Actions

Work Header

Marked by Destiny

Chapter Text

The Last Months

As feared, the disturbance involving residents and Wardens in Crestwood becomes the trigger for Arl Teagan to pressurise the King and Queen of Ferelden, over not only the Inquisition presence at Caer Bronach, but the Inquisition army sitting on its borders in the Frostback Mountains.

An unforeseen result of Cullen officially leaving the Inquisition when he did, is a rumour circulating he left owing to disquiet over the direction of the Inquisition. Unwilling to attract attention to the actual reason for his departure, the Inquisitor and her Advisory Council do not quash the rumour, and Cullen’s silence on the subject plays into Teagan’s hands.

Not wanting to fracture the political balance in Ferelden, Teryn Cousland reluctantly adds his weight to Arl Teagan’s demands. Even with the Inquisitor’s assurance to her friend King Alistair, he is forced to accede to his advisors. Knowing Ferelden does not have the authority to compel the Inquisition to stand down, the monarchs of Ferelden lodge a formal grievance with the Divine.

The Empress of Orlais, perceiving a danger to the organisation whose support helped sustain her throne, as well as a chance to bring the power and influence of the Inquisition under her control, seeks an Exalted Council to consider the future of the Inquisition. Conscious Orlais could not absorb the Inquisition in its entirety without causing diplomatic complications with neighbouring countries, the objective is to pluck off the most valuable elements for the Empire.

Divine Victoria, caught between the two sides, succeeds in delaying the Exalted Council for a few months, giving the Inquisition time to draw up a proposal that may be an acceptable alternative to disbanding or being absorbed by Orlais. The goal is to scale down the Inquisition into a smaller diplomatic and peacekeeping body, overseen by the Divine.

The events at the Exalted Council change everything.

.
.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

.
.

Halamshiral following the Exalted Council

What happens when everything you fought for is in danger of becoming everything you fought against? What if the good intentions you had are paving the road to hell?

Every Commander knows you don’t continue using the same tactics if you are losing the battle. You withdraw, examine the intelligence, and rethink your strategy.

It’s what Cullen would have told her. And it was precisely what she had done.

So here she was. Sitting in a lavishly and over ornately decorated suite in Halamshiral, having created an uproar by disbanding the Inquisition. Aware how profoundly it was infiltrated, and how they almost enabled the destruction of all authority in Southern Thedas and the Free Marches, she could see no other course of action. The organisation she fought so hard for, gave up her own future for, was becoming what she struggled against.

Cullen always cautioned her she was letting the Inquisition grow too large, and still she couldn’t turn anybody away. Her sense of duty and wanting to help led her astray. She had become like Loghain and Clarel, so fixated on her duty, no longer able to see how corruption and complacency could readily take root due to the sheer size of her organisation. Unlike them, she was fortunate. Her journey to hell was brought to an unexpected end, enabling her to see where she was heading.

A wet nose nudging her remaining hand drew Kai’s notice. She looked down to see Max panting away as he stared up at her. He latched onto Kai before the Exalted Council when she took a walk through the Winter Palace gardens. Kai knew enough about mabari to recognise he imprinted on her. Discovering he was abandoned, she paid the merchant and took him away. There was no way she would leave him with Orlesians who plainly didn’t have the first idea what to do with him.

His friendly eyes reminded Kai of her brother, and so Max was named after him knowing her brother wouldn’t have minded. Max always had a soft spot for dogs, especially Ama’s dog, Cally, who was quite mad.

“Hey there, Max,” she smiled, stroking him.

A deep bark came in reply before he raised his head, wanting her to tickle under his chin. She duly obliged, having discovered how much he liked it. A quiet sort of growling whine told her he was happy. Max’s exact age was unknown, but he was big, even for a mabari. And untrained. Luckily she had more than an inkling of what to do after watching Cullen with Izzy.

Another task for her, to add to winding down the Inquisition. It would take months to bring it to a close. Time enough to figure out what to do after.

Varric had gifted Kai a title and estate in Kirkwall, and suggested she could work for him if things didn’t pan out with the Exalted Council. She smiled as she recalled his words, ‘you don’t get many combinations of negotiator and trained assassin; could be useful’. Even Sera offered her the opportunity to work as a Jenny.

One proposal she had already discounted. It seemed being married was no obstacle to being a ‘companion’ to Orlesians. Duke Cyril’s offer clarified her position though. Orlais wanted the Inquisition, but not necessarily the Inquisitor. Evidently he did, telling Kai how he had always admired her and her work. Despite her refusal, he suggested she think on it more. She suspected his offer would no longer stand in the circumstances.

What remained of Kai was an even less attractive prospect than before, made brutally clear earlier that day. On their way back to the suite after announcing her decision to the Exalted Council, she and Lace overheard two Orlesian courtiers.

“Maker, have you seen her? One eye and one arm? Who would want that?”

“Not even her husband I imagine. Lucky for him he got away when he did.”

“He’s such a catch too. Wouldn’t want to be seen with that on his arm.”

Two vacuous individuals making spiteful remarks was hurtful, but Kai refused to allow their words to upset her. However, it was true very few would want her looking as she did. It wasn’t true about Cullen though. Had they been together he would have stood by her. But they weren't, and remained separated though still married.

Often, mainly at night when it was calm and she was alone, she thought about him. She would reminisce about the times they had before work came between them; the laughter, the long discussions and the feeling of his body against hers, in hers, when they made love. Sometimes, remembering made her feel better finding comfort in the memory. Other times it simply made her cry, drawing out the sense of loss she sought to keep buried.

During the day she focused on her work, her sensible side taking over, pushing aside her night-time fantasies. Kai had made her choice and Cullen had made his. Her past was gone and this was her life now.

But it wasn’t entirely bleak. Kai had Cullen’s letters, read and re-read again, a connection with him even though they’d not seen each other for many months. On the days a letter arrived her smile was broader and her heart lighter. His long letters were filled with details of his days, news of his family and how the Sanctuary was developing.

And every so often a package of sweets appeared. Even though she could easily source them herself, she didn’t. It made those Cullen sent to her, special.

Kai could sense how happy and relaxed he was through the words, the leash gone and the bond with his siblings re-established. When he wrote ‘it feels good to be making a difference again’ she understood. All he’d lived through and learned, finally coming together in a role where he was in charge and could influence change how he thought fit. Through his work and his family he was discovering who he could be, and she was glad for him.

Her reflections were cut short by a stabbing pain, not merely in the stump but radiating down the arm, an arm no longer there. Kai couldn’t prevent the audible ‘fuck’ as the pain hit, sucking a hiss between her teeth. She dug her nails into her upper arm hard, in an attempt to counteract the spasm, and started focusing her breathing. Max whined concernedly beside her.

“Is it back?” Lace questioned, turning around from the desk where she sat writing.

Kai scrunched up her face as she sought to concentrate. “Yes...can you..?”

“I’m on it.” Lace was swiftly on her feet, hurrying out the door.

Respite from the draught had worn off, again. Whatever concoction they’d created was short lived, and without additional magic she couldn’t function as she needed to. Kai was no stranger to pain; her injuries over the years were experience enough. It was the flashback she had every time the pain flared she found...problematic.

 

She tumbled through the Eluvian back into the storeroom in Halamshiral. Her face twisted and tears streaming down her cheeks as she struggled desperately to contain her fear and the excruciating pain through short frantic breaths. Her forearm was literally melting away.

Bull and Dorian stood shocked by the sight of glowing green fragments falling from her arm. Cole understood what was happening, but she spat out an order pre-empting his alarmed cry.

“Take it off!”

Bull immediately snapped to and understood what had to be done. “Dorian!” he called.

Dorian faced him, eyes wide.

Bull’s voice was steady and commanding. “When I remove her arm, you have to cauterise the end, otherwise she’ll bleed out. Can you do that?”

Dorian looked at Kai and then back at Bull. Small flames flickered in his palm as he answered. “Yes.”

She lay on the floor arm outstretched, eye closed. Bull’s blow taking her arm off was so swift her body barely had time to register it. But the agony from Dorian’s concentrated fire magic was unbearable. Overwhelmed, she uncontrollably screeched like an animal in distress before passing out.

 

Even now when the images flooded back, the metallic scent of blood and her flesh burning returned with them. Having her eye taken out was serenely peaceful compared to the brutal removal of her arm. However bad it was, Kai owed Bull and Dorian a debt for saving her and what was left of her arm.

The door opened and Kai saw Mina, one of the elven mages from the College who accompanied them, with Lace. They rushed in, and Lace called Max away allowing Mina to work her magic, soothing away the mounting pain. With it finally eased, Kai’s breathing normalised and her head cleared.

“Thank you, Mina,” she said appreciatively.

“You’re welcome, Inquisitor,” Mina acknowledged.

Kai gave an easy chuckle. “Please call me Kai. I’m not the Inquisitor anymore, remember?”

Mina nodded. “I’ll bear that in mind, but in the meantime I should look at your other injury. Has it given you further trouble?”

Kai lifted her shirt so Mina could examine the burn-like marks radiating over her abdomen, the consequence of the Anchor overloading when it became unstable.

The first time it occurred she didn’t realise what was happening, and was too late to prevent the overload. Kai only just managed to curl her body around her hand, taking the brunt of the blast. Afterwards, she discharged it as soon as she sensed the charge building up. Events were moving so fast she had no time to be afraid that the Anchor would kill her, only later did the fear come.

“Not really,” Kai answered, watching Mina’s hand sweep over her abdomen as the healing magic emanated from it. “It gets tight, but the pain is minor in comparison to my arm.”

“You were lucky your armour protected you. The damage is largely superficial, and the redness should fade in time.” She finished her task and gazed sympathetically at Kai. “Although the intensity will reduce, the marks will remain.”

Of course they will, Kai sighed to herself. Some people notched up marks on their weapons for the battles they fought. With her, the battles notched up marks on her body, as well as taking the odd piece of her.

Kai forced out an accepting smile. “At least it has a kind of sunburst appearance,” she quipped. “I could pretend it’s a tattoo.”

“Yes, Inqui...Kai,” Mina smiled, as a low groan came from Lace.

Kai thanked her once more before she left. Lace came and perched beside her.

“There’s always an answer, isn’t there,” Lace remarked, watching Kai keenly. “Is it for them or you though?”

“A bit of both, I suppose,” Kai shrugged. “Why do you ask?”

“Sometimes you forget there’s a person under the title,” Lace observed, with a light prod. “Someone who needs help too.”

Lace had a point there. So much of Kai’s life was bound up with the Inquisition and being Inquisitor, she sometimes worried if she looked too deep within herself, there would be nothing but a void staring back at her. Embracing one’s destiny was not always as empowering as it sounded. Purpose can drive you on, but equally you can find yourself being driven by it.

Her duty wasn’t entirely over, yet. Only this time she had to step back from being a figurehead and work secretly to deal with to the next threat. Maybe it would allow her some time to remember who she was.

Kai smiled at Lace, nudging her. “Well, maybe I’ll have space now to re-learn. And quite honestly, I can’t afford to continue losing parts of my anatomy. If I carry on like this, I dread to imagine what will be left of me. Three dragons with three so-called gods are quite sufficient, thank you very much.”

Lace shook her head, smirking. “Trust me; we’ll all hold you to that.”

“I have no doubt my minder will remind me to behave,” Kai prodded jokingly, seeing Lace roll her eyes.

“Who knew having one would force you to behave,” Lace shot back. “Though, I’m hardly that anymore.”

Kai chuckled. “This is true.”

A rap at the door broke into their banter. Lace helped Kai put on her tunic before calling out ‘come in’.

Kai and Lace both stood when Leliana and Cassandra walked in, the guard outside closing the door behind them. It was obvious why they were here. Disbanding the Inquisition was Kai’s suggestion, but not exclusively her decision. Presenting all she discovered from Solas to Leliana and Cassandra, they also arrived at the same conclusion. The Inquisition, even had it been reduced in size, was vulnerable to continued infiltration.

Whatever plans they reached to counteract Solas had to remain secret, only known to a select few. So far, the select few consisted of the four individuals in the room. To the world outside, the Divine and her Right Hand were simply visiting the former Inquisitor, an old friend.

Kai bowed her head deferentially. “Most Holy.”

Leliana sighed as she and Cassandra sat on the sofa opposite. “Perhaps we can dispense with the amusing use of my title...Katarina.”

A barely suppressed snort came from Lace. Kai couldn’t see her face as she was on her blind side, but she could visualise the grin. Cassandra simply rolled her eyes, long used what passed between Kai and Leliana.

“Point taken...Leliana,” Kai assented as she and Lace retook their seats.

Max sat down between them. He was unmistakably Kai’s partner, but was attached to Lace too. Likely because she sourced titbits for him from the tavern.

“Well, your exit from the Inquisition was as dramatic as your entrance,” Leliana observed, removing her mitre and setting it on a small table adjacent to the sofa. She shook her head to loosen her flattened hair.

“I don’t imagine they thought I’d actually do it.” Kai’s commitment to the Inquisition was well known, and her disbanding of it a significant shock.

“Quite, the sky was thick with birds carrying the news.” Cassandra remarked. A small smile crossed her face. “You should have seen the Orlesian courtiers in the gardens trying to dodge the effects as they flew...”

An amused cough from Leliana cut her off as Kai and Lace grinned at the picture. “Entertaining as it was perhaps we could continue?”

“Of course,” Cassandra nodded, the small smile remaining. They all knew of her distaste for the Orlesian court.

Leliana straightened her expression. “I have passed on the Triumvirate’s reply to Arl Teagan and Duke Cyril. Officially they disclaim all knowledge of the Viddasala’s intentions, insisting it was a rogue faction. It has gone some way to reassuring them we will not be at war with the Qunari.” She sighed. “I remain somewhat doubtful about this ‘rogue faction’ considering the scale of the operation. Whatever the truth of the matter, an invasion of the South is thankfully now moot.”

“At least it allows us to focus on the real threat,” Kai suggested, dropping her voice.

Leliana followed suit. “Yes. If word got out, the chaos would destabilise Thedas before Solas even invokes his plan. It is enough we will have to absorb the loss of the Inquisition and the events surrounding the Exalted Council.”

Although it was unlikely their voices would carry outside, none of them took the chance as the conversation continued in hushed tones, all focused on the serious situation they faced.

“We need that time to assemble what assistance we can to counteract this threat,” Cassandra added.

“I’d prefer to discourage him from his intention if we can do that,” Kai asserted, “but he understands I’d fight him if he left us no choice.”

Leliana raised an eyebrow. “Yes, I daresay he has already factored in your determination not to give up. Therefore you have to be the most careful not to attract attention to what we do.”

“I know,” Kai replied. Her profile in their plan had to be the least conspicuous. Solas knew she wouldn’t give up, and his spies would likely keep a watch on her.

Leliana following words were unexpected. “Cassandra and I have decided there is one more person we need.” She and Cassandra exchanged looks. “Admittedly he is a known factor, but so are we and there are few we can trust in the same way. Having Cullen’s organisational and military skills would be useful if we have to raise forces.”

“Cullen?” Kai exclaimed, temporarily thrown by this development. She quickly collected her thoughts. “I can appreciate why, but...”

Leliana continued before Kai could finish. “And we have the perfect cover for recruiting him. You and Cassandra will jointly carry out the audit of the Sanctuary before it passes into Chantry hands. During your visit you can talk with him. Knowing Cullen, I am confident he will agree.”

“Even if he learns I’m involved?” Kai ventured doubtfully.

Leliana was emphatic. “You are no longer Inquisitor, and your role in this is not the same. The concerns he had do not come into play here.” Her sober expression morphed into a light smile. “Besides, I don’t imagine Cullen could deny a charming plea for support from the Divine.”

“That’s how she hooks them,” Cassandra exhaled resignedly. “Well, that and relief at not finding a blade at their throat.”

Leliana chuckled. “My previous reputation dissuades all but the most zealous of opponents. The less infighting I have to handle, the better. For the time being at least.” She looked at Cassandra. “What is the expression the Miner Caste uses, ‘keeping one’s powder dry’?”

Cassandra scoffed, rolling her eyes, while Kai and Lace laughed.

“Ugh, Leliana. Perhaps a mite tactless considering what we removed from the Winter Palace.”

“Speaking of which, I trust the barrels were safely confiscated?” Kai asked, quieting her mirth.

“They have,” Cassandra confirmed, focus replacing the despairing tone. “A few will be sent to Skyhold for Dagna to study, along with the recipe you found. Just...don’t let her blow up the place.”

“I promise,” Kai agreed reassuringly. “I doubt the College of Enchanters would forgive either of us for destroying their new home.”

What to do with Skyhold was the one decision entirely in Kai’s remit, and she chose to give to the mages. It would be difficult enough for them adjusting to not being under the Inquisition’s wing, without being forced to move as well. Having somewhere safe for Cassie was also a factor in her decision.

Cassandra continued. “Now Orlais, Ferelden and the Free Marches have access to gaatlok, how that will affect the balance of power is yet another issue which we must consider.”

“Indeed,” Leliana confirmed. “We must keep a careful watch until things settle.” She turned to Kai. “You have some time to disband the Inquisition, and whatever aid I can offer is yours.”

“Thank you,” Kai acknowledged. “Josie, Charter and Rylen are drawing up plans for winding down their operations. Apart from the arrangements for peacekeeping missions, I imagine at a push the rest could be sorted within a few months, but I’ll wait to find out from them.”

“Good,” Leliana blinked. She drew out a letter from the pocket of her robe and glanced at Lace and Cassandra in turn. “Could you allow me some time with Kai?”

Cassandra’s face revealed she already knew what it related to. She rose and beckoned to Lace. “Come on Harding, let’s get a drink, I’m buying. If the Chargers haven’t drained the place dry.”

“If they’re still here, there’s still booze,” Lace grinned, calling Max, who trotted to her. She darted one last look at Kai before she left, with a wink to say ‘let me know if you need me’.

She was invariably there if Kai needed her. Originally assigned as her Advisors eyes and ears, Kai’s own uneasiness at Lace’s position led to Kai tempering herself to relieve the stress on her friend. Also, with Lace’s help she could step back, yet not step away. The information Lace gathered allowed Kai to be strategic in her attention.

Leliana peered after them, waiting until they left before facing Kai with a soft smile. She patted the sofa gesturing for Kai to sit with her.

Now she was sure something was wrong.

“Whatever it is, just...tell me,” Kai sighed, taking a seat beside her friend.

Leliana glanced at the letter. “I’ll get to this, but first, you and I have to discuss options if you and Cullen are to be working together.”

“I realise that,” Kai conceded, anticipating where the conversation would lead. She would insist on the same in Leliana’s position.

Leliana watched Kai carefully as she spoke. “I appreciate the two of you have settled into a friendship, corresponding with each other. As your friend, I am pleased for you both not to have lost all. But...such relationships are easier to maintain when apart. When you meet again the situation may be less straightforward.”

Here it comes...Kai thought.

“If, when you see each other again, you decide you can continue in this manner, and not have it interfere with what we need to do, then all well and good. However, should you discover this is not feasible, you are left with two alternatives; attempt reconciliation or...”

Kai fidgeted under Leliana’s attentive gaze. Months ago, she would have readily agreed to his decision if he sought an annulment. Now, she wasn’t so sure she wanted to face it. Not taking that final step allowed a small spark of hope to flicker. But reconciling had its own drawbacks.

Whatever romantic fantasies she may harbour about them together, logically she recognised what they had was the best compromise in the circumstances.

Leliana took Kai’s hand, and softened her tone seeing the uneasiness. “He left you, but has not sought to take it further, even though you offered him that option. Either he is unwilling, in which case perhaps there is a chance for you both. Or he waits for you, which means you must take the decisive step.” She paused. “Kai, there are few of us and we must ensure we can all work together. Lingering issues between you and Cullen would distract you both. A resolution of some kind is essential.”

“I...know,” Kai admitted. “But we both know if there was a chance to try again, he’d have to know about me, about what I am. As we are now, it doesn’t matter.” Anxiety crept into her voice. “Leliana, I’m not sure how he’d....” she stalled, sighing heavily.

Cullen would have to be told what she actually was, something she’d hidden from him. Her actions during their mission in the Basin had challenged him enough. Kai was also scared that if he knew, she would lose the friendship they salvaged from their relationship, on top of losing him.

Only two people knew what she was, Cole, and later Leliana. When summoned from Kirkwall to the Grand Cathedral in Val Royeaux, Kai assumed the incidents in Crestwood and news from Hawke about Weisshaupt were the focus of her meeting with the Divine. Arriving, Kai discovered Josephine’s concern about her studies had reached Leliana’s ears, likely through Charter.

Questioned about them, Kai couldn’t help but confess. Her friend could always wheedle things out of her just as she had back in Ostwick. What stunned Kai was Leliana’s lack of surprise, or concern.

 

“There were too many coincidences with you, a little too much luck for one person,” she told Kai.

“It really doesn’t...bother you?” Kai asked, gaze wide.

Leliana laughed. “You ask this of the woman who thought the Maker had chosen her to help Aedan fight the Blight?”

“Ah...you have a point there,” Kai granted.

Leliana’s musical laughter changed into a kindly smile. “I may not believe I was chosen in quite the same way as I did, but I was there in Lothering when Aedan arrived. Through him, I was there at the right time to help you back in Ostwick, and later at the Temple. Whatever you believe, I like to imagine the Maker was guiding us both.”

Kai remained silent while Leliana continued.

“Whatever you are, Kai, however this came about, and whatever your doubts, you will always do what you can to offer hope. Sometimes that small chance is enough to inspire others to be more than they imagined.”

 

But telling Leliana and telling Cullen were not the same thing.

“You promised him no more secrets, remember?” Leliana reminded her, squeezing Kai’s hand reassuringly.

Kai frowned, her reluctance obvious. “I know, but...”

“You did not ask to be what you are, Kai.” Leliana paused, thoughtful. “If he is unable to accept it, the choice is made for you, is it not? Our future is at stake and we must do all we can to be prepared.

If they couldn’t prevent Solas carrying out his plan to tear down the Veil, destroying their world, her concerns would be of little consequence. The important thing was being able to work together, to prevent the person she’d once looked upon as her friend from achieving his goal. Solas’s motive was different to Corypheus’s, but the outcome was the same if he succeeded, the loss of all she held dear. She had a job to do, yet again.

Kai sighed. “You’re right. I will do what is best for all concerned.”

“Good,” Leliana nodded.

Kai stared at the letter. “So, what’s in there?”

Leliana let go of Kai’s hand and unfolded the letter. “It’s from Wilhelm...about your father.”

Seeing Leliana’s expression, Kai knew.

Leliana gently placed the letter into Kai’s hand. “Josie bought this to me and I made a decision to hold onto it. Dealing with all that occurred was enough for you without adding this.”

Kai swallowed hard. “He’s dead, isn’t he?”

Leliana nodded. The news wasn’t a surprise. Papa’s health had been declining some time, and Lyssa’s last letter spoke of his mind failing, to the extent he didn’t recognise his family at times. Kai glanced down sensing tears welling up. Unlike the numbing loss she felt when Ama died, these were tears of sadness. Not for loss at Papa’s passing, but for a young child’s loss many years before.

When she forced Papa to step down as Bann in favour of Wilhelm, she knew full well he wouldn’t forgive her, it was expected. What Kai never discovered was why he pushed her away long before. Why, out of all his children, she was the one he found it difficult to bear. When she was a very young child he was kinder, and she loved her Papa. For some reason his attitude toward her altered. Kindness was replaced by remoteness, then bare toleration. Over the years their relationship settled into mutual antagonism, only later broken by intervals of civility when she was older.

Kai clutched the letter tightly in her hand. Papa was gone, but she had lost her Papa, the kind man of her childhood long before his physical demise. Leliana wrapped her arms around Kai and kissed her head, silently comforting her. In the warmth of her friend’s embrace, Kai’s tears spilled freely as she finally allowed herself to grieve for that confused and hurt child, and the man who once treated her with such affection. Like so much of her life, Kai didn’t need to explain to her friend.

After some time, the tears subsided. She would doubtless never learn what it was about her that prompted his rejection, but finally letting go of that piece of her gave Kai some sense of release. It would make attending the funeral less troubling.

Wiping Kai’s eyes, Leliana spoke tenderly. “Ready to continue?”

“Yes,” Kai nodded, sniffing away the last of her tears. “I’ll talk with my Advisory Council and transfer power. They’ve made a start on planning, and can progress on disbanding the Inquisition while I’m away in Ostwick.”

Leliana blinked. “A sensible idea, my friend. You have able Advisors, quite capable of doing so. Anything you need to handle personally can be attended to when you return.”

