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love song for the admiral

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Evening lies so well on Skyhold, the bright constellations settling above the dark mountain peaks like a starry crown. Trevelyan says as much, and Cullen chuckles, his back resting against the stone. She looks out into the white valley below, over the frozen river and the jagged cliffs. Cullen is watching the Chargers attempt to see who can do an Antivan cartwheel the quickest outside the tavern door. The ground is slick with frost and ice; the Chargers are spectacularly drunk.

He leans over, presses his lips to Trevelyan’s head. Her auburn hair falls to her chin, the strands catching when a cold night breeze slides between them. She leans against him, cheek against his shoulder. Krem manages a spectacular back flip but slips straight on his arse on the landing, and Bull’s roar of approval nearly echoes.

I am happy, Cullen realizes. It doesn’t shake the earth, but it makes his ears go red. How strange. Here, of all places. How fantastic.

“Why are you smiling like that?” Trevelyan asks, an eyebrow arched. He kisses her temple.

“Nothing,” he responds. But he’s still smiling.

~~~

At the war table, Josephine has to clear her throat three times to get his attention.

“Commander?” she says, trying not to smile.

“Oh—sorry,” he apologizes, rubbing the back of his head.

“Now, now, Josephine,” Leliana murmurs, leaning over the map and sliding one of her pieces to the Fallow Mire. “The Inquisitor is due back today. The Commander is simply…very thoughtful.”

Josephine grins and Cullen sighs under his breath. “Let us refocus on the fact that the entire Exalted Plains is on fire,” he grumbles, resting his hands on the map. “Ghilan’nain’s Grove. This is yours?” He raises an eyebrow at Josephine. Her piece is ensconced by his soldiers.

“There is a coalition of nobles who wish to throw in with the Inquisition,” she says, not looking up from the letter she is scribbling on her tablet. “The Inquisitor would have them prove themselves by clearing the grove.” She bounces up thoughtfully on the balls of her feet, a sprite in blue and gold.

“It would be faster with our soldiers,” Cullen responds, his tone even to cover his annoyance.  

“Perhaps,” says Josephine, “but what do we get out of it other than a score of tired Inquisition soldiers?”

“A job well done. What does your way do?”

Josephine smiles her secret smile, with just a hint of white teeth. “Two jobs well done.”

Cullen sighs and runs a hand over his face and Leliana chuckles. “Children,” she says.

~~

It’s three bells past midnight and there’s a knock at Cullen’s door. “Enter,” is his curt, automatic response. Trevelyan stands there, no shoes, wrapped in a blanket, shaking.

“Inquisitor,” his tone gentles, he stands at his desk and she comes to him immediately. “Are you all right?” he murmurs, running his hands up and down her arms.

“Bad dream,” she says, a humorless, dry chuckle. Bad enough to send her out of bed and across the stone with no shoes. Cullen lifts her up onto the edge of his desk so her bare feet are off the stone, and then sits carefully in his chair. He takes one of Trevelyan’s feet into his hands, rubbing the soles with his gloved hands.

She tells him. It takes until the first pinks of dawn are creeping up the mountains.

The face of a templar she’d grown up with at the circle in Ostwick, lingering in the Fade. Cullen has always thought she has been steady around templars for a mage.

“He was a recruit,” she murmurs, feet warmed to Cullen’s approval and sitting in his lap. She is wrapped in the blanket and his cloak, and he is armored—it is still the longest and the closest they’ve been. He runs his thumb back and forth over the knuckles of her hand, waiting. “I was an apprentice. Same age. I guess—I’d been there a couple years before him, but we were both fourteen when we met.”

His name was Arram. Knight-Lieutenant Arram. A tree made flesh, she said, and jet black hair he’d always wanted to keep long. He could use a sword and a shield, but he was a marksman, and good enough the knight-commander lent him to the hunters a handful of times a year.

He was kind. The way she says it sounds like the truth of it could fill half the tomes in Skyhold’s library. The top of her head nuzzles under his chin. He made my life safe. He was my templar.

“What happened?” Cullen’s voice is low, as though speaking in normal tones will disturb the quiet hours of the night. He can’t lie—it’s to press down his panic as much as everything else. Do not add jealousy to of the dead to your list of failings, he tells himself in a curt voice he only reserves for soldiers who laze off practicing their footwork. You are not even a templar anymore.

“I don’t know,” she murmurs. “But he’s gone. When we were separated, he was taking a group of mage children to Starkhaven, and then heading to the Conclave.” Ostwick had been rent into many parts after the Circles dissolved. “One of my fellow enchanters said she’d spoken with him the morning of—of all this.” She flexes her hand; the Anchor hums a soft glow in response, then quiets.

“When I see him in the Fade—the demons wear his face,” she confesses. “Or his eyes are—just ashes.” She squeezes her eyes shut tightly, and he tightens his arms around her, the pangs of his own heart long forgotten.

“He is safe,” he tells her. “He is at peace. And you are making the world a kinder place in his name.”

