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Set In Darkness

Chapter Text


 

 

Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.
 - The Old Astronomer to His Pupil, Sarah Williams

 


 

 

The pain was everywhere, white hot and crackling, radiating from her left side in waves of nauseating agony. Slick warmth at her temple felt cold in the unwelcome breeze, her mind foggy as she tried to recall what had happened. Fingers scrabbled for purchase, finding froze wetness that yielded to her touch. Snow. What the ...?

Clarity fought for dominance as the memories sank in, overriding the sharp tang of winter pine on the air, the metallic taste that could only be blood on her tongue. She remembered ... the city festival in summer, the rumble of passing combustion engines under-cutting the sound of street performers and pedestrian chatter, the acrid rasp of petrol always present beneath the scent of gourmet burgers and fudge. She remembered the impact of a shoulder against her own, knocking her sideways into the road; a friend's hand grasping at her sleeve; the screech of brakes, the screams of others, the expletive-filled curse of a driver who couldn't stop in time; her last sight being Ria's eyes as the car mowed them both down ... Ria. Where was she?

The urgent need to find her best friend forced her eyes open to blinding white that stung like grit. Face down. Got it. Bracing herself, she pushed up onto her knees, crying out with guttural expression as the pain in her side exploded in answer to the injudicious motion. Spots danced before her eyes, threatening to overwhelm her with the staccato thud of her own heartbeat echoing through her head. She sagged back against her heels, slumping to her right instinctively. She didn't dare look down at herself, afraid of what she might find. Judging by the throb in her head, she'd been badly injured. The crackling lance of sheer agony from her side did not contradict that impression.

Still fighting to stay conscious, she forced her gaze to focus. The blinding white dimmed just enough to be discernible, all around her jumbled and uneven, broken up with the jut of debris from beneath. Wooden spars, bright cloth, blood ... Something awful had happened here. Unbidden, her eyes rose to the sky, shocked to find not the familiar city buildings rising above her, but the dark gloom of snow-covered mountains bordering a night sky littered with unfamiliar stars. Unfamiliar stars, and two moons.

"What the fuck ...?"

A low groan nearby tore her gaze from the panic-inducing sky to the settling snow at her right hand. What she had taken for nothing more than a crumpled scatter of cloth shifted, revealing the pale face she had been worrying over since her rattled brain had managed to find some coherence. Ria's blonde hair was dark with blood, plastered to the side of her face with icy crystals of snow that glittered in the moonlight. She sprawled on her side, whimpering at the movement jostled what had to be at least one broken bone in her right leg.

"Rory?" Ria's voice was painfully weak in the unnerving stillness. "Wh ... what happened?"

Rory blinked, trying to clear her vision. "There was a ... car ..."

She could hear what sounded like voices in the distance, see lights dancing over the snow far below them. She wanted to call to them, but there was no strength in her voice, in her body. The spots before her eyes grew darker as she slumped forward into the snow, unmoved even by the stabbing pain in her side. The last thing she was aware of was Ria's voice, harsh in the deafening silence, calling for help as the mountains rumbled above them.

Chapter Text

"What ... where are we?"

Her tongue felt thick, too thick to form words properly. She wasn't cold anymore; no, she was hot. Too hot. Dry, painful heat that radiated from her head. She could smell incense, a soothing smoke that calmed the panic rising in the back of her mind. Her eyes opened slowly, feeling sticky with grit, her surroundings swimming into focus.

"Easy," a gentle voice told her, a young woman coming into view. "You're safe now."

"Wh-where's Ria?" Rory tried to ask, certain she was indecipherable. But the woman seemed to understand her just fine.

"Your sister is here," she told the injured woman, soft fingers turning Rory's head gently by the chin to her right so she could see Ria. "She is alive, as are you."

Her best friend was lying in a bed close beside this one, her head bandaged, apparently asleep. But the woman had called her Rory's sister. And this was not a hospital, she realized, letting other details filter into her foggy mind. Grey stone walls, candles for illumination; the mattress beneath her felt hard and oddly spiky. And the woman herself ...

Now Rory really focused on her, there was something terrifyingly familiar in the way she was dressed. She was no nurse, that was for certain. The red and white robe was alarming in itself, but the glimmer of candlelight on the golden sunburst that adorned that robe almost stole the breath from Rory's throat. Familiar, in that she had spent hours interacting with characters dressed just like that. Terrifying, because they weren't real.

She groaned suddenly. "What happened?" she heard herself demand. "Where are we? Who are you peop -" Her question broke off as she tried to move - between the stabbing pain from her side and head, and the rolling wave of nausea, it was a wonder she didn't pass out all over again.

"Hush," the woman told her, firm but kind. "What do you remember?"

Rory frowned, wincing as the expression tugged painfully at a tight sensation at her hairline. "There was ... snow," she said, straining to remember anything more. Well, anything she could say out loud. If this wasn't some kind of crazed fever dream, then talking about cars and burgers would likely end with her cut in two by the nearest templar terrified that she was an abomination. "Something hit me ..."

"Do you remember why you were in the mountains?" the woman asked, still in that gentle tone.

"Going to ... somewhere?" That was a guess, but it seemed to do the trick. "I-I don't even know what year it is."

"I will tell you," the kind woman promised her. "But first ... are you in pain? Do you need to use the pot?"

"Pot?" As soon as the word left her lips, Rory guessed what she meant. No modern plumbing in Thedas. "Um ..."

Embarrassingly, the answer was yes, and the process of getting that done was not at all pleasant. Quite apart from the pain in her side, just the act of sitting upright brought the nausea to the fore in spectacular fashion. But despite the fact that her patient had just vomited copiously over her lap and was now crying uncontrollably as she apologized, the gentle woman just folded the soiled layer of her robe over and helped Rory to sit on a smoothly-carved commode, drawing a screen about her so she could make use of the facilities with at least the illusion of privacy. That done, Rory was helped back into the bed, thoroughly ashamed of herself, lying back with the unsettling thought that this couldn't be a dream. Who throws up, cries, and uses a medieval chamber pot in a dream?

"There now," her astonishingly tolerant carer said when she was settled again, her robe already changed for a clean one, though Rory noted with some disgust that she had not washed her hands. "I'm Sister Carys, and you are in the Chantry in the village of Frosthelm, in the Ferelden Frostback Mountains."

"I... don't know Frosthelm." Rory frowned thoughtfully. That wasn't a named village in the games, that she knew of. She hadn't read the books, or played all the D.L.C., but she was pretty sure this was new information.

Sister Carys smiled. "I would be very surprised if you had," she assured her patient. "Frosthelm has only stood these past ten years. It was established as a stop on the Penitent's Path to Haven, which is where you were going, of course."

"Of course," Rory heard herself say weakly. Did she say Haven? Why the hell would I be going to Haven? It's totally destroyed. She'd watched it happen countless times in the third game, after all.

"The date is 14 Solace, 9:41 Dragon," Carys went on, seeming not to notice the sudden shock in her conscious patient's eyes. "There is to be a great Conclave at the Temple of Sacred Ashes, between the rebel mages and templars, mediated by Divine Justinia herself. As I understand it, you and your sister were traveling with the Right Hand of the Divine and her party when the avalanche cut your convoy in half."

Perhaps it was just as well Rory was feeling so weak. The only sound she could manage was a horrified grunt. All the screaming was inside her head. Just the date was enough to tell her how screwed she was. 9:41 Dragon. Conclave. Justinia. The third game was just about to start. Oh, sweet merciful gods, let this be an insane fever dream. I don't want to live this shit-storm! Everything she knew, everything she'd played multiple times ... it didn't go well for the nameless cast. Between the Conclave and Haven and Adamant and the Arbor Wilds ... She heard herself whimper pathetically.

"Calm yourself," Carys tried to reassure her, assuming that her shock was fear for her companions on the road. "There were no fatalities. Indeed, you and your sister were the worst injured. A little ironic, given your conscription as healers."

"Conscription?" Fucking hell, did some idiot decide that I'm part of the sodding Inquisition?

"Recruitment, then." Carys considered her for a long moment. "You don't remember any of this, do you?"

Sensing a get-out clause, Rory started to shake her head, stilling the motion hastily as her temples throbbed. "How badly were we hurt?" she asked, uncertain why she was playing along. This was nuts. Completely, utterly insane. Things like this just didn't happen. The Modern Girl in Thedas was a fan-fiction trope, for gods' sakes!

Carys frowned at her question. "Moderate head injuries, both of you," she said in concern. "You have several cracked ribs on your left side, but no open wounds, thankfully. You're conscious and coherent. Your sister, however ..." She trailed off uncertainly.

"What about Ria?" Rory demanded, as forcefully as she could manage in her weakened state. Her head turned, seeking out the still form in the next bed. "How long have we been out of it?"

"Ria was awake and talkative until yesterday afternoon, though the content of her speech was less than reassuring," the sister told her worriedly.

I'll bet it was, Rory thought sardonically. Cars and hospitals and accusations of abduction by cosplayers, probably. But that wasn't her main worry. "Did she fall asleep, or did she pass out?" she asked Carys with intense concern.

"As I understand it, she fainted between one word and the next," Carys began, visibly startled when Rory lurched to sit up, heedless of pain and nausea.

"What?" Even an "unskilled" carer like Rory knew that was bad, but apparently not so the healers of Thedas. "Hasn't anyone tried to wake her up?"

"We thought it best to let her sleep -"

"Bollocks to that, she's not asleep," Rory snapped, panic and pain destroying her manners with the urgent need to be sure her best friend was still alive. She'd only seen someone die from a head injury once; she did not intend to see it again today. "Wake her up. Wake her up now, or I'll do it!"

Apparently bowing to whatever skill these people thought she had, Carys rose hastily, turning to lay a gentle hand on Ria's fingers, calling her name softly. Rory rolled her eyes - that wouldn't wake Ria even if she was only sleeping. Stifling a harsh cry of pain at the fluctuating agony in her side, she threw the blanket off her legs, swinging her feet to the icy stone of the floor. Breathless already but high on adrenaline, she pushed herself to stand, lunging forward as her knees buckled to land excruciatingly hard beside her friend's bed.

"Ria? Ria, wake up!" Unlike the sister, there was no softness, no gentleness in the hand Rory laid on her friend's shoulder, nor in the tone of her voice. She was loud and she was forceful, and she went straight for the techniques she had been taught were illegal at home to try and rouse her friend. "Sister Carys, I need something I can press down on her fingernails. A quill or a stick, anything!"

If it wasn't the Chantry's practice to take unexplained orders from patients, Sister Carys showed no sign of it, fleeing out through a heavy wooden door as Rory focused her sudden fury on her unconscious friend. She pinched earlobes, rubbed her knuckles hard on Ria's sternum, tried everything she could think of to elicit a response. She knew what was supposed to happen; it had happened often enough under her hands in the emergency department where she had worked for four years. The patient was supposed to jolt awake, complaining loudly at the painful wake up.

"Come on, don't do this to me," she begged, feeling her fear taking hold as Ria consistently failed to respond to the pain she knew she was inflicting. "You can't leave me alone, you're the only person in this fucked up dream who knows me. I can't dream you dying, I can't."

The door behind her opened with a bang, heralding the sound of Sister Carys babbling to someone else about her patient's sudden mania before being shut out once again. Footsteps tapped against the flagstones, but Rory ignored them, reaching for the candle that stood nearby. She couldn't reach it, the tenderness in her side a torment that had her frustrated, letting out a tearful curse against the world in general and her own uselessness in specific. Ria lay still, pale and unmoving, oblivious to everything Rory knew to try. Her pulse was weak; her breathing shallow and slow. Both were signs Rory didn't want to read.

"Here." A gloved hand came into her peripheral vision, holding the candle she'd failed to reach by herself. There was one more symptom she could check, one more sign that would tell her if her horrible, terrible dream was turning into a nightmare.

Barely acknowledging the owner of that hand, she seized the candle, holding it close to Ria's face as she pried first one, then the other eyelid open. And what she found opened whole new vistas of despair to her. Both pupils were blown, one wider than the other, her best friend's blue eyes turned black with that unnatural dilation. Neither one reacted to the light of the candle directly beside them. Even if she'd had access to a C.T. scanner, or a surgical theater, Rory wouldn't have known what to do. She was a basic, bog-standard care assistant; not a nurse, and definitely not a doctor. In this place, where there was nothing that might even be considered basic medicine back home, Ria was gone. Unless a mage were to walk in and relieve the pressure on her brain ... but there was no point hoping for that. Rory couldn't save her.

"I want to wake up now," she heard herself say, the words seeming to come from some great distance beyond herself. "Let me wake up. I don't want to be here. I don't want to be alone!" Unbidden, her hand came down hard on Ria's pale cheek. "Don't you leave me! Don't you dare leave me!"

She drew back to strike again, only to find her wrists caught in strong hands that would not allow her to take out her shock and grief on a dying woman. A low voice was speaking into her ear, the words lost beneath the roaring in her ears as she struggled against the grip that was holding her together ... until she wasn't struggling anymore. She sagged between the body that held her and the bed that held the body of her friend, tears streaming from her eyes as she screamed out her loss, her fury, heedless of who heard. If this was a dream, it wasn't letting her go; if it was real, she was completely alone. And that was something she could not stand.

She was vaguely aware of other voices, other hands, pulling her away from the stillness of Ria's form. A cup at her lips, that low voice telling her to drink. Perhaps it was poison, her despondent mind hoped, longing to wake up or die, whichever was best. She didn't want to be alone, not again. She drank.

She woke, briefly, hours later, to find another fresh cup at her lips and the feeling of worried eyes on her as she drank again, succumbing willingly to the sleep that reached out to claim her. Twice she woke, and twice she drank, each time wondering if this time the dream would end.

When consciousness at last returned, it found her still in the Chantry infirmary. The pain in her head had eased, the bandage removed from her temple to let the jagged gash there heal naturally. Her mouth felt furry, coated with something unspeakable that made her grimace as she swallowed. Slowly, her eyes opened, feeling the certainty settle in her soul as she looked up at the vaulted stone ceiling above her. Thedas was real. There would be no waking up from this dream that had proved its deadly dangers with numbing cruelty. The thickness of the padding on her side had been reduced, but the pain was still there with every breath she took. Definitely cracked ribs.

Aware of someone watching her, she lowered her eyes from their contemplation of the ceiling to bring her gaze to rest on ... someone she hadn't been expecting to see yet. Holy crap, but he was handsome, even in this awful light. But right now, she didn't care. The delectable, adorable Commander Cullen Rutherford was sitting beside her bed, and she felt nothing. Because the bed beside hers was empty.

He watched her head turn, her eyes focus on the vacant pillow scattered over with petals of Andraste's Grace, and answered the question she could not bring herself to ask. "Two day ago," he said softly. "We thought it better for you not to see the pyre."

Rory stared at the empty bed, aware of a numb chill in her soul. So that was it. She was alone again. First her parents, and now Ria. Everyone always left, one way or another. "So what happens now?" she asked, her voice tiny and hoarse in the silence, grateful he hadn't offered her any platitudes.

Cullen sat forward. "Now you heal, and honor the commitment you made to us," he told her solemnly. "We leave for Haven tomorrow. I expect you to be with us."

Haven. Where someone else's story would begin, in the wake of her friend's ending. Where death and destruction would reign within the year, and too many lives would be lost for one evil being's pride. But it was a purpose, wasn't it? They called her a healer. She might not be a nurse or a doctor back home, but here she could make a difference, maybe. Basic infection control, for one thing. If she stayed with them ... she wouldn't be alone.

Dull and aching, she met his solemn expression with blank calm. "Yes, commander."

Chapter Text

A moment ago, the world had been the right way up. One unexpected patch of ice later, and Rory was flat on her back, grimacing up at the sky as her healing ribs throbbed painfully.

"Ow."

A warm chuckle reached her ears. "You know, cupcake ... you've gotta be the clumsiest healer I've ever met."

The stocky shortness of Varric Tethras sauntered into her line of sight. His grin was surprisingly comforting; had been, right from the moment they'd met, when the Seeker had ordered him to sit in the cart with the recovering healer everyone was so worried about.

It was two weeks from Frosthelm to Haven ... two weeks since Ria's death. Rory had spent the first days in sullen, numb silence, though that didn't seem to bother Varric. He filled the silence easily, drawing on a seemingly limitless repertoire of tales and anecdotes, all the while watching her listlessly staring out at the snow-covered mountains that had killed her friend. No, that was wrong. A car accident had killed Ria; an accident she would have survived if they'd woken up in a hospital, rather than a backwoods Chantry where basic care took second place to singing the Chant of Light. She knew what had been behind the sudden need to have her in company at all hours of the day and night; Varric had been put on what they would have termed back home a suicide watch. In their eyes, they had already lost one healer to misadventure. They couldn't afford to lose another one to her own depression, and they didn't even know what was coming in the weeks and months ahead of them. She did.

Despite her bitterness and grief, Rory knew she was in a position to make a difference, however small. Oh, she wasn't going to touch the big events with a barge pole - far better to endure the tragedies she knew were coming, than derail the story and be totally in the dark. But as Varric regaled her with stories of Hawke - Garrett, the mage, she had to remember that - she pulled herself together under his gaze. Dream or not, she was here. Ria would never forgive her if she let herself fall apart. She was just going to have to make the best of it.

And there were surprises in store for her. Varric, who had always been more of an annoyance to her in the games, was a warmer character in person, his humor just a little darker than she had realized. He also embellished his stories outrageously - it was amazing just how often the hero was rescued by his dwarven friend. She'd finally challenged him on it, the first words she spoke to him after three days of silence to call him out on his bullshit, which he owned up to easily and effortlessly engaged her in a lively debate on the limits of poetic license that lasted a good hour or more. It was only when they camped that night that she had realized what he had done. For three days, his embellishments and exaggerations had grown more and more outrageous, until the moment when she had called him on it. He'd been baiting her, wanting her to challenge him, drawing her out of her self-imposed isolation the only way he knew how.

She couldn't hide away again after that. The soldiers who were traveling with the Right Hand began to include her in conversations at the campfire, making a place in this core of pre-Inquisition devotees that was hers alone, and Rory had finally realized the reason for their former silence. They had thought they would have to watch her die slowly, over months, by inches. By breaking her silence, she had proved that she could be tempted to live, and they were eager to offer that temptation - not because they needed a healer, but because she needed friends. And in spite of herself, she was grateful for their offered friendship.

Not so much right now, of course, lying on her back in the snow with a dwarf grinning down at her.

"Oh, shut up and be helpful," she grumped, waving her hands at him.

Still chuckling, Varric leaned down to pull her onto her feet, wincing sympathetically as she hissed in pain. "Those ribs still giving you trouble?"

She nodded, forcing herself not to touch her tender side. "And will, for at least another month," she told him, brushing the snow from her skirt.

"Can't you take something for it?" he asked in concern.

"I wouldn't be much of a healer if I use all my stock for myself," she pointed out ruefully. "I can still do my job with cracked ribs. Those potions can do more good for other people." She tilted her head, looking down at him curiously. "Aren't you supposed to be under guard?"

"Oh, I am," Varric assured her. "Look."

He gestured to a young soldier who was standing nearby. Rory waved at the lad, who she thought might be called Eoin, and smiled at the slightly sheepish nod she got in reply. Varric's warm chuckle made itself known again, enjoying the interaction he got to witness. It was all fodder for his writing, after all.

"C'mon, I'll walk you to where you're going," the dwarf volunteered. "Where are you going?"

She grimaced nervously. "I have to speak to the commander," she confessed, tugging on her braid. "He's been put in charge of space allocation, and I have ... none."

That wasn't the only reason she was nervous, of course. Anyone back home would have understood; okay, maybe not anyone, but most people she knew. This was Cullen Rutherford. Handsome, troubled, driven, sexy as all hell ... the single greatest crush she had ever developed, and until two weeks ago, he'd been non-existent. Now he was very much existent, and had spent the last two weeks thinking she was a suicidal wreck. She was pretty sure he was the one who had arranged for Varric to talk her out of that initial depression. It was more in character for him than Cassandra, at any rate. She hadn't spoken to the commander since he'd asked her to follow through on a promise she hadn't actually made, but she'd seen him watching her. Was he expecting her to start screaming again? Would he comfort her if she did?

Rory tried not to giggle at that thought. He'd be more likely to send her packing if she fell apart again. No, the goal today was to prove she wasn't a raving lunatic, mad with grief. Approaching his personal problem might have to wait until he was sure she wasn't going to slap him for not being her best friend.

"You've got a tent," Varric was saying as they moved through the little village.

"A tent that I share with Elora and Inis," she pointed out. "Can't really see or treat patients there."

"You've got a point," the dwarf agreed. "Curly's been surly the last couple of days, though. Might not be the best time."

Surly was one way of putting it. Rory's main experience as a care assistant might have been in critical care, but she could spot the signs of severe chronic pain, even if no one else here could. Cullen was irritable, easily annoyed, his skin sallow and marked with dark circles under his eyes, constantly frowning even when he was supposedly at ease. He looked like stomped over crap, to be honest, but she didn't know the full extent of his withdrawal symptoms. She wasn't even supposed to know he was going through withdrawal. She'd gleaned from the game that he had unpredictable insomnia, headaches, and apparently generalized pain that could buckle him from time to time. There were ways to alleviate those symptoms, but she needed him to admit to suffering at all first.

"I'll just have to be persuasive, then," she responded absently. She paused at the gate, surveying the stockaded area that had been set up for training recruits and housing the fledgling group that would be the Inquisition.

Cullen was there, barking orders at the soldiers sparring in front of him. He looked even paler in this unforgiving light. A gust of wind rushed off the frozen lake, ruffling the skirt around her calves as she shivered, hugging her arms about herself in an attempt to stay warm. What she wouldn't give for a pair of jeans and some boots. Instead, she was garbed in a woolen dress with long sleeves that fell to her mid-calf, over a linen shift, with thick wool thigh-highs that were overlaid at the sole with hide and held up with what felt like string. Surprisingly warm, given the freezing conditions, but itchy and prone to get wet easily, and every now and then she got a shocking whoosh of wind right up her skirt that froze her bare backside.

"Well, there he is, cupcake," Varric announced, somewhat superfluously. "Want me to wait? I've got nothing but time until the Divine gets here."

"Uh ..." Was Cullen more or less likely to yell at her if she had moral support? "No, I can handle this," she said, sounding far more confident than she felt. "It's not like he can do more than make me cry."

"If you get through it dry-eyed, I'll buy the drinks at the tavern tonight." How was that for motivation?

If nothing else, Varric's assurance made her smile as she stepped away from him, tucking her arms close about herself in an attempt not to have chattering teeth when she reached the intimidating presence of a man she had written some embarrassingly candid fan-fiction about in another life. As she approached, however, Cullen suddenly marched into the midst of the training ground, shaking off his fur mantle to take up a shield and demonstrate its proper use to the only slightly clueless recruits. Rory was left on the outside of the circle that formed around him, unable to see past the shoulders in front of her, glancing curiously to the man Cullen had abandoned so abruptly.

"Do I smell, or something?" she asked, more for something to say than any need for an explanation.

He laughed, shaking his head. "I don't think he saw you, lady," he assured her in a robust accent she had to remind herself was Starkhaven, not Scottish. "The commander's been very focused today."

"We only arrived yesterday," she pointed out mildly, her mind wandering to some of the content of that awful fan-fiction even as she spoke. "He's not really expecting raw recruits to be proficient on their first try, is he?"

"No, he's not so hopeful of that," the man agreed. "But the sooner they learn technique, the sooner they'll improve and be able to teach others competently. I'm Knight-Cap ... Captain Rylen. Sorry, the change in rank title's still tripping me up. And you are?"

"Hmm? Oh ..." Embarrassed at being caught wool-gathering, Rory blushed under his expectant smile. "I'm Rory. Just Rory - no title."

"Ah, you're the healer?" Rylen nodded, putting a face to the name he'd already heard a fair amount. "There's your title, Lady Healer Rory."

She snorted with derisive laughter. "I'm definitely not a lady."

"Healer Rory, then," he corrected himself cheerfully. "Your accent says Ferelden. Local lass, are you?"

Panic gripped her at the innocent query. Why hadn't she thought of that? Someone was bound to ask sooner or later - thank gods she was English, from London; her accent at least placed her in the one country in Thedas she had a fighting chance of pretending to call home. The in-game map flashed through her mind, supremely unhelpful as it was. She couldn't say Redcliffe or Lothering, or Denerim ... all too risky, too many people here hailing from those parts. There must be somewhere else. Honnleath? No, Cullen's from there. Come on, come on, think ...

"Gwaren," she blurted, quick to add, "originally. I've moved around a lot."

"Where were you during the Blight, if you don't mind my asking?" To his credit, Rylen did seem genuinely interested, rather than suspicious. And he would be - he must have met more than a few Ferelden refugees in the last decade who had fled to the Free Marches to escape the Blight.

But it was another question she didn't have an answer for. Where wasn't hit by the Blight? Mind racing, Rory went for evasive. "I ... don't like to talk about the Blight," she offered awkwardly, hoping she wasn't being too rude.

Thankfully, he seemed to take her reluctance as a mask for memories she didn't want to revisit. "Sorry, I shouldn't have asked," he apologized, a little awkward himself. "I heard it was bad in most places. Wasn't fair of me to pry."

"No, it's ... it's fine," she assured him, more than a little guilty at hearing him apologize for her reticence. "I just don't like talking about it, that's all."

"I understand," he said easily enough. "There's not many who do."

"Thank you." Rory smiled, not wanting him to feel bad for asking a reasonable question. It wasn't his fault she didn't have an answer for it. "You're from Starkhaven, aren't you?"

"Aye," Rylen confirmed. He eyed her with a teasing grin. "What gave me away - the sexy accent, or my astonishing good looks?"

Despite herself, she laughed aloud at that. "Oh, definitely the accent," she said, with a giggle in her voice. "Ria would have -" But she broke off, her smile suddenly gone. Ria wouldn't be jumping anyone anymore, sexy accent or no. Ria was gone.

Rylen was silent with her, no doubt searching for something to say. "I heard what happened on the road," he said finally, offering her his open palm. "I'm sorry for your loss."

Without thinking, she took the hand offered to her, comforted by the understated strength with which he gripped her fingers. No one had touched her since before Ria's death, except to help her overcome the problems she faced with her injuries. She hadn't realized how much she was missing the casual touch of a friendly hand. Ria's hugs had always been the best. "Thank you, captain."

His smile was gentle in the face of her honest grief. "My name's Rylen, lass," he said quietly. "You're welcome to use it."

Surprised by this offer, Rory felt herself smile, if only for the briefest moment, squeezing his hand in return. "Rylen," she echoed, accepting his permission gratefully.

"Captain!"

At the sharp snap of words from his superior, Rylen ripped his hand out of hers, standing smartly to attention as Cullen emerged from the group he had been educating. The commander was flushed from the exertion, the high color in his cheeks only serving to emphasize how sallow his complexion had become. He turned stern eyes onto the captain, shrugging back into his mantle.

"You're on security detail for the Temple perimeter," Cullen told the former Starkhaven templar. "Take three men and a scout - I want to be sure no one is taking a different route to the Conclave."

"Aye, ser." Rylen saluted with a crash of his armored fist against his breastplate, pausing just long enough to nod to Rory before striding away.

"I would appreciate it, Lady Healer, if you did not distract my men from their assigned tasks," Cullen then said to Rory, already turning away even as she responded.

"I would appreciate having a place where I can work, commander," she heard herself retort, stung by the implication that she had somehow deliberately gotten Rylen into trouble just by talking to him.

"You have a tent," the commander reminded her. "What we were able to salvage from the avalanche -"

"- is currently piled up next to it, yes," she agreed. "Though I fail to see how I can be expected to do the work you expect me to do in a tent."

Cullen sighed, turning back to face her. She could see this was an additional headache he wasn't prepared for today, but if she was going to be of any use to them at all, this problem had to be addressed.

"You are a healer," he said wearily. "I doubt your needs are this complex."

Her eyes narrowed slightly. "Are you familiar with the concept of confidentiality?" she asked him, making an effort not to snap. "Not all ailments are generic, and not all people are comfortable discussing them where others can hear. Surely you can see that? For me to do my job, people need to be able to trust me; to trust that what they say, and what I see, won't be heard or seen by anyone but the healer they share it with."

She was surprised to see his brows furrow in a curious frown. "It's your standard practice, to protect your patients' privacy this way?"

"Isn't it everyone's?" It certainly was back home, but this definitely wasn't the NHS. Apparently the basic healer in Thedas didn't give two figs about their patients' dignity, going by this reaction. "Everyone deserves the dignity of having their privacy respected, commander."

He was staring at her, apparently having difficulty wrapping his head around the concept of a healer who offered more than just bandages and elfroot on command. It was disconcerting to be under that gaze - as many times as she had seen it in the game, nothing could have prepared her for the full weight of Cullen Rutherford's regard. He'd given her his full attention. She could feel herself fidgeting under his eyes, wondering if he could tell just how big the lie she was sitting on really was. It was a relief when he finally spoke.

"How large a space do you require?" he asked quietly.

"An office would do, for now," she suggested, "but eventually I'll need somewhere to house patients while I treat longer term illness or infection."

"I see." He nodded thoughtfully. "You will have that space by day's end. Haven will be overflowing within a few weeks; where people gather in large numbers, disease runs rampant. Even I know that, poor soldier that I am." Something flickered in his eyes as he said this, some suggestion toward humor that made her lips twitch toward the hint of a smile. He reached down to the makeshift desk that stood between the tents, making a note on one of the many pieces of paper that littered it. "For now, I'm afraid I must ask you to examine the recruits in your tent. I'll arrange for them to come to you singly, and limit the amount of movement in that part of the camp. There isn't much more I can do to help preserve their privacy."

Staring up at him, Rory felt that smile come to life on her face ... her first proper smile since being dragged into this mess in the first place, delighted to discover that Cullen really did care about the well-being of his people just as much as she had always suspected. "That's ... that's wonderful, commander," she declared, grateful that he understood. "Thank you."

The scar on his lip tugged tight for a moment, betraying a smile that was only really visible in his eyes. "It's a pleasure to meet a healer who cares so deeply for patients she hasn't even met," he told her, holding her gaze far longer than was truly necessary. Not that she was complaining. He cleared his throat. "Ah ... I should ..."

"Yes, I have ..." Rory gestured vaguely toward the tents, shivering in the cold air. "Thank you, commander."

She turned to walk away over the crunching snow, unable to resist a glance back as she went. His gaze caught hers, his eyes following her as she blushed and quickened her step. That had gone much better than she'd expected.

Chapter Text

"Only it burns when I take a piss, and there's this redness ... right here, look."

Rory blinked, finding herself eye to eye with yet another trouser snake. She'd seen more male genitalia today than she'd ever expected to. For some reason, Ferelden men didn't seem to think a visit to a healer was complete until they'd waved their wang in her face. On the other end of the equation, getting an Orlesian to even admit to having a cold seemed to be like drawing blood from a stone. She looked up, past the angry-looking penis, to its owner's face.

"You can put it away, recruit," she assured him, somehow managing to keep a straight face. "I recognize what you're describing to me."

"Are you sure?" he asked worriedly. "You don't need to ..." He gestured to his unhappy manhood.

"I'm very sure I don't need to," she promised confidently. "It's a very common problem, and you don't need any medicine to deal with it."

"That's a relief to hear," he admitted, pulling his leggings up and fastening them before taking a seat again. "Saw a mage once - cost me two months' wages - and all he said was it'd go away on its own."

"And it did?" she asked curiously, unsurprised when he nodded.

"Only it come back a couple of months later," he told her. "It does that - here and gone, here and gone."

"Well, I can promise you that it's a very easy fix," Rory guaranteed. "But it's something you'll have to do for the rest of your life."

"I'd give anything to piss in peace the rest of my life, miss," he said fervently. "Maker knows it's a small pleasure until you can't do it no more."

"I'm sure," she agreed easily. "What it comes down to is this ... you're not drinking enough water. Ideally, you should be drinking between four and six pints of water a day. It's still going to be uncomfortable for a few days, but the more you drink, the weaker your urine will be, and the less pain there will be when you pass water. Drink enough water every day, and this problem will never come back."

"That's all, just water?" the soldier asked in disbelief.

"Just water," she confirmed with a smile. "With most things, the remedy is usually simple. But please make sure the water is clean, or you will become very sick, and there is very little I can do to help with that."

"What, you mean like boiling it first?"

"Exactly," she agreed. "I'll see what I can do to make sure there's an adequate supply of clean drinking water for the camp, but for now you're on your own." Just like the twenty or so other recruits I've seen today who have a U.T.I. because they only drink ale.

"But I'm fit otherwise?" he queried, apparently needing to hear her say it again.

"Fit as a butcher's dog," Rory promised him. "Go forth and be mighty."

Chuckling at her dismissal, the soldier left the tent, once again leaving her in peace. By her notes, she'd seen around fifty men and women today. She was beginning to think this pre-Inquisition had an inexhaustible supply of ex-templars, farmers, and random mercenaries. No one had actually said anything about what she was supposed to do with the inevitable two or three who weren't fit for duty, but she was determined to do this right. So that meant a report of some kind.

Drawing a fresh sheet of parchment onto the writing board she'd found in the crates piled outside, Rory uncapped the little pot of ink. This quill and ink business was taking some getting used to, but she managed to produce a reasonable report, complete with recommendations, with what she considered to be the bare minimum of blotches and mistakes. It was legible, anyway. But who did she give it to? It dealt with the recruits, so was she contributing to the mess of paperwork that filled Cullen's days? Good gods, what was she going to do about him, anyway?

"Healer?"

Startled, Rory jumped, dislodging the ink bottle from her knee. She yelped, making a grab for it as it plunged toward Elora's bedroll. She missed, but the bottle landed safely in the outstretched palm of the messenger who had surprised her in the first place. He looked up with slightly worried eyes, handing it back before straightening.

"Oh, thank you," she enthused, settling the ink safely to one side. "Elora would snap me like a twig if I covered her bed with ink."

He chuckled nervously with her. "Yes, she's a little scary," he agreed, fingers scratching against his chest in a way that was suddenly familiar. The way he just stood there silently was familiar, too.

"So ... can I help you with something?" she asked politely, raising her brows above her smile.

"Hmm? Oh!" Blushing, he came back to himself. "Commander Cullen wants to see you, Healer. He sent me to bring you to him."

Trying to ignore the excited ping in her stomach at this news, Rory nodded, packing her notes into a neat pile. She paused - she couldn't really leave them in here. The tent wasn't secure, and these notes had personal information on a good number of the pre-Inquisition recruits. Nothing for it; she was going to have to keep them with her until she could get hold of a lockable chest. Even then, she'd have to hope no rogue decided to investigate it. But for now, they'd have to stay on her person. Tucking the pile into her arms, she rose, stepping out of the tent into a world that was darker than she'd thought it would be.

"Good grief, is night already?" she asked in surprise, letting out a belated groan at the ache in her back. How many hours was it since she'd moved out of that tent?

"Sunset, Healer," the messenger told her, waiting patiently to take her to the commander.

Stretching carefully around the throbbing ache of her cracked ribs, Rory turned to walk with him toward the village. "You can call me Rory," she told him as they went. "What's your name?"

"Not sure I'm allowed to, Healer," he said uncertainly. "But I'm Jim."

"Really?" She didn't mean to giggle, but come on ... how had the Dragon Age fan community guessed that? "Sorry, I don't mean to laugh," she apologized quickly. "I haven't taken a break since this morning."

"Couple of people mentioned they didn't see you when they called lunch," Jim commented thoughtfully. "You've eaten since breakfast?"

"Um ..." It was embarrassing how hard she had to think about that. There was a gnawing sensation in her stomach now she came to notice it. "No, I don't think so."

"Didn't you hear the bell?" Jim asked, aghast at the information that the healer was so bad at looking after herself. "Chantry bell. They're ringing it for meals while we're here."

"Oh, I didn't know that was why it was ringing," she admitted ruefully. She'd assumed it was some kind of call to noonday prayer or whatever. "Thank you for telling me."

"Cupcake!"

She glanced up as they climbed to the second level of Haven, smiling at the sight of Varric waving to her from the door of the tavern. The dwarf had a tankard in one hand and a deck of cards in the other.

"Drinks, remember?" he reminded her with a grin. "You've been at it all day."

"I remember," she assured him with a tired smile. "And my day's not over yet, I'm afraid. Another night?"

"I'll hold you to that," Varric warned in amusement, letting her walk past. "You're working too hard!"

Rory laughed, waving him back into the tavern. If he thought this was a busy day for her, she didn't want to know what he'd think when the shit hit the fan in a few weeks. Still, thank gods for all that random reading she'd done over the years. Who'd have thought four years working in an emergency department would combine with her slightly obsessive interest in medieval medicine to work so well for her in this situation? This insane situation that she was almost sure by this point was absolutely real. Really, incredibly, deadly real. I am still totally screwed, though. Her gaze fell on Cullen, standing where Solas would take up his station in the not so distant future, and felt her heart judder at the sight of him. Well and truly screwed.

"Commander, I found her," Jim announced as they mounted the last steps. "She hasn't eaten, ser."

Cullen gave the messenger a vaguely quizzical look. "No one has eaten yet," he answered with understandable confusion. "The dinner bell won't ring for another hour."

"I mean since breakfast, ser," Jim told him, despite Rory's earnest desire for him to shut up.

"Which is fine," she said hastily. "It isn't going to kill me to miss a meal."

Cullen was frowning at her now. "Lady Healer, you are injured," he reminded her. "Even I know you need a good diet to aid the healing process."

"Should I fetch her something, ser?" Jim offered, eager to be helpful and make a good impression.

Before Cullen could open his mouth, Rory rushed to head that off. She was not a wilting flower; she did not need preferential treatment. "That's not necessary, really," she insisted as firmly as she dared. "It's only an hour and ... Was there a reason you wanted to see me, commander?"

He was frowning again. Suppressing the ridiculous urge to apologize for a perfectly reasonable viewpoint, Rory forced herself to hold that gaze, daring him to argue with her over something as trivial as missing a meal. All the while, her inner fangirl was squealing. He's worried about me! Look, I can touch him! He's real! ... is sexual harassment a thing in Thedas?

"I have managed to secure a space for you to work," he told her, snapping her out of her ogling. "I am reliably informed that this was built for a healer, so it should suit your needs." He half-turned, laying a hand gently at her back to direct her into the cabin behind him. Rory squeaked at the contact, instantly regretting the excited sound as he pulled his touch away in concern. "Forgive me, are you in pain?"

"No!" Great, now you're a suicidal wreck with nug-like tendencies. Good going, Rory. "I mean ... that is, my ribs do hurt, but you didn't hurt me," she hastened to explain herself.

"I shouldn't have touched you without seeking your permission, I apologize," he answered, a very faint hint of confusion beneath the concern in his eyes.

"No, that's fine - please don't apologize," she fumbled. "I like being touched by you." There was a beat as her ears caught up with her mouth. "That came out wrong." Suicidal nug-woman with no boundaries wants the ground to swallow her whole now, please... wait, is he blushing?

He was blushing. He was also giving her that invisible smile of his as she groaned and shut her eyes, acutely aware that she was blushing far more fulsomely than he was.

"I doubt the Maker wants you eternally imprisoned in the stone beneath my feet, my lady," he assured her in amusement. "It would be a terrible waste."

Rory's eyes snapped open, staring at him in astonishment as her cheeks burned. "Are you flirting with me, commander?" she blurted out. Did Cullen flirt? She didn't remember any flirting until he established a relationship with the ... Hoooo boy. Cool your heels, Ror, the love of his life might be on her way to Haven right this instant.

Whether flirtation had been his intention or not, her abrupt accusation had him hastily back-pedaling. "A terrible waste of a skilled worker," Cullen blurted right back at her. "For Haven - for Thedas. Not that I expect you're thinking of leaving us, which ..." He stopped himself, resolutely closing his mouth and pushing open the cabin door. "Your clinic rooms, Lady Healer."

Rooms was an overstatement for the space he ushered her embarrassed, flustered apology into. It was a single room, with four stripped beds along one wall. A desk stood in one corner, next to a line of chests that held linens, bandages, potions - everything they had salvaged from the avalanche outside Frosthelm. Everything she needed to do what they expected of her. The place needed cleaning, but she could do that, easily. It was, in a word ...

"Perfect." She turned to Cullen, touched to know he'd arranged this simply because she had asked for it. All right, so it was necessary for a healer to have a clinic to work in, but he had arranged it for her, and he was even making sure that he was the one to show it to her. Horny fangirl is hopeful. "Really. This is so much more than I was expecting. You didn't ... no one was living in here, were they?"

"No one has been displaced for your benefit," he assured her. "It is heartening to note that is your only concern."

"Thank you." Without thinking, she reached out to touch his arm gratefully. "I really do appreciate this."

The cool warmth of his gloved hand covered her own on his wrist. "It is good to see you engaged in something beyond your grief," he said in a soft voice.

"I made you a promise," she heard herself answer through the flicker of painful pleasure that came with his words. Pain, for the loss she didn't think she was ever going to come to terms with; pleasure, that he didn't want to lose her to it. Of course he doesn't want to lose his only bloody healer. Start thinking with something north of your hoohar. "I would hate to let you down."

The gold-touched brown of his eyes softened infinitesimally as he held her gaze. "That is good to know."

There was something deeply comforting in being the recipient of that softness; a balm for the bruises that littered her heart. She knew he'd suffered so much more than she ever had, yet here he was, wasting his time and energy to help her. Wasn't looking after people supposed to be her job here?

"Oh!" Startling both of them with a sudden thought, Rory broke the moment into shattered shards, pulling her hand from his arm to rifle through the parchments she held. "I wrote a report, but I don't know who to submit it to."

Sighing ruefully, Cullen held out his hand. "It's to do with the welfare of my recruits, therefore it comes to me," he conceded, taking her report and scanning it briefly. "Maker's breath, woman, who taught you your letters?"

"My writing's not that bad," she protested, glancing over at the page in his hand. She was wrong - it was that bad. "Well, it's legible."

"Just." For the briefest moment, she could have sworn he'd flashed her a grin, feeling unaccountably gooey at the knowledge that he was teasing her. "Do not miss the evening meal," he said then, turning to leave. "Your own health does not come second to the health of everyone else under your care."

"Takes one to know one." She just about swallowed her wince at the sharp look he gave her for that. "I'll answer the dinner bell, commander."

"I had best not hear otherwise," he warned, considering her a moment longer before stepping to the door. "Good evening, Lady Healer."

"Commander."

She watched him out through the door, closing it in his wake to lean against the weathered wood with a mildly relieved sigh. Cullen was not an idiot; she couldn't pass everything she let slip off as healer's intuition. That one hadn't been too bad, but it was a slippery slope. She couldn't afford to get too comfortable, at least not yet. He had to tell her his problems, or he would never trust her enough to allow her to ease his symptoms.

Also ... was it unethical to treat someone on whom you had a raging crush? Someone who didn't seem to mind that crush. Someone who couldn't possibly be real. And if the survivor turned out to be a female human or elf ... someone who might forget her in an instant to fall in love, as he should do. So why did the thought of that abandonment hurt so much, if that's what he should do?

Chapter Text

Who in the history of Thedas had decided that mixed bath-houses were the way to go? According to Varric, the bigger cities had separate bath-houses for men and women, but a backwater like Haven was lucky to have one at all. Separate for humans, that is; apparently elves weren't offered the same courtesies. Not that this was much of a surprise.

Between the emphasis in the games and what she'd witnessed here for herself, Rory was not unaware of the racial segregation. She had, however, placed herself very firmly on the tolerance side of the debate with one reaction to hearing the slur "knife-ear" used in her presence - Seggrit now refused to even acknowledge her existence, and the father of the elven girl she'd slapped him for was working on making her a good pair of boots. Of course, Seggrit had complained to Cullen about her. The commander had taken her side, but had also insisted that she publicly apologize to the merchant. So she'd apologized for hitting him, and suggested that next time she would just call him a pathetic streak of racist pizzle instead. She'd been hurried away at that point, and that evening, Varric had present her with a pair of soft hide gloves, "so you don't hurt yourself healing the world with your unique brand of love, cupcake."

That little incident had a surprising consequence, though. Until that point, she'd been working exclusively with the soon-to-be-Inquisition. After word spread through the village about the healer who hit people for being offensive, however, the locals had started to come to her little clinic. Humans and elves, they came asking for help or advice, and always insisted on paying her for her services. She refused their money, of course, but that didn't stop them. Everyday someone left something for her outside the clinic - a cloak, freshly-picked elfroot by the basket, hair pins, three aprons, a new dress, several pairs of stockings, even a belt with multiple pouches that seemed to have been made for her. She'd acquired an assistant, too; a cheerful widower named Fabian, who wanted to join the unnamed organization, and had been sent her way by the Seeker. He was a quick study, thankfully. Between them, they were managing to keep on top of the demand for their services, but Rory was beginning to think she might need to hire on someone else.

But it wasn't all good news. The date of the Conclave was fast approaching. Word as beginning to filter into Haven of the travelers coming their way, estimates of the sheer numbers that would be passing through the village on their way to Temple of Sacred Ashes. Rory had started to bulk up her stock of bandages and healing potions; Adan hadn't even blinked when she'd placed her order with him, though Master Taigen had accused her of wasting their time. The proverb better safe than sorry was on a constant loop in her mind. She'd received more than a few strange looks when it became known she was hoarding moldy bread and a bucket full of maggots, but no one had challenged her on it. They were also baffled by her insistence on washing her hands so many times a day. She'd given up explaining why; at some point, someone would make the logical connection but, for now, it was just considered to be a personal habit, like she was obsessed with cleanliness.

Which brought her back to the concept of the bath-house, a place she just could not bring herself to visit when there was anyone else there. Flissa found it hilarious that a woman, who by this point had seen most of the village in various states of undress, could be so shy of anyone catching a glimpse of her own naked body. It wasn't that Rory was ashamed of her figure; she just didn't have the same level of comfort with nudity that everyone else here seemed to have. Earth's Western society had instilled in her a shyness about her naked form that no one in Thedas shared. That didn't mean she wasn't washing regularly. It just meant she was bathing at stupidly late hours, when everyone else was asleep.

Besides, Haven was a very different sort of place past midnight. It bustled during the day, busy with bodies going about their business; soldiers training, scouts reporting, children playing, Chantry sisters chanting. But when night came, it gained an ethereal sort of stillness. In the moons' light, with no voices to disturb the quiet, she often found herself thinking back to Origins, to the first time she'd encountered Haven - a Haven that was still and brooding, the emptiness of the streets a foreshadowing of the inevitable bloodbath her various Wardens had always meted out here. In the dark of the night, Haven mourned its dead, and offered her a place to mourn, too. A place that gave her time and space to think, and to try and plan just how she was going to survive this. To decided if she even wanted to survive this.

Hugging her drying cloths and clean shift to her chest, Rory made her way through the almost silent village, listening to her own footsteps on the newly-fallen snow. When she had boots, she wouldn't have to concentrate so hard on that, she knew, but she'd find something else obscure to focus on, rather than the silence. Some nights, she just didn't want to think.

The candles were still burning when she let herself into the humid heat of the bath-house. The place was stone-built, heated by the hot spring that had been diverted to create it, and consisted of three chambers. The first was little more than an antechamber, its sole purpose to act as a buffer between the cold outside and the rest of the bath-house. Through a well-oiled door was the second chamber, slightly larger, with stone benches lining the walls where people could leave their belongings as they bathed. The only other door in that second room lead to the bath itself; a good thirty feet by twenty, with the bath itself sunk into the floor like a stone-clad river running through it, very much like a Roman bath. The water was running, too; cooled a little by its fall from Andraste's cupped stone hands into the bath, it was continually replacing itself. Of course, it was a hot spring, and as such smelled more than a little of rotten eggs, but it was warm. In a frost hole like Haven, smelling eggy was a small price to pay for half an hour of actual warmth.

A quick scan of the dressing chamber was enough to reassure her that no one else was using the facilities. Rory set about removing her clothes, unpinning her hair, moving carefully for the sake of her ribs. They were healing; five weeks on from the accident, they no longer hurt when she moved normally, just when she stretched, or touched her left side, or tried to lie on her injury. It wouldn't be long before she was as good as new. Off came the cloak, followed by the dress; then the shift, and, finally, the strange leather-soled stockings. Blushing at her own nudity, despite there being no one here to see it, she wrapped one of the drying cloths about herself, moving to select a soap from the shelf by the door, slipping into the bathing chamber with a reflexive inspection of all shadows in case of Peeping Toms. Satisfied she was alone, she discarded the drying cloths by the door, and stepped down into the pungent water.

Forget the smell, this was heavenly. A little strange, maybe, to be sitting in three feet of running hot water, but more importantly, hot water. Ignoring the flush on her chilled skin, she sank down until only her head was above the surface, letting the heat soak into her aching muscles, loosen the knots in her neck and shoulders, listening to the steady thump of her own heartbeat. The combination of stress, cold, and labor was doing nothing to ease the tension that gripped her muscles. If she could, she'd do this every day.

Closing her eyes, she let herself hang there, half-floating, half-crouched, ruminating on how much she missed power showers and indoor plumbing in general. There was nothing even remotely dignified about relieving yourself into a bucket, even if everyone else was doing the same. Gods, and having a period here was no picnic, either. The shameful collection of rags she'd had to use in place of sanitary pads was now consigned to the bottom of her personal chest, well-washed and awaiting their next embarrassing outing. She had used the baths every night that week, and paid for her lack of sleep with cramps from hell.

She rolled her neck, groaning in satisfaction as her spine cracked loudly, and twisted about to reach for the soap. Lathering her hands, she closed her eyes once more, tipping her head back into the water to thoroughly soak her hair before beginning to work the soap into the long length from the bottom up. Reaching up to her scalp was still painful, making her hiss at the stabbing twinge from her left side.

"May I help?"

Rory let out a shriek at the unexpected voice in the quiet, jumping so violent that her lazy crouch became an awkward sprawl as her hands dropped to cover her breasts. The soap went flying, catching the intruder on the chin. Spluttering through a mouthful of eggy, soapy water, she risked one hand to wipe her eyes ... and felt her mouth go dry.

Cullen was sitting in the bath with her, not five feet away, bare chest gloriously golden in the dim candlelight. In one hand, he held the soap she'd thrown at him. "Forgive me, I didn't mean to startle you," he apologized, moving closer only to still as she shrank back. "I wasn't silent in entering."

"No, I-I didn't hear you ..." Despite her best intentions, her gaze slipped downward. "Hooo boy ..." Wow, little Cullen really isn't that little. She snapped her eyes back to his face, unfairly indignant when she caught his eyes focused southward. "My face is up here."

"As is mine," was his response, ludicrously calm in this awkward situation. Isn't he supposed to be the shy one who can't talk to women? "I should have made myself known sooner, but I didn't want to disturb you. It's rare to see you so relaxed."

"Because there's no time for it," she pointed out, as curled up as she could get, shoulders hunched above arms that were desperately trying to be a bra and panties and failing badly. By contrast, Cullen looked positively decadent, lounging comfortably on the underwater bench, entirely too close for comfort. "What are you doing here in the middle of the night, anyway?"

"I could ask you the same question, my lady," he pointed out mildly.

She barked out a loud, nervous laugh. "I'm not a lady at the best of times," she insisted, focusing her gaze on the wall behind him. There, that's safe - no Cullen cock or yummy man chest. "Especially when I'm naked." She didn't need to see his face to know how that sounded. "I didn't ... I mean ... I ..." Rory sighed at her own foot in mouth issues. Nug woman with no boundaries strikes again. "I don't suppose you'd consider looking the other way while I drown myself?"

Cullen was chuckling. Typical. The first decent smile out of the man and I can't see it because of the diverting obviousness of his schlong. But he was smiling, and it was because of her. Admittedly, it was because of her inability to say anything that didn't come out a little twisted, but still ...

"As I believe I've said once before, your untimely demise would be a terrible waste," he reminded her in amusement. "I must ask, however ... what is it that makes you so nervous?"

"Being naked," she answered promptly. "And, you know, you're ... floating in the current somewhat." My gods, I'm turning into my mother. "The product of prudish parenting?"

"Would you prefer me to leave?" he offered, the humor gone from his voice.

"You shouldn't have to leave just because I don't know where to look?" she countered uncertainly. "Look, obviously, I'm a prude and that's why I'm here in the middle of the night taking a bath. So why are you here in the middle of the night?"

The silence went on for too long for her comfort. In spite of her embarrassment, she let her gaze drift from the wall to his face. He was no longer looking at her, but frowning into the middle distance, no doubt trying to decide what to say. She could make an unnervingly accurate guess, but she didn't want to force him into a confession of vulnerability when they were both already naked enough as it was.

"Cullen?" She slipped closer in the malodorous water, her derriere finding a spot to perch on the warm stone at his side.

He smiled faintly. "You used my name," he said, his voice almost lost beneath the rippling cascade of water from Andraste's hands.

"You didn't answer my question," Rory pointed out in a gentle tone.

"No, I didn't." He sighed softly, lowering his eyes to contemplate the surface of the water. "I have ... difficulty ... sleeping on occasion," he told her in a low voice. "Headaches. Sometimes the heat of the water is enough to soothe me."

She studied his profile thoughtfully, her shoulders sinking from their hunch, though her hands did not drop from her breasts. Finally, he admits to being only human. "Why don't I know this?" she asked, startled by how intimate the inquiry sounded.

He glanced at her, guilt high in his expression. "You have enough to do," he answered. "I can endure this."

"You don't have to endure it," she told him, still soft despite how strongly she felt about this. "Someone wise once told me that your own health shouldn't take second place to the health of those you care for."

A quiet huff of laughter left his lips. "I told you that."

"And you're very wise," she confirmed. "A little pig-headed, but mostly wise." As his smile deepened at her odd compliment, she pressed her advantage. "Will you come and see me? I'd like to help, if I can."

Again, the silence was long, but at least he was thinking about it. "On one condition," he said eventually, twisting to face her. "You let me wash your hair for you."

Well, she hadn't been expecting that. The inner fangirl was squealing again. Hands! Cullen's hands! On me! He wants! Oh, my giddy aunt, I can't breathe! The mouth, however, was nowhere near as eloquent. "What?"

"Let me wash your hair," he reiterated his condition. "Reaching upward is obviously still causing you pain. Let me help you ... and we'll find out if you can help me."

She stared at him for what felt like far too long, the inner fangirl arguing vociferously with the inner grown-ass woman with emotional baggage. How is this a difficult decision Culle-oops-I'm-so-sexy-Rutherford wants to touch, let him touch! Hair-touching might lead to other touching - WOOHOO! - which we are not ready for. I'm ready! So ready! Trust me, you're not. But it's Cullen! Naked Cullen! That's the problem. I see no problem! Because you're fixated on a fantasy. They don't last. I'm not listening! But what if - Lalalalalalalaaa! .... oh, bollocking hell.

"A-all right," she heard herself agree. After all, if this was what it took to get him to tell her about the lyrium, it wasn't so bad. "How do you want me?" Cullenlingus! ... oh, for gods' sakes, shut UP.

Cullen considered the soap in his hand for a moment, his eyes just barely skimming the protective clasp of her arms about herself before finding her gaze. "Turn around," he told her, gesturing to make it clear.

Blushing to the roots of her hair, Rory shuffled to put her back to him. Her right side rested against the edge of the bath, a startled gasp escaping her throat as she felt his arm brush her back. A moment later, warm water was pouring through her hair by the handful as he wet the length once more.

"You could try to relax, too," he suggested at her back, sounding amused once more.

"I can't help it," she admitted in embarrassment, shivering in a way that had nothing to do with the temperature as his fingers began to work the lather into her hair. Somewhere inside, the inner fangirl fainted with an audible thump. "I'm just not used to public nudity."

"This is public?" he asked, that smile she couldn't see easily discernible in his voice.

She rolled her eyes, tilting her head to guide his fingers. "You know what I mean."

"I do," Cullen agreed gently. "And I understand it, even if it is unusual. I find your modesty charming, in point of fact."

Now it was Rory's turn to huff with laughter. "No one's ever called me charming," she told him, flattered by the compliment. "Ria was always the one people noticed."

"What was she like?" he asked curiously, though he sounded a little tentative. But the pain that usually stung like lemon in a paper cut at the thought of her lost friend did not hit so hard here and now.

For the first time, Rory didn't feel the need to avoid that question, lulled away from the pain by the soothing motion of his fingers in her hair. "Ria was ..." But how to describe her? "She was my best friend," she said with soft regret. "Fearless. For the longest time, she was all I had. She could always make me smile ... and she had the dirtiest laugh." She laughed a little herself just at the memory of it. "She liked to sing. And her hugs always felt like home. She didn't deserve to die like that."

"She sounds like a lovely woman," Cullen said after a moment. "I'm sorry we couldn't save her."

"She'd have hated it here." Rory chuckled faintly, knowing her friend that well, at least. "She liked her little luxuries." Like plumbing, electricity, and cell phones.

"Tell me about her," the quiet man at her back urged. "Anything that comes to mind."

To her surprise, she did. She told him about Ria's unfounded hatred of peas, her inability to pass a curios shop without going inside, her love of warm sunny days. She regaled him with choice anecdotes of the years they'd spent together, careful not to share anything too outlandish, enjoying having someone to laugh with her over some of the more ridiculous scrapes they'd got into together. And somewhere along the way, laughter turned to tears - not the loud tears of an inconsolable pain, but the soft weeping of an inevitable goodbye.

And Cullen let her cry. He washed the soap from her hair, lead her from the bath, dried and dressed her like a child. He let her sob as he twisted her wet hair into braids wrapped about her head, leaving her only for a few moments to dry and dress himself. He held her when she turned to him, seeking the comfort of another heartbeat. He didn't ask for anything, or expect anything, soothing her grieving heart with an embrace that felt like home.

When the tears were finally done, he didn't fill the silence with needless words. He simply walked her back to the clinic through the mournful stillness of Haven's slumber, leaving her at her door with a gentle hand and promise ... she had let him help her; he would let her help him. Tomorrow.

Chapter Text

"Hump a nug - who invited the Qunari?"

Rory glanced up at Varric's complaint, following his uneasy gaze to where a large group of Qunari had just walked up to the gate. Gods, they're even bigger than I thought they'd be. She knew vaguely who they were, of course, aware that two potential Inquisitors were among that group of massive mercenaries.

"I doubt they're here to spread the Qun, Varric," she offered to the dwarf, turning her attention back to the minor bandage she was securing on, of all things, a nug's paw. "There, all done."

The little girl who had begged her to sweetly to bind up her pet's boo-boo beamed at her. "Thank you, Mistress Rory."

"It's my pleasure, sweets," she told the child. "Just don't let Master Muttons here pick any more fights with foxes."

The little girl giggled. "I won't!" she promised faithfully, skipping off with her nug cuddled close in her arms.

"Since when do healers drop everything for a pet nug, anyway?" Varric asked her as she bent to pick up her basket of freshly-washed bandages.

The dwarven storyteller had taken to keeping her company when she wasn't in the clinic, at a loss for how to fill his time until the Divine arrived and was ready to hear the story Cassandra insisted on him sharing with her. And since he was so often right there, he often ended up doing things with and for Rory. Take now, for example. He'd outright refused to do any of the washing, but he was carrying her skiffle board for her.

"Since now," Rory informed him, kicking her skirt out of the way as they walked up the steps to the clinic. "Besides, that was helping her just as much as her nug."

"Strangest healer I ever met," he repeated his oft-declared assessment of her character for the umpteenth time. "They'd probably re-educate you in Par Vollen for acting out of type."

She laughed, setting her basket down to begin hanging the bandages on a line to dry in the sun. "Varric, seriously, the Qunari aren't here to go on a rampage," she promised him. "They're the Valo-Kas." At his blank look, she went on. "Tal-Vashoth merc band? They've been hired to keep the peace."

"How do you know all this stuff?" he asked, baffled by her informative response.

Because I've played it through and read all the codex entries. "Soldiers gossip like old women," she told him cheerfully. "I listen."

"So that means the Divine's almost here then, huh?" Varric frowned thoughtfully. "Makes sense, I guess. It takes a lot to bring down an ox-man."

"Varric." Rory paused in her work, eyeing him warningly. "You know how I feel about racial slurs."

He had the decency to look abashed. "Sorry, cupcake," he apologized. "Force of habit."

"Break the habit, then," she suggested. "You never know when you might need someone just like them to to care if you live or die."

"Wise words."

They both turned to find one of the Valo-Kas standing on the steps near where they were talking. He really was huge, curling horns somehow making him seem even bigger. Rory wasn't sure she blamed Varric for stepping backward, even if it did put her in the line of fire somewhat. It was tempting to do just that herself, especially when she noted the sharp blade on the enormous sword resting at the Qunari's back. His smile, though, was surprisingly charming, almost boyish, as he nodded to them.

"Didn't mean to frighten you," he apologized in a quiet tone.

"I'm not frightened," Rory countered honestly. Wary of the big man with horns who could possibly break my spine with a careless hug, yes; frightened, no.

"Speak for yourself," she heard Varric mutter none too quietly beside her.

"Neither's he, he's just shy," she added out of pure mischief, just to hear the dwarf bite down an argument with an audible snap of his jaws. "Can we help you?"

The Qunari's smile never faltered. "I hope so," he said easily. "Shokrakar said we were supposed to report to either a Lady Seeker Pentaghast, or a Commander Rutherford, but no one will tell us where to find them."

"Everyone's a little on edge, sorry," Rory apologized, knowing it was learned fear of the unknown that was keeping the people here from being polite. "As far as I know, the Lady Seeker is in the Chantry. If the commander isn't on the training ground, then I don't know where he is."

"Then I'll tell Ataas to try the Chantry," the Qunari said gratefully. "Thank you, Lady ...?"

"Rory," she offered, ignoring Varric's wary cough. "Just Rory. And you are ...?"

"Kaaras," the big mercenary told her with a teasing sparkle in his eyes. "Just Kaaras."

She laughed softly. "Pleasure to meet you, Just Kaaras." So he might be the Inquisitor?

"And you, Mistress Rory," Kaaras replied, inclining his horned head to them both as he took his leave, turning to step back down and report to the leader of his company what he had discovered from the only person in the village who wasn't trying to pretend he was both invisible and mute.

He was only just out of earshot when Varric exploded. "Are you insane?"

Rory rolled her eyes at him. "What?" she asked defensively. "It's not like anyone else was going to tell them where to go."

"They're Qunari!" Varric protested. "Do you remember what they did to Kirkwall?"

"Correction - they're Tal-Vashoth," she pointed out. "They have nothing to do with what the Qunari did in Kirkwall."

"That's worse," he insisted. "Tal-Vashoth are crazed killers."

Rory couldn't help being taken aback. It had never occurred to her that Varric might still be hung up on the Qunari invasion of Kirkwall. Yet it did make sense. Kirkwall was his home, and the Arishok's attack had been utterly, savagely meaningless.

"Varric ..." She turned to face him, leaning back onto the stone wall behind her to bring her closer to his eye level. "What the Qunari did in Kirkwall was terrible," she said gently. "But so was the Exalted March on the Dales. Do you really think the way to move on from it is to hold an entire race accountable for the actions of a few, the way most humans and elves do?"

He stared at her, conflict clouding his eyes. "Kirkwall is my home."

"And no one says that you can't be angry for what was done there," she assured him. "But blaming the Tal-Vashoth for the actions of the Qunari is like blaming every surface dwarf for the behavior of those in Orzammar. They weren't involved; they don't even consider themselves Qunari anymore. I know it isn't an exact analogy, but it's close."

Varric frowned, the expression heavy on his face. "I get what you're saying," he told her reluctantly. "It's just hard, you know? They killed friends of mine; innocent people who didn't deserve that bloodbath."

"And Hawke ended their threat," she reminded him, still trying to be gentle. "I'm not saying go out and make friends with the very next Qunari you see. Just ... try to keep an open mind, okay? Not every Qunari is a crazed killer or a blind adherent of the Qun. Just like not every surface dwarf is a liar or a thug."

He chuckled blandly. "Cupcake, every dwarf is a liar," he told her, but she could see she'd got through to him. "I'm not making any promises, but ... you're right. Not every human is an entitled ass."

She snorted, chuckling through a brief flare of indignation. "I'll take that as a compliment."

"What can I say?" Varric shrugged. "You bring out the charmer in me."

"How are you not fighting the ladies off with a stick, with lines like that?" she asked teasingly.

"Who needs a stick when I have Bianca?" he countered, good humor restored with just a little banter. "She's all I need."

"Liar." Rory laughed. At least the crossbow doesn't treat him like a shameful secret.

"Didn't I just say that?" he asked, letting her take the skiffle board from his hand as she turned toward the clinic door. "Don't work too hard, cupcake."

A vain hope, that one. The rest of her day was full - not only with the everyday ailments of the villagers of Haven and the pre-Inquisition, but also with increasing numbers of visitors from all over the southern kingdoms. It seemed as though everyone and their pet dog wanted to be able to say they were at the Conclave, and their representatives were beginning to arrive. No sign of templars or mages yet, but some important figures were already here. Chancellor Roderick, for example, had swept in that morning and taken charge of the Chantry in preparation for the Divine's arrival in a few days. The Valo-Kas were another example, as well as representatives from a few noble houses. In every group, there always seemed to be someone who needed a healer. The nobles, however, were particularly trying.

"How can I help you, my lady?"

The young woman opened her mouth. "I -"

"She has feminine weakness and hysteria," her companion boomed. "You will provide her with a sedative."

For a moment, Rory's jaw worked silently. She glanced between the pair sitting in front of her - one delicately beautiful human girl, staring fixedly at the floor; the other, a robust Valkyrie of a Chantry sister, glaring at Rory impatiently. She'd never had to deal with an overbearing parental figure before; in the hospital, that was usually left to the senior nurses. The problem was that, here, she was the senior, and she had an awful feeling she was about to offend someone important.

"I'm sorry, sister ... are you this lady's relative?" she asked politely. "A close family member?"

The sister drew herself up in her seat. "I am governess to the noble house of her birth," she declared proudly. Prime demon bait, this one.

"But not related by blood," Rory pointed out.

"I fail to see how that has any relevance," the imperious woman sniffed. "Give her the sedative, and we shall go."

"It has relevance because unless you are her mother or sister, or she specifically requests that you remain, I'm going to have to ask you to leave," Rory said as firmly as she could. She didn't miss the sudden flash of hope that crossed the younger woman's down-turned face. In for a penny ... "Any consultation with my patient is private and confidential. I'm sure you understand, sister. The Chantry confessional operates in much the same manner."

"She can have nothing to say to you that she would not tell me," the sister insisted.

"And that is her decision to make," Rory said sternly. "However, here and now, you are wasting time better spent with my patient on stroking your ego for an audience that doesn't care. I have other patients to see, and no time to spend on your sense of self-importance. So, unless you would like me to call one of the soldiers in here to remove you, I suggest that you leave. Now."

The sister spluttered indignantly. "You wouldn't dare."

"Try me."

She met the woman's glare head on, refusing to back down. Honestly, what was wrong with some people? All right, so the Chantry had power, but not in this. Not in her clinic. Rory declined to be intimidated in her own space, especially by some jumped up busybody who thought her fancy robe entitled her to ignore the personal boundaries of someone who had been placed in her care. Evidently the look on Rory's face promised that she would follow through on her threat for, after a long moment of impotent glaring, the sister abruptly stood.

"I shall be making a complaint to your superior," she announced, flouncing toward the door with Rory at her heels.

"You do that," the healer said calmly. "I'm sure he'll enjoy it."

She shut the door firmly on the sister's seething face, drawing the bolt across to make sure the woman didn't try to come back in. Cullen wasn't going to thank her for that, but hopefully he'd grasp the situation well enough not to try and order her to allow such a blatant breach of her own stated code. Hearing a giggle behind her, she turned to find her patient crying with laughter into her sleeves.

"That was wonderful," the young woman crowed. "Can I keep you?"

"Only if you're prepared to stay here indefinitely, I'm afraid," Rory told her, smiling as she sat down. "Now, shall we start again? I'm Rory. How can I help you, Lady ...?"

"Trevelyan," the young woman said, hiccuping through the last of her laughter. "Evelyn Trevelyan."

Rory felt her heart sink. So this might be the love of Cullen's life. And why wouldn't he be drawn to her? Evelyn Trevelyan was young - younger than Rory, certainly - and devastatingly beautiful. In her own opinion, Rory could just about manage pretty in the right light. The delicate features of the girl in front of her were more than alluring, sensual promises made by the wide mouth and bold eyes. The inner fangirl hissed like a feral cat, taking an instant dislike to a canon P.C. she'd played multiple times in the past and enjoyed. It was like a slap to the face to suddenly realize that this might be the girl Cullen passed her over for. But Evelyn was here for help, and Rory wouldn't allow herself to be petty because of an imagined attraction.

"And what brings you to see me?" she asked, more reserved than before but hoping it would be taken for professionalism.

Evelyn blushed, fidgeting awkwardly. "Well, I ... it's my bleeding time," she offered uncertainly. "And ... the pains are ... quite bad?"

"Unusually bad?" Rory asked, startled and pleased with how quickly she had set aside her petty jealousy in favor of helping this woman with her problem.

"Oh, no worse than they are every month," Evelyn told her. "It's just ... it does make traveling rather uncomfortable, and we expect to be in the valley for several days. Sister Vada is ... less than forgiving of anything that delays us."

"Let me guess," Rory drawled, "she's the one who branded it feminine weakness and hysteria."

The young woman nodded. "The sea voyage was awful," she confided shyly. "I had pains and sea-sickness, and all she had to say was that I was complaining too much. She thinks if I'm sedated then I won't complain."

"Heaven forbid a woman should mention she's in pain," Rory muttered, angry to find this attitude reflected by a woman. This wasn't the first time she'd heard this, though. According to several of the women in Haven, human and elf, their menfolk thought period pains were a myth.

"She throws Andraste in my face when I do," Evelyn said in an unhappy tone.

"And I'm sure that really helps," was Rory's sarcastic response. She sighed, shaking her head. "Well, I can't guarantee the pain will go away completely, but I can give you something that should help." She twisted in her seat, leaning down to retrieve a small pouch from one of the chests by her desk, handing it to the young lady before her.

"What is it?"

"It's a tea," Rory explained, "made with willow-bark, spindleweed, elfroot, and fennel. One small pinch, steeped in hot water for three minutes. Do not drink more than two cups every three hours."

"Why?" Evelyn asked, sniffing the contents of the bag curiously.

"Because you'll throw up copiously and feel even worse," Rory told her without flinching. She knew that for a fact; that was what had happened to her when she'd overdosed by accident on the stuff. "Follow the instructions, and the pains should definitely lessen."

"I will." Young Lady Trevelyan tucked the little pouch away in a pocket of her cloak. "And thank you, Mistress Rory. Most healers I've seen just dismiss it as beneath them, or don't believe me."

"Most healers are men," Rory pointed out in amusement. "No womb, no opinion - that's my view." And I just misquoted Friends. What is wrong with me?

Evelyn giggled, rising to her feet to take the healer's hand. "One day, you'll have to come to Ostwick," she suggested warmly. "I'm sure my mother would love to meet you."

"That's a very kind offer, Lady Trevelyan," Rory answered, trying to banish a sudden wave of sadness. Because this warm young lady would never go home again. In a matter of days, she would either be dead, or marked for a thankless fight. It was a sobering thought. "It's been a pleasure to meet you."

"And you," the lady responded with a smile. "Thank you again."

They were met at the door by Sister Vada, who seized her charge by the arm and marched her away at speed. Rory watched them go, guilty to her core at a pang of petty jealousy over what might never be. What was better for that girl - to die suddenly in a massive explosion, or to live and be loved by a good man or woman? The same question could be asked for anyone here who had that maybe in front of them.

She felt, more than saw, her assistant moving to stand beside her.

"Shrivelled old bat, that one," Fabian commented mildly, nodding at the departing sister. "You all right, Ror?"

Rory's smile was bittersweet. No. No, I'm really not. "I'll live," she told him, turning to meet his gaze."Is there anyone waiting?"

He shook his head. "Not right now. Messenger came by with this for you, though." He handed her a small sealed missive.

"Thank you, Fabs." She smiled, taking the note from him as he chuckled at the nickname she'd pinned to him from day one. "Look, why don't you hold clinic for the rest of the afternoon? I'll be around if you need me, but I think you are more than capable of handling it."

He stared at her, stunned by the faith she put in him. "Really?"

She laughed at his incredulity. "Really," she promised.

"That's ... I won't let you down!" he declared. It was quite something, to see a forty-something-year-old man almost bouncing with excitement.

"I know you won't," she chuckled, patting his arm. "Go, rearrange the desk to suit you, Healer Fabian."

"Healer Fabian ..."

Turning away from the clinic cabin, she absently reached up to check how dry the bandages were. Dry enough to come down and be rolled, but before that ... She looked down at the folded paper in her hand, breaking the wax seal to open it up and read the short message written within.

Mistress Rory,
Barring unforeseen circumstances, I will call upon you for that consultation an hour after the dinner bell is rung.
Cullen Rutherford, Commander

As the words sank in, Rory felt the choking fog of foreknowledge lift just a little from her mind, a slow smile creeping over her face. Got him. Ramming the letter into her belt, she turned to take the dry bandages down, whistling tunelessly as she worked. Roll on dinnertime.

Chapter Text

The amber liquid burned her throat as she swallowed, lighting hot coals in her stomach that spread their warmth all the way to her fingertips. After more than a month of weak beer and boiled water, the sudden introduction to strong liquor was something of a shock to the system.

"You know," Rory commented mildly as she set her cup down, "I'm fairly sure you're the only person in the world who brings Ferelden firewater to a healer's consult."

Cullen offered a quiet suggestion toward a chuckle. "Call it dwarven courage." He shrugged, taking a mouthful from his own cup. "Some things need a little courage to be spoken of."

"I understand." You'd be horrified to know just how much I understand. But if getting slightly tipsy was what it took to get him to open up to her, even a little, then it was a small price to pay. And for him, she would offer something she gave her other patients no choice in. "Would you rather I didn't take notes?"

He seemed surprised to be asked, his glance straying to the locked chest beneath the desk where she kept all the information she'd gathered on the people she cared for. "Isn't that against your standard practice?"

Her lips curved in a gentle smile. "In special cases, no," she told him. "There are some people who would rather suffer in silence than have anything written down. I think you may be one of those people, commander."

"Cullen," he corrected her quietly. "My name is Cullen."

"Cullen," she echoed, again struck by how intimate it felt to say his name.

Taking another sip from her cup, she savored the burn in her throat for a long moment, studying him in the silence. He seemed so weary, an exhaustion born of stress and sleepless nights, too many burdens on already over-burdened shoulders. For whatever reason, he had chosen tonight to go without his armor, without the prickling fur of his customary mantle; instead, he wore a simple bleached-wool tunic over his rust-spotted shirt. He looked lost and alone, and she wanted nothing more than to wipe that melancholy from his soul.

Swallowing a fresh mouthful from his cup, he sighed gustily, letting out a bitter, mirthless laugh. "Where do I even begin?"

"Begin with what's causing you the most trouble," she suggested softly. "There's no set limit on how much, or how little, you should tell me. I'll never force you to answer my questions. But if I'm going to help, I need to know what's wrong."

"Headaches," he said simply, taking her at her word. "My head always seems to ache, a niggle in my skull that is always threatening the worst. And when the worst does come ... it's blinding. It's as though some mage has reached into my mind and set my thoughts ablaze. I cannot think; I can barely raise my head at such times. I feel hot and cold by turns, burning in some unnatural fever that only quiet and darkness seems to lift."

That sounds more like a migraine than anything. Not as awful as I thought it might be. "Do you take anything to relieve the pain?" she asked, curious but gentle.

Cullen shook his head. "My options are limited," he admitted. "I have to be able to function. But not even healing potions touch it."

"Well, healing potions won't touch pain like that," Rory explained. "There's no injury or illness to heal. What you're describing is something that is triggered by stress and tension. But there are a few things we can try that won't sedate you - see if we can prevent more of these worse headaches."

"It is a relief to hear you say that," he said, the gratitude in his eyes warm. "I am ... loath ... to ask a mage for help."

"That's not uncommon," she heard herself say, but inside, her heart was breaking for him. After all you've been through, a mage would never be able to help anyway. You'll never be able to wholly trust one again. She felt bad now for all the romances she'd backed him into with mages, even though that wasn't real. Not here. "You mentioned last night that you sometimes have trouble sleeping. Is that because of the headaches?"

"Partially." He shifted awkwardly in his seat, refilling his cup from the bottle he'd brought with him. "I would rather not discuss my ... my nightmares."

"Of course." She wasn't going to push him into sharing anything he wasn't ready for. She could, however, give him a little nudge. "Cullen ... I've noticed that, at times, your movement is stiff, as though you're in pain. Are you?"

He looked up sharply, brown eyes flecked with candlelit gold as his gaze bore into her own. "Healer's eyes," he murmured, almost to himself. "Sun-kissed storm clouds that see so much more than we dare to hope."

The sheer unexpected poetry of his murmur brought Rory's mind to a quavering halt, her heart thudding so hard in her chest that she heard its unsteady rhythm in her ears. No one had ever described her like that, yet she knew it was her eyes he was talking about. She'd always thought of her eyes as nondescript gray, but he saw that gray as storm clouds. And sun-kissed ... only Ria had ever noticed the flecks of brown in her eyes. Her best friend had always said that those brown spots were a continuation of the freckles that covered Rory's face, laughingly calling them sun kisses. Cullen thought they were sun kisses, too. Cullen Rutherford had looked into her eyes often enough, and deeply enough, to be able to describe them perfectly.

"Uh ..." She felt herself beginning to blush, looking down at her cup as she hastily finished off the contents, gasping at the alcoholic shock to the system. When she managed to look back at Cullen, he was smiling his invisible smile, seemingly very pleased with himself for making her blush at all. "That wasn't fair," she accused halfheartedly.

"On the contrary, I find your blushes very fair," he countered easily. It didn't look like it was going to apologize for the comment that had set her cheeks on fire, either.

"If you don't want to answer the question, you could just say," Rory complained, embarrassed by how easily this man got under her skin. Already being half in love with him before ever actually meeting the commander was not doing her any favors.

"I will answer your question," he assured her. "Your powers of observation simply surprised me. I had thought my stiffness rather well concealed."

"It is," she promised him. "But I know what that pause after straightening up means, and the reason why you groan when you stand. Muscular stiffness does ease off with movement, but that first gesture toward movement is always the worst."

Cullen's brows raised, his expression impressed with her deduction. "How did you know it was muscular?"

"Your joints don't crack when you move," she shrugged, inwardly glowing at being the focus of his admiration. "And you said yourself that you find heat soothing. In the absence of an injury, it's something else that can be attributed to tension. And unless we find some way to ease that stiffness, you are likely to give yourself an injury in the normal run of things."

"So what would your recommended remedy be?" he asked curiously.

"You need to relax more," she said bluntly.

Cullen's lips twitched in exasperated amusement. "And how do you suggest I do that, Rory?"

Her mouth dropped open. He said my name! He said my name! Shaking herself, she groped for a response that wouldn't make her out to be a bumbling idiot. "Use the baths every day that you can, preferably before you go to bed," she heard herself say, sounding a lot less flustered than she felt inside. "Take regular breaks to stretch and rest your eyes. Uh ..."

There was one more thing she should suggest that would almost certainly help, but she couldn't quite get the words to line up on her tongue. Something about the way he was watching her intimated that he knew the solution she was failing to offer perhaps better than she did. In fact, he most likely did. He was a seasoned fighter, after all. And what was holding her back from offering? It couldn't be fear. She was certain he would never hurt her intentionally. So what was it about the obvious remedy that glued her tongue to the top of her mouth?

"There is something else that does work," she heard him say, the alcohol-boldness of his voice breaking through the muddle of her thoughts. "I've had success in the past with muscle massage, but it is not something I am capable of doing for myself."

"I could do it." The words were out before she could stop them, the hoarse croak of the almost catatonic fangirl who desperately wanted permission to touch him.

Cullen leaned forward, his cup cradled between his hands. "Are you certain?" he asked, eyeing her in concern. "You are not comfortable with bare flesh."

"I like yours." Again with the blurting. "Please forget I said that."

He laughed then, a rich, merry sound that transformed his face from broodingly handsome to heartbreakingly gorgeous. The smile wasn't invisible anymore; it tugged at his lips, brightened his eyes, awakened the lines of his face into happy motion that took her breath away. "If it helps," he chuckled, knocking back the last of his firewater, "I like yours, too."

That was too much for the inner fangirl. She collapsed in squealing glee, leaving the darker thought to roam unchecked. He's drunk, they whispered. Drunk and lonely and vulnerable. He doesn't know what he's saying. If he was sober, he wouldn't look twice at you. But despite that warning, she found herself smiling back at him with shy pleasure, hearing Ria's voice in her mind's ear. Just go with it, Ror. He likes you.

"All right, well ... my pasty white flesh aside," she managed, rolling her eyes even as her smile deepened. "Would you be comfortable to have me do that for you? I can always ask Fabian, if you'd rather a man -"

"No." Just one word to stop her in her tracks, his smile fading from view. "Please. I ... I would rather only you and I knew of my ... difficulties."

She held his gaze for a long moment, wishing he would just tell her about the lyrium. But that required a level of trust she hadn't yet reached with him. "All right," she agreed softly, seeing a little of his tension melt from his expression. "I'll make up a potion that should help with the headaches. It'll be ready tomorrow. And the .. massage ..." She hesitated. "I'm not sure how you want to go about it. Or where."

"Would it be inappropriate to ask you to my tent?" he queried, obviously uncertain whether he was crossing a line just by asking.

Rory bit her lip. It wasn't like a tent was exactly private. "If you can ... guarantee no interruptions, I-I think that would ... would be a good idea," she concurred thoughtfully, trying not to linger on thoughts of his bare skin under her hands, both of them enclosed in a small space that belonged entirely to him. After all, if she did it right, he should end up too relaxed to do anything more drift off to sleep.

"I can give orders not to be disturbed for one night," he said confidently, watching as she nodded once more, setting her empty cup down beside his. "Rory ... thank you."

She looked up, surprised by his sudden, raw thanks. "Whatever for?"

"For helping me to admit to this," he said in a solemn tone. "For not asking why. There is a reason, but I ..." He trailed off, guilt coloring his expression as he failed to explain.

"Cullen." She reached out, one hand covering his where it lay on his thigh, keenly aware that only a single layer of soft leather separated her from the hands that had cared for her so tenderly just the night before. "You don't have to tell me anything. But I promise you ... anything you do tell me will stay with me, unless you're doing harm to yourself that someone else could prevent."

He stared into her eyes, his gaze burning into her, searching for all her secrets without the need for words. "You care so much," he breathed, a strange sort of wonder in his voice. "Why?"

I love you. Or at least, the idea of you. "Because you need me to," she said gently. "Not about the soldier or the commander. I care about the man behind them, who gives all his care to the men and women under his commander and has so little left for himself."

His other hand lay over hers, sandwiching her fingers between both his palms. "You see more than anyone I have ever known."

She felt herself soften, the guardians around her grieving heart relaxing their vigilance. "I take the time to look," she whispered, hating herself for the half-truth that it was. I've watched you struggle, watched you grow, studied you, struggled with you. "Let me help you, Cullen."

"You are helping me, Rory."

He leaned closer, his eyes flickering to her lips, and she felt her stomach clench with numbing anticipation. She knew that look; she'd seen it in the game before each and every kiss. She'd played just for those kisses for a while, and now she was seeing that look, up close and personal. He wanted to kiss her ... and, gods help her, she wanted that kiss almost more than she wanted to keep breathing.

Loud laughter from the tavern outside spilled in through the window, startling her back with a soft gasp. I can't do this. Not until I know if he's due an epic love story, at least. It wouldn't be right. Seeing her hesitation, Cullen drew back himself, gently releasing her hand.

"Will you come to me tomorrow?" he asked quietly, his turn to blush as he realized how that sounded. "As a healer. Visit my tent as the healer. The massage."

Grateful he hadn't taken offense at the way she put distance between them, Rory felt her shy smile rise again in answer to his flustered fumbling. "I will," she promised. "After dinner?"

"After dinner," he agreed, rising to his feet. "Get some sleep. The next days will be trying for us all."

"I will if you will," she quipped impishly, glad to see the gentleness in his eyes did not fade at her half-serious teasing.

Cullen paused at the door, seeming to debate with himself for a long moment. She waited with him, uncertain of the reason for the delay ... and squeaked audibly as his hand closed about her elbow, tugging her close enough to press his lips to her forehead. The kiss burned like a brand, marking her forever though no one would ever see what it left behind. She shivered as his breath ghosted over her brow.

"Good night, Rory," he murmured to her, fingers squeezing her elbow before he released her to step away.

Unseen by him, she slumped against the doorframe in his wake, her eyes following his progress past the tavern until she was distracted by the sight of Varric watching her with knowing eyes. The dwarf waited until he had her full attention, raising his tankard in invitation while gifting her with a particularly suggestive grin. Rolling her eyes, she laughed, pushing away from the door to go and join him. After all that, she could definitely use another drink.

Chapter Text


 

 

Why did she drink so much last night?

After her highly stimulating session with the commander, Rory had made the unwise decision to go to the tavern, where Varric had introduced her to the wonders of fermented berry wine and then attempted to embarrass her with a game of Wicked Grace, where the stakes were either secrets or clothes. What he didn't know was that, even drunk, Rory could hold her own. Wicked Grace was not that different from poker, and she'd learned how to play poker from an elderly lady with advanced dementia on some interminable night shifts. By the time he called a halt to the game, Varric was down to his pants - having refused to stake secrets himself - and all Rory had had to give up was one expletive-ridden anecdote about the scar on her inner left forearm. She'd gone to bed feeling very pleased with herself, but, oh, she was paying for it today.

But despite the killer hangover, she still had work to do. There were medicines to make up, bandages to change, the clinic to clean. Fabian needed more lessons in basic care, which was normally easy when she didn't have a queasy stomach and dizzy head. By mid-morning, they'd opened the clinic, and soon had a line of people waiting to see them; mostly newcomers, soldiers and servants from the retinues of nobles passing through Haven on their way to the Temple. By the middle of the afternoon, however, they'd seen all these, and Rory was going stir-crazy being stuck inside. So when she overheard Master Taigen complain of being low on elfroot, she immediately volunteered to go and gather more.

With a canvas sack in hand, she passed through the training ground on her way east to the forest where elfroot grew in abundance.

"Hey, Rory!"

Pausing, she turned at the sound of the familiar voice, smiling as Rylen jogged over to her.

"And where're you off to, oh illustrious healer of warts and all?" he asked cheerfully. "You look like a woman on a mission."

"Afternoon, Rylen," she greeted him warmly, shading her eyes from the sun. "I am on a mission. I have to fill my sack with elfroot leaves, or Master Taigen will turn into a kindly old man."

"Och, we can't have that, can we?" The Starkhaven captain laughed his robust laugh. "Haven might sink if he learned how to smile."

She laughed with him. "I'm doing my bit for the good of the community."

Rylen's smile faded as he glanced at the trees. "Just don't go far, aye?" he suggested. "My boys mentioned seeing a camp out that way. We might have some unwelcome visitors in the those woods."

"I'm sure I'll be fine," Rory assured him. "I won't be gone long."

"Mind you're not, I'll be keeping an eye out for you," he warned with a smile. "Good hunting, Ror."

"Have fun beating the dummies, Ry," she answered, smiling as she turned to continue on her way. She liked Rylen; he always managed to send her off with a smile, no matter her mood.

Still, it was a little unsettling to be walking alone into the woods after his warning. Until now, Haven had been a safe place to be. Oh, she knew that wasn't going to last, but she'd convinced herself that demons were all she had to worry about in the near future. It hadn't occurred to her that humans or elves might be a threat to her safety, despite all the play-throughs with predictable bandits. But then, bandit was just a word to her; avatars who only attacked the well-armed and armored player character so she could up her XP. She'd forgotten that here, bandit could mean anyone, and they were actually more likely to prey on the defenseless. And defenseless was a very good word to describe Rory in this world.

All the same, she did carry a knife, even if that little blade spent most of its time in the sheath at her belt. Not today, though. Today, her little knife was busy, harvesting leaves from the elfroot stems she found growing in abundance in a wide patch just beyond the logging stand. To date, she wasn't sure why only the leaves were required from a plant called elfroot, but she wasn't going to start experimenting. Tried and tested techniques that worked in this world were just fine.

Time spent outside did wonders for her lingering headache, the last of her hangover easing away in the fresh air and the quiet. That was something she was still getting used to - Haven was so noisy. From dawn 'til dusk, the little village rang with the sound of people going about their business. There was the forge, the training ground, the chatter of men and women as they gossiped over their chores, and underneath it all, the continuous drone of the Chant of Light. Even at night, the Chantry stayed awake, brothers and sisters reciting the canticles in shifts, fulfilling their part of Andraste's promise. Yet out here, in the middle of the day, it was so quiet. Just half an hour from the village, and you could be forgiven for thinking you were miles away from any kind of civilization. All she could hear was the breeze in the trees, and the shuffling crunch of druffalo hooves over the snow. It was peaceful, calming, and as she worked, Rory found herself humming, making music for the first time since Ria's death. The intrusion of an unexpected voice brought her humming to an abrupt end.

"Pretty tune from a pretty girl."

The accent was French - Orlesian, Rory - and belonged to a man about her own age, dressed in hunting leathers, and lounging against a tree not too far away. He was armed with long knives at his belt, and was looking at her with more than simple interest.

Rory's fingers tightened about the hilt of her small knife. "Thank you," she said warily. "What brings you out here?"

"Milord prefers to eat game hunted by those he trusts," the hunter told her, pushing away from his tree. "As for me, I am delighted to find beauty in these ill-favored wilds."

Forget the elfroot. Feeling the alarm bells ringing in her nerves, she rose to her feet, her half-filled sack in her hand. "Well, I'm expected back at the village," she informed him. She knew this feeling, had felt it often enough when walking home late at night through London's quiet streets. It was fear, naked and raw, and cramping her throat as her heart began to pound. "They'll miss me if I'm gone too long."

She made to leave the little clearing, but he stepped in front of her, a predatory darkness about his eyes that made her back away quickly, gripping her knife harder. A knife she didn't know how to use. If this was a story, rescue would already be on its way. But as he advanced on her, she knew this was no story. She was alone, defenseless, and this man was a born predator who had found easy prey.

"We won't be long, petit," he told her, laughing as she raised her little knife between them. "Be a good girl, and I won't slice your pretty throat with your pretty little blade."

"That's my choice?" she heard herself demand shakily, unable to keep her incredulity silenced. "Lie back and take it, or you'll kill me when you're finished?"

"You will not get a better offer, petit."

It wasn't the words that frightened her so much as the way he said them - as though no one would blame him even if he did kill her. As though she deserved what he intended simply by virtue of being female and out of sight of help. As though raping her was his right, and somehow her life was a generous gift in exchange.

A sensible person would probably have taken the offer, knowing without needing to test the theory that he was more than capable of doing worse than just raping and killing her. Rory, however, had regular bouts of unsensible behavior, especially under duress. "I think I'll take my chances, thanks," she spat at him in sheer bravado, and lunged, slashing wildly at his face with her knife.

He easily sidestepped her attack, catching her wrist as she made an attempt to get past him. Strong fingers bent her hand back, cruel eyes glinting as she cried out in pain, the knife falling from her fingers. Caught, she tried to pull away, opening her mouth to scream for help in the vain hope that someone might be near enough to hear. The hunter dragged her back, throwing her down onto the unforgiving snow with enough force to knock the breath from her lungs, and before she could raise herself to scramble away, he was on her. Rough hands ripped at the laces of her bodice, tearing the linen shift beneath, snarling as she cried hot tears, begging him not to do this. He ignored those tears, too strong to fight off; a monster in human form that pawed and bit at her bared flesh, too hot, too heavy, too hungry, too self-important to care that she was unwilling.

His mouth slobbered over her neck, teeth biting savagely as she struggled, big hands reaching down to drag her skirt upward, to push his pants downward, discounting the push of her hands, the kick of her legs ... and suddenly he roared in pain, blood spurting from a wound in his shoulder to splatter hot against her skin. The hunter raised himself from his prey, and a short figure seemed to materialize from nowhere beside him, planting a firm kick into that injured shoulder to send him sprawling onto his back. As Rory scrambled back, curling tightly into a sobbing ball, a second figure ambled out from the trees and brought a great hammer down onto the hunter's chest. No amount of fancy leather armor could have stopped that blow, the blunt weapon staving in breastbone and ribs, each one puncturing some organ vital to life. A great geyser of blood erupted from the hunter's mouth and nose, staining the snow with more than blood as death took him swiftly.

It was all over in seconds. Shocked, shaken, terrified, Rory stared at her saviors with wide eyes, unable to keep the tears from flowing. They were dwarves, male and female, cleaning off their respective weapons as though there wasn't a half-naked corpse with very little chest left lying between them.

"Happy now, Malika?" the bearded male was saying. "You know she's going to tell them she saw us."

"Oh, and you would have preferred to just walk past?" the female snapped back. "She won't say a word. Look at her - she's so shaken up, she probably can't even see us."

The male scratched his beard, eyeing Rory thoughtfully. "If you say so," he conceded, nodding to his companion. "Grab his pouch, let's get going."