Kai closed her eye and took a breath, letting it out gradually, settling herself and focusing her mind to face the outside world once more. Opening her eye, she saw Leliana watching her, head tilted with an empathetic expression.

“What?” Kai asked.

“Perhaps now my friend will recall who she is, and learn not to be fixated on what she is. Perhaps she will find her way back into the light.” Leliana’s smile took on a wistful air. “I have missed her.”

Kai brows creased as she sighed. “I’m not sure where to start, but I’ll try.”

“Good.” Leliana caressed Kai’s cheek. “I confess I ask for selfish reasons too. With what I plan and what we must do, I will require the support of those I trust more than ever. And to remember that under all this,” she motioned to her robe, “that under Divine Victoria, Leliana still lives. I will need my friend to ‘keep me grounded’.”

She was reminding Kai of an offer she made to Leliana years ago, back when she took up the post of Left Hand.

 

Kai had laughed. “Now you’re the dark mistress of intrigue, someone has to keep you grounded, make you remember there’s more to life. I know...I’ll be the light mistress of the absurd.”

A roll of the eyes accompanied Leliana’s groan.

 

Kai smiled at the memory. “For you, my friend, I will always be there.” She sighed. “I just have to remember how to be absurd.”

“As opposed to the incongruous nature of your life in general?” Leliana ventured, smiling back.

Kai shrugged. “Well, Varric did claim the shit that happens to me is weird. At least now I have a reason for it, I suppose.”

“And he did get a book out of it,” Leliana added, with a grin. “Speaking of which, you must see my assistant before you leave.”

“Why?” Kai puzzled.

Leliana leant forward. “I have a copy of Varric’s book set aside which others here have signed, except you.”

“Why?” Kai repeated, now curious.

“It’s for Cassandra,” Leliana explained. “She was the one who defied the Chantry and dared to call the Inquisition. Had events not turned out as they did, she would have willingly accepted the blame. Yet, she is not as forthcoming in accepting the praise due to her. This is a small token, a memento to her courage and determination. Everyone has included a short message for her.”

“It would be my honour,” Kai confirmed, bowing her head. A thought occurred, and a cheeky smile broke on her face. “And...I have the perfect message.”

Leliana’s brow lifted quizzically. “Which is?”

“That, my dear friend...” Kai kissed Leliana’s cheek, “...is between me and the Seeker of Truth.”

“I will find out anyway,” Leliana pointed out. “I can always read the messages.”

“I know that,” Kai acknowledged smugly.

She refolded the unread letter and put it on one side, sensing Leliana’s curiosity. Kai tucked Dorian’s amulet under her shirt and felt her wedding ring press against her skin. Another thing to fix. Setting the thought aside she continued, standing up and awkwardly attempting to hook up her tunic. She heard Leliana tut as she rose to join her.

“One of these days, Katarina...” Leliana began impatiently, moving Kai’s hand aside as she clipped together the clasps on her tunic, “...you will learn to ask for help.” She tutted again. “Stubborn girl.”

Kai smiled waiting for Leliana to finish. As she completed the last clasp, Leliana faced Kai to see the smile.

“Why are...?” The question was cut off by Leliana’s groan as she realised.

“So?” Kai questioned.

Leliana puckered her lips and stared thoughtfully at Kai. “Hmm...distraction was good, absurdity...a bit rubbish.”

Kai laughed. “It was my first attempt in a while. I’m bound to be rusty.”

“Yes, that much was obvious,” Leliana grinned. “But you did try.” She rested her palms against Kai’s cheeks and kissed her forehead.

Kai smiled at the comfort it gave her. “I do have one personal request for help, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Name it.”

“Will you cut my hair for me before I leave, just like you did back in Ostwick?”

Kai needed the same symbolic gesture as she did all those years ago, but this time for practical reasons as well. A hook to attach her future on, a tiny, silly hook, yet it worked for her back then. Kai hoped it could do the same for her now. And no-one else would sing to her when they cut her hair as Leliana had.

Leliana’s face wrinkled sadly. “Kai, your hair is beautiful as it is. It would be such a shame.”

Kai laid her hand on Leliana’s. “I need the hook, Leliana.” She lifted what was left of her arm. “As things are, I will need help until I re-learn how to do the things I’ve taken for granted. But at least I can take care of my own hair if it’s short.” She gazed imploringly at her friend. “Please?”

Leliana sighed. “If it will help you, of course I will.” She moved her hands and raised a finger. “I likewise have not done this for a while and may be rusty. No complaints if it goes wrong.”

“Agreed,” Kai nodded. “And thank you.”

A mischievous smirk broke lazily on Leliana’s face as she stared at Kai. “As you are now dressed, shall we join Cassandra and Harding in the tavern?”

“We?” Kai asked, eyebrow lifted with a questioning smile.

Leliana put on her mitre adjusting it. “A quick change of clothes and appearance, and no one outside of my friends will recognise me. It would be nice to be relatively anonymous...for a little while at least.”

Kai snickered. “Why not? Lead on, Your Perfection.”

“No, no, after you, Comtesse Rutherford,” Leliana teased, laughing as she motioned to the door.

“Leliana.”

“Yes, Kai?”

“I do love you.”

“I love you too, my friend.”

Leliana took Kai’s hand and the two friends strolled to the door together, grinning.

Chapter Text

When Cullen set up the Sanctuary, he knew some Templars would find withdrawal from lyrium difficult, and for others the risk to their health or mind would prove too great. However, Lysette discovered some individuals were less at risk or responded better having the quantity of lyrium gradually decreased rather than completely removed. If it saved lives and minds, Cullen was in favour. With more time, they learnt to control symptoms better, and were able to give more targeted assistance.

All their work hinged principally on trust in one another, and brotherhood. The same brotherhood which helped deal with the effects of taking lyrium likewise helped when the hunger hit. Only here there was no rank, everybody used first names and everybody was equal. The only time Cullen used his authority as Director was for external affairs or internal discipline.

Logically, Cullen expected some attempts to break into the lyrium supply they had locked away if the craving became too much, even those on reduced rations. Consequently they made provision for that possibility. What they hadn’t considered were other lengths some would actually go to, to obtain more lyrium.

Like the two men before him.

Cullen stood behind the desk arms folded, unable to conceal his contempt. This was going to be tough, but had to be done. The actions of these two were beyond reprehensible, and their punishment would serve as a warning to discourage others.

They had committed a heinous crime in his eyes, abusing trust placed in them to steal lyrium doses from the older Templars. Elders as they were colloquially known, those whose minds had gone, and were unable to alert others to what was happening. These men were careful, never targeting the same person more than once.

Luckily for him, it was Eleanor Barris who spotted the signs. She observed how the normal agitation of some elders did not abate after their daily dose when it should have done. There was a short period when they became aggressive immediately after, but then quietened down. For some it didn’t ease, and she began watching, noticing every time it happened, it was always when these two men made the lyrium rounds.

A trap was set, and tonight the two were caught red-handed. Palmer’s head hung low in shame, but Morris glared defiantly at Cullen. There was no alternative but to expel them. Cullen picked up the two vials of lyrium sitting on his desk.

“Morris, Palmer, I shouldn’t have to spell out the gravity of what you’ve done, but it seems I have to. For the Sanctuary to work, we need to have trust in one another to help each other. You have broken that trust. You have betrayed your brothers and sisters with an act unacceptable to all of us.”

Cullen set a single vial in front of each man. “One day’s ration to put as much distance from here as possible. If you make any attempt to come back, your brothers and sisters won’t be as restrained next time.”

A plaintive gasp came from Palmer as he stared up, eyes wide in fear. It was clear Morris influenced him to do what they did, but he had a choice. No one was forced to be here, and could leave if they wished to. But if they chose to stay they had to abide by the rules. There were means of supporting someone experiencing difficulties, and his door and Lysette’s door were always open.

Cullen motioned to the four Templars behind them. “Show these gentlemen out.”

“Fuck you Cullen!” Morris spat out angrily, as two burly Templars took a firm hold. “So bloody high and mighty just because you were the Commander.”

But it was Eleanor who suffered the worst. “Fucking spy bitch, you’ll get what’s coming to you,” Morris hissed.

Eleanor didn’t bat an eyelid, she simply returned Morris’s glare as he was manhandled out. Palmer went quietly, and the others merely guided him out the door.

“Good riddance to bad rubbish,” Eleanor snorted.

Nothing seemed to rattle her. Eleanor always struck him as a cross between Cassandra and Leliana. Direct and strong, yet with an astuteness which missed very little. She was invaluable to both him and Lysette, catching problems they were sometimes too busy to see. Like Palmer and Morris.

Her instincts, and nose for spotting trouble saved her from ending up like her cousin Delrin. Eleanor desperately sought to persuade him to leave Therinfal with her and a group of others, but he was unwilling, assuming there was some purpose yet to be set out by the Lord Seeker. Unfortunately the Lord Seeker at Therinfal was an imposter, an Envy demon. Delrin, like so many others, ended up as a Red Templar.

Unlike some Templars, Eleanor had no issue with mages. From what Cullen discovered, magic ran in the Barris family too. Another younger cousin, Orla, was in Skyhold with the College of Enchanters.

“Thank you, Eleanor,” Cullen acknowledged. “Without you I suspect we wouldn’t have caught them so easily.”

Eleanor waved her hand dismissively. “Ach, I wasn’t going to allow the elders to suffer because of those two arseholes.” She strode over to his desk. “Shall I train up new ones for the rota? I have a couple in mind.”

Cullen nodded and smiled. “If you would, thank you.”

Eleanor gave the Templar salute and Cullen responded in kind. He seldom used it when Commander of the Inquisition, but in the Sanctuary everyone who was formerly a Templar used it as a greeting or affirmation. So much of the Order had been corrupted by Samson and Corypheus, but that one gesture remained as a reminder of the best of the Order. It wasn’t only Templars who used it, but for them it signified a promise. A promise, clenched hand on heart to give your all, including your life if required.

As Eleanor left, Tamsin came in. Cullen spotted the smile that crossed between them as they passed each other. Relationships weren’t discouraged, and in some instances they actually helped Templars in their withdrawal. And he was hardly in a position to censure anyone about fraternisation; he’d married the Inquisitor, his superior.

“I see you expelled them then,” Tamsin noted. “Morris was cursing as they threw him out the gates. Vowed he’d come back and slit your throats.”

“No surprise there,” Cullen replied unsympathetically. “I don’t hold out much prospect for his chances if he goes after Eleanor.”

Tamsin chuckled. “She’d eat him for breakfast.”

“Lunch and dinner,” Cullen added, hearing another chuckle.

“Oh, a bird arrived for you.” Tamsin handed him a letter case. “It’s from the Divine.”

Cullen stared at the case, turning it. There were no discernible signs to reveal its origin. “How do you know?”

“She sent that crazy bird, the one won’t stop pecking,” Tamsin revealed, holding up her hand to show him the bandage. “It’s a bloody nightmare getting the case off it.”

Cullen smiled. “Baron Plucky, I believe he’s called.”

“I can think of a better name,” Tamsin scoffed. “Cullen, could you please ask the Divine to send a different bird next time? No one else will touch it, so it ends up being me.”

“I promise to request an alternative bird in future,” he nodded, still smiling.

“Thank you,” Tamsin acknowledged, and strolled out.

Cullen knew when the Divine sent the Baron, it meant the message came directly from her. He broke open the end and removed the parchment inside. It bore the Divine’s seal indicating this was official. He stared at it, anticipating the contents might not be good news.

Cullen knew about the Exalted Council, and Ferelden’s position on the Inquisition. After the formal announcement was made of his departure, King Alistair wrote to inform Cullen he would be visiting the Sanctuary. Not unusual in itself, the Sanctuary was in his kingdom and he was a former Templar. But ‘the timing was interesting’, as Kai would say.

Following the requisite tour and information on their work, it was apparent Alistair wished to talk about something other than the Sanctuary, namely Crestwood. When Alistair took him aside, Cullen was surprised to learn he was sympathetic to Kai’s situation even though he supported Teagan’s complaint. Until he found out Alistair had received representation from the Wardens as well. Having been King for over ten years, people often forgot he was still a Warden, although no longer part of their Order.

Unlike Kai, who wanted to insure both parties received redress; Alistair told him he had no option but to side with his subjects and his Advisors. Cullen sought to point out that his focus was the Sanctuary, and he was no longer involved with Inquisition matters.

 

“I’m not asking for you to take sides, Cullen,” Alistair insisted, speaking quietly. “What I need, is for you to pass on a message from one old friend to another. I know from Fergus and Lyssa you two write to each other. Tell her ‘the little pike twirler says sorry’.”

Cullen’s puzzlement obviously showed.

“It was a nickname which....never mind, she’ll understand.” Alistair peered at Cullen mock sternly. “And if you repeat that nickname to anyone else you’ll be making friends with said pike.”

“Understood,” Cullen nodded, with a slight smile.

 

He realised then the visit was to deliver that message, an apology to an old friend who had helped Alistair professionally and privately. Cullen did as requested, and her subsequent letter vaguely referenced it, but that was all.

And now he had an official missive on his hands. Cullen snapped the seal and unrolled it, to find a note tucked inside. He read the Divine’s letter first.

 

Dear Director Rutherford

We are writing to inform you that with the formal disbanding of the Inquisition, fiscal oversight of the Sanctuary will pass under Chantry jurisdiction. As specified, an extensive audit of finances, facilities and personnel will be undertaken before the transfer takes place.

The audit will be conducted by Seeker Cassandra Penterghast (Right Hand to the Divine) on behalf of the Chantry, and by Comtesse Katarina Rutherford (former Inquisitor) on behalf of the Inquisition (in Dissolution).

We trust you will extend all courtesies to the two members, and on successful completion we look forward to assisting you with the good work you are doing for former members of the Templar Order.

Divine Victoria

“Sweet Maker!” he exclaimed.

Cullen backed up and plopped down into his chair. He knew Kai was facing a struggle over the future of the Inquisition, but he never dreamed she would disband it. She and the Inquisition were so entwined he couldn’t imagine her ever letting go. He was relieved she had, and worried as to why. News about the Exalted Council was slow filtering out of Denerim to other towns, and he knew this hadn’t made it to South Reach because Mia would have told him.

What on earth had happened for her to do this? Whatever it was, it must have been serious; she wouldn’t have given up the Inquisition easily. Cullen sighed and rubbed his forehead distractedly. Kai, what have got yourself into this time?

Even though her Advisors had taken some duties from her, and she had Harding to assist her, no one could prevent trouble finding Kai. If there was any sort of catastrophe, she would be in the thick of it. He picked up the note enclosed, recognising Leliana’s handwriting. Maybe now he could find out what was going on.

 

Dear Cullen

I presume you have already read the official letter so you know. Discovering what we did, Kai saw no alternative and Cassandra and I agreed with her. They will explain further when they arrive, but in short, Kai and her people helped avert a total annihilation of the leadership of Southern Thedas and the Free Marches, and stopped a Qunari invasion.

“What?!” Cullen sat forward, staring intently at the letter.

He re-read the first paragraph, and his hand shot to the back of his neck as the groan came. Could they not go at least a few years without the world falling apart?

And evidently there was more involved than simply stopping the Qunari. Cullen couldn’t imagine Kai disbanding the Inquisition over that, quite the reverse. The three of them understood losing the Inquisition would have an adverse affect on stability in Thedas, so whatever they discovered made the risk worth taking. That fact alone made Cullen uncomfortable. Unfortunately, whatever it was would have to wait for an explanation in person.

He pulled his hand away and went on with the letter.

There was also a dragon involved.

Cullen groaned again. There was always a dragon. He swore Kai could sniff out a dragon half way across Thedas.

Kai did not escape lightly. The Anchor became unstable, and she lost her left forearm as a consequence. She could have lost her life, but Bull and Dorian saved her.

His grumbling about dragons came to a sudden halt.

“Maker, no, not again,” he voiced softly.

Cullen was reminded of Dorian’s comment about the number of times Kai survived against the odds. Dorian insisted that whatever luck she possessed, they should capture and bottle it. They’d make a fortune. At least she was alive, and Cullen was extremely grateful for that luck continuing. But what must she be going through?

He knew Kai struggled when she lost her eye, and started shutting herself off from those around her. Last time, he there for her, now he was no longer with her. Cullen hoped for her sake someone was though. Because if there was no Inquisition to fight for, to focus on, he worried she may withdraw entirely. Unless you held firm with her, once she headed down that particular path she would stubbornly continue.

Cullen sighed and carried on reading.

Sadly the news does not get better. While Kai was off saving the world, again, we received word her father passed away. She will be on her way to Ostwick for the funeral by the time you receive this letter, and asked me to say she will write to you when she returns.

Cullen shook his head despairingly. Was there nothing that wasn’t thrown at her?

Issues existed between Kai and her father long before the coup, and talking about him sometimes made Kai a little prickly. Even so, losing both parents couldn’t be easy, and doubtless she was ploughing on as she habitually would. The same steel which got her into trouble was likely the only thing keeping her going. But no one, including her, could absorb loss after loss without some fallout eventually.

Cullen resolved to write to her, to reassure her he was there for her as a friend, hoping it would be sufficient. Right now he wasn’t sure what else to do. If he pressed her, he worried she might withdraw from him. The last thing he wanted was to lose her and the friendship they’d carefully built. He knew having each other to write to helped them both. He certainly looked forward to her letters, re-reading them repeatedly.

Cullen had no regrets about leaving the Inquisition, he enjoyed his work, and loved being back with his family. Yet when he received a letter from Kai, that extra boost made life feel...more. Her letters also brought out a need in him for her physical presence, a need suppressed most of the time in his busy life. They drew on memories of long conversations, laughter and the comfortable intimacy they shared. More than once he reflected on the bizarreness of fantasising about his own wife.

But now, after months apart, they would finally meet again. Cullen imagined both would be apprehensive about seeing one another. Not to mention how it would impact the friendship they had built.

He closed his eyes, settling his thoughts and the twinge of anxiety fluttering in his stomach.

Their meeting would part of an official visit, principally concerned with the audit. There may be little chance for them to talk personally, but whatever time they had, he would use it to provide what support he could. He knew she would do no less for him.

Cullen returned to the letter, concluding the remaining section.

I have asked Cassandra to make arrangements for the audit as Kai will be tied up with her Advisors winding down the Inquisition when she returns. Cassandra will confirm details when they have established a date.

One last matter, if there any former Templars who you believe would be suitable future candidates for the Seekers, please bear them in mind for when Cassandra arrives. She will discuss them with you.

Leliana

The last part wasn’t such a surprise. Cullen expected Cassandra would consider former Templars who were lyrium free as possible candidates. What was unexpected was why now. As far as he knew, she was proceeding slowly on recruitment. This sounded like a step up, and along with Kai’s disbanding of the Inquisition, ‘the timing was interesting’.

No doubt there would be plenty to learn and talk about when Kai and Cassandra came for the audit.

Now he had other things to organise. The members of the Sanctuary needed to be informed of the impending change before news about the Inquisition reached them. They had to be assured their future here was secure. To date, those undertaking withdrawal and those who required care constituted the bulk of the people here.

He and Tamsin would have to set about preparing for the influx of those Templars left in the Inquisition who chose to join them. Not all would, but they had to be ready to accommodate those who did.

Cullen stood and walked to the door, seeing Tamsin in the larger office outside his. She looked up from her work.

“So, anything interesting?” she asked, likely expecting some snippet of news.

“You could say that,” he answered straight-faced, seeing her inquisitive expression. “If you call the Inquisitor disbanding the Inquisition interesting.”

Her eyes grew wide. “What?! She actually...” Tamsin exclaimed loudly and then dropped her voice. “What happened?”

Conscious of Kai’s attachment to the Inquisition, Tamsin appeared equally confounded by the news.

“Fetch Lysette and Eleanor,” Cullen instructed. “It’s best if we discuss this together first. We should begin planning ahead before I make the announcement tomorrow.”

“Of course,” Tamsin nodded, hurriedly leaving to round up the others.

After the four of them talked it over, Cullen had another person to see. He was due to meet Mia and wouldn’t break that appointment. He’d missed two visits already, and if he missed a third he’d never hear the end of it. Moreover it provided him a chance to tell her the news.

---------------------------------------------

Reaching Mia’s house Cullen spied a horse and wagon outside which appeared familiar, but he couldn’t quite place where he’d seen them before. He headed up the steps.

“You’re late.” Mia’s voice greeted Cullen as he opened the back door to his sister’s kitchen. Her manner was matter-of-fact, but he nevertheless caught the light rebuke. Just like when they were children.

Cullen sighed. “Hello Mia.”

Walking in, he discovered she wasn’t alone. The sight of an unknown man sitting at the kitchen table smiling as if he knew Cullen, momentarily threw him. He looked to be in his early twenties, heavily built with cropped blonde hair, and wearing a fitted leather tunic enhancing his study frame. When he stood up, Cullen saw he was tall too.

“Hello Avvar-Friend,” the man greeted him.

Cullen’s confusion led to laughter on the man’s part. “You do not recognise me.” He held out his hand. “Helsdim, from Stone-Bear.”

“Ohh, of course. I’m sorry.” Cullen shook his hand. “You don’t have the...” Cullen swept his hand across his forehead. Last time he saw Helsdim most of his face was masked with a head covering, and he was dressed in the same hide and pelt clothes favoured by Skywatcher.

“This attire is better for trading,” Helsdim explained, still smiling.

“Plus the women can’t get enough of him looking like that,” Mia remarked with a chuckle, glancing over her shoulder as she made tea. “The farms empty of young girls when they know he’s come to South Reach. They descend like a swarm of bees on the poor boy.”

Helsdim blushed slightly as the smile transformed into a grin.

“Wait...you two know each other?” Cullen queried, glancing between them as Mia brought the tea and a plate of cookies to the table. He took a seat opposite Helsdim.

“Only as traders when I come to market,” Helsdim replied, retaking his seat. “I did not know Mia was your sister until today, when I asked her for directions to your Sanctuary.”

Mia sat in her customary place and peered pointedly at Cullen. “My brother failed to mention it was you who he met.”

Cullen exhaled. “I didn’t realise...”

Mia laughed. “I probably wouldn’t have made the connection anyway.” She turned to Helsdim with a knowing lift of her eyebrow. “Helsdim doesn’t use his own name, do you?”

Helsdim cleared his throat, looking at Cullen. “I use Sven. People seem to think it more...Avvar.”

“And sexy. I’ve seen the girls touching his muscles and sighing ‘oh Sven’,” Mia teased.

This time the blush on Helsdim’s face deepened, yet the smile remained as he darted a look at Mia. Cullen swore his sister could embarrass anyone.

“Mia!” Cullen groaned.

“What?” Mia tutted, a wave of her hand sweeping away his objection. “Cullen, he’s selling his wares to support his Hold. He’s not the only Avvar trader in these parts, but as far as the female population of South Reach are concerned, he’s the one they go to first. His look, the name, it all works to help him.”

Mia did have a point, but Cullen decided to rescue Helsdim anyway, before his sister’s teasing made the poor man’s face resemble the colour of a sunburnt nug.

Cullen glanced a frown at Mia whose smile only broadened. He turned to Helsdim. “You were looking for me?”

“Yes,” Helsdim nodded, his colour easing. “I travelled to Denerim to collect our yearly shipment of spices, and while there visited a book dealer off the Market Square. He stocks everything Varric Thethras has written...” his voice quietened, “...including the banned ones.”

Helsdim took what appeared to be a pamphlet of some sort cautiously out of his pocket.

“He...err...had something unusual...this time.” Helsdim flicked a tentative glance at Mia before pushing the pamphlet, face down, across the table to Cullen. “I have to take the spices back to Stone-Bear, and the journey to Skyhold would take too long. South Reach is but a short detour and First-Thaw said you were here...” his words trailed off as he released his hold.

Out of the corner of his eye, Cullen could see Mia casting seemingly nonchalant glances at the pamphlet, inbetween pouring out cups of tea. He knew his sister well enough to appreciate her supposed indifference meant the complete opposite. Cullen gingerly turned the pamphlet over. Seeing the cover, a muffled exclamation of ‘Maker’s breath’ shot out before he could stop himself.

On the cover was a provocative illustration leaving little to the imagination. He read the title:

Knight takes Queen, Part 1, as told by Varric Tethras. The true story behind Checkmate revealing the burning desires of the Inquisitor and her Commander, and their lustful union. Not included previously owing to Inquisition censorship, but now available separately for the discerning reader.

He supposed the two figures were meant to be him and Kai. Cullen looked up to see Helsdim watching him.

