Chapter 1: Monday
Amazing art by Mickie!
Molly pushed open the door of the restroom and made her way into the hallway between the back room and the main bar, heading for the front. Preoccupied with going over a list of closing duties she needed to get done, she didn’t even notice Cullen standing at the end of the hallway until he reached out and snagged her by the waist, pulling her back into the hall and tucking her back tight up against his chest. “What?!” She craned her neck around, startled by this out of character action.
“Shh,” Cullen whispered, pressing a finger to his lips and then pointing at the bar.
His eyes sparked with amusement, effectively derailing her train of thought. Maker, she’d never seen them this close up before. She could so easily get lost in their rich brown depths, if she let herself. Instead, she yanked her eyes from his, and they fell next to the scar on his lip. Her fingers itched to reach out and trace it, wondering for the millionth time how he had come by it and knowing she’d never get up the courage to ask.
Cullen’s smile was one she hadn’t seen before, and she filed it away in her mind, to be called up later during one of the rare free moments she might take to daydream. It had been months since those daydreams had been about anything—anyone else. His arm was still wrapped around her waist, though he didn’t seem to realize it. Molly held her breath, lest he notice and turn awkward about it. She adored when he was awkward, but found she enjoyed being pressed up against him even more. Even through their sweaters, she could feel the heat of him burning into her back. It was fueling another type of heat, growing inside her from the center out, and she was only seconds away from blushing. Cullen wasn’t the only one with a tendency toward awkwardness.
Voices filtered into her consciousness and she at last turned her attention to what held Cullen’s focus. The barroom was empty, save for Cassandra and Josephine behind the bar, preparing the bank deposit. “…am glad things quieted down for the last hour,” Cassandra told Josephine. “It was busier tonight than expected.”
“I suspect people were taking advantage of the break in the weather to get out after being cooped up inside all week by that dreadful rain,” Josephine murmured.
She was standing much closer to Cassandra than usual, and Molly blinked when she reached up as if to brush Cassandra’s cheek, but let her fingers drop without making contact. Cassandra did not notice.
“I was thinking I might take tomorrow off,” Josephine said in an attempt at a casual tone.
Understanding began to dawn for Molly. Tuesday was Cassandra’s usual day off.
“Oh?” Cassandra glanced up at Josephine. “Did you wish me to come in then, in case we are busy again?”
“No,” Josephine managed a genuine laugh. “I have already spoken to Leliana. She will come in for the whole night, and Molly’s picked up enough that she can help Cullen make any of the less complicated drinks.”
Cassandra tilted her head in thought and then nodded. “Yes, you’re right about that.” Molly felt a new burst of warmth at this bit of approval. Cassandra hadn’t been too keen on hiring a new server when Molly started working at Divine, but she had been warming up to Molly in the past month or so. Cassandra’s brows drew down and she gave Josephine a questioning look. “It sounds as if you’ve got things covered. Why are you telling me, if you don’t need me to come in?”
“Oh, sweet Cassandra,” Josephine said with a warm smile. “I asked for the day off because it is your day off. I was hoping you might like to spend it together?”
Cassandra’s eyes widened and Molly was delighted to see a blush spread across her cheeks. “What did you have in mind?” Surprised she might be, but she definitely sounded interested. From where she stood, Molly could see Cassandra lean in a little bit closer to Josephine, a hopeful smile appearing on her face.
With a soft laugh, Cullen backed up, pulling Molly along into the back room. When he stopped, he said in a low voice, “Let’s let them have a few more moments, shall we?”
“Josephine and Cassandra?” Molly whispered, trying not to focus on how much she missed the warmth of Cullen’s body as he stepped away. “I had no idea!”
“Neither did they,” he whispered back, grinning. “At least, Cass had no suspicion of Josephine’s feelings.” A strange look flashed across his face and he glanced away, staring back down the hallway. “Funny,” he muttered, “how you can spend so much time around a person and not know what they’re thinking.”
“Do you think she feels the same way?” Molly asked, hoping to draw him into a bit more conversation. He had known Cassandra for years. If anyone had an inkling of how she felt, it was probably him.
He glanced back at her. “Cass is hard to read,” he said, tilting his head as if in thought. “But I believe she does. She is warmer when Josephine is around.”
Molly considered it and realized that he was right. Plus, that smile before Cullen pulled Molly to the back room had been pretty telling. “Good for them,” she said, leaning back against the pool table.
“Yes,” Cullen agreed, moving to stand beside her and crossing his arms. Molly fought the urge to lean against him, instead trying to focus on his words. “Cass is a hopeless romantic, really, for all that she doesn’t let it show. I suspect Josephine is just the one to sweep her off her feet.”
“Now that I’d pay to see!” Molly giggled, picturing their diminutive manager actually scooping up the much taller bartender.
That drew a chuckle from Cullen and he bumped her shoulder with his. “You know what I meant,” he said. “Come on, we should probably get back out there. Not even Josephine can keep Cass distracted from her work for long.”
Chapter 2: Wednesday
Molly showed up early for her Wednesday shift, as much to find out how Cassandra and Josephine’s day off together had gone as to help prepare for their busiest night of the week. Not that she felt brave enough to actually ask. She was hoping that Cassandra’s mood would be an indicator.
Luckily, Leliana felt no such compunction against asking into Cassandra’s personal life, and Molly walked through the door just in time to catch the bulk of the conversation. She tossed her backpack underneath the bar and grabbed a broom, trying to act like she wasn’t eavesdropping as she began sweeping around the stage and jukebox.
“I’m only saying that when I spoke with Josie last night, she sounded positively giddy. I’m curious as to what you two got up to yesterday.”
“Maker!” Cassandra shot back. “How is it any of your business, Leliana? What happens between Josephine and I is personal. I do not wish to discuss it.” There was a pause as she hung a few glasses on the rack above her head. From the corner of her eye, Molly saw Cassandra glance back at Leliana. “Did you say she was giddy?” Curiosity rang loudly in her voice, underscored by a hopeful note. “So you think she had a good time, then?”
Leliana’s laugh rang through the bar, an infectious sound that had Molly smiling. She was glad Leliana was the one to push Cassandra for information. Anyone else would likely have found themselves subject to the boss’ disapproval in a multitude of unpleasant ways. As co-owner, Leliana was Cassandra’s equal, though, and she didn’t have to worry about retribution.
“I’d say she had a positively delightful day,” Leliana answered after a moment. “Though she wouldn’t tell me anything beyond that.” She pouted.
“Well,” Cassandra said, fighting a grin and losing, “if she didn’t see fit to tell you any of the details, then neither do I.” Her cheekbones were bright red and Molly’s smile widened further. Whatever those details might be, she suspected Cassandra was remembering them at the moment.
“Oh, fine,” Leliana sighed in resignation. “Be that way.” She tilted her head, lips pursed, and gave Cassandra a sharp look. “You said ‘happens’ not ‘happened’ though, didn’t you? Does that mean the two of you plan to continue seeing each other?”
Cassandra’s blush deepened. “I—yes. We do.”
“Good!” Leliana clapped her hands together, beaming. Then her eyes narrowed and she added, “You will be careful though, won’t you Cassandra?” It sounded more like a warning than a question, confirmed when she followed up with, “I would hate for either one of you to get hurt in this.”
“We are grown women, Leliana,” Cassandra quipped with a roll of her eyes. “We do not need you to hover over us. It will be fine.”
“Hmm,” Leliana said. “As you say.” Noticing Molly, she offered her a smile. “Good afternoon. When you’re done sweeping, can you bring out a few more bottles of West Hill Brandy from the store room? We went through twice as much as we usually do last Wednesday.”
“On it,” Molly replied, tipping the contents of the dustbin into a nearby trashcan.
“Grab another bottle of Lava Burst while you’re back there, please,” Cassandra added. “It’s popular on cold nights, and the wind chill is supposed to be severe tonight.”
“Perfect weather for snuggling up with somebody special, wouldn’t you say, Cassandra?” Leliana teased.
“Oh, do shut up, Leliana,” Cassandra retorted, though there was laughter in her tone.
By the time Molly reemerged from the store room, Leliana had disappeared into the office and Cullen had arrived. He was stocking the beer chests and watching Cassandra clean the glasses with another one of those amused smiles. He scooted over to make room for Molly, opening the door of the central cabinet where they kept the extra liquor bottles. “Thanks,” she said, receiving a nod in return.
The three of them went about opening duties mostly in silence, though Molly thought she caught Cassandra humming a time or two. It was all she could do not to laugh aloud at the goofy grin that Cassandra got when Josephine popped her head out of the office briefly just before five. The urge to laugh only intensified when Varric strolled in through the doors and stopped short on the landing, picking up on Cassandra’s mood in an instant.
He could not keep the curiosity from his face as he made his way to the bar. “Afternoon, everyone,” he drawled, staring hard at Cassandra.
“Hello, Varric,” Molly called, moving to the register to open up a tab for him.
“Varric,” Cullen said, clapping the dwarf on the shoulder as he made his way to the stage to begin checking the microphones and speakers.
Cassandra just smiled and handed him a mug of Kirkwall Amber. Varric stared some more, then turned to Molly. “What’s up with Princess?”
“Nothing is up with me,” Cassandra said before Molly could answer.
“The void it’s not,” Varric said. “You’re smiling. And humming. I’ve been here two whole minutes and you haven’t insulted me once.”
Molly bit back a smile. She caught Cullen’s eyes and saw he was doing the same.
“You make it sound like I have never been in a good mood before,” Cassandra scowled.
“Nonsense,” Varric came back. “It’s just that grumpy is pretty much your default mode. Chipper is new.”
Cassandra made a disgusted noise and rolled her eyes, deciding to ignore him.
“That’s more like it!” Varric grinned, and then glanced between Cullen and Molly. “Come on, isn’t anyone going to tell me what’s going on with her?”
“It really isn’t our place to say,” Cullen murmured from the stage, the sound amplified through the microphone.
Varric’s eyes narrowed and he shot an expectant look at Molly. “Right, so, Curly’s sitting this one out. Bookworm?”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Molly said, widening her eyes and attempting to look innocent. “I’ve always thought Cassandra to have a rather pleasant disposition.”
“Well sure you do,” Varric snorted, “She likes you. Fine, fine,” he held up his hands in surrender. “Be that way.” He picked up his mug and made his way to his favorite booth in the corner, shaking his head.
“Thank you,” Cassandra whispered, smiling at Molly.
“Well, it really is none of his business, nor ours,” Molly offered, grabbing her apron from under the bar and tying it on as the door opened to admit more customers. “Though he’ll probably figure it out sooner or later. He is here every day.”
“True,” Cassandra agreed. “Though I appreciate you letting me keep it to myself a little bit longer.”
Despite Varric’s teasing, Cassandra’s good mood persisted through the evening. The bar began to fill up as the regular Happy Hour group trickled in, reinforced by the Open Mic Night crowd that began showing up about an hour later, when the sign-up sheet was put out.
While there tended to be a few familiar faces up on the stage from week to week, Maryden and Sera were the only regular customers who participated in Open Mic Night. Maryden’s folksy ballads were always a hit with the crowd, and Sera liked to recite limericks that bordered on nonsense and were, more often than not, filthy. Everyone loved them so much that even Cassandra had given up trying to convince her that the whole point was to sing.
Molly was glad that the extra crowd didn’t drive off the other regulars, despite their lack of participation. She didn’t think an evening spent at Divine would feel right without them by this point. Even Varric didn’t grumble about the noise, commenting once that all of the new faces were excellent inspiration for his novels.