In a mess, her mind jumbled with thoughts of what almost happened and what did happen, Rory lowered her head to her knees, hugging herself tight as she struggled through her own fear and relief toward some kind of calmness. He might have - But he didn't. He tried to - But he didn't. I could have - But you weren't. Pull yourself together, girl, and get back to Haven. On your feet.

She staggered upright, pulling her torn bodice over her bruised skin, forcing herself to look around the clearing. Who knew how long she'd been crying there? She was alone again but for the cooling body of her attacker, her rescuers long gone. But her half-filled sack of elfroot leaves stood by the path toward Haven, filled to the brim and tied shut, her little knife resting on top of it. Despite her state, she actually laughed at the sight of it, at the knowledge that two dwarven warriors had stopped long enough to finish her harvesting and clean her knife before continuing on their way. Grateful, but desperate to be gone from here, she snatched up the sack and the knife, and ran for the track that would take her back to Haven.

She had just passed Master Taigen's cabin when the Fates conspired to try and kill her with fright for the second time that day. Reassured by the nearing sounds of swords clashing, her frantic pace had slowed enough that she could convince herself to stop and make an effort to repair the damage to her appearance. Her dress wasn't that badly torn, on reflection - the laces were snapped and would have to be replaced, and a long tear along the seam at her left shoulder would need to be sewed up, but on the whole, it wasn't a disaster. The shift beneath was torn to the breast, but again, salvageable. She could feel a bite mark rising into a bruise on her neck, and another where her neck met her shoulder, and her wrist throbbed painfully, but she knew she had been very lucky. She couldn't expect to be that lucky again.

And then a burst of flame ignited the path directly in front of her, ripping a scream from her bruised throat.

"Don't turn around, shem."

The voice was harsh, female, and Rory had no doubt that turning around would result in the next flame taking hold of her. This was not her day. She was never leaving Haven's walls ever, ever again.

"Well, now you've scared her speechless, fa'lon, mind if I do the talking?" a second voice interjected. This one was male, and a lot friendlier.

"Be quick," the female ordered in an unforgiving tone. "They'll have heard her scream."

"This is why the Keeper didn't want you to come, you know," the male responded. He sighed, and Rory heard footsteps moving closer to her back. "Where's the Temple of Ages, please?"

Trembling all over, Rory took a slow breath. Someone will have heard you scream. Answer the nice elf before his friend decides to flambé you. "Temple of Sacred Ashes," she heard herself say in a voice that was too scared to be hers. "Past the village, over the river. It's at the head of the valley." Please don't hurt me.

She heard them move away, but her eyes were focused on a familiar figure visible through the trees ahead of her. They did hear me. Thank gods. Five figures were running toward her as she sank down onto her knees, shaking like a leaf.

"Rory! You all right? What happened?"

Suddenly safe, the shock of her afternoon hit her with the force of a hurricane. She burst into tears, groping her way forward to throw her arms around Rylen as she sobbed out the incoherent story of her misadventures. Her friend held his naked sword away from her as he tucked an arm about her shoulders, listening patiently as she pieced together everything that had happened since she'd left the village.

"You, go back to Haven," he ordered one of his soldiers. "Report to the commander that we need a perimeter sweep now. You three, go to the logging stand and retrieve the body." As the four saluted, moving to follow those orders without a moment's hesitation, he sheathed his sword, turning his attention back to the shaking woman under his arm. "All right, darlin', I've got you. Come along with me, let's get you back to Haven."

Clinging to him, Rory was only too happy to be guided back to the deceptive safety of the stockaded village, too shaken to notice the curious eyes that followed their progress to the clinic, where a horrified Fabian took charge of his traumatized senior. She didn't know how angry people were as word spread of the attack on their healer, how alarmed they were that Dalish elves and unknown dwarves were in the area. She didn't witness how tense things suddenly became when the dead hunter was identified as a man-at-arms in the service of an Orlesian marquis, who had the gall to demand that she was punished for his death. No one told her that Cullen almost broke his hand on the marquis' nose in answer, or that Haven was hastily declared off-limits to all the parties passing through to the Conclave. No one could be trusted but their own, clearly.

All she knew was that the world of Thedas was suddenly a very real, very frightening place. The time had come to start taking things very seriously indeed.

Chapter Text

"You don't have to do this, Rory. Not tonight."

She sighed, shaking out the drying cloth in her hands pointedly, her eyes fixed on a fascinating bit of wall to her right. "So you keep saying," she said in a wry tone. "Yesterday, in fact. Oh, and the day before. And today, you've been avoiding me."

Cullen rolled his eyes, stepping up out of the bath. "I have not been avoiding you," he informed her, taking the cloth from her hands to wrap it about his waist.

"Really?" she asked knowingly. "So why did it take following you to the baths in the middle of the night to even find out if that potion is working for you?"

"I don't know whether to be disturbed or flattered that you tracked me through Haven on a moonless night, just to give me a massage," he commented, avoiding the question like a pro.

"I wouldn't have had to if you'd just let me do it in your tent two nights ago," Rory pointed out, crossing her arms over her chest. She was still addressing the wall, hoping he mistook her blush for the heat in the bath house. "Now we either do it here, or I walk you back to tent and do it there. Either way, you're getting a massage tonight."

She could feel him staring at her, weighing up her intent, not daring to look around and meet that gaze. That cloth at his waist would not be modest at all now it was wet, and she didn't think he'd take her seriously if she was talking to his crotch. Oh yeah, talking to the wall is a much better impression to be making.

Cullen sighed heavily. "You are the stubbornest woman I have ever met,"

"So're you," she retorted, listening as he stepped into the dressing chamber. "So that's a yes, is it?"

"It's a reluctant concession from one stubborn woman to another," he called out to her.

Rory felt her jaw twitch. Trust him to take me literally just to see if he can get a rise out of me. "So put away your man-boobs and decide where you want to be massaged," she countered, instantly regretting her choice of words. "In what location do you - no, that's worse." She grimaced at her own clumsiness with words. "In here or in your tent? And shut up."

She heard him chuckle, the sound setting off a happy little glow inside despite her mild irritation. "I said nothing," he protested in amusement.

"I know you said nothing," she replied. "I could feel you maliciously saying nothing with every word I said."

"That makes no sense, Rory," he informed her, sounding a little muffled.

"You have a very piercing stare," she offered by way of clarification. "I always know when you're waiting for me to blush."

"And you have a beautiful bottom, but you don't hear me accusing you of maliciously wiggling it at me."

Rory's hands flew to cover her backside, relieved to discover that she was still clothed. Clothes only miraculously disappear around him in daydreams, you daft sod. Still, it was embarrassing to realize that he'd noticed her rear end, though it could only have been in the last couple of days. The morning after her close shave in the woods, she'd gone to the forge and bought a sizeable amount of butter-soft ram-hide from Harritt, then politely asked one of the women who was good with a needle to make up a couple of pairs of pants for her. The resulting articles were warm, sturdy, and form-fitting, and she felt a lot more secure in them. Her next purchase was going to have to be a longer jacket, though, it seemed.

As Cullen's chuckle reached her ears, she growled under her breath, letting her hands fall away. "Are you drunk?" she accused mildly.

"Just exhausted," he answered, and the laughter was gone from his voice. "Forgive me, I shouldn't have ... after what happened with the Orlesian ..." He sighed, sounding closer than before. "It was inappropriate of me to say such a thing."

"Cullen, I'm not a china doll," she said in frustration, though barely any of that was because of him. Everyone in Haven seemed to be on eggshells around her, and it was driving her insane. "I've been coddled and mothered and generally treated as though the wrong word will break me, and it won't." She turned, glad to find him fully dressed once again. "What happened was my own fault. I decided to go out alone, even after Rylen warned me it might not be safe."

His eyes blazed suddenly. "Never say that again," he told her sternly, staring into her eyes with an intensity that would have frightened her from anyone else. "What that ... what he did was not your fault. Men like that are the dregs of the world, no better than maleficar or darkspawn. His actions do not reflect on you. And I will not have you thinking otherwise. Do you understand?"

Gobsmacked by the fervor in his words, Rory could only nod mutely. For once, the inner fangirl was silent, awed into speechless gawping by this very real evidence that he seemed to genuinely care ... for her well-being, at least. She felt her breath catch in her throat as his bare hand touched the aching bruise on her throat, reaching higher for callused fingers and palm to cradle her jaw almost tenderly.

"If that man had not already met the Maker, I would have killed him myself," he went on, his voice intimately low between them. "You are mine."

Oh, my giddy aunt ... A glowing pool of pure, unadulterated desire ignited deep in her belly, throbbing with each beat of a heart that was suddenly far too loud. "Yours?" she breathed, not quite able to summon her voice.

She must have looked confused or alarmed. Whatever the reason, Cullen seemed to abruptly realize he was wavering on the edge of a clearly defined line. "One of my people," he clarified, drawing his hand back from her burning cheek. "My responsibility. I look after my own."

Ah, disappointment, thou art a feisty bitch. "Yes, you do," Rory assured him, glancing down at his hand, which still sported bruised knuckles from a punch made in her defense. "I - we - appreciate how much you care for us."

The corner of his mouth twitched, hinting toward another of those unseen smiles. His hand rose, rubbing at his neck in a manner that was wonderfully familiar, and Rory felt some of her disappointment lift on seeing it. My gods ... he really does like me. But what about Evelyn Trevelyan, or that trigger-happy elven mage? He might like them more, if he gets the chance. She gave herself a mental shake.

"I ... take it we're going to your tent, then?" she asked, dragging herself back to the reason she'd ambushed him in the bath in the first place. "I'd offer the clinic, but Fabian's taken to sleeping there with me."

Cullen looked almost relieved by her topic change. "He wants to protect you," he commented, gesturing for her to move past him to the door. "That, I can understand. And yes, my tent."

"What do you mean, you can understand?" Rory glanced at him curiously, lifting her cloak off a hook to pull it around her shoulders as they stepped out into the cold night. "I don't need protecting."

"Yes, you do," Cullen argued quietly as they fell into step together. "I am at a loss to explain how a woman so well-traveled knows nothing of personal defense."

And the convenient lie come back to bite me in the arse. A arse he apparently thinks is beautiful, but that's beside the point. "I've never needed to learn," she told him, which was true, in a way. "No one's ever threatened me enough that I've needed to fight them."

"Which makes our failure in security even worse," he grimaced. "Surrounded by soldiers, you should have been safe."

"No, all it means is that I've been extraordinarily lucky," she affirmed a long-held belief out loud, and that wasn't a lie, either. "I think the fact that I made it to twenty-six without my luck running out is quite impressive, actually."

"You might almost call it miraculous," he agreed, the hint of a smile once again in his voice.

"I don't attract trouble," she protested laughingly.

"Perhaps not, but I have seen you trip over something that wasn't there more than once," he reminded her, nodding to the guard on the gate as they passed through.

"Clumsiness is not a crime," she defended herself mortified that he could say he'd seen it happen multiple times.

"The way you cackle with laughter whenever you fall over could be considered criminal, if it wasn't so charming." He came to a halt, opening the ties on his tent flaps as she waited.

"I do not cackle," Rory insisted adamantly, only to be undermined by a disembodied voice from the next tent over.

"You do cackle. Like a wee nug being tickled."

"Shut up, Rylen."

She rolled her eyes at the sleepy laugh that answered her, ducking into Cullen's tent as she felt her cheeks burning. What was her Starkhaven friend going to think of her being in the commander's tent after midnight?

She was surprised to note how warm it was inside the canvas structure, though it was hardly spacious. Just room enough for a small brazier, two chests, a crate for a desk, and a bedroll, all illuminated by a dim lantern hanging from the crossbar. In this enclosed space, Cullen seemed too big, too close, too handsome. Too tempting. But she was here for a reason, she had to remember that.

"How do you want to do this?" he asked in a gentle tone, as though aware of how too he was in here.

"Where are you tense?" she answered him, needing to know that before she could go much further.

"My neck," was his somewhat predictable reply. "My shoulders."

As much as she would have liked to hear "everywhere", it was something of a relief to have him pinpoint the place that needed to be manipulated. All over would have taken most of the rest of the night, for a start. And just his neck and shoulders helped her avoid the highly titillating experience of a totally naked Cullen under her hands.

"Then we can do this with you seated, or lying down, whichever you'd prefer," she said with a nod, raising her hands to undo her cloak. "This is all about you."

His expression flickered for just a moment, a shadow implying unkind inner thoughts darkening his eyes for a split second. Then he turned away with a short nod, bending to unlace his boots. "It will be more comfortable for you if I am lying down."

It was awkward with both of them trying to prepare in such a small space. When Rory bent to remove her own boots, she was virtually eye to eye with his groin, noting - with pride in herself for seeming detached - that Commander Cullen was a leftie. When he stretched up to remove his shirt, she realized that he was easily a foot taller than her, her gaze focusing on the divot of his clavicle right at her eye-line. His arms came down on either side of her, his eyes finding hers in the dim light, and for just a breath, she was sure they were wavering on that line again. Then he stepped back, ducking to avoiding the lantern, and lowered himself to the bedroll, arms flat at his sides as he stretched onto his stomach.

"You've done this before, haven't you?" she accused him lightly, her voice hushed to avoid disturbing the others in the tents all around.

"Once or twice," he confessed with the same humor, his volume matching hers for the same reason. "After injury, to rehabilitate my muscles. Never ... never like this."

"You have to tell me if you feel pain, all right?" she warned then, inching closer on her knees. "I don't want to hurt you."

"I will," he promised softly, watching as she pulled a small bottle of unfragranced oil from one of the many pouches on her belt. "I trust you."

"I should hope so," she agreed, considering her options. Quite apart from the sheer magnificence of his naked back, he was broad ... too broad for her to comfortably do this from either side. "I, uh ... I need to ... straddle you," she confessed awkwardly. "Is ... is that all right? I'll try not to actually sit on you."

Cullen let out a soft snort of laughter, waving his fingers at her. "It's fine," he assured her in a confident tone. "I doubt you weigh much more than my sister."

She blinked, wondering which sister he meant. Something else she wasn't supposed to know. "I'll take that as a compliment," she decided, lifting onto her hands and feet to swing a leg over the narrower span of his waist and hips.

"It's intended as one," he promised, tensing only a little as her knees came to rest between his arms and ribs. But he somehow managed to banish that new tension as she settled with her backside brushing his. "Rosalie is tiny."

"Oh, well, thank you," Rory chuckled softly, pouring oil onto her hands to warm it. "Now shush and let me relax you."

"You're like Mia when you're bossy, though," he added, closing his eyes as her hands began to stroke over the broad expanse of his shoulders.

A slow tremor leeched through him at the gentle passage of her hands. How long had it been since he'd let anyone touch him, she wondered, admiring the golden gleam of taut skin over toned muscle in the dim candlelight. Long enough that he sighed with what might almost have been gratitude when her hands did not immediately pull away. In fact, now she was touching him, Rory wasn't sure she was going to be able to stop. His skin was smooth beneath her palms, hot and firm, yielding to the slow pressure she eased into him with only the barest resistance. He groaned, the sound laced with relief and pleasure, and she felt herself grow hot as that sound struck straight to her core.

Was that the sound he would make if she touched him somewhere else, she wondered shamefully, knowing she shouldn't be thinking such a thing when he was under her care. Here and now, in this moment, he was vulnerable, beautiful in the trust he had given her to see him so disarmed. She had never felt so privileged, so touched, to be allowed to treat someone, yet her traitorous thoughts would not stop. Would he sigh like that if she kissed the little scar between his shoulder-blades? Would she hear that moan against her ear as he moved inside her? She should not be imagining it, taking advantage of him in her mind's eye. But the thoughts were there, unbidden, impossible to ignore.

He really was an Adonis, glistening beneath her hands as she worked the tension from his muscles, a god among men. But it wasn't his physical beauty that made him so; at least, not solely. This was a good man, a kind man, so troubled by his past mistakes that he was prepared to endure terrible torment to separate himself from the man he had been then. How many people even had that kind of honor, let alone were ready to exercise it? Yes, he had his faults - a learned hatred of magic and mages, a temper that flared a little too easily, a casual indifference to keeping his family in the loop - but who didn't? To have come so far after enduring so much and still be gentle at heart ... that was what made him beautiful in her eyes. The woman he chose would be lucky indeed, and she had better recognize it, or Rory would break her perfect nose for her.

As he relaxed under her palms, she listened to his breathing growing slow and steady, no longer laced with moans but with the comfortable sigh of deep, dreamless sleep. Mission accomplished. With careful motion, she lifted herself from his back, reaching to tuck the blankets warm about his shoulders. Wiping her hands clean, she pulled on her cloak and boots, hesitating as temptation reared its head. Where's the harm? He'll never know.

Slowly, gently, she leaned down, brushing the ghost of a kiss to the upturned corner of his mouth, over the scar that had haunted her dreams a few too many times. His lips puckered, as though answering her kiss in his sleep, making her smile as she stroked her fingers through his tousled hair. "Sleep sweet, sweetheart," she whispered softly, slipping from his side to let him slumber in peace.

Oh, yes. Mission definitely accomplished.

Chapter Text

"... from sky-tearing peaks of the sacred mountain; to secret steep'd root of the ancient oak trees ..."

Rory stood in the nave of the Chantry, satchel hugged to her chest, trying not to fidget. What was she doing here?

She'd managed to avoid the Chantry for a month and a half, though she knew services were held every day. No one had mentioned it yet, but she knew someone was bound to notice sooner or later that the healer wasn't attending the Chantry or singing the Chant of Light. She couldn't even use the excuse of work; Fabian went regularly, and he was more than capable of holding clinic for an hour once a week. She just couldn't bring herself to do it. She couldn't bring herself to pretend that she believed in the Maker. She'd turned her back on the god her parents believed in when they'd turned their backs on her, preferring to believe in what she could see and touch. If there was some all-powerful deity looking down on her, she hoped he, she, or it was just as offended by her as she was by them. She refused to play along and pretend that she shared a faith she barely comprehended, much less believed in. That wasn't why she was here, though.

No, she was standing here in the incense-choked nave, watching the candle flames dance and listening to the Chant, because a very intimidating Leliana had come to the clinic with a request for a healer to wait on the Divine herself. Fabian had been rendered catatonic just at the thought of meeting the Divine, so Rory had stepped up to do what needed doing. She was more than a little unnerved by Leliana, though. The woman was so cold, stating what was required without giving away any details. All the while Rory was packing her satchel to cover any eventuality, Sister Nightingale watched her with pale eyes that saw too much for comfort. She never would have believed it, but Rory felt afraid of the bard - afraid that soon she would be exposed as a nobody with no history beyond the six weeks she had spent here in Haven. What would they do when Leliana discovered that the healer they trusted was no one? What would Cullen do?

She could hear the murmur of voices in what would soon be the war room; some female, one male. What was wrong with the Divine that she needed a healer, anyway? Shouldn't she have someone on staff to deal with any medical concerns she might have? Oh, Rory was aware of what a huge honor it was to be asked to wait on the Divine; she just couldn't quite see why it was necessary. She was horribly afraid that this was all some pretext to get her here so she could be interrogated.

The door opened, and she looked up to see Chancellor Roderick and Josephine Montilyet walk out together, closely followed by Cassandra. The Seeker caught her eye, gesturing for her to enter the room where the Divine waited.

"The healer you requested, Most Holy."

The room was different to what Rory remembered from the game, though some elements remained the same. The candle-covered sideboard, for example, and the bookcases in the corner. But the map table that would dominate the space was nowhere to be seen. Instead, there was a bed to the left, made up with vibrant linens; a desk in the nearest left corner that looked suspiciously like the desk Josephine would soon be using in another room; a hearth she had never even suspected was present in the right-hand wall, set about with padded chairs.

And in one of those chairs sat Divine Justinia herself, gray-haired and blue-eyed, her large and impressive hat set upright on a table nearby. Her lined face turned toward Rory with a kind smile.

"Come closer, child," she said, and Rory felt her feet shuffle her forward, hearing the door close at her back with a finality that was terrifying. "What is your name?"

"Uh, Rory, your, uh ... Most Holy."

Justinia's smile gentled in the face of her obvious uncertainty. "You frightened the girl, Leliana."

Rory felt herself jump visibly at the reply that came from behind her.

"It was not my intention, Most Holy," the redheaded Left Hand said in answer, moving away from the door to stand beside the table.

"So little is as we intend," Justinia replied philosophically. She turned her eyes back to Rory. "There is no need to fear, child; you are not to be punished for some imagined misdeed. Do you know why you are here?"

A car mowed me down and somehow this is my afterlife. "Only that you wished to see a healer, Most Holy," Rory offered, still a little wary despite the reassurance.

"Not any healer," the Divine told her pleasantly. "Cassandra has told me much of you. A healer who protects the dignity and secrets of those she serves - a rare being. I have need of your discretion, Rory. While you are here, I will not be disturbed, and there are matters I must discuss with my Hands. May I rely upon you to keep what you may hear close to your chest?"

"Of course," Rory assured her without a second thought, though her brow creased in confusion. "I was under the impression that you needed a healer, not a smokescreen. Surely you can just ... order privacy for an hour?"

She heard Leliana laugh softly; saw the smile on Cassandra's face as the Seeker moved to the table herself. Did I say something funny? Even Justinia's smile was amused.

"You think I am wasting time better spent on others in need?" the Divine asked, lifting her hand to invite her closer. "Your time will not be wasted." She raised the hem of her robe to her knees, revealing some of the worst bandaging Rory had ever seen. And she'd seen the attempts made by medical students. "I fear the sore is not healing," Justinia told her. "I understand you have more than a little skill in such things."

Choosing not to ask why the Divine couldn't get a mage to heal her, Rory dropped down onto her knees, pulling an apron from her satchel. She maneuvered it over her head, covering her clothes with the clean linen, reaching to lift the bandaged leg and inspect the damage. "It will be painful to remove this, Most Holy," she warned, horrified by the state of the dressing. It was stiff and crusty, and distinctly smelly.

Justinia's smile was resigned. "Life is pain, child," she said, accepting of the discomfort. "Do what you must."

Rory nodded, gently setting the woman's foot down as she looked about for something she knew had to be somewhere. There. On a table behind her were set a jug and two basins - not strictly intended for her purposes, but needs must. She was going to have to soak that bandages thoroughly to have even a chance of getting it off without causing more damage.

As she moved to collect them, returning to her knees before the Divine, the three women began to speak.

"Well, Leliana?" Justinia asked as Rory set to work soaking the neglected bandage. "What have you discovered?"

"The Grand Enchanter will not be joining us," Leliana told her solemnly. "Neither will the Lord Seeker. It appears they both suspect a trap, and have sent representatives in their stead. For the mages, Senior Enchanter Maxwell Trevelyan, of the Ostwick Circle; for the templars, Knight-Commander Greagoir, of Kinloch Hold."

Engrossed in her work, Rory's brows rose at the mention of that name. She'd wondered what had happened to Greagoir and Irving; now it seemed she had an answer to one half of that question. It was a shame, in a way ... she couldn't say she liked Greagoir, but she'd respected him. To know he was going to die at the Conclave, trying to make peace, was just a little sad.

"I do not understand this paranoia in Lord Seeker Lucius," Cassandra was saying. "He has always been a fair man. Why would he choose to distrust the word of the Divine?"

"Perhaps he knows something we do not," Leliana suggested darkly.

"Or perhaps he shares the opinion of his predecessor." Justinia sighed, flinching a little as Rory began to peel the sodden bandage from her leg. "Lord Seeker Lambert was adamant that I tricked him into missing his opportunity to cow the mages at their vote."

"Whatever the reason, his absence will not help proceedings," Cassandra predicted, her own tone dark. "Even if an accord is reached, he may not honor it."

"The same could be said of the rebel mages," Leliana mused in agreement. "I find it curious that those mages who consider themselves loyal have not sent a representative."

Like Vicious Vivienne would ever take part in something that doesn't offer her a clear path to power and influence, Rory thought. She's probably waiting to see who comes out on top so she can ingratiate herself with them. Now there was a character she could happily live without meeting. With gentle hands, she delicately pulled the last layer of flimsy wrapped from Justinia's leg, and found herself looking at a venous ulcer that probably hadn't been cleaned in weeks. This was definitely going to hurt.

"Madame de Fer does not like to be a single voice among many," Justinia cautioned. "She will shed no tears if the Conclave fails." She glanced down at Rory, interest sparking in her gaze at the little bottle the healer had produced. "What is that, child?"

Rory lifted her head, surprised to be addressed. "Distilled poppy and willow-bark," she answered, not expecting them to know what that meant. "A few drops on the wound should numb the worst of the pain while I'm cleaning it."

"Should?" Leliana queried, one brow raised in challenge.

"Everyone is different, Sister Nightingale," Rory defended herself. "What works on one person may not necessarily work for someone else. There's no way to know until you try it."

"And you admit freely that your potion may not work?" the redhead asked, her expression unnervingly inscrutable.

"Am I supposed to lie to the Divine?" Rory countered as boldly as she dared.

"Let her do her work, Leliana," Cassandra interjected. "She does more good than harm. I have seen it."

Under Leliana's probing gaze, Rory carefully administered three drops onto the worst affected areas of the ulcer, letting the distillation soak in as she then doused her hands thoroughly from a bottle of moonshine she'd been given a few days earlier. It wasn't quite alcohol gel or hand sanitizer, and it stung like blue blazes, but it did the job she needed it to do. Endeavoring to ignore her audience, she turned her attention to cleaning the wound.

"Without Fiona and Lucius present, I fear the Conclave is likely to fail no matter what we do," Justinia went on, as though she hadn't interrupted the conversation herself. "The Inquisition of old is becoming increasingly our only option to restore order. Should these talks fail, it falls to you, both of you, to rebuild the Inquisition and find those who will stand against the chaos. I will support you however I can, but the Chantry will not support an independent body without a fight."

"But who will be Inquisitor?" Cassandra asked a little hopelessly. "The Warden is nowhere to be found, and if Varric knows the Champion's location, he is refusing to divulge it."

"Renew efforts to find the Warden," Justinia told her. "And perhaps your dwarf will tell me what he will not tell you. I will speak with him tomorrow, after the Conclave adjourns for the day."

No one seemed to notice the way Rory's hands stilled for a fraction of a second. The game heavily implied that Varric never had the chance to speak to the Divine, so that meant ... Fucking hell. The explosion, the Breach, the demons ... it all starts tomorrow. Three days of non-stop demon attacks, starting tomorrow. It was too soon. She wasn't ready. But then ... who was ever ready for apocalyptic violence? Tomorrow, Haven would lose faces she'd come to know and care about - grumpy Master Taigen, gentle Mother Lisl, Divine Justinia herself. Corypheus could already be here, concealed in the Temple, biding his time. And when his time arrived, their time would be up.

Justinia hissed in pain suddenly as a stubborn piece of necrotic skin sloughed away, revealing healthy pink tissue beneath.

"I'm sorry," Rory apologized, wincing in sympathy. "I'm almost done."

"You warned me there would be pain," Justinia reminded her warmly. "You have gentle hands, child. Do not apologize for doing what the Maker clearly intended you to do." She watched a moment longer before returning her gaze to her Hands. "I will not require you at the Temple. Remain here; begin to build the foundation of the Inquisition with Lady Montilyet and Commander Rutherford. The Knights-Divine are perfectly capable of protecting me among the devout."

So capable, they won't even hear you shouting for help. Rory grimaced, sluicing her hands with moonshine once again. From her satchel, she pulled a hunk of moldy bread, bracing herself inwardly as she tore off a sizeable chunk and put it in her mouth, chewing to soften it and break down the starches. Unsurprisingly, it tasted absolutely revolting, but there was no alternative. This was the closest she could get to penicillin in this world. Even if this woman was going to die tomorrow, Rory was still going to give her the best care she could.

Aware of the disgust on the faces around her as she chewed, she removed a jar of honey, a wide pad, and two rolls of linen bandages from her satchel. A good glob of honey went onto the pad, and she removed the bolus of pre-digested bread and mold from her mouth to spread it on top of the honey. This, she laid gently over the clean ulcer, and began to wind the linen about the Divine's leg, to hold the dressing in place.

"How fascinating, to watch a healer without magic at work," Justinia said, sounding delighted in spite of the gooey mess that had just been applied to her leg. "Yet you do not seem to treat yourself as you do others, child. The bite on your neck - can you not heal that?"

Glancing up at her, Rory shrugged, hands busy bandages. "Bruises heal on their own, Most Holy," she replied. "Sadly, predators don't care if everyone can see their calling card."

"Those are the marks of a man's teeth," Justinia observed mildly.

"He was still a predator," Rory told her, glad she was calm in relating even a fraction of the story. "And I was incredibly lucky."

"The Marquis du Revel's man, Most Holy," Leliana supplied. Rory wasn't sure why she was surprised - the redhead probably knew the flavor of her last fart.

"Ah, yes." Justinia seemed to know what had happened. "A bad business, but perhaps it is better that he lost his life. Such wolves do not easily change their pelts, no matter the punishment given."

At a loss as to what to say, Rory ducked her head, making a mental note to find a scarf. What is so bloody fascinating about a bruised neck, anyway? Everyone wants to talk about it! Tying off the bandage, she wiped her hands on a cloth, gathering the used bandages into it to be washed and used again. A gentle hand touched her chin, guiding her face until she looked into the kind eyes of the Divine.

"A life given to service for the good of others is a life well-lived," the old woman said softly. "I see your soul, child. You have known cruelty and loss. They haunt you, always. Yet you look on the world with hope, sharing the goodness in your heart despite that pain. The reward is rare, but still you give. I pray every day to meet a soul like yours."

Humbled by this high praise of her character, Rory stared, almost shocked to find that her eyes betrayed so much. "I'm no one special, Most Holy," she murmured awkwardly.

"In your own eyes, perhaps not," Justinia told her gently. "But in the eyes of those who see you, you shine. Do not be afraid, Rory. You are not alone."

Tears sprang into Rory's eyes. How did she know? How could she possibly know how scared I am, how lonely it is without Ria? Every day, she missed her friend - missed her smile, her voice, her bravery. Some days, she forgot her loss, already turning to share some moment only to be reminded there was no one to share it with. She'd thought she had it well hidden, yet this devout woman saw it in an instant. Saw and understood, without the need for words.

She swallowed hard against the lump in her throat, whispering almost soundless thanks. Released from the Divine's grasp, she hurried to tidy up, escaping as soon as she could. Out of the Chantry, through the village, over the training ground, walking as swiftly as she could, blindly picking her direction until her feet slid on the ice of the lake. Away from everyone, she crouched low, setting her head between her knees until the dizziness faded, until the tears subsided. Six weeks, and still it hurt as though Ria had died just yesterday. Would it ever fade, this gnawing ache in her heart; this cold void where her only friend used to be? Would she ever stop hoping to wake up from a dream that had taken everything away from her?

A yell caught her attention, raising her face into the cold sting of the wind to look back toward the shore. Rylen was waving to her, grinning, dangling something from his hand. Are those ... skates? She felt a sharp huff of laughter leave her chest in a rush, a smile replacing her haunted frown. One random comment in passing days ago, and suddenly he had skates. Where the hell did he find ice skates here, anyway, she wondered, turning carefully to make her way back over the ice.

And as she went, she realized that the Divine was right. She would always miss Ria, but there was space in her heart for others. Friends, and perhaps something more than friendly, with the right person.

She wasn't alone.

Chapter Text

Three days.

On paper, or in a dramatic line of dialogue, it didn't seem like much. But the reality was raw, all-consuming chaos. Three days and night of screaming pain, of burns and poison and blood ... of horrific death.

The explosion at the Conclave had been so much worse than Rory could have imagined. Even she, who had been expecting it, was shocked to a standstill by the deafening thunder-crack as green fire burst toward the skies, detonating the Temple like a nuclear blast. For just a moment, all was still. Then the shockwave hit Haven; a roaring crash of sound and pressure that shook the place to its very foundations. Great chunks of masonry fell on the village and the camp, thrown two miles clear of the ruined Temple to crush and pin even those who were not caught in that dreadful conflagration. The Breach stood proud of all that destruction - a swirling, merciless vortex in the sky, harbinger of doom upon all the world.

But Rory had no time to stand and gawp as others did. She had been preparing for this moment for more than a month and, despite her horror, she was quick to respond. While soldiers rushed through the ruined valley to what remained of the Temple, hoping for survivors, she took charge on the ground in Haven. Nearly everyone was injured in some way, from bleeding ears whose drums had ruptured to crush injuries that no healer could cure without magic. She made too many life or death decision in the chaotic hours that followed, and each one cut like a knife. Each bundled corpse that joined the others was a failure, as though she should have been able to save them, no matter how little she could have done even with all the resources of modern medicine at her disposal. The walking wounded became her new assistants, taught hastily how to clean and dress and wound, how to ease a burn with snow, how to stop excessive bleeding. The pilgrims' camp offered up their own healers, and by the time dawn rose into the new verdigreen world, they had a functioning field hospital outside Haven's gates.

Then the soldiers returned, and with them a new influx of the wounded and dying, survivors who had been in the valley when the Temple exploded. In the midst of this loud, pain-filled mess, Adan had pulled her aside, asking what he should do for an unconscious patient. Bloody to the elbows and perversely offended by how clean and alert he was, she had rattled off instructions on monitoring pulse and breathing, on cooling and warming a fever, too busy to sit down and talk him through it gently. She was overwhelmed; he was on his own. It was only hours later that she realized who he must have been talking about, when she overheard others around her sharing ugly words about an unknown survivor found in the Temple itself, now locked up in the Chantry. She'd missed her chance to see Solas at work, but there would be other chances. The inner fangirl's curiosity would have to wait to be satisfied a while longer.

As the sun set on the second day, she'd managed to snatch a few hours of sleep - the first in more than twenty-four hours - only to be roused by screams of pure terror from the west of the village. Demons were gathering at the bridge, held back only by the determination of the guards. She caught a fleeting glimpse of Cullen and Cassandra as they ran to respond, ordering what few mages and templars there were to defend the village. And for the first time, she heard Cullen address his soldiers as Inquisition. The story had well and truly begun.

Knowing that there were more hideous injuries in store, Rory had grabbed four of the emergency med-kits she'd been holding in reserve, and the three most alert-looking of her conscripted assistants, and joined the rush toward the bridge. Nothing could have prepared her for what she saw there.

In the game, shades and terrors were more of a nuisance than a real threat. In reality, they almost stopped her heart with knicker-wetting dread. A mass of twisted, mutated flesh and bone, the shades were a poor parody of a real form, claws dripping with acidic ichor that burned through weapons, armor, flesh, and bone. They focused on the weakest prey they could find, bringing to bear an almost overwhelming sense of defeat even before they were in range to attack. And the terrors ... they were aptly named. Spindly creatures born of nightmares, woven from rotting skin and bone; just the sight of them was enough to send panic through the ranks who moved to defend the village. But Cullen's people were well-trained, disciplined. They marched into the fray without coddling their fears, and together, they drove the demons back.

By the sickly light of the Breach, Rory had set to work. Most of these wounds were superficial - painful, yes, but not life-threatening. The acid could be neutralized with snow, they'd discovered; the terrors' claws burned so hot that they cauterized any injury they inflicted. She was still giving lessons as she worked, calling answers to questions from her assistants that kept her from eavesdropping on the hasty orders Cullen was giving. She was even distracted from Solas' arrival by the sudden realization that one of her assistants was none other than Lady Evelyn Trevelyan, who had made it out of the valley with nothing more than a bruised wrist. That was a surprise, one that made her smile. Evelyn would go home again, but apparently not quite yet. The girl was a fast learner, and not afraid to plunge in and at least try to help. She'd make a good healer if she survived this.

Before midnight, Cullen and his men returned to the valley and, ignoring his order to stay put, Rory and Evelyn went with them. It was only two miles to the Temple, but by all that was holy, every inch was hard fought. Wraiths and shades prowled the path; each advance was met with resistance. Whenever they found a rift, a team was left to monitor it, to kill whatever emerged. By dawn, they'd reached the last bridge, still intact, guarded by heavy gates at either end. Here, Cullen ordered a rest stop, sending a runner back down to Haven for reinforcements and supplies. By the time a young soldier shook Rory awake again, the forward camp had been established, and Fabian had sent fresh satchels filled with medical supplies along with everything else.

Satisfied that Evelyn could handle the injuries that would be received here at the forward camp, Rory had joined the the soldiers preparing to press on to the Temple ... and had caused a minor argument in the process.

"I am ordering you to stay here," Cullen had tried to insist when he spied her at the back.

"And I'm disregarding that order," she'd countered stubbornly. "Evelyn's staying, she can handle things here. You're going to need a healer up there."

"You're asleep on your feet -"

"So're you," she'd argued, annoyed by this waste of time. It hadn't occurred to her until later that he'd been worried about her safety more than anything. "So is everyone else. But this needs to be done, and we'll do it. Do your job, commander, and let me do mine."

He'd scowled at her, but relented, turning to order Rylen and Eoin to protect the healer at all costs before returning to the head of the war party. Weary - no, actually, closer to exhausted - Rory marched out with them onto the slope of the mountain. It was hard-going, even without the constant demonic ambushes. The path was rough and steep, littered with burning debris and, worse, burning corpses. Each time the Breach expanded, it hailed Fade fire down from the sky, forcing fresh demons through the Veil to slow their advance. Above them, the brooding, jagged ruin of the Temple of Sacred Ashes loomed, a terrible shadow against the flickering illumination of the Breach.

And here they were, a rough camp made up in the lee of a blessedly intact wall, just beyond which was the last rift before the approach to the heart of the Temple. After the initial fight to clear out the demons that had already spawned, they'd been able to dig in. The rift had a pattern to it; it spawned three waves of wraiths, shades, and terrors every two to three hours. Time enough for Rory to see to any injuries incurred in each spawning attack, and to discover something utterly demoralizing - that the greater shades excreted a toxin from claws and teeth that she had no way of countering.

No matter what she did, the wound always festered within minutes, creeping red lines tracking from the puncture site toward the heart. She couldn't stop its progress with any potions, nor even with a tourniquet, and when it reached the heart, the victim died, poisoned beyond hope of antidote. She'd attempted an amputation - with a lot of help - on the first victim, desperate to stop the progress of the toxin, but it spread too quickly to contain. The line of covered bodies grew each time a greater shade spawned. The death the toxin brought wasn't a peaceful one, either. Men screamed in agony from the moment they were injured as their muscles atrophied in the wake of the poison withering them from within. They screamed without fail from that first moment of contact, until the moment their heart stopped beating.

It was too much. Rory could feel herself growing more and more desperate, less and less capable of rational thought, as the long night dragged on. She hadn't slept more than ten hours in the last sixty, always needed by someone else who was in pain. She was shaking, aching, hovering always on the verge of tears. The screaming haunted her every thought, clouding her mind until she couldn't concentrate properly on her very necessary work. She was bone-tired, and she couldn't complain. They were all exhausted, and not one of them had slept any more than she.

"Will you just help him?" an angry voice snapped by her ear - Calman, one of the older recruits, glowering at her as she tried to soothe a young boy whose screams were slowly growing weaker.

It would have been better for the lad if he'd been bitten closer to the chest - the toxin was taking what felt like forever to reach his heart. If she'd had any poppy juice, she would happily have overdosed him, just to avoid his agonizing suffering continuing any longer.

"I've done everything I can," she told Calman, knowing that the sound of the boy's dying cries were not helping anyone keep their temper controlled.

"You've done nothing!" Calman shouted at her, one hand grasping her arm tight enough to bruise. "You've got all those potions, give them to him! Slit his throat! Shut him up!"

Rory felt her temper snap. She was at her wit's end; she did not need this. Turning furious eyes onto the aggressive man beside her, she heard herself snarl. "Get the fuck away from me, or I swear I will break your fucking nose."

He shook her hard, red in the face as he loomed close. "He's in pain, you sadistic bitch - help him!"

"I can't!" she snapped back at him, pulling on her arm in his grip.

"Then what the fuck good are you?" he roared, each word falling into sudden silence.

The screams had stopped. The boy was dead. And the last thing he'd heard was the admission of his healer that there was nothing she could do for him. The camp was silent, angry, tired eyes turned toward the pair of them as Calman glared at a woman who had gone above and beyond to try and get them all through this.

"Calman!" Rylen sounded furious, each word clipped as he barked an order from where he was nursing a broken arm. "Report to the rift!"

"But, captain, she -"

"Now! Go!"

Burning with upset, Rory ignored the scowl the man sent her as he marched away, turning her attention back to the still form beside her. One shaking hand reached out to gently close the boy's unseeing eyes.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, guilt and pain and overwhelming weariness forcing tears from her eyes as she fought not to lose control of herself. "I'm so, so sorry ..."

But there was still work to be done. She stretched automatically to lay the boy out, and he was just a boy. A boy who had died in excruciating agony because she hadn't had the strength to end his life for him. A callused hand covered her own - Elgor, a man whose life she had saved just yesterday, though it felt like a lifetime ago. He looked at her with sympathetic eyes.

"Take the moment you need, healer," he told her softly, his accent placing him as one of Rylen's former Starkhaven templars. "I'll see to the lad."

Weary and heartsick, she nodded, knowing he was right. She was no good to anyone like this. "Thank you."

She pushed herself up onto her feet, so tired that she staggered on leaden legs. Other hands reached out to steady her, to guide her down to sit on a broken statue. Someone handed her a water-skin, urging her to drink. She did, only then realizing how parched she was. As the water-skin was taken back, another hand pushed half a meat roll into her fingers, another voice counseling her to eat while she had a moment. She felt a body sit beside her, sharing a blanket for warmth. They were all tired, demoralized, numb ... but she was one of them, and they would look after her.

"Sod me, cupcake, you look like shit."

Varric. They're finally here. Rory raised her head, actually smiling at her dwarven friend as long-needed hope blossomed inside her. If Varric was here, then so was the Herald. The end of this particular nightmare was in sight.

"And you're a vision, as always," she answered the concerned comment with weary good humor. "What brings you up here?"

"Just my usual inability to say no to a scary lady with a sword," Varric told her. He glanced over his shoulder, grimacing awkwardly. "You remember that little talk you had with me about bad words for other races? Might want to take a look at the guy who's going to save all our asses."

She wasn't the only one who leaned around his stocky figure to get a look at the trio coming up the path. She was the only one who snorted with laughter, however, glancing back to Varric to meet his ironic smile with a knowing glance.

"Bloody hell, it's that oxman who dropped out of nowhere!"

"He killed the Divine, why's he still breathing?"

"What's that on his hand?"

Oh, you poor bastards, Rory thought as the soldiers around her whispered to one another. Time to let that casual racism go. Because the one who would soon be known as the Herald of Andraste was eight feet of broad-shouldered Qunari, brindle-horned and dusky gray-skinned, carrying a sword bigger than Varric was tall. She couldn't help smiling as Kaaras' eyes fell on her, warmed by the recognition in the smile he offered her in return. Then the Anchor on his hand flared, and he let out an animalistic snarl of pain.

"Easy," she heard herself say, one hand out to still her companions as they tensed in response to that sound. "He's not here to kill anyone."

"And no one is to kill him," Cassandra added as she came level with them. "Where is the commander?"

"Engaging the rift, Lady Cassandra," Rylen answered, as the ranking officer present. "The spawn cycle's just beginning again."

"Very well. Begin preparations to fall back, captain," the Seeker ordered. "This will either work, or kill us all. Adaar." As the Qunari warrior met her gaze, she gestured for him to keep moving, falling into step at his side.

"Looks like that's my cue," Varric commented, tipping a wink to Rory as he stepped past. "C'mon, chuckles, you'll miss all the fun."

"I doubt this is anyone's idea of fun," a new voice answered as the fourth member of their party strode past.

In her exhausted state, all Rory really noticed about Solas was the back of his head. It's so shiny! Does he polish it with oil or something? ... seriously, brain? Fen'Harel walks by and your first observation is that he somewhat resembles a cue ball from behind? But despite knowing what Solas was, and what he had done, Rory actually felt relieved to see him. His presence at least meant that the mark on Kaaras' hand wouldn't kill him. After the last few days, she could live without any more death, thank you very much.

"All right, ladies, you heard the Seeker," Rylen was saying, hoisting himself up onto his feet with a wince as he knocked his sling. "Stretchers for those that can't walk, supplies packed away. We'll be back for our dead when the living are seen to. C'mon - h'up, h'up!"

With much good-natured grumbling, the camp stirred to life, most of them with half an ear on the sound of the fighting going on beyond the wall. Swallowing her last mouthful, Rory moved to repack her satchels, aware that at least one man soon to join them would need her before they could set off. Ah yes, that first good look at Cullen's arse in-game, when he helps the limpy man, her inner fangirl supplied with typical distraction.

"Whoa ... captain, come and see this!"

She glanced up absently from her work, amused to see so many of the tired soldiers crowding into the open stone doorway as the vibrato whine of a rift being closed buzzed over them. She didn't need to watch it herself, but she was glad so many of them were witness to that spectacle. Should put that murderer accusation to bed once they start discussing it. How dumb do you have to be to watch that and still think he's the bad guy?

"All right, back to your jobs," Rylen ordered after a while. "Rory, there's a leg here needs seeing to."

"Broken, or bleeding?" she asked, opening up her satchel again.

"Clawed," she heard a familiar voice say, glancing up to find Cullen helping - of all people - Calman down to rest beside her. "By a terror," the commander added, rubbing a weary hand over his face. "There were no greater shades in this spawn."

"That's a blessing, at least," she commented, stifling a yawn of her own in the face of his fatigue. She didn't even glance at Calman's anxious face. "Elgor, could you help me for a moment, please?"

"Continue your duties," Cullen countermanded before the man could even reply, meeting Rory's surprised glance with an almost teasing expression about his eyes. "What do you need, Healer Rory?"

She just about managed not to laugh, too tired to trust her reactions to be appropriate. "Could you remove his boot and expose the wound for me please, Commander Cullen?" she asked, rummaging in her bag. "Calman, I'm very sorry, but this is going to sting like a bitch for a few minutes."

The man looked at her in utter terror, reaching out to grip her sleeve with a shaking hand. "Am I going to die like the lad?"

She raised her head, meeting his terror with calm reassurance as his commanding officer stripped the boot from his foot. "Not today, Calman," she promised, handing him a diluted potion that would numb at least some of the pain.

No one was going to die like that boy ever again, she decided. She would make sure she always had concentrated poppy juice with her, learn to cut a throat so the victim died quickly. She couldn't condemn anyone to die like that again. But the sooner Minaeve got set up, the better. For all their sakes.

Chapter Text

There is a persistent myth that a person can somehow catch up on their lost sleep. Total bollocks in Rory's experience. There was only so long a healthy body could stay asleep before it had to be up and moving; certain necessary biological functions that absolutely had to be attended to. Water and food were just as necessary as sleep, but it was proving far easier to regulate her intake of those than it was to try and reestablish a reasonable sleep schedule.

She didn't remember much about the journey back to Haven - a vague recollection of falling over far too many times for comfort until someone decided she should be carried. She blushed to remember just who had picked her up; Cassandra, of all people, insisting that she was the freshest of the soldiers and the healer was the most precious of the cargoes that needed bearing down the mountain. Lord, but that woman was strong. And as soon as she was no longer responsible for keeping herself upright, Rory had passed out. The next thing she remembered was waking up briefly to the sound of Chantry hymns at sunset, a good ten or more hours after she'd fallen asleep, safe and secure in one bedroll among many, packed into the quieter end of the field hospital outside Haven's gates. She'd roused just long enough to have a drink, use the pot, and check in with Fabian, only to roll back into her blankets and drift back to sleep.

That second slumber lasted only another three hours or so, and she woke to the more familiar sound of the wind over the ice and the quiet voices of men and women in pain. Leaving the bedroll, she made herself known to the healers who were covering the night-shift, relieved to note that they had things pretty much under control. She was treated with startling respect - startling, because she honestly hadn't realized they all looked on her as the senior healer in these parts - uncomfortable with their deference to her suggestions, but she had also been firmly told to go back to bed. Unable to face just lying there in the darkness, not quite able to force herself to sleep again just yet, she chose instead to leave the tents, wrapping up tightly in her cloak as she breathed in the gloriously fresh air.

The world was green. The eerie light of the Fade spilled out from the stabilized Breach, staining the night sky, the moons, the snow. She'd never realized just how much that tainted light could affect the play of shadows and light over everything around her. And it wasn't a dusky shade, or a foresty shade. Here and in person, Rory realized that Fade light was Disney lime green, raising the specter of Maleficent in her mind. Unfortunately, Corypheus was no Disney villain. Poor, unfortunate souls ...

Turning her face away from the Breach, she shivered in the wind, letting her gaze skim over the snow-swept ice. Everything was still green, but it was easier to pretend she wasn't standing within spitting distance of that awful scar in the sky when it wasn't in her eye-line.

"You should be sleeping."

For once, she didn't jump on hearing an unexpected voice in the quiet. Perhaps she was just too tired. Whatever the reason, she simply turned her head toward Cullen as he came up beside her, looking just as weary as she felt, no armor tonight betraying that he, too, was supposed to be sleeping.

"So should you," she answered softly. "Have you had any sleep yet?"

"A few hours," he told her, staring out over the ice. "There's so much to do. And ..." He trailed off, but she knew what the unspoken problem was. The nightmares. Too many demons, too little sleep, too much history, all keeping him from being able to approach sleep calmly. The shadows cast by the events at Kinloch Hold still stretched their hands over him.

"And," Rory agreed with a heavy sigh of her own. She could still hear the screaming of the dying, somewhere in the back of her mind. She'd been lucky so far, but she would suffer nightmares of her own sooner or later. "How is your head?"

Cullen gave a sigh of his own. "Mercifully clear," he admitted, his tone deep with gratitude as he glanced at her. "That second potion of yours seems to be working."

"I'm glad. The last thing you need is that headache on top of everything else." She shivered in the gusting breeze, shaking out her shoulders before pulling her cloak closer about herself.

"Cold?" Without waiting for her answer, he reached over, wrapping one long arm about her shoulders to pull her close against his chest. "You should go inside. We can't have you catching a chill."

She snorted with laughter, offering no objection to being hugged into him. "Contrary to popular belief, you can't catch a chill just from being cold," she heard herself tell him in amusement. "Lack of sleep, on the other hand ..."

"So go to bed," he told her promptly, grunting as she unwound one hand from within her cloak to prod his stomach.

"You go to bed," she countered, surprised by the way he caught her hand, enveloping her smaller fingers in his bigger palm.

They were silent then, both lost in thought, neither prepared to try sleeping again just yet. Without quite realizing it, Rory's head tilted slowly, finding a resting place against Cullen's shoulder as they shared the peaceful silence together. Her gaze focused on his hand and hers, enchanted by the contrasts there. Hers, small and weak, encased in pale blue hide; his, large and strong, wrapped in supple dark leather. Two hands with two different purposes, yet driven by the same need to protect and serve. She felt his head tip, his jaw pressing lightly to her hair as the arm about her tightened just barely.

"The next time I give you an order, I expect you to obey it, Rory," he murmured to her. How long has he been holding onto those words, she wondered. That conversation was days ago.

"And I will, if it isn't a stupid order," she answered him in a soft tone.

"I don't give stupid orders," he argued, his voice as soft as hers, lacking the heat of a true argument. Perhaps he was just too tired, too.

"That one was," she told him, curling her fingers through his as she felt him tense. "No, listen. Without a healer on hand, your party would never have reached the Temple, let alone held it. More people would have died. You don't have to like it, Cullen, but I won't be kept from where I'm needed."

"You could have sent the girl," he countered quietly.

"I wouldn't have been able to live with myself if I had." Rory shook her head just a little, rubbing her cheek against the fur that adorned his shoulder. "Evy's brave, but she wouldn't have been able to cope. The forward camp was the best place for her. I'm the official healer; I couldn't ask anyone else to do that."

He was silent for a long moment before answering. "You're right, I don't like it," he sighed, his chest expanding and contracting against her. "But I understand. Just ... promise me you will stay back from the fighting."

She smiled faintly, touched that he was so concerned about her safety. "I think we've established that I can't fight for toffee," she assured him gently. "I can definitely promise to do my best to stay out of the firing line."

"That's all I can ask."

He dropped her hand, twisting to pull her closer as his arms wrapped about her fully. She went easily into that embrace, sliding her own arms about his waist in answer. In the eerie green night, it didn't seem real to be standing here in Cullen Rutherford's arms. Is this a dream? Am I in the Fade? If this is a dream, why hasn't he kissed me? I don't dream cut-price Commander, I dream full-on horny obsessive Commander! ... so why does this feel so much better?

"You did everything you could. At a certain point, a man's life falls into the Maker's hands."

She felt her breath catch in her throat. How does everyone seem to know what's hurting me? Am I that easy to read? Justinia had seen through her in moments; now Cullen was offering reassurance to doubts she had expressed to no one, not even herself. She hated that feeling of helplessness, of knowing that there really was nothing she could do. But she hadn't mentioned it to anyone.

"I should have ended it for them," she whispered sadly. "I didn't want to believe it was over, and they suffered for it. No one should die like that."

"You weren't ready to make that decision for them," Cullen murmured in a gentle tone. "And no one blames you for it."

"Calman did," she pointed out, but he wouldn't let her focus on that thought.

"Calman is an idiot," he said disapprovingly. "I heard about his behavior. And you still cared for his wound the way you care for anyone else who comes to you."

"My personal opinion doesn't matter," she told him, sharing a simple but fundamental truth of anyone in any kind of caring profession. "It doesn't matter if I hate his guts and wish he would fall off a cliff. He was injured and in pain; he needed a healer. That's my job, not to pass judgment."

"Exactly." Cullen drew back a little, looking down into her eyes. "It's your job to help those who can be helped. Every death lies at the feet of whoever did this - mage, templar, or other. Not yours."

She couldn't bear to look into his eyes, to see the warmth and sympathy there, not when she wasn't ready to let go of that sense of her own accountability. Maybe I could have stopped this from happening. Could we have stopped Corypheus here, before he killed Justinia and broke the world, if I had just said something a few days ago?

Closing her eyes, she pressed her face to his chest, thankful she met only warm wool and not bracing cold metal. "Tell that to my heart."

His arms drew more securely around her, holding her against the accusations rolling through her mind. "You tell it to mine," he murmured against her hair, feeling the same weight of guilt. "Security was my responsibility. All those people ... I failed them all."

"No." The word was muffled in his chest, making it necessary for her to raise her head once again and brave his gaze. "Cullen, no. You are not responsible for this tragedy. You said it yourself - the fault lies with whoever did this. They are responsible. Not you." And if I get the chance, I'm going to kick Coryphytits right in the nadgers for making you think you might bear the blame for any of this.

"You're so certain," he said wonderingly. "How can you possibly be so sure?"

She smiled gently, daring to reach up and let her gloved fingers curl to his cheek. Oh my gods, I'm touching Cullen-gorgeous-Rutherford! "Because you're a good man, Cullen," she told him firmly. "Too good to be able to conceive of anyone doing something so evil as this. And that isn't a bad thing."

"I wasn't always like this," he told her regretfully. "I've done terrible things."

Not so very terrible, in the circumstances. "Everyone has a past," she countered. "It's what you do in the present that counts."

"There you go with the caring again." He smiled his invisible smile, deflecting her earnest assurances with the barest hint of a blush on his chilled cheeks.

"Well, it's not a river, I can't dam the flow," she pointed out warmly. "You really do need to get some more sleep, though."

His smile faltered, the flame of fear hidden deep in his eyes. "I'm afraid to sleep," he confessed in a low whisper, the words almost lost in the breeze off the ice.

Her heart clenched as he admitted to this deep fear, tender concern choking her throat for a moment at his hesitant admission. Oh, my poor, broken lion ... "They're just dreams," she told him gently. "They can't hurt you."

"And ... the demons ..."

Damn, I forgot about the real demons in the Fade shit. She shook her head, edging just a little closer in the wrap of his arms as she held his gaze. "You are not weak," she insisted fervently. "You are no fool. No demon will ever trick you. I believe that. I believe in you."

"With the Veil torn -" he began, but she cut him off, laying her fingertips over his mumbling lips.

"I'll prove to you how safe you are in your dreams," she told him, her tone refusing to take no for an answer. "How safe it is to be around you. Just trust me." Her hand claimed his, turning to pull him away from the lake and toward the lines of sleeping tents.

He followed at her heels, realizing about halfway to their destination what it was she had in mind. "You can't spend the night in my tent, Rory," he protested, though he made no move to pull his hand from hers, or to slow her progress. "Your reputation ..."

"... can handle a little salacious gossip," Rory informed him confidently. "I am a healer. You are the commander, and you need to sleep. So I am going to help you get that sleep."

"I won't take a sleeping draught," he objected fiercely. "I need ... I need to be able to wake up."

She rolled her eyes, turning to look at him pointedly. "Do I look stupid to you?" she asked with mild amusement, knowing how much it must have cost him to say those words but refusing to coddle a fear that would kill him if he didn't overcome it. "Get in the tent, Cullen."

He hesitated, rubbing his neck as he eyed her, clearly torn between obeying and insisting on protecting her reputation. She met his gaze calmly, not at all concerned about her reputation, or lack thereof. What she cared about was proving to him that it was safe for him to sleep, even with the Breach so close; that he was in no danger of possession because of the man he was. After all, the first victim if he was possessed would be the person sleeping closest to him - her, in this case. She wasn't afraid, and she was hoping that one night with her sleeping at his side would be enough to prove to him that he didn't need to be so afraid, either.

He must have seen that in her eyes, recognizing her stubbornness for what it was. "Some people would call you crazy for tempting fate this way," he warned, but there was a warm kind of accepting defeat in his eyes as he said it that sent a prickling shiver to her toes. That's right, Cully-Wully, pick your battles. Let the crazy lady win this one. After a moment of watching her refusing to give an inch, he sighed, ducking into the tent ahead of her.

She felt a ridiculous urge to pet him like an obedient dog. Who'sa good boy? You are! Suppressing both that and her happy grin, she ducked in after him, tying the flaps securely behind her. The brazier was unlit tonight, the biting cold only slightly lessened by the wind-break of the waxed canvas.

"Chilly," she commented, perching on one of the chests to remove her boots. "Lucky me you run hotter than everyone else."

"What?" Crouched by the bedroll, Cullen looked up at her in confusion. She watched the comprehension dawn on his face as he caught on to what was going to have to happen. The blush was glorious to behold, rising with gradual grace in glowing red that crept up from the collar of his tunic to burn even the tips of his ears. "Oh ... oh, I see." He cleared his throat nervously. "Is ... are you ... is that ... acceptable, to you?"

How can he not know how adorable he is? I'm all but forcing myself into his bed, and he's worrying about me? Rory couldn't have stopped the smile rising on her face if she'd tried. "It is acceptable to me," she assured him as gently as she could. "Is it acceptable to you?"

"Uh, I ..." He seemed to be groping for something to say that wouldn't make him out to be a horny teenager or a frigid old maid. "I ... wouldn't want you to get cold."

"It's very important your healer doesn't keep you awake with her chattering teeth," she agreed, pleased to see the ghost of a smile flicker across his face in response, the way his shoulders relaxed as she made no big thing of an act that most would consider to be even more intimate than sex. Look at you, being all confident. What happened to Little Miss Talks Nonsense?

"Yes, that would not be conducive to a good night's sleep," Cullen agreed with her, tossing his boots aside. "You are sleeping furthest from the entrance, however."

Rory sighed as she wriggled her feet out of her own boots. Should have expected that, smarty-pants. "Still protecting me?" she asked lightly.

He met her gaze with a burning sincerity that turned the thoughts in her head to quivering jello, holding out a hand to invite down into the blankets. "Always."

My turn to blush. And what a blush it was. It began somewhere around her belly button, gaining momentum and heat to meet the chilly air at the top of her high-necked tunic with what should have been an audible sizzle. It felt as though she could have cooked dinner for six on her face. And don't forget that you're grinning like an idiot, too.

Bright red and embarrassingly close to giggling with sheer nervous delight, she slid her hand into his, letting him tug her down onto her knees beside him. "Don't you say a word," she warned, knowing from experience that he was enjoying the fact that he'd made her blush again.

"My lips are sealed," he promised in amusement, reaching to undo the tie of her cloak at her neck as she worked the buckle of her belt loose.

Potion bottles jangled softly against one another as she set her many-pouched belt to one side with her boots, letting Cullen lift the wool cloak from her shoulders while she unbuttoned and removed her gloves. Without words, this all felt very intimate, as though there were more here than a stubborn woman proving a point to an equally stubborn man. And for all her noble sentiment, Rory could feel her nerves fluttering as she crawled by him to lie on her side, her nose mere inches from the canvas wall. A moment later, she tensed as the long, lean length of Cullen Rutherford curled himself into the contours of her back, drawing his thick blanket over them both. His arm came to rest about her, the weight of it laying directly over her almost healed ribs, but she didn't mind that pain. It was a reminder that this was real, it was happening. No one had aching ribs in a dream.

He felt warm and solid against her back, a protective shield against the world outside. Hot breath wet her neck with humid heat, sending scorching shivers down her spine to earth somewhere inside with crackling intensity that made her press her thighs together tightly. She drew in a slow breath, forcing herself to relax into the broad chest that lay against her back, the strong thighs that cradled her backside and legs. You're just going to sleep. He's this close to keep you warm, not to ... wait a second ... She wriggled experimentally, and felt her cheeks burn once again. Oh, my giddy aunt ...

"Uh ... Cullen?"

"Mmm?"

"Are you ... comfortable?"

She could almost hear him carefully considering the question, examining himself from top to bottom as he shifted at her back, making her ever more aware of what she had noticed. Feet, arms, legs, head, chest ... Oh. Cullen cleared his throat in embarrassment, lifting his arm from about her to remove the hard object pressing into her backside, laying the dagger down beside her head. Well, that's disappointing.

"My apologies," he murmured, wrapping his arm about her once more. "Force of habit."

Rory bit down on a slightly hysterical giggle before it could escape. "Understandable," she managed to assure him in a whisper, shifting to lay her hand over his at her stomach. "Try to sleep, Cullen. I'll keep you safe."

He pressed his face against the back of her neck, his arm tightening around her as he huddled closer in the cold night. "Where were you ten years ago?" was mumbled against her skin, a question he no doubt hoped was too indistinct for her to understand and answer.

On the streets with ten pounds to my name and nothing else, she thought, but she couldn't, wouldn't, tell him that. That belonged in a past that had no place in this world. Tonight was about him; helping him to relax into sleep, to understand that he was more than capable of defending his own mind, even when he was lost in dreams. With that in mind, she stroked her fingers gently against his arm, his hand, humming a soft lullaby she remembered from her childhood, before everything had gone horribly wrong. Though to her it was sad, a reminder of a life that had been far from perfect, to Cullen it seemed to be soothing, lulling him into accepting his weariness, into letting sleep claim him. She hoped that sleep would be dreamless. And if it wasn't, she'd be here to pick up the pieces and try again. Here, she would stay, at least until morning, gossip and rumor be damned.

Wrapped up in the arms of a man she was fairly sure held her heart in his palm and didn't even know it, it wasn't such a bad way to spend the night. She just hoped he wouldn't regret this in the morning. Everything looked different, in the cold light of day.

Chapter Text

The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.
- Meister Eckhart

 


 

The ringing of the Chantry bell roused Rory from a peaceful sleep.

For the first time since arriving in Thedas, she felt properly warm, not lurching to wakefulness in an utterly uncalled-for fit of shivers that normally sent her flailing from her blankets in search of as many layers of clothing as she could find. And the reason for this became clear as soon as she tried to move.

She was trapped - not unpleasantly so - in the strangest position she had ever woken up in; arched only a little uncomfortably on her back, thanks to the arms encircling her waist, and pinned in place by the golden head resting on her breast. Cullen had somehow curled up tighter as they slept, tucking his thighs beneath both her own and snuggling his cheek into the pillow of her bosom, which was probably more comfortable than the horsehair pillow her head rested upon. If they'd been upright, she would have been sitting in his lap. As it was, her feet were flat on the crumpled blanket they'd thrown off in the night, her knees were hooked over his thigh, and his hand was possessively palming her hip as he sighed in his sleep. And ... oooh. Now that's definitely not a dagger.

As the sound of others stirring awake began to filter in through the thin canvas wall separating outside from in, Rory attempted to inch away from the insistent bulge prodding at her backside. Cullen groaned softly in his sleep, tightening his arms around her in defiance of her escape, pulling her more firmly against that very real evidence that he was most certainly a man. Which would have been fine, she told her blushing self, absolutely fine, if that added pressure hadn't also included the strong wrap of his hand squarely over the last tender part of her almost-healed ribs. She didn't make much of a noise, but the combination of her abrupt tension and the staggered intake of her breath was sharp enough to wake him with a jolt.

His head snapped up, knocking his forehead painfully against her chin. "Oh! ... oh, Rory, I ... are you all right?"

To her everlasting shame, she whimpered, raising a hand to her mouth. "I thing I bith ma thongue."

"Let me see." Apparently unaware of his morning glory, he straightened himself out against her side, raising himself onto one elbow as he dragged his arm out from underneath her. Gentle fingers urged her mouth open to let him look inside. "No blood, I ... why aren't you breathing?"

Tilting her head away, Rory covered her mouth lightly with one hand. "Morning breath," she mumbled through her fingers, rolling her eyes as he laughed sleepily. "Did you sleep well?"

He ran a hand through his hair, loosening the tousled curls. "Actually ... I did," he admitted a little incredulously. "It must have been the company."

Her smile was bright in response. "Well, don't tell everyone, or they'll all want a healer to hug at night."

"That would leave you seriously understaffed," he agreed lazily. "I should get up."

"So should I," she mused in a soft voice.

Yet neither one of them moved, staying comfortably warm together as, outside the tent, the camp roused to the tune of sergeants bellowing their soldiers out of bedrolls and into the cold light of dawn. Rory gazed into Cullen's eyes, captivated by the sleepy wonder of this strong, slightly broken man who didn't seem to be able to pull himself away from her. Is this what it would be like to wake up beside him every day? This lazy warm feeling that makes it almost criminal to give in to the need to get out of bed? Why isn't he saying anything?

"I, um ..." She swallowed, clearing her throat. "I-I should probably ..."

He nodded above her, still unmoving from where he lay at her side. "So should I."

You hang up. No, you hang up. Even as this random thought passed through her mind, Cullen moved. With purpose. She gasped as his knee nudged between her own, as he loomed higher over her, leaning down until his breath brushed her lips, his eyes promising that this was his intention. Her own head tilted up, morning breath forgotten, offering her lips to his without a second thought ... and a very familiar voice pointedly cleared its throat outside the tent.

"It's safe to bring her out now, commander," Rylen informed them. "The lads're out on their run."

Rory's head fell back against the hard pillow with an audible thud, silently cursing her friend's terrible timing. Cullen groaned in the back of his throat, raising his head to reply.

"Thank you, captain."

"Aye, ser," the Starkhaven captain replied. "You also wanted to be reminded that the small council is meeting with the Herald today. Looks like the chancellor's invited himself along."

"Of course he has." Cullen sighed, dropping his brow to Rory's shoulder for a brief moment. "All right, captain, I'll be with them in a few minutes."

He rolled out of her grasp, moving to pull on boots and begin assembling his armor for the day. Rory raised herself onto an elbow, wiping the sleep from her eyes. And just like that, the bubble bursts. Shame, I was enjoying that bubble. She pushed herself to sit up, reaching for her own boots.

"I should get going, anyway," she told him with a wry smile. "We've both got a lot to do today."

Golden-brown eyes were grateful as he met her gaze. "Another time, perhaps?" he asked, the query real and almost timid as he made it.

"Perhaps." Her smile broadened as she stood, collecting her belt, cloak, and gloves from where they had rested all night. Perhaps?! Are you completely insane? Yes, say yes, and sneak in here naked tonight! Ignoring the ranting fangirl inside her mind, she looped her belt back into place. "You know where I am if you need me."

"I'll see you later, Rory," he promised, reaching out to catch her hand before she escaped. "And Rory? ... Thank you."

She bit her smiling lip, glad for once that she had a tendency to wake up rosy. "Anytime."

A last regretful squeeze of her hand, and Cullen released her, letting her step out into the almost deserted bank of tents as he turned his attention to buckling his armor into place. Wiping flyaway hairs from her eyes, she ducked out into the dawn, immediately confronted with Rylen's teasing grin.

"Good night, was it?"

Rory rolled her eyes, restraining the urge to give her friend a thick ear. "You know, there are times when I could cheerfully strangle you, Ry."

"Och, so I interrupted something," he guessed, chuckling as he fell into step with her. "Good for you, girl. You need a good roll."

"I'm not listening," she told him with a laugh, grateful for how normal he was being with her. He could have taken their friendship to a very strange place now he knew for certain she'd spent the night with his commanding officer and friend. "Why are you following me?"

"Have to get this arm looked at," he reminded her. "Healer's orders."

"And you actually listened?" she teased fondly, glancing at his splinted arm briefly. "I'm astonished."

"Well, my healer's got this very pretty wee assistant," Rylen confided in her as they walked. "If she loved me, she'd make sure wee Evy was in charge of my recovery."

"Isn't that fascinating?" Rory answere, pausing just inside the field hospital tent to remove her gloves and switch her cloak for a clean apron. She flashed her friend a warm grin. "I'd say you're very lucky I love you, then."

And watching Evy check the dressing on Rylen's broken arm brought a truly genuine smile to Rory's face as she checked on her own patients. The girl was not immune to the captain's charm, it seemed, her blushing smiles the perfect counterpoint to his warm flirtation. It was good to see; heartening, to know that they had formed a connection in the chaos of the past days and both seemed eager to explore it. And that means she won't be interested in Cullen! Win-win for the nug-woman!

But even with the Breach stabilized and the nearby rifts sealed, there was no time to ruminate on potential love affairs or missed opportunities. There were bones to reset, dressings to change, potions to give out; people to introduce herself to, patients to reassure, beds and blankets to change, bandages to wash. There was stock to be inventoried, lists to make, alchemists and quarter-masters to charm. And in the middle of all this, a request came from on high for a report on the injured - how many, who, and how long before they would be back in action. An exceeding nuisance of a request ... but since filling it meant a trip into the village and a chance to see the leaders of the Inquisition at work in the new war room, Rory volunteered.

It took most of the afternoon to complete - there had been no time to keep notes since the explosion - but at least it was still daylight by the time she made her way to the Chantry. What she found going on there was deeply unsettling, to say the least. The door to the war room stood open - the moment Rory stepped into the building, she could hear everything being said. And Chancellor Roderick was in full flow.

"... this beast, who knows nothing of the Maker, the Herald of Andraste? It is nothing more than a horned thug, a murderer! It can't even raise a voice to object!"

You sanctimonious arsehole. As she moved closer, Rory could see Cullen through the door, standing on the far side of the map table, his jaw set tight as he glared at the chancellor. Gold to his left and purple to his right betrayed the presence of Josephine and Leliana; as she came level with the door, Rory could see Cassandra standing a little further inside the room, and Kaaras Adaar himself standing beside the door, his head bowed.

The Qunari looked defeated, hurt by the words being spewed about him. Any minute now, Kaaras, someone will put him in his place, Rory promised him in her mind. But no one did. Cullen's expression grew tighter, but he didn't say a word. Leliana was impassive; Josephine, mute. Even Cassandra, mouth open to object, never quite managed to say anything. The chancellor's poisonous, xenophobic rant continued, unchecked by those who should have spoken up.

"Look at it," he said, gesturing to Kaaras with one wild flail of his arm. "These creatures attacked Kirkwall without provocation - they insinuate their Qun into the hearts of the faithful and corrupt them! That mark proves nothing - the beast should be tried and punished for it's crimes!"

Seething, Rory found herself staring into the room, silently begging any one of the four witnesses to this awful tirade to say something, to be the good people she knew they were. But she also knew they likely wouldn't. It was likely that each of them harbored some fear of Kaaras, simply for being what he was; that none of them had quite realized that he was just a person, like them. They saw the horns, they remembered the fierce way he swung his sword, they looked at the mark on his hand, and they thought his skin must be as tough as old boots. After all, he must have had a lifetime of this kind of behavior. It wasn't an excuse, but it made sense. Disappointing sense.

"These Qunari are little more than beasts of burden, no more thought in their heads than a cow in the field, products of bandits and whores -"

Kaaras suddenly snarled, his limit reached with an insult to his parents, slamming a clenched fist against the stone wall at his side.

"You don't need me here for this," he said, each word a growl that covered the hurt Rory had seen in his eyes. He straightened, leaving a bloody mark on the wall, and strode from the room, barely noticing the healer who watched in seething silence.

"You see?" Roderick declared triumphantly. "Your vaunted Herald is nothing but a mindless, violent -"

"That's enough, chancellor." Rory couldn't keep her mouth shut any longer, marching into the war room to glare at the cleric. If no one else in here was going to shut him up, then she would. "What a fine example of the Chantry you are. What a beautiful display of bigoted cruelty. You must be so proud of yourself."

Roderick spluttered, but he had clearly not expected anyone but those present to hear his relentless attack. To be called on his bad behavior to his face by a mere peasant must have pricked his pride. But the hint of shame in his eyes told her he knew he'd gone too far, keeping him quiet as she turned her glare onto the others.

"And you ..." Her eyes swept the council of the Inquisition. "Was no one going to defend Kaaras? All quite happy to stand by and listen to him being attacked and humiliated, just for being different? The only real problem the chancellor has is that Kaaras is not human. And by not defending him against such awful words, you are going to make yourselves his enemies."

"The chancellor represents the Chantry, Lady Healer," Josephine offered, though she didn't sound convinced. "Diplomacy suggests -"

"How many diplomats will stand by and watch as the figurehead of their organization is insulted to their face, Lady Montilyet?" Rory interrupted pointedly.

"None, Lady Healer. Wars have started over less." Josephine lowered her eyes, ashamed of her inaction and grateful when Rory's sharp glare turned to include the others.

"You all asked Kaaras to join the Inquisition," she reminded them, not leaving anyone out of her reminder. "You offered him protection, and when he needs it, you do nothing. You're throwing him to the wolves by placing him at the forefront of the Inquisition with no intention of protecting him at all."

"Rory -" Cullen began, but swallowed whatever he was going to say when her attention snapped to him.

"Just because he's a warrior, doesn't mean he doesn't have a heart," she told them all harshly. "Just because he's lived his life with discrimination and cruel words does not mean he is used to them, or that he deserves them. Kaaras is a person - just like you, chancellor, just like everyone. Horns and gray skin do not make him an animal; being different does not strip him of the ability to understand every insult and take them to heart. Words do more damage than any amount of swords, and he'll have to face a lot of words in the days and weeks to come. I had thought that everyone in this room was capable of understanding that he needs you to have his back, so that he can fix the sky for you without feeling unwanted or used, without resenting you for seeing him as nothing more than a painted stereotype."

She paused, letting her disappointed gaze touch each and every one of them - Roderick, who flushed angrily and looked away; Josephine, who couldn't meet her eyes; Cullen, who looked more saddened than anything; Leliana, who couldn't quite hide a flicker of something in her impassive eyes; and Cassandra, who looked thoroughly ashamed of herself.

"You should be setting an example to the men and women who will choose to follow, and you're failing. You should all be ashamed of yourselves."

Shaking her head, Rory dropped her report on the map table, turning to march out of the war room as smoothly as she could. Oh, my gods, I just scolded the four most powerful people in the Inquisition! How am I not sporting a dagger in the back right now? She thought of the bloody mark Kaaras had left behind him, the only sign of his hurt and anger he had left in that room. She could do something about that, at least.

Behind her was shocked, shamed silence as she approached the main door. Then she heard Cassandra speak.

"The healer is right," the Seeker said in a solemn tone. "He cannot change who he is. We can change how we -"

The main door swung shut at Rory's back, preventing her from staying to eavesdrop on the outcome of her little parental discipline routine. She stood in the middle of the path, breathing hard, trying to calm herself in the wake of what she had done. Well, you've burned those bridges now, Ror. Here's hoping you're not tossed out on your arse for it.

So much for morning kisses with a sleepy Commander.

Chapter Text

The knock sounded very small in the bustle of Haven, so small that Rory wasn't entirely sure it could be heard inside the cabin. But evidently it was, because it got an answer.

"Who is it?"

"It's Rory," she called, hugging herself against the chill. "The healer. May I come in?"

"The door's not locked."

Her hand rose automatically to push, but she stilled herself, recalling a few times in her own past when an unlocked door did not mean she wanted company. She'd just scolded a room full of important people for failing to respect Kaaras' needs. Now was not the time to be a hypocrite.

"That's no reason to just barge in and disrupt your privacy," she told the door in front of her, aware that she was garnering more than a few curious glances. "I can just go away, if you'd rather be alone."

"No, it's ... it's fine," he called from inside. "You can come in."

With a clear invitation, she pushed open the door, stepping inside to close it behind her. The cabin was exactly as she remembered it from the game, with the added aroma of the pelts on the walls and the smoky fire in the hearth. Kaaras was sitting on the bed, flexing his bloodied knuckles between his knees. She was struck again by just how big he was, his sheer size making a moderate space feel smaller purely because he was in it. Another thing they're all just going to have to get used to.

"I, um, I wanted to see how you are," she said quietly, moving slowly toward him. "And to apologize for what was and wasn't said in there. Roderick's an arsehole."

"And the others?" the big Qunari asked in a heavy tone, not raising his eyes from his fingers.

"Have no excuse," Rory admitted reluctantly. Although they might have excuses, they just aren't being forthcoming with them. I'm not a mind-reader. She sighed, moving to pour water from the jug into the basin. "They're good people, Kaaras. But even good people make mistakes, out of ignorance or fear. I have faith that they'll correct that mistake." Lifting the basin, she turned to kneel at his feet, gently taking his bloodied hand in hers to carefully clean the split skin over his knuckles.

Kaaras didn't object, watching her as she tended to his self-inflicted hurt with kind hands. "I shouldn't have lost my temper," he said, regret filling his voice.

"I thought you were quite restrained, actually," she answered, drying his hand with a soft cloth. "I wasn't."

A flicker of a smile touched his boyish features as he looked down at her. "I heard some of that," he admitted. "You didn't have to."

"Oh, I think I did," Rory told him airily, though she couldn't deny the anxious pang that gripped her stomach at the thought of the line she had crossed in the Chantry. "It was unforgivable, what he was saying. How he was referring to you. They should have spoken up. Next time, they will."

"You seem very sure of that," Kaaras murmured, unconvinced, curling his large fingers at her direction so she could paint his abused knuckles with a greasy compound of yarrow and elfroot.

"Sometimes people need a push to make the right decision," she shrugged lightly. "Like I said, they're good people."

He seemed to accept that, falling silent as she pulled a roll of linen from her belt pouches, wrapping it securely around his hand. "It wasn't anything I haven't heard before," he offered eventually. "Oxman, savage, beast ... humans and elves and dwarves have called me that all my life."

"That doesn't mean it stops hurting," she pointed out, tying off the bandage carefully. It took me years to get used to being called ginger, and even then, it still hurt when people used it as an insult. But this wasn't about her. "The fact that it hurts doesn't mean you're weak. Anyone who says that words don't hurt is a liar."

"I wasn't expecting it from a Chantry cleric," Kaaras told her, as though he needed to justify his reaction somehow.

"Of course you weren't," she agreed, sitting back on her heels to look up at him. "The Chantry is supposed to be the voice of Andraste and the Maker. Unfortunately, you find small-minded people everywhere."

An almost shy grin lifted his expression. "And you're big-minded?"

Rory laughed quietly. "In some things, maybe," she conceded in amusement. "People are people, no matter what they look like or where they come from. And people come in two flavors - good, and idiot."

It was Kaaras' turn to laugh at her frank assessment of the world at large. "Just two, huh?"

She smiled, shrugging. "In my opinion, most evil acts, most cruelty, can be boiled down to idiocy," she confirmed, glad to see his mood lightening. "And everyone's capable of being an idiot from time to time. It's up to us to educate them."

"And how do we do that, Healer Rory?"

"We teach them," she said simply. "We show them how wrong they are, by not letting them silence us or chase us away. We help people see beyond their prejudices by being good people ourselves."

"Put like that, it sounds easy," he conceded with a rueful quirk to his expression.

"It does, doesn't it?" Rory sighed, aware that it was anything but. "The more you do it, the more people will stand and do it with you." She patted his knee, using it as leverage to push herself up onto her feet. "When the dinner bell rings, come and sit with me. I can chat enough to fill a room."

"You think I'd be welcome?" he asked uncertainly.

"I just invited you, so yes," she countered warmly, tipping the contents of the basin out through the window. The people she sat with - Varric, Rylen, Evy - wouldn't make him feel out of place. "It's better than hiding and letting all the wild stories run rampant. You have to start somewhere, Kaaras."

"You are the strangest human I have ever met," he told her, with the air of someone making a new discovery.

"That's not necessarily a bad thing," she chuckled, pleased that he wasn't holding onto that debacle in the Chantry. What he needed now were friends, and the only way to make that happen was to expose him to people and hope for the best. "I'll see you later. And if I don't, I'll drag you out of here by one ear."

Kaaras laughed easily at her threat. "Don't worry, I believe you!"

"Good. Dinner, don't forget."

With his assurances ringing in her ears, Rory let herself out of his cabin, closing his door in her wake. She turned to leave ... and almost swallowed her tongue in shock. Cassandra was right in front of her, definitely inside her personal space, and looked like a woman on a mission. The Seeker took a step back, apparently surprised to be almost run down directly outside the Herald's door.

"Healer ..."

"I'm sorry," Rory apologized hastily. "I didn't see you there."

"The fault is mine," Cassandra told her, glancing over Rory's shoulder to the closed cabin door. "I was going to ..." She seemed to reconsider her words in mid-sentence. "The Herald, is he ... well?"

"As well as can be expected," Rory answered. It wasn't her habit to shared details after a conversation like that one. "He'll improve, if we make the effort."

"Healer Rory, what you said in the Chantry," the Seeker began, and Rory felt the panic rise, sending her pulse-rate soaring.

Oh gods, this is it, she thought miserably. What happens when you get fired from the Inquisition? I doubt they give you two weeks' notice and a severance package. Where the hell am I going to go?

"... you were right," Cassandra went on, the words not coming easily from such a proud, certain woman. "There is no excuse for my inaction. He is the Maker's chosen, regardless of his race. But I ..." She hesitated, glancing again to the cabin door. "I am uncertain how to make it right. Do you know?"

Rory found herself staring at the Seeker, her thoughts short-circuited by the unexpected admission of responsibility. So ... I'm not fired? I scolded the entire council, and I still have a job? She shook herself, aware that an answer was required.

"He ... he needs a friend, more than anything," she heard herself say. "He's all alone here, Seeker. Everyone he knew died at the Conclave. Seeing him as a person, rather than a religious icon, would be a good place to start."

Cassandra nodded slowly, accepting this advice in the spirit it was given. "That is something I can do," she conceded thoughtfully. "Thank you, Healer."

Relieved she hadn't offended a woman who could probably snap her neck with one punch, Rory let a lopsided smile quirk her lips. "You may as well call me Rory, my lady," she replied quietly. "We're swimming in healers now."

"You may be correct ... Rory." Cassandra inclined her head as she used the proffered name. "And you have more than earned my name in return. Were we to lose you, it would be a sad day, especially for the commander. You have aided him immeasurably since we came to Haven."

And you're the only person he's told about his lyrium withdrawal. To get praise from you, I must be doing something right. "The commander is ... a special man, Lady Cassandra," Rory told her a little warily, feeling her cheeks pink as her thoughts turned to Cullen. "I-I don't want him to suffer if I can help it."

"Then I would like you to take charge of distributing the philters to the templars," Cassandra added firmly. "Such daily proximity is likely making his symptoms worse."

It was a real effort for Rory to make herself show confusion. She wasn't supposed to know Cullen was in withdrawal, and Cassandra really shouldn't be assuming that Rory was in possession of all the facts. It's a good idea, though; why hasn't she taken this job away from him before now? Her acting must have been improving - the Seeker realized she'd said too much.

"He hasn't told you," she said, consternation furrowing her brow. "You are so close together, I thought ... I should not have said anything. The task will be given to someone else."

"We're not that close, Cassandra," Rory blurted out, forgetting the woman's title in her embarrassment at the assumption being made.

The Seeker leaned toward her, a conspiratorial glimmer in her eyes. "I saw you on the lake last night," she intimated softly. "The moonlight, the snow, the way you embraced each other ... it was very romantic." As Rory opened her mouth, Cassandra shushed her with a faintly envious grin. "I will not say a word until you allow me to."

"There's nothing to say," Rory tried to insist, torn between embarrassment and amusement as the Seeker winked inexpertly at her.

"Of course there is not," Cassandra agreed sagely. "Now, if you will excuse me ..."

Left to stand stupidly on the doorstep as the Seeker let herself into Kaaras' cabin, Rory couldn't quite believe what she had just heard. First Rylen, and now Cassandra. Does everyone here think I'm in some kind of secret love affair with the commander? Am I in a love affair with Cullen? We haven't even kissed! Several late nights, one massage, one long hug, and one night in the same tent does not mean we're an item. Or does it? Is that why he was so worried about my reputation - does one chaste night somehow equate to an engagement here?

But if that was true, surely Cullen would have said something to that effect. Her feet scuffed against the snow-swept stone as she mounted the steps to return to the clinic. He'd held onto her so tightly in his sleep, but was that because she was handy, or because she was her? It was so confusing. And how the hell do I find out without getting him drunk?

"Healer Rory!"

Startled from her thoughts, she raised her head, surprised to discover that it was Leliana calling to her from the tent where she coordinated her spy network. The bard met her gaze with those scarily unreadable eyes.

"A word, if I may," Leliana suggested, in a manner that wouldn't take no for an answer. "In the Chantry."

Unable to refuse, Rory nodded mutely, adjusting her direction to return to the Chantry. As she walked, an icy ball of utter dread formed in the pit of her stomach. What did Leliana know? And what was the spymaster going to do about it? In the game, there was an opportunity to prevent Leliana from having someone killed, but would anyone notice in time if Rory ended up on that kill list? She met the redhead by the doors, dimly noting that their hair was almost the same shade as she allowed herself to be lead through the nave and into the now empty map-room. She stared down at the sparsely-placed markers, flinching as the door closed ominously behind her. The silence dragged on, excruciating minutes ticking by as the ice in her stomach tossed and roiled with dreadful anticipation.

"Am I so very frightening that you do not dare to look at me?" Leliana asked finally, coming to stand close beside her.

Too close. "You're the Left Hand of the Divine," Rory answered quietly, forcing herself to meet the bard's gaze. "The dagger in the dark. Anyone who has a past should be afraid of you."

"Afraid that I will use that past against them?" The stern expression softened, and Rory found herself looking at the Leliana of ten years ago, the Leliana of Origins. She's still in there somewhere. "Why would I do such a thing to someone who has already proven themselves loyal? I am simply seeking the answer to a question."

"You can't get answers without asking for them," Rory pointed out, her eyes watchful for any sign of trickery. Is she lulling me into a false sense of security with the loyalty comment?

"Very true," Leliana agreed. "But first, I should like to tell you a story."

"Stories are for telling." Why is she dragging this out? Just drop the bomb, already.

The brief smile that touched Leliana's face was like a flash of sunlight from between the clouds - there and gone in an instant. "Indeed," she acknowledged, twisting to lean back against the table comfortably. "The story concerns two girls, neither one more than sixteen years old, who appeared as if from nowhere in the days after the end of the Fifth Blight. They dedicated themselves to helping the wounded and dying in Denerim, uncaring which race a person belonged to. When asked, they said they were sisters, from Gwaren. Yet no one in that city could place them, when asked."

Rory let her eyes falls back to the map once more, studying the familiar names and landmarks as Leliana spoke. She wondered if the bard had noticed her tension, the way her shoulders had stiffened at the mention of two girls who had appeared from nowhere. But that appearance happened in Denerim, not an avalanche in the Frostbacks. So why does this sound so familiar to me?

"These girls - or women, I should say," Leliana went on, "spent a decade traveling Ferelden, offering their services to whoever needed them. They became known as traveling healers, gaining in skill as the years passed. In the South Reach, the younger was courted by the lord of the land, yet she chose to move on when her sister did, preferring the bond of blood over the temptations of riches. They never asked for payment, yet those they aided cared for them in turn. In Amaranthine, half a year ago, they met the Right Hand of the Divine, and pledged themselves to the then-unformed Inquisition without a second thought."

Oh ... oh my gods, Rory thought, finally catching on to what was being said. I wrote this. A character sketch based on me and Ria, something I never did anything with. That shameless self-insert idea that came so easily but refused to be written. And that's my Thedosian life story? I actually do have a past here? It was such a relief to realize that, it took a moment to notice that she was smiling as the bard continued.

"Regrettably, the younger sister was killed by an avalanche as they made their way to Haven," Leliana said softly. "Yet the elder remained, and has given more than we ever asked. But my question is this ..."

She paused, and Rory tensed, aching with suppressing the urge to turn and run, terrified of what might be coming.

"... who were you, before you were Rory and Ria?"

How the hell am I supposed to answer that? I never wrote a full backstory. An oversight, that, since it's now my backstory. But where was the harm in offering just a little of the truth in answer to Leliana's probing? It wasn't as though the spymaster could check the facts, and it might be a good idea to have a little of the real truth of her background mixed in with the fiction she'd created years ago.

"No one who was missed when they disappeared," Rory offered soberly. "And long forgotten by now, I imagine. I'm glad you can't find them. They were angry, bitter little girls for a very long time."

"No ties?" Leliana asked in a gentle tone. "No family that will mourn your loss with you?"

"None." And it still hurt to say that out loud. Rory turned her head to meet the bard's sympathetic eyes. "Does it matter?" she asked, the words almost a challenge.

Leliana's smile was sad as she shook her head. "No," she answered, sharp eyes witness to the shudder of exoneration that rippled down the healer's spine. "But I appreciate the trust you give me in sharing what I asked for."

"I may fear what you might do, but I trust that you would do it for the right reasons," Rory told her sincerely. And I trust that Kaaras is going to do everything he possibly can to bring you back to yourself. She drew in a shaky breath. "May I return to my duties?"

The spymaster studied her for a moment, then nodded. Released - and relieved that no one was going to know she wasn't Thedosian unless she told them - Rory slipped from the map-room hurriedly, lengthening her stride until she was out in the fresh, brisk air, even welcoming the sickly glow from the Breach on her skin. That could have gone so badly wrong. Instead, she had a backstory she could remember the bare bones of that covered the last ten years, and Leliana's trust.

Perhaps the Maker was real, after all.

Chapter Text

"You do not dream."

It took a moment for Rory to realize she was the one this statement was aimed at. She glanced up from her notes, surprised to see Solas standing in the doorway of her little clinic. He wasn't the most at home inside the rustic buildings of Haven, but did make his place in this little corner of the village, where the clean, pungent smells of the clinic and Adan's alchemy workshop overpowered the smoke and odor of concentrated human habitation.

He wasn't talkative with anyone but Kaaras, either, which was why it took a moment for Rory to kick her mind into a response. Well, that, and the fact that he was the Dread Wolf incarnate.

"Excuse me?"

The elven apostate seemed to find her absent reply amusing. "Forgive me," he apologized, the softness of his rueful smile difficult not to smile at in return. "I had thought that, without patients to see, I would not be interrupting your work. I see I was wrong."

Rory let out a quiet laugh, shaking her head as she blotted her writing. "There is always something that needs to be done," she admitted wearily. "What can I do for you, Solas?"

"You are a mystery, Healer Rory," he said, taking her invitation to come inside, though he didn't sit. "In past days, I have walked the Fade, touching the dreams of those who have pledged themselves to this cause. Yet nowhere have I found you. I must admit to being profoundly puzzled."

"Are you saying I'm somehow not connected to the Fade?" she asked curiously. It had never occurred to her. She'd just assumed that she was a dreamer like everyone else who wasn't a mage. "I do dream, Solas. Sometimes I remember my dreams, sometimes I don't. But it does happen."

"Perhaps it is simply that I cannot seem your dreams because you dream of things beyond my comprehension," the elven mage suggested thoughtfully. His guess was probably dangerously close to the truth, but he was fishing for answers she couldn't give him. Thankfully, she realized that, frowning at his suggestion.

"I don't keep regular hours," she pointed out. "You probably just haven't found my dreams yet. It's a little disturbing that you're looking at all, you know. A person's dreams are very personal."

"The Fade is a vast realm, and dreamers only visitors," Solas told her. "Do you consider seeing a person you know going about their business in waking to be a violation of their privacy? It is the same in the Fade with dreamers."

She bit her lip, uncertain quite what to make of that. "I suppose you're right," she conceded, not really wanting to have this conversation at all. "I'm just not comfortable with the idea that you're purposely looking for me when I'm at my most vulnerable."

"Indeed," he accepted graciously. "Seen in that light, it is, perhaps, disturbing. I mean no harm in my wanderings."

"I never said you did," Rory assured him, glancing to the window. She couldn't help hoping someone might call for her, to get her out of this little chat. There was something very unsettling about knowing that Fen'Harel was hunting for her in the Fade.

"In answer to your question, Healer ... no, I do not believe you lack a connection with the Fade," he said then, still watching her with a steadiness that was unnerving. "You clearly feel deeply all the breadth of emotion humans are capable of. There is no sense of the curse of Tranquility about you."