“I have read everything Varric Thethras has written and that...” he pointed at the pamphlet, “is not akin to anything he has written.”

Varric had taken some liberties with Checkmate, but he too doubted Varric would produce something like this.

Cullen couldn’t gauge how explicit the contents were until he read it, and he certainly didn’t fancy reading it in Mia’s presence. But if he attempted to conceal the pamphlet, Mia’s curiosity would simply grow, and Cullen had no desire to suffer the ribbing if she saw it. He placed it on the table face down away from her. Her eyes lingered on it a little longer before finally shifting her gaze elsewhere.

“Do you know where he...obtained it?” Cullen questioned warily.

“He said from a contact in Kirkwall,” Helsdim answered.

“Right, thank you,” Cullen replied. “I’ll make sure this is...dealt with.”

With all Kai had been through, worrying about someone peddling fabricated, lurid tales of their life was the last thing she needed. Josephine would be the best person to handle this particular matter delicately. He would send the offending pamphlet with the next report under sealed cover. It was safer that way.

“Varric Tethras is a friend to First-Thaw. I would not want her to think he would write such a thing.”

Cullen cleared his throat. “No, no...of course not. Were there...more copies?"

Helsdim shook his head. “Only this one. He kept it aside for me because I always take some dried smoked meat for his wife. One hand washes another if you understand my meaning.”

It wasn’t an expression Cullen knew, but guessed it meant one favour for another.

“Well,” Mia exclaimed, getting their attention. She glanced from one to the other then shook her head, tutting impatiently. “It’s evidently smutty judging by the way you two are being so shifty.”

Mia stared straight at Helsdim. “You've read it?”

“A...aye,” he confessed, his colour rising once more and shuffling uncomfortably on his chair.

Mia continued, steadily pressing for further information. “I presume it concerns the Inquisitor and...”

Helsdim’s involuntary glance in Cullen’s direction gave her the answer.

“I see.” Mia mused for a moment as the two men watched like children waiting for instruction. She turned to Cullen. “If it’s bad, her people have to find out who wrote it and who circulated it. And...you need to leave it here for the time being.”

Cullen opened his mouth to protest, but she raised her hand stopping him.

“Before you complain, your office is open to all and sundry. If someone finds that, think of how it could harm her reputation and that of the Inquisition.”

It was true, his office was rarely locked. The only place to hide it would be the safe where the lyrium and records were kept, and he absolutely didn’t want to put it there. Not where Lysette or Tamsin could stumble on it.

“Very well,” Cullen agreed grudgingly.

“Good,” Mia acknowledged, turning to Helsdim. “Now, Helsdim, you can come and help me sort your accommodation for tonight.” She looked at Cullen. “And you, dear brother, can read it in peace while we’re gone.”

Mia stood, gesturing for Helsdim to grab some cookies before pushing the plate in front of Cullen. “Just in case,” were her parting words before ushering a somewhat perplexed Helsdim out of the kitchen.

Cullen shook his head with a resigned sigh. His sister was a force of nature when she got going, and he’d learnt not to argue with her when she was like that. He picked up the pamphlet and opened it, taking a cookie as he set about reading.

Katarina Alana Isabella Trevelyan pines for her Commander. Little does she know, he battles with desires of his own - a prisoner of his own needs. Commander Cullen Stanton Rutherford hides a secret desire that only his true love can discover.

Cullen let out an audible ‘hmph’. Kai was definitely not the pining type and he couldn’t imagine what needs he was a prisoner to.

The night was moist despite the swirling snow and harshly blowing wind. The humidity was low outside the tent, but inside, sweat pooled from Cullen's heaving chest following a steamy trail down to his navel. He gripped his steaming rod and pumped his sweaty flesh as he muttered loudly in a soft voice.

“You’ve got to be joking,” he groaned to himself. What kind of nonsense was this? An indignant expression crossed his face as he continued.

“Argh!” He grunted, “use that light swing arm – ahh, yes, like that.” Cullen pulled faster. “Oh yes, minimum friction about the fulcrum, do it, do it.” He felt his sack tighten and picked up speed ramming his hardness into both hands, lifting himself on his tippy-toes. “The mass of the counterweight is far greater,” he felt his wad building, “than the mass,” his hot love burst out over his hands, “of the projectile. Ungf. So good. Calibrations complete.”

Reading the actions and words attributed to him was trying enough, but when Cullen reached the last sentence of the paragraph, he gasped, practically choking on the mouthful of cookie he’d just bitten off. It took a minute or two of coughing, a few mouthfuls of tea, and several deep breaths to recover.

‘Calibrations’ hit a little too close to home. After Kai started using it as a joke, saying the word out loud was awkward enough, but eventually he got past the association with the very action he’d just read. Cullen dreaded what more he would encounter after seeing that specific word, but ploughed on nevertheless, alternating between snorts of amusement and coughs of discomfort. Finally reaching the end, he breathed a sigh of relief. The damn thing was difficult to read, but at least there were no more surprises.

When younger, he would have been mortified at this sort of thing, but now it bothered him hardly at all. Funny what age and experience could do; plus being with Kai had probably inured him further. If she was her usual self, she would howl with laughter at something like this, but now he worried it might upset her.

Cullen heard footfalls and looked up to see Mia return. “Helsdim is stabling Millie,” she told him.

Cullen answered with a brief grunt, catching her chuckle at his pained expression.

“Good reading?”

“Hardly,” Cullen remarked dismissively, placing the pamphlet on the table. “But you’re right; I will urge them to look into this. Kai doesn’t need any further complications, particularly now.”

Mia sat in her chair, a look of concerned puzzlement replacing the smile. “Cullen?”

“I received word today...she’s disbanded the Inquisition...”

Cullen got no further seeing his sister’s mouth gape briefly. Very little fazed Mia, but the news was as much a shock to her as it was to him. “Maker! I never expected she would...”

“Neither did I,” he observed, “but she did. And she’s coming here with Cassandra to audit the Sanctuary before it changes hands.”

A transient flash of unease passed across Mia’s face before she spoke. “Do you know why she disbanded it?”

“The official notification from the Divine came with a note.” Cullen fixed her with a careful stare. “I’m not sure how much of what I’m about to tell you is common knowledge, yet.”

“I won’t say anything,” she confirmed, holding up her hand.

“Well,” Cullen began. “It appears she and her people helped thwart a Qunari invasion, and mass assassination of the leadership in Southern Thedas...”

Mia’s eyes grew wider, but she waited for him to continue, sensing there was more.

“...and she lost her forearm when the Anchor became unstable nearly killing her. On top of all that she’s on her way to Ostwick for her father’s funeral.”

“Blessed Andraste!” Mia exclaimed, hand covering her mouth as she shook her head sadly. “One of those things would be enough for anyone, let alone all three.”

“Unfortunately it seems to happen more often than not to Kai.” He gave a deep sigh. “But I thank the Maker she’s still alive.”

Mia became thoughtful, resting her hands one atop the other. “I asked you a while back, would anything change if she was no longer Inquisitor. Well, it’s something you have to consider now, Cullen. Because when you see each other again, things may no longer remain as they are...much as you both may wish them to.”

“Mia...”

She interrupted him. “Hear me out.”

“Alright.”

Her tone was calm. “What happened marked both of you...”

Both understood she referred to the events in the Frostback Basin and their subsequent separation.

“...and you’ve been apart for months now, leading separate lives. You need to be prepared for whatever seeing one another might lead to, especially in the circumstances.” Mia paused. “All I would ask is for you to be cautious, Cullen. I have no desire to see either of you hurt again, especially you, little brother.”

Cullen furrowed his brows as he breathed out. “I’m hardly little anymore, Mia.”

“For older sisters, their younger brothers are always little, no matter their age,” she pointed out, her finger mirroring her protective tone.

She smiled lightly.“I remember you and Bran waving ladles and pot lids around as the two of you went ‘head to head’. And before you remind me, I know full well it was my idea, to help with your ‘training’.” Mia sighed. “I can still hear the scolding from Ma when you dinged the lid of that huge cooking pot. It always clattered when she used it afterwards.”

Cullen remembered it too. It was his and Bran’s fault for ‘battling’ a little too enthusiastically, but Mia accepted responsibility for the damage, enduring two weeks of additional chores as punishment. She’d been his ally, encouraging his dream when children, and still supported him to this day.

“The point is, I will always look out for you,” she stressed.

“Alright,” Cullen relented. “I know you mean well and I will be careful, I promise.”

Mia acknowledged his words. “That is all I ask.”

“Can we talk about something else now?” he proposed expectantly.

“We can.” The kind smile changed into a knowing one. “Right, let’s see this story then.” She held out her hand for the pamphlet.

“Mia, I really don’t think...”

“Nonsense,” she scoffed. “You don’t imagine I’m easily embarrassed, do you?”

“It wasn’t you I was thinking of,” Cullen retorted.

She gestured for him to hand it over. Reluctantly he gave it to her, seeing the blinked thank you. Cullen stood, intending to leave her to it.

“Where do you think you’re going?” she challenged.

“I’m not going to sit here and watch you laugh your way through that,” he complained, pointing at the offending story.

“Yes, you will,” she declared adamantly. “You still owe me for the pot lid. So sit down and eat cookies.”

“Maker’s breath!” Cullen groaned, rolling his eyes.

Mia peered at him, brows raised in grim determination, waiting. Cullen exhaled and shook his head realising he’d been out manoeuvred. As he sat back down he saw her satisfied grin.

“You know, we should have just let you loose on Corypheus,” he grumbled, picking up another cookie. “You could have embarrassed him to death.”

As well as supporting him, his sister took immense satisfaction in teasing him as a child, and that too had never changed. Mia’s smile broadened as she examined the cover and then opened up the pamphlet to read. The sniggers and snorts of laughter were not long coming.

“Entertaining, I take it?” he asked, frowning.

She looked up and nodded with a smug smirk. “Oh yes! This is so worth two weeks of extra chores.”

Cullen groaned again before biting a chunk off the cookie.

Chapter Text

Lyssa held Kai’s hand as the two sisters stood aside from the crowd gathered for Papa’s funeral. Nevermind one was a Cousland and the other a Rutherford now, here they were Trevelyans, and expected to behave in a steadfast manner. Truthfully neither felt the desire to weep anyway. Unlike Ama’s funeral, Papa’s was sombre as his life had been, serious and full of duty, reflected in the speech given.

As his body was set alight, the Revered Mother began to recite Transfigurations. When she arrived at the all too familiar line, Kai’s mind drifted. It meant so much more now.

“The light shall lead her safely through the paths of this world and into the next.”

Originally it was the only portion of the Chant she held onto after Aedan’s death. These words drove her to join him. She would offer her life in exchange for the chance to be with him once more. They represented an immense sense of loss, yet peace as well. Now emotions from her experience in the Basin, and her merging with Estre, combined with the older memory.

It didn’t just mean passing from the real world through the Fade; it was passing through the Fade into the real world. As she discovered, on very rare occasions the paths went in both directions, souls could return. Kai understood why she was here but nowhere did it say how it happened, how the soul of someone who died came back. Estre told her she wasn’t supposed to know what she was, and Kai could appreciate why. When she thought on it too deeply it was as if the ground beneath her started to shift, just like being in the Fade. Without the traces of Estre remaining in her, she might have lost her mind over the uncertainty. And she had ample to deal with without including a total collapse of her sense of self.

Kai felt a tug on her hand.

“Are you still with us?” Lyssa inquired, slightly teasing.

Kai turned her head to face her sister, and nodded. “Just about.”

Lyssa smiled and whispered. “They’re finally finished, thank the Maker. Kai, when it’s my turn, please make sure my send off is like Ama’s. I couldn’t bear putting people through a dirge like this.”

Kai nudged Lyssa lightly. “If I’m still here, I swear to make sure Fergus carries out your wishes. Though at this rate, it might be you doing that for me.”

“Hmm, you have a point,” Lyssa mused. “I’ve had less in the way of near death experiences. Well...none actually.”

“Trust me, Lyly, they’re not what they’re cracked up to be,” Kai threw back with weary groan. “After a while it becomes more like...sod it, not again.”

A giggle broke free before Lyssa could stop it, and she promptly checked herself. “Maker, Kiki, don’t make me laugh. If Wilhelm sees me, I’ll get a lecture about proper conduct.”

Kai leaned over and murmured into her sister’s ear. “Fuck Wilhelm.”

The strain on Lyssa’s face as she attempted to rein in her mirth was worth the curse. Kai was glad to see Lyssa as she should be once more, the pain of her years with Anton faded. Neither Lyssa nor Fergus were starry eyed teenagers, and both had been through plenty, yet together they found love and quiet contentment.

Her sister had become the public diplomatic face of the Terynir, while Fergus worked at what he did best, the practical aspects of their estate. Even though Ama’s father was a van Markham making them part Nevarran, Ferelden politics definitely suited her sister better. With Lyssa’s assistance Fergus also grew more comfortable in his role as Advisor to Alistair. It was an ideal match for both.

“Besides...” Kai continued, “...you outrank him now, Teryna Cousland. Bann Trevelyan has to show some deference, family or no.”

Lyssa dropped her head to conceal the smile. “Don’t tempt me. I swore I’d leave that nonsense behind after Nevarra, but for him...”

“I’d even pay to see it,” Kai encouraged, striving not to smile when a faint whine came from Lyssa as she stifled a laugh.

Luckily the crowd had mostly dispersed, heading back to the house for the gathering. Kai suspected a lot of the family came more for the food and drink and a chance to meet up or discuss business, rather than deference to Papa. But the two of them weren’t alone. An elderly female voice broke into their spiralling loss of decorum.

“Ladies, I see some things remain the same. The Trevelyan sisters cannot resist egging each other on.” Her tone was intended to be reproving, but the easy lilt was familiar.

Kai turned her head as Lyssa looked up, controlling themselves as best they could in the circumstances.

“Lady Buttlefort,” they addressed her politely, bending their heads in respect to the grey-haired and keen-eyed woman before them.

“Teryna Cousland, Comtesse Rutherford,” she greeted them in reply then gave a wide smile.

Lyssa and Kai smiled back and embraced the woman in turn.

Lady Ada Buttlefort, a solid down-to-earth woman, a cousin of her father’s who bore the typical Trevelyan seriousness like an occasional cloak, only when required. The rest of the time she was one of the shrewdest, warmest human beings Kai knew, aside from her mother. It was no wonder she and Ama were close, more akin to sisters.

Ada Buttlefort was also one of Josephine’s agents here in Ostwick, recruited after the feud within House Trevelyan, though most of her intelligence came from outside of the family now. Things settled down after Wilhelm took over.

“How are you, Aunt Ada?” Lyssa enquired.

The children always called her Aunt Ada, even though she was their second cousin.

Aunt Ada replied conspiratorially. “Probably the same as you. Glad this farce is over. Aldous would have appreciated the service, but the feigned grief would have irked him royally. You missed the so sad dabbing of the eyes as ‘the princess’ stood pretending to listen. Andraste forgive me, but that woman is a menace.” Her groan was heartfelt. “What on earth Wilhelm finds in her is beyond me.”

Few members of the family had any regard for Habren, Wilhelm’s second wife. During their marriage she had succeeded in upsetting most of House Trevelyan. The only individuals she kept company with were a handful of female acquaintances from outside the family who resembled hangers-on rather than actual friends.

Habren’s egotism and haughty manner were in stark contrast to her sensible father, Leonas Bryland. Kai always wondered if being an only child, and spoilt by her mother Aline before she died when Habren was younger, might have contributed to her behaviour. But any sympathy they had for that loss was soon quashed by her relentless self-regard and incessant demands. Luckily for Wilhelm’s sons, it was their nanny that cared for them, ensuring the boys were raised responsibly, because Habren virtually ignored them.

“It’s that helpless needy thing she does, makes Wilhelm feel manly I suspect,” Kai remarked offhandedly. “Right before she fleeces another Maker knows what out of him, only to become bored and onto the next thing.”

Aunt Ada shook her head and sighed. “And now Aldous is gone, she can make inroads into the money he left. Heaven alone knows what monstrosity she will turn the place into. The servants barely kept up with her frequent whims in their wing as it was. Now she has free run over the entire estate. There will be little left of any inheritance to pass on once she is through with it.”

“I thought Papa would have made provision for the boys though?” Lyssa inquired.

Lyssa knew as did Kai, their rejection of Papa’s wishes would have disinherited both them and any offspring. Neither of them was expecting to be included in his will.

“He did, and wisely left the trust under my supervision,” Aunt Ada informed them.

“Good,” Kai answered. Aunt Ada would ensure the boys’ future was protected.

“At the moment it is safe, but I am not getting any younger either,” Aunt Ada continued. “So, I have made provision too. In the event I go the way of your father the trust will pass to the two of you to manage. If it passed to Wilhelm, the greedy so and so would have her mitts on the funds faster than you could blink. And Alex, well,” she sighed, “bless the boy, but his head is too far in the clouds to watch over anything as mundane as money.”

Kai and Lyssa looked at each other silently agreeing.

“Aunt Ada, you can count on us,” Lyssa confirmed.

“Of course I can,” Aunt Ada said staunchly, with a lift of her brow. “Trevelyan men might be found wanting in common sense at times, but the women on the whole are grounded in practicality.”

She shifted her gaze to Kai. “Although it is remarkable you stand here considering the dangers you have faced, child. Josephine kindly kept me updated on your progress.” Her grateful smile held a trace of resignation. “Perhaps now you are no longer Inquisitor I can hope you will outlast me.”

Kai smiled wryly. She may no longer be Inquisitor, but danger remained, even if it wasn’t an immediate threat as before.

“Well, hopefully my life will be calmer now,” she replied, shrugging as she raised the stump of her left arm. “After all, my fighting days appear to be over.”

Aunt Ada gazed at her empathetically. “For your sake, child, I am content if they are. I can see how this entire business has taken its toll on you. Elsa would have been sad to see her bright child lose so much of herself.” She inclined her head. “When do you return to Skyhold?”

“First thing tomorrow,” Kai told her. “I only came for the funeral.”

“Me too,” Lyssa added.

“I see.” Aunt Ada breathed out. “Come then, let us go to the garden. We have things to discuss before you leave, and now is as good a time as any.”

She gestured ahead, and they walked back to the garden, to a familiar place Kai and Lyssa knew from their childhood, where Ama and Aunt Ada used to sit and talk while they played around them. The chairs were still there and they took their old seats. Kai reflected on how inherent their actions were, as if they’d done this only yesterday and not years ago. A silver wind chime tinkled gently in the light breeze.

Aunt Ada checked to ensure no one was around before turning to Kai and Lyssa. “There are matters you were never told of, and I promised your mother I wouldn’t say anything until after your father’s death. Elsa loved all of you, but her commitment to Aldous as his spouse took priority. Not simply as duty, but as Lyssa came to see, she understood it was her influence which tempered him.”

Lyssa nodded. “He was worse when I came here after leaving Anton. Whatever kindness there was before had vanished.”

“Kindness?” Kai snorted incredulously “Maybe for the rest of you...”

Aunt Ada interrupted before Kai got any further. “There is a reason why...this is not a justification for his conduct, merely an explanation.”

Kai’s mouth shut seeing Aunt Ada’s face. Whatever she intended to say was something Kai needed to hear. Whether it was something she wanted to hear was another matter.

“Your father was never expected to be Bann. As second son, he was destined for the Chantry...”

“Second son?” Lyssa exclaimed. “We thought Papa was the only child.”

They were aware Aldous’ birth was difficult, and Grandmother Emma was unable to have more children afterwards.

“No,” Aunt Ada explained. “Aldous had an older brother, Daniel. Three years separated them, chalk and cheese in temperament, yet close as brothers. Aldous was serious, studious and a little introverted, Daniel was outgoing, charming and rather bright. Both were perfect for what their roles would have been. Aldous was always pious and looked forward to entering the Chantry, unlike some children who were simply handed over. Daniel would have relished his role as Bann.”

Aunt Ada exhaled, briefly contemplative before continuing. “Then, just before Aldous was expected to leave, Daniel’s magic manifested, and he was taken to the Ostwick Circle. He was eleven and your father only eight at the time.”

“Why was this hidden?” Kai questioned, exchanging glances with Lyssa who seemed equally astonished at the revelation.

“I’ll come to that,” Aunt Ada told them. “The point is your father ended up shoehorned into a role he was ill-suited for. Aldous did what was expected, but often struggled with the demands made. Had his parents had more children, I’m certain the responsibility would have passed to another sibling. Fortunately, Daniel was allowed to occasionally visit his family under supervision. That helped Aldous, bolstering him whenever they saw each other.”

Kai noticed how Aunt Ada loosely threaded her fingers together on her lap as she paused, a trick Kai recognised to steady one’s hands. A trick she could no longer perform.

Aunt Ada picked up the account. “On the other hand, Daniel’s training was going remarkably well, he proved to have considerable magical talent. No one had any worries about him. He was so gifted his teacher recommended him for the Harrowing earlier than usual. The First Enchanter at the time granted permission, and the Knight-Commander agreed.” She paused again, this time looking serious. “No-one anticipated what would happen. No-one expected anything other than a successful Harrowing.”

The grim reality dawned on Kai. “Oh...I think I can guess...”

Aunt Ada nodded. “The Templars killed the abomination he became, but not before he killed one of them first. The entire affair was hushed up ostensibly out of consideration for your grandparents who were significant donors to the Chantry, but more likely because of the blunder made by the Circle.”

Kai spotted the distress on Lyssa’s face. This hit home for her because of Cassie. Lyssa still felt guilty for being apart from Cassie even though she saw how Cassie loved her way of life and that she wasn’t alone. She had gained many friends and Lyssa and Eri visited. But they all knew Cassie’s exceptional ability was starting to show. It appeared magic was more of a family trait than they knew.

“Aunt Ada...” Lyssa began anxiously.

“Lyssa, I understand this is difficult,” Aunt Ada replied comfortingly, and placed her hand tenderly on Lyssa’s. “But every mage knows this is a potential risk. She too would have been informed of the pitfalls, and your daughter is no fool. From what you’ve told me, she wishes to use her talent for good, and Cassie has always been thoughtful and considered.”

“But she’s only...”Lyssa sighed.

“...a child?” Aunt Ada proposed. “Yes she is, but she will not be when the time comes.

“And Fiona would not allow her to undertake it before she was ready,” Kai added reassuringly.

Aunt Ada’s voice took on a persuasive air. “Besides, I always suspected Daniel had a hand in his own downfall. He did have a propensity for believing he could always come out on top. Perhaps that was the one time overconfidence in his ability proved reckless.”

Lyssa frowned. “Even so, I can’t help but be concerned.”

Aunt Ada squeezed Lyssa’s hand. “I know, child. But I doubt whether Cassie would be easily tricked or tempted. She and Eri navigated the waters of your marriage to Anton quite ably, did they not?”

Lyssa blushed guiltily. Aunt Ada’s remarks may have seemed blunt, but were not intended as a reproach, purely to prove both children emerged from the situation resilient.

Kai rubbed Lyssa’s back soothingly. “Lyly, the girls may have thought you were being a bit of a tit sometimes...”

A snorted laugh came from Lyssa and she shook her head resignedly at Kai. “Thanks, Kiki. Ever the diplomat.”

“...but,” Kai went on, “they never doubted you loved them. They understood their funny, gentle mother was still there. And besides,” Kai shrugged, “they knew Anton was an arse.”

This time Lyssa’s laugh was less restrained. “I’d rather they didn’t have to live through all that rubbish, but I’m thankful they are who they are now.”

“Of course they came through it, they are Trevelyans," Aunt Ada insisted, letting go of Lyssa’s hand to brush her cheek, “and they have a strong mother who came through it too and now has a husband who appreciates what she truly is.”

At the mention of Fergus, Lyssa smiled warmly, nodding. “And my girls have a stepfather who is more a father to them than their own ever was.”

“That they do, child, that they do,” Aunt Ada agreed as she sat back. “However, this story was also intended to explain something to Kai.”

Her attention settled on Kai as she carried on. “Aldous was barely fourteen when Daniel died, and profoundly distressed by his brother’s death. At first, his parents wouldn’t even discuss what transpired. Aldous pestered his mother until she eventually admitted the truth. What wounded him further was how his beloved brother was edged out of the family history owing to shame over the events.”

This time it was Kai’s turn for the comfort of Aunt Ada’s hand. “You probably do not remember this, you were only four at the time. The Grand Tourney came to Ostwick, with all the fanfare that entailed, and you, Lyssa, and your parents went to see the spectacle. The Grand Tourney invariably draws all sorts trying to earn money on the back of attracting so many people. As the four of you walked past the various stalls, a Rivaini woman, a fortune-teller, left her stall and came right up to you...”

