Alanna glared at the training dummy in front of her as if her frustrations were all its fault. In a blur of motion, she spun her staff through the air, smacking the straw-stuffed burlap sack repeatedly. She lunged forward with an exasperated grunt and repeated the routine again and again.
Cullen had been avoiding her for most of the day, barely saying little more than a cold greeting when they passed in the courtyard that morning. Try as she might, Alanna couldn't think of a damn thing she might have done to upset him and the whole situation was irritating her more and more with each passing hour. At this point she was considering calling a war meeting just to corner him and demand to know what his problem was.
A heavy sigh escaped her as she finished her attack routine yet again. This was not how she wanted her last day at Skyhold to be. She was to set off for the Hissing Wastes tomorrow morning as several rifts had been reported in the area. Which means, as the only person in all of Thedas who could actually close the damn things, she had to travel there personally. The journey there alone could take nearly three weeks and all together she was bound to be gone for at least the next two months.
Two months. At least. And he chose today of all days to avoid her. Alanna brought her staff down to her side, leaning on it as she stared mournfully at the practice dummy, her earlier frustrations forgotten. She'd never considered that she would find herself so helplessly in love-mages weren't allowed to have romantic relationships in the Circle after all-but here she was, taking her anger out on a worthless sack and then wanting to cry on its shoulder because of a handsome man.
She turned around to start a different series of attacks when her eyes happened to catch a familiar figure crossing the bridge. Cullen was walking briskly across from his office, staring at something he was holding, but he was too far away and his hands too low for her to tell exactly what it was. Paper? Or maybe a box? He'd have been holding it more closely if he was reading something and his arms looked stiff, as if they were holding something heavy.
Alanna shook her head as he disappeared into the tower off of the main hall. She was thinking about following him inside, but was already disgusted with herself for grossly overanalyzing his body language to figure out what he was holding. Going inside and talking to him would likely end poorly with her in her current state of mind. Also, the place was a veritable maze and there was no guarantee she could even find him.
Instead, she continued assaulting the unfortunate sack on a stick in front of her. She'd traded her usual staff for a blade some time ago when Dorian's melodic voice sounded from behind.
"I think it's had quite enough of that, don't you think?" he said with a smirk as he walked up.
She turned to face him, lifting her arms in exasperation. "I can't very well take it out on the recruits can I?" she huffed, dropping her arms to her sides.
"Oh I'm sure you could. Our Commander will likely agree they need more practice fighting an experienced mage. Have you seen them spar with the mage recruits? It's a ghastly sight, I don't recommend it."
Alanna rolled her eyes at the mention of Cullen. "If our Commander would stop avoiding me, maybe I could ask him," she hit the target a few more times with her sword.
"So that's what this is all about," Dorian brought his arms up, resting one on his side while the hand of the other hovered near his mouth, "He's a very busy man, Alanna, you of all people should know this."
She was inches from his face before she knew she had even moved, his permanent smirk never wavering under the intensity of her gaze. "Busy doesn't explain why the only thing he's said to me all damn day is 'Inquisitor.' Which was once. This morning, if you were curious."
Dorian's mouth fell and his brow creased slightly. "Well that is odd even for him," he muttered into his hand.
Alanna threw her arms in the air again, nearly losing grip on her sword. "I don't know what I could have possibly done to put a stick in his ass," she heard Dorian choke back a laugh at that, "Or what he did or… Andraste's ass I don't know, but today? Of all days?"
She turned and swung her sword with full force, cutting through the practice target and lodging the blade in the pole. She tugged once and when the blade failed to come free she moved back towards Dorian, running her hands down her face. Her friend reached out and gripped her gently by the shoulders, a reassuring smile tugging at his lips.
"You need a distraction, my dear friend, and I know just the thing. Let’s go to the tavern, have a pint or two and play cards with Bull or Sera or whoever else might be brave enough to face the mighty Inquisitor in a game of chance. Perhaps by evening our good friend Cullen will have removed that stick in his ass, as you so eloquently put it."
Alanna glanced up at the mid afternoon sky. Normally it would have been too early for her to consider drinking, but she had to admit that Dorian's proposal was appealing and she could use the distraction. She would just have to make sure Bull didn't keep refilling her cup when she wasn't looking as he was wont to do. The last thing she needed was to be hung over tomorrow morning or drunk when she went to speak with Cullen.
"Alright," she managed a small smile.
Dorian beamed and clapped her on the shoulders before leading her into the tavern. When they entered, he called out a greeting to the Iron Bull, telling the qunari to grab a table for a couple of hands of Wicked Grace. Bull grinned excitedly, calling Krem over in turn as Alanna sat down and Dorian ordered their drinks. Sera's blonde head appeared, hanging upside down from the floor above as she threatened to put ants in their knickers if they didn't let her play. Instead of using the stairs, the tiny elf swung down from the second floor and plopped down on the bench next to Alanna.