Probably because I've never been connected to the Fade. It made sense, in a way. Despite her thankfully established backstory in this world, she wasn't from here. She hadn't been born into a world that had a Veil and a Fade; it just wasn't a part of her genetic make-up. She did dream ... well, she had nightmares. She just didn't visit the Fade to do it. It was a relief, in some ways; though she'd never experience the Fade for herself - unless something went badly wrong at Adamant, provided she survived that long - she would never have to worry about falling prey to a demon seeking to possess her. To be honest, she could live without the Fade. There was too much in the waking world to concern her - she didn't really want to live with the worry that demons might infest her in her sleep, too.

"I'm an enigma wrapped in a mystery," she shrugged, trying to dismiss the concern the elf had expressed with trite humor.

"Perhaps," Solas mused softly. "Or perhaps, as you say, I have simply not found you yet. The answer is often the simplest."

"I like simple," Rory answered easily. "Can I help you with something, Solas?"

The hidden god smile his deceptively gentle smile. "I believe you already have," he told her in a calm tone. "I will leave you to your work."

He stepped back out into the windy village. Rory heard him apologize to someone, and a moment later, Evelyn pushed in through the door, shaking the snow from her dark hair. There was a dark mark on her throat, visible only for a moment before she readjusted her scarf, but the sight of it made Rory grin.

"How's Rylen?" she asked innocently, doing her best not to chuckle as Evy turned a charming shade of pink.

"I didn't go to the training ground," the girl said a little defensively, hanging up her cloak. "You wanted me to see how Fabian is coping at the pilgrims' camp."

"So I did," Rory agreed with a warm smile.

In the days since the Breach was stabilized, they had managed to discharge all the wounded from the field hospital and dismantle it. Fabian had shown an aptitude for illness, rather than injury, and had asked permission to join the healers in the camps. With Evy eager to stay and learn more of healing, Rory had seen no reason to deny him his wish, a little envious of the freedom he had to choose. She was apparently vital to the upper echelon of the Inquisition, and had been ordered to remain at the clinic in Haven. But she was keeping as close an eye as she could on conditions in the ever growing camps.

"And?"

"He's running low on mint, comfrey, and feverfew," Evy reported, moving to check their own stocks. "There's been an outbreak of something he called spider lung."

Or bronchitis, if you're form Earth. Rory frowned thoughtfully, the mention of spiders sparking a memory. "I should have spoken to the scouts before they headed to Redcliffe," she sighed, scratching her ribs through her shirt with an absent hand. "There's a boy called Hyndel living at the crossroads outside the village who brews a potion that's perfect to counter breathing difficulties."

"You could send a message," Evy suggested helpfully. "After all, you know his name and where to find him. Maybe he'd sell us the recipe, especially if he remembers you."

"That's ... a very good idea." Rory nodded to her assistant, smiling at the genuine pleasure on the young woman's face. Here's hoping that I can get away with passing off future in-game knowledge as something picked up in my travels. "I'll talk to Leliana, see if I can get a request included with the next raven."

"What if she says no?" Evy asked, washing her hands thoroughly as she looked over at Rory.

"Then the Herald can take the message for me," Rory answered with teasing confidence.

She was fairly sure Kaaras would, too. The last few days had seen his confidence with the various members of the Inquisition rise. The men and women were following the example set by their leaders, and Rory couldn't help being proud of the small council for proving her right in her assessment of them. She didn't need to be disappointed anymore.

For a start, Chancellor Roderick was barred from the war room and from even approaching Kaaras' cabin. Leliana, despite her lingering anger and grief at the loss of Justinia, had made a point of seeking Kaaras' opinion on some of her operations, in full view of the village; Josephine had been overheard asking him about his life and culture, and made sure to sing his praises in every dispatch she sent out. Cullen had been a little less obvious, waiting until Kaaras approached him to lead by example, and for the last two days had graciously accepted defeat in sparring matches that had been witnessed by a good fifty or more soldiers and workers. Cassandra, knowing they would have to trust each other sooner rather than later, had invited Kaaras hunting with her, and had gone out of her way to give him the credit for the druffalo steaks that were very much appreciated by the entire inner camp the next day.

"You didn't answer my question, by the way," Rory commented as she wrote out her request on a small scrap of parchment. She flicked a knowing smile over at Evy. "How is Rylen?"

The noblewoman fidgeted a little in her seat, her hands stilling in the task of taking inventory. "What ... what makes you think I've seen Captain Rylen?" she asked, doing a very creditable job of looking innocent.

Rory chuckled quietly. "The beautiful love bite on your neck would seem to imply you might have spent a little time canoodling while you were out and about," she suggested with a grin.

Evy's hand flew to her throat. "He didn't!"

"Didn't you notice?" Rory's grin grew as Evy shook her head. Rylen, you sneaky sod. Marking your territory without prior consent, tsk, tsk. Not that she seems to mind, but still ...

"I was ... a little distracted," the younger woman admitted reluctantly, brushing her knuckles against her flaming cheeks. "Possibly overwhelmed is a better word."

"But not unwilling, I hope?" Rory asked. She didn't believe for a moment that Rylen would force himself on a woman, but she knew from experience how easy it was to get swept up in something you weren't ready for.

"Oh, no, nothing like that," Evy rushed to assure her. "He's very mindful of my feelings, all the time. Actually," she added with a slight frown, "he keeps asking if I want to stop, and it's getting a little annoying."

"Try not to get annoyed," Rory advised her with a gentle quirk of a smile. "It's very easy to get caught up in the moment and find yourself going further than you're ready to. The fact that he keeps asking is a good thing."

"Is that why you're not sleeping in the commander's tent?" Evy asked, her eyes bright with inquisitive eagerness. "Did you go further than you were ready to?"

Rory felt her mouth drop open. Walked into that one, didn't you, Ror? "I wasn't ... we didn't ..." She drew in a fortifying breath. "The commander and I are not in a relationship."

"That isn't what Rylen says," Evy told her. "Or Varric. Lots of people think you're his woman."

"His woman?" The turn of phrase pricked at her pride. "I'm not property, Evy. I don't belong to anyonebut myself." But you didn't argue when he said you were his, a traitorous little voice in her mind piped up. And that was weeks ago.

"No, that isn't what they mean," the sable-haired woman was saying. "Varric says that all the commander needs is a good woman, and you're a good woman. I think it's obvious you should be together."

"And how did you come to this conclusion?" Rory asked, more amused than offended by this apparently rampant speculation on her non-existent love life.

Evy squeaked happily, leaning forward to share her opinion on the subject. "Well, for a start, everyone says you only came to Haven because the commander asked you to," she began, warming to her subject with an enthusiasm that suggested she'd been dying to have this conversation for quite a while. "You make special potions for him yourself and you deliver them personally. Your face light up when you see him, or when you talk about him. You spent the night in his tent. And you blushed when he took his shirt off to spar the other day, you couldn't keep your eyes off him -"

Rory held up a hand, laughing at this embarrassing litany of her own preoccupation with the commander. "All right, I admit that I find him attractive," she conceded in defeat. "And that I don't seem to be able to hide it. How does that translate into you should be together?"

"You didn't let me finish," Evy pointed out cheerfully. "He watches you. He can hold an entire conversation with someone while watching you from across the village, and he always knows exactly where you are. And he smiles when he sees you - he doesn't smile at anyone else. Oh, and he follows you to the bath-house late at night and stands guard at the door so no one else goes in. You were seen embracing each other. I think it's terribly romantic."

He watches me? Wait ... he guards the door when I'm washing? How did I not know that? Listening to Evy's argument, it did sound romantic, Rory had to admit. The stoic commander and the dedicated healer, finding love in the light of the Breach. Shame it was all a fiction, really.

"Evy, I promise you, nothing has happened between us," she said aloud. "And even if something had, I doubt the commander would appreciate the entire village discussing it. He's a very private man."

"But you do like him," Evy insisted earnestly. "And it's obvious that he likes you."

"It's a nice dream, Evy," Rory told her friend gently. "But it's just a dream. Unlike you and Rylen."

But as Evy blushed and stammered, Rory couldn't help wondering just who she was trying to convince. Herself? She knew Cullen had willingly held her in his arms, intended to kiss her. The fact of the interruption did not negate the purpose with which he had leaned into her, the audible disappointment in his groan when their time was cut short. Nor could she deny that her heart thumped whenever she let her mind linger on him, or the fact that she took every excuse to be in his company, even if it was only for a few minutes. There was no hiding the protective way he spoke to her, or the care in her eyes when she looked at him. On Earth, she would have made the first move long before now, but here ...

Too much had happened to Cullen that was completely out of his control. The fall of the Ferelden Circle, the madness of Knight-Commander Meredith - they'd shaped him, damaged him, and not once had he had the power to change the events unfolding around him. Even now, he was caught up in events beyond his control, reacting to moves made before he even reached the first square on the board. In this, at least, she could give him back some of his autonomy. She could wait; let him set the pace, if she was his choice. It was gloriously frustrating, but she refused to make his mind up for him. If this was what he wanted, if she was what he wanted, then he would have to make it clear, when he was ready to.

Until then, she was just going to have to content herself with teasing Evy and Rylen about their budding romance. What a shame.

Chapter Text

She couldn't get free. The hand wrapped about her wrist was too strong, the grip too firm. No matter how hard she pulled, it stayed in place, denying her escape. She felt weak and humiliated, the only sound in the clearing her breathless grunts as she struggled to get loose.

"You really should at least have kicked me by now, you know," her captor informed her conversationally.

Rory glared at him, feeling stupid. "I'm not going to kick you, Rylen."

The Starkhaven captain chuckled at her response. "At some point, lass, you're going to have to do something to get yourself out of peril," he reminded her. "There won't always be someone there to protect you."

She sighed, knowing he was right. She didn't like it, but he was right. "That's why you're teaching me, isn't it?" she pointed out in turn. "Although I don't see much teaching going on."

"Well, we've established that you're the only person I know who won't even try a punch to get free," he told her cheerfully.

"I don't want to hurt you," she defended herself. "You've still got a broken arm."

"Aye, I do," Rylen agreed, "but you're still not going to hurt me, even if you try. You're a ten-pound weakling."

Rory couldn't really argue with that. This little teaching session had come about because of her distressing tendency to insert herself into the niggling fights that were spreading through Haven and the surrounding camps in the absence of the Herald. Kaaras and his party had been gone for two weeks, and everyone seemed to be playing the blame game. She'd lost count of the number of templars she'd treated for flame and ice burns; the number of mages who had come to her with contusions and broken fingers. The mage-templar conflict was quietly simmering right here in Haven, always careful not to become fully fledged fighting, surreptitiously egged on by the continued presence of Chancellor Roderick. Ugly words were becoming commonplace, and Rory's slightly suicidal tendency to try and diffuse those arguments had got her thrown bodily into a snow drift yesterday. Orders came from on high - stop trying to keep the peace single-handedly, or learn to defend yourself properly when things don't go your way. She'd shown the slip to Evy, who had passed it on to Rylen, who had jumped at the opportunity to do something other than read and write reports for hours on end.

That's how she'd ended up here, in the clearing on the other side of the Penitent's Bridge, trying to work out how getting her wrist free from her friend's grip was supposed to be learning how to defend herself.

"If I'm such a weakling, what is the point of trying to fight anyone?" she asked. "And could I have my hand back, please?"

"You can have your hand back when you take it back, lass," Rylen told her. "Fighting's not about strength so much as being quick and clever. So stop trying to overpower me, and work it out."

She glowered at him, feeling more like an idiot the more he talked. "You're so lucky I like you," she muttered, pausing to study the hand he had wrapped about her wrist.

Quick and clever. Hmm. His palm was wrapped over the back of her wrist, but his fingers and thumb didn't meet on her inner wrist. So there was a weakness there to exploit. But how did she exploit it? She'd never taken any self-defense classes back on Earth - too poor to afford them - but Rylen seemed sure she could work this out for herself. She turned her wrist experimentally in his grasp, until her palm faced to the side, and his grip turned with that motion, the gap between his thumb and fingers now aimed upward. Rory felt a faint twinge of triumph, letting her hand relax back to its former position, feeling her friend's grip relax with it. This time, she was quick; she twisted her wrist and tugged hard, bending her elbow fast toward herself, breaking the wrap of his hand as he swore in surprise.

"Quick study, aren't you?" Rylen laughed, shaking his hand out. "All right, again. Show me it wasn't a fluke."

"Fluke, my arse," she grumped, but she was smiling. "You're a strange sort of teacher."

"Stop grumbling and keep learning," he chuckled, taking hold of her wrist again.

She spent the next hour learning various ways to get free from one-handed holds, including various places she should kick or gouge at. Her learning process was hampered somewhat by Rylen's tendency to over-act, staggering around when she pretended to pull his nose as though she'd ripped it off, sending her into fits of giggles that echoed around the clearing. The giggling only got worse when Rylen discovered that Rory had no sense of accuracy at all.

"How're you missing this?" Rylen declared laughingly. "My hand's not exactly a small target!"

"I've never punched anything before!" she protested through her own laughter, balling her fist as she took careful aim at his open palm.

"You're the only person I know who can't throw a punch," he chuckled, shaking his head. "Set your feet straight. Even wee Evy can knock a man's jaw good."

"I'm a healer, Ry, I'm supposed to make people better," she argued, focusing on his palm.

"Known a few people who'd be made better with a good thump," the captain commented. "Step closer, lass, you're going to miss from there. Aye, that's better. Now ..." He nodded to his splayed hand. "Hit me. With feeling."

"With feeling, right." She balled up her fist, took aim, and swung.

Her fist swept past Rylen's open palm and beyond his shoulder, dragging her off-balance. Her forward foot slipped as her center of gravity changed, and she spun a good one-eighty on the way down, landing flat on her back in the snow, cackling with laughter at her own clumsiness. She heard Rylen's snort of amusement at her ineptitude ... and another voice she hadn't been expecting.

"I see the lesson is progressing."

Rory raised her head, laughter fading into excruciating embarrassment as pink shadowed her cheeks. Cullen was standing over her, offering a hand to pull her back up onto her feet, only his eyes betraying how silly she looked lying there in the snow. Deeply disconcerted, she let him lift her up, turning her attention to dusting the snow off herself as Rylen spoke.

"Believe it or not, that was an improvement," the captain said, his tone crowded with poorly suppressed mirth. "First time she tried, she took me down with her."

"Traitor," Rory muttered to her friend, who just laughed again.

"She's afraid of hurting folk, commander," Rylen reported, ignoring her objection easily. "Seems to think she'll never need to throw a punch."

Cullen nodded thoughtfully, his eyes trained on Rory even as she avoided his gaze. "Perhaps she'll have more success practicing on someone with two working arms," he suggested, much to Rylen's obvious delight.

"Aye, ser, she might," the captain agreed, a little too enthusiastically, in Rory's opinion. "Shame no one's the time to spare."

"I can make time for this."

Rory's head snapped up, wide eyes seeking Cullen's calm gaze in disbelief. Since when does the Commander of the Inquisition have time to teach an inept woman how to fight? The question was right there on the tip of her tongue, but she didn't say it aloud. Because the Commander of the Inquisition wasn't making time to teach defense to an inept pacifist - Cullen was making time for her. And that, to be perfectly frank, was wonderful.

Rylen glanced between them with a grin that bordered on obnoxious. "Aye, well ..." he said, backing up, "I'll leave you to it, commander. Rory, no biting."

Just you wait, Rylen, I'll get you for this somehow, she promised in the back of her mind as her friend made his escape. Not that she didn't want to be alone with Cullen, far from it. But they hadn't really been alone together properly since she'd scolded the council in the Chantry, and this was not the place she would have chosen for their initial conversation. And she just knew this was going to be all over Haven as fodder for the gossips the moment the captain got back to them. Swallowing nervously, she bit her lip.

"So ..."

"Let's see if we can correct that punch, shall we?"

"Oh! Right, we're actually doing that ..." Blushing, Rory took a step back under Cullen's smiling eyes. He really does smile at me. Maybe we don't need an embarrassing chat about social awkwardness, after all.

"Show me your fist," he told her, and she obediently raised her hand, fingers balled. Cullen winced, rolling his eyes. "Thank the Maker you never made contact."

"Why?" she asked, eyeing her fist curiously.

He stepped to her side, taking hold of her hand to gently remove her thumb from inside her fingers. She watched as he then wrapped her thumb along the underside of her fist, the tip of her nail just touching the second knuckle of her second finger.

"Punching with your thumb inside your fist is only going to get you a broken thumb," he explained. "Never try to punch up or down, either. You're small, so you should aim for a man's throat, his chest, or his stomach."

"Not his face?" she queried, brows raised with interest. In movies, everyone goes for the face. Yes, but this is real, Rory. Pay attention to the sexy commander who doesn't want you to break bones.

"You might break your hand, punching a man's face," Cullen told her quietly. His fingers cradled her balled fist with a gentle touch. "These hands are precious."

She felt her breath catch in her throat, gulping unattractively. "They are?"

His eyes were warm, but intense, as he held her gaze. What is he seeing that makes him so fervent?

"They are," he confirmed in a low tone. "Much like the woman who wields them. Now, show me your stance."

Precious. He thinks of me as precious! Why the hell are we doing this - just kiss me already, you idiot! But she did as she was told, determined to let him set the pace of this elaborate dance of theirs. Feet apart, knees bent, body at a slight angle ... She yelped as he gave her shoulder a push, sending her sprawling into the snow.

"What was that for?" she demanded, scrambling back onto her feet as she wiped her face dry.

"Your balance is appalling," he informed her with a chuckle. "Come here."

Eyeing him warily, Rory stepped closer, feeling herself tense as he moved to stand at her back. Gloved hands skimmed down her sides, setting her heart racing as she trembled under his touch, swaying back against his armored chest as his palms closed firm and gentle over her hips. She even felt his soundless laugh through the breastplate between them, her head turned ever so slightly toward him as he lowered his lips to her ear.

"Concentrate," he scolded her in a single breath, her eyes falling closed at the thrilling seduction of his warm breath on her chilled skin.

"I'm trying," she protested in a shaking whisper, sure he must be able to feel the heat radiating from her with every moment that passed. What is he doing to me?

"Try harder," he murmured, and now she knew he was teasing her. There was no way he didn't know the effect he was having on her. "Move your feet."

The wide, firm line of his thigh pressed into her backside, his knee nudging hers forward until her foot moved, creating a stable base for her to stand on.

"Loosen your knees; rotate your hips just a little."

Her knees almost buckled in response, earning a low chuckle against her ear that made her gasp hopefully; her hips turned easily under the guidance of hands that were startlingly confident on her body.

"Open your eyes, Rory, and raise your fist."

Reluctantly, she forced her eyes open, breathing one long shaking breath out as she raised her fist again. Cullen's hands slid up from her hips, rumpling the cloth of her tunic and shirt against her skin to rise over her sides, fingertips just barely skimming the sides of her breasts through the two layers she wore, just to guide her arms into a better position to fight. Oh, so that's why I should be wearing a breastband. Bullet points show through linen and wool. She swallowed, chewing hard on her lower lip as she tried to keep her composure. He's trying to kill me, that's what this is. Over-stimulation to the point of heart attack.

"You want to jab from the shoulder," he was saying against her ear, his hand enveloping her right shoulder as he spoke. The tip of his thumb stroked against a particularly sensitive part of her neck, just barely touching, leaving tingling, shuddering desire in its wake. "Don't pull your arm back past this point. Now extend your arm forward."

She did so, and almost whimpered when the warm promise of his body left her back, his heat replaced with the chill of the air. He stepped around to face her, measuring the distance between them with her fist against his chest, gently bending her elbow just a little.

"This is how close you need to be to land a punch, Rory," he told her firmly, apparently completely unaffected by his up-close directions. "Closer, and it won't have power. Further away, and you'll miss every time."

She nodded, understanding her former failures a little better with it so memorably explained.

Satisfied, Cullen took a step back, raising his palm as a target. "Good. Now hit me."

Trying to pull herself together - trying to ignore the yearning wetness throbbing at the apex of her thighs - Rory squared up, scowling fiercely at his gloved palm. If I fall over after all this hands-on coaching, no one will ever let me live it down. Head lowered, she thrust her fist toward the target. Bunched knuckles slapped against leather. Cullen grunted, surprised and pleased by the force of the blow.

"Again," he encouraged. "Try it with the other hand."

Balling her left hand, she jabbed at his palm, and again she made contact. A bright, silly grin lit up her face at her minor victory, Cullen's chuckle warming her insides as she bounced on her toes, trying again and again. Each time, she landed her blow on his palm, growing more and more pleased with herself until she just had to throw up her hands and celebrate.

"Fear me! My hands are lethal!"

Cullen laughed - actually laughed, a full-throated sound that carried far - catching her outstretched hand to pull her close against him. "Your hands are perfect," he corrected her, smiling when she leaned into him, letting her hands come to rest almost tenderly against his neck and cheek, any thought of shyness banished in her moment of triumph. "Rory ..."

His head bent to hers; she rose onto her toes, secure with his hands at her waist; smiling lips just barely touched, sharing the ghost of something yet to come ...

"Commander!"

They leapt apart, both turning to glare at the unfortunate Jim in varying degrees of annoyance and frustration as he burst into the clearing, breathless and harassed. This had better be good.

"Haven's burning, ser!"

Shit.

Chapter Text

Haven wasn't burning. The stables, on the other hand ...

A small crowd had gathered by the time Cullen and Rory reached the flaming building. The horses had been rescued, it seemed, the hostlers fighting to calm the beasts as the officers on duty shouted their men into forming a bucket chain from the lack to the crackling flames. Soot-stained workers were slumped by the collapsing building, some in tears, and as Rory pushed through the crowd at Cullen's back, she heard the screams from inside.

"There's someone in there!"

A man to her left grunted dismissively. "It's just a knife-ear brat," he told her. "Be grateful the real workers got out."

"What did you say?" Rory's tone was absolutely venomous as she turned on him, eyes blazing with fury. The man took an involuntary step back under her vicious glare, but she was distracted from giving him a piece of her mind by the unexpected sound of metal clanking behind her.

"Hold this." Cullen thrust his sword belt and mantle into her hands, the metal pieces of his armor discarded hastily to the soldiers around them.

"What?" Rory demanded, confused by his sudden disrobing in a public place. "What are you doing?"

"Setting an example."

He barely spared a moment to meet her eyes, breaking into a run from her side to duck under the burning lintel of the stable door. Panic gripped her as he ran, realizing too late what he intended. She screamed his name in fright as he disappeared among falling timbers and arcing flames, looking around wildly for someone to follow him, to stop him. No one moved from the crowd, the only motion coming from the men and women hauling buckets of water from the lake to douse the flames.

"Where are the mages?" Rory heard herself demand, her heart thumping wildly in her chest. "They could put this out easily!"

"Templars won't let them close, miss," Jim told her in a dark tone, his own eyes trained on the burning building. "Wait, is that a ...? There's someone there, quick!"

Her eyes snapped back to the stable, expecting - hoping - to see Cullen emerging from the flames unharmed. The screams from within had stopped, but there was no sign of the commander amid the haze of fire and dust. Oh, you stupid man, she railed inside her own mind. This isn't the kind of example I was talking about! At her side, Jim suddenly darted forward, braving the heat and falling debris to grasp hold of something beneath the fallen timbers of the stable wall. No, not something - someone.

Thrusting Cullen's belongings into the nearest pair of hands, Rory's feet were moving before her mind could tell her this was a bad idea. The heat was intense, dry, reaching out to stop her lungs with cloying smoke as she rushed to help. Coughing and spluttering, her eyes streaming, she skidded through the mud and ash to Jim's side, finding him struggling to free an elven man from the burning debris that had trapped his leg.

"You lift the wood, I'll pull him out," she rasped through the choking cloud that enveloped them, bending to hook her hands under the elf's slender shoulders as he reached to grip her elbows.

Jim flashed her a panicked glance, his instinct to help not enough to get through without orders. Looking around ferociously, he grabbed a spar that was not smouldering, forcing it beneath the timbers to try and lever them up. He pushed, Rory pulled, and the stable wall above them groaned ominously. But there was no time to be afraid of what would happen if it fell.

"Again," she ordered, taking a better grip on the elf in her arms.

Nodding in agreement, Jim pressed down on the spar in his grasp, sparks flying up from the burning wood to singe holes in clothing and sting flesh. Rory heaved on the elf as hard as she could, and blessedly, he came free, howling in agony as his foot dragged through naked flame. She stumbled backward, abandoning her grip as she tripped over what remained of the hitching post, sprawling back into the melting snow. Above them, the stable wall bowed, ready to collapse at any moment. She braced herself for the inevitable torment of a fiery death ... and started in shock as a spray of ice erupted over her head to steady the wall.

"Help them!" a familiar Orlesian voice snapped from somewhere behind her, and a moment later, hands were reaching to help her up, to lift the injured elf, to drag Jim away from the precariously braced building.

Two of the mages were dousing the flames with ice, and Leliana stood with them, her baleful glare directed at the templars who still thought they could object. Good luck with that, Rory thought to herself as she was pulled from danger, turning to drop down beside the elven man whose life Jim had just saved. He was unhurt, but for the fresh burns marring his right foot.

Cool it, clean it, cover it ... the words were right there in her mind, knowing the worst damage with burns often took place after the scorching element was removed. Burns just kept on burning, regardless of their proximity to the fire that had started them. His skin was raw and already blistering; as she pulled out her belt knife to cut away the remains of his footwraps, he tried to flinch away from her. Swallowing down her disgust at the stench of burnt flesh and leather, she gripped his ankle tight, ignoring his weak protests to do what had to be done. The thick wrappings were almost burned away, sticking to the rapidly rising blisters on the elf's heel and toes, but she had to remove them, regardless of how painful the process was. That done, she simply plunged his foot into the nearest snowdrift, packing it around the burned limb.

"All right," she assured him, breathless with the adrenaline rush as she let him clutch at her fingers. "Done for now. It's not as bad as it looks."

"My daughter," he moaned, tears in his eyes as, behind her, she heard the unmistakable sound of timbers collapsing.

She couldn't tell him his daughter would be fine, not when her throat was suddenly choked tight with terrified panic. Her head turned toward the stable, flinching in the blast of heat and dust that rolled out to them in the wake of the roof's collapse. Cullen ... no, no, no, this isn't supposed to happen! Don't you leave me too! Shades of the despair she had felt when Ria died threatened to flood in on her, clouding her mind, breaking her heart. Then she heard it.

"Commander ... it's the commander!"

Leliana's hand gripped her shoulder, turning her to where Cullen was emerging from the other side of the stable, cradling a young child in his arms. He was limping, sweaty, covered in soot and ash, and alive. Rory heard the elf beside her sob, barely aware that she, too, was crying with sheer relief. Men and women moved to intercept him, but Cullen shook them off, his eyes searching for ...

"Rory!"

He broke into an awkward run, favoring a right leg that was clearly carrying a burn of its own, sagging down into the snow beside her. "I found her under the water trough," he told her, gentle hands laying the limp form in front of the healer he trusted. "I don't think she's breathing."

"What?" The elven man - the girl's father - let loose a cry of anguish. "No! Ara!"

Wrenching her arm free of his grasping hand, Rory didn't hesitate. "Jim, keep him still," she ordered, glad to see the man move quickly to obey. "You, put snow on that leg."

This was to Evy, who had finally managed to reach the edge of the crowd, but she didn't need to look to know the younger woman was doing as she was told. As Evy packed Cullen's leg with snow, Rory's attention narrowed down to the little girl in front of her.

No obvious sign of injury, found in the safest place, low down, but even low, the oxygen will have been very thin ... Her fingers pressed to the carotid artery on the side of the child's neck, desperately hoping to find some sign of life. Cullen was right; the girl wasn't breathing, but there was a pulse. Intensive training kicked in, no need for conscious thought. She'd done this too many times to count, but never on a child.

Slithering to a better position beside Ara, heedless of the eyes watching her, Rory gently tilted the child's head back, opening her airway with practiced hands. Her fingers pinched the nose tight, opened the soot- and soil-stained mouth, and she leaned down, her mouth sealing over Ara's to blow a slow breath into the girl's lungs, her eyes watching to see the still chest rise. Drawing back, she grimaced at the smoke-laden breath that was pushed out, but bent to breathe for the girl again. And again. Five times she gave a rescue breath, pausing to check the pulse was still there before continuing. In a movie, there would be some sign of life by now, but reality didn't work like that. What I wouldn't give for a mask, a bag, and oxygen on tap ...

She was vaguely aware of the horrified curiosity around her - of Ara's father crying, of low voices praying, even as the soldiers continued to fight the fire that raged in the ruined stables with the mages to aid them. But she was focused on the child, breathing steadily for her, willing her to come back. It felt like an age, her own head growing light with a lack of air, but finally, blessedly, she heard that first intake of independent breath. The people around her saw the elven child's chest rise and fall on its own, a relieved cry going up from them even as Rory hastily pulled her into the recovery position. Not a moment too soon - the little girl heaved, throwing up into the snow, and over Rory's knee, with a mewling cry of shock.

"It's okay," Rory murmured to her, rubbing the child's back with a soothing hand. "You're all right, you're safe now."

She raised her head, meeting the shocked eyes of those around her wearily. Cullen was staring at her with something that might almost have been awe; beside him, Evy just looked stunned by what she'd witnessed. Ara's father was sobbing with relief, no longer fighting Jim's grip around his shoulders as he watched his daughter breathe against the healer's side.

"I need someone to collect some baskets of clean snow - leave them outside the clinic, we're going to need it," Rory heard herself say, and behind her, she heard Leliana choose a couple of people for the task. "Can someone help ..." She looked expectantly at the injured elven man.

He snorted back his tears, scrubbing at his sooty face. "Gareth, miss."

"Thank you - somebody help Gareth, the commander, and Jim to the clinic, please?" As hands reached down to help the injured up, she looked over to her shocked assistant. "Evy, run ahead to the clinic and brew some of the willow-bark tea for them, please. I'll bring Ara."

And so they did. No one was going to argue with someone who could bring a child back from the brink of death without even using magic. With Ara in her arms, Rory headed straight for the clinic, moving to tuck the child into one of the beds, making sure she stayed on her side. Gareth was installed in the bed beside his daughter's, his burned foot set securely in a bucket of snow that Evy volunteered to keep refreshing until they had drawn the heat out of his burns. Jim had only bruises and the occasional red pinprick where the sparks had hit him - he was released back to the community within minutes, to bask in the praise of his comrades for his bravery. And Cullen ...

"You are an idiot," Rory informed him sharply as she checked his injury. He'd been very lucky - it was a minor contact burn, already cool and safe to dress. "Who runs into a burning building?"

"If I hadn't, Ara would have died," he pointed out, wincing only a little as she dried the burn on his right shin after washing it with mint-water.

"You could have died!" she snapped at him.

A flicker of amusement played across his face. "Are you angry with me for saving a life?"

She glared at him, the fierce expression completely at odds with the gentle hands spreading ointment on his injury and dressing it in soft bandages. "I'm angry because you scared the shit out of me," she said though clenched teeth. "What were you thinking, you stupid man?"

This conversation was not going to convince Evy there was nothing going on between them, but Rory couldn't stop. She wasn't soon going to forget the way her heart had clenched with physical pain when he'd thrown himself directly into danger.

"I was trying to do the right thing," Cullen told her softly, soft enough that only she, sat so close, heard him. His hand closed over her knee, unable to reach her fingers to reassure her with touch. "Trying to be the man you deserve."

She rolled her eyes. "You are that man, you ..." A decent insult escaped her, tired after the excitement of the last hour. "... buffoon."

Her gaze flickered up to meet his almost shyly, a faint, fond smile playing over her face. She was proud of him, despite the scare; embarrassed that his heroics had revealed to a good many people how much he meant to her. That unseen smile of his was hers alone to enjoy, his eyes a-glow with an echo of the fondness she showed him. In spite of their lack of privacy, with Evy, Gareth, and Ara right there with them in the clinic, this was a moment that belonged to them, charged with an aching intimacy that somehow transcended the need for words.

"Is buffoon the best you can do?" he asked in a teasing tone.

"I don't think very well when I've had a scare," she informed him, knowing perfectly well that insulting him was the farthest thing from her mind.

"What about fool?" he suggested, squeezing her knee before drawing his hand back, uncomfortable with being seen to offer affection.

"Or cretin," Evy offered, from where she was changing the snow packed around a silently chortling Gareth's foot.

"Dimwit?" a small, hoarse voice piped up - Ara, awake and alert, contributing to the conversation with a shy grin.

"Dimwit's good," Rory agreed, just to see the child's grin widen. "You're a dimwit, commander."

Cullen laughed quietly, startling Evy and Gareth with the unexpected sound of mirth from a man they hadn't really thought was capable of laughing. "I'm so glad we have that sorted out," he chuckled as Rory rose to her feet.

"It's very important to get the syntax right when you're insulting someone," she told him with merry humor, her temper restored with just a little reassurance that he was hale. "But don't worry - we will all keep the secret that you are a closet dimwit."

"My gratitude is overwhelming," he drawled, lowering his feet to the floor as little Ara giggled into her blankets. "Anything else?"

The urge was there, and this time Rory didn't fight it. She leaned down to him, fingers stroking his cheek with a tender touch, and pressed a soft kiss to the corner of his mouth, so quick he didn't have the opportunity to answer it. "And you're a hero," she told him, utterly charmed by the disbelieving delight in his eyes. "Now go back to work, I have things to do."

She felt his eyes on her as she slipped out of the clinic, suppressing the urge to squeal excitedly. All right, so it wasn't the kiss she wanted ... but it was a start.

Chapter Text

"Get out of my clinic right now, or I'll really give you something to scream about."

Evy gasped, shocked by the sight and sound of Rory standing just inches from a lay sister of the Chantry and delivering a threat in a tone of real menace. It was understandable, in a way - the senior healer had just walked in to find the clinic full of incense smoke that was making Ara cough painfully. Rory's first reaction had been to throw the incense burner out into the snow and open all the shutters to blow the smoke from the space - the lay sister had shrieked with outrage, unfortunately drawing attention to the fact that she was trying to get into the locked chest of confidential notes. Actually, the disrespect to the Chantry aside, Evy thought her senior was being rather restrained. Thankfully, however, the sister believed the threat, and fled without a second glance over her shoulder.

Gulping in a few furious breaths, Rory moved straight to Ara, pulling a sealed bottle from her belt. "Evy, get Gareth's foot out of that bandage before it sticks, and back into snow," she ordered in a short tone, gently easing the little girl into a sitting position. Her voice softened as she spoke to the child. "It's all right, Ara, the smoke's gone. Try to breathe more slowly for me ... that's it. I need you to drink a little of this. It'll help, I promise."

With her arm around the girl's back, Rory broke the seal on the little bottle that had been sent from the Hinterlands by Scout Harding, gently guiding the rim of the uncorked bottle to Ara's lips. She'd already delivered a copy of the recipe to Adan, which was why she hadn't been in the clinic when the lay sister had invaded. Ara managed a mouthful of Hyndel's potion, swallowing it down before her coughing started again. Rory sat with her, silently steaming at the ignorant abuse of her patients, listening as the rattle in the child's lungs finally eased off. Thank you, Bioware.

On the other bed, Evy had freed Gareth's foot from the inappropriate bandage, carefully packing the still-heated limb into another bucket of snow. The elf watched anxiously as Rory propped his daughter up, tucking her in with warm blankets to keep off the chill.

"Is she ...?"

"She's going to be fine," Rory promised him. "The potion will help to clear her chest; she will be much better in just a few days. The smoke from the incense irritated her lungs, that's all." She stroked her hand against the little girl's hair, leaving the child to sleep. "What about you? Are you in pain?"

"It's not so bad, mistress," Gareth told her, almost smiling when she raised a brow at him.

"On a scale of one to ten?" she asked, having learned by now that, even if she were considered an elf-friend, these people had to be asked bluntly if she was going to get a straight answer about their ailments. They were terrified of drawing attention to themselves.

He thought about it for a moment, " Four?" he suggested hopefully.

Rory snorted with laughter, rolling her eyes. "So ... closer to a seven," she translated with a smile that he echoed sheepishly. She'd had to learn that the hard way, too.

She turned toward their stocks of potions and herbs, only to find Evy already measuring out a dose of spindleweed and mint. Despite her annoyance at the way the younger woman had just rolled over and allowed her patients to be mistreated, Rory smiled at her, nodding in encouragement. It wasn't really Evy's fault - she couldn't blame the girl for acquiescing to the word of a Chantry representative. The Trevelyans in the game were devout, and Evy had been easily cowed by her brute of a Chantry governess. It was a sad fact of the younger woman's life, and one that Rory thought she could do with overcoming.

With Gareth dosed and settled more easily with Ara, she drew Evy outside the door to go over what had actually happened in there.

"I'm so sorry, Rory," the younger woman was quick to apologize, hugging her shawl tighter about her shoulders. "I don't know how to say no to a Chantry sister, and she just ignored me anyway -"

"Evy." She held up a hand to still the babbling apology. "You need to learn how to say no. Just wearing Chantry robes does not make anyone a better healer than you are. Your patients' well-being is the most important thing - if Ara had been exposed to any more smoke, she might have stopped breathing again."

"And I don't know how to do what you did yesterday," Evy added in horror, but Rory could also see the guilt rising in her friend's eyes. Good, she thought, learn from the mistake.

"Well, you're going to learn," she told the dark-haired woman firmly. "A few of the healers from the camps are coming up this afternoon; I'm going to make sure you all know how to do it, and how to teach it, too."

"But aren't you supposed to have your lesson with the commander in the afternoon?" Evy asked curiously, never one to miss pointing out that Rory was due alone time with Cullen.

She managed a faint smile, trying not to seem nervous about spending any time alone with the man. "The commander has set that time aside to address, with Sister Nightingale, the templars' reluctance to allow the mages to do their jobs," she told her friend, relaying what she had heard while picking up the package from the Hinterlands. "And to deal with the merchant who left a naked flame in the stable."

"They found how it started?"

"Yes, they did," Rory confirmed for her. "Apparently, I have to present my testimony to them in front of him. That should be moderately uncomfortable, but he needs to know how much damage he's done."

Evy's face fell into a slightly panicked frown. "So ... I'll be on my own again?" she asked in concern. "What if the sister comes back?"

"I suggest you bolt the door to stop her getting in," was Rory's advice, a softer smile touching her face at the reluctance that shone in Evy's eyes. "Look, she's bound to have complained about me by now. I'm probably due a summons to explain myself."

"Or the Mother will come to you," Evy suggested, jerking her chin worriedly to something over Rory's shoulder. "Like she is now."

"Or there's that, yes." Rory turned to face the music, not all that surprised to find a familiar figure mounting the stone steps to their little corner of Haven.

Mother Giselle was older than she had realized, and taller, too. Though that could just be an illusion created by that silly hat. She did not have Justinia's kind eyes, either, despite the evidence of a friendship between the two women in the game - for all her soft-spoken character, Giselle was stern as she came to a halt before Rory.

"You are the senior healer of the Inquisition?" she asked, her rich Orlesian accent lending an authority to her tone that she had not yet earned, in Rory's opinion.

"I am," she responded in a neutral tone. "My name is Rory. And you are?"

"Mother Giselle," she was told coolly. "I understand you offered violence to one of my sisters."

Feeling Evy tense at her back, Rory waved the girl back into the clinic, meeting Giselle's stern gaze with her own. "You're right, I did," she admitted without regret. "Did she tell you why, or did she simply go to you looking to get me punished?"

"Sister Teres informs me that you gave her no opportunity to present her assistance, and instead threw her from this clinic without cause," Mother Giselle told her with a very slight frown. "The woman the Herald described to me would not behave in such a way. I would like to know what truly happened."

So Kaaras has been telling tales, has he? Despite herself, though, Rory was impressed. Mother Giselle might be vehemently anti-Tevinter, but it seemed as though she did not simply take the word of a sister when the situation allowed for more information to be gathered. "Thank you, Mother," she said gratefully. "Please, come inside."

She lead the way into the clinic, introducing Giselle to Gareth and his daughter, appreciating the gentle way Giselle spoke with them and offered the Maker's blessing. She might not have faith herself, but she knew how important it was to those who believed. She didn't even object when the woman then blessed the clinic itself and the healers who maintained it. Every little bit helped, after all, and there was no guarantee that the Maker wasn't real. But this wasn't why Giselle was here.

"Sister Teres no doubt had good intentions, but she could have killed Ara," she told the Mother as they sat down at her desk. "That little girl's lungs are incredibly fragile right now, but your sister didn't wait to be told. She arrived in my absence, overruled my assistant, closed the door and the shutters, and lit incense that inflamed Ara's lungs painfully. She also used an inappropriate dressing to bandage Gareth's foot without apparently understanding that a burn needs to be cooled before you cover it. When I returned, Ara was in distress, Gareth was in pain, and Sister Teres was attempting to break into the chest where I keep my confidential notes." Rory sighed, shaking her head. "I was harsh, I know. But I was angry, Mother Giselle. Respect goes both ways."

To her credit, Giselle listened to all this without offering any interruption. "I see," she said, when Rory was done. "Pride and ignorance are a dangerous combination in a healer. I apologize, Healer Rory. I had instructed her to present herself as an assistant to you, nothing more. I will see to it that she is aware of her error."

"If I can make a suggestion, Mother?" Rory waited for Giselle's nod before continuing. "The pilgrims' camps need your sisters more than I do. I co-ordinate with the healers there to ensure they have adequate supplies, but they desperately need more hands to help them tend to the sick and injured. People feel abandoned by the Chantry; just having your sister present in the camps would give them hope again."

"What you say is true," Giselle agreed thoughtfully. "The pilgrims need to believe they are not forsaken by us all. I will think on it." Her stern eyes studied Rory for a moment, narrowing as she spoke carefully. "I have heard whispers that you breathed life into a dead child. Is this true?"

Rory snorted with laughter, hurriedly turning the rude sound into a more polite cough. "No one can breathe life into the dead, Mother Giselle," she promised through a smile. "Ara's heart was still beating. All I did was breathe into her in the hope that her body would remember how to breathe for itself. It's part of a technique that can be used to restart a heart, but it very rarely works when the heart has stopped entirely."

"I have not heard of this technique," the Mother told her with suspicion, eyeing the healer with something that might almost have been hostility.

"Not many have, it seems," Rory answered, refusing to be cowed by the implication that she was lying. "I'm teaching a few people how and when to do it, later on today. You and your sisters are welcome to join us."

"I believe we shall," Giselle accepted graciously, but it was obvious she'd be there for reasons other than the desire to learn. Wow, the Chantry really can't take it when they don't have control over all the useful knowledge in people's heads. "You are an unusual person, mistress."

"I get that a lot," Rory countered. If you knew just how unusual, you'd have me burned at the stake, I'm sure. "Unfortunately, Evy and I have duties to attend to, so I'm afraid this has to come to an end. But thank you, for being open-minded enough to speak to me."

Mother Giselle rose gracefully to her feet as Rory did the same. "Thank you, for only frightening Sister Teres."

"I threaten violence, Mother, I don't actually perform it," Rory assured her with a warm smile, escorting the woman to the door. "I'm a lover, not a fighter."

"Tough love is often the best in times of need," she was told as the Mother stepped out into the mid-morning light. "Until later, Healer Rory."

"I look forward to it, Mother Giselle." Closing the door, Rory leaned back against it, letting out a relieved sigh under Evy's worried gaze. "I really have to start thinking before I speak, don't I?" she mused to no one in particular, raising her head as she pushed from the rough wood at her back. "Now then, Evy ... time to learn about the wonderful world of infection control."

It was good to hear Evy laugh at that, to feel the level of tension decrease as they fell to the relatively easy lesson of the day. But Rory couldn't quite shake the memory of that suspicion in Mother Giselle's eyes. The sooner basic CPR was a commonly known method among the Inquisition, the better. The last thing she wanted was to draw the ire of the Chantry onto herself. She wanted to survive this disaster in the making, thank you very much.

Chapter Text

"Ror."

She glanced up as Rylen touched her arm, following his nod across the darkened training ground to where Cullen was visible, marking his way through sword forms alone and with rigid concentration.

"He's been at it since dinner," the captain told her quietly. "Smart money's on a headache."

"Which, of course, he hasn't told me about," she muttered disapprovingly. How am I supposed to help him if he won't tell me when he's in pain? Looking up at her friend's concerned face, she sighed softly. "Could you tell Evy I might not be back to the clinic tonight?"

It was a testament to how much Rylen cared for and respected his commander that he didn't take this opportunity to tease her about devoting her attention to Cullen overnight. When the commander was in pain, he couldn't focus, and showed a short-tempered impatience with the world at large that could make the training ground a nightmare place to be. There hadn't been much of that in the last few weeks, but the combination of the fire, the mage-templar niggles, and the influx of new arrivals was more than enough to trigger a new episode. With any luck, their resident healer would be able to cut it short, for everyone's sake.

"Try not to get yourself snapped at, aye?" the captain suggested, flexing his formerly broken arm experimentally. "So I'm back on light duties tomorrow, I suppose."

"That's what it looks like," Rory agreed, tucking the splint and sling into her bag. "If there's any pain, you need to report it. But otherwise, you're fighting fit again. You'll have to start making time for Evy."

"She's worth making time for," Rylen assured her, his smile verging on shy for a very brief moment. "You don't think she's getting bored with me, do you?"

She stared at him for a moment, a disbelieving smile breaking over her face. "No, Ry, I'm pretty sure you still have her full attention," she promised him with a faint laugh. "Just keep doing what you're doing. You're a good influence on her."

He looked relieved to hear her say that. "I wasn't sure you approved," he told her with a nervous grin. "Closest thing she has to family here, and no noble house is going to approve of a former templar courting their daughter."

"I'm not a noble house, Rylen," she laughed, letting him grumble and roll his eyes.

"You know what I mean."

"I do know, yes," she agreed warmly. "Seriously, just keep doing what you're doing. You have my blessing. Now go and keep her company - I have a feeling I really won't be back to the clinic tonight."

"All right." Rylen nodded, glancing across the training ground. "Just you be mindful of that temper. No hitting him."

She snorted with laughter as they rose together to their feet. "I thought you meant his temper!"

"Och, no, yours is the scary one," her friend chuckled playfully. "You might break him with one of those scoldings."

"Go away, Rylen," she told him in amusement.

He laughed, holding up his hands peaceably as he backed away. "I'm going, I'm going. G'night, Rory."

She watched him go, her smile slowly fading as she turned her eyes back to the lone figure marking time by the stockade. Behind her were the sounds of Haven settling in for the night - faint music from the tavern, the low hum of the Chant, the groaning of the forge. In front was the stillness of the camp at rest, disturbed only by the breeze off the lake that rustled the canvas tents, and the steady crunch of the sentries' feet on the snow. The only movement she could see was Cullen, unarmored, wielding his sword with stiff grace. He seemed so very alone in that moment; isolated by his own authority, his face drawn into a pained frown that expressed only a fraction of what he was suffering. Well, she could help with that, at least.

Rory crossed the well-trodden snow, making no attempt to quiet her approach. He still reacted as though surprised, spinning out of his forms to level his sword at her heart. And, to her credit, she didn't even flinch.

"Bad night?" she asked softly, pausing where she stood to let him absorb just who had interrupted him in his own time.

Eyes that were just a little too bright studied her in the moonlight. "No worse than others have been," he told her, lowering the sword with a heavy breath. "I cannot settle tonight. Haven is on edge, and I with it."

That was true enough, Rory reflected. The tension between the few mages and templars was simmering ever closer to boiling point. Her CPR demonstration had been joined by a couple of templars eager to learn, but they had been watched all the while by distrustful mages just looking for a reason to object. The arrival of Mother Giselle and her small squadron of sisters was not helping matters. The greater Chantry presence made the templars bolder, and the mages warier. And Cullen, who had his own reasons to distrust mages, was stuck in the middle, trying to keep the peace.

"Now, more than ever, you need to sleep," she told him quietly. "You're going to buckle under all this pressure if you don't look after yourself."

Cullen sighed, shaking out his free arm. "I can't get comfortable," he confessed reluctantly. "I lie back and my neck aches, my mind starts racing. And even when I do sleep, I ..." He hesitated, but ultimately chose to follow through on his thought. "The nightmares are worse without lyrium."

Finally. "Without lyrium?" she echoed, forcing herself to keep up the act. But he was finally trusting her with the truth of his suffering; she didn't dare risk bruising that trust, not now.

He seemed to sag where he stood, raising his sword to sheath it. "You are aware of the templars' use of lyrium?" he asked her in low tone, glancing down at her twisting hands when she nodded. "I ... used to be a templar."

Don't get ahead of yourself, Rory. Look at this like a healer, not like a Dragon Age obsessive. "How long has it been?" she asked gently.

"Five months."

She nodded slowly, feeling her way through the conversation. A wrong word here could destroy the fragile trust he'd put in her, and that was the last thing she wanted. "The headaches, the pains, the shakes ... they all have the same source," she said carefully. "Why didn't you tell me?"

Cullen stepped closer, his eyes still fixed on her hands. "I ... no one's done it before," he murmured, gathering her hands into his. "Not done it and lived. I-I could die from this, Rory."

"You won't."

His head snapped up, pained eyes seeking hers, surprised by the conviction in her voice. "You can't know that."

"I can." Her hands turned in his grasp, her fingers gripping his own tightly. "Because I won't let you die. You'll overcome this, I promise you." And if Kaaras tells you to take the lyrium again, I'll stripe his horny backside in front of the whole damned Inquisition.

"You'll help me?" Cullen asked, his voice hesitant with incredulous relief. "You ... don't think me a fool, for trying?"

She held his gaze, hoping he could see how fiercely she believed in him. "I think it's the bravest thing I've ever heard," she told him, her certainty almost ferocious in the moonlight. "We'll get you through this, together."

"Together." The word was scarcely more than a breath, lost on the breeze as he suddenly pulled her to him, crushing her against his chest to bury his face in her neck. She could feel his staggered breaths as her hands crept to his back; her brow cradled in the crook of his shoulder as he shuddered against her. "I can never repay you ..."

"Yes, you can," she murmured to him fervently. "You can live. That's all I need."

His lips moved against her neck, warm breath offering words she could just barely make out that thrilled her to her toes. "Then, for you, I will endure."

How long they stood there, wrapped in each other's arms in the green-touched moonlight, she couldn't say. She only knew that she was warm and wanted; that he had finally trusted her with one of his closest-held secrets. How long would it be until he trusted her with all those long-suppressed fears, she wondered. Would he ever trust her that much? Yet in those long moments, she wasn't afraid of never being told. Held close, she resolved to find a way to get him through this. He deserved to be free, more than anyone she'd ever known.

But presently she became aware of how stiffly he was holding himself, of the tension that hardened his muscles to unyielding rock. She drew back, raising her head to meet his eyes. "Come with me," she told him. "I have an idea."

He didn't argue, seemingly drained by his confession in the darkness, letting her guide him through the quiet village and into the humid warmth of the bath-house. At her urging, he shed his clothes, sinking into the pungent water with a moan of sheer pleasure at the penetrating heat. Stripping to her shirt and smalls, rolling her sleeves to her elbows, Rory coaxed him to let her dose him with a single drop of distilled poppy and willow-bark, her strongest painkiller, knowing it would at least take the edge off the headache pressing into his temples.

"Aren't you joining me?" he asked her, eyes closed as he relaxed slowly in the natural heat of the water.

"In a manner of speaking," she answered with a faint smile. "Lean forward a moment."

Again, he did as she asked without argument, bending forward from the waist as she stepped down onto the underwater bench where he lounged. Planting her backside on the dry stone, she splayed her knees to accommodate him, gentle hands reaching to guide him back once more. He sighed comfortably, letting his head rest back against her chest as he hooked his arms over her knees, fingers idly stroking her legs beneath the water. For one awful moment, she remembered she hadn't shaved her legs in three months, but he didn't seem to mind. He's probably never even seen a woman's shaved legs, you silly sod.

"This is ... nice," he murmured, relaxing back against her with a low sigh.

She laughed softly at the surprise in his voice. "You're very easy to please, aren't you?" she teased in a light tone. "Lift your head, I want to work on your neck."

He protested mildly, a small smile playing about his lips as she tilted his head upright for him. "So many orders," was his almost playful comment as he shifted under her hands. "It's almost like being back in training."

"Almost?" Rory queried in amusement, rubbing oil onto her hands before stroking over his broad shoulders, concentrating her attention on the hard lines of his trapezius muscles. Thank you, Ria, for four obsessive weeks of massage lessons before you lost interest and took up botany instead.

Cullen groaned under her hands, the sound drawn involuntarily from low in his chest as the squeeze of her fingers began to force the tension from his neck. "My instructor wasn't a scantily-clad woman with sinful hands," he answered, and this time she could hear the smile in his voice. "He wasn't as stubborn as you, either."

"If I wasn't stubborn, I wouldn't be able to do my job," she reminded him with a low chuckle. "There's this commander, you see, who refuses to look after himself unless I'm standing over him."

"Can't say I blame him," he murmured, lowering his head forward to stretch the deliciously sore muscles under her touch. "What man doesn't enjoy the full attention of a beautiful woman?"

She felt herself blush at the unstudied compliment, biting her lip as she smiled. "Are you suggesting that he's deliberately letting himself get into an awful state, just so I'll have to give him my undivided attention?"

"Mmhmm ..." It was more of a moan, but possibly an affirmative one. "How else is he supposed to get you alone? You're a very busy woman."

"I should be annoyed by that," she pointed out. But I'm really not. "His health is the most important thing. And there are easier ways to get my attention."

His shoulders pulled back automatically as her thumbs swept down between his shoulder-blades, drawing another breathy groan from his throat. "What would you recommend?"

Soft hands smoothed over the crown of his shoulders, daring to continue down over his chest as she leaned into him. Her lips brushed his ear in a tender murmur, barely recognizing her own voice. "He could just ask."

Cullen's head turned toward hers, hooded eyes heavy with pleasure as he let his gaze roam over her face so close to his own. "It's as simple as that?"

"As simple as that," she promised softly, holding his gaze with loving eyes as he raised his hand to draw wet fingers down her cheek.

"In that case ..."

Slowly, as though any sudden movement might end the dream they were caught in, he twisted between her knees, turning himself about to kneel on the bench between her feet. She couldn't help herself - her eyes followed the water trickling down his chest, feeling her breath grow shallow as his hands slid up her bare thighs, wet and warm and, oh, so confident. His eyes burned into her, all pain forgotten as her hands found purchase at his chest, gentle fingers teasing taut golden flesh as he inched ever closer.

Breath to breath, lip to lip, he paused, and for one excruciating moment, she thought he had changed his mind. His name stuck in her throat, released as a wordless plea ... and his lips claimed hers, firm and tender, no hesitation in his kiss. Strong hands pulled her ever closer, hot mouth savoring the chance to plunder what she offered with a breathless gasp. Her own hands roamed over the hot sculpture of his chest, his arms, his shoulders, rising into the soft tousle of his shining curls as impatience threatened to take her over. Tender flame licked her from the inside, guiding the lock of her legs about his hips, the arch of her spine as his palm splayed beneath the rumpled cling of her shirt. No demand, no shyness, in either of them, as they finally spun together into a dance they had not truly acknowledged until now.

His lips caressed hers as they broke apart, both breathless, both wild-eyed with wonder, unwilling to release the tangle of their limbs just yet. The tip of his nose circled hers almost playfully as she stared into his eyes.

"As simple as that?"

Rory swallowed, breathless, dizzy, a gradual smile curving lips that were gloriously swollen from his kiss. "Could you repeat the question?" she asked, her voice a teasing, lusty laugh. "I don't think I quite got it that time."

Cullen laughed with her, pulling her firm against the expanse of his broad chest as his head dipped to hers, seeking out another of those tantalizing kisses.

"With pleasure ..."

Chapter Text

"What happened to you?"

Varric gave her an unfriendly look from beneath lowered brows. "Don't ask, cupcake."

Rory did manage not to laugh, but the Herald's party were looking distinctly the worse for wear. They were soaked through, all of them - Solas' staff was steaming, Kaaras had icicles hanging from his horns, and water was dripping from Cassandra's sheath. Varric squelched as he walked. They all looked very put out, apart from Kaaras, who was smiling widely.

"You look like you fell in the lake," Rory pointed out in amusement. "Except the lake is frozen solid."

"Not all of it," Cassandra said darkly, glowering at Kaaras.

The Qunari gave her his most innocent smile. "How was I supposed to know the waterfall wasn't completely frozen?" he asked her sweetly.

"Not showing off would be a good start," Solas offered in a sour tone as Cassandra let out a familiar sound of frustrated disgust. "If you will excuse me ..."

The elf stalked past, Cassandra and Varric close behind him, leaving Kaaras to field the healer's curiosity. Rory definitely noticed the way his eyes lingered on the Seeker's back. If his horns had been ears, they would have been drooping at her obvious annoyance with him. The inner fangirl, mysteriously silent during actual romance, perked up at the prospect of witnessing a canon love affair. He likes her!

"So ..." she said with a teasing smile. "Showing off, hmm?"

Kaaras turned his Fade-touched eyes back to her with a mysterious grin. "Maybe," he conceded in a playful tone, moving toward his own cabin in a crackle of frozen cloth. "I need to talk to you, anyway."

"We'll have plenty of time to talk on the way to Val Royeaux," she pointed out, walking with him.

"You're coming with us?" he asked in surprise. "I didn't think they'd let you leave Haven."

"I don't plan on giving them a choice," Rory admitted ruefully. It was in all the paperwork, but her name had been omitted in favor of the decidedly more ambiguous "healer". Cullen wasn't going to like it, that much was certain.

"Can I be there when you tell them?" Kaaras asked, hopeful mischief painting his big boyish face as he looked down on her.

"Be my guest." She chuckled, shaking her head. "I was on my way now, but I can wait for you."

"I won't be long," he promised, ducking into his cabin to change his clothes and warm up.

With Kaaras out of sight, Rory let her smile fade into a worried frown. Even from here, she was aware of the raised voices outside the Chantry. No one could swear to it, but there was a suspicion among the more level-headed of the village that Chancellor Roderick had been stirring up the resentments among the templars with the goal of destabilizing the young Inquisition. As much as she disliked the man, she almost had to admire the sheer balls it took to try this. And it was a well-thought out plan, if that was what he was doing - no matter what the Inquisition accomplished in the Hinterlands around Redcliffe, it would all come to nothing if everything fell apart here. With the templars agitating, it was only a matter of time before someone said the wrong thing, and it looked like that was just about to happen. No wonder Cullen was so visible today, seeing to business with Leliana and the quarter-master right out in the open, where he needed to be.

"What's going on?" Kaaras asked as he emerged, dry and warm once again, his great sword settled comfortably in harness between his shoulder-blades. "I've never seen Haven so on edge, not even when they thought I was a murderer."

Rory sighed through a resigned smile. He had missed the last couple of flare ups, that was true. "Prejudice against magic runs deep in this society," she told him, impressed by her own calm. "It's been going in cycles - every now and then, it flares up, and someone gets hurt. You've just not been here when it hits the flashpoint before."

"You mean there's going to be a fight?" The Qunari's hand strayed toward the sword on his back involuntarily.

"Not unless we're extremely unlucky," she advised him, nodding toward the small crowd ahead of them. "The commander's handling it."

And so he was. She'd watched the cut-scene so many times, but Rory couldn't help but be impressed by the way Cullen placed himself between the two agitators, not engaging in their quarrel but simply diffusing it with the authority he wore so well. At his order, the two groups dispersed to their duties, both sides feeling as though they had been heard, even though neither side had been given much opportunity to air their grievances. Somehow, he'd known it was all for show, and his annoyance was clear as he faced the chancellor.

"So, tell me, commander," Kaaras asked as they approached the pair. "Why is the chancellor still here?"

"Clearly your templar knows where to draw the line," Roderick sneered, but Rory was glad to note that he swallowed whatever unpleasant slur had been on the tip of his tongue as his eyes fell on her at the Qunari's side.

"He's toothless," Cullen growled in irritation, turning to accompany Herald and healer into the Chantry. "Reports of your progress in the Hinterlands have been very encouraging. Have you encountered much resistance?"

"Only from the rebel rebel mages and the templars," Kaaras told him with a shrug. "We cleared out both encampments, so things should calm down there, at least for a while. Did you get the message about the watchtowers?"

Cullen nodded in answer. "Engineers are already on their way," he assured Kaaras in turn. "We need those horses - I'd build him a castle if he asked for one."

"Three watchtowers and a dead demon is pretty cheap for a herd of good horses," the Qunari quipped and, to Rory's delight, she heard Cullen huff out a soundless laugh in response.

It was a privilege to witness these early overtures of friendship; a good feeling, to know that the inner council had shaken themselves from their cultural lethargy to tentatively begin to build a solid foundation for the troubles to come. It was also pretty good to see Mother Giselle denied access to the war room while she, the lowly healer, wasn't even questioned on her presence. All right, it was petty and beneath her, but there was something very satisfying about seeing the Chantry being put in its place.

All Kaaras was in the war room to do was answer a couple of questions about the agents gathered in the Hinterlands, and to ask a few himself about the looming visit to Val Royeaux. The big Qunari visibly relaxed when Cassandra declared that she would accompany him, but it was Cullen who kept stealing Rory's attention. He had the most inflammatory way of looking at her discreetly, and yet behaved as though nothing had changed between them. She might even have been tempted to believe those kisses meant nothing, were it not for his reaction to the reason she was there.

"Mistress Rory," Josephine said in her warm way, "as per your request, a small fund of Inquisition gold has been set aside for your errand in Val Royeaux. I hope one hundred gold will be sufficient?"

"I should think that will be more than enough, Lady Montilyet." Rory smiled gratefully as she spoke. She'd been worried about how much this trip was going to cost her; they did pay her a salary, but it wasn't extravagant. "I won't be buying in bulk, but there are a few things that we could do with having on hand."

"What's this?" Cullen asked, brows creasing into a frown. "I don't recall authorizing you to leave Haven."

"I don't recall needing your permission, commander," she countered lightly. Let's head that off, shall we? Independent person, not a possession. "Your people will be well-served in my absence, and I won't be gone long, in any case."

"Why did I not know that you were joining this expedition?" he asked then, his frown leveling on her. The others around them saw his concern and hopefully interpreted it as being for the welfare of his troops - she saw the hurt buried in his gaze at the thought that she was running away from him.

"I don't know," she said in a gentler tone. "I've been attached to these preparations since they began. I apologize if my involvement was not made clear."

"Though another could go in her stead, this first outreach from the Inquisition would be better received with the senior healer in attendance," Josephine pointed out a little warily. The ambassador had been witness to a few angry outbursts from the commander already. "We are not simply sending the Herald to meet with the Chantry; we need to make positive contact with the merchants."

"There will be little danger to the main Inquisition party," Leliana added. "They will enter the city separate from the Herald, and stay only two nights, regardless of the length of the Herald's stay. Long enough to make contact and no more - others can be sent to finalize prospective contracts."

"Very well." Cullen sighed, rubbing his neck as he accepted that the decision was made. He locked eyes with Rory sternly. "I will assign you an escort, and you will remain with that escort. We can't lose you."

She hoped she was hearing him right. To her, that sounded like I can't lose you. "I understand, ser."

"Very good," Cassandra said then, breaking the moment before it could become embarrassing for everyone else in the room. The Seeker had a good grasp on real life romance, it seemed, for all that she was obsessed with fictional drivel. "We leave tomorrow. Leliana, you have had word from some of the Revered Mothers?"

"I have," the spymaster confirmed, moving out from behind the table. "Josie and I should take you both through the list. I'm sure the commander will want an update on the health of the soldiers before the healer leaves."

It was skillfully done, but they obviously weren't fooling anyone in the inner council. Kaaras was openly grinning as he was escorted from the room by the three women, Josephine pausing to tactfully close the door behind them. Rory winced, her mouth already working as she turned back to Cullen.

"I'm sorry, I thought you knew I was going," she apologized hastily as he rounded the map table toward her. "I keep forgetting that all the paperwork just says healer, not my na- mmm ..."

His lips on hers cut off her explanation, a single kiss more than enough to chase all thought from her mind as she melted at his touch. Despite the hard barrier of his cuirass between them, Cullen pulled her close, hungry to taste her as his hands claimed her hip, her jaw, devouring her breathless response as she rose to him, her own fingertips just barely teasing into his curls.

"Maker's breath, just the sigh of you is driving me crazy today," he breathed into her, claiming another lingering kiss before he could calm himself enough to look into her eyes. "I don't want you going to Val Royeaux."

"I have to," she whispered apologetically, stroking her fingers against his warm cheek. He hadn't shaved today; the stubble prickled under her palm. "I can't give this job to anyone else."

"I know." He sighed, lowering his forehead to hers. "The Orlesian capital is not a safe place for any of us yet," he warned her. "Anyone going there is courting danger."

"I'll be fine," she promised, though she knew it was a promise she might not be able to keep. "They'll be focused on Kaaras, anyway."

"The senior healer of any organization is a tempting target," Cullen insisted firmly. He obviously needed her to understand how concerned he was to be letting her out of his sight. "Removing you would demoralize us, all of us. Evelyn and Fabian cannot replace you, and the Chantry healers cannot match your skill. You belong with us, Rory. Losing you is not an option."

"I'll stay with whoever you tell me to," she told him honestly. It wasn't as though she didn't understand that this world was a dangerous one. "I don't know Orlais; I certainly don't know Val Royeaux. But there are resources there that I can't get anywhere else, and they are becoming increasingly necessary. Unless you'd like half your soldiers pregnant or crippled with crotch-rot."

"You could make a list," he suggested, drawing his hands slowly over her sides.

"I could," she agreed. "But I won't. And we both know this is the decision you would make in my position."

"I can protect myself," he reminded her, but there was a faint smile in his eyes that assured her he understood. He might not like it, but he understood.

"You're going to make sure I'm protected," she countered in a fond tone. "Believe it or not, Cullen, I trust your judgment in this. When it comes to looking after yourself, not so much."

"I could threaten to work myself to a standstill if you go," he mused, brushing his lips to hers in a ghost of a kiss.

"Only if you want me to practice my punch on your pretty face," she threatened with soft humor, her smile deepening as his hand flattened against her spine, drawing her close once more.

"I have a better idea."

She giggled as his mouth descended to hers, lost in long moments of lip-locked loving. It seemed he preferred to make use of their privacy like this, rather than hearing a report on the health of his troops, but their time was finite. He made the effort to make it seem innocent as they left the war room, however, most likely for the benefit of Mother Giselle, who was never far from the center of power.

"... and you are leaving Fabian in charge, yes?" he asked as they stepped into the body of the Chantry.

"Fabian and Evy, yes," Rory confirmed, aware that the priestess was probably straining to hear what was being said. "I'll bring you the information you requested later."

Cullen's eyes were warm as he picked up on the promise implied in her words, though his expression never changed. "See that you do," was all he said in answer. "That will be all, Healer Rory."

"Very well, commander."

Fighting the urge to grin as she turned away, Rory directed her footsteps toward the office shared by Josephine and Minaeve, their under-appreciated researcher, listening to Cullen's boots on the stone as he marched out and into the snow. She wasn't surprised to find her path barred by Mother Giselle - stern eyes, silly hat, and all.

"Healer Rory," the Mother greeted her. "I understand you are to accompany the Herald to Val Royeaux. Quite an honor."

"Sadly, I won't have time to enjoy the city," Rory answered politely. She'd discovered that it was much easier to deal with Giselle if she thought of the woman as middle management. Never gets her hands dirty and always has to know everything. She hadn't seen the woman even light a candle with her own hands yet. "Is there anything I can collect for you while I'm there?" A new owl to suffocate holding up your ridiculous hat, maybe?

"Thank you, but I am content with what I have," Giselle told her coolly. "And your clinic ... do you require someone to oversee your assistant in your absence?"

"It's very kind of you to offer, but I've made arrangements," Rory told her, doing her best to hide her own suspicion. You'll get my clinic and my patients over my dead body. "It would be wrong of me to just swan off without making sure everything will run smoothly without me."

"Indeed." No, the Mother definitely didn't like her. "If ever I can be of assistance ..."

"I will ask," Rory assured the woman, certain she never would. "Thank you, Mother Giselle."

"Walk by Andraste's side, Healer."

Right into the flames. You first, Mother. Side-stepping the priestess, Rory slipped into the office, needing to make sure Minaeve knew who to liaise with in her absence, to avoid any more unfortunate incidents where information intended for the healers had mysteriously been forgotten by the Chantry sisters asked to share it.

Hopefully, Fabian and Evy had enough backbone between them to defend their patients against Chantry influence on their treatment, or Rory and Giselle were going to have words when she returned from Val Royeaux. Hat or no hat, if you didn't know how to wash your own hands properly, Rory did not want you anywhere near her clinic, and she was quite prepared to defend it with violence if necessary. It was probably just as well she was going to be away for a few days.

Chapter Text

Riding, Rory had discovered, was not nearly as easy as it looked.

For all that Master Dennet would soon refer to these horses as old nags, however, the placid mare she'd been given to ride didn't need much in the way of interference from her ride. Which was just as well, really - Rory was a city girl, born and raised, and had never been closer than twenty feet away from a horse before she'd been dropped unceremoniously in Thedas. Thankfully, she wasn't the only member of the Inquisition party heading to Val Royeaux who had never ridden before. It apparently wasn't as common a skill as she'd thought it would be. And while, yes, it meant that her days on horseback were spent with Helene, her Cullen-chosen escort, riding close beside her in case of accidents, it also meant she wasn't the only one taking her meals standing upright to spare the ache of her backside and hips.

"You know, cupcake, for someone who's traveled all over Ferelden, you're a pretty poor horsewoman," Varric teased her on the fourth night, from where he was lounging comfortably by the fire.

"That's why I have feet," she countered, unashamedly rubbing her sore rear end. "They're more reliable than a horse and don't leave me aching in uncomfortable places."

"I thought all humans knew how to ride," the dwarf pointed out with a chuckle.

"And now you know better," Rory informed him, not really in the best of moods to be teased. She groaned, stretching out her back. "No, I'm going for a walk. I'll be stiff as a board in the morning if I don't get my muscles moving."

"I'll come with you," Kaaras volunteered, rising from his seat at the fire. He waved Helene back down to her own seat. "I'll look after her - we won't go far."

Rory raised her brows, surprised by the Qunari's insistence on accompanying her alone until she remembered that he still hadn't had that talk with her yet. This was certainly one way to wangle a little privacy, which almost certainly meant he didn't want anyone to overhear what he wanted to say. Hooking his cloak over his shoulders, Kaaras drew her away from the main camp, her feet leaving three prints in the snow to every one of his. He didn't immediately speak, however, leaving Rory to break the silence.

"I hear we're expected to reach the capital in another four days," she offered into the gathering darkness. "Nervous?"

"Can you think of a reason why I shouldn't be?" he asked in turn, reflexively rubbing the mark on his palm through his glove. "They've probably never even seen someone like me before. There's no way they'll look past the horns."

"You shouldn't be nervous because you're responding to an invitation in good faith," Rory reminded him, although she knew his visit was not going to be the polite give and take they were hoping for. "Um ... because it gives you an opportunity to make contact with the templars?"

"That is true enough," Kaaras agreed mildly. "I'm inclined to agree with Cullen - the templars would be the better ally for dealing with the Breach, and besides that, they're the largest, best disciplined military force outside Par Vollen. The mages can't even control their own people."

Rory forced herself to button her lip on that. She wasn't supposed to know what he was talking about. But she found herself annoyed that he could so easily dismiss the mages from the equation. Would he willingly turn his back on them when he knew everything, she wondered. He was, after all, a mercenary at heart, raised by parents who were raised with an irrational terror of magic and mages.

"Sorry," he apologized in the face of her silence. "I'm not supposed to talk about it outside the council. I just assumed that you'd ... well, because of Cullen ... Never mind. Anyway, I'm still nervous about meeting the Chantry."

Despite her annoyance, she couldn't help smiling a little at his assumption that Cullen would tell her everything that went on in the war room. Reading a little much into a few kisses. But she could also spot the opening he was hoping she'd make for him in this conversation, happy to oblige. "I shouldn't worry," she assured him. "Cassandra will protect you."

"Cassandra could take on the world and win." Kaaras sighed hopefully, his voice filled with admiration for the Seeker even as he came to a halt beneath the trees. "Rory ... how do I know if someone likes me? As a friend, I mean."

"They let themselves be alone with you in the dark?" she suggested, referencing the situation they were in at that moment with flippant good humor.

The Qunari let out a low laugh. "I don't mean you," he clarified with a faint grin. "I know you're my friend. This is ... someone else."

"Well, it's a little hard to tell without knowing who you're talking about," Rory pointed out helpfully. "The way Solas shows friendship is very different from the way Josephine does, for example."

He frowned thoughtfully. "I suppose you're right," he conceded. "I'm usually good at reading people, but this one ... She confuses me."

"It's a she, is it?" Rory asked with a gentle smile. Of course it's a she; he's got the hots for Cassandra! "Are you sure this is about friendship, Kaaras? Or are you hoping for more?"

The big horned head shook sadly. "She'd never look at me like that," he said, his tone resigned. "We're too different."

"I wouldn't rule it out entirely," she encouraged him in a confident voice. "Sometimes it's the differences that bring people together."

"Nothing I do seems to impress her," he confessed mournfully. "She won't even smile at my jokes."

"That's because most of your jokes are terrible," Rory told him, snorting with laughter at the feigned outrage on his boyish face. "She's got a pretty serious outlook on the world. Just be yourself - I'm sure she's not indifferent to your charms."

Kaaras eyed her with vague suspicion. "You know who I'm talking about?"

"Kaaras, there's only one woman you've spent a significant amount of time with," she reminded him in amusement. "Honestly, just treat her normally. Compliment her; flirt, if you've got the balls to. She won't be easy to reach, but I really do think you have a real chance with her."

"So you think she does like me?" he asked hopefully.

"I think, if she didn't, she probably would have hurt you by now," she laughed reassuringly. "You did drop her in a freezing lake and live to tell the tale. She's a passionate woman - everything she feels, she feels deeply. But she might be scared of letting herself feel anything for you, not because of who you are, but because of what you represent."

"This damned mark, you mean." He scowled down at his left hand.

"In part," Rory agreed, watching him for a long moment. "Look, the more you relax around her, the more she'll see you, not the bloody Herald of Andraste. And you're a very charming man-child with deadly skills. You'd be surprised what women like."

"Man-child?" he objected with a low laugh of his own.

"Yes," she said, standing by her assessment of him. "You have the potential to be adorable."

Kaaras' laughter burst from him at that. "Thank you," he guffawed, his laughter fading to let him fix her with a mock-serious look. "But don't ever repeat that."

"My lips are sealed," she promised. "Shall we go back? They'll worry if you're out of sight too long."

"You don't think she'll think that we're ...?" He trailed off as they turned back to camp, his hand gesturing vaguely between them.

Rory snorted, shaking her head. "No, I think she knows I'm not that kind fo woman," she assured her friend.

"Really?" Fade-touched eyes surveyed her from his height. "What kind of woman are you?"

"The faithful kind," she said softly. "I'm not saying any more."

The Qunari grinned down at her. "You don't have to."

Grateful that he didn't try to pry into her own tentative relationship, Rory was yawning by the time they reached the camp, giving out her good nights to crawl appreciatively into the tent where her bedroll was laid out among three others. Riding might be quicker, but it was no less exhausting than walking all day.

And yet, despite her weariness, she still woke long before dawn, forcing herself to lie still and listen to the even breaths of her sleeping tent-mates. She missed Cullen. They'd only shared blankets three times, but in Haven, she was guaranteed to at least see him every day. It had been four days since she'd laid eyes on her golden Adonis of a commander, and she was feeling his absence like a persistent ache that would not ease, missing the tender secrecy of his hidden smiles across the training ground. Had he even noticed she was gone? Was he remembering to look after himself without her there to bully him into it? Would this absence make him fonder, or remind him that she wasn't really necessary to his health and happiness? What if - and this made her heart clench painfully - what if he noticed Evy and canon preferences took over?

She couldn't stand listening to her own thoughts in the darkness. After an hour of upsetting herself with what ifs that were more a disservice to Cullen than anything, Rory rose from her blankets, rolling them neatly into a bundle, and picked her way carefully out of the tent and into the pre-dawn gloom. The camp was quiet, hardly anyone up yet, and she took the opportunity to stretch out her aching legs and back without an audience for once. The ache was beginning to ease, but she wasn't sure horses were ever going to be her favorite mode of transportation. A side-trip to the cooking fire saw her furnished with a hot cup of ginger tea to try and wake up with, which she took off to one side of the camp, finding a small boulder to sit on and watch the slow creep of the dawn as it made menacing shadows of the mountains they had left the day before.

The camp was only just beginning to stir when she felt someone sit down beside her, glancing away from the looming shadows to find Casandra at her side, sleep-tousled and bearing a steaming cup of her own. The two women sat in silence for several long minutes, neither one feeling the need to fill the air with unnecessary words in the sleepy pre-light.

"You do not sleep well away from him," the Seeker said eventually. "I imagine it is the same with him."

Rory didn't need her to elaborate to understand what she was saying. "He doesn't sleep well anyway," she pointed out quietly.

"Perhaps not," Cassandra agreed, sipping from her cup. "But there is a peace in him now that was missing when we first met. I believe you are responsible."

"That's a lovely thought, Cassandra," Rory murmured in answer. She wasn't sure why, but she wasn't happy to take the credit for Cullen's improvement. "It could just as easily be caused by his acceptance of his role in the Inquisition."

"I do not believe that," Cassandra told her gently. "He is a strong man, but even the strongest need someone they can be weak with. How many ever find a heart that does not judge them for their choices? I envy you both that you have found such safety in one another. It is a rare thing."

For the first time, Rory found she didn't want to deny what might be blossoming in her life. "I just hope I don't mess it up," she sighed, looking down at the dregs in her cup. "He's been hurt enough."

"Then a healer is exactly what he needs," the Seeker said in a soft voice. "He is a good man - troubled, but noble at heart. Sometimes he forgets that."

"I'll try to keep him reminded." Rory lifted her head, looking over at the Seeker in the dim dawning light, seeing the envy the woman had spoken of hidden in her face. "There's someone out there for everyone, you know," she said as gently as she could. "Sometimes it's the last person you'd expect."

She couldn't swear to it, but for just a moment, Cassandra almost seemed to blush. "A lovely thought," she answered, echoing Rory's own evasion as voices behind them signaled another day beginning. "Come. There is still a long road between here and Val Royeaux."

Smiling a wry smile, Rory got to her feet, turning her back to the dawn. It was a lovely thought, that someone who so wanted romance in her life could get it if she only let herself relax into it. And if the game was at all accurate, it would become reality within the year. Now that was worth smiling about.

Chapter Text

The market in Val Royeaux was a world away from what Rory had been expecting.

It was so crowded. In the game, the city market had been virtually deserted, only a few people here and there. In reality, it was a bustling, busy place, packed with people going about their business, haggling with merchants, sharing gossip, passing comment on the arrival of the Herald of Andraste and the Inquisition presence in their streets. Only the nobles and merchants were masked; it was a relief to see the faces of the lower classes uncovered. There were a great many elves, too, but they might as well be invisible to the Orlesians, treated as little more than chattel. Slavery might be outlawed in name in Orlais, but the practice was clearly still in use. Someone had already tried to pickpocket her, an action that had resulted in the boy's humiliation as Helene boxed his ears for his trouble. Now Helene had the Inquisition gold on her person, and Rory had her coat buttoned over her belt, her bag slung across her body and held close to her front.

But despite all this, Val Royeaux was a beautiful city. It was clean and well-kept, the Mediterranean-like buildings brightened by wide windows and gaily-colored silks draped from the rooftops. The whole place put her in mind of Barcelona - bright and open, crowded with people who enjoyed a slower pace of life to the full. With her list and Adan's in hand, Rory and Helene spent much of the day making the rounds of the known merchants, arranging for the delivery of bulky items direct to Haven, and generally making themselves known to all those whose stock would come in handy in the months to come.

Rory also had a little personal shopping to do, still thinking ahead to the disaster that would befall Haven in the not-so-distant future. With Helene patiently walking around with her, she purchased two large packs, a moderate amount of hard tack, a bigger quantity of ready-made bandages, and a large jar of powder to purify water. When Helene questioned her curiously as they tucked all this into just one of those packs, all Rory said was that it never hurt to be prepared. Since she was a woman who was known to hoard moldy bread and maggots against any eventuality, her answer was accepted without suspicion, thankfully.

It was something of a surprise to follow the movement of the crowd and find themselves stepping into the eclectic mix of market stalls owned by various foreign merchants who had come to Val Royeaux to peddle their wares. Suddenly, the voices around her were in a mixture of languages, most of which only sounded familiar. She couldn't tell Antivan from Tevene, lost in the musical cacophony of haggling and conversation that seemed so much more friendly than the somewhat more formal cadence of Orlesian that filled the rest of the marketplace. There were fruits from Nevarra, spices from Antiva, leather-work from Ferelden, glass and intricate metalwork from the Free Marches, even unsettling icons and totems from Tevinter. Every nation was represented, and despite the fact they were on official business, Rory and Helene were happy to waste the rest of the afternoon wandering about to browse the stunning array of goods on offer.

Dipping into her dwindling supply of personal silvers, Rory treated her long-suffering escort to a couple of large peaches from a Nevarran merchant as they wandered through the market, both of them ending up with sticky hands and faces and not caring. A Ferelden trader gave them each leather wristlets worked with the symbol of Andraste, purely for being from Haven, and - not to be outdone - his Orlesian neighbor insisted on letting them wash their sticky skin behind his stall. Helene even managed to forget she was on duty long enough to admire the Tantervale goods as Rory paused to browse a book-stall, the soldier gazing longingly at the beautifully worked charms in metal and leather with one hand on her woefully light personal money pouch.

"They are lovely, aren't they?" Rory murmured to her as she rejoined her companion, tucking a small book of Antivan poetry into her bag.

Helene sighed covetously, drawing her hand back from one sweet bronze of a nug's head. "They truly are," she murmured in answer, dropping her fingers from her money pouch in disappointment.

Bronze and steel shone in the sunlight on the stall, worked into the aspects of animals, both real and otherwise. Dragons, wyverns, nugs, bronto, horses, dogs, lions ... they glittered on the dark fabric laid out over the stall, calling out to the two women as they mutually coveted the display. One in particular caught Rory's eye - a polished steel mabari in mid-stride that made her think of Cullen. He'd always wanted a mabari; she knew that from the Trespasser download. Should she act on impulse? Would he even accept it?

The Marcher tending the stall noticed their attention, scenting a sale in the air. "Fine charms from Tantervale, ladies," he declared cheerfully. "Finest worked by hand, you'll not find better. Ten silvers each - it's a bargain if I say so myself."

It was tempting, very tempting, but Rory only had twenty-two silver in her pouch, and she wouldn't dream of buying just one when Helene was so clearly enamored of that bronze nug. It would be cruel to do that to a woman who had been so patient with her. She sighed, touching the steel mabari regretfully even as she shook her head with a reluctant smile.

"Beautiful as they are, too rich for me," she apologized to the merchant, but he wasn't going to miss out on a sale if he could.

"I hear from your accent you're Ferelden," he said hopefully. "And by your badges, part of the Inquisition with the blessed Herald of Andraste. A poor believer I would be to charge such stalwart defenders of the faith an unfair price - fifteen silver for both charms, and a fine length of leather to wear them upon!"

Helen raised her brow curiously. "You're very eager to sell," the soldier commented mildly. "Perhaps they're not so finely worked as you claim."

"Madam, you wound me," the Marcher answered, but there was a gleam in his eyes as he engaged in the haggling. "Why, this fine bronze nug I could not let go for less than six silver, and the steel mabari, no less than eight."

"Which comes to fourteen," Rory pointed out with a faint smile of her own. She'd never had to haggle before; it was surprisingly fun. "Are you saying the leather thongs are worth a full silver on their own? We could make our own for far less."

"Ah, brains as well as beauty," he flattered her outrageously. "I would, of course, include the thongs for nothing but a smile. Six for the nug, eight for the mabari - twelve for both together, ladies, a bargain for you alone."

He got his smile as he named this price. It was probably still outrageously expensive, but this was an amount Rory could countenance parting with. She reached for her money pouch. "Twelve for both," she agreed, ignoring Helene's shocked intake of breath. "Each on separate leathers, please."

"For you, dear lady, anything," he declared, moving to string the two charms on a pair of brown leather thongs as Rory counted out his payment. "And should any friend or stranger admire them, remember this poor merchant and tell them his name is Aren Romarth of Tantervale!"

"Oh, we will," she promised with a low laugh, taking the two charms into her hand in exchange for the silver. "Thank you, Master Romarth."

"A pleasure, mistress." Romarth bowed to them as they stepped away, already turning to work his magic on another customer.

"You didn't have to do that," Helene hissed, her fingers closing over the bronze nug's head as Rory set it into her palm. "I will pay you back."

"No, you won't," Rory told her firmly. "It's a gift, Helene. For being so astonishingly patient with me today."

"I can't accept this, mistress," Helene tried to argue with her. "I've only been doing what the commander ordered, and it really hasn't been awful."

"Am I going to have to get stern?" Rory asked in amusement. "Take it. I'm not going to take no for an answer."

The soldier eyed her for a moment, finally drawing the little bronze charm to her belt pouch with a reluctantly pleased smile. "Thank you, Mistress Rory."

"Very wise," a new voice interjected, drawing their attention to a robed, masked man lounging in a doorway nearby. "When that one's determined to do you a good turn, there's no stopping her."

Rory frowned suspiciously. He spoke as though he knew her, but no one here should know her, not outside the Inquisition. "Do I know you?" she asked warily. Gods, if he does know me, I am monumentally screwed.

"You did once, little girl," the man said familiarly, reaching up to remove his mask, revealing two mismatched eyes, one of which was bloodshot and clearly made of glass. "You and your sister got me out of Harfoot when the Chantry came calling."

Oh, holy hell, Rory thought in a sudden panic. That bloody backstory is real here. The characters must have met hundreds of ... wait a second. She stared at him as the penny dropped. The village name, the bloodshot glass eye, the insistence on calling her little girl ... she did know him. She'd written him, years ago.

"Granthis Perivale," she said as the name came to her. "What are you doing in Val Royeaux?"

"You'd be surprised what the Chantry misses when it's right under their nose." The man chuckled gleefully. "Especially when the nobility patronize you." He replaced his mask, gesturing for them to come into his shop. "Better question is, what are you doing here? Never thought you'd leave Ferelden."

"Life doesn't always turn out the way you plan," she mused, stepping into his pungent store with Helene at her back, her mind working to remember the details of this incidental character that was apparently thriving and had forged his own place in the world she'd written him for.

Granthis Perivale, born in Wycombe in the Free Marches; elf-blooded human, self-taught alchemist and apothecary; forced to leave the Free Marches after inadvertently poisoning a nobleman and getting himself beaten for his mistake - that was where he'd lost the eye. The bloodshot glass was an affectation; Granthis was extraordinarily ugly even without it. Arrived in Ferelden shortly after the Blight was ended, and made a living selling penny preventatives and virility enhancers until the Revered Mother in Harfoot - a village Rory had made up - got wind of his activities. As she recalled, he had crossed the sisters' path when they'd smuggled him out of the village, past the templars who were searching for him. And had apparently decided to set up shop in Val Royeaux. How fascinating. How many other incidental NPCs of my own creation are wandering around Thedas autonomously?

"Actually, I joined the Inquisition," she said as Helene frowned. "Oh ... Helene, this is Granthis, an old friend of mine. Granthis, Helene - a new friend of mine."

Off came the mask again, showing off the man's grotesque grin. "Any friend of the little girl is welcome in my shop," he said charmingly. "Where's your sister?"

Rory still, thumped suddenly in the heart by the realization of who he was expecting to see with her. "Ria ..." She faltered, feeling Helene's hand touching her back as the words stuck in her throat. "She's dead, Granthis," Rory managed to say. "An accident, a few months ago."

The grin fell from Granthis' face. "Oh, little girl, I am sorry to hear it," he sympathized earnestly. "That's a hard blow."

She didn't know why the sympathy of someone who shouldn't exist outside her own imagination should touch her so deeply, but Rory found herself fighting the urge to break down and cry. It had been a while since she'd thought of Ria, guilt edging her grief as she swallowed hard. "Well, nothing can hurt her anymore," she said, her voice thick.

"True enough," Granthis agreed quietly. "And you're getting on, which is what she'd want. But you must have need of something, if you've come to Orlais with your Inquisition. Anything you need from Perivale's Preventatives?"

The brazen name he'd apparently given his shop made her laugh, pushing her grief to one side. "You actually called your shop that?"

"No, but I knew it would make you smile." The elf-blooded man grinned his ugly grin. "Found everything you came for, have you?"

Rory nodded. "I have, but if I'd known you were here, I would have come to you first," she told him, realizing that she'd written herself a valuable contact here. "Actually ... there is something you could sell me."

His good eye narrowed at her innocently expectant smile. "Why do I suddenly feel as though you're about to beggar me?" he asked suspiciously.

"As one healer to another ..." Rory eyed him with a hopeful glimmer in her gaze. "I could get a lot of use out of the recipe for your penny preventatives." In other words, please tell me how to make reliable birth control.

Granthis studied her for a long moment. "Got a mixed army, your Inquisition?" he asked finally. "And you still hopeless at birthing?"

"I'm a healer, not a midwife," she pointed out, blushing a little as she made this admission in front of Helene. "I'd never ask for your deepest secrets, Granthis. But I trust you to give me a recipe that will work. Otherwise I'm going to have to experiment, and that isn't likely to go well."

"Chantry won't like it," he warned, but he was already dipping his quill to write down what she had asked for.

"Chantry doesn't have to," Rory answered with a shrug. "A woman's body is her own domain, and every woman should have the choice without having to sacrifice what little pleasure she may find in the mess this world is in right now."

"Always knew you were a girl after my own heart," he said approvingly as he wrote. "I'll put the dosages down here, too. Every race reacts differently."

"Thank you." She turned to Helene, intending to ask for the pouch of Inquisition gold, only to find the woman frowning angrily at her. "What is it?"

"Killing babes in the womb," the soldier said in horror. "Stopping them being planted ... it's wrong."

Rory winced internally. "It's a choice that people have the right to make for themselves," she told her escort in a calm tone. "It's my responsibility as a healer to give them safe options. This is how I do that, Helene. It's better than letting them harm themselves in the hope that violence will work."

"You help people kill unborn children?" Helene's horror turned to vehement disgust in an instant. "I'll not help you." She turned on her heel and stalked out of the shop without another word.

"Well, that went well," Rory muttered, turning back to Granthis. "She might report you to the Chantry," she warned with a wince. "I'm so sorry."

He shook his head, dismissing her concern. "I'm protected," he assured her. "You, on the other hand -"

"- can talk my way out of whatever trouble hits me for this," she said confidently, though she wasn't entirely sure she could. "Unfortunately, she's got my allocated gold. I only have ten silver on me."

"You didn't really think I'd make you pay for this, did you?" Granthis asked in amusement. He straightened, handing her the parchment. "I'd memorize that if I was you. Probably best you destroy it soon as you can. Then it can't be used against you."

"You're probably right," she agreed reluctantly, tucking the parchment into one of the many pouches on her belt. "Thank you, Granthis. I hope you don't get trouble because of me."

"If it comes, I can handle it," he promised her. "You're a mite more fragile than I am."

"I'm too stubborn to be put down," she insisted, raising a smile to reassure him, despite her own quiet anxiety. "Take care of yourself, all right?"

"I always do." He smiled, waving her off as she left his shop.

Helene was nowhere to be seen. She'd apparently decided to wash her hands of the healer she'd been ordered to escort, purely on the basis that she disagreed with one aspect of Rory's job. The marketplace was still bustling, but there were less people around now, the stall-holders beginning to shut up shop for the day as the shadows lengthened in advance of nightfall. Rory sighed, hefting her pack up onto her shoulder as she moved into the dwindling crowd. Now then ... which way to the city gates?

Chapter Text

Rory was lost.

She had no way of accurately telling the time, but by her reckoning, she'd been wandering around Val Royeaux for a good two hours or more. She'd left the marketplace behind within ten minutes, trying to find her way back down the main square, only to end up facing one of the many dead ends that seemed to fill the city. Retracing her steps, she'd taken a wrong turn, somehow finding herself further away from the market, which was almost certainly closed up by now. If Granthis was as popular as he claimed, he'd be gone from his shop for the evening, so there was no point in trying to find her way back there now. As the sun set, the streets had emptied around her, and those who still hurried by didn't stop when she tried to ask for directions. At this point, she would have been glad to find a Chantry - if nothing else, someone would be able to tell her how to get to the east gate, from which she'd be able to find her way to the camp set up outside the city. But no such luck.

It was dark, cold, and she was still hopelessly lost. Nothing looked familiar, and she had a nasty feeling she was being followed. Footsteps echoed hers, stopping when she stopped, yet she saw no one when she dared to look around. Rory was achingly aware that she was completely alone, feeling fear start to grip her as another turn took her into yet another unknown alley. She seemed to be walking down back-streets between the villa-type houses, the only light coming from windows high above. The walls were too tall to allow the moonlight to reach her.

As the night darkened, the shadows pressed in around her, and those following footsteps grew bolder. Despite herself, her pace quickened as a low voice taunted her from the darkness.

"Stop and play, little mouse ..."