~~~

It starts with a letter from one of Leliana’s agents. A cell of templars in the Hinterlands has been keeping the village well-supplied with meat for the refugees. They are their own men, splintered from the Chantry long before Corypheus dug his claws deep into the order.

“They’ve taught the refugees how to secure their own game,” reads Leliana from the letter. “They want more to do.”

Cullen takes the letter from her hand, reads it over. “Would they come here?” he asks.

“Another band, like the Chargers?” inquires Josephine. Cullen inclines his head slightly. “Good,” she says. “There’s more than enough work to do.”

“Can’t you shake a bag of gold out the window?” smirks the commander, “and find some more nobles to build bridges?”

“I’ll try that next time,” says the diplomat. “Perhaps they’ll bring some hair pomade that doesn’t give out in the sun.”

Cullen immediately touches the back of his head with a gloved hand.

~~~

The Inquisitor has been back from the Forbidden Oasis for less than a day when they’re gathered around the war table again and a scout barges in, an arm clasped to her chest.

“Inquisitor,” she says, heaving. “Templars at the gate.”

Trevelyan’s eyes go wide and Cullen says quickly, “They’re from the Hinterlands. Not allied with the Venatori.” His hand is on her arm. She nods and grabs her staff anyway.

“We’ll see, won’t we?” is her answer, and she nods to the scout. “Go let them in. Leliana, give me archers on the battlements.”

They swish and sprint out of the war room, sliding to their places as easy as keys into a lock. Leliana flies up to the tower and Cullen notes archers in place along the tips of Skyhold. He follows Trevelyan, Josephine in tow. They flank her like two chess pieces protecting the queen. They wait at the top of the steps.

A group of templars come through the gate—less than twelve, but a hardy group. Their armor is dotted with blood and dust from the road, and it catches the light gloriously. The sight of it takes Cullen’s breath for a moment. You used to do this, says that rough voice at the back of his mind, before your place was behind the desk.

The templar at the head holds up a hand to halt them, takes off the helmet. It’s a man with hair black as obsidian, long and tied back in a knot. That’s not regulation, is Cullen’s reflex thought before the Inquisitor drops her staff and the world goes still.

It clatters on the stone steps and then she launches herself down, legs flying, taking the steps two or three at a time, practically sprinting and she is going to fall and kill herself—Cullen moves to follow but Josephine reaches on a hand, touches his arm, stops him in his tracks.

The Inquisitor finally reaches the sweet green lawn of the courtyard and bounds, leaps into his arms, armor and all, her arms around his neck and the look of surprise on his face is like one who’s seen the dead. He is too tall to bend to her, so when he wraps his arms around her and closes his eyes in silent prayer (if it’s not prayer, then it’s something like it—Cullen knows that look on a templar’s face too well), he lifts her off her feet.

The whole courtyard is quiet. Cullen feels like a rift just opened out from under him, and one of those wisp things is curling a hand around his ankle to pull him down, down, down.

Josephine reacts first, stepping forward on the toes of her blue-slippered feet. “Inquisitor,” she calls, her accented voice as light as a dove in the sun, “unhand that man so the rest of us may meet him.”

The company laughs, and so does the man, the stillness broken. He sets her down. The Inquisitor turns—she is weeping, notes Cullen—running her hands over her cheeks, laughing too, a broken, hopeful sound.

“This is Arram,” she says, “Knight-Lieutenant Arram, of Ostwick and the Free Marches.”

