those things make for an excellent Herald.”

“I wish we could leave right now, this instant, today,” Asta muttered. “I want to get back to Skyhold, where my dreams aren’t messy and full of fear. I want to sleep in your loft with you instead of in a tent by myself. I want to find something to read in the library - there’s nothing to read here. Are you still sure food was a better choice than books?”

“That sounds more like my Asta,” Cullen smiled against her head and kissed it gently. “We can’t leave yet. But tomorrow we will be ready.”

“Tomorrow,” Asta sighed. Another night of bad dreams, of being alone with Cole holding her hand. The spirit looked worn out - as much as a spirit could seem worn out anyway. He had spent every day since the battle jumping everywhere trying to help. He was too busy with too many pains to help everyone, but he was trying. “Tomorrow we can go home.”

“And in the meantime, I have done everything I have to do for now. I will hold you until you are calm, and then see you safely to your tent. I will be your shield against those who blame you and those who believe you divine.” Cullen kissed her again. “I know the truth. You may not be Andraste’s Herald, but you are Andraste’s Asta. That‘s much better.”

Asta snorted, “You still think she chose me somehow?”

Cullen shrugged lightly. “It’s a better explanation than any other I’ve been given. That’s a whole lot of coincidences to swallow, otherwise. And I choose to believe that she chose you for me.” And me for you. “She knew what I needed.”

“You needed me?” Asta froze against his chest. That doesn’t sound like I make it worse.

“I will always need you.” Cullen opened his mouth to say more, and changed his mind. “But that’s another discussion for another time. Let me just say that when I saw you disappear into the Fade, I thought my life was over. I love you, Asta.” It’s not the time. When we are back at Skyhold, I will tell her, show her. Somehow.

Asta didn’t reply, but she held his neck tighter, and relaxed a little bit more. The Nightmare is wrong. He has to be. But how do you prove a Demon wrong?

It required some thought.

Chapter Text

The trip back from Adamant was long, the wounded of both sides of the bloody battle hindering the Inquisition’s progress. Thankfully, they had only one prisoner, Ser Ruth, and she was cooperative. Asta had flatly refused to put her to death in the field, and had told everyone she was to be treated humanely until they had reached Skyhold and she had thought further on an appropriate sentence.

Cullen could tell in a nagging sort of way that something was bothering Asta. She was reluctant to pull away from the others - even once they had stopped for the day he had troubles getting her alone. Alone was relative in any case. Her smiles were tentative, prone to disappearing, leaving him wondering if she had smiled at all. She treated her friends and Cullen as if they were made of spun glass, liable to splinter or shatter with a strong breath of wind.

“What happened to her in the Fade?” Varric asked Cullen, running his fingers along Bianca nervously.

Cullen sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. “She regained her memories of the Conclave, and faced a Nightmare demon that has apparently been feeding off of the entirety of Thedas for ages.” He stared at Varric, “I think it tried to possess her, from her description, but she fought it off,” he shook his head in admiration, “but she won’t talk about it, and it’s left… scars.”

“Well, that’s a load of shit to go through.” Varric stared back at Cullen thoughtfully. “So what are you going to do about it?”

“What am I - Varric, I just told you she won’t talk to me, to anyone about it. Cole probably knows the most, but you know what he’s like. I just get a replay of what I already know. I might as well be talking to a sphinx.”

“So don’t talk.” Varric rolled his eyes. “Look, you guys were all over each other before this mess. Puppy eyes meeting across the War Table, bad flirting, stolen kisses, disappearing together for days at a time… I could make a fortune off this shit. Now, she watches you, worried, but only when you aren’t looking.” Varric poked Cullen on his breastplate. “Ow.” He shook his hand. “Something happened to make her doubt you, Curly. So fix it.”

“Why would she…” Cullen started.

“I don’t know and you don’t know. Women are weird. Trust me.” Varric shrugged. “Hawke once blew up at Choir Boy over his belt. Claimed it was staring at her. True story. But it’s still up to you to fix it.”

“Great,” Cullen’s brow creased, “How can I fix it if I don’t know what’s wrong?”

“Your guess is as good as mine. Would I be single right now if I knew how to deal with a difficult, stubborn woman?” Varric winked. “You’ll think of something.”

***

Asta knew what she needed. But it couldn’t come from her. This once, Cullen had to make the advances. She had to know it wasn’t out of misplaced duty or because she was the Inquisitor. He had to approach her.

As Josie had once said, the Commander was a hammer to whom everything tended to appear as a nail. Lately Asta had been wishing a little too often for comfort that she was a nail. Bluntly, Asta needed a hammer. Instead, Cullen had been positively sweet, reassuring and patient, camping nearby without taking a single damn liberty with his proximity. Either he was perfect, in his own way, or the Nightmare was right, and it was all just an act, a performance to keep the Inquisitor sane and grounded, in the best interest of Thedas. Or he just couldn’t take the physical intimacy at all… because she made his own nightmares worse. She went back and forth in her mind, stuck in a rut of thoughts, uncertain about what to believe.

She wanted to believe him when he did finally pull her off to be alone, when he kissed her until she was weak in the knees, pressed up against a tree or a ruin, or in once memorable occasion, against the floor of one of the war wagons, crates and barrels stacked around them so that they almost had privacy in the near-dusk. She had been so sure it would go further - it was the most privacy they had had for weeks at that point - but he had pulled away, wincing.

“You deserve better than this,” Cullen had said.

Asta had wanted to scream, but they were surrounded by soldiers and Wardens less than a scream’s length away and as much as she wanted him, she let him help her down from the wagon after making sure they were unobserved, except by ravens. The ravens were always everywhere.

It took nearly three weeks of stolen moments for them to reach Skyhold, and by that time Asta was clenching her teeth and trying to avoid Cullen. The sexual angst was going to kill her otherwise.

***

Cullen was trying to fix things. He had brought her flowers, whatever he came across and remembered as having an appropriate meaning. Her fleeting smiles had been bought with most of them, the primrose being the most successful (I can’t live without you), but it had faded when their interlude was interrupted by Sera chasing a Halla towards them.

He caught her fiddling with a stalk of Sweet Meadow (uselessness) and worried, but decided it was a coincidence. He wove her a crown of Nasturiums (Victory in Battle) afterward, but she fed them to her nuggalope.

“He likes the peppery taste,” she explained, half-laughing insincerely, and then fed one of the flowers to him, humming slightly when Cullen nipped her fingers, but pulling away all the same.

He kissed her under an oak tree (bravery) hung with mistletoe, and thought for a moment that he would embarrass both of them with the way she ground into him, almost desperate for contact. But she stopped and drew away, breathing heavy and eyes black with desire and… fear? Sadness?

“Asta -” Cullen nearly begged, “Why… what is going on?”

She just smiled sadly and walked back to camp and her own tent, leaving Cullen in the woods to find a cold creek to bathe in.

Two days before he reached Skyhold he found a four leaf clover and handed it to her. Her eyes flashed up to his and he whispered, “Be mine?” in an attempt to not disturb the ever present ravens and let the entire battalion know exactly where they were hiding this time.

“I already am,” she whispered back. “Are you mine?” She scanned his face avidly, more than eager.

“Always,” Cullen replied, confused, “Asta, you know… what on Thedas… Why do you doubt me now?”

But Asta, as much as she wanted to confess, to tell him everything that the demon had said, just couldn’t. She just kissed him madly, deeply, crushing the clover into his hair as she wrapped herself around his lips. He almost laid her down right there, but held back again. And when she realized, she pulled away once more.

“Maybe at Skyhold?” She said, a question in her voice.

“Definitely at Skyhold,” Cullen clenched his teeth against the throbbing. “This is madness.”

Asta giggled half-heartedly. “You have no idea. I guess it’s a good thing we didn’t travel to Adamant together.”

Cullen rested his forehead against hers. “I couldn’t have stood for it,” he confessed. “I would have been sneaking into your tent like a sex-crazed teenager.”

Asta huffed, “Then why aren’t you doing it now?” She gritted her teeth, frustration and need pumping through her veins. She couldn’t help but just ask.

Cullen traced the circles under her eyes. “My love, something happened with the Nightmare. You haven’t been the same since the Fade. You are worried about all of us, about me. You doubt me.” She started to cut him off, but he covered her mouth his hand. “No, it’s not the time for protests or even explanations. You do. I don’t know why, but when we get back to Skyhold you’ll never doubt me again. I swear it.” He kissed her one more time, slower and sweeter and walked away.

Asta watched him leave, desire ringing through her head and body, with a mixture of hope and regret. Two more days. Merciful Andraste, I should have just told him.

***

It was a long two days, and Cullen knew by that point that she was avoiding him. He defied his own doubt and summoned his bravery and pursued her instead. He left flowers and a sprig of cedar (I live for you, think of me) in her tent as soon as he had set it up - the first one to pitch that night. She wore it pinned to her leathers the next day, catching his eye more boldly, but not moving to be near him.

They crossed over the bridge into Skyhold late that night. She didn’t come into his loft, choosing instead to sleep in her drafty room, wondering if the nightmares would finally leave now that they were back.

For once, Cullen was fine with that, as he had some planning to do, and a few to set in motion. He had had three weeks to plan, his love raging through him every moment, fed by their little interactions, and his conviction that she needed this, somehow. Now he had until morning to get everything set up. He already had a note ready for his assistant to deliver to his officers, and another for the Inquisitor. He had prepared as much as he was able. The rest could wait for morning. He fell into his own bed, satisfied and exhausted. Tomorrow night. He swallowed his nervousness and tried to fall asleep.

***

Asta woke the next morning in her chambers, fully rested for the first time in what felt like longer than a month. She reminded herself to tell Solas that Skyhold did keep at least her nightmares away. Too bad it didn’t work for Cullen. She bathed, it having been too late to request hot water upon her return the night before. She yawned, jaw cracking. She still had a lot of sleep to catch up on. She dressed slowly, deliberately thinking about the day ahead. A war council was inevitable, she knew, though perhaps a delay of a single day could be managed? Everyone was so tired.

She wanted to see Cullen most of all, desperately, but dragged her feet. Finally, dislike and the chill of her room conquered her fear and she opened her door, only to be confronted with a runner.

“Inquisitor!” The runner handed her a sheaf of messages, the Commander’s on top. “You are needed in the War Room at your earliest convenience!” And the young man was off before Asta could ask. Not that it would make a difference, she knew. She wandered in that general direction idly, reading the rest of her mail, but leaving Cullen’s for last. Josie wasn’t at her desk, but Asta assumed she was already waiting in the War Room. She hoped they hadn’t been waiting for her long.

The messages were all trifles, other than an urgent request from a Fairbanks regarding red templars and lyrium and bandits. More red templars. Asta sighed, suddenly weary again. Would this never end? She would discuss it with the advisors this morning and plan the trip to the Emerald Graves. She sighed, walking through the massive door. Hopefully she wouldn’t have to leave too soon.

She looked up at the quiet - usually Josie and Leliana were chatting amiably when she walked in. The War Room was not empty, but Leliana and Josephine were no where to be seen. Cullen stood nervously in his normal location, holding the hilt of his sword, but meeting her eyes. He looked… anticipatory.

“Good morning,” Asta started, “Where is everyone? I thought I’d be the last person here. Oh Maker, was I so late that Leliana and Josie left? I’m sorry, I was so tired…”

Cullen stopped her, “Leliana and I have agreed that we should put off a war council meeting until tomorrow to allow you to rest,” he started rubbing the back of his neck. Asta narrowed her eyes. Now she knew something was going on. “I’m considering giving a holiday to the troops as well, though I need to meet with my officers tonight, regardless.”

“Then why the meeting?” Asta raised an eyebrow skeptically. “And where’s Josie?”

“Josie also decided to take the day off. Holding down the fort with two of the leaders of the Inquisition gone has taken it’s toll. I have been informed she is taking a long bath with a novel and some Antivan chocolates and that she won’t share, so don’t ask. Leliana is working, but can put off any news until tomorrow without problems, she said.” He cleared his throat awkwardly, “Did you read my message?”

“Not yet,” Asta cracked the seal, and then looked at him. “Did you just want to tell me?”

“Not really,” Cullen looked mildly terrified at the thought, but also vaguely amused. “Just read the message, Inquisitor.”

Asta sighed and opened it.

My dear Inquisitor,

At this point I believe we have a serious morale problem. I have consulted with Leliana and have some suggestions. Please meet me in the War Room at your earliest convenience to try to resolve this issue.

Sincerely,

Your Commander

Asta’s eyes slowly drifted back up to Cullen. He was blushing, and staring at the ceiling. “I see,“ she finally managed, after catching his eye at last. “A loss of morale, is it? Even after the recent victory?“

“Apparently,“ Cullen stated, “and in some of our most important troops.”

“Perhaps we could use the same tactics here as at Griffon Wing?” Asta was tired, so tired. “Better meals? Shoes? We already have a library… What did Leliana suggest?”

Cullen took a deep breath. Brave. “I don’t think any of those would take care of the underlying problem, here.”

“Oh? What problem would that be?” Asta asked. “What am I missing?”

“An army’s morale is affected heavily by their commanding officers’.” Cullen said pointedly. “Leliana has advised us both, in her words, ‘For the love of Andraste’ - rather appropriately, I thought - ‘just get on with it.’” Cullen walked, almost stalking, around the table, holding her eyes boldly.

Asta’s mouth went dry. This wasn’t sweet Cullen of the days prior, or even the shy Commander. She swallowed, her body already turning traitor when he hadn’t even touched her yet. “So how do we tackle that?” She stepped back at his approach, almost unconsciously.

“Hmm, tackling…” Cullen snickered, “I have some… thoughts.” He leaned in, eyes dark.

“Can you prepare a report…” Asta realized too late that she was backed into the wall. Merciful Andraste, he was close. He stared at her, his eyes dropping to her lips.

“No.” And in one swift moment he had her in his arms, his mouth, wet and warm and velvety, tasting of mint tea, over hers. His arm snug around her waist, the other braced against the wall. The kiss went on and on, long past when Asta would have expected it to end, heat burning between them. He was cupping her ass, pressing her against him so that she could feel him getting hard. Cullen held nothing back, his longing thick enough to attract a desire demon - and he didn’t care.

And then he stopped, all professionalism and self-control outwardly, despite the noticeable erection, even as his body screamed at him to have her now, before she could run away, or retreat into her fears. “No, I think I need to demonstrate what I have in mind. Meet me at nine, Inquisitor. I have a meeting with my senior officers that should be over by then. But please, if it runs late, feel free to interrupt.” He traced her check softly. “I want to give you my full attention.”

Every nerve in Asta’s body was attuned to his finger now tracing her lips. She leaned in, only have him pull back, smirking. For the second time in her life she wanted to punch that smirk off his face.  Cullen merely turned to the War Table and placed a dagger in Skyhold, along with one of his own markers.

“I’ll expect you then, Inquisitor,” he smiled, the room lighting up with his anticipation, and exited briskly. “Now, to work?”

The door slammed shut behind him and Asta slumped to the floor, her legs giving out. That man was going to be the death of her. And then she smiled, her first true smile since Adamant. Something was going on with him. She greatly approved.

 

Chapter Text

Asta was early. Cullen was still wrapping up his officer’s meeting when she slid in silently and leaned up against the wall, politely waiting for him to finish.

“Rylen’s men will monitor the situation,” he delegated, as his eager assistant took notes on a board much like Josephine’s.

“Yes, ser!” the assistant affirmed, gathering the requisite reports and letters into his hand. “We’ll begin preparations at once.”

“In the meantime, we’ll send soldiers to…” and then he saw Asta propped against the wall, one knee up to brace herself, with a small smile on her face as she watched him work. He swallowed and grinned, all his nerves coming back to shake him now that she was here. With barely a pause, he continued, “to assist with the relief effort.” He couldn’t take his eyes from her. She smoldered in the smoky torchlight, like a statue of Andraste carrying a bowl of fire and incense. “That will be all,” he choked out, ending the meeting abruptly.

“Ser!” His officers saluted, and filed out before him, clearly relieved the long day was over at last, chatting amiably about meeting at the Herald’s Rest for a pint together. Cullen shut the door behind them with finality.

“There is always something else, isn’t there?” He sighed, resigned.

“Wishing we were somewhere else?” Asta teased.

Cullen leaned against the door with both hands and laughed, pushing himself upright with ease. “I barely found time to get away before. This war won’t last forever. When it started, I… I hadn’t considered much beyond our survival.” He wandered away, almost aimlessly from where she still leaned against the stones, and turned back to face her. “But things are different now.”

“What do you mean?” Asta said, walking towards him with a little swing in her step. He turned away from the open invitation, his profile illuminated, golden and brown in the dim lighting. The sun had long been set, and he watched the dark clouds gather over the moon, and then drift away.

Brave, he thought, and spoke, “I find myself wondering what will happen after, when this is over.” Cullen turned and pick up her hand, earnest and eager. “I don’t want to move on,” he confessed, stroking her cheek and tucking a stray hair behind her ear. “Not from you.” He watch her throat swallow, longing to run his mouth along the line it offered. He dropped his eyes, confidence gone. “But I… don’t know… what you… that is,” he couldn’t look at her, couldn’t find the words, despite practicing all day in his own head, so he walked back to his desk, covered with the random bottles of water and wine and papers, book and candles of the long meeting. “If you, uh…” he leaned against it, awkward. Maker, just say something, he demanded of himself.

Asta’s face lit up in sudden comprehension, and she slid herself between him and the desk, trying to regain his attention. “Cullen, do you need to ask?” She wondered aloud, love leaking through her calm tone. She sat back on his desk, and Cullen looked at her, really looked and saw her faith and hope in him being restored. What did the Nightmare say to her? Maker, let me go through with this.

“I suppose not,” he breathed, relief and something else fighting to come through, his hand clenched in a fist as he fought it. Slowly, slowly… “But I want to…”

Asta shifted slightly, and knocked a bottle off the desk, little shards of glass flying everywhere. Chagrined, she winced. “Oops. I’d better clean that up.” She went to move down from the desk and he blocked her, shaking his head slightly.

“Not good enough,” he smirked, as he took both hands in a fit of impulse and with one swift movement flung the books, the papers, the candle - thankfully going out with the rush of air - off the desk, sweeping it clean with one stroke. For once his work wouldn’t be coming between them, and he got a wicked, wonderful idea. “Maker’s Breath, Asta, I want you.” This wasn’t how he had planned this. It was all wrong, not romantic enough, but something about it felt right all the same, as if he had done this just this way in a thousand different lifetimes.

Asta blinked, still in shock from the mess he had just created. And then smiled, “What did you have in mind, Ser Knight?”

“Lie down,” he breathed, and as she complied, he climbed over her, bringing his lips to her neck, tracing the line he had longed for earlier, tracing it’s sweetness and saltiness, bracketing her body with his arms.

“Are the doors locked?” Asta said, suddenly nervous.

“By the Maker, I don’t care,” Cullen vowed, “Any one that interrupts us will meet my blade.”

Asta laughed and squealed slightly as he bit her gently over her pulse. “Still, to save the poor lookouts from an untimely death?”

Cullen growled against her skin. “Fine,” frustrated, he got up and barred the doors, Asta stripping off her shirt as he went to all three. The last door barricaded, he faced her, still on his desk, pale skin shining and shadowed. She started to remove her breastband, “Wait, let me,” Cullen said, crossing his office in two strides. He took the end from her, “I like this. It’s like unwrapping a Satinalia gift,” he confessed, “only better.” He stroked the side of one breast lightly.

“Better than Satinalia?” Asta was impressed. “I knew I had a nice rack, the Iron Bull has said so, but…”

“Better than nice,” murmured Cullen, bending his head so his lips could skirt along the swells. “It’s glorious.”

“I didn’t think you knew a word better than nice,” Asta teased, catching her breath in the next moment as his hand came up to cup the other breast, his thumb contacting the nipple almost accidentally.

“I do now,” Cullen dipped his head and licked the other nipple, lightly, making her shudder. “It’s Asta.” He came back up and kissed her finally, melding his lips with hers. “Let me get this armor off, and I’m yours,” he said at last, pulling away very reluctantly.

“Don’t bother,” Asta said, grabbing his cloak, loosening the ties and shrugging it off of him. She tackled his laces. “I’ve wanted you for weeks, Cullen, and I swear, with all the teasing on the way back from Adamant…”

“No,” Cullen stopped her hands in their ministrations. “This time, I’m leading. I’ll take you anywhere you want to go, Asta,” he reminded her of their dance at the Winter Palace, “but please, let’s take our time. We’ve never… made love in a bed, Asta. Our moments are all stolen and mostly frantic.” Asta looked vaguely disappointed. Cullen tipped up her chin with a finger, “I want to… draw this out. So please, this time, my way?”

Asta looked at him, and trusted him, smiling. “At your order, Commander,” she saluted, hand against her breast. “Can I at least help with the armor?”

“Just watch. I don’t want you to move off that desk,” Cullen said. “In fact, sit right in front of my chair. I have an idea.” The fantasy unscrolled in front of his eyes, Asta naked, spread in front of him. He’d never be able to work on the desk again without thinking of it. He smiled, eyes lighting up. Totally worth it.

He peeled himself out of the armor efficiently, wanting to get back to the important part of the evening, and not even glancing at his armor polish. He finally came back to her, in his trousers and undershirt, and Asta’s fingers slipped underneath his waistband, close, so close, as he stood between her legs. She played with his laces idly, but didn’t untie them, as he pressed himself back against her, reveling in her warmth as he kissed her again, letting her tongue play against his as he cupped the back of her head.

He moved his mouth back to the hollow under her ear, and she sighed, “Ah sweet victory!”

“Hmm?” Cullen kissed down the center of her chest, and pulled his chair in closer with one leg, capturing a nipple in his teeth, and rolling it with his tongue.

“I’ve finally vanquished your desk and all your paperwork. My rival, defeated!” Asta laughed and then gasped as he increased the pressure with hands and mouth, sucking harder against her. “Oh, that’s…”

“Believe me, the desk was no competition.” Cullen dropped his hand down, and stroked between her legs, over the cloth, rubbing gently. “And after this, I’m afraid my productivity will suffer. You will have ruined this desk for me entirely, my love.” He moved the hand back up to tug at her laces gently, pulling them loose without any resistance.

“Ahh, I feel rather like celebrating,” Asta breathed, catching her breath, and lifting her hips, let him remove her pants and smallclothes all at once. He dropped them to the floor, deeming them irrelevant.

“Asta?” Cullen asked, shifting back in his chair, and propping her legs on the arms of it, fencing himself in.

“Yes?” Asta grinned cheekily, anticipation lighting her eyes when she realized what he meant to do.

“Make noise for me,” and he bent his mouth to her cunt and licked, once, twice, spreading her legs a little wider as he leaned down. She braced her hands behind her and almost at once started to shake.

“Make me,” she dared, her saucy words lending an obvious lie to the emotions welling inside her. She locked her eyes on him as he recast the magic he had performed before, swirling his clever tongue around her center. She hummed as he increased the pressure around her clit, so he sped up the pace and cupped one breast, running his thumb over it again, and then pinching and rolling, slowly, carefully. Long minutes passed, with him circling both breast and nerves, occasionally dipping down in a long, languid stroke. She hummed louder, and moaned in response to a pinched nipple.

“That’s… good,” she squeaked, forgetting why she didn’t want to make noise. He stroked a finger along her slit, gathering the dampness, and then switched places, rubbing her clit with the finger, round and round, while he penetrated her with his tongue, first shallow, and then deeper. “Oh! Cullen!” Her belly grew tight, coiling together as her passion grew. Her arms threatened to give out, and her thighs shook, begging her to squeeze them against his head and ride his mouth to completion.

“Better,” he hummed into her, dipping back in once more, deeply, and then shifting again, entering her with a single finger, watching for a response. She arched back, arms shaking against the desk and her hands, falling apart. She moaned as he moved the finger, and curled it, “Please!” she begged.

“Yes?” Cullen inquired, and then blew gently against her wet center. “What do you want, Asta?” He licked her again, harder now, as she shuddered around him. “Tell me, Asta.”

“Maker, Cullen!” Asta was increasingly desperate. He thrust harder, curled firmer and sucked against her.

“Which one is here right now, Asta?” His eyes met hers and was taken aback by what he saw. She was on fire for him, going up on a pyre of sex and desire. He kept her eyes locked with his, and sucked again.

“You!” She nearly shouted, all control lost, as he added a second finger with the next glide. “Please,” she shuddered a single breath, trying to breathe, “please, I need you.” He curled the two fingers against her gently.

“Not yet,” he laughed against her, the vibrations making her moan louder yet. “I want to see you come again like this. I can be patient.” His cock begged to differ, but he ignored it in favor of her pleasure. She needed this, needed to see that he cared enough to make her come undone around him, that she mattered, as more than a hand or a figurehead, as a woman. She moved her hips now with his hand, fucking it desperately. He pinched and rolled the breast in his hand and sucked against her again, watching, watching as she dissolved into bliss, whines and unidentifiable sounds coming from her throat. He ran his tongue down to his fingers, stroking and even stretching her gently and then swiped back up harder yet, letting her relax, just to build her back up again with a sucking kiss. She was on the brink, he thought. Just a little more. He dropped his hand down from her breast, hearing her moan from the sudden chill and lack of attention there, and rubbed his thumb against her core. She shattered all at once, like the bottle from his desk.

“Oh! Oh!” The waves hit her hard, and he drank her eagerly, thrusting his tongue into her, delving deeper. “Maker, you’re so sweet, Asta,” he groaned, pants too tight by far now, and longing just to sheathe himself in her, finish fast. No, he denied himself, Not yet.

He pulled her towards him at last, relieving her shaking arms of their burden, holding her gently, rubbing her back. He waited a few minutes, kissing her, letting her taste herself on his lips, before he asked, hoping to return to his previous plan, “Can you climb the ladder?”

Her sweet Cullen was back again, Asta noticed blurrily, shuddering against his chest, cheek pillowed against his shoulder. She kissed him blindly, licking around his scar, tasting her essence on his tongue. Ladder? What ladder? Oh, that ladder. “Maybe?”

“Okay, follow me up in a few minutes. I have something I want to show you, but I have to get it ready.” He helped her to his chair, where she slumped against it, eyes closed. Damn, every time I sit in it I’ll see her naked and wet, shuddering for me. Still totally worth it. “I’ll tell you when.” He climbed up gracefully, and through the aftershocks she could hear him moving around.

“Cullen?” She called up, recovering and curious.

“Okay, come on up!” He called, heart in his throat. Here goes…

Her head breached the floor and she gasped. Her furniture, her vanity and dresser, her books and knick-knacks from around Thedas, they were here, all lit softly with the light of a dozen candles. Her thick comforter on the bed - still his bed, she noticed - all her things. Her shocked gaze shifted to Cullen, standing on her rug, her bear rug made out of the first one she had helped Cassandra hunt in the Hinterlands. “What?” Asta swallowed, but it didn’t work. She started to cry, great racking sobs as she pulled herself up to the rest of the room and stood, clothes falling out of her hands as she tried to hide her face.

“No! Maker in his Golden City,” Cullen cursed, at her side in a half a step. “You’re not supposed to… I’m sorry, Asta. Don’t cry! I thought… I should have asked first? But if you knew that I didn’t want to… move on, and you agreed, I thought.. Maybe…” Crestfallen with the apparent failure of his surprise, and despairing about the rest he dully said, “I should have asked first.”

“It’s fine! It’s wonderful!” Asta wailed, weeping ugly tears. “How did you manage?” She grabbed him, buried her face in his shirt, tears soaking into his chest. He relaxed a little, not understanding, but sensing she wasn’t upset at him.

“I asked volunteers to use their day off to help me. It wasn’t hard, you don’t spend any more time in your former quarters than you have to,” he started.

Asta struggled to find a grip on her emotions, and settled on dread, “Josie is going to kill you. And possibly me.”

“No, actually, she accepted my suggestion that we use that room for the highest ranking dignitaries.” Cullen looked inordinately proud at making a suggestion that Josie agreed with. “The nobles always complain about their accommodations anyway, but they can’t complain when they are given the Inquisitor’s former room.” He bent down slightly to try to look at her better, still unsure. “They couldn’t fix the roof in a day, but one of the dwarves thinks he has a solution, something he calls a ‘skylight’ - like a window in a roof. I’ll have the plans soon.” Asta threw her arms around him, and he tucked her head into his shoulder again, stroked her hair and cleared his throat. “Um, there’s more, if you want it.” Brave.

“How could there be more?” Asta held him tighter around his waist, “You’ve just given me a home.

“Not entirely.” Cullen dug in his pocket and clenched something in his fist. “So… I don’t want to move on, and I know you are a noble, and the Inquisitor, and Josie says there will have to be contracts, but despite your parents refusing to approve, she says it should still be okay…”

Asta had frozen at ‘contracts’. “Cullen?” She pulled back, candlelight gleaming around her, making her brown hair reddish in its glow. Her eyes were swollen, red and damp. She had never looked more beautiful. “What are you on about?”

“I know it wouldn’t be soon, there’s Corypheus, and you’ll be gone a lot, but,” Cullen stood straighter, and then dropped to a knee, Asta still naked and half-crying, her discarded clothes at her feet. “I know what I want, and I love you.” Cullen rubbed the back of his neck, “And it’s not fancy, not like Gaspard or any of those other nobles would have given you.” He held out a simple silver ring, equal parts fear and hope in his eyes. “Will you… I mean, even if you want to think about it… consider… making this permanent?”

“Permanent?” Asta squeaked. Her brain finally caught up just as her legs gave out. She collapsed onto the floor. “Cullen,” she asked slowly. “Has this whole evening been you asking me to marry you?!”

Cullen rubbed the back of his neck, knees starting to ache with having to hold this position. “Yes?” She looked at him in disbelief. “Is that… okay?” She still hadn’t answered. It was making him nervous, not that he wasn’t already. She’s going to turn me down. Resigned, he started to put the ring back in his pocket. “It’s okay, it’s too soon, I understand. It doesn’t change anything…”

“NO!” Asta grabbed his hand with the ring in it. “I mean, yes!” Her face glowed, cheeks reddened, eyes swollen, and she sniffed pitifully. “Yes, please!”

“Yes, please?” Cullen looked at her, trying not to laugh, “Did you just accept my proposal with a please?”

“Yes!” Asta threw herself at him, wrapping her hand around his with the ring, and toppling them both over onto the bear rug. They both laughed, kissing and he rolled her over, slipping the ring onto her hand, kissing her down until she was against the rug, and he was propped over her, hand beneath her head, and the other holding the hand with the ring.

“You said yes,” he clarified, wonder in his voice.

“I did,” she said in equal surprise. “I guess the Nightmare was wrong.”

“What did it say?” Cullen’s brows creased in worry. “You’ve been worried and preoccupied for weeks.”

“He said you were extremely dutiful. To the point of seduction, actually. But even I can’t believe that you would do all this,” and she wove her hand around his transformed room, “just to keep your Inquisitor sane enough to mend rifts. Also, I think if you had been ordered to propose, or done it out of a sense of extreme duty, you might have stammered less. And there would probably have been less oral sex.” Cullen buried his head between her breasts, laughing.

“Definitely less oral sex,” he wheezed. “Maker, Asta, why didn’t you tell me? The doubt has been killing me, thinking your feelings had changed.”

“I’m sorry,” Asta traced her fingers through his hair. “They hadn’t, I just… doubted yours. By the time we got back to Skyhold I was pretty sure I was wrong, but the Nightmare came every night until last night. He found something that stuck, and he was using it.”

“You are never going into battle without me again,” Cullen swore.

“Cullen, that’s impractical. You can’t promise that. I have to leave to go to the Emerald Graves, there’s the clean up in the Exalted Plains… you can’t come with me.”

“I know,” Cullen sighed. “But still, I will be with you, as much as I can. Please let me.” He kissed her neck, her jaw, her mouth, wearing her down with his repeated assault. “Please.”

“As much as you can,” she sighed, giving in. “But the other advisors have to agree, and I don’t get a vote. I’m too prejudiced already. Also, my companions have to be okay with it.”

“Why them?”

“Because if we travel together, we are damn well sharing a tent! If the Nightmare comes back I don’t want to depend on Cole. He’s overworked lately. I wasn’t the only one having nightmares. And it’s not fair to just expect them to accept our relationship for what it is. And the noises… well, I’ve heard Bull and Dorian. Everyone has. They are matter of fact about it, but it has created resentment in a few people. I’d like to avoid that, if possible.”

“All right.” He smiled, his lips against her chest again, all too aware that she was still completely naked beneath him and his body reacting in kind. “Now, I believe I mentioned that we have never made love in a bed. Want to change that?”

“More than anything.”

 

Chapter Text

Cullen kissed her slowly, there on the floor, tasting their new promises on her tongue, and then he surged upward with her in his arms. She protested slightly, surprised, but wrapped her arms around his neck all the same, increasing the intensity of their kiss. He could feel the heat of her bare skin through his shirt, and the dampness still present between her legs where he cradled her, seated against him. As if sensing his thoughts, she wrapped her legs around his waist yet tighter, a belt he didn’t need, and his earlier desire resurrected with a force that left his head swimming.

He squeezed her butt lightly and she caught her breath at the pressure. His other hand moved towards her center, testing and stroking, and he stifled an exclamation at how wet she still was, even after so much time had passed. He moved them gently in the general direction of the bed, tripping slightly at the much bulkier rug than he was accustomed to. He broke away from her lips briefly, “This would be a good place to leave your boots for me to trip over on my way to bed.”

Asta snorted a laugh and leaned her head against his shoulder. “Planning on being late to bed often, then?” She would have sounded prim if not for the breathy note in her voice that spoke of love.

“With you waiting for me there? Never!” Cullen proclaimed, his lips meeting the pulse in her neck for a moment, and then stopping, “But if, perchance, I was late, then maybe I would trip over your boots if they were left in such a place.” He tipped her back onto the bed, smirk in place, but it fell away into a mingled look of awe and lust at the sight of her against the comforter, face and chest flushed from suppressed laughter and arousal. He fisted his hand in the back of his shirt and pulled it off with one smooth movement, rumpling his hair, curling slightly with the disturbance. Asta sat up, eager to see all of him here, in their room. She reached out for him, and paused, looking up wordlessly for permission. “Asta, you don’t have to ask any longer. I’m not much, but what I am is yours, scars and all.” He sighed with the admission, a weight lifting. Brave.  Hers.

Asta’s eyes went wide with the thought of having such freedom. It was a little frightening as well as exciting. “Really?” She bit her lip, hesitating, and lifted her hands, shaking slightly, to pull gently at the laces that held his pants up. They came loose all too quickly, and she wrapped her fingers around his waistband and pulled down before she could chicken out, leaving him wearing just his smallclothes and the shadows.

The candles flickered and shuddered in a sudden gust from the hole in his roof, sputtering, but not quite going out with the wind. The mottled darkness shifted across his skin in strange stripes of golden light and blotchy grey, and Asta couldn’t quite meet his eyes. Instead, she traced the line of his waist to where it dripped beneath the clothing and laughed away her fear. “Talk about Satinalia presents…” She bit her lip again, wanting, but still intimidated.

Cullen understood, sensing her feelings so much like his own. But Maker, he wanted this. He would not let his own cowardice stop him from having this with her. So he covered her hands with his, and together the eased the cloth over his lean hips. “I meant it, Asta.” He leaned over slightly and finally caught her eyes, as she touched him so gently as to almost tickle. Her eyes dropped down and she explored him, tentatively. “You don’t have to hesitate. I will tell you, I swear it, if anything is… too much.”

He was silk and gold, smooth and hard as she touched and stroked curiously. She ran her fingernails over the flat panes of his lower stomach, and giggled as they rippled with the soft touch. “I don’t know why this feels different,” Asta confessed, “We’ve already…”

“I know,” Cullen replied, stilling her tickling fingers before he broke into helpless laughter. “I feel it too. Something has changed. I thought maybe it was because it’s been so long - months.” He sighed as she brought her hand around to wrap around him, stroking again, more confident, and closed his eyes.

“No, it’s because this time, it’s… forever.” Asta lifted her eyes to his, and watched him responding to her touch, moved out of her shyness.

