Dragon Age Fan Fiction – Chapter V

For those of you familiar with the game series, this is my non-canonical idea of the Warden taking a vacation in Kirkwall with an old friend.  For all of you who have been kind enough to have followed along all this time, I hope you enjoy!

*To read all the previous tales in their entirety, please visit my A03 page.

FereldanConceptArt

I

The journal that held all the stories – the triumphs, the defeats, the friendships, the romance, the laughter, and the tears – had grown tattered throughout the year. I’m not certain when I started writing in it I had any idea of how much I would have to tell. In the end, I discovered I had lived quite the adventure. So how was it I was now sitting alone, hiding in the shadow of a great tree, to avoid being seen?

My lover had become king.

And I was now known as the Hero.

I didn’t feel like one at the moment. I hadn’t even felt like one when I sunk my blade into the archdemon, thereby ending The Blight. What was it to be a “hero” anyway?

I could imagine at the top of a list identifying such qualities, running like a coward was not among them. And yet, that was exactly what I was doing. At the end of a yearlong journey to end a terrifying threat and unite a country, I found myself alone and without purpose.

Ensuring he became king was a decision I would never regret, but the consequences of those actions separated us emotionally, and to ensure his legacy, I had to separate myself from him physically. It was beyond rational thought to expect me to stand by and watch him marry another in the hopes their union would produce an heir, and it would be cruel to flaunt our bond before his future wife as his mistress.

I had been making decisions for the welfare of my companions for a year, and this was just another decision that had to be made. He would never ask me to leave, but in time, his nobles may have had their sway. It was best to leave him while he was buried within all his new responsibilities; when it would be easy to distract himself from thoughts of me.

It was a kindness. Or so I kept telling myself.

I felt rather guilty that I was leaving him alone in his new role, but I had to trust that his advisors, especially Eamon, would offer him sound advice. He would learn to trust his instincts.

This was all that consumed my mind the first night I traveled from Denerim. I had decided to only travel at night, to avoid rumors of sightings of the Hero. I found myself thinking of some random thing and turning to talk to Sten or Zevran only to shake my head at such forgetfulness. I hummed Leliana’s tunes as a way to break the silence. At daybreak, I found refuge in an abandoned house. As I drifted off to sleep, I realized how difficult it would be to learn to sleep alone. I missed his warmth and comforting embrace, although the weeks prior to my desertion disappearancedeparture I had already distanced myself from him. I found such a predicament to be a lonely place.

I awoke at dusk, the wisps of sleep still blurring the edges of my mind, and reached out for him. I would not weep for the loss, but the first sting of tears burned the corners of my eyes, and so I admonished myself for the yearning. I had made my decision, and I had to live with it.

For three days I traveled like that – longing for my friends and their conversation, and waking up each morning missing him even more. Perhaps it was the knowledge that I was only a few days’ journey from his arms that made the pain of our separation so acute. When I was across the Waking Sea, out of arm’s reach, maybe then I could see beyond…this.

In the week’s that led up to his coronation, I had made quiet inquiries in regards to passage to Kirkwall. Cullen was there, and outside of my companions and those in the Circle, he was the only other person I knew. It would be good to see a friendly face, although his last letter to me had held notes of bitterness and anger. He had not recovered fully from his imprisonment at the hands of Uldred and his followers, and it seemed as if his new commanding officer, Meredith, was continuing to fan the flames of his fears.

I had no idea what sort of reception might be waiting for me, especially since I hadn’t announced my arrival. By the time I had everything in order for my travels, I realized that I would arrive most likely before a letter, and as I did not wish for any trail to be discovered of my whereabouts, I did not write him. Hopefully, given his state of mind he would still see me as his friend and not rouse the Order against me.

Although my Grey Warden status did exempt me from their rules, I still wanted to keep my presence secret so that I could figure out what it was I was supposed to do next.

I arrived in Amaranthine in the wee hours of the fourth morning and made my way to The Crown and Lion, an inn where Isabela said she would find me. I ordered a small meal and made my way to a corner table that would allow me the best vantage point of the place. I hid myself behind the hood of my cloak and waited for the pirate. Luckily I did not have to wait long.

Isabela sauntered in before I had made it halfway through my breakfast. She took long, assured steps across the inn, her hips swaying in a teasing manner. She had changed some since our first meeting. Her hair was longer, darker, her skin more golden, but her voice still held that mischievous tone. “Well, look at you. When my men told me we had an unexpected guest, I never would’ve guessed. I’d like to say the year’s been good to you, but, my sweet thing, you look terrible.”

“Is that how you welcome an old friend?” I stood up to shake her hand.

Her grip was strong, and she smelled of spices and the sea. “What is there if not the truth between friends? Was saving the world ever so rough?”

“It’s all been…rough.” I sat back down heavy.

“Hence the need for all this hush-hush business.”

“Aye. I do not wish to put you into a compromising position…”

“Compromise away, love.” Her soft laugh came as a welcome respite after the last few days of solitude, and I had to laugh myself.

“Given the current situation…”

“That situation being your lover on the throne of Ferelden and you being a mage.”

I shook my head solemnly, tears burning to be set free. I swallowed hard.

“Ah, I see. So you need a little quiet retreat into anonymity?”

“Yes, please.”

“Then why Kirkwall?”

“I have a friend there.”

Isabela smiled a knowing smile. “Mm hmm. Well, it is a bustling city full of Ferelden refugees. I’m certain you’ll blend right in.” She stared at me for a long moment. “And then what? Do you think it will be that easy to slip away?”

“No. I have no idea what I’m doing.”

“Perfect! Meet me on the docks when you’re ready.” She winked and sauntered out of the inn.

Keiko and I just looked at one another sort of confused.

II

Isabela was the only one aboard her ship who knew my true identity. Her crew had been given a few different tales about my background so that there was no one story to be told about their passenger. I was the cousin to some noble to a few, a sister of the Chantry to others, and even a mercenary to the rest. All of these stories left me at arm’s length, for who would want to cross a rich noble or the church, or risk crossing someone who could do them harm on the spot?

It was easy to keep to myself anyway. The crew had work to do; Isabela ran a tight ship. So when I wasn’t spending time on deck enjoying the sea air, I hid away in Isabela’s quarters. Even with so many people around me, I was lonely. I missed my people.

Isabela made for wonderful company when she had time to relax, which wasn’t often. Kirkwall, which was only a three-day journey, was one of many stops she and her crew would make for their current job. I didn’t want Isabela to feel obligated to keep me company, which was another reason I tucked myself away. I was content to lounge about and read; such luxuries had been nonexistent for nearly a year.

We would dine together and tell tales, drink a little too much wine, and laugh more than I would have thought myself capable of given my state of mind, but it was exactly what I needed. She never asked me about him. A subject I’m sure she would have happily interrogated me about, but she purposefully avoided the topic.

It would have been easy to regale her with stories of him, but as I recollected on my time with Izzy, I realized it was the first time he was not at the forefront of my mind. She was saucy and flirty and made a delightful distraction. She did however ask me about Zevran. The moment she said his name, I felt a pang in my chest.

Zevran and I shared a special bond. I suppose I shared a unique one with each of my companions. Zevran, however, no matter how innocent our banter always pulsed with an undercurrent of flirtation and possibility. During his coronation, Zevran had asked me if he were free of his debt to me – he had been for some time – but I was afraid he might leave given such knowledge. I assured him that was indeed free to pursue his own path, as long as it led back to Ferelden from time to time. He gave me that knowing look, the one that held a number of secrets and wisdom he was too quick to dismiss.

Suddenly I had a flash of a memory from our night gallivanting about Redcliffe when I was trying to avoid Morrigan’s plan…had Zevran and I kissed? I could see his face, close to mine, our hearts pounding against each other.

We had been drinking that night. It was sort of a blur. I think he had been showing me how to pick a lock when a knight happened upon us. We pretended to be lovers in the shadows…

“I don’t mean to interrupt your thoughts, well, actually, given that look upon your face, I do. You must tell me.” Isabela teased.

“I don’t think there is anything to tell.” I thought harder on that night. “There was always this undercurrent of tension between Zevran and I, but one night, when he was helping to keep me distracted, I think we nearly kissed.”

“If Zevran wanted to kiss you, he would have.”

“I’m certain of that, but that night, he was my friend. I would have been using him, and I could never do that to him. I was vulnerable, and he didn’t take advantage. I can’t believe I didn’t remember that, until now.”

“I must admit, I’m impressed. A king and a crow? Is there anyone you can’t seduce?”

I spit my wine out in a dramatic gesture of shock while I choked on my laughter.

“You don’t see it, do you?”

“I think you’ve had too much to drink, Izzy.”

“I can hold my liquor…and I can see how easy it was for them all to fall at your feet.”

I felt the deep crimson stain of blush creep up my cheeks. I thought of Cullen, but then I thought of the others – Teagan’s flirting, and whatever Sten and I shared – I did not have the kind of beauty that Isabela was implying. Looking at her, thinking on Morrigan, they were the beautiful ones. I just happened to be in a position that gave me notice, nothing more.

“I have no response.”

“Do you think it was your wit alone that brought together a nation?”

I sat dumbfounded for a moment. I had used a number of resources to get us to the end – my heart and my head for starters – but Isabela was suggesting that there were other factors. That could not be.

“I am by no means a beauty, and even if I were, that is not what brought us together.” I tried to shake off her comments.

“Oh sweet thing, the Circle did you no justice.”

Later that night, amidst the glow of candlelight, I tried to look at my reflection in one of Isabela’s mirrors. It was slightly dull and offered a distorted view. I stood there with hair unbound, casually dressed, and tried to see what Isabela was implying about me. My hair was my one beauty. It was long, full, and golden in hue. My mind turned to thoughts of him twisting my hair about his hand, twirling it about his fingers.

I was compelled to cut it off.

And then I thought of Cullen, untying my hair and running his hands through it.

I was still compelled to cut it off.

But otherwise, I did not see what she saw. Perhaps it had been the drink talking.

~*~

Kirkwall ConceptArt

On the third day, at sunset, we sailed into port at Kirkwall. It was just as uninviting as Cullen had described it. Isabela and I stood side by side on the bow, giving evil eyes to the two imposing statues that guarded the entrance – hideous reminders of the slave trade that once abounded here – and feeling the fear they must have instilled in the hearts of those brought here against their will.

I felt a flutter in my chest as we docked, and I departed Isabela’s ship, a little nervous of what may lay in store for me here. Keiko and I would know no one should Cullen turn us aside. Isabela offered me her hand, I gave her a hug instead; an action she was clearly uncomfortable with.

“How long do you plan on remaining in Kirkwall?” She asked.

“I guess it all depends.”

She gave me a crooked smile and reassured me that on her return she would seek me out, on the off chance I was still in the city. It would be nice to see her again.

The sounds of the city echoed down to the harbor and it was a pleasant sound – a bustling, thriving, full of life kind of music. Denerim had paid a great price in the final battle, and it would be some time before it returned to its “bustling” state – he would have his hands full  so it was nice to find such activity and livelihood untouched by the darkness…or so I thought on first impressions.

As quietly as I had left Ferelden, I entered Kirkwall just the same.

Keiko and I entered the city by way of a city guard blockade. I pulled my hood up and discreetly handed the guard a letter with the King’s seal. Before leaving Denerim, I had learned that many people were being turned away at Kirkwall’s gates as the city was over-capacity. Refugees were still seeking a safe haven, and unless they could prove they had legitimate business in the city, or could prove they wouldn’t be a burden on the city’s already over-encumbered resources, their entrance was barred.

So I did something I’m not overly proud of. I forged a document that would allow me uncontested access to anywhere I wished to go, as an emissary of the Ferelden court. A devious action, one I would blame on the influence of my more roguish friends, but one that granted me safe passage while keeping my true identity hidden.

The guardsmen gave me some direction on how to find the various areas of the city. My “letter” led him to believe I would wish to meet with the Viscount who was located in Hightown, but I knew I was headed to the Gallows, where the mages and Templars were housed. I asked casually how one might travel to the Gallows, as it was an island unto itself, and he pointed out the small boats at the end of the pier.

Not wanting rumors of a Ferelden ambassador seeking out the Knight Commander or First Enchanter before the Viscount, I made my way up a long staircase and entered the city, wondering how long I could wait before heading toward my true destination.

The city of Kirkwall was like an island of stone. There was so little greenery, even in the courtyards. And it was like a labyrinth – upper and lower levels, side streets and back alleys – and most of it looked the same. This seemed a strange place to call home. I had to wonder the truth of what Cullen had told me. Could he be happy here? I suppose if one had purpose, they could be happy anywhere.

I walked around the area known as Lowtown for a bit, mindlessly admiring the wares of the many vendors set up throughout the market district. Occasionally something would draw my eye, an object I knew one of my friends would like, and I would feel guilt and self-loathing knowing that by now were out looking for me.

I tried to brush off the feeling, and turned my attention to the retinue of guards making their way to the staircase that led to the docks. Luck was on my side, and I wouldn’t have to wait long – shift change.

It was a short ferry ride to the Gallows, and I found myself growing more nervous with each passing moment, consumed with a number of thoughts, the leading one being that I was making a mistake. As I made my way up yet another long staircase, my heart began to pound. I could hear it in my ears. My mouth went dry, and my breaths became uneven, and that was before I had even laid eyes upon him.

Perhaps it was the many, many Templars strolling through the square. It had been some time since I had been surrounded by so many, although I felt a small thrill at the fact that they no longer had any control over me. Still, I pulled my hood tighter around my face, and nonchalantly walked about the shadows of the square in the hopes I would see Cullen before he saw me.

I got my wish, but it was not what I had hoped.

III

Cullen stood regally against the framing backdrop of stairs and towering golden statues. His hair was shorter, although it had lost none of its curl. He seemed leaner; he was probably more active now than he had been in the small, quiet Circle of Kinloch. His armor was different as well, a move up in rank most likely.

A stupid, big smile broke out across my face. Seeing him again, after so long…it was one of the best sights I remember ever seeing. I wanted to run to him. I wanted to feel his arms around me, crushing me against that ridiculous armor. I wanted to hear that growl; a sound I hadn’t realized I had missed until that very moment.

But I couldn’t.

He was speaking with two other Templars in hushed, angry tones about a recruit. I caught the word abomination, and something about being aided by young woman and her companions. I drifted slightly closer and was surprised to hear his words against mages. “They must always be watched. Mages…”

His eyes met mine then. “…cannot be our friends.”

It was as if I had been kicked in the chest. I lost my breath and tears immediately stung my eyes.

I felt suddenly very lost.

Cullen’s face went pale, jaw slack, eyes wide as realization hit.

It was as I feared. I had made a mistake. I should never have come here.

Without a care for my anonymity, I ran. My hood fell back and my long braid whipped about me, and I thought, had I cut it off, maybe he would have second-guessed himself. Maybe he would have thought I just looked liked someone he once knew. But that damned braid gave me away.

Keiko padded alongside me and offered me a concerned whine.

Tears now ran freely, and my voice sounded small. “Maybe we can catch Isabela.” It was all I could think.

Behind me I heard him call out, “My lady!”

I didn’t stop running. I ran back down the stairs and to a boat awaiting a passenger, but the effort was useless. Cullen issued an order and the ferryman remained stationary.

I was trapped.