The Iron Bull and his Chargers, the hockey team he coached, showed up just as the first singer was getting going. Bull beckoned Molly over as he settled into his usual spot, a little ways away from the team’s table (he liked to give them some space to bitch about him if they were so inclined, he had explained to her once when she asked why he didn’t usually sit with them). “Get them whatever they want tonight,” he told her, “and put it on my tab.” He shot her a grin and leaned his head back against the wall, careful to keep his horns from knocking off the pictures hanging above him. “Tonight, we celebrate!”
“Big win?” Molly asked, returning the grin.
“We kicked some major Venatori ass tonight,” he confirmed. “Might be enough to carry us through to the playoffs, if we don’t get sloppy.” Molly glanced over her shoulder, where the team was already well on the way to finishing their first round. Bull saw the look and chuffed out a laugh. “Hey, they can get as sloppy drunk as they want tonight, they’ve earned it. ‘S long as they keep it together in the rink, we’re good.”
Molly laughed in agreement and headed back to the bar to open up Bull’s tab. Bull and the team’s captain, Krem, had talked her into going to a few games since she’d started working at Divine. She wasn’t surprised they were doing so well, although she was glad to hear they’d beat the Venatori. The Chargers’ rivalry with the team from Tevinter was a fierce one, spurred on no doubt in part by their resentment of Bull stealing Krem when they were trying to recruit him a few years back.
“They’re more rowdy than usual tonight,” Blackwall commented as Molly stepped behind the bar. He nodded in the team’s direction, and Molly had to laugh at the sight of Krem standing on a chair, leading his teammates in a sing-a-long to the chorus of Maryden’s ballad.
“Big win tonight,” she answered.
The burly police officer let out a grunt of approval. “Well, good for them. As long as they don’t start any fights like the last time.”
Molly smiled to herself. Blackwall would be concerned about brawls.
“I don’t think we have to worry about that,” Cullen interjected, stepping up to join Molly at the register, and leaning around her to enter an order when he saw she wasn’t using it. She sucked in a breath at the contact, but he didn’t seem to notice, adding, “It was a player from the other team that started the, er, altercation. Cassandra made it clear that he was no longer welcome here after she threw him out.”
“Doesn’t mean the rest of the team won’t try to come win back some of their mate’s honor,” Blackwall grunted.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Cullen said, sounding amused. “I heard that the next day, the Chargers put the word out that Divine is their local, and that anyone with a problem with them should find another place to drink.”
“I can’t imagine your boss likes the idea of losing potential customers like that,” Blackwall said.
“If you are speaking about me, Blackwall,” Cassandra spoke up, moving over to join them, “then you are mistaken. I don’t want any patrons who are here to make trouble. I’m sure you can understand that.”
“Suppose I can,” Blackwall agreed. “Didn’t figure you would.”
“As far as Leliana goes,” a wry smile flashed across her face, “well, believe it or not, she is even more ruthless than I in some things. Be glad you do not have to come up against her in her other business ventures.”
“Speaking of which,” Cullen murmured.
Molly followed his gaze and saw Lace Harding walk through the doors. The dwarven woman waved at them and made a beeline for the bar. “Hello! Is Leliana in? I just scouted out an amazing property, but we’re going to have to act fast if she wants to snatch it up.”
“She’s in the office,” Cassandra replied. “I believe she is expecting you.”
“Great, thanks! See you later, then.” With a smile and another wave at Molly, Lace left them, disappearing into the office after a brief knock. A few moments later, Josephine exited, giving them all a nod as she ducked into the store room with her laptop.
“That one never stops working, does she?” Blackwall asked, the admiration in his voice plain.
“She does sometimes,” Cassandra said, her voice softening and a blush rising on her cheeks. “With the proper motivation.”
Blackwall blinked at that, unsure of how to respond, and Molly and Cullen shared a look, trying and failing to hide their smiles. In a gambit to change the subject, Blackwall asked, “So, what exactly are Leliana’s other business ventures? I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say.”
Cassandra snorted and rolled her eyes, turning away to help a customer flagging her down at the other end of the bar.
“Real Estate,” Cullen said, when Blackwall turned to him.
Cullen shrugged. “That’s the only answer I’ve ever gotten from anyone about it,” he said. Noticing the narrowing of Blackwall’s eyes, he hastened to add, “All perfectly legal though, I am sure.”
“’Course it is,” Blackwall huffed, “that one’s too smart for anything else. But there’s legal and then there’s legal.”
Before Molly could ask him what he meant, she heard someone calling her name from behind. Turning around, she saw her friend Dagna kneeling on a stool, waving at her. “Oh, hello! I didn’t know you were stopping by tonight.”
“Neither did I,” Dagna replied, eyes wide as she looked around. “Wow, it is packed! And who’s that singing? Wait, no, never mind,” she said before Molly could start to answer. “Not why I’m here.”
“And that would be?” Molly asked, trying to stifle a laugh at her friend’s enthusiasm. She found it difficult not to feel cheerful around Dagna.
“Wanted to set up a cram session for finals.”
“Oh, of course! That would be good.” Molly surveyed the bar. “Let me make the rounds first and see if anyone needs anything, then we’ll figure out our schedules.”
“I’ll be here,” Dagna said, settling on the stool and swiveling it back and forth as she tried to take in the whole crowd. Seated, her shoulders barely cleared the bar top, but she didn’t seem daunted by this fact. Molly didn’t think she’d ever seen Dagna daunted by anything, truth be told.
“You want anything to drink while you wait?”
“Ooh, yes, please!” She tilted her head in thought. “Something warm! And dwarven, if you have it.” She turned a hopeful look on her friend.
Molly chuckled. “One shot of Hirol’s Lava Burst coming up.”
Molly got Cullen to pour the drink and then made her way onto the floor. It took her a little while to take everyone’s order and deliver all of the requested drinks, by which point more customers had come in and she had to make another quick round of order taking. But eventually everyone was settled and she had a few moments free. She made her way back to the bar and found Dagna chatting away with Cullen about, of all things, tennis.
“I didn’t know you played tennis, Dagna,” she said, setting her notepad on the bar and glancing between them. Cullen played tennis when he was younger, as had Cassandra. Molly learned this when she realized they had known each other before working together at Divine and asked how they met. Every once in a while, the two of them would get into a discussion about an old tournament, or one of the other players they had known. But she hadn’t ever heard Dagna express any interest in the sport.
“Oh, I don’t!” Dagna replied in a chipper voice. “But I’ve studied it a bit. The physics of the sport are quite fascinating, you know. I remember you mentioning that Cullen used to play and I thought I’d ask him about a few of the rules that always confused me.” She grinned.
Cullen’s eyebrows rose slightly and he glanced at Molly. “Ah. I was wondering how you knew I had played.”
Molly could feel heat rising in her cheeks and she cleared her throat. “Is there anything you haven’t studied, Dagna?” It was a fair question; she really did seem to know a little bit about everything.
Dagna tilted her head to one side, giving the teasing question serious consideration. “Ummm…archaeology? Oh, wait, no, there was that summer course I took on ancient technology. I think technically that counts as archaeology, so…”
“Never mind,” Molly said with a laugh. “Forget I asked.” It had the desired effect, at least, drawing a laugh out of Cullen and hopefully distracting him from wondering why Molly had been talking about him outside of work. He shook his head and left them to take the order of a customer who had just walked up to the bar.
Dagna laughed as well and gave a little shrug. “So, study date?”
“Right,” Molly said. “When did you want to meet up? My day off is Sunday.”
“Sunday works for me. Want to get together for lunch, and we can spend the afternoon cramming?”
“That sounds good.”
“Neat! Oh! You’re the TA for Elementary Cosmology, right?” At Molly’s nod she bounced in her seat. “Excellent! If you don’t mind, I want to pick your brain about some of the basics. I think we’ll be touching on them in one of my other classes and I could use a refresher. Oh! That reminds me! Have you found a chair for your dissertation committee yet?”
Molly groaned and shook her head. “I want to ask Professor Solas,” she admitted, “but I can’t ever seem to find him on campus. He comes in to the bar sometimes, so I’m hoping I can ask him the next time he shows up. He’s been a bit scarce lately though.” She frowned, thinking. It was getting pretty close to the deadline for when she needed to have the decision made. “If I can’t touch base with him, I suppose I’ll ask Professor de Fer.”
“Ooh, they’re both good, so you’ll be okay whichever one you go with. Although I guess Professor Solas does better with the theoretical stuff you’re looking into, huh?”
“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking, too.”
“Well, good luck, then!” She pulled out some money to pay for her drink. “I should probably get going. I have a lot of studying to do, as per usual.”
Molly took her money and made change for her, laughing. “That’s what happens when you’re taking a full course load and then half again as much on top of it!”
“I can’t help it!” Dagna said. “There’s just so much to learn!” She hopped down from her stool and waved goodbye, heading for the door. Molly watched her go and then picked up her notepad, returning to the floor to check on the customers.
The atmosphere in the bar was buoyant and she couldn’t help but smile as she worked. All of the singers taking the stage were sticking with upbeat tunes—even those with more serious or sad lyrics had a pretty good beat to them—and it was affecting the crowd as much as it was Molly. The Chargers weren’t the only folks singing along with the songs they knew, although they were arguably the loudest. She didn’t think Krem had sat properly in his chair the entire night. He was either standing on it or hunkered down on the back instead of the seat. The elation from his team’s win looked good on him, and Molly wasn’t the only one to notice.
“One of these days he’s going to catch you staring,” she teased Lace as she returned a tray of empty mugs to the bar and settled in to wash them.
Lace blushed and stuck her tongue out at Molly. “He doesn’t even know I’m here,” she countered.
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Molly said. She had noticed Krem looking Lace’s way as well a few times lately. She considered telling Lace this, but she wasn’t sure it was her place. They were both her friends, after all. She thought she should probably stay out of it unless one of them asked her to intervene. Deciding a change of subject was in order, she asked, “How did your meeting with Leliana go?”
“Not bad,” Lace said, grinning. “Great, in fact. We set up a meeting with the seller tomorrow, and it’s looking promising.”
“Well that’s good.” Molly dried a glass, thinking out loud, “But what does she actually do with these properties?”
“I could tell you,” Lace joked, eyes sparkling, “but then I’d have to kill you.”
At least, Molly hoped Lace was joking. Her smile was just a tad too feral for Molly’s tastes. “Ha ha,” she said, the dryness in her voice entirely intentional and not at all a result of that smile, “very funny.”
“So Mols,” Lace said, pausing to toss back the rest of her bottle, “you making any progress with Cullen yet?”
Molly hissed through her teeth in alarm and jerked her head around, eyes wide as she searched for the man in question. “Maker, Lace!”
“Relax,” she laughed, “he’s in the store room. Come on, even I’m not that mean, you goof.” Molly glowered at her and she laughed again, prodding, “Well?”
“It’s not like that,” Molly muttered, keeping her eyes on the store room door. “It’s just a silly crush, and we work together. It’d be a bad idea.”
“Like Josephine and Cassandra?” Lace asked, arching an eyebrow.
“How did you—ah, Leliana?”
“Terrible gossip, the boss, at least about stuff like that.”
“Yes, well. They’re a different case.”
“I don’t see how,” Lace snorted. “You should ask him out. Worst he can do is say no.”
Molly bit her lip, already shaking her head. Maybe it was the worst he could do, but she would be mortified afterwards, and things would get so awkward. She needed this job, she couldn’t afford to mess it up over something so…so…trivial as her feelings. Feelings that she was certain weren’t returned. “If it’s so easy, why haven’t you asked Krem out already?”
Lace sighed and wrinkled up her nose. “Point.” She shook her head and glanced in Krem’s direction, sighing again. “Honestly? I’m pretty sure he doesn’t even date. I overheard Dalish and Skinner talking a few weeks ago, and they were saying they’ve never seen him with anyone.”
