Chapter 1: Him
Not long after the attack on The Shrine of Dumat, the next plan of attack is decided against the red templars. Cullen and Nora share lunch together in his office before Leliana brings Cullen some troubling news.
Josie stood at the head of the war table, addressing the council and Inquisitor. "Your attack on the Shrine of Dumat was quite successful Inquisitor, we were able to retain several valuable pieces of information on Samson and his where abouts, not to mention his red lyrium armor."
Nodding in agreement, Cullen adds "Even if we weren't able to save Maddox". He feels a familiar hand over his, and gives it a knowing squeeze in thanks. Nora to his left, gives him a reassuring smile and nods.
"Yes," she adds. "Even though we weren't able to save Maddox, we DID get some rather valuable intel. Leliana, have you made any progress on where Samson is, or how we can find him?"
Cullens eyes drift to their spymaster and sees a knowing smirk crawl to her lips.
"Yes actually, I'm glad you brought that up, Inquisitor." She strode over to the other side of the war table and pointed to a spot just North of the Emprise. "Here, only 3 days ride from Skyhold. My scouts have informed me of a red templar party that made it out of the Emprise before you arrived, and they have a Red Templar Knight Captain with them. They are not aware we know their location, so if we act quickly I believe we can put him down. Losing another Knight Captain will be another damaging blow for Samson."
Removing his hands from the war table and placing them to rest on the pommel of his sword, Cullen nodded and walked over to where Leliana was standing, studying the map. "So," he queries, "The Inquisitor and a small party ride for the encampment in the morning. We clear them out, ensure the area is clear and then come back."
From across the table Nora quirked an eyebrow at him, questioning. "We? Does this mean you're coming with me again, Commander?"
He couldn't help the smile that crept to his lips. "Yes, Inquisitor. I intend to see this business through with Samson and his Red Templars. Besides," a wave of his hand, "I won't keep my skills sharp from behind a desk all the time. Our attack on The Shrine of Dumat reminded me of that."
Nora placed a hand on her hip and nodded. "Very well." Turning her head towards the spymaster she rose her eyebrows in question. "Was there anything else Leliana, or is that all?"
Leliana clasped her hands behind her. "I have nothing more for now, Inquisitor."
Nora clapped her hands together and looked around the room. "Very well! Looks like I leave in the morning so I have some preparations to make. Dismissed."
Cullen watched as Josie and Leliana left the room together. After a glance back in his direction a chuckle was shared between them, and Leliana whispered something to Josie.
Cullen shook his head, the corners of his lips creeping up. Probably something about Nora and I, knowing them. They gossip like hens, those two. Ever since he and Nora had made their relationship known, there was teasing. Constant teasing. As much as he acted irritated by it, Cullen rather enjoyed it. The fact that they had someone, Nora, to tease him about was the best thing to happen to him in years.
A hand draping over his roused him from his thoughts.
"Cullen?" Nora was looking at him and smirking. "You're standing there looking a bit dazed, is everything alright?"
He squeezed her hand in assurance, a small chuckle escaping him. "Of course, I was day-dreaming. Nothing more. Do you have some time? It's nearly lunch and I thought we could take it together."
Leaning up and placing a quick kiss on his cheek, she grinned. "I always have time for you. I just need to write a quick letter -I should have done it this morning- then I'm yours. I'll meet you in your office?"
"Of course. What's the letter? Is it something I can help with?"
"Oh!" A soft smile. "Thank you, but there's no need. It's just to Dominic."
Cullen noticed her eyes drop and smile fade, and he took her hand in his.
"I see... Is everything alright, Nora? You seem troubled."
"It's just... I haven't heard from him in over a month, Cullen. I usually get a letter each week, or at the very least every couple of weeks." She sighed and looked down at her feet. "I'm just worried is all. It's probably nothing."
He brought her chin up and kissed her forehead. "I'm sure he's fine, love. He's a trained Templar and knows how to take care of himself. When the mages rebelled and the Templar order disbanded, he stayed behind to help the mages not wanting to join the rebellion. He's a good man and besides, his last letter said nothing of trouble. He's probably just taking precautions with sending ravens while traveling. You do it yourself frequently."
"You're right, I'm probably just overthinking it." Nora glanced up at him, offering a tender smile. "Thank you. You always know what to say." She craned up on her toes and kissed him.
Her touch was soft and tender at first, then more urgent. A hand slid up the back of his neck and he felt his face flush when it fingered the curls forming at the base of his neck. He parted her lips with his tongue, and a growl escaped his throat when he felt teeth nip at his bottom lip and pull. Sighing into his mouth she pressed her body into him, and instinctively his hand went to the small of her back. Fingers crept along the waistline of his trousers and he smirked against her lips, an amused huff escaping him.
"Nora." His voice was light, but ragged. "We'll never make it to lunch if you keep that up."
An exasperated sigh. "I know, I know, you're right." She stepped back and smoothed her tunic, attempting to right herself before leaving the room. Cullen noticed a stray tress of red hanging out of her braid, and brushed it back behind her ear. His heart swelled at the fondness so plainly displayed on her face when she gazed back at him.
"Alright. I'm going to write that letter and then I'll be in your office. Give me twenty minutes?"
"Take all the time you need, love."