He motioned for the skipper to leave us, and the man did as he was commanded.

I sat down, defeated. He remained on the dock, looking at me in awe. His eyes were glossy and full of disbelief. Mine were now filled with angry tears as I looked at a once familiar face that could now be an enemy.

He held his hand out to me. “Please.”

I chewed my bottom lip, weighing my options. I looked from his hand to his face. It was a mixture of emotion. After a painfully long moment, I acquiesced and took it. When I stood before him, he placed my hand on his cheek. “It’s really you.”

I looked at him skeptically. Was he still the Cullen I knew?

“Why didn’t you send word?”

“And ruin the surprise of learning how you truly feel about me?” I pulled my hand away roughly.

“I…Andraste, preserve me…I didn’t mean that about you. I could never…” He took a step back and a pained look crossed his features. “I thought you dead.”

“Has word of the Hero not spread here?” It came out a bit more sarcastic than I planned.

He shook his head in confusion. “I learned that Wardens sacrifice themselves against an archdemon, and with your fellow Warden now on the throne, I thought that meant…” His voice drifted off. “Why didn’t you send me word?”

He was hurt. Was his outburst in the courtyard affected by his belief that I must have perished? His words still stung, but the thought of causing him undue fear and worry gave me new reason to feel guilt and regret. “I had wanted to surprise you. I presumed word of my survival as the Hero of Ferelden would have reached you…I would never deliberately leave you in ignorance…I am so sorry.”

Tears swam in his eyes, and my heart slammed against my chest. I motioned to reach out to him and he shook his head. “Not here.”

He took a step backward. I was suddenly pulled back to our current location and I looked around uneasy. “Well, this isn’t exactly how I pictured our reunion.”

The faintest hint of a smile flickered across his lips. “Nor I.” The tone of his voice changed as he tried to sound casual. “Where are you staying?”

“I haven’t made arrangements.”

He stepped closer and I swayed toward him. “I have my own place. It’s not much, but you could stay with me…if that’s not too forward, or inappropriate?”

His own place? Us alone? “You’re not in the Circle?”

“The Knight Commander thought I might better recover in my own space.”

“And I wouldn’t be imposing?”

“You? An imposition?” He leaned forward ever so slightly, and whispered, “Never.”

The look he gave me. The depth of emotion to be found there. It made me forget how to breathe.

He gave me directions to his home, handed me a key, and informed me that he would be would be off duty in about an hour. “And maybe I can try to give you a better reception this time.” His smile was small, wary.

I was a ball of unease as I watched him walk backwards away from me. It was almost as if he were afraid to turn his back and find that I was just a figment of his imagination. When his heel hit the first step, he turned begrudgingly and made his way back up the stairway slowly, turning a few times to see if I was still there. At the top of the stairs he stopped and bowed his head in a gesture of farewell. Or perhaps apology.

I stood rooted to the spot. What the hell had just happened? I looked at Keiko, who tilted his head to the side and gave me a look that imparted he was thinking the same thing. I opened my palm and stared blankly at the key.

Should I use it?

What other choice did I have?

Since our night in the tower, he and I had been building a friendship. He shared with me his thoughts and fears, so why now was his distrust of mages so palpable? Had something else happened to persuade him otherwise?

Maker’s Breath!

Perhaps despite first impressions, it was good that I arrived when I did. Maybe he needed a friend, who also happened to be a mage he could trust, at his side to help guide him through whatever was currently vexing him. I could only think that his letters to me had been void of a great many details, but then, why would he continue to write them if he believed mages, me, could not be trusted?

I had told him of our journey, and while I had left out my relationship with a certain someone, as a mage, I had led Ferelden to victory. I had not made any deals with demons. I had not resorted to blood magic. So could I not be an example to not only him, but also to those in power that not all mages should be feared?

Mages alone did not abuse their power, although, we did begin with a great deal more.

I took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly in the hopes it would steady my nerves. I returned to the boat and ushered the ferryman to return. When we docked once again on the other side, I offered him a few coin, for his discretion. He had not wandered far from us, and words like archdemon, and Wardens, and Hero had all been mentioned.

So much for the anonymity.

~*~

Cullen’s home was located in the nicer part of the city, Hightown. I found it without much trouble, although I took a wrong turn or two, once or twice. It all looked the bloody same.

When I entered his quaint dwelling, I was surprised at the sparse nature of his belongings. If he hadn’t told me he lived here, I would almost think the place abandoned. Daylight filtered in by way of a few small windows, but it did nothing to make the place any more inviting. There was a desk against the wall and it appeared to be the only thing habitually used. Everything else sat under a fine layer of dust.

On the desk sat my letters. They had been read often; the paper was worn where he regularly folded and unfolded them. I touched them gingerly, and felt my heart tug at the symbolic gesture in his actions.

There was one chair with a table beside it near the fireplace; a book about the Grey Wardens lay open on the chair. His bedroom held only a bed, a chest, and an armor stand, but it did have a larger window that overlooked the water.

I sat on the bed and inspected his surroundings. It was clear he only slept here. There was very little to represent his life. He had probably thrown himself into his work, an easy diversion. It also appeared he did not entertain anyone here either.

Honestly. He told me he was doing well. Had he been lying to me all year?

I found a rag in a corner and sent Keiko in search of a broom. If I were only to stay one night, the least I could do was make it more inhabitable. It didn’t take long, and when Cullen had still not returned, I started to wonder if he was avoiding me or if something had happened in the Circle. I chose to think the latter. I went to the market and purchased a variety of foods that would keep for the next couple of days, including a bottle of wine, and then pulled out a number of items from my sack to make his home look more lived in.

When I was done, there was a meal cooking on the fire, and the place was decorated with candles, books, linens, and a few trinkets. I sat in his chair by the fire and tried to keep my mind from thinking the worst. I opened his book and read a few pages, but as night fell, and he had yet to return home, it was clear that despite his words, I was unwelcome.

It was too late now to find other accommodations. It would have to wait until morning, but then I would make myself scarce. I would find a room to rent and await Isabela’s return. I knew with her, at least, I had a place. Even with Keiko at my feet, I felt alone. I had come to Kirkwall because someone I cared about, someone who had told me they also cared for me, lived here. But there was more between us than that, and despite the lies I had told myself in the Circle, and separate from my other relationship, I wanted to see him. I wanted to be with him, if only for a little while, now that my fighting was done.

My mind started its downward spiral.

Suddenly I was thinking that everything between us was a lie. That the night of passion we had shared had been nothing more than a means to an end, but then why keep up a ruse of friendship? What was there to gain?

I felt a tickle in my throat, and then I sneezed, not once, but three times. I poured myself a glass of wine, and that’s when I felt an ache creep into my bones. No, no, no. I had spent weeks in the Deep Roads without sunlight. I had traipsed the countryside in the pouring rain for days, but now that I had a moment’s rest I was getting sick?

Absolutely not. I could not afford such an inconvenience.

I pulled the blanket off his bed and wrapped it tightly about me before resuming my place by the fire. The warmth, the added benefit of the wine, and the emotional day took their toll. It wasn’t long before much needed sleep finally came.

I have no idea how long I slept, but when I awoke, I was in Cullen’s arms. He was without his armor, and he held me tightly as he moved me to the bedroom. My grip on him tightened when I finally became aware, and he stopped mid-stride, and held me even tighter, his face in the crook of my neck.

“Forgive me.”  I pulled back to look into his eyes.  “I always seem to say the wrong thing when you’re around.”

“It’s not wrong if it’s how you feel.” I tried to free myself of his hold, to no avail.

“After seeing you today, I’m not sure how I feel.” He gently laid me upon the bed and took a few steps away from me, again.

“Has something else happened to make you so distrustful of mages?”

“I’ve seen how Templar trust and leniency can be rewarded.” He leaned against the doorframe, arms crossed.

“And I’ve seen how the opposite of that makes us desperate.”

He looked at me for a long moment, eyes roaming over me from head to toe. There was something brewing between us, and at that precise moment, I wasn’t sure it was passion.

He looked away from me as he said, “I still have nightmares.”

I didn’t answer right away. I didn’t want him to think I was dismissing his pain so easily, because I wasn’t. “I cannot imagine what you endured at their hands, but you cannot hold us all accountable for the actions of a few.” My eyes began to water, but this time it was not tears. I sneezed. And I sneezed again. “Don’t you think I’m haunted by all I’ve seen? I’ve watched my friends stumble in battle and I did everything I could to keep them alive, but not once did I rely on blood magic, even when I, myself, fell.” I winced immediately. I hadn’t meant to tell him that.

“What did you say?”

“I did not resort to blood magic?” I offered helpfully.

“After that.”

I sneezed. “I don’t know. I don’t feel well.” I curled up on his bed and remained silent as he put his hand to my forehead.

“You have a fever.”

I shivered and coughed. Even the backs of my eyes hurt, so I closed them. I heard Cullen rustle in his chest and I felt the weight of an added blanket atop me.

“Rest now.”

I didn’t hear anything else after that.

In the middle of the night, I awoke parched and sweaty. It was dark, and I couldn’t make out where Cullen was, or if he was even still there. There was a cup of water on the bedside table, and I drank it down in a few gulps. On uneasy feet, I opened the window to feel the draft coming over the water. It was then I heard the floor creek just before being lifted once again into his arms.

“I’m not a child.” I pouted.

“I always hoped I would be able to come to your rescue.” It was meant to bring levity, but there was tension behind his words.

He laid me back down and then left me to retrieve a candelabra for light and a bowl of water. He took a cloth and dabbed my forehead, face, and neck. I had sweat through my underclothes and he suggested I remove them. I sat up awkwardly while he retrieved a tunic from his chest. I was too tired and too sore to even bother trying to get my clothes over my head and so I just sat there, like a petulant child.

I heard him chuckle lightly under his breath as he came back to kneel before me and help me. I shivered relentlessly once my skin was exposed to the cool night air. He took the cloth and wiped my arms and chest, but stopped when he got to the scar in my side. I had kept my eyes closed while he attended me, but when I felt his scrutiny, I finally made myself meet his gaze.

“What was it that felled you?” My head was too fuzzy to pinpoint the emotion in his words.

“Deep Roads spider…” I held my arms straight up to aid him in dressing me, not paying attention to the fact that he was still taking in my appearance.

“And why didn’t you resort to blood magic?”

I dropped my arms. “It’s not who I am, and, and I didn’t want to disappoint you.” I remember yawning mid-sentence, laying back down undressed, and his warm hand upon my side thumbing the scar.

IV

Fever dreams, restless sleep, and glimpses of consciousness broke up the next two days. The fever dreams melted into memories from a number of moments in my life and twisted them. I was picking a carrot in my childhood garden only to watch the taint infect it and turn it black in my hands. I heard the war cries of darkspawn in the Circle tower. I watched the archdemon fly over Isabela’s ship.

He was impaled by a sylvan in the Brecilian Forest. My friends’ bodies were littered throughout the Deep Roads. Keiko lay dying in the Korcari Wilds. Cullen slit his own throat while imprisoned.

My worst imaginings were making their presence known. Sleep was my only option under the circumstances, but the dreams made me want to avoid it because each time I would witness something horrific in my dreams, I would awaken frightened and covered in a fine sheen of sweat.

Somehow, no matter the time of day, Cullen was by my side. He offered me comforting words, water, or a cool cloth to my forehead. In the moments when I fought sleep, he would try to feed me, but the memories of such events turned my stomach. I grew weak and restless.

A few times I think I startled myself awake with my own cries. I felt useless in those dreams. I was watching the worst things happening around me and I seemed powerless to do anything about any of it. I set the sylvan on fire, but only after he fell. I slayed all the spiders and darkspawn that had somehow overpowered my friends, but only after coming across their bodies and watching life leave them. I found myself trying to persuade Cullen to not inflict harm upon himself, only to watch him succumb to despair. I could reach through the barrier that held him, but I was too slow. In each situation I was always too slow.

When I awoke from that nightmare and found him sitting bedside watching over me, I threw myself into his arms and choked back the sob of relief. They had all been dreams, horrible, terrible dreams. When I saw him, I knew that the rest of those nightmares were just that. If he was alive, it meant the rest of those images were lies. He was fine. My friends were safe. Keiko was asleep at my feet.

In one of the moments between the dream and reality, I wondered whether the taint was the cause of the dreams. Then I wondered if it was a mage’s connection to the Fade. I remembered looking at my arms and searching for signs that the taint was worsening, as I had seen it in the nightmare before the final fight. There was no change, so was it all induced by a raging fever?

Maybe it was a combination of all three…

Either way, in a moment of consciousness, I willed myself to get better. I did not care for this state. Not only was I plagued by vivid, realistic, haunting dreams, but I was also an invalid. I also didn’t care for the stress I was causing my…friend? I didn’t know what we were at the moment, because I had been incapacitated since our fight in the Gallows, although, he had been kind enough to watch over me.

We didn’t speak much the first two days, at least nothing of consequence, but then again, I had no idea. I remembered him laughing once, so I must have had a moment of clarity, but clearly those had been few and far between because I could see the worry I had caused him with my unrest. And because I had awoken every time to find him beside me, I knew he had not gone in to fulfill his duties to the Templars, and he probably hadn’t slept much either, except for maybe short stints in an uncomfortable chair.

He was awkwardly sleeping in the chair beside me when I awoke and realized my fever had broken. I did not stir for fear of waking him, so instead I just stared at him. Even in sleep he looked tired. There were dark circles under his eyes. The past two days were harder on him than I first believed. And then I felt guilty, again.

He was still as handsome as ever. His tunic exposed a bit of his chest, and it was more muscular than I remembered. One hand hung over the arm of the chair, and I was drawn to his fingers, long and nimble. My eyes continued downward taking in the length of his legs. I let myself think on our time together. While Ali he and I had been together, I never allowed myself to think on Cullen. I couldn’t. Even when I read his letters. It was as if I had stowed them away and lost the key.

It was when I was planning where to go after his coronation that I finally allowed myself a moment of reflection back to the events in the Circle. It was the reminder that there was someone else, beyond my companions, that I could, perhaps, find solace with. I remembered the way our bodies fit together, the look of passion that ignited his golden eyes, the low growl that could not be contained. That had been then, but now I could think on him freely, and despite my current state, I felt that stirring deep within.

He was obviously not in a deep sleep, because as I took a long breath, it was enough of a change to alert him. He was immediately up and hovering over me. His eyes were only half open, but as he became more aware, he realized my condition had improved. “There you are.” It was as if he were seeing me again for the first time.

I didn’t want to imagine what I looked like, and despite the fatigue he most likely felt, his eyes were bright and friendly. “And you thought I wouldn’t be an imposition.” Ignore everything else and deflect. I had become a master of the technique.

I felt a twinge of guilt admitting that when we were finally reunited I had hoped he would sweep me into his arms and kiss me passionately. As I looked up at him now, it was clear that I had made my decision to come to Kirkwall based on the idea that I could lose myself in him. “Friend”. I could almost laugh. We had discovered a great passion between us, and that was what had brought me there. Everything else I had told myself was a lie.

I had become good at lying to myself.

A small smile appeared. “And I told you I always wanted to come to your rescue.”

“My knight in shining armor.”

He chuckled at that. I motioned to sit up and he gave me a stern look. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“I could use a bath, and you could use your bed. Have you slept at all?”