Kai tilted her head in curiosity. “Me?"

“Yes,” Aunt Ada confirmed. “She stooped in front of you and peered at you, then turned to your parents, informing them you were touched by the Fade. Aldous tugged you away from her, and Elsa assumed he had done so because he believed the woman was touting. He did not approve of fortune-telling. But then, rather than move on, he told Elsa you were all to return home. She saw he was agitated and readily agreed.”

Kai’s gaze widened as Aunt Ada spoke, thankfully a suitable response in the circumstances. Neither Aunt Ada nor Lyssa would be aware of the real significance of those words. Kai had no memory of this, but when she turned to Lyssa she saw a glimmer of recognition.

“Lys?”

“I remember they ushered us home that day, but I didn’t understand why. Papa was annoyed, and I’d learned not to question when he was like that. You made a fuss because you were hungry and missed the hog roast.”

“The reason they left was because Aldous became frightened, and when he was fearful, it usually came out as sternness or anger.” Aunt Ada squeezed Kai’s hand lightly. “He remembered from his brother how mages had a connection with the Fade and was afraid it meant you would be a mage. And, after what took place with Daniel, the idea that his youngest would be a mage...well, he couldn’t endure going through the trauma again. Elsa tried to dissuade him, but to no avail. Even she couldn’t break his conviction that you would end up the same as his brother.”

Kai frowned. “Was that why he...distanced himself?”

“Yes, child,” Aunt Ada acknowledged. “When it became apparent you weren’t a mage it was too late, the damage had been done. The relationship between the two of you was broken.”

That was why he rejected her, over the words of some random fortune-teller? Her father was many things, but Kai never suspected he would readily accept the words of a stranger. But it wasn’t just Papa involved in this affair. Lyssa’s hand rested lightly on her back, to remind Kai she was there.

“And Ama accepted this?” Kai demanded, shaking her head in dismay.

“She did, but she tried her best to step in as he stepped away,” came Aunt Ada’s careful response. “Elsa was caught between the man she loved and the child she loved, wanting to help both.

Aunt Ada’s tone became sadder. “For all his faults your mother cared for him as best she could. She recognised something broke inside Aldous when Daniel died, and she was the only one who could keep his dark moods from growing too severe. It was her support which granted him the strength to carry out his duty, but he resented having to be front and centre as Bann and head of House Trevelyan. Your father was a troubled individual, and it only worsened as he aged. When Elsa died he lost his security, the one thing that kept him stable.”

“You make him sound like a child,” Kai blurted out, her irritation showing.

“I imagine he was in a sense,” Aunt Ada affirmed. “And I think Elsa’s desire to protect him maybe contributed to him remaining that way. But she likewise knew without her influence the turmoil inside could have been more damaging.”

Aunt Ada paused, seeing Kai’s stern face. “You need to know to understand why he distanced himself from you...and because I have no wish to see you tainted by loss and expectation as he was...”

“I am not my father,” Kai maintained, her voice raised.

“No, you are not. But you have his stubbornness, and I fear without somebody to give you a reason to...well...I can see you giving in to duty and succumbing to regret later on. Child, responsibility is well and good, but saving the world is not only for everybody else. The future is for you as well.”

Aunt Ada leant forward and touched Kai’s wedding ring, hanging on the chain beside Dorian’s amulet. “You do not need to face that future alone. Cullen is a good man, and it was plainly obvious you love each other. I do not know what occurred between the two of you, but the Kai I knew would not have let what you had slip away.” She inclined her head with a resolute wrinkle of her brows. “Or does the little ptarmigan give up so easily now?”

“Thank you, Aunt Ada,” Lyssa chimed in, fixing Kai with a determined stare. “Maybe you can get her to listen. Maker knows I’ve tried.”

They wouldn’t be aware of the actual cause for her and Cullen’s separation. Lyssa and Aunt Ada would view it as a breakdown in their marriage brought about by the pressure of their roles. That was the official version and Kai couldn’t explain otherwise. All she could do was go along with the pretence.

Kai kept her tone steady. “I appreciate you both wish to help, but it’s not that simple...”

“When is anything worth doing ever simple?” Aunt Ada tutted with a roll of the eyes. “But it has never stopped you before. Do you remember why Elsa gave you that nickname?”

Kai sighed. “Because I reminded her of the bird in the story.”

“Exactly,” Aunt Ada insisted, watching Kai closely.

Kai knew Aunt Ada wouldn’t accept anything other than an undertaking from her to attempt reconciliation with Cullen. “Alright, I promise I’ll try,” she relented. “But it isn’t only dependant on me.”

Aunt Ada nodded. “I understand, child. It takes both to rebuild a relationship, but someone has to take the first step.”

That first step could also break it, Kai sighed to herself.

On the journey to Ostwick she’d thought about the resolution Leliana sought. When Kai felt hopeful, she toyed with taking a chance and confessing all to Cullen. When the fear bled in, the idea of telling him caused her to feel sick. Was it so dreadful to allow things to remain as they were? Yet, both choices had consequences.

Aunt Ada was already moving the conversation on, but she was never one to brood or pamper unnecessarily.

Sadness is understandable and natural, Aunt Ada would say, but wallowing in self-pity is simply a waste of time.

Perhaps she should remember that lesson for the future. Although she was learning how to physically cope with the loss of her arm, adjusting mentally was proving harder. Kai still found it hard to look at herself in the mirror; what she saw didn’t match the picture she had in her head. She dragged her attention back, pushing aside the thoughts. It would do her no good to brood.

“...which brings me to the next thing; do you remember how you both loved the tale of the ptarmigan?” Aunt Ada asked with a smile. “The two of you made Elsa tell it over and over again.”

“We did,” Kai recalled, seeing Lyssa nod. “I think I could recite it now if given the prompt.”

“Me too,” Lyssa agreed. “She told it in an almost singsong way. Oh, and the hand gestures, Kai, remember those?”

Kai nodded. “She practically sang and acted it for us.”

“It was a family tale, passed down through the generations, though she did somewhat doctor it to hide its real origin...” Aunt Ada paused, glancing between the two sisters. “...as she hid her own heritage from your father. It was the one secret she kept from Aldous. She would have told you herself had she outlived him.”

Now Aunt Ada had Kai and Lyssa’s full attention, both regarding her with intense curiosity. After the information concerning her father, Kai wondered what else there could be to discover.

“You recall your great grandmother, Hannah, was Ferelden?” she asked, seeing them both nod. “It seems one of her maternal ancestors was an Avvar.”

Kai saw Lyssa’s eyes grow large, but for her it made sense bearing in mind what she learned in Stone-Bear. Ama meant mother.

“The story Elsa told me,” Aunt Ada went on, “was that she was an Avvar warrior who came with Balak’s forces when they invaded Ferelden during the Steel Age. She was locked in combat with a Ferelden warrior and had him down on the ground, poised to deliver the killing blow, when a ptarmigan flew between them, landing near the man. She stopped in her tracks, and instead of killing him, she dragged him away from the battlefield and started tending to his wounds. To her the bird was a sign from the Lady of the Skies that he was important in some way.”

“Seriously?” Lyssa exclaimed, incredulous.

“Avvar read signs in nature, so it wouldn’t be unusual,” Kai explained. “Trust me on this.”

“In the tale, it the ptarmigan is honoured above the eagles for rescuing the heart, remember. Bear in mind your mother’s story is an oral one passed down through generations,” Aunt Ada added. “Elements could have been forgotten or even embellished in the retelling. May I?”

“Sorry, please continue,” Lyssa replied.

“After the battle was over, she would not leave his side. Needless to say, his comrades were less than thrilled about having the enemy in their midst. But he persuaded her to disarm and swore to take responsibility for her. Thankfully they agreed, sparing her life as she spared his. He was injured and she remained with him, nursing him back to health. I suspect you can visualise the outcome; such tales always end the same way. The two of them fell in love, and she converted so they could marry. But she did keep some of her heritage, like the word for mother and the Avvar tale of the ptarmigan. The bird had brought them together after all.”

Kai made a knowing hmm, drawing Lyssa’s gaze. “When we were in the Frostback Basin, I found out Ama was what Avvar children called their mothers, passed down from mother to daughter. I did wonder how it ended up in our family.”

Aunt Ada nodded. “Elsa explained to Aldous it was simply family tradition, and he of course indulged her. From what she told me, the tale of her ancestor was passed down mother to daughter too. But in your mother’s situation, she had the dilemma of a devout husband who viewed Avvar as nothing but heathen savages.”

Lyssa sighed. “She could have told us. We wouldn’t have said anything.”

“Perhaps not,” Aunt Ada supposed, “but I believe she was scared of him finding out, and how he might view her or their children if he did.”

I know the feeling, Kai thought wistfully. It was the same fear she had if she told Cullen what she actually was. What would he think and how would it change things between them? She could hardly accuse of her mother of keeping secrets when she was doing same with her husband. The only difference was she had no offspring to protect.

Their conversation was interrupted by the noise of footfalls approaching. They looked around to catch Alex striding towards them. He offered no greeting, simply sat himself into one of the unoccupied seats and grunted in frustration. Her brother was never one for superfluous conversation.

“Oh dear, Alex,” Aunt Ada soothed. “What’s disturbed you?”

“That tiresome woman,” Alex grumbled. “I was in the library reading up on some research, and she came in complaining to one of her companions, disrupting the quiet. She really is rather exasperating.”

Ordinary people and their habits were a bit of a mystery to Alex. It was only with researchers, archivists and librarians he really connected, where they could discuss history, philosophy, and religion. Even though Alex was Chief Archivist, he had two assistants who communicated with the outside world on his behalf. Leliana understood his strength lay in organisation and research, and gave others the task of being the public face of the Chantry Archives.

Kai smiled supportively. “Don’t worry, dear brother, you’re safe here with us. We’ll protect you from Habren.”

Lyssa snickered. “Kai can glare at her again and send her scuttling. Maker, I wish I’d seen that.”

Aunt Ada looked over towards the house. “Your chance might come sooner than you think, Lyssa. She is on her way here. Brace yourselves.”

Habren marched up to their little group with a conceited sneer. Kai recalled how their cousin Stephan reckoned she looked as if a kipper rested permanently under her nose, only just managing not to snigger at the memory. Habren had scarcely stopped pacing when the accusation tumbled out. It appeared Alex wasn’t the only one not for niceties.

“I suppose you’ve told them,” Habren huffed at Alex, folding her arms with a petulant sniff.

Here we go, Kai thought.

She doubted whether Alex paid heed to whatever Habren was complaining of, but Habren wouldn’t have recognised that. In her perception, everything revolved around her.

Habren tapped her foot impatiently. “It isn’t fair. I’ve been here all the time, and it was supposed to be mine. You two don’t even live here anymore and I don’t see why I should suffer the loss...”

Kai and Lyssa darted a ‘what on earth is she talking about’ look at each other as Habren continued to carp on about her perceived loss.

“...and I was going to decorate it with Orlesian silks and rugs to make it so beautiful, instead of having that ugly wood. And new furniture and little statues in the garden...”

If somebody didn’t stop her, she would prattle on. Once Kai would have been more tactful, but these days her toleration of this vain and vacuous woman was seriously reduced, and it showed in her terse manner.

“Habren, what in the Maker’s name are you on about?”

Whatever the problem was, it subdued Habren’s usual reluctance to stand up to Kai. She gave an exaggerated huff. “The summer house, as if you didn’t know. Papa left it to the two of you.” She jabbed her finger at Kai and Lyssa in turn.

It appeared Lyssa’s diplomacy slipped too as a snigger burst out leading to an annoyed glare from Habren. Lyssa cleared her throat, restraining her amusement. “Truthfully, we had no idea.”

Habren turned up her nose. “Well he has. So dreadfully unfair, and undeserved, especially after he promised me the summer house in respect of all I did for him. It...”

“Maker, enough with this nonsense!”

Alex’s loud and forceful command cut Habren off. Kai was shocked; she’d never heard her brother raise his voice like that. Aunt Ada and Lyssa peered at him in amazement.

He scowled at Habren, his words clear and candid when he spoke. “I cannot abide such dissembling. Papa left the summer house to my sisters because Ama asked him to. It belonged to her and was wholly hers to bequeath. And as to what you did for him, Papa always claimed you were an idle and feckless waste of space. His greatest regret was that he couldn’t send you back to your father because even he was probably thankful to be rid of you.”

Silence fell as the three of them sat there dumbfounded, darting looks between the two. Alex’s glare did not falter as Habren’s mouth hung open in shock. For a minute neither moved, then Habren’s face puckered as she started to sniff and whine. She turned tail and fled, likely to Wilhelm to protest about her treatment at his brother’s hands.

“Well, it seems it is the quiet ones you have to watch,” Aunt Ada observed dryly.

Their quiet, studious brother had found his voice, quoting the very words Papa used. Words which the three women apparently lacked the courage Alex possessed to voice. His remonstration could not have been better expressed.

Alex saw the three women watching him with keen relish. “What?”

“Alexander Trevelyan, that was awesome,” Kai laughed.

“I’ll second that,” Lyssa chuckled. “Truly incredible, darling brother.”

Aunt Ada nodded deferentially with a wide grin. “May I third the sentiment. It was something to behold.”

“All I did was tell the truth,” he retorted, glancing between the three of them, evidently baffled by their praise. “I know full well what was in both Ama and Papa’s wills because they lodged them with the Ostwick Chantry under my care. Both contained explicit instructions about the summer house.”

Alex’s face relaxed as he turned to Kai and Lyssa. “However Papa felt about the two of you, he would never go against Ama’s wishes on that score. It belongs to you both, to be used and passed down as you see fit.”

Kai’s smile was echoed in her sister’s face. Their treasured summer home, full of happy childhood memories, now belonged to them. It would be a long way to come, and likely Lyssa would find more use for it than she would, but having someplace to escape to if she needed it, was welcome.

Lyssa’s smile transformed into a bold grin, tapping her finger on her cheek. “Hmm, to be used as we wish...I think perhaps some rules might be in order. What do you say, dear sister?”

“Rules as to who might be permitted to use it?” Kai ventured, grinning back.

“Maybe,” Lyssa drawled with a wink.

“I must confess it could be construed as meanness," Aunt Ada observed. "But...in her case, what goes around comes around.”

Lyssa turned to Alex. “What do you think, Alex?”

Alex exhaled. “Perhaps it is uncharitable to say this, but some individuals are just irredeemable. And she would only turn it into a gaudy mess.”

“Wilhelm will take exception,” Aunt Ada warned them.

“Forgive me, but quite honestly...” Kai stopped for effect, seeing the three of them waiting, “...fuck Wilhelm. He chose to marry the woman.”

“Katarina!” Aunt Ada scolded as Lyssa laughed and Alex groaned.

Sitting here with her sister, brother and Aunt Ada, the company felt comfortably familiar and reassuring no matter what other memories her former home brought back. Her trip to Ostwick furnished answers she didn’t expect, things she would need to process.

Perhaps after the Inquisition was finally wrapped up, she could return to spend time at the summer house. A brief respite would give her the opportunity to reflect on her past and future, and maybe even begin to re-discover who she was outside of being the Inquisitor. And, depending on the outcome with Cullen, having a personal sanctuary might be needed.

Chapter Text

Skyhold

Kai was always glad to see Skyhold when she returned, but on this occasion relieved was perhaps the most accurate description for what she felt. Their battered and bedraggled party rode through the gates and headed for the stables, trotting their horses through the lower courtyard.

Of all the obstacles Kai had to confront, at least riding one-handed was not one of them. She’d been riding that way all her life and her horse was accustomed to it. With one only hand however, mounting and dismounting was tricky. In stables, it was fine; there were always stools on hand. Otherwise she went through a somewhat ungainly process of being hoisted onto and helped off the horse. But that depended on someone being with her. She had yet to work how she could do it alone.

Another thing to tackle. The list of issues was lengthening, shortening, and lengthening once more as another little hump rose to try to trip her up. Using the privy proved to be most entertaining. She thanked the Maker she still had teeth, otherwise the whole affair might have proved more unpleasant.

Kai brought her horse to a halt in front of the stalls, and before she could ask, Dennet appeared with a stool.

She smiled and nodded to offer her thanks. “You’ve done this before.”

“I’ve not been Horsemaster for all these years without seeing most everything. Let’s see what you do.” He folded his arms and watched, waiting for her to dismount.

Kai brought her right leg over the saddle, and sat at right angles before gripping the pommel, then twisted slightly, finally shuffling off to drop herself down, her feet landing on the stool. It was clumsy, but it worked.

“You need to strengthen your arm,” Dennet told her. “Lowering is better. Like that you could twist your ankle if the stool slips, or land...”

“...on my arse.” She laughed, panting a tad. “Done it already.”

“I’d have said backside,” he chuckled, “but point made. You’ll have plenty of practice.”

Kai watched as Dennet glanced to one side and scratched his chin. “I might have another solution. I’ll let you know.”

With that he strode away. One of stable-hands removed her saddle bags and took her horse. Kai picked them up and wandered over to her escort.

“Thank you,” she acknowledged gratefully, seeing their tired faces. “You should report to Commander Rylen, let him know what happened. Then make sure your wounds are checked, and get some rest. As long as you need. I’m confident the Commander will be agreeable.”

“Yes, Your Worship,” they chorused before walking away.

On the road to Skyhold from Highever, they were waylaid by bandits. The last time that happened on the open road was years ago in the early days of the Inquisition, when there were few camps and no keeps. Some were bound to exploit the situation after Inquisition patrols stopped, though the rapidity with which bandits re-appeared surprised Kai. Without the Inquisition’s presence, there was no-one to take up the slack.

Mina and Lace came up to her. Both looked tired, Mina especially so. She took care of their injuries best she could on top of the draughts, deliberately targeting her healing. Kai sensed she was holding back to handle the bouts of pain Kai still experienced and told her not to. She staggered her pain relief potions only taking them if the pain was troublesome. The constant low level ache became tolerable.

“Mina, you should rest too. We are all extremely grateful for what you did for us. Thank you.”

Mina rubbed her eyes. “I must confess the thought of a soft bed and hours of sleep is my idea of heaven right now.”

Lace yawned. “Me too.”

“Sadly Lace, you and I have a report to give first,” Kai pointed out, seeing Lace sigh. “Then we can partake in that luxury.”

“I shall think of you both,” Mina smiled with a modest bow. “Ladies.”

Kai and Lace responded in kind, watching Mina walk away.

“You know, for someone who’s not used to combat,” Lace observed yawning again, “Mina did pretty well.”

Kai’s yawn joined hers. “That she did.” She nudged her companion. “Come on. Let’s go before those bales of hay tempt me to collapse onto them."

“We are going to see the Ambassador aren’t we?” Lace requested more statement than question. “She has those lovely armchairs to sink into, and honestly, I couldn’t deal with all those stairs to the Rookery.”

Stairs. Kai groaned loudly as the realisation hit. “Shit. I forgot about the stairs...” She had several flights of stairs to negotiate before reaching her warm, comfortable bed. She might as well be scaling the peaks around Skyhold.

“You can bunk with me if you want,” Lace offered with a sleepy laugh.

“Thank you, but you need to sleep, and I might be...”

“Restless?” Lace suggested diplomatically.

Kai cleared her throat. “Quite.”

Bad dreams were plaguing her again, but luckily she only wrestled in her sleep, moaning. She didn’t scream and there was no longer an Anchor to accidently activate. The worst she could do, was wake someone. Sleeping alone was preferable.

Kai gestured with her head to the Great Hall. “Come on, Assistant Harding. Let’s get it over with.”

The two of them made their way there, noticing how relatively deserted it was when they entered. Normally it was a bustling meeting place for the numerous dignitaries and nobles. It was Lace who voiced their thoughts.

“Didn’t take them long to drop us, did it?”

“Seemingly not,” Kai agreed. “No more ‘glory to bask in’, I presume,” she added, voicing Leliana’s comment after they defeated Corypheus.

The Inquisition was only advantageous as long as it had authority, and technically it ceased to exist when Kai made her declaration disbanding it. In reality, like any large organisation, winding it down took time. But no power meant no standing, no influence, and no further use. It wasn’t unexpected; Thedas was full of power seekers and power players. The Inquisition was simply another transient actor on that stage.

They found Josephine at her desk, scribbling away as always. She looked up, her initial pleased expression giving way to consternation as she spotted their exhausted and grubby state.

“Blessed Andraste, you two look dreadful.”

Before Kai could respond, an enthusiastic bundle of mabari appeared from behind Josephine’s desk and sprinted up to her. Kai knelt before Max, giving him a huge hug as he nuzzled her with his familiar greeting, a curiously musical mix of a growl and a whine as if he was speaking to her.

“I’ve missed you too, Max,” Kai whispered into his smooth coat.

“Blame it on the bandits,” Lace replied wearily to Josephine.

“Oh dear,” Josephine sighed, the surprise vanishing. “Charter has had reports of an upsurge in bandit attacks from the agents we reassigned. We considered it prudent to maintain a watch as long as we could.”

Kai and Lace plopped down into the soft and welcome comfort of Josephine’s armchairs, and Max sat between them as usual.

“You can include another one,” Lace told her, stretching out her legs.

Josephine came over with her chair, and listened closely as the two of them described the attack.

The bandits jumped them on the Old Imperial Highway, greater in number than their party of seven. However, four seasoned Inquisition veterans, two experienced rogues and one inexperienced mage proved to be more than a match, but not without injuries. It was apparent they recognised Kai, and even a former Inquisitor was regarded as worth a considerable ransom. Most of the bandits were killed, and the few remaining ran off.

“They mistakenly assumed their larger force counted,” Kai explained, seeing Josephine’s concerned expression. “But they bargained without a determined mage, Dragonslayer Harding...” Lace rolled her eyes at Bull’s nickname for her, “...and veterans who’d fought much worse than bandits.”

“And without Her Worship who nutted one of them,” Lace chuckled. “I think you actually broke his nose.”

Josephine’s eyes widened a little as she giggled. “Really?”

Kai rubbed the back of her head reflexively, the bruise she earned for that move was abating. “Well, it was either that or find a blade at my throat.” She shrugged. “It was enough to dissuade him I wasn’t the easy mark he imagined.”

She was fortunate. Had her reflexes not been as swift, she could have ended up a hostage forcing her people to disarm. It confirmed she could not continue to be armed solely with daggers. With only one arm Kai was more vulnerable than before, and not being able to reach her dagger was an issue. On the journey home she came up with a solution, a concealed blade attached to her wrist. If anyone could realise her idea, it was Harritt and Dagna.

“I am glad to hear it,” Josephine exhaled. “And the Commander will be pleased his men proved their worth. He was quite concerned only sending four with you.”

“They unquestionably did that, Josie,” Kai nodded. “I thought some form of commendation would be appropriate in the circumstances.”

“Of course, Inquisitor.”

“Josie, please, I’m not actually the...”

Josephine raised a finger to stop Kai. “Until we walk out of the gates on our final day here you still retain the title, Inquisitor. We do this properly.” Her expression indicated she would tolerate no protest.

Kai sighed, acquiescing. “Very well.”

“Good. Now I imagine you wish to rest after your little excursion.” Kai and Lace nodded tiredly. “However,” Josephine continued, “I’m afraid a complication arose while you were in Ostwick.”

Kai groaned. “Another one?”

“Yes, and unfortunately this requires a swift resolution and another journey.”

“Of course it does,” Kai murmured, rubbing her eye. “How soon, where...and what’s needed?”

“Two or three days time, and to...South Reach,” Josephine replied tentatively. “The Sanctuary audit has become somewhat more immediate than we planned for.”

Kai closed her eye as she took a breath. She hadn’t expected this so soon. “What happened?”

The tentativeness vanished and Josephine became her normal businesslike self, sitting stock straight while Kai and Lace loafed lazily in the armchairs.

“When you disbanded the Inquisition, technically all agreements ended with it, including our deal with Orzammar,” she advised them. “They sent one last consignment of lyrium, sufficient for the Templars here and for the Sanctuary, but there will be no more after this one. Divine’s Victoria’s people are negotiating a continuation of the Chantry’s contract, but as you know, until the audit is complete the Sanctuary cannot pass into Chantry hands. In effect, we and the Sanctuary are currently in limbo.”

“Won’t they accept a one off deal?” Kai questioned. Surely they understood the Inquisition still had money.

“Sadly, in overall terms the sum they requested would be prohibitive.” Josephine explained. “Our donations have all but dried up. I have reviewed our finances and we will have to utilise most of what we have to keep Skyhold running while we wind down the Inquisition, as well as paying off all of our people. Any remaining monies will be shared between the Sanctuary and the College of Enchanters, but quite frankly there will not be much left over.”