He watched her make her way out of the war room and called to her just as she met the door. "Shall I get our lunch?"
She smiled softly back at him. "No need, I'll grab some on my way to you. Just make sure there's a chair for me this time! That spare stool you keep is a pitiful excuse for a seat."
He flashed her a lopsided grin and narrowed his eyes. "You could always just sit in my lap."
She waltzed out of the war room laughing, and called back to him. "Chair, Cullen! There better be a chair!"
She sat across from him, feet up and legs crossed atop his desk with a plate of food in her lap. Cullen sat across from her leaned back in his desk chair, chin resting on his knuckles while he watched her.
She was recounting a presumably laughable story Bull had told her in the tavern about the last run the Chargers went out on, but his attention was not on the words she spoke.
Maker, but she is a beautiful woman.
He lost track of her tale, too enraptured with the way her fingers twiddled the grapes she was eating, how her eyes lit up whenever he smiled -And oh, what a shade of green they are-, how her lips moved as words fell from them, and how she threw her head back in laughter, barely able to contain herself. He laughed along with her -unsure as to what exactly he was laughing at- and relished the happiness he shared with her in this moment.
I must be the luckiest man in all of Thedas.
Just then his office door opened and their Spymaster walked in, papers in hand.
"Oh! My apologies Inquisitor, I wasn't aware that you were here. I'll come back" She started to turn back when Nora called out to her, rising from her seat.
"No it's no worry Leliana. I was about to leave anyway, I still have things to do before we depart in the morning. Cullen and I were just having lunch."
"Are you sure, Inquisitor? I can come back at a later-"
Nora put her hand up and smiled, "I'm sure. And please, Leliana, it's just Nora. We aren't at the War Table and there are no dignitaries here." She tossed a smirk in Cullen's direction as she left his office towards the main keep. "Find me later?"
He nodded and grinned, "Of course."
Leliana shut the door as Nora left the office and turned to Cullen, her expression unreadable. "I have additional information on the Red Templar encampment that you need to see."
She held out one of the pages in her hand as she walked toward his desk, placing it in front of him.
"Oh, thank you Leliana." He took it and went to place it to the side of his desk but her hand stopped him. She placed it back it front of him. "You should read it right away Commander."
He peered up at her, confusion washing over his face. "Alright, if you insist." He began skimming the page; reading bits and pieces of the report aloud to himself;
"Just North of the Emprise, not far from here... 25, maybe 30 of them, 40 if you include the Knight Captain and his escort... Red Templars, one Behemoth, all seem to be fully under the influence of Red Lyrium-"
He flashed his eyes up to her, not bothering to hide the annoyance in his tone. "Leliana, this is all information we covered in the War Table meeting." His eyes still skimming the page, he questioned her again. "Why am I reading information I already know? I don't see the point in-"
His voice caught in his throat when he got to the last line of the report. Blinking, he re-read it. Hoping, praying that his tired eyes had tricked him, and that he had misread it the first time. His heart sank and his chest tightened when he realized he hadn't, and why Leliana insisted he read it now. He closed his eyes and let out a sigh, placing his head in his hands.
"Are you certain?" His voice was barely above a whisper.
She clasped her hands behind her back when she spoke. "Yes, Commander, I'm certain. My agents have been trailing him for weeks."
By the tears of the Maker, of all the men in Thedas why did it have to be him.
He can't look up, not yet. "Does she know?"
"No, but she will. The red lyrium has taken him but still carries his features... The scar across his nose, the black hair... His voice is almost unchanged." She took a step forward to emphasize her next point. "She will know him, Commander."
Slowly he ran his hands through his hair as he uttered a curse to himself, finally opening his eyes to read the line one last time:
Sister Leliana, at your request we have discovered the identity of the Red Templar Knight Captain in the encampment. His name is Sir Dominic Garin, former Templar Knight of the Ostwick Circle.
Chapter 2: Just A Young Girl
Cullen learns the truth about the depth of Nora and Dominic's relationship during her time in the Circle, and how she really got all those scars.
His head in his hands, Cullen continued to glare at the name on the paper. Sir Dominic Garin. Reading it made him feel anger and sorrow at the loss of a good Templar, a good man.
The first time he saw that name on a piece of paper months ago however, elicited a completely different set up emotions. The name was on a letter addressed to Nora, and reading it caused jealousy to bubble up from his chest. Cullen smiled fondly at the memory, despite the initial hurt.
He was in Nora's bedchambers, them having just finished sharing lunch. He was absent-mindedly shuffling through papers on her desk, meaning to help her with any paperwork that he could when he came across the letter; olive coloured parchment with a signature at the bottom of the page; Sincerely, Dominic, it read.
"Oh, this looks personal, I'm sorry" he stammered, placing the letter back in it's place on her desk, heat rising in his cheeks.
Nora looked up, not phased in the least. "Hmm?" Her eyes darted to the letter that he had placed back, and responded with a simple "Oh, yes. It's uh-" She cleared her throat before responding. "It's from someone I knew from the Circle in Ostwick."
A lump formed in his throat and his chest felt heavy. He and Nora had only been together for a short while, but they were close friends even before they became intimate. They had talked in depth about her time in the circle, and not once had she mentioned this man's name.