“Is that because he doesn’t actually date or just that he doesn’t tell them about it?” Though that second option didn’t seem very likely. Molly knew families that weren’t as close to one another as the Chargers were. “Maybe he’s just picky,” she tried, “waiting for the right person to come along?”
“I don’t know,” Lace shrugged. “But it seems pointless to ask him out without finding out, and I’m not sure how to go about that without embarrassing us both.”
“Want me to ask?”
“Thanks, but no. I’m a big girl. I’ll figure it out on my own.” She winked at Molly. “But if you happen to hear anything that seems relevant, that you can go ahead and pass on, yeah?”
“You got it,” Molly agreed.
“For what it’s worth,” Lace added, climbing down off her stool, “if Cullen’s not interested, then he’s a fool.”
Molly blushed, muttering, “Thanks, Lace,” as her friend made her way out of the bar.
A large crowd streamed in through the doors not long after and the rest of the evening passed by in a blur. Molly was glad of it. Being busy helped to keep her from dwelling on warm brown eyes attached to enigmatic smiles and scars. Maybe Lace had a point, she couldn’t help thinking as she walked home that night. It might be better to ask him and be told no so she could get over the fantasies that kept playing in her head. She could stomach a little embarrassment if it meant being able to move on from the infatuation, couldn’t she? And if he said yes, well, that was even better.
It was at least worth thinking about.
Catching sight of the time as she passed a bank, Molly hurried her steps. Andraste’s ass, I knew I shouldn’t have wasted time eating! A more rational part of her brain reminded her that she did still have a four and a half hour shift ahead of her, and that she had skipped lunch. Skipping dinner too would have been a bad idea. Still, she would be lucky to reach the bar by ten, and the thought of being late for her shift made her break out into a run.
Most weeks, her Thursday night lab wrapped up in plenty of time for her to head home, change clothes, and eat a quick bite before she had to leave for work. With finals looming, though, every student in her lab seemed to have a dozen questions they wanted to stay after to ask. She was trying very hard not to take that as an indictment on her teaching ability. It helped that most of the questions centered on topics discussed in the lecture section, rather than the lab material. It wasn’t really her ability that was being questioned.
She stepped into Divine just as the clock above the bar clicked over to ten, and a huge sigh of relief escaped her entirely of its own volition as the door shut behind her. “Just in time, Bookworm,” came an amused chuckle from her right, and she glanced over to find Varric lounging in his usual booth.
“Where is everybody?” Aside from Varric, the bar appeared to be empty. She picked up his empty mug before moving to the bar, tossing her bag underneath it and pulling down a fresh mug to pour him another.
“Princess is in the office with Ruffles,” Varric said, ticking off names on his fingers, “and Curly’s in the back room. “You just missed Tiny and the rest of the Chargers, and I think Blackwall’s on duty at the Winter Carnival, which is probably where all of the customers are.”
“Oh, I forgot that was tonight!”
“That’s right, I keep forgetting you’re a recent transplant to Haven.” He grinned at her. “Next year you’ll have to push the bosses for the night off. The carnival’s not really my thing, but it’s worth seeing at least once.”
“I’ll have to remember that,” Molly said, delivering his new drink. “Has it been this slow all night?”
Varric shrugged and tilted his hand in the air in a so-so motion. “It’s been up and down. Things will probably get busy in another hour or so when the carnival closes down.”
That was a relief. It had been a long day already, and she didn’t relish the idea of being stuck at work when it was completely dead. As much as she liked her job, right now she could make much better use of dead time studying or sleeping, and she hadn’t thought to grab any of her notes when she was running out the door.
Looking for something to occupy herself, she took stock of the liquor cabinet and beer chests, making a list of what needed replenishing. She also checked the levels of everything on tap, just in case. Once her inventory was done, she headed for the store room, only to pause outside the cracked door at the sound of someone singing.
“…been turning in early, keeping my head clear. I used to be a warrior, throwing punches at the night air…”
Molly blinked at the clear, sweet voice. Was that…was that Cullen? Who else would it be? After all, Varric had said he was in the store room. Curiosity overpowering her, she reached out, pushing the door the rest of the way open.
His back was to her, muscles strained as he pulled out a keg. He rocked it on its side, rolling it toward a nearby dolly, and glanced up as he got it settled. “Oh, hello. I didn’t realize it was ten already.” He shot her a boyish smile and leaned an elbow on the handle of the dolly. “Or are you extra early again?”
“Just on time, I’m afraid,” she admitted. “My lab ran long.”
“Well, it’s a good night for it, at least. We haven’t been very busy tonight.”
“So I can see,” Molly laughed, glancing back over her shoulder.
“Did you need me?”
Molly’s head snapped around and her eyes widened. “I—what?” Oh Maker, she could feel the blush creeping across her face.
Cullen tilted his head, rubbing his chin, and she was mildly gratified to see that he was blushing too. “Ah, I meant,” he rubbed the back of his neck, ducking his head a little, “were you in here looking for me, or—?”
“Oh! Um.” She cleared her throat and held up the list she had made. “I was just coming in to restock a bit. Varric said business should pick up in an hour or so.”
“Ah, yes. Probably so. Good idea.” He reached for the dolly, tilting it back on its wheels. “Here, let me go get this out to the bar, and I’ll help you. Start pulling down what we need.”
She stepped aside to let him through the door and moved further into the room. He was back in a moment, and together the two of them got everything they needed carried out to the bar. Molly helped him get the new keg set up and then moved on to the beer chests, filling them up with fresh bottles. As she worked, her eyes kept drifting to Cullen.
After a while, it got to him, because he leaned against back against the bar and fixed her with a questioning look. “What is it?”
Molly blinked. “I’m sorry?”
“You’re staring,” he chided, voice gentle. “Did I pick up some cobwebs in the store room or something?”
Molly blushed again. “I’m sorry. It’s just—you were singing. In the store room.”
“Was I?” He rubbed the back of his neck again. “I hadn’t even realized. I’ve had this song stuck in my head all day, one from one of the performers last night.” He shrugged.
“I’ve never heard you sing before,” she said, biting her lip. Before she could chicken out, she added, “Cullen, your voice is amazing.”
He turned his face away, and something in it shifted. Molly began to wish she hadn’t said anything.
“Didn’t you know, Bookworm?” Varric chimed in, sidling up to the bar, “Curly here’s a bona fide rock star.”
Molly’s eyebrows shot straight up and she turned to look at Cullen.
He rolled his eyes. “I wouldn’t say rock star,” he said with a grimace, glaring at Varric, “but yes, I used to be in a band.”
“You’re from the Free Marches, right?” Varric asked Molly with a huge grin. He was clearly enjoying himself, despite Cullen’s evident embarrassment. Maybe because of it. “You ever heard of the Templars?”
She tilted her head in thought. “It sounds familiar…”
“They were all the rage in Kirkwall until a few years back,” Varric continued, “when they had what was from all accounts a spectacular falling out.”
Cullen winced. “That’s one way to put it.” He took Varric’s empty mug and poured him another drink, setting it down on the counter hard enough for the foam to slosh over the side. It was obvious to Molly that he was hoping Varric would take the hint and go back to his booth, dropping the conversation.
Varric didn’t seem inclined to cooperate, though. “Took me almost a month coming here before I recognized you, Curly,” he said. “Truth be told, I’ve been wanting to ask you about some of the wilder rumors. Sounds like the whole thing would make a great story.”
“I’d rather not talk about it,” Cullen snapped.
Molly glanced between them, taking in the stiffness of Cullen’s frame and how he had crossed his arms, closing off. For the first time since coming to work at Divine, she wished Varric would just go away. She searched her mind for some way to change the subject, to come up with a distraction to diffuse the tension in the air, but nothing presented itself.
Good thing that fate took that moment to intervene in the form of Josephine. She popped her head out of the office, looking at something in her hands and completely missing the scene at the bar. “Cullen,” she called, “did you finish that inventory? I wanted to double check it before I place the liquor order.”
“Oh, thank the Maker,” Cullen muttered. “I have it right here,” he answered more loudly. Avoiding Molly’s eyes, he picked up a clipboard and brushed past her with a brief squeeze to her shoulder.
She stared after him as he disappeared into the office, mind a whirl of questions and speculation.
“Heh,” Varric chuffed, startling her. She had almost forgotten he was there. She turned to find him staring after Cullen, looking speculative as well. He took a sip from his mug and then shot her an apologetic grin. “I knew he didn’t like to bring up Kirkwall, but I hadn’t realized it was such a sensitive topic for him.” He shook his head, looking down at his hands. “Guess I should have. Still. Everything I’ve heard paints him as, well, if not the good guy, then the least at fault for what went down.”
“What—?” Molly started to ask, then stopped herself, biting her lip. She glanced back at the office door, torn between her curiosity and respecting Cullen’s privacy.
It was less of a battle for Varric, who let out a low chuckle. “Go ahead, ask. I even promise not to embellish. Too much.”
That drew a short laugh out of Molly, and she turned to face him, leaning on the bar. “What happened in Kirkwall?”
“Short answer? The lead singer, Meredith, overdosed on stage. She didn’t make it, and the band was kaput.”
“Oh, sweet Andraste!” Molly gasped, clapping a hand to her mouth.
“Long answer is that the band had been fighting off and on for a few years before that. Maybe about Meredith’s lyrium problem, maybe about other stuff. She kicked the drummer, guy named Samson, real piece of work, out of the band a couple of times that I know of. From what I hear, Curly was the voice of reason of the group, but even he could only keep it together for so long.” Varric shrugged. He heaved a sigh. “I don’t really blame him for moving here and trying to start over. I think it’s been good for him. I met him a few times in Kirkwall. He’s different now. Better.”
“Maker,” she breathed, glancing back at the door again.
Varric lifted his glass to her in a mock toast and ambled back to his booth. Molly stood behind the bar for a few moments, staring off into space and considering what she’d learned. Everything Varric had told her was arguably hearsay, and she wondered if there was a way to find out the whole truth without asking Cullen. Cassandra probably knew. But would she want to talk to Molly about it? Did Molly even have any business asking? She sighed and moved to the sink to wash the few empty mugs behind the bar. Maker, but she hoped Cullen wasn’t mad at her. She felt terrible for bringing up such horrible memories, and even worse for being so curious about it.
Cullen emerged from the office and gave her a short nod, still avoiding her eyes. Instead of returning to the bar, he grabbed the broom from the store room and began sweeping up. Molly figured she could at least apologize to him once he was done, but then customers started showing up. Try as she might, after that, she couldn’t seem to find the opportunity to speak to Cullen beyond relaying drink requests or other work-related things.
By the time they were closing up, she had resigned herself to just trying to forget the whole thing. Which was, of course, when she went into the back room looking for empties to collect and came upon Cullen alone. He stiffened at the sound of her footsteps but then relaxed a little when he saw it was her. Leaning back against the pool table, he offered a weak, “Hello.”
Molly bit her lip, hesitating in the hallway, then moved over to join him. “I’m sorry,” she said, mirroring his pose. “About earlier. I didn’t mean to bring up bad memories.”
“It’s all right,” he sighed. “You didn’t know.” He made a sound halfway between a grunt and a laugh. “To tell the truth, I’ve been waiting for Varric to say something for a while now. At least now that’s over with.”
Molly arched an eyebrow at him. “You really think he’ll leave it at that?”
“Oh, Maker, no!” Cullen laughed. She was glad to see him smile again. He shook his head, shifting closer and bumping her shoulder with his. “But he’s tested the waters now. I think he’ll be a bit more circumspect when he does attempt to bring it up again.” He sighed and then turned, looking down at her. “How much did he tell you?”