“I slept a little, and I’ve gone longer without sleep. You need the rest.”

I gave him a knowing look. “As do you.” I pulled back the sheets on the empty half of the bed.

He stared at the empty, comfortable spot awaiting him, but suddenly shook his head negatively. “I’ll help you bathe, as you helped me once.” His smile was cheeky, and a small blush stained his cheeks. I’m not sure I had the energy to engage in that type of bath, at least not yet. I could feel my own blush creeping up my cheeks at the memory. He coughed. “I’ll change the sheets, get you fed, and then we’ll nap.”

He stood up before I could argue and left the room. He returned a short time later and took me into his arms. He had a separate room that held a bathing tub and water almost magically poured from a tap in the wall. “Do you have the energy to warm the water? It’s rather cold.”

He set me on the edge of the tub and I was surprised by the energy I expelled by such a small act. I was defenseless at the moment. He helped me to remove the tunic and my small clothes before untying my hair, and I slid into the inviting warmth. The heat permeated my entire being, and I closed my eyes to fully revel in the sensation.

Cullen left me again, but when he returned this time, he held a tray of food. He set it on a chair by the tub, and then continued to move about the room. He brought over cleansing soaps, a washing cloth, and a drying cloth. He pulled out a brush and a fresh tunic and breeches. And then he moved to the end of the tub and mimicked my actions. He started washing my feet and legs and made his way around me. He didn’t miss a spot, and all I could do was smile and laugh to myself.

He took gentle care in his movements. And then he did something I found most intimate. He washed my hair. He massaged my scalp and ran the cleansing soaps through to the ends. It was most satisfying. His hands never roamed inappropriately, nor his eyes, from what I could tell. He was a complete gentleman, and I had to wonder if the roles were reversed once again if I could show such restraint. I knew what lay beneath the water line.

Once I was dressed, he took my arm and led me slowly to the fire he had lit. I was seated in his chair, wrapped with a blanket and served a hot stew. And the intimacy continued as he brushed my hair. The only other man to help me with my hair was Sten, and that had been when I was incapacitated as well. Did men feign ignorance in such matters generally until it was necessary? I had to admit, I liked it, a great deal.

We hardly spoke the entire time. He’d ask me if I was all right, or if he was pulling my hair too hard, and most of my answers were incoherent mumbles. I was weak, weaker than I had felt, ever. The fever had run its course, but it had left a shell in its wake. I needed sustenance and rest, although I felt as if I had rested long enough. Why didn’t I feel better?

I ate the stew, enjoying the heat of it as it traveled inward, and then I was exhausted, again. I found it difficult to keep my eyes open. I felt him lift me into his arms once again, and before I knew it he was sliding into bed next to me. Maybe he had planned to give me space because he laid me down facing away from him, but when I felt his weight beside me, I turned and sank naturally into his embrace. I felt safe cradled in his arms, and I was asleep in moments.

V

When I awoke in the middle of the night, the moon’s silver glow illuminated the room so that I could see his face clearly and all I wanted to do was kiss him. We fit together ever so nicely, and regardless of how weak and unattractive I felt at that particular moment, I drew ever closer to him. The subtle motion was enough to wake him and his golden eyes bore into mine.

There it was.

That undeniable thing between us. The thing I kept denying existed for the sake of our friendship. I was a fool to think it could ever be anything else between us. We knew what it was like to be physically joined, and our time apart had done nothing to diminish its power. I felt that twitch in my nether region, the heat of desire warming my cheeks, felt my breath catch, and what was more intoxicating was that I could feel all those from him as well.

“Cullen…”

And his mouth was on mine. It was rough and consuming and filled with emotion. I was conflicted. I wanted him, but I could not give him my heart, not yet, and I knew that wasn’t fair to him. I wanted him to consume me, I wanted to feel his weight upon me, and to forget everything but him…

He pulled away, and I felt a loss at the separation. I looked at him through heavy lids, and licked my already swollen lips.

“I’m sorry.” His voice was quiet.

“Why are you apologizing? I wanted you to do that days ago. I almost did it myself just now.”

He laughed softly. “I want you to want me.”

“Was that not clear?”

He laughed again. “Well, yes, but…Maker, I’ve missed you…” I smiled brightly, but before I could respond he said, “I know why you’re here.”

My brow furrowed. What did he know? When I remained silent he continued.

“You’re brokenhearted.”

The room went sideways. Or so it felt.

Tears immediately sprang forth. I had been keeping it together for months, not letting myself feel his loss because…because I was afraid. I knew it would hurt more than I thought I could bear. I had been telling myself it was over for even longer, pretending everything was okay, but I had not been able to speak of it fully, to feel it fully, and to have someone say it for me, it was too much.

I broke down and wept.

Cullen pulled me to his chest and let me cry. He stroked my back and held me tight, but he remained silent, I think we both knew words were useless at the moment.

~*~

Then next morning I felt more myself. The food, the bath, the release…and I realized I was alone. Cullen had left at some point in the morning and I had not heard anything. There was a tray of food bedside, and I ate it all. I was famished. My body was still weak, but I needed to move, so on unsteady legs, yet again, I moved about the room and opened the window. The air was cool and refreshing.

I found Keiko in front of the fireplace gnawing a large bone. He perked up with my appearance and was at my side in an instant to give me his help. He led me to the chair and then stared at me expectantly.

“I feel better, so you don’t have to worry anymore.” I patted his head affectionately, and received a happy bark in reply. He returned to his bone, and I returned to my thoughts.

I was on the mend, so perhaps I should consider my options. Cullen and I shared a mutual desire for one another, but with his current state of mind in regards to mages, maybe I should give him space. He had asked me to stay, even after his outburst in the Gallows’ square, but now that he knew I was nursing a broken heart, I felt it unwise to remain so close to him. It was too tempting. It was too complicated, it seemed.

We clearly had much to discuss, but maybe we didn’t. I was in no state to just up and leave, I needed at least a few more days of recovery, so perhaps I would just do what I had done before. Keep my distance and keep my thoughts to myself.

That sounded like I wanted to run again. What was I doing?! How had I gone from being at the center of a great event to having no place in the world? I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. Maybe I belonged nowhere.

There was a light knock at the door, and simultaneously a young female Templar recruit entered. “Messere?”

I tried to rise, but I was still unsteady, and she was soon by my side. “Messere Rutherford, please. Let me help you.”

Rutherford? Ah, yes. He was looking after me, his little sister. “Please, call me Rosalie. And you are?”

“Margitte, miss.” She brought in the blanket off the bed to wrap about my lap and fixed a cup of tea.

“My brother asked you to check on me, did he?”

“Aye, miss, he did. He said you had taken quite ill, but as he had duties to attend, here I am.”

“That was kind of him.”

“Is there anything I can help you with?”

“I would enjoy a short stroll and maybe some lunch? Would you like to join me?”

Her smile was sweet and she lowered her eyes. “I would like that.”

~*~

Kirkwall_chantry

I was tempted to use one of my staves as a walking stick, but that was sure to draw attention, so I instead relied on the steady arm of my temporary caretaker. Together we walked about Hightown and she would often stop to allow me to rest and grabbed us food we could walk with. She also pointed out areas of interest and made herself a useful tour guide.

Finally I asked, “How is my brother adjusting to city life?”

She at first seemed reluctant to answer, but as she thought she was talking to her superior’s sister, she acquiesced. “He keeps to himself mostly. After his roommate was discharged from the Order…”

“Samson is no longer a Templar?”

“Did your brother not tell you? Well, rumor is Samson is a mage sympathizer and some of his actions were deemed unacceptable for the Order.” She was excited to share the news, scandalous as it was.

“Goodness. I guess we do have some catching up to do.” We walked for a bit more, but we were nearing the house again. If I wanted to learn anything else, I was running out of time. “How do you like him as a commanding officer?”

“We all respect him. There was a lot of talk about him when he first arrived apparently, because of his ordeal in the Circle in Ferelden, but that was before I joined the Order, so I don’t really know all of it. I just know that he looks out for his brothers and sisters and takes his vows seriously.”

“Yes, he does. He always wanted to be a Templar, even as a boy.”

“Really?” She smiled to herself.

Huh. Perhaps she was attracted to Cullen, but was afraid to say anything. “I know he won’t tell me, because he thinks I won’t approve, but has he been interested in anyone since he arrived?” That was low, and I regretted asking immediately.

And now she blushed. She was interested. “Oh no, messere. You needn’t worry. No one’s been able to draw his attention. He’s completely devoted to the Order.”

I patted her arm in a gesture of thanks, but internally I was flogging myself. If there had been someone else, I would be happy for him, because I didn’t want him to be alone, but as the past few days had proven, there wasn’t anyone. Not now anyway, and according to the rumor mill there hadn’t been anyone at all. That made me a little sad for him.

He had a lot to offer, and although I knew he wasn’t in the right place mentally when he first arrived to be a good mate for someone, maybe now he was ready. I felt a thrill at the prospect. Maybe we could be good for each other?

How the mind worked.

Seriously. What was wrong with me?

I was in no place to offer myself to him, and I had to stop thinking of him like that. I wouldn’t abuse his kindness and friendship…I needed something to do. I had too much time on my hands to think. We were standing in front of Cullen’s house, and I was hesitant to enter.

“I think your visit was divine intervention, messere.”

I almost laughed. “Why do you say that?”

“About a month ago his demeanor changed. He became withdrawn and he had bouts of anger, but he would not speak with anyone about what troubled him. Since you arrived, it’s as if a weight’s been lifted.”

A month ago? Oh…blast it! I should have sent him word. He had carried on under the impression that I had most likely fallen in battle. Damnation. I was a fool.

Margitte ushered me in and led me back to the bed. She helped me undress and tucked me in. “Can I be of further assistance, messere?”

“Rosalie, please.”

“I don’t think the Knight Captain would like that.”

So he had been promoted. “Just a cup of water. Thank you, Margitte. I appreciate that you were willing to help me today.”

“As I said, your brother watches over us, it’s the least I could do, and I was happy to.” She smiled wide. “I’d be happy to return tomorrow if you’d like?”

“I’ll send word with my brother.” It sounded strange each time I said it, but I was discovering that I was enjoying the charade. Once we were alone again, Keiko snuggled up behind me, but sleep would take time because I couldn’t let go of the idea that I had been a selfish cow who let her friend believe she was dead. A string of curses I had learned from my friends rattled around my head.

I owed him a large apology.

~*~

Night had fallen, and the house was dark. I was still so tired and could not be bothered to light the fire, let alone the candles by the bed. The moon’s light had not reached a point in the sky as to illuminate the room, so I had no idea it was not Keiko by my side.

My hand brushed across his chest. “Knight Captain.”

His voice was heavy with sleep. “Hero of Ferelden.”

I scoffed, and he pulled me to his side. “Thank you for sending Margitte, she was very kind.”

“Mhmm.”

“I think she was interested in helping your little sister in the hopes you might notice her.”

“I’ve only ever been interested in one woman.”

I had to bite back the smile. “Andraste?”

I was startled by the bark of laughter that escaped him. He hugged me tighter. “I think I’ve laughed more in the past few days than I have all year. Whatever your reasons, I’m thankful you’re here.”

I was sad for him again. Had the last year been that rough? I let my hand slide up his cheek. “As am I.” I drew him closer until my face was in the crook of his neck. He smelled clean. He had bathed before coming to bed.

“Okay, sister. Stop teasing me.”

I sunk back away from him, embarrassed. “I’m sorry. Maybe I shouldn’t stay here.”

“I didn’t infer anything remotely close to that. It is taking all my self-control to hold you at arm’s length, and I am too tired right now to fight it. You have to be the strong one.”

“I say again, maybe I shouldn’t stay here.”

He laughed once more before snuggling me back to his side. I didn’t move, I was afraid to breathe, but it was only a few awkward moments before I heard his breaths steady and realized he had fallen right back to sleep.

Be the strong one. Sure. I knew how to do that.

VI

I awoke the following morning alone. Cullen had slipped out once again without my notice. Had slaying the archdemon absolved me of my awareness? Perhaps it was the fact that I could now sleep comfortably after a year of not. I still didn’t care for the idea that Cullen could come and go without me even stirring.

I sat up slowly, still worried that I may not have regained my strength, but found myself much improved. Another day or two and I would feel normal, or as close to that as I could considering I didn’t know what that truly meant anymore. I went about my morning in an old routine – the one I had in the Circle – one that felt odd after so much time. I freshened up, had breakfast, and read from an old tome. I cleaned my living space and then took a stroll, but unlike my earlier days, I had Keiko by my side.

Margitte had warned me about the crime in the city, and so I was careful with my personal belongings. I did not bring too much coin out in the open, and left my magic bag at home Cullen’s home. Margitte had also warned me about the Knight Commander’s strong stance against mages, so I was quite surprised to find a vendor selling magical wares in the Hightown square.

I found a beautiful gold necklace that would have pleased Morrigan, and then I was forced to think on her and her journey. I wondered where she had found herself. Facing my own lonely path, I wished there was a way to reach out to her, maybe we could travel together. She had left me with no word on how to contact her, and that sad knowledge made me wonder if our paths would ever cross again. Maybe there was some arcane spell? But who would know of such things? The First Enchanter? Maybe I could speak with…Margitte had mentioned his name…Orson…Orsino. Perhaps I would reach out to him, quietly, while I was here.

I did not buy the necklace. It seemed a frivolous purchase, at the moment, especially in the light of the thought that it might never find its intended recipient.

I did however find a most unexpected surprise, Bodahn and Sandal selling their wares in one of the squares. I heard Bodahn’s familiar voice and upon hearing it, ducked around a corner. Bodahn had mentioned that they were going to travel, but seeing them then, I was taken aback. I couldn’t say why.

I pulled up my hood and returned the way I came. As I did, I ran squarely into another dwarf, one with exceptional chest hair. “With a stance like that, you could be a member of the Legion of the Dead.”

Keiko barked in the affirmative. “They told me the same thing.” I winked and continued on.

I decided it was best to keep my out of door appearances to a minimum, and so I returned to Cullen’s. As I neared his home, I found a casually dressed Cullen returning as well. It was quite the sight. He smiled brightly and waved, but caught himself and looked embarrassed.

Our paces slowed as we approached one another. “You look, well.” He offered.

We stopped short of the other and stood awkwardly. Our reunion had been messy since the beginning and it was probably best if we started again. But how? I had a strange idea and decided to give it a try.

I shoved at Cullen until he was in his doorway. “What are you doing?”

“We’re starting over.”

He looked at me oddly. I opened his door and pushed him through it, closing it in his face. Keiko looked at me oddly as well. I looked around to make sure there weren’t any prying eyes, then adjusted, well, everything, then finally knocked on the door.

He waited a long moment to open the door, and when he did, his raised eyebrow reiterated to me that he thought I was crazy, but I carried on. It took a moment to decide what I was going say, the truth. “I know I should have written that I survived the fight, but after your last letter, I wasn’t sure how welcome I would be, and I wanted to see you.” There was emotion in my words, and tears stung the back of my eyes. “I’m sorry.”

He grabbed the front of my cloak and pulled me inside, slamming the door behind me. And then I received the welcome I had hoped for. He pulled me into a crushing embrace and kissed me hard. He pressed me against the wall and our hands roamed, desperately grasping at the other. I wanted him closer. It was what I had wanted since I had stepped off Isabela’s boat. Yes, I was still sad over the loss of another, but I had been hoping to reconnect with Cullen since…Andraste, forgive me, but I had wanted to feel him again since I had left him in the Tower.