“Perhaps you are right,” he sounded almost surprised, and his eyes opened as Asta rose up into his arms again, hands flat against his back, skin against skin.

She kissed him first this time, feeling his soft hair on his chest against her breasts teasing her. She kissed him, swearing herself to him with every caress of her lips, every touch of her body against his, giving her life to him as he dedicated his in kind, a mutual worship and servanthood that neither felt worthy of, but both ached to give to the other.

Cullen turned them around gently, somewhat resigned that if he wanted her to stay in the bed he would have to be in it first, and sat down, holding Asta between his legs. He threaded his fingers through hers, and leaned back, slowly, making her follow him with a small throaty laugh. He ran his free hand down her body, fingers trailing a path of heat against her side, cupped her ass briefly and then ran it down the back of her thigh, pulling her leg up to straddle him, as she echoed the movement with the other side. It left her wet and open against him, and it took all his willpower not to slide in at that moment, as she arched against his cock in eagerness, humming at the simple contact. He buried his face in her shoulder, holding her hand tighter, and tried desperately to stop shaking. He kissed the upper curve of her breast, trying to distract himself and failing miserably.

Asta could feel his shaking, “Cullen?” her voice rose, sounding concerned.

“I don’t want this to end too quickly. I want…” Cullen shuddered against her. “I’m afraid I won’t last. You are so…” this time, unlike the first, he knew more what to expect, and that he didn’t need to fear - and his body’s memories betrayed him all too willingly. He looked up at her beseechingly, eyes wide and desperate.

In response, Asta rose up on her knees slightly and disentangled her fingers from his. She slid them between them, and awkwardly positioned him against her. “Cullen, I don’t care about that. I love you. Please?”

He groaned, and pushed upwards as she pushed down. She was so tight, so slick and warm in contrast with the cool air around them, a juxtaposition of heat and cold, light and dark.  Her hand glowed against his, trapped fadelight beaming out between their palms. He drew back slowly and pushed again, Asta catching her breath at the increased pressure and depth of him inside her. “Cullen,” she whined, “that’s… oh!” Her hips rebelled and snapped down and against him, seating him deeply. It was her turn to shake, overwhelmed with sensation and otherwise unmoving, and he wrapped an arm around her waist to lie her down against the featherbed, flipping her over and sliding out only momentarily. She eagerly reaccepted him, legs wrapped around his back as if she were scared he would suddenly abandon her.

Cullen wanted to hammer into her, but managed to restrain himself, to his own surprise. Her legs loosened, and she spread them against him, the little movements making her gasp. She rocked her hips up, and ordered him, “Cullen… move!”

He couldn’t help but laugh inwardly at the imperious demand in her voice, but obeyed all the same, passion held firmly in check, lest he lose all control. Instead, he took her like a vow, every glide an oath, every touch an unspoken promise, the act of lovemaking itself a sweet sacrament in service to her. It didn’t take her long to cry out, breaking around him gently as he stroked her where the two of them joined. And at the end, he breathed into her ear, “Forever,” and followed her into a deep chasm that swallowed them both up, dark and warm and welcoming.

He came back to himself slowly, and rolled off to one side as soon as he remembered to not crush her, pulling a blanket over to shelter her from the absence of his heat. She curled into his side and he wiped yet more tears from her eyes, slightly worried. “Tears? Asta, are you…”

“Just the good kind,” she sighed, sleepy and content. She closed her eyes, unable to resist the pull of warmth and security he offered. “I’m so tired.”

“Then sleep, Asta,” Cullen whispered. “I’ll be here when you wake up.” She answered with a yawn. “I love you,” and he wrapped his arm around her, hand against her back, determined to hold her safe while she slept.

“Love you, too,” she muttered, already almost gone, and she drifted off with her words, no nightmares chasing her with no fears to prey upon.

She was home at last, and Cullen’s last thought before he followed her into the Fade, was that in making a home for her, he had built one for himself as well. Funny, I didn’t even realize that I needed one.

***

Dorian tapped his foot impatiently, leaning up against a beam, as he pretended he was reading about Arcane Warriors and how they compared to modern Knight Enchanters.  He certainly wasn't watching the door to Cullen's tower, after all. Solas had leant him the book, highly recommended by Vivienne. It wasn’t his field, but it seemed like an interesting topic, so he had picked it up. But he couldn’t concentrate, not with his dear friend about to come busting through that stubborn door with the news. Surely she would tell him first, he argued with himself. It wasn’t like it would be a surprise. Cullen had fallen to pieces when she fell into the Fade, with only Cole's vague messages to keep him glued together. Even the hesitant Templar couldn’t argue with himself after that little wake up call. The only true question was why they hadn’t been going at it like rabbits on the way back from Adamant. Dorian and Bull certainly had. Bull’s inventiveness had been raised to new heights indeed, with more than a little encouragement from himself, of course. He preened a bit in memory, and then sighed.

Of course, Dorian had not specifically been involved in the manual labor necessary to transform Cullen’s barren little loft, but the only person that hadn’t noticed the little project going on yesterday was Asta. She had been buried fully in her maps and records with Cassandra, apparently planning their trip to Caer Oswin while her quarters were emptied of anything that was specifically hers, like those silly toy soldiers from all over Thedas, and that monstrosity of a bear rug. Why anyone would decorate with fur, he couldn’t imagine.  Just barbaric.

The door opened at last, and Dorian peered over his book with subterfuge, arching an eyebrow when Asta appeared, glancing up shyly and beaming when she saw him. He allowed himself to crack a smile as she ran up the steps, apologizing to the scouts she displaced in her hurry, but barely pausing all the same. Dorian tossed aside the book with less care than he normally would have shown, and earned himself a scowl from the rebellious archivist.

“Dorian! You know better!” Asta scolded. “Pick it up and reshelf it!”

“I’ll just pick it back up as soon as you are gone,” Dorian justified. “Now, what news, young lady? Something juicy about a strapping young Templar of our acquaintance?”

Asta beamed in response. “You already know?” Her protests were inadequate, her joy coloring any disappointment she might have felt.

“Well, your room was being dismantled. Either you were dead, or moving out!” Dorian waved his hand idly. “Now, Asta, I want the details. What did he say?” Asta held up her hand, the simple silver ring saying it all for her. Dorian slumped back against his post. “You mean he…”

“Asked me to marry him.” Asta’s smile faded as she took in Dorian’s look of shock. “You didn’t know?”

“Quite the contrary. I figured he asked you to stay with him, live with him, or declared his undying love. Something of that sort.  I didn’t realize…” Dorian grew a little severe. “Asta, you know he has been… marked by demons.” A charming euphemism for a scar that will never fade or disappear.

“Yes, he told me months ago.” Asta furrowed her brow. “I know it’s not going to be easy. That’s the sort of thing that you don’t really get over.”

“Exactly,” Dorian confirmed, “Asta, are you sure this is what you want? Just because you sleep with him doesn’t mean you have to marry him.”

Asta’s eyes narrowed. “Dorian Pavus, are you saying I don’t know what I want?”

“Not at all! But your relative inexperience…” Dorian didn’t want to crush her idealism or her perfect dream, but he would be far more gentle than, say, Vivienne.

“Altus Pavus, I know what I want. Him, demons, scars and all. No one is perfect. We will not have it easy. We have to spend a lot of time apart. We won’t be able to even get married until all this…” and Asta circled her hand, indicating all of Skyhold and the Inquisition, “is over and done with. We aren’t rushing off to Mother Gisele in the garden at the first opportunity, expecting our love to see us through. But all of this, the hand, what happened at the conclave and in the Fade and the Inquisition itself was thrust upon me. I have had so little choice in my life. Please, Dorian, understand. I know when I want something, and this is something I could have, if I’m brave enough.” Her eyes pleaded with him. “I want some happiness in the midst of this chaos. I need it.”

Dorian relented. “My dear, I could deny you nothing, even if I had the right. Only you can make your own choices. And when the day comes, I hope you will both be very happy.”

“We already are.” Asta sighed, “I’m not an idiot, Dorian. I know my chances of survival are basically nil. I’m a terrible fighter, set up against a self-proclaimed god, a mage, no less, centuries old and corrupted by blight and red lyrium. I… want to have this, while I can. Is that wrong?” She looked guilty.

“Oh, Asta,” Dorian gave into his impulse and took the hand with the simple ring on it. “No, it isn’t wrong. And you have nothing to feel guilty about. It was not my place to rain on your parade. And if Bull and I or even Cassandra have anything to say about it, you will come back alive to your ex-Templar. You will have dozens of little curly haired babies, naming the first one Dorian, of course, and retire peacefully to the country, where no doubt he will learn to cook since you are hopeless.”

“Actually, we’ve talked about that. Babies are out - at least for a while. We’re going to have adventures! Cross the Boeric Ocean, explore the Deep Roads…” Asta frowned. “Though maybe not the Deep Roads. Cullen has a problem with enclosed places.” She waved that concern away. “But you see my point. We’ve both been trapped by branches of the Chantry all our lives. We’re going to see the world, visit Seheron and even Tevinter, if I can find a way in. I keep thinking about that amazing library…” she trailed off, looking dreamy. “I’m just sure all the answers to the questions I have about Andraste are in that library. Ages of lost knowledge, just waiting to be uncovered.”

Dorian barked out a laugh, “I would have thought you’d had enough of adventures already to last a lifetime!”

“On the contrary, the Inquisition has merely whetted my appetite. I was talking to Sky Watcher the other day - that Avvar we picked up in the Fallow Mire? He has some fascinating observations about his Lady of the Skies - I’m wondering how his mythology compares to the Old Gods and even the Elven pantheon. I certainly hope I get the opportunity to discuss it with him further.” Asta straightened. “I should go. I’m supposed to meet the advisors for a War Meeting and finalize plans for a trip to the Exalted Plains to mop up the rest of Gaspard’s followers. There are some strange rumors coming out of that place. Interested in going?”

Dorian hesitated, “Is Bull going?”

“No, I think I’ll take Cassandra or Blackwall, since they speak Orlesian. I figure it can’t hurt, even if they mostly speak Common. Actually, does Bull speak Orlesian? I’ve never asked, and many of his references came from there. I’ll have to ask! But I can take Solas or Vivienne, if you… want to stay with Bull?” Asta nudged him. “What’s going on there?”

“Going on? Why should there be something going on?” Dorian’s voice was a little too innocent. Asta frowned at him and then a wicked smile sparked her lips.

“Dorian, I will tell you all of the details of our engagement sex if you will share what exactly your relationship with Bull involves,” Asta wheedled.

“Ugh, no thanks. Go tell Cassandra, she’ll eat it up.  Besides, I don't want to corrupt your innocence.  Yet, anyway.” Dorian waved her away. “Go on, attend your meeting. Let me know when you are intending to leave.” After all, he didn’t even know if you could call what they had a relationship. Mutual satisfaction, yes. But… a relationship? Don’t make me laugh. “Asta, don’t let your own happiness turn you into the worst sort of matchmaker. It’s a nasty trap to fall into.” He deflected expertly and turned away, stifling the strange feeling of jealousy he had felt at her news.

People like me don’t have relationships.

 

Chapter Text

My Love,

Oh, that does feel good to write. Love, love, love… it makes this trip seem worth it, just because I got to write those words, even though Caer Oswin is just a ruin of a keep in Fereldan, ruined further by the former Lord Seeker’s insanity. Maker’s Golden Balls, Cullen, I miss you.

I should start at the beginning, I know. The trip here could have been worse. Vivienne called Cole a demon the entire trip. He was positively friendly about it, though, and confessed he would expect someone to kill him if he turned. Poor kid. I’m not sure what he is, exactly, but he’s special. I don’t think I would have gotten through the nightmares before Adamant without him. I hope he realizes he always has a place with me. Vivienne, though… I admit, she wears on me. But her skills are extraordinary. I hope we can limit the damage her beliefs could cause.

Anyway, we arrived and found another cult. I’m serious - I guess with a title like the Herald of Andraste I attract them. I didn’t know much about these ones - Cassandra called them Promisers, and I found a book of their writings, but naturally I didn’t have time to read it while we were fighting for our lives. Again. I miss the Blades of Hessarian. Ivor of the Blades is relatively sane in comparison with most cultists, even if they do seem to worship me more than I like. (Namely, at all…) I think you’d like him, actually - you should see if you can get him to visit Skyhold.

The Promisers appear to believe that the world has to end in order to be rebuilt correctly. Well, duh, is what I have to say to that. Seriously, every dull-witted student of history knows that an empire has to fall in order for another to take its place. The elven empire, Tevinter, Orlais… but they apparently take it a little more literally than that, and believe that hastening the process along is actually a good idea. Nut jobs, the lot of them. And they have it out specifically for the Seekers, so when Lucius sold out the Seeker order to Corypheus…

Ugh, I’m getting ahead of myself. (Also, judging by my disgusted noises, I’m hanging out too much with Cassandra. Who sends her congratulations by the way. She thinks our engagement very romantic.)

In the end, I decided Lucius was another fine example of Thedas’ insanity, babbling about Seekers being abominations and so on. He gave Cassandra a book - the official history of the Seekers - and she’s been poring over it for the entire trip back, looking more and more grave the closer she is to finishing. I think I need to see Varric about the Swords and Shields chapter she longs for, just to cheer her up. I’d like to read it to you anyway, considering what happened the last time I read a naughty book out loud to you…

What is it about Lord Seekers? Seriously, talking to Cole about Lord Seeker Lambert, I’m GLAD he killed the bastard. That man was a miserable excuse for a human being, and Cole’s friend Rhys is a sweet man by all accounts. Though maybe I just sympathize with him on his taste in lovers… after all, ex-Templars are the best. I wish Cole had kept going and taken out Lucius too. Because the Lord Seeker sold out his subordinates to Corypheus, who naturally fed them red lyrium because OF COURSE HE DID, just to see what would happen…

Is this letter going to trigger your symptoms? Oh, Maker, I’m sorry. I’ll skip over that part and tell you in person now that we are on our way back.

But I digress. Again. The upshot is, that between Vivienne, Cole and Cassandra, aided in some small way by myself, another Chantry leader is dead by the Inquisition’s hands. That he deserved it is no matter. I would have liked to see him tried by the Divine, whoever she ends up being. Thank the Maker it won’t be me. Leliana informed me as much last week that my name has officially been removed from consideration due to my… worldly desires. I hope that means you and that I’m not being made out like some power hungry imperialist. No interest in ruling the world, here. Just want to clean up this mess and go find a nice library somewhere. Though lately I’m wondering if it will ever end. As you told me recently - there is always something else, isn’t there?

We will be back in a week or less now. I long for you, and our bed, and a warm bath, not necessarily in that order. I’ve been bathing in streams and my scalp still aches from the cold water. After I’m clean I want to wrap myself around you like a scarf. Hope that’s okay.

In talking to Cole this morning, he rambled a bit, as he does, but he said something that made me think of you. ‘Safe and solid, protecting and proud. He feels like quiet, stronger when you hold him.’ Was that you? Or was he picking up someone else’s thoughts? Has he ever told you any of mine? Of course, mine are probably not half so lovely.

I love you,

The future Mrs. Rutherford

(Maker, that looks and sounds ridiculous. But I wanted to see what it looked like. Now I know.)

***

Dear Asta,

If you like writing it, I like reading it. Getting your letter was the best part of a very long week, though a productive one. I think we need to get you and your team to the Emerald Graves sooner rather than later - that lead on Fairbanks is a good one. I think it will lead us to Samson.

If you want to wrap yourself around me like a scarf, I will not complain. I’ve had some… ideas of my own, with your absence. Perhaps upon your return you will allow me some time to demonstrate? I would greatly like to show you how much you are missed. And yes, Cole’s ramblings were probably me. I have often had thoughts of pride about you, both in you as a person and in myself in that you chose me. And your presence soothes me, as I told you at the Winter Palace. And you know I long to be your shield, even when I cannot be near you.

I don’t think it sounds ridiculous at all. And yes, that is the official response. But my morale would be greatly improved with you accepting that title, though you don’t have to if you don’t want to. I understand, with the many versions of contracts that Josie is shoving across my desk, that apparently many nobles don’t change their name upon marriage. So whatever you decide, my Asta.

On a side note, I had no idea this - marriage - was going to be this complicated. Even though neither of us has land or many belongings, apparently your parents could still claim any children of our union as heirs - even though they officially disowned you after Halamshiral. However unlikely that event might be, considering your other brother, Leonard, has three children of his own. Did you know that you were an aunt? I only ask because I didn’t know I was an uncle… Then there is apparently a difficulty with a deceased Great Aunt Lucille? Did you have a Great Aunt Lucille? Apparently she left you a legacy that could be claimed if you ever married or had children. And no, she didn’t make those dependent on each other. Didn’t she realize that you were a Chantry Sister? I felt rather sheltered, when I realized what Josie was implying. Apparently your Great Aunt Lucille was quite prepared to have you leave the Chantry, and find a patron… of one sort or another. I’m glad I got to meet you before that happened. Though, imagining you as my mistress invokes quite another sort of longing. Perhaps you should come home…

So your family ties have caused complications. I think Josie is losing hair and sleep. And Max is alternating between being my best friend and glowering at me for not just marrying you overnight. As if Mother Gisele would have had anything to do with such a thing - Josie would have killed her, even if she looked upon you favorably.

I hope you don’t mind about being disowned. I know I don’t. Between your brother and Dorian, and my sisters and brother, and DORIAN, for the love of Andraste’s Apples we have enough family to go around. Both Max and Dorian are acting odd, though, so come home soon. I cannot cope with both of them at the same time. I’m rather pleased that my family is safely distant.

And yes, I wrote to my sister. I expect I will hear her squeals of shock and delight and immediate demands to meet you all the way from South Reach. Maker’s Breath, perhaps we should just elope when this is all over? Would you consider it? Of course, now that I have written it down, Leliana will know in any case. Hello, Leliana. Enjoy the letter. Sorry if it isn’t racy enough for you.

Varric says I’m spending too much time polishing my armor and making sad puppy faces off the battlements. Dorian says I need a hobby, and recommended gambling, of all things. Just what I need, another addiction. Bull keeps inviting me for drinks in the tavern. What is Maraas-Lok?

Quite honestly, I may accept the invitation for drinks. I could use the distraction. I had Guy dust your desk and move some of your work down so it didn’t seem so empty. He rolled his eyes and said something very Orlesian. You might have to teach me a little, just so that I can tell when he’s being insubordinate. If he weren’t so bloody efficient… Bloody Orlesians.

I enclose a stray dandelion that I found in the garden. Nothing much is blooming right now, but even such a lowly weed has lovely meanings. Faithfulness, Love’s Oracle, and Wishes Come True. All of them apply.

I miss you. I love you. Come home to me, safe and sound. I pray for the day when I can leave with you. Mother Gisele is very pleased with the frequency of my chants. I wish she would go hang out in Val Royeaux.

I’d better try to get some sleep. My bed seems very empty. Funny how quickly that happened.

Your Commander,

Cullen

***

Asta tipped her head back and blinked back tears. Disowned. It shouldn’t hurt like this, she thought. I barely know them. But they didn’t even wait to see how I rebuilt the continent. No doubt that’s why Max is acting weird. He was probably hoping that I would come home triumphant and trailing glory, relieving him of any duties as heir. She folded her letter carefully, and tucked it into her saddlebags. Ah, Leonard. So much a nonentity. Still following the parental line, married the boring neighbor girl they intended for him. Hope he isn’t miserable. At least he had kids so Max and I don’t have to. She sat up. That’s right, disownment works both ways.

“Vivienne!”

“Yes, my dear?” The mage glided over, imperious and regal as always, even after two weeks on the road and several bloody skirmishes. How does she stay so clean?

“Is it possible to deny my parents any access or legal right to my children?”

“Whatever… yes, my dear, you could. Why would you want to?”

“I’ve been disowned. I want to make it mutual.”

“I wouldn’t recommend that at all, my dear. The Trevelyan name… it could open doors for your children, just as it did for you.”

“My children will not be Trevelyans. They will be Rutherfords. Assuming I have any at all. Maker knows. But it can be done, correct?” Asta pressed.

“Yes,” Vivienne’s lips were a thin line. “Shame that your blood will be treated so casually. Marriage is for heirs and alliances, my dear. I would have thought you would have more sense.”

“Thank you for your assistance, Madame.” Asta inclined her head, and took out parchment and ink. “I have to write a letter.”

Cullen,

Please forward the enclosed letter to Josie. Feel free to read it, and let me know if you disagree. It impacts you as well. I am going to deny my parents any legal right to my - our - hypothetical children.

I love you. I will arrive shortly after this letter, weather permitting.

Asta

Dear Josie,

I need you to draft up a decree to deliver to my parents, disavowing any claim to the name Trevelyan. This is intended to stop their legal right to any children of my body. Let me know if you can think of a better way. But they can’t have me, and they can’t have any of my hypothetical kids, either. They can fuck off and die, and upon their death they have many heirs to choose from between Max, Leonard and Leonard‘s kids. Brats, if I remember right, but they deserve bratty grandkids.

Great Aunt Lucille - how I miss her. She knew me better than I knew myself. Will the above impact her kindly thought? I want to do it in any case, but… it’s nice to know she thought of me. How I miss her. Perhaps I’ll use the funds and build a public garden in her name or something. Or a ballroom would be more appropriate. She always did love a party. Would it stretch so far?

I will be home in just a few days, shortly after you receive this letter. Please, for the love of Andraste, stop giving sample contracts to Cullen. The poor man is overwhelmed, talking elopement and getting cold feet from dealing with my hopefully temporary nobility. I’ll handle it with you when we get back, and just share the necessary details with him. Unless you can compare it to a siege. I bet he could grasp that analogy. In any case, leave him alone for now. I know it will take ages to iron out in any case. These things take time. Thank you, I know it’s above and beyond what you expected to be doing when you joined the Inquisition.

Say hi to Max for me? It’s nice to know he’s still hanging around, despite our lousy parents. Tell Leliana that I will speak to her about him when I return. He needs a set purpose if he is staying with the Inquisition. I wonder if he is still reporting to my parents at all.

Sincerely,

A.T.

***

Max scowled into his Dwarven Ale. Cabot had taken one look at him and poured him something truly dark and evil looking. Orzammar Stout, he had called it. It tasted a little like the worst kind of coffee that had been sitting in a pot for days, but it was undeniably alcoholic, and that’s what mattered.

Max had problems. His parents wanted him home. Yesterday. But Max liked the Inquisition. He had felt useful here, for the first time in his life, watching his only sister rebuild Thedas into something better, maybe even something like it once had been, before the Blight, before even Andraste. And Max… had met someone. Someone his parents were going to hate.

Her name was Bernadette. She was gorgeous, 4’ 2” on a good day, busty, sweet, funny, could drink him under the table - Andraste’s Mercy, she’d love this stuff - and she was a dwarf. A surfacer. Never been to Orzammar, didn’t care to go, honestly. She had facial tattoos, and dark hair that she kept short to fit under her helmet.  She wielded a greatsword like lifting a beer bottle.  Scout Harding had introduced them, and they had served on several missions together. Max had a very hard choice to make. He liked having money. He liked having his title to open doors for him, to buy him grace when he needed the leeway. And Leonard was a prick. But Bernadette… if anyone was worth leaving all that behind for, it was her. And unlike his sister, he didn’t have a dream or any skills to fall back on if he did leave it all behind. Bernadette hadn’t issued him an ultimatum, but… it wasn’t right, leaving her hanging when he would happily give it up to be with her, if it weren’t…

Max wasn’t good at planning. He needed a strategist. He needed someone good at the Game. Josie? Sister Nightingale? Asta? He groaned. The memory of Josie’s slap still stung his cheek. Sister Nightingale hated him with a passion, though they could work together well enough. Just personally, she despised him. That left his sister, who had enough problems of her own. Max sighed. It was hopeless. He was hopeless.

“Girl trouble?” Cabot refilled his stein.

“How’d you know?”

“Oh please, I have eyes. I’m a bartender. I know when I should look like I’m listening. But if you need someone to really listen, may I suggest the Iron Bull? He’s underestimated in the ears department, but that guy knows things.” Cabot nodded in the Bull’s direction.

Max stood from his stool, a little shaky, and made his way over. It couldn’t hurt, and maybe it would help. He’d take help however he could find it.

“Bernadette, huh?” Iron Bull tipped back his huge mug, and slammed it down. “Yeah, I’ve seen her looking at you. Like something she wants but can’t have. She drinks with Lace. Lace wants her to give up on her ’noble boy’. That would be you, I take it.”

“Probably. Maker, she should. I’m nobody, just a shell with a title. She deserves better,” Max slurred. “What’s this stuff? Tastes worse than the stout, and that was like week old coffee!”

Bull roared. “That’s Maraas-Lok! It’ll put chest on your chest!”

Max squinted at his chest. “Well, it couldn’t hurt. Most dwarves are built like barrels. Bernie’d probably like it.” And he drank again. “What can I do? I wuv - love her!”

“Easy, let your brother have the title, learn a trade. You can make good money as a scout with the Inquisition, get some experience and work as a mercenary after.  Prove yourself, and I might even take you on. You wouldn’t be the first noble to leave their title behind and piss off their parents to join up. It’d probably thrill your sister, since she spends her thoughts on you wondering which side you’re playing. Let her worry less. And if - Bernie- is any indication, I think she’d take up with you in a minute if she was sure of your affections and a future with you. Your sister isn’t going to care. I saw her congratulating an elf-Qunari couple a month ago. Odd couples in the Inquisition. It’s all good here. Outside these walls, it gets harder.” Bull drank again, his mask in place.

“Yeah? Heard you and that magister...”

“He ain’t a magister.” Bull cut him off. “He’s an Altus, or was, before the mess with his dad, and yeah, we spend some time together.”

“Don’t take it wrong, I think you’re cute!” Max hiccupped. “You and Dorian, you make sense. It’s like forbidden, but perfect. You fill in each other’s spaces. You keep doing your thing, Bull.” He raised his stein at the massive warrior.  "Keep doin' your thing."

Bull’s eye glinted at the very drunk noble. “You think a grey-skinned Qunari merc and a Tevinter mage look cute together? I should show you my Dawnstone armor. It‘s pretty.” Bull grunted. “As for Dorian and I… glad someone thinks so. He’s been… distant.” He got a gleam in his eye. “Hey, Max, you up for dragon hunting?”

Max squinted, his vision more than a little blurry. “Seriously? Which one? You and Sister, you run into them all the time.”

“Just a close one. Hinterlands. I won’t drag you to the Western Approach or anything. I want a tooth, but Asta only rattles on about upsetting the local ecology or some such nonsense. She says we’ll take the Crestwood one out first, and then only the rest as necessary to keep people safe.” Bull snorted. “Cullen told me she insisted the soldiers relocate the Varghests at the oasis in the Western Approach. Said they were endangered. Bullshit.” Bull roared, “And I don’t mean mine!”

Max laughed at the rude joke, too far in his cups to try to be dignified. “Shure, I’d go. Who doesn’t wanna figh a dragon, righ? Sumtin to tell the kids…”

“To your kids!” Bull roared, “Your little dwarven children!”

“Damn right! To Bernie!” Max roared back, and then fell off his stool while trying to drink, not realizing his stein was empty, and hit his head, knocking himself out.

Bull looked down at him. “Damn, I’d better take him to the infirmary. Cabot will kick me out if I get blood on his floor again.” He slung the unconscious heir over his shoulder and made his way to the exit, nodding at the watching Scout Harding. “Evening, Lace.”

Lace watched from her bench, eyes narrowed. She had to speak to Bernadette, soon.

Chapter Text

Dorian put down his book on the Qun, wishing he could talk with someone besides the Bull with personal experience. It seemed simple, and yet so incredibly complicated. The re-education that the Ben-Hasserath did was brutal - but not unlike some of the things that happened in Tevinter to enemies of the Magisterium. Without his birthright, he’d be just as liable to end up like that, with blood mages slowly convincing him how wrong the Inquisition was while he begged for a sip of water.

He held no illusions about his country. But it was his country, however misguided. At least he knew that for now, he could serve it best by being here instead of there.

He reopened the book.

‘It is every individual's choice whether or not they act according to their nature and the nature of the world, or oppose the proper order, and as such fight against themselves and the world. The individual is not truly "individual", but part of the whole. Their own nature contributes to the larger nature of the world, and so their struggle against self-balance disrupts the balance of the whole, thus hurting themselves.’

That really didn’t sound that bad. Most of his life he had been hiding his true nature. He had definitely been hurting himself. It was only when he finally stopped, refused to marry the girl and left the country that he had felt… free. Was his birthright so important after all? ‘Then change yourself. You make your own world.’ That was what Koslun had said. Under the Qun, they tested for your true nature, helped you find a place in the world that was your own. The only difficulties people had was when they didn’t fit in their given mold. Like Bull, both liar and warrior. And yet, the man was not a liar. He could lie, but it didn’t define him. Had it ever? Did the labels you gave yourself truly ever define what you were or what you could be?

Dorian didn’t know what to think any longer. Maybe it was time to stop thinking.

***

It was a rare hot day in Skyhold, one that had almost all the residents holed up in search of shade, cool drinks or both. Asta lay facedown on their bed, maps and records and reports spread out around her, quill scribbling furiously with a book as a makeshift desk as she muttered to herself about supply routes and possible campsites. “No ready source of firewood - that’s a problem,” she murmured, but marked the site as tentative all the same.

Cullen watched her quietly from the top of the ladder to their quarters, unnoticed for now. She had stripped down in the heat to just her breastband and smallclothes. His own were feeling a bit too tight, actually. She used her fingers to measure an approximate distance, brow furrowed. A single line of sweat dripped down from her forehead, hair pulled back in a tight bun. She was glistening, he realized, too warm, yet unable to stop working, even as her ink refused to dry. She pinched the bridge of her nose, and smeared a little ink across it, echoing Hawke’s blood streak, however unconsciously.

He moved up the rest of the ladder slowly, not wanting to startle her into spilling the inkwell so precariously perched on the corner of the map she was working on. But she flashed him a quick, preoccupied smile and went right back to work, her focus indomitable. He had stripped out of his armor downstairs, far too hot to be wearing such layers, and had largely had the same thoughts as her, without the paperwork. He had called it a day on account of heat - the Orlesian and Marcher officers laughing at the Fereldan boy behind their hands, but taking the afternoon off all the same, to find lemonade or cider and a cool spot in the shade.

So now, to see his Marcher up here wearing nothing but her skivvies… he laughed quietly at his officers in turn.

“What’s so funny?” Asta asked, not looking up, and measuring another distance with her fingers.

“Nothing at all, except that apparently the day is a bit hot, even for those of us from the Free Marches.”

“Of course it is. Even Dorian was declaring his intention of ‘laying out’, I believe, in the garden. Said he had been reading too much and needed some down time. I was invited to join him, but I freckle and burn, not tan. Mostly freckle. Not the most attractive look, as Dorian was forced to agree.”

Indeed she was freckled, random dots kissed by the sun across the skin of her shoulders, nose and forehead. Cullen had the sudden urge to duplicate the sun’s path, but the papers strewn about were a formidable defense indeed. Not to mention that inkwell… there had been enough spilling of ink in his office and quarters recently. The staff had yet to forgive him.

And then he caught a glimpse of her round bottom under her smallclothes, the curve just peeking out, and noticed the cleavage under her breastband, somewhat squashed by her slightly arched position, feet in the air up by his pillow. He cursed his body mentally, and then decided. She had been gone for a couple of weeks, after all, and just returned last night. They had four days at most together before she had to ride off to the Dales, and he was very inclined to make the most of their unexpected afternoon off. She would need some convincing, however, that was apparent.

“Do you need all of this paper?” He asked, taking advantage of her preoccupation to drop his own smallclothes on the floor, ignoring the basket set aside for just that purpose. It went completely unobserved by his Inquisitor, still in full planning mode.

“Probably not any more. I’ve compiled all the reports into a single comprehensive map of the area. It should include what nobles are at least tolerant, what Avvar tribes will let us cross their territories, marked supply caches and so on. I’m just trying to match up a list of tentative campsites with all that chaos. It’s harder than it looks. It’s not like the Western Approach - people actually live here. Or did, at least, before it became a war zone. I don’t want to end up camping in someone’s backyard by accident. The Inquisition needs its ties in Orlais to stay positive. At least for now. And once we leave the road just before Halamshiral it’s all going to be new. I hate camping blind. Better to have a plan, and a backup. I’m even considering skirting the Frostbacks going South - the weather will be cooler, meaning we’ll need more firewood, but some of the Avvar aren’t friendly… though Josie has been working on that. But any further East and we start running into a lack of trees until we reach the Dales. No firewood… I don’t want to have to collect the horses’ dung again like the Approach. That was nasty and miserable.”

Cullen glanced at her map while he stacked up her numerous discarded reports and maps, setting them on the floor in attempted tidy piles. “I see, that is a problem,” he settled himself comfortably on the bed, leaning slightly to see the map better. Also, from this viewpoint, he had an excellent view of her ass, cheekily disappearing under red fabric. She was completely unconscious of how beguiling her position was, lounging in her under things. By now, Cullen had bigger problems than a lack of good campsites, and if Asta had looked back, it would have been more than evident with the absence of clothing.

He made his move deliberately. “What about here? Access to a stream or river that heads vaguely South,” he leaned forward over the map, tracing the river’s path with his fingers of one hand, while running the others up her leg to her thigh and curving them around one buttock, just edging the fabric so limiting his view.

Asta caught her breath, shot a look at him, so apparently engrossed in her map, and tried to refocus. “Yes, that would work for the first night off the road. If we can camp by that copse, we’ll have wood, but it might be too green.”

“That’s easy. Have the forward scouts cut you a supply of wood.” He was stroking her idly, back and forth now, over the cloth and Asta narrowed her eyes. He couldn’t tell if she was trying to see it in her mind’s eye, or distracted by his movements. “Have them prepare the site for you. No smoky fires that won’t stay lit. No reason we can’t include dry firewood in a supply cache, after all.”

“That’s a good point,” Asta choked out, his fingers on her playing havoc with her clear thinking. He wasn’t playing fair. This was important! But he was solving her issues… and creating some new ones.

Cullen continued, “It looks to me like that river continues in fits and spurts clear to the Dales. Tomorrow, ask Leliana if that’s the case. Her scouts probably know if it’s continuous or not. No point sending you in blind when you could be… prepared.” His fingertip grazed under the cloth now, still gently and almost absentmindedly.

Asta hummed, in pleasure and agreement, “Oh, yes, that would be…” he dipped in, slightly deeper, “…good.” She squeaked out.

“And there are trees all along that area. Fallen wood wouldn’t be an issue until the Flats, far East and days away.” Cullen pointed out. “Even with Celene and Gaspard decimating the Plains you’ll still be able to find… wood.” He had leaned his body further over her own in an apparent attempt to point out the Deavin Flats border, and to provide contact with his own example of wood. Now he was half on top of her, his cock against her thigh, hand so recently tracing lines between her legs pointing out a nearly non-existent border. “You won’t make it that far into Orlais. Several rivers run through the Dales, for one, and crossing them could prove difficult.”

Asta could barely breathe. What had gotten into him? Was this man trying to seduce her over a map?  He shifted back suddenly, as if reading her thoughts, hand pressed on the featherbed between her thighs, close enough… but not close enough.

“Care to send a team with me to build a bridge?” As if in reward, Cullen ran his hand back up her thigh - only to dart away like a minnow. Asta clenched her teeth. What was he up to? She was throbbing now in frustration with the silly teasing.

Almost randomly he stroked the curve of her ass. “Perhaps. I’ll keep an appropriate team near or in Skyhold. Just send a raven and I’ll deploy them.”

The way he said ‘deploy’ made her want to flip over, inkwell and quill be damned, and kiss him senseless. But she didn’t. “That would be wise. They can be there soon enough, and I’d hate to lose Inquisition forces to these Freemen and the possibly unrelated undead. Not to mention the ever-present demons, of course.”

Cullen’s hand drifted lower, stroking over the center of the cloth still between them. “Such care for the troops, Asta. I’m sure they are… grateful.”

“Oh? How grateful are they?” Asta moaned as he cupped her gently, slipping a finger underneath, and simultaneously plucking the quill from her long motionless hand. He set it and the open inkwell on the bedside table, briskly efficient. She was so wet… she could feel the slipperiness coating them both.