Molly blushed but didn’t bother trying to deny that Varric had said anything. She cleared her throat and glanced away, unnerved by the intensity of his gaze. She wanted to know more about him but this seemed like too much too fast. “Just that your band was fighting for a while and then the lead singer died of an overdose, breaking you up for good. I’m sorry,” she added, placing a tentative hand on his arm, “about your friend. That must have been terrible.”
“I don’t know that I’d say Meredith was a friend, really. But she was our leader, and I followed right along where she led, even when I shouldn’t have.” He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. Some of Molly’s confusion must have shown on her face, because he went on to explain, “I met her at a bad time in my life, and when she asked me to join the band it seemed like exactly what I needed.” He gave an uncomfortable shrug, still close enough that Molly could feel the motion. “I thought we were doing really well, going places, affecting people with our music. But there was a seedy underside to what we were doing. Meredith didn’t really care who got hurt as long as she came out on top. I tried to ignore it for a while, and when that didn’t work I tried to write it off as the lyrium getting to me. When that stopped being a convincing excuse,” he shrugged again, “I did what I could to keep Meredith from hurting too many people. Or I thought I did. I wish I could have kept her from hurting herself.”
“Anyway,” he said after a few moments of silence, “thank you. It was terrible, what happened. It wasn’t just regular lyrium, you see. She somehow got her hands on some red lyrium.” He shook his head. “None of us had any idea. I knew something was off, but none of us had ever even heard about red lyrium then. It was still too new.”
Molly shuddered. In the past year red lyrium had become a serious problem in Thedas. Even more addictive than its more benign blue counterpart, it was also about a thousand times more fatal. Something Cullen said while he was speaking poked at her, and it suddenly made a few things she’d noticed over the past months make sense. “Is that why you stopped using lyrium?” His head snapped up and he stared at her in surprise. “Because of what happened to Meredith?”
Cullen didn’t say anything for a moment, but then his shoulders sagged and he shook his head. “I wish I could say yes. But the reason I started taking it in the first place was to help me forget about some…bad things that had happened to me. In Kinloch Hold, where I lived before Kirkwall.” He grimaced. “After Meredith died, I tried to pick up the pieces, to carry on, but I relied on the lyrium even more heavily to do so. It wasn’t until I ran into Samson again and saw how he was coping that I really got my wake-up call. He must have found her stash after she died. He started using the red stuff too and it was wrecking him. The worst part was that he didn’t even seem to care, and looking around Kirkwall, I realized then that if I didn’t get out of there, I was headed down the same path.”
“That’s why you came to Haven,” Molly guessed.
“Yes,” he nodded. “I ran into Cass when she was in the city, and we got to talking. Before I knew it, I told her everything, and she was offering me a job here. I never would have expected it from her. We weren’t ever really that close, but I’m pretty sure she saved my life when she made that offer. She’s helped me stay on track with quitting the lyrium, too.” A wry smile twisted his lips. “I owe her so much.”
“I doubt she sees it that way,” Molly said, leaning into him to offer reassurance. “You asked for help, and she was able to, so she did.”
“Of course,” he laughed. “That’s Cass, altruistic to a fault.”
They both chuckled at that, and burst into another round of laughter when Cassandra bellowed from the front, “Maker’s breath, Cullen! Get your ass out here! This floor isn’t going to mop itself!”
They started for the front, but Molly stopped Cullen before they reached the end of the hallway, brushing his elbow with the tips of her fingers, “Thank you,” she said when he turned back to look at her, “for trusting me with this.”
A serious smile crossed his face. “Thank you for listening,” he said before turning back toward the bar.
“Any time,” she replied. But he was already out of earshot and she didn’t think he heard her.
For the curious, the song that Cullen was singing is an old favorite of mine, "Punches" by Collin Herring. Caught him playing it live while I was brainstorming this story and it hit me as a really good fit for Cullen.
Chapter 4: Friday
“Well, well, I have to say, this isn’t what I was expecting at all. How quaint.”
Molly spun around at the familiar voice, a smile on her face. “Dorian! What are you doing here?”
The young man stroked his mustache as he approached the bar, eyes twinkling while he continued to look around, assessing the place. He winked at Molly and lifted up a large canvas bag, from which emanated a delicious, spicy smell. Molly’s stomach growled in reaction and Dorian’s smile widened to a grin. “Why, I’m here to bribe you, of course.”
“Bribe me?” Molly blinked, staring at the bag in confusion, then shifting her gaze back to Dorian.
“I have been studying for days and am still feeling hopelessly lost about this final. I was rather hoping you could help me out.”
Molly’s eyes narrowed. “Dorian…” She sighed and shook her head. “Even if I wanted to tell you what will be on the test—which I don’t—I only know what topics the professor told me to prepare you and the other students on, which I have done my best to do. Fiona makes the tests up and keeps them to herself until it’s time to actually administer them.” She crossed her arms and glared at him. “Frankly, I am surprised and hurt that you’d even ask me to help you cheat.”
Dorian widened his eyes and placed his free hand to his heart. “Cheat? Me? Never! My dear Miss Trevelyan, it is I who am hurt that you think I would even ask you such a thing.”
Confusion swept over Molly again. “Then what--?”
Dorian laughed and grinned again. “I recall you mentioning that your dinner break is around this time.” He hefted the bag up once more. “I have prepared you a delicious meal and was hoping I could convince you to spend your break in my, admittedly delightful, company. I wish to pick your brain on the material that unfortunately eludes me.”
“Oh.” Molly let her arms fall to her side. “Well, that,” she caught another whiff of the food in Dorian’s bag and her stomach grumbled again, “that seems fair,” she conceded.
“Excellent! Where shall we go?”
Molly glanced around, considering. Employees usually took their breaks in the office or the store room, but she doubted Leliana or Josephine would want Dorian in either of those areas, not being an employee.
“No one is using the back room,” Cassandra said, stepping up beside Molly and giving Dorian an assessing look. She didn’t seem terribly impressed with him. “You and your…friend may use it for your studying, if you’d like. We’re not that busy right now, it should be fairly quiet.”
“Thank you, Cassandra,” Molly said, reaching behind her back to untie her apron. She set it underneath the bar and grabbed her backpack so she would have a notebook in case she needed to sketch out any equations or diagrams. “This way,” she said, gesturing for Dorian to follow her as she stepped out from behind the bar and headed for the back.
“Be sure you do not make a mess!” Cassandra called after them as they reached the hall.
“Well,” Dorian huffed out a laugh. “She seems fun.”
“Oh, shush,” Molly said. “I like Cassandra. Also, she’s my boss.”
“I shall endeavor to stay on her good side, then,” he said, with only a hint of teasing.
Molly smiled to herself. For all that he might preen and play at aloofness, she had learned there was a serious side to Dorian. Surprised as she had been that they managed to strike up a friendship outside of class, she had been quite touched to realize she was one of a very few people he let see that part of himself. Turning her mind to the matter at hand, she asked him, “So what is it that has been giving you trouble, specifically?”
“The math,” he sighed. “It’s never been my strong suit.”
Molly stopped short, choking back a laugh. “Dorian! This is advanced physics, it’s nothing but math!”
“Yes, well. I knew that. In theory. I didn’t expect that there would be quite so many equations to keep straight, though.” He turned on the puppy dog eyes and threw in a pout for extra measure. “But you’ll help me sort it out, won’t you?”
“I’m not sure how much I can accomplish in an hour,” she snorted, “but I’ll do what I can.” She shook her head and resumed walking down the hallway. “Why are you taking a physics course if you don’t like math, anyway?”
“I needed another science credit,” he said with a shrug, “and this was the only one that fit in my schedule, didn’t require prerequisites I hadn’t taken, and sounded at all interesting.” He laughed softly. “And it is interesting,” he admitted, “if also decidedly confusing. But if I pass this one, then I don’t have to take any more science again.”
“A life without science,” Molly said, teasing, “I cannot imagine such a thing.”
“I can,” Dorian snorted. “Gladly.” His eyes fixed on something behind Molly and widened slightly. In an instant, his entire demeanor shifted, switching into what Molly privately liked to call “peacock mode.” “Well, hello,” he muttered, an indolent grin spreading over his face, “what have we here?”
Molly followed his gaze and found Cullen, sitting on a stool with his feet up on another, deeply engrossed in a book. The remnants of his own dinner sat on the bar top that ran along one wall of the room, apparently forgotten. She felt a sudden sense of kinship with him, seeing how immersed he was in the story he was reading, and she hated to interrupt him. Still, it was necessary. She cleared her throat and said, “Hello, Cullen. I didn’t realize anyone was back here.”
He glanced up, a warm smile on his face. “Ah, I think you and Cassandra were both busy when I ducked back here. Seemed like a better place to read than the store room. More light, anyway.” He slipped a scrap of paper that looked like a ticket of some sort into the book and shut it. Molly saw that it was the most recent of Varric’s Hard in Hightown series and couldn’t bite back a grin. Cullen swung his feet down and stood. “I guess this means my break is over.”
“I’m afraid so,” Molly said, unable to resist adding. “If you hurry, you can hide that before Varric sees it.”
Cullen let out a rueful chuckle. “Indeed. I’d never hear the end of it if he found out I--.” His eyes landed behind Molly and he faltered. Several expressions shifted across his face in short order before he settled for a neutral smile. “Ah, hello.”
“Oh!” Molly turned and gestured to Dorian, “I’m sorry! Cullen this is Dorian, Dorian, Cullen.”
“Charmed, I’m sure,” Dorian declared in a chipper tone. He made his way past Molly to one of the small tables and beginning to set out the food. “I brought her dinner,” he said, noting Cullen’s puzzled expression. Then, to Molly, “and we really should eat soon. It’s no good if it gets too cold.”
“I suppose that’s my cue to leave then,” Cullen said, his voice sounding oddly flat.
Molly shot him a curious look. What’s gotten into him?
“I’d invite you to join us,” Dorian drawled, “but it seems like your break’s over. More’s the pity.” He flashed a sly grin at Cullen before turning to Molly in mock accusation, “You never told me you had such good looking co-workers, my dear. I’d have stopped by to visit you much sooner.” He turned back to Cullen, giving him a frank once over. “I think I may have to make this my new favorite drinking establishment.”
Cullen sputtered and turned red, his eyes going wide.
“Honestly, Dorian,” Molly rolled her eyes and stepped between them. “Cullen has better things to do than be hit on by you.” Cullen seemed rooted to the spot, staring between them in clear confusion. She took his arm and turned him toward the hallway. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, “don’t mind him. He’s shameless,” she raised her voice and added, “but if he knows what’s good for him, he won’t bother you anymore. Otherwise he’ll have to find someone else to help him study for his final.”
“All right, all right,” Dorian called, laughing. “I’ll behave. Or try to, at any rate.”
Cullen blinked and glanced at Dorian over his shoulder, then back at Molly. He looked embarrassed again. “No, I’m sorry. I just wasn’t expecting—ah, well.” He freed himself from her grasp and squeezed her elbow. “Enjoy your dinner. I’ll make sure no one bothers you while you’re…studying.”
“Thanks, Cullen.” She watched him walk away for a moment before recalling herself and turning back to Dorian. Her eyes widened at the sight of the meal he had set out. “That’s practically a feast!” She took her seat, inhaling, “It smells delicious, too.”
“I don’t do things by half measures, my dear.” He glanced back down the hallway, grinning as he handed her a paper plate. “I like him, I must say. Although,” he tilted his head to one side, rubbing his chin, “I think you do, too. Let me commend you on your taste.”