We fumbled toward his bedroom and lingered just outside deep in the midst of sensation. It was a familiar feeling, being back in his arms again. And it made me happy, happier than I had felt in a while.

I lifted his tunic off and let my hands drift over his warm chest. His lips trailed down my neck and he let out that sound I had wanted to hear again for nearly a year.

And without warning, I laughed.

He looked as if I had just insulted him, but I couldn’t help it. It made me laugh harder, and amidst the laughter I kissed him. He laughed in return. It was a nice sound. “Now, that’s a reception.”

He kissed me once more with such tenderness, my eyes went wide. “Hi.”

“Hi.” I smiled.

“Word of what happened in Denerim reached us and I was terrified that I had lost you. I abandoned you to your fate while I retreated to safety across the sea.” Regret marked his features and I touched his cheek. “There are no words to convey the depth of my remorse, or the joy at seeing you again.”

Tears fell from both our eyes at the admission. I kissed him lightly.

“I had no idea what lay in store for you, but I knew your journey would be a difficult one…I should have stayed by your side after the Circle.”

“But you had your own path to follow. You needed time to recuperate.” He averted his eyes, the guilt still clearly troubling him. “And you remained safe, “ I turned his face back to mine. “And I am thankful for that.”

His fingertips gently brushed my cheek.

“I slayed the archdemon.” I was proud of that.

“Did you?” He pushed me lightly, towards the bed.

“I mean, I didn’t do it alone, but I took the final blow.”

“That’s my girl.”

And that was my undoing. My face went serious and I was consumed with want, and nerves. I didn’t want to hurt him, he had been through enough. I also didn’t know how much energy I had left after my excursion, but I had to hope my Warden stamina would replenish and allow me this. I stepped out of his reach and then shimmied out of my gown. “I want you.”

It was his face that went serious then. “And Andraste, preserve me, I want you, but if we’re going to start again, then I want to do it right.”

I motioned with my hand down the length of my body and offered him a teasing smile. “This isn’t right?” There was a deep moan as he tried to resist which only made me smile brighter. “So then, how would you like to begin?”

“You started this, you tell me.” He crossed his arms, a defense against whatever I had in store apparently.

“The truth then. All of it.” I grabbed his tunic and threw it at him and then shimmied back into my gown.

We left the bedroom begrudgingly and sat before the fireplace. The sexual tension was palpable, and the stamina I had hoped would return only allowed me enough energy to start the fire. I threw a small fireball and watched for his reaction. He smirked.

“Is the Templar in you ready to pounce and dispel my magic?”

“That’s not fair.”

“Is it not? If we’re going to be truthful, then you need to explain your words in the Gallows.”

He looked guilty, and unsure. Maybe we didn’t need to start there, but further back.

“All right then. I’ll tell you everything I left out of the letters, and then you can do the same.”

He nodded in agreement.

~*~

My other relationship was the only part of my life I had intentionally withheld from the letters. I did not divulge all the details, but gave a condensed version of what had happened with me and the now King of Ferelden. It was an uncomfortable conversation to have with someone I was drawn to, but somehow, I got through it and wrapped it up with my hasty retreat from Ferelden without a word.

Cullen’s surprise at my level of vindictiveness left me near speechless. “You don’t think worrying him as such isn’t unnecessarily cruel?”

“It will take him no time at all to figure out where I’ve gone, but that’s beside the point. I owe him no explanations.” Even to my ears that sounded like a cruel lie.

And Cullen’s look said the same thing. “Despite being king, he is the only other Grey Warden in Ferelden. You two still have an obligation beyond…”

“And you think I’m not honoring that? I’m just taking a much deserved, and needed rest. Don’t you think I’ve earned one?”

“But that’s not what you’re doing. You’re punishing him. And right now, in these early days of his reign, he needs you, more than ever.”

“No, he doesn’t. He’s surrounded by people…”

“None of them are you.” He let that sink in. I had to avert my eyes. “Yes, perhaps he did go about doing the right thing in the wrong way, but that does nothing to diminish what you two have meant to one another. No matter what these other people, nobles, are trying to fill his mind with, he still wants you beside him, offering your opinion, your love, and support…”

I shook my head negatively with those last words. “You know so much.” It came out more sarcastic than I intended, but his words had struck a chord in me.

“I do actually. How do you think I made it through the last year?”

My eyes stung with unshed tears at the confession. “Well…” I turned away from him and tried to compose myself. He was saying all the things I had avoided telling myself. This little thread of anger was what had truly been holding me together since that fateful day at the Landsmeet. I hadn’t let it go, which was why I was sitting here in this little house in Kirkwall, pitying my turn of events. And my “friend” had seen through it all.

He patted my hands in my lap. “You can stay as long as you like.”

I covered his hand with my own. “I won’t stay so long you become tired of me.” I teased.

“Impossible.” His answer was almost a whisper and it sparked that ember still alight deep within me.

“Your turn.” I deflected.

It was his turn to tell me his tale. He started out with how he had found himself easily diverted when he had first arrived. Kirkwall was a large city, a country almost unto itself, and the Templars held more responsibility. In the hopes that work would help him recover, Knight Commander Meredith promoted him to Knight Captain, an honor Cullen took great pride in. As she had hoped, Cullen found much to occupy his time, but it was as I feared. It was his commanding officer that had fueled his distrust of mages.

She ruled with an iron fist saying that mages were basically a plague and that she needed to protect the people from them and the mages from themselves. It was this doctrine that she was instilling in all of her Templars, and Cullen, devoted as he was, followed suit.

I had to question him about how he reconciled his feelings for me in light of Meredith’s beliefs. Especially when Samson had been dismissed for being a mage supporter by passing letters between a mage and his lover. Cullen was currently housing a mage, among other, not so innocent things.

At that he turned silent. “I don’t know how to reconcile the two. When Uldred and his lackeys used you against me, I felt ashamed. I was ashamed of my feelings because I had no control over them, and I prided myself on my devotion to the Order, and my self-control. But you are a remarkable woman, unlike any I have ever known, who also happens to be a mage, one who has proven herself time and again. I know Meredith’s methods are harsh, but you’re special. Not all mages have your resolve.”

It was quite the compliment, and a truth I could not argue with. As I had tried to save the Tower, I watched as mages resorted to blood magic, even against their fellow mages. The thought had never crossed my mind. Yes, I knew Cullen would be disappointed to learn that I had used such methods, but I knew he would have as well, despite the truth that Wardens were allowed any and all freedoms in their fight against the darkness. I didn’t want to darken myself further; I was already tainted.

This was not the time for the debate about the trouble with mages and Templars, and so I moved away from the topic to another touchy subject, why he had remained alone. The year had been kind to him, and I was certain there were at least a dozen women vying for his attention.

“It’s only been a year, and I wasn’t in a good place when I arrived. I’ve also been busy.” As he offered me his list of reasons, I gave him a look. “Yes, yes, but look how long it took for me to speak to you.”

“Ah, yes. After my Harrowing, and I still had to approach you first.”

“Exactly. Besides, there’s been no one to turn my head because as I said, I’ve only ever been interested in one woman.”

“So, not Andraste?” Our smiles faded as our passion reignited. I had one last topic to discuss with him, and unfortunately afterward, I knew there would be no falling into one another’s arms. I averted my eyes for a moment to break the spell, and when I looked back he looked wary. He had good reason. “I’ve seen Honnleath.”

He took a long breath. “Was it as awful as I imagine?”

“Probably.” I had to wince at the pained look that crossed his features.

“My brother and sisters are safe, but my parents…they didn’t make it.”

“Oh, Cullen. I’m so sorry.” I fell at his feet and took his hands in mine. Unshed tears swam in his eyes. Had he not spoken of it to anyone? Why had he not written me? He pulled me into his lap and hugged me tightly.

We sat like that for a long while. It was comforting and it felt safe. It was something we both needed. Finally I pulled back to look at him. I kissed his cheek, then his temple, and lingered at his lips. They parted slightly, inviting. I stopped myself with an iron will that would’ve impressed his commander. “You know what we need?”

His lips twitched. “I have a few ideas.”

“Drinks.”

“You think you’re up for that?”

“No, but I know we need them.”

“Well, there’s really only one spot in Kirkwall for that.”

It was a bad idea, but we needed the diversion.

VII

*The following chapter is a bit NSFW (sexual content, but not overly detailed).  Because of this more tame writing, I’ve chosen not to link to the AO3 page, for this chapter. 😉 

The Hanged Man was bustling with activity and it was just the environment to provide us the distraction we needed, and the separation. Out in public, despite my wish to remain hidden, was a safe place to keep our desires in check, at least for a bit longer.

Cullen went to the bar while I found a table. I passed the dwarf I had run into previously, and he offered me a greeting by way of a head nod. I smiled in return. Cullen and I sat across from one another with little to say. Maybe we had said too much earlier, maybe we didn’t know how to be together in the presence of others.

A couple drinks later and our moods were much improved. We were relaxed and enjoying the atmosphere until a group of Templars entered, and we discovered how happy they were to see their Knight Captain at the local tavern.

We were soon surrounded by half a dozen Templars and more drinks while they regaled me with stories of both his bravery and folly. He would blush and stammer, which I only found more endearing. There was laughter and a sense of camaraderie that I had been missing.

At one point I took his hand under the table to offer him my support as the others told me yet another embarrassing tale, and his demeanor shifted. The look he gave me was fueled by desire and his defenses were lowered due to the alcohol. I repeated multiple times in my head as I released his hand, “In public I am his sister. In public I am his sister.”

It wasn’t long after that he excused us. They knew I had been ill and shouldn’t have too many drinks. They were disappointed at our early departure, and asked that we join them again before I returned home. I was happy to oblige, even with them being Templars.

It was nice to see that Cullen was well liked, not that I ever doubted it, but it was clearly the first time he had let his guard down and joined them. It was good for them to see their commanding officer as one of them; it would strengthen their trust in not just him, but his command.

He held my hand in his the entire walk home, which was quite long, but said nothing. Sometimes his pace was hurried, and I had to nearly run to keep up with him. I was afraid to speak, afraid of his answer because there was an undercurrent of, I wasn’t sure what…anger? Was he upset that we had had too many drinks? Or that he felt his subordinates were being disobedient with telling their stories of him?

When we were close to home, I finally spoke. “Cullen?”

He didn’t slow down, nor even turn his head. We entered his home with the same pace he had dragged me through town with. When we were finally alone, I felt brave enough to speak. “Whatever is the matter?”

He finally turned to look at me and my heart skipped a beat. My whole body went weak with want as I realized it was desire on his face. To an outsider he looked ready to engage in a fight, but I recognized that glint of passion in his eyes. We took no time to seduce the other – we had been on the precipice for days. The alcohol had done its job of stripping us of our inhibitions; we flung our clothes off and abandoned everything that had held us back.

Our kiss was rough as we fumbled toward the bedroom. He playfully pushed me onto the bed and then was on top of me. My body pulsated as we began to move together. We were mouths and hands and limbs. I had a moment of clarity, and I stopped us by holding his face to look into my eyes. “Are you sure? Because I don’t want to be the strong one anymore.”

“Then don’t.” And that was it. I rose up to kiss him deeply while his hand left its trail down the length of me. It continued downward until it rested upon the apex between my legs. My hips instinctively rose to meet him. Those long, nimble fingers I had admired teased me until I moaned. My breaths were short and my head felt light. Alcohol and passion were a heady combination.

“I must admit that my memory of you was somewhat hazy.” His mouth was leaving kisses down my neck.

“Mm?” It was all I could utter.

“You are more beautiful than I remember.”

“See, you don’t always say the wrong thing.”

His chuckle was low and throaty. I flipped him over and straddled him, and slid back and forth across the length of him in a teasing manner. He was just as delicious as I remembered, now that I had allowed myself to do so.

“Woman, I’ve wanted you for too long for this to last.”

I rested my hands on either side of his head and reduced my teasing hips to a painfully slow grind. His breathing was stunted and his eyes flickered with desire. “Then do something about it.”

I was on my back in the next instant, one of my legs held bent to allow easier access, and in a single thrust he was fully sheathed within me. I gasped as I became accustomed to this new sensation. The world stood still. Neither of us moved, but we just looked at one another.

I couldn’t help it. A slow smile dawned, and then a small giggle escaped my lips. “My lion.”

I had thought our first round would be quick – pent up desire, flashes of anger, and too many drinks…but it was more sweet and enduring than I would have imagined. He held me close as he made slow, deliberate thrusts; his eyes held a devious glint as he reveled in the catches in my breath with each.

In the afterglow, we lay separately upon our backs, breathing heavy and shimmering in a fine sheet of sweat. I heard him scoff.

“What?”

“You asked me earlier how I reconciled my feelings for you with the Order.”

“Have you come to a conclusion then?”

“Only that you are my one weakness.”

“I do not wish to cause you…”

His mouth was on mine. “Do not finish that sentence.”

“I am a Grey Warden, but I am also a mage.”

“I know. And I know what Meredith thinks, but you have the protection of your title.”

“And what of your position? Are you certain you want me to stay?”

His eyes held a sweetness that once again caused tears to sting my eyes. “You can stay forever.”

The tears fell as he hugged me tightly.

~*~

That night, it was Cullen’s turn to have a nightmare. Lyrium had negative effects on non-mages, and Templars eventually lost their minds to the addiction. It was the Chantry’s way of leashing their army, and it was a cruel technique to impart for such devotion.

I was startled awake by his tossing and turning, and then I heard his murmurs. He said my name at first like a warning, but then he cried out as if looking for my help. “You will not have her.”

He was defending me, maybe. I sat up and placed my hands on his shoulders and shook him gently. “Cullen. Wake up.”

“No!” He sat upright, frightening us both with the fervor of his expression. He tried to steady his breathing and took my hand in his for support.

“Are you all right?” I brushed his cheek with my free hand.

He looked at me intensely. “You’re all right.” It was as if he were surprised.

“I am. “

He flopped backwards and rubbed his eyes. “Not being able to protect you is a running theme of my nightmares.”

My heart sank. “Not to make light of your worries, but you do know I’m a fairly powerful mage now, right?”

He smiled at that. “I know it’s not a very Templar thing for me to say, but I’d love to see you in action.”

“Well, I have been growing restless from inactivity. Tonight’s endeavor obviously not included.” He laughed. “Find me something to do.” I raised my eyebrow in a challenge.

“Very well, my little Spitfire.”

I laid back down and snuggled into his embrace. “Rest easy. I’ll watch over you tonight.”

He kissed my forehead. “I hadn’t planned on going back to sleep.”

“Did you not?”

He growled. “You’re naked in my bed. Did you think I would pass up such an opportunity?”

I once again raised my eyebrow in challenge.

~*~

The next couple of days passed in a similar, pleasant fashion. Cullen and I would share a meal before he attended his duties with the Templars and he would kiss me goodbye. I passed the day however I wished, generally building my strength back up. I practiced with my staff in the privacy of his home and took long walks up the many flights of stairs throughout the city.