"Why the long face, yeah?" Sera asked, protectively wrapping her thin arms around the mug the serving girl had just set down, "Inquizzie stuff got you down?"
"Not… exactly," Alanna muttered, absently trailing a finger along the rim of her own mug.
"I watched Cullen avoid the practice field today when you were out there," Bull supplied, shuffling the deck of cards, "That have anything to do with it?"
"Commander Stuffybritches twist your panties? Not like that," Sera glared, "I got this scratchy powder. Makes your arse itch real bad. Put it in 'is smalls and everythin' itches bad, not just 'is arse but-"
"Maker, no!" Alanna stared at her wide eyed.
"Well you gotta let me do somethin!" Sera protested, scooping up her cards as Bull dealed.
"No I don't."
Her tongue stuck out as she contemplated her hand, completely ignoring Alanna, before slamming the cards down excitedly, "He loves everything nice and boring and tidy, yeah? It'd drive 'im mad if everything got untidied."
Alanna imagined Cullen trying to reorganize his office after Sera's intervention and grinned slightly. Sera leaned back and pointed at her, a huge, excited grin on her face.
"You've got a smile! That means I can do it!"
"That's not what it means!" Alanna tried to sound serious but the laugh threatening to escape her ruined any chance of that.
The elf laughed wickedly as she picked up her cards again, no doubt planning her latest prank. A gauntleted hand, gentle despite its weight, rested on Alanna's shoulder, pulling her attention from Sera's antics.
"I'm sure there's a reason for it," Krem said in a level voice, a soft smile on his face, "The Commander doesn't seem the type to do anything without good reason."
"Not like our Sera," Dorian jibed from the other side of the table.
"Ey, I got plenty of reason!"
"Do tell what your reason was for tossing every left boot you could find off of the roof? I'm most curious."
"I said I had plenty of reason, not reason for everythin. That was just plain funny," Sera giggled maniacally into her mug.
Krem gave Alanna's shoulder a squeeze, "I'm sure by tonight he'll be free enough for you to approach him about it. It's obvious he cares about you so he won't stay away forever."
Alanna gave the mercenary a small smile as he removed his hand and picked up his mug. "Thank you, Krem," she said softly, turning to her own drink.
"Yeah Krem, you're Aclassi guy," Bull said with a snarky grin, "A real pal."
"Chief," Krem growled into his mug, eliciting a hearty laugh out of the qunari and a few snickers from everyone else but Sera.
"What I don't-Ohhhhh thas his name, yeah? Good one," she laughed again.
Their light hearted banter continued through several hands of Wicked Grace. It was low stakes, more for fun than actually winning, and Alanna felt her mood lighten considerably, even if she'd lost her ass to Sera a couple times before realizing the girl had been cheating. By the time the sun had set however, a knot of apprehension had formed in her gut. She knew she had to try and speak with Cullen or she would spend the next two months on the road regretting it. Dorian must have sensed it, for when she made to leave he stood and walked her to the door.
"Don't fret my friend," Dorian's words slurred slightly through the knowing smile on his lips, "I think you'll find our dear commander has likely had a change of heart during the day."
Alanna cocked an eyebrow at him, half tempted to chalk his words up to the near fifth of Vint-1 he'd polished off with Bull. "Perhaps I'll go see him now then," she turned to leave when Dorian grabbed her arm forcefully.
"No!" he shouted before quickly regaining as much composure as his drunken state would allow, "I mean you should consider a bath first my friend. No offense, but the hours you spent on the practice field have left you smelling like a horse's ass."
She was tempted to glare at him but he was probably right. Also, it was the last chance she'd have to take a real bath before setting out tomorrow and who knew when the next time she'd be able to have one would be?
"Alright. Bath first, then Cullen," she assented with a nod.
Whatever Dorian was about to say next was drowned out by Bull's drunken bellowing, "Hey Vint! Quit flirting and get your ass over here so I can hand it to you again!"
Dorian shouted something back in Tevene, a phrase that was incredibly vulgar if the shocked faces and boisterous laughter of Bull and Krem were any indication. He turned back to Alanna and patted her arm with that same strange smile from before.
"Do enjoy yourself; we'll be gone quite some time."
Before she could say anything he sauntered back to the table, responding to Bull's rude gestures with even ruder ones. Alanna stared after him in confusion before ultimately shaking her head and leaving the building.