“Oh, don’t be silly.” She flushed and looked down at her plate, hating to be so transparent.
“You do! Look at that ridiculous smile you get just thinking about him.” His grin widened. “I suppose I can let you keep this one, since you are going to help me pass my final, yes?”
Molly rolled her eyes again. They started eating and were quiet for a time as they made short work of the meal. Molly thought Dorian had dropped the subject of Cullen, but it seemed she was wrong.
“So,” he said, packing up the leftovers and dishes while Molly got out her notebook and a pencil, “have you asked him out yet?”
“Of course not,” Molly sighed. “We work together. It’s a bad idea.”
“Well, you never know until you try. You should go for it.”
She sighed, shaking her head. “You’re the second person this week to tell me that.”
“Well, clearly you know at least one other brilliant person,” he teased.
“Says the man asking for help studying.”
“You wound me! But, now that you mention it…”
They got to work. Molly was more than a little relieved to find that Dorian wasn’t nearly as hopeless as he had intimated. He was just having trouble keeping the necessary equations straight. She offered him some pneumonic tricks and a few other tips and that seemed to help him get them sorted. Her hour for dinner was over all too soon, but she was pleased with his progress.
“We can meet up again tomorrow, if you’d like,” she said as she walked him back to the front room.
He gave her a grateful smile. “Thank you. That would probably be for the best. Although I must say, I am feeling much better about the material alrea--.”
“There you are!”
They both jumped at the booming voice from the left, but Molly recognized its owner. She grinned and changed direction. “You were looking for me, Bull?” Dorian trailed her over to the qunari’s table, curiosity clear on his face.
“Yeah,” Bull rumbled, gesturing her closer. “Got a couple extra tickets to tomorrow’s game. You want ‘em? It’s an early one.” He glanced at Dorian, then paused and looked again. “Bring your friend,” he added.
“Thanks,” Molly said, reaching out to take the offered tickets.
Bull nodded and then waved at someone across the bar, clapping her on the shoulder with enough force to make her stagger as he made his way to whoever had caught his attention. “See you there.”
“Who is that?” Dorian asked, eyes wide. He let go of her arm, which he had grabbed to help her stay upright.
“Oh, that’s The Iron Bull, he’s one of our regulars. Coaches a hockey team.” She held up the tickets. “They’re really good. You don’t have to go to the game though, if it’s not your thing.”
“Are you kidding? Is he going to be there?” At Molly’s nod, Dorian grinned. “Then tell me when and where, and be ready to make introductions. If you’re keeping the pretty one behind the bar, then I want a fair shot at this one.”
Molly laughed and started heading toward the bar. “You are too much sometimes,” she told him. “But I’d be happy to introduce you if you’d like.” She felt more than saw Dorian stop short behind her and glanced back at him. “What?”
“Is that Professor de Fer?” He hissed the question through his teeth, clutching her sleeve, eyes wide in something that looked close to panic.
Molly followed his gaze and then nodded, a jolt of excitement running through her as she saw that Professor de Fer was sitting at a table with Professor Solas. Finally! Hopefully she could ask him about being her dissertation chair. Realizing that Dorian was still staring, she asked, “What’s wrong?”
“She does not like me,” he answered shortly. “She has, in fact, failed me three times. People on campus call her the Iron Lady, and believe me, the reputation is well deserved.”
Molly’s eyebrows shot up at that. She had never had any problems with Professor de Fer. She sensed a story here, but didn’t think it was the right time to ask. “I doubt she can do anything to you here,” she tried.
“She can be unpleasant,” he sniffed.
“Would you like me to distract her so you can slip out unnoticed?” She was half teasing but Dorian’s shoulders eased at the suggestion.
Molly blinked. Oh she had to find out what the story was here. But first things first. “Of course,” she said. “Just give me a sec.” She steered him to the bar, staying between him and the professors, and asked Cullen for her apron, giving him her backpack in return. He took it with a bemused look and stowed it under the bar. “Okay,” she said to Dorian, “let me go see if they need anything, I’ll block her view of the exit, and you can slip out.”
“Maker bless you,” Dorian said, giving her a quick hug. “I’ll call you tomorrow morning.”
By the time Molly got back from the professors’ table, she had a new dissertation chair and Dorian was nowhere in sight. She slipped behind the bar to key in their order, humming to herself.
“What was that all about?” Cullen asked.
“No idea,” she said with a grin. “He’s a dramatic one.” She shook her head in amusement.
Cullen cocked his head, looking thoughtful. “Is he--?” he started to ask, but just then a customer waved at him. He sighed and shot her a rueful look. “To work.”
It wasn’t until much later that night, once she was home and almost asleep, that it occurred to Molly to wonder what it was that Cullen had been about to ask her.
Chapter 5: Saturday
She had all but forgotten about Cullen’s strange reaction to Dorian until later the next night, when they were cleaning up for closing together. Bull’s Chargers won their hockey game that afternoon, sealing their spot in the final playoffs of the season, and had been a boisterous presence at the bar from opening all the way through last call.
“Maker!” Cullen laughed as he gathered up empty bottles and glasses from the Chargers’ table, “Where do they put it all?”
“And how were any of them walking straight enough to leave?” Molly added in agreement as she grabbed an armful herself. “Here,” she said, setting down her burden on the bar, “bring me the glasses, I’ll start washing them.”
“Thanks,” Cullen said. He dropped off his glasses, dropped the empty bottles in the recycling, and then made one more round to see if they had missed any. “That Iron Bull is a character,” he said, joining her behind the bar and taking a towel to dry. “But I suppose he must be an excellent coach. His team seems happy and it sounds like they win more than they lose.”
Molly nodded, remembering the sight of him hollering during the game. “He really is, although I think it’s as much down to him finding a group of people who work well together as it is that he knows how to bring out their talent. Their games are a sight to see,” she added with a laugh. “In between Bull yelling orders and the Chargers’ antics on the ice, it is definitely worth the price of admission.”
“Being able to work well together is important,” Cullen agreed, nudging her with his elbow. He shot her a curious look. “I thought you got your tickets for free?”
“I do!” Molly laughed. “That just makes it even better. Have you never been to one of their games?”
“I can’t say that I have,” he admitted.
“Oh, you should! If I can get tickets for the playoffs, you should come with me. Bull always gives me at least two. I usually take Lace, but she doesn’t mind buying her tickets if we don’t get any for free.” Molly tried not to blush, thinking just how much Lace wouldn’t mind if she knew it was Cullen using the spare ticket. She bit her lip and focused on washing the glasses and mugs, avoiding looking at Cullen to see his reaction. It wasn’t quite asking him out, but it was a step in the right direction, wasn’t it?
Cullen chuckled in response. “That might be fun. I’d like that.” He fell quiet for a few moments and then asked, “You took your, ah, your friend from last night to today’s game didn’t you? Dorian?”
Molly blinked and looked up at the strange note in Cullen’s voice. “Yes,” she said, eyebrows drawing down in puzzlement. Now he was the one avoiding meeting her eyes, and there was a red stain spreading across his cheeks.
“The two of you seem close,” he said, still staring intently at a spot on the wall. “Is he—I mean are you and he--?” Cullen stammered.
Oh, Maker. Had she misread the situation that badly? Molly didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “We’re not together,” she said, trying to keep her voice even. “It’s not like that. I mean, we are close, but, well. I’m not really his type,” she finished with a lame laugh. She bit her lip and drew in a deep breath. Don’t be churlish Molly. She cleared her throat. “You’re much more his speed.” She tried a smile but it felt wobbly. “I can give you his number if you’re interested, I’m sure he’d be glad to—.”
“No!” Cullen met her eyes now, looking downright shocked at her offer. “That’s not what I meant!” He held up his hands and closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. “I just, oh Maker, I’m terrible at this.”
She stared at him, utterly lost. Terrible at what? What was going on? She opened her mouth, meaning to ask just that, but closed it when Cassandra came out of the office.
“Oh good, you’ve started washing dishes already. Cullen, why don’t you let Molly finish up with those and you can go wipe down the tables and sweep the back room?” She squeezed behind the bar and tapped at the register screen, setting the nightly report to begin running.
“On it,” Cullen said, sounding nothing so much as relieved. He darted out from behind the bar toward the back room as if he was being chased.
Even Cassandra noticed, looking up from the register and watching him go. Brows raised, she turned to Molly. “What is the matter with him?”
“I have no idea,” Molly said, shaking her head and turning back to the dishes. “One minute we were talking, and he asked me about Dorian. I thought he was asking if Dorian might be available so I offered to give him his number and he just…” She turned pleading eyes to Cassandra, hoping maybe she could make heads or tails of Cullen’s behavior. “I think I broke him.”
Cassandra was looking at her with a strange expression on her face. The corners of her lips were twitching and it occurred to Molly that she was trying not to laugh. “You thought Cullen was asking after your friend?”
“I—yes?” Suddenly Molly wasn’t so sure. She frowned, replaying the conversation in her head. She wasn’t sure what other conclusion she was supposed to draw from it, but—
“What did he say to you, exactly?”
She glanced up at Cassandra and bit her lip before answering. “Well, we were talking about the Chargers and he asked if I had taken Dorian to the game today. Then he said we seemed close and asked, well, he stopped using complete sentences after that but it sounded like he was trying to ask if Dorian and I were together.”
“I see,” Cassandra said, openly smiling now. “So you offered to give him your friend’s number.”
“Yes, and he just sort of imploded. I was about to apologize for offending him when you came out and, well, you saw what happened from there.”
“I doubt you offended him,” Cassandra said with a shake of her head. “Although I suspect you misread his intentions and he was not sure how to react. He has always been terrible at this sort of thing.”
“What sort of thing?” Molly demanded.
Cassandra shot her an arch look and then barked a short laugh, rolling her eyes. “Maker save me,” she muttered. She glanced at the register, where the report was still running, and said, “I’m going to go check on him.” Under her breath, she muttered, “Poor fool.”
Molly stared after her, more confused than ever. She scrubbed at a lipstick stain on a mug, trying to sort out the puzzle. Okay, first. Cullen had not been asking after Dorian. That was good, right? Guy you’re into not being into one of your best friends is always a bonus. But he had been asking if she and Dorian were together. Why, if not to—oh.
Was he trying to ask if she was single? Because why would he ask her that unless—he had said he was terrible at this sort of thing. Was “this sort of thing” flirting? Asking someone out? Molly felt a warm tingle start in her chest and spread throughout her body, a smile breaking across her face. Oh, Maker, was Cullen interested in her? That look that Cassandra had given her, as if she was missing something completely obvious.
But was it obvious? He was always so reserved, serious. Well. Except when he wasn’t. She thought it over some more, considering how he always tended to drift close to her, closer than he usually let himself get to other people. He tended to find reasons to touch her, too. Nothing intimate or inappropriate, but did he do the same thing with anyone else? Molly couldn’t think of any examples. Her smile widened. He joked with her, would talk with her about everything and nothing once they got going. It was part of what she liked about him, that she felt so comfortable in his presence, even when she was trying to ignore the other things she felt. Was it the same for him?
“Only one way to find out,” she told herself. Maker. But if he was terrible at this sort of thing, so was she. Still. They could talk to each other. If she could just bite the bullet and get the conversation started, she was sure they could sort this out.
She considered her options as she finished up the dishes. She thought getting out of the bar might be the best idea. This was probably the sort of conversation they should have on their own time, anyway. Maybe she could ask him if he wanted to meet for lunch tomorrow. Yes, that seemed like it could work.