After his shift, he picked me up and together we walked about the city. The first night we found ourselves back at the Hanged Man, but this time we curbed our drinking. All our trepidations had been lost after that first night we shared together, and now we spoke freely and enjoyed ourselves. Even in the presence of so many others, we found a way to be ourselves.

Our desire for one another was not something we had lost. After leaving the Hanged Man the following night, we found it difficult to wait until we were safely within the confines of his home. I pushed him into a darkened alley and we fumbled under our clothes, desperate to be closer.

We laughed breathless, running through the streets until we neared home. We clumsily entered the house and fell onto the floor, not making it to the bed. It didn’t matter.

The next morning, I dared a bold maneuver. I did not dress but went about the morning fully naked. He appeared from the bedroom in full armor and groaned. “You could’ve warned me.” I laughed and sauntered towards him. He held me at arm’s length. “Maker’s Breath but you’re going to be trouble.” He turned to leave.

“What about breakfast?”

“I’ll pick something up along the way, or I’ll never leave.”

“Have a nice day.” I teased as he begrudgingly left me behind.

That night we didn’t leave the house.

It was also the same night I dreamt of him – his sweet face, his warm touch. In the next instant we were at a party in the Denerim palace, and the nobles were parading hopeful prospects before him, confident one of them would pique his interest. I stood across the great hall, watching with a mixture of amusement, anger, and sadness.

It was upsetting enough to wake me, but I did not stir. I stared up into the darkness above me and let the tear fall. I then looked at the man with whom I was sharing a bed. He was a good man and he deserved my undivided attention. I needed to talk to someone, a friend, and not Cullen, but none of my friends with whom I could share such feelings were near.

Cullen stirred and I drew him to my breast and stroked his head while my mind swirled with a number of thoughts that would keep me up most of the night. He might be having difficulty reconciling his feelings for a mage, but I was having difficulty reconciling the idea that I was most likely in love with two men.

VIII

The next morning I was quiet, and Cullen noticed. He kissed me goodbye as he had the past couple of days, but this time his eyes held worry. “I’ll see you tonight.” He sounded positive.

I just smiled and kissed him again. That had done nothing to appease him.

I wasn’t Andrastian, but maybe I could unload my worries at the Chantry…yeah, as soon as I wrote it I realized it wasn’t my best idea.

The Hanged Man? There was sure to be at least one person with insight I could confide in. That was probably in my top five of bad ideas, but at least it would get me out of the house for a bit.

I sat down at the bar and ordered a drink, and like serendipity, the dwarf with the chest hair with whom I had collided earlier in the week sat down beside me. “Family problems?”

I raised an eyebrow in response.

“What did Curly do now?”

Curly? I laughed to myself. Oh, right, my curly-headed brother. “It’s not his fault. We haven’t been stuck together in such small quarters since we were kids.” Sure. That sounded plausible.

“You look like you could use a little company. Join me for lunch?”

“Um…sure. I’d like that.”

He held his hand out. “Varric Tethras.”

I returned the gesture. “Rosalie Rutherford.”

I followed him to his rooms at the top of the stairs, and he offered me a seat at the typically oversized Dwarven crafted table that took up the front room. His room was nicer than the tavern, so he had clearly made some upgrades.

“So, Rosie, I’ve heard some interesting news from abroad. Word is the new King of Ferelden is looking for his fellow Grey Warden. It seems she went missing after his coronation.”

“The Hero is missing?” I tried my best to be taken aback by this news. “That’s terrible.”

“Uh huh.”

He knew something, but how?

“About the same time I ran into you and made an off-handed comment about the Legionnaires, a dwarven army most surfacers know nothing about, and you had a witty retort.”

“It was merely a joke.”

“What would a farm girl from Honnleath know about Orzammar tradition?” He studied me for a long moment. “By the stone, you’re the Hero of Ferelden.”

I quickly turned my head to ensure there was no one in earshot. “No. No, I’m not.” I laughed nervously, a dead giveaway. “I like to read.” I wasn’t expecting to be unmasked, so I was ill prepared. Amateur.

“You have no need to fear. Your secret will remain with me. No wonder you and Curly were making eyes at one another.”

“We were not.” Now I was truly taken aback.

He laughed, heartily. “Yes, you were. You’re the girl from the Circle.” His voice held a sort of admiration. What had Cullen told him? “You don’t know me, so I know you have no reason to trust me, but believe me, I hold a great many secrets.”

I sighed defeated, although, it was kind of nice to let down the façade. “What else have you heard?”

We spent our lunch in deep conversation about a number of things. The King was looking for me, which pleased me, but made me wonder about his intentions. He had sent word to the viscount that his fellow Grey Warden was traveling and should she be sighted in the Free Marches to send him word immediately, for she was needed on “important business”.

That was one way to get people’s attention. “Look out for my ex, the Hero of Ferelden, she shouldn’t be hard to spot with her war dog and all.”

So maybe he was missing me or maybe he was just trying to keep tabs on me, but whatever the reason, Varric promised to keep my whereabouts to himself. I was thankful for that. I did not mention anything about a romantic aspect with the now king, just that I was taking time for myself after enduring the fight with the archdemon. He wanted to hear all about that.

He was a storyteller, so tales of great feats and heroics were appreciated. I shared with him the rooftop fight and promised to tell him others on another day. Then our conversation turned to Cullen. He had already witnessed something between us, so in that regard, I gave him a little more insight. I told him about what had happened in the Circle and how we had remained friends, but I also told him how I had fallen in love with someone else during my time fighting the Blight. I ended with, “I knew our love wouldn’t last beyond the fight.” It was the first time I had said it aloud, and I had to take a breath.

Then Varric said the most insightful thing. Love didn’t have rules, restrictions, or even labels – it was just love. My first love would always hold a special place in my heart, for the rest of my life, but it didn’t mean I couldn’t be happy with another. And then he left me with the parting words, “You know better than most how precious life is. You must take advantage of your opportunities.”

I was reminded of Duncan’s words that I had shared with Cullen in the Circle before I left him. I had to commit to an action. I had committed to leaving him behind for his benefit, so now, if this was the life I wanted, I needed to commit to it. Cullen and I hadn’t been together long, and I knew in part his words about me staying forever were influenced by passion, but how did he truly feel? How did I?

I suppose a proper conversation, with our clothes on, and without libations was in order.

Varric Tethras was an interesting man, and a unique new friend. We had whiled away a number of hours and when I left the tavern, night was falling. I returned to Cullen’s home to find him pacing like a caged animal. On the walk back, I had had a lot to think about, and I was unsure about what to do, but when I saw him panicked, I practically ran into his arms.

He sighed a heavy sigh of relief into the crook of my neck. “I was so worried I had done something to frighten you away.”

“Of course not. I should apologize. I didn’t realize I’d be gone so long. I would have left a note.”

His hold on me tightened. “I’ve always been a fool where you’re concerned.”

I giggled in spite of myself. “I think it’s time we talked.”

“Again?”

It was my turn to laugh.

~*~

His house was a safe place, but it was also too easy and tempting to fall to enticement. I decided it best to leave it. The night offered us cover and he happily held my hand in his as we slipped quietly about the city until we found ourselves on the ramparts overlooking the water.

We sat together for a short time just enjoying the view and the company. Or so I thought. He thumbed my palm and admired each finger, and I was certain he was wondering how such mundane objects could be capable of such destruction. His voice was quiet, “You’re going to leave, aren’t you?”

“Wherever did you get that idea?”

“Something’s changed, hasn’t it?”

“Not in the way you think.”

He finally looked at me.

“For nearly two years in the Circle we kept one another at arm’s length. Then this past year we got to know a bit about one another through our letters. But it was this week, “ I blushed in reflection, “well, once we started over…”

He smiled sweetly.

“People think I’m your sister, so I’m not exactly sure how to proceed. I was thinking I should find my own place, or we could move somewhere else, but…I want to stay, with you.” As soon as the words left my lips, I knew it was true. I had been thinking of my place in Ferelden, and I wasn’t certain there was one for me. In time, my role would become less important, and I was ashamed to admit that my vanity at being relegated to the shadows could not take the hit. I could build a new life, here. I had known for some time that I would have to consider my options after the Blight.

His smile faded and his eyes went wide. “What?”

“What if I were to stay? I’ll have to report to the Wardens, and I’m not sure how living with a mage will work in your favor, so maybe it would be best if we left…”

He kissed me hard. “What if we just disappeared?”

I was reminded of my own thoughts during the Blight, but now it was a viable option considering the threat was over. Where would we go? What would we do? He needed access to lyrium, so we would need a discreet connection…obviously there were a number of things to consider, but we had time. We didn’t need to decide then and there, and so I smiled in response.

He kissed me again. I had known it would be easy to fall in love with Cullen, that snippet of a moment in the Circle had given us a glimpse at the possibilities, and as I thought about a future with him now, it was easy to see forward and see a happily ever after. Could it be this uncomplicated? I mean other than me being a mage and him being a Templar? I laughed to myself.

He took my hand and led me back down the ramparts. He kept me close and kissed my temple or my fingertips interlaced with his own. If anyone were to witness the exchange, there would be questions, and awkward answers, but at the moment, neither of us cared. It was just he and I in the world, and it was a thrilling prospect.

I hadn’t planned on finding a new relationship so soon after the last, I know I hadn’t come to Kirkwall with that intent, but the idea of spending my remaining days with such a man was a comforting thought. Except for the following thought that I would leave him alone at some point when the taint had run its course, but I couldn’t live my life under the shadow of such an uncertain future. I refused to.

The romantic moment was short lived as we were set upon by a band of thieves. They were armed. We were not. Or so they thought.

While my friends and I had been traveling, we armed ourselves at all times, prepared for any confrontation. Cullen was off duty, weaponless, and caught by surprise by three thugs who drew their blades and knocked him down. A trickle of fear made its way down my spine as I watched them overpower him. And then anger took over as I watched them circle us in the hopes to make a score.

I used my magic to mind blast the three men surrounding Cullen backward while I shot a chain of lightning towards the handful of others closest to me. As they writhed in pain, I drew nearer to Cullen to protect him, but from the shadows, at least a dozen more enemies appeared. Arrows whizzed passed and angry garbles echoed throughout the square as the coterie prepared to attack.

I would give them neither the opportunity nor the satisfaction.

As a mage with primal magic at her fingertips, I used everything in my arsenal and unleashed chaos. I called forth a blizzard and amidst the flurries threw fireballs and stonefists. When some of the more hardened members remained, I set about using crushing prisons and walking bombs while a firestorm raged around them. It was my hope to strike enough fear in the survivors that they would rethink any plans to attack the city’s civilians.

I sat at the center of the storm, my mana level quite low, and tried to catch my breath. I had not brought my bag, and therefore did not have any lyrium to assist me. When the storm calmed, there was but one archer running from the scene. I flung a final spirit bolt in his direction before turning, not bothering to watch him fall. I turned to find Cullen sitting against a nearby wall, watching me with a mixture of awe and fear. My knees gave way, buckling under the exertion, and Cullen was beside me in an instant, his arms about me offering me his support.

He swept me into his arms and led me away from the circle of destruction I had caused. “Well, I did say I wanted to see you in action.”

“Disappointed?”

His laugh was strained, and behind it I could hear hurried footfalls echoing in the square. With what energy I had left, I floated a fireball in my palm and listened. When the last thief made his presence known, I motioned to strike, but I felt my magic dissipate, and watched as the light was extinguished. Cullen had used his Templar abilities on me. It was like a wave. I had called forth my magic, willed the fire in my hand and felt its warmth only to feel it ebb away under his dispel.

The man took in the scene behind us and stood dumbfounded. Cullen used the opportunity to punch him hard in the face and we watched with satisfaction as he crumpled to the ground.

Even with Cullen sapping my magic, I felt like myself again. It had been weeks since I had used so many spells and I was breathless from the effort. My limbs still tingled with power. It was invigorating. Without my staff to direct my focus, I had had to be more precise with each throw, and I was giddy to find how accurate I could be.

But those feelings soon passed as the more pressing matter, Cullen feeling it necessary to curb my power, rose to the forefront of my mind. And so I asked him.

“How many of those men did you kill just now?” That was his reply.

“Those nearly two dozen men preyed on the weak. They thought us an easy target, and if not for my magic, you might be dead now.” My voice rose in anger and fear. Those men could have stabbed him, and had I not been a mage, I would have fallen along side him, and that would have been the end of our story. How many others had fallen victim to them?

“There is a city guard…”

“Oh yes, I see them now. We’re so lucky they arrived when they did.” I replied once again with my trademark sarcasm. I slithered out of his hold and stood my ground. “So now you’ve seen what I’m capable of, and that was just a glimpse. Are you frightened?”

Now it was his turn to look dumbfounded. “You enjoyed it.” It wasn’t a question.

“I’ve embraced who I am. Have you any idea the insurmountable odds I have gone up against this past year? Yes, I told you the stories, but there are no words to accurately describe the waves of darkspawn we encountered in the Deep Roads, let alone the vastness of the horde we encountered in Denerim. How do you think I became capable of this?” Tears stung my eyes as I relived the moments of being overwhelmed and yet narrowly victorious. There had been so many close calls, and then watching Cullen go down with three swords at his throat, I had flashbacks to those bleak times.

He stepped towards me to embrace me, but I was angry and I stepped back. “And you had the audacity to dispel my magic in light of the fact that they could have struck you down.”

Had he fallen, I would be left alone, in a strange city I didn’t even want to be in, save for his presence. I let the anger and the pain and the fear loose, and fire consumed my hands. “I am no healer!”

He put up his hands in supplication, but he did not draw any closer. “I only dispelled your magic in order to feel of use to you.” I snorted. “You are beyond any force I have encountered. You don’t need me to protect you, you don’t need anyone. It’s only natural for a man to want to protect the one he loves, so you can imagine my feelings of inadequacy…”

The fires went out. “What did you say?”

“I feel inferior in the shadow of your power?” He offered awkwardly.

“Nooo…”

He blushed and stammered and my jaw went slack. Had he just said love?

IX

“I’m not going to say it again now, and I certainly don’t expect you to say it. I know we’re not there yet.” It was my turn to look dumbfounded, but as I let the thought sink in, a smile slowly dawned. “I’m sorry I used my abilities against you. It was thoughtless given our circumstances.”

“You don’t have to say that to appease me. I know I frightened you.” He shrugged slightly. “But just so you know, I’m fiercely protective of those I love.”

An intense heart’s beat passed between us. He held my face in his hands as he kissed me with passion. He kissed my cheeks, my eyelids, and finally the tip of my nose. I opened my eyes to look at him and was taken aback by the depth of emotion to be found in his.

He was in love with me. He had been, for some time.

The stomping of synchronized footsteps echoed throughout as the city guard finally made its presence known. Another deterrent to our romantic interlude. Cullen pressed me against the wall, grabbed my hand, and led me away from the scene. We took a number of side streets and alleys and stuck to the shadows until we neared his home.

Once he felt we were clear, he slipped my hand into the crook of his arm and led me the rest of the way casually. “Thank you, by the way, for saving my life.” His voice held a certain levity.

My grip upon his arm tightened and he turned quizzical eyes my direction. “I may have scared you with that…fury, but watching you fall terrified me.”

He touched my cheek with his free hand and I swallowed hard. “We should consider moving, the crime in this city is terrible.”

I raised both eyebrows. “Am I rubbing off on you?”

