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All This Mistletoe

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You have been in love with Cassandra Pentaghast since the beginning of time. These days, you count recorded history from the moment you fell out of an impossible hole in the sky and into Cassandra's custody. Even shackled and on your knees in the prison as she questioned you, the fire in her eyes set something ablaze in you.

That blaze still burns. Every time you turn, Cassandra. At your shoulder, at your back, surging forward to defend your honor and your person, Cassandra. You have been through hell and high water together. Somehow her faith in you has never wavered despite her initial suspicions, despite the impossibility of a Qunari Herald. You are the Inquisitor and she is your right hand, and neither of you would be here without the other.

She comes to you in your quarters at Skyhold. She is weary, not quite limping. She has been training. She is always training.

"Have a seat," you suggest, and she slumps gingerly into a corner of the sofa, as much as her armor will allow. The nights have been cold the past few weeks. You've been spending a lot of time on the sofa in front of the fire, trying to remember what relaxation feels like. You wonder if Cassandra has ever known that kind of ease.

"I am sorry," she says, "I do not know why I came. I was not thinking of which way my feet carried me."

"That seems like a good decision on the part of your feet," you tell her. "In the back of your mind, you knew you needed something from me, and now you're here. Together I'm sure we can figure out what it is. Weapons? Resources? Dating advice?"

She sighs, shaking her head at each of your suggestions. "I should go," she says.

"Stay a while," you say.

"No, I…" she begins and trails off. She looks exhausted.

"Cassandra," you say, pouring her a measure of liquor from one of the bottles you've picked up around Thedas. "As the Inquisitor, I order you to stay on that sofa until you look like you'll make it back down the stairs."

"I am a little tired," she admits. She sips at the liquor and sighs again, but she seems happier.

She shifts and her armor clinks gently. You know what that armor feels like. You remember what it felt like to put it on the first time, how heavy it was, even what the outfitters called the light armor. You felt hampered, caged, even shackled. That kind of protection comes with its own burdens. You know the weight of it. Wearing it protects you, makes you stronger as it weighs you down, until it's just the set of your shoulders against it that you feel and not the heft of the metal. Cassandra has been living in her armor, and only Cullen and Bull wear heavier plates. Her strength is unimaginable; her weariness must exceed it, for her to be here.

"Why don't you slip into something more comfortable?" you tease her, sitting at the other end of the couch. You don't wear your armor around Skyhold - your uniform is a surprisingly informal tunic and breeches - but you've rarely seen Cassandra without hers. You're not even certain she has other clothes, when you think about it. She wears less in the courtyard than she does outside the walls of Skyhold, but she's still sheathed in leather and steel. She's even still wearing her gloves.

"It would take a hour at least to get all of this off by myself," she says. "I will remain uncomfortable."

"You need a squire," you tell her.

She is leaning back against the cushions, eyes closed. "I have no patience for a squire. I cope well enough by myself."

"Ah, Cassandra," you say, letting her hear the fond exasperation in your voice, "when will you let someone take care of you?"

"When the world is safe," she says.

"For tonight, imagine that it is," you tell her. "And let me care."

She opens her eyes. Your eyes question hers; after a moment, she nods assent. She keeps watching you as you reach for the buckles at her wrists. You work her gloves off gently, one at a time. Her hands are well-maintained: callused but clean, her nails clipped evenly. You begin to undo the straps at her shoulder that hold her together, piling the shaped plates on a nearby table. They slide and clank against each other, even when you wedge them with the leather pieces that protect her arms and throat. None of it stacks well. The armor doesn't know what to be when it isn't against her body. It doesn't make sense without the shape of her. The Inquisition is a lot like armor in that way. So is the Inquisitor.

You stand up and move around her to get the buckles at her back and sides. Her hair smells like sweat. It isn't unpleasant. In a way, it's endearing. She has come to you straight from slashing at dummies in her fervor to be better, stronger, pure and faithful. Cassandra, hard-working, genuine, unconcerned with artifice Cassandra, sweats out her doubts on the training ground. It has a clean and honest smell. She long ago worked out any sourness inside her, you think. When you lean around to loosen the sections in the front, you catch a whiff of mint. She chews it sometimes when she's concentrating. She was cranky when Cole stole all of it from the kitchen. You went out and picked some more for her, offering it to her offhand as you talked through a mission. She shies away from any gesture of affection, usually, but she took the mint. You're pleased to smell it now. The sharp scent of it mingles pleasantly with her sweat and the round metal scent of her armor.

Your fingers are certain-sure as they move over the seams of her. You've worn enough armor yourself by now to know how it fastens. There are easy ways to do this, shortcuts to take, buckles to leave buckled for easy dressing, but you undo each and every one, lifting the pieces away from her like peeling an orange in regular sections. What a pretty tableau it probably makes, the Inquisitor caring for one of her trusted advisors. Josephine would be pleased to offer the image as proof of your enduring compassion, rather than the truth of it: you caring for Cassandra, aching for the chance to show it, to return to her any measure of the kindness she has shown you.