Decision made, she gave the bar top one last wipe down and headed for the back room, intending to ask Cullen straightaway before she lost her nerve. She stopped halfway down the hall though, caught short as she heard some of the conversation apparently still going on between Cullen and Cassandra.
“Lay off, Cass,” he said, sounding tired, as if he was repeating himself.
“Cullen, you’re being an ass. You should talk to her.”
“No, I really shouldn’t. Not about this. I shouldn’t have said anything in the first place. It’s a bad idea.”
“You keep saying that,” Cassandra drawled, “but you don’t know any such thing.”
“Don’t I? Do you want me to list the reasons?”
In the hallway, Molly held her breath, afraid to move or make any sound lest they realize she was there.
“Oh yes, please do give me some of these reasons.” Cassandra invested the word with enough scorn to make Molly wince. She pressed her eyes tightly shut, not wanting to hear, but unable to back away.
Cullen sighed. “She has her whole life ahead of her, Cass. She’s young and smart and...”
“As if you are so ancient,” Cassandra snorted. “You’ve what, six years on her? Eight at the most.”
“Yes, and in those years I have seen and done some terrible things,” he growled. “Things I can’t forget, that I can’t forgive myself for. That I’m not sure if I should forgive myself for. I still have nightmares, as you well know, and the lyrium withdrawal doesn’t make me the best person to be around sometimes.”
“You have come a long way, Cullen,” Cassandra said, voice softer but willing to brook no argument. “You improve every day on that front, and you told me she knows of your addiction.”
“She knows about it, yes, but she’s never really seen it. Is it fair put her through that? To saddle her with my problems?”
“Isn’t that her choice to make? Besides, it’s far too early to be worrying about such things.”
“When should I worry about them, then?”
“Certainly not until you are actually in a relationship, not until you see if it could be something serious.”
“Oh yes, when it would be more than just hurt feelings and wounded pride? When I could cause her actual pain by failing her.”
Molly blinked back a tear at the bitterness in his voice. Was that really how he felt? Was he afraid she was so weak she couldn’t accept that he wasn’t perfect? Couldn’t weather a storm with him?
Cassandra seemed to agree. “Maker’s breath, Cullen you are being an ass.”
“You’ve said that already,” he shot back, voice dry.
“Well clearly it bears repeating. If you’re worried about your…baggage complicating things, shouldn’t you let Molly be the one to decide whether or not she thinks you’re worth it? Talk to her.”
“No.” Cullen’s voice rang with finality and Molly flinched. “I’m not going to change my mind about this, Cass. Drop it.”
“Well you have to say something to her. She isn’t going to ignore your little scene from earlier.”
“I’ll think of something,” he said with a sigh. “With any luck, it will all blow over. I just have to be better about keeping my distance.”
“I don’t think—.”
“Please, Cass.” When Cassandra only huffed in displeasure, he added, “Let me have a few minutes to myself, all right? I’ll come up front once I’ve calmed down.”
“Oh, very well.”
Molly darted back into the main bar as quietly as she could, not wanting to be caught eavesdropping. She snatched the wet dishcloth in passing and began wiping at one of the tables, her back to the hallway. She heard Cassandra pause as she stepped into the room, but the other woman didn’t say anything. After a moment, Molly heard her move behind the bar and open the register. She kept her head down, cleaning tables while Cassandra prepared the deposit. All the while, Molly wondered what she would say to Cullen when he came back up front. He wanted to pretend like their conversation hadn’t happened. She thought she could do that. But how was she supposed to meet his eyes when she knew he was interested in her too but refused to do anything about it?
“How goes it?” Josephine asked, emerging from the office.
“I’m almost done with the tables,” she said, straightening up and pushing a loose lock of hair behind her ear. “Just have to sweep and take out the trash.”
“Oh, Molly dear, you look exhausted.” Josephine stepped closer, a look of concern on her face. “Why don’t you go on home? We can handle the rest.”
“I,” Molly tried to think of a reason to protest.
“Yes, go on,” Cassandra said, finally speaking up. “We’ll be fine.” She shot Molly such a deep look of sympathy that Molly wondered if she knew about the eavesdropping anyway. Not much got by Cassandra.
Molly spared one last glance for the hallway before slumping her shoulders in resignation. “All right, then,” she said. Offering Josephine a weak smile, she added, “Thank you.”
“Of course, of course,” Josephine said, shooing her to the bar where Cassandra was holding out her bag. “Go, get some rest, and enjoy your day off. We’ll see you on Monday.”
“Good night,” Cassandra said in a sober voice.
“Night,” Molly mumbled, shouldering her bag.
She pushed her way out into the night, both relieved and disappointed that she hadn’t had the opportunity to speak to Cullen again before leaving. Perhaps it was for the best. Now she could sleep on what she had seen and heard, and she had all day tomorrow to resign herself to the idea that nothing was going to happen. Maybe that would make it easier to face him come Monday. She hoped so, at least.
Molly laughed and nearly choked on her beer, tears streaming down her face as Bull pounded her back in an attempt to help. His “help” nearly knocked her out of her chair. “Maker, Varric,” she managed to get out once she was breathing normally again, “you didn’t!”
“I shit you not!” He held up his hands in a declaration of honesty, a smug grin on his face. “Took me months to clean the stains off the ceiling.”
“Now that,” Bull said, standing up and pointing his mug at Varric and sloshing half its contents onto the floor, “is my kind of story! But I bet you I can top it!”
“Oh, you’re on,” Varric laughed. “If you manage, I’ll pay your tab for the next month.”
A predatory light appeared in Bull’s eyes and he slammed back the rest of his drink in one swallow. “Excellent!”
Varric’s grin flickered.
“Perhaps you should only have wagered to pay his tab for a week,” Molly teased.
Varric assessed Bull with narrowed eyes, then crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. “You know what? No. If he actually can top that story, he’s earned a month of free drinks.”
Bull took that as confirmation of the bet and launched into his tale, with Krem occasionally chiming in details. As the story wore on, Varric’s jaw fell further and further open. Molly, who had spent plenty of time listening to Krem’s tales of the Chargers’ stranger experiences on the road, wasn’t surprised. She had to admit she was rather enjoying watching Varric’s disbelief, though. She let out a giggle when he realized that his mouth was hanging open and snapped it shut halfway through the story.
“It’s good to see you so happy,” Lace said from beside her, leaning in so that Molly could hear her hushed words. She slipped an arm around Molly’s waist to give her a quick hug and shot her a lopsided smile. “Been a while.”
Molly sighed and leaned her head against Lace’s shoulder, despite the awkward angle required to make it work with the shorter woman. “Yeah,” she answered after a moment, “it’s good to get to blow off some steam, I guess.”
She lifted her bottle to her lips, thinking it over. Her eyes flicked to Cullen of their own accord. He was standing between Cassandra and Josephine while the two of them talked about something in an animated fashion. Though he looked torn between amusement and confusion, it was obvious he was also relaxed and enjoying himself. She fought back a wince of pain at the sight, a dull ache starting up again in her heart. Almost two weeks had passed since she’d overheard the conversation between Cullen and Cassandra, and since then things between them had been stilted.
When she’d turned back up at work that following Monday, he had been perfectly polite to her, but distant. That easy comfort they’d had with one another was gone. They rarely spoke to each other outside of small talk or work-related stuff, and though he wasn’t obvious about it, it had not taken Molly long to realize that he now went out of his way to avoid being alone with her. It should have been enough to put her off of him, she knew, to make her give up and move on to finding someone else. But instead she just…missed him. How could she miss someone who she saw almost every day? Who was more often than not close enough to touch? But it didn’t feel like he was. Whatever the physical reality might be, it seemed to her as if they were divided by an insurmountable space these days.
“…and I’ve made you maudlin again, damn. I’m sorry Mols,” Lace said.
“It’s not your fault,” Molly told her, trying to give her a reassuring smile. It felt wobbly on her face though. She took another swig of her beer, only to realize the bottle was empty. She stared into it with a small frown before pushing herself off the chair. “I’m going to go get another. You want anything?”
Lace shot her a worried look, taking in how unsteady Molly was on her feet. “You sure you should get another? Don’t you think maybe you’ve had enough?”
“Nonsense!” Dorian exclaimed, sidling up beside Molly and slinging an arm around her shoulders. “It is a party after all. Aren’t we here to celebrate, hmm?”
He winked at Molly and pretended to ignore how she leaned against him, grateful for his sudden appearance as the room had begun to tilt at a funny angle. Or maybe that was just her. It was possible Lace had a point. She was still thirsty though, so she bit her lip and ventured, “Maybe I’ll just get some water instead.”
Lace relaxed and nodded. “Good idea. I can help you.” She started to get up, but Dorian waved her back down.
“I’ve got her,” he said, dropping another wink, this time at Lace. “I think it’s my turn to keep an eye on her for a bit anyway. That handsome hockey captain has been making eyes at you all evening. Go, put him out of his misery.”
Lace ducked her head in an attempt to hide her blush. She glanced at Krem and a silly smile appeared on her face. Then a look of guilt took over as she turned back to Molly. For all that Molly’s love life had fallen apart spectacularly, Lace’s had taken off when she finally got up the nerve to talk to Krem after one of his games. They were still taking it slow and getting to know each other, but they’d been on a few dates so far and Molly was under the impression it was going well. While she could admit to being a little jealous, she wasn’t about to begrudge her friends’ happiness. Besides, the two of them were ridiculously cute together.
“Go,” she said, waving toward Krem and managing a much more honest smile this time. “I don’t mind, really.”
Without waiting for Lace’s response, Dorian tugged Molly toward the hall. While coolers of beer and a few kegs had been set up in the back room for partygoers to help themselves, she’d have to go to the bar itself to get some water. Sluggish though her mind felt, Molly reminded herself to speak to Leliana or Josephine about adding bottles of water to the beer the next time Divine hosted a party like this.
“Come on,” Dorian said, “let’s get you seen to.”
“Don’t need a babysitter,” Molly grumbled, trying to push him away.
“Of course you don’t, my dear,” he quipped, managing to hold on to her anyway. As wobbly as she felt, it wasn’t that difficult. “Andraste’s ass, but you really are a lightweight, aren’t you?” His flippant tone was at odds with the gentle way he guided her to the bar, pushing her onto a stool. “Now, if I was water, where would I be?”
“Over there, blue button.” Molly leaned over the bar to show him and regretted it as her stomach gave a violent turn.
“You’re not going to throw up, are you? Only if you are, please let me know. This outfit really doesn’t go well with vomit stains.”
“No,” Molly snapped, resting her forehead on the bar and taking shallow breaths through her nose, waiting for her stomach to settle. Dorian waited until she released her death grip on the bar before setting a plastic cup of water next to her, complete with a cocktail straw. “Thank you,” she mumbled, sliding it closer and turning her head so she could drink.
Dorian waited in silence while she finished the cup of water, then poured her another before coming around to the outside of the bar and sitting on the stool next to her. “What happened? One minute you were having a grand time, and the next you and Harding are all huddled up and you look like you’re about to cry. Did Cullen do something I missed?”
Molly sighed and started to shake her head, then thought better of it. “No. He didn’t do anything. Lace just reminded me about why I’ve been so…” she trailed off, waving her hand in the air in a vague motion.
“Ah.” Dorian made an understanding sound. “Well look, he’s pretty, but if he can’t see how amazing you are, he’s an idiot, all right? We’ll find you someone even prettier with impeccable taste. And better hair.”
Molly looked up at him with a frown. “I like his hair.”
“Of course you do,” Dorian snorted. “My point is, you’ll be all right. And really, there’s no reason to be sad tonight. Finals are over, we have our whole winter break ahead of us, and we’re here celebrating your marvelous brutish friends winning a game of some sort.”