This is it, he thought, panicking. This is when she tells me that she was in love with this man, and they became seperated during the explosion at the Conclave. She found out where he was - or he found her - and they've been in contact and now she's going to leave me. This was something he had feared, and always worried about in the back of his mind and it was finally happening.
"I see." He brought his hand up to scratch the back of his neck as he stood up, meaning to leave. "Well, You probably want to respond, and I'm intruding, so, I'll just go."
"Cullen, why are you acting so bothered all of a sudden? Is something the matter?"
Flustered, he sighed. "I've just never heard you mention this man's name before, even though we've spent hours discussing your time at the circle." He huffed, struggling to find the words without coming off oafish and controlling. "I just- Not only have you never mentioned him but you're obviously close enough to write letters and- Maker's breath. It's none of my business. I'll leave you be."
He turned on his heel and started to walk towards the steps leading to the main hall when Nora lept up and strode towards him. She grasped his arm in protest and he turned to look at her, brow furrowed and eyes downcast.
Still looking down at the stone floor he spat his reply back at her, instantly regretting his harsh tone as soon as the words left his lips. "What, Nora?"
Instantly she understood. "Oh. You're jealous?"
He felt his cheeks flush and again his free hand was at the back of his neck, absent-mindedly rubbing his hairline. "Well, you've never mentioned this man before. And the only reason I'm finding out about him now is because I saw the letter on your desk. You obviously didn't want me to know about him." He shook his head and trailed off, unsure of how to finish his thought. "It's just that I care about you, probably more than I should admit and I-"
Suddenly he felt her lips on his. She pressed into him with a soft kiss and her hand at his jaw, thumb caressing the coarse stubble that he had neglected to tend to this morning. He tensed, startled at her reaction but let himself relax and kissed her back. He slid a hand to her hip and felt her body's relief as she sighed into him.
She broke the kiss, pulling away from him slowly and pressing her hands to his breastplate and looked up at him, a soft smile on face. "Cullen, I didn't mean to hide anything from you. I have mentioned him before, I guess I've just never used his name."
"Nora, you don't have to explain yourself to me. I know you're not mine to-"
Her eyes widened at his response. "What? Cullen I'm not-"
"Yes, I mean no! Ugh. You're not property, I know. You're your own woman -a beautiful one at that- and I shouldn't expect you to tell me every detail of your life. It's just that I- Maker I sound like a fool."
She pressed her forehead into his breastplate and sighed, clearly frustrated. "Andraste's tits, Cullen, relax. I'll never understand why you get so flustered when you're trying to tell me how you feel about something." When she spoke again however, her tone held something more playful. She craned her head towards his and peered up at him with a smirk, "You've seen me naked, you'd think talking to me would be easy by now"
He chuckled at her brash reponse and brushed a thumb across her cheek, causing a soft hum to spill from her lips. "I guess talking just doesn't come as easily to me as it does to you. I don't want to drive you away."
"Cullen, I don't want to hide anything from you, and I never meant to. Just talk to me. Don't worry about driving me away, or hurting my feelings. I just want you to be honest with me and tell me what you're thinking. I'm sorry I didn't tell you about Dominic before."
He winced, and immediately she spoke again "BUT, the reason I didn't wasn't because I was trying to keep him a secret. I know how you feel about the Templar order and at the time I didn't know where we stood. I didn't want to stir up any bad memories for you."
"Dominic is a Templar? Not another mage?" Sudden realization kicked in as his memory was spurred by a previous conversation they had, not long after they became intimate. "Ah. Dominic was the Templar you told me about, the one who helped you get used to living in a Circle."
She nodded, and lead him back into her chambers from the staircase. Nora slid onto the couch, sitting cross-legged and patted the cushion next to her. Cullen smiled and strolled towards the couch, seating himself on the end. Once he settled she scooched down rest her head in his lap, peering up at him and grasping his hand in hers. He placed his other hand in her hair and ran his fingers through the stray locks that had come loose from her braid.
Maker, she's beautiful. How did I ever get so lucky?
She hummed in approval at his caress, closing her eyes bringing his hand to her lips to place a soft kiss against his knuckles.
"So." He pondered. "This Dominic. You were one of his charges, I assume?"
"Mmmm. He helped me adjust to circle life when I was brought in. Learning the schedule, studying, policies, things like that."
"You had a hard time adjusting?"
"Cullen I had just left my family and was only a young girl. I was in a strange place filled with people I didn't know. Not exactly the most comfortable situation." She chuckled and he smiled back at her.
"Of course, I'm sorry." He brushed her cheek and cleared his throat. "So, you two never...?"
Nora barked out a laugh and looked up at him. "Andraste's ass, No! Cullen the man was old enough to be my father."
Cullen couldn't help the sigh of relief that huffed from his chest. Noticing this, Nora giggled at his reponse. "You're adorable when you're flustered, you know that?"
He grunted and cocked an eyebrow back at her, taking his hand from hers and squeezing her thigh where he knew she was ticklish. "Oh? Well I'm glad you find my insecurites endearing and not irritating."
She giggled and squealed, trying to get away from him as his grip on her thigh tightened and he laughed at her failed attempt.
"Cullen! Stop that! I can't- Ah! That's not fair!" Her shreiks and both their laughter filled the room as he held her down and relentlessly continued to prod at the spot he knew would elicit such a response.