~~~

Cullen’s caught up in her happiness, for a time. She kisses him that night when she visits him in that office, light and nearly chaste. She can’t stop smiling.

“It is a miracle,” she says. “The dead are not supposed to return.”

No, Cullen thinks quietly, rebelliously. You are the miracle. He runs his fingers through her auburn hair. The rest of us are happenstance.

~~~

He debriefs Arram in his office, his hazel eyes hard and curt but never unprofessional.

He learns the knight-lieutenant never made it to the Conclave, that he and his fellow templars have been working tirelessly against the apostates in the Hinterlands ever since the Rift ripped open the sky.

“I was told to go there to find some missing templars,” he recounts. His voice is slow, low, endlessly reassuring. It is easy to see why mages find him trustworthy. “The Conclave blew, the rifts opened up, and my team and I, well…it didn’t make much sense to find them after that.” He shifts, doesn’t like to stand still. “Groups of apostates were running wild over the Hinterlands—not the mages in Redcliffe, mind you, but blood mages.” He looks like he would spit, but he remembers he’s in Cullen’s office.

“Admirable work,” Cullen says, and it’s true.

“Thank you, Commander,” is Arram’s reply. “I do not suffer ‘em to live.”

A Marcher through and through, then. He is incredibly tall, lean-muscled all over and commands a bow as long as he is. Cullen, of rather average height, must tip his chin to look him in the eye. He rests his hands on the pommel of his sword.

“Welcome to the Inquisition, Knight-Lieutenant,” he says. “You’ve come to the right place for work.”

~~~

“How goes work on the Grove?” asks the Inquisitor. They’ve been at this for hours, and the end is finally in sight.

“Slowly,” says Josephine, “but the tenants and farmers of the duchy have taken up hammer and spade alongside the soldiers.”

“Truly?” says Leliana, fingering the tip of her chin. “How interesting.”

“Why?” asks the Inquisitor, and Maker, Cullen is glad somebody did.

“You’ve met Orlesians,” offers Josephine, putting down her tablet and candle. “The classes are rigid—upward mobility a thing of years of good luck and great strategy. To see a noble sergeant take up arms with a farmer as comrade, well…” She smiles, and it reaches all the way to her dark eyes. “It is the end of the world, is it not?”

“So nice to see an upside to the rifts tearing apart the countryside,” sighs Cullen.

“They will tear them apart either way,” Josephine says, picking her table back up. “Whether we find a way together, or no.”

~~~

She takes Arram with her and Dorian and Bull to the desert. The morning before they leave, Cullen catches her inside the door of his office and kisses her long and hard, his hands tracing up the curves of her ribs. Don’t forget me there, he wants to say. Come back to me safe and whole. He presses his lips to her forehead and lets her go.