His smile made me blush. “I won’t be caught by surprise like that again. In the future, I’ll have your back.”

“That won’t be necessary. We’re moving.” His smile was infectious.

~*~

*Once again, a forewarning for a bit of NSFW. 😉 

We returned home barely able to contain ourselves. Poor Keiko had been subject to a number of days of impromptu escapades, but he had been good at finding places to withdraw to. Unlike our time on the road, he was confined to a home and not a tent that led to the great outdoors beyond. When Cullen and I tumbled into the house in each other’s arms, I gave Keiko a quick, sympathetic look, but he was happy to oblige.

He didn’t have the same relationship with Cullen as he had had with Alis him, but he was fond of Cullen, and for that I was grateful. Keiko and Cullen had only spent a little time together, but I had caught them enjoying some quiet time together one morning when they had let me sleep in. I found Cullen sitting on the floor with legs outstretched and Keiko lying alongside him, on his back, to get a belly rub. When I appeared, Keiko looked guilty, but I just laughed.

I caught the literal tail end of Keiko as he slipped out of the house, giving Cullen and I our privacy. We had just admitted out feelings, survived an attack, and were now alone. The energy between us had changed.

I pushed him through the house and into the bedroom then took my time stripping him before pushing him to sit on the edge of the bed. I admired then kissed the expanse of his chest as I lifted off his tunic making sure to nibble his neck. I let my hands drift downward then wrapped them around his hips to slide his breeches off, giving his taut cheeks a squeeze. Our bodies were close and his own staff now stood erect which caused my body to pulse. His breeches pooled around his feet, and I sunk down to my knees so I could plant my lips on one of my favorite spots, the line above his hip bone.

He was naked, vulnerable, and currently at my mercy.

Since we had been reunited we hadn’t taken much time with the preamble to the intimate bits. We just wanted to be joined; it had been desperate nearly every time. And it really wasn’t any different now. I pushed him to sit upon the bed with purpose. I then disrobed slowly, making certain to make a show out of each move. I watched as his hands clenched and unclenched, wanting to reach out. When I was fully undressed, I unbound my hair, and then straddled him.

Our breaths were stunted as I made circular motions, watching his eyes flicker with desire with each pass. His hands gripped my hips and his fingers dug into my flesh as he tried to maintain his sanity. And then he said, “Bryn.” It was a low grumble, and the sound of my name on his lips, a word he had always been hesitant to say, emboldened me. I rose up slightly and positioned him so that my next move would sheath him fully within me, but I didn’t give either of us what we desired.

I teased him, and myself, by hovering and keeping him just at my entrance and then kissed him deeply. His hands ran up my back and into my hair and his grip tightened wherever it found purchase. I pulled back to look into his eyes as I lowered myself slowly and reveled as we both lost our breath.

I enjoyed the feeling of him, being bound so intimately, and neither of us hurried our movements. Instead we moved just slightly, kissing long and languid for some time. But desire began to take over, and eventually we were bouncing together until we were nearing the edge. I bit at his shoulder and enjoyed his erratic kisses as our tempo increased.

As I fell over the precipice, I felt the world swirl about me, and I looked directly into his eyes. Together we rode the waves of passion as they reached the crescendo and finally ebbed. A tear trailed down my cheek, so overwhelmed by emotion I found myself. His eyes sparkled in the light and upon seeing the tear kissed it away.

We held each other tightly until the world returned to its normal state. He pulled me down to lie with him, and I realized I hadn’t felt this complete in a while. I was nestled in his side, and he stroked my back with his free hand while I drew circles onto his chest.

“If we were to move, where would you want to live?” His voice was clear.

I was happy to learn I wasn’t the only one thinking of a future. “Other than my travels through Ferelden, I’ve never lived anywhere outside the Circle. I can’t even imagine where people like us could live. Tevinter?”

He snorted. “No.”

“How about within the countryside of a city, so we’d be near major trade, like lyrium.”

He turned to look at me. “Are you worried about me leaving the Order?”

“How could I not? Lyrium withdrawal is a serious problem. Besides, being a Templar is something you’ve always wanted.”

He nodded ever so slightly. “I just want to be useful.”

“Wait. You’re considering leaving the Order, all together?”

“Of course.”

“Can you not transfer again? Somewhere we could live quietly? I’m a Warden, there have to be some allowances for such relationships?”

He kissed me sweetly. “Such relationships are a disgrace, it goes against everything the Chantry dictates. If we hope for a future, it must be separate from those stringent rules.”

“You’d give all that up? For me?” I didn’t know how to feel about such a revelation. I couldn’t believe he was willing to sacrifice such a big part of who he was. Could I ask so much of him?

“Why does this trouble you?”

“Because being a Templar is a big part of who you are. It’s what you longed to be, even as a child. Your letters to me spoke of the good you felt you were doing, and that’s because of your position. If you gave that up, what would you have?”

He leaned over me and stared deeply into my eyes. “You.”

A sob escaped my lips.

~*~

The Wardens lived by a different set of rules. Perhaps Cullen could find purpose within their ranks? But then he would be subject to the Joining, and Maker forbid, what if he didn’t survive? And then I was subjecting him to not only a shortened life span, but should he live long enough to endure it, a terrible end in the dark. I was honored to be counted among their ranks, but it came with a heavy price. I could never ask Cullen to take such a risk. He was already saddled with his own burden.

At first glance our relationship seemed fairly uncomplicated, but upon a deeper inspection, there were a number of factors to consider.

He was still looking at me after speaking such a sweet word. It was one word, but it held such weight. “Have you no response?”

“As is my way, I have a number of responses.”

“Would you like to give me one?”

I really didn’t. Instead I leaned up and kissed him.

Later I found it impossible to sleep. I had fallen in love with a man who promised me much only to leave me for duty’s sake. Now I was falling for a man who had only ever thought of his duty only to learn he was willing to give it all up for me. I was heartbroken from the first, but not only had I understood the importance of that decision, I had ensured it happened. Knowing the responsibility that came with such duty, could I allow such devotion to be waylaid for the sake of emotion?

~*~

The following morning I decided to investigate our options. Cullen and I walked side by side trying to look nonchalant, like we were siblings and not lovers who had spent most of the night making the other moan.

He’d agreed to help me to get in to see the First Enchanter, and since there were a number of Templars who would recognize me, we had devised a plan that would hopefully get me by them all with ease. It was once I was inside the Circle that I would have to use my forged papers to give me the audience I sought.

Under the guise that I was visiting a healer within the Circle, to ensure I had recovered from my ailments, I entered the Gallows by Cullen’s side. It was my idea to wear a full cloak to hide my Grey Warden armor in the hopes the revelation of my identity would compel the First Enchanter to speak with me freely.

As we suspected, a number of the Templars we had shared drinks with stopped us to say hello and to invite us out again. After a brief interlude, I said my farewells and promises that should the healer find me fully recovered, we would celebrate soon. Their genuine kindness gave me hope for the future of the Order, except that I had to wonder at a change in their demeanor if they knew of my mage origin.

Cullen ushered me to the gates of the Circle and I found the bars almost more threatening and imposing than the large, oversized doors that once barricaded our way in Kinloch. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that you could see out, but knew you were trapped. We gave each other uneasy glances as we passed through the gate and into the Circle’s courtyard where Templars stood rigid on duty and only a few mages strolled with apprehension under their watchful eyes.

I looked at them and had flashbacks to my days in the Circle. The Templars’ gaze usually held fear and judgment, well, most of them. I looked at Cullen and smiled to myself. We had come a long way since the days where he would have struck me down. How different we were now. I couldn’t help but stare in awe of him, a year ago we were in a similar position as the Templars and mages here, but here we were, living together, sneaking into the Circle in the hopes we could escape it all.

Cullen looked at me sideways, self-conscious under my gaze and smiled ever so slightly. He was nervous and feeling the pressure of the situation. I had told him I would enter alone, but he was insistent that he remain by my side as long as possible. He said he would have my back, and he was sticking to his promise.

He escorted me up one of the staircases where we were met by a particularly taciturn looking Templar guarding the door. “Knight Captain.” He gave a small bow in Cullen’s direction.

“This is the Ferelden Ambassador.” He then gave me a little head nod in the guard’s direction to which I pulled out my letter with the King’s seal. Under the impression it was a missive for the Knight Commander, the guard gave me a once over then opened the door. “I’ll inform the Knight Commander of your arrival.”

“Actually, this is for the First Enchanter.” I countered.

The guard nodded once and then disappeared, leaving us standing in the open doorway.

“You’ve risked enough. You’ve been seen escorting me.” I whispered.

“And I’ll risk more.” He gave me a serious look. “I’ll leave you to meet with Orsino, but I’ll be awaiting your return in the courtyard.” He gave my arm a gentle squeeze and then turned sharply on his heel.

I was alone for mere moments before the guard reappeared and escorted me to the First Enchanter’s office. He announced my arrival, rather loudly, which only made it apparent he was making my presence known throughout the hall. So much for a quiet introduction.

I said not a word until the door closed behind me. The First Enchanter did not even turn until we were alone. He was a slight man with thinning hair, and with the tilt of my head I could see he was an elf. When he finally turned to greet me, I was caught off guard by his stern eyes and authoritative voice.

I felt like an initiate again. I nearly shrank under his air of superiority and position. And then I remembered who I was, and why I was there. In one fluid movement I removed my cloak revealing my spectacular Grey Warden armor and stood up straight. “First Enchanter Orsino. My name is Bryn Amell, I’m the Hero of Ferelden, and I need your help.”

Without a doubt this was among one of the last phrases he ever intended on hearing.

X

Orsino was a kind man and a font of information. He offered me a cup of tea and we spent the next hour in deep conversation. Among tales of my exploits he told me of the situation in Kirkwall and how mages in the Circle could benefit by my aid and presence. I knew it to be true, but as I wasn’t planning on staying in the city, I segued into why I was there – options for life outside of the Circle for both a mage and Templar.

He took his time considering his next words. A Templar could be honorably discharged from the Order, but they would only be given a small stipend of lyrium to live on. The Templar could go mad from withdrawal, but each case was different depending on the individual, the length of time they had been exposed to lyrium, and a variety of other factors.

How was it that both of the Orders he and I were a part of had such terrible ends? It was hard to think on a happy ending when one of us was fated to die in darkness while the other lost his mind. So if he were to leave the Order, such a fate might occur even sooner without his ability to maintain a full ration.

Orsino continued. It wasn’t just the lyrium that posed a problem. A Templar devoted their life to not only the Chantry but to protecting the outside world from magic and mages from those who feared their power. Should a Templar leave the Order, it was thought that the Templar would lose their purpose and that would begin a downward spiral. If a Templar chose to live a life with a mage, not only would they face certain resistance no matter where they went, they would not have the protection of their brethren should a larger threat arise.

Any story he had ever heard of a romantic relationship between a mage and Templar always ended in tragedy or heartbreak. Children born of such liaisons within Circle walls were taken from their parents and placed in another, distant Circle. Templars were discharged, and sometimes mages were made tranquil for fear they had used their powers to influence their lover.

In spite of all the bad news, Orsino was positive. He said, “As with any story, as you well know, the future is not set. It can be what you make it, for as long as you’re able.”

My mind was overwhelmed with the wisdom he had imparted. I hugged him and thanked him for his discretion, as he had promised to keep my identity hidden. I was meeting the kindest of people here, despite the city’s reputation. I pulled my cloak tightly about me and left his office distracted with all I had to think through. I would be unable to contact Morrigan directly I learned, but there was a mage network that shared information. It was possible to learn of Morrigan’s whereabouts should she make an appearance, and he offered to make quiet inquiries on my behalf.

I worried for her, although I knew she was more than capable of taking care of herself, so it wasn’t her I was consumed with upon leaving Orsino’s office, but of Cullen, of course. The relationship that once seemed so uncomplicated was becoming problematic over the long term. One option Orsino had offered was the Warden’s ability to conscript anyone they felt would benefit the Order. As the Ferelden Wardens were scarce, literally two of us left with one upon the throne, I could use the ancient method to take Cullen, without ever subjecting him to the ritual because there was no one to answer to.

He was a sly one, that First Enchanter.

And that was the last thought I had as I felt the world about me shift ever so slightly. I immediately prepared myself for an attack, but found my connection to the Fade severed. I couldn’t conjure the simplest of spells, and then I was blinded by a bright white burst of light. Righteous smite, by the feel of it.

The last thing I saw was the hilt of a magic imbued sword coming down upon my head. Then the world went dark.

~*~

When I came to, I did so without notice. I made no movement as I tried to get my bearings, except for the wince at the throbbing of my head. I was lying on my side with my hands bound behind my back on the ground of a cave. The pale blue glow of deep mushrooms gave me some indication, but not much beyond that.

I was still clothed in my Warden armor, thankfully, but they had removed the metal adornments. Perhaps they were meant to be sent as a message or to be kept as trophies.

I could hear voices not too far from me amidst a disagreement. As I listened, the reasons for my abduction became clear. They had learned of my identity, and despite my status, they wanted to send a message that made clear to the world that regardless of status, sacrifice, and achievement, as a mage, I could never be trusted.

This enraged me.

The disagreement part of their discussion was in regards to what they planned on doing should the “Knight Captain” learn of their actions.

Cullen.

Keep your emotions in check. Keep your emotions in check. I kept repeating the words until I felt the rage subside, ever so slightly. I needed to know where I was and how many I would be up against. They had got the best of me once, and I wouldn’t let that happen again, or allow them the opportunity to harm Cullen because of me.

As Templars they had an advantage over me, so any move I made against them would have to be the right one – the one that would inflict the most damage to their numbers.

“Get her up.” One of them called out.

I heard the familiar clinking of Templar armor drawing closer, but it took a few long moments to reach me, so at least I learned the cave was somewhat large. Gentle hands lifted me up and helped me turn and I was surprised to find a sympathetic face greeting me.

I took a quick glance around him, but the darkness of the surroundings offered me no further information. There wasn’t even a faint light of an exit visible from my current position.

“My apologies for the hostile nature of our greeting, messere.” I leveled a look upon him that caused him to shrink back.

“I’m sure the rest of our time together will be much more agreeable.”

He looked uncomfortable, and given that they were planning on making an example of me, I found his discomfort quite the contradiction to his actions. Perhaps he could be swayed.

I had been placed in an alcove of sorts, so as we rounded the corner, I could see the glow of a small fire sparkling in the armor of a half dozen Templars. There was a stool before the fire, and the young Templar ushered me towards it. I resisted his urging to sit because it put me at a disadvantage.

As I looked at my captors, a familiar face caught my attention. Standing behind them, looking uneasy, was the ferryman who had carried me from the Gallows that first day. Obviously my coin had not been enough to secure his silence. As betrayal crossed my features, he averted his eyes. Spineless…

“Is it true? Are you the Hero of Ferelden?” The one in the middle asked. He must be the one in charge. He was older than all the others. An older member of the Order, stuck in his old ways, and empowered under the leadership of his Knight Commander. Wonderful.

“I’m a Grey Warden if that’s what you’re asking, and because of that, you have no authority over me.” I said defiantly.

“That’s where you’re wrong.” His hands glowed with white light as he brought forth holy smite. It was ineffective, but I was pretty sure he knew it would be. It was meant to demonstrate that he had power whereas I did not, but when I didn’t even flinch, I think that took him by surprise.