She broke into a run, even knowing that was what they wanted, panic lending her blind speed toward what seemed to be a lit street ahead. A hand shot out of the shadows to her left, grasping her arm tight as she ran past. Her own momentum was her undoing, swinging her about to hit the wall hard. Her pack fell from her arm as she pushed away, struggling to escape from the trap she'd allowed herself to be herded into. Unfriendly hands spun her about, pressing her back against the wall as a palm smothered her instinctive cry for help. A male body pinned her where she was - she smelled sweat and ale, catching the glint of teeth in the gloom, and reacted without thinking, opening her mouth to bite down savagely on the sensitive webbing between thumb and fingers. Her captor swore, dragging his hand free of her mouth only to bunch his fist and strike her temple with a sharp backhand. Dazed, she sprawled on the cobbles, feeling something break in one of the pouches on her belt. Something expensive, no doubt.

"What're you doing?" she heard a male voice hiss. "Unharmed, he said, or no pay."

"The bitch bit me!" her captor complained vehemently. "S'posed to be an easy mark, this one!"

"She is an easy mark," the first voice told him. "No one here to protect her now. Get her up - those soldiers'll be out looking for her soon. The other one made it through the gate half an hour ago."

Pain throbbed above her right eye as she was dragged up onto her feet, feeling an odd stickiness on her skin that she hoped was just her own blood, and not something dreadful she'd been lying in on the ground. Now there were two figures, crowded in on either side of her - human, she thought, but she couldn't get her eyes to focus clearly enough to be certain. They'd said something about soldiers looking for her; that had to be the Inquisition, right? So if she could just make a run for it, get to that lit street ... The prick of a knife point at her ribs put paid to that idea as the first voice hissed into her ear.

"Not a peep, little mouse," he warned. "Buyer wants you delivered unharmed, but I don't reckon he'd much care if you were dead in the street. Give us trouble, and -"

His threat was cut off by the unmistakable twang of a bow string, the hard snap of an arrow impacting the ground at their feet. Even Rory looked down at the unexpected interruption. The arrow was barely an inch from the second man's foot, the fletching feathers dyed a brilliant shade of red that was discernible even in this light. She felt her attackers tense at the sight of it - clearly, it was familiar to them.

"Shit."

The knife was swiftly retracted from her side as a strangely familiar voice spoke from somewhere above them - female, and laden with antipathy toward the two thugs.

"Little boys playin' with their little toys ... only that's not a toy."

Rory felt the first man, on her right, hurriedly take his hands off her.

"It's just a job," he said into the darkness above them, his tone almost wheedling.

"My friends don't take rat-arse jobs like kidnapping and killing," the female voice replied, still above but somehow closer now. "Thought you were a friend."

"I am!" the man protested, reaching across Rory to thump his companion hard. "Let go of her, you moron -"

"Hey!"

As the second man released her, Rory slid down the wall, slumping in an uncomfortable sprawl between them, her head pounding. She knew that voice, she was sure of it, but her memory just didn't want to cooperate. Red arrows, friends ... it was important somehow, but she couldn't remember why.

"Spread the word, shitlings ... Inquisition's got friends."

Obviously, Rory had missed something significant in this exchange. Footsteps skidded on the cobbles, fading into the distance as her erstwhile attackers ran for it, clearly spooked by something she must have overlooked. Hooking her sleeve over her fingers, she raised it to the ache in her temple, wincing at the sting that told her she was bleeding. That was one hell of a backhander. She jumped at the sound of that female voice, now emanating from very close indeed.

"You're sort of useless, aren't you?" her rescuer commented mildly. "Thought you Inquisition types were all about fighting."

"I'm not a soldier," Rory muttered, angry with herself for needing to be rescued again. Angry with Helene for abandoning her. Angry with the world in general for just being so bloody dangerous. "Don't suppose you can give me directions to the east gate?"

"I don't do that," the shadowy female said in an easy tone, retrieving her arrow. "I do this." She turned toward the head of the alley, where soldiers in Inquisition colors were just visible passing by, and raised her voice. "Oi! Down here!" She leaned down, patting the top of Rory's head as a yell went up from the trio of soldiers now peering into the alley. "See you later, healer."

Rory scowled, but she couldn't really be too put out. Whatever those two had intended to do with her, this unknown woman had stopped them. Not only that, but she'd drawn the attention of a party of Inquisition soldiers, who were quick to collect their healer and her belongings from the shadows and lead her out of the darkness. But if she's so unknown, how did she know I was a healer? I know her, I'm sure I do ... It was just a little humiliating to discover just how close she'd been to the main bazaar and the east gate, only a matter of minutes before they were in sight of the Inquisition camp on the other side of the river ... and within earshot of the angry words being spoken therein.

"... one job, to escort the healer and keep her from harm," an irate Nevarran voice was saying. "Where did you last see her? When?"

The reply was too quiet to make out, but as she was escorted past the sentries, Rory spied Helene, illuminated by the main campfire. Her former escort looked decidedly the worse for wear, her nose and lip bloodied, and her eyes downcast as Cassandra berated her under the glaring eyes of the pacing Herald of Andraste.

"That was hours ago, and only now do you report her missing?" the Seeker was demanding. "Soldiers can be replaced; good healers are in short supply. Anything could have happened to her!"

"Anything almost did," Rory said wearily, smiling a little to see Kaaras lurch toward her as she spoke; to see Varric half-rise from his seat as she stepped into the circle of firelight. "It's not Helene's fault."

"Rory!" Cassandra spun about, concern replacing the anger on her face as she watched the healer ease herself down with a relieved sigh. "I am glad to see you live."

"Are you all right?" Kaaras demanded, dropping to sit beside her, one large hand delicately twitching her hair from the cut above her eye. "What happened to you?"

"I made a friend," she told him, rolling her eyes at the frown on his face. "I'm made to wander into disaster, we all know this."

"Here." Varric handed her a cloth and a water-skin, his frown echoing the Qunari's. "You look like you had an adventure, just like she did." He jerked his head toward Helene, who was still standing awkwardly to attention.

"Thank you." Rory took the cloth gratefully, wetting it to press the cool moisture to her temple and clean the cut. Her eyes rose to meet Cassandra's agitated gaze. "It's my own fault, Cassandra," she insisted quietly. "We got separated by the crowd, and by the time it was dark, I was thoroughly lost. And it doesn't look like Helene had a better time of it than me."

She wasn't sure anyone else saw the guilt-ridden disbelief that flashed over Helene's horrified face at her easy lie. However angry she'd been with the woman earlier, she just wasn't the sort to hold an honest mistake over someone's head, especially when that someone looked as though they were punishing themselves more than enough for it. Robbed of a reason to be angry, Cassandra let out a frustrated growl, visibly deflating.

"Where did you find her?" the Seeker asked the soldiers who had brought her in, as Kaaras took over cleaning the little wound on Rory's temple gently.

"Around the back of the cafe, my lady," one of them reported. "Looks like she almost made it back in one piece."

"Almost," another voice said with an inappropriate giggle. "Healers're useless in a fight."

Rory glanced up sharply. She hadn't noticed the woman sitting on the other side of the fire - a scruffy-looking elf with wheat-blonde hair that had seen better days and cheeky eyes. And this time, she knew who it was, inwardly cursing herself for not remembering sooner. Who else had the pull to call off kidnappers for hire with barely a threat spoken? Everyone should be a friend of Red Jenny.

Kaaras glanced between the two women warily. "Rory, this is Sera," he introduced them, drawing the now blood-stained cloth away from his friend's skin. "She's a ... friend."

Rory held Sera's gaze for a long moment, hoping her gratitude was clear in her eyes. Sera had saved her life not so very long ago, but hadn't mentioned it at all. Why wouldn't she declare the credit for a rescue? "I'm sure she is," she said quietly, offering the elf a slight nod.

Scratching her back with one of her red-fletched arrows, Sera nodded back with a grin. No one else needed to know they'd already met, after a fashion. Still, thank gods for Red Jenny, Rory thought, tentatively touching the little split on her temple. Without her, this trip could have ended very unpleasantly for me.

With everyone satisfied that the two wanderers were back safely, talk turned to what had actually happened to both. Helene, it seemed, had found herself on the edge of the alienage in her search for Rory, and had been set upon by a pair of thugs. She hadn't been the easy prey they'd expected, though they'd laid a couple of blows on her before giving up and running for it - hence the bloodied nose and split lip. The elves who had witnessed the altercation had given her directions to the east gate, and she'd arrived back at the camp around half an hour before Rory herself did.

Rory's own story was dissected minutely when she told it, all concern falling on what she'd overheard her attackers saying. Someone had offered those two money to kidnap her, and probably to attack Helene as well, suggesting some inside knowledge of her role in the Inquisition. Kaaras immediately blamed Chancellor Roderick; Cassandra was inclined to agree, but Varric posited the view that it could have been any one of a number of factions, including the mages or templars. Sera's opinion was that it had been the gambit of one of the nobles in Val Royeaux itself, probably seeking to gain influence in the upcoming election by weakening the Inquisition. Eventually it was agreed that the matter would have to be investigated further, but that Rory would be leaving the next day with the bulk of the camp, ahead of schedule. Kaaras had been invited to a party being thrown by Vivienne de Fer the following evening, or they all have left together with the dawn.

It was only when the camp was still, some hours later, that Rory had a chance to process what had happened. For the second time, she had ventured alone in this world, and for the second time, she had been attacked, unable to defend herself effectively. This second time was all the more alarming because someone out there had targeted her specifically. Who would do that? Why would they do it? Was it someone she knew, a personal attack; or was it a complete stranger who simply believed she had some value? She didn't know which prospect frightened her more, and make no mistake, she was frightened - frightened enough that she felt no excitement at having finally met Sera, one of her favorite characters from the game. Oh, she was grateful she'd been saved, but all she really wanted was to get back to Haven and safety, back to Cullen. He was going to be furious about what had happened today, she reflected as she lay in the darkness of her shared tent.

"Why did you lie for me?" Helen asked suddenly in the stillness, the other occupants of their tent deeply asleep by the time she ventured to speak directly to the healer.

Rory sighed, opening her eyes to focus on the dark shadow that was her escort, lying close by. "Because you don't deserve to be punished for having an opinion that differs from mine," she said softly. "I'm sorry I put you in that position. I wasn't thinking."

"I should be the one apologizing to you," Helene argued in a low whisper. "I abandoned you in a hostile city. And for what? For doing your job." She sighed herself, a heavy sound filled with reluctance. "I had a lot of time to think while I was trying to find you again. You're right. I don't agree with the action itself, but I understand why you need to be able to give people that safer option if they choose that path. The alternatives are dangerous."

It was a relief to hear her say that. Rory had been worried her indiscretion and modern outlook on the subject had lost her the potential of a friend. "Everyone is entitled to their opinion," she murmured into the gloom. "No one is better or worse than anyone else for disagreeing with each other. Can ... can we just agree to disagree on this, and stay friendly?"

"I'd like that very much." Helene's hand reached out to grip hers. "I'm so sorry, Rory. If I'd been with you, you wouldn't have been hurt."

"It's over and done," Rory told her softly. "We lost each other in the bustle, that's all anyone needs to know. And that includes the commander."

"You're too forgiving." The squeezing fingers retreated for a moment, only to return, trying to press a small piece of metal into her palm. "I don't deserve this," Helene whispered, fighting against Rory's refusal to accept the bronze charm into her grasp.

"It was a gift," the healer insisted quietly, pulling her empty hand back into her blankets. "Keep it. I want you to have it." If only so you always remember just how badly today could have gone. Pride and opinions do a lot more damage when you let them rule you. I learned that the hard way; don't follow my example.

Helene hesitated, clearly needing to find some way to make amends, but finally relented, hugging the bronze charm against her chest. "Thank you."

The tent fell silent then, the slow breaths of the sleepers joined by one more as Helene succumbed to slumber after her tense day. Agitated and weary, Rory lay in the dark for what felt like hours, wishing for sleep that seemed just out of her reach. Her heart felt sore, as though she'd been punched repeatedly right there; her throat was thick with tears she didn't dare give into. She wanted to be home ... but home was not so clear cut anymore. Home was modern plumbing, junk food, and proper clothes; home was also hidden smiles, amber-brown eyes, and strong hands that trembled when they touched her. Home was both here and there.

So which did she want more?

Chapter Text

"Stop squirming!"

Sera twisted as the comb passed through her hair, cackling with laughter, and slipped straight off the crate she was perched on, landing in a giggling heap on the ground.

"It tickles!"

Rory sighed, unable to hide her own smile at the elven woman's silly reaction to having her hair combed. She rolled her eyes, chuckling to herself, and glanced over at the tent beside them.

"How are you doing in there?" she called to the occupants.

"This is the hairiest dwarf I have ever seen," Kaaras called back from the other side of the tent flaps, his words punctuated by a fruity laugh from Varric.

"You should have seen my brother, Beanstalk," the storyteller replied cheerfully. "Least we don't smell like a bad winery any more." He yelped. "Watch where you're putting that comb!"

"If you'd stop flexing, I wouldn't stab your nipples so much," the Qunari pointed out, sounding torn between amusement and frustration. "There's no one here to see your mighty pecs, and hairy dwarf just doesn't do it for me."

"You're just jealous," Varric countered merrily. "You're balder than Chuckles."

"I maintain this would have been quicker if you'd let him shave you," Kaaras told his dwarven companion, both of them seemingly unaware of the loud eruption of laughter from outside the tent.

Sera was cackling again, this time at the thought of a shaved Varric, even as Rory wrestled her back onto the crate to try and finish combing through the Jenny's short hair. And thank gods Sera did have short hair, or this would take forever. Combing through her own hair was going to be a job and a half.

And why were the Inquisition party stripped to their smalls at the foot of the Frostbacks, combing each other's hair? It wasn't only the inner circle doing it. Everyone was working on their personal grooming, while various blankets, bedrolls, and clothes were dried after a long soak in lye. The short answer? Lice.

Three days into their journey back to Haven, with the Herald's smaller group caught up to the main party, one of the guards had found lice in his hair. A quick inspection had then found lice on everyone, and infesting their bedding. The source was identified as the bundles of supposedly new blankets they'd purchased in the capital. There was nothing for it - they had to stop and deal with the infestation sooner rather than later, before everyone was bitten to buggery. Rory had to hastily work out what they could use, deciding on vinegar for their hair and a very thorough soak in caustic lye soap for the fabrics. So out came the vinegar, off came the clothes, and everyone spent the majority of the day smelling like a fish and chip shop on Earth while washing out their clothing and bedding.

Not to say everyone had agreed to this plan - Solas and Vivienne had been vehemently in favor of shaving the entire party bald just to save time, but the majority of the forty-strong group had been just as vehemently opposed to the idea, especially when the mages had proposed using fire magic to make the job even quicker. In the minority, the two mages had given in and set themselves to drying out the clothes and blankets, dealing with their own lice in their own way. Sera had to be talked down out of a tree just to get her to allow Rory to treat her hair, and had then attempted to get away with not washing out her clothes. Lice were emergency protein, she'd declared, wielding a frying pan like a club. It was only Cassandra's stern declaration that no one bearing lice would be allowed admission into Haven that finally got the elf to calm down and join them.

It had been a long, tiring, boring day, filled with back-breaking menial work, but as night fell, the job was almost done. The enticing smells from the cooking fires were spurring the stragglers on to get the whole thing over with, eager to get moving again with the following dawn. Sheepish smiles were shared among the mixed group after spending the day shivering in their smalls together, but finally Rory was the only one who needed to wash out and comb her hair. To her surprise, both Cassandra and Helene insisted on doing it for her, making the argument that two could finish faster than one, and she needed to eat, anyway.

Sera grinned at her from the other side of the fire, everyone finally dressed and warm after their uncomfortable day. "Not so useless, are you?" she commented cheerfully.

Rory snorted with laughter, fully aware of how ridiculous she looked with two armored women picking through her long red hair with fine combs. "Oh, I'm so pleased you think so," she drawled, gratefully accepting the mug of hot wine Kaaras pushed into her hand.

The Qunari was watching the combing process in fascination - not because he was fascinated, she was sure, but because this was showing him a different side to the object of his affections. Cassandra was patient and gentle, and already trying to decide how she was going to dress Rory's hair when they were done, a far cry from the warrior woman who had a tendency to punish fennec foxes for startling her with bloody vengeance.

"A good healer is far from useless, Sera," Cassandra told the elf absently as she worked.

"Is if she can't keep out of trouble," Sera pointed out with a diffident shrug, cupping her hands around her own mug of wine.

"She only gets in trouble when she's on her own, Buttercup," Varric felt the need to interject, looking up from where he was scribbling notes on parchment. "Cupcake, maybe we should chain you permanently to someone capable."

Before Rory could protest, Kaaras had to join in. "I don't think the commander would like that."

"Curly's capable," Varric indicated, chuckling as the healer groaned. "You don't like that idea?"

"Oddly enough, Varric, I don't like being a topic of gossip," Rory informed him in a mild tone. "And I'm sure he doesn't."

"You should get used to it, both of you," the dwarf advised her. "Everyone likes a good romance, especially when they can see it happening right in front of them."

"I've already lost this conversation, haven't I?" She sighed, wincing just a little as Cassandra gathered her damp hair into one thick braid, having decided against the more elaborate style she'd been considering.

Varric chuckled. "Pretty much, Cupcake."

"How come no one's taught you to fight?" Sera asked then, curiosity setting her features into a familiar frown.

"I'm learning," Rory said defensively, handing a mug to Helene as the soldier sat down beside her. "I know how to punch someone's palm without falling over."

Sera made a rude noise. "Punching's no good for you," she said in a confident tone. "You're little - gotta learn how to take a hit and fight dirty. And when to run."

"She's right."

To everyone's surprise, this came from Helene, who had been a silent shadow constantly at Rory's side since they'd lost each other in Val Royeaux. She flushed under the sudden attention as everyone's eyes turned to her, but forged on with her point.

"Formal fighting won't get you anywhere, Rory, you'll never get a chance to use it," she told her friend. "I ... I could teach you some tricks, if you'd like."

"So can I," Sera offered. Apparently, Rory counted as one of the little people she was so fiercely protective of.

"We've all probably got something we could teach you," Kaaras agreed, seemingly excited by the idea of everyone piling in to teach a healer how not to get hurt so much.

Varric nodded beside him. "Can't have you always walking straight into trouble when no one's got their eye on you. Curly'll have a fit."

And so began Rory's real education in how to defend herself. They began that night, and continued at every rest stop for the next five days. From Helene, she learned how to use her knees, feet, and elbows in close quarters; when to use her teeth; how to draw her belt knife in a struggle and jab the hilt into an attacker's throat. Sera insisted on teaching her how to headbutt properly ... and also made her practice on Kaaras' solid chest until Rory could do it without knocking herself onto her arse. Varric had words of wisdom about keeping on her feet and distracting her enemy; Cassandra recommended exercises to strengthen her shoulders and arms, and pointed out that anything could be a weapon in a pinch. Kaaras was quite happy to teach her how to use his size against him, something she could easily translate to just about any fight she might end up in. No one expected her to win a fight - this was all geared toward putting an attacker down long enough to run away, and Rory was absolutely fine with that. She didn't want to win; she wanted to survive.

She was covered in bruises by the time they reached Haven, but she was proud of each one of them. Each bruise was a lesson learned; a lesson she was determined to remember. It turned out that even the way she jumped when startled was a reflex that could be trained, and Helene had started on that straight away. By the end of the third day, she'd managed to bruise her elbow on Cassandra's breastplate twice, and no one was approaching her from behind anymore. Helene had also promised that, no matter what her punishment for what happened in Val Royeaux, she would keep up those lessons with the healer. No one wanted to know what would happen if Rory was attacked and defenseless for the third time.

Still, it was a relief to be back in the relative safety of Haven, with its familiar ordered chaos and green-tinged atmosphere. The Breach seemed even bigger after a few days away from its looming presence, the low-lying hum of its thrumming magic forgotten until they were back in its shadow once more. Kaaras and Cassandra immediately headed to the Chantry, to meet with Cullen, Leliana, and Josephine, and go over the events in Orlais - Rory headed for the clinic, sharing smiles with those who greeted her on her way. But despite outward appearances, it seemed that not all was peaceful in her little corner of the world.

"I don't see that it's any of your business who I sit with at meals," Evy was saying coldly as Rory let herself into the clinic.

Pausing in the doorway, she glanced over at Fabian, who was changing a dressing on a recruit's arm. He gave her a look that spoke volumes of his desire to stay out of it, turning back to his work. Rory gave the other desk a second look. Evy was rolling bandages stiffly, glaring at her own hands; Rylen stood beside her, his expression torn between hurt and anger. Neither seemed to have noticed Rory's return.

"It is my business when you're setting yourself up as temptation to men who don't see you as a person, Evy," the Starkhaven captain told the noblewoman through a frown.

"Healer Trevelyan to you, captain," Evy snapped back.

Rylen raised his head sharply, his jaw twitching as he visibly bit back angry words. "There's no talking to you in this mood," he said in exasperation. "I'll be seeing you later, Healer Trevelyan."

"I wouldn't count on it," was Evy's cool response.

Rylen let out a frustrated breath, turning away in defeat. He jerked to a halt when his eyes fell on Rory. She raised her brows curiously, but he only shook his head, rolling his eyes as he stepped past and out through the door. Trouble in paradise, it seems.

"That looked frosty," she said conversationally, moving to set her pack and bag down.

Evy jumped, looking up at her with devastated eyes. "You're back!" she exclaimed superfluously. "What happened to your face?"

"I encountered the seedy underbelly of Val Royeaux," Rory told her in an easy tone, dismissing the thin scab at her temple. "What's been happening here?"

"Nothing all that exciting," Evy answered a little evasively. "We had a new batch of recruits come in, but I wasn't sure I could do that properly, so Fabian did the assessments."

Sending his patient off with a nod and a pat to the shoulder, Fabian rose to wash his hands. "Two came in with spider lung," he reported, "but that potion you got us from the Hinterlands cured them within a few days. The camps are running low on basic supplies, though."

"Then I come bearing good news," Rory told him, hands laid comfortably on her hips. "We've got the basics coming in bulk from Orlais within the week, so we'll be able to stock everyone adequately and keep the spare in the Chantry stores. Have there been any more cases of dysentery?"

He shook his head. "Not since we cleaned the water supply," he assured her. "The sisters have finally started to wash their hands between patients, too, so there's very little cross infection at the moment. I wrote everything up for the assessments - it's all in the box."

"You know me so well." Rory chuckled lightly. She insisted on reading everyone's notes at least once, just so she had a passing understanding of the general health of the Inquisition in general. She tilted her head toward Evy. "What about Gareth and Ara?"

"Discharged two days ago," the sable-haired woman said, only a little tentatively. "Ara's breathing without difficulty now, and Gareth has a crutch to help him walk until he can bear weight on that foot. He's due back tomorrow for a dressing change."

"Excellent. Sounds like you both have things well in hand." Rory's smile was echoed by the pair of them; she was very proud of how far they'd both come. "As to the ongoing boy/girl problem, I have a solution we can offer them, but I have to make it first. Have you found patient zero with the crotch-rot?"

"Narrowed it down to three," Fabian informed her. "But they've all slept with each other, so there's no way of knowing which one had it first."

"Then we'll have to dose all three with the felandaris mixture and hope they learn from the horrific experience." Rory sighed reluctantly. Medicine in this world was sometimes worse than the affliction it healed. "And there's no need to be gentle with the wash down - between them, they infected nearly fifty people. If we hadn't caught it, the whole bloody Inquisition could have ended up with fetid genitals."

"They should be dismissed for their carelessness," Evy said heatedly, crossing her arms as she frowned.

"It's not our place to make that decision, Evy," Rory reminded her in a gentle voice. "We treat what's in front of us without judgment, and pass on information to the leaders only if it will do more good than harm."

"I still don't see why we can't just refuse to treat someone when they've clearly brought their problem on themselves," the younger woman argued. She was having some difficulty accepting that a healer was essentially someone who provided an impartial service.

"So you'd refuse to treat a child run down by a horse because the child should have got out of the way?" Fabian asked, brows raised.

"Oh, don't be ridiculous," Evy scoffed, shaking her head. "Of course I wouldn't refuse."

"So what would you refuse to treat?" the older man pressed her. "We don't always know the circumstances, Evelyn."

"Well ..." Evy groped for an example to back up her argument. "That corporal last week, the one who started the fight in the tavern," she suggested. "It was his own fault he got a sprained wrist."

"But he's a soldier," Rory pointed out in a calm tone. She was used to this debate by now. "By refusing to treat his injury, you weaken him, and put the others he fights alongside at risk. You'd be doing more harm than good."

Evy hesitated. "I hadn't considered that," she admitted. "All right ... what about someone who attacks you? Would you really treat them?"

"I would, and I have," Rory revealed with a wry smile, unsurprised by the amazement on their faces as she shared this. "A man once broke his arm trying to punch me just for standing in his eye line. Just because he missed and hit the wall instead doesn't mean he didn't intend to hurt me. But I still splinted his arm and sent him on his way." Straight into the waiting arms of the police, but you don't really need to know that right now.

"But why?" The whole idea seemed totally foreign to Evelyn, and with reason. As a noble, she just hadn't been exposed to the aggression of everyday stupidity until she'd joined the Inquisition, and she still struggled with just how ridiculous the causes of some of the injuries they treated really were.

Rory's smile gentled. "Because I'm a healer, Evy," she explained simply. "It's my job to fix what I can, whether I like my patient or not. It's not my place to pass judgment on them."

"If that's the way a healer is supposed to work, then why is Rylen so upset with me for being friendly to a not very popular templar?" the girl asked plaintively.

It took a moment for Rory's mind to screech to a halt and take the turn that allowed her to catch up with this unexpected segue. "I'm sensing a story," she mused a little warily. "Hold that thought a moment. Fabs, are you going back to the camp tonight?"

"Thought I'd stay one more night up here," Fabian told her, a knowing glint in his eyes as he smiled at his superior. "Let you settle in properly."

Gods, does everyone know about me and Cullen? "Then you should take the afternoon for yourself, and Evy can have the evening," Rory suggested. "I'll be within yelling distance the whole time, if either of you need me."

Fabian chuckled, nodding in agreement. "In that case, I can hear the mutton stew at the tavern calling my name," he agreed easily, discarding his apron as he headed for the door. Who could blame him? The Inquisition rations didn't exactly make for exciting eating.

As the door swung shut in his wake, Rory turned back to Evy, eyeing her younger assistant with curious concern. "Now then," she said, unbuttoning her coat to hang it up by the door. "What's going on with you and Rylen?"

Evy stared at her. She opened her mouth, closed it, and abruptly burst into tears. "I don't think he loves me any more ..."

"Oh, Evy ..." Rory sighed, swallowing her smile at the melodramatic declaration. The course of true love, and all that. "Come here, and tell me what happened."

She drew the younger woman down onto one of the beds, and slowly teased the story from her. It had all taken place the night before - Evy had been late to dinner, and when she got there, she'd discovered that Rylen hadn't saved her a seat beside him. Feeling slighted, she'd sat herself with Matrin, a templar whom everyone knew wasn't on good terms with the captain, and she'd laughed and flirted with him openly, to the point of refusing to join Rylen when he had invited her to come for a walk by the lake. Matrin had walked her back to the clinic and tried to kiss her without accepting no for an answer; Rylen, who had been waiting for her there, blacked the templar's eye for trying it, and snapped at Evy for encouraging the man. And it sounded like they were both too proud to apologize for this very minor hiccup in their relationship.

"What am I going to do?" the young Trevelyan wept. "He's so angry with me."

"Well, you're not exactly being friendly with him either, are you?" Rory pointed out, feeling much older than her twenty-six years as she spoke. When did I become Evelyn Trevelyan's mother? "It sounds like you've been rather silly, and he didn't react very well to it."

"He always saves me a seat," Evy protested weakly, "but last night, he didn't."

"Is that a good enough reason to antagonize him with someone you know he doesn't like?" Rory asked without sympathy. She didn't like anyone who played stupid games like that; it was disappointing to learn that Evy was inclined toward them. "And no, he shouldn't have snapped at you when you were shaken, but you're both in the wrong. You reacted, he reacted, and now both of you are suffering for it."

"But how do I fix it?" Evy asked uncertainly. "I don't want him to hate me."

"I highly doubt he hates you over a misunderstanding," the senior healer assured her. "All you need to do is swallow your pride and apologize. No excuses, no blame. Apologize; let him apologize; and then talk to each other about what happened. Listen to his side of the story. And if he doesn't listen to yours, I'll break his bloody arm again."

Sniffling, Evy wiped her face with her sleeve. "And you ... you really think that will work?"

"I know it will," Rory promised her. She knew Rylen well enough to be confident of that - he might be hurt and defensive, but he definitely didn't hate Evy. "Now wash your face, and go talk to him. I'll hold clinic until Fabs comes back."

"Oh, thank you!"

As Evy rushed out, desperate to find Rylen and repair the damage between them, Rory drew a hand over her forehead, wincing at the tenderness of her temple through a long-suffering sigh. Ah, the trials of first love. But why was the whole world and his mother coming to her for advice on their love lives? She had enough trouble navigating her own. She touched the very light money pouch on her belt, feeling the outline of the mabari charm tucked inside. And you just made certain you won't have time to see him until at least after dinner. Oh yeah, you're a love genius, all right. The Inquisition's doomed.

Chapter Text

"I'm sorry, I don't have time to deal with mercenaries. Try Lady Cassandra."

The visitor's protest was overridden as Cullen turned away, surrounded by messengers who all seemed to need his attention right that moment. His exasperated gaze rose from the never-ending demand for his time, lighting on Rory where she'd paused on the edge of the circle around him. She had been hoping to catch him for a few minutes after dinner, but no such luck - evidently things were starting to really pick up with the growth of the army, bringing all the logistical nightmares of housing, equipping, training, and feeding so many with it. His eyes lingered on her, the hidden expression in his gaze frustrated by the duties that kept them from reuniting after her absence. He looked under siege, and there was only one thing she could do to try and help.

Inserting herself into the gaggle of bodies around the commander, she waited for a pause in the chatter. "Excuse me, commander ... a word?"

Cullen looked as though he could have kissed her then and there, seizing upon the opportunity to dismiss the hangers on, if only for a few minutes. "Of course, Healer Rory," he answered officially, gesturing for her to step away with him briefly. "How can I be of assistance?"

Aware that the messengers were still close enough to hear her, Rory took the opportunity to shame the lot of them for their disregard of Cullen's own personal needs. "By remembering that the camp and village will shortly be settling down to sleep, and that you should settle down with them," she said, warmed by the merest hint of a smile on his face. "Unless all this work involves the imminent and certain death of someone friendly if you don't get to it right now, it can all wait until morning."

She felt his fingers brush her wrist, hidden from the watchers by the turn of her body. "I do have duties, healer," he pointed out. How does he know me well enough to prompt me without being obvious about it?

"One of your duties, commander, is to make sure you are fit to perform those other duties," she countered, her expression taking no prisoners even as she turned her hand, stroking her fingertip over the prominent pulse in his own wrist. "I'll be coming around here in an hour, and I don't expect to find you hounded by people who should know better."

This, she aimed at the collection of messengers, knowing as well as they did that the people whose words they carried were, for the most part, already settling down to sleep and wouldn't accept any response until the morning, anyway. As the group fidgeted under her disapproving gaze, she felt Cullen's hand envelop her own, warm and grateful and frustrated that he'd have to wait a while longer before he could welcome her back properly. She squeezed his hand in answer, slipping her palm from his grasp as she stepped away.

"One hour, commander."

Turning away, she couldn't help smiling as Cullen reinforced her order to the group who pressed in around him.

"You heard the healer, gentlemen - we all need our sleep ..."

Amused by the half-hearted chorus of agreement, Rory was about to walk away when she caught sight of a familiar stranger standing nearby, his expression a mix between annoyance and exasperation. And no wonder - if Cullen was telling him to try Cassandra, that meant he'd already tried Leliana and Josephine without success. The man raised his hand to catch her attention as she moved away from the group.

"Excuse me ... miss?" he called, and Rory felt a small thrill at just how familiar that voice was. "You seem to have some authority around here - maybe you'll talk to me."

"I'm just the healer." She shrugged apologetically. "They're just frightened I won't be nice to them next time they need me. I'm Rory ... nice to meet you."

"Cremisius Aclassi," he introduced himself. "And healers get things done. At this point, you're my last chance."

Rory smiled warmly, feeling the inner fangirl squeal happily yet again on meeting a loved character for real. "Not quite your last chance," she assured him. "Are you in a hurry to leave?"

Krem shook his head. "Not especially, but I could do with getting moving again before the end of the week."

"I'd suggest catching the Herald on his way out of the Chantry meeting tomorrow morning, then," she offered. Just like in the game. "We don't have a single leader, so everything is decided by committee. Kaaras is the only one who can get them altogether without the need for a disaster first."

"Huh." Krem considered her, obviously deciding whether or not to take her advice. "How'd I know the Herald?"

"He's a little hard to miss," Rory assured the man with a smile. "He's the only Qunari in the village." Krem's snort of laughter didn't surprise her - he, of all people, should be able to spot a Qunari. "Do you have somewhere to bed down for the night?"

He nodded easily. "Got a horse to keep off the chill. Thanks for the help."

"It's what I'm here for," she grinned back, letting him walk off. So that's Krem, is it? Handsome describes him better than homely in real life. No wonder he had no trouble until the corrupt medic mix-up; he's more man than some of my exes have been.

Still, she felt a happy little thrill at the knowledge that Kaaras wouldn't be the only Qunari in the village for much longer. There was a faint concern regarding Iron Bull's Ben-Hassrath observation skills - she was pretty sure her behavior was filled with barely discernible tells that hinted she wasn't native to his world. What would he make of that, she wondered. She still caught Solas watching her suspiciously from time to time, but he hadn't accused her of not having a presence in the Fade since that initial conversation. Perhaps he had found her there, after all. She wasn't sure how she felt about that prospect.

Her feet took her down to the edge of the ice as she pondered these thoughts. She didn't feel unsafe in Haven, but she wasn't naive enough to assume that couldn't change on a knife's edge. All it would take would be one unwary word hinting at her foreknowledge of what was coming, and she'd lose all the friends she'd made, labeled as a spy and a traitor. She'd read that in at least one dark MGiT fan-fiction, and the lesson had been learned. Lying was the only way to stay safe - she just had to hope that Iron Bull wasn't going to out those lies, or her Thedosian adventure was going to become a little too real.

She was still a little concerned that Kaaras was more inclined toward the templars than the mages. On paper, it was a tough decision ... at this point. And yes, he was wary of magic in general, which was understandable. But if he didn't bother to take the false Fiona's invitation to Redcliffe, that was a bad move, in her mind. Neither side was guiltless, it was true, but abandoning the templars wouldn't leave the Venatori's numbers bolstered by some of the most powerful magic users in the world. Not that anyone knew any of this yet, of course; the only way they would know was if Kaaras swallowed his pride and at least pretended to care enough about the mages to go to Redcliffe. He hadn't asked for her opinion, though, so she had no way of nudging him in that direction. Hope was all she had there, for now.

"I should have you -"

Helene's training had paid off a little too well. Startled out of her thoughts, Rory rammed her elbow backward without thinking. Cullen grunted in surprise as she made contact with the solid metal of his cuirass. He then found himself staring as the senior healer of the Inquisition let out a yell of pain and danced away, swearing like a trooper and clutching at her throbbing elbow. Before he had the chance to apologize, her foot slipped on the ice. He lurched forward to try and prevent her fall, misjudged his own traction, and wound up taking her down with him as they both crashed onto the unforgiving surface of the frozen lake.

The breath knocked from her body by the fall, Rory wheezed, still gripping her bruised elbow. "I'm seeing stars," she gasped. "Are they real, or did I hit my head?"

She heard Cullen groan beside her. "I hope they're bloody real," he answered, "or I hit my head, too." Metal protested as he rolled onto his side to check on her. "Are you hurt?"

Looking up into his worried eyes, she felt herself melt just a little at his concern, her mouth tilting into a gentle smile. "I might need mouth to mouth."

He snorted with laughter. "You're fine," he translated with a smile of his own, rising carefully to his knees on the treacherous ice. "Up you come, Healer Rory."

"Anything for you, commander."

With one or two false starts, they managed to get upright and off the ice, sharing embarrassed laughter as each dusted the snow off the other. Cullen's smile faded as they stilled, his gaze focusing on the little cut above her right eye and the yellowing bruise that surrounded it. His gloved fingertip just barely grazed that tender spot.

"I told you not to go," he reminded her in a solemn tone. "Helene should never have let you out of her sight."

Rory softened at his obvious concern once more, despite the I told you so scolding implicit in his words. "It wasn't her fault," she insisted softly, determined to protect her newest friend if she possibly could. "You haven't punished her too harshly, have you?"

He shook his head, though there was banked anger in his eyes. "Not harshly," he promised, his tone suggesting he was already regretting being lenient. "I was sorely tempted to dismiss her entirely for allowing you to get hurt, but the Herald convinced me otherwise."

She felt a small part of her unwind at his assurance. "She's been teaching me how to defend myself," she offered up, as though this might mollify him a little.

"So I've heard." His warm gaze raked over her clothed form, and she felt herself blush. "Cassandra says you're covered in bruises."

"I've earned those bruises," she protested mildly.

Cullen's lips twitched, that kissable scar pulling tight as he almost smiled with more than his eyes. "Come with me."

Like he had once before, she offered no argument, letting him take her by the hand and lead her away from the lake, away from Haven, into the trees to the west of his training ground. She hadn't been this way since before the Conclave, tensing as she remembered how that little outing had almost gone. But she wasn't alone this time - Cullen was with her, and there was no one whose presence made her feel safer. He drew her along the path until they were out of sight of the village, toward the flicker of firelight behind shuttered windows she knew to be a cabin that stood out here, unused.

"Who's using Master Taigen's cabin?" she asked curiously as they drew closer.

Cullen very nearly hesitated before answering. "We are," he told her in a cautious tone, as though uncertain how she would react. "I thought ... well, privacy is not ... and no one else was ..." He sighed, shutting himself up before trying again. "I know your duty to the clinic keeps you there most nights," he said carefully. "But I want ... that is, I should very much like it, if you were to spend some nights here, with me. And that sounds like I'm asking for ... for intimacy you may not be ready for."

"The word is sex, Cullen, and it's not going to make your tongue burst," Rory informed him in her own turn, even as her entire being seemed to mellow toward him. He did this for me. For us. "I ... I'd love to spend every night with you if I could. We'll just have to settle for some."

"I know it must seem very forward to ask this of you, but ..." He trailed off, hopeful pleasure painting his handsome face. "Yes?"

She couldn't help the delighted smile that rose in answer to his moment of incredulity at her reply. "Yes," she confirmed, almost laughing when one simple word seemed to drain the tension from his shoulders. "But ... are you sure? I know you're a very private man, and there's already talk about us -"

"Let them talk." His lips curved in a wide smile at her open incredulity. "Just don't give them any details to talk about," he added, claiming her hand once again to open the cabin door and draw her inside.

"I wouldn't do tha- "

For the second time, he stopped her words with a kiss, pressing her back against the door as his gloved hands cupped her face. There was no haste in this kiss, no need to be wary of unwelcome eyes spying on them; so languorous and tender, that she found herself trembling as her lips parted, offering herself up to this gentle, passionate man who never ceased to surprise her. He took what she offered and gave more, his hands leaving her only so long as it took to remove his gloves.

"I've missed you," was whispered against her lips, a solemn secret only they could know, as she felt the living warmth of his skin against her own.

She rose to claim a kiss of her own, fumbling to discard her gloves, the bulk of her cloak, letting her fingers grip his belt to pull him closer. All those doubts, all that homesickness; it was all forgotten in the immediacy of his languid kisses, the unhurried caress of his hands from her neck to her back, drawing her into the dizzying security of his embrace. Until he pressed just that little bit too hard on a certain place, and she broke contact with a sharp gasp, flushing with chagrin as his grasp instantly gentled, recognizing her reaction as pain.

"I'm sorry, I -" He sighed as she rose onto her toes, brushing her lips to his to silence the apology. "How are you bruised on your back?"

Rory bit her lip, not really wanting to admit to this. "I may have fallen off the horse a few times, too."

Cullen drew back, staring down at her in disbelief. "I'm never letting you travel anywhere without me again," he said finally, fond humor coloring his eyes the shade of top-shelf whiskey.

She giggled, knowing she must seem like something of a disaster zone to him. "I'm not that hopeless, I promise."

He rolled his eyes patiently. "Well, we can do something about the bruises, anyway," he said with a long-suffering sigh, turning away. "Take your clothes off."

Rory felt her mouth drop open in shock. One blunt order, and she was simultaneously tense with shyness and throbbing with lustful anticipation. Wait ... how does sex cure bruises? Think with the fluff between your ears, woman. "I beg your pardon?"

Cullen glanced back at her, the tips of his ears pink as he caught up with what he'd said. "Not for that! Not that it wouldn't be ..." He stopped, taking a deep breath. "I have elfroot salve," he said carefully, holding up a small pot she recognized from her own clinic. "I know you forget to tend your own injuries."

"Oh ..." See? No dominant sex when just cuddling too hard hurts. Even real lions are gentle with their ladies when they get hurt. Embarrassed by the pang of disappointment, she cleared her throat awkwardly. "All my clothes?"

He chuckled at her mild reluctance, and she suddenly remembered how he had described her ingrained modesty as charming. "I need to get to your bruises," he pointed out, but relented in the face of her faint uncertainty. She wanted him, definitely, just ... she wasn't ready for that yet. "Here." He bent, pulling a shirt from a chest by the wall, and tossed it over to her. "That should spare your blushes."

She caught the garment with one hand, hugging it automatically to her breast as she stepped toward the bed. "No peeking," she heard herself say, and inwardly groaned. What are you, twelve?

Cullen's smile was amazingly soft as he held her gaze, touching one hand over his heart. "On my honour," he promised, quite deliberately turning his back even as he began to remove the outer layers of his armor and clothing.

She forced herself to turn away before she could get sucked into watching him undress, turning her attention to undressing herself as quickly as she could. She wasn't as shy as she seemed, but she thought she might spontaneously combust if she had to strip while he watched her. This was not what she had been expecting tonight, but then ... what had she been expecting? A few smiles, a few kisses, to be told off for her misadventure in Val Royeaux ... not Cullen moving their relationship to this next level, and certainly not him playing healer to her. At least Fabian's teasing grin when he'd wished her a good night made sense now; clearly he had been involved in some of the planning for this. And that was another thing - Cullen had planned this. For her; for them. They were a them, a couple, without needing to discuss it at all. You couldn't help loving a man like that. Wait a second ... love?

Pushing that thought firmly out of her mind, she stripped down to her smalls, pulling the shirt he'd given her over her arms to fasten the large buttons. It was clearly one of his own - it smelled of him, ridiculously large on her smaller frame. The hem hung below her backside, the sleeves beyond her fingertips. She had no doubt she looked very silly; she certainly felt a little off-balance, acutely aware of her bare breasts beneath the thin shirt, not used to being this close to naked in the company of a man who could make her melt with just a smile.

She tensed as his hands closed over her shoulders, drawing her back against his chest as his lips brushed her left temple.

"Relax, Rory," he murmured to her, no doubt aware of the way her breath stuttered at his closeness. "Did you know there's a hoof-print on the back of your thigh?"

She laughed, glad to release some of that nervous tension. "I wondered why it was aching."

He chuckled incredulously, retreating from her back to crouch behind her. "Stay still," he warned, just before gentle fingers spread the cool salve over that bruise. "I don't know why I'm surprised you let a horse stand on you."

Grateful for the distraction from the toe-curling sensation of his callused fingers stroking her sensitive skin, Rory felt herself giggle again. "I think I was too busy trying to remember how to breathe," she admitted ruefully, glancing down as he inspected both her legs for more bruises.

"At least I can be confident you know how to fall," he commented, lifting the shirt she wore as he rose to his feet - just high enough that he could salve the bruise on her back. "I've seen you do it often enough."

"That is true, I don't ever hurt myself," she conceded, unable to help the way her muscles quivered at the hot, confident passage of his hand over her back and side. "It always seems to involve someone else."

"Or a horse," he added, letting the shirt fall to turn his attention to the glorious bruise on her elbow. "Surely you didn't hit me hard enough to do that."

"Hmm? Oh, that one's accumulative," she explained, watching as he gentle rubbed the soft salve into her abused skin. "I've elbowed Cassandra a couple of times, too."

Cullen snorted with laughter at her explanation. "And you say I'm no good at taking care of myself."

"To be fair, I never said I was, either," she defended herself, only to feel her breath catch in her throat with involuntarily shy apprehension as his fingers touched the buttons of the shirt she wore. "Cullen ..."

"Easy," he murmured to her, as though she were a skittish horse that needed calming. "I just have to get to this last bruise on your shoulder."

As the fabric opened under his guidance, sliding back to reveal her right shoulder - and probably a certain amount of breast - to his gaze, Rory found her own eyes focusing on the open neck of his shirt, right at her eye-line. Her tongue slipped out to wet her lips as she studied the line of his throat, enthralled by the visible jump of is pulse as the gentle passage of his hand over her skin drew a tender moan from her throat.

Cullen stilled at the sound, and she froze, hardly daring to drag her eyes upward to meet his. But dare she did, only to find his gaze was fixed upon her, dark with unambiguous desire. He twisted away to set the little pot down safely ... and suddenly she was in his arms, strong hands smoothing down over the pert roundness of her backside to lift her up as his mouth ravished her own. She moaned into him, arms and legs wrapping about his firm body, his own throat echoing the sound to fill her mouth with the taste of his breath. There was no mistaking the ardent press of his desire against her own liquid heat, separated only by thin layers of cloth, yet there was no mindless urgency in his kiss. Indeed, even as he bore her onto the bed, pinned between the cool softness of the blankets and the hard heat of his form, his kisses softened, gently easing them both back from the precipice until they simply lay together, nose to nose, breathless, unsatisfied, but content.

He drew his fingers over the cut at her temple, dipping his head to brush a protective kiss to her hurt. "Never again," he promised fervently, rolling to draw her close into his arms as she reached to pull the blankets over them both. "I will never let you be hurt again."

And as she lay there, safe in his arms, a slow smile touched Rory's lips. Who needed toilet paper and indoor plumbing, anyway? This was all she needed - this man, in her arms; her in his arms; together by choice, not design. Cullen's hands, his kisses, his hidden smiles - they all grounded her, gave her an anchor in the storm that was this world and her strange presence in it. This, right here, was home.

Chapter Text

There are few things in life more guaranteed to wake a sleeper than a solid slap round the face.

That was what roused Rory from a peaceful slumber a few hours later - the sudden jolt of the warm body at her side and the stinging smack of a hand on her cheek. She snapped awake in shock, bleary eyes looking around wildly as she registered what was going on. Bed ... cabin ... Cullen. She twisted toward her restless bedmate, catching his knee in her gut for her trouble. Wheezing, she scooted back out of reach, arching to sit up as she considered his sleeping form.

That little hint in-game had not suggested that his nightmares were this violent. But then, the first year of withdrawal from any drug was always the hardest, and Rory suspected that lyrium might be as bad as heroin or cocaine for anyone not born a mage and forced to take it regularly. Cullen's nightmares would likely never leave him entirely, born of real experiences that had shaped the man he'd become, but she hoped that they'd grow less vivid in time. That hope, however, didn't help her now - not with Cullen writhing in remembered torment, lashing out as he moaned fearfully.

"No ... leave me ... leave me be ..."

"Cullen," she called his name softly, not daring to reach out to him, but it seemed the sound of her voice did more harm than good.

His tortured face crumpled with new horror, a gasp ripped from his chest in fresh despair. "Not her ... please, not ... leave her alone, she ... Rory ..."

In the darkness, her breath caught in her throat. His nightmares had changed. And it was her fault. If she hadn't been here, hadn't encouraged him ... she couldn't imagine what he was seeing in the Fade. Yet somehow, it was her, and whatever that facsimile of her being was enduring seemed to hurt him more than memories of his own torture. She shouldn't have spoken. I can't bear this. I have to wake him up. So she braved the flailing of his arms and legs, crawling closer to lay her hand on his shoulder, shaking to try and rouse him. His hand clamped about her wrist, his eyes snapped open, and - for Rory, at least - the world moved.

With frightening fluidity, she found herself hurled back against the wall, his weight on her legs, his hands at her throat. The eyes she loved so much were feral in the darkness, hate and anger and fear combined as his thumbs pressed into her windpipe. He snarled, not realizing that he was no longer dreaming, that this was real.

"Release her," he commanded harshly, venomous dread dripping from every nuance of his demand. "Release her, demon, or I will crush your throat and free her from your torments. You will not have her!"

Panic flared in Rory's eyes as she struggled for breath, fingers scrabbling to try and loosen his grip on her. He had her completely pinned, his mind still caught in his nightmare, unable to shake free. She could feel her own mind beginning to fog, her vision darkening as consciousness began to slip and, in desperation, did the only thing she could think of. She balled her fist and punched as hard as she could, aiming for the side of his neck, for a particular nerve she knew was sensitive. He grunted as the blow landed, swaying to one side at the momentary paralysis that enveloped his left arm and weakened his grip on her throat. Sensing this was her only chance, she bucked beneath him, dragging in great gasping gulps of air as his body weight shifted with her movement. With strength born of terror, she thrust her hands out, pushing him away to scramble headlong off the bed. His hand swiped at her; she heard cloth tear as she pulled free; and finally she was stumbling toward the hearth, snatching up the poker as she spun back to face him, backed into a corner and dismayed by what an echo had driven him to do.

But he hadn't moved to pursue her. Cullen remained where she had pushed him, sprawled near the pillows, eyes wide as he took in the sight of a woman he cared for - pressed into a corner, the shirt she wore hanging torn at one shoulder, dark bruises rising on her neck. He absorbed the poker in her shaking hands, the fear in her eyes ... and Rory watched him break inside at the realization of what he'd done.

"I'm sorry ... Rory, I'm so sorry ..." He slumped down onto the floor, onto his knees, head in his hands, and began to weep hot, angry tears, aghast at what his fears had done to someone who trusted him. "Maker save me, I'm a monster ..."

She hated herself for it, but Rory didn't move. Was it really Cullen kneeling there? Or was it a demon, trying to trick her into lowering her guard before attacking once again? She wasn't sure she'd be able to fight him off a second time. And she was afraid. For the first time, she was afraid of Cullen Rutherford. Each breath in her bruised throat was a painful reminder that, for just a few moments, he had tried to kill her. But would a demon really have let her go as he had done? Would a demon collapse in tears, broken by the knowledge of what he'd done to her? Was he broken by what he'd done? Could she trust this ... this ... Rory sagged where she stood. This heart-breaking disintegration of someone who was having enough trouble holding himself together on a daily basis.

Despite the terrified thump of her heart, she slowly lowered the poker. "N ..." She winced at the broken throb in her vocal chords, forcing herself to cough, to clear some air through her throat. "Cullen ... no."

"Don't." He shook his head, holding out his hand to stop her tentative advance. "You should be running from me. I ... I almost ..."

"But you didn't."

Her voice was barely more than a croak, but she forced the words out, regardless of the pain. No matter how frightened she was, he needed her to be as normal as she could be. He was not solely to blame for the situation they were in. Steeling herself, Rory set the poker aside, compelling her reluctant body forward. She ignored his protest, the hand outstretched to warn her off, easing down onto her own knees beside him. He seemed so weak in these moments, lost in the memory of the violence he had dreamed and the violence he had done on waking. Yet, in spite of that violence, she reached out with one trembling hand.

"You didn't," she repeated, her voice a little stronger now as her fingers brushed against his slumped shoulder. He flinched, and so did she, but she refused to be cowed. "You let me go."

"Only after you fought back," he lamented in a mournful tone. "If that had happened just a few weeks ago ... A demon would have killed me then and there for daring to touch them." He shuddered as her palm smoothed over his back, shaken by her readiness to be so close to him so soon. "How can I ever ask you to trust me after this?"

"You don't need to ask," she rasped, uncomfortably fierce in her reply. "I'm here, and I'm staying. Look at me."

His reluctance palpable, Cullen raised his reddened eyes to her, the anguish in his gaze only made worse by the sight of his own hands' print on her neck. But Rory wasn't going to let him hide away behind one incident that would mean nothing in the long run.

"It's my own fault you attacked me," she told him firmly, one hand touching his lips to still his argument before he could make it. "Listen. I knew you were trapped in a violent nightmare, and I knew I was somehow a part of it. I shouldn't have shaken you. Your body was already tensed for danger, and it reacted before your mind woke up. Next time, I won't put you in that position. I'll find another way to wake you."

He shook his head vehemently, a hardness in his gaze that worried her. "There won't be a next time," he told her in a stern tone. "I won't risk your life like that again. Better to be alone."

The words hit her like a shot to the heart. One mistake, and he's giving up? The hurt crowded in on her as she stared at him, fueling the deep upset in her voice. "Then you're a fucking idiot, Cullen Rutherford," she said brutally. "And you're not the man I thought you were."

Those handsome features settled into a dark frown, only the torment in his eyes offering any sign that he wasn't disappearing behind the mask of the man he had been in Kirkwall. "And exactly what sort of man do you think I am?" he asked, angry with her for her response to his honorable decision.

She flinched back from the anger in him. "The sort of man who won't break my heart because of one mistake that can easily be avoided in future," she answered, swallowing hard as tears threatened to close her bruised throat. "A man who cares enough about me not to toss me out of his life in the heat of the moment when I need him to be the man I care for. Don't you dare try to end this and say it's for my benefit. I'm not running. You are."

"Maker's breath, Rory, how else can I protect you?" he burst out, shocked to see the tears in her eyes. Ashamed that he had caused them. "I'm nothing but a danger to you. What else am I supposed to do?"

Rory stared at him through watery eyes, feeling a flash of her own anger at his somewhat self-pitying reply. "I have been slapped, kicked, thrown against a wall, and throttled by the most important person in my life," she informed him in a sharp tone. "But somehow I'm the one comforting you, and you're pushing me away. I'm sorry to disillusion you, but being abandoned by someone I care for doesn't make me feel protected."

Cullen's angry eyes softened with quiet horror as she laid this out for him, allowing her to watch as he realized the harm he was doing in trying to be honorable and unselfish. She saw the sorrow flash over his face as he registered how she thought of him ... as he remembered how she had reacted to losing Ria. That loss had been sharp and sudden, but she'd been left with no constant reminder to work with every day following. Did he really believe that subjecting her to a long, slow funeral for what might have been was better than the occasional bruise?

"Is this what you want, Cullen?" she demanded, hoarse and tearful, fighting not to be angry with him. He was still vulnerable, just as she was. "Forget the commander, forget the templar - be the man. Do you want to be alone? Do you want me to be alone? Do you really want me to run away from you when you most need me to stay? I know I couldn't bear it. But is it what you want?"

"No." The word was a devastated moan, torn from a man who had never been asked for his own wishes since the day he joined the Order. "I don't want you to go. I don't want you to cry, Rory, please ..."

He reached for her finally, gathering her into his arms as she sobbed, spilling out her fear and hurt as she clung to him. And she felt his tears, too, as he wept into her hair, holding on tight as he reflected on what he had done, and on what he had almost thrown away because of it. How long they clasped one another on the cold floor was beyond either to relate, but slowly the storm passed, and there they still were, fastened in an embrace that promised more than mere words ever could. The fear of him was gone from Rory's mind as she lingered in his arms, soothed by the stroke of his hand over her braided hair, by the comfort that should have come before the self-recriminations and misguided solutions. When she shifted awkwardly, aware of an ache in her back, he accommodated her, lifting her easily from the floor to set her down in the bed once again. Her hand clutched at his as he drew away, frightened that he was leaving her. But no ... he wound his hand into his, keeping contact between them as he hunted through the pouches on her discarded belt.

"What are you looking for?" she asked, the storm of tears having reduced her hoarse voice to little more than a croaking whisper.

"Just a ... ah." Cullen came back to her, sliding under the blankets as he passed a small bottle into her hand. "Drink. I won't accept a no."

She frowned, tilting her head to sniff cautiously at the potion he'd pulled from her sizeable first-aid kit. Predominantly elfroot ... a healing potion. That was a relief. She wouldn't have put it past him to slip her a sleeping draught and try to sneak away as she slumbered. And a healing potion was a good idea - it would wipe away all trace of the damage done to her tonight, and in the days beforehand. A clean slate, as it were, no ugly reminder of the way his hands had almost squeezed the life from her body. There was just one problem.

"Cullen ... you know there's lyrium in this, don't you?" she asked guardedly. After all, that was what made the healing potions so expensive, and so effective; a tiny pinch of lyrium dust to accelerate the potion's curative properties.

"I know," he murmured regretfully. "I think I can restrain myself until morning. Your health is more important than my desire to reassure myself by kissing you."

Rory felt herself smile at his manly sacrifice. The lyrium would be completely absorbed within about an hour, but he was going to manfully not kiss her mouth until morning, just in case. My hero. "I'll just have to be patient, then," she conceded, tipping the little bottle to her mouth to swallow the contents.

It was the strangest sensation. She actually felt the lyrium activate in a rush of energy that flushed her skin from hair to toes. The heated sensation settled into the bruises and cuts that littered her body, burning uncomfortably for a long moment before cooling once more. Swallowing to clear a sense of thickness in her throat, she was glad to note that she no longer felt constricted, knowing without needing to check that all her physical hurts had been healed. She felt Cullen twist away to set the empty bottle safely aside, reflexively wrapping her arm over his waist to keep him with her.

"Easy, sweeting," he assured her, easing to his back as his callused palm smoothed over her forearm. "I'm not going anywhere."

"Promise?" She should have felt ashamed of saying that, but this evening was anything but normal.

She felt him smile against her brow. "I promise. Now go to sleep."

"You first," Rory whispered into the darkness.

He tensed against her, but she was ready for it, stroking her fingers at his side as she pressed a close-mouthed kiss to the flicker of his pulse. Try as he might to out-stubborn her, she knew he was weary, in need of the sleep he was going to try and deny himself just to keep her safe in his arms. But she'd guessed his plan, refusing to abide by it. Instead, she shifted beneath the blankets, drawing his head to her shoulder to pour her fingers through his hair with a soothing touch of her own.

"Rory ..." Cullen's sigh was some attempt at warning her off lulling him like this, but she ignored it, drawing his arm about her waist as her fingertips stroked through his tousled curls.

"I trust you," she murmured to him softly. "With everything I am. You won't hurt me. You won't leave me. We'll get through this together, I promise. But you need to sleep. So trust me in this. Trust my heart to know what it's doing."

Despite the rude awakening they had endured together, despite the pain and guilt and anger, she still felt safe, her fear eased away by his reassuring presence. He needed to accept that and, slowly, he began to, relaxing against her until finally she heard and felt his breath even out, sleep claiming him once more. She smiled into the darkness, wishing him sweeter dreams, and at long last let herself relax in turn, seeking repose with the knowledge that he had got there first. If she was very lucky, he might even think all this had been a disturbing dream. And as she drifted off, a stray thought warmed her heart.

He called me sweeting.

Chapter Text

Her next wake up was a lot more pleasant.

Warm and comfortable, it took a moment to register what was unusual. Cullen's breath on her neck, his chest against her back, his arm about her waist ... his hand underneath the shirt she wore, with fingertips just barely grazing the underside of her breast. And more than that, too. She could feel a certain rigid heat pressed tight to the cleft of her backside. Good morning to you, too, commander. She couldn't help easing closer against him, rewarded with a sleepy groan by her ear as his thighs tucked more snugly beneath her own. And that hand slid up, cupping about a breast that suddenly sported an aching point under the lazy caress of his thumb. Her skin flushed at the familiar touch of his sleeping embrace, an old friend perking up between her thighs to prickle with lethargic lust.

Yet as much as she was enjoying the unconsciously possessive way he gathered her intimately close, she could just imagine his utter mortification if he woke to this affectionate embrace. It would be worse if he then realized she was awake and aware, she knew. So ... should she try to ease away, or should she feign sleep until he roused from slumber himself? The decision was taken out of her hands almost before she set herself the dilemma. Cullen sighed against her bare neck, just barely stretching ... and froze. Feign sleep it is, then.

Forcing herself to breathe evenly, she kept her eyes closed, achingly aware of him pressed to her back, of the twitch of his cock against her backside as he noted the position he found himself in. He seemed to consider the same dilemma for quite a while, slow to relax against her once again. Then, with gradual care, the hot curve of his palm at her breast smoothed away, the gentle pinch of his fingers in the shirt pulling the cloth down to cover her decently before his hand came to rest at her waist, this time over the thin garment. He stilled for a long moment, seemingly studying her for signs of wakefulness, and eventually edged his hips back far enough that his morning glory wasn't prodding her insistently in the rear. Then, and only then, did he lean over to kiss her neck with soft lips.

"Rory," he called to her softly, letting his mouth draw a tender line over her warm skin to the curve of her ear. "Time to wake up, sweeting."

Given permission to be awake, she heard herself moan tenderly in answer to the play of his lips against her neck, offering up a sleepy smile as he chuckled fondly close to her ear. "You stayed," she murmured, her voice gravelly with sleep.

"Someone made it painfully clear what the consequences of leaving would be," he rumbled in an affectionate tone, the wrap of his arm about her waist tightening for a moment. "It's dawn, sweeting. We don't want to miss breakfast."

Rory groaned through a smile, blinking her eyes open. "Oh, the horror," she teased, wriggling to look up at him as he leaned over her. "I'm really starting to hate meat porridge."

A lazy smile was her reward, even as his lips brushed the tip of her nose. "I'm told there's a merchant in Val Royeaux shipping food this way," Cullen told her, just as sick of basic rations as she was. "We may even get bacon for breakfast by the end of the week."

"Mmm, bacon ..." Now that would be worth getting up for. What incentive was porridge when she had an affectionate commander at her fingertips?

Warm, affectionate ... and unfortunately wedded to his work. Not even lazy kisses were enough to keep him in bed. He lulled her into a false sense of security with those kisses, slow and tender, infinitely wonderful, and abruptly pulled away, dragging the blankets with him as he rose from the bed. Rory squealed as cold air replaced the warmth that had enveloped her previously, automatically curling up to try and preserve some of it.

"You're so mean," she whined, smirking at his chuckle. "Is this how you treat your recruits?"

"Yes, sweeting, I personally strip their beds every morning," he drawled, giving her ankle a quick tug. "Get up."

Grumbling about rude commanders with sexy voices, she had no choice but to comply if she wanted to stay warm. By the time she got to her feet, he was already on the other side of the cabin, rubbing soap suds into his stubble as a lather to shave with. It was a startlingly normal thing to see him doing. Of course she knew he shaved - he never had a beard to speak of - but she'd never really linked the lack of facial hair with the physical act of drawing a cut-throat razor over his skin. It was weirdly fascinating.

"You're staring." He glanced toward her, the hint of a smile playing about his lips at her enthralled expression.

"I have an amazing view," she pointed out easily, her own smile growing as he laughed quietly at her compliment.

"Get dressed before you freeze," he advised in amusement, his attention focused on his own reflection as the razor navigated the line of his jaw.

"I thought I was supposed to be the bossy one," Rory complained laughingly, though she was already moving to do as she was told, her legs chilled in the morning coolness.

It was a surprise to see him so relaxed this morning. She had been sure he'd be withdrawn and sombre after the events of the night, braced to weather a storm of self-recriminations and attempts to prove she would be better off without him. But perhaps he really had heard her last night. It was embarrassing to recall how candid, how harsh, she had been with him. The fear was forgotten in the dawn-light, but she knew it would return the next time she woke to find him in the grip of a nightmare. Her mistake had been to touch him, she realized, though neither of them was truly to blame for what had happened. That blame fell squarely on Uldred, and those at the Greenfell Chantry - the first for causing his trauma, the second for failing to give him the help he needed in the weeks and months that followed. Not that you're supposed to know any of that, she reminded herself as she laced her boots. Last night would have been a perfect opportunity to tell you, and he said nothing.

A familiar clank drew her out of her thoughts, lifting her gaze to find Cullen sorting the pieces of his armor in preparation to put them on. A thought occurred to her.

"Wait."

He looked over at her, surprise mingling with curious interest as she rose, reaching for her belt. Her fingers deftly opened the string of her money pouch, closing around something she'd been carrying close since she'd left Val Royeaux.

"There's something you have to put on first," she told him, a nervous cast to her smile as she turned back. "I forgot to give this to you yesterday."

"What are you talking about?" he asked, armor forgotten for a moment as she took his hand, peeling his fingers back to place the mabari charm into his palm.

Tawny eyes lit with curious mirth dropped from her slightly anxious face to examine what he now held. Rory honestly couldn't describe what she saw in his expression - his whole being seemed to gentle as he considered the dynamic piece resting in his hand, the fluid lines the craftsman had discovered in the polished steel to bring the quintessential Ferelden beast to life. For once, Cullen seemed speechless; silent for so long, in fact, that she started to fidget worriedly.

"I found it in Val Royeaux," she heard herself say, more to fill the silence than anything. "It was ... well, it made me think of you, and ... It was probably a silly idea, but I wanted to give you something. Because, you know, we're apart a lot, and - "

He really was growing a little too fond of stopping her words with his mouth, but she hardly had a complaint to make about it. As his arm wound about her waist, she found her arms rising to curl about his shoulders, her fingers smoothing tenderly over his newly-shaven jaw only to fall to his chest as he drew back, his eyes a-glow with a mysterious kind of awe.

"It's remarkable, Rory," he murmured to her, his gaze falling to the charm in his hand once again. "You bought this for me?"

Something about his almost shy incredulity spoke to her, offering a sense of relief that he did like it, that she hadn't done something utterly ridiculous. Her lips parted in a bright smile as she took the charm from his hand, reaching up to fasten the leather thong securely at the back of his neck.

"Every Ferelden man should have a mabari," she told him, stroking her fingers over the shining ornament that now lay against his shirt.

Cullen smiled just slightly, covering her fingers with his own. "I've always wanted one," he admitted, and she felt a flash of delight at hearing something he wouldn't have shared with the Inquisitor for another two years. "I don't know what to say."

"It's a gift, Cullen," she smiled with him. "You don't have to say anything. I did it because I care for you, and ... well, I'm selfish enough to want you to have something that reminds you of me always."

"You mean the massages aren't enough?" he asked teasingly, his smile soon pressed to hers as she laughed at his response. "Thank you. It's truly wonderful. But I have nothing to give you."

"You don't need to give me anything," she insisted, shaking her head fondly. "It's a privilege just to be with you."

He flushed, touched and embarrassed by her earnest declaration. "I think you may have that the wrong way around, sweeting," he mumbled awkwardly, stilled by the soft kiss she pressed to his cheek.

"That's a matter of opinion," she murmured back, finally reclaiming her hand as she stepped from the circle of his arm. "Finish getting dressed, commander. We have an awful lot of gossips to thrill this morning."

His quiet chuckle followed her as she moved to settle her coat and belt about herself, aware of the tenderness in his gaze with each glance he offered from his own task, following her movement as she made the bed and set the cabin to rights. Neither one saw any need to fill their surprisingly comfortable silence with unnecessary chatter, leaving their unsettled night behind them to face the inevitability of curious eyes and whispered gossip together.

The line past the field kitchen was half-gone by the time they joined it, the majority of those already served seated in groups spread across the training ground and up the steps to the village proper, all with a good view of their return from the woods together. Rory was acutely aware of a few stunned looks among the newer recruits at the sight of their formidable commander openly showing a preference for the company of the senior healer. She was also a little embarrassed by the sheer number of knowing grins, too - it seemed as though almost everyone had at least suspected their relationship was a reality. It wouldn't be much of a surprise to see money changing hands, either. But it was Cullen himself who truly surprised her.

As he rose to turn his attention to his duties, he paused, gathering her hand into his grasp to press a warm kiss to her gloved knuckles. "Tonight?" he asked quietly, leaving their breakfast companions in no doubt.

Blushing, Rory bit her lip even as she smiled in answer. "Tonight," she agreed, hoping Evy wouldn't mind. She was amazed Cullen was prepared to risk it again so soon. But that was his way - he didn't shy away from the fear his experiences had left him with. Why should this be any different?

Out here, where all these eyes could see them, his smile was hidden once more, visible only in the taut pull of his scar and the amber-soft warmth of his gaze as his lips brushed her knuckle again. "Until later."

Drawing her hand to her chest, she must have looked like a love-sick idiot, unable to tear her gaze from his retreating back until a familiar voice spoke nearby.

"So ... you and Cullen, huh?" Kaaras was grinning at her from his own breakfast. "I owe Varric four silver - I was sure you were just Cullen time."

Even as Rory groaned at the awful pun, another voice interjected.

"Do not tease, not about this," Cassandra scolded the Qunari. The Seeker's expression was bright with envious approval. "Such passion is to be lauded. And allowed privacy to blossom."

Good old Cassandra. As Kaaras ducked his head, mumbling an apology, Rory offered the Seeker a grateful smile. She could feel Evy and Rylen itching to ask her all about it, knowing she would have to field her assistant's curiosity all day. Perhaps more disturbingly, she was also aware of the grave watchfulness in Mother Giselle's eyes, the vague hint of disapproval ... but at least Cassandra had her back. It was good to know someone did.

Chapter Text

"Are you busy, my dear?"

Rory looked up at the beautifully modulated tone. Vivienne De Fer, her least favorite character from the game, stood in the doorway of her clinic, tall and imposing, and exquisitely polite. Face to face, the First Enchanted of Montsimmard was intimidating, but not in the way she had expected. Instead of the coldness she had always assigned to her, Vivienne's eyes were warm and inviting, disguising her political ambitions and impressive magical power behind a manner that sought to put everyone at their ease. It was actually more worrying to think she might be taken in by it. But, as she'd told Evy on numerous occasions, merely disliking a person was not a good enough reason to deny them her time.

Tucking her notes back into the chest and locking it, she offered the striking woman a smile. "Nothing that can't wait, Madame," she assured the mage, gesturing for her to take a seat. "How may I help you?"

"I should like to consult you on a personal matter," Vivienne said, stepping inside but only far enough to be heard without projecting her voice to the village at large. There was a certain amount of distaste as the woman noted the sound of vomiting from the partitioned off ward. "Would it be possible to find time in your hectic schedule to visit with me in the Chantry? The matter is ... somewhat sensitive."

Rory raised her brows. "I can assure you, Madame, no one here would share anything you choose to speak of," she said, not prepared to give anyone preferential treatment. Even Kaaras had to come to the clinic for his daily dose of massage therapy on the marked hand when he was in Haven. "As you can hear, we have patients, and I cannot in good conscience leave the clinic when I may be needed at any moment."

"Your dedication does you credit, my dear," Vivienne responded, seemingly honest in her praise. She reviewed the situation for a moment. "Would you object to a small spell? Just to be certain that no one hears what is said between us."

Magic. She'd managed to avoid direct contact with magic thus far, but Rory knew that couldn't last. For all her faults, Vivienne was more than competent, and permanently disabling a trusted healer would not be a shrewd political move. Still, best to be sure ...

"May I ask the nature of the spell?" she queried, wondering why her syntax had raised itself several social levels to match that of the mage.

Vivienne smiled, apparently pleased with the question. "It is what is commonly known as a muffle, my dear, though it is more accurate to call it a block," she explained in a calm tone. "Once set, anything we two say within this small space will remain ours alone. You will still hear the comings and goings outside, I assure you."

"And is the spell cast on us, or on the room?" Rory asked searchingly. She might be sympathetic to the mages, but that didn't mean she wasn't rightly wary of magic itself.

"What an inquiring mind you have," the mage commented, but again, she seemed pleased to be asked. "A healthy respect for magic is rare in these times, even among mages. The spell is cast upon the room, not the inhabitants, and I shall naturally remove it when we are done."

"Thank you, Madame." Rory hoped she didn't look too relieved by that answer; offending Vivienne was an easy way to make a powerful enemy. "I have no objection."

Vivienne inclined her head in acceptance of that permission, her eyes going distant as she gathered her energies to cast. A strangely greasy quality settled over the room, muffling every sound that reached Rory's perception, even the sound of her own heartbeat. Yet, as thickly as the sensation settled, it seemed to thin, flowing outward to envelop the room itself. The sounds of the ward and the village outside this little space normalized into their usual faint intrusion as Vivienne's expression clear.

"It is done," she declared, her voice sounding just faintly distorted, like a radio that wasn't quite tuned correctly. "Now then, my dear, to work." She moved gracefully to take a seat with Rory at the desk. "I have need of your healing knowledge to help me end a miserable life."

To say Rory was shocked was an understatement. Evening knowing what she did of Vivienne's personal quest, it was disquieting to note how very matter-of-fact the woman was about it. "Madame, I am a healer," she felt the need to point out. "Death is not my first port of call."

"Yet when nothing else can be done and the life that remains will be agony, death is your gift to give," Vivienne countered smoothly.

"Are you certain you have reached that point?" Rory asked with an inquisitive frown. "Could you give me the details before asking me to help you kill someone, at least?"

To her everlasting surprise, the First Enchanter's eyes filled with tears. "Everything has been attempted," she confessed in a bleak tone of despair. "Exquisite magics now only cause pain; those herbs and potions known for their efficacy have no effect. I fear my own efforts have done nothing but lengthen his suffering. Oh, my dear, I cannot bear to see him brought so low!"

Bloody hell, she really does love him. What did she do to make his death linger for so long? But Rory didn't ask. Instead, she drew her chair closer to Vivienne's, laying her hand over the woman's trembling fingers. "Madame ... try to be calm," she urged gently. "I know it is difficult, but I need to know. There might be something we could try yet."

Vivienne had never struck her as the sort to accept comfort offered, but the mage clung to her hand, gripping tightly as she drew in slow breaths to calm herself. Not one tear fell, but they remained there, behind her eyes. This was a raw, vulnerable side to the woman Rory could not have predicted. In the game, it had always seemed as though Vivienne was only really interested in the power and influence her liaison with Duke Bastien offered her, yet here and now there was no denying the very real grief she felt at the loss of the man himself.

"It began several years ago," Vivienne told her, almost hesitantly. "He was taken unexpectedly with the falling sickness. He seemed to recover, though it left him with a weakness in his right side. That might have been simple to overcome, but a few months later, he suffered a fit of apoplexy. His speech became clurred, and for several days, he was unable to rise from his bed.The apoplexy had never left him - since then, he has suffered many such fits, and each time his recovery is slower than the last. We have consulted mages, healers, even heathens, yet nothing has worked to reverse the damage done. Then, last month, he was struck down by a fit that has left prostrate, barely able to move. I am at my wit's end, Healer. All there is left is to give him an end with some dignity."

As she spoke, Rory struggled to properly understand the true diagnosis. Apoplexy is what they used to call epilepsy, so he has uncontrolled epilepsy, brought on by ... What the hell is falling sickness? She said something about it leaving him weak on his right side, so ... that's a stroke. Fuck it, I don't know anything about neurological ailments long-term. But she did remember some small details from the game that might help.

"There is a potion that might save him," she said carefully. "But, equally, it might kill him. I've never seen the recipe myself, but I do know it requires heating by a magical flame and the addition of a snowy wyvern's heart at the last stage of preparation. I'm afraid that's all I know, but I've heard from healers I trust that it's one of the most powerful rejuvenation potions ever to be devised."

"That ... does sound familiar," Vivienne mused in a thoughtful tone. "A kill or cure, certainly. I do believe I may have seen this recipe of yours, in an old Tevinter medical text in the Montsimmard library. If I could find it, would you be willing to assist me in creating this potion?"

Rory drew in a slow breath as she considered this, but honestly, she already knew her answer. "Madame, if there is even a chance of saving your friend, then I will do whatever I can to help," she promised softly. "But please ... don't let your hope rise too high. He may be too weak for the potion to do anything more than stop his heart."

"Yet even that would be a release from the prison his body has made for him," Vivienne answered unhappily. "Thank you, my dear. Health or death is a far better choice than a full guarantee of death."

"I'm sorry I can't do more," Rory murmured regretfully.

"Nonsense, my dear," the First Enchanter said in a brisk tone. "You did not waste my time as others have done, suggesting everything that has already been tried, nor did you insist upon knowing exactly who I speak of. Such confidence in myself and knowledge of your own art is very much appreciated." She glanced up, straightening her back. "But I have kept you too long from your duties. Forgive me, darling. I shall not trespass further upon your precious time."

With a snap of the mage's fingers, Rory felt the odd distortion in the air around them cease, recognizing the release of the spell that had guaranteed Vivienne's privacy. She rose with the elegant mage, wiping her hand over her own hip.

"I hope I've been of some help, at least," she offered, walking the woman to the door.

"On the contrary, my dear, you have given me new purpose," Vivienne assured her, stepping out into the wintry village. "This young Inquisition is lucky to have a healer who cares more for the well-being of her people than protecting trade secrets."

"I can think of at least one healer who would call me an idiot for it," Rory replied in amusement, the ugly specter of Granthis rising in her mind. He would be horrified at her giving up even vague knowledge of an extremely rare potion to a non-healer, she was sure.

"Better an effective idiot than a foolish hoarder," was Vivienne's comment on that. "Do try not to work too hard, my dear. The commander will not like it."

That's the Vivienne I was expecting - smug and condescending, and suggesting she knows more about Cullen than I do. But after that strangely privileged glimpse of the woman behind the imposing mask, Rory found the persona made her smile rather than frown. She watched the First Enchanter walk away, turning back to the clinic herself. It was about time Evy got a break from ward duties, anyway.

A few hours later, Rory found herself giving very serious thought to her current need for at least one more pair of hands for this little ward of hers. A minor bout of something very like 'flu had hit Haven - all six of the beds were occupied by those hit hardest. Keeping on top of regular obs, cleaning the bedpans and sick bowls, changing the sheets, and making sure the fevers weren't running out of control twenty-four hours a day was really too much for just two people to handle; on top of that, they still had visitors to the clinic with minor injury and other complaints, not to mention the various dressing that had to be checked daily. Ideally, she needed a nursing staff specifically for the clinic ward ... and that probably meant lay sisters from the Chantry. As much as she disliked the idea of letting Mother Giselle's eyes and ears into her clinic, the health of her in-patients required her to swallow her pride and ask for help, preferably before Evy wilted away in front of her. No, there was nothing for it; she had to have help. Tomorrow, she'd have to approach Giselle and ask.

It was a shame she couldn't take Kaaras along with her, really. The Qunari clearly intimidated the woman, whether he meant to or not, but he was leaving for the Storm Coast at dawn, taking Sera, Solas, and Cassandra with him. No decision had yet been reached on whether to approach the mages or the templars for help with the Breach, but Rory had planted the idea of scouting Redcliffe village when he was looking for Blackwall. Someone else with secrets. She had faith that Kaaras would not simply stand back and give the mages up to Alexius once he knew what was going on. And, of course, that would bring Dorian to Haven. Of all the companions, he was the one she was most looking forward to meeting. Who knew if he'd even like her, but she hoped he would. She needed someone she could confide in, and Dorian, with his awareness of alternative magics, was the one least likely to instantly point the finger of blame if she let a little too much slip.

"You're looking a wee bit exhausted there, Ror," Rylen's voice broke into her thoughts. "Isn't even full night yet."

She looked up, smiling to see her friend walking into the clinic with a steaming bowl of stew in one hand and a hunk of bread in the other. "Is that for me?"

"Aye, commander's orders," he told her. "You missed dinner again."

"Too much to do," was her only excuse, her stomach rumbling as she took the meal from his hands. She couldn't keep the smile on her face from softening at the knowledge that Cullen had found the time to order someone to make sure she ate. Soppy kitten that he is.

"You need more hands," Rylen pointed out, taking a seat beside her as she ate. "Evy's dead on her feet, and you're not much better."

"I'll ask tomorrow," she promised through a mouth of bread and meat. "Thank you for looking after her."

"She's my wee bonny," he said easily. The fondness in his voice spoke volumes of how he felt about Evelyn Trevelyan. "Never thought to have someone so sweet to call mine. Taking care of her's easy as breathing. You're the one we're worrying over."

"We?" Rory asked in a bemused tone.

"Aye, we," he agreed. "Not just the commander, either. You've many watching you spread yourself too thin, Ror. We don't like it."

"It won't last forever," she told him in a confident tone. "The ward will be empty again by the end of the week."

"And you'll do the same again next time there's sickness," her friend predicted sternly. "Don't give me that guff. You're terrible at looking to yourself, and it shows."

"I prefer to keep busy," she tried to argue, but he was right. She felt like Bilbo Baggins - like butter scraped over too much bread.

"Keeping busy'll kill you," Rylen informed her, pulling no punches. "And that'll kill Cullen. He needs you, Rory. And we need him."

She sighed softly, knowing he was right there, too. The Inquisition needed Cullen, and he did seem to need her. "Tomorrow," she promised once more. "I'll arrange for help tomorrow."

Rylen eyed her for a long moment. "Mind you do," he said at last, "or I'll do it for you. I'm not having my best girls run down by duty. I've seen that happen too many times."

His words stayed with her long after he left, haunting her mind as she settled her patients and curled up on her hard bedroll to snatch a little sleep before they needed her again. The implication almost frightened her. Somehow, she had become integral to the Inquisition. Just what was that going to do to the story? Only ... it wasn't a story, not any more. It was real. There was no checkpoint, no opportunity to reload and try again. She couldn't keep this pace of work up forever, and everyone knew it. It was time to truly accept her place here, and do what she needed to do to be the best she could possibly be. Preferably before someone else did it for her.

Chapter Text

"I actually have no idea if the compound will be stable in storage - the mixture could become highly volatile if left too long."

Rory nodded as Minaeve spoke. "So this is something we should be making fresh each time it needs to be applied?" she queried curiously.

"It's not ideal, I know," the elven researcher told her. "But the consensus among the Tranquil is that this may be the only way to neutralize the toxin that the greater shades secrete."

"Well, it's infinitely better than watching someone die in horrific pain," Rory mused, blotting her notes to roll them up. She enjoyed her regular meetings with Minaeve; the novice mage might be caustic, but she definitely knew her stuff. "Did the witherstalk ointment help with the chemical burns?"

"Oh, it did," Minaeve agreed, with the merest suggestion of a satisfied smile. "We added a drop of ram's blood, and that accelerated the pain-relieving aspect. Strange, but effective."

"I never would have thought to add blood," Rory admitted, fascinated by this previously unknown combination. "Another odd ingredient to keep in stock."

"Don't buy it from Seggrit," the researched warned suspiciously. "Half of what he supplied at the beginning was useless."

"No fear of that." Rory laughed. "He won't even acknowledge my presence since I slapped him."

Minaeve's lips pulled taut in a rare smile. "I'm still sorry I missed that. Was there anything else you needed?"

Rory shook her head with a smile of her own. "No, I'll let you get back to work. Thank you."

"It's what I'm here for, healer."

Tucking the scroll up her sleeve for now, Rory nodded to Josephine as she left the room, stepping into the nave of the Chantry to find Chancellor Roderick in full oration. The subject wasn't immediately clear, but the man seemed to have gathered specific people to hear him speak this time. Cullen was there, as was Leliana, both looking as though they would dearly like to shut the chancellor's mouth in a less than polite manner; Mother Giselle was also present, together with Sisters Teres and Minah. No doubt Vivienne was lurking in her alcove, listening with interest.

"I find it fascinating, chancellor," Leliana was saying, "that you chose to bring this up when both Cassandra and the Herald are away from Haven."

"I cannot predict when the evidence will be brought to me," Roderick replied in his officious way. "Nor can I stand by and do nothing when such evidence is presented."

"The Chantry does not have authority over the Inquisition," Cullen reminded him yet again. "You have no power here to accuse one of our own."

"With respect, commander, yours is not an impartial voice in this debate," Mother Giselle interjected mildly.

"Perhaps we should worry less about partiality, and instead invite the one whom you have accused to speak for herself," Leliana suggested, her pale eyes rising from the little gathering. "Healer Rory ... join us, please."

Alarm flared in Rory's mind as she automatically moved to obey the Left Hand of the Divine. Accused? What have I been accused of? She could think of any number of things that had rubbed people up the wrong way, but she was pretty sure she hadn't done anything major enough to warrant officially sanctioned Chantry hostility. Unless all of it put together somehow made her a threat.

"Chancellor Roderick, everyone should have the right to defend themselves," Leliana went on. "This is your opportunity to see if your evidence holds water."

Scowling, Roderick turned his stern gaze onto Rory. "You stand accused in the Maker's eyes of heresy, healer," he said with a flourish. "Were this a court of law, how would you plead?"

Rory stared at him, her mouth open. That certainly hadn't been on her list of things to worry about. Heresy? Seriously? That was surely scraping the bottom of the barrel. Her mouth shut with a snap. "Not applicable," she told him firmly. "Who accused me?"

"There is no need for you to know such a thing," the chancellor informed her, but Leliana ignored him.

"Mother Giselle and her lay sisters here have laid the charge against you," the spymaster said calmly.

"Did they really." Rory's unfriendly gaze turned to take in the three robed women. "So I've been accused of heresy by a revered mother who objects to my refusal to bow to her every whim; a sister who makes a habit of trying to steal confidential notes from my clinic; and another sister who almost killed someone three days ago because she decided she knew better than me how much medicine to give someone. Three people, in fact, who don't like me. And their word is considered evidence against me?"

"The word of any member of the Chantry is ..." Roderick trailed off as his brain caught up with his ears, aghast eyes snapping toward the lay sisters. "Almost killed someone?"

Giselle, too, had twisted to look at Sister Minah. "I was not aware of this."

"No one was," Rory said, her voice cold with anger. "Because we were able to correct the mistake, and the sister seemed willing to absorb the lesson it taught her. Evidently my trust was poorly placed."

"Is this true, Minah?" Giselle asked of her inferior coolly.

Sister Minah fidgeted awkwardly. "I ... made a mistake," she admitted finally. "But my report was accurate, mother!"

"Yet by omitting important detail, you render your evidence untrustworthy," Roderick glowered in annoyance. "Even I know that certain violence is required to purge a stomach. Your tale, sister, is inadmissible."

"As to the words of Sister Teres, I can confirm the healer's suspicion," Leliana added with cool confidence. "The sister has been seen several times attempting to break into the chest where the healer keeps her confidential notes on us all."

Roderick didn't need to let that sink in - he'd been treated not too long ago for a somewhat embarrassing complaint of his own. He knew Rory had notes on him in that chest. "This is your evidence, mother Giselle?" he asked sternly. "The word of a thief and a would-be killer?"

"I stand by my own testimony, chancellor," Giselle stated, her lined face set in what might almost have been anger at the way her seemingly solid accusation had crumbled around her. All credit to her, though, she kept on her course. "This woman is a heretic. She does not sing the Chant, nor does she attend services. She does not pray, even if her patients would benefit from it. She does not show deference to the Chantry, or to Andraste's holy representatives."

"The Chantry has done nothing to earn my deference," Rory heard herself snarl, flaming anger rising to replace the cold at this self-serving accusation.

"You accuse her of being a heretic, yet nothing you say points toward heresy," Cullen pointed out, his expression grim. "All I hear is the false accusation of a woman who believes herself superior."

"Your opinion of this woman cannot be trusted." Giselle frowned at the commander. "Your attachment to her could implicate you in her wrongdoing."

"And your attack is nothing but the spiteful vengeance of a woman who isn't used to not getting her own way," Cullen countered smartly.

"Enough!" Roderick glared at them both until they backed down. His frowning gaze found Rory. "Healer, we can settle this with one question ... do you believe in the Maker?"

She met his gaze in silent fury at the way ego had been allowed to put her in this situation. Her religious belief, or lack of it, was no one's business but her own. "No, chancellor, I don't," she told him fiercely. "I don't believe in the Maker, the elvhen gods, the Stone, or even Koslun."

"Then you are no heretic. There cannot be heresy without belief." He sighed, shaking his head. "There is no point in pursuing this."

"And you would trust such a person with the well-being of the people?" Giselle demanded incredulously, clearly not prepared to just let it go. "A person with no spiritual element to their being is unfit to be a healer."

"Better an atheist who knows what she's doing than a fanatic who doses weak men with four mouthfuls of undiluted poppy juice!" Rory shot back at her, unwilling to let that insult pass.

"I demand to know why you have no belief in the most Holy of Holies," Giselle persisted, looming over the healer as she took a step closer. "Why you think yourself above such a fundamental truth as the Maker's love for Andraste and us all."

Cornered and angry, something in Rory cracked. "Because unreasoning belief in a higher power killed my brother!" she snapped in response. "He was ten years old - a cut on his leg got infected, and prayer, the only thing my parents would give him, didn't save his life. Why should I believe in a being who keeps his followers ignorant and condemns a child to a needless, painful death?"

Giselle stared at her, all her high dudgeon fled in the face of the answer she had sought. She had clearly been expecting some other reply - an evasion, perhaps, or even a selfish declaration that gods weren't real. But no ... Rory had good reason not to believe. She glared at the Revered Mother, furious with herself for the tears in her eyes, her heart rubbed raw by the memory she'd been forced to share. How dare they assume her reasons were selfish ones, just because they had a faith she lacked?

She turned to Cullen and Leliana, both of whom seemed shocked by what she'd been badgered into sharing.

"I want the Chantry out of my clinic," she told them harshly. "They can't be trusted."

"You are not in a position to make such demands," Roderick blustered, but abruptly stilled when Cullen rounded on him.

"You have abused your position, chancellor, by allowing this farce to go on for so long," the commander growled. "This has been nothing less than a sustained personal attack. I will be placing a guard on the clinic. No member of the Chantry will be allowed entry without invitation by the healers themselves. This has gone on long enough."

"Indeed," Leliana agreed coldly. "We are done here. Mother Giselle; Sisters Teres, Minah ... a word."

Steaming with unexpressed anger she had been holding onto for more than a decade, Rory turned on her heel, storming toward the doors that lead out into the village. They opened before her - thank you, Vivienne - and she continued out into Haven, her fists clenched and her expression black.

How dare they? How dare they think they were better than her, just because they believed? Her parents had believed, too - believed so much that they had watched their son die for lack of medical care and called it divine will. Her refusal to accept that had turned them against her; it was the reason, in fact, that she'd run away at fourteen. And she'd slowly come to terms with the understanding that faith was a comfort to many people, learning not to judge them badly for it. Yet these so-called priests, so certain in their faith ... She didn't even have words for them. They truly thought themselves her betters, when most of them wouldn't even raise a hand to help if someone collapsed in front of them. It was infuriating. How could they possibly put themselves on a par with Sister Carys in Frosthelm, or Mother Lisl, or Divine Justinia - all truer representatives of Andraste the Maker than those power-hungry wolves.

Evy took one look at her expression when she entered the clinic, and wisely decided not to ask what was wrong. Anger like that was not to be prodded, certainly not in front of patient. She simply kept her head down and applied herself to her duties, not even speaking up when Rory shut the door on Cullen's attempt to cajole her out of her black mood. Suffice it to say, it was not a comfortable afternoon for either healer. Yet dinnertime brought a surprise.

Rory had sent Evy to dinner, still too worked up herself to eat. Alone in the clinic with two sleeping patients, she was startled when the door opened to admit Cullen, Fabian, and four others she didn't know.

"What's going on?" she demanded, her voice hushed to avoid disturbing her patients.

"You're taking the night off, I'm training some nurses for you," Fabian told her promptly. "This is Netta, Luis, Andra, and Melcor, and by morning, you'll have a rota in place that keeps you and Evy from falling off your feet."

"Now wait just a min- "

"You missed dinner, again," Cullen told her sternly. "I will not allow that to become a habit. Now, are you walking, or am I carrying you?"

Rory frowned at him, not appreciating the way she was being steamrollered. "I'm not leaving the clinic, I have too much to -"

"Carrying it is." In one smooth motion, Cullen bent and hoisted her over his shoulder, turning to make his way out of the clinic even as she flailed.

"Put me down," Rory demanded, her banked anger flaring as they passed the tavern and she caught sight of Varric's grin. "I mean it, Cullen, put me down!"

"No." That was it, just no. No explanation of why, or even where he was taking her, though that much was easily discernible when he turned right out of Haven and joined the path into the woods.

"This is humiliating," she informed him tartly, her breathing a little constricted by the press of his shoulder into her diaphragm.

"You're not fighting to get down," he pointed out with annoying confidence.

"What's the point?" she countered, her own tone resigned. "It's a long way to fall from up here, and knowing my luck, I'd break something important. Like your neck."

"Your concern is overwhelming."

Ducking to get into the cabin, he locked the door before bending to set her on her feet, looking long into her eyes with a serious gaze. Whatever he saw there seemed to satisfy him, because he turned her about, giving her a push toward a table in front of the fire laid with a plated meal.

"Sit. Eat."

In sullen acquiescence, she did as she was told, eating the plate of roasted meat and vegetables in silence. All the while, he watched her, not saying a word himself. Part of her resented the heavy-handed coddling; part of her appreciated that he seemed to know her so well. She was quite capable of skipping several meals when her mood was this low, and it was strangely reassuring to know that Cullen clearly wasn't going to let that happen. He made sure her cup stayed full, only moving to sit beside her when she had finished every morsel and sat in steaming silence in the firelight.

"Now," he said quietly, in a tone that brooked no argument. "Talk to me."

Chapter Text

Rory shook her head stubbornly. "There's nothing to talk about."