“That would be the championship game we’re celebrating,” Bull snorted, approaching the bar.
“Of course, my horned friend,” Dorian said with a roll of his eyes. “The point is, we’re at a party. This is a time for living it up, not dwelling on unpleasant things.”
“Unpleasant things, huh?” Bull crossed his arms and gave Molly a scrutinizing look. “You okay, little bit?”
“I’m fine,” she said, almost sounding convincing. Had Bull actually come out to check on her? She blinked up at him. That was unexpected, and kind of sweet. Offering him a shaky smile, she added, “Just had too much to drink.”
“Ah,” Bull smirked. “Lightweight, huh?”
“It would appear so,” Dorian drawled. “Much to my chagrin. Who shall I drink with now that my dear Molly is out of commission?”
“You think you can keep up with the real drinkers?”
“Ooh, that sounded like a challenge. How delightful!”
Molly glanced between them, starting to feel like a third wheel as they bantered. Realizing that her bladder was feeling rather heavy, she decided it was as good a time as any to make her exit. She slipped off her stool, drawing the immediate attention of her friends. “I’m okay,” she promised, waving them off. And, she realized, she was. Her brain was still hazy with the drink, but the water had helped, and she felt surer on her feet now. “You two carry on with whatever this is. Gonna go to the ladies’ room.”
“Are you sure—,” Dorian started to ask.
She leaned up to give him a kiss on the cheek. “Yeah, I’m good.” She punched Bull lightly on the arm as she passed him, calling, “Be good!” over her shoulder and receiving twinned chuckles in response.
She made her way to the restroom with little fuss and then paused in the hallway once she was done, trying to decide whether or not to rejoin the party. Her spirits were rallying so she headed for the back room. As she entered it, she noticed Lace standing on a chair, arms draped over Krem’s shoulders as he whispered something in her ear, causing her to giggle. Molly smiled and turned away, wanting to let them have some time together. Maybe Sera or Leliana would be up for talking. As she scanned the room, her eyes fell on Cullen, and she realized he was staring at her, concern written clearly across his face. When their eyes met, he wrenched his away in a hurry, a blush spreading across his cheeks.
Molly stood rooted to the spot, feeling as if someone had dumped a bucket of icy cold water over her head. The feeling did not last long. Before she even realized it, she was striding across the room toward him, pushing people aside with little regard. The cold shock had been replaced by the heat of fury, guiding her steps and clearing the fog in her mind.
How dare he? What right did he have to look at her like that? To worry about her, when he’d been perfectly clear about not wanting to be part of her life? When all he had to do to make things right was take a chance? Damn him to the void, it wasn’t fair. She was tired of tiptoeing around and pretending that she was okay with ignoring what they might have had.
It ended now.
Cullen glanced back, probably to sneak another peek when she wasn’t looking, and his eyes widened at the sight of her approaching. Molly could only imagine what her face must look like. She couldn’t really bring herself to care. As far as she was concerned, he deserved everything that was coming to him.
She didn’t let him get any further than that. “You,” she hissed, reaching him and stepping right into his space, “are such an ass.” She wouldn’t have thought it possible, but his eyes widened even more. Before he could reply, she continued, “You don’t get to look at me like that. You don’t.”
“Like what?” he managed.
“Like you’re worried about me!” She threw her hands in the air, leaning even closer. Maker, she could smell his cologne. Why did he have to smell so good? Focus, Molly. “You don’t have the right,” she followed up. “You decided you didn’t want it. You can’t have it both ways. Either you want me or you don’t. But you can’t just unilaterally decide to kill any chance of us without even talking to me and then still go on acting like you care how I feel!”
“Oh, Maker,” he breathed, understanding dawning. He reached up and placed gentle hands on her shoulders, trying to steer her over to a corner. “Molly,” he started, glancing around. They were attracting an audience, but she refused to budge. He closed his eyes and swallowed. “Molly,” he tried again, but she interrupted him.
“No! No. You don’t get to be the reasonable one here! I’m not the one who’s being—,” she floundered for the right word. She’d already said “ass.” Cassandra was right though, it bore repeating. She shook her head, and oh, Maker, she was about to start crying. Damn it. “You’re wrong, you know,” she said. “I do think you’re worth it. That we would be worth it. We could have--,” she broke off, anger subsiding as regret started trying to take over. She had to get out of here.
She met his eyes, and damn it, there was regret in them, too. Before she thought about it, she reached up, lacing her fingers together behind his neck and standing on her tiptoes to kiss him. Cullen made a surprised sound, his fingers tightening on her shoulders before she stepped back, out of his reach. “For what it’s worth,” she said, drawing in a deep breath, “I think we could have been great together. But I guess we’ll never know, now, will we?”
Molly and Cullen by Mickie
With that, she turned and fled, heedless of the voices calling after her.
She tore through the bar, out the door, and up the stairs, not stopping until she reached street level. Only then did she pause, bent over with her hands on her knees as she tried to catch her breath. She might walk everywhere all the damn time, but that didn’t mean she was in the kind of shape for sprinting. Especially not when she’d been drinking all night.
With that reminder, her stomach turned and she barely managed to stumble to the curb before emptying its contents in the gutter. The pungent smell of regurgitated alcohol hit her nose and she groaned, throwing up again. Everything went kind of white for a few seconds, but when sound and sight returned to normal, someone was rubbing her back in soothing circles and a plastic cup of water was being pressed into her hand. She realized she was trembling, and a sob escaped from her as she accepted the cup.
“Shh, shh,” Lace said, kneeling beside her. “It’s all right.”
“Come on,” Dorian said, “drink up. You’ll feel better. Trust me.”
Molly took a cautious sip, swishing the water around in her mouth and then spitting it out to rid herself of the taste of vomit. Then she took a few slow sips, pausing to make sure they stayed down before drinking some more. Dorian took the cup when she finished and handed her a handkerchief. She took it with a shaky smile and wiped her leaking eyes with it. “Thanks,” she whispered.
“Think nothing of it,” Dorian said. “Just know I expect you to do the same the next time I’m the one who’s overindulged.”
That got a strangled laugh out of Molly and she nodded, leaning into him when he hugged her. She slipped her other arm around Lace, who rested her head on Molly’s shoulder.
“Tell me she didn’t drive herself here,” Bull rumbled from behind them.
Molly shook her head and mumbled, “Walked.”
“She only lives a few blocks away,” Lace said, looking up at Bull.
“Someone should give her a ride home,” Bull said. “Don’t think she’s in any shape to walk back.”
“I’ll do it,” Krem spoke up. “Can you find another lift, Chief?”
“I can take him,” Dorian said. Bull grunted his thanks.
Dorian and Lace got Molly to her feet, Dorian giving her a tight hug before letting Krem slip under her arm. Bull gave her a hug too, and she was surprised by his gentleness. “You’ll be okay,” he told her, squeezing her shoulder. “Though I don’t envy the headache you’re gonna have in the morning.”
Molly gave him a wan smile and then Lace and Krem were steering her down the street, around the corner to the parking lot behind the building the bar was in. “’M sorry I broke up the party,” she mumbled when Lace buckled her in to the backseat.
“You didn’t, don’t worry,” Lace assured her, brushing a loose strand out of her face. She patted Molly on the shoulder and then closed the door, climbing into the front passenger seat. “Varric rallied the troops after you ran out. He somehow convinced Sera and Maryden to have a sing-off. Well, not really a sing-off, because Sera. But it was a damn good distraction. The rest of the Chargers were already egging them on before we even made it out of the bar. I don’t think you have to worry about anyone remembering your, um, outburst.” She leaned around the edge of the seat, shooting Molly a sympathetic smile.
“Oh, thank the Maker,” Molly whispered, dropping her head against the back of the seat and closing her eyes. Of course, it wasn’t really the Chargers and the rest of the partygoers that she was worried about.
“I wouldn’t want to be Cullen for anything right now,” Krem joked as he started up the car. He glanced back, asking, “You want the window down a bit?”
“Yes, please.” She leaned her head against the cool pane of glass, relishing the flow of air that washed over her as they pulled out of the parking lot. “What did you mean, about Cullen?”
Krem laughed. “You should have seen the way Cassandra was looking at him when you left. If that wasn’t an ‘I told you so’ face, then I’ve never seen one. She hauled him out of the pool room and toward the office, last I saw. I’d guess he’s getting a void of a talking to right now.”
“Not just from Cassandra either,” Lace added. “Josephine and Leliana followed after them. I don’t think any of them are very happy about how he handled things with you.”
“He didn’t handle anything,” Molly sighed.
“Yeah,” Lace said, sounding angry, “that’s the problem, isn’t it? If he’d just had the balls to talk to you about everything, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Molly blinked, surprised at her friend’s vehemence. “He thought he was doing the right thing,” she ventured, unsure why she was defending him. After all, she agreed with Lace, didn’t she? That was why she had yelled at Cullen.
Lace snorted. “Yeah, well. Look where that got both of you.”
Krem interrupted to ask how to get to Molly’s apartment and Lace took over giving him directions. Molly closed her eyes and leaned against the window again, and a few moments later the car came to a stop. She heard Krem murmur something to Lace and the next thing she knew he was opening the door and helping her unbuckle. He slid a shoulder under her arm and helped her out of the car, leading her toward the stairs.
“I can walk,” she tried to protest.
“Sure you can,” Krem agreed, not changing course in the slightest. “But let me help you get to the door. Lace’ll worry, otherwise.” He grinned at her and she couldn’t help but laugh. It hurt the muscles in her stomach a little but it was still nice to feel like laughing.
“Just Lace?” she teased as he helped her up the steps.
“Well,” he drawled. “Might be I would worry too.” At her door, he waited until she found her keys and got it open. Then he gave her a quick hug. “For what it’s worth, don’t write him off yet, okay?”
“Cullen, don’t write him off as a lost cause just yet.” He glanced over his shoulder, toward where Lace waited in the car. “She’s right, he did a shit job of handling things. But you’re right too. The two of you, there’s something special there. We can all see it.” He ran a hand through his hair, looking embarrassed, then added, “Maybe now he knows how you feel, he won’t be so scared about taking the next step, yeah?”
Molly wasn’t so sure about that, but she appreciated what he was trying to do. “Thanks, Krem,” she said. She stepped inside, glancing back at him. “Good night. Take care of her, please.”
“Of course,” he said, smiling again, this one soft and warm. “As long as she’ll let me.”
She nodded and shut the door, managing to lock it before she sighed and leaned against the solid wood. She didn’t really feel like moving, but eventually she got up the will to push herself upright again. Exhaustion was moving in fast, and she figured she should probably be in her bed before it took over completely.
Bull had been right, she thought as she made a half-hearted effort to get ready for bed. She was going to feel like shit in the morning.
Thanks again to my wonderful artist, Mickie, who sent me this lovely bonus art and agreed to let me share it with the readers!
Chapter 7: Saturday Again
Molly woke to the sound of a thousand nugs tap-dancing on the floor above her. It took a few long moments for her to realize that the pounding was, in fact, in her head and not an external sound. “Shit,” she moaned, rolling out of bed. She landed on the floor and lay sprawled out on her back, debating whether or not to just stay there.
“I’ll probably feel better if I take a shower,” she said to the ceiling. When it didn’t disagree, she groaned and pushed herself up. “At least the room’s not spinning,” she muttered as she made her way to the bathroom and started the water running. While she was brushing her teeth in a vain attempt to get rid of the foul taste in her mouth, she caught sight of the clock in the mirror.