It took them all by surprise, and they looked at one another and then to their leader for reassurance.

Over the course of my journey, I had developed the mental fortitude to withstand the more basic Templar abilities. “Oh dear. Are you having trouble with endurance? I’ve heard this is something that happens with age.”

He didn’t care for that. “Sit her down.” The two Templars closest to me pushed me down hard upon the stool. “Who is the Knight Captain to you?”

I remained silent. If they wanted to convict Cullen of wrongdoing, I would not aid them, even inadvertently. “If you’re looking to make an example of me, get on with it, and let my Order’s vengeance come swiftly.” That was a bluff because I honestly had no idea what the Wardens would do if they learned of my fate at Templar hands.

There were only seven of them, eight including the ferryman. Unless the young one offered his assistance, I was still at a disadvantage. I hadn’t heard any other voices, but there had to be a possibility of at least a few more perhaps guarding the entrance. I would have to act quickly.

“Do it.” He said.

Without warning, there was a strong tug on my braid and then a release. The one I hoped would help had cut my hair. It fell around my face as I leaned forward and I gasped. I had contemplated cutting it all off, but to have it done to send a message…my emotions let loose.

“Do you want to learn why you fear us?” In a quick succession of moves I ignited my hands and burned off the ropes binding my hands. I stood up and mind blasted the bold young Templar behind me before turning and placing the others in a mass paralysis. I then stood there with my chest heaving contemplating the best course of how to dispense with them.

They hadn’t anticipated that.

Probably because one of the junior members of the Order had been given the task of maintaining a dispel upon me, not expecting that it held little power over me now. I hadn’t become the Hero of Ferelden as a weak-minded initiate.

I stood before them, their eyes wide with fear as they thought on their end at my hands. “How did you intend on making an example of me? The arcane method of fire?” I called forth the flames from the fire before me and let it whirl about them without letting it touch them. There were garbled sounds from each of them as they reacted to the heat.

“How many others share your beliefs of attacking mages without cause? I’m from an Order that does not answer to the Templars, and yet you thought it a wise course of action to potentially start a war with them? We just survived the Blight, and that was because of me and my companions. You would be an archdemon’s snack had it not been for us, and yet you still felt compelled to attack me? Why?”

I heard the young Templar stirring behind me. I wasn’t sure if I was going to let any of them live, but until I made that decision I needed him incapacitated, so I put him in a force field.

The paralysis was wearing off the others, so I froze them in a wall of ice from head to toe, except for the elder one. I left his head free to answer. “You think yourself above us.”

“I’m no longer a Circle mage, I don’t fear you anymore, that’s what this is about.” It suddenly dawned on me. They didn’t like the idea of a free mage.

“You’re an abomination.”

Some of them would never look at us otherwise. “I’m not actually.” I thought for a moment about the consequences of killing seven Templars, but as my position allowed, it was self-defense. My true concern was what Cullen would think of such an action? And then there was the ferryman, and what I should do with a man who was willing to turn a blind eye to whatever they had in store. “How many others are there?”

“We’re just the beginning.” He answered proudly.

“No, you’re not.” I responded fatally.

From a far corner I heard someone running towards us. “She’s free!” He yelled.

And that made my decision.

I partially thawed the ice then sent chain lightning to attack the group. I made sure the young Templar was still held within the field then prepared for a fight, but it was the streak of blue light and the subsequent hand through the chest of the Templar running towards me that gave me pause.

When the Templar fell, a beautiful white haired elf with strange markings remained. The young Templar was released from his binding and screamed, but he was struck with a bolt of lightning from another corner of the cave and went down. Sword fighting and whizzing arrows echoed throughout, drawing my attention. I ran towards the sound to ensure my escape would be inevitable.

A young woman with short dark hair was soon beside me, her staff at the ready. When we reached the mouth of the cave, Cullen and Varric were side-by-side slaying the remaining Templars.

I watched him swing his sword in grand, sweeping arcs and grew teary eyed at the idea that not only had he come to rescue me by joining forces with this strange band of allies, but that he was also willing to fight fellow members of his order. As he arose to his feet after striking a killing blow, our eyes met and his breath caught.

He dropped his sword without a second thought and rushed awkwardly towards me. We were somewhere along a coastline, I had no idea where, and the sand caused Cullen’s movements to be somewhat haphazard. I met him halfway and sank into his arms. “You came for me.” I pressed my face into the crook of his neck as he crushed me in his unforgiving armor clad embrace. I winced in pain, but I didn’t care.

“Are you all right? They didn’t harm you, did they?” Cullen pulled me back to look me over and tugged the short ends of my hair.

“She had things well in hand.” The elf offered nonchalantly. “It appears she requires little assistance.”

Cullen snorted. “You have no idea.”

“They cut my hair.” I said lamely.

“It looks good, Bryn.” Varric offered kindly.

“The Void take them.” I cursed and left Cullen’s inviting arms to return to the cave. I wanted my hair, my armor, and to make sure none of them had survived.

XI

I reentered the cave still seething and found that all but one had perished. The young Templar remained. He had pulled himself into a half seated position against the cave wall across from his fallen companions. His breathing was unsteady and his eyes were wild.

I crouched down beside him and he shrunk back in fear. “What was their plan for me?”

Cullen knelt down beside me.

“Knight Captain.” The young man’s voice was an awed whisper.

“The Order can not tolerate such divisive action, recruit. You must tell us how deep this conspiracy goes.”

“Ser Malek said that no matter her accomplishment, a mage cannot be revered as she is. Her hair was to be left on your doorstep, and her armor sent to the King of Ferelden, a warning that no mage is above Templar rule or out of our reach.” His eyes met mine. “You were to be burned at the stake, a gift for Commander Meredith’s birthday.”

I nearly burst out laughing, but quickly sobered as Cullen and I looked at one another. Such an act would surely have consequences within the Order, but perhaps this group was hoping their commander would honor their devotion to their vows. Would such an act make them heroes and martyrs or had they brought dishonor upon themselves? Only time would tell.

“You intended on killing the Hero of Ferelden because she’s a mage? The woman who saved us from The Blight? Are you all mad?” The dark haired woman voice rose with anger.

“This wouldn’t have just started a fight within Templar ranks; it would have caused the mages to rebel while bringing the Grey Wardens and the Ferelden army down upon us, kid. Did you think about that?” Varric asked.

As he processed that information, it was clear he hadn’t thought that far ahead.

Neither had I.

“How did they even learn of your identity?” Cullen asked.

I pointed to the dead man in the opposite corner. “The ferryman from the Gallows.”

Cullen sighed. “How many others are involved? Does the Commander know?”

The young Templar shook his head with all the energy he had left. “It was just us. Ser Malek was hoping, after, more would rally to his cause.”

“Why did you?” I asked.

He took a moment to ponder his answer. In light of his actions, and then to find his cause lost, to find a reason why he would take part in such activity was probably significant. “I wanted to feel important.”

Cullen and I looked at one another again, and he could read the question in my eyes. He nodded slightly. We stood up together and I sent a final spirit bolt into the young man, forever silencing him.

I moved about the cave and collected my belongings, including my long braid that hung in my hand like a snake. I looked at it for a long moment and considered what it would have represented. Cullen gently took me by the arm and led me out of the cave.

Once we were outside in the light, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. When I opened my eyes I was staring at my rescuers – a mage, an elf, a dwarf, and a Templar. “How did you find me?”

Varric was eager to share the story. “I heard chatter.”

“Because of course he did.” The young woman replied.

“Why do you think I keep a room at the Hanged Man, Hawke?”

“Well, however it all came together, thank you.” I held my hand out to the dark haired woman. “Bryn.”

She took my hand. “Marian. Varric you know, and this is Fenris.”

I reached out to Fenris and at first he looked skeptical.

“You’ll have to excuse Broody over here, Hero. He’s a little shy of mages.” Varric gave Fenris a little nudge.

“And yet you travel with one?” I raised an eyebrow.

He shook my hand quickly. “I wonder at that as well.” He responded in that cool demeanor, but then he looked at Hawke and it was clear as to why. He too was finding it difficult to reconcile his feelings for a mage.

I took Cullen’s hand in mine and once again, his face turned serious. “I want to go home.”

He led me away, picking up his sword as he did. We all trudged through the sand as Varric continued his story of how he had learned of the Templars’ plan. He also mentioned how he “knew a guy” that would help dispose of the bodies. Nobody wanted to know the details.

Soon we were entering a secret passageway that led us back under the city and eventually back into the Gallows.

~*~

Before we took the ladder that would lead us back up to the city, Cullen halted my ascent. The others were already making their way. “I’m so sorry.” He was deeply troubled.

“This is not your fault.”

“How can you find me blameless in this? Had we not fought that day on the docks, that man would never have overheard our conversation. You would not have been put in danger because of my brethren.” He gingerly touched my head where I had been struck and I winced.

“I’ve always been in danger from your Order, until I became a Warden. I’m now capable of taking care of myself, but there aren’t many others who can say the same. Those men…were extremists. You do not share their beliefs, so you have nothing to apologize for. But…you must ensure that their ideas died with them.”

He nodded once, curtly. “It will be done.”

I touched his cheek. “If there are apologies to be made, I think I owe you one. I’m sorry.”

He looked confused. “If I don’t have to apologize for my part in what happened today, what could you possibly have to apologize for?”

“I’m a mage, and because of that you were forced to strike down…”

He kissed me then. It was like the kiss he had planted on me in the Circle when he was offering his support in helping me keep a promise. This one, however, meant something else.

“Come on, lovebirds. Drinks are on me.” Varric’s voice echoed into the darkness.

~*~

We all gathered around Varric’s table and ate and drank heartily. Despite the friendly company, Cullen was withdrawn. From time to time I would take his hand in mine and offer it a reassuring squeeze only to have him respond with a half hearted smile and then return to stare blindly into his goblet.

Varric gave me an understanding look and did his best to engage the whole table in whatever topic of conversation he proposed, but as Cullen continued to be detached, I realized I would have to excuse us soon to discover what was troubling him. I was confused because he had seemed well until I apologized.

Maybe he did blame me. Maybe he blamed himself. Maybe he was regretting entangling himself in such a relationship. Maybe he was upset that I wasn’t more upset. Maybe he understood why his brethren found such extreme measures acceptable…there were too many maybes, and it was making my head ache.

I had to wonder why I, myself, wasn’t more distressed by what had occurred. It could have turned out much worse. There could have been more of them. They could have attempted to make me tranquil, although now that I was a Warden, I wondered if that were possible. But I had overcome worse odds…although I hadn’t found myself alone in those times.

My thoughts were, thankfully, interrupted by Hawke, who shared a rather interesting fact about our families. “Do you know the Amells and the Hawkes are related?”

“We’re related?” I asked wide-eyed. This drew Cullen’s attention as well.

“My mother is an Amell. So we’re probably cousins, even if distantly.”

“I don’t know my family…” My voice drifted off as I thought about how wonderful it would be to have some, and a fellow mage as well. I considered my friends my family, and I hoped they would continue to think of me the same way even after I had left them behind to…do whatever it was I was doing now. I should write them. And there was the guilt again. “If you don’t object, I’d like to meet your family.”

“My mother would love that. My brother on the other hand…well, let’s just say he’ll be even less friendly than Fenris.”

Fenris nearly choked on his drink, and we all laughed.

~*~

It wasn’t long after that Cullen and I walked hand in hand back home. “Are you going to tell me what’s wrong?”

“I’m not sure exactly what it is.”

“Your demeanor changed about the time we arrived at the Hanged Man. Do you remember something triggering the alteration?”

“I felt the smite, in the Gallows. I knew something was wrong and I went to find you, only to discover that you had gone missing. I knew it was the Templars.” He looked at our joined hands. “I couldn’t protect you, and you were what, fifty feet from me?” We stopped walking and he started to pace.

“I…”

“I wanted them dead. I wanted to kill them. My brothers.” He spat.

There was a rage building in him. “Cullen.” He looked at me, and for the first time I was afraid of what I saw there. “It’s only natural to feel betrayed, but I fear this is about something else. What was bothering you in the Hanged Man?” Now I dreaded his answer, because I was pretty sure I knew what it was going to be. It was as the First Enchanter had said; most mage-Templar relationships were destined to end wretchedly.

“How did we ever think this would work?” There were tears in his eyes, and I had to do my best to swallow mine.

Was I only loveable to a point? I knew the stigma that came with being a mage, and I had chosen to fall in love with two men with whom I could not remain with, so why was I still surprised? A king and a Templar. I was such a fool.

I felt the air go out of my lungs and my eyes burned with unshed tears. I stared at the ground because I couldn’t bear to look in his eyes again. “I’ll be gone by morning.” And with that I ran from him.

He didn’t try to stop me.

I had no idea where I was running to, but somehow, blindly, I ended up back at the Hanged Man.

One look at Varric and I burst into tears. I didn’t see Hawke, but soon I was being comforted in her embrace. “It’s not very often being a mage sucks, does it?” Fenris snorted behind her somewhere. “You’re staying with me tonight, cousin.”

I hugged her tighter.

XII

Marian and her family had escaped Lothering during the Blight and had been “lucky” enough to find a family member in Kirkwall. Marian’s Uncle Gamlen lived in a small house in Lowtown, and had begrudgingly allowed them to stay, so he wasn’t all too pleased to greet yet another guest, Amell or not.

Marian and her mother, Leandra quickly put him in his place, and I was at first surprised by their treatment of him until I learned it was because, in order to pay for their entry into the city, Uncle Gamlen had basically sold Marian and her brother, Carver into a yearlong servitude to an unseemly group.

Carver was just as unfriendly as Marian insinuated. Especially upon learning yet another mage was under their roof. Their father and sister had both been mages as well, and it was clear keeping them hidden from Templars all these years had taken its toll.

“I’m not an apostate, if that makes you feel any better, Carver.”

He snorted and then made himself scarce. Marian just gave me a look that said, “I told you so.”

Despite the unfriendly welcome from the men, Marian’s mother was warm and kind. Learning of my current troubles, she gave me a hug, and it was the kind of hug a lonely Circle mage longs to feel. It was the kind of hug only a mother could give, and it nearly brought me to tears again. My throat tightened, but I willed myself to maintain my sense, and yet I still sank into her arms for longer than was appropriate with someone I had just met.

I was exhausted. It had been a long, eventful day. Soon I was lying side by side with Marian, giggling. Marian and I were nearly the same age, and I found her easy to talk to. I was too tired to go into too many details of how I had ended up in Kirkwall, but when she learned that I needed a place to stay, she suggested staying with Fenris.

I scoffed, loudly.

“He’s living in an abandoned mansion in Hightown. He has the room, and despite his protests, he could use the added protection. There are people after him.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, but I don’t think I should stay much longer anyway. I need to find the Wardens, maybe. Besides, I don’t think Fenris would be too happy living with a mage he doesn’t know.” I gave Marian a nudge.

“What?”

“What?” I mocked.

“He hates mages.”

“I’m sure he’s willing to turn a blind eye to that fact for a certain someone.”

“Did Cullen?”

“Point taken.” I sighed.

~*~

As tired as I was, I couldn’t sleep, so once the house fell asleep, I quietly exited. I carefully made my way back to Hightown and back to Cullen’s. Keiko greeted me at the door, and I found a wretched looking Cullen sitting by the fire. I stood before him and we just stared at one another for a long moment. He looked downtrodden and conflicted, and my heart ached, not just for him, but for me, for us. I didn’t say a word, but took his hand and led him to bed.