“Quite grateful,” Cullen leaned over, allowing himself to brush against her bare thigh again. “I’ll have the Commander write you a thank you note. In great detail.” He bent down and ran his tongue along the back of her neck, tasting the saltiness on her skin, and stopping to kiss the top of her spine.

Shivers ran down Asta’s back at the contact. “That would be… sufficient.”

“No, I don’t think it is…” Cullen mused, kissing down the line of her spine until he reached her breastband, pulling and freeing her breasts from their unfortunate confinement. They fell out, brushing the bedcovers, overly sensitive, and Asta’s gasp made him grin wickedly. “I think the Commander can do more,” he murmured against her skin, tracing the freckles on her shoulders with his tongue in random circles. She was all too aware that he was close enough to her to keep her from flipping over now, but Maker…

“Oh? Do you have any suggestions?” Asta’s voice was tinny now and she cleared her throat in vain.

“One or two…” Cullen cupped her breasts in both hands, thumbing her nipples, but then dropped them, running his hand in retreat to nestle back between her thighs. “But will you… entertain them?”

“I don’t know,” Asta squeaked, “I’m feeling rather favorable towards Commanders right now.” She tried to wiggle back to increase the pressure, but failed. He chuckled softly. He had her right where he wanted her.

“Then stay still,” his clever fingers left a void between her legs, only to reappear at her waist to pull her smallclothes off to meet his on the floor. The air was warm around her - she didn’t even notice the lack. A single finger reentered her, deeper this time, and the angle was different, but not bad. She tried to meet it halfway, so wet without the fabric containing the moisture. He slipped a second digit inside her and she raised her hips, nearly planting her face in the map. Cullen laughed and folded it up one handed, and rather haphazardly. “Let’s put this away, shall we?” He tossed it on the floor. “Can I… can we… try something different?”

Asta turned her head sideways and smiled. “What do you have in mind?”

“Lift your hips,” he continued to stroke her, pumping gently now, in and out rhythmically. She was still so tight. “On your hands and knees?” He sounded unsure as she shifted, trying not to displace his hand. “Is that all right?”

“That’s fine, Cullen,” Asta pushed herself up. “Like this?”

“Maker’s Breath,” Cullen breathed, transfixed. She was open to him, and he hastened to move behind her.

“Is this what you were thinking?” She asked curiously. “I’ve read about this, but obviously…”

“Yes…” Cullen lined himself up between her legs, and then reached around to fondle her breasts. She arched them into his hands, humming again and bucked back against his hips. He choked. “Maker fucking Andraste in the Fade, Asta…”

“Cullen Rutherford!” Asta head snapped up. “Filthy mouth!” But she was laughing. “You never say anything worse than ‘Maker’s Breath’!”

“Look who is talking,” he muttered. “Asta, this is… how am I going to…”

“Cullen, I’m getting tired of your hesitation! I’m here, I want you. Just…” he entered her with a single stroke and she cried out in sudden bliss. “Cullen!”

“Is that better,” he panted, trying to regain control and failing. “I hope so, because, damn it to the Void, Asta, that feels…” Asta pulled away and slammed back into him, not quite as hard but just as eagerly. “Andraste’s Ass!”

“I suppose it is… Cullen, don’t you dare stop!” They were already sweating hard, and neither had moved much at all, but Cullen went to work, holding her around her waist with his hands and letting her play with herself while he pounded against her, their moans mingling with the squeaking of the bed frame and the floor. She bent her head down, hair falling out of it’s careful bun, sweat dripping from her forehead.

“Sweet Andraste!” Cullen moaned, “I can’t… just like that, Asta, I can’t…”

Asta moaned, “Don’t! I can’t stop it either! Just… I’m…” She vibrated like a lute string and snapped, unable to move. “Keep going!”

Cullen couldn’t help but obey, groans and praises and obscenities falling from his lips in equal measure. Asta had never heard him say half of these before, had never even heard a few of them at all. Somehow, hearing her sweet Chantry boy lose it this way was bringing her even closer to her own finale. He grasped her waist far too tightly and felt her orgasm around him. He arched his own back and lost the last of his control, hammering into her, balls deep and tight as she moaned with every movement. “Asta!” He groaned at last, finishing hard and slumping forward onto her back. “Did I hurt you?”

“No,” Asta crumpled, head on her arms, resting, dripping sweat. “I may need a bath, however. Maker’s Mirror, Cullen, that was… different. Different good. Different great. Different… I have no words.”

Cullen shuddered a laugh. “Glad you liked it. I… it was…”

“Transcendent.” Asta laughed.

“Ah, back to normal already? I’ll have to do better next time, then,” Cullen slid off of her, and stretched out, boneless, feet on her pillow.

“Better might kill me,” Asta muttered, mouth still hidden. “The Orlesians call this the ‘small death’ you know.”

“Apparently even Orlesians get some things right,” Cullen admitted. “I could die happy right now.”

“Don’t you dare,” Asta curled up next to him. “You owe me a bath. Maker, it’s hot.”

“I didn’t even realize how much until I came up here. Let’s just stay up here for the rest of the day.”

“Now that sounds like a plan. The baths will all be full anyway until after dark. Hmm, maybe it will be cooler then.” She yawned. “I think I’ll sleep.”

“Right behind you,” Cullen wrapped his arm around her. “You might have company in that bath. Maybe. If I’m really not dead. Are you sure I‘m not dead?”

“Not dead. I look forward to it.”

***

The next day, Dorian was horribly sun burnt and grumpy. “Tevinters don’t burn. It had better fade in a day or two or…”

Asta couldn’t help but laugh. “It’s the reflected sunlight! All that sun and snow and ice… sends the rays right into your skin. You need an aloe potion. Talk to Solas or one of the healers. Did you at least recover from reading too much?”

“No!” Dorian pouted. “I was supposed to regain my equilibrium, but it didn’t help. I’m still just as twisted up as I ever was.”

Asta hesitated. “Is it Bull?”

“No!” Dorian protested too quickly. “Yes. Maybe. Did you know that the Qun is based on being who you are supposed to be? Yes, the reeducation stuff is awful, but… I can see the appeal in knowing where you belong. I’ve never had that.”

Asta shook her head, “Dorian, have you been reading the writings of Koslun? Are you considering… converting?!”

“No, absolutely not! But… the Qun seems to work for Bull. He is who he is, you know. Not ashamed, just…” Dorian gestured, “out there. Maybe too much out there. Would it kill him to wear a shirt?” He shook his head.

“And you like who he is,” Asta guessed. “And wondered if there was room for you?”

“Sort of. Maybe. Why?” Dorian grew suspicious. “Did he say something? He’s been… funny lately. Almost giddy, like he has a secret he’s not telling.”

“Well, he is a Qunari agent…” Asta pointed out.

“Not that kind of secret!” Dorian raised his voice and the librarian shushed them. “A… happy secret. Which reminds me. In one of the other books on the Qun I found this mention of a piece of jewelry. A tooth, actually.”

“What kind of a tooth?”

Dorian tried to smile winningly. “A dragon tooth. I want you to help me find one.”

“Dorian, I really don’t think we’re just going to find a dragon tooth laying around somewhere…” Asta began.

“No, hear me out! We have to take out the dragon in Crestwood. It’s been killing people and pets and all sorts of things, right? Take me along! I’ll get my tooth and…”

“Dorian, Bull has been begging me to kill dragons since we set foot in the Hinterlands! He’ll never forgive me if I take you and not him to kill one! And I assume that you don’t want him along or your little surprise would be ruined, correct?”

“Well, yes.” Dorian raised his chin. “I guess I’ll just have to tell Cullen about the smutty novels you hide in my room.”

“Oh, please, he’d probably just want me to read them to him,” Asta muttered. “You’ll have to do better than that.”

“Oh really? What about the one featuring the King and the Lady Warden? Don’t you think he’d want to know your secret fantasies about…”

“Oh Maker, Dorian, FINE. I’ll take you with me to Crestwood. Don’t you dare tell Cullen about… Maker, he actually met them back then! It would be a nightmare!” Asta glared at Dorian. “I’ll kill you!”

Dorian snapped up a barrier. “No Magic in the Library!” The librarian hissed. Dorian let it fall, his point made.

“You can try, my dear. You can try.”

Chapter Text

Cullen,

I have been informed by certain advisors of our mutual acquaintance that perhaps it would be wise for me to write you two letters, one professional and one private, just in case the former needs to be shared in council whilst I am away.

That does make sense, doesn’t it? I can imagine you standing there, blushing adorably while trying to mentally edit some of my more… personal anecdotes. I have no doubt Leliana will read them both, but that doesn’t bother me as much as it did. Let her see what you mean to me.

You, obviously, are under no such limitations, and can mix in the saucy as much as you like - or at least dare. Please dare. It would greatly improve my morale.

For Gaspard and Celene have turned most of this epically beautiful place into a graveyard. Mind you, they were only following in the footsteps of Sister Amity 700 years prior. Too much blood has been spilled on this land. “Exalted Plains”, my ass, it should still be Dirthavaren as intended and promised by Andraste’s children. Ville Montevelan lies in ruins, Amity’s markers the only structure left standing. The irony makes me ill. When we first arrived the forces of Gaspard and Celene were completely underground with very few exceptions - holed up and hiding from the Freemen and undead.

What does it say that a former Chantry sister has to liberate the Orlesian armies from their own cowardice? I’m inclined to join you in saying ‘Bloody Orlesians’. Perhaps at least I can aid the local Dalish tribe. I can’t believe they are still here, but their situation is rather desperate. I met a very friendly Dalish hunter - and he introduced me to his Keeper. I’m helping them out so that they can evacuate as much as I can. Building goodwill with the Dalish is never a mistake. One of their young men seems uncommonly eager to join the Inquisition. Odd, but we are more than willing to have him. Their scouts are uncanny. His Keeper will have to allow him to leave, though.

Most of my assistance has been basic staples. Spindleweed, hides, and the like. Their resources are depleted and their aravels (their caravans - NOT pulled by Halla! I had no idea!) in poor repair. The Keeper also asked our group to clear their local sacred burial site from demons. I admit, I was tempted - graves are a fabulous source of knowledge about the past and a whole graveyard full… but I resisted. Too much wrong has already been done. At least their dead should rest in peace.

Loranil, the young elf that wants to join the Inquisition, asked me to send a letter for him. Strange, but I complied. I sense no dissemblance and didn’t tell the Keeper. It seemed to be addressed to an Orlesian lady who lived in Montevelan - probably until she was forced to evacuate. Possibly we have an unconventional love story on our hands! Don’t worry, I will keep it to myself. You and I know all too well the value of privacy. And such a relationship could only cause stress on both sides. A Dalish elf and a young noblewoman… his Keeper and her parents would both disapprove, I’m sure.

My tent is very cold, even though we had to double up. At least as Inquisitor I can choose my bunkmate. I took a little glee in choosing Cassandra, thus making Vivienne and Sera stay together. Vivienne absolutely refuses to bunk with any of the men. Says her reputation is at stake. She’s the known mistress of the Duke of Ghislain, and she worries about her reputation? Orlesians. But I miss you to warm me up. The nights are getting chillier, and we are extremely grateful for the firewood caches. Can we arrange a bonus of some sort for the scouts that took care of that? And make it a regular procedure?  At least until winter ends?

I will write more soon. I’m having trouble keeping my eyes open, even though I want to tell you about the rivers and the ruins (so many ruins!) and making Sera and Cole chase a Golden Halla… I haven’t laughed like that since before Adamant. I bet you didn’t realize we were going to be herding Halla. Well, just the one. Sera was livid!

I love you. Consider yourself kissed thoroughly.

Your Asta

***

My dear Asta,

I hardly know where to begin. Should I tell you how your pillow still smells of your hair? I wrap myself around it at night, but it almost makes my sleep worse, not better. A pillow is a lacking substitute. I am in a bad way. I blush to admit it, but I’ve started carrying around your smallclothes in my pocket - the ones you gave me for ‘luck’ at the lake. An odd favor for a Knight, to be sure, and one I cannot display.

If this Loranil wishes to join us, by all means, try to curry favor with his Keeper. I can only imagine the lack of privacy he has to endure. Josephine and Leliana are tracking down his lady, and Josie seems confident of success.

I should tell you that your brother and Iron Bull are hatching some sort of plot. Your brother seems to be drinking with him a lot lately… and they keep borrowing my maps of the Hinterlands and talking to that Serault fellow. The expert on dragons. I suspect, but have no proof. Perhaps you should write to him?

Leliana informs me that he has officially cut ties with your parents. The bastard - no offense - is staying with the Inquisition, it seems. She seemed to be testing the waters with me about dwarves as well… but it’s probably unrelated. Perhaps she is forming closer ties with the Carta or the Merchant’s Guild. Varric would rather die.

I hope your brother doesn’t hurt himself on that Maraas-Lok. My head hurt for three days. And that was after I found myself and Bull singing a song of the Qun in the tavern. In Qunlat. I don’t speak more than a couple of words of Qunlat. Certainly not enough to be singing it. However, the Qunari mercenaries we employ seemed very warm to me the next day. Bull said I performed admirably. Maker’s Breath, apparently I need you here to keep me out of these situations.

I know it will be months before I can expect to see you. Your face haunts my dreams - the good and bad. I have no flower for this letter - if it is autumn there, here everything is thoroughly frozen, except for the hothouses Elan maintains. And she glowers when I try to enter. Very scary. I think she puts protective runes on them.

Enjoy the ruins. I have no doubt you will astound us all with what you learn. Let Blackwall and Cassandra take point, please?

I remain your shield, even here.

Cullen

***

Commander,

It appears I will require that group of builders you put aside for my use. The bridge at Pont Agur has been destroyed. We have stopped the undead on this side of the river, liberated the ramparts, Fort Revasan and the Riverside Garrison.

Loranil is on his way to join you. I believe he is expecting another recruit… time will tell.

As discussed, I will move directly onto the Emerald Graves from here.

Also, let me know if your builders would also be capable of moving a great deal of stone. There appears to have been a cave in. While I don’t expect to need access to Ghilan’nain’s Grove on this trip, the very name speaks of elven lore. I cannot resist.

Solas is returning to Skyhold, I think, on his own. Don’t worry, Dorian and Vivienne remain with me. He has had an… unexpected loss, and needs some recovery time. Consider him on bereavement leave for a time.

Expect a more personal letter shortly.

Sincerely,

Inquisitor Trevelyan

P.S. See, I can write a professional letter, Leliana!

***

Inquisitor,

I am sending a crew that will more than suffice for both bridge building and rock removal. Dorian should be most appreciative. Also, a large amount of ale, at their request. I have my doubts.

I tried to get permission, like a guilty child, to accompany them. Leliana shot me down. Apparently my desire to move large rocks in your presence and impress you with my engineering prowess is less important than, say, investigating Emprise du Lion’s silence, troop rotations in Val Chevin, or Inquisition assistance in rebuilding Kirkwall. Imagine that.

Unfortunately, the dwarven builder that was supposed to lead the bridge construction had an unfortunate accident. He’s currently recovering from a bad fall from a scaffold - a broken leg. I fear that the ultimate appearance of the bridge will suffer, but we really have no option since I cannot come myself. It will at least be serviceable. I hope.

Perhaps I should not have approved the requisition for so much ale.

I am yours to command, my lady.

Cullen

***

Dear Cullen,

I like the sound of that. Mine to command? With Solas gone, Sera has moved to Blackwall’s tent and Cassandra to Vivienne’s. Apparently I’m allergic to something in the air here, and I’m snoring horribly. How embarrassing. So here I am, all alone in my tent, thinking of you being mine to command… pictures of you, hot and sweaty with moving rocks, said sweat dripping off you, your hair running riot in curls… probably naked from the waist up. Mmm. We’ve been having a run of hot days here. I haven’t been wearing much beyond my trousers and a thin chemise. Even gone without a breastband for a few days… my nipples are probably visible, but it’s so hot…

I’d run my hand down your chest, unable to help myself. I’d pull your lips down to mine, fisting my hand in those impossible curls. (Naturally, we would be alone. A fantasy is the ideal situation, after all.) You’d clench me to you, slanting your mouth across mine, pulling me down with you to a clear spot amongst the boulders and…

I’ll write more to you later. Andraste's Flaming Knickers, I miss you.

(resumed sometime later) I feel a little better now. Talk about poor substitutes. I really do miss you - not just physically. I had to deliver a bunch of letters we recovered from fallen soldiers on both sides to their commanding officer. I wanted to cry. I wanted you to hold me. You are a great comfort to me, Cullen. I’m fairly sure that without you, Cole and Dorian I would have fallen apart by now. You aren’t just my shield, you are my sword and my strength.

I feel silly sending you flowers, but I found a patch of Lady’s Seal (Be my support) today, and it was just too hard to resist. Much like yourself.

This trip is already too long and will be much longer. Trust that I remain,

Your Asta

***

Asta,

Maker’s Breath, woman, if that’s what your personal letters are going to consist of… exactly how much were you holding back before… never mind. The truth is that I enjoyed reading that and… had some alone time myself that evening.

‘Alone time’. There has to be a better euphemism for… Just forget I said that, actually. Besides, when you aren’t here most of my evenings are alone. I’m turned off of drinking with the Iron Bull. Varric wants to play Wicked Grace with me, ‘to give me a break from polishing my armor, amongst other things’. I know what he is eluding to. He isn’t wrong. If I give in, know that I couldn’t be alone with my thoughts for another moment. An absolute last resort.

By now the construction team should be there and starting work. I hope they build the bridge first. I’m having serious doubts about the amount of ale they requisitioned.

Hopefully the Emerald Graves will be more straightforward. At least there are no reports of Halla there. Something called an August Ram that apparently is blue… but it isn’t domesticated. You will have to tell me the whole story of Sera and the Golden Halla when you return. I want to see your facial expressions, so that I don’t have to use my imagination. My imagination is getting quite enough exercise lately.

If you have need of my sword, know it is yours. But I’d rather stand between you and the darkness so that it never threatens you at all. I guess that’s why I’m here and you are there, really.

But regardless of how or when you need me, I am yours.

Cullen

P.S. If I am your strength, you are my words. I love you. C.R.

***

Cullen,

Merciful Maker. You don’t need me to be your words. Have you really been… do I have to keep going? Just thinking about it… I’m not normally speechless. But I have a very clear picture of you right now, laying back on your bed with your hand…

I’m going to finish this in my tent. Dorian is trying to look over my shoulder while I write. I suspect he’s been going through my saddlebags. I also suspect we are going to be leaving here in about two days. The bridge is built. It’s awful. Tell your injured builder to get well soon. It didn’t fall apart, however. It took a long time, but we found survivors across the river, they locked themselves in using old elven defense mechanisms when the undead attacked. Stupid fools using technology they didn‘t understand. That said, it probably saved their lives. Although my small group made short work of them, with some minor injuries. There were so many… even Crestwood wasn’t this bad.

In my tent now, I can feel Dorian scowling at me through the canvas. Tell Bull to write to him, please. I know it’s a lot to ask, but he keeps reading Koslun. I’m getting a little worried. He says he’s not considering converting, but… I’m not particularly Andrastean, you know that, but Dorian and the Qun? He says it makes sense. Not for him. He told me this story about his birthright, how he doesn’t truly have a place in Tevinter as his father’s son any longer. I think it hurts him more than he shows.

That said, you aren’t the only one whose hands have been busy. Completely insufficient. I should have requisitioned you when I had the chance. Is there anything we could bribe Leliana with? A new pair of shoes? I swear, when I get back to Skyhold we aren’t leaving our bed for three days. At least. Maybe a week. We’ll have our meals delivered, and baths sent to your office, keep the doors locked otherwise. I’m going to have my way with you everywhere. Including your desk, the ladder, against that ridiculous tree - has your ceiling been repaired yet? - on the bear rug, the bookshelves… I may need a demonstration of the sort of ‘polishing’ you’ve been doing.

I want to hear more about this imagination of yours. What has it been thinking of?

I long to be with you. The Emerald Graves are supposed to be beautiful, and rich in lost knowledge. I even have a good enough relationship with the elves here that they told me about some ruins there, and a branch of their tribe that was trying to recover some. But even the pull of that cannot compete with my desire to see you again, to touch you again, to speak to you, to hear you laugh, to see you smirk when you leave me legless on the battlements after a ‘break’.

I love you. That is beginning to seem totally inadequate.

Asta

***

Hey Dorian,

Cullen told me you were reading Koslun. What the Void for? You don’t need that crap. The Qun is a good life for a lot of people, but you would be crushed under its weight. You don’t need to change or be changed. You fighting who they wanted you to be in Tevinter has made you a stronger man.  The Qun would be that in spades.  You'd come out stronger in the way they wanted you to be stronger, but broken in the worst way.  They'd sew your mouth shut, and they wouldn't even buy you dinner first.

Quit reading it. I’ll tell you anything you are curious about. Why didn’t you just ask?

Is that why you didn’t even say good-bye? Is that why you decided to go with the Boss? She told me that she gave you the option of staying - though with Solas abandoning her halfway through the mission I’m glad you went. You’re a good man, Dorian, nothing like that piece of shit that spawned you. I’m proud to know you.

We are talking when you get back, whether you want to or not. Koslun, of all things. I’m going to go hit something now. Maybe Krem has improved his shield bash.

Bull

***

Bull,

What I read has no impact on you whatsoever. If I want to read Koslun, I will. I do have a few questions, however, so will take you up on your offer.

I have missed you. Don’t read into that any more than what it says. If you write to me again, I may write back. If I have time. This mission has been very eventful, so I may not.

We reached the Emerald Graves yesterday, and have set up camp. It is lovely here. Asta is considering rotating out Blackwall and sending for you. Don’t feel like you have to come. It would probably only take you a few days, riding hard, though.

Sincerely,

Dorian Pavus

***

Dear Bull,

Sending Blackwall home for a break - an Arcane Horror got him pretty bad, cracked a rib and fractured his tibia. He definitely needs a break. Care to join us? There are giants here. More than just one. Dozens.

Someone misses you, but you know how he is. If you could get him to quit reading Koslun I’d happily put up with the noises from your tent. Oh, bring a few extra tents. We could all use a bit of a break from each other. If Solas were available, I’d send Vivienne home too.

Come on out, if you like. I could use a bodyguard. Cullen will kill me if I get too close to these giants. And it’s not how I want to go, honestly. They pick up rocks and drop them on you. And slam their fists into your head. It’s amazing to watch them do it to Red Templars, but… well, you’ll love it.

Fair warning, lots of Red Templars. I’m writing to the Commander about it, though. Just get your grey ass out here.

Asta

***

Dorian,

“Don’t feel like you have to come?” Never been a problem for me. But you know that.

I’ll ride hard. See if I don’t. Might even make it before this letter. Tell the Boss to send Blackwall home.

Bull

 

Chapter Text

Dear Commander,

The Red Templar presence in the Emerald Graves goes far beyond anything we have seen before. They are here in droves. Fairbanks is a reasonable sort - one of the women here seems determined to prove that he’s a noble, although possibly born on the wrong side of the blanket. Does it really matter? Apparently it would set him up financially, but otherwise, he doesn’t seem interested. Not sure what to do about it - would appreciate some advice from my advisors.

Bull has arrived, safe and sound, and is positively reveling in the giants. He woke up this morning, ate his breakfast and went out to find a giant. He killed it, came back, took a bath in the river, singing at the top of his lungs - Dorian was beet red with embarrassment but didn’t look away either - and then we took off for this Din’an Hanin that Keeper Hawen had told us about. Has there been any luck with finding Loranil’s young lady? I’m curious and nosy.

And yes, Leliana, that belongs in the ‘professional’ letter. I’m the Inquisitor, caring about my troop’s morale is a part of the profession. And by your and the Commander’s letters, Loranil has been extremely helpful to the cause. That kind of service should be rewarded.

I’ve found quite a bit of evidence about the lyrium smuggling that you were looking for. I think I’m onto something. Mines and quarries, Commander. There is a theme here - the quarry in Crestwood, the veridium mine here. Mines in the Western Approach. Have they found a way to grow and harvest it? I keep being haunted by my memory of Fiona in that blighted future at Redcliffe - red lyrium growing from her body. Surely not…

And now I have probably triggered your symptoms again. But I’m afraid this is crucial information I’m passing on. If you start having symptoms or other difficulties, please see a healer. That’s an order.

My group is working together famously, I’m happy to say. We have taken the Freeman stronghold and allowed Fairbanks’ group of refugees resettle there. It’s far more defensible than the cave they were sheltering in before. I think they will be all right.

This place is filled with creepy (yes, that is a technical word, Commander) abandoned manors, some of which are being used by the Red Templars as bases. Needless to say I have to clear every single one of them before I return.

Expect a personal letter shortly.

Sincerely,

A.T.

***

Inquisitor,

Contrary to both you and the Commander’s belief, I do not read your personal mail. I cannot vouch for all my scouts, however. And if the letter isn’t marked ‘personal’, I do read it. I too am nosy and curious. It is what makes me so good at my job. If I catch my scouts reading a letter marked ‘personal’ between you and the Commander, rest assured I will scold them… and then find out exactly what was in it that kept them reading after it was evident that it wasn‘t meant for their eyes.

I’m only human, Inquisitor.

Josie and I agree that proving Fairbanks’ noble birth could be useful to the Inquisition - and also to the refugees. The Commander begs to differ. He thinks we should leave the man alone. I don’t think any of us are surprised by that. In the end, it will depend on you. Perhaps you should ask the man himself? What kind of evidence have you found? It must be something rather compelling, for the Council of Heralds to admit him.

No word yet on Scout Loranil’s young lady. Apparently she was staying with an aunt in Val Royeaux? Josie’s contacts have a couple of leads on young ladies from the Dales that were evacuated. Unfortunately, it seems that several of them did not survive the trip to the city. All we can do is hope that his young lady was more fortunate - and from his description of her, she sounds able to defend herself at least.

Unlike someone else we know. Truly, Asta, why didn’t you continue the Tempest training? Or the Assassin, for that matter? Your skills are improving, but not quickly enough. One of these days you won’t be fast enough and the Inquisition will find itself without a leader.

Think about it.

S. N.

***

Leliana,

It turns out I am allergic to the Tempest alchemy. I tried it again in the Exalted Plains, and whatever Sera puts in those flasks makes me break out into hives. Thank heaven Solas and Vivienne were there so that they could treat me or I would probably be dead.

And I can’t bring myself to train as an assassin. I know it’s a valid field, and that the Inquisition has many such, but… it seems contrary to my ideals. We’ve spoken of how ideals are crucial right now, and I know we disagreed, but I cannot sacrifice this. Varric has agreed to help me learn how to be an artificer, however, so we’ll try that. Hopefully I am better with my hands than at the alchemy table.

I know this disappoints you, but well, I will not change my mind. That is not who I am, or who I want to be. If I could remain a librarian and still serve the Inquisition, I would. Unfortunately, I am needed in the field, so I serve there instead. I go where I am needed, but because of that, I also have limits for how far I will take my service. Don’t try to push me past them.

Thank you, and thank Josie for her assistance with Loranil’s young lady. Tell Josie that on our way back, we will stop in Val Royeaux about that contract we spoke of . It’s a little out of the way, but would be silly to return to Skyhold just to leave again. I will send her word when I head that way.

Sincerely,

A.T.

***

Cullen,

I found a waterfall today. I was a mess, so I sent everyone but Cassandra back to camp and let her stand guard so I could bathe. It was a lovely place, all silvery and the greenery here - it is like living inside a jewel. The water was cold, and I got all nipply, so I checked that Cassandra was far enough away and… well, thought of you a bit. Still completely insufficient, but it shouldn’t be much longer than a month now. More than halfway through this long, long mission. I imagined you there, with me, your body hot against the cold water, using your mouth the way you do - it’s better when I think about you touching me, rather than about how I am forced to touch myself. I suppose that’s not strange, when I think about it.

I am doing good work here. I know, but it’s so hard to be away from you. Do you miss me at all? I miss you more than words. (And you know how much that means, coming from me.)

Dorian and Bull are arguing over the Qun, again. It’s bizarre. You’d expect Bull to be arguing in favor, but instead, he is listing all the points against it, and Dorian is defending it. Last night, Bull actually said something positive about Tevinter and I nearly fell off my log. You’d probably enjoy the debate, but I can’t help but wonder if there is something else going on behind it… maybe they aren’t really debating the validity of the Qun at all, but something much deeper. They argue into the night, and then retire to separate tents, only to start it all over again in the morning after Bull kills his obligatory giant. But they are working something out. I caught Bull giving Dorian a shoulder rub last night, and Dorian let him - in front of everyone. I don’t think Dorian has ever let Bull touch him in public before. It ended quickly enough when Sera hooted.

If I didn’t need her out here, I’d send her home. Likewise Vivienne. We are all a little tired of hearing about Cassandra and myself could improve our demeanor and appearance. Her opinions grow tiresome. But everyone here is probably sick of me raving about elven glory - they got enough of that from Solas in the Plains - and picking up every weed we come across, even the rashvine - which by the way, it turns out I am violently allergic to. Another reason I cannot send Vivienne home. She’s the only one who knows how to make the skin cream I need. Prophet’s Laurel and aloe, I think… but I don’t know the ratio.

I continue to have a tent to myself, however, so at least they get a break from me. And no one has attempted murder yet.

When I get home, I am definitely going to have you on the bear rug. I killed a Great Bear today. No, really, it was me, not Cassandra or Bull. I did it. I think I really am improving. I felt a little bad afterward, even though I know that the rifts drive them crazy, and they aren’t acting like they should. Helisma’s report was very interesting on that front, and did make me feel better about all the wildlife we decimate as we cross this country.

Leliana, however, has thoroughly scolded me for not becoming an assassin. I can’t do it, Cullen. I just can’t. I hope at least you understand why. Cole says he does. I think he said, ‘Heart bleeds with every death. The Rose withers. She doesn’t sing anymore.” Not sure if that was more about Leliana or me, come to think of it. I hope she’s okay - nothing happened while I’ve been gone, right? She all but admitted she encourages her scouts to read our private letters while maintaining she doesn’t do it herself.

Leliana, if you are reading this, I worry about you.

I’d better try to get some sleep, despite missing you so desperately. I don’t suppose… but no, there isn’t even a convenient bridge that needs building, or rocks to remove out here. Nothing but trees, ruins, red Templars, refugees, rifts, demons and a fuck-ton of wildlife.

Still, I wish you were here with me.

I love you,

Asta

***

My Asta,

How can you even ask if I miss you? Never doubt that. It won’t be long now - just a few weeks, with luck. Someday, the two of us will travel to that waterfall, and I will fulfill every fantasy you had. It sounds rather… cold and wet. In the meantime, perhaps I will keep your bear rug warm for you. That sounds rather diverting and much more weather appropriate.

Seriously, woman, I don’t think I’ve ever needed this much… alone time. Maker’s Breath, I hate that euphemism. I’m not going to tell you to stop writing these things, though. I enjoy them too much. Perhaps this is a good point to confess that I’ve read the second chapter of Swords and Shields? I have to fill the time when I can’t sleep with something, after all.

Thank you for the letters. I think that we will have the location of the red lyrium mine ready upon your return. And perhaps, even Samson. That said, I have knowledge of Samson’s lieutenant - a Templar Knight-Captain named Carroll. Before you come home, we have knowledge that Carroll is trying to reestablish contact with the Freemen. He is going to have to be - removed. I would appreciate it if you could make it quick. I knew him once, a long time ago.

It hurts, what men I once considered brothers have become. There is likely nothing left of the young man that would accept cookies as bribes and share them with us later. There weren’t many cookies in the Circle. Of course, sometimes people would give him gold and he’d head to the Spoiled Princess to meet this girl, instead… but he was human, then.

Come home soon,

Cullen

***

Cullen Rutherford, I swear it upon my stupid gilded throne that I will make you cookies as soon as I get back to Skyhold. And then sit on you until you eat every last one. I’m writing to Josie right now and telling her to add cookies to the menu for the soldiers until this is over. Even we kids that were raised in the chantry had cookies! They weren’t very good cookies, they had raisins - yuck - but still, cookies.

Now I am ordering you to tell me your favorite cookie right this second or I will write to your sister and find out.

Wouldn’t it be great if it all it took to cure Thedas of its messes were to bake cookies for everyone?

I’m having a hard time with this situation. But Carroll is gone. May the Maker guide him to his side. Cole helped. It was as quick as we could make it, and as painless.

My thoughts are with you, my love,

Asta

***

Asta,

Thank you. I know that you don’t credit Andraste with divinity, but… I appreciate the thought for Carroll, and for me.

Actually, my favorite cookies are very simple. Nothing but flour, butter and sugar, and a little vanilla, if it’s available. Fereldan shortbread. Sometimes Mother would add almonds, if she had them. Vanilla and almonds were hard to find in Honnleath, they had to be imported.

Have you ever had shortbread? Do they make it in the Free Marches? I never saw any place in Kirkwall sell it.

Mia wrote me back. I get the impression that she is overwhelmed by our relationship. At least enough that she probably isn’t going to visit Skyhold and bust in on us and demand exactly how I managed to land the Inquisitor, the best hope of all Thedas, as my fiancée.

Fiancée. The Orlesians do have some nice words, don’t they? Much better than betrothed, or wife-to-be, or future ball and chain.

Loranil and I have been studying Orlesian together. I’m tempted to replace Guy, but he’s so damn efficient. I still can’t tell what he mutters under his breath, however. What does ‘vache’ mean? Leliana only laughed at me when I asked.

After all, though, I think I’d still rather just be able to call you mine.

And I am yours,

Cullen

***

Cullen,

I am going to make this an informal letter, damn it. Quibble over the difference with Leliana later.

I am on my home from Val Royeaux, with a book on Fereldan cookery that I found severely marked down, as well as a certain young lady that an equally young elf has been pining for. Josie’s unfortunate situation has been fortuitous in one respect, at least. I will fill you in upon my return.

I wish that we could have been young together. Mademoiselle Girent is positively exuberant about her Loranil. They’ve been apart for over a year, Cullen. I shudder at the thought. Months are bad enough. And before that she had one night before her father whisked her away from the war and her love.

Maker, Varric is going to eat this up, isn’t he? Forbidden romance, love on a battlefield, a single night of passion before the inevitable occurs - it’s got him written all over it.

Actually, I’d read it. Never claimed to be a literary snob, after all.

I wish I had all the years to spend with you that I wasted in the Chantry. The more I think about what is to come, I know our time is so precious, so likely to be cut short. I want to spend it all with you. And yet I cannot. I cannot even bring myself to hope lately… everything I do seems inadequate for the monumental task set before me.

Perhaps someday we will no longer be at war, perhaps then, I will be able to be with you, and you with me. I could almost bring myself to pray to Andraste for such a day to come. I wish I could believe in her. Perhaps then there would be comfort. Cole has been muttering around me again, but I can’t remember what he says.

The young lady’s aunt is quite a character. I can’t wait to show you what else I bought. You will be scandalized. I greatly look forward to it.

I will see you in a week or less, if I can manage it. My equestrian skills are improving slightly as well. Who knows, maybe by the end of all of this I will be able to make it to Skyhold from Val Royeaux in three days, like the chevaliers brag about being able to do, and take on a giant on my own!

That’s supposed to be funny, I have no intention of doing either. I wouldn’t be able to sit for weeks, and I am all too aware of the damage giants can do to me.

I love you,

Asta

***

Asta Trevelyan,

You only bought one book? ONE? Guy is commenting on how surprised I look. Nosy Orlesian.

I could write to Mia for her recipes, you know.

I am unsure whether to be excited or dread what you could have purchased that would scandalize me. You went shopping with an Orlesian noblewoman? Tell me it doesn’t have Vivienne’s shoulder pads, at least.

Please do not fight any giants that you don’t have to fight. And rest properly on your way back to me.

I await your return.

Cullen

***

My dear Commander,

Do not eat anything that Asta makes. I beg you. The last time we let her cook camp food we were sick for days afterward. She made us promise not to tell. She is incapable of following a recipe - whether in alchemy or basic cooking.

Don’t eat anything Sera makes, either. She mixes up ingredients and adds ‘surprises’.