A cool evening breeze brushed against her flushed cheeks, a welcome feeling after the heat of the tavern. She breathed deeply, filling her lungs with fresh mountain air, before walking across the lawn and climbing the steps to Skyhold's great hall. Nobles and visiting dignitaries were still standing around the hall in clusters, talking amongst themselves. As she walked the length of the room to her quarters, none did anything more than acknowledge her passing with a polite nod. She thanked the Maker for that. Dealing with the nobility was the last thing she wanted to do even when she was in a good mood.
Alanna sighed heavily as she closed the door of her quarters behind her, leaning against it and closing her eyes for a moment. Waves of nerves coursed through her whenever she thought of confronting Cullen. They'd yet to have a real fight beyond the heated debates she got into with all of her advisors, but she was still worried that her actions had upset him somehow. Not that she could recall doing anything exactly.
She shook her head, vehemently reminding herself that she hadn't done anything wrong, as she walked to her room, carefully stepping over the stones and stray boards the workers hadn't cleaned up yet.
"Ugh, remind me to have that mess cleaned up," she mumbled to herself, sneering down at the debris from the top of the stairs.
Alanna choked back a scream and nearly stumbled backwards down the stairs. She'd been so caught up in her own thoughts that she hadn't noticed her couch had been moved to face the hearth, let alone that it was occupied.
Cullen stood fluidly, an amused look on his face. He was out of his armor, having traded it for a simple yet formal shirt and breeches. Alanna glanced over the room and saw that the man wasn't the only new addition since that morning.
Two glasses of wine sat on a table in front of the burning fire accompanied by a covered plate of something. Small bunches of flowers in vases had been placed strategically around the room and on her bed were… rose petals?
Cullen's gaze followed hers until it landed on the bed. He looked away, rubbing his neck nervously.
"I-ah…" he started.
"Cullen," Alanna said sharply, causing him to look up at her in shock, "What in the Maker's name has gotten into you?"
He dropped his hand, refusing to flinch under her scrutiny though he was reluctant to meet her eye. "I can explain."
"You're damn right you will," Alanna snapped, the day's frustrations coming to a boil. "You avoided me all day, barely said anything on the one odd chance I bumped into you, and then I find this?" She spread her arms, gesturing to the whole room. "You know I'm leaving for Maker knows how long tomorrow, right? Did you think that maybe I'd like to spend time with you?"
Cullen sighed wearily and pinched the bridge of his nose. "This is the last time I listen to Dorian," he muttered, more to himself than to her.
Alanna crossed her arms and shifted her weight to one leg, still standing by the stairs. "Dorian told you to do all of that then? 'Ignore the woman you love all day, she'll simply adore it?'" she said in a poor mimicry of the other mage's voice.
"No, that was an error on my part…" he said solemnly, "Dorian said I should surprise you with a 'night of romance,' as he phrased it, before you left. I knew I would give myself away somehow so I… removed any chance of that happening. I'm sorry."
The look of pure remorse he gave her before looking away again nearly broke Alanna's heart. She felt her anger melt away, leaving a pit of guilt in its place. He'd tried to do something nice for her and even when she had seen what he had been doing all day, she had given in to her ire and yelled at him regardless. If anyone should be sorry right now, it was her.
She closed the distance between them and grabbed the hands that hung limp at his sides. They readily tightened around her own though he still refused to look her in the eye.
"No, Cullen, I'm sorry," she said quietly, "I shouldn't have raised my voice at you like that. I just…"
"You're upset," his voice was a low rumble thick with regret, "It's alright, I understand."
Alanna shook her head. "It's not, it's really not. For what it's worth, I appreciate what you did. If it wasn't for my damned blindness ruining everything this would be perfect."
"Truly?" he met her eyes at that, his brown ones lit with surprise.
"Truly," she managed a small, sad smile, "It's every girl's dream to find a handsome man waiting for her in her bedchambers. He usually isn't as well-dressed though, what with him being naked and all."
Cullen chuckled softly, the sound easing her guilt. He lifted their hands and placed his lips against her knuckles, kissing them gently. "Is that your dream as well?" a slight grin graced his face.
"I'm not so young and foolish to not be able to appreciate a finely dressed man," her sad smile shifted into one that was slightly more mischievous, "Or to not know that half the fun is in removing all of that finery."
He released her hands and wrapped his own around her waist, pulling her close. Alanna rested her head on his chest, hugging him tight.
"You're not mad?" she asked quietly.
He gently kissed the top of her head, lingering there as he spoke, "Of course not. Are you?"
"Not at all," she looked up at him, an impish grin curling her lips, "Though I might kill Dorian just for good measure. I'm assuming the rose petals were his idea?"