She crunched up her nose as she tried to parse out the time from the reflection. It made her head hurt even more, but a dim part of her brain was reminding her she had somewhere to be today, so she really needed to figure it out. Eventually she deciphered it—nearly eleven in the morning. Well, that wasn’t too bad. She didn’t have to be at work until three-thirty. They’d all convinced Josephine to let the Chargers have their party last night if the staff came in a little early today to help clean up before opening.
Shit. Work. Cullen would be there. Molly groaned and climbed into the shower, turning so that the hot water pounded her back while she leaned her forehead against the cool tile. What was she going to say to him? What had she even been thinking last night?
Well, that was a simple answer. She hadn’t been. Damn.
Maybe he’d be so embarrassed he’d just avoid her entirely and they wouldn’t have to talk about it at all.
Cheered by that possibility, she showered as quickly as her heavy limbs could move. Once she was dry, she tossed on an old pair of jeans and a sweatshirt and then made her way into the kitchen. She stared at the inside of her fridge for a few moments before closing it again and pouring herself a glass of water instead. She knew she should try to eat, but her stomach twisted at the very thought, so she figured she would let it settle a bit longer. “Bottoms up,” she sighed, finishing the water and pouring another.
She puttered into her living room and stared around, at something of a loss over what to do next. She was on the verge of just going back to bed when there was a knock at the door. Assuming it was Lace or Dorian come to check up on her, she went to open it, and received quite a shock to find Cullen standing on the other side.
Blurting out the first thing that came to mind, she asked, “How do you know where I live?”
His eyebrows shot up but he shrugged and answered, “Cassandra.”
That made sense, she supposed. The few times when the weather had been bad enough that no one thought Molly should walk home from work, Cassandra had been the one to give her a ride.
“Can I?” He gestured behind her.
“Oh! Um, yeah, sure.” She stepped aside to let him in, closing the door and leaning back against it. Through the pounding in her head, she tried to come up with something intelligent to say. But she had been so far from prepared for him to show up that she couldn’t seem to come up with anything.
Cullen stood in the living room, where Molly had been just moments before, and looked around, curiosity evident as he took in his surroundings. There was something different about him, she realized. She couldn’t put her finger on what it was, though. When his eyes landed on her again, he gave her a sympathetic smile. “How are you feeling?”
“Like a dragon is trying to hatch out of my head,” she replied. He let out a sound halfway between a snort and a laugh. Molly blinked and grinned in spite of herself. Maker, that was adorable.
“I thought as much,” he said, taking a few steps closer and holding something out to her. “Here. Drink this.”
“What is it?” She took the sports bottle from him and popped it open with caution.
“Ah. Thanks.” She lifted it to him in a toast and then took a big swallow. This proved to be a mistake. The concoction tasted terrible, and she only just managed to keep it all down. She started coughing as soon as she swallowed, eyes watering. “Andraste’s ass,” she managed, looking up at him, “you’ve decided you hate me after all.”
“Not at all,” he said. To his credit, Cullen looked like he was trying not to laugh. He wasn’t doing a very good job of it though. “I know it tastes terrible, but drink it all. It works, I promise.”
Realizing that her head was already starting to feel a little clearer, she took another, smaller sip. “Terrible is an understatement,” she told him before drinking again. “What’s in this?”
“It’s, ah, it’s probably better if you don’t know.” He rubbed the back of his neck and looked down. After a moment he took a slow breath and then glanced back up again. “I discovered it back when I was in the band. There were plenty of mornings we had to be on the road early when we’d been up way too late partying after the show the night before. It’s nothing that will hurt you,” he promised, “I’ve just found that for some, hearing the list of ingredients can be stomach-turning enough to counter any good it does.”
She nodded, accepting his explanation and continuing to drink. As she finished the bottle off, it hit her what was different about him. His usual restlessness was gone. He seemed…still. No, calm. Yes, that was better. As if he’d been dithering about making a decision but had finally done it.
Ah. There it was then. Well, at least he was here to tell her in person this time. Maybe that meant they could still manage to be friends. She hoped so. She sighed and pushed herself away from the door, holding out the bottle for him. “So, I guess we should talk.”
“Yes,” he agreed, taking the bottle back, his eyes meeting hers.
“Cullen,” she took a deep breath, “I am so sorry about—.”
“No,” he said, stepping closer and reaching up to cup her cheek. “Don’t be. You’ve nothing to apologize about.”
She forced herself to breathe again, eyes going wide. “But--.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. He leaned his forehead against hers, letting his eyes drop shut. His thumb stroked her cheek. “You were right, I’ve been an ass.”
“Oh,” she blushed. “Um, well. Cassandra said it first?” she tried.
Cullen chuckled, and he was standing close enough that she could feel it. Oh, Maker. “That she did,” he agreed. “She was right, too.” He opened his eyes and stepped back, smiling at her, his face full of hope. “Can we take a walk, perhaps?”
Molly blinked. A walk? “All right. If that’s what you want. Let me go find some shoes.” She went into her bedroom and found a clean pair of socks, slipping them on before donning her sneakers. Then she grabbed her keys and wallet and rejoined Cullen. “Lead the way,” she told him, opening the door and gesturing for him to go first.
There was a park across the street from her apartment building, and Cullen made his way there, hands in his pockets. He looked as if he was thinking something over, perhaps trying to find the right words. Molly bit her lip, stealing glances at him as she walked by his side. Cullen stopped when he reached the edge of a small pond that sat in the center of the park. He stared at the water for a few moments before finally speaking again. “Did you mean what you said last night, about us?”
“Yes,” Molly said without hesitation. She scrunched up her nose. “I probably could have found a better way to tell you, though. I am sorry about that. I was pretty drunk last night.”
Cullen let out a soft chuckle, turning a wry smile on her. “It’s all right. I needed to hear it, after all, and from you. I’m not sure I would have believed anyone else. Besides,” he rolled his eyes, “you let me off easy. No one else was quite so inclined. I received a few dressings down after you left. It seems last night everyone wanted to give me a piece of their mind.” He sighed and reached up to rub at the back of his neck.
Molly winced in sympathy. “Ah. Um, yeah. I heard about Cassandra dragging you into the office. And Josephine and Leliana.”
“The Iron Bull and your friend Dorian, too.”
“What?” Molly turned to stare at him.
“Oh yes. They came back in after Krem and Harding took you home. I’m quite thankful Dorian was there, actually, as the Iron Bull seemed inclined to violence. Instead, Dorian spoke for the both of them while he just glared at me.”
Molly blinked. “Really? Maker, I didn’t realize Bull cared so much. Truth be told, I’m surprised Cassandra and the others even jumped in.”
Cullen reached out for her hand, smiling in amusement. “I think you’ve made more friends here than you realize, Molly. You’re part of our family now, and we all care about each other deeply. We stick up for one another, even if it’s one of us causing the trouble. Oh, I’ve upset you.”
He frowned and reached up to wipe the tears from her eyes. She shook her head, trying to brush it off, squeezing his other hand with hers. “No, no, I’m fine. It’s just, I don’t think anyone in my actual family would have stood up for me like that. It’s so strange to find somewhere that I feel like I belong.”
“Ah,” he said, nodding as he took that in. “Well. You do belong here, Molly. I hope you know that.”
“Yes,” she agreed, “I suppose I do.” She sighed and looked up at him, squeezing his hand again. “I don’t want to mess that up Cullen, but I can’t pretend I don’t feel the way I do. I care for all of you, but you, with you it’s something else entirely.”
“I think I know what you mean,” he said in a hushed voice. He hesitated for a moment, then leaned in, pressing his lips to hers. Molly sighed and leaned into the kiss, wrapping her free arm about his neck to pull him closer. “Maker,” he breathed when they broke apart. He reached up and brushed her hair out of her face, tucking it behind her ear. “I never expected anything like this, to find anyone, let alone someone like you. Molly, are you sure this is what you want? You have so much ahead of you.”
She beamed up at him. “And you don’t? It’s my understanding you’ve worked hard to get to where you are, to find a fresh start for yourself. That implies you’re only at the beginning, doesn’t it? Maybe we can find out what’s ahead of us together?” She blushed, but made herself hold his gaze. “That’s what I’d like, if you’re willing.”
He tilted his head, face serious. “I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it quite that way,” he said after a few moments. His brows drew together and he settled his free hand on her waist, looking at her as if trying to assure himself she was real. Then he sighed and leaned his forehead against hers again. “I’ve been clean for a while now, but I still have bad days, Molly. And my bad days, they’re bad. I don’t want you to get hurt, especially not by me. I’d never forgive myself.”
“If I can’t stand by you on your bad days, I don’t deserve you, Cullen,” she insisted. “But don’t let this struggle be the only thing you are. It’s not. You’re so much more. We’ll take each day as it comes, good or bad, and help each other get through both.”
“All right,” he said at last, nodding his acceptance. He smiled down at her and the warmth in his expression had her tingling all over. “I cannot help but think I’m the one who doesn’t deserve you, but I’m not going to try to convince you of that.”
“Good, because you’d never manage it.”
He let out a long laugh, and Molly leaned against him, letting go of his hand to throw her other arm around his neck as well. She pulled him close, enjoying the feel of his laughter and the beating of their hearts—not quite in sync, but coming closer to the same rhythm. Cullen slid his arms around her waist, pulling her even closer, and they stood like that for a long while, holding each other at the edge of the pond. They didn’t break apart until Molly’s stomach let out a loud growl.
“Well!” Cullen pulled back and laughed while Molly’s entire face heated up. “Have you eaten today?”
“No,” she admitted. “I couldn’t quite manage it when I got up.”
“Hmm.” He gave her a knowing look. “Let’s see if we can’t try again. Come on, I’ll make you some lunch.”
“You’re going to cook for me?” Molly grinned, letting him take her hand and pull her back toward her apartment. She laughed, thinking about the contents of her fridge and pantry. She hadn’t been to the store in a while. “I’ll be interested to see what you can come up with.”
“I’m sure I’ll figure something out,” he said with a smile of his own. “I have to keep your energy up, if you’re going to be putting up with me, after all.”
“Oh, I don’t know how much energy that will require,” Molly pretended to muse, “although I suppose I should keep it up for other things.”
That stopped Cullen short, and she realized that he was the one who had gone completely red now. “Oh!” He looked back at her, eyes wide. “That, ah, yes. That is a good point.” His embarrassment seemed to fade a little, and the look he gave her was anything but shy or awkward. Neither was the grin that spread over his face.
Oh. Oh. Suddenly she could believe those stories about rock star Cullen a little bit more easily. She cleared her throat and started walking again, tugging him along. “Food first?”
“Food first,” he agreed, hurrying his steps to keep up with her.
They reached her apartment building and all but raced each other up the steps, while attempting to look like they weren’t in any particular hurry. Molly barely made it through the door before Cullen swept her up in his arms and pressed her back against it, slamming it shut in the process. He captured her lips in another kiss, his passion igniting a fire inside of her. She hooked a leg around his thigh, and he pressed a knee between her legs to push them further apart, lifting her toes up off the ground.
His fingers scrabbled at the edge of her sweatshirt, finding their way beneath to slide across her bare skin and she moaned. She was trying to find her way under his sweater in a similar fashion when her stomach let out another loud growl. Cullen stepped back and settled her on the floor with a laugh.
“Right,” he said, still laughing, “food first.”
“Maker’s breath,” Molly whispered, flushed with embarrassment, “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” he said, leaning forward to kiss her cheek. “We’ve plenty of time for all of that.”
“We do, don’t we?” Molly felt a foolish grin on her face as she pushed off of the door and followed him into the kitchen. “We really do.”
He glanced at her over his shoulder, smiling back in agreement, and Molly felt a different kind of warmth spread through her body. Yes, she really was exactly where she belonged, right here with him.