She sighs, relaxing more and more into the couch with every shed segment of shaped armor, metal or hide. It's all been fitted to her expertly. The relief in taking it off must be mixed for her. Is she the Seeker without her armor? Are you the Inquisitor alone in your quarters, with no troops to command? You adjust the stacked pieces on the table: her shoulders, her neck, her arms. Pauldron, gorget, vambrace. Words as ordinary now as "shirt" and "breeches".

"I hate to ask you to stand up when you're just settling in," you say, "but that's all I can do from here."

"I suppose I could oblige you," she says, sipping at her whiskey. You offer her a hand. She clasps your hand firmly and you haul her to her feet. She gazes at you with heavy-lidded concentration, passing her glass back and forth as you move around her. You unbuckle the various belts that hold her together and lift away the plates from her belly and back, and then the leather harness. The padded vest she wears underneath is damp and warm. You help her out of that too. She'll shiver as her clothes dry. You'll have to build up the fire. But first, there's the lower half of her to shell.

You undo everything that can be undone. The process is exquisitely slow and you take your time. You kneel in front of her to remove the cuisses and greaves that cover her thighs and calves. You lean your forehead against her knees as you work, the way you might with a favorite horse. Your horns nudge against her thighs. She doesn't seem to mind. She shifts gently from foot to foot at your unspoken request.

Despite everything, you can be vulnerable with her, and she allows herself to be vulnerable with you. You wonder how long it has been since she has been Cassandra with anyone: not the Lady Seeker or the seventy-eighth in line for the throne of Navarra or the Right Hand of the Divine, but just Cassandra, whoever that might be. You dimly remember who you were before the anchor marked you, but you're someone else these days. Someone brave and noble. Someone worthy of kneeling before such a woman as this. Meanwhile, Cassandra Pentaghast is a landmark of the Inquisition, a fortification of leather and steel. You wonder if she feels liberated by her lack of armor or stripped bare. For now, she seems content, and you gaze up the front of her and try to memorize the softness of her smile as she looks back down at you.

"You can sit," you tell her, and she sinks gratefully back onto the couch so you can pull off her boots. They come off with a jerk. You set them on the floor next to the couch. The leather is well-worn. Cassandra's boots have seen so much. They slump over, either resting or robbed of their purpose. You lean back on your heels, looking at her. She is down to the inner layers of her clothing: a silk shirt crumpled and damp, breeches of soft fine wool. The firelight plays over her face. Her eyes are closed and her lashes smudge above her cheekbones like soot. A fragment of poetry floats through your mind, just another treasure looted from a place you've forgotten, the only gift you have left to give her.

"O lady," you say, "I swear by all flowers."

"Which flowers?" she asks, her tone indulgent. "In Nevarra, it would have mattered."

"Which flowers would I have sworn by in Nevarra?" you ask.

"You?" She opens her eyes and studies you. "Irises, I think. Faith, wisdom, valor. Enduring friendship." She snorts. "All the things I still have in my head after all these years."

"Enduring friendship," you say. "Is that all?"

"Do not underestimate the value of a dear friend," she says, "but you're right. I know your tendencies better than that. It isn't your valor you would wish to communicate to me. You might have sent mistletoe, tied with a red ribbon. An unlikely choice, but an unmistakable message. You know the berries are poisonous. If you had felt traditional, you would have sent daffodils, sheaves of them, yellow as sunshine."

"I'm quite the sophisticated courtier in this fantasy," you tease her.

"Whatever gesture you made would be extravagant," she says. "You never do anything by halves."

"And what would I have gotten in return, in this other life you're imagining?" you ask, rising from the floor and settling yourself at the other end of the sofa. It isn't large, but there is some space between you. You're turned toward each other, your knees crooked across the cushions. You pour yourself a measure of liquor, inhaling the delicate scent of roses.

"An elegant box bound with a ribbon," she says. "When you opened it, you would have found rose leaves, glossy and green, gleaming against golden tissue."

"And what do rose leaves mean, my lady?" you ask.

"'You may hope'," she says, and raises her glass to you. You take a sip, savoring the warmth of it on your tongue. More poetry rises in your mind, wafting up like the breath of the liquor.

"I was a fool to pluck that flower / For my lady fair," you tell her. "On my honor I / Swear to bring you dozens more within the hour / If you give me leave to try."

"Leave the bees to Sera," she says, smirking a little, "but I may grant you leave to ply me with a bouquet or two, within reason."

"And here I thought you'd already stated your objections to my cause," you say. "Am I not still your leader, and the Inquisitor, and a woman, not to mention Qunari?"

She props her elbow on the back of the sofa and rests her head on her hand. "The world I thought I knew some months ago has changed completely. Perhaps my objections are relics of that past."

"Are you certain it's your feet that brought you here?" you tease.

"Perhaps it was the scent of roses," she says, swirling the liquor in her glass. "Perhaps I had a yearning for poetry I knew you could satisfy."

You sit quietly, acutely aware of the inches between your knees. It would be easy to shift and touch her. Instead, you rise and put a few more logs on the fire, stirring the flames until they jump.

"There's mistletoe in the oak in the courtyard," you say, staring into the fire. "Shall I go cut it for you? I think we're beyond subtle nuance."