Laughing, she swung her legs over and sat in his lap. She brought her hands to his face and pulled him to her, catching his lips in a fierce kiss. He laughed into their embrace and loosened his firm grip on her legs into a soft caress, allowing her to relax and she sighed into him. He broke their kiss and beamed at her, placing a quick peck atop her nose.
"I'm sorry I got so jealous."
"It's alright, Cullen. But please talk to me when something is bothering you, I won't bite."
Cullen leaned forward and nipped at her neck, murmering into her as he did. "Mmmm, but sometimes I like it when you bite." He caught an earlobe in between his teeth and growled, causing her to arch into him and purr contentedly in response.
Nora let out a throaty laugh and leaned back onto the couch, pulling him on top of her. "Oh, really? Care to tell me what else you like?"
The scar on his lip twitched up in a smirked as he placed open-mouthed kisses to her neck, a soft moan escaping Nora as he responded. "Whatever my lady wishes".
"Commander." Leliana's tone was insistant and immediately it brought Cullen back from his thoughts, deep as they were.
Bringing his head back up and out of his hands he strained back at her, the beginnings of a stress headache scratching at the base of his neck.
"Yes, sorry. Let me be the one to tell her please, Leliana. This will be hard for her to hear."
She nodded in agreement. "Of course." She paused a moment, brow furrowing. "Will she be able to follow through with this?"
He glanced back at her in confusion, almost irritated. "Leliana I know they were close and that she cares for him, but she's a smart woman. She knows what needs to be done." He took a deep breath and sat up, leaning back into his chair as he replied. "She'll be fine, you underestimate her strength. They were good friends but she wouldn't put that above her duty. I knew Samson for years, called him a friend, even shared quarters with him at one point during our time in Kirkwall." - He gestured angrily with a hand to emphasize his sincerity- "But that doesn't mean I wouldn't put him down myself if I had the chance, knowing what I know now. After knowing what he's become."
"Yes, but you would still be here if Samson hadn't come into your life. That's not the case with her and Dominc. Had he not found her-"
With this Cullen threw a hand up, cutting her off. "Found her? Leliana, what in the Maker's name are you talking about?"
With this statement she winced slightly, her expression a mixture of sorrow and understanding. Her voice was barely above a whisper as she spoke to him as if she were apologizing, almost with pity.
"You don't know... Of course, I thought that might be the case."
Andraste's tears, why does she always have to be so cryptic? Cullen closed his eyes and pinched his brow, agitated and confused. "Leliana, Please. You know my distaste for mincing words. Just tell me what you mean to say."
She gestured to the chair Nora was previously sitting in, "May I?"
Cullen glanced up and nodded towards the chair. "Of course."
As she sat she unfolded the second page she had in her hands and placed it in front of him, atop the first one. "I want you to read this report as well. It's from quite some time ago, and details one of Sir Garin's assignments. The first part isn't important, start reading where I've marked the page."
What does this have to do with anything? Irritated, he started to read the report where an inkblot marked the third paragraph.
When I reached the source of commotion, I was met with a grizzly sight. Two girls no older than 12 or 13 were fighting for their lives-and losing- against a demon of rage.
One of the girls attempted to strike the demon with a bolt of lightening but was unable to control her spell, hitting myself as well as the demon and her young friend. My armour and wards absorbed the bulk of the damage for myself, but the other girl immediately fell. The demon was just a few feet from the remaining girl who was barely able to stand, clutching her side. I drew my sword and charged at the demon, but not before it took a swipe at the poor girl's face. She fell back into the tree behind her and crumpled like a leaf, I think she passed out.
Uninterested the demon then charged back at me, and I tripped stepping backwards. It swiped at my face and I was blinded briefly. I scrambled backwards and swung my sword blindly until I could see again. After some time I managed to dispel it and kill it.
I checked to make sure the area was clear before checking on both of the girls. The one struck by the stray lightening bolt was dead, the other was still alive, but only barely. Her face was a mess and the side of her shirt was blossoming red with blood quickly. I needed to do something about the gash in her side or she would die before I was able to take her anywhere. I didn't have any bandages with me, so I ripped off a piece of my tabard and bound her abdomen. She woke up halfway through this and was obviously startled. She threw her hands up, attempting to cast at me but was too weak. When I calmed her down enough and convinced her I was trying to help her she relaxed, allowing me to finish binding her. She couldn't stand and was delirious, I imagine from the blood loss. Once I made sure her binding was secure and she was somewhat stable, I took her on my horse and brought her to the Circle.
Cullen took a deep breath and sat back in his chair, still holding the report in front of him. "He was a good man, and from the looks of this report a good Templar. It's a shame what's become of him now. But," He placed the report down on his desk, "If this is your way of trying to make me feel pity for the man, it won't work. He's beyond saving."
"I know he is and I'm not trying to convince you otherwise, I'm trying to make you understand why the Inquisitor will have a hard time accepting that fact."
"And why would this-" He held the report in his hand, shaking it "-make any difference to her? It's a field report, one of many I'm sure. He saved the life of a young girl, which is admirable-"
"Commander, that report is how she met Sir Garin. SHE was that young girl."