You will thank me when you realize how bad it can be. Trust me, even Fereldan dishes can be ruined.

Dorian

 

Chapter Text

Bull glared at Krem. “Come on, put your back into it! I’m working my ass off over here!”

“There’s still plenty of ass left, Chief!” Krem pointed out as Asta approached warily. She recognized this mood of Bull’s - he’d been in it since had met them in the Graves and started killing a giant every morning and then arguing with Dorian again until bedtime. Apparently all the giant killing wasn’t enough to shake whatever was eating him loose.

When they had finally gotten back from Val Royeaux, the entire party had split apart like a banana - more than ready for some downtime on their own terms. Even Cassandra was avoiding the training dummies now - Bull had not exactly made himself popular. It had been four days since their return, and no one knew where Cassandra was drilling. Asta sighed. She had been too caught up in the happy return with Loranil’s young lady, and then the quick wedding… she had been remiss. But it had been so nice to deal with something happy and non-violent for once that she had let herself been pulled into it. Even on the day of the wedding itself, her and Cullen had done nothing but talk shop after leaving the party - it had just been too long since they had been able to discuss anything in depth. It had been productive - and frustrating.

She would find Cassandra soon, talk to her. And it looked as well like Varric had a guest - and the war meetings about the Arbor Wilds were lasting forever, and now there was the Emprise du Lion… Cullen was right, there was always something else.

“Get some water!” Bull ordered Krem, who looked at him askance and departed for the well, more than willing to get away from the mighty Qunari that was trying to pummel him into the ground. “Hey, Boss. I’ve got to talk to you about something.”

“Is it about Dorian?” Asta asked bluntly, “because I swear, you two just need to move in together, or buy a ring or whatever Qunari - Tevinter couples do when they are courting. I have had it with the arguing and the sexual tension. Or is that a Qunari thing?”

“What?” Bull actually stepped back. “No, it’s not about that. No, I got a message from the Qun. They want a full alliance. Want to meet you on the Storm Coast, have a joint operation, a small team of my Chargers and Qunari and Inquisition forces, take out the latest flood of Venatori into the area and make a deal.”

“What?” Asta blinked. “They don’t do that, do they?”

“Not until now, but they wouldn’t have offered if they didn’t mean it,” Bull shook his horns irritably. “It would be good for the Inquisition, more sea power, more influence.”

“You don’t seem happy about it,” Asta observed.

“I’m just used to them being… over there,” Bull confessed. “It’s a little too close to home, you know what I mean?”

“Well, I’ll meet with them,” Asta said, “and I can’t let the Venatori gain a hold on the coast. But… I have reservations, Bull. Huge ones. No offense, but I don’t trust your country’s leadership. Hell, I don’t trust any country’s leadership, lately. All they do is make messes that I have to clean up!” She thought for a minute, “Well, except for King Alistair. He seems to be doing a decent job. Good for him.”

Bull barked a laugh, “I hear ya, Boss. So, we going?”

“In a few days? I have to repack, and see if Dagna has come out with anything more waterproof than the last time we were at the Storm Coast. Dorian wasn’t the only one who felt like a drowned rat.” Asta uncrossed her arms. “Okay, well, I’m going to go figure out where Cassandra is hiding. I know this last trip preyed upon all our nerves, but she’s been missing for days. Surely she isn’t still holed up in the forge brooding. And Varric has a guest I have to meet with, apparently. All secretive about that.”

“You bake those cookies for Cullen yet?” Bull asked.

“How did… never mind. Bull, you’ve been reading my mail, too?”

“Yeah, old habits die hard. I like the bear rug idea, by the way. How’d it go?”

“I‘ll let you know,” Asta smirked. “But Fereldans like their fur.”

“See ya, Boss,” Bull laughed.

“See ya, Bull.”

Asta crossed the courtyard and climbed the stairs back to the main keep, figuring that she would deal with Varric’s guest before Cassandra. Just in case Cassandra started throwing and stabbing things. It had happened before. Only to find herself in front of Varric’s fire, blinking in shock. “Bianca?” She looked narrowly at Varric. “Like the crossbow?”

“Half the girls in the Smith caste are named Bianca,” the woman deflected, “I could have been Helga. I got lucky.”

“Right…” Asta didn’t believe a word of it. She had never met a dwarf named Helga, for one. “So you have a lead on red lyrium?”

“Valamaar,” Varric said.

“Wait, that rings a bell - it was like a year ago - we cleaned that place out of Carta, right?” Asta groaned, “Tell me I don’t have to go back to the Hinterlands. Please, Varric. What have I ever done to you?”

“Sorry, your Inquisitorialness,” Varric looked genuinely chagrined. “I’ll make it up to you? You and Curly, Wicked Grace tonight?”

“Oh no,” Asta said, “Cullen told me you were trying to get him to play. He said if he agreed it was a last resort. That he‘d rather be alone with his thoughts and armor.”

“No,” Varric grinned, “I’m trying to get him to lose. Everything. It’s a win-win, Asta.”

The thought was intriguing. “Oh,” Asta shook her head. “Raincheck on that, Varric. I’ve got a million things to do. I have to plan a trip to the Storm Coast with Bull, and now this Valamaar thing, and Cassandra’s sulking…”

“The Seeker?” Varric looked… guilty.

“Varric, what did you do?” Asta crossed her arms and stuck out her hip. “If you’ve gone and antagonized the Seeker again…”

“Nothing! I’m sure she’s fine, just a little under the weather.” But he wouldn’t meet her eyes.

“Whatever, Varric. But she’s coming with us to the Hinterlands, so whatever is going on, work it out. Before we leave. You have a couple weeks, I won’t take either of you to the Storm Coast.”

“I’ll meet you there,” Bianca looked at Varric, “Don’t keep me waiting too long, Varric, I have things to do, you know.” She left, ostensibly to get her things, and Varric rubbed the back of his neck, unintentionally looking a bit like Cullen for a moment.

“Right, that’s not going to be a problem,” he muttered. “Not at all.”

Asta gave him a dirty eyeball, but let it go. She’d get the whole story soon enough.

Cassandra was nowhere to be found. Asta thought she knew all of Skyhold’s nooks and crannies, but she couldn’t find her anywhere. She finally gave up, and returned to her rooms, grabbing lunch on the way. Maybe she could distract Cullen and get him to take a break.

She found him pacing. “We have to get you to the Emprise du Lion, Inquisitor.” Asta sighed, and put the food down on his desk.

“We were going to do that anyway, weren’t we? Silence, quarries, frozen rivers, refugees, reports of rifts spawning demons, dragons… Bull was thrilled.”

“Yes, but now it’s critical.”

“Everything is critical, Commander. I have a possible alliance with the Qunari to approach, red lyrium - again - in the Hinterlands, an ‘arcane advisor’ who tells me that Corypheus wants to enter the fade physically again using an eluvian, of all things, and that there is one in the Arbor Wilds and that’s why it’s swarming with Red Templars…, and now I have to visit the Emprise du Lion in what is the coldest spring there in forever…”

Cullen slammed his hands down on his desk, “Do you think I’m happy about it?” he shouted. “You just got back, we’ve had four days, in which we’ve been too busy to do more than exchange a quick kiss in passing. By the time I fall into bed at night, you’re fast asleep and I won’t wake you. I’ve spent months thinking about you, about how I would touch you, spend time with you, show you how much you’ve been missed, only to have to send you away as soon as you get back!” He stopped, seeing the despondent look on her face, and slumped forward, head down. “And yet I have no choice. Asta, I…”

“Right,” Asta crossed over and rammed the bolt shut on the battlement door, crossed over and drove the one home on the bridge to the tower, and the last, just as emphatically. “You need a break, and we’re taking it together.”

“Asta, it’s the middle of the day,” Cullen warned.

“And if I know you, you haven’t eaten, and you are obviously trying to drive yourself into an early grave.” She crossed her arms for what seemed like the millionth time that day and looked at him. “Is it the lyrium?”

“Yes. No. I’m not sure. It doesn’t feel like withdrawals. But…”

“But it has been weeks since you’ve rested properly. I know we’re busy, Cullen, but if you don’t take care of yourself,” she started.

“I don’t want to take care of myself! I want to take care of you.” He slammed his hands down again. “How can I be your shield when I’m stuck here like this?”

“Okay, that’s it, I’m officially declaring that the Arbor Wilds will have to wait,” Asta stood straighter. “We are not prepared for our forces to engage the enemy there. I’ll call a war meeting tomorrow and announce my decision. For now, we are going to investigate the possibility of a Qunari alliance…”

“You keep talking about that - what’s going on? This is the first I’ve heard…”

“Bull just told me. Why do you think I’m here with lunch? I was going to discuss it with you.” Asta shrugged, “I knew you’d have valuable input into the decision. And as someone who lived through a Qunari invasion…”

Cullen relaxed a little, “So you weren’t going over my head because I can’t handle it without the lyrium?”

Asta tilted her head. “Is that what you thought? That I was making decisions for you to protect you?”

He rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly, “Maybe.”

“Sit,” Asta ordered. “Eat. Let me tell you about the shit that has been my day so far.” He obeyed and picked up a sandwich. “Cassandra is missing. I’ve never known her to miss so many days without training. Not even when she’s sick. I’m beginning to think she’s fallen down the well. Or that rickety staircase to my old room. On top of that, Bull pulls me aside to tell me that his people want to ally with us. The Qunari don’t ally, they invade. I have major problems with that. The whole thing stinks, Cullen. And I suspect he’s known about this for longer than he’s shared, judging by the arguments with Dorian about the Qun in the Graves. Maker’s hairy balls, I’m so sick of the Qun!”

Cullen finished his sandwich and started on another and Asta started pacing. “And then Varric introduces me to Bianca. The dwarf, not the crossbow. She tells me that she knows where the red lyrium is being mined from in the Hinterlands. Andraste’s Knicker Weasels, Cullen, she just knows? We’ve been looking for the connection for months! I’d suspect Varric of holding out on me, but…” Asta stopped pacing. “Oh, shit. He’s been… Shit, Varric. You didn’t…”

Cullen reached out and held her hand. “What’s done is done, Asta.”

“Except now I have to clean up his mess.” She laughed hoarsely. “Damn it, Cullen, I’m sick of this. If I can’t trust my inner circle to keep their fucking mouths shut, who can I trust?”

There was an emphatic knock at the door. “Go away!” Cullen yelled.

“I’m sorry, Commander, but Leliana has urgent news. I’ve been told not to leave until I report to you.” Cullen strode across to the door and slammed back the bolt.

“Report,” he growled out. The runner looked at him wide-eyed.

“Blackwall is missing, sir. Leliana found this in his quarters,” he handed off a broadsheet. “She wants to meet with you and the Inquisitor immediately.

Asta stood and took the sheet of parchment from Cullen. “What now?” She sighed. “Val Royeaux. Fucking Val Royeaux. I was just there. Blackwall, what the Void are you up to?” She faced the runner, “Tell Leliana to meet us in the War Room.”

***

Asta braced herself into the desk. “Leliana, I’m leaving for Val Royeaux immediately. If you can keep it quiet, do. When I return, I’ll be leaving for the Storm Coast with Bull, Dorian and Vivienne to discuss a possible Qunari alliance. Get the details from Bull, please. When I get back from that, I’ll be heading to Valamaar with Varric. I’m officially pushing back our involvement in the Arbor Wilds until after the Emprise du Lion. We have to get some of this - mess - taken care of. My inner circle is splintering.” Asta looked up at her, “I don’t suppose you know where Cassandra is hiding.”

Leliana nodded. “I do. She told me to tell you that if you needed her, she would come, but she doesn’t want to talk right now.”

Asta sighed, “I don’t blame her. The Seeker situation and Daniel’s death hit her hard. Tell her that I’ll want her along for the trip to the Hinterlands, but until then she should consider herself on leave.”

Leliana hesitated, “She will not want to travel with Varric, Inquisitor.”

“She has no choice. She is coming with me, whether she fucking likes it or not. She knows what red lyrium is capable of and I need her. Whatever is going on, tell her to work it out. Especially since Blackwall has gone AWOL. I would take him to Valamaar as well, but if he doesn‘t return, I have to be able to depend on her.”

Leliana frowned, “Yes, Inquisitor.”

“I’m going with her to Val Royeaux,” Cullen stated.

“Commander, now is not the time,” Asta started.

“It’s exactly the time. You aren’t going to head into a situation in that… viper’s nest, with no backup and no plan. We don’t know why Blackwall is there, or if he’s even there at all!”

Leliana was nodding along in agreement. “I have to agree with the Commander on this one, Inquisitor. I’ve known for some time that Blackwall was… suspicious. I think we all did, but he’s good at his job,” she shook her head. “Whatever you find out, you need support. The Commander is the best person to provide that for now, with Cassandra indisposed and Bull occupied with his superiors. I will find out what I can here, and let you know.”

Asta shoved herself upright. “Fine. We leave for Val Royeaux within the hour, Commander. Let’s go pack.”

Leliana and Cullen exchanged concerned glances behind her back as she left the room, and Cullen nodded to Leliana, confirming. “I’ll take care of her.”

“See that you do.” Leliana turned away and gathered her papers, praying silently that Blackwall’s defection wasn’t what she thought.

***

Max caught her on the way out of the gate. “Asta! Wait up!”

“What NOW?!” Asta snarled at him, and then checked herself. “I’m sorry, Max. I didn’t mean to take it out on you. I’m in a bit of a hurry though. Can I,” she hesitated, “help you with something?”

“I just wanted to introduce you to someone!” He beamed. “Asta, this is Bernadette. Bernie, this is my sister, the Inquisitor. I wanted you to meet each other.” Bernie was dark-haired, with an entire side of her face covered with a tattoo, but she also looked shy and somewhat intimidated.

Asta looked at Cullen, who shrugged, eyes wide. “I had no idea,” and when Asta looked skeptical, he protested, “really!”

Asta climbed off her horse, and held out her hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Bernadette. I hope my brother hasn’t been an ass.”

Bernadette coughed, “No more than usual, I understand. I was warned thoroughly by Scout Harding, Inquisitor.” Max just beamed at the insult, and rocked back on his heels.

“Please, call me Asta,” She looked at her brother. “Is this just an introduction or do you have news? Because I should be halfway to Val Royeaux by now. It’s a long story and one that I really shouldn’t share yet.” She sighed, “I shouldn’t have said that. Please forget that you know where I’m headed.”

“I just wanted you to meet each other,” Max was smiling hugely, and grabbed the woman’s hand. “We’re seeing each other, and I wanted you to know.”

Asta blinked once, twice and then threw her arms around her brother, “Max, you had no idea how much I needed to hear something like that today. Thank you.” She drew back and looked at Bernadette. “I’d hug you, too, but you already look like you are scared of me. Please, don’t let this asshole get you down. Thank you for putting up with him.” She smiled, “We’ll have drinks when I get back, all right? I’m sorry I have to ride out of here like this. It’s urgent. I want the whole story then.” She climbed back into her saddle, a little happier.

They rode for the gate, and Asta said, “You really didn’t know? How do you miss that my brother is dating a dwarf? You said he was acting like he was your best friend!”

“Leliana knew,” Cullen realized, “She asked me how I felt about dwarves in the Inquisition months ago. But I thought she was talking about the Merchant’s Guild. I wrote to you about it, remember?” He shook his head, “Maker, I’m dense. It was the same conversation when we were talking about how odd your brother has been acting. If I had suspected, I would have told you, I swear.”

“It’s all right, Cullen,” Asta managed a smile, the first time that day, “I’m happy for them. I hope it works out and I have a new sister. She looks nice, if incredibly scared of me.”

“I know her,” Cullen said. “She’s formidable. She has this war cry… and an axe. And she’s shy and scared of you.” He laughed, and stopped, “No offense. I’m shocked that your brother… Well, to each his own.” He eyed Asta’s butt on her horse, “After all, just because I prefer the taller academic type with a far better rack and ass doesn’t mean…”

“Commander,” Asta spun to face him, “Are you ogling me?” Now she really was smiling.

“Maybe,” he admitted, smirking. “We are alone on the road. We’ll have to stop to sleep sometime.” He leaned over his horse. “Maybe even in an inn, if there is one handy. If not… there is always the tent. I like tents. I have good memories involving a tent.”

“Rein it in, Commander,” but Asta laughed. “We’ve got miles to go before we sleep. Or not, as the case may be. Keep up with me and we’ll see about that inn.” She spun back around and let her horse take the lead.

Cullen grinned and did likewise. Maybe the day wasn’t a total loss after all. He swallowed his reservations about Blackwall. They would know soon enough, no point borrowing trouble. Trouble always seemed to find them anyway.

And at least this time, he could be her shield.

Chapter Text

They found an inn, a little later than Asta would have stopped on a normal day, but this day was anything but normal. Asta started to take off her boots, groaning at the ache in the small of her back. “Maker, how any one could do this in full plate armor in three days - that’s just impossible,” she arched her back and groaned again. “I hope the bed is comfortable. We probably should be camping - the expense -”

“The expense is minimal, we will both sleep better in a real bed instead of a bedroll, and you will need your rest for the decisions to come,” Cullen said practically, dropping the bags and coming over to rub her back. “Besides, perhaps we can pretend this is a break instead of…” he trailed off, not knowing how to finish. She leaned willingly into his hands, though, groaning again.

“Instead of a betrayal by someone I considered a friend? Someone we both trusted to stand in front of me, someone who took arrows and deflected swords?” Asta pulled no punches. “Cullen, I’m furious. It would be one thing if he had told me, or if he had to return to the Wardens, but…” she bit her lip and noticed they were chapped. “But he’s no Warden. I’m almost sure of it. I let it go, I trusted him otherwise…”

“Don’t, Asta,” Cullen advised gently, “You can’t blame yourself when you don’t even know. Maybe he is a Warden, maybe he’s going to recruit this… felon.” She walked away and sat on the bed. “They do that.”

“And he hasn’t been doing anything of the sort since he joined the Inquisition.”

“Because Corypheus was controlling the Wardens, so bringing more into the fold would have been a disaster waiting to happen,” Cullen pointed out. “Give him the benefit of the doubt until you know for sure.” He came and sat next to her. “It’s not like you to be this pessimistic.”

She leaned into him heavily, and then put her head into his lap. “It’s just all too much, and not enough, at the same time. I don’t want to be Divine, but I have to admit, I don’t see any changes I make lasting long enough to help unless I am. And yet I refuse to sacrifice myself like that. Or you, for that matter. I even hesitate to consider Cassandra, because she is so… ambivalent about it. But Leliana is so ruthless. Vivienne has been hinting, but she’ll bring back the Circles and continue the Templars. So the good that could be done have a mage Divine will be limited. I’m sorry, Cullen, so many Templars are good people, but lyrium is dangerous. No one should be addicted like that. It’s not healthy. There’s no good answer. And I just want someone to stop the Inquisition so that I can get off. And now Varric is lying to me, and Cassandra is hiding, and Bull is going back to the Qun, and Dorian will be miserable, and Cole is scared of being bound, and… Blackwall has run away. What has happened to us?”

Cullen stroked her hair. “It’s just temporary, Asta. We’ll get home and you and Bull will go meet the Qunari. You are borrowing trouble. Perhaps a better answer will show itself. In the meantime, take one day at a time.” She took a shuddering breath, and he realized she was crying. “You care so much about all of us, don’t you?”

She nodded. “I never had a family before. They aren’t people I just work with, or even just friends. They are my sisters and brothers, more than any I’ve had before. After the Inquisition disbands, we will all drift apart and I will be alone again.”

“No you won’t,” Cullen said, angry. “You won’t be alone.” He pulled her up from his lap, and held her by the shoulders. “Stop this, Asta. You won’t be alone. I will be with you, whether I have to let the world fall apart to make it happen. You will never be alone again.” She stared at him, eyes wide and hair falling down. “Tell me you know that.”

“Really? Even if the world has to fall apart?” She asked, and a simple idea blossomed in her brain. “Cullen, you are brilliant. Seriously, you have the best tactical mind an Inquisitor could ask for.” She lunged forward and kissed him. And then pulled back, looked deeper in his eyes, smiled and kissed him again, slower and deeper this time. “And if they call me insane? And corrupt?”

“Then I will know the truth,” Cullen answered simply. “And since if that is the case I seriously doubt either of us will be around to answer the question, well… I follow you, Asta. I chose that the day I voted to make you Inquisitor. Our fortunes rise and fall with you, mine more than most.”

“That’s a lot of pressure,” Asta leaned back. “I’ll explain what I have in mind, will you listen?”

“Of course.”

“All right, get comfortable. Where is my paper and ink? This is going to get messy.”

***

Sometime later, Cullen was laying back against the headboard, eyes glassy, watching Asta pace back and forth over the floor, energized for the first time in weeks. “It’s not perfect, so much depends on what happens over the next few weeks, but… Cullen, this could work.” She looked up at him. “Are you okay?”

“Asta, this is really… involved. Are you sure? Perhaps it would just be better to support Cassandra as Divine. The Seekers are a good organization that has had some spectacularly bad leadership in recent years. And letting the Templars go entirely…” Cullen looked up. “You know I’m going to ask about possession, don’t you? Without lyrium… my own abilities are nearly gone.”

“I figured as much,” Asta smiled. “But don’t you see, without the Templars or Chantry to blame, the mages will either have to take accountability for themselves and their own choices or destroy themselves forever. The minority are like Vivienne in either case, comfortable with their cages and fearing their own power. The rest are either just wanting to live normal lives, or they are the worst kind of megalomaniacs, thankfully the latter are a small minority. Most of those will leave for Tevinter, where they will be the bottom of the heap. Only one step above Soporati. Believe it or not, Dorian says that in Tevinter mages are paper-pushers at the Hundred Pillars! Ordinary! In failing them, we will save them!” She climbed up next to him on the bed. “Seriously, Cullen, if you don’t believe me that it can work, it’s already doomed. Because the minute I bring it up to the rest only to have you poke holes in it, they’ll follow you, not me. But if you are with me… Cullen, we could rebuild Thedas. If Leliana is Divine, and implements what she wishes, and Cassandra rebuilds the Seekers, and has the remaining Templars under her wing - to either be set free or serve, as they choose. Then, I can… fade away. Like Ameridan, hardly to be remembered except as a footnote in a history book. They can say whatever they like - I don’t believe he was as ruthless as the books claim, either. Maybe he even tried what I want to try, only to have it fail, with Drakon in charge.” Asta shrugged, “We don’t serve an Emperor, and I don’t want to rule the world. So maybe it will work this time?”

“But how does any of this solve your current issues?” Cullen asked.

“It doesn’t, except to help me know that I have a plan, my love. I will still have to deal with Blackwall first. And then the Qun. I don’t suppose you could come with me for that little side trip? You are the Commander of my Forces, after all. It would be wise for you to be there.”

“With Leliana and Josie’s permission, I will.” He nodded. “I’ll write to them after we see Blackwall.”

“And then I’ll deal with the red lyrium and Varric. And Bianca. And hopefully whatever has crawled up Cassandra’s ass. This is so unlike her. When was the last time anyone saw her, anyway?”

“No idea, after the wedding I was with you, remember? Going over the War Table and trying to tie up loose ends in the Graves.” Cullen thought. “I haven’t seen her since.”

“Oh yes, a terrible waste of an opportunity, that.” Asta eyed him closely, “We’re wasting yet another, actually. What is wrong with us that the minute we get alone we start… talking?! About politics!” She shuddered. “It’s dreadful. I’ve missed you so badly, and yet all I can take advantage of lately is your brain!”

Cullen shook his head and smiled. “On the contrary, once again I assure you I am at your complete disposal.” He leaned over his own legs towards her, as she kneeled in front of him. “I could think of a few ways to take advantage of this opportunity.”

Asta grinned. “This I want to hear. Do you think you can tell me without blushing, Chantry boy?”

“I can if I whisper,” Cullen answered seriously. “Otherwise, probably not.”

“Good thing I like your blushes then,” Asta said. “Talk to me, Cullen.” She raised an eyebrow. “This is the perfect time to tell me what you’ve thinking about while I’ve been gone.”

“What I’ve been thinking of?” Cullen smiled. “You.”

“What about me?” Asta fished, leaning further over and unfastening her armor so that it gapped in the front.

“Your body,” Cullen said lowly. “And how it feels against mine.” Asta slid off the bed and started removing her sash and coat.

“Keep going,” she encouraged, “I want to hear this, Cullen.” He hesitated, and she continued, “Look, you liked reading what I was thinking about, right? And it led to… alone time? What makes you think that I’m any different?”

“I hate that euphemism,” Cullen muttered, “the first time I used it I hated it.” He watched her remove her braces and guards with interest. “That said, this is one of the things I thought about,” he confessed. “How you look when you are removing your clothing, piece by piece, in my presence but focused upon the clothes. You get this look in your eyes, and then they meet mine, and I know that you are thinking about what you look like, and you are trying not to be self-conscious, but you still want me to look, all the same.”

Asta blushed, “You read me too well.” She didn’t meet his eyes.

“You don’t realize that I think you’re… sexy,” he stumbled, “That the simple act of you disrobing - without any ulterior motive - in my presence makes me think of… other things.”

“What other things?” Asta asked, quietly, slipping off her leather pants, her longer tunic grazing the top of her thighs.

“About what you look like… underneath,” he muttered, “where I know only I have seen. How you bend over, and I can see how easy it would be to just slip inside you.” His face was beet red now. “It’s kind of warm in here.” He cleared his throat.

“Then take off your armor,” Asta suggested airily. “You have me at a disadvantage, after all.” She pulled her breastband off from underneath her silk top and wound it up. “What else? From the sound of your letters there was more…”

Cullen stood and shrugged out of his coat, and took off his breastplate awkwardly, setting them on a chair nearby. He stood there and rolled his shoulders. “Yes, well, it’s harder to admit it in person,” he said. “Wouldn’t you have a hard time telling me about your… fantasies, without being able to write them down?”

“Perhaps,” Asta said, stretching back out on the bed, still in her tunic and smallclothes. “But often mine are built upon a single moment in time. You moving rocks, for example. When you mentioned that, I imagined a whole scenario. Or the bear rug, which I am completely determined upon, by the way. That will happen.”

“Far be it from me to gainsay you,” Cullen grinned, more at ease. “I liked that idea, too.”

“I knew you would, you… Fereldan,” she flirted. “So yours are more memory based? Things that you miss specifically?”

“I have a few others,” he admitted, blushing again, “a few… wishes.”

“Do tell,” She leaned in, “I can’t wait to hear.”

“Well, they don’t involve freezing cold waterfalls,” he laughed. “What was that, anyway?”

“Eh, it was a moment, and I really missed you. I was lonely, and it just sort of happened,” Asta sighed, “You are deflecting. Is it that bad? I won’t laugh, or get scared, unless you want to do something like what Bull was trying to describe to me. And that involved rope and a ball gag.”

“What? How would you…” Cullen shook his head, “No, I don’t want to know.”

“No, you don’t. But it serves as an example that I doubt that I’m going to freak out about what you think about when you are alone. I didn’t freak out on Bull, either, but he wasn’t suggesting it to me. I asked what he and Dorian got up to and he… shared. I now know way more than I ever care to.” She laughed. “So while I’m not interested in you gagging me, I would be interested in, say, other things in my mouth?”

Cullen swallowed. “Really?”

“Mmm, most definitely,” Asta purred. “Have you thought about that?”

He met her eyes. “Yes, but I didn’t think…”

Asta smiled, “Cullen, I’m sure some women don’t like it. I’ve never tried, but I wouldn’t mind giving it a shot, if you want. It’s not in you to belittle me, or force me to do something I don’t want to do. We haven’t run into anything yet, except for the things I just mentioned.” She laughed. “I wouldn’t mind you becoming a little more… forward, though. You hesitate, and I love that you don’t want to hurt me, but you won’t hurt me. I don‘t think it‘s in your nature.”

Cullen blinked, taken aback. “I thought I was being forward.”

“Yes, of course you did,” Asta laughed. “Remember Haven? And you bossing around the recruits while Dorian and I watched?” She hummed, “That’s a good memory. The first one after the mess that was Redcliffe.” Cullen blushed. “Don’t get alarmed. But I do enough bossing people around. I think I’d rather be the recruit once in a while.” She sighed, “It’s hard, because I don’t want to cross the lines I can’t see. I don’t want to run into something the demons tried to do to you, or showed you that you didn’t want to see. But if you take control, that won’t happen, right?”

“I would say that was extremely unlikely,” Cullen stated matter-of-factly. “Unless you are going to turn into a blood mage. By the time they were… getting that far, it was pain. The innocent desires the single demon was trying to tempt me with were long over. After that, it was…” he shook his head, “it was nonsense, really. The stuff of nightmares, that scare you senseless when you are sleeping and then you wake up and you’re still frightened, even though you know it’s ridiculous. That houses aren’t made of paper, and blood can’t run uphill, that there is no maze underneath Skyhold full of demons and abominations, and that you aren’t going to leave me for Dorian and move to Seheron. Yes, my experiences scarred me, probably will haunt me forever, but the dreams aren’t real. From what you tell me, I’m guessing I wouldn’t want to get involved with Bull, though,” his eyes twinkled. “It doesn’t sound safe.”

“Cullen, did you just make a joke about…”

“Yes, I think I did.” Cullen smiled, “I’ve been talking to Cole a bit. You are right, he’s special. He’s one of the reasons I think I could write you as much as I did. He kept talking to me before you left about how the ink makes the hurt bleed away with the words? About imaginary wounds that won’t close?” He shook his head, “I’m not remembering it right. He’s hard to remember at the best of times.” He approached the bed, and took off his shirt. “But I know this, you don’t have to be scared. And neither do I.” He unfastened his breeches and stepped out of them entirely, and then his smallclothes. Asta sat, shocked wordless. “Say something,” he said, awkward, but not frightened. “Or I’ll put back on my pants.”

Asta burst out laughing. “Maker forbid. You in pants should be against the law. I’ll speak to Leliana about it. Maybe she can abridge the Chant or something.”

“Heretic,” Cullen bent over the bed, a kiss away from her. “What would that be, The Chant of Disrobing? The Verse of the Shed Smallclothes?”

“The Canto of Cullen,” Asta said, “Shartan has one. Well, it’s in the Dissonant Verses, but you know… they can hardly call your voice dissonant. And if they are going to add a chapter about me - again, Maker Forbid - you would have to be in it.” She sighed, “I can hear it now, ‘Sing only what Asta has approved, Wear nothing but what she would remove…'”

“Make me to rest in her warmest places,” Cullen smirked, "Let me kneel before her,” and he did so, by the edge of the bed, fist over his heart.

“Well, I’d take from you a life of sorrow, lift you from a world of pain, and I…” She swung her legs to the edge of the bed, and rested her hands on his shoulder, and in his hair. “I’d judge you worthy, Cullen. I’d judge you whole, and full of grace.” She closed her eyes, and leaned against his forehead, a breath away now, a silent request for a kiss and more.

“May I touch you with fire that I be cleansed?” Cullen murmured, passion behind his voice. “Or shall I sing for your approval?” He drew closer to her, pulling her hips towards his body where he knelt. He raised his head to touch her mouth with his.

“Cullen, make me cry out, and seat me by your side in death,” Asta said against his lips. “Make me one with your… glory.” She giggled, but he ignored her.

“Let me see your favor,” He leaned in yet closer, and ran his hand over her neck to pull out the chain holding his coin. “You are the fire at the heart of my world.”

“Comfort is only yours to give,” they finished together, and their lips met. They moved against each other gently, and then with more force, drawn together with the yearning of a hundred days, and the frustration of too many more of action and words. He pulled her tunic from her at once, and lifted her against him, no fear, no remembered pain, real or imagined, this time. His fingers followed the line of the chain down to where her breasts pressed against him insistently, and he drew back, only to hook his thumbs into her smallclothes to drop them to the floor. The last barrier between them removed, he pulled her back against him yet harder. He lifted her to the bed, lying her down again, her knees around him and stroked her hair away from her face.

His own knees on the bed now, he bent, and kissed her, his tongue touching her with the fire of the ancient words as she rose up against his hands at her breast and twined in her hair. Their talking done, he dropped his hand down and stroked her, her warmest place welcoming him with yet more heat.

She reached down and wrapped around him, boldly, taking him at his word that he was hers to touch and use. He groaned against her, and thrust, unable to control himself. They pushed against each other until Asta rolled him over, startling him with her strength, but he reveled in it, thrusting against her hand and body all the harder. She drew him down against her, wet heat coating him, eyes locked with his, and he slid inside, still wordless. She arched against him, desperately seeking release and pressure, and he growled in impatience, wanting to be deeper yet.

He flipped her this time and grabbed her thigh up over his waist, and drove down, fulfilling her desire to cry out. She raised her other leg, and he pushed it back down, but traced his hand to her center instead, gliding and snapping into her ever harder, ever more insistent. She was crying out with every breath now, faster and faster as he took her, took all of her, right up to the gates of the Golden City itself.

And then she died, she was certain, floating loose from her body for precious moments as he continued to press into her. She was on fire, every nerve ending a flame, as he mouthed her neck and kissed the breasts she arched against him. She could only feel him there, at her center, the center of everything, she was certain now. And then he snapped against her once more and they reached that comfort together, together, even in the small death.

Cullen was unresponsive, and Asta rolled him again, with a little more difficulty, to the side, to brush the sweaty curls from his face. He cracked an eye and smiled. “Are we going to be struck with lightening for doing that to the Chant?”

“Haven’t yet,” she smiled. “Besides, if Andraste could write those lines, I think she would understand, don’t you?”

“It may have been an unintentional metaphor,” Cullen observed. “Many people write things that seem sexual that were never meant that way to begin with.” Asta snorted, and Cullen laughed. “Okay, I admit, having… had you, that way, I find it difficult to believe as well. You’ll turn me into a heretic, yet, Asta.” He thought for a moment. “Though if I were with you, it wouldn’t matter.”

Asta smiled sadly, “I truly have corrupted you, Chantry boy, haven’t I?”

“On the contrary,” Cullen said, “I think you’ve led me to the warmest places.” And he kissed her again and again in their warm room at the inn, troubles forgotten momentarily in the little place of peace they had made for each other.

***

Four days later the two of them faced Blackwall’s cell, having heard his confession at the gallows, and the details of his crime in the cell later.

Asta was stony-faced and all professional. “I’m tempted to leave you here, Rainier, I admit. You are not the person I thought you were. You killed children, or had them killed by your order. In a time of peace, not war. Who are you? I’m not sure I know anymore. Get him released,” Asta ordered Cullen, staring Blackwall down. “If for no other reason then that I want to find exactly how deep his bullshit goes.” She marched out of the prison without a backward glance, back towards their inn.

“She should just leave me here,” Blackwall muttered. “But she won’t, will she.” It wasn’t a question, so Cullen nodded to Blackwall, confused and disgusted, and followed, to write a letter to Leliana.

He held her later while she cried out her despair at her lost ideals and family, knowing that he would be the only one to ever see her this weak.

***

Leliana,

It’s as you no doubt feared. Blackwall is Thom Rainier, a murderer and no Warden at all. The Inquisitor would like to have him released, but as diplomatically as possible, so please, set Josie to the task. She would like to try to appear as if she had no bias, but knows it’s impossible.

Still, if there is a way to move forward without damaging the Inquisition’s reputation, she wants to take it. Remember the Templar we imprisoned for rape? The one she sentenced to death? Perhaps a switch can be made, with a little assistance? The Empress gets a convenient scapegoat to improve her reputation, and the Inquisition appears without blemish. It’s distasteful to me, but…

We ride for Skyhold tomorrow. The Inquisitor is troubled. We will review the possibilities when we arrive.

Have Bull, Dorian and Solas prepared for the trip to the Storm Coast. We will only stop for the night. I will remain by her side. She needs me right now, and I will stand between her and what would harm her. I’m not asking permission. She grieves deeply, and will crack if this so-called alliance turns into a trap.

Sincerely,

C. R.

 

Chapter Text

Asta glared at her advisors over the War Table. “Why are any of you even fighting me on this? The Templar has already been sentenced to death. The mages and others that he victimized were scared stiff to even come forward. I’m fairly certain there are other victims who we will never know about. He is going to die in any case, and the Inquisition has an opportunity to get Rainier back without looking corrupt, and Celene will execute the other guy. I don’t even have to get my blade bloody. Leliana, I would have thought you, at least, would see the value in this!”