“Oh,” Kai replied quietly, glancing at Lace. “It really didn’t take long for us to lose support.”

“No more glory,” Lace remarked.

“Indeed,” Kai nodded.

Josephine coughed to draw their attention. “Therefore, it is best if this audit is settled promptly, so the Sanctuary is on a firm footing. I would hate for all the work Cullen has done to be put at risk over a legal issue.”

“You’re right, Josie,” Kai agreed, her expression showing more willingness than she actually felt. She hoped to have additional time before seeing Cullen again, but this was more important than her reluctance.

Josephine began to detail the arrangements. “Lady Penterghast...”

“You know she hates it when you call her that, Josie,” Kai observed smiling. She could quite clearly hear Cassandra’s ‘urghh’.

Josephine continued undeterred. “...should be arriving in a few days, and you can travel there together. Rylen will assign a detail of Templars to go with you. He has already spoken with the Templars here to ascertain which of them wish to join Cullen. One group already went ahead, and the remainder will leave in similar staggered small groups to give Cullen’s people time to organise. Cullen was not expecting such an abrupt end to the Inquisition, but I’m certain he will be prepared for their arrival.”

Her Advisors understood the need for Kai’s decision to disband, but equally they were the ones working to bring the Inquisition an end. Some ramifications were already obvious, and no doubt other issues would come to light, but her immediate obligation was to those she worked with. She had only just returned and was to be away once more, leaving her Advisors to bear the load.

“Josie, I’m so sorry for leaving you all to pick up the pieces,” Kai apologised contritely. “Whatever you require from me please let me know.”

Josephine came over to Kai and gently patted her hand. “We all understand it was crucial for you to attend your father’s funeral. Charter, Rylen and I have managed quite ably without you, Inquisitor. We are used to continuing in your absence.”

“Point taken,” Kai conceded. Handing over some of her authority previously had been a blessing in the circumstances. It was a shame she hadn’t learnt that lesson earlier.

Josephine gave a shrewd smile. “Besides, you didn’t imagine you would be returning to an empty desk.”

Kai briefly tilted her head back with a heavy sigh. “Of course not, Ambassador.”

Josephine rose, taking hold of her chair. “There is also a letter from Cullen for you,” she added almost as an afterthought, and walked back to her desk.

Except it wasn’t an afterthought. Josephine, like Lace, noticed how Cullen’s letters lifted Kai’s spirit. Her smile at the news was genuine, but her excitement was tempered by the prospect of seeing him. Kai would have to confront the possibility the comfortable friendship they found might not last.

As long as we can work together to face what’s to come, she reflected.

Kai didn’t catch the inquisitive glance Lace gave her before she stood.

“Right then, do you need me for anything?” Lace inquired.

“No Lace, thank you. You go and rest. I just need to pop to the Undercroft and I’ll be doing the same.” Kai sensed Josephine watching her. “After checking my desk for anything urgent.”

“Thank you, Inquisitor.” Josephine replied, with a smile in her voice. “I have set those papers aside. They merely require your signature. I can collect them later on, and fill you in before the Council meeting tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Josie,” Kai acknowledged through a yawn.

She heard the door shut as Lace left. It was time to drag herself out of the chair and be off too. She was halfway to the door with Max in tow when she remembered. She’d requested new clothes, ones allowing her to dress using only one hand. It was another chance to have some independence and not have to be reliant on others. With her current clothes, it was difficult to dress or undress herself without aid. Too many clasps and ties.

“Josie, were the seamstresses able to make some clothes for me?”

“Yes, Inquisitor.” Josephine looked up from her task. “They have done rather well I think, but you can be the judge. I have left the clothes in your quarters.”

“Wonderful,” Kai grinned. “I must thank them.”

“I believe they would appreciate that.” A girlish enthusiasm came over Josephine. “If you like...maybe we could both see how they fit...later on?”

Anyone who knew Josephine well was conscious of her penchant for clothes and playing in the dressing up box. And of the dolls she kept on the cabinet in her room, whose outfits were changed on a regular basis. Underneath Josephine’s sensible and astute exterior was the tender soul of a young girl, only revealed to those closest to her. In the absence of Leliana and Cullen, their shared past of being there from the outset had brought the two of them closer.

“I would welcome your company, Josie,” Kai agreed heartily.

Josephine smiled warmly. “I shall see you later then.” With that she returned to her work.

Kai headed to the Undercroft, Max following. One stop and then she would scale the peaks to her tempting cosy bed. It would be doubly welcome after dealing with the paperwork waiting for her.

+++

Exhaustion was sneaking up on Kai, and the effort to stay awake as she ploughed through the papers became harder. Her signature was now more akin to a spider crawling across the page with inky legs, but at least it was there, unlike her concentration. At this rate Josephine would turn up to find Kai snoozing with her head crashed onto the desk. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Kai paused, casting a glance at Cullen’s letter still lying on the side of the desk. She finally succeeded in opening it, deciding to read it after she completed her commitments, and she didn’t wish to fall asleep before she could. Kai put down her pen and headed onto the balcony. The icy air flowing over her face went a little way to pushing aside the fatigue, sufficient to see her through. She headed back in to continue, and eventually completed the final parchment.

Setting the completed bundle of paperwork in the same tray as she found it, Kai picked up the letter, carefully unfolding it to find Cullen’s neat handwriting. The familiar tingle of warm excitement arose in her belly. Unlike his reports which were formal and basic, his letters were detailed and thoughtful. From a glance she saw this one was briefer, and judging by the date, likely written shortly after hearing the news from Leliana.

 

Dear Kai
I was sorry to learn of your father’s passing. I know the situation between the two of you was difficult, but losing a parent is never easy, whatever the circumstances. Leliana wrote, briefly describing the events at the Winter Palace. Judging from her letter, I daresay you and Cassandra will have more to tell me when you arrive.

I must confess, from what she told me, I wish I could have been there with you to help in some way, even if it was simply as someone to talk with. My fear is that you will withdraw as you did before and I do not wish to see you suffer further loss on top of what you have already. Being able to be independent is a good thing, but even your determination has limits. You cannot do everything unaided, Kai.

Please promise me you will try not to retreat into yourself, and will accept whatever aid you are offered.

We are unlikely to see each other for a while, but in the meantime should you need someone to talk to, confide in or even complain to, I am here. Perhaps when you come, we can find some time to talk together away from the official work of the audit.

Just because we are no longer together does not mean I care less about you and your well-being. As your friend, I am always here for you if you need me.

All my love

Cullen

 

Kai re-read Cullen’s letter a second, third and even fourth time. He couldn’t have been kinder.

He was understandably worried she would react as before, but back then it was a need to ensure she could face what awaited her, to be able to stand up to Corypheus alone if need be. This time the loss occurred with an ending of the Inquisition, and a plan to counter Solas’ intentions. The task of saving the world was the same, but her role was not. No longer Inquisitor, no longer leader, she was only one of a small group committed to stopping him.

Nor was she the same person as then. She had been changed, at times through consequence rather than choice. Things change, she’d told Leliana, people most of all. Truthfully she wasn’t certain how much survived of the person she once was.

Kai sighed and laid Cullen’s letter on the desk, leaning back in her chair and staring out of the windows. The sunset held beautiful hazy shades of soft crimson and shimmering gold. The last time she took time to watch a sunset was before heading to the Davaarad, a precious few minutes to take with her. Just as she had in the Basin and when facing Corypheus. All occasions when she was unsure whether she would even see another dawn.

She experienced many endings, but now the prospect of a beginning lay ahead, a beginning tinged with ambiguity. Having done this once before in the past, she now had to persuade herself she could do it again.

Kai closed her eye. “The dawn will come,” she mouthed silently.

====================================

South Reach

Cullen sat outside on an old, worn armchair, relaxing after he finished the fixes to the house. To say he lived in his house was only a loose claim, most of the time he stayed at the Sanctuary. As a result, the house wasn’t completely finished and only furnished enough to occasionally stay there. When he did, he felt as if he rattled around in it. Although he promised Kai he would build it, it always seemed too big for one person.

But at least Kai and Cassandra, and whoever else showed up with them, would have somewhere to stay. And in a few days they would be here. She would be here. In the house they planned together.

Taking another swig of ale, Cullen contemplated seeing Kai again. If he wasn’t occupied, with either his work or his family, his mind strayed to her, each time rekindling the twinge of anxiety that seemed to have taken up residence in his gut when he did.

Cullen’s initial reaction was to worry for her and what she would do. But Kai’s reply to his letter was normal, no different from her earlier ones. He saw no evidence of pulling back or away which surprised him until he thought about it. A letter could be worded carefully; it may not reveal how a person was truly feeling. Soon he would discover for himself. And as the time drew nearer, he wondered more about how he would feel seeing her again.

One lesson he learned the hard way, was how her duty came before all else, even him. For his own sake he could no longer watch her take the risks she was prepared to. He had to walk away from that, and her. Yet leaving her did not mean he left behind his love for her. Cullen had even wondered what it would be like to be together. But he was hesitant to do anything other than think about it.

She had hurt him by taking in the spirit, and he had hurt her by leaving her. Although they came to an understanding and salvaged a friendship, he wondered if that friendship only worked because they were apart. Seeing each other, it was bound to provoke emotions for both. Maker only knew where it would all end up.

Cullen shook his head, chiding himself. You’re brooding again.

The sound of horses approaching drew him from his reflections. He looked up, smiling as he sighted two carts, Mia with Rosalie in one and Branson in the other. While Cullen had been busy preparing for the Templars they expected, his family were organising furniture for the house. Cullen knew he’d be returning favours for weeks for this.

Cullen stood, ale bottle in hand, as they pulled up.

“You see this?” Branson tutted grinning. “Here we are working our butts off, and he’s loafing around drinking ale.”

Cullen rolled his eyes. “Yes, because I finally finished. I’ve been working nearly all day on the house.”

“Pah, that’s what you claim,” Branson retorted, tying up the reins and jumping down. He strolled up to Cullen, grabbed the bottle and took a long hard drink, then gave a satisfied sigh, wiping his mouth when he passed it back to him.

“Better?” Cullen asked, eyebrow rising.

Branson smirked. “It’ll do for now.” He nodded to the various assorted items of furniture on the carts. “Well, come on. Let’s get this lot offloaded.”

Cullen walked over, peering at the contents of both carts. “Maker! How many houses are you planning on furnishing?” he exclaimed before exhaling. “Look at all this.”

Mia scoffed as she and Rosalie climbed down.

“Not everybody lives like a recluse, Cullen. People have more than a bed and table you know. And you have the Inquisitor and Right-Hand of the Divine coming.” She stared at Cullen pointedly. “Or were you proposing to offer them the use of your garden with a couple of tents and a fire-pit?”

“It would hardly bother either of them if I did,” Cullen replied dismissively. “They’re quite accustomed to living in tents on the road, and would have done so on the journey here.”

Rosalie gave him a gentle smile as she pulled down the flap and climbed up into the cart. “And that’s why they need some comfort when they arrive. You do want to give them the best impression, don’t you? I mean, you haven’t seen her...” she coughed swiftly correcting herself, “...them in a while.” She handed Cullen a chair, still smiling.

Neither Rosalie nor Branson knew the actual events regarding their separation. When it was clear Cullen had left the Inquisition and Kai, Rosalie told him it was a shame that two people who loved each other as they did should part, and maybe time would allow them find one another again. If Mia was the backbone of their family, Rosalie was their soul.

“Of course he wants to give the best impression,” Branson remarked taking another chair from Rosalie. “That’s why our dear sister will be on hand to feed them, won’t you?” He winked at Mia. “We don’t want them poisoned before they can give you a glowing report. Might not go down well with the Divine, I hear she’s is a bit handy with the old blades.”

This was the first Cullen heard of this plan. He stared sceptically at Mia. “What?”

“We just thought it might be pleasant if you all came to mine in the evenings, eat with the family,” Mia smiled boldly. “A proper dinner after a tough day’s investigating.”

Cullen rolled his eyes. “Maker! We do cook at the Sanctuary you know.”

“It may loosely be described as that,” Mia threw back. “Even you have to admit it is somewhat ‘inconsistent’ in quality. I did say you should have engaged a proper cook.”

“It’s an opportunity for them to acquire skills,” Cullen insisted. “Most have only lived in Circles and the Inquisition, where everything was provided. They have to be capable of living in the outside world.”

“Of course they do,” Mia agreed. “But you don’t need them practicing on the people who are examining the Sanctuary, do you?” Her expression was adamant.

Cullen held her stare. “We’ll come for the first night,” he conceded. “Thereafter, maybe we should leave the choice to them. They are guests after all.”

Mia narrowed her eyes slightly and Cullen thought she would object. Instead she smiled. “Agreed. As you say, they are guests.”

As they started moving furniture into the house, he couldn’t help feeling Mia had a point. Perhaps in this case, discretion would be preferable. There had been a few instances of food poisoning, and it wouldn’t look good if his auditors fell foul of another one.

But having the former Templars learn skills to take away with them was essential. Withdrawing from lyrium was merely the beginning of what was planned. They had to learn to live outside of regulations, learn to think without orders and chains of command, learn that life was more than guarding or hunting mages. Their programme was as much about rehabilitation as it was dealing with the addiction. Unsurprisingly, those who joined the Order when older found it comparatively easier to readjust than those given to the Chantry in infancy.

All of this was uncharted territory, both for those they looked after and for his group looking after them. Cullen was frequently reminded of Kai’s words, ‘I make it up as I go along’. Planning went only so far, sometimes making the best call you could in the circumstances was the only option. Apart from the guidelines and the declaration of commitment that he, Tamsin and Lysette had drawn up, what was the best call in the circumstances kicked in when experience came up short. This project was as much a journey of discovery for him as for the people they undertook to help.

Cullen didn’t realise he’d come to a standstill until he felt a bump and heard a cough.

“Daydream later, brother,” Branson remarked with a grin. “I have to get back to Ariane and take over so she can open up.”

“Sorry,” Cullen apologised, heading back to the cart with Branson. “How’s Evan?”

“Getting there, still a little weak, but the worst of the chill is past.” Branson chuckled. “He’s a stubborn one. He’ll have us chasing after him again in no time.”

“Wonder who he got that from?” Cullen asked jokingly.

“He’s a Rutherford, what do you expect,” Branson remarked, shifting forward a chest of draws. “Though we all recognise his uncle is still the worst on that score. Some things never change.”

Cullen shook his head as he held one end of the chest of draws waiting for Branson to grab the other. “I’m glad he’s improving,” he acknowledged, before adding a goad of his own. “It’s so entertaining watching him run rings around you.”

Branson stopped, watching Cullen’s deadpan expression. A smirk broke out. “Well, I have to give credit to Kai; she cured your humour bypass.”

“Funny,” Cullen retorted with a crooked grin and shrug of the head.

Branson’s face grew sombre. “Rosie thinks this is a possibility for you two to try to patch things up.”

Cullen glanced down, a sigh escaping. “I know.”

“But it’s not that simple is it?” Branson asked thoughtfully.

“No Bran, it isn’t,” Cullen admitted. Far from it, he thought. Branson didn’t know the whole story, but he’d figured there was more to it than Cullen told them. “Let’s just say what we have now...works.”

Branson nodded with an accepting smile. “Alright.” He gestured to the chest of draws. “Let’s get this one in, there’s plenty more.”

Cullen gave a slow blink. “Thanks, Bran.”

Cullen knew Branson was not one to pry when he sensed a delicate situation. Branson responded with a quick wink, and the two of them continued unloading the furniture.

Finally they had everything off the carts and in the house. Branson promised to come back the following afternoon and help Cullen organise it all and put the beds together. Most of the furniture was from stock, but Branson custom made the bed frames for Cullen, along with ordering the mattresses.

Their parents were farmers, but his brother chose to train as a carpenter, then cabinetmaker. Through his work for a local tavern, he met his now wife, the tavern owner. Branson joked free ale was the reason he married her. Ariane laughed, claiming that having a carpenter on hand to repair wrecked furniture was hers. The sideways grins Branson and Ariane exchanged told the real story.

It was Mia and Rosalie who carried on the family tradition. Mia’s late husband was a dairy farmer. He took care of the herd while Rosalie made the cheeses, and Mia sold them at market and managed the farm. When Edwin died, Mia bought in Michael to take care of the herd, little knowing she was employing her sister’s future husband. Or perhaps she did. Cullen always thought she was one or more steps ahead of the rest of them. Michael was a gentle soul, and Cullen could understand why Rosalie and Michael gravitated to each other.

As the four of them rested from their exertions at his new table and chairs, Cullen smiled. Although he protested about how much they’d brought, he had to admit the house resembled more of a home, even totally disorganised as it was right now.

Cullen looked around at each in turn. “Thank you for all this,” he offered appreciatively.

Rosalie gave his hand an affectionate pat. “It’s our way to thank you. After all, none of us would be here if it wasn’t for the Inquisition, and your part in it.” Murmurs of approval met her words.

“Well, let’s hope the Inquisition helped make the future somewhat quieter,” Cullen replied.

He certainly welcomed the chance to have some peace after the near world-ending experiences of the past years, though he could imagine the news from Kai and Cassandra might blow a hole into that hope.

“And...” Rosalie paused, a broad grin appearing, “I wouldn’t be able to tell you all, I’m expecting our first child.”

A flurry of hugs and congratulations greeted her news with Rosalie beaming in delight.

“If you need baby clothes and a cot, we still have Evan’s,” Branson told her.

Rosalie nodded. “Thanks Bran.”

“It’s just as well we’ve got Cullen’s house sorted then,” Mia remarked looking at Cullen with a knowing smile. “Uncle Cullen can assist with babysitting now the place resembles a home.”

Branson threw his head back with a laugh. “Always one step ahead, sister.”

“Someone has to be,” she remarked wryly then turned to Rosalie. “So, Rosie, I imagine you have names already?”

“Of course,” Rosalie smiled. “If it’s a girl, we’ll call her Ella after Ma...”

Mia nodded with a somewhat wistful smile. “She would have liked that.”

“I thought so too,” Rosalie replied softly.

Cullen saw Branson nod in approval. He had named his son after their father. Cullen knew both namings were in memory of their parents, their exceptionally brave parents who had sacrificed themselves allowing their children to escape the darkspawn.

Rosalie continued. “And if it’s a boy, I thought Aedan would be nice. He did save us too.”

“True,” Branson agreed. “We might have starved in that cellar if they hadn’t turned up.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Cullen spotted Mia flick a glance at him, mindful of how he felt about the Hero of Ferelden. But whatever his opinions about the man, Aedan Cousland had rescued his siblings and Cullen couldn’t fault Rosalie for wishing to show her gratitude.

After fleeing the farm, they reached Honnleath, only to end up trapped in a cellar with other villagers. Although initially safe behind a magic barrier, the rush to safety meant they had no supplies, and with the darkspawn laying siege the people there faced the possibility of a slow death through dehydration and starvation. That was, until the Hero’s party arrived. They killed the darkspawn allowing the villagers, including his siblings, to escape. Only afterward did his family find out who their rescuers were.

What Cullen disliked were other decisions the Hero made, creating problems Kai was later obliged to deal with, most conspicuously the Jaws of Hakkon. Gurd Harofsen's desire for vengeance was not directly the Hero’s fault, but his action had culminated in a chain of events directly contributing to his and Kai’s break up. Their choices factored in as well, but all subsequent events emanated from Aedan Cousland’s original decision to accept the responsibility for the loss of Red Lion Hold.

But this was not the time or place for his thoughts.

Cullen simply nodded. “I believe Fergus would appreciate the thought if he knew, Rosie.”

“Listen to you, brother,” Branson mocked. “Calling the Teryn by his given name.”

“Technically we are related by marriage,” Cullen reminded his brother. “And by the way, Bran, so are you.” A smug look accompanied the poke at Branson.

“Thanks for reminding me,” Branson groaned. “I spend my life avoiding nobles only to have my brother marrying into nobility.”

“Ah, but Kai wasn’t a noble when I married her remember? She had no title then,” Cullen shot back.

“True, but...you’re still married to her, and she has a title now,” Branson countered.

Cullen rolled his eyes. “Now you’re splitting hairs, Bran. It doesn’t make me...”

“Sweet Maker!” Mia exclaimed emphatically. “Will you two put a sock in it, please?” She sounded uncannily like their mother when she admonished them.

Rosalie simply snickered, leading Mia to peer at her curiously.

“Sorry,” Rosalie apologised, smiling brightly. “It just feels like old times.” She sighed contentedly. “I’m so glad we’re all together again.”

“As am I,” Cullen added.

“We all are,” Mia agreed.

Branson sighed wearily, and they looked at him. “If I agree, can we go back to normal?” He smirked, watching Cullen. “Maker, anyone would think we missed you.”

“Perish the thought, brother,” Cullen grinned.

Rosalie laughed, and Mia smiled, shaking her head.

Cullen avoided seeing his family when he returned to Ferelden, regretful of the man he became. He hadn’t wanted them to see the residual anger that had once threatened to overwhelm him. Only later, when he was able to let go of his anger, did he feel comfortable meeting them.

When he moved to South Reach, Cullen discovered his siblings had formed a close bond, and he initially worried how he could fit in after so long apart from them. His doubts proved unfounded; the warmth with which they brought him in to their fold soon assuaged his concern. All had been changed by their experiences, but the core of their familial ties remained.

Being with them reminded Cullen he was more than a once broken, former Templar, or the former Commander of the Inquisition, or the estranged husband of the once Inquisitor, or even the Director of the Templar Sanctuary. No matter if they disagreed or mocked one another, his family were always there for each other.

Kai had given him a foundation to remember who he was, and his family had offered him the strength and security to discover who he could be.

Chapter Text

Cullen heard footsteps approach and looked up to see Tamsin in the doorway.

“They’re here,” Tamsin informed him, smiling.

The knot of anxiety sitting in Cullen’s stomach swelled and then eased, but didn’t wholly disappear. She was no longer his subordinate and he was no longer a Commander, but years of maintaining a steady manner still kicked in.

“Thank you, Tamsin,” he replied evenly.

Cullen put down his pen, leaving aside the audit report he’d been working on for the last couple of hours. It wasn’t needed for today, but he wanted finish what he could, as well as use it as a distraction. Everything was prepared, and apart from last-minute checks, there was nothing left to do but wait for their auditors to arrive. The feeling wasn’t dissimilar to waiting for inspection when he was a Templar.

Not only was this the moment of truth for the work he and others had put into the Sanctuary, it was likewise the first time he would see Kai again. Truthfully he wasn’t sure which of those made him more nervous.

The Sanctuary was his project, something he poured his heart into; the first thing he was truly in charge of and entirely accountable for. Cullen had no doubt both Kai and Cassandra would approach their responsibility seriously and professionally. However, because there was precedent for this kind of endeavour, there was no model to work to, and consequently no yardstick to measure it against.

Cullen was proud of what they had accomplished, but aware his closeness may colour his objectivity. The coming days would reveal what outsiders saw when they examined the work carried out here.

As to seeing Kai again, he’d played out various scenarios in his head until finally deciding there was no point in second guessing what could happen. Trying to plan ahead, particularly where Kai was concerned, didn’t always work.

Cullen stood, straightening his tunic, and brushed back his hair, wondering if he should have had it cut after all. He was so wrapped up with final preparations for the Sanctuary and his home he hadn’t got around to it.

Too late to worry about it now, he realised.

He noticed Tamsin still standing there with a broader smile on her face and gave her a puzzled look.

“What?”

“You’re not going to believe what they’ve brought with them.”

Intrigued, Cullen followed her outside, the two of them joining Lysette and Eleanor. Spotting what was hooked to the wagon parked there, Cullen’s jaw dropped in surprise. It was obvious what it was, but he’d never seen one this large. A crowd had gathered nearby equally amazed, not to mention amused. Any residual anxiety he had was lost to distraction.

Cullen shook his head, grinning. “You have got to be joking.”

Tamsin chuckled. “I said you wouldn’t believe it.”

“That...” Eleanor laughed, pointing, “...is one big nug.”

Lysette stared curiously at it. “I had no idea they could grow to such a size.”

Broader than any horse he’d ever seen, it also sported horns. Nugs were normally skittish, yet this one stood there quite placidly, apparently oblivious to the surrounding hubbub. Only one person he knew would have something as bizarre as an oversized nug. Well perhaps two, but the other one was in Val Royeaux.