His heart sank and he slumped back into his chair. Maker, no. Cullen couldn't decide if he was angry, saddened, confused or all at once. His thoughts were swirling in his head and he recounted all the times she casually changed the subject whenever he brought up her going to the circle. He had chalked it up to her habit of not sharing much about her childhood, she didn't talk to anyone about it.
Why hadn't she ever told me? I wouldn't have thought any less of her.
"Oh it was typical, you know. I got caught casting and was brought in. Nothing exciting", she would say.
He didn't press the subject because he didn't have any reason to believe otherwise. She'd told him that the scars she bore were from her inexperienced casting in the beginning, and learning to control her spells. He'd seen many mages with scars in his time in a Circle from their lack of training so he hadn't given it another thought.
He brought his gloved hands up and dragged them down his face, the leather from his gloves scraping against his stubbled jaw. This day just keeps getting better and better, he thought, exhaling.
"I... Had no idea, she never told me."
She nodded. "I thought that might be the case, which is why I brought the report. I assumed you reading it would mean more than me simply telling you." Taking a deep breath she sat forward and placed a hand over his. "Cullen, no one knows. She hasn't told anyone. I only know because it's my job to know. I looked her up when we took her prisoner in Haven."
Cullen was taken aback at the sudden show of compassion. Leliana was not one for warm gestures, and not often did she use his name instead of his title. Nodding, he offered a curt smile and squeezed her hand in thanks. "Thank you, Leliana. Does anyone else know? About what happened to her, I mean."
Taking her hand back she leaned back into the chair and shook her head. "No, Commander. Only myself. I didn't see a need to make it public knowledge."
Cullen nodded, his head feeling heavy."Thank you. Aright. I know she had training with Helaine this afternoon and then was meeting Bull for drinks in the tavern tonight but we had arranged to meet afterwards. I'll tell her then. As for what needs to be done..." He took a deep breath and looked the Spymaster in the eye. "She will be able to do this. If she falters, or shows any signs of not being able to... I'll be there to finish the job myself."
With this Leliana nodded and stood up from her chair, taking her reports and turning to leave. As she reached the door to his office, Cullen stood up and called out to her.
She turned to face him. "Yes Commander?"
"Thank you for bringing this to me, and thank you for your... discretion."
With this she left and Cullen slumped back into his chair, looking at the reports scattered across his desk. He got to work. Blindly signing reports and missives while he tried to wrap his mind around the situation, and how he was going to tell the woman he loved that she was going to have to take the life of the man who saved hers.
Maker, give me strength.
Chapter 3: Blighted Song
Cullen gives Nora the news about who the Red Templar is, and they prepare to leave in the morning.
Warnings for strong language and mentions of self-harm.
This chapter was hard to write, for personal reasons. It took me a while to get it out but I'm pretty happy with how it ended up. As always, feedback is always appreciated :-)
Cullen made his way across the battlements toward Skyhold’s main keep, footsteps heavy on the stone as he tried to keep a neutral expression to passersby. Usually heading to Nora’s quarters had him smiling and feeling as though nothing could ruin his mood; being in her company was the best part of his day. Today however, was a different story. He knew that what he was about to tell her, what he had to tell her, would break her heart.
Thankfully when he walked through the Rotunda Solas was too busy painting another mural to even acknowledge him, and the main hall had so many people in it that his presence went unnoticed as he trudged through.
When he opened the door to her quarters and strode up the stairwell into her chambers, he was relieved to see that she hadn’t returned from the tavern yet. Having the room to himself for a few moments would give him the chance to come to terms with what he was going to say, how he was going to say it and calm himself.
He took off his gloves and tossed them onto her desk next to her bottle of brandy, relishing in the feel of the cool air hitting his hands. It was in this moment he noticed the tray holding a bowl of stew, some grapes, a tankard of ale and a note next to it. He picked it up and smiled when he read the messy scrawl across the paper.
------'Missed you at dinner, you work too hard. Eat up, I won't be too late. Nora.'
She’s too good to me.
He had indeed skipped dinner, instead burying himself in the stack of seemingly endless reports on his desk. He quite often skipped dinner to work. Sometimes it was because there were a particularly large number of requests to deal with, and other times it was simply because he did not want to deal with the business and noise level of the hall during supper hours. It was the habit of him skipping meals to work that had started the habit of Nora bringing food to him instead, and they often shared their meals that way in his office. Today however he couldn’t even eat in private, not while his mind was whirling with what he needed to tell Nora.
He was brought back from his thoughts by the sound of the door opening followed by the soft footfalls he immediately recognized as Nora’s jogging up the steps.
He turned to the stairway as she arrived at the top and smiled when he saw her. As she crossed the room and sauntered towards him she started untying her hair from it’s braid, letting it fall loose over her shoulders and spill down her back. She hummed softly as the last pin came out, shaking her head slightly to toss out the few remaining strands and visibly relaxed.
Maker, she’s a beautiful woman.
She sees him waiting for her and she smiles ear to ear, quickening her pace to a jog. She reaches him and slides her hands into his fur mantle, pulling herself up to meet his gaze and place a quick peck on his cheek in greeting.
“I thought you’d be here- You didn’t touch the food I had brought up for you?”
“Ah, I’m not particularly hungry tonight, love.”
She cocked her head in response and her brow furrowed when she questioned him. “Oh? Why not? Is it one of your headaches again? I still have a few salves here if you’re out.”