“Because this isn’t like you,” she said. “At every opportunity you have offered mercy, a second chance. Florianne, Alexius, everyone. Even the Templar you speak of has been in the dungeon awaiting his sentence, still provided with three meals a day and health care, for Andraste’s sake. You have been above reproach until this point - you wouldn’t even let me destroy the contract on Josie rather than jump through months of hoops to preserve her life!”

“This is different,” Asta wouldn’t meet their eyes.

Cullen had a try. “Josie can negotiate with Celene. The Empress still owes us for Halamshiral, and we know her secrets - all of them. That is money in the bank in Orlais. She’ll do as we ask. For that matter, Bla… Rainier himself asked me why you were going to have him freed. He has accepted his fate. You could as well.”

“I will not!” Asta slapped the War Table, and made the little tokens dance. “I will not, because I need to know why he felt the need to lie to me. I trusted him. If he is going to die, I will put him to death. It’s my mistake! I should fix it!”

Cullen took a step forward, “Is that what this is about? You thinking it was a mistake to trust him in the first place? You couldn’t have known, Asta!”

“But I did know!” She yelled back, “I knew months ago! I knew in the Fade, when Clarel told us about the darkspawn blood! I knew when he babbled about needing a special sword to kill an archdemon! I KNEW, Cullen. I knew.” She stared at the table, a face of stone. “And it’s not just about him lying to the Inquisition about being a Warden. It’s about the children he killed, allowed to be killed. To curry favor with the man who would have been Emperor. Should I just excuse that?”

“The Wardens were willing to,” Leliana observed. Josie made a soft sound like a sob.

“The Wardens accept criminals in their midst,” Asta pointed out. “The Inquisition should be above that.”

“Oh really?” Cullen leaned over the table. “How much blood do I have on my hands? I wasn’t innocent in Kirkwall. I killed my own Knight-Commander, and that doesn’t count how much mage blood I spilt that horrible day. What about Leliana? Even Josephine was a bard once. The Iron Bull? Dorian? Cassandra?” With every name Asta flinched. “Varric is the best friend of the Champion. Do you know how many people they killed together? Has Varric told you the story of the young mages they were trying to rescue after they escaped the Gallows and how they had to strike them down?”

“Commander,” Leliana murmured, seeing Asta’s tears, single drops falling against the war map.

“The Inquisition is a group of people trying to atone for mistakes, Asta,” he continued more gently. “None of us are innocent. We are trying to make different choices now, trying to fix the mess we’ve made of our world. Was Blackwall any different?”

“So you all think I should be merciful,” Asta began.

“What he did was despicable, and I hate him for it,” Cullen stated simply. “I will never look at him the same. But I will not let you sacrifice your own ideals in order to hide an Inquisition error. You have insisted all along on us being forthright and honest about our dealings.”

“Well, with a few minor exceptions, like Halamshiral,” Asta murmured.

“Yes, well, when in Orlais,” Cullen waved his hand, “You are distracting me from my point. We are your advisors, Asta, and I think we are all advising you - correct me if I’m wrong, Leliana - to allow Josie to handle Rainier’s release. It’s the right thing to do. I don’t want to go storming in with sabers drawn to rescue him. He doesn’t deserve that, even if it was a truly viable option.”

“And I don’t want you to have to sacrifice the ideals you hold dear to use subterfuge. You’d regret it later,” Leliana observed. “Josie is the one for this job.”

“It will leave the Inquisition with a black mark on it’s reputation,” Josie said quietly. “One that we will have to work to rebuild. But I can do it. I can make the Empress listen.”

“As far as how to judge him for his crimes, only you can decide that,” Cullen said. “And as I said, he’s already accepted his own fate. Only a pardon would surprise him at this point.”

Asta shoved herself back from the table. “Very well, I will accept the advice of my advisors this time. Thank you for your honesty.” She pushed Josie’s marker towards Val Royeaux. “Let’s get him back to Skyhold, Josie.” She looked at her for the first time. “Are you okay?”

“No,” Josie smiled, “But thank you for asking.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” Asta asked, “We’ve all been through a lot in recent days, and if you need an ear…”

“That is quite all right, Inquisitor,” Josie sighed, “I’m just confused.”

“As are we all,” Asta sighed as well. “Leliana, have Varric and Cassandra talked at all?”

“No,” Leliana confirmed. “Cassandra is still holed up in the tent city. I will take you to her, if you wish. This has gone on long enough.”

“I quite agree with you,” Asta gritted out. “This is so unlike her. What happened?”

Leliana giggled. “Oh, I’d love to tell you. Really, but Cassandra would kill me.”

Cullen rolled his eyes, “Wait, so Asta has been crying herself to sleep over something that you are giggling over?” Leliana’s face fell.

“Take me there,” Asta ordered. “We are going to have this out in the open, whatever it is.”

***

Asta looked at Cassandra, who was sitting on a cot in the too small tent, looking forlorn. “Talk to me, Cass,” she ordered.

“It was at the wedding,” Cassandra confessed, “You had just told all of us that we should accept love wherever we find it, whether with elves or mages or… dwarves.”

“Right,” Asta smiled, “It was a good speech. Possibly the best I’ve ever given. But… dwarves?”

“I caught Varric’s eye,” Cassandra continued, “and I thought… well, why not?” She huddled down, and clasped her knees to her chest. “I had too much to drink at the party afterward and I…”

“Wait, did you…” Asta eyes got wide, “Did you… confess to…”

“Yes,” Cassandra bit off, eyes narrowed dangerously. “I did.”

Asta sat down on the bed opposite her, “What happened after that?” she breathed, entranced.

“He did not seem… adverse to the idea,” Cassandra sighed, and unfolded herself a little. “Quite the contrary. We went back to his room and…”

“Maker’s Mercy, Cass,” Asta said, shock echoing in her voice, “I had no idea that you two were…”

“Nothing happened,” Cassandra insisted. “That - Bianca, she was waiting there. She made insinuations that I didn’t care for, Varric denied we were involved and I threw a vase at her, screamed something embarrassing at him and left.” She screwed her eyes shut. “It was a horrible mistake, and now I cannot work with that… dwarf. It’s impossible. I cannot travel with you to the Hinterlands, Inquisitor. I cannot face him. Or… her.”

“Oh, I wish I didn’t have to go,” Asta agreed, “She struck me as a first class bitch, through and through. But I need you there, Cassandra. I do. Did Leliana tell you about Blackwall?”

“Yes,” Cassandra confirmed. “And about Bull and the Qunari alliance. But can’t you take him…”

“I strongly expect that if the alliance does not go the way they please, Bull will not be returning to the Inquisition,” Asta sighed. “I need you, Cass. I know it’s uncomfortable. Varric is already squirming - or was before I left for Val Royeaux. But I need you to be able to work with him.”

“I will try, Asta,” Cassandra sighed. “I suppose I should speak with him before I go. Make an excuse about how much I had to drink, something. It might make it easier, in the long run.”

“It sounds like Varric owes you an apology as well,” Asta observed, trying not to grin. “After all, he did invite you back to his room only to promptly deny that anything was going to happen when confronted by his ex-girlfriend.”

“Ex?” Cassandra’s head popped up. “How ex?”

“Pretty much ex, from what I gather,” Asta stood up. “Perhaps that’s a conversation you should have with Varric, though?” She threw a smile over her shoulder. “I’ll be back, hopefully in less than a week from the Storm Coast. Be ready to go!”

“I’ll be ready, Inquisitor. And thank you.”

***

The trip to the Storm Coast was largely silent, Bull riding as if to his death, and not even arguing with Dorian about the value of the Qun. Solas was quiet as usual, especially after his normal mental chess match with Bull was met with grunts. Cullen was too preoccupied with Asta’s unusual misery, continuing despite the apparent success with Cassandra.

She had told him the whole story, and he had just shook his head. Varric and Cassandra? Truly, the Inquisition did breed odd couples. He was inordinately relieved that he would not be needed on that trip, and not just because the thought of the Deep Roads gave him stomach cramps.

At least he got to share a tent with her this time. So when she inevitably tried to shut down, he could hold her, stroke her back and melt a little of the ice that kept trying to build around her. She wouldn’t discuss Blackwall or the alliance or red lyrium, but he read aloud to her in the evenings. Sometimes he could make her laugh, and those were the good nights.

Asta knew that she was shutting people out, but except for Cullen, none of them were trying to break down her walls, either. Maybe, just maybe, she was the only one that was attached at all. Even Dorian was solemn, though if her boyfriend was only grunting at her, she’d probably feel the same way. So she soldiered on, and held Cullen tight at night, appreciating his presence more than she could say.

The Storm Coast itself was yet another shitstorm. Asta was furious, Cullen was delighted to see, and she was showing it instead of hiding behind an impassable wall of Inquisitor.

“They’re my men,” Bull growled at Gatt, torn to pieces with divided loyalties.

Asta made the decision for him in the end, “Sound the retreat,” she said, and Bull complied. The dreadnought blew up, and they all felt the heat on their faces from the explosion. But when Gatt started to tear into Bull for his decision, Asta flew apart.

“Who the fuck tries to make an alliance by requesting their own agent to sacrifice his bloody men?!” She screamed in his face. “This was never about an alliance at all - this was about the Qun and their fucking mind games, and bringing your Hissrad - and that is NOT his fucking name, asshole - back into the fold, safe and sound lest he decide there is a better life out there. I resent incredibly that you would attempt such a blatant overthrow of someone YOU sent to spy on ME and MY Inquisition. So don’t be surprised when I call your bluff and your willingness to sacrifice an entire boat -”

“Dreadnought,” Cullen supplied, grinning. Maker, he loved this woman. Dorian stood, mouth agape, caught in a rare moment of speechlessness, but laughter blooming slowly behind his eyes.

“-dreadnought of your own people to figure out that HE’S NOT COMING BACK. NOT EVER. I will go to war with the Qun itself rather than let him sacrifice what he has built here to become lesser under the Qun. You and your shitty ‘demands’ can go fuck yourselves. Sideways. I‘m sure Bull can give you pointers if you can‘t figure out how.” She took a deep breath and turned to her companions. “Commander, Dorian, Solas, I think we are done here. Would the three of you please see the Qunari representatives safely departed from Fereldan soil?” And then she spun back to Gatt and smiled evilly, “Also, I don’t think much of the nicknames or aptitude testing under the Qun. ‘Liar’ is so inaccurate. Bull is one of the most honest men I have ever known, Gatt. Just because he can lie doesn’t mean he likes to. And just because he likes to hit things that are larger and stronger than himself doesn’t mean that he happily sacrifices those weaker than him. He saved your fucking life, after all. I would think hard about whether you want to waste it whoring yourself out to a philosophy that would happily turn you into cannon fodder over a stupid test of loyalty.” She turned back to Bull, as Dorian and Cullen took Gatt’s arms, the elf scowling, Cullen trying not to grin as he left. “I’m going to have to clean up this shit-pile, Bull, so go gather your Chargers from the rendezvous point and let‘s get to work. We can’t let the Venatori have the coast, like I said. And after that…” her smile was sharp and wicked. “I need to blow off some steam. I’m thinking it’s time to fight a fucking dragon. Wanna come along?”

“Fuck yeah,” Bull growled. “And may I say, Boss, you are hot when you are angry and cussing.” He whistled, “I could think of things I’d like to do with that filthy mouth.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell Dorian,” she winked. “Or the Commander.”

“Could if you want,” Bull grunted. “I’m game.”

“Not gonna happen, Bull,” Asta smiled. “Let’s clean up the Coast, shall we?”

***

Cullen was… aroused, he had to admit it. The way she had put that little… his own cuss words failed him and he laughed mentally. Maker’s Breath, he should take lessons apparently. She was all fire and heat and dirty language and he had never, ever been so happy to see a military alliance fall through.

The loss of life sobered him, however. How many people died on that dreadnought?

But the Chargers lived. Krem would be there, standing on his chair in the tavern to tell his wild stories when they got back to Skyhold. Dalish would continue to insist she wasn’t a mage, but an archer. He’d have to continue to monitor Skinner and her frequent attempts to pick fights amongst the human recruits, and keep trying to keep Rocky from doing experiments that could result in blowing up Skyhold. He shuddered and thanked the Maker that the dwarf hadn’t been introduced to Dagna. They would all be there, fighting in the Arbor Wilds, backing up the Inquisitor in the field, keeping her safe.

And in the meantime, he approached his own tent with a clear purpose in mind. He didn’t care that it was only four in the afternoon, that they had spent the entire day hunting Venatori mages only after they had shipped the remaining representatives off with an armed escort to the nearest port. He didn’t care that his once lyrium fueled abilities were now almost non-existent, proven by his contact with the Tevinter mages today. He had to have her. Now.

He opened the flap to see her sitting in their tent, a book on the Qun open in her lap, her hair free from the confines of her bun for once, in nothing but her breeches and tunic. He swept in, and gathered her up all at once, her stunned fingers dropping the book, and the spine cracking in a way that normally would have resulted in a fierce scolding. For now, though, it was left forgotten in the way he held her against him, lust fuelling his kisses and his hands roaming over her ass, stripping off her tunic and pulling off her trousers, her meeting him just as willingly, unbuckling armor and pulling him loose from the all too constraining clothing he was wearing.

“Not just Bull, then,” she was laughing as he left marks on her chest and neck. “Apparently I should tell off government representatives more often?”

Cullen growled his agreement wordlessly and dropped to his knees, wrapping her legs around him and bringing him in contact with her already wet core. He slid inside her fast and a little fiercely, enough to make her gasp against him, and started thrusting immediately, pulling her hips up only to snap them back against his thighs.

“Maker, Cullen!” She arched back, arms around his neck and he dropped his mouth to her breasts, sucking hard against them. There was nothing gentle about this, and she didn’t care, from the noises she was making. “Harder!” She gasped, and he laid her down on the bedroll and pushed her legs back towards her chest. She bucked up against him and cried out with the next glide, uncaring about who heard them. “Cullen!”

“Say. It. Again.” He growled. “Scream it, Asta.” He pushed into her more insistently and moved his hand from her leg to her bundle of nerves, pressing harder with his thumb than he would have, had he not been thinking about her all fucking day long, telling the entire Qun to go fuck themselves. “Asta, I…” He was close now, and she hadn’t finished, but he wasn’t sure he could wait. He tried to stop moving and she wouldn’t let him, driving herself up against him, using her legs as leverage. He circled her clit tighter, hoping she was close, and unable to stop himself now.

In the end, it was him yelling her name, hearing the echo off the hills surrounding their camp, as he spent himself hard into her as she clamped around him in her own release. They laid there together, shaking with the aftershocks as he slowly came back to himself and felt foolish, hiding himself against her neck. “I’m sorry, it’s just… you were so…”

“I quite understand and approve,” she laughed, breathlessly. “Maker, Cullen, I didn’t know… but I told you about how your ‘Commander’ voice affects me. Apparently my ‘pissed off Inquisitor’ voice gets to you, hmm?”

“You might say that,” he said sheepishly. “Andraste’s ass, Asta, you were amazing. You are amazing.” He reached across her and picked up the book. “But why are you reading about the Qun?”

“It won’t end here,” she explained. “I’ve pissed off an entire country’s worth of people today, Cullen. I’m trying to figure out how they’ll counter. It looks like they will send a messenger, who will remain polite and formal while threatening subtly, and then they will send assassins for their ‘failed’ agent, probably involving poison - that vitaar of theirs is deadly stuff - and possible military retaliation in the long run.” She sighed, and brushed his sweaty curls from his face. “We’re going to have to increase security at Skyhold. Bull can take of himself, but… they might send them after me, now. I was not… polite.”

“Let them come, I’ll tear them to pieces,” Cullen growled. “One hair on your head gets damaged and I’ll destroy the country.”

Asta was amused, “Hopefully that will not be necessary. But I did kind of blow it today. I actually thought you might be angry with me - the alliance would have been a strong one, after all.”

“I’d rather have the Chargers,” Cullen buried his face back in her neck. “It makes me less of a Commander, I suppose, but the Qunari forces were an unknown quantity in any case.”

“Well, at any rate, the damage is done,” Asta sighed. “Now we deal with the consequences. We’ve lost the Qun information pipeline, and Bull is Tal-Vashoth. We’re now at war, however unofficially, with both Tevinter and the Qun. Hopefully Bull will be okay.” She hesitated. “I promised to fight a dragon with him,” she confessed.

“Asta…” Cullen lifted his head, “Why did you do such a thing?”

“He needs a distraction,” she explained, “And Bull and dragons - you’ve never seen him when he sees one, have you? He looks at them like I look at you, Commander,” she laughed. “I’m taking him to Crestwood. We still haven’t found the one that nests here, and that one needs killing. It’s taking out livestock and people.” She shrugged, “I don’t want to upset the balance of the local ecology, but any creature that is preying upon the human population needs to be taken care of. It’s not like the people of Crestwood can be relocated, and neither can the dragon.”

“I’m coming,” Cullen started to insist.

“Of course you are, love,” Asta smiled. “Why do you think I told you about it? I knew that if I tried without having you along you’d be furious. This way, you get to see me in action, as it were, and maybe the next time I have to kill a dragon, you’ll feel a little better if you can’t make it.”

“I think I’ve seen you in action enough. I‘m not sure that my stamina can take much more of your action.” Cullen squeezed her and then paused, “The next time? Asta, how many dragons do you think you’re going to need to fight?” But Asta kissed him, and for a while neither thought about dragons or anything else except each other.

 

Chapter Text

“Taarsidath-an halsaam!” Bull roared, as he hacked into the dragon’s hind foot. He had been yelling that intermittently for ages, Dorian noted, and none of them knew what it meant, he thought, except perhaps for Solas, whose mouth kept twitching at the repetitions. Odd, he hadn’t thought that the elf had a sense of humor.

The dragon was so much bigger close up. And unfortunately it did this thing with it’s wings that pulled even him into close quarters, where it kept trying to stomp all over him. Absolutely infuriating. And his magic was next to useless, there not being any dead to revitalize. “Why the Void didn’t you bring Vivienne?!” He yelled at Asta. “She would have been fucking useful right about now!” He slammed the creature with Winter’s Grasp in an attempt to slow it down. “Necromancy isn’t going to help until it’s already DEAD!”

“Sorry!” Asta sounded a bit too cheerful, Dorian thought, “She had a disturbing letter before we left, and I couldn’t bring myself with all the other crap I was dealing with to handle her problems too! So sorry, you fucking ‘Vint, for bringing you on an expedition that you wanted to be included in!” She dropped into stealth and fenced around to the back of the beast, only to reappear and stab its butt with her daggers overhand, laughing.

“Wanted? I wanted this?” Dorian asked. “Fasta Vass, Asta, I…” And Bull was in front of him in time to take a blow intended for him.

“I got this, Dorian,” he grunted at the impact. “Shit, this is AWESOME!” And he ran back into the fray, dodging claws and lightening while arranging himself between the mages and the dragon. Dorian found himself refocused again, this time by the muscles and sweat playing themselves across the Qunari’s back, streaking his vitaar and making him curse for an entirely different reason. “Quit distracting me, Bull! You could at least wear a shirt!”

“Speak for yourself, ‘Vint!” He yelled. “Two sleeves might be nice! But then I wouldn’t get to see those muscles, would I? You don‘t find me complaining!” He found a moment to flex his chest in Dorian’s general direction, making him groan in embarrassment and, okay, maybe a little bit of lust, and then he was back in the midst of it. Dorian attempted another elemental spell, irritated by his lack of effect on the creature.

Cullen was enjoying himself. Maker, it‘s good to get out from behind the desk, he thought while trying to shield Asta from her own foolhardy fighting style. He couldn’t see any rhyme or reason behind it - she just seemed to aim at whatever happened to be in front of her, though she at least had the presence of mind to stay out of the way of the dragon’s mouth. He went down on one knee to shield himself against its electric breath. “I thought that dragons only breathe fire?!” He yelled. “What is this?”

“Different type of dragon!” Asta shouted gleefully. “You should talk to Frederic of Serault! I have his book, it’s amazing!” She flipped back out of the path of the dragon’s hind claws, laughing. “I’ll lend it to you!”

Maker’s Breath, my fiancée is insane, he realized as she inexpertly threw knives at the scaly beast. “Asta, it has scales for armor. Those knives aren’t even making a dent!”

“I know, but it makes me feel useful!” She shouted. “Would you rather I stayed in the background and cheered you on? Because I could do that!”

He laughed out loud, and threw himself and his shield into the creature’s leg. “Maybe?!”

“Ain’t gonna happen, Commander!” She yelled back. “I think I agree with Bull!”

Bull laughed uproariously. “You don’t know how much!”

“At least quit talking about literature and pay attention?” He shouted. “Can I ask that?”  He jabbed at the thing's rear leg, pivoting to take advantage of its flank.

“It’s not literature, it’s non-fiction!” She screamed. “Educate yourself!”  She dropped back into stealth, flanking as well, only to try a handful of knockout powder.  It didn't work either, but unfazed, she threw another handful of knives.

“That’s your job!” He bantered, and slammed his shield into the thing again and again. “I’ll read the damn book if it makes you feel better!” Maker, I love this woman, he realized again. Who else would be yelling that he didn’t read enough in the middle of fighting a blighted dragon? “Does it have pictures?” He laughed harder, and nearly got stepped on. “Can you summarize it using words of four letters or less?”

“Heads up!” Asta shouted, and threw a jar of bees, and a few wasps, at the dragon.

“Retreat, Commander! Don’t want you to get stung!” Solas snapped up a barrier, and threw some sort of fist out of the Fade at the dragon, causing quite a bit of damage while Cullen caught his breath.

“I hardly think a few bee stings are the most dangerous thing about this fight!” He panted. “Maker, I need to train harder.” Asta threw a regeneration potion at him along with a kiss and a smile. He drank it and felt a little better. It might have been the smile though.

Bull kept plowing along, regardless of bees or wasps, axe dripping with blood from its grooves. “This is fucking amazing!” He yelled. “I love you, Boss! You’re the best!”

“Watch your mouth, Bull! Cullen’ll get jealous!” She teased. “Over a dragon!”

“Not a dragon, this dragon!” Bull yelled. “This is one of the best moments of my life! Taarsidath-an Halsaam!” He bellowed again, and spun around and around in a whirlwind, connecting with the dragon only every so often, but that was hardly the point. After all, he looked good doing it.

Dorian rolled his eyes. Show off, but his eyes followed him all the same.  He did look good, after all.

Cullen dove back in as the bees dispersed. “You fling insects during battle?!”

“Sera’s idea!” Asta replied. “Brilliant, right?” She threw another smile his way and for a moment he forgot where he was. Then the dragon tried to eat him, and he remembered.

“You are all fucking insane!” He yelled, over the dragon’s roar, and saw an opportunity. He lunged into the dragon’s neck, slicing what he hoped was its jugular. It wasn’t, but it was a good blow anyway, he thought, even as he had to retreat rapidly or end up as the dragon’s next victim.

“And you love it!” Bull yelled back. “I can tell! Former Ben-Hasserath, remember! I’ve lost my job, not the skills, Commander!” He saw what Cullen had been aiming for and took advantage of the creature’s distraction with the wound on its throat to swing two-handed at its eyes. The beast fell to its knees, and Asta flipped out of the way just in time. Bull dove back towards it, and nearly decapitated it in one blow, roaring again in victory.

They all fell down as the adrenaline pumped, staring at each other. “We did it,” Asta said in a small voice, and she threw herself at Cullen, who dropped his sword and shield to catch her, ignoring the voice in his head saying that he would have to polish and sharpen them later, kissing him through the grime, sweat and blood the dragon had thrown at them. He kissed her back, unable to help himself in the relief of the moment and thrill of the fight, ignoring Solas’ soft clearing of his throat and the subsequent footsteps as the elf walked away, shaking his head silently. They broke apart, panting at each other, and then Cullen glanced over her shoulder. He nudged her and indicated she should look.

She turned, and saw Dorian and Bull twined around each other in a pretzel, Dorian apparently trying to suck the Qunari’s lips off while the massive man held his lover’s legs around his waist. “Should we catcall or give them some privacy?” She asked, wide-eyed, very quietly.

“I could see catcalling going badly,” Cullen admitted. “But they would whistle at us, you know,” so he put two rather disgusting fingers in his mouth and wolf-whistled, a loopy swirl of sound, while Asta cheered and whooped next to him, nearly falling over as the adrenaline wore off. Dorian flipped them the bird from his hand behind Bull’s back, and Cullen turned, dragging his rather fascinated fiancée away from them. “Now, we leave them alone. They have some talking to do. Let’s go to the keep, try to clean up, and go to the Rusted Horn and have a drink,” he suggested. “It’s up and running now, right?”

“I doubt they’ll be talking,” she muttered, but went along willingly enough. “What will we do with the dragon?”

“Bull wanted a tooth for something,” Cullen remembered. “The rest - well, I know you can make armor out of its bones.”

Asta stared. “That’s rather macabre, isn’t it?”

“It’s great stuff, I understand,” Cullen said. “But you don’t really want to talk about it, do you?” He asked, as they walked between two large rocks, pulling her closer.

“Hmm, maybe not,” Asta replied, attempting to shove him up against one of them. “I have to admit, killing that thing was… cathartic.” She nipped at his neck. “Do we have some time?”

“I’d rather have a bath first,” Cullen admitted, trying to hold himself back. “I’m absolutely filthy, and so are you.”

“There’s a pond over there somewhere,” she indicated a vague direction. “I could show you,” she reluctantly offered. “I know Crestwood fairly well, after all the time I spent here fighting undead and red Templars.” She nipped him again. “You know, I’m beginning to think that I like traveling with you, Commander.”

“Likewise, Inquisitor,” Cullen said, “but I really would at least like to rinse off. Who knew dragon blood was so sticky?” He held up his hand, as Asta opened her mouth, “Don’t tell me. Serault.” Asta beamed. “Damn it, Asta, I’ll read the book.”

The pond was close, and they stripped tentatively, knowing that with Caer Bronach so close there were probably agents watching and they’d never see them at all. That kept a damper on their other activities, despite Asta whispering that they should give them a show. Cullen was scandalized. “Just get clean!” He hissed, embarrassed. Asta just laughed, and made a point of grabbing his butt under the water.

They redressed with difficulty, wet bodies hampering the fabric, but still feeling better, and skirted the dragon’s nest to give Bull and Dorian some privacy while making their way back to the Keep and the Horn. The closer they got, the quieter Asta became.

“What’s on your mind, love?” Cullen asked at last, grabbing her hand.

“Do you ever just feel like running away?” She asked, looking up at the keep in the distance. “Just saying, screw it, let Thedas save itself and disappearing?”

“Occasionally,” Cullen admitted. “Especially when Guy starts calling my deceased mother various farm animals under his breath. If he weren’t so efficient…” Asta snorted.

“Is that seriously the most irritating thing about being the Commander?” She asked, disbelieving, “Mouthy Orlesians?”

“No,” Cullen grinned, “but it made you laugh.” She shoved him. He sighed, growing serious. “No, the most irritating thing is how I can’t be with you all the time. I’m needed there, and I want to be with you. That tries my patience.”

“Hmm,” she thought. “Well, that bothers me too. I’d stay with you happily, if I could, but it would be better if you could come along more often.” She bumped his shoulder. “This has been fun, in a weird way. It’s been great to have someone to talk to, or just be silent with. And you have a lovely reading voice. Not to mention you are seriously sexy when you are fighting. All thrust and jab…” she sighed. “I’m going to miss you. Three days and back at Skyhold. Three days and I’ll have to be off to the Hinterlands, again. Weeks away from you, only letters to stay connected. Maker, Cullen, I admit sometimes I’m not sure I can take this for much longer.” She looked off into the distance at the lake and the dam, eyes vacant.

“Hey, Leliana agrees that when you need me, I can go,” he reminded her. “So not the Hinterlands, because you don’t need me melting down in Valamaar, but I’ll see about Emprise du Lion, and I’ll definitely be there for the Arbor Wilds.”

“You can’t come to the Emprise,” Asta said, still staring off at the dam and the lake. “The red lyrium will set you off. It would be a serious mistake,” She turned to him, “Promise me you won’t go. I don’t want you sick, thinking that you aren’t strong enough.”

“I haven’t had anything but a simple headache in months,” Cullen protested, “I’m fine!”

“You’re an addict,” Asta said bluntly. “You can’t tell me you don’t occasionally crave it.”

“Well, no, I do,” Cullen rubbed the back of his neck. “But I can…”

“No, promise,” Asta yanked on his hand. “Promise. I can handle a lot, Cullen, but I can’t handle you relapsing. Promise me you won’t go.”

Cullen sighed, “I promise. I’ll let someone else go.”

“Thank you,” Asta breathed gratefully. “I’ll feel better knowing you’re out of it.” She squeezed his hand. “I know that if you promise, you keep your word. I love you.” She leaned up against him. “Should we go find that drink?”

“I can think of something else I’d rather do,” Cullen confessed. “Did you want to be social?”  He pulled her a little closer.

“For a little while, maybe?” Asta said, “And if we drop in and announce we killed their dragon we won’t have to buy. Coffers are a little low, Josie said in her last letter, with fewer donations coming in from Orlais since…” her face fell. “I wish the Inquisition wasn’t dependent on their money. I’d do other things, better things.”

“Hey, it’s okay,” Cullen faced her. “Don’t think about it for a bit. Let’s go hang out in the pub, have a few too many, I’ll carry you back to your room and have my way with you. Sound like a plan?”

Asta laughed, “As if you would ever take advantage of me while drunk, Ser. You’d stammer and stumble your way to sleeping on the floor.”

“I don’t know…” Cullen mused, “if you were throwing yourself at me, it might be too much to resist.”

“We could just skip the drinking too much part,” Asta threw him an arch glance.

“Well, that is what I was thinking. But if you want to go,” he protested, “we should go! Bull and Dorian will probably end up there at some point. It will be fun.” He thought again, “Maybe. They won’t have Maraas-Lok here, do they?”

“Come on, buy me a drink, Commander,” she pulled him along. “We’ll have one. Then I won’t be inebriated and you won’t have to get all noble and shit.”

“I don’t get ‘noble and shit’,” Cullen huffed.  "And you've been spending too much time with Sera."

“Yeah, right. Tell me the truth then, if I hadn’t been drunk, would you have come in to my cabin that night at Haven?” Her raised eyebrow told him that she knew the answer.

“Maybe, just for a little while, to talk,” he admitted. “But you were drunk, and I knew there would be gossip, so…”

“Exactly, Commander Noble-and-Shit,” she laughed. “Come on. One drink. Don’t let me have more. They have bear rugs here, you know.”

“Maker, I love Fereldan,” Cullen laughed, and followed her through the door.

***

Four hours later, Asta stumbled out the door, waving gleefully to the crowd of her new friends inside. “Thank you! Enjoy your dragon-free existence! Support your Inquisition!” She laughed and stumbled her way across the bridge. A very resigned Commander followed her, preventing her from falling off the top of the dam.

She smushed herself up against him at the first opportunity. She had had some strawberry wine, and he could smell it on her breath. “Asta,” he said, resigning himself further to being called ‘Noble-and-shit’ every time she got drunk, “Let’s get you back to the keep.”

“I like it here,” she said emphatically. “This is a nice spot. You’re here, I’m here. It’s perfect.” She beamed as if she had said something clever. “No place in Thedas like this.” She threw her arms around his neck. “’sides, not that drunk. One bottle - small bottle.” She thought. “I think. How many bottles? Got blurry there.”

“And you drank it yourself,” Cullen pointed out. “I had an ale. One ale. In a stein.”

“See! Only had one drink!” She laughed, “It’s all good, Commander.” She grew distracted, running her hand across his stubble. “Hmm, my handsome Commander…” she reached up and bit his jaw, gently, making him catch his breath. “Maker’s Golden Balls, Cullen, I want you.”

“Asta, you are drunk,” He sighed. This was not how he had wanted the evening to go. Naturally she was going to make this hard on him, but it wasn’t her fault. She had really needed to blow off some steam. Better here than at Skyhold. Here she just made friends - Fereldans loved people just being themselves. There she started rumors that traveled the width and breadth of Thedas in a matter of days. In many ways, acting disreputable near a base of your own spies was smart - your spymaster might scold you, but that’s as far as it would go.

“No, I’m not,” Asta insisted. “It’s been hours since I started drinking. Not that drunk.”

“Prove it. Walk straight without wobbling and I’ll believe you.” He let her go and she nearly fell over.

She straightened suddenly. “Fine.” And walked perfectly straight, heel to toe, head in the air to the end of the dam, spun lightly on one foot, never wobbling and came right back. “Believe me now?” She draped herself back over him.

“How did…”

“My Great Aunt Lucille had me taught dancing,” Asta said, “You know, noble crap. Walking straight to the carriage after you’ve had too much at a ball or party is part of it. Appearances are everything. Now, Commander, are you going to keep your end of the bargain? I proved it.”

“I should,” Cullen started, holding onto her waist. Mercy, he wanted her. In the moonlight her hair looked darker, and the wind on the dam had whipped it loose from her tight style. She was breathtaking, lips stained red with the wine and smelling of strawberries. He wanted to taste it on her lips.

“You should what,” Asta leaned closer. “I want to know.”

“I want,” he said leaning down to her lips. “Maker’s Breath, Asta, you know I want you.”

“Then have me,” she said, and kissed him. He growled under his breath and kissed her back, hard, moving over her with all the impatience and guilt he had at taking advantage of her. He pulled back, panting, “Asta, back to the keep.”

“No,” she said, “You’ll sleep on the floor if we go back to the keep.” She looked sad.

“Damn it, Asta, I won’t sleep on the floor!” He yelled, “But I refuse to take you here on the top of the dam where everyone and their brother can come by and watch us!” Two villagers chose that moment to stroll by on their way to the tavern.

“Inquisitor,” they snickered and Asta waved regally.

Cullen buried his face in her neck. At least they were Fereldans. “Andraste’s ass,” he whispered into her hair. “Asta, will you take me back to the keep before I embarrass us even further?”

“Will you have your way with me?” She asked cheerily and all too loud. The door to the tavern slammed.

“Maker, Asta!” Cullen hissed, “Yes.”

“I can’t hear you, Cullen,” she smiled wickedly.

“Yes!” He said clearly, just as two Inquisition officers came out of the tavern.

They saluted, “Inquisitor, Commander,” and made their way back up to the keep whispering and giggling.

Cullen drew a deep shuddering breath. “For Andraste’s Sake, Inquisitor, I’m begging you,” he said clearly. “I promise that I won’t sleep on the floor. And that I will,” he clenched his teeth, “have my way with you.”

“All right then,” Asta held out her arms, expecting him to pick her up and cradle her in his arms. He smirked and lifted her around her thighs so that she hung over his back. “Cullen!”

“I said I’d carry you back,” he shifted her a little. “This is easier. And I can still open doors instead of kicking them in. Saves the Inquisition money, that.”

“Now you’re laughing at me.” She pouted, and squealed when he bounced her on his shoulder in retaliation.

“Perish the thought, Inquisitor.” He smirked. “You’ve had your fun, after all. Now it’s my turn.” And he strode back to Caer Bronach, nodding briskly at the various villagers and agents coming their direction, completely at ease. “We have to find a bear rug. Any ideas?” He asked Charter, who actually stammered and mentioned the room at the top of the keep.

“Oh, good idea!” Asta chirped from her ungainly position. “It has a locking door! As you were, Charter! Have a nice evening!” She swatted his ass and shouted, “Onward to the keep, Ser Knight!” and he just laughed, and nodded to the next group from the keep, smirking.

It had been a very good day.

 

Chapter Text

Dorian and Bull recovered from their encounter slowly, pulling apart from each other in the ruins of the building where the dragon had made its nest. They didn’t meet each other’s eyes as they redressed in their filthy armor, Dorian visibly recoiling at the thought of putting those rags back on himself. “I’m going to have to burn these,” he muttered. “Disgusting.”