"You have never hidden your intentions," she says. "Even back at Haven, as I recall. I admire that about you."

"Anything else you admire about me?" you tease.

"The view from here has a certain appeal," she says.

You chuckle. "You don't do anything by halves, do you, Seeker?"

"Never would I have denied that you're a magnificent figure of a woman," she says. "I might have denied your effect on me, but never a fact verifiable by simple observation."

"And what is, exactly, my effect on you?" you ask, returning to the sofa.

"Something I find difficult to describe," she says. "I have never been a woman of many words. Perhaps that is why I find myself drawn to poetry."

"Or the language of flowers," you suggest wryly.

She snorts again. "Yes," she says, "the next time we visit the Hinterlands, I'll gather a bouquet and all shall be revealed."

"You're pretty close to being revealed right now," you say. "Are you warm enough?"

She smooths the silk of her shirt over her stomach, as if she forgot that she was nearly in a state of undress. "We might move closer to the fire."

There's a pile of fennec furs in a chest by the fireplace. You think Cullen arranged for them to be brought to your quarters, along with a handsome rug made from the skin of a great bear, but you don't think he imagined them used for this purpose. You pile the furs on the rug, supplementing them with a cushion or two from the bed, and Cassandra nestles into them. You sprawl next to her and divide what's left of the liquor between your glasses. There was never much of it, and it's your favorite. You're happy to have shared it with her.

"To poetry," you say, touching the edge of your glass to hers.

"To the language of flowers," she says. "And to mistletoe."

You drink the last of the liquor and lie on your back, propping your head up with one of the cushions. Cassandra lies on her side, her head resting on her fist, her back to the flames.

"Wasn't there something you found in the Hinterlands?" Cassandra asks. "Something with peaches in it. We'll have to try that one next time."

"Next time?" you murmur.

"Naturally," she says. "Did you expect to get me out of my breeches on the first try?"

"I honestly had no expectations whatsoever," you tell her. "I certainly couldn't have predicted you'd ever let me help you out of your armor."

"It seems a mercy that we still have this," she says. "That we are able to surprise each other, after everything that has happened. These moments are precious to me."

You're opening your mouth to agree when she leans down and kisses you, pressing the length of her body against yours. You roll onto your side, careful not to break the embrace, and pull her closer. You fit together surprisingly well; perhaps you have shaped each other like armor, through sweat and toil, hammering against each other in the forge of the Inquisition. She kisses with more passion than skill, more yearning than subtlety. The hunger in her is palpable. How long since someone held her this way? How long since someone honored her body with the tenderness and care she deserves? Too long, you think, stroking her hair, her back, her thigh. Too long since someone kindled this particular fire inside her and tended the embers until they caught and burned high and pure and hot.

Her mouth slides against yours and she kisses your cheek, your throat, your jaw. You turn your head and find her lips again, letting your tongue brush hers. She moans and deepens the kiss further. Her fingers fumble at the fastenings of your tunic, but when it's open, she just touches her fingertips to the place above your heart, and something in her kiss is enough to make you gasp. What a gift she is giving you. What a garden of possibilities she has sown: a place of healing and peace, a space for laughter and passion. A labor of love. Above all, that.

You kiss, and kiss, and kiss, and kiss, stretched against each other. She wraps her arms around you as if she could cradle you against her. You trust that she could despite your relative sizes. Her strength is immense and her determination could dwarf a giant. She seems determined now to kiss you until you forget both your names along with your mission. One day, when the war is over, if the war is ever over, if the two of you survive and neither of you is sitting on a throne, you'll let that happen. You'll labor in love, your four hands making all your shared burdens lighter. You may even plant a garden, unruly beds of healing herbs and lovely flowers. Until then you kiss and kiss until you're both dizzy with wanting and some measure of the tension between you has been either released or heightened. You're too overcome by the weight of her against you to be certain.

Eventually, mouth tender and body heavy with desire, you help her out of the tousled nest of furs and wrap her in a robe, bundling her armor into a package she can carry with her. She is certainly warm through now, despite the chilly stone of Skyhold. She slips her boots back on and stretches up for a last kiss.

"You could stay," you murmur.

"Another time," she promises. "I would like to plan this better."

"Of course you would," you say, taking her hand in yours and kissing her knuckles.

She smiles. Her cheeks are flushed and her eyes are dreamy. You imagine, from the sinuous way she stretches, that she feels the same satisfactorily unsatisfying torpor of unconsummated longing. "I would like a bath, to begin with," she says, "A simple pleasure, cleanliness, but a profound one, especially in such a moment. And it would be nice to have an assurance of breakfast for two."

"I can do that," you tell her.

She reaches up to cup your face. "I'll bring mistletoe," she says. "And I'll let you talk me out of my breeches, most likely."

"Will I get to see your silky undergarments?" you tease. "How much lace should I expect?"

"Have you forgotten?" she asks, pressing up against you briefly. "I don't wear underwear. But I'm sure you look spectacular in lace, and just as spectacular out of it."

She slips down the stairs before you can reply. You stretch out again in front of the fire and stare into the flames until your eyes are as dazzled as the rest of you.