When he tried to speak, I put my finger to his lips to silence him. There wasn’t anything that needed to be said. What could be? He sat on the edge of the bed and watched me remove my Warden armor, but this time I made no show of it. This time there was no spark, and the void was almost palpable.

When we were snuggled together he tried to speak again, and this time I kissed him to silence him. It wasn’t a passionate kiss, but more of a farewell. I’m not sure he understood that then. He rested his head upon my breast, and I played with his curls until I heard his steady breathing.

I still couldn’t sleep.

I knew he regretted our involvement, his part in my rescue, and that he had turned his back on his vows to live with a mage. On that fateful day in the Gallows, he had made it clear then that he didn’t trust mages, and yet, for whatever reason – the possibility of love – he had let down his guard…something he obviously regretted.

Today had been the culmination of all of that, and it was the tipping point for Cullen, whereas for me it had given me hope for the future…only to be dashed a short time later.

My breathing became stunted as I continued to think on this turn of events. I missed him. Maker, forgive me. And now I was going to miss Cullen. But maybe it was my destiny to move forward as a Warden, alone unencumbered. Duncan had chosen me for something greater, I could never have imagined that would mean ending the Blight, but maybe now I needed to look beyond the emotional aspect of what some considered a “normal” existence and find a more useful purpose for my energy. As a Warden, maybe I needed to rise above the trivial. Even in writing that I knew I was lying to myself, yet again.

I had been lucky, as a Circle mage, to find love, twice. And I had enjoyed it, all of it. Despite the darker moments, I liked the idea of being cared for and caring for another. In the Circle there was no one to disappoint, except maybe a senior member from time to time, but it wasn’t quite the same as wanting to make a loved one proud. To see their smile. To run into their arms. To feel their weight…Andraste guide me! I loved them, both, but it wasn’t enough, and I was going to end up alone.

As I saw the first gray wisps of morning light color the sky, I gathered my belongings with a certain amount of solemnity. I didn’t want to seem petty, so I left a number of the things I had decorated his home with behind. If he didn’t care for the reminder, he could rid himself of them. I stared at Cullen for a few minutes contemplating my decision. The sheets were slouched around his waist, exposing his chest to my view. He was one of the Maker’s beautifully crafted creatures, and he deserved more than…well, more than a mage.

My eyes welled with tears as I led Keiko out of the house.

As promised, I was out by morning.

~*~

There was a lump in my throat that I couldn’t dislodge, and I wanted to unload a barrage of spells on something. Maybe I just wanted to scream.

As Keiko and I made our way through the city, I rattled my brain for where it would be best to land, at least until I saw Isabela again. I would book passage aboard her ship once more and hopefully, by that time, I would have a plan as to where I should go next. I suppose that also depended on where she and her crew were heading.

I couldn’t stay with Marian, there just wasn’t the room, and the Hanged Man was…well, it had a particular scent, and it was kind of sad, with the exception of Varric. We hadn’t made it very far when I sat down heavily upon a stone bench in one of Hightown’s many squares. Maybe I could rent a place for a while. Although that might become difficult quickly as I had left a large sum of compensation for each of my companions when I left. I would need to find work, especially if I had a long journey to Weisshaupt ahead of me.

I hadn’t been there long, when out of the corner of my eye I saw Fenris creeping through one of the alleys. Creeping may not have been one of the best words to describe his lithe movements, maybe more like stealthy, or cautiously. Marian had made the comment that he was “wanted” of sorts.

Keiko made a huff, and drew Fenris’s attention.

“Warden.”

“Broody.”

He drew closer, obviously still a bit wary, but with a glint of a smile upon his lips. “What brings you out at such an hour?”

“I could ask you the same thing? Just getting home from the Hanged Man?”

He half smiled, and it was all I could focus on. Marian was in trouble with this one. “Varric and I play cards from time to time.”

“I know little of Varric, but I can imagine you’re already greatly indebted to him.” Fenris sort of chuckled at that. “I, myself, am looking for a place to live, temporarily.”

“Ah. Off to the Hanged Man then?”

“Not if I can help it. Any other abandoned mansions in Hightown you can recommend?” My smile was strained, and he noticed.

He thought on the matter for a long moment, looking over both Keiko and myself while he did so. “If you don’t mind the constant threat of attack, I have a spare room.”

I was taken aback. “You know, I think that’s why my nights have been so restless. I miss the impending danger that used to loom over me.”

“It keeps the mind and body sharp.” He scoffed. With a tilt of his head, Keiko and I followed him. When we neared the doorway he turned and looked directly at me. “If you would prefer, I will not tell anyone you’re here.”

I sighed with relief. “Thank you, Fenris. It will only be for a little while, I promise.”

With that he opened the door and invited us in.

XIII

The house was grand indeed, and I soon learned why it was Fenris was squatting there. His unique markings were lyrium, branded into his flesh by his former master, the man who was hunting him. This was his former master’s home, and he was hoping, in time, the man would return to it to find an unwelcome surprise.

Lyrium branded flesh?! What a horrific idea. The procedure had been so painful it had stripped Fenris of his memories of his life before it, and what remained was a deep hatred of mages and all they were capable of, and yet, he had kindly offered me a place to stay, and was fighting his attraction to one. Marian would have to write me to keep me current of such a liaison. It was sure to prove fascinating.

He showed me to a room, strangely near his own. If he were expecting an attack, it was strategic to keep me close for back up, but even so I was surprised at his willingness to keep a mage nearby. It was a nice room, fairly clean with a large inviting bed. “It looks like you’ve had a long night. Care for a drink?”

“Maker’s Breath! Yes.” I almost laughed.

Keiko slept at our feet while we drank in silence, watching the flames flicker in the oversized fireplace in Fenris’s room. It was the first moment I felt like I could breathe again, and with that first breath, the tears fell. I brushed them away quickly and with purpose. I would not feel sorry for myself. I was Bryn Amell, the Hero of Ferelden…and then I started to laugh, to myself anyway.

I hadn’t acted like that for weeks, in part because it was a moniker I was hoping to avoid or shed. I wanted to ignore the life that had been cultivated around such a title, but I had gained that title because of the life I had made. Why was I so quick to put it aside? Why was I willing to ignore who I had become?

I was proud of what I had accomplished, and what my friends and I had been capable of doing together, it was because I had a broken heart that I had left them behind to escape it all. I had lied and avoided and acted like a fool.

If they didn’t forgive me, I couldn’t blame them. I deserved their ire.

It all became clear in that moment. I owed them all an apology. I would stop ignoring my responsibilities and own up to them. After a good night’s rest, I would write to them. I would return to Denerim, meet with my king, and then ask for his leave to find the Wardens. The Ferelden Order needed to rebuild its numbers, and perhaps, by now, he had heard from them. I needed to make sure he was well guarded without me by his side – something I had been quick to dismiss in my heartache.

My eyes had always been drawn to him. I always watched over him, and I had left him without knowing if he would be all right in my absence. I had no idea if the guard could be trusted. Perhaps Eamon had remained with his knights, but how could I know that? That act had been spiteful, and I had known it, but at the time I reasoned it was acceptable.

I had looked into the darkness and let it affect me. Maybe Cullen was right. Maybe I enjoyed the power too much, and for once I wasn’t referring to my magic. I had a great deal of it and my accomplishments had made me arrogant. I suppose it was a positive that I could recognize such.

If any of my friends had remained in Denerim, or at least Ferelden, I would ask them to accompany me on my journey, or ensure they were well, and aid them in planning a future for themselves. I had to be more than this. I had too long been self-indulgent and evasive. As I continued to pity myself, I let a final tear fall before swallowing it all back.

“You have come to some understanding then?” Fenris’s voice was rough with fatigue and drink.

I hadn’t noticed him watching me. “I have. With your permission I would like to stay until my arrangements have been made. I will stave off any attack by your side while I’m here, as not only a thanks for your hospitality, but to prove to you that not all mages are untrustworthy.” I winked.

He gave me another sly smile. “That would be quite the feat. You have my permission, and my thanks.”

We toasted one another and nodded in agreement.

I have no memory of how I got to bed that night.

~*~

The next morning after a long bath, and a bout of anger at the loss of my hair, I stared in the mirror of my new accommodations. My hair was uneven and required a proper cut. Fenris’s hair was coifed ever so, perhaps he was useful with a pair of scissors, and so I called out for him.

His head appeared in the doorway seconds later, looking both confused and intrigued. He wasn’t used to having another person in his home, clearly. “Are you all right?”

“I was wondering if you might be able to help me with something?” I held up the scissors and pointed to my head.

I heard him make a low grumble, a sound that reminded me of Cullen. It didn’t take him long to acquiesce to my polite request. I sat in front of the vanity and watched as he gently, and with great focus, cut my hair evenly. It was so, so short, but at least it was all the same length now. It fell to my jawline, and barely tucked behind my ears. I hadn’t want to cut it all off, so this was well beyond what I had originally intended. I turned this way and that while looking in the mirror, and knew my face mirrored my emotions.

I barely recognized myself, so what would the others think?

“Is it not what you asked for?”

The others…my eyes grew sad. “It’s exactly what I asked for, and you did a wonderful job. Thank you.” I stood up and brushed the hair off my shoulders and lap.

“Then what is wrong?”

“Before I arrived in Kirkwall, I actually had thought of cutting it off. Those men did it to send a message, my one beauty….”

“You are mistaken if you think your beauty lay within your hair.” He didn’t smile, but carefully put the scissors down and exited the room.

~*~

That afternoon, I made my way to the Chanter’s board to see if there was any work I could take on. It wasn’t too far from Fenris’s home, so I knew I could make my way there quickly without being concerned about being seen. Even still, I covered my head, stood in blind spots, and kept to the shadows.

I looked over the board quickly, doing my best to take in the opportunities without wasting time. There was a path on Sundermount that required clearing. Travelers and traders were at risk from a number of enemies – spiders, for one, and the occasional demon. Spiders?! I loathed them, and even thinking on them made the scar in my side twitch. Well, it was one way to expel the frustration that had been building.

I took the notice and returned to the house.

I then made myself sit and write the letters I had been avoiding. I didn’t know what to say, not truly, to any of them.

It was easy to be honest with them; they had been like family for the past year, but at the same time, I didn’t want to sound selfish and petty, although I knew, and so did they, that that was exactly what I was. I thought about who would be the easiest to talk to first.

Leliana?

Maybe Sten. He wouldn’t require as many words. That made me laugh.

Each letter basically contained the same information – an apology, an explanation, and my plans. I personalized each one, asking after their welfare, and depending on whom I was writing to, I shared various personal details of my time in Kirkwall. Within each letter I also asked that if they had remained in Denerim to “please await my return”.

I had been willing to run from him, but the slight to my friends was something I would always regret. It was entirely possible that I might never see some of them again; I couldn’t imagine how I had not thought of that before.

Was there a level beyond regret? If they were to go on with their lives, and spread to the corners of Thedas, and I had not said a proper farewell, how could I live with myself?

I did my best to end each letter on a positive note; hopeful that we would see one another again soon, and then tucked them away into my bag. I pondered whether I should send the letters before or after killing spiders in the mountains. I could be gone for a couple of weeks, and by then the letters would have reached Denerim and I could possibly have word upon my return. The time away would help me to put the past few days into perspective, and having something to look forward to was a nice diversion.

I had no idea how long such a trek would take, so I needed to talk with someone who knew the area.

But before I found myself at the Hanged Man once again, I found someone to deliver my letters near the Viscount’s Keep.

Marian, Fenris, and Varric decided to accompany me. They knew there wasn’t much coin to be made, but they were up for the adventure. I knew Varric wanted more backstory, and I was pretty sure any time Marian asked Fenris for anything, he was sure to accept.

We gathered supplies and headed out almost immediately, only making one stop to inform Marian’s mother of our scheme. This was the first time Keiko and Marian’s mabari, Dane had met, and they were quick to become friends. Keiko needed the excursion, I think, even more than I did. He had been city bound for a couple of weeks and I knew he was missing the adventure of the open road.

~*~

The first night we made camp at the base of the Vimmark Mountains, and Sundermount in particular, the tallest of the peaks. I was still finding it difficult to sleep and so I offered to take first watch, an old habit difficult to break. Keiko and Dane had left after supper to explore and so I sat quietly alone in the dark. And dark it was. There was no moon that night, and the few stars that lit the night sky were dim, as if they were afraid to shine too bright.

I didn’t have long to myself before Marian joined me. “I can’t let you sit alone our first night out.” She saddled up beside me. We sat in pleasant silence for a short while, and then she wanted to know all about Cullen.

I had heard the story of the abominations within the Templar ranks, and how he had been assisted while investigating the situation. It was Marian and her friends who had offered him their aid. “He was angry then. Distrustful. Less than a week later, he was different, a bit more understanding. That was because of you, wasn’t it?”

Had being reunited affected such a change? “I suppose it was.”

“I heard about his…ordeal in the Circle. I think having you in his life again has been good for him.”

“Well, it appears he doesn’t agree.”

“You didn’t let him know you were heading out of the city, did you?”

“No. Exes don’t require updates.”

“It’s not easy loving a mage. Or so Mother says.”

“Then be prepared for a challenge.” I nodded my head towards Fenris’s tent.

“Is it worth it?”

My breath was shattered as I wrapped my mind around the whole idea of love. I looked at Marian, her eyes wide and naïve, and said with all certainty, “Yes.”

~*~

About a week later we returned to the city victorious. Not only had we done the job, clearing a path of safe travel, we had discovered loot and coin that made the effort even more worthwhile. We split up upon arriving back in Kirkwall, with a plan to meet up later for celebrations.

Fenris and I made our way through Hightown, and after a week in the wild, surrounded by new friends, I could see beyond the fresh wounds. I hadn’t even bothered to cover my head, forgetting that I was keeping a low profile. I didn’t feel any better about what had happened in my love life, but I had come to some sort of acceptance, and then all that crumbled around me when I saw a dejected Cullen standing at the base of the stairs to Fenris’s home.

His hair was disheveled, he looked tired, and his skin was pale. When Fenris and I saw him, Fenris gave me a look and walked away in a different direction, leaving me to confront him alone. Keiko and Dane had escaped into the Vimmark Mountains, and Marian and I knew it would probably be a few days before they returned.

My heart thudded against my ribs and I had to refrain from the impulse to run into his arms. I should apologize for up and leaving without word, but from what I knew of breakups, there was rarely any communication between the couple afterward. As I had felt with him, I hadn’t felt compelled to offer reasoning behind my actions, even though I could now see the result of such selfishness.

He looked terrible. And I felt terrible.

I had already caused him heartache when he believed I had fallen during the Blight, so I really should have considered that before leaving for a week without any word. I approached him carefully.

“Hero.” His cold tone made it clear that this was not a friendly meeting.

“Knight Captain.” I stopped walking.

“It is my honor to invite you to the Viscount’s Keep to meet…” He paused and looked away, and when he looked back his emotions were difficult to read. They were a mixture of sadness and something else, like understanding of the inevitable, and I found myself hanging on his every word. “With the King of Ferelden.”

I felt my stomach, and my heart, drop into my boots.

~*~

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