Beside her, Cullen nodded easily, not pushing for words. "All right," he conceded, reaching to pour himself a drink from the jug. He cupped it in both hands, staring into space as he waited.

The silence dragged on, neither one of them speaking. Outside, there was only the sound of the wind against the shutters; inside, the occasional crackling pop from the logs on the fire. Rory glared at the cup in her hands, hating this helpless feeling in the face of the anger roiling inside her. She couldn't remember feeling like this, not since her brother had died. Then, it had lasted a full year; this agitated, restless temper that soured her mood and made her all but impossible to live with. She'd thought she had grown out of it, let it go, but no ... it was still there, festering in her soul, biding its time with destructive patience for the chance to explode once again.

"Why does it matter?" she burst out, when the silence became too much to bear. "What I believe in has no bearing on whether or not I am good at my job! I don't force my opinions on anyone - why should it make any difference whether I believe in the Maker or not?"

"It shouldn't matter," Cullen said in a mild tone. "But religion is central to our lives, to the lives of all the races. Many people don't understand how someone can choose not to believe."

"And are you one of them?" Rory demanded, wishing she didn't sound so aggressive. "Does this somehow make me less in your eyes?"

"Only if my belief lessens me in yours," he told her, speaking carefully. It seemed as though he didn't want to prod that temper into a true explosion.

"When have I ever shown disrespect for anyone's beliefs?" she exclaimed, hurt that such an idea would even cross his mind. "It's not my place to say what you should believe in; it's not anyone's place to decide anything for you. Faith, real faith, is a gift, and it's one I was never given. My parents poisoned the whole concept for me - they used their faith against me when I doubted. You know what they told me when I left? That I was condemned in the eyes of their god, and deserved to live a miserable life alone for turning my back on him."

"That isn't faith," he said quietly. "Not true faith. No one who truly believes in the Maker would ever say such a thing. He gave us the means to think for ourselves; doubts are a natural consequence of that."

"And religion is supposed to help you overcome those doubts with structure and compassion," she answered heatedly. "Not beat you with duty until you'll say anything to make it stop. I was thirteen when my little brother died because of a religious practice ... and it was my fault."

"Rory ..." Cullen's hand covered her own as her anger showed itself, not in harsh words and temper, but in a sudden flood of guilty tears.

"It's true, it was my fault," she insisted, sniffing violently as she wiped away the first fall of those tears with a rough hand. "I'm the reason he got hurt at all. He wanted to play, and I just wanted him to leave me alone. I pushed him, and he fell onto some broken glass. And three days later, he was dead."

Cullen said nothing, somehow sensing that she needed to say it all. That was why he had brought her out here, why he had pulled Fabian from his duties in the pilgrims' camp for the night. She had been holding onto this for too long. She needed someone to listen.

"I begged them to take him to a doctor," she went on blindly. "It wasn't like they couldn't afford to get him the best care money could buy, but no, they were sure it was God's will, and that Lorcan's fate had already been decided. So I prayed. I prayed so hard; I cried and I begged; I promised to be better, if only my little brother would get well again. And instead, I watched him die, all because I wanted an hour to myself. You know, they didn't even cry? It was divine will, they said. He was obviously born just to die that way. What kind of god does that?"

"No god I know of," he murmured, both hands now enveloping her one. She couldn't bear to look at him, afraid of seeing pity in his eyes.

"I loved my little brother," she told him, saying it aloud for the first time in years. "And instead of letting me grieve, their priest told us to live as though he'd never existed. They got rid of everything, because their religion demanded it. I was punished any time I mentioned him. According to that priest, I was wicked for not accepting the truth as he saw it. I hate that I tried to forget him. I hate that I was so desperate for their approval that I tried so hard to wipe that little boy from my mind. But I couldn't do it. In the end, I wouldn't do it. And they threw me out." She drew in a sharp breath, dashing at the salt water dripping from her chin. "So no, I don't believe in God, or the Maker, or whatever name you want to give it. I believe in what I can see and touch, I believe in people. And I'm still being punished for killing my little brother."

"No." Cullen's denial was swift and absolute. "Rory, no. You didn't kill him. You were barely more than a child, hardly responsible for yourself, let alone anyone else. Your mistake did not kill him. Unreasoning belief killed him, and you have paid too great a price for it."

"I'm still paying," she pointed out bitterly. "Because I don't believe, because I don't bow to the Chantry, I'm a target. If I had lied and pretended, Giselle couldn't have done that to me."

His jaw set angrily. "She would have found another way to attack you," he said darkly. "For whatever reason, she believes herself deserving of authority here. Caring for the sick and injured - they are an easy target for someone who wants to build a power-base from their gratitude."

"That's not why I do this," she began, but he cut her off quickly.

"I know," he assured her, lifting one hand to wrap his arm about her waist, holding her close as they sat together. "I understand better why you are a healer; how you have become so good at it. It has very little to do with yourself, and all to do with preventing the past from repeating itself. Your reasons are noble. Hers, I believe, are not."

"She might honestly think she could do a better job than me," Rory offered, wondering why, after all that, she was trying to defend a woman who had dragged the darkest part of her past out for her own satisfaction.

"She might, but she's wrong," Cullen told her firmly. "She wants influence within the Inquisition - not for the Chantry, but for herself. Like Madame De Fer, she has placed herself to gain power, but unlike Madame, she will not admit to it. Mother Giselle is typical of many who populate the Chantry's ranks - priests and sisters who are the reason I do not believe in the Chantry any longer."

Her head reared back from his shoulder, shocked to hear him say that. Throughout everything he had endured, Cullen's faith had always seemed so central to his being, the one constant in his painful lifetime. He smiled faintly at the look on her face.

"I believe in the Maker," he said in a gentle tone. "I believe in Andraste. But I do not believe the Chantry truly represents them any longer. It is too political, too power-hungry, too judgmental. It has been decades since the Chantry truly cared for the poor and oppressed. I have no faith in the organization, nor the institutions it has founded. My faith, my belief, is for the Maker and His Bride."

"But you go to the services," she countered in confusion. "You sing the Chant, I've seen you."

"I do," he agreed quietly, one soft hand wiping the drying tears from her face. "The services are familiar. They offer me a structure I have known since childhood. Even at my darkest, I attended the Chantry; I recited the Chant of Light. The quiet such times offer is a comfort to me. The Chant itself gives me a way to voice my prayers when the words will not come. But I no longer confess my sins to anyone but the Maker; I see no reason to defer to a priesthood that has lost sight of its original purpose." Her face dry, he leaned close to kiss the tip of her nose. "I understand you better than you might think. And I will not allow the Chantry to hurt you again."

Relief flooded through her as she looked into his eyes. He doesn't mind. He doesn't think I'm a monster for not having faith. "I'm sorry I shut the door in your face," she apologized suddenly.

He chuckled lightly. "The mood you were in, I count myself fortunate that you didn't throw anything at me," he answered, glad to see her smile weakly.

"I've never told anyone that story," she confessed in a soft voice. "Not even Ria. She had her own problems."

"Then Ria wasn't your sister?" he asked, though his tone suggested he had already suspected this. Ria was always in the stories of her past, but she had never referred to the woman as her sister.

Rory shook her head, hoping he wouldn't mind that everyone's assumption had been wrong. "Not by blood," she told him, feeling a weight lift from her heart with these confessions. She had to hold so much to her chest, it felt good to give voice to at least some of her hidden secrets. "She was my best friend ... the only real family I've ever had. We were both alone and broken when we met, but it was like I'd known her all my life. A little like how I feel with you."

"She would have carried you through the village on her shoulder to make you calm down, would she?" His question brimmed with amusement as he considered this - Ria had been several inches shorter than Rory.

She snorted with laughter. "No, Ria would probably have told me to snap out of it," she admitted in a rueful tone. "She wasn't good with temper tantrums."

"The implication being that I am?" he asked a little incredulously.

"Well, I'm not angry any more," she pointed out, wiping her nose with one awkward hand. She sighed resignedly. "Things aren't going to be very comfortable in the Chantry for a while, are they?"

Cullen smiled his hidden smile, gently stroking an escaped strand of red hair from her face. "She won't bother you again," he promised her faithfully. "Leliana will have seen to that. You belong to us, sweeting. We protect our own."

He gathered her into his arms then, letting her bury her face in the soft fur of his mantle as she nuzzled into him. Whatever she had done to deserve the loyalty and understanding of these people, she hoped she never lost it. She'd been alone once, abandoned by the people who should have loved her. She never wanted to feel so isolated again. The Inquisition - Evy, Rylen, Kaaras, Cullen - they were her family now. And no misguided priest was going to destroy that for her. Not again.

Chapter Text

"Um, Rory? There's a ... man ... here to see you."

"Busy," Rory called back, not even glancing up from her current task.

She was picking maggots out of a wound - maggots she'd put there a few hours ago - much to the disgust of the patient himself. He was oddly enthralled, though, not having believed her when she'd promised the maggots would clean up the necrotic wound much faster than she could. She was right, too; the crawling larvae had picked the deep gash clean of all dead tissue, not interested in living flesh. Now all that remained was to clean and dress the wound, and hope he remembered to come back to have the dressing checked before it went necrotic through lack of care again.

Evy was holding clinic, but it sounded as though she'd come up against something that had stumped her. Rory could hear her apologizing to whoever it was.

"It's fine, I'll wait."

Now there was a voice she recognized. No wonder Evy sounded nervous - the Iron Bull had a big presence, even if you could somehow discount his physical size. The Chargers had arrived the night before, bedding down in their own slightly chaotic camp just outside Haven's gates. Rory was eager to pick their healer's brains about wound care. Still, it was no surprise that Evy was uncomfortable - Kaaras still made her nervous, so no wonder she was eager to hand the Iron Bull over to her senior, unaware that Rory had her own reasons for being wary of the newest Qunari in the village. But it was her job, and she might be able to pick up some news about what Kaaras was doing out there in the world right now.

It took several minutes to clean and pack the wound before her, using cobwebs to stifle the flow of fresh blood before she wrapped the whole thing in several layers of bandage. Tucking his pants leg down over the new dressing, she let him sit up and put his own boot on, packing away the unused bandages as he did so.

"I want to see you back here in two days," she told the man, a local wood-cutter named Aedan who was only in need of her because he'd managed to miss the tree and hit himself with his axe. Frankly, he was lucky not to have tetanus. "If this gets infected or goes necrotic again, we might have no choice but to amputate."

"You can't do that, mistress, I've a family to support," Aedan objected as he rose to his feet.

"Then you need to look after yourself and come back when I tell you do," Rory informed him pointedly. "If you decide to ignore me again, you will only have yourself to blame."

"I'll come back," he promised with a wide-eyed nod. "I'll tell my kids, they'll make sure I do."

"Good."

Rory smiled, sending him off as she returned her maggots to their bucket and set about thoroughly washing her hands and wrists. She was never going to get used to working on flesh and bone without gloves.

"Scare tactics," Bull's rumbling voice said approvingly. "Nicely done."

Rory glanced up at the gasp that erupted from one of the in-patients, drying her hands as she did so. The big Qunari filled the doorway, hunched over to peer inside curiously at the three occupied beds, and the healer and nurses tending them. A quick look at her colleagues and patients showed that he was more than a little intimidating. And it wasn't a shock, really. Kaaras was big, but the Iron Bull was huge. And half-naked. That chest should be illegal, she heard the inner fangirl squeak excitedly. Oh, hello, you've woken up again, have you? Pillowy man bosoms! ... oh, good grief.

"This is a private ward, actually," she heard herself say. "Could you ...?"

The Ben-Hassrath agent eyed her for a moment as she gestured toward him. "My pleasure," he said, ducking to back up as she moved to leave the patients in Andra's capable hands, closing the door firmly behind her.

Evy was standing by the desk, her eyes wide as she stared at the Iron Bull. She caught Rory's amused glance and blushed, forcing herself to look away from their very male visitor. "Should ... should I do the ... thing?" she asked her senior nervously. "With the sisters?"

Taking pity on her friend - whom she knew still blushed and giggled when Rylen took his shirt off - Rory nodded. "You might as well," she agreed. "Oh, and could you thank Mother Giselle? That lotus she had gathered was very helpful."

"I can do that," Evy assured her, gathering her basket of supplies before heading for the door.

The young Trevelyan had grown used to being the go-between for Rory and the Revered Mother over the last few days. It was awkward for Rory herself to speak to Giselle or her lay sisters after that debacle in the Chantry, and likely always would be, but the two sides had come to an accord; namely, that they all stopped sniping at each other and accepted the help offered on both sides. There was even going to be a short service held in the clinic once a week for the patients unable to attend the Chantry itself - Rory's idea, offered tentatively through Evy as an olive branch. Mother Giselle had responded by asking if the healers could spare some time each week to teach basic care to some of her people, and had taken it upon herself to keep an eye on their stock. If anything began to dwindle, it was replenished within days on Mother Giselle's orders. So while it was unlikely they were ever going to be friends, at least there was a productive truce now. Perhaps the dragon wasn't as bad as all that.

As Evy made her escape, Rory sat down at the desk, gesturing for Bull to make himself comfortable. "You wanted to see me?"

"Just making the rounds," the massive warrior assured her, settling his bulk onto the stool set aside for visiting patients. "Introducing myself ... the Iron Bull, leader of the Bull's Chargers." He gestured toward the doors. "Sorry about that - I figured you would all be used to Qunari by now."

"To be fair, you're a very big Qunari," she pointed out through a friendly smile. "Between the eye-patch, the horns, and the ... impressive physique, I'm pretty sure you have most of the village either deeply intimidated or intensely curious."

Bull laughed. "You're right, I do," he agreed with easy confidence. "Fair amount of lust, too."

Rory felt her cheeks pink. "Good to know," she said, laughing a little herself. She was absolutely devoted to Cullen, but she wasn't blind. Bull was sex on legs, and what's worse, he knew it. "Is that why you're here? Do you need to stock up on lubricant?"

This drew a louder laugh from the mercenary leader. "First time a human healer's asked me that," he crowed cheerfully. "But seriously ... Stitches, our healer, wanted me to ask if you have any supplies to spare."

"And he sent the leader of the Chargers to ask for him, did he?" Her eyes narrowed with suspicious amusement.

"No, it's just my flimsy pretext for getting a consult with a pretty redhead," Bull admitted openly, his one eye admiring her where she sat. Just because I'm a redhead.

Despite the squeaky voice in her head shouting Ride the Bull! Ride the Bull!, Rory rolled her eyes. "A taken redhead," she corrected him, ignoring her own blushing. "Is there anything else I can help you with?"

"Ah, you southerners and your committed relationships," he lamented comically, but she thought she saw faint approval in his singular gaze.

"I'm sure you'll have no shortage of people willing and eager to, um ... work off a little tension with you," she assured him with a low laugh. He certainly spreads his oats in the game.

"True, I'm not hurting for partners," he conceded readily. His gaze sharpened. "I was wondering, though ... who do you work for?"

The question surprised her enough that she answered without considering why he was asking that. "The Inquisition, obviously."

"Who else?" Bull asked, and now there was no sign of easy humor. "What I mean is, are we all on the same side here?"

Rory stared at him, feeling the beginnings of fear prickle down her spine. "I have no idea what you're talking about," she told him, her hackles starting to rise.

"Really?" He leaned back, studying her for a very uncomfortable few minutes. It was only when she started to fidget that he spoke again. "You caught my eye this morning. You watch everyone, making sure you say the right thing, do the right thing, making sure you fit in. There's a secret you're sitting on, something that makes you worried to be found out. Professional courtesy, you understand. I want you to know I know."

There was no denying the flash of fear that gripped her as he spoke. Why hadn't she considered this scenario? Of course he would leap to the obvious conclusion. She had a secret; she must be a spy. But who did he think she was spying for, that was the question. And what he might do if his orders came back against her. Bull at this point was definitely an agent of the Qun - he would report the presence of a suspected rival spying on the Inquisition, and he might well receive orders to kill her.

"I'm not a spy," she quavered, wondering if she could make it to the door before he snapped her neck, and knowing with sickening certainty that she couldn't. "Really, honestly, I'm not. I just ... I'm not from here, and ... I don't ... no one would trust me if ... I swear, I swear, I'm not a spy. I'm just trying to get by!"

It was unnerving to be the focus of that steady, one-eyed gaze; to know that he had seen how much she didn't fit here so easily. Her mouth was dry as she faced him, trying to hold down the panic that had her heart racing. Right now, her life was totally in his hands. She found herself hoping that he killed her; that, at least, would be easier than a public denouncement. Every friend she had made would turn their backs, hurt by her duplicity; Cullen would be devastated to discover his trust had been so poorly placed again. She didn't think she could bear to see them all hurt so badly by a lie that she'd only told to protect herself in the first place. She could feel the despair already making itself known ... and then, the miracle happened.

Iron Bull leaned forward, frowning as he noted the true fear in every nuance of her face and form. "No," he said finally, his tone gentle with thought. "No, you're really not, are you." It wasn't a question. "Fear, real fear, is impossible to fake. And no spy would be so afraid as you are right now." He held her gaze for another long moment, eventually leaning back as his expression smoothed. "Whatever you're running from, it won't find you here. And if it does, the Iron Bull will kick its ass."

She'd never felt fear melt into sudden security before. It was a shock to the system, draining the color from her face, setting her hands to shaking as she drew in a querulous breath. In ... out ... in ... he's decided you're not a threat, this is good. In ... out ... A large hand appeared in front of her face, offering her a cup.

"Drink, little red," Bull told her gently. "It's just water."

He watched as she gulped down one mouthful of the painfully cold liquid, then another, the mere act of drinking helping to slow her breathing and calm her thumping heart. It was the closest she'd ever come to a panic attack - strange, that the one who had created that moment of heart-stopping terror was the one now working to calm her down. And it's working, too. With Bull on one knee beside her, she slowly relaxed, trusting that he really didn't mean her any harm. Despite his role under the Qun, the character was startlingly honest, and it seemed that was true of the flesh and blood reality, too.

"That's better," he drawled in approval as she came back to herself. "You don't look so good with no color in your cheeks."

"Is it obvious?" she blurted out worriedly. "That I ... that I'm not from around here?"

He shook his horned head, settling himself back on the stool once again. "Only to me," he assured her. "Maybe to your spymaster. But she trusts you. No danger there."

"Okay." It was still alarming to think that Leliana saw what Bull had seen, but the bard hadn't moved against her. That was encouraging. "Sorry, I, um ..."

"Didn't mean to scare you so bad," the big Qunari said, dismissing her apology. "Just had to be sure, you know? We're good, little red."

Rory bit her lip, surprised to feel herself smile, in spite of her fright. "Little red?" she asked. Why does everyone feel the need to give me nicknames? Cupcake, Ror, sweeting, and now little red?

Bull snorted with laughter. "You're little, and you're a redhead," he explained easily enough. "Cullen's redhead, but still ... redhead."

Despite herself, he'd piqued her interest. "How do you know that? You've only been here one night."

"He bristled up like a lion on guard when I asked who you were." Bull shrugged, grinning at her expression. "Doesn't take much to spot a possessive lover, even if he is wound tighter than the Arishok."

She bit her lip again, oddly touched that the commander was possessive over her. I really do owe him some company tonight, she reminded herself. It was about time she trusted her new nurses to do their job without her supervision. They still hadn't quite reached the point where loving words and kisses became truly intimate, but she felt sure they'd get there. Eventually.

"Anyway, I've got a real reason for being here, too," Iron Bull told her, reaching up to run a cautious fingers over the leather wrapped about his right horn. "This is rubbing down to the quick. Gets painful after a while."

Now here was a challenge. "I don't know much about Qunari, but I can take a look," she offered, rising to her feet for a better vantage point. "May I?"

"Go right ahead."

He was right about the rubbing. The leather strap that helped to secure his eye-patch in place had worn a groove into his horn, deep enough that it almost looked in danger of bleeding. Do horns bleed, she wondered, considering her options. The answer to his problem seemed simple, but she wasn't sure it was workable for him. Still, he had said it was painful, which meant there was living tissue there, so he might not have a choice but to make it work for him.

"Is it possible to re-site the strap?" she asked, reaching for a cloth and water to gently clean the groove, testing it for tenderness or sensitivity. "I don't think it's possible to pad this deep a mark without irritating the tissue underneath."

"I've been hoping not to have to move it," the big mercenary admitted reluctantly. "It's a bitch to get the patch comfortable. What about a pain reliever instead?"

"Hmm ..." Frowning, Rory considered her rack of ointments and potions. "Well, there's one ointment that might help," she suggested thoughtfully. "I usually use it on toothache and arthritic joints, but it does contain elfroot, and that little plant work wonders on just about everything."

"You think my horns are like teeth?" he asked, not sounding impressed.

"I don't know anything about horns," she told him truthfully. "But this does look like it will only get more painful as the strap rubs deeper. I think you should get a wider strap, if it can't be moved, but the ointment should help with the irritation."

"It's worth a try," he conceded, letting her smear a generous amount onto the groove in his horn. "I'll let you know if it works."

"If it doesn't, we can try something else," she promised, wiping her hands clean as he wrapped the leather back into place. "Adan should be able to come up with something." Or Master Dennet, she thought, keeping that to herself. Bull wasn't an animal, but she might need the horsemaster's expertise to work up a treatment for an injury to his horn.

"You're the boss, little red." The Qunari spy rose to his feet, towering over her once again. It was just as well she already felt small around most humans here, otherwise this might have upset her again.

"Kaaras is the boss," she corrected him with a smile.

"Not yet," Bull pointed out, his grin pretending to know all sorts of things she didn't. "Stitches'll stop by later." He stretched, patting her gently on top of her head. "Thanks."

"My pleasure."

As soon as he was gone, she sank back into her seat, shaking all over once again. Holy crap on a cracker ... that was too close.

Chapter Text

"Well, for a Warden who's been at this for almost twenty-five years, you're in remarkable health, Warden Blackwall."

The bearded man frowned at her as he re-laced his gambeson. "What do you mean by that, mistress?" he asked warily. "Why, for a Warden?"

Rory raised her brow innocently. Don't you look nervous, Thom Rainier? "Most Wardens are touched by the Blight in some way," she explained, relying on her position as a healer to explain away the fact that she knew this. "You must have astonishing resistance. Have you heard the Calling yet?"

All right, perhaps it was a little mean of her to be saying this, but Rory thought the man deserved a chance to be honest with someone early on. She hadn't intended to be quite so blunt about it, but she'd overheard him commenting that morning to Harritt that a woman fighting on the front lines in war only made it uglier. She was feeling bristly on behalf of every female Inquisitor she had ever made, and Blackwall was getting short shrift because of it.

He was certainly looking a little cornered - apparently he really did know next to nothing about what truly made a Grey Warden. The Blight was scary enough in itself, but she could see him trying to work out what she meant by the Calling. The thoughts were obvious in his mind - had she recognized him somehow, or was she truly asking? Was she trying to trick him into revealing himself? All this passed through his expression in a flash, his decision made as he opened his mouth to answer.

"That's not something we talk about outside the Order, mistress," he told her mysteriously, holding onto his lie. He was daring her to denounce him as a liar, she could tell. She didn't dare; he had to unmask himself, or he would never throw off his disguise in response to Kaaras' hopefully good influence on him.

"I understand, Warden Blackwall," she assured him. Missed your chance to come clean on your own, dude. "However ..."

He stilled in the act of rising, dark eyes turning to her face in alarm. "Aye?"

Rory leaned forward, meeting his gaze as she lowered her voice. "I've heard you've brought the Grey Warden treaties to the Inquisition," she said with quiet sternness. "I don't think they should risk using them, do you? Since you are not a Grey Warden."

Blackwall's expression shut down entirely as he sat heavily on the stool once again. "And what makes you say that?" he asked in a dangerous tone, his hand twitching toward the sword at his side.

Here's your moment, Rory. Don't let him know you know he's Thom Rainier. That's guaranteed to end badly - probably with you bleeding out right here.

"There's no trace of the Blight in your body," she told him, still quiet, as nonthreatening as she could be. "Every Warden is touched by the Blight. A Warden who has served as long as you ostensibly have should be showing signs of the advanced stages. There is a reason why Grey Wardens rarely serve more than thirty or so years, ser. Either you have only just joined their ranks, or you are no Warden at all. In both cases, you have no authority to use those treaties."

She watched him take this in; watched the panic recede as she made no mention of his assumed name or a past he was still hiding from. After all, she was a healer. If he could assure her that no harm would come from his deception, she wouldn't tell anyone that he wasn't who he said he was.

"I ... was intended for the Wardens," he told her, picking his words with care. "The man who recruited me - Blackwall - he was killed by darkspawn. None of the other Wardens knew he'd recruited me, and ... well, I was a wanted man. Many Wardens are before they join. I ... I took his name. Thought I could honor his sacrifice and stay safe at the same time. I never ... I won't let them use the treaties, mistress. You're right - if the truth came out ..."

"It could destroy the Inquisition's reputation," she agreed with a firm nod, glad he saw the danger he'd brought with his eagerness to please. She eyed his trapped expression, and sighed. "Look, it's none of my business who you were or what you're running from. My only concern is the well-being of the Inquisition. If you can promise me that no harm will come to the Inquisition from your past or present, I see no reason to reveal what I know."

Blackwall visibly relaxed as she offered him a get-out clause. "I'll set myself to keeping the treaties from being used," he promised her. "If you'll keep my secret, I'll make sure no harm comes from them."

Rory considered him for a moment. It wasn't ideal - yet another lie to keep - but it was better than the mess in-game those treaties caused. People were on edge enough without accidentally abusing Grey Warden privileges.

"You have my word," she said finally, hoping this wouldn't affect the dynamic of the inner circle.

But the misuse of the Grey Warden treaties had never sat well with her. The use and fall-out might be only shown on the war table, but having played The Warden in Origins, she was deeply protective of the Order, for all its faults. Despite his deception, though, Blackwall/Rainier meant no real harm. He was at least trying to be a better man, even under someone else's name.

"Thank you, mistress," he breathed, his relief palpable. "If ever I can do you a service, you will have my sword."

"Just give the Inquisition your loyalty, and we're even," she told him, relieved herself that this had gone so well. "But yes, aside from that sprain in your elbow, you're fighting fit. Try to rest your arm for a couple of days - take elfroot for the pain."

"I will." He nodded gratefully, rising from his seat once more. He gave her one last worried look, and turned on his heel to escape the clinic and her knowing gaze.

Here's hoping that doesn't have any catastrophic effects on the story. Rory sighed as she signed off on her report. It was odd - she'd never really had any strong feelings about Blackwall when she'd played the game, but face to face, she'd found herself very uneasy in his presence. Perhaps it was the sheer magnitude of the lie he was living under, or the knowledge that he had sanctioned the murder of children for money before leaving his men to suffer for his mistake. Everyone here was a killer, it was true, but Blackwall really felt like one. But then again, it was all subjective.

She glanced up as the door opened again, smiling at the sight of Luis balancing a tray which was loaded with plates and bowls - lunch for himself and Netta, and for their bed-bound patients.

"Need a hand?" she offered, rising to open the inner door for him.

"We've got this," he assured her as he edged past. "You should go and get your own. You know how the Herald gets when you miss meals."

"I thought the Herald was in conference with the council," she commented in confusion.

Luis shook his head, handing the tray to Netta. "Came out about an hour ago," he told her. "Prepping to head out in the morning; scuttlebutt says to Redcliffe. Someone saw that Tevinter in the Chantry before he headed off."

Rory frowned curiously. That must be Dorian, she thought, forcing herself not to smile in excitement. So Kaaras was going to the mages, after all. It was a relief to know that the Venatori were not going to get hold of a big army of magic users, but she couldn't help feeling a pang for the templars in Therinfal Redoubt being slowly corrupted by an Envy demon, helpless to fight the red lyrium in their philters. But it seemed that, even when the world was real, there was no room for compromise. Cullen must be doing his nut, she realized. At most, he had a month to prepare for the arrival of a large number of mages in the shadow of the Breach.

"Did you see the commander out there?" she asked Luis in concern.

He paused in the act of helping Netta prepare the patients to eat. "Uh, no, I don't think I did," he admitted thoughtfully. "He might still be in the Chantry."

I just bet he is, stoking his own paranoia. The prospect of abominations would definitely be playing on Cullen's mind, and with good reason. He'd lived through the worst that could possibly happen, after all. She couldn't blame him for his over-reaction to the imminent danger.

"All right," she said finally, rubbing her forehead. "I'll be back in about an hour - most likely in the Chantry if you need me."

"Right you are, mistress."

Leaving the two nurses to their work and their own lunch, Rory stepped out into the growing cold of Haven. It was strange to think that it must have been summer when she was dropped into this cold world - the seasons were turning, bringing even colder weather and more frequent snowstorms to the mountain village. Their greatest concern was keeping the pilgrims' camp sheltered from those winds; though more recruits arrived almost daily, the majority of the soldiers, agents, and horses were deployed across southern Thedas by now. Haven was diminished by their absence, and finally Rory could see around her a base of operations that was truly vulnerable to attack. She'd done all the preparation she could without rousing anyone's suspicion - four emergency packs now sat against the wall inside the clinic; she was making a habit of wearing a dress over her shirt and pants; she had a specific supply of triple distilled poppy juice on her person at all times. She sincerely hoped she wasn't going to have to use it, but if the clinic had patients unable to move when Corypheus attacked ...

These dark thoughts in mind, she joined the line for the kitchens, letting her eyes pass over the groups already eating, automatically seeking out familiar faces. Sera was sitting on top of the forge, dropping the vegetables she didn't want down to the sturdy Ferelden Forder in the pen below; Kaaras was sitting with Iron Bull, both deep in conversation with Krem. Cassandra seemed to have eaten already, beating a line of dummies into submission with a blunted practice sword; a pair of dark heads bent together between the tents behind her suggested that Rylen and Evy were either smooching or planning something. The other faces she considered to be closer friends were nowhere in sight, likely in the tavern or at work again. She did, however, offer Helene a sympathetic grimace when it came her turn to collect her lunch.

"You're still on kitchen duty?" she asked her friend as she held out her plate.

"The commander's not subtle when he's pissed at you," Helene intimated, shrugging diffidently.

"Two months is too much," Rory asserted. Helene really didn't deserve to still be paying for that mishap in Val Royeaux. "I'll talk to him. Has he eaten?"

Helene shook her head. "No sign of him," she told the healer in a resigned voice. "You want to take his, too?"

"I might as well," Rory agreed, watching as he friend laid another couple of skewers of roasted meat and vegetables on her plate. "See you later?"

Helene nodded. "One of these days, I'm going to get you sparring without dropping the sword and hiding behind your shield," she predicted, albeit with a teasing smile.

"I wish you the best of luck with that." Rory laughed, stepping away to retrace her steps into the village and up to the Chantry.

No one intercepted her on her way, for which she was grateful. Leliana and Josephine were talking in the spymaster's tent, the hopeful tension on their faces confirming the gossip Luis had relayed to her - Kaaras was going to Redcliffe. No wonder Cullen had failed to appear from the war room yet. Sleep was going to be even more of a struggle for a while, she guessed, inwardly bracing herself for more nightmares in the very near future. But that wasn't her immediate concern. No, her immediate concern was a harried-looking commander bent over the map table, who didn't even glance up as she entered.

"Take this to Knight-Captain Brycen," he ordered, thrusting a piece of parchment in her direction.

"Eat your lunch, and I'll think about it," Rory responded mildly, smiling as he raised his eyes from the table in surprise.

"Rory, I ... forgive me, I thought you were Jim," Cullen stammered apologetically, putting the parchment down.

"Because we're so alike," she teased, deliberately light. She set the plate down on the table. "If you ask me very nicely, I'll take it with me when you've eaten."

"Now is not the time for levity, Rory," he told her with a stern frown. "I have work to do."

"And at least four weeks to prepare for the mages," she countered. The alarm on his face prompted her to add, "Haven gossips worse than a tavern full of drunk dwarves, you know that. Kaaras is going back to Redcliffe; that means you've decided to ally with the mages. Eat your lunch."

"Circumstances took the decision away from us," he said wearily, reaching up to rub at his neck. She heard the vertebra pop under his hand. Bath and massage tonight, then. "If we don't deal with the mages, we'll be leaving Ferelden with a foreign power holding territory within her borders."

"The decision was made for you," she answered calmly. "You have time to prepare, so there's no need to be skipping meals."

"There's too much to do," he tried to argue, but she wasn't having it.

"Cullen, if you don't eat, I am going to have to feed you," Rory told him, her turn to be stern. "And we both know that won't end well."

To her relief, that prompted a rueful smile. "I'd like to see you try," he commented, but obediently picked up a skewer and began to eat.

"Not today," she chuckled, moving to lean at his side as she, too, tackled a skewer. "So talk to me. Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Aside from laying in supplies against an outbreak of violent skirmishes, I don't think so," he advised, his tone laden with dread. "Truth be told, there's not much I can do. There will be abominations. All I can really do is try to put safeguards in place to minimize the risk to us all, the mages included."

"What do you mean?" she asked, genuinely interested, around a mouthful of what tasted like nug. Should I be worried that my taste-buds now recognize it as nug, and not dusty rabbit? "Like glyphs and wards?"

"Among other things," he agreed in a thoughtful tone. "We'll have to find some way to securely accommodate them. Too many quartered together would be a beacon for the demons we know are only too ready to escape the Fade on the other side of the Breach."

"What about the templars?" Rory queried, indulging her curiosity. "There are a few still here."

"Too few for my peace of mind." Cullen sighed, setting the empty skewer aside and absentmindedly laying his hand at her hip. "We have ten templars here with the temperament for teaching. If each of them teaches ten recruits how to counter magic, we'll have just over a hundred who are capable of it. But I am loath to order anyone to learn - they would have to take lyrium to be truly effective.

She frowned with him, understanding his concern. But she knew, as he didn't, that the Venatori were going to be a challenge, and that potential one-hundred could be vital further down the line. "So don't order them," she suggested. "Ask for volunteers and make sure they know what they're signing up for. Don't let anyone go into it blind."

"You may be right," he said reluctantly. "But it doesn't sit well with me."

"I know, love." She laid her hand against the cool metal of his cuirass. "But sometimes we have to choose the lesser of two evils, when the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." Thank you, Mr. Spock.

His gloved hand covered hers as he nodded slowly. "We all have to do things we don't agree with," he murmured, leaning in to kiss her brow. "But I would do far worse to keep you safe."

"Oh, you hopeless romantic," she teased gently, giggling as he dipped his head to press his smile to hers tenderly.

The door opened behind her, but to her surprise, Cullen didn't immediately pull away. He seemed to need this moment of loving contact more than he desired to keep his private life private, taking his time in softening, then ending, that kiss.

"Ah," she heard Cassandra say uncomfortably. "I had thought you were alone, but I see I was mistaken."

Rory's smile only deepened when Cullen drew back from her, no part of his countenance betraying that he'd been caught kissing her. He wasn't even blushing as he met Cassandra's eyes. Wow ... is he getting more confident, or am I losing my touch?

"How can I be of service, Lady Cassandra?"

Cassandra looked as though she wanted to strangle herself for interrupting such an intimate moment, despite the fact that no one really expecting to find the commander smooching in the war room. "I had hoped to go over the plan in better detail," she offered awkwardly.

"I'll leave you to it, then," Rory said through her broad smile, snagging another skewer as she pushed out of her lean. She pointed to what was left on the plate, eyeing Cullen sternly. "Eat."

"I will make sure he does," Cassandra promised when Cullen's only response was to roll his eyes at the healer.

"Thank you."

Rory winked at the Seeker as she left, pausing to blow the commander a kiss from the door and watch as his ears turned pink in answer. Now the Seeker and the commander's faces matched, she left them to it, confident that Cassandra would make sure Cullen finished his lunch. Now there was a woman who was more than capable of force-feeding Cullen Rutherford. With Cassandra on the case, he definitely wouldn't go hungry today.

Chapter Text

"It was ... awful."

Shocked didn't even begin to describe Kaaras on his return from Redcliffe. He had come back bearing the news that he had conscripted the mages, and had weathered Leliana's scolding with remarkable fortitude. He'd seemed his usual self, but there was a new edge to the way he looked at Cassandra and Varric. On paper, time magic sounded fanciful; no one could really grasp what the Herald had been through. Even having played it, written it, Rory couldn't really wrap her head around the real consequences of Alexius' spell. But Cassandra had asked her to check on Kaaras, genuinely concerned for the big Qunari, who had hidden himself away in his cabin for three days straight.

So here she was, pressing a mug of steaming tea into her friend's big hand as he stared into the fire, trying to find words to describe what he had experienced. Up close, she could see why Cassandra was so worried - Kaaras was unnervingly still, his Fade-touched eyes guarded, hiding the recent memories that were haunting him. His usually sunny temperament seemed to have deserted him, the boyish face carrying new cares that threatened to make him seem utterly inapproachable to those who did not know him.

"They died for me," he whispered in horror. "Leliana, Varric ... Cassandra. And not just them - everyone in the Inquisition, so many innocent people caught in the middle. There were demons everywhere and ... it was all my fault."

"No, it wasn't," she told him firmly. "You had no hand in what happened to that future."

"It happened because I wasn't there," Kaaras insisted vehemently. "I've seen what will happen if I fail. I-I can't fail, Rory. It's all on me. Everything will go to shit if I screw this up. It's ... awful."

She sighed softly, drawing her chair closer to wrap her arm about his broad back. "You need to talk to someone about what you saw there," she said in a gentle tone. "I know I can't possibly understand, but I'm here, if you think you can talk to me."

"No one will understand," he lamented despairingly. "Dorian was there, but he didn't feel it the way I did. I was so alone, Ror. Just like after the Conclave - everyone I knew was dead, or dying, and this time, it was my fault."

Just like after the Conclave. The simple truth of that statement hit her like a tone of bricks. She had never considered that before. Stranded in a dire, deadly future with only a stranger at his side; a future where everyone he knew, all the friends he had made, were gone ... how could anyone bear that? He was even stronger than she'd thought, to endure two such isolating events in the space of six months. But she had no idea how to help him come to terms with it. All she could really do was listen.

So that was what she did - she listened. She listened as he described the state of a future she sincerely hoped she would never see; the horror of a world filled with glowing clusters of red lyrium, mined from the bodies of those who had been forcibly infected with the Blighted crystal; the shocking despair of discovering the world dominated by the Breach, populated by demons and Venatori blood mages that answered to this unknown Elder One. Biting her lips against sharing the identity of his first great foe, she let Kaaras describe to her the overwhelming dread of seeing the price of his failure; the burning anger that had kept him going through the nightmare, determined to find a way to reverse what had been done, to make sure it never happened. She held him as he wept over the fates of Fiona, Leliana, Varric ... and Cassandra.

"She was so broken," he rasped, rubbing at the tears staining his face. "She'd lost everything that made her Cassandra. All that fire, all the softness beneath ... it was gone. She thought I was a ghost at first, and then ..." He let out a shuddering breath. "She died for me, Ror. She didn't even think about it. She knew she couldn't survive, but she went anyway. I saw her ... her body. And ... and then I was back in this time, and she's alive. She's still herself. Whatever this Elder One is, I won't let him have her. She can't break, she ... I need her, Ror."

Despite the pain in his voice, the sheer dread of what he had experienced, Rory felt herself smile at this raw confession. She knew he liked Cassandra, but not that his attachment to the Seeker had progressed so far.

"Ever since I woke up, she's been the one constant who's always right there beside me," the big Qunari said, the fervor in his voice almost painful to hear. "She's had my back since the start, even when she wanted to kill me. She's saved my life too many times to count, but ... I don't know. She's ... wonderful." He twisted to look at his friend. "Do ... do you think she might ever see me that way? Am I just deluding myself?"

Her smile softened. "Kaaras ... I think you have every chance with Cassandra," she told him warmly. "You just need to slightly alter your approach, that's all."

The brindled horns on his head caught the firelight as he shifted about to face her. "What do you mean?" he asked, distracted from his sorrow by genuine curiosity.

Rory's smile widened at his enthusiasm. "I know you see her as a warrior, a friend," she pointed out. "But have you noticed that there's a woman under all that armor?"

"Well, obviously," he snorted. "She's beautiful."

"That's not what I mean." She chuckled lightly, shaking her head. "She spends all her time being strong and practical and focused on the big picture. Maybe what she needs is someone she can be soft and frivolous with, someone who can make her feel like she's the only person in the world that matters."

All right, so she might have been cheating a little, but if ever anyone deserved to feel loved and cherished, it was Cassandra Pentaghast. The woman had given up everything for the Seekers and the Chantry, two institutions that had failed her, and the only man she had ever allowed to break through her defenses had been killed at the Conclave. Kaaras was in with more than a chance simply because she wouldn't see it coming until she was already emotionally invested. He just had to be subtle until the moment was right, and the moment was coming. It was Cassandra's concern that had Rory sitting here in the first place.

"How in the Void do I do that?" he asked, utterly bemused.

"Try learning how to be romantic," Rory suggested innocently. "Don't rush into anything, but give her your full attention when she speaks; offer to do little things for her on the road, like setting out her bedroll or oiling her armor. Don't make a big deal out of it. Trust me, you'll know when it's time to try the romance."

"I don't know how to be romantic," Kaaras objected uncertainly.

"Ask Varric," she recommended. "He's a writer, he'll have a few ideas. Just ... run them by me or Josephine before you try them, okay? If he works out it's for Cassandra, he might try to be funny."

"And she'll emasculate me with a blunt saw." He winced, following that thought to its logical conclusion with a wary shudder. "Is this why you gave me that poetry book?"

She tried to look innocent. "Possibly."

"Huh."

His gaze strayed to the cabinet by his bed. She didn't doubt that the book was in there; she was also fairly sure he hadn't so much as opened it yet. He'd been completely confused when she'd presented it to him in the first place. There was a pause, and Kaaras' green eyes turned back to her.

"Is Cullen romantic?" he asked curiously. "I mean ... could he give me any advice?"

Oh, to be a fly on the wall for that conversation. She could feel herself blushing at Kaaras' earnest expression. "Um ... he might be able to?" she managed awkwardly. "What's ... what's romantic for m- us, well, it might not be for you."

"What sort of thing does he do with you?"

Rory squirmed as her cheeks burned, that blush well and truly here to stay under the Qunari's open, teasing grin. "That is a little personal, Kaaras," she complained in embarrassment.

"I'm not asking about sex," he cajoled her hopefully. "There must be something you can tell me."

Well, I've got nothing to say about sex, anyway, she thought, attempting to will her cheeks to cool. It wasn't working. "He ... he arranged for us to have a cabin away from the tents to sleep in," she offered after a struggle. "It probably doesn't sound very romantic to you, but ... I don't know how to explain it. I was sleeping in the clinic, and there was always someone who needed me to be right there all the time, and the only real time we spent together was in-between everything else we do in a day. Just ... just having somewhere that's just us, even if all we do is sleep ... it means everything to me."

"It doesn't sound very romantic, you're right," he agreed, his curiosity touched with confusion now.

"See what I mean?" she countered a little triumphantly. "I'm not exactly conventional, but I found that romantic. Because he did something that was just for me, that made me feel important in his eyes. That's what you should be taking from this."

"But you think Cassandra would like something ... romantic?" Kaaras pressed. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the dark way they had segued into this conversation, he seemed to need a definitive answer, some hopeful purpose to cling to in the face of the nightmarish scenario he had just lived through.

"I think Cassandra is a very passionate woman who deserves to feel like the most important person in the world from time to time," Rory told him. "Seriously, read the poetry. Find out what she likes. You'll find some way to give her the romance she deserves, I promise you, but there's no need to rush this and risk chasing her away. You'll know when it's time."

The big head nodded slowly as he absorbed this, his boyish face creasing into a hopeful smile. "All right," he agreed, gulping down his now cold tea. "Thanks, Ror."

Relieved to see him a little more his old self, she smiled at him, squeezing her arm about his back once more before letting go. "That's what I'm here for," she assured him. "Anytime you need to talk, I'm here."

Kaaras grinned wanly. "Never thought I'd call a human 'friend'."

"Maybe you're hallucinating that I'm human," she teased easily. "Maybe I'm really a ten-foot tall Qunari with horns like a dragon."

He gasped with exaggerated shock. "Mommy?!"

Rory burst out laughing as he scooped her into a strong hug. "Get off, you big, bald bronto!"

"Maybe not Mommy." He laughed with her, releasing his grip so she could stand. "More like an annoying big sister. Only, you know, really little."

"I am not that small," she protested, her indignation undermined by the broad smile on her face. "I'll have you know, where I come from, I'm average height."

"The Legendary Island of Midget Humans?" Kaaras mocked her fondly, patting her on the head.

"It's not my fault you're abnormally huge," she countered, her point made by the fact that they were on eye-level with each other and he was still sitting.

"In every way," he agreed, waggling his brows above a lascivious grin.

"I did not need to know that," Rory complained, grimacing laughingly before eyeing his crotch for a moment. "Although ... lucky Cassandra. At least she won't have to go Seeking for it."

The Qunari Herald's jaw dropped, his face turning a darker shade of gray as finally she made him blush. "I ... I ..." He struggled for a moment, then gave up. "You win. Shoo, before I show it to you to prove my manliness."

"What makes you think I haven't already seen it?" she asked innocently, lurching back as he took a playful swipe at her. "All right, I'm shooing, I'm shooing! No hiding in here all day. Healer's orders."

"Yes, Mommy." He snorted with laughter as she rolled her eyes at him. "I'll come out in a little while," he promised. "I've got some reading to do, first."

"Good boy. I'll see you later."

Slipping out of his cabin, Rory was still grinning as she made her way to the Chantry. She hoped Kaaras wasn't going to follow through on that idle idea of asking Cullen for advice on romance, but she could imagine how that conversation wouldn't go. Hey, Cullen, how do you make Rory feel special? Well, I let her bully me into going to bed and then kiss her until she can't think straight. You think that'd work on Cassandra? She laughed just imagining it. Between Kaaras' often inappropriate sense of humor and Cullen's tendency to stammer when embarrassed, nothing would come out of any attempt to seek the commander's advice, she was certain.

She ducked into the Chantry as a templar came out, offering a nod to Vivienne and Mother Giselle as she passed them to let herself into Josephine and Minaeve's office. Minaeve was deep in discussion with Adan - she glanced up as the door opened, and tossed Rory the bag of demon bile flakes she'd come for as the healer moved over to the ambassador's desk.

"You need more light, Josephine," she told the Antivan woman for what must have been the hundredth time. "You're going to damage your eyesight working in this gloom."

"It is too cold to work outside," Josephine complained mildly, adding her signature to the bottom of the parchment in front of her. "I do not know how Leliana and Cullen can stand it."

Well, Cullen's a little claustrophobic and seems to be centrally heated, but I have no idea on the Nightingale. "At least tell me you're taking regular breaks," Rory appealed hopefully. "It isn't healthy to always be cooped up in here."

"I am resigned to needing spectacles in my advanced years," the ambassador sighed, accepting her fate with dignity as she laid her quill down. "What can I do for you, Mistress Rory?"

"Start calling me just plain Rory?" she suggested, tugging a small pouch from her belt to lay it on the desk. "The tea we talked about. I called in a favor from a friend in Val Royeaux - one small pinch is sufficient, and you can sweeten it with honey to taste."

"Oh, that is wonderful." Josephine picked up the pouch, holding it to her nose to inhale the fragrance of the tea within. "It smells like home. Truly, thank you."

"It's a pleasure," Rory assured her with a smile. "Anything I can do to help."

"Actually, there is something you may be able to help me with," the ambassador said, pocketing the pouch of tea. "You are familiar with the population of Haven - do you know a Mistress Allen?"

A vague flicker of alarm passed through Rory's mind. "That's me," she admitted warily. But who here knows my surname? I could have sworn they weren't used much in Ferelden. Although ... I did include it in the character work up.

"Truly?" Josephine was surprised. "I have not heard you use this name."

"There's no other Rory in the camp," she pointed out, hoping she was right. "There's no need to use my last name. And it's not the custom in Ferelden if you're not a noble or a merchant."

"Oh, of course. Well, a letter has arrived for you from Val Royeaux." One beautifully manicured hand rummaged through the papers on the desk to locate the wax-sealed missive and hand it to the healer.

Rory took it with a curious frown, breaking the seal to scan the letter. Bollocks. "It's from Granthis," she said aloud, a little shocked by the contents. "He, um ... I think you should read this." She passed the letter back to Josephine, watching as the Antivan read what was written there.

Little girl,
The Empress is holding peace talks with Gaspard at the Wintersend Ball in Halamshiral. Figure your Inquisition will be there, so as a Master of the Orlesian Guild of Healers and Apothecaries, I'm conscripting you as my escort.
Granthis.
Postscript - Wear a pretty frock. I'll get your mask.

"Who is this person?" Josephine wondered curiously.

"Granthis Perivale," Rory told her with a slightly weary sigh. "He's a very good alchemist and apothecary, and he's an old friend."

"And you trust him, yes?" Josephine pressed further. "This is not out of character for him?"

"No, he's always been that blunt," Rory assured her, though her stomach was twisting into knots. And his personality is entirely my fault. "I believe he has ... quite an enthusiastic customer base among the nobility."

"Perivale ... it sounds familiar." The ambassador tapped her long fingers against her cheek as she studied the letter, trying to place the name. "Ah! The ugly little man who sold those -" She cut herself off as her eyes widened, gaping at Rory. "You know him?"

The healer nodded. She really wasn't sure which way she wanted this to go - did she really want to be at the Winter Palace on the night Celene might be assassinated? The inner fangirl did, but mostly for the pretty dress and to see Cullen in that uniform.

"Well, his ... his information will be accurate," Josephine said, blushing as she moved swiftly away from the topic of just what it was Granthis sold. Evidently the equivalent of Viagra in Thedas was more than enough to embarrass the ambassador. "And his position is such that he would be invited to such an event." She frowned, considering the letter and its implications. "He is also right that the Inquisition should be represented. It is unlikely the Empress would extend us an invitation, but perhaps Duke Gaspard may be prevailed upon. I think you should accept this invitation."

"Josephine, I don't know the first thing about how to behave at a ball," Rory grumbled. "And I neither have a 'pretty frock', or the means to get one."

"Wintersend is a few months away," Josephine told her confidently. "We can arrange lessons for you, and we will make sure you are properly attired. May I keep this letter?"

"Hmm? Oh, of course." What's a letter, in the grand scheme of things? Wait, grand scheme ... oh, bollocking hell, the Great Game. This is nuts! "So I suppose I'm going to Halamshiral, then."

"I believe you should go, yes, and I also believe Leliana would agree with me." Josephine eyed her up and down with a critical gaze. "I am sure Madam Vivienne will know just the seamstress to dress you in style."

"Lucky me."

Bloody Granthis, she muttered in the back of her mind. Sticking his oar in, dropping me into the middle of something absolutely deadly. I hope he's pleased with himself. But she couldn't rail too much about it. She didn't have anyone to blame but herself. She'd written his character, after all.

Bloody, bollocking piss-balls.

Chapter Text

"Ah ... so this would be the clinic I've heard so much about. How quaint."

Rory snorted with laughter, not bothering to look up from where she and Evy were making the last of the clinic beds. She knew exactly who was speaking.

"Not too rustic for you, I hope?" she asked, tossing the empty pillowcase to Evy as she finished tucking the sheet and blanket securely. "How about the smell?"

"All part of your charm, I'm sure," Dorian commented from the consultation room beyond the ward. "Oh, you were talking about the clinic."

As Evy gasped in offense, Rory just laughed, straightening up to get her first proper look at her favorite characters. Debonair wasn't really a word that could be used to describe anything in Thedas, but it certainly described Dorian Pavus. Clean and dapper, he seemed exceedingly out of place amid the grime and simplicity of Haven.

"You must be the mage from Tevinter," she said in a welcoming tone, gesturing for him to come into the ward.

"Which would make you the singularly inoffensive healer Kaaras mentioned." He offered both her and Evy a florid bow. "Dorian of House Pavus, at your service. That rather delicious commander has denied me a place at the Herald's side until I am proven fit and healthy, and a touch more easily trustworthy."

"No one should trust a magister, even if you did save the Herald's life," Evy passed comment, her dark tone not quite overriding the Chantry-induced fear in her voice.

Dorian sighed at her assumption. "Not a magister, merely a mage."

"Same difference," Evy insisted, setting the pillow on the bed.

"Not in the Imperium, I assure you," the altus pointed out patiently.

"Well, I can see you two are going to get on like a house on fire," Rory said in amusement, glancing between them. "Evy, why don't you open the clinic for the afternoon? I'm sure I can handle Not-Magister Pavus here."

Frowning with disapproval, Evy took the suggestion with an attempt at not seeming eager. "I'll be just on the other side of this door," she said pointedly, more for Dorian's benefit than Rory's.

"I'll be fine," Rory promised her, managing not to smile until the door closed in the younger woman's wake.

"What wonderfully suspicious minds you southerners have," Dorian mused, contemplating the now closed door. "It's almost like being at home." His sharp gaze turned to Rory. "I take it I am to be medically assessed, yes? And you are?"

"I'm Rory," she introduced herself. "And yes, I should assess you. Not that I'm expecting to find you unfit."

"Mistress Rory, you flatter me," he declared in his cavalier way. "There are a few things I am uniquely unfit for."

"I can imagine," she chuckled, moving to take a seat at her desk. She pulled a fresh piece of parchment from the pile, loading her quill to write his name at the top, along with his birth-date, and the current date. Is it weird that I know he was born in 9:11 Dragon without needing to ask? "Do you have any existing injuries or illnesses I should know about?"

"Apart from my devastating good looks and understated charms, you mean?" he asked in that indefinably Dorian way of his. "I have nothing to report currently, aside from an intense dissatisfaction with the food here. I did suffer through a terrible bout of Nevarran 'flu a while ago."

"How long ago was that?" she queried, scribbling this down. She hoped he wasn't still carrying it - as it stood, she had no in-patients, and as the assault on the Breach loomed ever closer, she was hoping to keep it that way.

"Oh, twenty years, at least," he told her. "Long before I reached my inevitable prime. Where do you want me?"

She drew her eyes from the page. "If you could just ... Oh."

There he was - gorgeous, adorable Dorian Pavus - stark bollock naked in the middle of her ward. Hands on his hips, he was completely at home with his nudity, eyeing her sudden blush with an expectant expression. As if drawn by magic, her gaze drifted downward before she managed to look away. Well, that brings the total number of men's privates I've seen here to well over two hundred. And not one of them was Cullen's!

With her inner fangirl sobbing uncontrollably at the glorious perfection that was the Tevinter mage, Rory offered him a warm smile. "Very nice," she complimented as he flexed, aware he was trying to make her blush darker. "Now if you could put your pants back on and come over here, we can get you signed off for the commander."

"You southerners don't check for hernias, then?" he asked, reaching for his pants.

"We do, but not in the way you're obviously used to," she explained with a smile. "I have a different method that is just as effective, and doesn't require you to be completely starkers. You're not alone in stripping off, though. Pretty much everyone I've assessed has shown me everything they've got."

"Truly?" Dorian laughed, covering his lower half without even a hint of embarrassment. "How fascinating. I must admit to some curiosity as to where I fall on the scale."

"Top ten," she assured him impishly. "Easily."

"My dear girl, what a marvelous life you lead," he teased, moving to sit down with her. "Spoiled for choice."

"Oh, I've already made my choice," she chuckled, reaching for her very primitive stethoscope. "And it had nothing to do with any sneak previews."

"I believe I may have to have that story from you some time soon," Dorian warned. He'd clearly been through this kind of assessment before, sitting upright as she set about listening to his heart and lungs.

She didn't have the familiar accoutrements of modern medical science at her fingertips, but what she did have was enough to assess and diagnose, to a point. Her stethoscope was essentially just a smooth wooden tube attached to a wide sounding board, but it did the job she needed. Pulse and resps were easy to record without any equipment at all, and though she had nothing to record exact temperatures, she'd learned how to guesstimate them by the heat of a person's resting armpit. It wasn't glamorous, but it was useful, and she'd found that people like to talk to her as she worked, to distract themselves from the discomfort. That was how she knew everything that happened in Haven - on any given day, multiple people told her about everything from their differing perspectives.

"Well, I see no reason not to declare you fit," she told Dorian after about an hour of talking and prodding around, handing him his leather shirt to put back on. "I would avoid teasing the commander if you want to be declared trustworthy, though."

"You don't think he'll respond well to my irrepressible charisma?" Dorian asked her, apparently comfortable with teasing her, at any rate. Mind you, she had just inspected him from top to bottom.

"In a word? No." She chuckled lightly. "At least, not right now. He has a lot on his mind."

"Perhaps someone should offer to ease the burden of all those cares," the mages suggested thoughtfully. "Though I'm not sure he would respond well to my methods, if at all."

"I'd advise against it," Rory warned in amusement, however funny the thought of watching Cullen fielding Dorian in full flirt was.

"Indeed? Have I somehow missed the subtle signs that declare the man to be taken?" Those beautiful hazel-brown eyes of his met her gaze knowingly above a faint smirk.

"Even if I don't answer that, you're going to know what the answer is," she pointed out, quite pleased with herself for not laughing and blushing at the perceptive way he was looking at her.

"Ah, so he's yours, is he?" Dorian looked absolutely delighted with this information. "You and I simply must have a talk about his tension. Soon."

"I don't think -"

Any further response was interrupted by an exclamation of shock from the consultation room, the sound of Evy's protests, and the inner door bursting open to admit a fully-armed and -armored templar, who seemed to be expecting to find trouble. Behind him, Rory could see Evy hastily helping her patient cover her chest, trying to reassure her, and trouble was quite suddenly exactly what the templar found. She rose abruptly, her expression flat with fury.

"Get out." It wasn't a request; it wasn't even said in a particularly loud voice. Her tone was even, furious, and promised a world of pain if he didn't remove himself immediately.

"The commander said -"

"I don't give a flying fuck what the commander said," Rory snapped. "You have just interrupted two confidental consultations. Get. Out."

The templar hesitated, torn between obedience to his superior and obedience to a healer who looked as though she was about to lamp him for his unthinking impertinence. He opened his mouth, thought the better of talking back, and abruptly turned on his heel, marching out of the clinic and closing the door loudly behind himself. Rory made an attempt to school her expression, turning her attention to Evy and the now frightened elven woman her friend had been seeing.

"I am so terribly sorry about that," she apologized profusely. "Please be assured that it will not happen again. I will make certain of it." She glanced into the ward, raising an arm to gesture to her own patient. "Dorian, if you'd like to come through, please? We're just about done, anyway. Evy, bolt that door behind us so there are no more interruptions."

"What are you going to do?" Evy asked worriedly. Rory didn't often get this angry, but one thing guaranteed to flare her temper was a threat to her patients.

"I'm going to have a word with the commander," she told her friend in an ominous tone, ushering Dorian out into the village. She waited until she heard the bolt draw across, turning to the guard on duty, who just happened to be Calman. "No one goes through this door unless specifically invited by a healer or a nurse, is that clear?"

The formerly difficult guard nodded, his gaze flickering disapprovingly to the templar who had pushed past him in the first place. "Crystal clear, Rory."

Satisfied for now that her clinic was inviolate once again, Rory turned back to Dorian. "I really am dreadfully sorry for the interruption, Dorian," she apologized to him. "It's been a pleasure to meet you."

"Oh, and you, Mistress Rory," he countered, ever so slightly uneasy in the presence of the glowering templar. "However shall I fill my time before we have a chance to properly socialize?"

"I'd suggest the tavern," she recommended. "Introduce yourself to Varric, he's usually there this time of day."

"Then that is what I shall do." He bowed to her, ambling past to make his way toward the sound of Maryden's first ever rendition of Sera Was Never.

Rory rounded on the templar who had violated her patients' privacy. "What were you thinking?" she demanded heatedly. "How dare you simply burst in without so much as knocking first? Didn't your mother teach you any manners?"

The templar - whose name was Harper, she remembered suddenly - fidgeted under her furious questions. "The commander ordered me to make sure you weren't in any trouble with the magister," he defended himself. "Said to check no matter who tried to stop me."

"Did he really." Lyrium-induced paranoia strikes again. "If this ever happens again, Ser Harper, you will knock, and you will wait to be invited inside. And if you ever force your way into my clinic again without a damned good reason, I will make sure that the next time you're in there with your pants around your ankles, the entire village gets a good look at you. Do you understand?"

Harper grimaced, but nodded. "Yes, Healer."

"Good. Now ... where is the commander?"

"In the Chantry, Healer," he told her. "Only he's not to be disturbed."

"What a shame." Rory's tone made it clear that she didn't care how busy Cullen was right now. "Go and find something to do that's quite a long way from here."

Harper gave her a grateful look and bolted for the gates. In her own turn, Rory stormed to the Chantry, pushing her way inside in the worst temper she'd had since landing in Thedas. She ignored the templars who tried to stop her at the door to the war room, forcing her way inside with such violence that the door slammed hard against the wall. Four faces turned to her in surprise, trained hands reaching for weapons before recognizing the unexpected intruder. Rylen, Brycen, and Lysette relaxed quickly, but Cullen didn't. He was the one who got the full force of Rory's angry glare.

"What is the one thing that I insist on for all my patients?" she demanded ferociously.

Cullen's jaw set, clearly taking offense at her tone. "This is a private discussion of sensitive issues," he began, but he didn't get any further.

"Which, evidently, you don't want interrupted," she snapped, laying her hands on her hips. "I could have sworn you just ordered someone not to afford me the same courtesy. You're many things, Cullen Rutherford, but I never thought you were a hypocrite."

His expression darkened as he held her glare. "Out, all of you," he ordered his senior captains. "Wait outside."

The trio hastily did as they were told, exiting the room with graceful aplomb. No one really wanted to be in the same room as that temper, and certainly not when it was about to clash head-on with the commander's. Cullen closed the door behind them, turning to scowl at Rory.

"Never speak to me like that in front of my people again," he warned in a dangerous tone.

"I will speak to you however I choose when you willfully disregard me, commander," she informed him, her voice tight with anger. "How dare you order anyone to burst into the clinic, especially when you know I'm seeing patients?"

"You were too long secluded with the magister," he told her coldly. "I was concerned for your safety."

"Oh, and I suppose as long as you feel better, the privacy and dignity of my patients, their trust in me ... that doesn't matter at all," Rory growled at him, her hand waving wildly in her agitation.

"It was just the Tevinter -"

"No! It's never just anyone!" she flared, aware that her voice was rising with impassioned rage. "You'd be outraged if you were the patient whose confidential examination was just interrupted on someone's orders, for no good reason. What the hell is wrong with you that you think doing something like this is okay?"

Cullen loomed over her, his handsome face set in stormy lines. "He's a Tevinter magister, probably a blood mage," he snarled back at her. "I will not have you putting yourself at such high risk!"

"So you wouldn't have done it if he'd been seen by Evy?" she demanded, shocked to see him hesitate. "And for your information, Dorian isn't a blood mage!"

"How can you possibly know that?" he questioned her heatedly.

"Blood mages have scars, he has none," she snapped back. "If you bothered to ask him, he'd probably show you how smooth his skin is! Honestly, what were you thinking?"

"I was thinking that I don't want to see the woman I love become a blood sacrifice!" he roared at her, anger overtaking sense for one crucial moment.

"Yeah? Well, I love you, too, but that doesn't mean you're not an arse!" she yelled back, both of them nose to nose and breathing hard as their decidedly unromantic declarations sank heavily into the sudden silence. At least they were reciprocated.

Cullen was the one to break that silence. "I apologize for my ill-considered actions," he said sternly, too angry with her behavior to say much more. "It will not happen again."

"I'm sorry I interrupted your conference and called you a hypocrite," Rory shot back, breathing hard through her still percolating temper.

He nodded in acknowledgement. "Is that all, Healer Rory?"

She hesitated, but she knew her temper was nowhere near settled enough for the conversation she now needed to have with him very soon. "That's all, Commander Cullen."

"Then, if you will excuse me, I have work to do," he said coolly, dismissing her. He half-turned back before she could leave, a flicker of something warm and hopeful in his expression. "Until tonight?"

Rory nodded slowly, feeling her anger beginning to ebb as something just as warm and hopeful flared in her chest. "Tonight," she agreed, turning to let herself out.

She caught a glimpse of the grin on Rylen's face as she passed her friend, aware of the varying levels of wide-eyed shock on the faces of others within the nave. Mother Giselle looked more impressed than anything; Minaeve's mouth was open; Josephine was peering out through her office door with silent astonishment. So much for private. It seemed as though everyone had heard that little ... discussion. And their heated exchange hadn't even begun to explain why he'd had Dorian's examination interrupted in the first place. She very much doubted it was really because Cullen suspected the altus of being a maleficar. And I may have overreacted a little, she admitted shamefully to herself, welcoming the icy breeze that greeted her as she left the Chantry building.

Breathing slowly, she let herself calm down as his unthinking roar filled her mind. The woman I love ... he loves me. Oh, please, let this not be a coma-dream.

Chapter Text

The knock at the door made her jumping, loud in the quiet stillness of the cabin.

"Come in?"

The portal swung open a little way, just enough for Cullen to peer inside cautiously.

"I wasn't certain you would be here," he said with awkward shyness. "Are we still shouting?"

Rory blushed, deeply ashamed of how badly she had behaved that day. Yes, he had been in the wrong, but she had definitely chosen the worst way to deal with it. Her embarrassment had not been helped by the raucous reenactment of their argument going on in the tavern as she had left the village - the parts of Cullen and herself being played by Blackwall and Dorian respectively, both very drunk, and Varric scribbling it all down in a corner while Iron Bull gave him advice on good adjectives for a sex scene. It was a blessing Kaaras had taken Sera and Cassandra with him to the Fallow Mire, really. She felt sure she would have been inundated with unhelpful (but well meant) advice had those three been present, too.

"It's safe to come in," she assured Cullen quietly, feeling awkward enough herself. "No more shouting."

He looked relieved to find her calm, stepping into the cabin to bolt the door securely against the outside world. "You may be pleased to note that our lines have changed," he said a little cryptically, going on to explain. "As I was leaving the Chantry, the performance in the tavern reached new heights. Apparently you love me because I have a nice arse, now."

She felt the color flare in her cheeks again. "I'm going to kill them," she groaned, mortified by their friends' light-hearted fun.

"I'll hold your cloak while you do," he offered, pausing a few steps into the cabin as he looked around in bemusement. "What's all this?"

Rory bit her lip nervously, glancing at her preparations for his return. It had taken more than an hour to manhandle the big copper bathtub all the way to the cabin, and to fill it with large, heavy kettles of water heated on the fire. Thankfully, the water was still steaming.

"I, um, I'm not very good at apologizing," she confessed, fingers twisting together behind her back. "I thought ... well, that you could h-have a bath and a massage without having to go back out into the cold again for once. If ... if you want to."

"And what about you?" Cullen asked in a gentle voice.

"Well, this is my apology to you," she pointed out, one hand rising to grip her braid tightly. "For being so rude to you, and for calling you a hypocrite in front of your people. It wouldn't be much of an apology if I used it."

"You could have handled it better, yes," he agreed, moving closer to her as he spoke. "But you were angry, and rightfully so. I wouldn't insult you by offering an excuse for what I did. But this is my apology."

He held out his hand to her. In his gloved fingers sat a small wooden box, tied with a gold ribbon. Rory blinked in surprise, raising her eyes to his guardedly hopeful smile curiously as she took the little offering from his palm.

"What is it?" she inquired, her own lips curving into a soft echo of his expression.

He drew in a vaguely nervous breath. "Open it and see."

Feeling ever so slightly suspicious - she had never been very good at receiving gifts - she gently undid the shining ribbon, delicately lifting the lid to explore what was contained within. She found a shallow bed of purple silk, in which were nestled eight small, dark brown squares, each one stamped with the Royal Lion of Orlais. Her eyes widened as a familiar scent reached her nose - rich, dark, bitter, and sweet. No way ...

"Chocolate?" she exclaimed, unashamedly delighted with the definitely unexpected present. "How ... where did you get chocolate in Haven?"

Cullen's smile appeared at her obvious pleasure in his peace offering. "Josephine has a sweet tooth," he explained a little uneasily. "She was quite insistent that you would like them."

Rory raised her brow with teasing interest. "What did she get out of you in exchange?" she asked with a faint grin. Josephine never did anything that didn't have some advantage for herself, however small.

"Uh ..." He rubbed his neck, his rueful smile more of a grimace even as her own smile grew at the sight of his vague discomfort. "She has full autonomy over the proposed dress uniform for the Inquisition."

"Oh." Rory couldn't help laughing a little at the concession the ambassador had wrung out of him in exchange for one small box of chocolates. So that's how they end up in those dreadful uniforms. Her hand rose, gently touching his cheek to draw him down into a soft kiss. "Thank you."

Cullen let out a low sigh as she kissed him, relief coloring his smile as he took that final step to wrap his arms about her waist, answering her kiss with his own as he gathered her close. Holding the little box closed with one finger, she welcomed that warm reconnection, deeply relieved to know that one small argument hadn't hurt them too much. Mind you, not many arguments ended with I love you too, you arse ...

The memory made her smile deepen, breaking the contact between them as her eyes opened to look up at him. "So ... this is how our evening is going to go?" she asked in amusement. "You in the bath and me gorging myself on chocolate?"

He laughed, smoothing his hands against her sides. "We could share," he suggested, just a little tentative.

"That ... that could work," she managed, feeling her face burning at the imminent prospect of skin-on-skin contact. "I-I, um, I don't know if we'll both fit, but ..."

"Rory, I love you," he reminded her tenderly. "We'll fit."

Just hearing him say it, without anger or frustration, made her melt inside. He was stating a certainty, something immutable that was a simple fact of his existence, and even as unromantic as that seemed, it was truly moving. Despite the strangeness of her mere presence in this world, and her continual habit of ending up in situations well beyond her control, he had made a place for her in his heart.

"You really love me?" she breathed softly.

His brow lowered to hers, hands sliding gently to her back as he enveloped her in his presence. "I love you," he repeated, soft and purposeful, the tip of his nose circling her own. "I have never felt anything like this before."

"I know," she whispered back to him. Oops. "I mean ... I know what you mean. I ..." She bit her lip, meeting his eyes with her own overwhelmed gaze. "I love you," she promised him in return, her voice thick with warm fervor. "I do. I feel like I've always loved you."

His lips found hers once more, tender heat teasing her mouth, stealing her breath, absorbing her so totally into himself that she couldn't say where she ended and he began. Maybe I should lose my temper with him more often, she felt a faint part of herself muse, the fingers of her free hand curling into the edge of his cuirass with an eager squeak as his palms eased over her back. She rose onto her toes at the possessive squeeze of those hands to her pert backside, unable to suppress her quiet moan as she felt herself crushed against his armor, roused and frustrated and loved.

"Rory ..."

Her name was a loving groan from his lips as his kiss left her mouth, trailing hot and wet over the curve of her jaw to find the sensitive throbbing pulse in her neck. She felt her blood sing as he tasted her skin, heard the little wooden box in her grip protest as her fingers clenched. She wanted more and, for the first time, she felt ready to accept it. Three little words, and everything was clearer.

"Cullen, please ... I ..."

She felt him smile against her skin, the prickle of his stubble bringing a new layer to the near overwhelming sensation of his closeness. His lips marked a tantalizing trail to her ear, nipping the soft lobe to murmur in her ear.

"Easy, sweeting," he purred to her, squeezing her rear once more just to hear the suggestively innocent intake of her breath. "We're just beginning. No need to beg ... yet."

The sexy arrogance of his implication that she would beg sent a tsunami of crackling energy along her spine, earning him another tender moan from her lips as she turned her head to bite his neck for his tease. It was his turn to gasp, to buck against her, and there was no mistaking the hard heat trapped beneath his pants, setting the seams to straining as her open fingers dared to trail down and touch.

"Fuck."

Cullen drew back sharply at that first touch of fingertips. He stared at her, amber eyes dark with lustful longing, breathing hard to keep his composure. "Help me out of this," he ordered finally, biting the gloves from his hands to begin undoing the buckles that held his armor in place.

Reassured by the thrill that told her he wanted her just as badly, Rory turned away just long enough to set the chocolates safely out of harm's way, spinning back with eager hands to help him divest himself of the plate metal that was so very in their way right now. She felt a brief pang for the effort she'd expended to set up a private bath that was going unused, but not much of one. This was much better. Far more accustomed to removing his own armor than she, he had mantle, belt, cuirass, pauldrons, and vambraces off in the time it took her to remove his greaves and unlace his boots, reaching to pull her back into his arms with more impatience than finesse.

Their mouths clashed in a messy sharing of loving smile, lips and tongues and teeth battling for playful dominance as he toed out of his boots and socks, his hands abandoning their possessive exploration to help her tug open the fastenings on her tunic. The heavy cloth fell open at their fumbling, pushed down to the floor to let her pull her long shirt loose from her pants. He broke their impatient kisses just long enough to drag his own shirt over his head, baring that gorgeous expanse of taut, golden flesh to her hungry hands as he dragged her back into the circle of his arms. There was no hesitation in him as he deepened that returning kiss, shuddering under the sensual progress of her touch over his skin. A touch that found an echo in the creep of his fingers beneath the hang of her shirt, skating his hands over her bare skin with conscious, willing desire.

Rory had to escape that kiss at his touch, trembling under the heat of his palms as he watched her face slacken with longing, unable to deny her forceful reaction to the rousing investigation of his fingers over the dip of her spine, kneading his way up her back to discover that she still wasn't wearing a breast-band. In answer to his ardent moan at this discovery, her eyes flickered open, her turn to watch his face as she let her own hands explore his back, his sides, fascinated by the way his grip on her tightened as her fingertips traced the line of his waistband. Yet when she tangled those fingers in the laces keeping him from her, he caught her hand, stilling her protest with a softer kiss.

"Another time," he promised against her lips, drawing her hands back to his shoulders, his voice little more than a gravelly whisper, strained with the effort of keeping control.

"But I want to -"

Her protest was again silenced - not by his mouth on hers, but by her own gasp as she felt his confident fingers unlacing her pants. Her nails scraped through his curls as he leaned into her, marching his mouth once more along the line of her neck to draw fresh moans from her love-swollen lips as he placed hot, open-mouthed kisses against her, teasing the aching peaks of her nipples through the thin shirt she wore. She swayed against him, feeling her muscles quiver in the wake of his touch sliding down the back of her thighs. He knelt before her, passionate eyes holding her own, and gently unlaced her boots one by one, pulling each one from her foot with simple care that almost seemed to touch her more deeply than all his teasing thus far. Her bare toes curled against the rough fur on the floor as his hands then retraced their journey to her hips, finding the open hang of her pants to peel the soft hide downward, fingertips just barely skimming over her tingling skin as he did so.

"You're trying to kill me, aren't you?" she accused with breathless affection, yelping as he pinched her thigh, rising to gather her close once more.

"If I do, let me know," he suggested in a low murmur. "A healer I know got drunk about a month ago and tried to teach me something she insisted on calling the smooch of resurrection." He grinned at her embarrassed groan, leaning down to brush a softer kiss to her lips. "I must admit, I'm rather keen to try it."

"Of all the times to bring that up, you choose now?" she asked, fond exasperation making her smile as he chuckled.

"Why, do you have some objec-"

Rory arched up, cutting him off with a kiss this time. Her fingers poured through his curls, leaving them a tousled, tangled mess, gripping tight only to let him go, hungry to smooth her hands over his shoulders, marveling at the broad, corded strength under her palms, the heat that radiated from his skin searing through her shirt to charge her with electricity that arced through her body, earthing deep inside with liquid flame. He groaned into her mouth, nudging his thigh between hers to pull her throbbing center hard to the firm press of his muscle, fingers flexing about the sharp curve of her hips. And that throb of his own, still confined but straining to be released, nestled into the groove of her pelvis, aching for her just as she ached for him. Eager to touch, wanting to taste, she let her fingertips drag down over his chest, skimming the solid breadth of muscle peppered with scars ... and stilled, her breath caught in her throat, as his own fingers tugged at the ties of her smalls. They came loose and, with tantalizing slowness, he pulled the soft cloth from between her thighs, baring her liquid heat to the cool tease of the air.

He felt her hesitate at her sudden vulnerability, laying his hands gently at her back as her fingers gripped at his skin. "Are you all right?" he asked, his voice a low murmur in the stillness around them. "We ... we can stop, if you -"

"No!" Don't you dare, Cullen Stanton Rutherford. "No, I ..." She raised her eyes to his, swallowing to wet her dry throat. "Don't stop," she breathed, transfixed by the concern in his loving, lustful eyes. "Please don't stop."

It took a very special kind of man to be so aware of his lover, even in the throes of passion, but Cullen was a very special man. His amber gaze held hers for a long moment, searching her eyes for any sign that she wasn't ready to go on. Rory held her breath, suddenly terrified that she had just jinxed this wonderful night, however inadvertently. When he drew back a step, she whimpered at the loss of him so close, only to swallow the sound as his fingers found the buttons of her shirt.

One button, then the next, gradually moving downward, each fastening putting up no resistance to the confident hands that passed over them. All the while, his eyes never left hers, the intensity of his desire scorching her senses. His fingers curled into the thin garment, slowly opening the cloth to bare her to his yearning gaze. She bit her lip as his eyes lowered, certain she could feel the passage of that admiring glance as her skin flushed beneath it.

"Beautiful," he whispered adoringly, easing the shirt down her arms to join the rest of her clothing on the floor. "My beautiful sweeting."

As the breath left her body in a relieved rush, he pulled her close once more, this kiss finding a shared moan as the wrap of his arms brought her naked skin to his. She barely had a moment to enjoy that impassioned embrace before he was moving again, dipping his knees just enough to band his arms about her hips and lift her from the floor, tossing her backward onto the waiting bed. She laughed as she landed with a bounce, lifting her head to see him crawl over her, the predator to her willing prey.

"Stop giggling," he told her through his lion's grin, pulling her up to kneel with him in the middle of the sheets.

"But you made me fly," she teased, silenced by the stimulating familiarity with which his palm cupped her bare behind.

"Not yet, I didn't," he purred against her ear, grinning as she trembled in response. "Take your hair down, sweeting. Let me see you completely undone."

Rory didn't think she could have disobeyed him even if she tried. Her hands rose to find the thong that held her braid tight, every motion captured by the searing heat of his gaze as she pulled her fingers through the length of her hair, letting the copper waves spill untidily over her shoulders, dark against the sparsely freckled paleness of her skin. Hardly was she done when Cullen's hands plunged into the flaming mane, guiding her back to his mouth to ravish her with a kiss that did, quite literally, steal her breath away. She melted into him, putty in his hands as he laid her back against the sheets, slowly, teasingly drawing his lips from hers to truly explore her with devastating purpose.

Hands and lips worked in tandem, no part of her left untouched, untasted, in his relentless quest to drive her wild with desire. She was already writhing as he cupped her breast in one palm, his callused thumb mirroring the flicker of his tongue over her erect nipple, alternating back and forth until she really was begging for more. His grin was wild and boyish at hos responsive she was to his every touch, love and desire and sheer male pride wiping the cares from his face as his mouth brushed her navel, as his hands gently parted her legs to allow him to settle there, teasing the hypersensitive softness of her inner thighs with kisses that crept higher with each tender plea from her lips.

She could feel the heat of his breath like a taunt on her quivering cunt, the reach of her hand to pull him in only succeeding in entwining her fingers with his as finally he let himself taste her, wound so tight by all his teasing that he barely had a chance to show off before she arched from the bed with a piercing cry, cresting the peak neither had realized she was so close to reaching. But he didn't stop even as she squirmed, moaning with her to send the vibration of his satisfaction directly to her trembling core. Lips and tongue danced over her slick flesh, refusing to give her even a moment to catch her breath before long fingers slipped inside her, hooking, stroking, testing her tightness with another longing groan. She begged, she pleaded, she promised him the souls of her unborn children, and finally, just as she hovered on the precipice, he relented, releasing her from the implacable stimulation of tongue and fingers to discard his pants and smalls as she panted, forcing herself back from the brink.

Warm arms enveloped her, raising her from her sprawl against the tangled sheets to press his lips to hers hungrily as she felt the proud prod of slick, hot firmness between her thighs. Even the taste of herself on his tongue couldn't change the raw need pulsing through her as he thrust upward, impaling her with stunning suddenness only to still as she cried out, her body tensing in answer.

"Fuck ... Rory ..." His hand cupped her face, guiding her eyes to meet his worried gaze. "Did I hurt you? I'm sorry, I ... Maker, you feel so good ..."

Breathless, she clung to him, grateful he had chosen to do this with her on top to start. He hadn't hurt her, but it was a near thing. He was definitely bigger than any other lover she'd had, and it had been a couple of years, on top of that. The sensation was exquisite, but she definitely needed a minute to relax into it.

"I'm not hurt," she promised through her gasping breaths, licking the salt from the scar on his lip as he struggled to keep control just a little while longer. "I just ... let me lead for a minute, okay?"

The scar pulled taut as he smiled, relieved to know he hadn't caused her pain with his eagerness. His mouth softened beneath hers as she kissed him once, twice, strong hands roaming with tender care over her sweat-slicked skin as gradually she relaxed into him, sliding closer until his cock throbbed inside her, needing the more she had been begging for almost since they began. Bit by bit, her hips rocked, each time with more confidence, growing in pace until she could feel herself rising once again. He let her ride him, guiding her with hands gripped tight at her hips, painting the air with own pleasure as his voice rose with hers. And as she fell into tremulous ecstasy, he lunged forward, bearing her onto her back to drive himself home with spine-tingling bliss.

It seemed an age before Rory came back to herself, only to discover that she was somehow atop him once more, the blanket pulled lightly over their lounging bodies, his heartbeat loud in her ear. She raised her head, aware of a vaguely uncomfortable stickiness between her thighs even as she smiled lazily down at him.

"I love you," she whispered, for only the third time, needing him to hear her and know that her heart had not changed with the simple fact of excellent sex.

Cullen's whiskey-bright eyes seemed to soften far beyond any expression she'd seen from him, the protective curl of his arms about her tightening for a second. "As I love you," he promised in answer. "My stubborn, beautiful sweeting."

She laughed softly at the compliment, touching a kiss to his chin as she laid her head down on his chest once again. "It's a shame the bath's gone cold by now," she mused, eyeing the copper tub with vague disappointment. I could just go for a bath right about now. And clean sheets.

His chest rumbled against her ear as he replied. "I have a fire rune we could use to heat it."

Her head rose again, meeting his speculative gaze with her own. It was tempting, regardless of the awkwardness or the time of night. But was it tempting enough to move for?

Apparently so.

Chapter Text

Warm water lapped at smooth skin, sparkling in the light of the fire. Rory lolled comfortably in the tub, tucked between Cullen's legs as he held her in gentle arms, running his fingertips up and down over her skin. It was a tight squeeze, but he'd been right in the first place - they did fit, just about. All right, so she was scrunched up like a pretzel, and he couldn't be comfortable with his manhood crushed up against her backside, but they had both managed to get into the tub, albeit with a lot of slightly inappropriate giggling on her part.

But this ... this was good. Warm, safe, wanted, she rested there wrapped up in his arms, his lips dusting light kisses over her shoulder.

"Where did you get this?" he asked lazily, tracing one fingertip over a barely perceptible scar on the top of her left thigh.

She smiled faintly, tilting her temple against his. "I fell arse over tip into a garbage heap when I was seventeen," she offered, feeling her way through the story, scanning the words ahead in case of anachronisms. "Ria came out worse - her scar stretched right up to her belly button."

Cullen chuckled softly, tucking his arms about her once again. "Do I want to know the circumstances leading up to this injurious fall into garbage?" he asked in amusement.

"That depends ... where do you fall on minor transgressions of the law?" she asked teasingly in her own turn.

"How minor?" he pressed, his lips curving in a suspicious smile against her brow.

Rory laughed, using that moment to come up with a Thedas-friendly version of this particular mishap. "Stealing a guardsman's helmet while tiddly?"

He snorted with laughter, pressing a kiss to her temple affectionately. "I can overlook that," he assured her.

"How magnanimous of you," she giggled in reply. Truthfully, she and Ria had got gloriously drunk on Ria's seventeenth birthday, and stolen a Used Cars sign from a garage forecourt before leaping into a commercial dumpster to hide from the police. What had seemed like an hilarious joke at the time had turned pretty serious when they were both bleeding, and they had both been arrested, but the police just couldn't take them seriously when they independently declared that what Ria had wanted most in all the world for her birthday was a ratty old plastic sign from that garage.

She sighed contentedly, resting her head back against his shoulder as she let her mind spin forward to her life now. Today seemed ever so slightly unreal - she'd met Dorian Pavus, told Cullen she loved him, been gloriously fucked by Commander Sex-On-Legs, and was now taking the closest thing to a private bath she'd had in months. And it all felt so natural, like it was meant to be. Nothing had been forced or uncomfortable; even her embarrassment had faded away. She was still a little pissed off by the catalyst for this lovely evening, however.

"I have to ask," she said quietly, smoothing her fingers between his in the cooling water. "Why did you have Ser Harper interrupt me today?"

She felt him tense a little behind her. "Ah ... so you didn't believe the maleficar explanation."

"Cullen, if you thought Dorian was a blood mage, you would have had him thrown out of Haven by force," she pointed out, shifting just enough to allow her to see his expression. "You certainly wouldn't have allowed Kaaras to go with him into a known Tevinter stronghold."

He sighed guiltily. "To be honest, I hadn't given it any thought until Madame Vivienne made a point of mentioning that Pavus had been in the clinic with you for almost an hour," he admitted with a grimace. "Her interruption annoyed me enough, but her insinuation seems to have been calculated to take advantage of my mental state somewhat."

"She played you," Rory simplified, frowning. Vicious Viv strikes again. What was she aiming for? "Trying to put Dorian off-balance, I suppose. She wouldn't need to play these games if she'd just be nice to Kaaras. Given that her favorite hat has bigger horns than he does, it can't be purely because he's Qunari."

"You may be right," Cullen mused thoughtfully, unhooking one hand from hers to stroke his wet fingers over her shoulder and neck, smiling just a little as a small shudder rippled down her spine. "Perhaps she believes she can prevent Pavus from settling into the dynamic here in the Inquisition."

"If she does, she's already failed," Rory murmured, her own fingers retaliating with a caress to his thigh that made him stiffen against the curve of her backside. "He's already made himself more approachable than she does. A man who will happily get drunk and do female impersonations is always going to win in the friendship stakes against a slightly haughty, politically-minded harpy with obvious aspirations to power."

Cullen took the hint of her caress, smoothing his palm over her upper arm gently. "I, uh ... I offered him my apology for having his privacy violated for no good reason," he told her in a low tone, the corner of his lip quirking happily as she lit up for him, proud of her lover for swallowing his own pride and offering the hand of friendship. "Do you know what he said? That it was fascinating to meet a king that not only knows how to protect his queen, but uses templars to do it."

She giggled at that, recognizing the analogy in amusement. "Sounds like you've found someone who might actually offer you some challenge at chess," she commented, genuinely pleased when he nodded. Yay for Dollen chess games! ... is Dollen right? Should it be Curian? Ugh, they're both awful. Ruthus? Paverford?

"Should I challenge him, do you think?"

"Definitely," she agreed. "Before Iron Bull does."

"According to Kaaras and Cassandra, Solas and Bull are engaged in a game of chess played entirely in their heads," Cullen said with vague awe. "That's rather out of my depth."

"You play strategy games in your head all day," she countered with the suggestion of a laugh in her voice. "It's sort of your job, love."

He laughed at that, unable to argue with her. What else described the intricacies of deploying a small army across southern Thedas to counter moves made who knew how long ago? Accepting her kiss, his arms slithered about her waist once again, holding her with possessive affection as she closed her eyes to relax back into the loving warmth of his embrace. They lingered there for a long moment, enjoying the comfortable silence they shared in the soothing lap of tepid water.

"I was jealous," Cullen said suddenly.

Rory opened her eyes, her gaze focusing on her own knees poking up out of the water as she frowned in confusion. "What?"

"Of Pavus," he clarified awkwardly. "He's a handsome man; confident, charming, nearer to your age -"

"And not interested in me in the slightest," she told him in a firm tone. "Honestly. If anyone should be worried about Dorian in this relationship, it's me."

"You?" Confusion reigned for a moment until Cullen caught up. "Did he tell you that?"

She chuckled tenderly. "He didn't have to," she said with absolute honesty. I've screwed him as a human, an elf, a dwarf, and a Qunari; he really doesn't need to say a word. "He thinks you're - and I quote - delicious."

She didn't need to see Cullen's face to know that her lover's eyes were wide with mild panic. "But I ... he might be offended if ... what if he asks me?"

Rory twisted, tilting her head to look at him from the corner of her eye. "That depends," she teased affectionately. "Should I be worried?"

"No!" Cullen protested loudly, lowering his voice as she cackled at his eagerness to refute her teasing. "No. Even if I were that way inclined, I love you. I wouldn't, couldn't, do that to you."

"And he knows that," she promised him reassuringly. "He respects it. But that doesn't mean he isn't going to flirt outrageously just to see you squirm."

He cleared his throat in embarrassment. "I will endeavor not to disappoint." A quick smile touched his face as she kissed his jaw, settling into his arms once again. "If ... if he were interested in you," he asked hesitantly, "would you be tempted?"

"Probably." She felt him tense at her unthinkingly truthful answer, rolling her eyes. "That doesn't mean I would do anything about it," she told him pointedly. "As you said, he's handsome; he's confident and charming, and he knows how to use it. But he's not you. No one will ever be you. I love you, remember? It would never happen. I have everything I want right here."

He relaxed against her, his momentary concern eased away by her forthright certainty that this was exactly where she wanted to be. "I'm sorry," he apologized lovingly. "It has been a long time since I've wanted this kind of peace with anyone. I can't help being afraid of losing you."

"You're not the only one who's afraid of what," she assured him in a low murmur. "And you're not alone in having moments of irrational jealousy. Just ... don't act on them, all right? There's no guarantee that the next argument we have will end this well."

His gentle chortle warmed her ear. "I shall try not to make you that angry again," he promised fondly. "However sexy you looked facing me down over the map table." She felt him grin against her cheek as she blushed at the memory, at being called sexy by this man. "But we really should get out of this bath before the water turns cold on us."

"You may be right," she conceded, borrowing one of his favorite phrases to accede to his point. She surveyed the tight squeeze of their bodies in the big copper tub. Getting in had been hard enough. "How do we do that, exactly?"

Without any dignity, as it turned out. With Cullen's help, Rory succeeded in getting to her feet without stepping on anything precious, only to have her foot slip as she made to step out of the bath; her raised foot caught on the lip of the tub, and the slip sent her sprawling face first onto the bear-fur rug in front of the fire. Cullen made the mistake of trying to grab for her; between her sudden exit from the tub and his change in position, the bathtub tipped backward, disgorging him and most of the water onto the druffalo hide that covered the floor by the bed. Hardly the most attractive sight for either of them, but at least they didn't have any excuse to be embarrassed. This was hardly the worst they'd seen of one another. Rory couldn't stop laughing at her own glorious pratfall, and her unrelenting giggles meant that Cullen smiled with her as they dried off and slid into bed, eager to rekindle the warmth they'd already shared once tonight.

And maybe that was what they needed. Something passionate, something silly, something normal, theirs to share and bolster them against what was coming. Because tomorrow would bring problems that would only make Cullen's habitual headaches worse. The mages were due to arrive. And not even Rory expected that to go smoothly.

Chapter Text

"How did you manage to cut your sword hand with your own sword?"

The young recruit fidgeted sheepishly. "Showing off, mistress."

Rory felt herself smile at his embarrassed honesty. "I'd suggest not doing that again," she recommended, gently uncurling his fingers to take a closer look at his palm now the bleeding had stopped.

The cut was mercifully shallow, and Elgor's quick thinking to put snow into the boy's fist had both cleaned the wound and dramatically reduced the bleeding. Rory reached for the pouches on her belt, glad she'd refilled them before leaving the clinic to visit the training ground. Her real purpose here was to eavesdrop on Cullen's interactions with the newly-arrived mages, but providence had given her a reason to linger in the form of this bleeding recruit.

The mages had arrived two days ago - not all of them, but a vanguard of thirty experienced magic users, hand-picked for the assault on the Breach. As far as she could tell, the hundreds of mages, novices, and Tranquil still on the road from Redcliffe were being escorted by a large contingent of Inquisition soldiers and agents, more for their own protection than anything. By the sound of things, Cullen had the vanguard well enough in hand ... or would have done, had Vivienne not decided to play her hand. The trouble wasn't anything to do with mages and templars; it all seemed to revolve around just who was in charge.

"My dear Fiona, aren't you a little old to be trying to lead an army?" the First Enchanter of Montsimmard was saying with deceptive concern. "You're not the leader of the mage rebellion any longer. You are simply a mage of the Inquisition, one of many."

"And I suppose you believe yourself to be our leader now?" Grand Enchanter Fiona replied with some heat. "A politician, whose voice was in the minority when we voted to leave the Circle?"

"I am an ally of the Inquisition," Vivienne pointed out. "As you might have been, had you not foolishly thrown in your lot with a Tevinter magister."

"What choice did we have?" Fiona demanded. "The templars would have destroyed us all!"

"You could have swallowed your pride and come back to the Circle," Vivienne reminded her coolly. "You could have asked the Ferelden king to aid you, given his leaning toward assistance in the first place. Instead, you invited a magister to take control of hundreds of our people, without even consulting them. A strange decision for a woman who would not leave the Circle without a democratic vote."