“No, it’s not that I just… I have something I need to talk to you about before we leave tomorrow morning.”
He felt her hands trail to his breastplate and when he looked down at her, her brow was pinched, face scattered with worry. “Oh Cullen is it your family? Are Mia or one of the boys sick?”
"No no, nothing like that. They're fine." Clearing his throat he clarified, “It’s an Inquisition matter.”
“Alright, let’s hear it.”
"When Leliana came to see me today after we had lunch, she brought me some troubling information."
"She brought me a report from years ago, it was detailing one of Dominic's assignments."
Her eyes narrow and she shifted on her feet, backing away from him slightly. "That's.... Odd."
Cullen studied her expression, but it was too hard to tell if she’d caught on yet so he continued.
"Yes I thought so too. I read the report, and it was... Difficult to get through, to say the least. What he did for you... Had he not been there..." He took a step toward her and took her hands into his, looking into her eyes. "Maker, Nora. Why didn't you tell me?"
Nora looked at her feet, avoiding eye contact and started to scrunch her fingers in his palm.
"Tell you what? I don't know what -"
"Nora" He interrupts. He took her hands and she looked up at him, tears in her eyes. "I know. How you were brought to the circle, what he did for you... What happened to your friend."
She nods and her lip quivers, voice barely above a whisper as she responded. "I didn't want to tell you. I didn't want..."
He looked at her and cupped her cheek.
Abruptly she scrunched up her face and looked at him, eyes blazing and teary, full of anger. "That! That right there is why I didn't tell you. I didn't want you to look at me like... Like that!" Stepping back she gestured aggressively towards the pained expression on his face and started pacing back and forth, fidgeting with the buckles along her hip and started to unhinge the flask from her belt.
Confused, he takes a step towards her pacing and questions her. "What are you talking about?"
She turned quickly on her heel and snapped at him. "With pity!! 'Oh poor Nora, the stupid mage child who couldn't control herself and had to be rescued'. I'm not some child Cullen, and I don't appreciate being treated like one."
"Nora I’m not-"
She cuts him off and spat her reply back at him. "Of course our spymaster found out, but why did she tell you?!? What does it have to do with anything!? You don't even-" Suddenly she stopped, sighing and placing her fingers on the bridge of her nose, attempting to collect her thoughts.
"I'm sorry, Cullen. I shouldn’t be angry with you. I just..." She walked back to him and placed her hands in his. "I didn't want you to know, or to think less of me." She admitted, eyes once again brimming with tears.
Cullen is shocked, in awe of her. "Think less of you? Makers breath if anything I'm in awe of you."
She tilted her head in confusion as she inquired, "What are you talking about?"
"Nora, you went through something agonizing, traumatic and life-changing, at such a young age. And look at you now. You're an amazing woman, inspiring thousands to a worthy cause.” Cullen cupped her cheek again and pressed his forehead to hers. “Not many could go through what you want through and become what you have. Not many would have survived." He kissed her forehead wraps his arms around her, pulling her close into a deep embrace. After a moment he murmured into her hair, sighing in his confession. "I know I wouldn't have."
"That's horseshit and you know it. You went through Kinloch AND Kirkwall and look at you." She grasped his fur mantle and smiled up at him admiringly, stirring heat in his chest. "Commander of the Inquisition's army. People look up to you, admire you, respect you. They look to you for guidance and strength." She smirked up at him and tugs his mantle, pulling him closer to her. "Not to mention you’re the most handsome man in Thedas."
With this he chuckled, and he feels her lips press softly to his. He allows this moment of happiness between them, savoring how relaxed they both are. She pulls away shortly and takes his hands again. Looking up at him her eyes narrow and apprehension washes over her expression.
"I'd appreciate it if we could keep this... What happened to me I mean... Between us. It isn’t something I want people to talk about."
He nodded in confirmation, a reassuring smile offering her comfort. "Of course, love."
Nora walked over to her desk and casually leaned onto it, taking a grape off of the plate and popping it into her mouth. “So,” she inquired in between chewing, “I get that you wanted to talk to me about this, but why tonight? Why not wait until after we got back?”
Andraste preserve me, this is not going to go well.
"I just...” Cullen struggled to find the words and Nora was becoming increasingly suspicious with every second of silence that passed. “There's something you need to know before we leave for the red Templar encampment in the morning and-“ He faltered, not sure he was choosing the right words, trying to soften the blow as much as he could. “I just- I wanted you to know that I understand what he did for you, and why you care so deeply for him."
Nora placed a hand on her hip in response and stood up, her brow cinching together. Her free hand pinched the bridge of her nose and she sighed, clearly irritated.
"Cullen, I thought you said that you weren't jealous when I wrote him, and that you trusted me"
"I'm not, love. And I do trust you." He assured.
"Then why bring this up now, of all times? The night before we leave?"
Cullen takes a few steps toward her and took her hands into his and sighed, eyes narrowing and brow furrowing in sadness.
"What Cullen? Andraste's tits, out with it!"
"Nora, love. I'm so sorry."
She glared at him in response with anger and fear flashing in her eyes. "Cullen. What are you saying? Is he gone? Maker, he's dead isn't he? Is that why he's stopped writing?"