~~~

They are gone for a whole month. He plays chess alone, drills and drills his soldiers, spends hours contemplating the war table. Sleeps little, aches much, dreams constantly of deep shadows in the Fade.

~~~

Cullen sits in the courtyard garden, looking up at the stars. Mia loved old stories of knights and princesses when they were children; even more, she loved reading them aloud. An amusing form of torture, he supposed, but occasionally he had found himself enrapt in one glorious tale or another.

One, he remembers clearly: The elf king Ristan found love as easily as sliding into the Fade in slumber: not at all, and then suddenly, all at once.

The story did not say that losing is exactly the same, but it’s a lesson Cullen learned well long ago. He has made it into a personal art form. Cullen’s lost countries, cities, positions, careers. Sleep. Faith. Peace. It all flies out of his fingers. People. So many people. Good, strong people, pulled out by fate or the sword or what have you until he is left sitting here, in this courtyard in the mountains, all alone.

When he thinks of the many scars that line his flesh, he can point to the ones he knew were going to happen. A rage demon stretching out a claw and he knew his shield would not rise fast enough. Watching a mage ready a fireball and his sword is still in the sheath. Knowing pain is coming, because that’s what warriors do: they anticipate.

She had shut the door and said, Cullen. And all his swords and shields and efforts would never come fast enough.

He is not angry at her—how could he be? She found the same gold as he, but in someone else. How can he be angry at her for finding someone more worthy?

I will always care for you.

Cullen buries his heart beneath moss and permafrost. It is time to accept that it is has been so long since a good thing could bear to stay in his life that it is not meant to happen. Not again. Not anymore. He is barren ground, rocky soil, not even bloody rashvine would grow here—and metaphors are not Cullen’s strength.

He is empty.

The numbness is relief, in a way. Not even the lyrium can burn this way. It can gnaw at his bones, suck at the marrow, but it can’t scrape him clean.

His thoughts are traitorous. He imagines Trevelyan and her knight-lieutenant kissing in her quarters, looking up at the same sky on her balcony. Remembering a life already lived together. His lips touch her fingers. Her smile feels like a gift.

This is madness. He gets up suddenly, but his legs are stiffened by the cold and he grabs the edge of a stone wall.

“Cullen?” Cassandra’s voice comes from the door leading to the shrine of Andraste. She regards him with her cool eyes. He sees them soften; she reads the writing on the wall well. That kills him more than anything.

She doesn’t offer any words of solace or comfort, just takes his arm and leads him back to his office. She goes up the tower with him, helps him rack his armor in his room.

“Sleep,” she commands, and Cullen obeys. “And for the Maker’s sake,” she adds, her tone petulant, “don’t blame yourself.”

~~~

He wakes the next morning with the lyrium lighting up his nerves, raw and snapping and popping like embers in the fire. He can barely dress himself—can’t tell if it’s the late night, or the cold, or the loss, or—this slow anger building under his skin, the rough voice in the back of his voice saying, You’ve nothing to offer, nothing to give.

He makes his way into the hall, where the day is only just beginning. The Inquisitor likes to meet at the war table early in the morning, before Skyhold is buzzing like a hive and the day takes them a thousand different ways. He opens the door that will lead through the hall to the war room when a scout interrupts him with a missive.

“Ser,” he says, bowing quickly. “Forgive me, but you’ll want to see this.”

Cullen takes the letter without a word and scans it—his vision is blurred at this hour, Maker’s mercy. “Explain, recruit,” he says curtly, irritation rising.

“The grove in the Exalted Plains,” says the scout. “All from the duchy have abandoned the project. Dust has settled on it for more than a week.”

“They just abandoned it?”

“Seems like it, ser,” the scout shifts from foot to foot anxiously. “Not sure why. Infighting, perhaps? Ambassador Montilyet requested—“

“Ambassador Montilyet’s efforts,” Cullen growls, his voice low and rough, “deliver as many results as one would expect from arranging figures on a wedding cake—that is to say, somewhere between irrelevant and none at all.

The world stills.

It’s a strange thing, saying something unforgivable. One moment, everything is the same—the next, well, not at all.

The hall is not full, not by any means, but there are enough bodies to and fro to have heard him. Cullen feels the blood drain away from his face. The scout plucks the missive from his hand, as though that’s enough to stop his mouth.

“Dismissed,” mutters Cullen, turning past the threshold and—there is Josephine, standing in front of her fireplace, staring at him. Her shoulders couldn’t have been more rigidly set than if she’d been standing there in plate. He cannot, for the life of him, read what’s in her dark eyes.

He opens his mouth (what could he even say?), but she’s quicker.

“After you, Commander.” Her voice, even and calm.

“I, uh, well—”

“I insist.” Her tone brokers no argument. Cullen ducks his gaze, rests a hand on the pommel on his sword, and marches on to the war room.

All the way there he hears the soft echo of her steps. He imagines each shoe, blue and small, witnessing the retreating shuffle of his boots.