As much as she hated to admit it, Rory found herself agreeing with Vivienne. Alexius' presence in Redcliffe was a means to an end for Bioware, but here in the living world of Thedas, Fiona's actions were almost impossible to understand. Was she really arrogant enough to think that the hundreds who had followed her out of the Circle would blindly accept it when she sold them all to a Tevinter magister? Having met some of them, Rory knew that at least some would rather have returned to the Circle than risk corruption at the hands of the Imperium.

"And you consider yourself more fit to lead those who disagree with you, Madame De Fer?" Fiona asked in an acid tone. "This separation of my people, the templars set to watch them - all your doing?"

"Actually, Grand Enchanter, these safeguards are in place at my order," Cullen interjected with surprising calm. "Your people are at much greater risk of possession this close to the Breach. You may not like the decisions made, but they have been made for your protection."

"Protection?" Fiona scoffed scornfully. "And what does the Knight-Captain of Kirkwall know of protecting mages?"

Rory felt herself bristle on Cullen's behalf, raising her eyes from her bandaging to scowl over at the Grand Enchanter. Cullen's jaw was set angrily as the elven mage derided him, but he offered no argument to her accusation. It wasn't all his fault! How are you lay all those abuses entirely at his feet! But she couldn't intervene. She was, after all, just a healer.

"As a man who has seen with his own eyes the worst of mages and templars, it would appear he knows more of protection than a woman who sold herself and those who trusted her into indentured servitude," Vivienne countered Fiona's derision, one perfect brow raised. "You have hardly proven yourself a paragon of virtue in that respect."

"I will not hand my people over to you," Fiona flared angrily.

"No, Grand Enchanter, you will not."

Rory felt herself relax again at the sound of Leliana's voice. The Left Hand of the Divine might not agree with the conscription of the mages, but she could be relied upon to keep order here in Haven, regardless of whose toes she had to step on.

"Your actions do not mark you as the best choice to lead the mages," Leliana was saying sternly. "You are their senior voice, that is all. The rebel mages are now a part of the Inquisition, and will obey orders like every other worker, soldier, and agent. You have been given your orders."

There was silence from Fiona - shocked silence, undoubtedly - and a moment later, she brushed past Rory, marching away in steaming resentment. Well, that went well, Rory thought to herself, tying off the bandage in her hands. I guess some mages really do feel as entitled as some templars think they do. She offered the recruit an encouraging smile as Leliana went on.

"Madame De Fer, you are, as you state, an ally of the Inquisition," the spymaster said in a firm tone. "You have no authority over members of the Inquisition, such as the conscripted mages."

"I merely thought to offer my assistance to the commander," Vivienne answered smoothly.

"Yet the commander had no need of assistance until you chose to involve yourself," Leliana informed her. "Kindly do not do so again."

"As you wish, my dear."

As Vivienne sashayed away, leaving Cullen and Leliana to talk over that near-disaster in the making, Rory raised her eyes to the worried expression of the boy in front of her.

"Well, I can safely say you're not going to lose the hand," she assured him with a smile. "I want you to come by the clinic tomorrow, and someone will check that wound for you. You can chew elfroot leaves for the pain."

"What about fighting, mistress?" he asked, eager to get back to his training.

She raised a brow as she considered this. "I'd take the opportunity to find out if you can be as good with your left hand," she suggested, feeling her smile widen into a grin at his enthusiastic nod. "But if you cut that one, too, you've only got yourself to blame."

"Oh, I won't," he promised fervently. "Thank you, mistress."

She watched him walk off, proudly displaying his bandaged hand as though it were a real war wound, feeling her smile fade. Kaaras was due back any day; the mages were here. The assault on the Breach, the attack on Haven ... they might only be days away. That boy might well be dead by the end of the week. Her stomach twisted at the thought. This place that had become home would be burned and buried all too soon. Would she even survive the fall of Haven?

A gentle hand at her back roused her from those thoughts. She drew in a sharp breath, glancing up to find Cullen looking down at her with a worried frown.

"What's wrong?" he asked softly.

Rory shook her head, forcing a weary smile onto her face. "Dark thoughts," she told him as honestly as she could.

"Such as?"

She let go of her breath in a rush, wishing she could warn him about what was coming. But that was a one-way-ticket to a painful death; she'd seen enough of this world to know that by now. "What real wounds that boy is going to take," she admitted morbidly. "I know - it's not guaranteed that he'll ever get hurt with a sword again. It's my imagination going dark on me."

"Everyone has moments like that," he tried to reassure her, unaware that she knew closing the Breach would not be something to celebrate. "You're sure you're staying at the clinic tonight?"

"I can't ask Evy to do it," she told him apologetically. "I need to stay, at least tonight. I don't even know what's wrong with them."

"It's not contagious?" he asked in concern, relieved when she shook her head.

"No," she said in a troubled tone. "If it was, we'd all be showing symptoms by now. They've been in Haven at least a month, and it's only in the last few days this has moved beyond our control. I don't ... I don't know what to do."

His hands moved to her shoulders, his head dipping until she met his eyes. "You'll give them the best care, as you give everyone," he told her, his absolute confidence in her ability drawing a reluctant smile to her face. "If it is their time, they will go to the Maker with dignity. Because of you, and your people."

"It is what I do," she conceded, tilting her head to look at him properly. "How are you?"

"I'll live." He straightened, taking his hands from her shoulders. Despite all of Haven, and most of the Inquisition, knowing how things stood between them, Cullen was still leery of being openly seen to care for her.

"Cullen ..." She wasn't fooled. "I'll let you in on a little secret. When you have a headache, the vein in your right temple throbs. So how bad is it?"

He winced faintly, raising a hand to touch his temple ... a hand that she noticed was shaking just a little. "Worse than usual, but not as bad as it could be," he confessed quietly.

"Did you take anything?"

He shook his head. Rory sighed, her exasperation tempered with loving fondness. Stubborn man. How am I supposed to help when you don't tell me you're in pain? She opened the third pouch to the left of her belt buckle, extracting a small vial.

"Where's your cup?" she asked, taking it when he scooped it up from his makeshift desk. She filled the vessel from the communal drinking water supply - boiled clean every morning, thanks to her persistence - and let a single drop from the vial fall into his cup. "I want you to drink all of this, please."

"What is it?" Cullen asked suspiciously, eyeing the water as he took his cup back from her hand.

"Comfrey and prophet's laurel," she told him. Among other things. "And if you still have a headache in an hour, take a dose of the elfroot potion."

"This tastes revolting, you know," he commented, obediently draining the cup with a grimace.

"It's medicine," she pointed out wryly. "If it tasted good, everyone would want to be sick."

He snorted in amusement, his smile once more only visible in his eyes. "You certainly have a unique perspective."

"Hadn't you worked that out by now?" She chuckled affectionately. "See you at dinner?"

Cullen nodded, setting the empty cup down. "I'll come to the clinic for you," he promised. If they weren't spending the night together, they could at least share meals together. "Try not to worry yourself too much."

"I won't if you don't," she challenged, getting a roll of his eyes for her trouble as she walked away, offering a grin and a wave to Krem and the Iron Bull before taking the steps to enter Haven.

The door to the clinic was standing open when she reached it, a sign that no one was being seen in the outer room just now. Evy was checking stock, something she'd picked up from Rory when things were quiet. There was always something to do, even if it didn't seem like it. Seeing her do it now, however, reminded Rory to check on the overflow stores in the Chantry. If she'd guessed right, they'd be able to take a lot of that with them during the evacuation.

"How are things?" she asked in a quiet voice, hanging her cloak and coat up by the door.

The younger woman met her eyes with a defeated gaze. "No change, she said with an unhappy sigh. "They still can't keep anything down but water."

Rory knew that look; that sense of helplessness in the face of something beyond their aid. "It's no one's fault, Evy," she told her friend, squeezing her shoulder gently. "Sometimes there's nothing we can do but try to keep them comfortable."

"It doesn't seem fair," Evy protested softly.

"It never is," Rory agreed in a sad voice. "Why don't you go to the Chantry? Ask Mother Giselle to send someone over. The Chant might give them a little peace we can't."

Evy nodded, glancing at her work. "I'll just finish this first."

"All right."

Rory wished she could help her friend, but there was very little she could do in that regard. It was one thing to lose a patient in the chaos of battle, when blood and pain was swiftly there and gone, and it was easy to see death as the healer's friend. It was quite another when your patient lingered for days, betrayed by their own body, unable to help themselves. To watch someone die by inches was never easy, but it was a fact of life for anyone that worked in care. This was Evy's first brush with that fact, and Rory knew it would stay with her for the rest of her life. It never got any easier, but you found ways to cope. Evy would, too.

Wiping the sadness from her face, Rory let herself into the ward, her expression betraying none of the shock she always felt on seeing these patients under her nurses' care. Just a few days ago, they had been healthy, robust brothers, seemingly destined for good careers in Cullen's army. Now they were barely shadows of what they had been; fat and muscle wasting away before her eyes, their bodies hardly more than flesh-covered skeletons. She didn't know what was wrong, or how to treat it, but until they could no longer even swallow water, there was hope.

Or there would be, if Corypheus were not about to attack. Not for the first time, she found herself wishing a swift death on the men under her care, if only to spare her the decision she would have to make as Haven burned. Did she really have it in her to make that kind of choice for them? If they lingered, they would all find out together.

Chapter Text

"You're sure?"

Rory forced a merry-sounding laugh. "I'm sure," she promised Netta and Luis. "Go, enjoy yourselves. I've got this."

She couldn't blame them for the eagerness they showed in escaping the clinic. The Breach was sealed; Haven was celebrating. Everywhere she looked, there were happy faces, sharing laughter and joy. Six months of anxious living in the shadow of that awful scar in the sky was being released in an uninhibited wave of relief. People were dancing, singing. They were happy.

And why shouldn't they be, she reminded herself, leaning in the doorway of the clinic to watch the celebrations in the village. None of these people knew what she knew. They thought the worst had passed. She couldn't blame them for their joy. Let them have these few carefree hours. Their Maker knows, they won't have another reason to celebrate for a long time. But she wouldn't be joining them. How could she, when she knew the red templars were marching this way? Yet she didn't begrudge them their triumph. They had earned it.

A whoop drew her eyes to the tavern, where she could just make out Flissa balanced on Iron Bull's shoulders, leaning up into the rafters to bestow a kiss on a grinning Sera; where Varric was playing cards with Blackwall and Josephine; where Dorian and Cullen were engaged in their first chess game. Kaaras was with Cassandra in front of the Chantry; in the square, she could see Evy and Rylen among the dancing couples. And here she was, watching them with sad eyes, unwilling to set aside her anxiety on this terrible night.

"Will you not join them, healer?"

Rory tilted her head, surprised and yet unsurprised to find Solas standing in his habitual place at the corner of the clinic, hands folded on his staff, storm-blue eyes watching her with a guarded expression. Just what do you see that makes you so suspicious of me? She shook her head in answer to his question.

"I don't seem to be in the mood for celebrating," she told him quietly. "Besides, I can't leave my patients."

"Your friends would be happier to see you with a drink in your hand," the elven mage said, offering her his own cup. "Though you may worry, these people deserve a night without fear."

So not even you know what's coming. That's ... oddly comforting. She took the proffered cup with a flicker toward a grateful smile, raising it up to sniff at the contents. "Coffee?"

Solas shrugged. "I cannot seem to settle my mind to joy, either," he confessed softly. "This Elder One ... he will not long leave us in peace, I think."

"I have a vague idea of what you mean," Rory agreed, though even now she didn't dare offer any actual knowledge. "I can't stop wondering ... what's he going to do to us, for closing his Breach?"

"You have a melancholy mind, healer," he commented, meeting her gaze as she looked toward him.

"This doesn't feel like an end, Solas," she said in a wary tone. "It feels like a deep breath."

He nodded thoughtfully. "I am inclined to agree," he conceded regretfully. "If you will excuse me, I must speak with the Seeker."

"Of course." She offered him his cup as he stepped past, a little bewildered when he urged her to keep it.

"You need not drink," he told her with a kind smile. "But for your friends, keep the cup in your hand. Let them think you celebrate with them."

She watched him walk away, wondering if he truly understood that everything about to happen could be laid at his feet. But without this story, there would be no warning of what he planned to do with his power. A shitty early warning system, that.

Turning her eyes to the tavern, she found Cullen's gaze on her, a curious cast to his expression. It didn't take much to reassure him - a raise of the cup in her hand in a silent toast, a small smile, and he nodded back to her, returning his attention to the game before him. Dorian twisted about to blow her an extravagant kiss, and Rory did laugh at that. But the smile faded as soon as the altus turned away, as her gaze found a harried scout pushing into the tavern to bend and speak against Cullen's ear. It took everything she had not to turn and look toward the mountains to the north of the village. She wasn't supposed to know death was coming for them, not yet.

Whatever was said, Cullen was up and out of his seat in moments, abandoning the chess game to march toward the scout hut near the western-most trebuchet. Rory felt the knot in her stomach freeze into a solid lump, her muscles tensing. She wanted to run away now; to hide in the depths of the Chantry and not see what was coming, but she couldn't. At least one person would come running to the clinic. She had to stay until the last possible moment. She owed these people that much.

And then the bells began to ring. The joy around her turned first to confusion, then to fear, as eyes turned to the mountainous approaches. Finally, Rory turned to look for herself, feeling cold certainty settle over her heart. Under the light of the moons marched that implacable army - good men corrupted into little more than living weapons for a darkspawn magister who cared nothing for them. There were so many more than she had ever imagined, and fear gripped her heart as she thought of the pilgrims' camp outside the village - of Fabian, trapped out there with them. Would any of them escape tonight's brutality?

As the revelers began to panic, running this way and that - civilians to their homes, mages and soldiers to their posts - she saw Kaaras and Cassandra run past, joined by those in the tavern in their headlong rush to the gates. Rory knew what would happen there, but she had no idea how long it would take ... and she had no time to wonder.

"Mistress! Mistress Rory!"

Snapping out of her thoughts, she found herself faced with the panic of friends she had made here, friends who had come to her to be told what happened next. Aedan was there; Gareth and little Ara, too; and several others besides, all clamoring to know what was happening and what they should do.

"All right ... all right, calm down!" Rory raised her hands, already feeling overwhelmed by their panic and fear. "You need to go to the Chantry, and you need to stay there until someone in authority tells you otherwise. All right? So go, now." She gestured toward the Chantry and, to her relief, most of the gathering did as they were told.

"What about you, mistress?" Gareth asked, his sharp features shadowed with concern.

"I'll join you," Rory promised him, forcing a smile for Ara's sake. "I just have to see to my patients here first."

A small hand gripped her fingers. "But you are coming?" Ara asked, just as worried as her father.

"I am coming," Rory insisted in answer, glancing up as Luis and Andra skidded to a halt at the elven pair's back. "Luis and Andra will go with you, and I won't be far behind." She looked up at the two nurses. "Take a pack each and get to the Chantry," she told them firmly, aware that most people were now swarming in that direction. Good, she thought, the more inside before that dragon shows up, the better.

"What about -" Luis began, but faltered at the look in her eyes.

"I'll deal with them," she told him, stepping out of the way as Andra squeezed past to collect two of the emergency packs. "Has anyone seen Evy?"

Luis shook his head as he took a pack from Andra. "She was in the square," he offered, glancing down as Ara took his hand. "Are you going to take me to the Chantry, da'len?"

The little girl nodded fiercely, tugging on both his and her father's hands. Gareth hesitated a moment longer, but finally gave into his daughter's urging, the four of them joining the surge toward the only place of sanctuary Haven had. Rory peered over the diminishing crowd. There was no sign of Evy, but that didn't mean she wasn't already behind those sturdy walls. Except ... Evelyn Trevelyan was still easily frightened, and the mass panic in the square would not have helped. Even if Rylen told her where to go, she might not have been able to bring herself to do more than hide.

The trebuchets aren't firing yet. She had time.

Hoping that she did have time, Rory took off at a run, stumbling down the steps past the tavern. Very few people were still in evidence - Threnn, making sure the key to the stores got into the Chantry even if she didn't; Flissa, hastily packing what little she owned; Seggrit, forcing his way into a cabin that wasn't his. She ran straight into Adan and Minaeve, the three of them flailing to stay upright in the rush.

"You should be in the Chantry, healer!"

"Where's Evy?"

Adan shook his head. "I haven't seen her," he admitted, glancing about. "Look, I've got to get some bits -"

"Go, I'll meet you there," Rory told him, trying to keep a lid on her panic as he ran toward his workshop in Minaeve's wake. If I was a frightened noble, where would I hide?

She paused, her eyes scanning the empty square. Benches and trestles lay on their sides, overturned in the people's rush to escape; plates of food and cups of ale were scattered and broken against the flagstones. Her panic flared as Josephine and Leliana ran past, as she clearly heard Cullen giving the mages sanction to engage the enemy. There's no time! And suddenly, she caught movement from the corner of her eye. There was Evy, crouched behind the tavern, blue eyes wide with terror as she peered out.

"Evy!" Harsh with relief, Rory rushed over to her, snatching her hand to pull the younger woman to her feet. "Come on!"

"What's happening?" Evy stammered as she was pulled along at a run, sounding very close to tears in her own panic.

"We're under attack," Rory told her succinctly. She dragged her friend through the open door to the clinic, unhooking her own cloak from the wall. "Put that on."

"But ... but who would attack us?" the young Trevelyan asked, shocked and shaken. "And what about Rylen?"

"Right now, it doesn't matter who is attacking us," Rory said, pushing the penultimate emergency pack onto Evy's back. She gripped her friend's shoulders, forcing her to meet her gaze. "Rylen's a good soldier, he knows what he's doing. I need you to go to the Chantry and take charge of the injured. I will join you as soon as I can, but you need to go now."

"But -"

"Now!"

With a wail, Evy scuttled out of the clinic, heading straight for the open Chantry doors. Rory heard the massive creak of a siege engine at work. One trebuchet firing. She was running out of time. She pushed her way into the ward, moving to kneel between the two beds where her wasting patients lay, helpless. Dull eyes turned toward her as she touched their skeletal hands.

"Asrath, Benalt," she said their names gently. "Haven is under attack. We'll be overrun very soon."

Limp fingers shifted under hers as Benalt frowned. "Save yourself, mistress," he told her, his weak voice barely more than a breath. "We're done for, anyway."

Guilt welled up inside her, but she had already made this choice. They were dying; even if she could evacuate them, there was no way they would survive the trek to Skyhold. This was the only peace she could give them. But she'd never done this before. She'd never killed.

"If you were stronger, I might have been able to give you a choice," she confessed softly. "I'm so sorry. All I can do is give you a swift end. But I will not leave you to die alone."

Benalt's thin mouth twitched toward a grateful smile; his brother no longer even had the strength for that. But she would not leave them to be burned alive, or cut down without mercy by the enemy at their gates.

They watched as, with trembling fingers, she drew the little vial of triple-distilled poppy juice from her belt. Biting down on her urge to cry, Rory helped them, one by one, to swallow a mouthful each, laying her hands in each of theirs to wait with them for those final breaths. She could hear the sounds of fighting outside, the shouts of the mages and Inquisition soldiers holding the line for the Herald to do what needed to be done. But in here, she heard only the slowing breaths of the men condemned by her hand, men she had not been able to help. Asrath went first, weaker than his brother, more susceptible to the opiate's effect. She closed his eyes with gentle fingers, focusing her attention on Benalt as, gradually, the pulse beneath her fingers faded away to the tune of the second trebuchet firing. Grief and guilt poured in on her, tears dripping to the floor as she tried to come to terms with what she had done. You're a killer now, too, Rory. Just like everyone else here.

A piercing screech rent the air, tearing open her quiet bubble of self-pity. She heard the crash as the trebuchet was destroyed, the thunderous beating of wings. Dragon. Right.

"Get up, Rory," she ordered herself aloud, targeting her fear-frozen limbs with as much stubborn resolution as she could muster. "You are not dying today. Get up."

Somehow, she forced herself stumbling to her feet, talking herself through what she had to do. Coat on. Her numb fingers fumbled with the fastenings. Satchel, gloves. The satchel strap went over her head, hands pulling her gloves into place. Out of the ward. And not a moment too soon - she screamed at the sudden explosive blast above her head, the roof collapsing into the ward in a hail of flaming debris, engulfing the bodies she had left behind her. The heat seared her face as she dragged the last of the emergency packs onto her back, compelling herself to run through the flames that licked at the open door.

"Rory!"

Looking around wildly, she found Adan pinned beneath fallen pots she knew contained oil and alcohol. Minaeve was pinned, too, knocked unconscious by the fall. Worse, the fire that had destroyed her clinic was creeping toward the flammable pots inexorably. Coughing the the smoke, Rory heaved at the pots in panic, always aware of the flames flickering ever closer. Adan came free only moments before the fire found its mark.

"Get down!"

The apothecary seized her about the waist, throwing her into the shadow of his workshop as the pots went up in explosive flames. Minaeve was gone, lost to the violence of the night. Who knew how many others were, too. Sprawled in the soot-stained, melting snow, Rory groped for Adan's hand, rolling onto her side to look back at a gruesome sight. Adan had saved her life ... and paid for it with his own. Shards of pottery impaled his spine and head - shards that would have hit her without his quick thinking. And she couldn't even stay to pay her respects, to honor him for giving everything in her defense. The red templars were in the village. She had to move.

Where fear had frozen her before, now it gave her strength. She scrambled to her feet and took off at a run for the Chantry. It wasn't that far, and the doors were still open, held against the encroaching enemy by a handful of soldiers. She heard heavy footsteps behind her, cried out as a gauntleted hand gripped her braid, pulling her backward until she was driven to her knees.

"Release her! In Andraste's Blessed Name!"

Rory was vaguely aware of Roderick's voice, of Chantry robes rushing past her, of blood that wet her cheek as he cried out in his own turn. And another figure, lithe and quick, fighting with daggers that flashed as she pushed herself back to her feet. Cole. There was no mistaking that hat. Chancellor Roderick slumped against her side as she reached for him, blood seeping from his side. He took a blade for me, she realized in shocked wonder. I'm the reason he's dying.

"Maker's breath - Rory, get inside, would you?"

The familiar strains of Rylen's voice urged her onward as Cole tucked himself beneath Roderick's other arm, the strange trio stumbling forward into the light spilling from the Chantry as, behind them, red templars fell to the fury of the Herald and his companions. Hands reached out to catch them as they fell forward; voices crowded in with promises that they were safe now. But Rory knew they were wrong.

Haven would never be safe again.

Chapter Text

The Chantry was in chaos. It hadn't looked like this in the game.

The nave was choked with people. Fear and despair was everywhere she looked. All she could hear were the sobs of the innocent, orders being barked by officers, the cries of the wounded as they struggled to find someone who could help them. The great doors echoed with the slam of fists and swords, the enemy that would show them no mercy. And from above, through stone and slate and wood, they could hear the circling screams of the archdemon overhead, each pass of flaming force raining plaster and dust onto the masses who cowered below.

"What happened to him?" Rory heard Kaaras demand from nearby.

"He tried to stop a templar," Cole told him in his knowing mystery of a voice. "The blade went deep. He is going to die."

Rory scowled. "Not if I have anything to say about it," she muttered, already opening the chancellor's robes to get a good look at his injury.

"Healer ... don't waste your time on me," Roderick tried to tell her, but she wasn't listening. You took a sword in the gut for me, don't you dare die as well.

The wound was deep. Blood made her gloves slick as she pressed her hand to it, struggling to remove the pack from her back without lessening the pressure on the man's injury. The blood was oozing, though, not spurting. That's good. Come on, remember your critical care. Oozing means no arterial bleeding ... it's low enough not to have hit the liver or pancreas, just shallow enough to have missed kidneys ... She swore, her arm trapped in the strap of her pack.

"I want to help." Cole's voice spoke by her ear. "But ... you're so still. I don't know what to do."

She glanced up, into his pale eyes, for a moment confused by his confusion. Oh, of course ... not connected to the Fade. Spirit boy can't read me. "You can help," she promised him. "Put pressure on this wound for me?"

He studied her from beneath the brim of his hat, reaching out to press his palm over the seeping wound in Roderick's side. "He's going to die," he repeated, still confused by her insistence otherwise.

"What a ... charming boy," the chancellor chuckled painfully.

Despite the fear and panic, Rory felt herself flashing both man and boy a hopeful grin. "He won't die if we work quickly," she told Cole, just stubborn enough to try and change Roderick's fate if she possibly could. After all, he doesn't die for several hours in the game. Blood loss is what's going to kill him, or possibly infection. I can take steps to avoid both. Freeing her arm, she opened her pack, pulling out a box of cobwebs, laying it open on Roderick's lap in front of Cole. "Pack the wound with those, they'll stem the bleeding."

Cole looked absolutely fascinated by this insight into practical medicine, and for a moment, Rory had a mental image of windowsills covered with crushed plums. Is that my fault as well, she wondered, raising a bottle of healing potion to Roderick's lips. She could only spare him a mouthful, not knowing what other injuries she would be faced with, but even that would be enough to knit the worst of the wound.

"Ghastly stuff." Roderick grimaced gratefully, the pain in his face lessening as he leaned back against the pillar.

"Rory!"

She looked up at the sound of her name, bloodied fingers making a pad for the wound under Cole's hand. Evy was pushing through the crush of people, wild-eyed and bloody to the elbows. The younger woman looked heartily relieved to find her superior alive and well.

"I don't know what to do about the burns," she burst out as she came level with them. "We can't go outside for snow."

"Screams of the dying, the taste of charred flesh on the tongue, accusing eyes desperate to be saved," Cole murmured, obediently taking the pad Rory gave him to press over the cobweb-packed injury. "So much, too much, what should I do? Rory will know."

Rory bit her lip, still working on securing that pad as she thought it over. "We need to make decisions, Evy, and I can't make them all myself," she told her friend, her voice thick with remorse. "The deep burns, the burns covering more than a third of someone's body - we can't heal those. It's the same with the deeper injuries. Anything that will kill them if they're moved ... they're already dead."

"But I can't just ignore them," Evy protested, shocked by this instruction even if she did understand the reason behind it.

"No, we can't," Rory agreed, tying off the bandage. It was the best she could do for now, but she'd do better when they had time and peace to work in. "And I won't ask you to slit a throat. I'll do it; Melcor can do it, if he's here. Stitches will, too. We have to be cold, Evy, or no one's going to get out of this."

Shaken, but clinging to her purpose, Evy nodded, turning to push her way back into the crowd of people.

"What about the mages?" Roderick asked with frowning curiosity. He already looked better. It would take days for him to heal, but Rory was sure that he would.

"They've been fighting, chancellor," she reminded him. "We don't have the lyrium to replenish all their mana reserves. At this point, the dead are the lucky ones."

Confident that the chancellor had as good a chance of not dying as she could give him, she heaved herself to her feet, hiking the pack onto her shoulder again. She didn't know what was happening, not really, but she needed to find someone who did. Obviously the game sped this part up a little. The first name that sprang to mind was Cullen. So where was he?

Josephine was easier to find as it turned out, her golden sleeves shimmering in the muted candlelight. The ambassador was very much out of her depth in the chaos of an attack; none of her lauded skills were of any use when there was no line of communication with the enemy at their door. She stood with Leliana, in the spymaster's shadow, seemingly unaware of the small boy clinging to her hand for comfort.

"Rory ... have you seen Commander Cullen?" the Antivan woman asked as Rory pushed into view.

She shook her head, trying not to let her panic flare once again. What if I killed him, by saving Roderick? "I was hoping to find him with you," she admitted, glancing between the two women. "Isn't there another way out of here?"

Leliana looked pale, high color in her cheeks the only sign of her anger at this helpless situation they found themselves in. "If there is, I do not know it," she confessed in frustration. "Justinia once mentioned a summer pilgrims' path, but we cannot look for it now. The red templars must have the Chantry surrounded."

"What about the caves?" Rory asked desperately. You can't just give up on us! "Everyone knows there are caves in these mountains - surely some of them connect to the Chantry?"

"Wandering unknown passages will kill us as surely as waiting here will," Leliana told her sharply. "See to the wounded, healer. Our decisions are not your concern."

Rebuffed, Rory glared at her, but she knew Leliana was right. If only the summer path had been shown clearly in the game, she could have lead them out of danger. But no ... she was just as trapped as everyone else, and she had no authority to push those in power toward a better solution. She just had to hope that Roderick would offer his solution, and soon, before the Inquisition ended where it began. Frustrated and fearful, she pushed away, squeezing between the crush of bodies to find the place where the wounded had been gathered. It was slow-going - everyone who recognized her clutched at her as she passed, begging her to tell them what was happening. She was surrounded by terror, yet her own fear felt somehow a long way off, behind an impenetrable wall that kept her mind clear as she finally located her people and their overwhelming press of injured and dying. Luis and Andra had made it; Netta, too; Stitches seemed to have taken charge while Evy tried not to dither. No sign of Melcor. And they all looked relieved to see her.

"All right, fill me in," she said as the healers and nurses automatically drifted to her.

They were overwhelmed. There were burns and breaks and wounds left by weapons; head injuries, unseen pains, anxiety attacks. Not even Stitches had managed to pinpoint who they could honestly save and who they could not, and his suggestion that some of the worst injured should be hastened on to the Maker's side was instantly vetoed by Netta in fierce terms. But there was no time for this to become a debate.

"Enough!" Rory snapped, holding up her hand to still the protests. "Be rational. If - if - we are getting out of here, we will be in the mountains for weeks, at least, we limited stores and no assistance. It comes down to this - if they can walk, we treat them. If not, we give them a choice - the dagger, or the poppy."

"That's not your decision to make," Netta scowled ferociously. "You're no healer. You're a murderer."

Rory reeled back as though she had been physically struck, guilt and shame welling up to choke her as Netta threw that word in her face. Murderer. She didn't hear Stitches scolding the girl, or Evy angrily dismissing Netta to work on the walking wounded. She saw the bodies of Asrath and Benalt in her mind's eye, consumed by flame. Had she done the right thing? Was she making the right decisions here and now? All these lives she was condemning ... would anyone truly understand why?

A firm hand on her wrist drew her eyes to Luis, his elf-blooded features soot-stained and concerned. Netta was nowhere in easy view - Andra and Evy were just beginning to make those difficult decisions together as Stitches returned his attention to the walking wounded already decided upon.

"Mistress ... you're no murderer," Luis told her, his voice quiet but strong with certainty, and she was reminded how he'd known exactly what she meant when she'd said that she would deal with the patients in the clinic. "Sometimes all you can give is an end. It hurts, and it never stops hurting, but we need you thinking clear now. This night's far from over."

Pulling herself together ruthlessly, Rory swallowed the tightness in her throat with a hesitant nod. "You're right," she agreed, barely even flinching as another screech from above reverberated through the crowded place of worship. "Thank you, Luis."

Satisfied she was functioning again, he nodded, drawing her over to another section of the wounded, and they set to making those awful decisions together. Those who had a chance of surviving were sent to where Netta and Stitches were giving treatment; those who did not breathed their last at the hands of the healers who did not want them to suffer any longer than they had do. Some demanded to know why, tried to argue that the mages should be healing them, but most simply accepted it. And somehow, that was worse. She felt like a failure with each heart that stopped beating at her hands; an imposter, a child whose game had suddenly become deadly real. But there was no option to log out, no hints menu to be certain she was doing the right thing. She was living this nightmare, and who knew when it might end?

"Lady Healer!"

Quickly tying off one of the worst bandages she had ever done, Rory rose as she was hailed, turning to find Lysette coming her way. The Chantry was slowly beginning to empty - Roderick must have done what he might well have been born to do. Kaaras was pacing by the great doors, psyching himself up to go back out there, Cassandra and the rest of his friends close by. Be safe, she felt herself wish for them, knowing that what they would face was far worse than any mere dragon.

"Lady Healer, we have a way to evacuate," Lysette told her tersely. "Quartermaster Threnn requires you in the stores - I will see to your staff and patients. We will get them out."

Relief came in a trickle to temper the ache of fear and guilt in her heart. It's not over yet. "Thank you," she breathed to the templar, turning as she raised her voice. "Evy - you and Stitches are in charge. We're getting out of here."

"What about you?" Evy demanded in alarm.

"I'm coming too," Rory promised her. "I just have to help with the stores. Work with Lysette - get them up, get them out. Take everything with you. No one is coming back."

To her credit, despite her horror at the night's events, the young Trevelyan nodded and rose to the occasion, forcibly volunteering the nearest able-bodied people to get her patients on their feet. Rory left them to it, pushing her way through the slow-moving crowd to get down to the lower level of the Chantry, where Threnn was giving everyone who walked past something to carry from the surplus stored down there. The opinionated quartermaster seemed relieved to see her as she slipped through the crawling line of people filing past. She pulled Rory into the room where the medical supplies were kept.

"What's essential, that's all I need to know," she demanded shortly.

"Elfroot, lyrium, healing potions," Rory rattled off, not needing to think about it. They could make do without the fancy stuff for a while. She gestured with one arm. "This wall. The lyrium's in boxes marked as 'witherstalk tea', but I'd keep it under guard, if you can."

"That, I can do," Threnn promised her. "You stick here and hand your stuff out, we ain't got much time."

And so began the exodus from Haven's Chantry. There were far more able-bodied than injured, thankfully; even the children were eager to carry something as they joined the diminishing crowd down into the caves that would take them to the relative safety of the summer path. When, at last, all was quiet, Rory swung the last bag of elfroot onto her shoulder, startling at the sound of boots running down the steps from the nave as a blast of cold air rushed in. Cullen skidded into view, his step barely faltering as he accelerated toward her, seizing her hand to pull her along with him.

Those few who remained fell into step with them as they ran through long-forgotten tunnels in the rock, chasing the sound of the mass movement ahead. The wind outside was biting, but still they forged on through calf-deep snow, catching up to the struggling survivors as a terrifying voice echoed up from the village below.

"Exalt the will that is Corypheus."

Gasping for breath, wheezing in the frozen air, Rory had nothing left to be afraid with, her thoughts with Kaaras as he squared up to the monster that had tried to kill them all. At the treeline, Leliana waited with bow in hand, and there, Cullen stopped to look down at Haven. Rory turned with him, her fingers still gripped by his, and felt her breath stutter in her throat as she took in the scene far below them.

Haven was burning, overrun with red templars and red lyrium monsters of their ilk. Just beyond the flames, she could see the dragon, looming over the silhouette of a tall, misshapen being built from the fabric of nightmares. As she watched, the monster raised his fist, and green light flared - Kaaras, looking tiny in Corypheus' grasp, thrown to one side as the darkspawn magister prepared to end him. Despite knowing how it would go, she still clutched to Cullen's arm as Cassandra and the others came into view on the path; as Leliana's bow sang, shooting flame into the night sky; as Kaaras fired the trebuchet. She saw her friend run as the avalanche swept down the mountainside toward him; saw him fall ... and heard the shock and grief from a hundred throats in the trees behind her as the snow buried fallen Haven. The Herald of Andraste was gone.

But a small voice piped up in the back of Rory's mind, the inner fangirl offering something more than mindless excitement in the midst of that grief. The Herald is dead. Long live the Inquisitor.

Chapter Text

Threnn the quartermaster might have unpopular opinions, but her instincts were spot on.

Thanks to her, what was left of the Inquisition had tents to camp in, food to eat, medicines and ravens and even gurns to use as pack animals. She'd taken charge when they'd reached this sheltered little valley, sending parties out to cut wood and start fires, ordering others to set up tents, haranguing the cooks into making enough soup for everyone. Without her foresight and somewhat belligerent attitude, this temporary place of safety would have become a frozen tomb. No one was allowed to sit idle and brood over what was lost; Threnn and her people forced the survivors to pull together, fighting against the snow and their own grief to keep surviving.

The healers needed no such cajoling. Of everyone here, their work was the most obvious, and as stragglers who had survived the attack on the pilgrims' camp found their way to this new sanctuary, Rory had no time to wonder or worry over who else wasn't with them. Here and now, they had time to give the best care they could, and she set herself to it with as much energy as she had left. As she set bones, cooled burns, dressed wounds, she barely noticed the camp taking form around her, focused on what she could do to help these people who had lived through a horror. It wasn't until Dorian took her hand, hours later, that she let herself realize that she had lived through it, too.

"Here." The unusually taciturn mage pushed a cup of steaming soup into her grasp, guiding her gently down onto a bench by one of the fires. "You're fit to drop."

"You don't look that much better yourself," she told him wearily. "Is there any sign of Kaaras yet?"

Dorian shook his head. "None." He sighed, settling down at her side. "It is truly heartening to note how many of us believe there will be, though."

Rory nodded, wincing as she swallowed her scalding mouthful. Cassandra had been the most vocal in her vehement insistence that Kaaras would survive, refusing to stay in the camp to wait. Instead, she had marched back up to the rocky crest that hid this little valley from unfriendly eyes. She was still there now, with Cullen and Iron Bull and a handful of soldiers, maintaining her vigil, keeping watch for that tell-tale glint of green light against the snow. If that isn't the beginnings of love, then I don't know what is.

She pushed her thick braid back over her shoulder, grimacing at the sensation of charred hair under her fingers as she looked around at the makeshift camp. It was quiet now - even if they weren't sleeping, most people were crammed into what few tents they had, huddled together for warmth. A few fires burned, kept alive by watchers who were not ready to try settling down yet. Roderick sat by one of those fires, under orders not to go to sleep until the healers were sure he would wake up again, Cole crouched by his side. The spirit boy seemed at once offended and delighted by the fact that his prediction of the chancellor's death had been proven wrong, apparently staying close to the man just to make sure. Mother Giselle and a few of her sisters were in evidence, giving those they had lost since finding safety the last rites before burial or cremation. At the half-open flap of a nearby tent was the odd sight of Blackwall, Josephine, and Varric, all wrapped under the same fur, dozing on each others' shoulders. By the light of another fire, Rylen held Evy close in his arms, both of them staring into the flames in silence, too tired even to feel numb. Behind them, a shadow looked up at the rocky crest - Leliana, on guard for anything that might happen.

Rory felt herself sigh with the sense of defeat hanging over the survivors. "It's a mess, isn't it?"

"It doesn't look good, no," Dorian agreed soberly. "But we're alive. We survived."

"Not all of us."

Four words, and that impenetrable wall holding her emotions at bay crumbled. All it took was a simple acknowledgement of the tragedy, and the tears began to flow. In her mind, Rory relived the shock and fear; she heard again the last breaths of the dozens who had died at her hand so others had a better chance of living. She saw the accusation in those eyes as they died, felt again the sting of failure, heard again Netta's angry indictment against her. Murderer.

"And there it is." Dorian gently took the cup from her hand as she shook in the grasp of those recent memories. "It's about time you reacted like a normal person."

His arm wrapped about her shoulders, and she turned gratefully to press her face into his cloak, needing to be held as she poured out the fear and guilt and shame in heaving sobs that wracked her weary form without mercy. They weren't pretty tears, not like the tears in movies. They were raw and primal, silent only because she lacked the energy to scream; snot and saliva dribbled free unchecked as her freckled face flushed in blotchy shades of pink and red, salt stinging her eyes as she tried to find her way back to herself through the storm.

"I killed all those people," she sobbed painfully against the mage's shoulder. "I'm worse than those templars. I'm a murderer."

She felt Dorian's arm tighten around her. "Don't be ridiculous," he told her. "You're much too pretty to be a murderer. All that blood would clash with your hair."

Even in the midst of her sobs, she felt a laugh bubble up unexpectedly. Seriously? That's his idea of being comforting? She lifted her head, leveling an incredulous look at him from red-rimmed eyes. He raised an innocent brow, pulling a soft cloth from his belt to wipe at her face.

"Look at you, you're a dribbling mess," he informed her easily as he wiped her face clean, encouraging her to blow her nose. "Death is death, darling. Better an easy release at your hands than lingering agony and the loss of others in their place. You are not a murderer. And whether you believe in Him or not, the Maker understands."

"I'm supposed to heal people," she sniveled unattractively. "I'm not supposed to decide if they live or die. What if I made the wrong decisions?"

"Did you?" he asked pointedly, pulling her up shot with the unexpectedly blunt query.

Rory's tears stuttered to a halt as she faced that question head-on, looking at her choices with the clarity of hindsight. "I-I don't think I did, but -"

"Then there's no point to this second-guessing," the altus told her firmly. "Grieve for the dead, by all means ... but don't insult them, or the living, by losing faith in your own ability. Others could not make the decisions you made when it mattered the most." He dipped his head, making sure she was looking into his eyes and listening. "It's a heavy burden to bear. Lucky for you, you have a gorgeously broad-shouldered commander to help you bear it."

Unbidden, another laugh rushed from her chest at his gentle tease. Despite everything, she actually felt better for this unasked-for pep-talk. Sniffling back her tears, she reached up to draw the debonair Tevinter into a hug, surprised to feel him tense for a moment before he hesitantly joined in. Get used to it, Sparkler, I'm a hugger.

"Thank you," she murmured into his shoulder, squeezing him gently.

Drawing back, Dorian offered her a startlingly shy smile, patting her hand almost awkwardly. "Well, I'm no healer," he said in a deprecating tone. "I'm pretty much useless out here."

"You're far from useless, Dorian," she promised him, absently glancing away only to feel her heart suddenly lift. "Far from useless - heat some blankets for me, would you?"

"I beg your pardon?"

She nodded to the snow-covered rise above the camp, already pushing to her feet as she called for Evy to join her. Because, right there, shadows against the darkness growing clearer with every step, came Iron Bull, Cassandra, and Cullen ... bearing with them the unconscious bulk of Kaaras Adaar. It was the work of just a few minutes to empty the smallest tent and get him inside, and then the real work began.

"Get his wet clothes off, I want to see his fingers and feet," Rory ordered Bull, who hadn't managed to get out of the tent in time. "Evy, check him for obvious injuries - take his pulse." Opening her depleted pack, she rummaged through it as the pair of them got to work. "Someone find Solas, please," she called to the shadows lurking outside the tent flaps. If anyone deserved magical healing tonight, it was Kaaras.

She heard Cassandra volunteer to do that; heard Cullen setting a guard on the tent as the camp began to rouse to the wonderful news that the Herald of Andraste was alive. Even unconscious, Kaaras cried out in pain as Bull pulled his limp arms from his wet armor, the hang of the right declaring a dislocated shoulder. One of his horns was snapped clean in half; cuts and bruises littered his grey skin. But, blessedly, there was no sign of frostbite. Lucky bastard.

"His pulse is strong," Evy reported. "I think he has broken ribs on his right, too."

"Right." Rory handed her a small bottle of oil - comfrey, embrium, and drakestone, intended to warm and relax muscles. "Rub that into his right shoulder."

As Evy poured the warming, anti-inflammatory oil into her palm, Rory moved to look at the clean break of Kaaras' horn. It was definitely a clean break, but the tissues within were oozing blood, and looked swollen. It looked painful, but what did she know about horns?

"Cauterize it," Bull suggested as she hesitated, both of them glancing up as Dorian pushed into the tent, his arms laden with blankets so warm they were steaming. Dorian's a fire mage, isn't he? Helpful.

"We can do that." Rory nodded to Bull, grateful for the help as she took the blankets from Dorian's grasp. "Stay here, I need you," she told the altus, looking to Bull once again. "Can you put that shoulder back in?"

The Qunari mercenary winced, but nodded. "You got it."

Evy squeaked as he gently lifted her out of his way, watching in wide-eyed fascination as, without fuss or discernible effort, the Iron Bull manipulated Kaaras' dislocated shoulder back into the socket with an audible thunk. An unknown hand thrust into the tent, tossing dry clothing at them, and Bull again surprised them all, this time with his gentleness as he dressed his friend, careful of the injuries that made him moan in pain.

"What is it you need me to do?" Dorian asked, tearing his eyes from Bull's big, gentle hands as the two women crowded around the patient once more.

"I need you to come here and cauterize this horn for me," Rory told him as Bull ducked out of the tent. With the merc leader gone, the little tent suddenly felt a lot bigger.

"And how do I do that, exactly?" the mage asked in concern, moving to the head of the bedroll.

"Here." She paused in helping Evy to tuck the warm blankets around Kaaras' still form to flip her belt knife out of its sheath and into Dorian's hand. "Heat the blade until it's hot, not glowing, and press it to the wound in short bursts, no more than two seconds at a time."

"Well, that sounds mildly revolting," Dorian commented mildly, already heating the blade as the women worked.

It was at this point that Rory forgot something fundamental. An unconscious person, if subjected to enough pain, will rouse and react accordingly. Thus, at the first touch of hot metal to the raw wound on his half-horn, Kaaras let out a loud moan, arching up off the bedroll violently. Evy and Dorian reared back in alarm; Rory wasn't so lucky. One large hand lashed out and caught hold of her right forearm, dragging her back down onto her knees as they all heard the bones crack in Kaaras' crushing grip. She let out an uninhibited shriek of agony, the pain shocking the weariness from her body even as she whimpered.

"Rory?!"

That was Cullen, and he sounded a little too close to the tent for comfort, his reaction openly concerned. The last thing she wanted was for him to come rushing in here and turn a minor disaster into chaos.

"It's fine, I'm fine!" she somehow managed to yell back, as her hand went limp and too white for comfort. "No need to come in, it's all under control! Hold him down," she ordered Evy in a lower tone, impressed when the girl assessed the situation and sat herself heavily on the unconscious Qunari's chest. "Dorian, get on with it!"

Deeply reluctant, the Tevinter mage did as he was told, all three of them enduring the smell, the thrashing, and the sound of Rory's broken bones grinding together under Kaaras' unknowing grip. It felt like an age - the Torture Age, the inner fangirl unhelpfully offered - but finally the work was done. Kaaras slowly relaxed back to the tune of Rory's shaking whimpers as Evy pried his fingers from her ruined arm.

"Fasta vass," Dorian breathed, a little shocked when he saw the mangled mess that was Rory's right forearm. Never heard him say that in the game. "Why did you let him do that?"

Breathless and white-lipped from the pain, Rory managed a grimace of a smile. "I don't think straight when I'm tired," she offered as her only excuse. "There's a splint in that pack beside you ... could you get it out, please? Evy ... I need you to pull the bones straight."

Evy looked at her pale face, horrified. "But you haven't taken anything for the pain."

Rory shook her head, feeling wrung out and close to fainting, but stubborn enough to force her way through this. "That would be a waste of what little we have," she argued, however much she wanted to swallow about a pint of healing potion right about now. "It's going to hurt no matter what we do. Why waste something that could be used for someone else?"

Hesitantly, the younger woman laid her hands on the senior healer's arm, wincing in sympathy as she prepared to do as she'd been asked. And jumped as the tent flap opened, inadvertently pulling the bones straight before Rory was braced for it. Spots danced before her eyes as pure agony surged up her nerves, everything feeling freezing and burning and generally not very good at all.

"Bollocking fuck!" she hissed at nothing in particular, gasping as Dorian laid the splint against her arm as gently as he could.

"I see I have arrived a little late," she vaguely heard Solas say as he edged past in the cramped space to examine Kaaras.

"Where were you?" Rory demanded, definitely not in the mood for superior remarks right now.

"Scouting," the elven mage said simply, glancing at the three of them. "There is no need for the splint. I have mana enough for both of you."

"That would be better than reminding the faithful out there that the Herald of Andraste is a fearful Qunari every time they look at you, darling," Dorian pointed out with annoyingly good sense.

"And we are low on resources," Evy added, knowing her friend was wary of magic, but eager to persuade her to get healed properly. Rory attempting to give anyone treatment with a broken dominant arm did not bear thinking about.

She couldn't really argue with them, even though it meant letting Solas - Fen'Harel - use his power on her. It was a risk, but it was one worth taking. "Fine," she conceded with a sigh. "In that case, you two should go and get some sleep. Solas will take care of me, and Kaaras will be fine."

It was a little disheartening to note how quickly Evy and Dorian obeyed, but then, they didn't know what she knew. She inched to a more comfortable position, cradling her broken arm carefully as she moved. What I wouldn't give for morphine ... or laughing gas ... hell, even ibuprofen. It was rather fascinating to watch Solas work, she had to admit. He drew a kind of soothing stillness around himself, drawing his hands over Kaaras as he sought out the injuries that needed to be put right. Not for the first time, Rory found herself envious of mages in general. What would it be like, to have the power to heal any wound, any illness, any injury, at her fingertips? Probably less fun than bandages and prodding at open wounds, now she came to think about it. But she could dream, right?

Lost in fantasies of being a mage healer, she started in surprise to find Solas watching her.

"How is he?" she asked, nodding to the still form under the blankets behind him as he touched her broken arm with gentle fingers.

"Sleeping easily," the elf told her. "Thanks to your efforts, there was relatively little that needed healing."

A tight knot of worry she hadn't realized was there unraveled in her stomach. He's going to be fine. It was strange, she reflected, how her attitude to Solas was so filled with contradictions. She was wary of him, almost frightened, and knew he couldn't be trusted; and yet, she did trust him with things like this. She accepted that he knew what he was talking about when it came to healing and magic, trusting his presented view easily. Even being the Dread Wolf didn't take away his expertise with the more mundane magics he performed.

She glanced down at his hand on her arm. "This is going to hurt, isn't it?"

To her surprise, the Dread Wolf actually smiled at her. "It is done," he said simply, removing his hand without ceremony.

Rory stared at her arm, at the pink flushed skin of her hand, tentatively wriggling her fingers. No bruise, no deformity ... no pain. She raised her arm hesitantly, rippling her fingers into a fist experimentally, and smiled as her limb responded as though never injured at all. "Thank you," she said in a soft tone, wonder filling her voice at this amazing feat.

"The Inquisition cannot have its healer maimed forever by the Herald of Andraste," he reasoned without sarcasm, calmly rising to leave the tent. The words sent a shiver through her. But it can have its Inquisitor maimed forever by the Dread Wolf.

Left alone with the sleeping Qunari, Rory crawled over to lay her fingers against his neck, to satisfy herself that he was just sleeping. His pulse beat beneath her touch, strong and steady, making her smile. You really are a tough sod, aren't you, Kaaras Adaar? Thank you for coming home. Settling in to keep vigil over him, she leaned close to kiss her friend's brow fondly. But she wasn't alone for long. Just a few minutes after Solas left, Cassandra lifted the flap to look into the tent.

"May I ... may I join you?" the Seeker asked, her worried eyes settling on Kaaras as he sighed heavily and shifted onto his side.

Rory nodded, feeling something warm spark in her heart at the unspoken devotion in the woman's gaze. "Of course," she assured her friend, raising her hand to invite her inside. "He's just sleeping now."

Cassandra folded herself awkwardly at Rory's side, her eyes hungrily searching the Qunari's face for any sign he was in pain. Finding none, she seemed to relax a little, content to keep this vigil at his side for as long as it took. Exhausted now that everyone was where they needed to be, Rory dozed, her eyes falling shut as she sighed quietly.

"Idiot man," she heard Cassandra mutter, the insult overlaid with a deep fondness that could not be overlooked. "Ordering me to leave your side while you face down a dragon alone. I should not have done it. I will not do it. I will never leave you again."

Wisely keeping silent, feigning sleep, Rory had to struggle to keep the smile from appearing on her face. I just bet you won't, she thought to herself. Time to introduce Kaaras to Swords and Shields.

Chapter Text

"So I shoot, right, and the arrow - whoosh - hits him right in the co-"

"Sera -"

"- odpiece. Codpiece!" Sera threw Blackwall a terrible attempt at an innocent look. "What's wrong with that?"

Rory snorted with laughter at the bearded man's long-suffering sigh. She was pretty sure he wouldn't have interrupted if the audience for the Red Jenny's story hadn't been almost exclusively under ten years old. Blackwall seemed to feel the need to protect the children from the harsher realities of the world, and she thought she understood why. He'd failed to protect children once before; this might have been a way to begin atoning for that terrible crime.

"I'm not sure this is an appropriate bedtime story," the pseudo-Warden was saying, glancing over at Rory as though hoping for support.

"What's a codpiece?" a small voice asked from inside the tent.

"It's what men wear to protect their danglies," Sera answered easily, grinning as Blackwall rolled his eyes.

There was a brief pause, and a different little voice piped up. "You shooted his willy?"

Sera let out her wild laugh. "Bullseye - right in the cods!"

A moment later, the little tent erupted with giggles, the sound causing heads to turn across the camp, indulgent smiles on adult faces for the reassuring gale of laughter coming from happy children in this bleak landscape. Laughter was in short supply for the survivors of Haven, but the Herald had given them hope. Kaaras had survived his brush with death; more than that, he was leading them north, certain they would find somewhere to claim for their own, and his certainty was drawing them onward through the towering Frostbacks. There was no mention now of his race or background - he was their Herald, and always would be.

Their numbers had dwindled only a little since they had set out, a marked relief for the healers who had been certain they would lose more than they eventually had. The injured who remained had rallied, and though the going was tough, they endured it with everyone else. The main concern was food ... or had been, until just yesterday. A wild-looking Dalish mage had presented himself to Kaaras, offering to show their hunting parties where the wild rams grazed not far off their path. That he'd shown himself at all was enough of a surprise, but for Rory, the real surprise had been the revelation of just who he was.

His name, Kaaras had told her, was Mahanon Lavellan, First to the Keeper of Clan Lavellan who roamed the Free Marches. He'd been living wild in these mountains since the explosion at the Conclave. Mahanon had stayed rather than go back to his clan - partly in fear of encountering rifts on his journey, but mainly to observe the Inquisition as it grew. He'd watched them seal the Breach with mages; had been preparing to volunteer himself to their cause when Corypheus had struck. Now he had finally gathered the courage to show himself, glad to be able to aid them on their exodus, though he had not yet taken the oath or joined their camp. Too many humans, Kaaras supposed, for Mahanon to be truly relaxed in their company. Too many templars to feel truly safe. And this was the third potential Inquisitor to have survived the blast at the Temple. At this point, Rory wasn't sure she'd be surprised if a Cadash dwarf popped out from behind a tree just to say boo.

Yet thanks to Mahanon's timely appearance, they had food enough to feed their numbers - a little under two hundred, all told. Most were civilians; natives of Haven, or pilgrims who had escaped the slaughter. Of the thirty mages under Fiona's command, only twelve remained. They had stood with the soldiers and templars of the Inquisition until the last possible moment, taking terrible casualties, their lives given for people who had been raised to hate and fear them. Thanks to their bravery, though the fear remained, the hate was lessened by their sacrifice, their company welcomed by those who traveled with them.

Worse was the number of children who had escaped Haven, only to discover that their families had not. Without a second thought, Kaaras had pledged the Inquisition to find these little ones good homes, and to care for them until it could be done, and the survivors had risen to the challenge. The children were given a tent to share with the men and women who had volunteered to watch over them; they traveled in the middle of the walking caravan through the mountains; they were the first to eat at every meal. They were never alone - everyone took a turn in caring for them, and tonight was Rory's turn to help bed them down to sleep.

Which was how she found herself here and now, gently jostling a small girl no more than three years old in her arms as she paced in front of the tent, listening to Sera and Blackwall competing over who could tell the best bedtime stories. The giggling from the children brought a smile to her face, glad to hear them still able to laugh, even as she glanced about the camp a little self-consciously. So many eyes glanced their way, but it was one pair in particular that arrested her breath, if only for a moment.

Cullen was watching her. Nothing new about that, of course, but this felt somehow different. There was a dark hunger in his amber-lit eyes, discernible even from across the camp fires, as he tracked her pacing, his gaze wandering often to the curly head resting on her shoulder. What are you seeing, love, she wondered, feeling a frisson of heat shiver down her spine as his eyes locked with hers once again. There had been no time for more than tender glances in the past days; no privacy in which to share kisses and remind each other that they were alive. By necessity, they slept apart - her with her patients, he with the few soldiers who remained with them. Longing looks were all they were allowed ... and this look was more longing than ever. He twisted, beginning to take a step in her direction, and visibly scowled as a hunter demanded his attention, taking his gaze from hers to deal with that demand. Rory bit her lip, trying to calm her libido. Skyhold can't be far away now, she told herself. There'll be time, then.

Above them, the night sky was suddenly lit with the pop and sparkle of magical flares, turning the darkness bright with blue and gold. The little girl in her arms jumped in fright, whining against her ear, and Rory drew her gaze from Cullen's profile to comfort the child.

"Shh ... it's all right," she promised in a soft tone, stroking her hand over the girl's tousled curls. "You're safe. It's just the mages talking to each other, that's all. Look."

She turned about, looking to the eat, and there, from the foothills below, came an answering burst of light. The little girl calmed as she watched the light show, settling down once more as the fright eased away. It had become a regular thing in past nights, to have the camp illuminated in this way for just a few minutes, and to see the answering splash of light and color from the east. The answer came from the rest of the rebel mages, still traveling with their large escort of soldiers from Redcliffe. It was comforting to know that they weren't alone out here; that they had friends and allies seeking them out as they headed inexorably north. There was no way to know if they, too, had been attacked, or what shape they were in, but just knowing they were there was heartening.

"Mistress?"

She turned back at the sound of that soft voice by her shoulder, smiling to see Gareth standing there. He held out his arms, nodding to the child now dozing against her.

"I'll take her, mistress," the elven man said gently. "You've a need to settle yourself."

Rory might have argued, were it not for the ache in her own limbs. She wasn't used to all this walking. Her legs were going to be in fantastic condition by the time they reached Skyhold, but getting there was surprisingly painful. Despite her self-destructive tendency to drive herself into the ground for the good of everyone else, she was looking forward to getting off her feet and getting properly warm again before falling asleep.

"As you command," she teased her elven friend, carefully transferring her precious burden into his arms as he blushed at her playful words. The toddler protested sleepily, but she was already drifting back to sleep as Gareth wrapped his cloak around her. "Is she sleeping with you and Ara tonight?"

He nodded, expertly swaying to settle the child against his own shoulder. "They've taken to each other," he murmured, seeming a little in awe of his daughter making a connection with a human child. But then, what did races mean out here? They were all in this together, no matter their height or the shape of their ears.

Rory felt her smile soften as he took the little one into the tent. Sera was nowhere to be seen; Blackwall was just a voice within the tent itself, his low cadence weaving stories of griffons and the Grey Wardens who rode them to send the older children to the Fade with smiles. So what if he wasn't a Warden himself? They believed he was, and his presence made them feel safe. Who was she to take that away from them?

Rolling her shoulder, she yawned, turning back to the camp to seek out somewhere near a fire to sit and warm herself before rolling into her blankets in the hospital tent. She'd intended to join Varric and Cole, but her plans changed rather abruptly when a familiar hand clasped her own, pulling her off-course. He didn't say a word, leading her out of the circle of tents, past the perimeter guards, away from the encompassing safety of the camp and into the moonlit dappling of shadow beneath the trees.

"What's going on?" she asked, a little alarmed by how far he had brought her. More alarmed when she noticed that he was not wearing his armor or his sword.

Cullen didn't answer, spinning back to catch her in his arms, his lips crushing hers with a fierce kiss that screamed out with fear and relief; with loving, wanting lust. Rory felt herself catch fire within, alarm forgotten, aching limbs forgotten, throwing her arms about his shoulders to cling to him as she answered that kiss with a desperation of her own. She felt herself moving, driven back under the force of his embrace, her gasp lost on his tongue as she came up against the rough bark of a tree, pinned in place with no desire to escape.

He groaned her name as her fingers slid through his hair, his hands reaching down to grasp her thighs, guiding her legs in their eager wrap about his hips as he lifted her from the ground. His pelvis pressed to hers, the fervid heat of his hardness flush against the aching throb between her legs, pulsing together through the frustrating layers that separated their flesh. She should have been helpless, pinned there by his rough need to feel and taste her; instead, she was a willing participant in mutual desire held too long at bay. Too long. Yet there was more to this than simple lust. She could taste it in his kisses, feel it in the fumble of his hand at her breast - this was need, far beyond the desire they had shared before. Days ago, they had both looked death in the eye; duty had kept them from acknowledging that truth. You could have died. I could have lost you. The words were there, unspoken, passing back and forth as lips, tongues, teeth, sought to make certain that this was not some cruel dream. You're alive. We're alive.

Quite what might have spurred him to act now was driven from her mind as instinct took over. Her hands sought his belt, the fastening of his pants; he lowered her to the ground to answer that unthinking craving in kind. She barely felt the chill of the winter air on bare skin as he tugged her pants down, dragging one foot free of boot and leggings as his fingers swept aside the sodden cling of her smalls. A cry died in her throat as his palm ground into the tingling crown of her sex, his suddenly bare fingers pressing into her, testing her, needing her to be ready for him. He swallowed her moans in another searing kiss, his answer filling her mouth with the taste of his breath as she found her prize, slender fingers curling to the familiar contour of his cock, already slick with his own desire. The rough bark of the tree bit into the swell of her rear as he sank into her, swift to stoke the fire burning in them both with sure thrusts she could only hope to match.

There was nothing gentle in this coupling of theirs. It was all instinct, primal need driving them both as they moved together in the dappled moonlight, muffling each other with violent kisses. She scratched at his scalp and neck; the grip of his hand at her bare thigh would leave bruises, but they were alive. They had come through the nightmare; the marks they left on each other were war wounds to be proud of. And their reward came swiftly for both of them - she, with a keening cry muted only by the press of his hand to her mouth; he, with a groan that vibrated through them both as his teeth left their mark at the crook of her shoulder, their desire spent without a thought for the consequences.

Breathless, he leaned against her, his arm braced against the tree above her head, his hand releasing her thigh to settle at her hip as his cock slipped from her tender heat, each pressed close enough not to care for the moment about the cold that settled in to freeze the sheen of sweat that painted their exposed skin. Rory let him envelop her, surround her senses with everything that was him, slowly rousing herself to brush a kinder kiss to his scarred lip.

"I'm sorry," she heard him whisper into her mouth, his mind reasserting itself no doubt in horror at the way he had lost control of himself. "Rory, I'm ... did I hurt you?"

Despite the fresh ache of bruises at her thigh and neck, she felt herself smile as she shook her head, her lips still tenderly caressing his as she answered. "No more than I hurt you," she promised softly. "Don't apologize, I ... I needed that. I needed you."

He drew back just a little, the palm of his hand cupping her jaw, whiskey-bright eyes searching hers for any sign she might not mean what she said. "I've never been so rough with you," he whispered, but that wasn't regret in his voice. No, it was pride - pride in himself for giving her what she needed, pride in her for responding so eagerly to his own need.

She felt a blush touch her cheeks under his gaze. "I liked it," she confessed shyly, rewarded for her confession with the loving tenderness of his lips to hers, soft and careful now of doing further harm. But the chill couldn't be ignored forever. "Cullen ... my arse is freezing."

To her everlasting delight, he laughed at her frank statement, looping his arm low about her back to hug her close as he chuckled into her shoulder, his palm resting gently on the grazed swell of her backside. "Yours and mine both, sweeting," he assured her, but before he let her slip away to dress herself, his other hand rummaged for the little pot of elfroot salve in her belt pouches. Should have known he'd know that tree bit my bum.

Rory swayed against him as he applied the salve to her abused backside, wincing just a little as it stung in the abrasions left on her skin by the biting roughness of the bark at her back. Only when he was certain he hadn't missed anywhere on the soft curve under his hand did Cullen release her, both of them hastily dragging their clothing to rights. He wouldn't let her salve the scratches she had left on his neck; in turn, she refused to allow him to salve the mark of his teeth at her shoulder. No one was going to be in any doubt of their belonging to each other after tonight.

At the edge of the trees, Cullen paused, drawing her into his arms for one last, lingering kiss before they had to part once again to their duties. "I love you," he whispered to her, the words for her alone. "You know that, don't you?"

"Isn't that supposed to be my line?" she asked with teasing fondness, squeezing her arms about his waist as he smiled sheepishly. "I do love you, Cullen. Don't you ever think otherwise."

"How can I, when you're so stubborn about it?" he teased in his own turn, holding her close under the moons' dual gaze. "You give me a purpose beyond violence and war. I won't let go of that easily."

She smiled, nestling into his arms for a long moment, listening to the beat of his heart against her own. I hope you never have to. I'm yours, Cullen Rutherford, for as long as you'll have me.

Chapter Text

Skyhold was magnificent.

It loomed above the plateau, a fortress far greater than the game had suggested it to be. Not only that, but the plateau itself held something not even Rory had expected to see - a ruined city of stone, clearly elf-built, long abandoned even by those who had made it home after the fall of Arlathan. She had always wondered how the entire core of the Inquisition could possible have fitted into Skyhold, especially given how much of it remained littered with debris and unusable, and now she knew. The fortress was just central headquarters - the army, the visitors, the merchants, even the pilgrims would be housed in the city that stood in the shadow of the fortress. Once the rubble was cleared and the houses rebuilt, it would be perfect for their needs. The bulk of the people would remain in the city; only the council, the inner circle, the Inquisitor, and select others, would take up residence in Tarasyl'an Te'las itself.

There was just one problem. The place where the sky is kept was already occupied. Not by people, oh no ... by spiders. Giant ones. After Kaaras and his party's initial failed attempt to get past the second gatehouse into the fortress, Cullen had made the executive decision to wait for the larger Inquisition force to arrive before they made a push to clear the infestation. Which would have been fine, had the spiders not decided that the beleaguered group camping in the city below were just too tempting a meal to pass up. As night fell, they descended from the fortress in droves, falling upon the hapless survivors to feast.

As the panic spread, Rory found herself barricaded inside one of the few houses still completely intact, together with several of the injured and more than a few of the children. Indeed, the only able-bodied adults in there were herself, Evy, Lysette, and a pair of Cullen's raw recruits. Five people, two of whom were not fighters, to protect a dozen of the most vulnerable of their group, and not a mage among them.

"You and you, secure and guard those windows," Lysette ordered the two recruits, who rushed to obey the templar. "Mistress Rory, Mistress Evelyn, gather them into the center of the room, away from the walls. I will hold the door."

Grateful that someone knew what to do, Rory moved with Evy to do as they were told. Several of those still recovering from injury were armed, insisting on being placed around the edge of their protective circle, just in case. As Rory knelt in that knot of people, absently wrapping her arms about a pair of weeping children with a third clinging to her back, she forced herself not to be afraid. Or at least, not to show fear. The children needed the adults to be calm, at the very least.

Crouched together in oppressive darkness lit only by a pair of sputtering torches, they listened to the chaos that reigned outside. Screams of fright and pain filtered in through the shuttered windows, mingling with the crackle and snap of spells, the clash of swords and zip of arrows against armored carapaces. Worse were the sounds of the many-limbed giants on the roof above them - so many, seeking a way into this poor haven where fresh meat waited in tense fear. The boy under Rory's arm whimpered, and she drew him closer, touching her cheek to his hair.

"It's all right," she heard herself promise him, promise all of them, child and adult alike. "Everything will be fine."

The older boy hugging to her back agreed. "The Herald will save us."

"He won't have to," Evy said, confident despite the tremble in her voice. "Lysette and the soldiers will keep us safe."

As she spoke, however, her eyes met Rory's in the dusty gloom, sharing their morbid thought without the need for words. If the spiders got in, they were all dead, no matter how hard they fought. Right now, all their lives were in the hands of a templar and two recruits, who may or may not be able to keep the ravenous arachnids at bay.

"What was that?"

Her head snapped toward the speaker, an older soldier who had broken both arms in the evacuation from Haven. He was peering into the darkness that cloaked the back wall of the house, scowling in concentration.

"What was what?" one of the others demanded in a harsh tone, fear making him seem aggressive in the watchful room.

"Thought I heard something," the injured soldier said warily. "There! You hear that?"

Rory strained her own ears, trying to listen past the clattering on the roof and battle outside, fighting her own heartbeat to hear what had alarmed the seasoned fighter so. For a long moment, she thought he must have imagined it, his over-trained senses tricking him ... then she heard it, too. The click of spindle legs on stone; the sibilant snap of mandibles clacking entirely too close for comfort. With a muted curse, one of the burned workers snatched up a torch, tossing it toward the sound, and the screaming began as the panic took hold.

There, by the hearth, a giant spider reared back from the flame of the torch, the flickering light illuminating another of the corrupted creatures dragging itself from the chimney breast. They'd found a way in.

As Rory grabbed for the children, trying to keep them under control as she lurched to her feet, she heard Lysette snap out another order. "Here, to the corner! Now!"

Small and agile, conditioned to obey, the children were first to that defensible place, huddling together in outspoken terror as the templar moved to guard her charges against the deadly invasion, the soldiers abandoning the shuttered windows to join her. With no choice now but to ignore her own fear, Rory darted to helped her adult patients to their new place of dubious safety, all the while expecting to feel the clamp of venomed jaws at her legs, or the cloying wrap of webs about her limbs. As battle was joined within the confines of the room, she picked up the second torch, hoping she had it in her to protect these people to her last breath. But that was the problem - she knew she didn't.

By the light of those two flaming torches, their little group watched as templar and soldiers hacked at the spiders that just kept coming, risking their lives with every blow to hold their line. This wasn't honor; it wasn't even duty. This was survival. But for every spider they put down, there was always another to take its place. They were fighting a losing battle, and everyone whose lives depended on them knew it.

Suddenly a fresh scream rose from the group at Rory's back. She spun about, seeing eyes and hands pointed upward. A cold sensation settled over her. Raising the torch, she lifted her own gaze, swallowing a scream of her own as a spider dropped from the ceiling above. The torch was knocked from her hand, scattering sparks over stone, as she fell beneath its weight, flat on her back, those eager fangs far too close for comfort. Eight shining eyes glittered down at her ... and erupted in a spray of ichor and blood as a blade was thrust deep. A booted foot kicked the body clear, a familiar hand reaching down to drag her up.

"Evy?!"

The Trevelyan pushed her back toward the huddle. "I've got this."

Rory stared at her friend in outright shock, even as friendly hands pulled her to safety. Sweet, shy Evelyn Trevelyan, who cowered from sharp words and had tried to hide from a dragon behind a pub, threw herself into the fight, picking off the spiders that got past Lysette and the others with dual daggers she had clearly taken off a soldier unable to wield them. It was ... amazing to watch.

Evy moved like an acrobat, jumping, spinning, rolling, never quite where the mindless arachnids expected her to be. Her daggers sliced through thorax, legs, eyes, disabling before landing the killing blow, quick to retreat before another could get behind her. Rory's mouth hung open as she watched, scarcely aware of the ichor sliding down her face and trickling through her hair. Of course she can fight. In another life, she would have been the Inquisitor. Just because she chooses not to, doesn't mean she can't. Her jaw snapped shut as an inappropriate thought sprang to the forefront of her mind. Rylen's going to cream his pants. The Starkhaven captain was definitely going to approve of this side of his noble lover. Yet even the addition of a clearly seasoned rogue wasn't enough to turn the tide. They were still losing this fight.

A crash against the main door to the house raised another round of piercing screams, the children clinging to the adults in pure terror. The bar rattled, buckled, and finally broke clean in two as the door burst open. Rory got a brief impression of two axe-wielding Qunari, roaring like maniacs, before Kaaras and the Iron Bull charged into the fray. Bolts sang through the splintered doorway, picking off spiders that got too close; Varric, no doubt enjoying the opportunity to show off. Bianca fell silent, and two figures darted inside - Dorian and Vivienne.

"Hello, darlings," the Tevinter mage greeted the shocked gaggle of adults and children huddled in the corner. "Hold still and shut your eyes, all be over soon."

In the moments before she squeezed her own eyes shut, Rory saw him sweep his staff over the room, feeling the familiar greasy cling of magic in the air as barriers slammed into place around them. Then a burst of light so bright it hurt even closed eyes, the sizzling crackle of a firestorm unleashed through the house, only to blink out and plunge them all into pitch-black silence. Then a deep laugh broke that stillness.

"Good fight," Bull declared with almost offensive cheer. "Someone gonna light a torch in here?"

"If you can find a torch to light, certainly." That was Vivienne, the measured civility of her tone remarkably comforting as Rory steeled herself to open her eyes. "I would suggested not allowing the children to see the result of that spell, however."

"You could be right," the Qunari mercenary agreed. "Kids, keep your eyes shut. This isn't pretty."

"There speaks a man who knows nothing about children," Dorian commented with drawling disapproval.

"How about you stop chatting and get them out of there?" Varric interjected. Rory could just make the dwarf out, silhouetted in the doorway, her eyes struggling to adjust to the darkness. "You all right, Cupcake?"

A faint glow of moonlight was asserting itself, allowing her to count the faces around her. Everyone was accounted for. Rory let out a sigh of relief. "We're all right," she answered, pulling herself to her feet once again. "Where are the others?"

"Curly's rounding them up in the main square," Varric told her. "C'mon out. They're going to need you."

She nodded, feeling a flare of very personal relief at the news that Cullen had come through this as she reached down to take hold of two small hands. "All right, smalls, the coast is clear," she reiterated for the frightened children. "Everybody holding somebody's hand?"

As the children reached out to take hold of each other and the adults around them, Kaaras moved to join them, bending to lift the smallest onto his hip. "We're not running, we're walking," he informed the children with a grin. "Because we're not scared of anything, are we?" A chorus of young voices agreed. "Good. Here we go, then."

Carefully, with the help and guidance of their rescuers, the vulnerable group made their way out into the ruined city, children and injured and all. The rubble-strewn streets were littered with spider corpses and scorch marks; here and there, the awful sight of an unmoving cocoon. Escorted by the Herald of Andraste and his heroic friends, they picked their way to where the commander was mustering those who had survived. Familiar faces stood out in the crowd as they were reunited - Josephine, Rylen, Sera, Leliana, Roderick, Cole, Blackwall, Solas, Harritt and Flissa and Seggrit. All there, except for -

"Where did you go?" an irate Nevarran voice demanded as they handed the children into the care of others.

Kaaras winced, turning to face an incandescent Cassandra. "I went with -"

"Never do that again!" the Seeker snapped as she glared at him. "How am I supposed to protect you when you just run off?"

"It wasn't like I -"

"I don't want to hear it." Cassandra poked his chest, hard. "You are with me, or you do not fight at all."

Rory didn't hear Kaaras' response. A hand cupped her elbow, turning her about, and she found herself looking up at Cullen, throwing her arms about his neck in a rush of sobbing relief, clinging to him as his own arms banded tight about her waist. His face pressed against her neck, both of them heedless of the spray that coated them both. I'm alive. You're alive. I don't have time for sex, so this is just going to have to do.

"Are you hurt?" she asked, drawing back to look him over. Covered with blood and ichor, he didn't seem to be carrying any injury.

He shook his head, tilting her chin to inspect her in return. "Not a scratch," he promised her. "You?"

"Just dirty," she promised him in turn. "Where are they?"

There was no need to ask who she meant; after a fight like that, the healers were essential. Cullen twisted, nodding toward a group nearby, bloodied and white-lipped with pain. Rory squeezed his hand, slipping from his side to plunge herself into her work alongside the few healers who had come through unscathed. This was what she was here for, after all. She just hoped the spiders were really gone. She could do without seeing another one up so close anytime soon.

One thing was certain - she was going to have to do something very nice for Evy pretty damn soon. She saved my life. Maybe it was time Rylen pulled himself together and asked that question he'd had playing on his mind for the last month or so. Wouldn't that be nice?

Chapter Text

"They arrive daily, from every settlement in the region ..."

The familiar line of dialogue caught Rory's attention. She glanced up from her notes, unable to keep herself from smiling as she saw Cassandra and Kaaras standing nearby, watching the newest arrivals greeting those who milled about in the lower courtyard. Come to think of it, there were more people in evidence all of a sudden. Not that Skyhold didn't have a surprisingly large population already, but usually everyone was busy at some task or other. It was slightly strange to see so many just loitering, but then, why wouldn't they? Today was the day the Inquisitor would be named and invested. Everyone wanted to be the first to know who their new leader would be.

Ever since the news had been spread that an Inquisitor had been chosen, the subject had been on everyone's lips. It was a way to pass the time as they worked, the debate going back and forth as centuries of neglect and disrepair slowly began to clear away under determined hands. They'd taken possession of the fortress two weeks ago, and already the place was beginning to resemble the home base she remembered from the game. Most people were still living in tents, both here and in the city below, the courtyards crowded with canvas walls. There were injured still to care to - mostly soldiers who had taken damage while clearing out the spiders - but far fewer of them than she had expected. Some were dying, and she was hoping for an unexpected cure; others just needed care to rally and recover. And if, as had happened on occasion, she went to a dying man or woman only to find their throat neatly split, it didn't alarm her. She knew Cole was lurking around here, drawn by the pain and his need to help.

"Last chance to place your bet, Ror," the familiar cadence of Rylen's Starkhaven brogue drew her attention. She looked up to find her friend grinning down at her.

"And I maintain it's not gambling when we all know who it's going to be, anyway," she pointed out with a smile, setting her notes aside to stand with him. There was definitely a crowd forming now. She nudged Rylen teasingly. "What I really want is to know is this ... when are you going to ask her?"

The captain actually blushed, glancing away with a secretive smile. "Tonight," he told her quietly. "I called in a few favors. I want it to be perfect."

"You silly sod." She laughed affectionately. "It'll be perfect no matter how you do it. Because it's you, and she loves you, in case you hadn't noticed."

"Aye, but she's a noble, Rory," he countered, nervous and uncertain. "I've no way to offer her the life she's used to."

"The life she's used to is the one she's been living for the last six months," Rory reminded him pointedly, glancing up as a murmur from the crowd around them heralded the arrival of Leliana on the parapet, bearing the sword of the Inquisitor. "A life with you, no matter the hardship."

"I can't give her the luxuries she deserves," he fretted, shaking his head with a frown.

"You're not listening," she chuckled, rolling her eyes at her friend.

"No, I'm not," he agreed, his inked face creasing in a sheepish smile. "But don't stop telling me I'm a silly sod. It helps."

Rory snorted with laughter, any chance to answer lost as first Cassandra, then Kaaras, came into view. A series of cutscenes that lasted about ten minutes on the computer, and had actually taken closer to a month in reality, were about to reach their culmination in the acceptance of a Qunari as the leader of the Inquisition. It was a satisfying moment in the game - at least, she thought it was; it had been a very long time since she'd even seen a computer - but after all this time, all this work; after all the prejudice and violence and plain stupidity he had faced, it was a privilege to watch as Kaaras Adaar accepted the honor and responsibility he was offered. To be one of many who cheered with true enthusiasm to celebrate him as their Inquisitor.

"So," Rylen said as the crowd dispersed around them in the aftermath of the investiture, "d'you really think I've a chance? Truthfully now."

Her face aching from her own smiling cheers, Rory turned to her friend with honest eyes. "I wouldn't be encouraging you if I didn't," she assured him with absolute certainty. "Just be yourself, Ry. That's the man she loves, not some mask you might put on to impress her."

"It's disgusting how you always speak sense when it comes to my relationship," he informed her fondly. "And give up no details about your own."

"It's a gift," she drawled, bending to catch her notes before a gust of wind could scatter them all over the yard. "You'd better scoot before she comes by, or you're going to blurt."

"Aye," he agreed, flashing her a warm grin. "Make a wish for me tonight, Ror. I need all the help I can get."

"Anything for you, captain."

He chucked her cheek gently as he turned away, leaving her smiling to herself as she sat back down in the afternoon sunlight to concentrate on her writing. It was still cold - still winter - but somehow the sun beat down warmer on Skyhold. She had no idea why; it could be a consequence of the altitude, or it could be magic. Whichever it was, she wasn't complaining. A little warmth after too many days spent freezing was more than welcome. Summer might not be so pleasant, but she'd cross that bridge when she came to it.

So Rylen was going to propose to Evy. About time. Rory had done her level best to plant the idea and encourage him; it was rather exciting to know he was going through with it. She was in no doubt as to what Evy's answer would be, and despite the younger woman's sometimes retiring nature, she also knew her friend would fight tooth and nail to make sure no one took Rylen away from her. It was truly lovely to see their relationship progressing ... but it made her wonder a little about her own. She loved Cullen - hell, she'd been halfway there before any of this had happened - and for the first time in her life, she had no doubts about whether the man she loved, loved her. But where did they go from here? She still had no idea if this was really real, and even if it was, should she be making a life with him? She might disappear at any moment. What would that do to him? A loss like that might set him back years, but it would be salvageable if she was only his lover. Wouldn't it? Wherever she might end up, her worry was all for Cullen. But if she had the choice ... This was home now. He was her home. She'd give anything to stay.

The sound of a throat clearing got her attention as a shadow fell across her lap. She lifted her head to find Roderick waiting patiently for her acknowledgement.

"Chancellor," she greeted him politely. "How can I help you?"

"I believe the more appropriate question is, how may I help you?" he countered, taking her invitation to sit with gratitude. The wound he had taken in Haven was almost healed, but he needed time to rebuild his strength and fitness. "I have been granted a position within the Inquisition. The commander believes my talents are best suited to logistics."

That did make sense. For years before the Conclave, Roderick Asignon's life had revolved around calm and order, the organizing of the Divine's day-to-day. They had a quartermaster to procure equipment and supplies, but what happened to all that when it was delivered to the Inquisition, especially if it was not specifically military? Putting a man who clearly excelled at keeping things moving smoothly in charge of such things seemed like a very good idea. Rory felt a swell of pride in Cullen for thinking of it.

"I'm pleased you've changed your mind about us," she said discreetly. "About Kaaras."

"I was wrong," the cleric said simply in reply. "I will apologize to the Her - the Inquisitor, when I can. But for now, I am gathering information on the needs of the fortress and the city. As you have been named officially as the senior healer, it is to be assumed that you know what you are lacking."

"Just about everything, to be honest," Rory told him with candid resignation, ignoring the comment on her promotion. She hadn't wanted it, but no one would let her argue about it. "Our limited resources are running low already. I can make you a list, if you'd like."

"That would be most useful." Roderick nodded as he spoke, evidently approving of her suggestion. "I understand that you and a small staff will be remaining in the fortress. Do you keep contact with the healers in the city?"

She snorted wryly. "I don't have much choice - they send me daily reports," she admitted in a rueful tone. "Whatever I put on the list is needed down there, as well."

"Then you are able to put together an order that will cover the needs of both the fortress and the city?" he queried, impressed when she nodded confidently. "You are more organized than I had given you credit for, healer."

Uncertain whether that was a veiled insult or not, she ignored it. "Even if we had all the resources, what we desperately need are apothecaries and alchemists," she confessed worriedly. "We're capable of making the potions ourselves, of course, but it takes us away from our patients."

"I see." The chancellor frowned, his expression pensive. "I did not realize we were lacking such a vital asset."

"In Haven, we only had Adan and his assistant," Rory said, her eyes clouding as she remembered the alchemist's terrible death - a death he had suffered because his instinct had been to save her. "They ... they didn't make it."

"Let mine be the last sacrifice," he intoned softly, giving her a moment to compose herself before he spoke again. "We shall honor their loss with lives well-lived, healer. I will speak with Lady Montilyet about extending an invitation to the guilds. If you could put together a list of the supplies you need, I will liaise with the new quartermaster on your behalf."

"You could always buy direct from a reputable businessman."

Rory frowned as she looked at the source of that uninvited interjection. Seggrit had come out of Haven without a scratch on him, despite having been rescued from a burning building. And despite owing his life to Kaaras, he was still calling her friend an oxman behind his back, a man very much at home with racial slurs and the ways he could use them to best effect. Not only that, but she could have sworn he was following her around as they settled into Skyhold, always within earshot of her as she worked, always at the edge of her eye-line. The only time she didn't see him was when she curled up in her bedroll at night, and she had a sneaking suspicion that was because Cullen was invariably at her side.

Roderick gave him a cold look. "Such as you, I suppose?" he asked archly. "A man who listens blatantly to words not meant for him is hardly reputable. And you are no longer a recognized supplier to the Inquisition. We now have access to honest traders."

Seggrit flushed angrily, but held his tongue, casting an ugly glare at Rory as he stalked away. She shifted uncomfortably. She couldn't have said exactly why, but that man's presence was distinctly unwelcome to her. She didn't feel safe when he was around. At her side, the chancellor snorted at the merchant's retreat.

"What an odious toad of a man," he muttered, rising carefully to his feet. "I will return tomorrow for that list, healer. I trust that gives you enough time?"

"Plenty, chancellor, thank you."

"Well, then ..." he nodded to her animated in his pursuit of order. "Walk in the Maker's light."

Well, that was ... interesting. Rory glanced down at her notes, and groaned suddenly at the sheer amount of paperwork she had to do. Leliana wanted the names of the entire complement of healers and nurses; Cullen wanted a full accounting of the injured and their expected recovery times; Josephine was eager to know when they would be able to hold clinic for their visitors again; these notes needed to be written up and filed; and now she had a stock-list to compile as well. Good gods ... I'm not just sleeping with Cullen.

I'm turning into him.

Chapter Text

The worst thing about her paperwork, Rory had decided, was her lack of anywhere to actually do it in anything approaching comfort.

Like almost everyone else, she was still living and working in tents, but while the majority of people with admin to do had either some kind of office - Josephine and Leliana sprang to mind - or, at the very least, a rudimentary desk - Cullen - she had to make do with her own knees, and stones to keep her various piles of parchment from flying away. Sheltered the lower courtyard might be, but it still got its share of windy gusts. She'd already had to chase wayward notes across the courtyard twice. Not that she was concentrating on her writing right now, of course. Talking to Evy was far more enjoyable.

"... and Lady Montilyet insists that it should be a grand event," her friend was saying, fairly glowing with happiness. "She wants to arrange everything for us, and the Heral - the Inquisitor says that he wants to be there, and it's all a little overwhelming!"

Rory laughed at her helpless, delighted smile. "Well, of course it should be a grand event," she answered cheerfully. "You're both very popular, you know. We want to celebrate with you, even if it does take months to pull everything together."

"Sister Leliana very kindly allowed me to use a raven to send the news to my family," Evy told her with a shy flicker to her smile. "I got the answer today."

"And?" Rory pressed, wanting to know if the Trevelyans approved of their youngest daughter marrying a former templar.

Evy bit her lip, rummaging in her pocket for the small message slip. She handed it to the redheaded healer. "Read for yourself."

Setting her writing to one side, Rory took the scrap of parchment. Unraveling it carefully, she read the beautiful cursive script with a bemused smile. Write with details and date. Much love. "And this means ... yes?" she asked, a little confused by the terse reply.

"Yes!" Evy giggled happily. "They want to know more about him, and they want to come to the wedding! Isn't that wonderful?"

"It is!" Rory agreed, handing the message slip back. She was genuinely happy for her friends, though she envied the parent-child relationship that allowed for such good news to be expressed with so few words. "What about Rylen's family?"

"His brother is already on his way," the noblewoman told her hopefully. "He wants to join the Inquisition, anyway. I hope the commander won't assign him away until after the wedding."

I'll make sure he doesn't, Rory promised silently. She didn't abuse her direct link to Commander Cullen Rutherford, but for Evy and Rylen, she definitely would. "So Skyhold's first proper event will be a wedding. I'm so pleased for you, Evy, truly."

"I never could have guessed that going to the Conclave would give me so much," Evy said with bittersweet merriment. "All that death, and yet here I am. I have a profession outside the Chantry; I have friends I could never have made in Ostwick, and ... I'm getting married to a man I love. It's so much more than I ever thought to hope for."

"I can relate," Rory murmured in a warm tone, her eyes straying to the bottom of the steps nearby, where Cullen was working with scouts and soldiers.

Evy followed her glance with an impish cast to her smile. "When do you think he'll ask you?"

Rory blinked, startled by the question. "A-ask me?" she repeated in a stammer. "I ... n-no, I don't think he ... that is, he might, but ..." She drew in a sharp, calming breath. "Everyone moves at a different pace, Evy. We're not ... we're not there yet. If we ever get there."

"Oh, you will," her friend predicted with a knowing grin. "He looks at you like you're the dawn to his forever."

To her deep embarrassment, Rory blushed at the poetic description of her lover's unconscious expression, her freckles stark against a rosy background for a long moment. "Let's talk about something else, shall we?"

Giggling wickedly, Evy took pity on her. "The horse-master from Redcliffe is on his way here, they're saying," she offered as a change of subject. "That's why they're working so doggedly on clearing the rubble there. Apparently he's very picky about how mounts are stabled."

"He is the expert," Rory pointed out absently, most of her attention back on her writing. "He probably wants to make sure we're not mistreating his horses."

"Most of them aren't even here," Evy protested in a mild tone. "All he'll have to work with are the horses the Inquisitor uses."

"They do get ridden a lot, though," Rory mused, finally putting her signature to the stock-list in front of her. "Here ... you run that up to Roderick and smooch your fiance before you come back. I'll be here for at least another couple of hours, so if anything crops up in your absence, I'll deal with it."

"Really?" The incredulous smile on Evy's face as she took the list made her friend chuckle. "I'll try not to take too long!"

She was up and moving before Rory could say another word, hitching her skirts up to take the stone steps two at a time in her haste. Shaking her head with a smile, the senior healer turned her attention more fully to the reports that still needed writing, half an ear on the nurses at work in the tents behind her. So ... recovery times. Most of those were hopeful guesses; she had a feeling one or two of her patients might never recover fully from their injuries. She made a note to ask Cullen about honorable discharges - would they get more than a grateful handshake if they could no longer fight?

"Watching, working, delightful distraction ... sunlight on her hair like Andraste's sacred flame, too good for a sinner like me. He wants to tell you about the darkness, but it hurts."

"Hello, Cole." Rory lifted her head to look at the boy now sitting by her feet. His pale eyes met hers as she smiled gently. "He'll tell me when he's ready. You don't need to."

"You remember me," Cole said in a wondering tone. "You don't forget. I like that. I like your silence. It doesn't hurt to look at you."

Her smile softened in the face of his confession. "I'm glad that I can help you," she told him sincerely. She couldn't imagine how overwhelming it must be to feel everyone's pain, mental, emotional, physical. "But I don't think you should tell anyone that you don't feel anything from me."

He nodded simply. "The ones who understand would be afraid," he agreed in his strange way. "You help their hurts. You aren't bad. But they wouldn't understand."

"Thank you." She unconsciously touched his shoulder, feeling him shy away from the contact. "Sorry," she apologized, pulling her hand back. "I have a bad habit of expressing myself through touch. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable."

"I ... don't mind." Cole seemed surprised to hear himself say that. "Comfort in silence, in shrouded stillness. Can I stay?"

"While I'm working, of course," she assured him. "But sometimes I will have to ask you to go for a little while. People deserve privacy to be vulnerable in, even if they can't perceive you."

The boy nodded easily, closing his eyes with a faint smile. "So still," he murmured. "Like the center of a storm."

It took real effort not to reach out as he leaned against her leg. She wanted to take that silly hat off and stroke his hair, to comfort him the way she would a child. It was strange; she'd never really got Cole in the game, though all her Inquisitors had invariably helped him to become more human. He was odd, his sensitivity almost intimidating, yet so fragile, too. Rory wanted to protect him, especially knowing everything he had been through to get here. If being near her, focusing on her lack of connection to the Fade, helped him, then she was happy for him to be her shadow. She had seen how helpless he was to resist everyone's pain; if her presence gave him respite, then he was welcome to stay near. It's not like anyone else here can give him that.

"I like the way he feels when he looks at you," the boy said suddenly. "Soft and strong and gentle; happy and afraid. The scratching song is quiet when you smile."

Despite herself, Rory looked up, finding Cullen's eyes on her from his makeshift desk. Her lips curved into a smile unbidden, and as his invisible answer warmed his eyes, she heard Cole sigh happily.

"There," the spirit boy murmured. "Sinful sweetness in loving lips, touching, tasting, holding. Safety in her arms. She doesn't mind the demons; they stay away when she's near. Tousled head on her shoulder, the future in a single glance. She won't fear the truth. She loves, and I love, too."

"That's a little too personal to be sharing, Cole," she pointed out gently, feeling herself blush at this insight into Cullen's mind. The future in a single glance? Really?

"He wants you to know," Cole told her softly. "He doesn't have the words."

"If he wants it badly enough, he'll find the words." She glanced down at the physical spirit beside her. "It's part of being mortal. If you want someone to know your feelings, you have to say it aloud. For a lot of people, being able to say it is how they know they're in love."

"He says it without words," Cole mused. "Like Cassandra."

Rory tried not to laugh at this comment. "Yes, like Cassandra," she agreed. The Seeker was stuck to Kaaras like glue at the moment, and he was still oblivious. "Do yourself a favor and don't say that in front of them, though. She'll say it when she's ready to, and it'll mean more if she's the first one he hears it from."

"I don't understand." He raised his head, his expression perplexed under the brim of his hat.

"Someday you will," she promised him gently. If Kaaras helps you become a real boy. "Just ... try not to tell anyone's secrets, okay? They'll trust you better if their secrets are safe."

Frowning in confusion, nonetheless he nodded obediently. Then ... "Spiders' webs," he said suddenly. "Spiders need food to make webs. I can help."

Before she could point out that they weren't in desperate need of cobwebs right now, he was up and gone, moving with determined grace toward the kitchens. Right, so the plums are definitely my fault, then. But she couldn't bring herself to dwell on that thought, distracted by the memory of Cullen's thoughts in Cole's words. Like Andraste's sacred flame ... sinful sweetness ... the lyrium craving is less when he sees me smile .. It was soppy and sentimental, incredibly cute and terrifyingly humbling all at once. And that stray musing on the future ... Did he really see his future with her? A family, with her?

A gust of wind caught the parchment on her knee, the quill spraying ink as it caught on the ruffled surface. She swore vehemently, smoothing the now illegible report. What she really needed was a -

"Excuse us, healer."