He shakes his head softly and squeezes her hands in his. "No Nora, he lives."
"Then what is- " Suddenly her eyes widen when realization hits her like a stone wall. She let go of his hands and threw them back at him as she backed away, pulling at her hair and shaking. “No. No! No no no no no.”
Cullen reaches for her in an attempt to comfort her, "Nora he's-" but she swats him away just as quickly and glares at him, teeth bared.
She yells at him, emerald eyes wide and furious. "Stop! Don't you dare finish that sentence, Cullen!"
Nora started pacing back and forth, hands clenched into fists at her sides. She stopped in front of him and looked up at him, eyes brimmed with tears. She whimpers, voice cracking. "It's him, isn’t it? The red templar captain? The one I was joyfully talking to Bull about killing just moments ago in the tavern?"
His face is grim, and he nods silently in agreement. His voice is almost a whisper as he pulls her in and holds her, hand gripping the back of her hair and arms wrapped around her. "I’m so sorry, love."
He holds her for a moment, but it’s not long before the anger sets in and she rips herself from his hold, pacing madly again back and forth.
"Fucking shit, Fucking Corypheous. Fucking piece of shit war. Fucking red lyrium singing it's stupid BLIGHTED SONG!!" With this she grabbed the tankard from her desk and hurled it towards the wall in anger and Cullen had to sidestep to avoid being caught in the crossfire. The mug crashed into the window behind him and shattered the glass and with this Nora howled, unable to contain her anger and hurt any longer.
Cullen leapt towards her in long, hurried strides and wrapped his arms around her tightly. “Nora, it’s alright, it’s going to be alright.”
She fought his grasp and tried to rip herself from him, pounding her clenched fists into the steel of his breastplate, screaming. “Let me go Cullen, LET ME GO!” All the while her face was becoming more and more drenched with tears as they streamed down her face, plastering tendrils of her red hair to her cheeks. Cullen can feel heat on his breastplate, at first chalking it up to his hold on Nora. However when he looks down he sees that Nora’s hands are glowing amber and his breastplate is scorched, embers licking the design.
Maker she’s so upset she’s losing control of her casting. Do something, Rutherford!
He squeezes her tighter and holds her in place and she screams again, no words just sobs mixed with angry huffs. He feels his breastplate heating further and winces in pain as the skin on his chest heats up against the fabric of his undershirt.
“Nora! Nora Stop! NORA! LISTEN TO ME!” He pleads, his fingers clamping down into the skin on her back through her shirt. Finally, he feels her go limp and her once-clenched fists fall into tired hands slipping down his plate. His plate instantly cools and he can feel her shoulders shuddering as she tries to choke back her sobs.
“Shhh, hush. It’s alright Nora, it’s going to be alright.” He assured her, bringing a hand up to caress her cheek and pull the hair from her face.
Her voice cracks and she lets out a soft sob as she pounds a fist into his plate. “Fucking shit." She cries into him and he holds her, eyes squeezed shut, feeling her pain and wishing he could take it away.
"I know he saved your life once, Nora, but he's not the same man now. It's not really him anymore."
"You don't understand, Cullen. He didn't save my life just once."
With this admission he frowned, and tilted his head down at her in confusion, eyes narrowing and urging her for further clarification.
"I tried to kill myself. Twice. Just after being brought to the circle. He found me both times and covered it up so the first enchanter wouldn't know."
Cullen felt his heart heavy in his chest and a lump form in his throat. Hadn’t this poor woman been through enough?
"Oh, love. I didn't-"
She cut him off and snapped back at him. "Do you know what they would do if they found out I tried to kill myself? If they found out how unstable I was? You’re a Templar, Cullen."
Cullen winced. "They would have made you tranquil."
"Yes. He saved me from a demon, he saved me from myself, and he saved me from being made Tranquil."
She sighed and continued with her story. "The first time he found me I had stolen a knife from dinner, and tried to cut myself later on in my quarters. The knife was too dull of course, but it didn't stop me from trying or doing damage. I had made a habit of coming to see him after dinner and he would read to me in the library, he came to find me when I didn't show up that night."
Cullen swallowed and grimaced, "Nora, you don't have to-" But before he could continue she cut him off again with a wave of her hand.
"The second time was only about a week later, but I was smarter about it. I asked the first enchanter if I could use one of the rooms to study and concentrate on learning the casting of a lighting spell. I said I wanted a quiet and darker place to practice, since I needed to concentrate. I had already been practicing a spell that was commonly used for lighting candles, but the first enchanter didn't know that."
Cullen looked at her and cinched his brow in confusion, prompting her to explain further.
"I lit myself on fire, Cullen."
Cullen winced, and feels his heart break. Why did she feel the need to do this to herself?. "Oh, Nora. I-"
She shook her head and cut him off yet again. "When Dominic realized that I wasn't in the common room like I normally was, he asked around and found out where I was. When he found me he ripped a drape down and put the flames out with it. After that he cursed at me, called me a stupid child, and not to ever do that to him again. He told me that it didn't matter if he had to watch me constantly, he wouldn't let me hurt myself. He told me that if I hurt myself I was hurting him, and that I owed it to him not to do that."