Kai held her arm steady while Lace undid the last buckle on her wrist blade, careful not to move her hand. When Dagna and Harritt heard about the bandits, and learned she was travelling again, they worked hard to ready the device for her. Unfortunately, owing to insufficient time they weren’t able to fine tune it as they wished, and after accidentally knocking it, the locking mechanism didn’t always catch properly. Kai had to be cautious not to inadvertently pop the blade from its sheath.

There was no danger to Lace, but there was a risk of nicking herself if she flicked her fingers incorrectly, and the last thing she wanted to do was cause injury to her one remaining hand. Even so, Kai felt safer having it than not.

She heard Cassandra. “Ah, here comes Cullen now.”

The bundle of nerves sitting in her belly flared. Kai took a breath to force down the flutter, managing to stay her hand as Lace finished, removing the wrist blade along with the half glove it was hooked up to. She waggled her fingers to ease the tension in her hand, using the movement as a cover to compose herself before looking up.

There he was, in front of the main building with Tamsin and Lysette and somebody she didn’t recognise, thankfully distracted by Tiddles.

The image of Cullen Kai carried didn’t do justice to the flesh and blood person standing there. His hair was longer, looser than he used to wear it, and there was more facial hair than the usual stubble she remembered. But what she noticed most of all was his bearing. He was smiling; looking relaxed, confident, and comfortable in his own skin. The weight of responsibility he once carried, gone.

Maker’s breath, he looked good...really good. A sigh slipped out.

Cullen’s letters showed how happy he was here. Seeing him bought it into sharp relief. This life clearly agreed with him.

A life without her, she realised.

Kai was glad for him, and shamefully sad for herself. Part of her had foolishly hoped there might be a slim chance to reconcile with her husband. But seeing him, she understood things were different now. Other than their friendship, she was no longer part of his life and had to accept that, much as she might wish things to be different.

Plus they were here to recruit him to yet another cause, placing some of that weight back onto his shoulders. What he would learn about Solas, about the Veil, was challenging enough without throwing the knowledge of what she was into the mix. For his sake, she shouldn’t add to his burden.

Two possibilities then remained, continue as they were or...just thinking about the second made her uneasy. This was no good. She had to fight against her unwillingness to face up to it. If an annulment was what he wanted, she had to accept that eventuality whatever she personally felt. Kai promised Leliana she’d do the best for everyone.

And he promised you’d always be friends. You wouldn’t be losing him entirely.

At least something would be left; completely losing the man she loved was a prospect Kai couldn’t bear to consider.

Kai felt a squeeze on her hand and saw Lace watching her, checking if she was alright. Of course she would. Kai responded with a slow blink and smile to reassure her she was. Lace nodded and let go of her hand.

“Come on,” Cassandra urged. “Let’s get the formalities over with and hopefully they’ll feed us. I’m starving.”

“Foooood,” Lace drawled with a deep hum. “I can’t wait.”

That made Kai laugh. They, along with the Templars who came with them, had pressed on through lunch to make up time, and for the last hour Lace and Cassandra chuntered on about grumbling stomachs and food they wanted to eat. Kai just hoped her nervousness would ease because right now she had virtually no appetite.

The three of them, with Max, made their way towards the waiting group.

“Here they come,” Tamsin announced.

As Cassandra, Harding and Kai walked over to them, Cullen spotted the rather large mabari trotting between Kai and Harding. It was easily far bigger than Izzy, in fact bigger than most mabari he’d come across. Unlike Izzy's even dark tan colour, this one had dappled shades of brown. It was also clearly male.

There seems to be a theme here, of oversized animals, he thought absentmindedly.

Kai lowered the hood of her cloak as they reached them. Cullen’s gaze momentarily widened.

What happened to her hair?

The long blonde locks he used to run his fingers through were gone; what was left cropped close and shorter than he’d ever seen. With her eye patch, it should have made her look tougher, but strangely it didn’t. In fact, there seemed a quiet easiness about her, something he hadn’t seen for a long time. Or perhaps that came from giving up the mantle of Inquisitor. It reminded Cullen of how Kai was back in Haven, before they thrust the responsibility of leading the Inquisition onto her.

Cullen knew he couldn’t rely on how she presented herself though. Kai could make it look as if she was fine even if she struggled underneath the mask. But right now, he couldn’t tell if her easy manner was a mask. Searching her face for some small hint as to her actual state of mind, he spotted something else instead, a faint smear of dirt on Kai’s forehead.

Some things didn’t change.

She could never manage a journey without getting a grubby face. Cullen guessed she’d missed a bit when attempting to clean up. Silly as it seemed, there was something comfortingly familiar about seeing that smear sitting there.

He heard Tamsin surreptitiously clear her throat, a prompt to remind Cullen he was supposed to be welcoming their guests.

Cullen straightened up and smiled, greeting each in turn. “Seeker, Inquisitor, Assistant Harding, welcome to the Sanctuary.

Ordinarily Kai would be the one to take charge, but Cullen noticed how she deferred to Cassandra. Never a stickler for ceremony, Cassandra’s response was typically her.

“Thank you, but quite honestly, we know each other too well to be using titles...Cullen.”

Cullen’s smile became a chuckle. “Fair enough.” He motioned to his people. “I believe you all know Tamsin and Lysette.” Nods and greetings were exchanged before Cullen introduced Eleanor. “This is Eleanor Barris, another crucial member of our small team.”

Eleanor took the compliment lightly with a smile, giving the Templar salute and a slight bow to their guests. “We’re all pleased to have you here.” She glanced at Cullen, and he nodded. “If you’ll excuse Lysette and myself, we’d like to get the new arrivals settled in.”

“Of course,” Cassandra agreed. “We’ve bought the latest shipment of lyrium with us. It’s in the black box on the wagon.”

“Thank you.” Eleanor saluted once more before she and Lysette headed off.

Tamsin’s curiosity clearly got the better of her. “I’m sorry, I just have to ask, Inquisitor...”

Kai interrupted smiling. “Please, Tamsin, technically that title ended along with my declaration. It’s just Kai now.”

Tamsin acknowledged the request, yet didn’t use her name. “I was wondering, well actually we were wondering...where did you get that nug?”

“Ah yes, Tiddles,” Kai grinned. “She was a gift from Stone-Bear Hold. She’s an Avvar war nug.”

“Tiddles?” Cullen sighed. “You called an oversized Avvar war nug, Tiddles.”

Seeing his ‘only you would do that’ face, Kai couldn’t resist teasing him. “She’s never objected,” Kai joked. “In fact I think she likes her name.” A resigned expression and brow lift from Cullen met her words.

“As well as her food,” Harding remarked.

“That’s for sure, she eats most anything,” Kai added. “Unfortunately it does have a side effect.”

“Ugh, don’t remind me,” Cassandra groaned. “The volume of wind emanating from that creature’s backside after she’s eaten is unnatural.”

“A wind powered nug,” Harding chuckled mischievously.

“If it was only wind, it wouldn’t be so bad,” Cassandra scoffed, rolling her eyes. “The smell accompanying the flatulence takes your breath away.”

Her comment was met by snorts of laughter. Kai had to admit the fumes were pretty potent. Sitting in the driver’s seat occasionally required covering your nose and mouth with a scarf.

“Well,” Cullen began, smiling. “We’ll make sure she is stabled and fed, and that no-one is in close proximity afterwards.”

His remark produced even more laughter. Only Cullen could thread a straightforward statement of intent with humour in such a way. Kai always loved how he did that.

When the hilarity died down Cullen sent Tamsin off to make provision for Tiddles, leaving just the four of them.

Cullen, Harding and Cassandra went on ahead to the main building chatting, while Kai followed on with Max, glancing around at their surroundings. She’d viewed the plans for the site, yet seeing the buildings finally realised showed how much Cullen’s people, along with the Inquisition’s architects and builders, had achieved.

They all understood the duration of this project was finite. Those who successfully completed their withdrawal successfully would move on, only those needing care would remain to live out their days in comfort. Cullen wrote that when the end came, it was often heartbreaking to see. Elders were utterly oblivious of the world around them, and unable to care for themselves.

Comfort. Kai recalled Solas using that very term. Allowing the world to live in comfort, reassuringly oblivious until he found another means to bring it to a cataclysmic end. Yet not everybody was oblivious to the looming catastrophe, and knowing of his intention sometimes weighed on the four people who proposed to stop him.

And here they were to recruit a fifth. Although she appreciated the decision to recruit Cullen was sensible, and his ability to organise forces into a cohesive unit unmistakable, Kai couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. They were about to drag him back into a darker world.

Kai sighed inwardly; at times she wished she was reassuringly oblivious.

She heard Cullen calling her. His expectant expression indicated she obviously missed something directed at her.

“I’m sorry, Cullen,” Kai apologised, smiling. “You were saying?”

Cullen pointed at Max. “Harding mentioned Max was your partner.” Only somebody with a mabari phrased the observation that way.

Kai nodded. “Yes, Max found me at the Winter Palace.” Max gave her a slight bump and she crouched down to fuss him, tickling under his chin. “I couldn’t leave you with them, could I?”

Max responded with his familiar attempt at chattering.

“I’d call that a rescue,” Cullen remarked with a hint of teasing.

Kai looked up seeing his familiar smirk, realising how much she missed it. That smirk was always disarming and invariably dangerous. The control she deliberately cultivated slipped, leading to a reckless wisecrack.

“Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve rescued a Ferelden at the Winter Palace,” she snickered.

Too late her sense kicked in, recognising what she just implied. Losing her temper and angrily yanking the Orlesian noble off Cullen was embarrassing enough. But much worse was what she alluded to by association, namely the extremely steamy events afterwards. She might as well have just blurted out ‘remember that time you tied me up and spanked me before we fucked’.

She really needed to get a better grip on herself. Kai felt heat suffuse her face and fussed Max, hoping her insinuation might slip past Cullen.

Luckily, and thankfully unknowingly, Cassandra came to Kai’s rescue.

“Cullen, I believe you mentioned something about food?”

Cullen spotted Kai blushing before she faced away, somewhat puzzled as to why. Leliana and Josephine catching them almost kissing on the balcony was hardly embarrassing. Both had caught them in actual passionate embraces and Kai simply laughed it off.

“Oh Maker, yes please, I’m starving,” Lace pleaded with a heartfelt sigh.

“Of course.” Cullen motioned ahead. “We can eat in the refectory. Lunch is over, so it should be quiet.”

Harding and Cassandra headed in, and Cullen turned back to Kai. She was still crouched, with her palm now flat on the floor, clearly attempting to get up. Instinctively wanting to help, he stepped nearer and stretched out his hand to her, automatically repeating the familiar phrase.

“Need a hand?” he offered.

Too late the awful realisation struck him. How could I have...? Cullen immediately tried to apologise.

“Maker, I’m so sorry...I didn’t think...I...” He stumbled to a stop. I didn’t think? That was even worse.

Afraid of further compounding his lack of judgement and consideration, Cullen kept quiet watching as Kai looked up slowly. She had every right to be angry and he would take whatever admonishment she gave. Afterwards, he’d ensure he gave her a proper apology.

What he saw when she faced him was more than a surprise.

“Why?” she asked, grinning cheekily. “Did you have one to spare?”

Cullen simply stared at her, stunned. He wasn’t expecting this.

“Honestly it’s fine, Cullen,” she reassured him. “I’m glad you don’t see me as...different.”

“Oh,” Cullen uttered lamely.

Kai rested her hand on his, and Cullen recovered enough reason to help her stand.

“Thank you, Cullen,” she acknowledged. Then, as if nothing had happened, she asked brightly, “So, food?”

Cullen gratefully followed her lead, thankful not to have hurt her. “Yes, of course. After you.”

“Thank you” she replied, flashing a gentle smile as she squeezed his hand before letting go.

Cullen stared after her as she headed into the refectory.

Her light-hearted banter eased his initial concern, but Cullen recognised he had to exercise some restraint and not blurt out the first thing that came into his head. However, their exchange revealed he was wrong about her state of mind; she didn’t appear defensive or distant at all. In fact, she looked to be coping with the losses she experienced better than he imagined.

And without my help this time, he realised.

He was pleased for her, yet somewhat sad too. If he was truly honest with himself, part of him thought, perhaps even hoped, she may need his support, need him. Clearly he neglected to take into account her ability to adapt.

Cullen followed on, watching as Max trotted affectionately by her side.

Another Ferelden trapped at the Winter Palace. Of course Kai would rescue him, just as she rescued...

He momentarily stalled as the realisation hit.

Oh...it wasn’t...

Now he understood why Kai blushed, why she was embarrassed. The rescue she remembered was not the same rescue he remembered. It wasn’t trying to sneak a kiss on the balcony, it was something far more intimate later that evening.

Each of them recalling different events was funny, and troubling at the same time. Separation aside, Cullen assumed he still knew Kai. Even apart, they wrote lengthy and detailed letters to one other. Yet twice, within minutes of them meeting again, he misjudged what she was feeling and thinking.

Has she changed so much or have I? Cullen sighed. Perhaps we both have.

Months had passed since their separation, their lives moving in different directions. She sacrificed much to do her duty as Inquisitor, including their marriage, and although that sacrifice was painful for him at the time, it gave Cullen the life and purpose he now had. With the Inquisition ended, Kai too had an opportunity to shape a future for herself.

Cullen recalled Kai’s suggestion that she would accept his decision if he wished an annulment. He was unwilling to take the final step because he was loath to cut his tie to her. Even with everything that occurred, he still loved his wife. However, if she was doing better without him, in all good conscience how could he hold her back? She deserved the chance of a fresh start, and if she wanted to move on, he couldn’t stand in her way.

And she did promise we would always be friends. I wouldn’t be losing her entirely.

For some reason that thought wasn’t as reassuring as he imagined it would be.

But right now, he had to concentrate his attention on his guests. He joined the rest of them at one of the tables, seeing Tamsin return. After eating the plan was to take them to his home, to rest after their journey, and tonight they would have dinner with his family at Mia’s. Tomorrow the audit would begin.

When the food arrived everybody tucked in, the conversation continuing. Cullen looked at Kai, catching her eye. For a split second he thought he detected a touch of sadness in her face. Then Kai smiled, a warm radiant smile, a smile which always made him feel good inside. Cullen found himself smirking back at her, catching her glance at his mouth before meeting his gaze again.

He felt as if this was their proper hello, putting aside her embarrassment and his bumbling, and this time he was sure she felt it too. Strange how a simple and familiar gesture could say more than words.

Cullen knew now he and Kai had to use this opportunity to sit down together and talk. Both had been occupied, she with the Inquisition and he with the Sanctuary, allowing things between them to drift. It was time to decide where their futures lay.

Chapter Text

Sitting at the kitchen table, describing the dramatic story of how a diplomatic council developed into a headlong dash to save Southern Thedas, was in stark contrast to the almost comical debate over who was sleeping where not an hour before.

Eventually they settled the circular discussion when Cassandra stepped in with her usual directness. Kai was left on her own in Cullen’s small makeshift study, putting him back in his own bedroom, and leaving Cassandra and Lace sharing the other bedroom. The other bedroom initially planned to be hers. It suited Kai; she had books to read if her dreams woke her, and the prospect of sleeping in the room originally meant for her held scant appeal. The study was pokey and cluttered, yet somehow comforting.

Cullen listened attentively as she and Cassandra jointly recounted the events at the Winter Palace, Kai describing what her people discovered through the Eluvians and Cassandra adding what she and Leliana found. To anybody else it may have sounded too crazy to be true, but as former Commander of the Inquisition Cullen had experienced enough strangeness already.

Invariably he asked questions, but made only two observations. Firstly on the eleven Qunari spies from Kirkwall, noting that many gravitated to the Qun in the midst of the turmoil there. Secondly on Sir Jerran, the former Templar from Kirkwall they came upon in the Deep Roads. Cullen knew him; he was one of the Templars who disappeared after they enacted the Rite of Annulment on the Kirkwall Circle. Having to kill a single blood mage or an abomination is one thing, but the destruction of a Circle is not something everybody can handle. Ser Jerran could not.

When Kai reached the events in the Via Dirthara and the Darvaarad, Cullen fell silent, shifting between staring at her and down at the kitchen table. For Kai, Cassandra and Lace, they had lived with the knowledge for some time. For Cullen, discovering the reality of how the Veil was created, and how the waking world and the Fade were once one, was a shock. But much of what they’d all come to believe was turned on its head. Then she told him about Solas being Fen'Harel, and why he locked away the Evanuris.

Kai could see how Cullen’s mind was working through the events and their implications. However challenging the knowledge was, he would understand this was merely the beginning of another threat to their world.

Her final words concerned the Anchor. “Solas stopped the Anchor from spreading.” Cullen glanced at the stump of her left arm. “From what I learned, he’s more powerful than when he was with us. Even so, it appears he needs time to...realise his intention.”

Cullen said nothing, simply rose from his chair and walked to the window. He stood staring into the garden, hands clasped behind his back. A minute or two went by and Kai heard Cassandra shuffle in her seat. It was Cassandra’s task to recruit him, and they determined it would be best if Kai wasn’t present when she did. That way Cullen could speak candidly about any reservations he had.

But equally they thought he may have additional questions which Kai could answer first. Two or three minutes later he finally spoke, still facing away.

“Who else knows?”

“Bull, Dorian, and Cole because they were with me,” Kai told him. “And Charter, Rylen and Josie.”

Cullen took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “I assume there is a reason why I’m being included now?”

Kai sensed from his tone the question was rhetorical; he guessed why.

“There is,” Cassandra confirmed, motioning for Kai and Lace to leave.

Along with Max, they left Cullen and Cassandra alone together. Kai breathed out, a small respite for the tension inside her. It was the first time she recounted the entire story, and although she was accustomed to describing dangerous escapades and near scrapes with death, this time it left her feeling tired and tense. Max bumped her gently. She looked down, smiling at him.

“Do you think he’ll agree?” Lace asked.

“If anyone can persuade him it’s Cassandra,” Kai advised, glancing at Lace.

Leliana understood the value of sending her request to Cullen via Cassandra; they shared a mutual understanding. Leliana thought he would agree, but would require reassurance about Kai’s role, so they came up with a solution.

Kai scratched her head absentmindedly; she needed a distraction to stop her fretting. “I think I’ll go and sort my things, gives me something to do.”

“Want some help?” Lace offered, scanning her face.

“Thanks, but I’m ok,” Kai acknowledged, smiling to reassure her friend.

“In that case, I think I’ll take a stroll,” Lace announced. “I need to walk off some of that cheese. Maker, it was good, but I may have eaten just a little too much.” A guilty chuckle burst out.

Rosalie’s cheeses were exceptionally good, and on an empty stomach they proved too tempting for Lace. Kai couldn’t blame her; if her appetite was better she might have been equally indulgent. Cullen explained over lunch how the cheeses were popular locally, but with additional business from the Sanctuary and orders from Alistair following his visit, they expanded the herd and took on help to satisfy the increased demand.

Lace looked at Max. “Maybe...I’ll take Max with me...” Max’s ears pricked up at his name, “...for...” Max stared at her, “a run?”

No sooner had he heard the word ‘run’, Max circled Lace, panting in anticipation.

Lace chuckled. “Got your attention, didn’t it?”

Kai shook her head. “The amount of energy you two have is unnatural. I’d be snoozing after the lunch you had.”

“We were sensible, we napped in the wagon. Someone elected to be driver this morning.” Lace smiled mischievously.

Kai stared wryly at her friend. Both knew she referred to Kai’s anxiety at the prospect of seeing Cullen, needing to focus on something other than thinking about him. Kai didn’t answer, turning her attention to Max instead.

“Look after her when you’re out,” Kai instructed, wagging her finger. “Though Maker knows she’s probably more dangerous than you are.” Max chattered back, head cocked. “You disagree?” More chattering met her query.

“I think Max means to say we are a dangerous combination. Isn’t that right?” Lace questioned, winking at Max.

A solid bark in response indicated Max’s approval.

“You see,” Lace remarked smugly, to which Kai rolled her eye.

Lace collected her blade and the two of them walked to the front door. Kai watched, knowing full well what came next. Lace opened the door and paused for a few seconds, Max watching her keenly. Lace smiled, and Max's muscles tensed ready.

“Run!” Lace ordered, and off he shot at full pelt, Lace wandering out after him.

Kai shook her head, smiling. She headed for the study, feeling a spasm in her left arm. Rubbing it, she realised a massage was in order.

Cullen heard chairs scraping and then the door shutting. He turned to discover only Cassandra remaining. Seeing her sitting there produced a sense of déjà vu; the first time she recruited him back in Kirkwall. Evidently they required his service once more. Unlike then, where the chance of a fresh beginning and the opportunity to make a difference convinced him to join the Inquisition, he was already doing that with the Sanctuary.

He retook his seat facing Cassandra. “I can guess where this is leading,” he observed, seeing Cassandra acknowledge him with a slow blink.

“Leliana would like you to join us,” she explained, placing her hands on the table. “We will require your talents in the trials to come. And she stressed how vital it is to have people we trust.”

Cullen noted how Cassandra did not refer to her as the Divine. “Leliana?”

“Yes, the request comes from her personally, as a friend and former colleague,” Cassandra confirmed. “Because of who is included.”

Because of Kai, he thought. They knew why he left the Inquisition, and he was curious how this new group would be any different.

Cassandra continued. “Circumstances have changed; the reasons for your departure no longer apply. Kai’s profile is too public to remain in charge. Solas will be watching her and we cannot afford to tip his hand.”

Cullen leaned forward, staring at her doubtfully. His tone betrayed his scepticism. “Really? You know her Cassandra; tell me how you intend to stop her. She’s accustomed to having her hand on the tiller, so to speak. Getting her to stand back will be...”

“Kai gave Leliana her solemn oath,” Cassandra interrupted decisively, meeting his gaze. “She will do what is required of her.”

Cullen’s mouth closed. Anyone who knew Kai and Leliana understood the bond between the two women extended beyond friendship, and Kai would never break a pledge to Leliana. No matter their individual status, Kai retained a sense of personal loyalty to her friend.

Cullen paused, considering ‘what is required’ meant. He recognised how words and their interpretation were used by the two friends. Vague speak he’d jokingly dubbed it, and ‘what is required’ smacked heavily of that.

“What does that mean in actual terms?” he questioned pointedly. Seeing Cassandra's surprised frown he quickly apologised. “Sorry, it’s just...with the two of them, I prefer some clarity. Words and their interpretation can be...”

“Ahh yes, I see now,” she intervened, recognising what he meant. “Kai will be working chiefly in the background with information, and occasionally as an intermediary.” Cassandra sighed wearily. “When we discover more of what we are dealing with. Currently all we know is what Solas wants to do, not how.”

Cullen snorted. “Well, I suppose at least this time we have a who.”

“Quite,” Cassandra agreed. She watched Cullen cautiously. “We are mindful of your concern regarding the risks she took, notably with the spirit...”

“Calling it concern is an understatement,” Cullen snapped, brows furrowed. He shifted forward in his chair, causing it to scrape the stone floor. “You are aware of what she could have become, the sheer power she could have wielded.”

“I am aware, yes,” Cassandra confirmed, narrowing her eyes. “And...I have found it troubling as well.”

Her admission went some way to lessening the irritation that flashed inside. Cassandra was obviously attempting to address the issues he would bring up, and didn’t warrant his residual discomfort. And what they had to face was clearly far worse.

Cullen took a breath, easing his frown. “I apologise, I realise you had to raise it. Please go on.”

Her expression relaxed. “Cullen, she recognises the risk she took and the repercussions. Kai cannot change what she did, but be assured she would not undertake it again.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear it,” he noted, folding his arms.

Cassandra cocked her head, looking pensive. “Tell me though, have you not questioned how such a thing occurred. In my years as a Seeker, I have come across possessions and abominations, yet I have never heard of a human and spirit uniting as they did.”

At the time, his focus rested with the threat she posed, rather than the how and why. When she returned as herself, intact and with catastrophe averted, he accepted her account, disconcerting enough in itself. He knew Kai was searching for an answer. But after the troubles at Crestwood and Ferelden’s delegations to the Divine, her focus shifted to the future of the Inquisition. Certainly his attention was occupied by the Sanctuary.

Now Cassandra raised the question again, sowing a seed of curiosity in his mind. He knew Dorian was intrigued by how easily she took in the spirit, thinking it was strange. Cullen wondered if he had looked into it further.

He heard Cassandra cough, waiting for a response. “No, I haven’t,” he conceded. “But if the Inquisition has taught us anything, there’s more out there than we realise.”

“Indeed,” Cassandra agreed, with a pensive hum. “Yet I can’t help thinking about it, and her. How events always lead to her being in the right place at the right time to confront yet another threat.”

Cullen knew Cassandra believed Kai was sent by the Maker, but grounded enough to recognise she was nevertheless human and flawed like everyone. Now he wasn’t sure what she was implying.