“I don’t know,” Bull said, “I thought it was hot, myself. You smell like dragon, Dorian. That’s seriously a turn on.” He still wouldn’t meet his eyes, and made his way back to the dragon’s head and started to pry out a tooth.

“You would think so,” rejoined Dorian, nose in the air. “But we both stink to high heaven and I need a bath.”

“Doesn’t bother me,” Bull grunted. “There!” The tooth came free. Dorian eyed it, suddenly suspicious.

“What did you need that for?” His mind was racing, somewhat panicking. Andraste’s staff and Maker’s fire, not now. He was still keyed up from the sex and the closeness of his - whatever Bull was to him - and his mind just wouldn’t allow him to contemplate what Bull was thinking about. Not now.

Bull just grunted, “Souvenir, maybe?”

“Pull me one, then, too?” Dorian called his bluff. Shut up, shut up, shut up… his brain tried to take it back, but his heart had control of his mouth.

Bull eyed him. “How much reading on the Qunari as a race did you do, Dorian?”

“Enough,” Dorian dodged. “Why do you ask?” Shit, why do I try to match brains with a Ben-Hasserath?  I can't even beat Cullen at chess and I cheat!

Bull charged, and slammed him back up against the ruined wall that they had been pressed against not too many minutes before in a very different embrace. “Talk to me, ‘Vint. I know why I want a tooth. But what about you?” He added, “Don’t try to lie, Dorian. I can tell when you are lying.”

“I don’t know what this is about,” he hedged, refusing to meet his eyes, heart breaking with the lie. Liar, liar…

“No more games, Dorian!” Bull slammed his hands against the wall. A few stones rattled loose, and he fisted his hands to restrain himself. “This isn’t the time for them. I need to know.” Dorian lifted his head to meet his eye, his own suspiciously wet.

“I’m… not good at not playing games,” Dorian admitted. “It’s hard to be honest. In Tevinter,” he started.

“We aren’t in fucking Tevinter!” Bull hit the wall again, and a few more stones came loose. “Damn it, Dorian, do you… care or not? By Koslun‘s tide, under the Qun we don‘t fucking do this at all! Friends, sure, but we don‘t sleep with them! That‘s the territory of the Tamassrans and I‘m not one of them! I‘ve never fucking done this!”

“I have…” Dorian muttered. “I thought I was in… you know. Once. But it ended when I wouldn’t pretend, wouldn’t marry the girl, wouldn’t keep it all nice and quiet and pretty on the outside while dying on the inside. It ended when my father wanted to do blood magic to change me.”

“I know all that, ‘Vint. I don’t fucking want you to change!” Bull growled. “Will you or won’t you?”

Dorian lifted his chin, stupidly determined to brazen it out, “I won’t know what you’re talking about unless you ask, buffoon.”

“Fucking Void, Dorian,” Bull grunted. “Just be up front for once, will you?” He went and sat down on the steps of the ruin, staring out at the carcass of the dragon in the setting sun and throwing rocks at the body.

“Look who is talking!” Dorian flung back a few minutes later, a good offense being the best defense, but still not ready to just let it go, “You can’t even bring yourself to say it either. We’re enemies, Bull. Mage and Ben-Hasserath - I know what they do, as well as reeducation. So don’t deny it. And ‘Vint and Qunari. It’s fucking hopeless,” he sniffed. He was not going to cry. Not over this… man.

“We’re not enemies,” Bull muttered. “Not unless you make us enemies. I’m not part of the Qun, I’m Tal-Vashoth. And you are a ‘Vint, but you aren’t an altus any longer. We are agents of the Inquisition, and the Boss said…”

“And what does she know, for all of her lofty ideals?” Dorian was furious. “Are you saying you are prepared to have an open relationship with me, another man? Show me off to the Chargers? Admit you love a ‘Vint and a mage?” He stopped, he had said the word. Fasta Vass, what have I done. He started to shake.

“Not so open, I‘m not gonna fucking share unless I have to,” growled Bull, looking a little surprised at his own admission. “And the Chargers don’t fucking care who I fuck in my spare time, and if they do they can keep their shitty opinions to themselves. And fuck, yeah, I want to love you. I don’t want to be the Arvaarad to your Saarebas, Dorian. I want to be your Kadan. You are mine, whether you take the damn tooth or not.” He slumped his shoulders, looking more defeated than Dorian had ever seen him. “Shit, Dorian, you’ve got me all messed up. And I was pretty messed up before I met you. If I don’t have you, I’ve got nothing now. I‘m Tal va-fucking-shoth. Even the Qun has rejected me.”

Dorian stood, sniffing again, ignoring the tears that kept trickling down his dusty face and went to sit next to his man, and took his hand. It was the first time he had reached out to touch him like this - in a non-sexual way. He shook a little bit with the intimacy. It was only a hand. But what it meant… “I guess it’s a good thing you’ve got me, then.” He drew a shuddering breath. “And I suppose that means you’re my Kadan, too.” He blanched slightly, holding his breath without realizing it and getting light-headed before he remembered he needed air.

Bull dropped his hand and wrapped his massive arm around him. “Fucking ‘Vint,” he muttered. “Koslun’s hairy ass, I love you.”

“Greasy ox-man,” Dorian muttered, but leaned into him closer. “You’d better give me the damn tooth. I nearly died trying to get that thing for you. But I guess I… love you too.” He winced at the admission.

“For you, you mean,” Bull laughed. “Half to you, half to me, and some string to tie ‘em up.”

“Ugh, that’s barbaric,” Dorian muttered. “I have to wear this bloody thing?  Can I at least put it on a silverite chain or something prettier?”

“Yep!” Bull squeezed him. “Thanks, Kadan.” They sat in silence for a bit, watching the sunset.

“So are we… married now, or something?” Dorian finally asked. “The books I read were more about the culture, not the social implications of such a… bond.”

“Social implications,” Bull squeezed him again and snorted, “It’s whatever we want it to be. Kadan translates as ‘center of the chest’ or ‘heart’. It’s not like we have to label this precisely for some professor from Orlais to take apart in a book, or more likely, for Boss to squint at and define. But if you want to call me something besides Kadan,” he shrugged, “I’m okay with that. Call me whatever you like.”

“I’ll think about it,” Dorian grumbled. “It’s going to take getting used to.” He thought of something else, “Fasta vass, do I have to move in? Your quarters are a sty. I absolutely refuse to live in such squalor.”

“You ask too many questions, Kadan,” Bull couldn’t seem to say the word enough. He felt all - fluffy. “Does it really matter?”

“YES,” Dorian hissed. “If we are embarking on this… relationship, it needs boundaries, rules! I don’t want to…” he stopped, realizing what he was doing, “embarrass you. Sex is one thing, but this… intimacy, it…” he shuddered, “scares me.”

Bull laughed. “I walk around without a shirt, drink too much and openly sleep around, all of which are in defiance of your homeland’s mores, and you’re worried you’ll embarrass me? Fuck, Dorian.” He leaned over and kissed him full on the mouth. “Don’t worry so much.”

***

Cullen dropped Asta onto the rug and went to lock the door in the little library. The room was a mess, though at least since she had been here last the ravens had been moved, and the books shelved. Otherwise, a pack of Wicked Grace cards still lay strewn about the table, and maps and scrolls were stacked haphazardly against the walls on some low shelves. Asta looked around happily.

“I love this room,” she said. “I spent a very happy hour here when I was fixing Crestwood’s messes. There was this book about the Anderfels and their king that loved cats. It was…” Cullen dropped down next to her and kissed her, interrupting her spiel. She clung to him as he lowered her down. When he finally let her go, her back against the rug, she smiled, “Maybe it doesn’t matter.”

“Oh, no, do go on,” Cullen said amused, “it’s a bit of a coincidence. I knew a mage - at Kinloch and Kirkwall, actually, that had a thing for cats and was named Anders…” He stopped, and shook his head, “Just a coincidence, I’m sure.”

“That Anders?” Asta tilted her head.

“That Anders,” he confirmed, “But come to think about it, I really don’t want to talk about him right now.” He lowered his voice. “I’m sure there are other things we could be doing.”

“I think you might be right,” Asta giggled. He kissed her again. She did taste like wine and strawberries, and he couldn’t get enough of her. She moved against him restlessly, and started to unlace his pants. They had dropped off their armor in their room downstairs, ignoring the various raised eyebrows they gathered as they made their way upstairs, so for once, it would be easy to get him out of his clothing, at least. He was already hard through the leather of his breeches, and she grasped him. “Maker, Cullen, you weren’t kidding, were you?” She hurried up with the unlacing, and pulled him free of his smallclothes. “That looks a little more comfortable, but let’s get these off of you.” He helped her shove them off, laughing at her eagerness.

“I’m not going anywhere, Asta,” he observed. “You can take your time.”

She shrugged, “Taking your time is overrated, when you have a man that looks as good as you do without pants. Leliana did not approve of my suggested addition to the Chant, by the way.”

“Asta, you didn’t…” he stopped, realizing she was joking. “The fact that I actually thought you might have addressed that with Leliana worries me.”

She smiled cheekily, “I guess you’ll have to ‘debrief me’ about her latest letter, then.”

“Maker’s Breath, Asta, that was a terrible pun,” He stripped off his shirt, though, and laid himself down next to her on the rug. “This is… fuzzy and rougher than I thought.”

“Mmm-hmm,” Asta agreed, wriggling a bit, “When I was alone my room, I used to lie on my rug, and think about your coat,” she whispered, “naked.”

“Oh, really?” Cullen popped a couple of her fasteners open. “What else did you think about?”

“I used to imagine you laying it down for me,” she whispered, still sweetly, “and pushing me down into it, while running your hands everywhere…”

“I like these thoughts,” Cullen’s voice was rough. “Where were my hands?” She opened her mouth to tell him, and he shushed her. “Show me?” He finished her fasteners, and pulled the laces free on her breeches and tugged them down her legs while she tried to help, mostly ineffectively. Then she ran her hands over her breasts, and cupped them a bit, thumbing her nipples until they were stiff. She ran her right hand down lower, and touched herself then, humming a little while she stroked.

“I’d say your name, too,” she confessed, “pretending that you were touching me. This was long before we ever…”

Cullen hummed back, “So, you thought about me?”

“You know I did,” she replied, love shining in her eyes. “The reality is better than the fantasy ever was.”

“I thought of you, too,” he admitted, “and did… something similar. After the first time you touched me, I couldn’t stop,” he blurted out. “Every time you were away from Skyhold, I had to… I couldn’t…” he laughed, “I confess, I thought I had outgrown touching myself like that - not since I was a teenager have I ever been so eager.”

“Really?” Asta was flattered, and very, very aroused. “Show me?” He dropped his hand down, and wrapped his length in his hand, silky and hard at the same time, and stroked, slowly, dragging his thumb over the tip of his cock as he reached it.

He shook a bit. “I… I have very little control when it comes to you, Asta.” He moaned a little. “I want you to touch me. No, I want you around me, love.” He shuddered, “I’d imagine burying my hands in your hair while I buried myself into you…” he laughed, “You are right, the fantasy didn’t match the reality in the slightest.”

“The last time I was in this room, I got your letter,” she said. “The one that told me to come back. I flew out of this keep like Corypheus himself was after me, trying to get home to you as fast as I could.”

Cullen drooped, “Only to find out about the lyrium,” he groaned, but kept stroking, “Maker, I’m an idiot.”

She smiled, “It got better.” She gasped, her fingers hitting the next stage in her arousal. “Cullen, I want…” He stopped stroking himself to touch her instead, pushing a single digit into her, making her moan. She put her other hand on him, running her fingers across him lightly. “I can’t wait much longer,” she was shaking now.

“Don’t wait,” Cullen smiled, trying to find his own breath while she ran tickling fingers over his stomach and cock. “I want to watch you.” She drove up suddenly against his hand, and on the next upswing he added a second finger. “You’re so beautiful, Asta.”

She was beyond words, only movement and desire, pushing herself into him. He bent down to kiss her, and she stopped touching herself to bury her hands in his hair and drag him down against her. He pulled back, “No, I want to watch you come first, Asta, please,” he asked beseechingly. “Soon,” he promised. “I don’t want to wait long.” He touched his thumb to her instead, while she whined.

“Cullen,” her voice dragged the two syllables out, “Please…”

“Not yet,” he whispered. “You have to come first.” He hesitated, but then slid a third finger inside her.

The stretch was perfect, a beautiful pulling that set her body on fire, and she thrust against him still more impatiently. He bent the fingers, beckoning and rubbed as she pushed against him. His mouth found her breast and started licking with the tip of his tongue, flicking it against her.

The wine made her loud, he realized, and there was no way that the agents in the keep weren’t going to know exactly what they were doing. Oddly enough, he didn’t care. He was aching for her, and he had just enough willpower to hold out for her. Her moans were making him drunk, more drunk than even Maraas-Lok. “Sweet Andraste, Asta,” he breathed against her, “I love you.” She came undone around his hand, riding against him wildly, crying out his name. “That’s right, Asta…” she shook against him in her aftermath, and he removed his hand, unable to wait. “Are you ready?”

Her only response was a gasp, and a shaky hand that reached down to him, to try to pull him inside. She glared at him when he hesitated, and then the angry eyes closed as he shoved himself in all at once. She cried out again, and wrapped her legs around his back, bucking against him. He grabbed her thighs and held her even tighter, driving deeper than she could manage on her own. “Asta, Holy Fucking Maker,” he groaned, hardly aware of how loud he was really being. “You feel…nice.”

She sat up, sliding off him momentarily, and then shoved him back against the rug, riding him restlessly, determined to have all of him. She was wild, her hair loose and flowing, her eyes unfocused and half-closed. He held his hands to her hips and tried desperately to move into her, to snap his hips up. She slid up and slammed down, again and again, arching her back, until her legs started to shudder with the effort of maintaining the pace. She slowed at last, nearly spent with the exertions of the day, and Cullen flipped them both back over. She drew her legs higher, reaching for his shoulders and the angle nearly pushed him over the edge as it pulled a moan out of her.

They moved as one, gasps and cries and moans floating down the stairs and through the drafty keep, making agents blush and soldiers move away in alarm from the sounds of their love-making. At last he realized that she was building up for another release, and he grew determined, pinching and rubbing her breast while she touched herself again, desperate in her passion. He grew tighter as she clenched against him, trying to arch her back as she shouted his name one last time. With that, he finally came, shooting into her, gasping and groaning in turn as he rode their orgasm out. At last, she slid her legs down his shoulders and he sat back on his heels, eyes closed and panting.

“Maker’s Breath, Asta,” but he couldn’t even finish the sentence.

She had a blissful little smile on her face as she gazed at him. “Definitely better than any fantasy,” she laughed. He just collapsed next to her on the rug.

“Let’s not move for a couple of days,” he said, pulling his coat over them. “We can just stay here. This is the best spot in Thedas.”

“It always is, when I’m with you, Cullen.” She curled against him, content. “It’s a good thing the door locks.” And they fell asleep against each other, worn out from their really good day.

Chapter Text

Asta sat on her throne, staring down at Thom Rainier who had audaciously accused her of being corrupt, because she tried to save him from an abrupt drop at the end of a rope. She took a deep breath and tried not to be petty. A man’s life was at stake.

“Seriously, Rainier? You have the gall to accuse me of being corrupt, when you are responsible for the murder of children? For turning against the Empress you swore to serve for money? Only to have the half-witted plan fall apart underneath you and have to spend the rest of your life running?” Asta stood out of her throne and paced. “We had you released through legitimate channels, Rainier. Because I had to know exactly what else you had lied about. Rainier,” he flinched every time she said his real name, “you were loyal. You stuck yourself out in front of me a thousand times, blocked an arrow for me the first time we met, and continued to serve willingly at every opportunity. I knew you were probably not a Warden,” and he looked resigned at that, “but honestly, Rainier, I thought you were trustworthy despite your lies.” She sat back down, and stared some more.

“I guess I only have one question. Why didn’t you trust the Inquisition, or me, with the truth? You’ve proven yourself a strong warrior, despite not being a Warden, you proved you’d take injury for all of us at Haven, at Adamant. Why didn’t you just come to me, or Leliana - who suspected as well - or even Josephine and tell us?”

“I couldn’t, Inquisitor. I’m ashamed of who I am. I… don’t deserve any kind of a chance at redemption.” His initial anger had dissipated, and he was left a broken man in shackles and padded armor.

“None of us do, Rainier,” Asta said bluntly, but the sting had gone out of her voice. “No one here has a completely clear slate, as my advisors have pointed out to me again and again. The Inquisition is in place to rebuild what is broken, to find what has been lost, to make Thedas better. That you have a past you are ashamed of is nothing new. No, the real problem here is that you hid that past. We all thought we knew you, considered you a friend, even as family.” She shook her head. “You made horrible choices. So have we all.”

“Mine are worse than most, my lady,” Thom Rainier said. “It was by my order that they died, that the men under my command committed that atrocity. I do not deserve leniency, I don’t deserve anything but death.”

“I agree with you,” Asta met his eyes. “You do deserve death. But my advisors - they disagree. I cannot bring myself to pardon you, Rainier. You committed an atrocity, as you said. Innocents died.” Asta’s face cracked. “And yet I cannot bring myself to sentence you to death, either. You… were my friend. I have had precious few friends in my life, believe it or not. I can’t bring myself to kill someone I thought of that way.” She slumped. “This is nearly worse than death, however, knowing what I know now about the Grey Wardens. Call me a coward, but I sentence you to death by Blight, Thom Rainier. We’re going to send you to the Grey Wardens, to undergo their Joining. Not everyone survives the Joining, Rainier. This is not mercy. You will have a short, bloody lifespan, but you will spend it doing what I think you do best - standing in front of those who need it. You will die young, in the Deep Roads or by the hand of darkspawn.” She stood again, “You will be escorted to the Grey Wardens rebuilding at Adamant, Rainier, after we defeat Corypheus and we will find out whether or not you can undergo the Joining. If you survive, you will be a Warden. If you do not, you will be dead.”

Rainier nodded along, “That is more than fair, my lady.” He hesitated, “The word of a traitor means nothing, but I am sorry for my deceit, and for my crime. But I cannot thank you for my life, either. I want to die.”

Asta slumped back into her throne, eyes closed. “And that’s exactly why you are going to live as a Warden, Rainier. Because for you, it’s a greater punishment to live knowing what you’ve done, to feel that guilt for the remainder of your life, than it would be to die.” She opened her eyes. “I don’t know if I can forgive you, if I can ever trust you again. But until Corypheus is dead, the Inquisition needs you. And when I was in the Fade, at Adamant, I swore to the Nightmare we fought that I would never send you away, despite the past he insisted you hid. I will not break my word, even to a demon.”

***

Cullen found her later, alone in her old room, nearly empty except for the desk and bed. She wasn’t crying. She was stone-faced and cold, playing with something wooden. She looked at him with dead eyes, “Did I do the right thing? I… wanted him to feel pain like he caused me, like he caused those children. Felix Alexius had the Blight. I know how it takes those that have it, and the Joining is done with darkspawn blood. It’s horrible, and literally the worst death I can imagine for anyone.” She looked up at him. “I’m a monster. Worse than Blackwall, any darkspawn, any magister. Worse than Corypheus, even.”

Cullen sat down on the bed, and watched her. “I don’t think anyone here sees it that way. They see you giving him mercy, giving him a chance to atone.”

“But I don’t mean it that way! This is my revenge!” Asta threw a wooden top - one that Blackwall had whittled over several nights while they camped in the Hinterlands - over the balcony, and watched it fall down into the ravine. “He wanted to die, so I denied him a swift death and gave him one filled with horror. He deserves to live with the pain and guilt of the people he killed.”

“None of us have clean hands, Asta,” Cullen sighed. “I think you perhaps are holding Rainier to a higher standard, yes. I probably would have pardoned him, and then the Empress would have had him arrested and put to death immediately. What you did was spare his life in the only way you could, whatever you meant by it. I do think that Rainier understands your reasoning.”

“Good,” Asta said fiercely.

He paused, “Why are you worried whether you did the right thing if you are so bent on revenge?”

“Because,” and she finally started to cry, “I wanted to kill him. I wanted to leave him in Orlais for the Empress to execute. And I wanted to pardon him. Oh, Cullen,” she fell to her knees on the balcony. “I hate being the Inquisitor. I hate it.” She rocked back and forth, and wrapped her arms around her body and wailed into the wind around the tower. “I can’t do this anymore.” She wept like he had never seen her weep, not even after Redcliffe.

He picked her up gently, and laid her down in the ostentatious bed Josephine had picked, and curled up next to her, and held her, until she cried herself out and she fell asleep. He stayed awake for the entire night, watching her, and soothing her when she occasionally cried out in her sleep.

The next morning Dorian and Leliana found them, and Cullen pulled away from her to speak with them softly. “She’s not well,” he admitted. “She thinks that she sentenced him to the worst death she could have, and all for revenge. It’s preying on her, even in her sleep. I don’t think…” he swallowed. “I think she’s going to regret this choice, in the end.”

Leliana narrowed her eyes, “Well, we’ve all made choices we regret.”

“She hasn’t,” Cullen looked at them both. “Her choices until the Conclave were made for her. This could break her.”

“We can’t protect her from the danger of her own choices, Commander,” Leliana argued, “She would be nothing more than a child or a figurehead! We don’t need a figurehead, we need a leader.”

“I know that,” Cullen hissed, “but this…”

“She’s already sentenced him,” Dorian cut in. “It’s over. She has to live with it now. You can’t shield her from this, Cullen.”

“The Inquisition has no more involvement in his sentence, unless the Wardens decide to not put him through the Joining.” Leliana sighed, “I don’t think that will happen. They need people, and Stroud trusts us.”

“I know,” Cullen sighed, looking at her sleep, looking pale against the red of the curtains. “I know.”

Dorian spoke, “Let’s just hope she doesn’t wake soon. And when she does, we’ll all need to be there.”

***

Asta was pale-faced and sullen for the several days after, while they prepared to leave for the Hinterlands.

She spent her time hiding as much as possible in their quarters, trying not to let her sobs be heard down the ladder, or wandering amongst empty halls under Skyhold where hardly anyone went. She acted like she was sleeping when Cullen climbed into bed, and delegated most of her responsibilities for planning the trip to Valamaar to other members of her circle. Blackwall would not be accompanying them.

But Dorian flatly refused, “I am not going to take on duties that are yours, Asta, while you slump about Skyhold in your pajamas, refusing to bathe and feeling sorry for yourself. You are not the only person in the world to be lied to.”

“Fuck off, Dorian,” she hissed. “I just killed a man I considered a friend. One of your best friends in the world died the same way. You remember what Felix was like in Redcliffe. You remember. You should hate me!” She slumped against the railing. “You all should hate me.  Next time it could be you I sentence to a long and horrible death.”

“Oh, get over yourself!” he snapped. “Blackwall - yes, I’m still calling him that - idolized the Wardens. You gave him his greatest wish on a silver platter! No one hates you, Inquisitor. You gave the man a third chance that he didn’t deserve. You need to get back on the proverbial horse and do better, if you are so upset with yourself. No one thinks you are doing a bad job, except for a few malcontents that think the sun rises and sets in Orlais. Even the Empress thinks that your solution was fair - Leliana had a letter from Briala a day ago. Suck it up, buttercup. You’re in charge. Sucks that occasionally you have to act like it, I know.”

“You fucking MAGE!” Asta screamed at him. “As if I ever haven’t acted like it! I’ve been making tough decisions about who lives and dies since Haven! Since I woke up with this thing on my hand! I didn’t ask for this, I don’t want it.” She slammed her hand against the pillar in the library. Dorian smiled. Finally, a reaction.

“And yet you have it anyway!” Dorian said back. “Only you can do this.” He took a deep breath, “And we are all behind you. But you cannot spend your time second-guessing decisions that have already been made, either. Move on. We leave for Valamaar in two days. We need the Inquisitor, Asta. We need you at your most brilliant. Please, my friend, my sister…” he took her hand, “we all miss you. Some of us will even miss the hairy lummox. But what is done is done. And now we need you, in the present, dealing with the next stage of this journey.” He peered at her. “Can you do that?”

Asta shook, and swallowed, “I will try.”

“No, that’s not good enough. We need you to do it. Can you lead us?”

She took a deep breath, “Yes.”

“Good, then go home to that strapping young Templar of yours. I’m having a bath delivered, because you need one. Tell Cullen to lock the doors and use it. Quit sulking, eat something, and quit beating yourself up over something that you can’t help now.” He hugged her, somehow still managing to keep her at arms length, sighed over her appearance and shaking his head, went to find a runner.

She slunk back to their tower, and Cullen looked up and for the first time in days, she met his eyes. He relaxed, and she realized that he had a deep wrinkle between his brows that he hadn’t had the week prior. She cleared her throat, and with a rusty voice asked, “Do you have a headache?”

“No,” he smiled. “But I… I was worried for you. Are you… feeling better?”

She smiled wryly, “Dorian just chewed my ass up and spit me out.” She sighed, a little dramatically. “He also told me I stunk and that he was going to have a bath delivered.” Hesitating, she asked, “Can we lock the doors for a while, after it gets here?”

“Of course,” he stood up. “I’ll order something for us to eat and you can eat and bathe and we’ll talk.” He crossed his office towards her, and reached out to hug her tight. “I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to protect you, but I couldn’t.”

“This is one time when I didn’t need protection,” Asta noted, twisting her mouth. “Apparently I needed a two-bit necromancer from Tevinter to tell me where to get off.” She sighed, “I have been a bitch, haven’t I? And been slacking with the planning for this trip, and not using my time with you wisely.” She held him tighter. “Maker, I’m sorry. I need to apologize to everyone for this.”

“Hey, we all make mistakes, Inquisitor,” he kissed the top of her head. “And I’m not really sure that you have made a mistake. There just wasn’t a good answer.” There was a knock at the door, and he released her to let the bathtub and buckets of water in, one after the other until it was full. He asked the last maid, “Could you go see what they can deliver from the kitchens? Just whatever is handy. Tell Cook we’re grateful.” The maid nodded, and left without a word.

Asta climbed the ladder to get her bathing supplies while he locked the doors. “I see what you mean. I’ve thought about nothing else all week - all the decisions that I’ve had to make since I woke up in Haven. It’s not just Blackwall. It’s that scouting party that we never found because my thighs ached - they died, I’m sure of it. And all because I couldn’t bring myself to climb a few ladders.”

“And if you hadn’t charged with me, I might be dead,” Cullen said fairly, “And maybe more of my men as well.”

She slid back down the ladder, basket in her mouth. She took it out, and poured some oils in the tub. “And then the dreadnought - how many people died because I saved the Chargers? And maybe if I had just banished the Wardens then I would have found a different choice for Rainier…” she hesitated, “And yet, it’s not healthy to dwell. It’s done. I can’t go back. I can’t go back and save the Templars, or stop the Wardens from falling to Corypheus. It’s all out of my power now. It’s only in that single moment that I can change anything.” She finished undressing and then looked at him while she sank into the bath. “And that’s what haunts me the most. Those are only the choices I can see having an effect. What about the ones I don’t see?” She dove under the water, wetting her hair and coming back up.

“This is one of those times I think being intelligent actually hurts you,” Cullen said. “Most people don’t think like that, Asta. They live their lives in the moment, making decisions that might have far-reaching consequences and then move along to the next without worrying about it.” He paused and picked up her shampoo. “Here, let me,” and he poured the soap into his hand and worked it into her hair. “Perhaps it’s because you’ve witnessed the future if you fail? I don’t know. I think a few moves ahead, but still, you think further ahead than I do.” He laughed. “That’s probably why you beat me at chess.”

“Commander, I beat you at chess because you can’t stop looking at my breasts when I’m leaning over,” Asta let him rinse the soap from her hair. “That feels good.”

“I do not…”

“Don’t lie, Commander. When I play chess with you, I know where you’re looking. I pick my clothes accordingly.” She peeked up at him. “You’re doing the same thing right now. You, Commander, have a weakness, but it’s not a strategic one that our enemies can take advantage of.” She thought harder, “I don’t think.”

“Can you blame me?” His fingers trailed their way down to the body part in question, and squeezed.

She hummed, “Not at all. It’s a weakness I rather enjoy, actually. But, I think that a game of Wicked Grace is in order when we get back from Valamaar.” She cocked an eyebrow at him. “I’d like to get to ogle too. And unless we play strip chess, it’s not going to happen otherwise.”

“What makes you think I’d lose?” He kissed her neck, kneeling down behind her.

Asta laughed, “Oh, just a feeling.”

***

Bull came into Dorian’s quarters and sat down on the recently reinforced bed. “The Boss doing better?”

“Yes, now that I thoroughly reminded her that she is Thedas’ last hope… blah, blah, blah.” Dorian sighed. “She wasn’t wrong, but I didn’t tell her that. I don’t dislike the hairy lummox, but watching him die of the blight like Felix did… it would be painful.”

“After we kick Corypheus’ ass, we might not ever know what happens to him,” Bull pointed out. “He’ll do the Joining thing, and we…”

“And that’s a very good question,” Dorian jumped in. “What does happen to ‘we’ after we defeat Corypheus, Bull?”

Bull shrugged, “You’re my Kadan. I’m yours. That doesn’t just change because we’re not in the same place any more. Asit tal-eb.”

“And what, pray tell, does that mean?” Dorian’s Qunlat wasn’t improving quickly.

“It is to be,” Bull grabbed the wandering mage and pulled him into his lap. “Dorian, you know I won’t be welcome if you go back to Tevinter. I’m not going back to the Qun. You can either come with me to the next job or we’ll part ways, and see each other when we can. But it’s not gonna change anything else. Not for me.” He looked at him close. “I don’t think it will for you either, whatever you say.”

Dorian rolled his eyes, “Just once I would like to be able to fool you. It’s uncomfortable being read this closely, Bull. Can’t you pretend and let me have a few little… privacies?”

Bull grinned, shark-like. “No. You like that you can’t have barriers around me. You like that you are bare before me, that one person always knows what you want, what you are thinking, what you desire…” he kissed Dorian’s shoulder where it peeked out from his robes. “And you like that you don’t have to hide from me. I’m not going to pretend anything.”

***

Cassandra faced Varric, a red blush covering her throat and cheeks. “That’s what I said. I was drunk, dwarf, and I apologize for making you uncomfortable in front of your… friend.” She paused, “And I’m sorry I threw your vase and broke it. And called you a…” she cleared her throat. “Well, I don’t want to repeat it.”

“Fucking Maker, Seeker, I…” the dwarf ran his hand through his hair. “You didn’t deserve what she said, either. Bianca’s never been one for social niceties. But she had no right to call you a whore.” He looked up at the woman. “You have nothing to be ashamed about. If I had known she was there, I’d never have…”

“Exactly,” Cassandra stood. “It should not have happened in any case. And now, we can work together again, and move on from this. I assume Asta has informed you that I’m coming with you to the Hinterlands?”

“She might have mentioned it,” Varric said. “But, Seeker…”

“Don’t worry about it, Varric.” Cassandra moved toward the side door of the hall. “It won’t happen again.” And she was out of the room before he could stop her.

“Well, shit,” Varric sighed his shoulders slumped forward. “I need a drink.” She hadn’t even given him a chance to apologize for not defending her.

Cassandra leaned against the wall, body shaking silently. It was done. Now for the difficult part. Now she had to act like she didn’t actually care.

 

Chapter Text

But Cassandra had never claimed to be an actress. “Bullshit!” A random rock nearly collided with the dwarf smith’s head as the wild-eyed Seeker zoned in on her. “You dare! You single-handedly managed to curse the Templars and the Seekers to a painful death by red lyrium because you just had to know?!” The infuriated woman lifted her by her collar. “I ought to kill you now for crimes against Thedas. Or haul you back to Skyhold to be tried by the Inquisitor. Or detained to be ruled against by whoever becomes Divine! Your research…

“That’s enough, Cassandra,” Asta had stood by and enjoyed the show up until this point. Bianca’s flaunting her married status and superior skills in front of Varric had grated her for the full day it had taken to clear out the darkspawn and make it to the door that needed closing, and if the Seeker hadn’t jumped in, she probably would have. “I think you’ve made our… your point.” She smiled sharply as the Seeker dropped her to the ground and drew closer. “Varric, you have a real winner, here, don’t you? She cheats, she lies, she steals, she sells her own people down the river when she realizes she‘s made a mistake…”

“Some would say we’re a perfect match,” Varric muttered.

“No, you are far too good for that bitch,” Cassandra cursed. Varric just shrugged.

“She manages to take down half of Thedas by talking to the wrong Warden,” Asta observed. “Well, now that the doors are sealed, Bianca, I’m going to let you go. I don’t feel like starting a war with the Smith caste today, luckily. I’ve been doing enough of that lately.” She smiled down at the woman, “So run along, back to your husband…”

Cassandra growled.

“…and maybe you should think about staying away from Varric for the foreseeable future.” Asta grinned wider. “After all, sweetheart, you aren’t that special. Talented with crossbows, not a bad Smith, but otherwise, pretty ordinary, after all. Think about it, ‘kay?”

Bianca stood shakily, “If you let him die, Inquisitor…”

“Oh, honey, don’t even start.” Asta eyes narrowed dangerously. “If you cared that much you could have married him. Only to find out that after all, your work, your status and your legacy was more important than him. Bullshit. Varric deserves better.” She straightened. “We’re leaving. If I ever hear that you are anywhere near this part of the Hinterlands again, I will address it with your guild, since your reputation means so much to you. You will be watched, Bianca.”

“Varric,” Bianca called, but he just shook his head at her and left her alone in the Deep Roads, following the Inquisitor on the path to the surface.

Cassandra snarled wordlessly at her as she passed, but didn’t touch her again. She wasn’t worth it.

***

Camp was solemn that evening, back on the surface. Asta tried to write a letter to Cullen to inform him that the situation was resolved, but for once the words wouldn’t come. Cassandra and Varric sat staring into the fire, on opposite sides, not making eye contact. Vivienne, for once, had kept her mouth shut and retired to her tent.

Asta was about to give it up as a bad job and try again the next day, when Cassandra finally spoke. “So she’s married?”

“Oh, have we reached the point in our friendship where we gossip about each other’s love lives? How about you, Seeker?” Varric asked bitterly.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have pried,” Cassandra swallowed. Asta passed her a bottle of wine. She had brought plenty, knowing that with this group, they’d probably need it to keep from killing each other. But instead of passing it back, Cassandra passed it to Varric, who took it, reluctantly. “There was a mage, Regalyan. It was a long time ago. He died at the Conclave.”

“Aw, shit, I’m sorry, Seeker, I didn’t…” Varric took a big swallow. “I am such an ass.”

“I asked first.” Cassandra pulled her lips tight.

“Yeah, she’s married. We write letters. Not unlike Her Inquisitorialness and Curly, here. Stay in touch. Occasionally we manage to meet up, even though we shouldn’t.” He sighed, “That’s probably over. Really, it’s been fifteen fucking years anyway. Long time to carry a torch.” He passed the wine back over. “Thanks.”

“It’s not my wine,” Cassandra pointed out.

“Not for the wine, for the… threats.” Varric laughed, still bitterly. “Never seen her that mad before. Always had a major ego, not unlike myself. We were the dream team - I was just starting to write, making a little money, met her at one of my brother’s stupid parties. We managed to bust up more than one, just being ourselves. We almost started a clan war.” Asta took a long drink from the bottle, just listening, and passed it over. “Talk about a long time ago. It was before Hawke came to Kirkwall, long before. She just… always manages to turn up.” He drank deeply.

“Like a rock in your shoe?” Cassandra almost smiled.

“Like a pain in your ass,” Varric grinned. “Always there when you don’t need it and don’t have time to think about it.” The grin fell away. “She didn’t choose me, though. She chose him, and all the stuff the Quiz said.”

“She’s not worth it, Varric.” Asta threw in.

“I know,” he picked up a stick and poked at the fire.

“Will you see her again?” Cassandra asked.

“I always have before,” Varric sighed. “I always do. Even when I don’t mean to. Even when I tell her I don’t ever want to see her again, she drags me back in, tries to ruin the life I’ve built for myself without her.”

“Fuck, Varric,” Asta said, stealing back her bottle, “You need an intervention.” She shook it. It was empty. She reached behind and pulled out a second, popping the cork efficiently.