Even in the orange light of the fire she could see the blush rising in Cullen's face. "Uhm… Yes, actually. I told him that was ridiculous but he insisted."
Alanna laughed and kissed him again, "He'd say otherwise but not all of his ideas are good ones. Though he did have a good one for me…" she trailed her fingers across his body to his chest.
"And that was?" his voice was low as he leaned closer, brushing his lips against hers
"A bath," she felt him grin.
"He gave us both the same idea, it seems," Cullen let go of her and pulled away, a lopsided grin on his face, "I had one drawn up for us."
Alanna raised her eyebrows. "'Us?'"
"If you don't mind the company."
"As long as the company doesn't mind several layers of dried sweat and dirt."
"Not at all," he laughed as he took hold of her hand and led her across the room.
The moon had nearly completed its journey through the sky when she came to consciousness again. Cullen had gently pulled her into his arms, bringing their bare bodies together in a warm embrace. The movement had woken her but she didn't mind.
Alanna snuggled closer, leaning her head into his chest as she wrapped her own arms around him. He pressed his lips to the top of her head and she heard him sigh.
"Maker but I will miss you," his voice was barely a whisper.
"I'll miss you too," she mumbled sleepily.
His arms tightened around her as he spoke, "You will write to me, yes?"
"Don't I always?" she chuckled, looking up at him.
Even in the dark, she could see the sadness in his eyes. He didn't want her to leave as much as she didn't want to go, but they both knew they had to do their duty. They did it, but in quiet moments like this it felt cruel that they were torn apart because Thedas needed the Herald and she was the unfortunate soul to bear the title.
"I suppose you do," he muttered, threading his fingers into her auburn tresses.
Silence fell around them again. Alanna focused on the feeling of his body gently pressed against hers, his strong arms wrapped around her as he absently played with her hair. She was determined to burn it all into her mind. Something to hold on to over the following months while she was away. Something to look forward to on her return.
Cullen hugged her tightly once more. "You have to come back," he whispered, emotion tingeing the edge of his voice, "I don't-I need you to come back. Safely."
"I will," she said softly, reaching up to stroke his face, "I'm not about to leave you alone. I will always come back."
He sighed again, placing a soft kiss on her forehead. They both knew that coming back alive was a vow all too easily broken, that anything could happen in the heat of battle, but there was comfort in making such a promise. Over time, it had become more of a good luck charm than an actual promise, and while neither of them was necessarily superstitious, it felt like bad luck to not say it.
"You should get some rest," Cullen said, managing a small smile, "I'm sorry I woke you."
Alanna smiled back and kissed him before settling herself against his chest once more. "I love you," she whispered.
"I love you too."
"It seems your talk with Cullen went well," Dorian said when they were out of sight of Skyhold's gates.
Alanna glared at him, tempted to push him off his horse, but was smiling regardless. "Wouldn't you like to know?"
"Oh I would very much like to know."
"What, how our talk went or how your little plan worked itself out?"
"My plan?" Dorian feigned offense, "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Rose petals on the sheets, Dorian? Really?" Alanna cocked an eyebrow at him.
"Come now it was a brilliant addition."
"No, it wasn't."
"It's about atmosphere, setting the right mood."
"It was ridiculous."
Dorian threw his hands in the air with falsified exasperation. "I help plan one last night of passion and all I get is criticism! You wound me with your cruelty."
"I can wound you in other ways if you'd like."
"Please don't, you'll mar my perfect skin and naturally good looks. In any case," he waved a hand as if to banish the conversation before facing her, a heartfelt smile on his face, "I hope you two had a pleasant evening. The both of you deserve it. And much more, in fact, but it appears that's too much to ask."
As he spoke, Alanna turned just enough to see Skyhold's towers peaking over the mountains surrounding the path. A warm feeling spread through her, coloring her smile and changing it from one of mischief to one of affection. Cullen had seen them off, she could still feel his lips against hers as he said goodbye and bid her to return safely one last time. He'd likely stayed there until they were out of sight before yelling at loitering recruits and returning to his duties.
She found herself chuckling at the thought as she turned back around, fully aware of the smug look on Dorian's face. "Maybe it is too much to ask, but we enjoy what little time we have together. Thank you, Dorian."
"Don't mention it."
"Oh I won't. Because mentioning it means mentioning you suggested rose petals on the sheets. And then admitting it actually happened," Alanna grinned wickedly at him.
He rolled his eyes. "I hate you. You know this, yes?"
Alanna laughed and urged her horse forward without a word. The journey would be long and tiresome, and she was likely to be cleaning sand out of her boots for months, but she found herself eager to embark. The sooner they left, the sooner they were finished, and the sooner she would find herself in her lover's arms again.