Raising her eyes, she was surprised to find a pair of workers setting up two short barrels and a wide plank across them directly in front of her.

"What's this?" she asked, a bemused smile quirking the corner of her mouth.

The older man grinned as the pair of them transferred her piles of notes to the plank, weighing them down against the breeze with brass weights, rather than stones. "Commander's orders, mistress," he told her rather merrily. "Said it looked like you needed a desk."

Her smile blossomed into full view on hearing this. "Well ... thank you, very much."

She nodded to them as they walked away, drawing the crate she was using as a seat closer to her new desk. Her gaze sought Cullen's, deepening her smile as she mouthed her gratitude to him. He inclined his head to her, already back to his own work as she settled in more comfortably to apply herself to her paperwork. He says it without words, Cole had said, and Rory had to agree. Every day, in a dozen unspoken ways, Cullen made certain she felt loved. She just hoped she did the same for him. And if not, then she was determined to improve. He deserved to know, right to his bones, just how much she loved him. She just had to work out how to do it, that was all.

Chapter Text

Mornings in Skyhold were an education in the myriad wonders of mortal man.

Take Iron Bull, for example. Every morning, those still sleeping in the tents were roused by the sound of the big Qunari breaking the ice on the communal water butt with his head, and swearing like a sailor as the frigid water tricked down to his pants. It wasn't uncommon to hear fresh icicles breaking off his horns as he went to wake the Chargers.

The next to wake after him were usually the warriors - Cassandra, Blackwall, Cullen. Which, of course, meant that Rory was also invariably one of the first to rise. But where she would sit huddled under a blanket with a mug of steaming tea, they seemed to think running drills was the perfect way to wake up. It wasn't that she couldn't appreciate their dedication and skill; she just didn't approve of the display of energy at such an ungodly hour. They were inevitably joined by Kaaras and Rylen, and other officers, exerting themselves until they actually steamed in the icy dawn.

As the sun began to peek into the courtyards, Evy would crawl under Rory's blanket with her, and not long after, Dorian generally joined them. The Tevinter mage wasn't much of a talker before breakfast, usually focused on taming his hair and mustache in sleepy silence, his eyes following the energetic warriors with vaguely envious disgust for their display of prowess. Varric wasn't silent when he roused himself, though he tended to limit himself to muttering his complaints as he went about his morning routine. To hear the grumpy dwarf tell it, the whole world just felt wrong, and only a cup of ale and a round of toasted cheese could make it right.

Josephine and Leliana emerged only when breakfast was ready to be served, each perfectly turned out, not a hair out of place, and by that point, Rory was usually working to rouse her patients so they could wash and breakfast. Some needed help with both, which meant she herself tended to be among the last to eat. Solas, Cole, and Vivienne breakfasted apart from the main throng, sometimes not becoming evident among the bustle of people until the sun was high in the sky. And eventually Sera would drag herself out of her blankets around mid-morning, well after everyone else was already about their business, and threaten to camp out in the kitchens unless someone fed her.

Thankfully, the Orlesian nobles who had started to arrive at Skyhold got up even later than Sera did, so they missed these fascinating insights into the early workings of the Inquisition. Just as well, really. Some people really weren't made to cope with seeing Inquisitor Adaar burn his tongue on his tea every morning without fail, and turn the air blue cursing about it. But Rory found that she enjoyed these layered wake ups. For someone who had hated early mornings for most of her life, it was a strange feeling. It wouldn't last, though - the rooms of the fortress were quickly becoming habitable. Soon, they wouldn't see each other until breakfast at the earliest.

Of course, as the days passed, there were more people to add to this morning routine. The merchants, who gossiped and chattered through their yawns; the new recruits under Cullen's immediate command, who swore and complained but dragged themselves out of tents to run laps before being allowed to eat; Master Dennet and his stable-hands, who made sure their four-legged charges were fed, watered, and already exercising before Bull attacked the water butt each morning. And eventually, the alchemists and apothecaries, some of whom had been up all night to tend the stills.

Elan Ve'mal, a member of the College of Herbalists, was the undisputed senior when it came to the small army of apothecaries, assistants, and Tranquil. She had apparently been in contact with Adan while he was in Haven; when she arrived, she had immediately sought out Rory and her team, quick to put her people to work on replenishing the Inquisition's stock of potions for healing and soothing various ailments. Only when that was done would the elven woman countenance using her equipment for other potions, such as the contraceptive Granthis had given Rory the recipe for what felt like an age ago. Elan had even gone out of her way to improve it, distilling the formula down until the dose was only a mouthful a day. That meant the healers would be able to give out potion bottles that would last a sensible woman a month or more, rather than force them to come back each time they got careless for a fresh dose.

It was a relief when Elan finally told her the first batch was ready. Rory had already confirmed four pregnancies by that point, three of which she'd then assisted in terminating at her patients' request. Whether she agreed or not, it wasn't her place to judge. It was her place to be supportive, and to offer options that would not result in certain death. The do-it-yourself alternatives were too awful to even consider. Her method wasn't pleasant, but it solved the dilemma without killing the patient. Still, she was glad to have the preventatives to hand again. Even if a woman was certain she had made the right choice, the process of inducing a miscarriage was painful and traumatic. Far better to use the contraceptive than to put people through that unnecessarily.

"They're talking about expanding the herb garden," Elan was saying as the two women made their way into the cloistered space. "That would be a great help. Most potions can be made with dried herbs, but occasionally we need them fresh."

"I'm sure if they're talking about it, it's likely to happen," Rory assured her with reasonable confidence. "Unless some alternative is being floated."

"The sisters are pushing for the garden to be made a place of contemplation." The elven herbalist sighed. "I can't see why it couldn't be both."

"Probably because people who don't know anything about herbs would pick the pretty ones if the space isn't clearly defined," Rory suggested ruefully. "The noble visitors aren't exactly what you'd call considerate."

"That is true, I suppose," Elan said in a regretful tone. "And sharing the space might result in the Chantry sanctioning what we are allowed to grow and use."

"Mmm, they don't really approve of medicine," Rory agreed. The Chantry certainly didn't approve of contraceptives outside the Circles, that was for sure.

"I wanted to ask you something, actually," the elven woman began curiously as they passed through the cloister around the garden. "Why did you confiscate those leeches? Every other healer I've known swears by blood-letting."

Rory grimaced at the memory of the jar filled with blood-suckers that she'd tipped into the waterfall that morning. "The only thing blood-letting does is weaken the patient further," she told Elan. "There's only one situation I can think of where relieving that kind of pressure might help, and no amount of leeches can accomplish what trepanning does in that case."

"Is it true that even medical leeches spread disease?" the herbalist asked. To be honest, the question surprised Rory - she hadn't realized people in Thedas were becoming aware of cross-infection methods. The majority of healers seemed still to rely on the dubious four humors theory, which she knew was absolute codswallop.

"It is very likely they do," she answered her colleague's question easily. "It's not as though you can sterilize a leech. What it picks up from one person's blood, it can easily pass onto the next. Like fleas and lice do."

"And that's why you don't use them?"

"Well, if I'm honest, they also make my skin crawl," Rory admitted sheepishly. "But if they did any good, I'd use them. Luckily for me, they don't."

Elan chuckled, pushing open the door to her workshop - a large chamber that was very crowded these days. "You're too honest for your own good," she smiled, inviting the healer inside.

Oh, I'm really not. "Well, I need people to trust me if they're going to tell me what's bothering them," Rory pointed out with a shrug. "The truth can be hard to hear, but it's better than living a lie you're not even aware of."

"Seen in that light, it makes a kind of sense," Elan agreed, leading the way between work benches stacked high with bubbling glasswork, each potion watched over by her many assistants, Tranquil and otherwise. "You're sure you're happy for me to keep this recipe?"

"You've improved it," Rory reminded her. "It's more yours than it ever was mine. If Granthis complains, he can take it up with me."

"Oh, Master Perivale created it?" The elven woman nodded to herself with a smile. "He mentioned that he knew you."

"He's a friend." A friend that I wrote, but still a friend. "How is he?"

"Still charming his way through the ranks of the Imperial Court," Elan told her in amusement. "There are rumors that even the Empress patronizes him from time to time."

"You know, that really doesn't surprise me," Rory drawled. "No wonder he's on the guest list for the Wintersend Ball."

"Always has his eye on the main chance, that one," Elan agreed sagely, coming to a halt in front of a reasonably clear table, on which stood a small open crate packed with bottles. "Most of this batch has been sent down to the city, as you requested, but this lot should do the fortress for a couple of months."

Rory nodded, silently counting the bottles. Plenty to be going on with. "And what was the new dosage again?" she asked, wanting to confirm that she had it right. It wouldn't do to start overdosing her patients just because the formula had changed.

"Two fingers for a human," the herbalist told her promptly.

"And half that for an elf or dwarf, right?" She nodded again as Elan confirmed she was correct.

"I'd ask them to take the first dose in front of you," the elf added. "If they're already carrying, they'll throw it straight back up again. Because it's so strong now, a pregnant body will reject it totally if it can."

"Good to know." Better than shoving my hand up their hoohar or playing with wee. Rory lifted the crate easily. "Thank you, Elan, this is an enormous help. We'd be lost without you and your team."

"It was an honor to be asked to continue Adan's work," Elan told her simply. "Now go away, I have work to do."

Laughing at this no-nonsense dismissal, Rory obediently took her leave, retracing her steps out of the workshop and back to the lower courtyard with the crate secure in her arms. Cullen's table was gone - he'd finally been set up in the far gatehouse tower as the finishing touches were put to the newly-rebuilt walkway over the lower space. Most of the tents were being cleared, accommodations having been found inside for almost everyone. It would still be some time before Skyhold was fully put to rights, but they were well on their way. Kaaras might even have a room of his own when he got back from the Emerald Graves.

Offering a grin to Evy, who was learning how to shave a man in the afternoon sunshine, Rory ducked into her consultation tent, setting the crate down next to the rest of the immediate treatment potions they held in stock. Pulling her stool up to the makeshift desk, she absently poured a measure of the preventative for herself, swallowing it down as her attention turned to a request for additional trained staff for the infirmary down in the city. She sighed wearily. Who would have thought that the senior healer would have all this admin to do? Her daily duties saw more writing than seeing patients these days. Reaching for her quill, she began to scratch a note to speak to Roderick about it ... and abruptly stilled as a wave of nausea swept through her. It only took a moment for the shock to give way to panic.

"Oh, fuck ..."

Pushing away from the desk, she only just made it to the chamberpot in time, heaving up not only the potion but the remains of her lunch as well. The smell was revolting; if she'd had anything else to throw up, she would have done. Sweaty and shaking, she reached for her ever-present cup of water, washing her mouth out before slowly sipping to calm her roiling stomach.

"Fuck," she said again, with feeling. Her body had certainly rejected the preventative, right enough. But that doesn't necessarily mean what I think it does. Could be anything. Just check it out. It's probably just because you're not use to the brew being this strong, that's all.

Checking the toggles on the tent flap were secured, she found a glass beaker, and set about the business of collecting a urine sample. Thank goodness I'm wearing a dress today, was all she could think as she willed herself to relax. She didn't need much, after all. Just enough to run a test she'd done dozens of times for other women. It was awkward and uncomfortable, but she did manage to produce about an inch, trying not to panic prematurely. Washing her hands, she located the little pot of powdered Amrita Vein, tipping a pinch into the beaker with trembling hands. Now ... stir for one minute.

The act of counting the seconds helped to calm her down. There was no reason to think she might be ... that, not really. Yes, she'd missed the last month at least, but that was nothing new. Her cycle often skipped a month or two when she was under stress, and the journey from Haven had been all kinds of stressful. Not to mention, she and Cullen had been careful not to risk it. All right, so there had been that one time against a tree, but surely not. One mistake in the heat of the moment couldn't possibly have happened at exactly the right time, could it? That would hardly be fair.

The minute up, she looked down at the mixture in the beaker. Who ever said that life was fair?

"Shit."

Chapter Text

She had to tell Cullen.

What a fun conversation that would be. How do you tell a devout workaholic with past trauma issues operating under too much stress and an honorable streak a mile wide that you're carrying his illegitimate love child? How the hell is he going to react? She couldn't even process how she was feeling. Panic was reasonably high on the list, closely followed by shock and abject terror. This couldn't be happening. Whose bright idea was it to make her give birth in a place where epidurals and proper surgery didn't exist?

"Evy," she called to her friend, ducking out of the tent once she'd tidied away the evidence. "I need to talk to the commander about something. Are you all right to hold the fort here for a little while?"

Evy looked up from her work, a faint flicker of concern crossing her face as she took a good look at Rory. "Of course," she answered easily enough. "The nurses have everything under control - I just have to show the new healer around. Are you all right?"

Right, so I look as pale as I feel. Great. "I'm fine," Rory promised her with a weak smile. "Just a little tired, but what else is new?"

The younger woman didn't look convinced, but she knew when not to push. "Take your time," she told her friend. "It's just recovery care right now, anyway."

"Hopefully I won't be too long," Rory assured her, though she had no way of knowing that.

It wasn't as though she could knock, walk in, drop the news, and immediately skip out. If she was lucky, his response wouldn't be audible all over Skyhold or hazardous to his continued health, but whether luck was with her or not, this wasn't a quick conversation in the making. Should she even take this to him now? He was swamped with work; this was just another headache to drop on him, and it wasn't even a headache he had any power to influence. It was a fact. And while there was a way to make it go away ... Rory didn't want to do that. She couldn't imagine Cullen pushing for her to do it, either. So that was that. She was a mum, for better or for worse. Holy crap, I am so screwed. A world of what ifs were open ahead of her, too many to make coherent sense. The panic was simmering - it, at least, was going to be with her in some capacity for the next, oh ... twenty years or so.

The nearest gatehouse tower was still closed off while workers toiled to make it safe. She could have passed under the stone arch and used the steps up to the battlement there - it was the fastest route to Cullen's office. Her feet, however, took her up the stone steps to the upper courtyard. It seemed as though her panic was enough to make her delay this inevitable conversation, even if it was only for a few more minutes. Her mind was racing. Now she thought about it, how could she have missed the symptoms? She was more tired than usual; her toilet breaks more regular; her sense of smell more acute; she did ache in some very specific places. She hadn't had any morning sickness, but then, some women didn't, did they?

So how long do I have, she wondered, lost in thought as she climbed the steps to the main hall. The only mistake had been that night, and that was ... Rory frowned, counting the weeks in her head. Seven or eight, so two months ago, give or take. Seven months to learn as much about midwifery and babies as she could. That really wasn't long enough.

"Looking very serious, Cupcake," a familiar voice drawled nearby.

She blinked, finding herself by the hearth in the hall, with Varric eyeing her from his table. "Hmm?"

"Serious," the dwarf repeated, laying down his quill. "You, looking very. Problems?"

"When aren't there problems?" she asked evasively, chuckling a little in spite of her turmoil. "No, I'm just thinking. Sometimes it hurts."

"Last thing we need is you and Curly with headaches," Varric commented mildly. "Just him is bad enough."

Great, he's having another bad day without telling me. She sighed wearily. "How bad?"

"He's just cranky," her dwarven friend assured her. "Pretty sure a visit from his girl would clear that right up."

"I'm not making any promises," she answered, feeling her anxiety ratchet up a notch. If he's already cranky, this isn't going to go well. Yay. "What are you working on?"

"Huh? Oh, this?" A very nearly evil smile crossed Varric's face. "His illustrious Inquisitorialness wants the next chapter of Swords and Shields for Cassandra."

Rory's eyes narrowed warningly at the mischief in his face. "Varric ... don't you dare muck up their relationship just to get a petty jab in at Cassandra."

"Would I do that?" he asked innocently.

"Yes. Yes, you would."

He chuckled, conceding the point. "Well, I'm not," he promised faithfully. "If only because I think you and Ruffles would hold me down and stab me with my own quill if I did."

She snorted with laughter. "You could be right."

Josephine had worked out that Kaaras liked Cassandra when he'd asked her to explain his book of Antivan poetry to him. The ambassador was a staunch defender of the drive to give the Seeker and the Inquisitor alone time in the hope that one of them would crack and just admit to being in love. She'd even expressed a certain frustration that they didn't even argue properly, unlike Cullen and ...

Rory's smile abruptly faded as she remembered why she was here in the first place.

"All right, Cupcake, what's hurting?" Varric asked, his face creased in a worried frown. "I've never seen you lose a smile that fast before."

Rory sighed, shaking her head. "It's nothing you can fix, Varric," she told him reluctantly. Wish you could. "I'll deal with it."

He eyed her for a moment with vague suspicion, but managed to suppress his natural desire to help with whatever it was. "Here if you need a splendid chest to lean on."

She smiled gratefully. "Thanks."

"Heads up, though," he added, jerking his chin toward the other end of the hall. "Ruffles incoming."

"What?"

Rory glanced over her shoulder, surprised to find Josephine bearing down on her like a woman on a mission. It was unusual to find the Antivan woman out of her office before dinner, but apparently some things required her to seek people out personally.

"Mistress Allen, I am glad to find you here," the ambassador said with a purposeful brightness to her tone that instantly made Rory suspicious. "Madame De Fer's seamstress has arrived. She would like to see both yourself and Lady Trevelyan this afternoon, to begin designing your gowns."

The healer just about managed to bite down on her groan. This was all she needed right now - dress plotting for Halamshiral. "I'll tell Evy," she promised politely. "I think her wedding gown is a little higher on the list of priorities."

"We have only two months to help you prepare for the Imperial Court," Josephine reminded her. "Though several people need that preparation as well. You will not be alone in your lessons."

"I can't promise to always have time for those lessons, Josephine," Rory countered, but the Antivan lady was already ahead of her.

"We will, of course, work around your duties," she insisted with easy aplomb. "You will need to be aware of courtly etiquette and dance, that is all."

Oh, is that all? Lovely. Knowing she couldn't get out of this, Rory decided to give in gracefully. "All right. Just let me know when."

"I will keep you informed," Josephine agreed. "but you must see the seamstress today."

"I will," Rory promised her. "I have things to do first, but I will." Things like give the commander a heart attack and then cry for a solid hour. Shouldn't interfere too much, should it?

She turned to open the door into the rotunda, unsurprised to hear Josephine focus her attention to Varric as she slipped into what was now Solas' work space. Empty, of course, with the elven apostate in the Emerald Graves with Kaaras, but still very much his space. From high above, she heard the croak and flap of the ravens in the rookery and, a little closer, another familiar voice calling down to her.

"If it isn't my favorite unicorn!"

Biting back a frustrated reply, she turned, tilting her head back to find Dorian leaning over the railing above her. "Unicorn?" she repeated incredulously. "Seriously?"

He laughed at her expression. "Perhaps not," the mage conceded with an ostentatious shrug. "Come up, I have something for you."

Can't this wait? But despite her faint annoyance, she wouldn't say no to Dorian. With a rueful smile, she altered her course, turning to take the steps up to the library. It's only a few minutes, she reasoned with herself. You've got about a month to break the news before it becomes blatantly obvious; a few minutes isn't going to make any difference.

Dorian was waiting for her at the top of the stairs. "You're looking done in again," he said, by way of hello. "Tell me, do you ever sleep a full night?"

"Occasionally," Rory heard herself say, a split second before her brain reminded her just who she was talking to.

"How marvelous," the altus teased brightly. "Who would have thought the commander had it in him?"

This time, the answer was out before she could stop it. "I think you'll find it's more often in me." There was a beat as she caught up with herself. "I did not just say that."

"Yes, darling, you did." Dorian laughed, pleased with her snarky reply. "I'm delighted for you."

Mortified and blushing, Rory rubbed her forehead. Why pick today, of all days, to revert to the blurting nug-woman with no boundaries? You've been doing so well! "You said you had something for me?" she asked in a desperate attempt to take control of the conversation.

"It isn't as exciting as what Cullen gives you," the mage warned, chuckling at her slightly outraged squeak of embarrassment. "You are utterly adorable when you're embarrassed, you know. But, as I promised, I have put together a small medical library for you."

Instantly, her embarrassment was gone. "Really?" she asked, curiosity mingling with excitement as she followed him to his little corner of the library, where he indicated a small stack of books on the table. "Thank you! I didn't think you were serious when you suggested it."

"My dear girl, when I say I will do a thing, it gets done," Dorian informed her comfortably. "You were in something of a lather about the gaps in your knowledge."

Rory tilted her head to read the spines. The Leech Book of Vald, Genitivi's Compendium of Thedosian Medicine, Plinth's Anatomical Studies, De Materia Medica, Historia Naturali ... She paused as she found a title that had nothing to do with medicine at all, clearing her throat to get his attention as she extracted Swords and Shields, Vol. III, from the pile. Dorian didn't even blink.

"It's your turn to read the dreadful thing," he pointed out, "though where you find the time to read, I have no idea."

Laughing, Rory put the book down. She actually rather enjoyed Swords and Shields - it was terrible, but entertainingly so. "I don't suppose there's anything on midwifery in this pile, is there?"

"Sadly, no," the mage told her. "Why? Is our blushing bride expecting, too?"

"No," she answered, her smile just a little wan. If only. "But I know virtually nothing about it, and now we're settled again, it's a certainty that someone's going to ... slip."

She wasn't sure she liked the way he was looking at her, but thankfully, he didn't say anything aloud. "I will keep my eyes open for you," he promised instead. "Should I have these delivered to the tower? I saw the workers manhandling a bed in there earlier, so I assume you are moving out of your charming tent at last."

"That would be lovely." She reached up to hug him gratefully, waiting until he responded before pulling back. One of these days, he was going to react instantly to her hugs, but she was patient enough to work on it slowly. "Thank you, Dorian."

"It's my pleasure to be lovely," he answered, the fingertips of his right hand brushing over the smooth curve of her flat stomach, one brow raised curiously. There could be no doubt what he was asking, though she was deeply grateful for his discretion.

She felt the determinedly calm facade she was holding in place crack just a little. "Keep it to yourself?" she whispered, the panic shining through briefly.

Dorian's mustache twitched as he smiled far more gently than she had expected. "Until he tells me, of course," he agreed without a moment's hesitation. And Cullen would tell him, she realized. The two men's friendship had blossomed far quicker than she had expected. "That does rather require you telling him."

"I'm working on it," she promised softly. "I was on my way to try, actually."

"Good." Dorian patted her hand gently. "Don't let me detain you."

Encouraged by his calm confidence, Rory headed back down the stairs, crossing the rotunda to the external door with his eyes on her back all the way. She had a feeling that deviating from her course would result in her being frog-marched directly to Cullen and possibly locked in with him until she 'fessed up. Dorian Pavus might only ever openly admit to having one friend, but he was compulsively protective of all the friends he made. Making her tell the truth through sheer bloody-mindedness was not beyond him. And, besides, he was right. Cullen needed to know. He deserved to know first.

It was breezier up here than it had been in the courtyards. Tucking her arms inside her cloak, she headed across the stone bridge, ignoring the shiver that ran down her spine at the icy gusts that rushed her, albeit gently. Pausing at the door, she knocked, wincing at the sharp, "Come!" that answered her. Sounds like he's in a wonderful mood. She pushed open the door, peering inside warily.

Cullen was standing behind his large desk, leaning on the surface as he scowled down at the papers that covered it. The two other doors to the tower stood open, allowing that healthy breeze to rush through, ruffling his weighted paperwork as it did. He looked tired and angry, and that vein in his temple was throbbing again. The elfroot potion she always made sure he had plenty of was sitting on the desk by his hand. Headache or no headache, here goes nothing.

"Are you busy?" she asked, closing the door behind her.

He raised his eyes from the desk, and his scowl melted away at the sight of her, replaced with a weary smile that made her heart ache pleasantly. "I can always make time for you," he assured her quietly.

"But not to take the potion that will deal with that headache," she pointed out. Despite the anxious knot in her stomach, her smile was fond as she moved toward him, stepping over fallen debris to do so.

"I was just about to," he told her, the guilty cast to his expression telling her the bottle had been sitting there for a good hour or more. Under her knowing gaze, he unstopped the potion and took a healthy gulp, grimacing at the taste.

"Have you taken a break at all today?" she asked then, again knowing he hadn't before he admitted to it.

"There's so much to do," he tried to say, but Rory was just as stubborn as he was. It was part of the reason he'd noticed her in the first place.

"And nothing is going to fall apart if you take ten minutes to walk the battlements with me," she informed him, her expression daring her lover to argue. "Please?"

Cullen's brows drew together in concern at the unexpected plea. "Are you all right?" he asked her, straightening to come out from behind the desk.

Just that tender concern was enough to destabilize her composure, but she managed to keep it together. "I'm worried about you," she told him. It wasn't a lie; it just wasn't the truth, either. "Ten minutes, that's all I'm asking."

He held her gaze for a long moment, clearly trying to decide if he should be worried. "Ten minutes," he agreed finally, laying a hand at the small of her back to escort her out into the sunshine.

They walked in silence along the crenelated battlements, passing the guard patrolling this section before coming to a halt to look out over the snowy vista side by side. Cullen's fingers brushed hers, a single point of contact that meant the world to her as she struggled to find the words for what she needed to say. I'm pregnant was too blunt, too unexpected. Marry me, I'm up the duff likely wouldn't go down too well. Remember that time against the tree lacked the gentle tone she thought he needed. What about ...

She squeaked as his arm wrapped about her waist, drawing her close into his side. "You're fidgeting," he murmured against her temple. "Why so nervous?"

A low sigh escaped her lips. "Because there's something I need to tell you," she confessed, tilting her head to look up at him. "And you might not be happy about it."

"I already know you're going to the Winter Palace," he told her in a disapproving tone. "Which you somehow failed to tell me yourself."

Red heat spilled guiltily across her cheeks. Is that better, or worse, she wondered. "No, it's not that."

The wrap of his arm squeezed supportively about her back. "What is it, then?"

"I, um ..."

But Fate has a funny sense of humor. Sometimes it enjoys throwing obstacles in your path. In this case, as Rory braced herself to share her news ... it threw a goat at the outer wall directly below them. She distinctly heard the bleat, and the splat, leaning forward to look down at the man who had thrown it as Cullen exclaimed in affronted surprise.

"What in the name of -" He drew back from her, already shouting to his men. "Detain that man!"

As the soldiers scrambled to catch the Avvar hooting in satisfaction on the mountainside below, he began to follow, only to turn back to her with an apologetic look in his eyes. She sighed, shaking her head with a helpless laugh.

"It'll keep," she promised, waving him away. He needed his duty to come first, at least until he could make the decision about his priorities. "Go."

With a last concerned look, Cullen moved away, quickly out of sight. Rory turned back to the view, leaning against the gray stone to watch as the Inquisition apprehended Movran the Under with no small difficulty. Typical, she thought resignedly. Goatus interruptus.

Chapter Text

Why was it that the one day when she needed time to speak to Cullen, neither of them had time to spare?

Detaining Movran the Under had resulted in several injuries, some of them serious. So even when Cullen returned to his office, there was no leisure to speak to him. Instead, Rory had been engaged in stitching and bandaging wounds inflicted by a massive axe. Even when that was done, her time was filled - Josephine came looking for her to insist she met with a frilly Orlesian seamstress who had to be sworn to silence on the subject of Rory's condition by means of some fairly detailed threats. Then a runner had come from Evy to report that several of the recently wounded soldiers were burning up with fevers. By the time she had them stable, most of Skyhold was sleeping. Out of energy, Rory had curled up in the nearest unoccupied bedroll and joined the rest of the fortress in slumber.

But this morning, there'd been no sign of Cullen. She'd woken late, almost missing breakfast, and assumed she'd missed his early morning drills with Blackwall and Bull. It wasn't as though she was deliberately avoiding him, either - she'd simply lacked the energy to go to the tower and sleep there last night, that was all. It was only when she overheard a runner reporting to Rylen with something that clearly should have gone to Cullen that she suspected anything was amiss.

"All right, why are you doing his job today?" she asked her friend rather bluntly.

Rylen frowned in confusion. "Didn't you know?" he asked in turn. "He's laid up with one of his heads. First one for months."

Rory felt herself growl in concerned annoyance. "No, I didn't know." She sighed irritably. Why am I always the last to know when he's in pain? "Has anyone checked on him, do you know?"

The captain shook his head. "We're under orders not to disturb him until he comes out himself," he admitted. "Thought they came from you, to be fair."

"Well, it's good advice, but I had no idea," she told her Starkhaven friend. "Right. Thank you for telling me." I'm going to have to make Evy take charge again. It didn't seem fair, especially after she'd slipped off so much yesterday, too.

As it turned out, Evy was ahead of her, quite happy to send her off to attend the commander with an extortion to look after herself as well. Her friends really did know her too well by now. She paused briefly in the tent to collect a few bits and pieces she thought she might need and, as an afterthought, stopped by the kitchens on her way to the tower. Jim was enlisted to spread the word that the commander was not to be disturbed; also that his tower was off-limits until tomorrow, regardless of whether they saw him about for the rest of the day. Since the order came from the senior healer, she didn't think anyone would disobey, and she could make certain that Cullen did as he was told for once. That done, she climbed the steps to the tower, and let herself in.

It was unnervingly quiet in there. Though the sounds of Skyhold filtered in, they were muted - probably not enough not to bother Cullen, though. Rory bit her lip, moving to climb the ladder up to the next level of the tower. There he was, half-dressed, stretched out on the bed, holding a folded blanket over his face. Light is giving him trouble, then. Gently setting her satchel down, she wasn't surprised to see him tense at the sound of her movement.

"It's Rory," she told him softly, ever so slightly ashamed of how pleased she was to see him relax at that news. He did stiffen, his arms moving to remove the blanket from his face. "No, stay there," she added, her voice only just above a whisper. "I'll see what I can do about the light."

Of course, it would be easier to do that without the dirty great hole in the roof, but needs must ... Opening up her satchel, Rory set about securing blankets over the windows. A few minutes of thinking about what she had to work with provided her with a better solution for the light over the bed. The sunlight through the roof wasn't touching the bed yet, but it would in a few hours. She'd never done this with broken planks before, but within twenty minutes, she had constructed a sort of stunted teepee over the bed itself with the plethora of fallen debris and blankets she had begged off Eustace, the quartermaster. It wasn't pretty, and a stiff breeze would probably bring it down on top of them, but it blocked out the majority of the light. That was what mattered.

Crawling inside, she settled herself to sit beside him on the bed, gentle fingers touching his hand. "All right, love, you can relax now."

He groaned quietly, the sound more frustrated by his pain than suffering with it, hesitantly lowering the folded blanket from his closed eyes. "That's ... better," he murmured, one hand reaching to find hers.

She let him tangle his fingers with her own, trying to curb her impatience. She wanted to get him dosed and comfortable, but she understood that he needed her not to rush. He needed a gentle moment to absorb that he wasn't suffering through this alone this time. As much as she would have liked to have known he was in pain sooner than this, she understood that he had a need to deal with it alone, a desire to protect her from seeing him as weak and vulnerable. They were going to have to work on that, she realized. This was a man who would take on a screaming baby while experiencing a migraine, just to give her a few hours to herself.

"Where does it hurt?" she asked him softly, wincing as the sound of her voice made him grimace in pain.

"Both sides," was his strained murmur in response. His fingers tightened on hers before allowing her to pull away.

She rummaged in her satchel for the little vial of witherstalk and poppy. "Open your mouth and lift your tongue," she instructed, very carefully letting one drop fall past his lips. "Relax."

It tasted utterly revolting, as she could testify, but it was the strongest painkiller she had. Under the tongue was the fastest way she had to administer it. As Cullen swallowed in sore disgust, she wet a cloth with cold water, wrung it out, and laid it gently across his forehead. He sighed, his fingers tangling with hers once again as he relaxed back against the bed. Now all she could do was wait.

Patience had never been one of Rory's virtues. She got easily bored when she had nothing to fill her time, and boredom had been known to lead her over lines that weren't meant to be crossed. Sitting here now, enveloped in the gloom of her makeshift blanket fort and held where she was by the gentle weight of Cullen's hand in hers, she couldn't even try reading the book on his bedside ... barrel. He has a barrel for a bedside table. Her eyes swept, unbidden, to the other side of the bed, the side she knew he would insist was hers. No barrel there, oh no. Instead, there was a small table with a lockable drawer, something you would expect to find beside a bed. Yet it was on her side, when he knew she kept everything of value she owned in her belt. Was he hoping she might settle more happily in this tower with him if he made sure all the good furniture was hers?

Unprompted, her mind turned to other wonderings. They would need more than a ladder to access this level in just a few months; perhaps even a decent set of stairs. There were windows, yes, but they weren't big enough to counter his sometimes acute claustrophobia. Perhaps she could negotiate with him - having the roof repaired in exchange for knocking a large window into the wall that faced the keep. There was no hearth or chimney in the tower; they would need a brazier to warm the air. Was it possible to buy Branka's smokeless coal from Orzammar? Maybe Josephine would know. The room was big, certainly, big enough to house a couple and an infant so long as they made it properly habitable ... and Rory realized that, for all her panic, there were some things she was looking forward to seeing.

Cullen holding his child, lulling them to sleep in his arms; making room for a toddler in the bed; playing silly games just to see them smile. She had no doubt he would be a wonderful father, if a little prone to overprotective sanctions from time to time. It was only too easy to imagine him arming a son or daughter with a wooden sword, teaching them how to slay the dragons of their imagination; soothing their hurts with love and sympathy; falling asleep with them sprawled over his chest. And the harbinger of all those dreams was with them already, busily doing the growing thing in her womb.

It was a strange sort of comfort to hold against her deepest fear - that if she wasn't here to stay, then at least she would leave a piece of herself with him. He wouldn't be plunged back into isolation if he had a child to care for. He'd have hope, no matter what happened to her. And that made all the difference.

Eventually, his breathing evened out, his pulse growing slower and steadier beneath her fingers, betraying his lapse into painless sleep. Smiling in relief, Rory gently untangled her hand from his, yawning herself as she took the by-now warm cloth from his forehead. He rolled into the middle of the bed, half-curled, pressing his face into the pillow as the sleep that had clearly eluded him last night enfolded him with much-needed peace. He was so vulnerable when he slept, that guarded edge to his expression swept away to let the boy buried so deeply inside shine through. That boy, that man, had been through so much, and yet somehow retained the hope that order and justice could be restored to the world around him. She wished that hope could be fulfilled. She wanted to protect him from the revelations that were coming - Samson, the Grey Wardens, Solas. Yet all she could do was be here, now, and hope it was enough.

After a moment's thought, she shucked off her boots, sliding into the bed to press herself to his back, her arm wrapped protectively about his wait. He needed this peace. Even if the demons came, she'd be here to help him fight them, gathered close against his back. Protecting him from whatever came his way.

She stirred from sleep hours later, one arm tucked beneath the pillow, the other hand pressed to the mattress, her fingers enveloped in the heat of someone else's hand. Sleepy eyes opened to the rhythm of a slow waking breath, a tender smile curving her lips as she found herself face to face with her handsome commander. His face was still flushed from sleep, whisky-lit eyes just a little unfocused, a testament to how recently he had woken himself. He watched her silently, thrilling her with the tender love in his gaze, giving her the time she needed to fully wake before shifting just a little closer to brush the tip of her nose with a kiss.

"You let me sleep all day," he accused in a fond whisper, his hand leaving hers to stroke flyaway strands of hair from her brow.

"Not all day," she whispered back, certain of this only because her bladder wasn't screaming to be emptied. "Most of the afternoon, yes."

"It's dark," he pointed out, bemused when she laughed softly.

"I made a tent out of blankets," she told him through her smile. "I'm pretty sure it's lighter than this outside them."

Cullen rolled to his back, inspecting the quality of the gloom for a long moment. "Why set a tent over the bed?" he asked, rolling back to face her.

"It was easier than trying to block the hole." She raised her shoulder in a shrug, pleased when he huffed out a slightly incredulous laugh. Her hand rose from the bed between them, her palm curling to his cheek to let her fingers play at his temple. "You should have let me know you were in pain."

He sighed regretfully. "I didn't want to disturb you," he admitted softly. "You worked so late last night, you didn't come to bed. I can master this."

Rory rolled her eyes. Stubborn man. "For the record, even if I've been awake for a week, I want to know if you're in pain," she told him, quiet but fierce. "There's no need for you to suffer in silence."

For a moment, she thought he might argue with her. His expression flickered, too fast to make sense of, finally settling into a resigned smile as he took her hand, pressing a soft kiss to her palm. "Duly noted," was his answer, spoken as gently as he touched her. "And speaking of silence ... what was it you wanted to tell me yesterday?"

And there it was, the opening she would be an idiot to ignore. Perhaps it was the privacy, perhaps it was the comfortable stillness wrapped about them, but all her carefully prepared words disappeared from her mind. All that was left was the stark truth. "I'm pregnant."

Cullen stilled, his soft gaze sharpening in the wake of her words. "What?"

Rory bit her lip, anxiety blossoming once again as he stared her down. "I'm pregnant," she repeated anxiously. "I think about two months gone."

His gaze didn't soften. Shock covered his features, all the panic and worry she had felt written plain over his face. He dropped her hand, rolling heavily onto his back to gaze up at the canopy of blankets in absolute silence. Rory felt a small piece of her heart crack. She didn't know what to do, what she could possibly say to soften the blow she had delivered. And a small voice inside was demanding that he man up and accept responsibility. He was just as culpable as she was, after all. But the silence dragged on, the stillness more pronounced, the space between them feeling like an ocean.

"I'm sorry," she heard herself offer, her voice wavering on the edge of tears. "I know it's bad timing, I know it's not what you want, but you knew as well as I did there was a chance it could happen. Being angry won't change that."

"I'm not."

She blinked, startled by how calm he sounded. "Not what?"

"Angry." Cullen rolled toward her again, his eyes shining in the gloom. He's crying? "Or sorry. You're well? Nothing's wrong?"

Her slightly resentful incredulity over his calm reaction when she was twisted up in knots with anxious uncertainty may have fueled her response. "Apart from the fact that there are three people in this bed, I'm fine," she protested sarcastically. "Why aren't you angry? This is terrible timing!"

To her utter shock, he actually chuckled, smoothing his hand over her hip to drag her close, into a slow kiss. "I love you," he murmured to her, nose to nose as he gazed into her eyes. "Maker knows, I have never loved anyone the way I love you. If I could choose any woman in the world to be my wife, I would ask for you."

Relief flooded through her, adding to the already unbalanced swing of her emotional state as she staggered wildly between everything she could possibly feel and more. "I love you," she answered softly, despite the shake in her voice. "I was ... wait." She drew back as her brain caught up with her ears, suspicion making itself know through the turmoil broiling inside her. "Wife?"

"Of course," Cullen assured her with a confused frown. "We are getting married, aren't we?"

The sheer audacity of the assumption slammed headlong through her mixed up emotions, and anger responded the loudest. "I don't know," she replied in a hard tone. "Were you going to ask me?"

"The child deserves parents who share a name, Rory," he reasoned, apparently oblivious to what was wrong with this statement in the circumstances.

Her hand pressed against his chest, putting space between them as her brows knitted in defensive annoyance. "Is my being pregnant the only reason you want to get married?"

He somehow missed the warning in her tone and expression, answering her without thinking. "It's one of the main reasons to get married."

"Right."

As anger flared behind her eyes at the instant assumption that all he saw in her was a womb bearing fruit, Rory rolled away from him, slithering off the bed to grab her boots. She'd been careening from one emotion to the next for a day and half now, and this was not the conversation she'd wanted to find herself in.

She heard him shift on the bed behind her. "What's wrong?"

Yanking her boots firmly onto her feet with more force than was really necessary, she glared at him over her shoulder. "If you really need me to answer that question, then this is a conversation we're not ready to have," she informed him angrily.

"What did I say?" he asked, sounding hurt by her anger. She felt a wave of guilt crash through her, mingling with the anxiety, the anger, the hope, the panic. She knew she was being irrational, but she couldn't stop.

Twisting, she looked up at him, trying to be calm. "If I wasn't pregnant, would you have asked me to marry you?"

Cullen Rutherford, master strategist, made a fatal mistake. He hesitated. "Well, I ..."

"Wrong answer." Rising to her feet, Rory crawled out from under the blankets, and gave the nearest support for her stunted teepee a damned good kick. "My worth is in who I am, Cullen Rutherford, not in what I can incubate!"

She could hear him swearing as the blankets collapsed in on top of him, giving her enough time to climb down the ladder before he got free. She ignored his yell of her name as she stormed through the nearest door and across the walkway in the later afternoon sun. She barely heard Dorian call to her as she crossed the rotunda, a confusion of angry tears streaming down her face. The nobles in the hall didn't even glance at her before she was across the main hall and into the cloistered garden. Sniffling, she jogged up the steps to the sheltered balcony, chose a corner, and slumped down onto her backside in a hail of guilty, angry, hurt sobs. So much for a happy ending. How the hell do I apologize for this?

Chapter Text

"Hey, little red. Sun's gone."

Rory looked up from where she was packing boxes to be sent down to the city everyone was now calling Skysend. Her face was pale, but a couple of hours of mindless busy work had dried her tears and calmed her roiling emotions. She was still wound tight, but that was more in anticipation of facing Cullen again after her outburst. Her modern mind was still outraged by his assumptions, but she'd had time to think about it now. It didn't seem quite so unreasonable in hindsight, her mind lingering on his soft assertion of his feelings for her before he'd put his foot in his mouth. In that light, she could understand his confusion at her reaction. This was a world where being born out of wedlock was a life sentence of stigma; of course his first thought would be marriage. That didn't mean she was going to apologize for her own reaction, though.

The Iron Bull watched her work silently for a few minutes, eventually laying his hand over the box. "Can't put it off forever, little red," he told her.

She sighed. Of course he knows you're avoiding Cullen. Hell, he probably knew you were pregnant weeks ago. "I know," she admitted reluctantly. "I just don't want to have another argument, Bull."

"It doesn't seem like it was much of an argument," the Qunari pointed out. "No one shouted, no one got physical. From what I heard, no one said anything they shouldn't have. You're just making excuses not to see him."

"I was furious," she told him, trying not to feel embarrassed by the fact that he had apparently been close enough to the tower to hear most of what had been said in the heat of the moment. "Part of me still is."

"Cullen's a smart guy," Bull reminded her. "I'll bet he knows what went wrong in there. No sense in being afraid of someone you love, little red. You're just hurting yourself."

Rory bit her lip, setting the lid onto the box she'd been packing. "You're right," she conceded, wishing he wasn't so easy to understand. "I can't put this off forever."

Her eyes strayed toward Cullen's tower, where the flicker of candlelight through windows declared that he was still awake. Probably waiting for me. And Bull was right - she was making excuses. She'd eaten dinner here, with her nurses and patients, making work for herself to keep from facing the fact that she was going to have to talk to Cullen sooner or later. Evy had already retired for the night; the nurses didn't need her here with them. It was time to face the music. But she didn't move.

Bull considered her for a long span, eventually laying his hand gently at her back. "C'mon, little red," he encouraged, not about to take no for an answer. "I'll walk you."

With an escort, she had no choice but to pull up her big girl panties and get moving, letting the mercenary guide her across the lower courtyard to the steps that gave the most direct access to the tower. Bull didn't take his hand from her back until they reached the battlements, but he did let her hesitate in front of the tower door. But he only let it happen for a moment.

"Almost there, little red." He raised his hand, knocking on the solid wood before she could protest.

The answer was almost instantaneous, Cullen's voice barking out a query. "Who is it?"

Bull said nothing, raising the brow above his one good eye as he looked down at her. The message was clear - this was her mess to clear up. He was only here to make sure she did it. Fidgeting, Rory swallowed, clearing her throat as she made a creditable attempt to calm her anxiety.

"It's me," she called, adding, "Rory." As though it might not be clear that I am me.

There was a pause, the sound of low voices talking, footsteps toward the door, and the portal was pulled open. Dorian flashed her a friendly smile as she took a step back, preparing to run, just in case Cullen was in a foul temper.

"Oh no, you don't," the mage said smartly, reaching out to grasp her hand and pull. "You come in, and I go out. That wasn't so hard, was it?" With Rory now inside and Dorian outside, he leveled a significant look at both members of the troubled couple. "Play nicely, children."

The door closed with a faintly ominous thump. Rory stared at the grain of the dark wood. She knew Cullen was not far from her; she could feel his gaze on her back, hear the slight creak of the floorboards as he shifted his weight. What had Dorian been doing in here? What had Cullen told him? Was she the villain or the victim in his tale? And why wasn't he saying anything?

Steeling herself, she turned to face him, only to find him holding out a much-folded and re-read letter to her. Confusion touched her face as she automatically took it. This wasn't generally how clearing the air began, in her experience. Usually there were either apologies or explanations, not a wordless invitation to peruse personal correspondence. Her wary eyes met his, surprised to see a conflict of hope, guilt, and nerves reflected to her from the whisky-lit depths.

"Read it," he murmured softly. "Please."

How could she say no? He sounded so nervous, so hopeful. What was written here that could possibly have any bearing on this impasse in their relationship, though? She wouldn't know, unless she read it. So, with a silent nod of acquiescence, she unfolded the parchment, taking it over to the candle on the desk to read what was so important to him for her to know.

Cullen,
You have to learn to write longer letters. It isn't difficult, you know. Something more than "this happened, that happened, I'm alive" would mean you get less annoyed when I write back.
Rosalie has found mother's ring and had it cleaned. She wanted to bring it to you herself, but Bran and I convinced her to wait to be invited before she imposes herself on you and the Inquisition. We've sent it with the courier who brought your last money pouch - stop doing that. You're going to have a wife to support.
Also, just how did you manage to fall in love and propose without telling me? Rory sounds lovely, what little you've said about her. You must come and visit, and bring her to meet us. Soon.
Mia.

Rory stared at the letter in her hand. Ring? His mother's ring? And ... Oh, my giddy aunt. Her eyes sought out the date on the letter. 20 Firstfall. A full month ago, long before she knew she was pregnant, not long after they'd arrived at Skyhold. He'd been planning to ask her for more than a month ... planning it. He'd asked his sister to send him their mother's ring. Shocked to stillness, it was a struggle to raise her eyes to him.

Cullen stood at her side, his gaze tender as he looked down at her. "I'm a fool," he said in a quiet tone. "I should have asked you weeks ago, but it never seemed the right time. And today ... I hurt you without thinking. I deserved your anger for my clumsiness. But Rory ... even if you were barren, I would love you. I would want you for my wife, no matter our circumstances. Would that I could go back and change my words, but I can't. All I can ask if that you will forgive me for my thoughtlessness."

"Oh ..."

Without a word, she dropped the letter onto the desk, turning to burrow into his arms as the tears fell for the second time that day. Happy tears; tears that released her tension and anxiety in an outpouring of relief and hope and love. He loves me. He would have wanted to marry me even if I wasn't pregnant. His arms came up to wrap about her, enclosing her in the embrace she had needed since first discovering that she was carrying his child. She felt his lips press to her hair as that embrace tightened, leaving her in no doubt that this was where he wanted her to be.

"I'm sorry I buried you in blankets," she heard herself whimper softly, heartened further when his answer was to huff a quiet laugh against the crown of her head.

"I deserved it," he assured her, stroking her hair with one warm hand. "Please don't cry, sweeting."

"I can't help it," she admitted, drawing back to dash the wetness from her cheeks with a rough hand. "I thought you would be angry with me, and I was afraid to tell you, and ... and then you weren't angry, and we fought, and ... Ugh! I'm not used to being this emotional, it's not fair!"

Cullen's face creased into a fond smile as he tried to follow this explanation, pulling the soft handkerchief from her sleeve to gently dry her eyes. "Why did you think I would be angry?" he asked, his voice tenderly soft, just for her. "What made you afraid?"

Rory swallowed, shrugging as she tried for a coherent answer. "Because we're in the middle of a war," she pointed out. "Because we're not married, and we hadn't even talked about that, much less about having children. I don't know if you even want to have children."

The smile above her softened with understanding as he drew her into his arms once again, cradling her against his chest as he spoke. "Most of my life has been dedicated solely to the good of other people," he told her gently. "Twisted and subverted though it was for a time, I have lived my life believing that if my sacrifice can give others the lives they long for, then it is worth it. I've loved, but never allowed myself to hope for more beyond the dalliance ... until you. I want more with you, Rory. I've found myself pondering on a life with you, on what we will do together when all this is over in the distant future. I've imagined seeing you with curly-haired children, imagined raising them with you, and it makes my heart ache with longing. All my imagined futures are with you. It feels selfish to say it aloud, but ... I want that for us, sweeting. I want a family, with you."

She couldn't have put words to the warmth that flooded her heart as he spoke, soothing the lingering sharpness of her worry and anger. "It's not selfish," she murmured, sniffling back the last of her tears. "I want my future to be with you. I just ... I don't want to trap you into it, and this, this feels like a trap, even if I didn't mean it that way."

"I'm not trapped," he promised faithfully, callused fingers gently tilting her chin until she looked unto his eyes. "I may have hoped to do things in the order the Maker intended, but it seems that this is His intention for us. I know you do not believe, but ... will you marry me, Rory Allen? Will you share my vow before Andraste and the Maker to be my wife?"

Before she could consciously form words, her head was nodding, a tender smile of her own lifting the cares from her face. "I will," she answered, forgetting to be afraid of what might happen if she was suddenly whisked from his world as swiftly as she had arrived. "I will marry you, Cullen."

She had just a moment to see the relieved delight cross his smiling face before his lips descended to hers in a kiss charged with hope and love. It might be the middle of a war, but life went on, and for the first time, Cullen had hope that his life would not be spent in isolation, protecting the well-being of everyone else's happiness. He drew her close against his chest, one hand cupped to her neck, tilting her just enough to deepen that tender kiss as her fingers poured through his tousled hair. One kiss became two, three, neither of them quite able to stop sharing that joining of loving smiles until the door opened abruptly, startling them apart.

"All better?" Dorian asked politely, as though he hadn't just intentionally interrupted an intimate moment. "Marvelous. Come along then, children. Inquiring minds want to share your news in the tavern."

Rory blushed as she realized the altus had been waiting outside the door and listening in, just to make sure they cleared the air between them; to her surprise, Cullen did, too. They both stared at the mage a little incredulously. "But ..."

"Oh, you can tickle the bronto later," Dorian insisted in his playful way. "I want to celebrate, so you have to tell people what I'm celebrating, or it is liable to slip out in the early hours."

"Use less lube, then," Rory said, another case of her mouth engaging before her brain. She felt Cullen snort with laughter, glancing up to find him struggling not to smirk through a mildly scandalized expression.

"Oh, very good," Dorian praised her quick answer, flashing her another brief grin as he proceeded to gesture impatiently for them to come with him. "Now do come along, or I shall be forced to announce your good news all by myself."

"And there is no possible way to convince you to postpone your revelry for one night?" Cullen asked, sounding torn between amusement and exasperation.

"None whatsoever," the mage insisted cheerfully. "Absolutely everyone must know all at once, and the tavern is the place to do it."

"Well, then it can't be tonight, can it?" Rory pointed out with a quiet laugh, spotting the hole in his theory that she was fairly sure he had left there on purpose.

"Yes, of course." Cullen was quick to agree, seeing the loophole as swiftly as she did. "The Inquisitor and his party are not in Skyhold."

"Ah, but ..." Dorian held up a finger to counter their argument, theatrically considered it, and visibly deflated. "Oh, very well." He sighed with exaggerated disappointment. "I shall raise a single glass in your honour and restrain myself. But when the glorious hero returns, I demand an announcement!"

"When Kaaras returns," Cullen promised to the tune of Rory's laughter, abandoning her side to gently but firmly guide Dorian out through the door. "Now go away."

"My, what masterful hands you have, commander," the altus teased, quite happy to let himself be manhandled outside. "Rory, my darling, you are so lucky to have such a manly -"

The rest was cut off as Cullen shut the door, pulling the bolt across decisively. He leaned against the door for a moment, snorting with laughter at the "Good night, sweet lovers" called to them from the other side, turning back to where Rory was sagged against the desk, laughing uproariously at their friend's ridiculous excuse to interrupt them. Chuckling with her, he pushed from the door, reaching out to drag her into his arms once again, each movement filled with purpose.

"Now,then ..." he murmured, dipping his head to find her giggling lips with his tender grin. "Where were we ..."

Chapter Text

Loving comfort and easy quiet combined to fill the tower with the sort of gentle stillness only a close pairing can cultivate. Rory lay on her back, nestled against the sheets, her fingers stroking through Cullen's hair where his head rested against her breast. His eyes were watching the play of his fingers over the expanse of her waist where a tiny bulge was discernible - nowhere near big enough to be seen when she was standing, but as she lay on her back, just big enough to be noticed if you knew what you were looking for. Our baby.

"She will be loved," she heard him murmur against her skin, his head tilting to press a kiss just above her navel.

"She?" Rory asked in soft amusement. "Do you know something I don't?"

He smiled faintly, raising himself onto his elbow to lean over her. "With your permission, I intend to hope for a daughter," he informed her tenderly, dipping his head to brush his lips to hers even as he drew the blanket back over her bare skin, protecting her from the chill of the night.

She couldn't help smiling into that kiss. Cullen with a daughter was only too easy to imagine; a little girl would be the apple of his eye, and he would be totally wrapped around one small, pudgy finger from the first moment. But a small part of her rebelled a little, suggesting that it would also be nice to have a son. She didn't have a huge amount of faith in her own ability to raise a little girl in this society; she had a feeling feminist attitudes, however mild, would probably get both her and her daughter into a fair amount of trouble.

"Tell me the truth, sweeting," he murmured then, drawing back to look into her eyes with such solemn sincerity that her breath stuttered in her throat. "Are you truly happy with this news?"

Oh, you had to ask that, didn't you? Rory's smile faded just a little, knowing she couldn't lie to him about this. Even if he was panicking on the inside, they'd already proved that keeping things to themselves did no good at all. They might have to panic together.

"I don't know," she admitted softly, tangling her fingers with his absently, needing something to focus on other than his face. "I'm ... I think I'm more overwhelmed, right now. I don't know anything about pregnancy or babies, and now there's a little life inside me that will need so much help and support. For years. I, um ... I'm a little panicked, really. But in a good way, if that makes any sense."

Cullen's expression softened with understanding, his hidden smile sharing her concerns. "It would be nice to be able to say with absolute truth that I feel nothing but happiness," he agreed in a quiet tone, propping his head on his hand as he settled in beside her. "But I must confess that I, too, am ... uncertain of quite how to do this. My own father was a good man; he raised me and my siblings well, but the real shaping of who I became was done by my mentors in the Templar Order. I want to be a good father, but ... how do I do that? It seems a question that cannot be answered."

"Cullen ..." Lips curved in a tender smile, she raised her hand to stroke his cheek, drawing his eyes to hers. "You are a good man. That's all you need to be a good father."

"But there are darknesses in my past I have not told you," he said fretfully. "Things that would damage your good opinion of me, I am certain. How can I raise a child when I have committed such sins?"

One of these days, you're going to have to tell me about Kinloch and Kirkwall, love. But she couldn't say that aloud. He had to tell her freely, when he was ready, or she might easily damage the trust he had in her.

"For a start, you know that, whatever these sins were, they were wrong," she pointed out softly. "The man you are now would not act the way the man you were did. It's the man you are now who will raise our children. Not a shadow from your past."

"Yet those shadows are still with me." He sighed sadly, looking down at their tangled hands. "My nightmares, the lyrium cravings ... they will never fully cease. I may lose my mind as the time goes by. It pains me to think of a child having to witness such things from their father."

"There is nothing wrong with a child learning that even their parents have nightmares sometimes," she told him in a firm tone. "Nor is there anything wrong with a child knowing that their father is human, and has some weaknesses, like everyone else. And you will not lose your mind. You haven't had any hallucinations for months; today was the first severe headache you've had since we first talked about your withdrawal in Haven. It's improving, love. You are stronger now than you were when we met, and even if you occasionally relapse, you will come out of it more easily now. I'll help you."

A half-hearted smile touched his eyes, just barely tightening the scar that adorned his lip as he lifted his gaze to meet hers once more. "You have such faith in me," he murmured wonderingly. "I can't help but wonder why."

"Because I love you, you ridiculous man," she answered with an easy smile, glad to see his smile flicker fully into being at her fond insult. "Because I know you. Neither of us knows what to expect from being parents. We'll learn together, mistakes and all."

"And you do want this child?" he asked, circling back to his former question with tentative concern. "I have no wish to force motherhood on you, sweeting, if you do not feel ready for it."

Rory huffed a soft laugh, shaking her head. "I don't think anyone ever feels ready to have a baby," she admitted. "But yes, I do want our child. I get giggly when I think about you holding our baby; I feel excited about it. I might be scared of getting things wrong, and the whole ... birthing thing, but I am happy about it."

The relief on his face was mirrored in the way his shoulders relaxed, the way he inched just that little bit closer to her, lips dancing a tender foxtrot over the curve of her temple. "As am I," he agreed affectionately. "Afraid, but excited to meet the child born of our love."

"And if we manage to get married before the birth, no one will be able to make their life difficult because of an accident no one could really foresee," she pointed out with a rueful smile.

"About that ..." Cullen raised his head to look down at her once again, a contemplative look in his eyes. "Are you content to be wed by the Chantry's laws? You don't believe in the Maker."

"But you do," she reminded him. "Most of the world does. Our children will, most likely. I won't ever try to interfere with your faith, Cullen, or to willfully teach our children not to believe in Andraste and the Maker. I'd like them to have that faith; it's something I don't have, another layer of comfort that does more good than harm. But I won't force them to believe, either. I'd like us to be able to teach them, but let them make their own minds up when they're old enough to understand. Is ... is that something you can live with?"

He frowned thoughtfully. "I don't deny that I would like to share my faith with our children," he confessed in a pensive tone. "But unless the Chantry improves, I would not want them to slavishly follow the edicts of an institution that is poisoning the faithful with prejudice and ignorance. I ... I rather like your suggestion. To teach and let them learn, but instill good morals that will guide them when their faith fails."

Rory's nose crinkled as she smiled, her freckles seeming to dance in the candlelight. "I think we just made our first parenting compromise."

Cullen laughed, thumping down onto his back to pull her close, reaching to tuck the blankets warm about her shoulders. Snow was drifting in through the hole in the roof, glittering crystals frolicking in the light cast by the moons overhead to settle against the chilled boards. He frowned thoughtfully at the sight.

"This tower is not suitable for an expectant mother, much less a newborn babe," he mused, stroking his fingers through the copper fall of her unbound hair. "Nor is your daily routine. We will have to fix both."

"Your routine is hardly perfect either," she pointed out, nestled close against his chest in the crook beneath his arm. Her nose felt cold, but thanks to Cullen's internal heating system, the rest of her was toasty warm. Apart from her toes, but her toes were always cold when she settled into bed.

"I am not the one carrying an unborn child," he attempted to argue, grunting as she poked his diaphragm.

"No, you're just the father looking after the one carrying your unborn child," she informed him pointedly. "There's no point in smoothing my way, if you are going to collapse with overwork."

He frowned down at her, but eventually sighed. "A clearer routine, then," he agreed. "If you will make sure you do not over-extend yourself, then neither shall I."

Oh, that's cheating, Rory thought to herself, impressed. They were both a little self-destructive when it came to looking after themselves, but by putting it in those terms, he was making looking after herself all about looking after him.

"I'll have to enlist Evy to help me with that," she admitted prudently. "She has a better eye for what is too much in a single day than I do."

Cullen's eyes narrowed. Apparently he hadn't been expecting her to agree, or to suggest a workable solution to her problem with working too hard. "I'll have to promote a few people," he said finally. "Delegation means nothing if the ones taking the duties have no authority. Rylen and I shall have to create a few new captains."

She smiled to herself, quietly delighted that she'd managed to back him into taking at least some of the weight off his own shoulders. He was still going to obsessively oversee as much as he could, of course - there was no way to prevent that - but at least he'd be able to tell people to talk to someone else on occasion.

He let out a resigned sigh then, adjusting the wrap of his arms about her as he considered the hole in the roof once again. "We may have to go back to sleeping in a tent for a week or so," he said mildly. "That hole needs to be fixed, and a decent stairway created. I'm not having you traversing a ladder up and down twice a day when you're pregnant."

Rory snorted with laughter at his phrasing. "I, um ... may I make a suggestion?" she ventured, knowing that filling that hole was something he likely wasn't too happy with. She hadn't seen it much in the cabin, but he was claustrophobic on occasion, and this tower wasn't the wide space he really needed.

"That depends on the suggestion," Cullen murmured, sounding amused by her timidity.

"Is it possible to put another window in?" she asked softly. "A big one? Over there?" She pointed to the dense wall directly across from them.

"Big windows weaken the defensibility of a structure, Rory," he pointed out with a frown, lifting his head to consider the wall himself. She could see it was an attractive idea, though - there were two windows on the side walls, but they were small, not letting in much light. Once the roof was fixed, it would be dreadfully gloomy up here. "Would you be happy with two smaller windows?" he suggested. "They'll be fully shuttered in case of attack, but ... yes, a little more light in here wouldn't go amiss."

She grinned happily, inching up to kiss his jaw. "That would be lovely," she assured him, glad she'd been able to give him an excuse to open up their space without having to admit to his own discomfort at being enclosed.

"Windows need glass," he muttered, working it through in his mind. "We will have to speak with Josephine about having an artisan come to deal with it."

"Doesn't she have someone already on their way to fix and set the stained glass windows in the hall and the Inquisitor's tower?" Rory asked curiously.

Cullen blinked, his expression clearing. "You're right, she does," he agreed. "I will see if he can be prevailed upon to do a little more work for a generous fee."

"Thank you." She hugged her arm about his chest, burrowing back into the warm nest of blankets and his embrace, ridiculously pleased with herself for managing to get the structural necessities agreed on with the minimum of fuss.

She felt him smile against her hair as he settled back himself, breathing in the scent of the applewood oil she used to keep it tamed. "Sweeting ... may I ask you something?"

Rory opened her eyes, forcing herself back from the brink of sleep. "Anything, love."

His chest expanded and contracted beneath her cheek as he took a slow breath. "My ... initial proposal," he said carefully, as though afraid to broach the subject at all in case she blew up at him again. "I think I know what I said to upset you, but ... I should like to hear it from you. Dorian simply stood there and made me repeat word for word everything that was said. He didn't even tell me if I was right when I worked it out."

A faint quirk of a smile tilted the corner of her mouth. It was rather sweet to hear that; to know that Cullen hadn't had the mistake pointed out to him, but had discovered it with just a little guidance. "It wasn't so much what you said," she admitted softly. "It was what you didn't say. We hadn't even mentioned marriage before I told you about the baby, and suddenly you assumed we would be getting married. It hurt, to think that the only reason anyone would want to marry me is because I was pregnant with their child. As though I have nothing to offer anyone except my ability to have children."

She felt him wince, felt his arms wrap tighter about her. "Why didn't you say that? I knew I had said something wrong, but you left so quickly ... I felt sure you would never forgive me for whatever it was I'd said."

She grimaced, shaking her head against his chest. "I didn't want to shout at you, or say anything I would regret," she said quietly. "I'm not very good at conflict, and when I'm upset, I resort to name-calling and insults, and I didn't want to do that to you. I-I thought it was better to be away from you until I calmed down."

"Don't do that again." His mouth pressed a warm kiss to her hair. "Shout at me, insult me. Don't run away from me and leave me thinking I've broken everything with one careless word. Don't cry in corners thinking I don't love you."

"How did you know -"

"Bull," he answered simply. Of course. No wonder he frogmarched me up here. "I would rather we scream at one another and say everything wrong, than abandon one another to dark thoughts that have no purpose but to cause pain."

Rory hesitated. She'd never fully engaged in a true argument all her life; even with her parents, she had always run away before things got truly heated. But avoiding the conflict didn't solve anything. He was right. Far better to have it all out at once, even if it ripped them raw, and be there for each other in the aftermath.

"I'll try," she promised softly. "Running away is what I naturally do, but ... I will try to stay when we fight."

"And I will endeavor to think things through before I open my mouth," he offered in answer. "I was careless, and you were hurt. I do not want to hurt you again."

"To be fair, I had been sitting on this news for a day and half," she pointed out in a quiet voice. "I'd built it up to ludicrous proportions. I was anxious and upset and not thinking clearly, and I threw all of that at you with very little reason. That was an overreaction to something that really didn't deserve it."

"Sweeting ... I don't blame you for your anger," he murmured. "I do blame you for the fact that Dorian locked me in this tower with him for the remainder of the day, filling my attempts to work out a solution with terrible innuendos about my ability to father a red-headed child."

She snorted, the sound dissolving into soft giggles as she imagined that. At least she had been left alone to work through her emotions. She should consider herself lucky that Dorian hadn't come after her, too. "I'm happy to take responsibility for that," she assured Cullen in answer. "I'm just ... happy. You know?"

She felt his chuckle as he replied. "I know," he agreed tenderly. "I have never had a future before. Thank the Maker you found me."

If the Maker truly did exist, there was only one wish in her heart as she nestled into Cullen's arms, the upsets and comforts of the day lulling her into soft sleep. Please, if you really are there ... don't take this away from him. Let me stay.

Chapter Text

Chancellor Roderick eyed the couple in front of him.

"This is is highly irregular," he said mildly. "It is more usual for a Revered Mother to perform in such circumstances. Surely Mother Giselle would be a more appropriate person to approach?"

"You are a high cleric in the service of the Chantry," Cullen reminded him. "Your ability to witness and validate a marriage is no less meaningful than that of a Revered Mother. And, as you may well imagine, we do not believe Mother Giselle would be willing to accommodate us."

"And this is truly your wish?" Roderick pressed further. "To be wed private and without ceremony, with the Maker's blessing?"

Rory felt Cullen look down at her, raising her eyes to his with a soft smile. Perhaps people would think they had rushed; perhaps they would complain about being denied the opportunity to stand in witness, but neither one was comfortable to be the center of attention. They had spoken about it at length last night, wrapped in each other's arms beneath the blankets, punctuating each agreement with kisses and touches that were as much an exchange of vows as any overdone ceremony might be. Nothing would change with this step; they already lived as a married couple, people already knew they had chosen one another for life. Let Evy and Rylen have the grand spectacle and all the attention - Cullen and Rory neither wanted or needed it.

"It truly is, chancellor," Cullen answered for them both, laying his hand over Rory's fingers where they rested on his arm.

"Mistress Rory, you have stated that you do not believe in the Maker," the chancellor said then, wary of sounding disapproving but needing to ask. "By marrying in the faith of your husband, you are pledging to raise any children in the Maker's name."

"My lack of faith is my own affair," she told him quietly. "I will teach my children about the Maker and Andraste." And let them make up their own minds, she added silently, feeling Cullen squeeze her hand. It was good to know he agreed with her on that point.

Her answer seemed to satisfy Roderick. "Very well. Please."

He gestured for them to step out of the little chapel and into the garden, still in shade at this early hour. There were few people about, only a couple of herbalists harvesting in the only patch of sunlight, getting a head-start on the day's work ahead. For the sake of their requested privacy, the chancellor walked with the couple to the furthest end of the garden, where the stone gazebo hugged the wall. Despite knowing next to nothing about Andrastian weddings, Rory could feel herself grinning like an idiot, quietly excited to officially tie herself to Cullen. The inner fangirl was torn between knicker-wetting delight, sulking about the lack of a pretty dress, and profound worry that going through with this would somehow signal the end of the dream. Rory was ignoring that last one. She had no power to affect the outcome of whether she was here to stay or not; what was the point in worrying? If she lived as though expecting everything to be ripped away at any moment, she would hurt not only herself, but Cullen too. If she spent her days always looking over her shoulder, she might as well go and hide under a rock. For better or worse, she was a part of this story; surely a little happiness wasn't too much to ask?

Pausing, Roderick turned to them, his dour face solemn. "Do you come to this place willingly to pledge your lives to one another in the Maker's eyes?"

Again, Cullen answered for them both, with Rory nodding emphatically. "We do."

"Then let us begin." The chancellor raised his hands in benediction.

"In the name of the Maker, who brought us this world, and in whose name we say the Chant of Light, I offer the blessing of Andraste to this promised pair. As Andraste knew the love and duty of marriage to a mortal man, may you share in her faith and fidelity; and as she knew bliss as the Maker's chosen Bride, may you, too, find joy in your union. Cullen Rutherford, you have chosen to wed this woman in the eyes of mortal man. Will you swear by the Maker and Holy Andraste to honor her as your lawful wife, as long as you both shall live?"

Cullen took Rory's hands in his, smiling down at her as she watched him with loving trust. "I swear unto the Maker and the Holy Andraste to love this woman the rest of my days."

Somewhere in the back of Rory's mind, the inner fangirl collapsed in a quivering heap, squealing incoherently about the Trespasser DLC. Rory herself tried not to giggle through the thrill at those familiar words. It was just as well they had decided to do this quietly, virtually eloping while still within Skyhold's walls. If anyone but Cullen had been watching her, she would have snickered at this very inappropriate moment.

"Rory Allen." Roderick waited for her to school her expression before continuing. "You have chosen to wed this man in the eyes of mortal men. Will you swear to honour him as your lawful husband, as long as you both shall live?"

The slight change in wording was not lost on the couple. Rory glanced at the chancellor with surprised eyes, genuinely amazed that such a pious man would make the conscious choice to respect her belief, or lack of it, in such a thoughtful way. He nodded encouragingly to her, the corner of his mouth twitching as her smile blossomed once again.

"I swear," she said earnestly, lifting her eyes to Cullen's as she squeezed his hands, "with everything that I am, with respect for your Maker and your Holy Andraste, to love this man the rest of my life."

Cullen's fingers flexed about hers, his loving smile both hidden and visible as she took the words given and made them fit. They might not share faith, but they respected one another's viewpoint too much for it to cause friction between them, and the one point in their future that might have offered an argument had already been settled with their compromise of the night before. But even so, she could see how much her adjusted vow meant to him, to have her acknowledge his faith even as she swore by nothing but herself to be his. And he didn't seem to be the only one pleased.

Roderick glanced between them, pleasantly surprised by her agnostic twist to the vows shared. "It is traditional for some token to be exchanged at this point," the chancellor mused thoughtfully, "though your haste would suggest that you have not had the time to ..."

He trailed off as Cullen reached into his mantle, presenting a slender gold band on his palm with an almost sheepish smile. Rory bit her lip, feeling her heart constrict as she looked at the simple token of love. It shone in the light of day, the wheat sheaves engraved over its surface glimmering even here in the shade. Such a small thing, loaded with so much meaning. She swallowed as Cullen took her left hand between his own, feeling his fingers shake just a little as he spoke.

"Months ago, you gave me a token to wear, and I knew then that yours was a love I would spend my life trying to be worthy of," he told her softly, seemingly unembarrassed to have a witness to these words. Her eyes flickered to his throat, where the faintest glint of steel betrayed the mabari charm she had given him what felt like a lifetime ago. "This was my mother's wedding ring, and her grandmother's before her. I would like you to wear it, Rory Rutherford, and to know each time you look on it that you will never be alone again. You are a part of our family now ... which my sisters will never let you forget."

The sheer weight of resigned humor in those last words saved her from tears. He knew how she had voluntarily rejected her biological family; how she had thought of Ria as family, only to lose her brutally; how alone she felt sometimes, with no anchor to hold her steady. And he was bringing her home with those words - offering her not just his heart and his life, but the enfolding warmth of his family, certain they would accept her as one of them without hesitation. A bright smile lit up her face as he slid the cool band of gold to its new home at her knuckle, raising her hand to kiss it as she swayed toward him. Those beautiful amber-brown eyes never left hers, promising without the need for more words that this was their new beginning, together.

"I bear witness, in the name of the Maker, and Blessed Andraste, whom he loves, that these vows are binding and lawful," the chancellor intoned, raising his hands to bless them once more. "May no man seek to tear them down, for they are made in faith and love." He paused, an unexpected smile lightening his dour countenance. "As I understand it, this would be the part where you kiss your wife, commander."

"Thank you, chancellor."

Cullen's handsome face creased into a delighted grin as he leaned down to Rory, capturing her own smile in a soft kiss that was at once overwhelming and nowhere near satisfying. And over too soon, the pair of them drawing back to thank Roderick for performing the not-terribly-well-planned ceremony at such short notice. The chancellor demurred and congratulated them, quick to leave them to their own devices and hurry off to attend to his own duties, one of which was to officially record their marriage. Left alone in the garden, Cullen drew Rory into the gazebo, behind one of the wide pillars, to steal a few moments in kissing his wife with tender leisure.

"I have a question," Rory murmured to him with affectionate mischief, when they finally came up for air.

"When don't you have questions?" he answered, a rare glimpse of the playful commander outside the privacy of their quarters.

He laughed softly as she rolled her eyes, denied the ability to prod his stomach by the unyielding plate of his cuirass. "So lucky I love you," she muttered teasingly, raising her newly decorated hand between them. "How come this fits me? I doubt your mother's hands were a match for mine."

Cullen cleared his throat, somehow managing to look guilty and exceedingly pleased with himself in the same expression. "I may have measured your finger while you were sleeping, and asked Dagna to adjust the ring accordingly," he suggested as innocently as he was able.

Rory chuckled, duly impressed. "May have?"

"Did," he admitted, lowering his head to catch her lips in another slow kiss, muffling her laughter at his sneaky preparations for a proposal he'd never had the chance to properly plan out.

She melted into him, but they didn't have time to indulge in lazy kisses. Skyhold was waking up, and they both had work to do. "Think you can hold it in all day?"

"I will do my utmost," he promised teasingly. "If only to see the look on Dorian's face when we announce this to them in the tavern."

"That's the only reason?" she asked with a laugh, still giggling when he agreed with another grin of his own. "Good enough for me."

As he kissed her once more, they heard the chapel bell sound, summoning Skyhold to breakfast and the long day ahead. With Kaaras due to return within a few hours, there was plenty to do; plenty to fill their time and keep them from spilling their news before the agreed hour. It would not be difficult to convince their friends to join them in the tavern for an hour this evening, nor would they have to stay for the entirety of the inevitable celebration that would follow. But Dorian had been right - everyone should know at once, if only to prevent anyone from being the last to know.

With the unfamiliar weight of Cullen's ring on her finger, Rory left him at the door to the hall, moving to where she usually ate with Evy and the nurses, aware of him watching her from where he settled down to eat with his captains. The room was alive with morning chatter, most people excited about the return of the Inquisitor and the arrival of a new shipment from Val Royeaux on the same day. No one seemed to notice the the knowing smiles shared across the hall, or the glimmer of gold on her hand. Or if they did, they made no mention of it. For now, it was their secret, and one Rory was happy to revel in for just a few hours, buoyed up to know something no one else could, for certain. That would all change by nightfall, but for now, there was a thrill in being secretly married. Ria would be so proud.

Chapter Text

"You made it!"

Rory laughed as she stepped into the tavern in Evy's wake, her attention immediately caught by Kaaras waving one big arm in her direction. She'd briefly seen him when he'd arrived, though he had been whisked into the war room pretty damned quick. It looked like he had a bit of a head-start on the drinking. She didn't even have a moment to scan the tavern floor for Cullen before her Qunari friend had an arm around her waist and was lifting her up to squeeze a throttling hug about her ribs. Feet dangling, she hugged him back, gently patting his cheek.

"Put me down, beanstalk, or Cullen might just stab you," she warned cheerfully.

Kaaras snorted with laughter. "What with, his ale?"

Still holding her off the floor, he gestured toward the long counter where Cullen was seated, a lone island of calm amid the merry gathering around him. The commander raised a brow in their direction, that invisible smile of his making Rory laugh as Kaaras stumped toward him to deliver her very nearly directly into her lover's lap. Gloved hands reached out to steady her as she landed, her cheeks bright with embarrassment as Kaaras chuckled happily.

"How much has he had to drink?" she asked Cullen softly, brushing a kiss to his cheek in hello.

"According to Krem, he's on his third ale, but Bull's been adding measures from that hip flask of his," Cullen told her in amusement. "Not that it will do any harm. After the adventure they just had, one night of carousing may be just what he needs."

She grinned at his tone, twisting to lean against him as she surveyed the inhabitants of the bar. Kaaras had wandered off to loom over Lace Harding with a grin - the dwarven scout was eyeing him like a bomb about to go off. Sera was sitting on the railing above them; Cole on the other side of the chimney from her, since the Red Jenny was violently uncomfortable in his presence. Josephine was present, a bright spot amid the earthier colors of the men and women gathered there, perched demurely on Iron Bull's knee as she talked with Cassandra, who looked as though she was going to be nursing that one small cup of wine all night. Krem was deep in discussion with Blackwall, though quite what that was about was anyone's guess; unexpectedly, Leliana was also visible amid the gathering, though not exactly taking part so much as observing. Further down the counter, Rylen and Evy were on either side of Varric, who was scribbling away at something with what looked like a lot of advice from both captain and noble. A roar of welcome from Kaaras announced Dorian's arrival. The only people not here were Vivienne and Solas, neither one of whom could be convinced to come to the tavern even for a small drink. They were sociable enough in smaller, less raucous settings, but The Herald's Rest seemed to offend the two mages, for very different reasons.

"And how are we this evening, children?" Dorian asked with an expansive grin as he wrested himself from Kaaras' outstretched arms to take a seat at the counter beside the couple. "Feeling effusive and full of confidence?"

Rory snorted with laughter, rolling her eyes at him. "Yes, the point is taken," she assured the mage with genuine affection. "Why else do you think we're both here?"

"I had wondered, it's true," Dorian mused, eyeing Cullen teasingly over her shoulder. "It is a rare day to see our friend and commander deigning to mix with the unwashed masses."

Cullen narrowed his eyes at the jab, however kindly meant it was. "I can mix with anyone perfectly well," he pointed out. "Without the need to be drunk, unlike some people I could name."

"My dear commander, I'm shocked and hurt that you would imply such a thing." Dorian laid a hand theatrically over his heart, grinning at the former templar he now called friend. "There are some people I can't even look at without needing a drink. Thankfully, you and your lady there are not among them."

He turned to acquire a drink from Cabot, and Rory gently nudged Cullen. "He doesn't mean to annoy you," she reminded him in a soft voice. "He's more excited about telling people than we are."

Relaxing as she leaned into him, Cullen let his gaze flicker over to Dorian briefly, the faintest hint of a smile flickering at his lips. "You're right," he agreed quietly, tilting his head close to kiss her just behind her ear as his hand flexed possessively at her hip - so subtle that it didn't seem anyone had noticed. "He deserves the chance to throw a little shade before we steal his obnoxious thunder."

"It may get worse after we do, you know," she pointed out in a murmur, laying her hand gently over his at her hip.

"It'll be worth it just to see his face," Cullen predicted with a slightly evil flicker to his smile. He and Dorian were friends, but it could be an antagonistic relationship at times.

"Well?" Dorian asked, turning back to them with his drink. "Everyone is gathered, as you stipulated. Either you say it, darlings, or I will, and you may rest assured that if I say it, people will think that you're sleeping with me."

Cullen laughed, shaking his head at the outrageous piece of friendly blackmail. "Sadly, no one is listening," he pointed out, dragging out the moment for as long as he could while Rory giggled beside him.

"That, my good man, is easily dealt with." Dorian rose to his feet, lifting an arm to catch Sera's eye. He made a silencing motion with his hand.

A moment later, the dulcet tones of Skyhold's Red Jenny pierced the air, cutting through every conversation and demanding attention. "OY! SHUT IT!"

As eyes turned to where the cheeky elf was leaning over the railing, Dorian sighed, rolling his eyes. "Charming as ever, Sera," he complimented her, turning his attention to the rest of the tavern. "My lords, ladies, commoners, and muck, this way, if you please. That's better." He paused to allow everyone to be looking at him attentively - or as attentively as they could get, this being a tavern. "I'm sure you're all dying to know the real reason our stalwart commander is here. I know I am. I do believe it's time he told us, don't you?"

Again, all eyes turned, this time to Cullen. As he sighed and rose to his own feet, Rory bit her lip, trying not to laugh at the sight of Kaaras peering over everyone's heads. It looked as though Cassandra was propping him up from this angle.

"Yes, well ..." Cullen cleared his throat. "I'm not much at home with speeches, so this will be short. I simply - that is, we - I ..." He looked at Rory, his eyes a little wild. The words just weren't coming, it seemed. But there was her smile, and the panic faded from his gaze as he raised his cup. "I'd like you all to join me in raising a glass to my wife."

You could have heard a pin drop in the crowded tavern. All around them were various expressions on the theme of shock and amazement. Dorian was a picture of it, openly goggling as his slightly smug teasing backfired on him spectacularly. Kaaras and Cassandra were a still-life study in astonishment; Josephine looked delighted and somehow infuriated at the same time. Cole was beaming silently; Sera snickered behind her hands at everyone's reaction. Along the counter, Evy smiled, gently shutting Rylen's open mouth with a finger as Varric's quill suddenly began scribbling once again. Then Bull threw back his head and roared with laughter.

"Congratulations!" the big Qunari declared, raising his mug as Cullen had asked. "To the commander and his lady!"

Maryden struck a chord, and with the music, the laughter and talk returned, a definite trend of movement toward the counter where Cullen and Rory were suddenly besieged with well-wishers. Dorian got there first, voluntarily embracing both of them with laughing exasperation.

"Wife?" he demanded. "That wasn't part of the agreement!"

Cullen laughed at the mage's indignation. "I don't recall ever promising not to marry her," he pointed out mildly.

"You were supposed to tell them about the baby!" Dorian objected, making no effort to keep his voice down. He just had to get that in there, didn't he?

"Baby?"

Rory turned, finding Cassandra close beside her. The Seeker seemed to have abandoned Kaaras by the nearest prop to come and congratulate them herself, close enough to have heard Dorian's announcement with absolute clarity. She raised her brows expectantly.

"I'm pregnant, yes," Rory told her in a much softer voice, and abruptly squeaked in shock as staid, calm, unruffled Cassandra suddenly dragged her into a very unexpected hug.

"Be happy," the Nevarran woman told her, though it sounded more like an order than a wish. "You are good for him, and him for you. And I demand the details when we have time. I have missed a great deal in just a few weeks, it seems."

"Would it help to know that none of it was planned?" Rory offered, hoping to mollify the hurt feelings she could see in the eyes of the friends gathering around them.

"Ror, not even you can plan a baby," Rylen pointed out in a cheery tone, his hand clapped firmly on Cullen's shoulder in unspoken acclaim for his friend and commander's good news.

"I knew you weren't just feeling unwell!" Evy added in triumph, ducking past the two men to squeeze her arms around her friend. "Why didn't you ask us to come to the wedding?"

"It was all a little spur of the moment," Rory apologised with a shrug, unable to keep the smile from her face. "You know us. We didn't want to steal your thunder."

"I am capable of organizing two weddings," Josephine was saying to Cullen, a little put out to have been done out of it. "The Commander of the Inquisition should be celebrated in such things. But I am happy for you." The Antivan woman rose onto her toes to kiss his cheek, eliciting a blush from Cullen at the unprecedented display of friendly affection.

A thump from the bar brought their attention to Kaaras lurching into the group finally, wrapping his strong arm around Rory's shoulders to drag her into a hug. He winked at Cullen over her head. "Knew you had it in you," he commented merrily, if a little slurred, only to guffaw as Dorian spoke up from behind the commander.

"I think you'll find it's in her, Kaaras," the altus offered helpfully. "Do let her breathe, there's a good chap."

"Oh!" The Qunari Inquisitor hastily released his friend, dropping down onto one knee to directly address her mid-section. "I am your Uncle Kaaras," he informed the unborn child in a booming voice. "I will teach you how to kick dragons and live."

"You most certainly will not!" Cullen objected, not entirely sure the man wasn't serious.

"You'd rather they kicked dragons and died?" Kaaras asked innocently, stroking one finger against Rory's middle.

She sighed in amusement, meeting Varric's eyes as she looked away. The dwarf was grinning at her, raising his cup in a far less invasive salute than the personal space breakdown happening all around her. Kaaras wasn't the only one staring at parts of her body - Josephine had seized her left hand and was admiring the ring with Cassandra. At least Cullen was having to put up with the same thing; he had Leliana holding him by the amulet, running her fingers over the mabari charm with subtle approval as she murmured to him.

Another hand touched her midriff, and she felt a strange tug to her senses. There was a ... faint beeping sound, just at the edge of hearing; a steady, electronic beat that seemed to grow louder as the sounds of the tavern faded. She could smell disinfectant and perfume, things she hadn't smelled in months, and there were voices, too ... murmuring, close but far ...

She blinked, drawing back from the touch that seemed to have pulled her away, finding herself looking into Cole's watery eyes. The spirit boy was wide-eyed as he looked at her. Somehow, he'd heard and smelled those things, too. Rory swallowed, worried fear in her eyes.

"Connected, but broken," Cole told her softly. "Two bodies, one mind, one soul. Two worlds in a single touch. I won't do that again. You belong here."

"No, don't do that again," she agreed fervently. That had been ... too unsettling. So I'm here, but I'm also there? I'm in a hospital bed somewhere as well as in this tavern? How the hell does that even work?

"He's happy and frightened and happy some more," Cole then said, offering her some comfort the only way he knew how. "Love brings a child, brings a family, brings a home. The nightmares will change now."

"I know they will," Rory assured him softly, privately wishing for some escape from this conversation before Cole inadvertently freaked her out completely. She liked him, but he was weird. She took his hand, feeling a flicker of pleasure when he didn't flinch away. "Are you happy for us, Cole?"

He tilted his head thoughtfully. "Happy ... yes. I am happy for you. And I will not let Kaaras throw your baby at dragons."

She bit her lip, trying not to laugh and offend him. "That's very good to know. Thank you."

Content that he had fixed the upset he'd caused, the spirit boy slipped away. Rory felt a familiar arm wrap about her waist, drawing her close into Cullen's side as he dipped his head to catch her eyes.

"Are you all right?" he asked softly, concern deep in the whiskey-lit depths she loved so much. "You're a little pale."

She smiled, forcing the uneasiness aside. I wish I could tell you. "A little tired, that's all," she assured him, looping her own arms about his waist. "I could go into more detail for you, if you like."

"Ah ... no, I think I can live without knowing exactly how you're feeling with all this going on," her husband conceded comically, leaning down with that invisible smile to kiss her forehead. "We'll let them celebrate a while, and leave when there's a chance."

Because their friends didn't really need them there to celebrate their good news, it was plain. As the news traveled through the tavern and out into the courtyard, they could hear the good-natured cheering from groups who knew them only as the commander and the healer. It had been a long time since the Inquisition had celebrated anything without fear. In a way, this was a gift, something not even Corypheus and his armies could take away from them. For tonight, at least, Skyhold sang good wishes and high hopes for two in their midst, tethering other hopes and wishes to the music of their celebration. They needed this, all of them - some proof that, even in the midst of war, life went on. Who better than the healer to give it to them?

Chapter Text

"Is it absolutely necessary to have me naked for this?"

Vivienne didn't even glance up from her book. "In Orlesian, dear."

Rory gritted her teeth, but obligingly dredged through her mind for the appropriate words. "Dois-je être nu?" she asked again.

Thank goodness I took French at A-Level, she thought to herself. It might have been a decade ago, but without that solid grounding in French, she would have been totally lost when it came to speaking in Orlesian. And both Josephine and Vivienne insisted that she spoke Orlesian at the upcoming ball. The Inquisition party would not have to, since all remarks would be addressed to them in the Common tongue, but as a guest of someone else, Rory would have an unparalleled opportunity to eavesdrop on the real opinions being stated in the ballroom on the night. Therefore, both women were making her converse in Orlesian as much as possible, to make certain she was comfortable with the language.

The seamstress answered. "Oui, madame," she insisted. "The gown must be created from the skin out if we are to disguise your condition."

"But my body is going to be a completely different shape by the time the ball comes around," Rory complained in her still slightly broken Orlesian, shivering in the chill that clung to the stones of Skyhold.

She was standing, completely nude, in the middle of one of the guest rooms, and had been for the last hour. She'd been poked and prodded and measured, had her posture corrected, the state of her hands exclaimed over in despair. Vivienne's personal seamstress, Francoise, was delighted with the challenge of dressing the healer for Halamshiral - not only was she a peasant, but she was also a redhead, which was apparently rare among the Orlesian nobility. And there was that very real need to hide the bump that would be beginning to make itself known by Wintersend. The Winter Palace would be teeming with enemies of the Inquisition; there was no point in pretending that they would not know she was Cullen's wife when she arrived, and that made her a target. If the nobility were also to discover that she was with child, she would be a very tempting target, if only to destabilize the commander. Thankfully, Granthis Perivale was fully aware of the dangers. He had been communicating with Cullen via letters to reassure the man that his wife would be in very safe hands all evening.

"Darling, by building the gown around you, Francoise can compensate for those changes as they occur," Vivienne assured her. "She's a sartorial genius."

"I'm sure she is, but as a healer, I'm sure that standing naked and shivering is not good for me right now," Rory pointed out, hugging her arms about herself.

"Ah, madame may dress again," Francoise said then, stepping away with her notes in hand. "We will discuss fabrics, no?"

As Rory reached gratefully for her flannel undergarments, the First Enchanter of Montsimmard rose from her comfortable seat to join Francoise, looking over the chests of materials the seamstress had brought with her from Orlais. It seemed as though Vivienne was determined to make sure Rory sparkled at the Winter Palace, probably because this was the only gown the Inquisition was commissioning. Everyone in the official party would be wearing the uniforms Josephine had decided upon, and none of them were particularly happy about it. Rory's gown was the only display of Inquisition fashion that would be on display, and for some reason, having her well turned-out meant a great deal to certain members of their group.

"Nothing dark," Vivienne was saying as Rory emerged from the folds of her woolen dress, shaking the loose strands of her hair back from her face as she twisted to tug the laces at her back snug once again. "She's too pale for these, Francoise; they will utterly wash her out. Something dusky, I think, to compliment her skin. And no red."

Francoise was muttering to herself as she rummaged through her chests, several rolls of cloth already laid out over her side desk. One - a deep, rich green velvet - caught Rory's eye, but Vivienne had already vetoed it, apparently. Shame, I like that one. The two women more versed in Orlesian fashion were now sorting through a chest of brocades and silks, seeming to communicate with little more than the occasional grimace.

"Isn't silk going to be cold?" Rory asked curiously, looping her belt back into place about her hips. "I mean ... it's still going to be winter."

"Nonsense, darling," Vivienne assured her confidently. "The ballrooms at Halamshiral can be terribly stuffy. You may find yourself overheating, even in the lightest of fabrics, especially in your condition."

Rory rolled her eyes. She'd been hearing that a lot in the last week. In your condition was an excuse people kept trotting out to keep her from doing things that were more interesting than her restricted day-to-day had become. She couldn't complain too much, though; Cullen might take that as an excuse to start expanding his duties again.

"So what is the fashion in Orlais?" she asked. She'd never really got a good grasp on the Orlesian style in the games - in Inquisition, it had seemed that the Orlesians actually considered the ugliest silhouettes the most fashionable.

"At the moment, the fashion is for bare shoulders or high necks," Vivienne informed her, despite the fact that her habitual fashion was neither. "Short sleeves must be worn with gloves. The ruff is optional, though more often worn with a high buttoned collar. The gown itself is full, worn with a long corset that extends well past the hips."

Rory grimaced - that sounded familiar. "I'd rather wear the gown without the corset," she pointed out mildly. "What's wrong with a short bodice? To just below my breasts, for example?"

Francoise looked at her sharply. "You propose to go to the Imperial Court, wearing a gown that is not the fashion?" she asked in astonishment.

"Why not?" Rory shrugged. "It's not like I really care what they think, and besides, it might even change the fashion. You'd be in the vanguard, Madame Francoise."

She could see that this idea was definitely intriguing to the seamstress, who turned hurriedly to unearth her sketch books from her desk. Vivienne eyed the healer with one raised brow.

"An interesting idea, certainly," she agreed in her measured way. "Francoise ... you have sketches of just such a gown, I believe? You offered it to Lady de Montfort when she was concerned about the breadth of her waistline." As Francoise nodded, flicking through her sketches, the First Enchanter glanced at Rory. "It was just an affectation in that case. The woman developed a passion for sugar, and it showed within months. She decided to encase herself in steel-boned corsets, rather than regulate her sweet tooth."

Rory snorted with laughter. She could sympathize with the lady in question; it had been so long since she herself had tasted anything sugary, she would definitely have trouble restraining herself. "So no one will automatically think I'm pregnant if I show up in this hypothetical style?"

"Ah, madame, they will not," Francoise said confidently, opening up her sketch book to show off a page of designs that looked infinitely more comfortable than the buttoned up, corseted styles the Orlesians were so fond of.

Scanning the page, Rory felt herself smile. It was a sweet surprise to find something relatively familiar in this world from time to time. The sketches Francoise was showing her were of empire-waisted gowns, very similar to the kind of costumes she'd seen on The Borgias. Italian renaissance was the style she personally considered them; here, they would likely be considered something very different. But they looked more comfortable than any of the other designs she'd been shown, and there was definitely room to hide any bump in the flounce of the skirt.

"These are lovely, Madame Francoise," she complimented the lady. "This really isn't my area of expertise - I will wear whatever you create, but ... surely the Imperial Court deserves to see what you can design to your own satisfaction, rather than theirs?"