“Where are you going with this, Cassandra?”

“Honestly, I do not know.” Her eyebrows knitted in reflection. “Perhaps it is purely a question of luck, or maybe there is something more to her.”

“Like what?” Cullen asked, drawn by her observation. He knew Cassandra was not prone to flights of fancy.

“I cannot say, but I believe she yet has a part to play even though she is no longer Inquisitor.” Her earnest expression gave way to a concerned one. “In truth, losing the Inquisition was doubtless the best outcome for her.”

“Doubtless for everyone involved, considering what you told me,” Cullen remarked. The amount of spies they uncovered from both factions was unsettling to say the least. “No matter how thoroughly you policed those left, doubts would remain about infiltration.”

“Yes,” Cassandra agreed. “That was why we determined it was time to disband the Inquisition. Leaving it in place, even reduced in size and tied to the Chantry, could end up harming the reputations of both the Divine and Kai.”

She paused, stiffening slightly, her tone formal. “The Inquisition itself may be at an end, and there will be problems filling the gap as its influence wanes, but many still view Kai as the Herald of Andraste. In the coming days, her stature as a symbol will be crucial should we need to draw upon it.”

Cullen’s gaze widened. “You know she resented that,” he declared, raising his voice in dismay.

“We are aware of that, Cullen,” Cassandra asserted, looking sterner as her eyebrow lifted. “But you don’t honestly imagine her reputation would diminish. She can never truly escape it even if she tried. The Herald of Andraste is a legend for her deeds, whatever the truth of the woman beneath the title.”

Kai intensely disliked what she was seen as, yet carried it for the greater good. Having stepped down, he hoped she could regain some freedom. They apparently intended to continue manipulating her reputation. Cullen couldn’t hold back the heavy frown, believing this was unfair.

“Do not forget, Cullen,” Cassandra continued, her frown matching his. “I am not unfamiliar with having a story follow one and grow taller in the retelling. One can only control one’s reputation to a certain degree.”

“Or have it done for them,” Cullen shot back uncharitably, with a sense of exasperation.

“We appreciate what it means for her, as does she. You do not imagine we forced this upon her?” The resentment was marked in Cassandra's voice as she glared at him.

Cullen realised that he was being over protective. Cassandra and Leliana were her friends, and wouldn’t have done this lightly, or without Kai’s permission. And now he and Cassandra were ratcheting it up again. One of them had to stop or it would end up in a contest of matching harsh expressions and growled retorts.

Cullen exhaled, and apologised to defuse things. “I’m sorry, of course you wouldn’t. I just...hoped she had a chance to be normal again.”

Cassandra followed suit, calming as well. “I apologise too. But you and I both know the moment she took the Anchor from Corypheus, whatever normality she had was gone, forever.” She paused, her face softening. “Cullen, I appreciate you and she looked forward to a normal life before circumstances changed. But it was never going to be so. The Herald of Andraste is the legend that will always follow her. All Kai can do is live with the consequences as best she can.”

That was the stark reality of Kai’s position. She was no longer Inquisitor, yet ‘Herald of Andraste’ would hang around her neck for the rest of her life, just as Hawke would invariably be the Champion of Kirkwall. The Hero of Ferelden only avoided that fate because he died.

Cullen, along with Leliana, Josephine and Cassandra, allowed the title to grow in the first place. They did so because it suited the purpose of the Inquisition early on. At the time he thought less of what Kai might feel about it than how she could be useful. And back then, Kai was never anything but nice to him, while he brushed her off so often he was amazed she never told him where he could shove his bad manners.

“I...know,” Cullen conceded, feeling some regret for his part in it.

Cassandra bent forward, observing him keenly. From her face he wondered if his emotions were bleeding through. Thinking about Kai sometimes had that impact on him. She settled her hand lightly on his arm.

“Cullen, it is not our intention to put her in harm’s way if it can be avoided. But she remains in danger. Those who wish her gone yet survive.”

“The Venatori,” he voiced, hearing himself waver a tad. Cullen cleared his throat and composed his expression.

The Venatori still wanted to kill Kai, not merely for destroying Corypheus, but for the accompanying humiliation of their goal to conquer Thedas. It was now a vendetta against a hated symbol of their failure. Twice they attempted to assassinate her since the first time in Skyhold.

“Yes,” Cassandra concurred, removing her hand. The concern faded and she grew more businesslike. “They retreated back to Tevinter, and for fear of provoking a diplomatic incident, the Inquisition could not wipe out the remnants. With Corypheus gone, the Archon sees them simply as a nuisance. The Qunari threat is more concerning, and he is correct, Tevinter is less stable than before.”

“Do the Qunari still pose a threat to the South?” Cullen inquired, concentrating on the immediate problem.

“Not currently,” Cassandra confirmed. “With the invasion defeated, and Kai no longer possessing the Anchor, their attention will probably turn to Tevinter, at least for the time being. We cannot accurately predict what else they intend in the future, all we can do is be vigilant.”

Cullen fell silent, contemplating his decision.

They faced another threat to their world, to the people he was endeavouring to help, and to his family. Thinking of Evan and the baby Rosalie was expecting brought the danger into sharper focus.

He left the Inquisition and his wife because he could no longer tolerate the risks she was prepared to take for duty's sake. This time she was no longer in command, limited in her role, and she gave a pledge to Leliana. He too would seek a guarantee from Kai that she wouldn’t be reckless because she believed it the right thing to do.

Solas wanted to bring back his world, and Cullen wasn’t prepared to see his world sacrificed in the process.

Not on my watch, he decided resolutely.

Cullen turned to Cassandra. “All right, I’m in.” A wry smile broke out. “It appears to have become our lot in life, dragging the world back from the edge of the abyss.”

Cassandra's smile mirrored his. “You were more serious last time I recruited you,” she remarked. “But then again so was I.” She shrugged. “Perhaps she was correct. A little levity did go a long way.”

Both knew she meant Kai. Her light touch had done much to reduce the bleakness they often encountered; she was adept at pulling people out of desperation. When that joy was less frequent, when her duty sometimes overwhelmed her, he missed that side of her.

There was one topic which still bothered Cullen. Like him, Cassandra’s faith was important to her. He had to ask.

“When you discovered Solas made the Veil...” he saw Cassandra nod.

“How did I feel?”

“Yes.”

“Shock initially,” Cassandra divulged, sober once more. “Yet...what we’ve experienced over the last years has taught me many things are not as we thought them to be. Much has been forgotten, wrongly remembered or deliberately hidden. What occurred with the Seekers was a warning of what happens when we lose sight of our principles. When we become more wedded to the institutions than the tenets of our faith, we forget their purpose. When fear compels us, we stop seeing, stop questioning. We allow the very things Andraste fought against, injustice and oppression.”

Cullen was well aware of what fear could do to people. It was never pleasant to see and even worse to experience. The darkness which grew inside could eat away at you, until little of who you were remained. He was luckier than most, somehow it never tainted his innermost self, although he didn’t see it at the time.

The centre never changed, kept safe like a coin in your pocket, Cole said.

Kai noted how he would instinctively finger the coin in stressful situations, as if it offered reassurance. In one of her ‘wise’ moments, she claimed he was unconsciously reminding himself of where he came from, of who he was under the uniform. The coin was gone, but the ring it became sat on his finger, and he did absentmindedly twiddle it at times. Wonder what she would say to that.

Cassandra’s voice pulled him from his reflections.

“Most Holy, the previous one, told me once, if we have no doubt, if we cannot question, our faith has no value. Even with the difficulties we have faced and the times I have questioned, my faith still offers strength and comfort to carry on.”

“I can appreciate that,” Cullen remarked, seeing Cassandra nod.

Like Cassandra, he likewise had questioned his faith, but it gave him solace when times were dark. Faith and the comfort derived from faith aren’t dependent on every word being absolute. Kai said that to him. Funny how that sounded appropriate right now.

Comfort. He wondered what comfort Kai had to help her with what she went through.

Learning about the events at the Winter Palace, Cullen was no longer confident about his earlier judgment of Kai’s state of mind. The only way to find out was to talk with her, and they had plenty to talk about. It would take time to discuss what they needed to, but right now he could begin with seeking that assurance from her.

“Cassandra, if you would excuse me, I need to speak with Kai.” Cullen moved to stand but Cassandra reached over, resting her hand firmly on his arm, stopping him.

“She may not be the same as you remember.”

“Who could be,” he replied. No-one could live through all she had and not be changed.

“I shall be next door if you wish to talk more,” she volunteered, and lifted her hand away.

“Right.” Cullen gave her a baffled glance, not quite sure what she meant.

Both left the kitchen, Cassandra heading into her room, and Cullen walking down the hall to the study. He lifted his hand to knock, but hearing the distress in Kai’s voice, he rushed inside.

---------------+

When the pain struck, it was so swift it took her breath away, leaving her gasping. Slowly she stood, and stumbled over to her box of potions, collapsing onto her knees, eyes streaming and fingers fumbling clumsily with the latches on the box. Kai couldn’t hold back the plaintive cries as she struggled to reach her potions. But the crushing, burning pain in her absent lower arm prevented her from carrying out even the simple task of opening a box.

Kai could have endured the usual pain. She was used to the prickling sensations, even the stabbing ones. The feel of her arm actually burning was rare now, and caught her off guard. She was too distracted to foresee where the tension could end up.

Everything around her ceased to exist; all that remained was agony and the stench of scorched flesh. She was desperate for the relief she could not reach. Anger bled into her frustration and panic. Kai slammed her fist onto the box as if the sheer motion would force it to open.

Her voice cracked between the tears and sharp intakes of breath. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

She wasn’t conscious of someone else there until they knelt beside her.

“Here, let me,” Cullen offered calmly, gently moving her trembling hand aside.

She heard the latches open and the clink as he removed a draught, pulled the stopper and then placed it in her hand, holding both as he guided it to her lips.

Kai drained the bottle greedily. “Another,” she begged weakly.

Cullen took out a second, repeating the process with her. It would take a few minutes to work, but realising there would be relief eased her panic. His arms gently slipped around her waist supporting her as he helped her onto the bed.

Her voice was a rasping whisper. “Thank you.”

“I’m here,” he comforted, holding onto her as she sought to ride out the pain.

She didn’t catch the touch of anxiety in his voice, too wrapped up with controlling her breathing, fingers digging into her arm as she willed the pain to end. Finally the numbing relief seeped through her body, and the pain lessened. Kai let go of her arm. Then she sensed how Cullen was rubbing her back exactly like he used to when he soothed her fear following a nightmare. He always knew how to reassure her, how to make it bearable.

Kai faced him with a grateful smile. “Thank you,” she repeated, sounding less weak.

He watched her with a familiar patience and kindness. “You’re welcome.”

Cullen clearly saw her struggling and understood what was happening. Not surprising, he had enough practice with her in the past.

“How often is it that bad?” he wanted to know.

“Seldom, it...just caught me by surprise this time,” she explained. “Mostly it’s manageable.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you like that,” he reflected, staring at the open box of potions.

It obvious they were larger than the usual ones. Cullen was on her blind side so Kai couldn’t see him so well when he glanced aside, but from the glimpse she caught she thought he looked unsettled. She sought to distract him.

“You know me, I never do things by halves,” she joked.

He turned to face her with a resigned sigh. “You certainly don’t.”

They hadn’t been this close together for so long and she didn’t want him to let go. He made her feel safe and however selfish, she needed that right now. Kai leaned her head against his shoulder and Cullen instinctively tucked her against him, careful to keep his arm away from hers. They sat together silently for few moments, and in those moments it no longer mattered they were separated, he knew she needed him and was there for her. She closed her eye, sensing the tension finally fading. A contented sigh slipped out.

“Feeling better now?” he asked softly.

“Much,” she smiled, opening her eye and facing him. A smile replaced the worry she spotted before. “Thank you, Cullen.”

“I told you I’d always be there if you needed me,” Cullen reassured her.

Kai’s smile broadened. “I know.”

He inclined his head, the smile easing as he became pensive. “I thought you were...you seemed to be doing better than I imagined. I didn’t realise it was like this for you.”

“Usually it is better,” Kai assured him. “Not to say I don’t come...unstuck...sometimes.”

“I see,” he observed, calmly waiting for her to continue. The quiet way he could wait her out invariably made her confess when something was wrong.

She practically babbled out an explanation. “Adjusting takes time, and I don’t always catch the signs. Plus coordinating vision and movement on opposite sides of one’s body can be a tad tricky. Although it’s more natural now, it catches me out now and then. But it’s not the first time I’ve had to readjust.”

“True,” he acknowledged. “How are you, though?”

From his expression, Kai realised he was expecting more than how she was coping physically.

How are you? Such a commonplace question, used innocently and without thinking, supposing a you existed who would provide a commonplace reply as to your present health or disposition. She wasn’t sure how to respond to his question without him thinking she was touched in the head.

He noticed her wavering as she glanced down. “If you’d rather not...”

Kai didn’t want him to feel bad again, not after earlier. Cullen was clearly mortified by what he said, yet for her, hearing that familiar phrase felt like he was closing the distance between them. Kai quickly stepped in to reassure him.

“Honestly, it’s fine, Cullen. I just...” She faltered again. Don’t be an idiot, she told herself. He’s asking because he cares and you promised to be honest with him.

Kai took a deep breath. “Sometimes...when I look in the mirror, I’m...not sure who it is I see anymore. The person staring back...seems no more than a reflection.”

Cullen’s eyes grew large before scrunching sadly. “Maker, Kai,” he exclaimed, sounding worried. His hand reached for her face, caressing it as he spoke. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“You already are by being here,” she confessed, instinctively leaning into his hand.

“All right.” The soft smile he gave her was mirrored in his eyes.

That smile burrowed its way inside. “Will you hold me a little longer?” she asked hopefully.

He nodded, moving his hand so she could nestle against him. “As long as you need,” he promised her, taking her hand in his.

Kai realised how much she missed this, missed him. The muffled sound of his heartbeat; the comforting warmth of his body; his thumb brushing her hand as he held it; the way he smiled at her; even the familiar scent of his soap. All the little things she took for granted when they were together, never thinking they would end. Now they were precious rarities to be treasured.

And just when she had a chance to feel them again, her body began to grow heavy. The sedative properties of the draughts were starting to take effect, mixing in with her fatigue. Not wanting to leave Cullen’s embrace, Kai managed to hang on for a few moments more, until she realised if she didn’t move she would end up slumped in his lap.

“Cullen?”

“Yes?”

“I think I’m about to fall asleep,” Kai yawned.

“I’m not surprised,” Cullen smiled, not that she could see. “After two draughts, I’m amazed you stayed awake this long.”

“Hmm,” she mumbled drowsily. “Do we have time for a nap?”

Only moments previously she was in acute distress. Now the normality of her appeal sounded so bizarre it made him chuckle.

“We do, but if we didn’t, I suspect it wouldn’t stop you.”

Cullen let go of Kai, watching as she faced him with an exhausted smile. At least she was no longer in pain. He helped her lie down and pulled a blanket over her, carefully avoiding her arm. With two large draughts of pain relief inside her he doubted she would feel anything, but what he saw earlier scared him, and he feared catching her arm might provoke further problems when it wore off. As she wriggled to get comfortable Cullen spotted she was still wearing her eye patch.

“Shall I take your eye patch off?” he suggested, seeing her nod, and lift up her head.

“Please.” She yawned again.

Cullen unclipped it and she rested her head onto the pillow, closing her eye. Without it, Kai always looked vulnerable, even more so now with all she’d lost.

It seemed every major threat she faced exacted a price for its defeat. Blood price, he recalled Sun-Hair saying. With Kai the price was an eye, a kidney and part of her arm; not to mention the various scars which littered her body. But being marked physically was merely part of the picture.

Cullen realised she was drifting off. “Would you like me to bring you tea when I wake you?” he asked.

The smile that greeted him was wrenchingly familiar. What broke through in that smile was the first sign of his Kai.

“Mmm, Cullen and tea,” she murmured. The smile dimmed as she fell asleep.

Cullen swallowed heavily. Nothing was more perfect than him and tea in the morning, she used to say. Kai never demanded gifts or to be pampered, other than having tea when he woke her first thing. It developed into a routine whenever they were together. It was such a little thing to ask for, and the smile he received as thanks was worth the trip to fetch it.

What he saw now troubled him. He assumed the quiet easiness meant she was fine. Clearly he was mistaken.

No one could describe Kai as weak, even at her lowest she carried on, doing whatever was required of her. Leliana called it her steel, an inner strength she drew on to see her through the worst thrown at her. He could see it hadn’t deserted her. She was coping and dealing with the losses just as he guessed because it was what she always did. There was no mask because it was her.

And it was virtually all he could see, aside from the half-awake smile. Cullen could no longer see the bright light inside her; the woman sleeping there no longer shone as she once did. The brightness could weaken, yet never left her before. Kai said she saw no more than a reflection when she looked in the mirror; to him it was like becoming a shadow of who she was.

Cullen rubbed the back of his neck, thinking as he watched her sleep. How did this happen? How did I not see before?

Cassandra had warned him she wasn’t the same, so he wasn’t the only one who noticed it. Cullen headed to the second bedroom, the bedroom which would have been Kai’s.

The door was ajar.

Cassandra looked up from the bed, setting down her sword when she saw him standing in the doorway. She smiled sympathetically seeing his face. “You understand what I meant now.”

“Yes,” he nodded.

Cassandra motioned for him to sit with her, and Cullen joined her on the bed.

“You have to be with her one-on-one to see it properly,” she revealed. “Leliana spotted it first, but she is the closest to her. And Cole, obviously. To anyone who does not know her as we do, they would not spot a change. On the surface, Kai functions normally, no different to before.”

“When…how did it happen?” His simple question belied the dismay he felt.

Cassandra drew a breath and explained, glancing between him and the other bed in the room. “When she returned through the Eluvian, Bull and Dorian removed her forearm and she passed out from the pain. An entire day she was unconscious, a day in which rumours spread she had died. Leliana did her best to suppress them, but the place was in an uproar over the Qunari threat already.”

Cassandra shook her despairingly. “It was utterly ridiculous, one moment they were squabbling over the fate of the Inquisition, complaining it was at fault; the next they were obsessing that the Herald of Andraste had been murdered by the Qunari, with mutterings of an Exalted March. Then, when she appears, they resume their wrangling over the Inquisition.”

“Cassandra?” Cullen prompted.

“Sorry,” she apologised, realising she was rambling. “It could be losing her arm when the Anchor became unstable, or there could be some other trauma as well. To all intents and purposes she is still her, but missing a part of her.”

“I think it’s more than a part,” Cullen retorted sharply, eyes wide. “And she feels something isn’t right. She said when she looks in the mirror what she sees seems no more than a reflection.”

“Then she has revealed more to you than anyone else,” Cassandra explained, apparently unruffled by his tone. “Leliana thought she might tell you what she truly felt.”

Cassandra’s reply stalled his frustration. “She didn’t tell her?”

Cassandra shook her head. “Not so directly.”

“Oh, I see.” Cullen couldn’t help wonder why. There was little the two women didn’t share.

Cassandra continued. “She can carry out her role as she is, but none of us wish to watch her lose what made her mean something to all of us. I know she is closest to you and Leliana, but she is my friend as well.”

A wistful smile spread on Cassandra’s face. “She encouraged me to rebuild the Seekers, when I was unsure how the Order could even be salvaged. Kai asked me, ‘What does a Seeker of Truth do?’ She already knew, so initially I was puzzled. She repeated the question. Then I realised what she was asking. ‘We seek the truth’ I told her. She smiled. ‘Sounds like a good place to start, don’t you think?’ she replied, then winked adding ‘and you could make them better while you’re at it.’”

Cullen smiled. That was typical Kai. Something meaningful followed by a joke, not to ridicule, but to emphasise.

“We all know she can be...frustrating at times, Cullen, but Kai always inspired those around her. And she never flinched doing whatever it took to protect people…” Cassandra paused meaningfully, “…even at the cost of losing you.”

When Kai made her choice to accept the spirit she knew he would leave her, even before he made his decision. She carried that knowledge, along with the weight of the threat she posed and their mistrust, all through the mission to defeat Hakkon. Angry with her at the time, only later did he recognise how strong she was to survive such pressure. It was that strength that sustained her now.

Cassandra clearly had a purpose in reminding him, and had a suspicion where this was heading.

Cullen sighed. “What do you need from me?”

Cassandra laid it out. “Leliana has tasked Kai to reach a resolution concerning...the situation between you, so we can all work together. She suspects Kai might seek keep things as they are. But she believes that will not serve her or you, and I have to agree.”

“I realised that,” Cullen replied, recognising what they sought. “I planned to talk with her...about our future.”

“Then, you already know what you need to do,” Cassandra advised.

Mia warned Cullen things may be different when they met again. Things were unquestionably different, and not in any way he anticipated. But one thing was certain. Cullen couldn’t watch the woman he loved completely lose what made her special, to him and her friends. Cullen closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He opened them and saw Cassandra waiting.

“Whatever she needs, whatever that is, I’ll do it.”

Cassandra blinked slowly. “We trusted you would.”

There seemed little left to discuss, and Cullen needed time to think. “If you don’t mind, I need some time alone.”

“Of course,” Cassandra replied, watching as Cullen stood and walked out.

She puffed out a breath. Sweet Andraste, I hope this works.

Cullen was the key, Leliana claimed. If Kai needed his help, he would do whatever it took to bring her back from the inner abyss she’d slipped into. Kai, in turn needed to tell Cullen the truth about herself, before remorse and secrecy poisoned her. The two of them had to move past this arrangement they convinced one another was the best solution. It may have worked for them at the time, but it could not continue as things stood now. The potential for trouble later on was too great.

“What do we do if it doesn’t work?” Cassandra asked Leliana.

“Then we deal with it,” Leliana insisted. “Better now when we have time, than later.”

Cassandra hoped it would work, and not simply so they could work together Cullen clearly still loved her, and it was plain to everyone Kai still loved him. If they could put the past behind them, it could be a second chance.

Or perhaps I’m being too romantic, she mused.

Cassandra sighed and picked up her sword, continuing to sharpen it. This was sort of thing was Leliana’s forte, not hers, but clearly Leliana couldn’t come. Cassandra would be glad when Bull and Cole arrived to collect them, she’d probably need to hit something by then.

Chapter Text

Stepping through the back door into Mia’s spacious kitchen, Kai saw it was the same as she remembered. Pots and pans on shelves around the walls, the stove which wouldn’t seem out of place in the Skyhold kitchen, and the enormous dresser which housed all the everyday and best crockery and cutlery. Most of the best appeared to be spread out on the massive oak table in the centre of the room, the beating heart of Mia’s home.

It was a family kitchen, but also a working farmhouse kitchen, providing food during the daytime for everyone who worked on the farm. And like the whole house, it was homely.

Homely was sometimes an overused word, but here it suited perfectly. Comforting, grounding and frequently boisterous was what Kai recalled from her previous visit. Each sibling had their own home, but gatherings were habitually at Mia's. It seemed everyone else had arrived, judging by the laughter and animated chatter emanating from the adjoining room

The last time Kai came here she was apprehensive too, but excited to meet her new family. The Rutherford siblings were close, and even though it was the first time they’d seen Cullen in years, they quickly drew him back into their fold, overjoyed at being together once more. The affection with which both were welcomed was enthusiastic and unconditional. A world apart from the formality which peppered her childhood. Now she was returning as the estranged wife, unsure what they would think of her.

The familiar figure of Izzy appeared, excitedly trotting over to Cullen. Compared to Max she seemed small, but she always was smaller than other mabari.

“Hello girl,” Cullen greeted her, crouching to fuss Izzy whose happy whines showed she was pleased to see him.

When Mia travelled to market Izzy went with her, along with an escort from the Sanctuary for protection. Just as Kai encountered when returning to Skyhold, in South Reach too there was an upsurge in bandit attacks. Incidents were sporadic, but Cullen wasn’t going to take chances with his sister’s safety. Two households and their farmhands depended on coin made from selling their goods. In exchange for the escort, the cheeses were sold at half price to the Sanctuary, so both sides benefitted. Izzy was provided free of charge, Cullen joked.

Cullen looked back at Kai, signalling for her to call in Max. Normally mabari were brought up together in social groups until nearly a year old. But not knowing Max’s background, if he was raised with other mabari like Izzy was, they decided on an introduction as a sensible precaution.

Max strolled in and came to a sudden stop seeing Izzy. She cocked her head pricking up her ears, and stared, then gave a short, quiet bark. Max just stared back, seemingly uncertain how to respond. Izzy barked again and this time he answered in kind. Finally they approached one another with a mutual sniffing of bottoms. It looked like the introduction was adequate.