“Look who’s talking,” Varric nodded, “How many did you bring, anyway?”

“Enough,” Asta sighed. “It’s been a long month. Blackwall, the Qun, Bianca, a fiancée I barely see, the Emprise du Lion, the Arbor Wilds always at the back of my mind, Corypheus to defeat…”

“You’re swamped,” Varric laughed. “I think that’s an excellent reason to get drunk. Let’s wake up Vivienne and let her take the first two watches.” All three of them stifled their laughter at the thought of waking the crabby mage up from her beauty sleep.

“Nah, it’s pretty stable through here now,” Asta sighed. “No reports of bandits for a month or so, no reports of Red Templars or rebel mages… just people trying to put their lives back together.” She took another sip. “Besides, wine’s not my favorite. Not fruity enough.  Usually. And two bottles shared three ways?” She shook her head. “Probably not enough to give us more than a good night’s sleep.”

“I could use a good night’s sleep,” Varric noted, and snatched the bottle from her open hand. “You in, Seeker?”

Cassandra sighed, tired of being the kill-joy, “I suppose. But only if you tell a story.”

Asta shook her head, “You know, I think I’ll leave you two to the bottle, finish this letter, and get some sleep.” She sighed, “I have to let Leliana know what’s happening, after all.”

***

Dear Cullen,

Well, this was a disaster. Not only was Varric leaking information about red lyrium to Bianca, but that bitch of a smith is responsible for Corypheus getting his hands on it in the first place. And red lyrium has the fucking blight. Yay.

But at least Cassandra and Varric are talking to each other? I left them with several bottles of wine and a campfire, and Varric preparing to tell stories. I just had to find some time to write to you, to try to get these words down.

We leave tomorrow. I’m glad you didn’t come - so much red lyrium. I know you think you won’t be affected by it, but my love, we’re all affected by it. Even Varric says he feels like he’s ‘quietly going insane’ around it. You can’t tell me, as strong and brave as you are, that you would be unmoved. And I can’t bear to see you hurt, much less poisoned the way that shit is capable of.

We’ll have to leave for the Emprise in a matter of days after I return. Hopefully I can manage to make better use of what time we have before I must go.

My Love Always,

Asta

***

My Asta,

Leliana has informed me that your letters are ‘slipping’ again, and that she is disappointed in both the lack of racy material and professionalism. I’m supposed to tell you to… well, to the Void with what I’m supposed to tell you.

Love, I hate sending you away like this, when you are so fragile. With Blackwall’s betrayal so fresh, and your companions so splintered. I reminded Cassandra before you left that I was counting on her, and she just looked sad.

So, as an attempt to cheer you up, tell Varric - I can’t believe I’m going to say this - that I’m in for Wicked Grace upon your return. (Maker preserve me. I must be insane.) But still, it’s just cards in the tavern, amongst a few friends. I imagine I will survive. I might even win.

I miss you. I love you. Make haste back to me.

Cullen

P.S. It is just us and Varric, right? That can’t be so bad.

***

Cullen glowered at the assembled group, completely unamused, taken for everything he had, including his pride. “Never bet against an Antivan, Commander,” Josie winked, appreciating the view. He blushed miserably, the redness going all the way down. Asta and Bull ogled him openly, not even trying to disguise where their gaze was landing. Dorian hit his partner, narrowing his eyes, and Bull dropped his finally, to his lover’s approving nod.

Cole blinked at him, “It comes off. I didn’t realize it came off.” Asta choked, and Cassandra slapped her on the back, laughing.

“This was a set-up,” Cullen grumbled. “You all planned this, didn’t you?” He stared around at the assembled card-sharks and rogues that were his friends.

“Commander, would I do such a thing?” Varric winked. “Just a fluke, I’m sure. You’ll win next time.”

Josie just laughed and gathered the massive pile of her winnings into her arms and left the tavern, beaming in victory.

Cole tilted his head, “Never bet against an Antivan, she says, but what happens when two Antivans bet against each other?”

“That’s a question for the ages, Kid,” Varric hooted.

Cassandra stood, “Well, I for one don’t want to witness our Commander’s walk of shame back to the barracks.” She smiled, a little more at ease than Asta had seen her recently, and swayed to the door. Varric eyes carefully did not look at her, and Asta hid a grin.

“Well, I do!” Dorian leaned over, and it was Bull’s turn to frown forbiddingly. “Kadan?”

“What, just because I’ve already ordered…” Dorian started.

“Kadan…” Bull rumbled, but he grinned.  "Ah, well, I suppose I'm the one who will benefit later..."

“Fine!” Dorian stood in a huff, and Bull followed him, half knocking over his chair in his haste to follow the mage.

Asta sat demurely, locking eyes with her handsome Commander who squirmed under her close regard, trying to give her hints to avert her eyes and turn away. “What? It’s not like I haven’t seen it before,” she pointed out. “If you’re nice to me, I could scout the battlements for you. If you’re really nice to me, I might even run home and grab you a pair of pants.” She grinned wickedly.

“Maker’s Breath, I‘m never playing cards again.” Cullen gritted. “Asta, I ought to…”

“Oh?” Varric leaned over, “What is that, Curly? Should I get my notebook?” Cullen’s glare would have sliced him in two if it had been a sword. “All right, all right, I know when I’m not wanted.” He left, snickering. “Your Inquisitorialness, you’ll have to tell me later what ‘being nice’ involves,” he called back, just before the door shut.

Asta stood, still mostly clothed, though she had lost her scarf and belt. “Well,” Cullen bit out, “What does ‘nice’ mean?” He glowered, but his mouth twitched.

Asta considered relenting, “Would you rather me run up and check the coast is clear? Or go grab you pants?” She smiled, still a little wickedly, “After all, I would like knowing you owe me…”

Cullen couldn’t help but grin, now that the assembled witnesses to his demise were gone, “I pay my debts, Inquisitor.”

Sera’s voice came out from under the table, “Huh? Whassat? Did I win?” and Cullen shot back ten feet, covering his privates with his hands as Asta doubled over in laughter. Sera came out, frowning. “Whatcha doing that for? Oh, Quizzy didn’t lose, did she? Going up to bed, then.” She shook her head, disappointed. “Honestly, like I’d be checking his parts out. Not interested! Ugh!” She called back.

Asta got control of herself with difficulty. “Well, Commander No-pants?” She sniggered.

A pants of pants dropped down from the second floor. “Here, had it in my stuff! Don’t you two go and do… anything here! I have to look at that table!” Sera disappeared into her alcove and slammed the door.

Cullen snatched them up. “These are mine. Why did Sera…” He peered suspiciously at his fiancée. “Asta, why did Sera have my pants?” He asked, as he pulled them on under Asta’s approving gaze.

“I believe the plan was to fly them like a banner tomorrow morning, in Josephine‘s office,” Asta followed the line of him with her eyes, watching the skin disappear with open disappointment. “But I owe you now.”

“And why is that?” The two made their way up the stairs to the battlements, his hand at her back.

“For losing,” Asta grinned as they reached the attic door. “I think I owe you a lot for the eyeful I got this evening.” She leaned over and whispered in his ear. “This one is yours.” And took off like a shot over the battlements, back towards their room, slamming tower doors in between them to slow him down.

Cullen cursed again and laughing, followed her at a run, knowing he wouldn’t catch up until she was already in his room, she was just too fast, but lost in the thrill of the chase and the alcohol still moving through his system. He left the doors open against his own orders while he chased her and finally caught her in his office, leaning up against his bookshelves. “You let me catch you,” he observed, stalking her from across the room.

“I’m not caught yet,” Asta smirked, as she bit her thumb, temptation threatening to overwhelm her.

“You want to be caught,” he grinned rakishly, the night wind on the battlements had rumpled his hair beautifully, and Asta wanted to bury her hands in it. “You can’t tell me you don’t.” He unlaced the pants and let them drop on the floor, and Asta bit her lip. The man was perfect, his muscles toned - how did he stay so fit, behind that desk? - even down to his scars. She pulled her eyes back up, with difficulty.

“Maybe,” she admitted, stepping forward from the bookshelves. He grabbed her waist and pulled her in, resting his hand on her ass.

“Well, now I have you,” he whispered, “And you have me at your mercy.” He bent his lips to her neck. “But then, you do owe me…” he murmured against it. “How can we settle this to our mutual satisfaction?” He pulled them back to lean against the ladder to their loft. Asta reached down to stroke him, hardening, even though she had barely touched him before now.

“If I have you at my mercy,” she thought aloud, “then…” she dropped to her knees. “Stay still,” she ordered, and kissed the tip of him.

“Asta,” Cullen choked, “You don’t have to…”

“Maker‘s Balls, Cullen, aren’t we past this?” Asta tilted her head to look at him. “I won’t do anything I don’t want to do. You told me before you were interested. Let me try.” Cullen nodded, reluctantly. “Do you not want me to, after all?”

“It’s not that,” Cullen protested.

“Then let me,” Asta refocused. “I had a taste of you before. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Months and months of thinking.” She flashed a hungry look at him. “I want more,” and took him in hand and covered him with her mouth. She had no idea what she was doing, she realized, but tried to follow her instincts. Where she would have used her hand, she used her mouth. She couldn’t go very deep, but Cullen was making noises, so it couldn’t be that bad. She curled her tongue around him and rubbed.

“Maker, Asta, more,” he moaned, his protests forgotten with the feelings she stirred, and she went to work, experimenting. She cupped his balls, and he tensed, growing still harder. She went too deep, and choked, and he grabbed the ladder, trying not to move. “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” she said, “Just stay still.” She swiped her tongue across his head and swirled it around.

Cullen’s laugh broke in his throat. “Asta, that’s asking a lot.” Her mouth started to move over him again, as she giggling against him at his comment. That made him buck up against her, choking her again. “Sorry! Sorry!” She just glared, and kept going. “Asta, that’s…” his knuckles tightened on the ladder, trying not to grab her hair, force her down. “Damn it, Asta, you’re going to have to stop, I’m…” she wrapped her hand around his base where her mouth couldn’t reach and he lost all words in the sensation. “Oh, that’s… don’t…” his voice turned into breaths and moans that matched her not-quite-even rhythm. It hardly mattered, he was drowning in the sensations she was weaving around him, minutes flying by unobserved, and lost himself entirely as he came into her mouth, groaning, and trying not to move against her. Asta struggled to swallow and couldn’t. Resigned, she took a handkerchief out of her pocket and wiped her mouth, while he sagged against the ladder, completely spent, staring at her in disbelief and trying to catch his breath.

“How was that,” she climbed to her feet, and tried self-consciously to use the handkerchief to clean him up. “Was it okay?”

Cullen released his white-knuckle grip on the ladder and lunged against her in a hug, stopping her feeble attempts with his closeness, and hoping his knees would hold up. He kissed her, wrapping his tongue around hers, tasting sex and ale and Asta. He pulled away, shaking when he realized he was responding to her again. “Andraste’s ass, Asta. That was… It was perfect. Now go upstairs?” He sighed, and shook a little more with the aftershocks. “I want to return the favor.”

Asta grinned, “Still never want to play cards again? Because watching you lose made me want to play cards more often.” She swung up the ladder, it getting a little easier with repetition, her giggles drifting down towards him.

Cullen ran his hand through his hair and tried to catch his breath and still his shaking. This woman would be the death of him. He just knew it. And then he followed his death willingly up the ladder.

At least he’d die happy.

 

Chapter Text

Asta dropped into Cullen’s office for a quick kiss and to drop off an overdue report.

“Here to distract me?“ Cullen asked, grabbing her waist and pulling her to stand between his legs.

“I only wish, my knight,” Asta sighed, leaning her forehead against his. “I’m going to have to leave for the Emprise in two days. There’s too much to do before then to take even a moment.”

“Well, we will make the most of the time we do have before then,” Cullen closed his eyes.

“I wish I didn’t have to go,” Asta started.

“I wish we didn’t have to send you. I wish… I wish I could go with you. I wish a lot of things.” He sighed, and let her go. “Right now, I wish this endless parade of nobles complaining over the damage our march through Orlais caused would drop right into the Void and never return. Some of the things I wish about you and I are just about as likely to happen as that.”

“Give them to Josephine,” Asta suggested. “You don’t need to worry about it. It’s done, and we saved their country from a demon army. Surely that should count for something, even if they didn’t back the Empress.”

“I already tried that,” Cullen sighed, “No, these are the nobles that backed the Empress, and the Inquisition, that want reparations for trampled wine groves and missing property. Unfortunately, Josephine has done everything she can. It’s up to me, now.”

Asta blew away the concerns, “Still saved them from a demon army. Tell them to suck it, in so many words.”

Cullen blew a small laugh through his nose. “If only it were as easy as Teagan after Redcliffe. We sent soldiers to help clean up, and he was happy. Happy enough to invite us to an invitational that we were polite enough to lose, even.”

Asta leaned back against his desk and folded her arms. “Ask Guy.”

“What?” Cullen blinked.

“He’s Orlesian. He probably thinks it’s just as simple to deal with their nobles and thinks Fereldans are impossibly hard to comprehend. So, ask him. After he’s recovered from the shock of being consulted on something other than requisitions and increased efficiency, he’ll give you an earful. And then, my dear Commander, it will be simple,” Asta leaned back in and breathed into his ear, “You just have to take his advice. You will look brilliant, and efficient, and the model of diplomacy.”

Cullen shook with laughter. “Asta, it can’t be that easy.”

“Ask and see,” she stood and pulled away. “I should go. Dorian is trying to tell me the dragon armor Dagna made for him is hideous. He’s right, but the stuff is amazing otherwise, so by all that is holy, he’s going to wear it anyway.” She pecked him on the cheek, lingering a little. “I’ll see you later?”

***

My lovely Asta,

Has anyone told you how annoying it is when someone is right too often? I guess I’d better get used to being annoyed. Guy straightened out the mess I was trying to make of our Orlesian supporters in about half an hour and half a bottle of wine. Apparently, things aren’t that different in Orlais. Unfortunately, Josephine noticed, and is now trying to steal my assistant. Guy shows signs of defection. I find it extremely likely that the position will be open again shortly. You aren’t interested, are you? I hear the fringe benefits of working with the Commander are delightful.

Well, it was worth a try.

I love you. Don’t get killed. I had a gruesome nightmare about just that last night, and it’s haunted me all day. Let Cassandra and Bull be your shields. I know you don’t feel like you can trust Blackwall, but… I find myself wishing you had him with you as well.

I wish I was with you. Never has this been so frustrating. I think accompanying you on your side trips, brief as they were, has made me restless. Leliana has been lecturing me. I know I am needed here. But never has what I want fought so much with what needs to be done. It’s a hard lesson.

In the meantime, here’s the first thornapple blossom of the year. I snatched it for you while Elan’s back was turned. I know my dream wasn’t pleasant, but I dreamed of you, just the same, so thornapple it is.

I hope your dreams are more pleasant, and that I feature in them. I remain,

Your Cullen

***

Commander,

I’ll just jump right into this - I need the building team to rebuild Judicael Crossing, a full complement of Inquisition soldiers with as few mages as possible to help me retake Suledin Keep, and humanitarian aid. These people are living on dried beans and it’s still winter here. Everything is frozen solid. Without the river, trade has dried up and they are completely isolated.

This place is awful. You are not allowed to come out yourself, and that’s an order, Commander.

Dragons, darkspawn, red Templars, Pride demons out of every rift I’ve sealed… and rumors of a Forgotten One, Imshael, sitting in the heart of Suledin. I have that from a reliable source - Michel de Chevin. I’m hoping once Imshael is defeated de Chevin will consider joining us. Perhaps he will be able to improve our recent troubles in Orlais.

It’s swarming with Red Templars, they were mining red lyrium in the quarry in the most disgusting fashion, and the villagers were being sold into service by Mistress Poulin in some twisted attempt to keep the remainder alive. That’s the skeleton of the issue. I’m not going to go into it further until I get back. I want to discuss it with you, but only in person. You can probably guess why. Be well.

That said, I’ve attached a whole packet of letters from Samson with the caravan that is returning with Mistress Poulin. I’m curious to see if you reach the same conclusion that I have.

Expect a more personal letter as soon as I can. My ink keeps freezing, but with luck, one of the mages will come up with a plan to keep it fluid.

Sincerely,

A.T.

***

Inquisitor,

We are sending soldiers and aid promptly, and a healer to deal with any cold-related injuries that may have occurred while you were scouting the area. She seems quite eager to help the villagers as well. Please try to keep warm - I’m not there to prevent hypothermia this time, and someone has made me promise not to come to her side. Despite the dragons, cold weather, red Templars, demons and various other concerns that threaten her physically and mentally.

Please be careful. Those who have had cold related injuries are far more likely to suffer from them again, the healer tells me. I worry for you. I laugh to think of Dorian out there freezing his balls off, though. He’s miserable, isn’t he? How are Solas’ feet? Has he consented to wear boots yet?

I miss you horribly. Being with you on the Storm Coast and in Crestwood - I’m definitely spoiled. I want you back here as soon as you can manage it. And yes, I know how unrealistic that truly is, but, my love, I will be truthful. I long to be with you.

As for Samson, I have been working on the letters you sent me. I think you’re onto something. Perhaps by the time you return we’ll have the whole picture put together. I certainly hope so.

More things are blooming, so have some Forget-me-nots. Those, at least, have a very plain meaning.

Come home soon, safe and sound,

Cullen

***

Dearest Cullen,

I have a moment. And Solas has solved my ink problem in exchange for a fire rune attached to his leg wraps. Apparently, even elves have cold feet out here. Maker, it’s cold. The wash water freezes in midair when we toss it out of the enchanted bowl we keep it in.

As far as your assistant problems - why not ask Loranil? He’s ‘eager’, you said before. He and Mireille could probably use the extra funds that the promotion would entail, and Mireille would probably kiss you for keeping him out of danger instead of being sent out constantly. It would be nice if they weren’t both deployed all the time. Especially since you insist they can’t be sent together. And he speaks Orlesian slightly better than you.

On the other hand, no being kissed by young ladies, no matter how married, Commander. That’s an order.

Also, it occurs to me that not only are you hypocritical about your own cohabitation with me, though we remain unmarried, so are you about us being on missions together. Seriously, Commander, perhaps you should not be above the rules? On the other hand, I am hardly unbiased, and am not willing to depart from our little room, so… never mind. Forget I said anything.

No change on the Cassandra and Varric front. She seems resigned. He tries not to look at her. It will probably come to nothing - Varric seems completely determined to sacrifice himself on the altar of Bianca Davri, and Cassandra just… won’t. Won’t cross any lines, not since she slammed Bianca into the wall in Valamaar. It’s a shame, but I suppose not everyone gets a happy ending.

Dorian and Bull, however, are disgusting. Dorian apparently commissioned a matching Dawnstone axe for Bull’s pretty armor and Bull loves it. So they are all sappy and cute over the campfire. I would hit them if I wasn’t sure that it would hurt me more than it hurts them. Also, I know it’s just jealousy. And it’s my own fault for bringing them both along.

About campfires - Maker’s Frosty Breath, I am pleased that the forward scouts cut plenty of wood. Have I mentioned how cold it is here? Those scouts definitely receive a bonus.

I wish anything was blooming here besides the frost. I’ve found lots and lots of frozen elfroot, though. And a stalk or two of Felandaris. You know, I almost miss the Hinterlands. At least there I used to see Crystal Grace and feel a little better, like it was a good omen. After all, ‘overcoming impossible odds’ is exactly what I’m trying to do on every front.

I’ll send a formal letter soon. After we finally take the Keep. If I don’t make it back… well, that’s not an option. I just have to - I have rifts to close and you waiting for me. It’s not like anyone else will suffice for either of those imperatives. Imshael holds the Keep, though, Cullen. It’s going to be rough. We go in tomorrow. Thank you for the healer - she’s overworked, but still enthusiastic.

Asta

***

Dear Commander,

Well, that was bracing! And yes, before you get nervous from receiving a letter from me instead of Asta, she is fine. She has a minor concussion that the demon Imshael gave her when she didn’t take him up on his offer to close all the rifts for her, make the world safe so that she could remain with you, or stop the Blight.  She also said that you would have never forgiven her if she'd accepted, so I suppose you should know she refused it for you.  Sweet, isn't she?

I couldn't believe the sort of things the so called 'choice spirit' was offering her, myself. The last time I was tempted the demon offered me money, power and virgins.  But that’s another story, isn’t it?

She insisted that I write to you immediately before the news of her injury could be exaggerated by the returning scouts. The healer you sent has her well in hand, and she is living quite well in the Keep’s medical quarters surrounded by blankets and fireplaces. Far more comfortable than the rest of us in our miserable little tents that we have to share with massive Qunari warriors who don’t bathe enough. Not that I’m complaining. Would I do that?  Still, I wish I had a minor injury to exploit.

And now I should say it again because you are probably hyperventilating - she’s fine, Cullen, just a little banged up, and will be right as rain in a few days after you receive this. Also, she informs me that you need to know the bridge is far better than the last one, probably due to less ale and the presence of the Master Builder. She wants me to write other things (If you haven’t figured it out, she’s partially dictating this, unable to write because her eyes won’t focus quite yet. Double vision.), but I am absolutely NOT going to write about any of your body parts. I have standards. Though some of her descriptions are most entertaining. If she wants someone to write about that sort of thing, Varric would be a better choice.

She should be able to write to you herself in a few days. She says - ugh - that she loves you, and misses you, and that even all these fireplaces can’t keep her as warm as you in your little loft. There, I wrote it. I feel like I need to bathe now.

If you want to write to her, keep in mind that for a little while she may have to have things read to her. Just until her vision clears. Have mercy on those of us who are her surrogate eyes.

Dorian

***

My love,

Dorian’s letter reached me and I was nearly frantic. You are all right, aren’t you? I won’t feel better until I have a letter by your hand. Your vision - it will come back, won’t it? I can’t imagine you being unable to read.

Leliana tells me I’m ridiculous. I don’t care. You are everything. It’s all I can do to keep my promise.

Tell me you are better, please. Or I will break my promise and come out there and see for myself. You turned down a chance to fix the world because of me. You were injured, because of me.

All my love,

Cullen

***

Cullen,

You silly man, I’m fine. My vision cleared up two days after Dorian wrote to you. I’m a little wobbly on my feet, mind you - my head tends to spin - but because of this I get to come home sooner. The dragons will just have to wait for a little while.

You are absolutely under no circumstances to come out here, Commander. I’m writing to both Leliana and Josephine to tell them so. This isn’t the first concussion I’ve had - the first was after Haven. Only for that one, you were there… and I’m still bitter that I can’t remember. I’d rather have gotten that memory back from the Fade instead of spiders and the Divine… oh well. I guess the Fade doesn’t work that way? I’ll have to ask Solas.

I’m reading just fine now. Nothing else to do, since I’m not allowed to get up without assistance, lest I fall and injure myself further. They tell me it will be another couple of days - and then I can start getting ready to go back home. Thank the Maker. I’m ready to be warm again - I’m never warm unless I’m with you.

Dorian says he didn’t write any of the fun stuff in my last letter, so I’ll just say this - I think of you all the time. I have less privacy here than in my tent, so all I can do is think. It’ s extremely frustrating. I’ll be taking that frustration out on you when I get back.

I love you. I’ll be home soon.

Asta

***

Dear Josie,

Send out Desjardins, if you haven’t already. The Keep is yours. It’s colder than a snofleur’s den out here, so tell him to be prepared. Also, he should probably look into helping out some of the less fortunate villagers. Their town is all but destroyed. Perhaps he can lend assistance? The building team is still out here - they can help.

The Commander has to stay away from this place. Everything north of town is covered in red lyrium. It may take years to clean it up entirely. If it can even be done, considering that red lyrium has the blight. What a mess. Any news from Stroud on that at all?

Sincerely,

Asta

***

Asta,

I will stay here. But Asta, we have him. Samson. I have the location of his headquarters. Upon your return and recovery, we will have to neutralize him.

I’m going with you. We can argue about it when you get back, among other things. But this time, I’m going to win.

My heart remains with you,

Cullen

 

Chapter Text

Asta slid out of the back of the wagon she had been forced to ride in, and started walking over the bridge to Skyhold, slowly. The ‘minor’ concussion still had her experiencing dizziness and disorientation occasionally, and so riding horseback was out of the question, the healer had told her firmly. So she was plunked in the back of the wagon in Orlais, as soon as they reached the road system, and there she stayed.

Her friends were all riding. She quickly discovered that reading in a back of a wagon made her sick, so she couldn’t read. Her muscles felt like they were atrophied with all the sitting and doing nothing of the past several weeks. Eventually she gained enough stamina to be able to sit on the front of the wagon with the driver, so at least she could watch the scenery go by.

But at least now she was home. The bridge seemed endless, and she had to stop and take a breath halfway across, leaning way over to watch the ant-like people of the tent city in the valley. She waved her friends ahead, indicating she would catch up, as she leaned against the stone wall and closed her eyes. Home. Where the temperature was, if not warm, at least mild in comparison. Where she didn’t have to wear mittens and figure out how to keep her toes from freezing to her socks with her own sweat.

If she ever had to go back to the Emprise du Lion, it would be too soon. Of course, there were the dragons to deal with, but surely someone else could do that? After having Helisma look into whether or not they were essential to the local ecology, of course. But surely three dragons weren’t essential. Maybe Bull would like to take the Chargers out and have some fun.

And now, she had to figure out how she was going to tell her Commander that he couldn’t come with them to the Shrine of Dumat, and that she had turned down what may have been her only chance to permanently save the world from the Blight because her boyfriend wouldn’t have liked it, and then killed the demon that offered the solution, so that no one else would have the option. Her mouth twisted wryly. She wasn’t sure if he would thank her or yell at her. Maybe a little of both. It was Cullen, after all.

She sighed, and the wind stole the sound away. After these long weeks, she felt like less of a presence than usual. Like no one was looking for her, like she could stay in the shadows, hidden. It wasn’t unpleasant, after being the center of attention in Skyhold for so long. The people of the Emprise were too desperate to stand on the usual Orlesian courtesies, and it had been a relief. But as soon as she crossed the bridge, that would be over. There would be decisions to make, and arguments to have, and she would be the most visible person in the room, always.

She only wanted to see one person, personally, and to see him, she had to finish crossing the damn bridge. She pushed herself back. It wouldn’t be long. They knew she was weak, knew she was convalescing, so they’d keep the meetings and consultations down for a few days while she rested.

Slowly, slowly she made her way through the courtyard. So far, so good, no one was looking for her yet. She climbed the stairs near Cullen’s tower even slower. How had she managed to get so out of shape in such a short time? She leaned against the wall briefly, letting the dizziness pass, and then climbing again immediately. She wanted to get home.

She opened the door to his office. He wasn’t there. She blinked blankly around the room, watching the dust motes flying through the light sifting through the arrow slits. She never thought that he wouldn’t be in his office. Where else would he be in the middle of the day? She walked over to the ladder, recognizing all at once that she would not be able to climb it in her state. She sat down in a heap on the floor, wanting to cry. All that work, all that effort to make it up the stairs on her own, and she couldn’t even make it up to her bed. She closed her eyes, and leaned against the ladder and drifted off, for just a few moments.

“She’s here! I‘ve found her!” Her head jerked up from the rung where she had left it, recognizing that voice, and the arms that were wrapped around her. “Andraste’s Ass, Asta, what were you thinking?!”

“Oh, this would be the yelling part. I can take it. I know, I made a bad choice.” Asta wrapped her own arms around her Commander, clinging to him.

She sounded too meek, too docile, too weak. Cullen tried to stop himself from panicking. “Come on, back to the main hall.” He lifted her easily. “You’re not going to be able to climb that ladder, so we’ve set up another place for you.”

“I don’t want to sleep anywhere else,” Asta whined. “I want to be with you. I want to go home.”

“I never said that I wouldn’t be with you,” Cullen kissed her head gently, like she was going to fall apart if he used too much pressure. “I’m not going to leave you alone.”

“This must be the arguing part,” Asta straightened a little, “No, Cullen, you cannot come with me to the Shrine of Dumat.” She looked pitiful - the bruises were still fading, and her eyes in her fatigue were unfocused, while she tried to look firm.

“We’re not arguing about that yet,” Cullen choked back a laugh, “I’m just taking you to where you - we will be sleeping for a while.” He was shaking a little with the withdrawal symptoms that had come on knowing she had been hurt and he was unable to leave his post. He had spent weeks cursing the situation, cursing the lyrium that told him it would make him stronger, but she was home now, and he could keep her safe.

“Don’t cry,” Asta looked up at him. “I’m okay. Just out of shape. Again. And dizzy. The demon made me hit my head. It hurt. And the medicine they gave me makes me sleepy.”

“Damn it, Asta, I’m not crying. It’s…” Cullen sighed. “It’s the lyrium. You were right, I couldn’t have taken the red lyrium. I couldn’t even take reading about it, the little you wrote, combined with the news of you getting hurt.” She opened her mouth, and he stopped it with a short kiss. “And no, I’m still going to Dumat with you. We’ll argue about it later.”

“I knew there would be arguing,” she sighed, “so you are going to yell at me, too.” She sounded so resigned, and leaned her head back against his chest. He just tightened his arms around her as they reached the main hall and turned left by the throne. “Wait, I don’t want to sleep in that room. It’s cold and lonely.”

“It’ll be warm if I’m with you, right?” Cullen asked. “That’s what you said in your letter.”

Asta frowned and tried to concentrate. “Yes, probably. And it does have a fireplace. But it has a lot of stairs. Stairs are hard. And mostly evil.  And you won’t be able to be with me all the time. At least in our loft I know you’re just downstairs.”

“Trust me, you won’t be doing stairs by yourself for a little while,” Cullen stated firmly. “And people will report to me here, just the same. It’s a little out of their way, but Loranil is going to be running interference for me while you recover anyway.” He cracked a smile, “Mireille is very unhappy with me. He’s been working long hours.”

“You’re mean.” Asta thumped his armor with her hand. “Ouch. They’re still newlyweds.”

“Well, I did offer to let them stay in our loft, but Mireille refused to sleep in a room without a roof,” Cullen explained. “So Loranil finishes work, and then heads home instead, and we have a runner on nighttime duty.”

“Well, that sounds very sensible,” Asta closed her eyes, and relaxed against him. “Do I have to sleep in that stupid bed?”

“I’m afraid so,” Cullen snickered. “But so do I. If that helps.”

“No, you don’t,” Asta opened up her eyes and looked at him. “You don’t have to do any of this. And why haven’t you had the dwarf make that skylight yet, anyway? It’s been months!”

Cullen set her down on the bed, smiling. “You are okay, aren’t you?”

“I’m fine,” she grumbled. “Just dizzy. It’s more the medicine than the injury. But that healer couldn’t help much with my head. Said it mostly needed to heal on its own, unless I wanted to see a surgeon about trepanation.” Her eyes went wide. “I don’t want to have holes punched in my skull, so don’t even think about it, Commander.”

“I wouldn’t even dream of it, Asta,” Cullen said. “Do you want to sleep? I could…”

“You aren’t going anywhere.” She grabbed him. “I may not be able to welcome you home properly, but if I’m going to be sick, and you’re going to be working here, than you are staying put.” She nodded her head emphatically and then looked around. “It… are those my things? Did you put them back?” Her dresser, her chest, her toy soldiers, her books, the bear rug - all of them were where they had been so many months before.

“I wanted you to feel at home,” Cullen sat down on the bed. “It’s not permanent. But I thought you might heal faster if you felt comfortable. Josie wanted to redecorate again, said that a couple needed different ‘accoutrements’ but I wouldn’t let her. Just had some volunteers move your stuff back over, and some of mine in.” He laughed slightly, “Your brother says he’s done moving your stuff around.”

“See if I help him when he needs to move,” Asta grumped. “I suppose I’ll have to though. I owe him.” She looked at Cullen. “Open the doors, will you?”

“Aren’t you cold?” But he went to obey.

“I doubt I’ll ever be really cold again,” Asta shivered all the same. “Emprise du Lion was cold in a way that I’ve never felt before and never hope to experience again. Seriously, I had to worry about my socks freezing to my feet. Skyhold is tropical by comparison. And I don’t want you to feel closed in. Hopefully all the windows will help, but if it doesn’t, then we’ll leave the doors open and go through a ton of firewood. And wear warm clothes.” She stretched out, and grabbed a couple of pillows to put behind her. “Did they tell you how long I have to rest for?” She sighed, “I think I have another week on this medicine, so I figure it will be at least that long.”

Cullen sat back down and took her hand. “A week with the medicine, and another week with rest and slowly increasing your activity. And you have to speak with Ellandra, who is concerned that this is your second concussion, and the surgeon, who we will not allow to drill holes in your skull, and see what they say.”

Asta groaned, “But the Arbor Wilds! We don’t have the time…”

“Leliana has some thoughts on that. Her information is up to date, and she’ll be by tomorrow,” Asta started to protest, but he put his finger on her lips, “tomorrow to brief you. For now, you and I are on leave to rest.” Asta smirked, and he shook his head, “Nothing else. Maker, Asta, I could have lost you. To the Red Templars, to Imshael, to your injury… I just…” He ran his hand through his hair, ruffling it, “I don’t know if I can go through that again.” The line was back between his eyebrows again. “Promise me you’ll rest and stay put. I’ll be here as much as I can - as much I would be in my office, except for officer’s meetings. They flatly refused to meet in your bedroom.”

Asta laughed and sunk back further against her pillows. “All right, Cullen, I promise. Especially if you’re here. What else would I have left for?” She snuggled back, still holding his hand. “I don’t suppose there is anything to read?”

Cullen leaned in and rested against her forehead. “Maker forbid there be nothing to read.” He pulled back. “I enjoyed Serault’s dragon treatise, by the way.”

“You read it?” Asta beamed. “What do you think of his thoughts on the Fereldan Frostback?”

“I think the one in the Hinterlands needs to go. Since its reproductive cycle is so short, it won’t be long until its young will start expanding its territory,” Cullen sat back. “You look disapproving.”

“I hadn’t thought about that,” Asta frowned. “You’re right.” She narrowed her eyes. “It’s too close to Redcliffe and the Crossroads.” She tilted her head, “You really read it.” A smile bloomed on her face as beautiful as any flower.

“Of course I did. I said I would.” He stood up. “I’m going to get the runner they posted to get us something to eat, and then we’ll talk about it.”

“And other things,” Asta’s face fell. “You are going to yell at me.”

“Actually, I’m not,” Cullen started down the stairs, calling back up. “You didn’t do anything wrong, Asta. You fought hard, turned down a demon that tempted you with the things you wanted most. It probably would have offered me lyrium, bravery and you.” He spoke briefly with the runner outside and made his way back up the stairs. “I don’t know if I would have been strong enough to turn it down, especially,” and he grabbed a book at the top of a tall pile and stretched out next to her on the bed, “if it had offered me you.”

“You wouldn’t have wanted a safer world?” Asta snuggled into him.

Cullen shook his head, “It wouldn’t have occurred to me. I have always figured that I would make my own world safe.” He flipped the book open. “The Blight is horrible, but it’s all we’ve ever known. The rifts… well, they aren’t my direct concern, are they? I’m just the Commander of the Inquisition. But you…” he looked at her, and the crease was back between his eyebrows. “If Imshael had offered me you, safe from all harm, I probably would have done anything he wanted.”

“In the stories, those kind of deals always backfire,” Asta noted. “I remembered that, when I almost gave in.” She laughed a little bitterly, “That and the thought of the expression on your face if I told you I made a deal with a demon that caused another soldier - Michel de Chevin - to be sacrificed so that you could live. I couldn’t see that going well.  Besides, if I had agreed, it might have been an illusion anyway.  Demons aren't known for being upfront.” She leaned against him more, looking at the page, but not seeing it. “So, why would it have offered you bravery?” She remembered his tombstone in the Fade, and wondered if he would answer.

Cullen snorted, “It’s the one thing I don’t have.”

“What the…” she sat back up and grabbed her forehead. “Ugh, too fast. Cullen Rutherford, what are you talking about?”