Vivienne masterfully hid a smirk. The consummate politician in her could see Rory's rather blatant buttering up of the seamstress for what it was - a desperate attempt to get out of looking so utterly ridiculous as the rest of the court for the one night she would be circulating in their midst.

"Mistress Rutherford is quite correct, Francoise," she pointed out, allying herself to the healer. "You are not dressing a member of the Orlesian nobility. You are dressing a member of the Inquisition, one who does not traverse royal circles and therefore does not have to slavishly follow fashion. My dear, you have been dressing me perfectly these past years, and I have never been a slave to fashion."

Francoise considered the sketches thoughtfully. "I am tempted, Madame De Fer," she admitted ruefully. "These overdone styles are not to my personal taste. If there is no objection, Madame Rutherford, I will use these sketches as a base for your design. Simple decoration, I think. I know an embroiderer who will pounce upon an opportunity to create a ribbon for hemming that has more than animals upon it."

"Embroidery?" Rory blinked in surprise.

"Nothing over the top, madame," the seamstress promised. "This gown will be tasteful, simple in elegance. You will be noticed; I hope you will give those who comment with flattery my name."

"Francoise, if you can make it so that I don't feel like a complete idiot in this thing, I will wear your name written on my mask if I can get away with it," Rory assured her, surprised when the solemn woman burst into laughter.

"I do not think that is entirely necessary, madame," she assured the healer. "But you will require a chemise - cambric, I believe would be best for that. Long sleeves, I think, to show off the fine material of that chemise. Madame De Fer, would you suggest brocade for the outer layer?"

Vivienne eyed the sketch for a moment, turning to touch a bolt of pale blue brocade. "This, I think," she said thoughtfully. "And perhaps something a little deeper to contrast beneath, in green, or yellow?"

"Oh, no, Madame De Fer," Francoise objected, shaking her head. "If this blue is our choice, then the contrast shall be the white silk. The colors of the winter just passed, yes?"

Vivienne's brows rose in surprise, her eyes turning to consider Rory for a moment. "Yes," she said slowly, obviously imagining this combination on the freckled healer. "Not bare shoulders, but wide, I think. And, of course, she must wear her hair loose. Curled, perhaps."

"A cap of the same blue thread woven in place of a hat?" Francoise suggested. "Madame Rutherford, do you know what your mask will be?"

Rory blinked. She'd been lost in this conversation, aware that the ladies were planning not just an evening but the entire day between them. It was going to take forever to be declared presentable, she could tell. "Um ... I think it will be a simple half-mask," she offered uncertainly. "I'll ask Granthis in my next letter; he's the one procuring the masks."

"A half-mask would suit you better, certainly," Vivienne mused. "I shall also write to him. The man cannot be trusted with your sartorial elegance without sufficient guidance."

Francoise was scribbling in her notes as Rory laughed at this assessment of her friend. Vivienne was absolutely right; Granthis tended toward bright, obnoxious colors and deliberately unfashionable cuts, underscoring his physical ugliness rather than trying to hide it. She'd written him that way, and he certainly didn't disappoint. That Vivienne knew this about him was just funny, though.

"Very well, Madames," the seamstress said with a nod. "I shall begin work very soon. Mademoiselle Trevelyan's wedding gown must come first, but I may switch between as I work."

"Am I allowed to get a sneak peek at Evy's gown?" Rory asked hopefully. The inner fangirl was so proud of her - she wasn't normally interested in clothes, but the prospect of being dressed up like a princess was appealing on a level she'd not previously considered. She hadn't outright rebelled during the process once. Not yet, anyway.

Vivienne laughed, shaking her head. "Not at all, my dear," she informed the healer in amusement. "Not even I have been allowed to see the beauty under construction. It is dreadfully frustrating."

"Mademoiselle Trevelyan was very plain," Francoise offered in apology, but it was obvious that she was enjoying this small opportunity to hold something back from Madame De Fer. "None may see the gown until she walks into view on the day."

"I'm sure she was," Rory chuckled, shaking her head. "I'll just have to curb my enthusiasm and wait, like everyone else. Thank you, Madame Francoise. And I apologize for the complaining. I'm not used to being observed so closely."

"Not at all, madame, you are better behaved than some of my clientele," Francoise assured her. "The children, they never stand still."

I'm better behaved than a child. Well, it's something, at any rate. Smiling, Rory nodded to her, moving to back out of the room as Vivienne turned to go over the decisions made. Should she trust Vivienne De Fer with whatever it was she was going to end up wearing? To be honest, Rory didn't care. She just wanted Halamshiral over with. Pretty dress or not, she was going to be walking into a nest of vipers, and even if Granthis was a mongoose in secret, she would be very relieved when it was over.

Chapter Text

"So ... I have a question."

Rory glanced up from her paperwork at the sound of Kaaras' curious voice. She was huddled next to the big hearth in the main hall, using the other end of Varric's table to get up to date on everything she needed to read and sign off on.

A heavy snow-storm had descended on Skyhold, burying the courtyard in drifts three feet deep, and that was nothing compared with what the storm had done outside the fortress. Skysend was virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the plateau from up here, the drifts so deep that people had taken to carving tunnels through them rather than trying to shovel the excess out of their way. Thankfully, they'd only had one patient in the tents that were still serving as the infirmary for the time being, and he had been relatively easy to move to the armory. There were plans to restore the roof of one of the outbuildings next to the tavern and turn it into a real infirmary, but for now, they were having to make do. No one was doing any manual work until the storm had passed over them.

With nothing else to do, and a firm insistence from everyone around her to stay indoors and not do anything silly, she'd given in and set to catching up on her paperwork, though there would invariably be more to do once contact was reestablished with the city and the world beyond it. She wasn't the only one who had sought refuge in the hall - Cullen was working at a table near the dais at the far end, since their bedroom was now inches deep in snow and the tower itself too cold to work in. Blackwall had fled the stables when it became clear that Master Dennet and his people were going to barricade the doors and wait out the storm, and was even now polishing his sword with his pouch of silks for that purpose. Cassandra, deprived of her usual spot in the upper courtyard, was absorbed in her book, re-reading Swords and Shields, Vol IV, for the umpteenth time. At the other end of the table Rory was sitting at, Varric was going over his correspondence, swearing quietly to himself every time he had to add a note or sign his name to something.

They were all stuck in here together for the foreseeable future, at least the next few hours, and until the roads cleared, there would be no venturing forth from Skyhold, either. Unfortunately, that also meant that the expected guests would not be arriving anytime soon. Despite the fact that no mention had been made of it, Rory knew Hawke was on his way, and Evelyn's family were due to arrive any day, too. With luck, both parties had found somewhere to hole up until the passes cleared. She didn't want to think about Evy's noble parents stuck in a tent in weather like this.

"A question about what?" she asked, setting her quill aside as Kaaras parked himself on a stool next to the fire.

He glanced cautiously at Varric, and lowered his voice further. "How do you woo someone?" he asked in a hoarse whisper.

Rory stared at him for a moment, her mind caught up in manifests and supply lists. Then the penny dropped. "You mean courting?" she ventured, needing a little clarification.

He nodded, his snapped horn catching the firelight. The truncated curl had healed nicely in the month or so since Haven had fallen, the horn itself slowly beginning to seal over the delicate tissues left open to the air. He wore that break with pride, too, a sign of what he had survived against the odds.

"She likes me," he murmured to her, inching closer until he was leaning on the table, his head bowed toward her own. "At least I think she does. She almost said so. But she doesn't think I can give her what she really wants. She says she wants the ideal, whatever that is, and something about flowers and poetry and candles ... What is that about?"

Wow, that conversation happened sooner than I was expecting it. But then, in the games, that conversation depended on the Inquisitor completing a silly amount of FedEx quests, in Rory's opinion, just to trigger the cutscene. It made sense that Cassandra might bite the bullet sooner in real life. Faced with this question, however, Rory found herself drawing a blank. She just didn't remember all the ins and outs of Cassandra's romance. More than half a year without a refresher in all things Dragon Age, and she was starting to forget the important things that were going to happen.

"Look," she said thoughtfully, taking Kaaras' marked hand in hers, absently testing the tender flesh of his palm with her fingertips. "You've read Swords and Shields, haven't you?"

He frowned, shaking his head. "Dorian said it was garbage," the Qunari Inquisitor admitted awkwardly.

Rory rolled her eyes. "Garbage or not, it's got all the ingredients of the romance Cassandra yearns for," she told her friend pointedly. "It's got the larger than life hero - that's you. It's got the damsel in distress - that's her, despite all evidence to the contrary. Cassandra wants to be swept off her feet, she wants to be romanced. So what she wants is for you to prove that she's worth all the embarrassment of recreating a fantasy for. She knows it isn't like that really, but it's still what she wants."

"But why want something that she knows is embarrassing?" Kaaras pressed, deeply confused by the female brain in his experience. "What's wrong with just admitting she likes me back?"

"I ... have no idea how to explain it to you," Rory admitted, frustrated with her own lack of creativity here. "Ask Josephine? She has a better handle on where you can get all the things you'll need, too. And besides, you're already on the right lines. When Varric finishes that chapter, you can give it to her, and she'll know you consider her someone worth making an effort for. Believe me, Kaaras, you're going to have to put work into proving to her that you're in this for the long haul. If you're not, back off now, while you still have your testicles intact."

He winced just at the thought of that, but the message seemed to have gotten through. "All right, so I should ask Josephine where to get all the ... romance stuff," he muttered, apparently filing this away in the back of his mind. "And you'll tell me what to do with it, right?"

"If you can't work it out for yourself, of course I will," she promised, turning her eyes down to the glowing green scar on his palm.

Her brows knitted together worriedly - it was noticeably longer than it had been when he'd first fallen from the Fade, though not by more than half an inch. But still ... the Anchor was growing. That was more than enough to worry her, even without knowing where that growth would eventually take him. She seriously hoped that Solas was slightly less of a dick in real life than he was in the games. Maybe Fen'Harel would let his friend keep the arm, if it was possible. She hoped it was possible. Her fingertips stroked gently along the raised mark.

"Is it still hurting you?" she asked softly.

Kaaras' frown changed from confusion to annoyance as he shook his head. "Not so much anymore," he assured her quietly, his eyes on the tracing touch of her fingertips. "It flares up near rifts, and near those Veil artifact things Solas wanted us to activate, but I wouldn't say it hurts anymore. Maybe I'm just used to it."

"Maybe," Rory mused thoughtfully. "Still using the ointment?"

He fidgeted awkwardly. "I, um ... I ran out, in the Fallow Mire," he confessed with a guilty cast to his expression. "And then Haven was attacked, and you've been very busy, Ror."

"Kaaras ..." She sighed, rolling her eyes at him. "This is my job. You're not taking up my time needlessly when you have a need for what I can do. I'll get you some more of the ointment. The least I can do to help is keep that scar from splitting with all the rough handling it gets."

"Thanks, Ror."

It was strange, to see that boyish smile in a face that was already carrying more burdens than it had when they'd first met. But Kaaras was a good man - better than many - and he deserved some relief from those burdens. She hoped he would follow through on his courtship of Cassandra. They both needed a way to relieve their tensions, and doing it together would be a load off everyone's mind. With both warriors currently trapped inside with little room to spar, their ability to get annoyed was ramped up to incalculable levels.

"So, Varric ..." Kaaras raised his head, leaning along the length of the table to prod the dwarf in the shoulder. "Is your bird coming, or what?"

Varric winced, rubbing his shoulder. "Say it a little louder, I don't think Cassandra heard you," he complained, glancing toward the Seeker. Rory couldn't blame him - that relationship was a little more antagonistic than she had really expected it to be. "He's coming, all right? With friends, in case someone around here decides to arrest him."

Rory felt her interest suddenly peak. Hawke is bringing friends with him? Which friends? She let her ability to eavesdrop fade as she considered this question, ostensibly studying the page in front of her. Probably not Aveline, she's busy keeping Kirkwall under control. Sebastian's the Prince of Starkhaven, so he doesn't have the leisure to come along. Isabela's got a ship; I don't even know if Carver's alive; Anders is definitely dead. So ... oh, good grief. She had to hastily turn a laugh into an extended coughing fit. Merrill and Fenris. Oh, joy. It would be a miracle if Skyhold was still standing after that visit.

Her coughing, however, drew the attention of her husband from the other end of the room. Abandoning his work, Cullen took the length of the hall in just a few strides, snatching up a cup of water as he passed the longer table where the nobles were passing the time. Dropping to his knee beside Rory, he laid his hand gently at her back.

"Easy, sweeting," he murmured to her, apparently unconcerned that Kaaras and Varric had a first-rate view of his caring for his wife. "Breathe."

Blushing in embarrassment at how badly her cover-up was backfiring on her, Rory did as she was told, letting him guide her into sipping the water slowly. "I'm fine, really," she promised. "Honestly, something got caught in my throat, that's all."

He searched her eyes, a vague hint in his expression that he had noticed her deception but didn't quite understand why she wasn't being truthful. She smiled, leaning forward to brush her lips against his cheek, murmuring to him as she did so.

"I had a thought about Hawke," she told him in a tone carefully calculated for his ears alone. "I'll tell you later."

As she drew back, she saw the comprehension in Cullen's eyes, the suspicion fading as he stroked the flyaway hairs from her brow. "The sooner we get that roof fixed, the better," he admitted reluctantly. "I am not looking forward to bedding down in here with everyone else tonight."

"Oh, Curly, you're going to break my heart," Varric drawled, unable to let that go by without comment. "We're as much a part of your marriage as you are. We should get to experience everything with you."

"Yeah, we're not going to give you anything like that to write about," Rory interjected with a low laugh. The thought of even attempting to discreetly fuck her husband when they were sharing the main hall with a good third of Skyhold's population was, oddly enough, non-conducive to the creation of arousal.

"Not even a few sounds, so I can get it just right?" the dwarven storyteller teased.

Cullen scowled at him. "My wife is not fodder for your books, Varric," he pointed out sternly.

"Oh, give it up, Curly," Varric chuckled. "I've been writing about you two since it began. Just haven't published it yet."

"And you won't," Cullen told him, somehow managing to forget the cardinal rule when talking to Varric Tethras - never tell him he can't do something.

"And I might not, if something better comes along," was the dwarf's only concession to the commander's flaring temper.

Rory laid her hands gently over Cullen's. "Something better will come along," she promised her husband, raising a brow at Varric pointedly. "If someone gets on with his part of the deal."

"I'm working on it," Varric protested easily, glancing up at Kaaras, who was reading his manuscript over his shoulder. "Thought you didn't like romances, Beanstalk?"

The Inquisitor shrugged. "I might learn to like them?"

"Uh-huh. And the Seeker might learn not to believe everything I say," Varric grinned back at him, nudging the big man away from his elbow.

"Maybe if you were a little nicer to her, she'd be a little nicer to you," Kaaras pointed out, making Rory smile with how easily he came to Cassandra's defense.

She wasn't going to intercede in this conversation, though, even if someone offered to pay her. She liked everyone involved; she didn't really want any of them to decide they didn't like her, just because she defended the wrong person at the wrong time. Instead, she looked to Cullen, still on his knee beside her.

"I promise, I'm fine, love," she assured him. "Coughing a little does not make me an invalid. All right?"

"Take a break soon," he told her, drawing his gloved thumb over her cheekbone tenderly. "You've been at this table too long."

She raised a brow in amused indignation. "Isn't that the pot calling the kettle black, somewhat?"

Cullen rolled his eyes at her, rubbing his neck as he rose to his feet. "I am supposed to be joining Dorian in the library in a short while," he informed her. "I believe you should come with me."

"Oh, all right," she conceded with teasing reluctance. With the storm blowing outside, there were very few places she could go, anyway. "Only if I get to curl up in his comfy chair and read while you're both discussing the finer points of Tevinter literature."

The secret beauty of his hidden smile warmed whiskey-lit eyes as he looked down at her, squeezing her hand affectionately. "I look forward to the image that will present," he told her, as much a promise to make certain Dorian gave up that armchair of his for a little while as anything else he might have said.

As Cullen strode away, returning to his temporary desk and Rylen swearing over whatever it was he was reading, Kaaras grinned at Rory. "And that isn't romance, huh?" he asked in amusement.

"Not the way you need to know it, no," she told him with a low laugh of her own. "Go and ask Dorian to find you some reference books, you big baby. Then you can go and read with her."

"I might just do that." The Qunari rose to his feet, bending almost double to pat her midriff affectionately. "See you later, baby."

Varric caught Rory's resigned glance. "Let me guess ... he talks more to the baby than to you," he smirked, laughing out loud at the mild scowl he got in return.

"Anyone would think it was his," she admitted, her mood brightening as the dwarf's laughter died. "Mind you, in this place, I need never worry if the kid wanders off. You're all more excited about this than I am."

"Oh, I'm not," Varric assured her. "I'll read to it, but that's about it. I don't do babies."

"You know, that's actually pretty encouraging." Rory laughed softly, nodding to him as she picked up her quill once again. At least there was someone here who didn't look at her and instantly imagine the baby. She had a feeling that tendency was only going to get worse as the months went on.

And if she'd worked it out correctly ... she was going to give birth around the same time as the Inquisition laid siege to Adamant. Oh, yeah. Great timing, Rory.

Chapter Text

Skyhold was evolving.

With the worst of the winter storms gone, the snow was easier to handle these days, and work had renewed as the sunshine began to battle through the icy temperatures. There were still plenty of accidental injuries to be dealing with, as well as a brief bout of something that might have been 'flu, but thanks to the resources Kaaras had already gathered out there in the world, the infirmary was a solid reality within a week of the storm's passing. There, at least, Rory, Evy and their staff had a warm, safe place to treat their patients, most of whom were only walking wounded. The worst of the accidents seemed to have slowed up for the time being, something they were all deeply grateful for.

First Day came and went; where some might have expected an extravagant celebration, Josephine had insisted on making the day as family-feeling as possible. The hall had been bedecked in evergreens, lit with magical light that softened the atmosphere sweetly as the Inquisition gathered within its walls to share a hearty meal among friends and family, allowed to take their time over their food, to enjoy the opportunity of being social with little pressure to return to duty for this one day.

Of course, another feast was looming in their near future, bringing with it fits of nerves and the occasional storming temper. Cullen had sent Rylen to collect the outlying cells of mages hidden in southern Ferelden, just to keep the man busy and out of his hair. The Starkhaven captain did love Evy, and he did want to marry her, but he was also deeply afraid that her family would take one look at him and run away with his little lady in the dead of night. He'd shared this view so often that Cullen had eventually decided to give him something more productive to do, a long way from Skyhold. Evy had sulked for a couple of days, but even she had to admit that it was a good thing for everyone to be free from the swirling nerves that radiated from both bride and groom.

Thus, when a yell from the courtyard announced the arrival of some special guests, no one had to deal with Captain Rylen having a heart attack at the sight of his wife-to-be racing down the swept stone steps to throw herself into the arms of her mother and father. The Trevelyans had arrived. Now all they needed was the groom himself, and the Inquisitor - who was in Emprise du Lion, doing wonderfully vicious things to red templars - and the wedding could get underway.

That, however, was a few days away, giving Evy plenty of time to spend with her parents in the meantime. It became a familiar sight to see the young woman with one or both of her parents, jabbering excitedly at them as she showed them around Skyhold and Skysend, and one that made most people smile. For all their noble blood, Bann Galen Trevelyan and Lady Edith were gracious - far more so than their Orlesian peers, it had to be said - genuinely interested in the day-to-day running of the fortress, and in their youngest daughter's new-found career as a healer. It didn't surprise Rory in the least when Evy reported for her shift three days after her parents' arrival with her mother in tow.

"I won't trouble you," Lady Edith assured her in a warm tone. "I may even be able to help - I have a little experience with nursing."

"Mama makes a potion that puts you back on your feet, no matter how ill you are," Evy gushed enthusiastically from her desk.

Lady Edith's smile was a little rueful as she met Rory's eyes, lowering her voice. "It was just winterberry juice with a little elfroot," she murmured to the senior healer in amusement. "Childhood stomach troubles are a world away from what you've taught my daughter to deal with."

Rory bit her lip to keep from smiling too widely. "I don't know if I've taught her much," she admitted with a shrug. "She's very intuitive. Most of the bandaging and poultices seem to come naturally to her. She's a born healer, my lady."

Edith seemed to swell with pride on hearing this, and it wasn't false praise. Evy really was that good. "I must confess, I never truly believed she would be suited for a life in the Chantry," the older woman said, a faintly guilty set to her expression. "Devout in her beliefs, of course, but she thrives on a certain amount of independence. Here, she has that."

"Well, she's certainly thriving," Rory agreed, nodding in agreement as she smiled. "Rylen's good for her. Her confidence has grown so much since they found each other."

"And he's a good man, this Starkhaven captain?" Edith asked, the barest hint of concern in her eyes. "I have heard he was a templar once. I did not know a man could leave the templars so young."

"With all the turmoil, my lady, I wouldn't be surprised if a great deal of men and women in our society were once templars," Rory told her gently. "Some will fall, undoubtedly, without the support from the Chantry. Those who have found a home in the Inquisition are well looked-after. Many are still dependent on lyrium, but we keep them supplied, and those who choose to stop taking it are also cared for."

"Rylen has ... not chosen to stop?" Edith asked. Rory got the impression she wasn't so much fishing for information as needing to be aware of as much as possible before she met the man who would be joining their family.

"No, he hasn't," Rory told her quietly. "But if he should, at some point in the future, Evy is aware of how the process of withdrawal goes. It's something that will take years, but the worst is the first year."

Edith tilted her head, eyeing the redhead curiously. "You speak as though you have some personal experience of this, mistress," she pointed out. "Yet you do not seem a warrior."

Rory chuckled, shaking her head. "I have never been a warrior," she admitted quite happily. "I never will be. But my husband was once a templar."

"Ah, yes, you were recently married yourself, weren't you?" Edith's expression cleared, curiosity replacing her concern. "You have my sincere congratulations. Knight-Captain Rutherford has always had the better of the reputations in the Free Marches, especially so after the fall of the Chantry in Kirkwall."

"His title is Commander, now," Rory corrected her in a gentle tone. "But thank you. Life goes on, even in the middle of war. A few weddings here and there will do more for morale than any number of inspiring speeches."

"The right speech at the right time can spur a man to do anything," Edith pointed out, but she was nodding in agreement. "Though what you say is true. A wedded man has more to fight for, perhaps, than one alone."

"Perhaps. I really couldn't say - I don't exactly see people at their best in here." Rory laughed softly at her own comment, glancing up as Evy came bustling from the back of the infirmary. "Everything under control?"

Evy flushed, smiling at having been asked such a thing in front of her mother. "Wilfrid's delirious again," she said, ever so slightly embarrassed. "I, um ... do you think it would be better to ask Luis to work with him until his fever breaks?"

Rory bit her lips to keep from snickering. Wilfrid was the loveliest old man you could ever wish to meet most of the time, but when he was feverish and delirious, he seemed to sprout eight arms and twelve hands, all of them aimed at breasts and buttocks. "That is probably a very good idea," she conceded, her smile audible even if it wasn't visible. "When Gustav comes back from the apothecaries' workshop, we can ask him to take over care for the time being."

Relief flickered over Evy's expression. She liked the work, but sometimes it was just a little too flustering for her peace of mind. "I can do that," she volunteered. "Master Tethras left a note for you this morning - I forgot to mention it. It's on your desk."

"Oh ... thank you!"

This time, Rory did laugh. She was terrible at remembering to look at her desk when she arrived in the infirmary, invariably missing some important note or other left for her. It was becoming common knowledge that if you wanted the senior healer to know about your issue, you had to catch her on her way past. Even the quickest conversation lodged somewhere in her mind; leaving a hopeful note somewhere she might see it could result in her not getting to your presentation for days.

"Lady Trevelyan, do excuse me," she apologized to Evy's mother. "I have a few things that need to be seen to. Evy is more than capable of taking you in hand if you ask her to."

Edith's smile was just a shade shy of mischievous as Evy stared at Rory in horror at the suggestion that she should tell her mother what to do. "I'm sure she is, Mistress Rutherford. Please, do not let me keep you from your work."

"Thank you."

Smiling, Rory winked at her young friend as she passed her by, side-stepping Andra to reach her own desk. Sure enough, there was a small collection of notes left there in various hands, from people who hadn't been able to guarantee catching her at some point today. She sat herself down, sorting through them.

Stitches was curious as to whether he could get hold of a stethoscope like hers; that was easily done. Dagna was toying with the idea of improving the design, but for now, they could get any of the workers who was good with wood to knock out a stethoscope in an afternoon. Apparently the orphanage was finally complete down in Skysend, and there was an invitation for her to go down see the little ones she'd helped to guide safely out of Haven at her earliest convenience. Roderick had left a request for an updated supply list; she grimaced to herself, but added her own note to that slip of parchment and impaled it on her spike for later. By the time she reached Varric's note, Evy had her mother watching closely as she changed the dressing on a visiting soldier's arm. No one noticed the surprised look of interest that crossed Rory's face as she read.

Cupcake,
Three little birds in the tower right above you - one's a bit torn up. Drop by this evening if you can. Don't tell the Seeker.
- Varric

Well, now, wasn't that interesting? How had Varric managed to smuggle Hawke and his companions into Skyhold without anyone noticing? She studied the little note again. One's a bit torn up. That could mean anything from a few cuts to a broken limb to internal injuries or bleeding out. She thought she could safely disregard the latter two - Varric wouldn't just leave a note if his friends were in that much danger of worse injury or death. The timing wasn't great, though ... she was going to have to tell Cullen who was here, or he wouldn't let her go out after dinner. Mind you, he might attempt to come with her whether she told him who it was or not. His interactions with Hawke in Kirkwall probably hadn't left him with the most glowing of opinions when it came to the Champion.

Still, it wasn't such a big ask. She doubted Varric would be inviting her into close quarters with Hawke and friends unless he was sure she would be in no danger from them, and despite his sometimes impossible-to-read outward appearance, she had faith that the dwarf didn't mean her any harm. It wouldn't be difficult to pick up one of the emergency packs, now refilled and ready for anything, on her way past the infirmary this evening.

Another note caught her eye as she tucked Varric's message into her belt. It was a scrap of torn parchment, the words scrawled in messy charcoal. Healer, do you like griffons? -B. Rory frowned, lifting the little note up to consider it. Who was B? And why did they want to know if she liked ... Griffons. She sniffed the slip cautiously, grimacing at the faint scent of manure. Blackwall. So why did Blackwall want to know if she liked griffons? What was he up to?

A yell went up outside, multiple voices lost in the sudden deafening rumble of collapsing masonry. Rory didn't even glance at Evy as both women shot to their feet, snatching up the packs by the door to run out of the infirmary, leaving Lady Edith behind them. The billowing cloud of dust was emanating from the door that lead down into the prisons ... the carefully built passageway that encased the stairs had collapsed on top of a couple of workers.

"Is it secure?" Rory demanded of the mason who was checking the blocks overhead at the entrance to the passage.

He was silent for a moment, but finally nodded. "Safe as it can be," he told her.

"Right." She moved to duck in through the door, and a long arm pulled her back by the waist.

"Not a chance, little red," Iron Bull rumbled quietly as she protested. "Evy, you step back there, too."

"Bull, this is our job," Rory protested, trying and failing to free herself from the strong arm keeping her from going into the still dangerous situation.

"Stitches'll do the dangerous part," Bull informed her calmly. "One new wife, one bride ... neither one of you is going down there."

As he spoke, several of the Chargers were ducking down into the passageway to retrieve the trapped workers from the rubble. Stitches tipped the two other healers a grinning salute as he stepped smartly out of sight. Rory sighed heavily.

"Bull, if this has anything to do with me being pregnant, I am going to stab you," she informed the Ben-Hassrath agent calmly.

He laughed, patting her head gently. "Try not to hit anything important when you do."

Which was as good as telling her that it was because she was pregnant. She ground her teeth together, glowering at the open doorway. All right, yes, she was pregnant, but that didn't mean that she was suddenly more precious than anyone else here. Except ... it did. While there were women who were expecting babes down in the city, she was the only one here in the fortress who was; the only one known to the inner circle, to the advisors, to the Inquisitor himself. This is going to get really annoying.

"You know what," she muttered to Evy as they waited side by side for the Chargers to bring the injured out, "the sooner you get pregnant, the better."

The Marcher woman glanced at her, and burst into giggles, nudging her shoulder fondly. "At least I'm doing things in the right order," she teased, and despite herself, Rory felt a laughing grin cover her face.

"It's not like it was planned," she protested, rolling her eyes as she shook her head. "Besides, I'm married now. If anyone asks, this kid is premature."

"Oh, yes, of course," Evy agreed with sage mischief.

Tucking her hair back behind her ear, Rory glanced away with a smile. Her gaze caught on Lady Edith, standing in the doorway of the infirmary, staring at her with what seemed like a shocked expression on her face. The older woman's eyes flickered between Rory and Evy, as though studying them, comparing them. Bemused, Rory glanced at her friend, wondering what Edith was seeing to compare there. She only saw the shared smile, her own widening at the realization that Evy was still grinning at her.

"What?" she protested.

"Oh, nothing." Evy shrugged teasingly. "Just imagining what kind of mother you'll be."

"A terrifying one," Bull offered from behind them. He grunted obligingly as Rory elbowed him, despite the fact that they both knew she hadn't made any impact at all. "A terrified one?"

"That's more accurate," Rory agreed with a chuckle.

A call from the passageway wiped the smile from her face as Grim and Dalish appeared, supporting one of the workers who had been trapped. His leg was bleeding, a rough tourniquet tied about his thigh as he limped along between the pair.

"All right, bring him to the infirmary," Evy told them, shouldering her pack. "I'll see to him, you wait for the other one," she added to Rory.

Proud of her friend for taking charge of the situation, the redhead nodded with a reassuring smile. "Will do," she agreed. "Don't forget the cobwebs once you get the bleeding under control."

"Oh, I won't forget them this time," Evy promised, moving to follow the two mercenaries as they helped the man toward the infirmary, where her own mother was waiting. Edith was about to get an insight into just how far her baby girl's confidence had come in the last six months.

It was almost a shame Rory was going to miss that, in a way, but she had work of her own to do. Within minutes, Stitches came out of the passageway, the second of the trapped workers on a makeshift stretcher, the other end carried by Krem. Rory took one look, and winced - there was very little she could do for a crushed pelvis without a very specific type of help.

"Someone run and fetch one of the mage healers, please," she asked, gesturing for the Chargers to bring the young man into the infirmary.

It was a strange process, healing with a mage, but it was certainly an educational experience. All the mage really seemed to do was focus healing energies into an injury - it was up to the conventional healer to give pain relief, pull bones straight, and hope that the internal injuries were not too severe. The focus on conventional scientific medicine in the games now made much more sense to Rory, especially since she was living it. The rather elderly mage who came when summoned had worked with her since they'd left Haven, and between them, they somehow managed to straight and rebuild the man's pelvis, forcing him through the white-hot agony of having almost paralyzed limbs moved, and joints tested, finally able to say that he would recover. He would walk again.

It was when Rory was tidying up her desk, preparing to go to dinner, that it happened.

"Aurelia?"

"Hmm?" She looked up without thinking. It was only seeing the astonished, triumphant look on Edith's face that brought home to her that she had answered to a name she hadn't heard in over a decade. How the hell does she know my real name?

Edith's smile was warm. "I thought it might be you," she said gently. "You've been missed."

"I doubt it," Rory heard herself say. What the hell is going on here? her inner fangirl was shrieking. This isn't familiar! Who said this Thedas could fill in my backstory and not tell me about it? Who does she think I am?

Lady Trevelyan's expression grew a little sad as she considered the redhead before her. "May I at least tell your mother that you are well and safe?" she asked in a wounded tone.

Rory's expression grew hunted. I have a mother here. A living mother. Who apparently knows Edith Trevelyan. Hell, Edith Trevelyan knew me somehow. This is ... awful. "As long as you don't ... tell her who I am or where to find me," she conceded warily. "There's a reason I'm not a part of her life."

Edith frowned reluctantly, but she nodded. "I understand," she said softly. "But please ... know that your aunt remembers you, and knows you for who you are. And is deeply grateful for your guidance of your youngest cousin."

She stepped away, ducking out through the door of the infirmary, leaving Rory to stare into the middle distance in a confusion of horror and shock. Did she just hear that right? If Edith Trevelyan was her aunt, then ... Holy crap. Evy's my cousin. I have family here, real family, family that I didn't write. This world has made a place for me, and it's ... Her thoughts stuttered to a halt as she realized what else it meant. Oh, my giddy aunt ... I'm a noble. How the hell did that happen?

Chapter Text

It was snowing again. Thankfully not the full blast of a storm, nor even the heavy flakes that would lay atop the frozen ground. Winter was approaching its end. If they were very lucky, this would be the snow's last hurrah before a decent thaw came along and stopped the weather from trying to freeze them all into little statues to wait out the season. Rory tucked her arms tighter inside her cloak, her fingers wrapped about the strap of her satchel, and stared out over the snow-capped mountains that surrounded them, sheltered from the wind in the shadow of the battlements.

I have a family here. But why did the me everything thinks I am leave that family? Is this some kind of parallel to my real life, somehow? Or did I lie to Cullen when he asked for the truth? She hadn't lied, not about her brother or the parents she'd known, but in the context of this Thedas that seemed to have created a place for her, that might not be true. She didn't even know if it was possible to find out the truth of this origin story of hers. It wasn't as though she could go up to Lady Edith and Bann Galen and say, 'hey, you know you think I'm your niece? What happened there, exactly?' No, she was going to have to brazen this out somehow. Her only recourse might be to track down Cole and ask him what he could find out from the elder Trevelyans.

Unless ... could she be honest, somehow? Would people accept her saying that she didn't actually remember them, or remember the events they were a part of? Her modern life aside, she did have a life here in Thedas, one that clearly extended back to her birth. Just because she, personally, didn't remember it, didn't mean that it hadn't happened. Obviously it had happened. Edith Trevelyan had known her. She even knew my real name, Rory marveled, amazed at that little detail. She hadn't used the name Aurelia in years. So somewhere in this world there was a man and woman who had a daughter named Aurelia; a daughter who had left them a little over ten years ago and disappeared for whatever reason. And Edith seemed to think that the woman, at least, would care that this daughter was still alive and thriving in her own way. Do I have a mother here who cares about more than religion and the life ever after?

"Fuck, I need advice about this," she muttered to herself, shaking the settling snow from her hair as she reached to pull up her hood. But who to ask? Who would even believe her? "This is way out of my comfort zone ..."

"Talking to yourself, Cupcake?"

She jumped, startled by the sudden voice by her elbow. Varric's face was only saved from being attacked by said elbow by the fact that she had her cloak wrapped so tightly around herself. Rory bit her lip, looking down at the dwarf with a faintly worried smile.

"You didn't hear any of that, did you?"

Varric chuckled, shaking his head. "I have more things on my mind than eavesdropping on you," he assured her, jerking his head toward the tower that stood above the infirmary. "Come on. Should be safe enough to go in now."

Turning to follow her friend along the battlements, Rory frowned a little suspiciously. "Under what circumstances wouldn't it be safe to go in?" she asked in a wary tone. "Just who is in there?"

"An elf, an elf, and a Champion," Varric told her, pushing the door open.

There was little but darkness beyond it. Rory felt her entire body say nope. There was no way in hell she was walking into that tower without being able to see what was in front of her, not if it was populated by Hawke, Merrill, and Fenris. Hell, Fenris was the scary one. But shouldn't he be glowing, or something?

"After you," she told Varric, gesturing for him to go first.

The dwarven rogue rolled his eyes and stepped into the gloom, which parted in front of him. Oh, it's a drape. And beyond that drape? A merrily burning fire in the hearth, giving out heat and light enough to make the dilapidated tower room at least cozy. Three traveling packs stood against the wall; two staves and a huge sword were propped beside them, corresponding to the three figures that were gathered by the fire. They turned toward the door as Rory ventured in at Varric's back.

"Took you long enough," Hawke said warmly, rising from where he sat to give Varric a friendly shove.

"Hey, it's not easy getting Curly's wife out from under his nose, you know," Varric defended himself with a chuckle.

Hawke blinked, his startling eyes rising to get a good look at Rory, but whatever he was about to say was cut off by a soft squeal from behind him.

"Oh, the knight-captain got married! Isn't that wonderful, Hawke?" The lilting accent identified her before she stepped into view from behind the Champion - doe-eyed Merrill, bright and sunny, smiling happily as she all but skipped over to seize Rory's hands with excitement. "Oh, and aren't you pretty? What beautiful hair - like fire, only not painful. It isn't painful, is it?"

Momentarily at a loss, Rory shook her head, unable to keep herself from smiling at this gushing greeting. "No, my-my hair isn't painful," she assured the naive elven woman. "Just ... red."

"Like Aveline," Merrill nodded happily, pulling her toward the fire. "Isn't it, Hawke? Like Aveline?"

"It's darker than Aveline's hair," a low voice answered - not Hawke's. This voice was astonishingly familiar, drawing Rory's curious eyes to the shadows on the other side of the hearth. A flash of white hair, the contrast of lyrium bright against dusk-dark skin, green eyes studying her suspiciously in the gloom ... Fenris. "I'm sure she is capable of walking without your help, mage."

"Well, maybe if you were friendlier, she wouldn't be looking like she's seen a ghost," Merrill countered. "There's no need to be so frightening all the time, you know. Not everyone you meet wants to kill you."

"Just as not everyone you meet knows how far you've fallen," Fenris responded, but there was very little heat in his words.

Whatever had happened since the fall of Kirkwall - since the end of the second game, Rory thought - it appeared to have taken much of the sting out of Fenris and Merrill's relationship. They were never going to be friends, exactly, but apparently they had learned to tolerate each other for Hawke's sake. And Hawke ... She turned her head to get her first proper look at the Champion of Kirkwall.

And tilted her head further back. Garrett Hawke was tall, far taller than she had expected him to be, easily brushing 6'6", if not taller. And he wasn't lanky, either, not the stereotypical mage. He was broad-shouldered, thick-necked, bedecked in armor that was far from the light stuff the games would have had her believe were all mages could wear. He filled the space, making it all seem much smaller, especially when she noted that one of the staves bore a heavy blade at one end. That had to be his; Merrill had never seemed the type to be at home with physical violence.

"That's enough, you two, you're scaring her," Hawke said firmly. "The last thing we need is for Cullen to come up here because we sent his wife back to him in terror."

"I'm not scared," Rory said defensively. "Why, should I be?"

Hawke's bearded face creased into a lopsided smile as he glanced down at Varric. "You did say she had more bravery than sense."

"Oh, thank you very much," Rory muttered to the dwarf, who just grinned and shrugged as Merrill giggled.

"Don't mind them," the former First told her confidently. "Little boys who like to play, that's all they are. You're here because Fenris won't let me heal him. You are the healer, aren't you?"

"Yes, I am the ... I'm sorry, who are you?" Not that I need you to tell me, but I really should be playing along here. Remember, Rory, you are a pig ignorant peasant who couldn't recognize any of these people in a dark alley.

"I'm Merrill," the elven woman said brightly. "Didn't Varric tell you we were coming? Hawke gets in all sorts of trouble without us."

"I am quite capable of getting into trouble with you as well, vhenan," the human mage pointed out in amusement.

"Let her breathe, Daisy," Varric suggested with a wide grin. He was so relaxed here, far more than Rory had ever seen him before. She'd never realized how much he'd been missing his familiar friends all this time, despite the friends he'd made in the Inquisition. "Rory Rutherford, meet Hawke."

A callused hand was offered to her as Merrill released her fingers, and Rory found herself shaking hands with the Champion of Kirkwall. Hawke nodded to her from his great height.

"Varric's told us a fair amount about you," he said conversationally. "You can breathe people back to life?"

"Uh ... not quite." Rory heard herself laugh, realizing she was blushing. Good grief, he's handsome. "I'm not that skilled." Not skilled at all, compared with you.

"The sweet little darling who wants to hug you is Merrill," Hawke informed her easily, "and the talkative shadow is Fenris."

"I see no need to fill the silence when you're doing that job well enough," the indicated shadow said in that voice. The voice Rory had tried to romance as Hawke goodness knew how many times with only limited success.

Merrill, on the other hand, was quick to bestow the hug Hawke had seen coming, wrapping her arms around Rory excitedly. "Oh, it's so lovely to talk to another female," she gushed cheerfully, gasping as she glanced down. "You're having a baby! Oh, how wonderful! Isn't that wonderful? Is it Cullen's?"

"Yes, it's Cullen's," Rory heard herself answer, a little wrong-footed by how familiar these people were. Merrill was exactly as she had expected - bright and innocent, eager to know and be known; Fenris seemed taciturn but not unfriendly. Hawke, despite the sheer size of him, appeared to be a mix of blue and purple. It was oddly reassuring. "Were you expecting it to be someone else's?"

"He's such a dour sort," Merrill told her. "It could have been anyone's, especially if he married you out of duty. He didn't, did he? Do you love him? I'm talking too much, aren't I? I'll stop now."

Laughing, Rory shook her head. "No, it's fine," she assured the merry little elf. "I do love him, and no, he didn't marry me out of duty. He's ... he's not dour at all."

"Oh, well, that's all right, then."

"Come away, vhenan, let her see to Fenris," Hawke suggested, and Merrill obeyed instantly. Rory wasn't sure she was even aware that she did so; it seemed as instinctive as breathing. Hawke sneezed, and Merrill blew her nose; it was an instinct driven by love.

"You're no mage," Fenris said from the shadows, shifting into view. He'd changed from the image Rory had of him in her mind. He seemed more weathered, more scarred, his hair worn longer. He was also favoring his right side awkwardly.

"No, I'm not a mage," she assured him. "May I?"

He shrugged, peeling back his cloak to show her a ghastly rent in the linked scales of his black armor. The wound beneath was crusty, clearly a few days old, sweet with the smell of infection setting in. Rory grimaced.

"I need to get to your skin," she said apologetically. "Whatever I do, this is going to hurt before it starts to feel better."

"Pain is an old friend," Fenris assured her with a resigned look in his eyes. "Hawke ... could you ...?"

As Hawke stepped forward to help his friend divest himself of his armor, Rory took off her own cloak and unhooked the satchel from her shoulder, opening it up to ready herself for what she thought was coming. Let's see ... cloths for cleaning, witherstalk to cleanse the wound, poultice for the infection, pad and bandages ...

"Varric, is there any clean water in here?" she asked over her shoulder.

"I can get some out of the water butt outside," the dwarf offered, already moving in that direction. "That's as clean as you're going to get without going down to the courtyard."

"I can boil and cool the water, if you need it really clean," Merrill offered helpfully. She was peering over Rory's shoulder. "You have so many little bottles. Do you know what all of them do?"

"I do." Rory nodded with a smile as she set certain of those bottles aside. "Everything does something different. And thank you - boiling the water will clean it well enough to use."

"Try not to summon anything," Fenris interjected from between clenched teeth as he and Hawke maneuvered the scaled plate from his torso.

"Oh, don't be silly," Merrill scoffed at the elf. "You don't need blood magic to make water boil. You're just being difficult. If you'd let me heal you in the first place, we wouldn't need to keep her out so late on a cold night."

"Forgive me for having principles," Fenris muttered darkly.

"We've been through this," Hawke interrupted the brewing argument. "There's no point going over it all again."

Rory bit the inside of her cheek to hide her smile. It sounded as though the journey here had been just as awful as she'd imagined it might be, despite the obviously strong bonds of friendship between Hawke and his companions. Two elves with such differing opinions, who felt so strongly about them, could not have been all that entertaining in the middle of the snowstorms up here. Thankfully, Varric returned then with a bucket of ice-cold water, which Merrill was more than happy to boil and cool as Rory turned her attention to Fenris' wound.

"What happened?" she asked, lighting a candle from the fire to illuminate the torn flesh as she studied the damage.

It was a wound left by a bladed weapon, certainly, but the jagged indent of his scaled plate had ripped what should have been a clean gash into ragged edges. It was something of a miracle that the injury hadn't sliced into the markings that played over his skin; she was glad of that. She had no idea how to heal lyrium-branded flesh, after all. It wasn't deep, but it hadn't been cleaned properly, and yes, the tissue was infected. She could smell the pus even before she gently tested the inflamed skin and saw it ooze free.

"We encountered a party of templars in the foothills," Hawke told her, when it became clear that Fenris was concentrating too hard on not reacting to the pain to offer up any words. "Strange templars, like the ones now in Kirkwall."

"We call them red templars here," Varric offered helpfully. "They're ingesting that red lyrium."

"Well, we were lucky they didn't take us by surprise," Hawke pointed out. "Strong bastards, all of them."

"Can I help?" Merrill asked as Rory drew a bowl of the clean water to her side.

Fenris' expression darkened. "No magic," he told the merry elf.

"No magic, I promise," she assured him with a nod. "I've never done real medicine before. It looks awfully complicated."

Rory smiled faintly, glancing between them. "It isn't as complicated as all that," she promised both elves. "There's moldy bread in that parcel there, Merrill. If you chew it until it's soft and squishy, and then mix about a thumbnail of that green potion into it for me, that would be a big help." She lifted her eyes to Fenris' pained face. "I need to drain the pus out of this. It's going to hurt like blazes."

"A healer who doesn't lie about the cure being as painful as the disease," he marveled, that dry wit of his an unexpected pleasure given the circumstances. "Continue. I will endeavor not to decapitate you in a fit of pique."

"You do that, Elf, and I will personally hold Curly's coat while he tries to cut you into little pieces," Varric said in amusement. "She's good, don't get broody on her."

"This tastes revolting," Merrill complained from behind her, the words more than a little indistinct through the large mouthful she had of blue mold and stale bread.

"It helps to kill off infections," Rory explained to her, applying gentle pressure to drain the pus from the angry wound in Fenris' side. The only outward sign of his pain was a hiss that died away as he grew more accustomed to the sensation. "The mold, that is. Bread is the only thing it grows on, that I know of."

"So why chew it?" Hawke asked. He sounded torn between curiosity and laughter, no doubt because of the expression on his lover's face as she chewed.

"Saliva breaks the bread down and the action of chewing evenly distributes the mold throughout the mess," Rory explained, wiping away encrusted blood, fresh blood, and pus both old and new as gently as she could. "It needs changing every day until the infection is gone, but once the infection has cleared, you should be able to take a healing potion to finish the rest of the wound knitting process without any complications arising."

"You work without any magic at all, then?" Hawke pressed further.

She glanced up at him, switching the dirty cloth for one clean to finish the process of making the wound ready for dressing. "Well, there's lyrium in a few of the potions, but that's more a catalyst to speed up the healing process," she offered with half a shrug, trying not to laugh at the sound of Merrill spitting her mushy mouthful into the bowl provided for that purpose. "Mages don't actually heal specific wounds - they channel healing energy into a body, but if a bone hasn't been set, then it will heal wrong. Mage healers need us more than we need them, really. A bone I set will heal eventually, and heal straight, with or without the intervention of magic."

"Is this right?" Merrill asked, leaning forward to show her the mixture in the bowl.

"That's perfect, thank you." Smiling encouragingly, Rory took the bowl, and proceeded to spread the disgusting mixture over a pad, carefully applying it to the wound in Fenris' side. He stiffened at the additional sting, but didn't say a word. A few minutes later, and the bandage to hold it in place was set about his ribs. "There, all done. I should check that tomorrow, and if necessary, apply some more of the poultice, but it's not as bad as it could have been. When the infection's gone, I'll give you some elfroot potion that should close the wound completely in a matter of minutes, but for now, I'm leaving this potion here. If you're feverish, swallow one mouthful once an hour, and the fever should subside. If it doesn't, find someone to come and get me."

Fenris was testing the movement of his arm, apparently impressed with the neat bandage, despite the sting that he was just going to have to get used to for a day or so. "Thank you, healer."

"I helped," Merrill said with a pout that might have been convincing if she hadn't giggled immediately afterward.

Fenris glowered at her mildly. "My thanks for the contribution of your saliva to my healing," he added, and again, Rory had to bite her lips to keep from laughing as she packed away her things.

"That was fascinating," the elven mage then said, turning her attention to Rory. "Is it easy to learn?"

The redhead shrugged lightly. "It's easy enough, I suppose," she conceded with a gentle smile. "Perhaps when you're not required to hide in here anymore, I could teach you a little in the infirmary below? After all, you don't need magic to make a wound heal."

"Oh, that would be lovely," Merrill enthused, her large eyes bright with hopeful excitement. "I would like to learn what all those little bottles do. Some of them smell delicious; do they taste good?"

Rory laughed, shaking her head. "Medicine never tastes good, Merrill," she assured the merry elf, rising onto her feet to hook her cloak about her shoulders once again. "Otherwise people might pretend to be sick just to have some more of it."

"Do they do that?" The dark-haired mage blinked in surprise. "What an odd thing to want to do. Are all humans like that?"

"You don't have to be human to take advantage of a day in bed," Varric told her in amusement. "Not staying, Cupcake?"

"I really should get to bed myself," Rory admitted reluctantly. "Cullen thinks I'm taking a walk."

"Then we shall let you assure your husband that you have not thrown yourself from the battlements," Hawke said then, wrapping an arm about Merrill fondly. "Sleep well, Mistress Rory."

"I'll walk you back," Varric volunteered. "These guys need their beauty sleep."

"Oh, yes, we're hideous in the mornings if we don't sleep," Merrill agreed impishly. "Especially Fenris. He growls."

"Generally because you are offensively loud," Fenris interjected, earning a bright laugh from the blood mage.

"It was lovely to meet you all," Rory told them, feeling the trio close ranks, however politely. They needed to be alone, it seemed, and Varric had picked up on that far sooner than she had. "I hope you have a restful night."

Stepping back out into the snowy darkness, she glanced down at Varric, one brow raised curiously as they both heard the door lock solidly behind them. The dwarf glanced over his shoulder, shaking his head with a fond softness about his expression.

"Don't ask me," he muttered in amusement. "It's their mess."

Chapter Text

Rory could be wrong, but it seemed as though someone might have had a hand in making sure the sun was shining warm on the day chosen for the wedding.

The evidence of the last snow had been thawed away by mid-morning, the grass sparkling wetly in the courtyard as men and women rushed to and fro, finishing the last of the preparations for the marriage to be celebrated at noon. Josephine had outdone herself - thanks to her meticulous attention to detail, all scaffolding in the main hall had been cleared; the completed mosaics on the walls gleamed; the stained glass behind the dais had been finished on time, pouring a gorgeous dappling of bright color down onto the dais itself. The throne had been taken away for the day, replaced with a bower twined with Crystal Grace and fragrant embrium; the sunken feasting areas were set with chairs for the guests to take their places.

Kaaras had generously offered his own quarters for Rylen to be got ready for his big moment. The Starkhaven captain had been up there since last night, in the solid company of his brother and the Qunari Inquisitor, recently joined by Cullen, too, all three doing their utmost to make sure that he was as ready to take his vows as anyone could hope for. Vivienne had offered her own rooms for Evy to prepare in, though she, thankfully, had vacated the chambers almost as soon as Evy, Edith, and Rory had ventured there that morning. Francoise, the seamstress, was beside herself with excitement, finally able to show someone the beautiful dress and be showered with praise, even as they maneuvered the thing onto the bride herself.

As noon approached, the hall began to fill ... not simply with the nobles present in Skyhold, but with soldiers, templars, workers; all the friends both Rylen and Evy had made over the past months together. Elves, dwarves, Qunari, and humans were there, the Inquisition stalwarts quite happy to glare human nobles from Orlais, Ferelden, and the Free Marches into silencing their muttered disapproval of the sheer diversity of the celebration forming around them. Josephine was still directing the operation, her board in hand, as the minutes ticked toward the zenith of the day. The time was fast approaching that everyone had been looking forward to almost since the day they had arrived in Skyhold.

A little collusion with Dorian meant that the altus entered in his finest regalia and drew all eyes to himself, allowing for Evy to be rushed across the balcony overlooking the hall and into the library without anyone below looking up and getting a peek at her. This was the signal for Jim to run up to the Inquisitor's quarters and let Rylen's brother know it was time to bring the groom downstairs as the minstrels started to play, providing a little underlying music for the chatter that filled the hall.

In the rotunda, Rory embraced her friend - her cousin - warmly, kissing her cheek.

"You look beautiful," she promised Evy. "He's the luckiest man in Skyhold, and he knows it."

Evy blushed, dark ringlets brushing her cheeks from the elaborate crown of curls her mother had worked so hard to create. "I'm glad you're here, Rory," she said softly. "If you hadn't trusted me to help you, all those months ago, I don't know where I'd be today."

"If you hadn't been there, I don't know where I would be, either," Rory told her honestly, aware that Lady Edith and Bann Galen were watching their interaction with more than idle interest. "I have to go to my seat. Just remember ... tits and teeth."

Evy snorted her way into an outburst of giggles, nodding excitedly as Rory drew away, carefully opening the door into the hall just enough to slide out without letting anyone see inside. Kaaras was in evidence, standing beside Mother Giselle on the dais, looking extremely uncomfortable to be there at all. She couldn't blame him; he was Andrastian, to a certain extent, but he really wasn't comfortable with the fact that Rylen and Evy had asked for him to bless their marriage. Leliana appeared to have taken Josephine in hand; the two women were sitting together at the very front of the hall, not a quill or board in sight.

Rory made her way down the aisle as the stragglers began to find their seats, flashing Kaaras an encouraging grin as she found her own place in front of Helene and Cassandra, near the door to the Inquisitor's tower. A few minutes later, Cullen came into view, sidling into the seat beside hers as Rylen walked to his own position before the dais, his brother close at his back.

"All under control?" she asked quietly.

Cullen glanced down at her, the taut pull of his scar betraying a smile just barely held in check. "As it will ever be," he murmured. "Thank the Maker we decided to skip this part."

"Tell me about it," she drawled in amusement, happy to let him wrap his bare hand about hers, always feeling that gentle thrill when his thumb smoothed over his mother's ring on her finger.

A burst of fanfare trumpets announced the arrival of the bride and, like everyone else, Rory rose to peer through the gathered dignitaries and friends to see Evelyn Trevelyan take her last steps as an unmarried woman. She really was beautiful, walking between her parents with a measured pace. Francoise had outdone herself with the gown - it was a gorgeous confection of antiqued lace, bare shoulders, full sleeves, fitted bodice narrow to the waist until the skirt flared from the hips. A real princess gown, perfectly suited to the beautiful woman wearing it. Evy truly was radiant, her happiness at this moment setting her a-glow as she took her place at Rylen's side. Rylen himself was attired in the best formal-wear Josephine had been able to procure for him, the tunic a rich crimson that suited his dusky coloring well. They were a perfect pair, and as they looked at one another in the dappled fall of light from the stained glass above them, there could be no doubt that this was a match made in love.

Seated once more, Rory couldn't stop smiling, deeply proud of her friends for following their hearts when the world around them could so easily have stolen this happiness away. As the vows were spoken, she glanced to Cullen, leaning into his arm as he kissed her brow, both of them recalling their own vows spoken not so very long ago. Behind them, she heard Cassandra blow her nose discreetly, biting her lip to keep from giggling. The Seeker really was a hopeless romantic. She deserved the love Kaaras had to give her, if only she could let herself accept it. When the time came for the Inquisitor to speak, Rory thought she could hear a hidden message for the woman he loved in the words he offered as a blessing.

"We are greeted by fresh faces enthralled by true love, and should nurture that above all," Kaaras declared, one large hand laid over the joined fingers of the newly-wedded pair before him. "But we cannot completely turn from duty. Passion may burn, but duty requires two hearts with strong wills to tend it. A strong pairing finds its own nobility. Passion burns bright. In a time of uncertainty, it brings us hope. Let it flare so that all can see. That joy is not held back by war or need or name. This moment is for you and your union, no one else. But we are privileged to witness it, and to celebrate with you. Be happy, above all."

"Wise words," Cullen murmured as the gathered witnesses rose for Mother Giselle's last blessing. "Did he write them?"

"I think Varric may have helped a little," Rory whispered back, sharing a grin with her own husband as they raised their hands to applaud the union joined before them. "Left to his own devices, Kaaras might just have told them to live long and happy, and make lots of babies."

Cullen chuckled quietly. "Then I think I owe that dwarf a drink," he admitted in a rueful tone, unconsciously slipping a hand about her waist as they turned to watch Evy and Rylen escorted out into the sunshine by her parents and his brother. "They deserve this."

"They do," she agreed happily, glancing to the row behind.

Cassandra's face was suspiciously wet, but she was at least under control. Helene, on the other hand, was sniffling into her gloves merrily, and she wasn't the only one showing her pleasure in the union. There were tears and smiles, warm laughter and the rising tide of congratulatory chatter, as the various nobles and not-so-nobles moved to clear the hall for the preparations to begin for the feast. Kaaras thumped down from the dais, making a beeline for Cassandra, and for once, Cullen didn't even look suspicious when Rory paused, making a show of adjusting the hang of his mantle so she could eavesdrop.

"Was it ... did I do it right?" the Inquisitor asked the Nevarran Seeker worriedly. "I didn't know if -"

"It was beautiful, Inquisitor," Cassandra interrupted him, her smile just visible from the corner of Rory's eye. "I ... I think you performed it very well."

Kaaras visibly relaxed, his familiarly boyish smile shining forth at this reassurance. "Will you dance with me, later?" he asked hopefully.

Cassandra hesitated. "I-I ... do not know if that would be appropriate," she demurred, and Cullen gripped Rory's elbows, meeting her gaze with an amused glint in his whiskey-lit eyes.

"Don't interfere," he warned his wife softly. "Just get a few cups of wine into her before the dancing starts."

Rory stared up at him, her eyes wide with surprise at this unexpectedly underhanded side of her commander. "I thought you didn't approve of distracting romances?" she asked, accusingly fond as he drew her away with the rest of the crowd.

"I don't believe anyone deserves a little distraction more than those two," he murmured innocently. "Except perhaps us."

"Am I not distracting enough anymore, or is it the romance that's lacking?" she asked with a playful smile.

He let loose a quiet laugh, turning to cup her jaw in his palm as he leaned down to her. "I'll show you later," he promised, lips brushing hers with a tender kiss that promised her a night she would not forget in a hurry.

But for now, and for several hours until then, they had friends to congratulate, to celebrate with, an evening of music and laughter and love, bringing something more than war and loss to Skyhold's walls for the first time in centuries. Surely not even the Dread Wolf could disapprove of that.

Chapter Text

"Gentlemen outside, ladies inside ..."

The delicate strains of the lute underscored Josephine's gentle reminder of where they were supposed to be at this point in the dance. Palm to palm with Dorian as they circled in time to the music, Rory found herself once again sending mild disapproval through the ether to Cullen, who had somehow managed to avoid taking part in these interminable lessons on etiquette and courtly behavior. This little group certainly made for an interesting learning experience.

"Still don't see the point," Sera was complaining on the other side of the room, snickering as her partner - Leliana - corrected her direction with just a touch to her shoulder. "Anyone asks me to dance, I'll kick 'em."

"No, you will not." Vivienne sighed wearily. "You will politely decline. Bull, darling, you're squeezing again."

"Sorry, ma'am," the big Qunari agent apologized, concentrating on loosening his grip on the First Enchanter's fingers.

"Please remember not to close the distance between yourself and your partner when you spin," Josephine called. The ambassador had taken on the task of teaching Kaaras to dance, and despite all initial fears, he was proving to be surprisingly good at it.

"So just how big is this going to be in two weeks' time?" Dorian asked as Rory spun tentatively out under his arm and back in to lay her hand on his shoulder and fall into the waltzing part. He gestured to the bump at her middle.

It was definitely a bump now, more difficult to hide despite its relative smallness. Her pants no longer fitted, her dresses were starting to feel snug, and Cullen had had to cut new holes in the leather of her belt after a particularly petulant outburst when she could no longer fasten the thing comfortably about herself. Thankfully, however, it was still small enough to disappear in the flouncing layers of skirt Francoise was gleefully putting the finishing touches to.

"Not too much bigger than this, I hope," Rory answered Dorian's query with a half-shrug. "Otherwise even with the dress I'm going to have to be careful not to get too close to people."

He looked down at the smooth bulge, with its unmistakable shape, gently intruding on the space between them. "I am still mildly astonished that there's a baby in there," he admitted quietly. It had been a while since he'd had to correct her when it came to dancing - while everyone else was concentrating, the two of them had managed to hold some interesting conversations. "I daresay it won't be real until the brat starts to kick."

"You're so complimentary." Rory chuckled, shaking her head gently. "If you ever say the word "fat", I will kick you."

"I will deserve it, if I do," Dorian assured her with a smile behind his mustache. "Not that I would, I am the soul of civility."

But protest as he might, the altus was fascinated by her pregnancy. She hadn't thought he'd be all that interested, really, but it was Dorian who had noticed she winced whenever wine was offered to her and had taken steps to make sure it didn't happen again; Dorian, who had gently suggested that perhaps she should start wearing the dresses rather than squeeze into her pants; Dorian, who was reading textbooks on midwifery and child-rearing in his spare time. He didn't seem entirely sold on the idea of ever actually interacting with the baby, but he was certainly invested in making sure the pregnancy was a successful one.

Given the way things had been left with his father in Redcliffe, it was doubly surprising that he would care quite so much about friends who must, in some way, remind him of the "perfect" son Halward had wanted instead of him. But Rory appreciated the way he went about it, that understated way of just doing things that needed to be done, saying the right things to Cullen when he was in a state, absently pulsing heat into her when they met in chilled corridors. Dorian was becoming possibly her best friend here, and she really wasn't sure how to tell him that. Especially since, in the games, he only ever admitted to being friends with the Inquisitor.

"I do hope you two are speaking Orlesian," Vivienne called as they whirled past the ridiculous sight of her still trying to teach Bull that he wasn't allowed to just pick her up and swing her around the floor, no matter how much easier it was.

"Comment pourrions nous ne pas le faire, puisque vous écoutez chaque mot?" Dorian answered her in flawless Orlesian, sending Rory into giggles that were echoed by Sera on the other side of the room.

"I am not listening to every word you say," the First Enchanter objected, but there really was very little she could do about it - the altus had already managed to whirl his dance partner to the other end of the carefully cleared floor.

"You know, I'm getting the distinct impression that they don't believe I'm more than capable of holding a conversation in Orlesian by this point," Rory drawled, hesitating for just a moment as the music changed.

Only for a moment - the pressure of Dorian's hand on her side changed subtly, and she remembered what came next with that gentle guidance. It was a shame she wouldn't be able to dance every dance with him, really; once she was with another partner, there was every chance she was going to forget how this went entirely.

"You are going to be a spy for the evening," the altus pointed out in amusement. "As well as furthering your own career, no doubt."

She giggled, falling into the promenade with him easily. "My career is the last thing on my mind when it comes to walking into that snake pit, Dorian."

"My dear girl, one of the Masters of the Guild has invited you as his guest," he reminded her with a low chuckle. "You may be a Mistress of the Guild before the night is through!"

"You sound more excited about that than Granthis does," she protested, glad to see him relaxing once again. "Evy's the one who should be joining the Guild; she's got more talent for healing than I ever did."

"Ah, but sadly the captain and his wife will be returning to Skyhold only a day after we leave for the in-bred glories of Halamshiral," Dorian pointed out in amusement. "You will simply have to ... what was that charming phrase you used the other day? Ah, yes. Suck it up."

Over the sound of Rory's uncontrollable piggy-snort of laughter, Josephine called out, "Turn and bow, the dance is over."

"I should never have told you what that phrase meant," Rory giggled as she curtsied to Dorian, rolling her eyes at the look of pure mischief on his face.

"But you make such adorable noises when I use it," he protested innocently, accepting the gentle slap she gave to his midriff without comment. "Truly! That sweet little snort is the brightest light of my day!"

"If you make me do that at the Winter Palace, I may have to spike your wine with something that'll make you see dancing fairies," she threatened, though they both knew she'd never do it.

It was a strange sort of friendship they had, but it was friendship, and one she treasured. If there was anyone she felt she might be able to tell about her not-very-Thedosian background, it was Dorian, but it felt cruel to lay that burden on his shoulders. He didn't deserve to hear all about how weird everything here was to someone who had grown up with electricity and indoor plumbing. But she also knew that if she ever did let anything slip to him, he wouldn't immediately assume she was dangerous. Dorian, of all people, knew that what was presented was never the whole story.

"Very good," Josephine was saying, looking over the four of them who were supposed to be learning how to dance. "Sera ... perhaps you should only dance with members of the Inquisition."

Sera rolled her eyes, making a slightly rude noise. "I'm not dancin'," she informed Josephine easily.

The ambassador restrained her sigh, and didn't bother to argue. Sera was problematic, but she had insisted on being at the Winter Palace along with everyone else, so all Josephine could do was lay a thin veneer of etiquette over the Red Jenny's habitual attitude and hope for the best. She looked much happier with the progress of Bull, Kaaras, and Rory, though.

"The same time again tomorrow, please," she told them. "We will be starting on the quadrille, which is the last of the official court dances you will have to learn. Rory ... please wear the shoes."

Rory just about managed to hide her wince. "Yes, Josie," she agreed in a resigned voice.

She hated the shoes. Oh, they were beautiful. Leliana had gone all the way to Val Royeaux to commission them herself, and had returned with the materials and the cobbler to make certain they fitted to perfection. The only problem was the heels. Rory had never really worn heels on Earth, and here on Thedas, she was more than comfortable in her flat boots. Learning to walk and dance in shoes that had a two inch heel, however comfortable they were, was not a fun experience.

"I do solemnly swear not to let you fall over unless I am underneath you," Dorian murmured to her, earning himself another soft piggy-snort that made her cringe.

"Okay, you are officially bad for my composure," she informed her friend fondly. "I have to get back to the infirmary. Merrill was threatening to drop in, and Gustav has no idea how to handle unfettered enthusiasm."

"Back to the grind, I see," he agreed, moving to walk with her as the group left the study to wander back to their own amusements. All but Kaaras, who had an entire nation's worth of titles and names to learn in two weeks.

It didn't seem long enough for them to be comfortable with what they needed to know. It certainly was looming in Rory's mind, made worse by the fact that she was technically going to be there alone. Oh, she trusted Granthis; she was sure he would go out of his way to make sure nothing terrible happened to her; but a part of her desperately wanted to either be left at home, or to be wearing that silly uniform and glued to Cullen's side all night. The gown - which was, admittedly, beautiful - was also going to be utterly unique at the ball. She was going to draw attention just standing quietly in a corner, whether she wanted to or not. But it was all a show. Her role was to be vacuous and alert for anything she might overhear, to distract the nobles with her unusual style of dress and her dazzling charm (or lack of it) so that Kaaras and the rest of them could do what they were there to do in the first place.

It didn't help that she genuinely had no idea which way her Qunari friend's opinion would fall when it came to the outcome of the evening. She'd thought he would ally with the templars; instead, he had conscripted the mages. On paper, he might seem to favor an alliance of all three, to keep Orlais focused on itself, but in practice, who knew what he might decide to do. Or not do, she reminded herself. She didn't want to think about the very real possibility that her friend might just stand back and let someone be murdered in front of him, but she couldn't get away from the knowledge that Cullen was inclined to support that decision himself. Every now and then, Thedas threw these differences at her - differences in opinion that made her modern mind reel back from the consequences of. I'm just glad that I don't have to make that decision.

She paused on the steps outside the door to the main hall, hugging her arms about herself as she let the chilly breeze clear away the cobwebs. Down in the lower courtyard, she could see the rawest of the raw recruits being put through their initial paces; habit drew her eyes up to the battlements opposite, where Cullen was watching them critically. Unusually, though, he wasn't alone. Garrett Hawke was leaning against the stone wall of the gatehouse tower, the two men apparently in quiet, slightly awkward conversation. And that's another thing not to look forward to, she remembered with an unhappy sigh. The siege of Adamant was on the far horizon, on the other side of the Winter Palace, and Hawke might die there. Gods, what if his Warden friend is Alistair? That's going to hurt me. But the choice would be a no-brainer for Kaaras, very likely. To choose between a mage who was slowly becoming a friend, who understood the pressures he was under in a way no one else ever would, and a Grey Warden who would not have that same emotional impact with him ... it wasn't a choice, not really. For the first time, Rory found herself hoping the Warden was Loghain. That would serve him right. But again, she couldn't help feeling glad that the decision would not be hers to make. She would simply live the consequences with everyone else.

Her hand rubbed absently over the little bulge at her waist. There really was no mistaking that she was pregnant now, but at least layering up could still conceal the obvious evidence. Well, the tummy evidence. She bit her lips against a grin. Cullen had taken obvious delight in helping her to adjust her new breast-band to fit when it became obvious that her ladies were putting on weight. She couldn't help feeling proud of them - she'd always felt a little lacking in the breast department. Pregnancy had certainly perked them up a little, though she had a feeling that wouldn't last. Still, she intended to enjoy them while she could.

Letting that grin loose, she jogged down the steps to the upper courtyard, heading toward her infirmary with purpose. Two weeks, and she wouldn't be here to hover and annoy everyone for at least another two weeks. She wanted to be certain everything was in good condition for Evy's return.

Thinking of Evy broadened her smile as she passed the tavern. The newly-weds had been summarily dismissed to the Free Marches for a honeymoon, where Bann Trevelyan and his family were hosting them more than happily. If Aveline Vallen can do it, why not them? She'd recieved precisely one letter from her friends, which had consisted of a ridiculously long description of the feast Evy's father had thrown and all the people who were there from Evy, and a slightly shorter, definitely smug description of what it was really like to be a husband from Rylen. They were gloriously in love. It might almost have been sickening, if she hadn't known the feeling intimately herself.

Still, she wouldn't see either of them for a month. As Dorian had said, they were due to return the day after the inner circle decamped to Val Royeaux and Halamshiral. It was already strange not to have Evy right here to tell her how to behave around the various noble visitors; not to constantly run into Rylen in the evenings as he came ot the infirmary to collect his lady love. She missed them, but she was glad they had this chance to enjoy being married before life and war rolled in on top of them again. They were lucky not to be coming to the Winter Palace. If she could get out of it, she would.

She pushed opened the door to the infirmary, ducking inside with a reassuring smile for Gustav. Work now, worry later. Much later.

Chapter Text

Granthis Perivale was the gift that just kept giving.

Never mind that Rory was still struggling a little with the fact that a character she had written as an incidental NPC was alive and well and prospering in a post-Conclave Thedas, he was a gloriously familiar sort of mess that somehow managed to make her feel absolutely at home as soon as he arrived at the manor Josephine had procured for the Inquisition’s use in Val Royeaux. The lopsided apothecary hadn’t bothered letting anyone announce him; he’d simply walked in, handed his ridiculous hat to the nearest person - who happened to be a bemused Blackwall - and marched up the stairs, opening every door until he found the room where Rory was being finished off for the evening. With a lackadaisical, “Evening, little girl,” he’d made his way over to the couch, and thrown himself down comfortably to watch as the finishing touches were put on his escort for the evening.

“Hello, Granthis,” she greeted him with a smile, unable to turn and look at him when a determined Josephine had a firm grip on her hair. “Just how awful is this evening going to be?”

Not that I really need to be told, but he doesn’t know about the assassin. And he’s not going to know, because there’s no way in hell I’m telling anyone anything about what’s going to happen tonight. She was still edgy about just being in the same building as Florianne du Chalons; that woman was a bag of crazy cats and then some. Weirdly, she was also a little concerned about meeting Morrigan. Of everyone here, the former Witch of the Wilds was the one who was most likely to realise just what it was that was slightly off about Rory; she’d experienced the Crossroads, and appeared to have visited worlds that weren’t Thedas. It was more than a little unnerving to think that Morrigan might guess at a glance that Rory’s mind, at least, wasn’t from around here.

“Moderately awful,” Granthis informed her. At least she didn’t have to worry about him keeping anything from her - for a man who made his living skirting the edge of the Chantry’s disapproval, he was flagrantly honest. “You’re going to make it far more entertaining for me, I trust?”

Rory snorted with laughter. “I’m not sure I want to know how you think I’m going to be more entertaining than some of the nobles.”

“You, little girl, have a bad habit of expressing yourself without thinking,” Granthis said, his grin audible behind her. “I am very much looking forward to hearing all your opinions on the high and the mighty.”

“Which you will not be expressing aloud, I hope,” Josephine interjected in a cautious tone.

“I do solemnly swear not to say anything too offensive where the puffs can hear me,” Rory assured her, holding up her hand in the Brownie salute, which clearly went over both their heads.

“Madame Ambassador, you’re spoiling my fun,” Granthis complained cheerfully. “The little girl will be perfectly safe from retaliation for anything she says, I assure you. The nobility of Orlais do not dare to be less than tolerant of our guild and its friends.”

“Even so, Mistress Rutherford, you are a representative of the Inquisition this evening,” Josephine pointed out, eyeing Rory’s hair critically before carefully repositioning a wayward curl. A lot of effort had gone into making Rory’s hair curl - it was not inclined to hold the shape, much preferring wayward waves instead.

“I promise, Josie, I will be on my best behavior,” Rory promised her with a warm smile. “Am I allowed to stand up yet?”

The ambassador considered her for a long moment, and abruptly smiled. “Yes, you may,” she conceded. “You look beautiful, Rory.”

Flushing in embarrassed pleasure, the redheaded healer rose to her feet, making absolutely certain she was secure on those heels before turning around to get her first look at her friend. Hooo boy ...

Granthis Perivale was not a subtle man. In a land where the ugliness of his face was covered by the beauty of a mask, he had made the distinct effort to make his clothing as offensive to the eyes as was humanly possible. His doublet was a greasy mustard yellow, the shirt beneath a loud shade of turquoise; bright scarlet knee britches were worn over gold hose; and on his feet were a pair of curled slippers in startling orange, set with buckles and ribbons of lime green. He looked … hilarious. There was no way anyone at the Winter Palace wasn’t going to know who he was, that was for certain.

She stared at him from behind her own half-mask, unable to hide the grin that was trying to express itself. His mismatched eyes watched her through the eye-holes of his mask, and finally, he started to laugh, rising to his feet to give her a shambling twirl.

“Do you not like my fancy frock, little girl?”

“I’m … speechless,” she admitted, giving into her own giggles as Josephine winced at her side. “You’re an assault on the eyes, Granthis.”

“And you’re a delight to them, little girl,” he complimented her, bowing with undue ceremony. “We’ll make quite the pair.”

They certainly would. While Granthis was guaranteed to draw the eye, and a certain amount of disgust from the delicate noble sensibilities, Rory might well hold the eye tonight. Francoise had outdone herself with the gown. A velvet bodice fitted to the unusually generous swell of the healer’s bosom flared from an empirical waist line into wide flounces of silk and brocade, layered pale blue over white and gold. Long sleeves showed off the delicate embroidery of the soft silk chemise beneath, layered over with more of the blue brocade to fit those sleeves to the slenderness of her arms. At first glance, even second glance, there was no hint of the little bump hidden beneath the flare of those skirts, even when she was moving, a testament to the seamstress’ skill at her profession. The mask Granthis had sent was simple and silver; Josephine had wrestled Rory’s red hair into a waterfall of curls pinned back from her face. She was terribly unfashionable, but … she felt beautiful. It was a strange sensation.

“You most certainly will be noticed,” Josephine admitted a little ruefully. “The commander may even accept that dressing you such was a good idea.”

Rory snorted with laughter, though nerves fluttered at the thought of what Cullen was going to say when he saw her. “Is he even back yet?” she asked curiously. Her husband had decided to brief his soldiers personally, rather than wait around while the ladies were fussing over their appearance. He could dress himself within minutes, after all.

“I do not believe so,” Josephine told her with a decidedly sneaky smile. “He will simply have to admire you from afar when we get to the Winter Palace. Master Perivale, you have a carriage waiting?”

Granthis nodded, his grin unseen behind the full mask he wore but definitely felt. “Aye, Madame Ambassador,” he assured her. “I’ll take good care of her.”

Rory drew in a deep breath. “Well, I suppose I’m as ready as I will ever be,” she conceded, forcing her hands away from her bump. She had to remember not to touch it tonight. “Shall we?”

Her ludicrously-garbed companion offered her his arm. “I think we shall, little girl. Madame Ambassador.”

Inclining his head to Josephine, the ugly, slightly lopsided apothecary drew Rory out of the room and down the stairs to the main door. Blackwall was still standing in the entrance way, that ridiculous hat still in his hands, looking as though he would rather be anywhere else but here. It was something of an honor to see his jaw drop as the gruff man’s eyes fell on the pair making their way down the stairs.

“Andraste’s tits, healer,” he breathed, looking her over as Granthis reclaimed his hat - bright magenta with several enormous feathers draping over its crown. “You’re a sight to warm the heart. Cullen’s going to split his strides.”

“I could swap clothes with you,” she offered him impishly. “I’m sure you’d take the Winter Palace by storm in this get-up.”

Blackwall laughed, tugging on his beard as he looked her over once again. “Hold that thought, and we’ll try it at Skyhold,” he offered, seeming to sense that she needed to be kept smiling. He, at least, knew what to expect in the Imperial Court; for all her lessons and her gaming experience, Rory felt very uninformed still.

“I would pay good money to see you so be-decked, serrah,” Granthis informed him, his voice oddly cool behind the mask.

“So would a lot of people, I expect.” Blackwall chuckled, stepping back from them. “See you later, healer.”

“Not too much later, I hope,” Rory wished, letting Granthis guide her out of the manor to the carriage that waited for them. She eyed her companion a little suspiciously as they settled onto the padded seats, as the carriage began to move, bearing them toward Halamshiral and the vipers’ nest within.

“What’s wrong?” she asked bluntly. His coolness toward Blackwall had not gone unnoticed. Don’t tell me he knows who the man actually is.

“That man we were speaking to,” Granthis said warily. “What name does he go by?”

Well, there’s the answer. He does know. “He goes by Blackwall,” she told her friend quietly. “Why, do you know what his real name is?”

The apothecary reached a finger beneath his mask to scratch his nose. “I may do,” he told her, still in that wary tone. “Others may, too. Not the wisest decision, bringing him to Val Royeaux.”

“He’s done nothing against the Inquisition,” she told Granthis, though now she was a little worried. Was Blackwall really that easy to recognize? Were they going to have trouble with nobles knowing him for who he really was so soon?

“You would say he is a good man?” Granthis queried thoughtfully.

“I’d say he’s trying to be a good man,” she answered honestly enough. “Look, I know he isn’t who he says he is, and I know he’s a wanted man. Is he going to be recognized tonight? Will it cause trouble?”

Granthis considered this for a long moment. “He may be recognized, but the Game does not have room for him at this moment in time,” he conceded in a pensive voice. “I doubt anyone would deign themselves to denounce him. Still, it would perhaps be better for him to stay away from the nobles as much as is possible.”

Rory nodded, concern flaring. But then … doesn’t Blackwall spend most of the ball in that virtually empty statue hall thing? Maybe he already knows how close to the edge he’s walking by being here. “If we get the chance, I’d like to warn him,” she informed her companion worriedly. “If that is all right by you.”

Granthis nodded easily. “Oh, of course, little girl,” he assured her. “I know you have a problem letting the slightly unworthy experience the punishment due to them.”

She smiled, relaxing a little. “If you’re referring to the business in Harfoot, I don’t remember either of us having much choice about hiding you in our cart,” she pointed out to her friend, referencing the one interaction between her self-insert character and his character that she had actually written.

“You could have told the templars where I was hiding,” he pointed out. “I deserved their ire, after all. You, little girl, are a little too soft-hearted for your own good. I hope this husband of yours is more discerning.”

She blushed as he looked significantly down at her middle, thankfully that the dress disguised the bump even when she was seated. “This husband of mine is certainly more driven than I am,” she admitted to her friend. “Rest assured that if anything exciting happens tonight, he may easily be in the forefront of controlling it.”

She felt Granthis’ knowing grin behind his mask. “A man of purpose mated to my little girl, hmm?” he teased cheerfully. “My dear Rory, you simply have to seduce him into dancing with you this evening. The court may unanimously declare you both the new Emperor and Empress if you are as well matched as you declare.”

“Oh good grief, Granthis!” She cackled with laughter, well aware he was doing his best to keep her from dissolving into silent nerves on this carriage ride. “I can barely take care of myself. Don’t even think about wishing an entire country on me!”

“If you can handle a baby, you can handle a country,” the apothecary told her gleefully. “Less vomit, more shouting.”

“Your confidence is inspiring,” she drawled sardonically, glancing through the window as they passed through a thick wall and golden gates. “I take it the gates are to keep everyone out who isn’t invited?”

“Well, mainly they’re to make the point that elves don’t have any claim to the area,” he mused, tilting his own head to watch the ornamental approach pass them by. “Not that anyone believes it. The main reason for the wall serves to illustrate how ill-gotten the gain of this land really was, and how insecure the Orlesians are about it.”

She sobered, remembering all the myriad codex entries on this exact point of history in the games, all the mentions, how sad she had been when she’d first visited the Emerald Graves as a Dalish Inquisitor. If it was strange to hear a human express this sort of sentiment, it didn’t seem so to her. But then, she had created Granthis, to a certain extent. It was natural that he might share some of her opinions, if not quite so vehemently.

“They won’t really be as hostile to me as I’m expecting, will they?” she asked her friend in a worried tone.

His eyes turned back to her, mismatched shadows behind his mask. “You’ve nothing to fear, little girl,” he promised her. “You are my guest. Your purpose here is to meet the Guild Master at my invitation, as far as they know. As far as I know, to be fair. The nobility won’t see a pretty healer as a threat.”

“I hope not,” she murmured, chewing on her lower lip as the carriage slowed to a halt. They had arrived.

The palace was beautiful, lit by candles and torches, the great stone staircase leading to the interior littered with the great and beautiful of Orlais. Each one was masked and arrayed in similar fashion, giving the impression of a crowd of statues enchanted to move and speak for the evening. Rory felt a rush of pure terror wash over her, anxiety making itself known rather belatedly. I can’t get out of this now, she reminded herself. You’re here, Rory. Tits and teeth.

As Granthis leaned back into the carriage to take her hand, she drew in a deep breath and steeled herself. Her part in the Great Game was about to begin.

Chapter Text

Rory wasn't sure quite what she had been expecting from the Winter Palace, but boredom had not been in her top ten. And she was bored. So bored.

Oh, it was beautiful, certainly. The decor, the music, the food, the pretty frocks and masks, all absolutely gorgeous. But nothing was really happening. The only really interesting thing of note to have occurred since she and Granthis had arrived was the announcement of the Inquisition, and they hadn't even been in the ballroom for that. She'd been trailing along at Granthis' elbow for the last two hours as he greeted various nobles and dignitaries, giving her own greetings when asked, and finding herself desperately hoping that something more interesting was going to happen soon. About the most interesting thing to happen so far for her was overhearing the nasty little comments the Orlesian nobles were making about her and Kaaras in the misplaced confidence that she couldn't understand them. It was depressing.

"Another Ferelden idiot who thinks she knows fashion better than us."

"Monsieur Perivale's tastes are getting uglier, I see."

"Surely that untutored beast cannot be the Herald of Andraste? Why would she choose such a dreadful creature to lead?"

"Did you see him when he entered? How the Empress can look on him without disgust is beyond me."

"She cannot really be that gorgeous commander's wife, surely? She's so plain."

Iron Bull caught her eye as Granthis began the rounds of ingratiating himself with the Council of Heralds, and Rory gratefully made her way over to the big Qunari. She didn't think she'd ever been so pleased to see anyone.

"Looking good, little red," he complimented her, finishing off a curl of ham. "Have you tried any of this? Tastes like despair."

"I don't think I need anything to taste like despair at the moment," she admitted with a rueful smile. "Am I allowed to know what's happening, or do I have to stay completely in the dark?"

Bull grinned down at her. He seemed just as relieved as she was not to be talking to Orlesians for the time being. "The boss scaled a wall and no one saw him," he shrugged, quietly impressed with this feat. "Figure he's in the ballroom making nice with the nobles again by now."

"They're quite hard to make nice with," she mused quietly, glancing about the chamber with wary eyes.

"They're talking a lot about you," Bull pointed out. "Stupid things mostly, but I heard one guy say he wants to find out what you're packing under that skirt."

Rory snorted with laughter, making no attempt to hide the ridiculous noise. "He can wish all he likes, it's not happening," she laughed, shaking her head. "To be honest, Bull, I am bored out of my tiny mind here. I thought this was supposed to be the social event of the year?"

"Only so everyone can say they were here," the Qunari pointed out with a shrug. "Look at it this way - everyone's watching you because you're spitting in their faces. Turning up looking all pretty and comfortable, not even trying to pretend to be like them ... they're jealous."

"They're idiots," she replied, earning for herself a wide grin from the Ben-Hassrath agent.

"Definitely," he agreed. "And not very subtle. Half the people here are sleeping with the other half, and everyone seems to know it."

"Well, if they're really so idle that this is a fun evening out for them, then they clearly have nothing better to do with their time," Rory muttered, rolling her eyes behind her mask.

She felt a gentle touch on her back, glancing up to find Granthis at her side.

"My apologies, little girl - all the business is done," he promised her, looking up - and further up - to offer Bull a polite nod. "Would you like to dance now? The Guild Master is in the ballroom."

"Are you going to dance with me, or are you going to ask me to dance with your Guild Master?" she asked with amused suspicion.

Granthis laid a hand over his heart in exaggerated offense. "Would I be so devious as that?"

"Yes," she told him bluntly. "Yes, you would." As his laugh sounded in hollow tones from behind his full mask, she threw Bull a sympathetic smile, letting her escort take her arm to guide her back through the state rooms toward the ballroom. "What, exactly, is your end game here, Granthis?"

The ugly man glanced at her, mismatched eyes sharp behind his mark. "To make sure the Guild does not try to have you forced out of the Inquisition in favor of one of their own," he told her quietly. "They have no influence in your organization at this moment in time, and I suspect that if tonight goes the way your people seem to be expecting it to, that will grate on their nerves somewhat. If, however, you are accepted into the Guild this evening, they won't be able to complain."

She stared at him, genuinely impressed by his devious little plan. "And what do you get out of this?" she asked with vague suspicion.

She couldn't see the grin he flashed at her, but she knew it was there. "The pleasure of knowing they owe me for introducing you to them in the first place, little girl."

Rory laughed, shaking her head as he drew her into the ballroom. Her eyes automatically scanned the upper level of the room, seeking out the familiarly awful Inquisition uniforms. Leliana, more relaxed than she'd ever seen the bard, casually enjoying conversations with just about everyone who passed her by; Josephine, keeping a close eye on her little sister while also watching Kaaras' progress around the ballroom; Kaaras himself, apparently charming the knickers off the Dowager if her obvious giggles were anything to go by. Sera watching the court watching the Inquisitor, amusing herself with what she knew about all of them; Vivienne, in her element, somehow managing to pull off that uniform without seeming out of place in it; and Cullen. Rory felt a flicker of sympathy for her husband. He was surrounded by nobles, his back ramrod straight, jaw ticking in a manner that was very familiar to her. He really didn't want to be here, and to be the recipient of all this attention just made it worse.

She couldn't rescue him, however, at least not yet. Granthis had a plan, and given the grip he had on her hand wrapped about his arm, she wasn't going to be allowed to circumvent it. The uniquely-attired apothecary advanced through the ranks of the nobles, inserting them both into a small gaggle beside one of the balconies. One of that number turned to greet them.

"Ah, Monsieur Granthis, how good of you to join us," he said, his Orlesian heavily accented with ... is that Anderfels? Piercing blue eyes surveyed Granthis and his guest from behind a plain mask. "And your companion?"

Granthis offered a florid bow. "Grand Master Ansel Tralor, I have the great honor to introduce to you Mistress Rory Rutherford, the Inquisition's senior healer," he declared, tugging Rory forward.

For what felt like the thousandth time this evening, Rory curtsied automatically, meeting the appraising gaze that fell on her. "A pleasure to meet you, Grand Master," she smiled cordially.

"Ah, yes, Mistress ... Rutherford, you say?" Ansel tilted his head to one side, considering her. "I was not aware you had married, mistress. My information stated that your name was Dupuis."

Rory had to fight not to react to that name with shock. What the hell is going on here? she demanded in the silence of her mind. First Lady Trevelyan knows my real first name, and now this stranger knows my real surname. Is there an actual Dupuis family here in Thedas now? She managed to conjure a false look of confusion, though she was certain he wasn't fooled. "Before my marriage, my name was Allen," she told the Grand Master.

Ansel Tralor considered her for a moment, a fleeting smile touching his lips as he inclined his head to her. "My apologies, Mistress Rutherford," he conceded. "Clearly my information was wrong."

"A simple mistake to make," she allowed, aware that the slightly panicked patter of her heart was not helping her composure to stay level. "There are a great many people attached to the Inquisition."

"And yet not one of your healers has affiliation with any guild," Ansel mused, looking her over thoughtfully. "Tell me, Mistress Rutherford, if I were suffering with chronic abdominal pain that could, at times, become crippling, what would you recommend?"

Oh, so this is an interview. Got it. "I'd ask you to identify a pattern in when the pain occurs, and when it is at its worst," she answered automatically. Months of living in Thedas had trained her out of immediately trying to guess without more information.

The piercing eyes narrowed a little behind the mask. "The pain fluctuates, but is at its worst shortly after eating," he told her, offering the information she had asked for. "Wine taken on an empty stomach results in pain that cripples me."

Rory considered this for a moment. "Well, without being able to examine you properly, my recommendation would be to take milk of elder with your meals, not to drink wine on an empty stomach, and to examine your diet with the view to cutting out the rich foods that have obviously given you an ulcer."

"You would not suggest seeing a mage, then?"

"Not in the initial consultation, no," she answered, shaking her head. "Perhaps in later assessments, if the patient is non-compliant, or the suggested remedy is not having the hoped-for effect, but even magical intervention would only heal what damage is there, not correct the problem that caused the ulcer in the first place."

She could feel Granthis chuckling beside her as Ansel nodded, his thin lips curving in a satisfied smile. "Well done, mistress," the Grand Master praised her. "There are few healers of my acquaintance who admit that magic is not the end of all our skill."

"Then they can't have that much faith in their own skill, Grand Master," she shrugged lightly. "Why are they practicing healers if they don't believe they can handle anything that comes to them?"

"Do you believe you can handle anything that comes to you?" he asked sharply.

"Yes," she answered - simple but true. "Handle, not heal. Some things are beyond our current knowledge to cure, but there are ways to suppress pain, to make movement easier, to give a person some dignity despite their ailment. To end it, if there is no way to give them a life with any quality to it, with their consent. Healing is about making things better, and sometimes an end is the only improvement we can offer."

"If a patient of yours was seriously injured, yet not so badly that he would not recover, but demanded an end, would you give it to him?" Ansel asked her, his expression behind the mask searching.

"No." That was a ridiculous question in itself, and she hoped he knew it. "I don't kill for the hell of it, or on command. And I'll take whatever abuse he throws at me. He'll thank me eventually, when the pain passes."

Ansel snorted with laughter. "Spoken as one who has already experienced such a thing," he commented, glancing to his fellows. They nodded, whether in agreement or consideration, Rory couldn't tell. But she didn't need to tell. Ansel was already speaking again. "Then, Mistress Rutherford, it is the wish of this Guild to invite you to become a member. A simple visit to our guildhall in Val Royeaux is all it will take; you have the knowledge necessary, the standing, and the sponsorship of a respected Master of the Guild."

Rory eyed him thoughtfully. "And what do I owe you in exchange for this guild membership?" she asked warily.

"Reports on your activities, the sharing of experimental concoctions or treatments with a high success rate, the acknowledgement of your Guild membership in the wearing of our sigil," Ansel informed her, his voice just a little cool. Apparently she was supposed to just accept without asking questions.

"I'll consider it, Grand Master," Rory answered, offering him a friendly smile. "Thank you. Granthis, you said something about dancing?"

"Oh, of course. Do excuse us." With her arm wrapped through his, Granthis drew her away from the gaggle of guild leaders, cackling behind his mask. "You're a joy, little girl. They'll be itching to get you in now you've suggested you might not!"

"I did learn from the best," she murmured, flashing him a grin of her own as he drew her down to the dance floor. "And I swear, if you let me fall over, I will castrate you with the spoon from the punch bowl."

"Understood, little girl." Granthis chuckled as they took their positions, as the music announced the beginning of a new dance. "I knew you were going to be more entertaining tonight than those fussy nobs."

"Well, I will say that it's suddenly a lot more entertaining than it was," she conceded, spinning under his arm to join the promenade of couples. "But given that it was boring enough to threaten death by nonentity just a little while ago, I'm still waiting for the entertainment to begin."

"Take a look up at that railing, and you might be better entertained," her ugly friend told her.

Her head tilted upward, following the line of his nod, only to find Cullen leaning against the stone balustrade, his eyes fixed on her. She couldn't quite read his expression from here, but judging by the slightly dejected postures of the nobles gathered around him, she had a feeling it was a familiar look. One that signaled their total defeat in trying to get his attention, especially now his wife was easily visible. Whether he was using her as an excuse to make them back off or not, she couldn't resist the urge to blow him a kiss as Granthis whirled her past, laughing quietly at the romantic sighs that rose from the nobles paying attention.

All right, maybe the ball wasn't quite so boring anymore. And no one had even died yet.

Chapter Text

Orlesians, it seemed, were hopeless romantics. Despite the plethora of less than complimentary comments Rory had overheard in the last few hours, suddenly the lords and ladies of the court were falling over themselves to be sweet and pleasant to