She smiled to herself at the memory as she recited his words:
"'I saved your life' he said, 'I won't see you waste it. I fought for you! Don't make my effort be in vain.' Afterwards he brought me to my chambers and he snuck some ointment from the healers - or bribed one of them for some, I don't know - and then I used a minor healing spell I had learned on my arm."
Cullen rubbed his hand along her forearm and looked down at it. "That’s how you go the burn marks on your arm."
Nora nodded "Mhm."
She chuckled nostalgically. ”His tabard got singed in the process, and when he was asked about it the next day he told the first enchanter that he had tripped and knocked a candle over from a desk. 'foolish me, I should have been more careful' he said. "
Cullen continued to listen to her intently and rubbed soft circles into her wrist with his thumb.
"From that day on he watched over me, and I never tried to hurt myself again. We would spend evenings in the library studying, and he would always find a way to be nearby when I was training. He would check in on me during his off hours, and when I left for the Conclave, we started writing letters to each other. His way of checking in on me and making sure I was well, I suppose. By then I was well, we both knew that, but we had grown close so keeping in contact just felt like the right thing to do. He is-" she looked down and choked back a sob, correcting herself. "He was a good man."
With this Cullen pulled her close again, and she started to cry softly.
She whispered into his mantle, "How could he do this? He was such a strong man, such a good man, Cullen. Why would he do this?"
He kissed her hair, still holding her. “I don't know, pet, but he's made his choice. I’m..." He trailed off, unsure of how to continue. "I’m afraid you have to now make yours."
She pulled from him and nodded her head in acknowledgement, bringing her hands once again into his.
"If you can't do this Nora, I would understand. I could-"
She pressed a finger to his lips and shook her head.
"I need to do this."
He nodded. "Alright. But regardless I'm going to be there for you. For whatever you need."
"Thank you." She looks up at him and he kisses her forehead again, wishing he could take away her pain.
"Cullen if I... If I show any signs of... If I can't..." He feels her shudder against him as she starts to cry and he hushes her, holding the back of her head and wrapping his arm around her.
"Hush, love. Yes. I'll be there."
"I love you."
"I love you too, Nora." She quiets and he feels her relax. "You need to rest; we've a long day tomorrow."
She clears her throat and nods. "Yeah, you're right. But I can't sleep right now, my head is a fucking mess." She runs her hand through her hair, a nervous habit not unlike Cullen's neck scratching that she so often reminds him of.
“Will you stay with me tonight? I need to sleep but I don’t want to sleep alone.”
Cullen nodded and took her hand and they walked towards the bed. “Of course. I’d be glad to.”
“And then,” she squeaks, eyes glinting with tears from laughing so hard, “She just DROPS the tankard in front of him and storms off! Ale went everywhere!”
Cullen threw his head back and laughed, clutching his midsection. “There’s no way that Bull didn’t get the hint. He’s ben hassrath!”
She smirked and chuckled in response. “Oh, he knew. He just didn’t care. Plus,” She added with a smile, “He and Dorian are pretty serious by now. And even if they invited another person into their bedroom, I doubt it’d be someone as dim as her.”
They had been up talking for over an hour. They both knew that they needed to rest up for the morning’s ride, but Cullen knew that Nora needed this; Something to laugh about and ease her mind so she could get a restful sleep. Cullen had chosen to ask her about how drinks with Bull went, and turns out there was a particular tavern girl who had her sights on Bull. She shamelessly flirted and threw herself at him, but he pretended to not notice.
Cullen laughed, "Ah yes, I think I know the one. I've seen her talking to Bull a few times. Clueless, that one is."
Nora quirks up eyebrow up at him and smirks "Oh, you've NOTICED HER, have you?"
He scoffs and chuckles. "Oh not like that, you know what I mean."
Nora shrugged and cocked an eyebrow and flashed her teeth with a mischievous grin. "Well I’VE certainly noticed her." She winks at him "She's got great tits."
Cullen blushed at her brashness. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to that. "Makers breath Nora!"
Nora let’s a throaty laugh escape and sits up, now looking down at him, still resting his head on his hand. "Oh come on, Cullen. You can't honestly tell me that you've never noticed them before. They practically spill out of her top! And when she brings drinks to the table, she always leans forward just a bit more than she needs to. Nice view."
Cullen laughs and slips an arm around her hip as he pulls himself up and kisses between her breasts. "Well, they're not nearly as nice as yours."
She giggles in response and leans down to kiss him. He can feel the longing in her kiss, but she’s holding back. He places a hand on her cheek and pulls her down.
Sighing as she pulls her face from his she peers down at him. "I love you. I know that I'm hard to deal with and irrational and a general pain in the ass, but I don't t know what I'd do without you. Tomorrow’s going to be...." She trails off and he looks at her.
"I know. And I love you too. Whatever you need, I’m here. Always."
With that she lowered herself back down to the mattress and curled into his side, fingers tracing absent-mindedly over the scars on his chest. They stayed like this for some time and Cullen made sure to keep himself from the pull of sleep until he feels Nora’s hands stop, and feels the slow gentle rhythm of her breathing, proof she has been taken by the Fade. As he lay there, he said a silent prayer to the Maker, asking for strength for himself and Nora tomorrow, and their seemingly impossible task.
It’s only then that he allows himself to fully relax and close his eyes, quickly succumbing to sleep.