He hesitated, “If I were braver, I would have gotten permission from my Knight-Captain and fought with my parents against the Blight when it came to Honnleath, and they might not have died. If I were braver, I wouldn’t have told the Hero of Fereldan to annul the tower. Instead, I was afraid, and let my fear do the speaking. If I were braver, I would have left the Templar order then, and fought with the Hero. If I were braver, I would have stood up to Meredith far sooner. Lives would have been saved. If I were braver, I… could have had you back in Haven.” He sighed, “All the truly important turning points in my life are a matter of not being brave enough.”

“You’re the bravest man I’ve ever met,” Asta started, but he interrupted her.

“No, I’m just good at faking it. Faking it and carrying a big shield and sword,” his mouth twisted.

Asta looked at him with understanding. “You already have me, you know. And in Haven, I was yours then, too. You don’t have to be brave to have me. You don’t have to make a deal with a demon to have me. You just have to have me.”

“Yes, but what would I have to do to keep you safe?” He laughed, a hollow one, with no mirth behind it. “That appears to be beyond mortal abilities.”

“I still have your luck,” Asta leaned back against him. “And I have you praying for me. I know you do, so don’t deny it.”

“I wish it helped more,” he muttered.

“Well, I’m not dead, so maybe it does,” Asta said, scooting closer. “Who am I to say? Two years ago I would have told you that Imshael probably didn’t exist as more than a fairy tale.  A demon with a name?  Ridiculous.”  She thought of Cole suddenly, and wondered, and then shook off her doubt.  Cole was different.

“And now he doesn’t,” observed Cullen. “Solas told me that you were able to reform the Fade around you while you were within it - to change dreams.” He looked at the top of her head. “It made me wonder what else you can do.” Asta stiffened, sensing the line of his thoughts.

“Nothing right now except listen to you read to me.” Asta shoved him slightly. “Don’t look at me like that. I’m not divine. I’m not a mage. I’m not a herald of anything in particular. I’m just a person who was in the wrong place at the wrong time who is now stuck with cleaning up this mess.”

Cullen kissed the top of her head, and started to read. After all, it really didn’t matter. Divine or not, she was his, and he was hers. He just hoped he’d be able to keep her for a little longer.

 

Chapter Text

“I’m very sorry that it makes you unhappy, Inquisitor, but I just can’t give my approval for such an undertaking while you are still recovering from your head injury.” Ellandra folded her arms over her chest in a ‘know it all’ attitude. “It’s for your own good.”

“I hate it when healers tell me something is for my own good. It’s in everyone’s good to defeat Corypheus!” Asta was furious, trying to look commanding even from her half-reclining position on her ridiculous bed. “We’ve tracked down his Red Templar right hand and you tell me I can’t go because of a bump on the head?”

“It’s hardly just a bump on the head. This is the second time in a little more than a year that you’ve cracked your skull, Inquisitor. Without the proper rest, you risk internal bleeding, brain damage, damage to your sight, even death. It’s rest or risk dying, Your Worship.” Ellandra rolled her eyes, “and I’m sure your advisors would agree that the one person capable of closing rifts cannot be risked for this. Rest, Your Worship. Heal, Your Worship.”

Cullen took her hand, “It’s all right, Inquisitor. We’ll send someone else.”

Asta glared equally at him, “And if there are rifts? What then?”

“I do know how to call a retreat,” Cullen said, amused. “And give orders. I meant to go, in any case. So I will lead the charge on the Shrine myself.”

Asta shook her head, but gently. “No, the red lyrium. The risk of contagion.” Her brows creased. “You can’t go, Commander.”

“I believe this is where I take my leave,” Ellandra packed up her things. “The only thing I have left to say is thank you, Inquisitor. For Mattrin‘s letter, and my phylactery.” She sighed, “I wish it had turned out differently, but I never got to express my gratitude. It’s better knowing what happened, and at least I know he didn‘t end up with Corypheus.” She smiled sadly, and turned to leave. “I’ll tell the Ambassador and Sister Nightingale that we are done here.”

“Would you send them up?” Cullen requested.

“Certainly, Commander, I will send them right away.” Ellandra saluted and departed, with an air that her work was done.

“Commander,” Asta began, and he stopped her.

“No, Inquisitor. You cannot go. Healer’s orders. You are injured, and the Inquisition needs you well.”

Josie and Leliana’s steps were heard on the stairs. “Ellandra looked far too pleased with herself,” Leliana noted. “What did she say?”

“She said I’m injured,” Asta growled impatiently, “and the Inquisition has to put its goals on hold until I’m well enough to go into the field again.”

“Inquisitor, you exaggerate,” Cullen said, narrowing his eyes. “She said that the Inquisitor risks bleeding in her brain and many other things if she aggravates the injury. She recommended extensive rest.”

“It could take months!” Asta fumed, “We don’t have time for that!”

“No, but with sufficient rest it won’t take months,” Cullen shot back. “If you follow instructions, you’ll mend quicker, especially with access to the healers here, and be back in the field in no time. We can implement Leliana‘s plans for the Arbor Wilds, and I will…”

Asta crossed her arms in stubbornness, “It will have to wait,” Asta began.

“That’s impossible,” Cullen gritted, “Samson will move his base and we’ll lose him.”

“I have to agree with the Commander,” Leliana noted. “Surely someone else can infiltrate his base.”

“I’m going to,” Cullen affirmed.

“No, you aren’t,” Asta’s brow furrowed deeper. “It’s too dangerous. I will not risk…”

“I’m the Commander of your armies! The danger to myself is hardly something to take into account in this matter,” Cullen argued, “It’s imperative that Samson is apprehended. So I’m going.”

Leliana and Josie exchanged a look, and Josie spoke, “I know it’s unusual, but I agree with the Commander. You cannot go while injured, Inquisitor. You are vital to the Inquisition’s goals.”

“So is the Commander,” Asta tried but Josie shook her head.

“If the Commander fell in battle, there is a chain of command that would replace him. If you fall, if your mark is lost, then we are lost. It is that simple. You are not fit, this is a major raid on an enemy’s base, it makes sense to send the Commander.”

“But the lyrium,” Asta protested.

Leliana cut in, “Honestly, Inquisitor. We all have weaknesses. It doesn’t mean that we get to pick and choose where we are sent. If the Commander is so weak to temptation that the very sight of lyrium sends him into withdrawal, perhaps he needs to be replaced in any case. In this, he cannot be your paramour. He must be your Commander.” Asta narrowed her eyes at her, and then, defeated, closed them.

“Fine,” she almost whispered, “but I want to be in on the planning. In the meantime, Cullen said you had plans for the Arbor Wilds, Leliana?”

“I’m going to send in my best scouts, saboteurs and spies,” Leliana explained. “They will work as a team, sabotaging Corypheus’ forces in any way they see fit. Corrupting water, lyrium and food supplies, damaging weaponry, burning encampments. They will not engage the enemy directly, but they will gather more information and slow down his approach. An army moves slowly, Inquisitor, as you know. It could mean a delay of weeks, and if we’re lucky, a month or more, as they have to resupply and regroup.”

Asta nodded thoughtfully. “Very well, see that it’s done. We have to buy ourselves time, advisors, that is evident,” she sighed. “I am sorry I got myself injured. I don’t have time for this.”

“No one ever has time to be sick,” Josie noted, and turned to go. “I’m going to start rallying our Orlesian allies to meet us in the Arbor Wilds. That will take time, but will eventually buy us a little longer while you recover, and the Commander travels.”

“In the meantime, I will recall Rylen from Griffon Wing,” Cullen stated. “He will meet us there as well.”

“Very well, and I will rest and recover,” Asta made a face. “Isn’t there anything else I can do?”

Cullen smiled, “Why not research what we discussed on the way to Val Royeaux? It needs to be done, and you will have time.”

Asta smiled, “Maybe this won’t be so bad if I can sit and read for a few weeks.” And then she sighed, “Very well, I’ll make a list of the materials I need. Josie, Leliana, do what you must. I’m going to consult with the Commander on Dumat.” She raised her eyebrows suggestively.

“Inquisitor!” Cullen blushed as the women giggled and left the room.

***

Hours later, they had made progress on the travel and strategy, and moved on to team selection. “So Vivienne, definitely,” the Commander said, with the maps and letters they had collected spread out over their bed.

“Yes, her barriers are amazing, even around Templars, and you should take Bull, but not Dorian. His skills - well, let‘s just say they aren‘t used to Southern Templars in the Imperium.” Asta thought. “Varric or Sera would be good. Raining down arrows was very helpful in the Emprise.”

Cullen hesitated. “What about Blackwall?”

“You mean Rainier,” Asta frowned. “I don’t know.” She sighed. “I’m going to talk to you as Cullen, for a moment, not the Commander.”

Cullen straightened, “All right, Asta, what do you need to say?”

“I don’t like this. I don’t like you going out there, without me, not knowing if you’ll be safe. And I‘m not sure I want Blackwall at your back, not knowing if I can really trust him.”

Cullen smiled, “You want to protect me?” He took her hand, “We all do what we must, Asta. And I… will sleep better knowing Samson is gone and no longer a danger to you.” He tilted his head. “Also, Asta, I might mention that turnabout is fair play.”

“This is different,” Asta protested, “You know there will be lyrium there. You know you’re meeting someone from your past, know that you are walking into…” He stopped her.

“I have to face my demons at some point, love. Let this be the beginning.” He closed his eyes, “There is much I still haven’t told you about what happened in Kirkwall. Samson was… he was kind, once. He was kicked out of the Templars for passing love letters from a mage to his sweetheart out of the Gallows. On the Champion’s recommendation, he was reinstated for a time, but when Kirkwall fell apart…” he sighed. “It’s a lot of explanation. I’m not proud of who I was then.”

“They kicked him out for passing on love letters?” Asta looked incredulous.

“The official charge was ‘corrupting the moral integrity of a Templar’,” Cullen wouldn’t meet her eyes.

“If they kicked Samson out…” Asta swallowed, “What happened to the mage?”

“Meredith made him Tranquil,” Cullen stared at his lap. “I still wonder if there was anything I could have done.”

“They made him Tranquil over love letters?”

“Meredith wielded the brand for far lesser offenses, I assure you,” He closed his eyes. “I won’t blame you if you think less of me.”

Asta swallowed, “Did you ever…” Cullen’s eyes met hers, troubled. “I see.” She took a deep breath. “Well, we all have things we are atoning for, as you’ve told me before.” She held his hand tighter when he tried to pull away. “I still like who you are now. And perhaps we can start putting things right, if the cure for Tranquility can be proved viable.”

He relaxed a little. “I would like that. It would be good to be involved.” She squeezed his hand.

“I think I can arrange that.” And then she yawned hugely.

“You should rest,” he observed.

“Stay with me?” She laid down, and tried to pull him with her. Cullen stood instead, gathering the maps and papers spread around, and kept his distance. “Afraid I’ll corrupt the moral integrity of a Templar?”

“Too late,” Cullen laughed. “And I’m not a Templar any longer. But you have to rest, and… I’m worried that if I touch you I won’t be able to stop.”

“I hate this,” she grumbled, but her eyes were already closing. “I missed you. And I couldn’t do anything in that infirmary, surrounded by people. I want you, Cullen.”

Cullen swallowed, hearing her desire so bluntly made it all the harder. “Likewise, Asta. But I’d rather have you well.”

“When I wake up I want to see Ellandra. I’ve got to find out exactly how much rest I have to have,” Asta pouted, and yawned again. “We should have asked her about sex,” she mumbled into her pillow.

“Sleep, Asta,” Cullen said, trying not to laugh or blush, and failing on both counts.

***

Dearest Asta,

I hope you are improving. We are making good time, and hope to reach the Shrine in a day or two. There is an increased amount of red lyrium in the area, so I am more certain than ever that we are on the right track.

It is having an effect on me, as you suspected. I’m dizzier, my headaches are worse, and Varric informs me I’m ‘grumpier’. So, more mood swings, I assume. I admit that it’s hard to tell from my point of view. I know that your companions will fill you in on my condition, so there’s no point in hiding it. But we will finish this as soon as possible and come home.

I like to think of you waiting for me there. I’m glad that for once, you are safe, and I am the one in danger. I wish… but that’s pointless, isn’t it. It is what it is.

Rest, my love. Follow Ellandra’s instructions, and I will return to you soon, with Samson defeated and a blow dealt to Corypheus.

I love you,

Cullen

***

Cullen,

This whole ‘waiting and worrying’ thing is extremely trying. If you have half the anxiety I have right now when I‘m on a mission, I wonder how you can stand it. You must be far stronger than I. Ellandra has told me that I must stop and try to relax, and threatened me with a tranquilizer if I wouldn’t quit pacing.

So Cassandra is trying to distract me with some of her favorite books. I particularly like this series ‘Magic and Mercy’, about Templars and Mages. It got amazing reviews from the Randy Dowager, and I can see why. You don’t still have your old Templar armor do you?

I asked Ellandra about sex, and she laughed at me. LAUGHED. And told me she suspected upon your return that I would be cleared for ‘such activities’ - if I behaved myself now. And then told me she understood completely - apparently her and Mattrin were an item for years before the Circles fell. She’s read ‘Magic and Mercy’ as well, and we had a nice conversation about it. We both think the Knight-Lieutenant sounds awfully attractive, if a bit too prone to praying at random moments. The mage is sweet, but we both think she’s a bit insipid.

Otherwise, I’m making some progress with Cassandra’s help on researching the Seeker order’s original purpose in hopes it will help me make some of those hard decisions we discussed. I have also asked Josie to sponsor this young professor, Kenric, from the University of Orlais - we corresponded some when I was with the Chantry, but his field of study is the first Inquisitor, Ameridan. Not my field, of course. Lucky bastard to get to attend University, though. He wrote to us and requested funding for an expedition to the Frostbacks to see if he can find Ameridan’s final resting place. I enthusiastically wrote back - anything he finds out could help us. We have to figure out what went so wrong to put us in this state, so many hundreds of years later.

I’m glad that you recommended this to me. Keeping myself busy helps, and Dorian and Cassandra are very good research assistants. Solas has not been as helpful as I hoped - I just know he has knowledge I lack, but he won’t share it. It makes me grumpy, and I kind of want to agree with Sera that he‘s too tied up in ‘Elven Glory‘. I suppose with both of us grumpy we would be quite a pair. I suppose it might be a good thing we are separated by a sea at the moment.

I managed to make it down the stairs to the garden yesterday. Spring is in bloom here. Have some phlox - we may be parted physically, but our souls are united, after all.

Write again, as soon as you can. My tone may be light, but I worry all the time. Come home safe, my shield.

Yours Always, even in my impatience,

Asta

***

Inquisitor,

I’m afraid I have bad news. Samson was tipped off to our approach, and fled the scene before we could apprehend him. All we found here was red lyrium, Red Templars - more horrific than ever, some tools, empty lyrium bottles and a letter. I shudder to think what you went through in the Emprise, if this was what you were facing.

This is very difficult to write. I told you about Samson, and how he was released from the order for passing on love letters. And how the mage involved was made Tranquil. That mage was here. Maddox. We tried to save him, Vivienne tried, but… he killed himself rather than allow himself to be captured and betray Samson. I fail to understand why - and in another way I understand entirely. Maddox said that Samson saved him before he needed him. That he gave him purpose.

I do understand that need for purpose. If Cassandra hadn’t… but she did. I have to remind myself she did recruit me. And I’ve been in that position - wanting to help and otherwise unable. After Kinloch…

It was not a complete loss, we did deal Corypheus a blow, and recovered some lyrium tools that belonged to Maddox that Dagna might be able to use to deconstruct Samson’s armor. I hope.

The bastard left me a letter. “Drink enough lyrium and its song reveals the truth.” I shudder to think just how much lyrium he had been taking. His resistance… we found bottles licked clean. Of course, I did the same at my worst. It made me think about my life choices. Perhaps that is where we differ, he and I.

Maker’s Breath, this letter is hard to write. At the shrine, all was smoke and ash and red lyrium glowing and pulsing. The aura of the place - I was repulsed and drawn in at the same time. And the acrid, metallic smell - Asta, you’ve held back so much for fear of putting me over the edge, haven’t you? I claim to be your shield, you even call me that, but… you’ve been shielding me all along. I want to be angry, but judging by your companions’ reactions to my behavior whilst we fought through the buildings, I have to admit, you were probably right to do so.

Perhaps I should resign. Perhaps I’m not strong enough, not…

You’d tell me to stop thinking like that. I miss you. Your words make me stronger.

Cullen

***

Your Inquisitorialness,

Curly’s in a bad way. That Shrine - Andraste’s Tits, Asta, why did you send him? He was worse than he ever was in Kirkwall, biting off things about Samson under his breath. Even now, he’s slumping by the fire, looking defeated and more like a kicked puppy than ever.

I understand disappointment all too well. My life has hardly turned out the way I thought it would, after all. But Curly - he’s going to need you to be strong right now. He’s questioning everything, and he’s been doing that way too much since Meredith went bonkers and turned into lyrium.

Admittedly, the whole situation was a disappointment. We’re all still coughing from smoke inhalation. It was awful. I’ll take care of him until we get back, but when we get back - I think the man needs to stop thinking for a bit. When a man or woman starts questioning their purpose in life… shit happens.

Between him and I, we saw that Maddox got a decent funeral. Pyre and everything, and Curly himself sang the Chant. Maddox was a decent sort, as I remember. I’m glad we could do that much for him, in the end.

See you soon,

Varric (written in a swirly script that shows years of practice at signing books.)

***

Hey Boss,

You’re gonna want to take care of the Commander when you get back. If we were under the Qun, he’d be headed to the reeducators for sure. Sex would be good. I’m sure with your head not a lot of that was happening before we left.

Hope you’re feeling better. You were missed. The Commander doesn’t have your joie de vivre, ya know?

See ya,

Bull

***

Commander,

Cullen, I refuse to even dignify that self-pity with a response. We will talk upon your return.

I’m very sorry now that I joked about your old Templar armor. It was thoughtless of me. I apologize. I still eagerly await your return. In that way, I think it is far better to be the one traveling, isn’t it - for you, every step you take brings you closer. For me, all I can do is wait- wait for you.

I think its my turn to encourage you, so have some white julienne - despair not, and some wormwood - do not be discouraged. Dagna will help with the tools, she is already confident. And yes, I know she’s always confident, except when I tell her I need protection against possession.

I love who you are - don‘t let your past make you blind to that.

Your Asta

 

Chapter Text

Cullen handed Dagna Maddox's tools, and she left, muttering to herself about fractures and crystallization saying she would see him in about an hour to report. Varric shook his head at the other dwarf's preoccupation, and patted Cullen on the back as they parted at Skyhold’s gate, flashing him a smile. “Say hello to Asta, Curly,” Cullen forced a smile, and rubbed the back of his neck, and started up the steps to the Keep proper. He wanted to see her so badly, but she was still injured, he reminded himself. He couldn’t expect…

He was blindsided by a rush of Asta into his side. “Cullen!” Her arms wrapped around his neck and buried in his hair and the fur of his collar, joyful laughter echoing into his ear.

“Asta?” He held her back, “You’re doing better?” His whole face lit up in relief and then fell. “Should you be running?”

“Running is fine,” Asta laughed. “I’ve been cleared for moderate activity,” she beamed. “I saw you coming from my balcony, and couldn’t wait for you to come to me,” she picked up her hand in his and tugged. “Come on, I ordered you a bath and some real food should be there in a while…”

Cullen laughed, “I could get used to this, you know.”

Asta tilted her head at him. “You should! Come on,” and she drug him through the main hall.

“Shouldn’t we check in with Leliana and Josephine?” He protested, but following her willingly enough.

“Tomorrow!” Asta grinned. “I pulled a few strings. There are benefits to being the Inquisitor’s fiancée, you know. One is she can delay the necessary meetings for one night - well, most of them. Another is warm baths upon your return from a mission. And the other…” she pulled him through the lower door that led to her chambers, and leaned up against him, his back against the door while it shut firmly, “Well, I have been cleared for moderate activity. And I made sure that included sex.”

“Maker’s Breath, Asta, what did you tell Ellandra…” Belatedly he remembered the topics she had mentioned in her letter, and swore, blushing.

“You should be able to tell your healer anything, Commander,” Asta twinkled. “But you know that we’re no secret. Half of Skyhold will be rooting for you tonight, and the other half for me.” She paused, “It was lonely and cold in that room without you. And Ellandra wouldn’t let me move back to the loft.”

Cullen blushed redder, but bent to kiss her all the same. “I missed you too.”

“Good,” she murmured. “Now, bath. I know that you want one. I always want one as soon as I get back especially after being around red lyrium. And while you bathe, we can talk.”

The bath was steaming, just filled, from the looks of things, and Cullen wasted no time stripping off his armor onto its stand for polishing later. Asta watched avidly, making him a little self-conscious after their separation. “Asta, don’t you have anything to do?” He pulled his shirt off with one fist, and she caught her breath. His back was lean, traced with a few scars, but still beautiful. One thing about this room - it had better lighting. She itched to run her fingers up it, but sensed it wouldn’t be welcome, right at that moment.

“Not really,” she mused, thinking. “I sent Cassandra and Dorian away when I saw you riding up, and they know they won’t see me until tomorrow. I wanted you to have a proper meal, so that will take some time to prepare.” Her eyes traced down his now naked form with unconcealed delight. “And I’ve missed you.” She stopped. “Did you want me to leave?” Her face fell. “I can, if you like.”

“No, stay, we need to talk.” He stepped into the bath. “This trip was an epiphany of sorts, for me.”

“Not a good one, I gather,” Asta sat on the bed, cross-legged. “I could tell that you were wrestling with something, from your letters.”  She fidgeted with the coverlet, twisting it idly.

“Yes, well,” he took up the cloth and soap from the attached tray, and wet one, rubbing the other against it. “I had to confront some past decisions, and spent the most of the return trip comparing my current purpose with my past one.” He started running the lathered cloth across his chiseled chest and neck, and Asta’s eyes were drawn to the movement, mouth dry. She bit the side of her finger and ran it across her lips.

“The Inquisition versus the Templars?” She tried to focus, a difficult task with him so unattired and occupied. “Did you come to a conclusion?”

“I concluded that you were right,” He looked at her. “The Templars should be disbanded, so that they cannot be used by the Chantry any longer. They, we, are too easy led into anything that gives us purpose, direction. Templars are trained that way. We, they, need to stop being sheep. And I don‘t think that will happen if we, they, remain as an order.” The line between his brows was deeper than ever. “The Seekers, led by Cassandra, will give us, them, a chance at least to leave if they desire it. And if they want to serve, she can guide them.”  He sighed, "I'm not against Templars, they serve a purpose, but well, it's still hard to stop myself from identifying with the remains of the order."

“Is that how Samson justified his recruitment by Corypheus?” Asta asked gently, “That he gave him purpose?”

“No, that’s how Maddox justified his suicide,” Cullen closed his eyes. “That…Samson saved him before he needed him. Samson earned his loyalty with that, despite everything he became.” He dunked his head under the water, and came up with his hair damp and curly and shining with the dripping water.

Asta bit her lower lip, warmth pooling between her legs, and tried to stay on topic. “And the Inquisition didn’t save the Templars,” Asta said quietly, “even though we needed them. Is that it?”

“A little,” he opened his eyes and didn’t meet hers. “I understand your reasoning, of course. But… we have more resources now. We don’t need the Templars, but… I’d like, with your permission, to see if we can find a few more, and the missing Tranquil as well. The mages - they come on their own, but the others…” He looked up at her now. “Could we do that? Save them before they‘re needed? Not to earn their loyalty, not to use them, but...”

“Of course,” Asta agreed. His eyes were so golden, so warm as he smiled, relieved. “We should have done it before.” He started working shampoo into his hair and she started to breathe shallowly, hands itching to run the soapy curls through her fingers, and her breasts tightening. “Anything else?”

“Only that I’m curious how long we have before Dagna comes to interrupt us,” Cullen looked at her wickedly. “There’s room for two in here.”

“Not long enough, Cullen,” Asta laughed. “At least, not if I know Dagna. Besides, we still need to talk.”

“About?” He finished rinsing his hair and bent his legs up over the side of the tub, and leaned back, still tense and attempting to enjoy the water while it was still warm.

Asta took a deep breath and prepared to kill the mood. “Cullen, I wasn’t trying to keep things from you. I told you everything you needed to know that would have impacted your tactics and strategy. Anything you needed to know. I spared you the unnecessary description, it’s true, because I didn’t want to make you sick. I suppose that was protection, of a sort.”

“Ah,” he said, not moving. “I thought that might have been it. Asta, you realize that any of the things you’ve left out might have impacted my decision to lead this last mission on my own? I might have agreed with you.”

Asta snorted, “Like that’s likely, Commander. I know you, you’d have insisted it couldn’t be that bad and rushed in, sword drawn, counting on your strength to carry you through.” She tilted her head and mused, “Though why it’s okay for you to want to protect me when I’m not supposed to protect you…”

Cullen sighed, and sat up, putting his arms over the side of the tub, and met her eyes. “Asta, I don’t mind you wanting to protect me, or worry about me. That’s wonderful. I’ve never had anyone outside of my own family want to do that for me before. And even then it’s been twenty years. But if you are withholding information that is vital to my performance as Commander -”

“I’m not!” Asta protested. “Really, I only held back some of the side effects of the red lyrium because…”

“And what else are you hiding?” Cullen cut her off, sounding tired. “I may get sick, but if we can’t be honest with each other…”

Asta’s face crumpled. “I am being honest. I haven’t lied. I’ve omitted, it’s true.”

“Does Leliana know the side effects?” He asked softly. Asta nodded. “So her comment before I left…”

“Was based on her opinion that you could handle it,” Asta looked away. “I disagreed. But a lot of that was selfishness, looking back. I didn’t want to send you into danger.” She looked up again, “I didn’t want to be the one left behind if you… if Samson…” She sighed, “I was wrong - you could handle it. I underestimated you.”

Cullen rose from the bath and wrapped her in his arms, holding her tight. She squeaked, and wrapped her arms around him as well. “I’m not going anywhere. But no more omissions, please?”

“Okay,” she whispered into his chest. “No more omissions. I'm sorry.”

“And I feel the same way every time you leave,” he drew back, so he could see her face, and brushed her hair away from her face. “If something were to happen to you…” Cullen drew a shuddering breath, “I’m very afraid the Inquisition would be out a Commander as well. But I don’t have a choice, and neither do you. Neither of us can afford to keep the other safe all the time.”

“I know,” Asta whispered, “but…”

“But nothing,” Cullen’s sad smile belied his tone and words, “That’s the way it has to be for now. Once this is over, once Corypheus is defeated… then we can worry and protect each other. For now, we have to be willing to sacrifice.”

“Fuck that,” Asta spit out between suddenly clenched teeth. “I am done with tragedy. I and all of Thedas have had enough of tears, blood and death. We lose our heroes almost as soon as we’ve found them. I will not be wasted like that. And I won‘t let you be, either.”

Cullen was shocked into laughter. “Well, I can’t argue with you. I’m not particularly eager to be wasted, as you put it, hero or not.” He suddenly realized he was wet and naked, and standing in a puddle. “I’d better get dressed before…”

“Hello!” An overly cheerful voice called up from the bottom of the stairs, “I knocked, but no one answered! Coming up!”

Cullen’s eyes went wild and wide, and he dove into the dressing room. “Asta, my clothes!” Asta laughed and moved towards the bureau.

“Come on up, Dagna. The Commander will be a moment, I’m afraid,” she handed Cullen his clothes, winking and then realized she was soaked through. “Actually, we both will. Can you come up in a few minutes?” The dwarf was already peeking above the banister. “Never mind, then. You’ll just have to talk through the door, I’m afraid, while I change. What have you found out?” Asta pulled out her dry clothes and moved to join her Commander in the closet, suppressing a giggle.

“Well, I’ve got something for you,” Dagna chirped. “Why is there so much water on the floor? Did I interrupt…”

“No, not at all!” Cullen called through the door. “I was finished with my bath, that’s just from… drying off!”

“Oh, okay!” Dagna chirped. “Why was the Inquisitor so wet, then?”

“He was drying off on me,” Asta quipped, and Cullen threw her a dirty look.

“Okay…” Dagna said, drawing out the word in awkwardness. “I could come back if you were…”

“No, no, that’s not necessary!” Cullen called out, just as Asta grabbed his butt, holding onto it for a moment. “I’ll be out in just a second… Asta, stop that,” he hissed, pulling on his pants, ignoring the need for smallclothes in his hurry.

"I'm a weak woman, Commander," she smirked at him, appreciating the view, and took off her own wet clothes without ceremony, crossing her arms across her front while peeling her sodden shirt off, revealing a black lacy corset with shoulder straps that did plenty for her cleavage. “Merciful Maker, what are you wearing?” he whispered, tensing. “Never mind, just… put something on!” Asta winked, and took her time while he pulled on his shirt and left the closet, sans socks or boots.

“Sorry about that, Dagna, I know you’re busy…” he started.

“Not a problem, Commander. Everyone knows you don’t get to see each other enough,” Dagna observed. “The good news is that I’m done.”

“Already?” Cullen blinked. “You’ve had the equipment for about an hour. That’s very… efficient.”

“Well, Maddox’s tools were just the thing!” The dwarf chirped. “Took no time at all to create this…” and she flashed a rune at him.

“A rune?” Asta stepped out of the closet. “What does it do?”

“It’ll work on the median fissures in the lyrium in Samson’s armor!” Dagna grew even more excited, and Asta’s face lit up. Cullen looked confused - the victim of a Chantry education. “I mean, it’ll break his armor, leave him defenseless,” she explained more gently.

“So we have him?” Cullen brightened.

“We have him!” Dagna confirmed.

Asta hugged her, “Thanks, Dagna. You are the best.”

“Hey, Inquisitor, the Commander’ll get jealous!” Dagna laughed. “I’ll let you two get back to it. Give her one for me, Commander!” Cullen blushed, and the dwarf left, laughing.

Asta smiled at her Commander, smirking. “Going to take her advice?” She crossed over to her desk, and set the rune down gently, and leaned against it backward.

“I don’t know,” Cullen smiled, crossing the floor and taking her into his arms again. “Should I?”

“Well, I think a celebration is in order, Commander, you did manage to bring something back that will bring Samson to his knees,” Asta observed.

“Right now I could care less about bringing Samson to his knees,” Cullen murmured, cupping her ass with his hand. “I’m thinking a little closer to home.” Asta hummed in response. “Perhaps you need to show me what you have on underneath.”

“I just got dressed!” Asta protested, smiling.

“If you don’t show me, I’ll find out for myself,” he teased, and started on the buckles on her vest. “I want to see.”

“I could give you clues,” Asta teased. “I bought it in Orlais, ages ago - but we haven’t had a moment since.”

“And you put it on today because…” Cullen prompted, peeling her vest back and dropping it on the still wet floor. He stepped in closer, and leaned his forehead into hers and pulled her tunic's ties loose.

“Because you were coming home,” Asta whispered, a breath away from his lips. “I wanted to show you before, but never had an opportunity.” He freed the hem of her shirt from her pants, and started work on the laces of her pants. “I thought you wanted to see it?”

“I want to see all of you,” he pulled away from the temptation of her mouth when she tried to dive in for a kiss. “Now, now, Asta, patience. Time enough for that if we aren’t needed until tomorrow.” He paused in his unlacing. “You know, I’m going to lock the door.”

“Oh, privacy,” Asta sighed, “What a beautiful thought.” He went down the stairs, locked and barred the door, and came back up to Asta, covered with black lace and silk that squeezed her breasts in and up, creating a valley that made him swallow. It barely met the top of her ample hips, and between her legs was another patch of lace and silk that did little for coverage, but made her legs look somehow still longer.

Cullen’s mouth was dry, and his gaze heated as he stood frozen at the top of the stairs, hand on the banister. He rubbed his mouth with his other hand, feeling the stubble. “You bought that in Orlais?”

“Mm-hmm,” Asta hummed. “Do you like it?” She turned around, and he realized belatedly that the smallclothes had no back at all - just a thin piece of lace that left nothing to the imagination. She threw a glance over her shoulder. The curve of her backside was incredible, soft and rounded, and his legs moved before he realized what he was doing, stopping just as he reached her side.

“Maker, Asta…” he swallowed again, “I don’t know whether to cover you up or tear it off of you.” His hands had a mind of their own, tracing the lines of her body, down her sides, around her ass, fingers barely touching her skin and the fabric confining it, longing just to grab her and fling her down on the floor.  But it was still wet.

“Well, I think covering it up would be a waste,” Asta’s mouth twisted with humor. “How about we discuss tearing it off me when you’re undressed, hmmm?” Her eyes sparkled, and he bent in to kiss her neck, lips parting to place a mark on her after a short time, the desire so long put aside welling up in him all at once. “Cullen,” she gasped at the pressure of his lips, “Clothes.” He pulled away and ripped his tunic off over his head, and bent right back towards her, reaching for her lips this time, already open for his tongue. She brought her fingers up to trace the scars on his back gently, while he grabbed her hips and pulled her back in against him so that she could feel how hard he was. Her fingers unlaced him quickly, aided by the haste in his recent dressing, and she shoved them off his hips, leaving him bare. He stepped out of them backwards, pulling her with him to the bed.

“I just want to throw you down,” he admitted, pausing for breath in the kiss that had consumed them both.

“Then do it,” She murmured against his mouth, kissing him gently between words. “I don’t mind. Maybe we’ll break this horrible bed and Josie will replace it.”

Cullen choked, “You want me to…” Her lips found his lower lip, and the sentence was lost in a moan.

“Cullen, trust me, I’m ready. I’ve been ready for weeks, all pent up with no release. Andraste’s ass, Cullen, just…”

He swung down and grabbed her legs to pull her against him, grinding up into her as she wrapped her legs around his back, her last words lost in the sensations he was creating between her legs. For long moments he just held and moved his mouth against hers, their tongues meeting and parting in a frantic dance. His hand found the ribbons at the back of the corset, and pulled them loose. Turning at last, he dropped her back on the bed, standing over her, breathing hard through his nose, fists clenched for one moment, watching her before he bent over and pulled a breast out of the support, his other hand sliding behind her back to arch her up into his mouth, and latching on. Asta hummed deeply, his tongue working her up as his other hand pulled her other breast loose, the valley between them deepened further. His hands dropped down to the clasps, and they sprung free one after the other, making him laugh against her and then groan as they revealed her skin further, creamy and freckled and soft, and in his mind, perfect.

He bent back to his work, not bothering to remove the article of questionable clothing entirely. There was no point - and his cock informed him it would take too long to slide it off her shoulders. His tongue and hands worked wonders, kissing down her stomach to her navel, cupping her breasts with his thumbs pressing into the now hard peaks until a gasping and panting Asta pulled him back up to her mouth, one hand in his hair, one at his jaw, desperate to taste him again, feel him against her and inside her. The heat grew between them and Cullen dropped the hand at her breast to stroke her over the cloth still between them, already damp with her arousal. She arched against him in response, and he cupped her harder, and rubbed. She started to shake, “Cullen…”, her voice warbled, and then she snapped, and bit his lip, licking it with her tongue in a fast apology when he gasped. He slid the fabric to the side, and aligned himself with her, touching his thumb to her center, circling slowly in an attempt to slow them both down, pulling away from the gravitational pull of her lips, trying to breathe deeply. It would be over too fast if they kept on like this, and he wanted…

Asta reached out and grabbed his hips, impatient at the delay, and pulled him into her. All at once, he was surrounded, and he moaned at the pressure on all sides. “Asta,” he protested weakly, unable to deny that this was what they both had wanted, needed, but it came out as a plea in any case.

He rocked against her, almost instinctively, and she tightened her legs and arched up, crying out for more friction. “Cullen, please!”  He was so hard, and she was finally full after feeling too empty for too long. Her brain was scattered, wondering how she had managed when she didn’t have him to give her this feeling, to fill this need. He was too still, trying to let her adjust, give himself a moment to control himself. She pushed up against him stronger now, frustrated at the lack of movement, spreading her legs apart and whimpering.

With that whimper, Cullen decided that waiting was overrated. He growled, moved his lips to her shoulder, and started to thrust, giving up all pretense of gentleness. He nipped her collarbone, her shoulder, the curve of her neck, unable to stop himself. The fabric still between her legs impeded him, so he used a hand to keep it to one side, and his thumb to glide against her clit wh