“Contessa was the same,” Harding reflected with a wistful sigh. “Mabari are so bright you tend to forget they’re dogs until they behave like them.”

“Contessa?” Cassandra inquired.

“Our family’s mabari,” Lace told her, smiling. “She’s in Denerim with my mother and father. I haven’t seen them in a while.”

“And you need to visit them,” Kai prompted.

Lace sighed. “I know, but after we finish here.”

Kai attempted to persuade Lace to continue on to Denerim with a squad of their soldiers, and leave Kai in South Reach. But Lace insisted on coming to assist with the audit.

“You’ll be too slow on your own going through the ledgers,” Lace rightly pointed out. “Three eyes are better than one, especially with the Ambassador’s handwriting.” The ledgers were crammed with script and Kai’s eye still became strained with too much close quarters reading. In the end Kai relented and Lace grinned with a smug “and you thought you were stubborn.”

Kai was stubborn and had only yielded when an alternative occurred to her. She’d sent a message to an old friend requesting help and use of Ferelden forces, pointing out it was for one of his subjects who had done her duty well above anything required of her. The response came back just before they left Skyhold. Three words. Consider it done. She couldn’t wait to see Lace’s face when they arrived.

Kai heard Cullen yell. “Hello! We’re here.” It was the only way to be heard over the clamour next door.

The noise she and Lyssa could make was as nothing to what the Rutherfords could produce. After meeting them, Kai appreciated why Cullen often escaped to the lake for peace; he was the quietest of the four. Probably back then more serious too, although less so these days. Branson joked she had cured his humour bypass which was patently not true. She guessed Cullen was funny long before she met him; it only lessened from the trials he’d faced. Temporarily lost but not forgotten.

The chatter died away, replaced by the noise of people stirring. Evan appeared first, hurtling into the kitchen, making a beeline for Kai.

“Evan, be careful...” Branson’s attempted warning was drowned out by his son’s excited cry.

“Kai!”

She knelt down, and he flung his arms around her neck with a hearty hug. He was taller and less toddler like now. Evan reminded Kai of her nephew, Osric, Wilhelm’s second son, when he was the same age. Both children brimmed with confidence.

“Ello Ev,” Kai smiled, picking up the giggle. She remembered how the greeting went; Evan was quite specific in his instructions before.

Evan pulled back. “Ello.” He looked at her left arm, and back up at her face. “Da said you hurt your arm.”

Kai nodded. “Yes, I did.”

The room went deathly silent, all eyes on the two of them, evidently nervous as to how this exchange would go.

“You should be more careful,” Evan instructed with a nod to make his point, clearly parroting words he’d been told. Most parents had said that to their children at some point when they picked up an injury.

Ariane gasped, while Branson groaned faintly in the background.

Kai smiled reassuringly at them before switching back to Evan. “You’re right, Ev. But sometimes you just can’t help it.”

Evan sighed and shrugged. “That’s what I tell them, but they don’t listen. Adults, huh?”

Cassandra broke the silence with a loud laugh easing the anxiety in the room, and everyone joined in. Clearly they were concerned his words might upset her, yet Kai was glad for Evan’s refreshing honesty. Children didn’t carry the same baggage of worry adults did. Her physical losses were a fact of her life, things she had to negotiate daily. The hollowness inside was tougher to work around.

Cullen introduced Cassandra and Lace, and Cassandra, as ever, urged them to eschew formality when they attempted to address her as Seeker. If Kai worried about his family’s response she needn’t have. A flurry of hugs greeted Kai, with Mia allowing the others to go first.

The chattering resumed, and Mia stepped forward giving Kai a lengthy hug as she whispered faintly in her ear. “We need to talk.”

“I know,” Kai whispered back. Mia drew away with a slow blink to acknowledge her reply.

Mia would have made an excellent agent for the Inquisition had she not been Cullen’s sister. She had a keen eye and sharp mind, was adept at identifying situations and reading people, not to mention a penchant for distracting people from her intentions. All useful qualities when attempting to navigate her way through a Blight-torn Ferelden, tasked with protecting her younger siblings. As well as beginning a new life somewhere unknown.

“Well, since our guests are here,” Mia announced. “Bran, you can crack open the bottles now.”

“Finally,” Branson exhaled audibly, visibly pleased. “She relents.”

As the others made their way into the parlour, Kai heard Lace beside her. “They’re so alike aren’t they? Cullen’s family I mean.”

“Just a bit,” Kai answered casually.

It was noticeable even without introductions that Mia, Branson and Rosalie were Cullen’s siblings. Only slight modifications were made to the original mould with each child, all sharing blonde hair and amber eyes. Also their spouses were altogether different. Ariane had raven black hair and deep brown eyes, and Michael golden brown hair with grey-blue eyes. Evan had inherited his mother’s hair colour and a slightly darker version of his father’s eye colour, a striking combination.

“And the fact the others are not blond,” Cassandra teased, observing the obvious.

“I meant they look so similar,” Lace groaned, peering wryly at Cassandra.

“True, they do,” Cassandra agreed, nodding. “Even Anthony and I never looked so alike.”

“Nor my siblings,” Kai added. “We’re all distinct from one another.”

“I’m an only,” Lace sighed. “Always wondered what it was like to have siblings.”

Cassandra pointed to the chatter emanating from the other room. “There’s your answer.”

“Noisy and you’re rarely alone,” Kai remarked. “But you,” she pointed at Lace, “can choose your friends. You can’t choose your siblings.” Truthfully, Kai would only swop one of hers given the opportunity.

Cullen poked his head around the corner to see where they’d got to. “Honey beer?” he offered, waving a bottle.

“Honey beer?” Cassandra inquired incredulously.

“Honey beer,” he repeated, grinning. “Mia brews it herself. Not as sweet as you’d imagine and strong too.”

“Oh,” Cassandra answered, a smile breaking out. “A strange combination, but it does sound tempting.”

Lace chuckled, rubbing her hands. “If it’s as good as the cheese, you might be carrying me back tonight.”

“It is,” Kai grinned. “I think I’ll have to leave the carrying to Cullen and Cassandra though.” She waggled her arm. “I might drop you.”

Lace rolled her eyes then headed in after Cullen, leaving Kai and Cassandra standing there.

“Well, as Lead Auditor I hereby approve a later start in the morning,” Cassandra declared. “It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to...let my hair down.” She smiled, unwound her braid laying it over her shoulder as if to make the point, and followed on leaving Kai on her own.

Cullen’s family were welcoming and friendly, and obviously Lace and Cassandra had warmed to them. It was hard not to as Kai recalled. No one remained a stranger for long amongst the Rutherfords.

Had she been her usual self, she would have felt equally relaxed, but she wasn’t, and less so after her confession to Cullen. She felt...vulnerable, exposed, and it wasn’t a pleasant sensation. Before they arrived in South Reach Kai had done her best to steel herself for the worst outcome, holding onto the hope that if it did occur, she wouldn’t lose Cullen completely. She convinced herself, even up to actually seeing him she could live with only a tiny part of him.

Being with him, feeling reassurance as he held her, being reminded of their time together when he woke her with tea; she wanted those mornings again, she wanted all those little moments. Most of all she wanted her husband.

And it terrified her. Because if he said no, if he couldn’t forgive her or if he turned away from her because of what she was...the fragments of Estre remaining inside wouldn’t be sufficient to shield her this time. This time there was no pressing duty or purpose, nothing to deflect her from the loss.

Kai closed her eye pushing back on her thoughts and took a deep breath. Whether or not she remained a Rutherford, right now she had to be a Trevelyan. Kai exhaled, opened her eye and fixed a smile onto her face before joining everyone.

--------

Cullen sat at the end of the table, Kai on the corner next to him, with Lace on the other side of her. He purposely made sure he was on Kai’s blind side so he could keep an eye on her without her noticing. Enough people were doing the same without him adding to her sense of being watched. He recalled how he felt when Cassandra would check up on him. Even though it was what they agreed, sometimes it was welcome and other times it was tiresome.

Apart from a whispered aside of ‘schlop’ when the stew arrived, making Kai smile, Cullen merely listened as the discussion moved from daily business about the farm and their family, to the Inquisition and events at the Winter Palace. Not all that happened was made public, but enough news had filtered through since he received word.

The conversation had grown livelier the more bottles of honey beer were consumed. No-one was actually drunk, but enough alcohol had been imbibed to cut through any reticence. People could arrive as strangers to dinner at his sister’s house, but seldom remained so after her special ‘welcome’.

Kai was occasionally answering questions between mouthfuls of stew, which Mia made so Kai could eat one-handed. Lace’s sideways glances showed she was checking in case Kai needed help cutting up food. Apart from the potatoes, the pieces were easy enough for Kai to manage, and so far she’d dealt with even the potatoes quite well.

Cullen found it funny how the selfsame actions were echoed at the far end of the table with Evan. Ariane and Branson kept an eye out in case he struggled, but knew Evan wanted to do it himself. The irony of the parallel wasn’t lost on Cullen, childlike and stubborn.

Perhaps that was why children connected with Kai so readily; she certainly had a rapport with them, comfortably talking with them on their level. Seeing her with Cassie, he’d often reflected she would have been an amazing mother, able to visualise the world through a child’s eyes and empathise with them in a way few adults could.

As with the dreams, he’d been reluctant to tell Kai for fear it would hurt her. Mia said Edwin was the same, he too accepted they wouldn’t have children, yet would dream about having a family. Like Cullen, Edwin was wary of mentioning anything to Mia for fear of upsetting her, but his sister prised it out of him. I told him, I’d rather know than have him pussyfooting around me, she’d said.

Cullen heard Lace, clearly offering help.

“Shall I do...”

Kai interrupted. “It’s ok, Lace. I’ve...almost...”

As Cullen turned, he heard the loud clink of cutlery on a plate and caught a flash of an object heading in his direction. He then felt a thud as it smacked him on the chest and dropped into his lap. He peered down to discover half a potato sitting there, partly covered in stew gravy, the remainder dribbling down the front of his shirt.

“Ohh...oops,” Kai coughed.

Cullen glanced at her, spotting the wide-eyed look as she bit her lip, then looked back down at the potato. He picked it up, and deposited it onto the dinner table.

“Well,” he smirked, shifting his attention to Kai. “It appears your accuracy remains undiminished, but it was practically at point blank range."

His quip produced exactly the response he hoped for, she laughed. No-one else would recognise the significance of that reference, on the surface it was just a joke. Cullen heard Mia and looked around to catch the entire table watching them with some hilarity.

“That’s going to stain unless we get it sorted,” she observed with a sigh. She stood up, leaving her nearly finished plate. “Come on, there’s hot water on the stove, and a bowl and soap on the side. I’ll get one of Edwin’s shirts for you.”

As Mia left, Cullen stood and went to the sideboard near the stove. He poured out some cold and then hot water into the bowl, rolling the soap in it and then snagged a cloth, wetting it before taking off his shirt. He began dabbing his shirt to remove the gravy traces before soaking it.

“Well, Cullen,” Branson chuckled. “That’s one way of getting a man’s shirt off him. You’ll have to remember that one, Ari.”

“Bran, I don’t need to lob a potato at you for you to get your shirt off,” Ariane threw back with a grin.

The table erupted into laughter and Cullen shook his head, smiling. He knew Bran would be expecting a comeback from him. It was a long established habit between them, to see how far one could pull the other. Cullen glanced up to quickly check on Kai, catching her staring at him, blinking a little faster than normal. For an instant their gazes were locked on one other before she dropped hers. A hint of red appeared on her cheeks.

Ohhh, he thought, recognising what just happened. I didn’t see that coming.

She was clearly embarrassed by her reaction and he was conscious not make it worse by watching her.

Cullen turned to his brother. “Actually, Bran, that depends...” he remarked, dangling out the line he knew Branson would take up.

“On, dear brother?” Branson queried, smirking as he tugged back.

“...on whether there’s something worth finding underneath the shirt,” Cullen suggested boldly, hearing the laughter burst forth once more.

Branson’s eyes grew as large as the smile on his face. “Maker’s balls!”

Ariane cleared her throat to remind him they had company, but Branson continued undeterred, saluting his appreciation.

“I take my hat off to you, brother. Andraste’s arse, that was a good one.”

Cullen nodded back, grinning. None of them spotted Mia standing in the doorway, shirt in hand and a weary expression on her face as she viewed the scene.

“I can’t be gone for five minutes without the two of you behaving like barbarians. One half-naked and the other cursing.” Mia shook her head. “Mind you, I am surprised it’s Cullen and not you, Bran.”

She threw a sideways frown at Branson as she walked past to Cullen, tutting as she grabbed the stained shirt and thrust the clean one into his hands.

“Oh, don’t be concerned for us,” Cassandra remarked with a slight slur, blithely waving her hand. “We’ve heard much worse in the barracks, and seen far more of Cullen than is on display here.”

Cullen groaned inwardly, closing his eyes, hoping forlornly that Branson wouldn’t ask the inevitable question. But of course he did.

“Really?” Branson drawled invitingly, sensing a story. “How so?”

“He lost all his clothes in a game of Wicked Grace,” Cassandra declared with a chuckle.

One by one his family swung from Cassandra to Cullen, expressions a mix of surprise, curiosity and amusement. The story had already done the rounds in the Inquisition, but Kai agreed not to say anything when they visited before, to save him from the teasing. But his friend appeared to have no such scruples. Cullen made a mental note not to allow Cassandra to drink so much beer again; it loosened her tongue far too readily.

“Did he now?” Branson smiled, winking at Cullen. “A little too much to drink, I bet. And embarrassed, if I know my brother.”

If Cullen imagined Cassandra had stopped at the one disclosure, plainly he was mistaken.

She nodded. “He was a little embarrassed, but fortunately our Spymaster came to his rescue,” she revealed.

Cullen felt his face flame as he pulled on the shirt and went back to his seat waiting for the unavoidable reaction.

Rosalie was the first to gasp. “Cullen, you didn’t? In front of the Divine?”

Cullen saw the astonished faces of his family peering at him in surprise, only Branson snorted a snigger. Probably because this was precisely the sort of shenanigans Branson would get up to. Clearly no-one expected it from him.

He sighed. This would haunt him to his pyre.

Cullen felt a hand on his leg, and knew it was Kai. She faced everyone and spoke, her voice calm, soothing even. Somewhat strangely, it had the same effect as when she used to massage his head when he was tired.

“Cullen did it to help me after I lost my eye. He knew I was struggling; he knew making me laugh would help me. And it did. It made all the difference.”

All were quiet now, their eyes fixed on Kai. Cullen watched how she then turned the mood.

“Leliana’s arrival was...,” she paused, a smile breaking as she glanced purposefully around the table, “...entirely coincidental. And she rescued Cullen’s coat from our Ambassador. Otherwise he could have ended up with some dreadful Orlesian contraption.”

Astonishment became nervous giggles, and then full on hilarity, but not as his expense. Cullen rested his hand on Kai’s and squeezed it to thank her. She blinked slowly, and Cullen let go allowing Kai to move her hand away. He saw Mia watching the two of them with a curious, concerned smile, and shrugged with his eyebrows, seeing her sigh with a slight shake of the head before she got up.

He wouldn’t escape this story so easily, there was bound to be comments and teasing. But at least this evening he had some peace and was grateful for that small mercy.

Cullen looked back at his wife who had deftly come to his aid. He called her passionately protective after she rescued him at the Winter Palace, and although this rescue was less dramatic, it was no less meaningful. Irrespective of their situation, and her own loss, she still stood up for him. He’d promised Cassandra he would help her. Cullen now made the vow silently to Kai. Whatever you need, Kai, whatever it is, I’ll do it.

The sound of clapping and an excited cry of “cheesecake!” from Evan brought his attention back. Mia placed an enormous cheesecake on the table, all eyes greedily staring at it.

It was Lace who made them all laugh again.

“Oh Maker help me, I think I’m going to explode,” she groaned, her head hitting the table. “Everything here is way too tempting.”

As the plates were passed around with generous portions of cheesecake, Cullen mused the only thing likely lost tonight would be consciousness, from over eating and too much beer.

------------------

Kai glanced around the parlour; all were asleep, except her and Mia. One by one they’d nodded off. Ariane and Branson on one sofa, with Evan sprawled across their laps; Michael in one of the armchairs with Rosalie curled up on his lap; Cassandra slumped sideways on another sofa with Lace lying against her; and Cullen on another armchair, his head leaning back, mouth slightly gaping. Even Max and Izzy were sprawled out back to back on the rug in front of the fire. Soft snores and heavier ones filled the room like the unsynchronised instruments of an orchestra playing out of time.

“I don’t imagine anyone is going home tonight,” Kai ventured, smiling.

Mia chuckled. “I have enough beds and cots if they wake up. Having them here at night is nice. The house can get too quiet for one person.” She faced Kai and motioned to the kitchen. “Come on, I’ll make us some tea.”

After Edwin died, and Rosalie moved out when she married Michael, it left only Mia in the large farmhouse. In the daytime there were always people in the house, but Mia admitted at night it could feel like she was rattling around in there.

Kai followed Mia as they abandoned the soundly sleeping crowd, gently closing Cullen’s mouth before she left. He had a habit of falling asleep like that after drinking.

Some things never changed, she thought.

While Mia made tea, Kai slid off her shoes, and put her feet on one of the other chairs, leaning her right arm on the table, and resting her stump on the armrest. The ache was at its usual low, almost like a slight hum in her arm. Luckily she’d bought potions with her in case it grew worse again. Handy as they were staying over.

Tea ready, Mia put it in easy reach on the table and took a seat facing Kai, mirroring her position. She breathed out slowly, stretching her neck from side to side.

“Long day?” Kai inquired.

“On a farm every day is a long day,” Mia emphasised. “But today...was a good long day.” She sipped her tea and put it down on the table, staring keenly at Kai. “You already knew we’d need to talk.” A matter of fact statement belying the intent behind it.

“I did,” Kai acknowledged. If anyone had an opinion to express about her and Cullen, it was Mia, and now they were alone.

Mia ran her finger around the rim of her mug. “We promised we would always be straight with each other, Kai. So...here it is. Truthfully, I never saw this ‘friendship’ lasting. There’s too much love there; it’s obvious when you look at each other.” She stopped and took a breath. “This arrangement is holding you both back, and, if the two of you continue like this it will only cause more pain in the end. Cullen’s been through enough of that already.”

“I know he has, and I don’t want to hurt him, Mia,” Kai stressed, meeting her gaze. “I’m conscious of what my decision cost him, but if I hadn’t made it we wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation.”

“Of course we wouldn’t,” Mia answered emphatically. “Nor would we if you hadn’t dragged us out of that senseless war, banished that crazed madman, and helped set a teetering Chantry back on its foundations by giving them a Divine who could see past the politics to what truly mattered.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “I know full well the drive inside you because I have the same in me. You know what I had to do to bring the others here to safety.”

Kai knew the lengths Mia had to go to, but none of her siblings were aware of the whole story. Funny how admitting certain things to a stranger was easier than to people you knew well. She’d done the same herself with Leliana.

Mia sighed. “Cullen has a chance to build a future here, finally at peace with himself. He deserves no less after everything he’s given to the Order and the Inquisition, not to mention what he’s doing for the Sanctuary.” She rubbed the table with her finger, peering sideways at Kai. “He almost changed his mind when he first came here, did he tell you?”

“No,” Kai admitted, stunned. Cullen rarely backtracked from a decision once made.

“He understood his decision was right for him in the circumstances, but worried he was abandoning the Inquisition. More importantly, he feared he was abandoning you. I told him to wait out the three months and see how he felt at the end. The time away gave him the space to think, and he realised coming back to you then would have made the situation worse.”

“Oh,” Kai murmured looking down. Not only had she driven him away, she made him feel guilty for going.

Mia’s voice was steady. “Kai, look at me.”

Kai looked back up, seeing Mia’s expression relax.

“I’m not saying this to make you feel bad, simply telling you the truth. I truly believe the two of you are at a point right now where this thing could go either way. But you both need to be honest with each other, wherever that leads. If it doesn’t work out, at least you’ve tried. And if it does work out, then it’s a second chance.”

Mia groaned, shaking her head. “Here am I lecturing you about being honest, maybe I should take my own advice. Before you showed up tonight, what I intended to say was somewhat more...”

“Direct?” Kai suggested. She knew Mia didn’t hold back when something needed saying.

Mia nodded with a wry smile. “Forceful might have been more apt. Anyway, I can see you’re not yourself, and Cullen does too. All evening he’s watched you, careful not to be obvious.”

Kai caught his eye a few times, but hadn’t noticed he was watching her.

“He’s clearly learnt that from you, he never used to be quite so wily,” Mia pointed out. She leant forward. “But I know my brother when he’s got an idea in his head, and you...” she pointed at Kai, “...are clearly his focus now. Cullen has always wanted to help people. What could be more important than rescuing the woman he loves?”

Cullen wants to rescue me, Kai thought, suddenly realising. He couldn’t. How can he save me from my fear when he is my fear?

Kai fell into deep reflection, thoughts racing at breakneck speed.

She feared he couldn’t forgive her decision or the hurt she caused him. If that was the case, the outcome was inevitable.

She feared he would reject her, unable to accept what she was. Would he see her as a freak, an aberration that shouldn’t exist? Would the knowledge be too much after all she’d put him through? She couldn’t change what she was, who she was. A soul cannot be un-reincarnated. If he couldn’t accept her, there was only one outcome.

Either way...I have no control.

A sense of inevitability flowed over her as the outside world faded. Her subconscious mind plucked at a loose thread in the tangle of sadness and fear and guilt within, unwinding the jumble. She was no longer thinking...she was seeing. Time slowed down, words became feelings.

Illumination........realisation.....recognition.........a voice...her voice...let it go before it poisons you......understanding....

She saw. It was clear. Only one option. Tell him the truth. For both their sakes. Whatever the outcome.

It was the only means to release them from this impasse. It was the only way to let go of her remorse, and her fear.

Kai blinked. The world around her came back into focus.

She heard a mug being placed on the table and saw Mia smiling at her wistfully. “It doesn’t work that way though, does it? Someone can guide you in the right direction, but only you can take the journey.”

How long was I...?

Mia hadn’t even noticed, so probably only seconds. She was clearly waiting for a response. Kai mirrored Mia’s smile.

“I know,” she admitted softly. “And thank you for being straight with me.”

Mia acknowledged Kai’s reply. “I promised I always would be. It’s too easy for people close to you to end up tiptoeing around you.”

Kai sighed a knowing chuckle. “You sound like Bull sometimes. He has a saying; you give your enemies what they want, and the people you care about what they need.

“Sensible man,” Mia grinned. “I gather he’s coming to collect you. You can bring him here for dinner.”

Kai gave a slight smile. “I warn you now; Bull will drink your cellar dry if he comes here.”

Mia scoffed. “He can try.”

He probably would, Kai thought. Bull's capacity for alcohol was legendary.

Mia looked at Kai for a moment and then came over, crouching beside her chair, and patting her cheek like a mother would their child. “Wherever you are now, Kai, it isn’t where you belong. Always remember, in the absence of light, shadows thrive.

Even as Mia recited the saying in her Ferelden accent, it sounded Rivaini.

Kai’s gaze widened. “Where...did you hear that?”

“As a child, back in Honnleath," Mia told her. “One of the sisters used to say it to the children. Why?”

“It’s just...I heard it somewhere entirely different...in the Hissing Wastes. It’s so vast, armies could lose each other in that wasteland,” Kai explained.

Kai took a long swig of her tea. The Chanter’s face and the way she looked at Kai, was as clear in her mind as if she’d seen her only moments ago. As were the words spoken in her lilting Rivaini accent. Do not falter. In the absence of light, shadows thrive.

Kai took a breath and told Mia the story, aware of how outlandish it would sound. Outlandish or strange pretty much summed up her life though. Well, perhaps not all, but definitely her recent years.

“There was a Chanter there who we kept running into. She would recite fragments of the Chant before wandering away. It was...rather bizarre, but when you’re struggling to root out Venatori and Red Templars your focus tends to be elsewhere. Only later did we discover she was a spirit...when she spoke those selfsame words to us.”

Mia’s gaze momentarily widened before she shook her head. “Nothing about you should surprise me anymore. Varric Thethras was right. The shit that happens to you is weird.”

Kai took a deep breath and replied, skirting as close to an admission as she dared. “I didn’t know why it was that way before...but I do now.”

Mia inclined her head, staring inquisitively at Kai for a moment, then just smiled and asked, “More tea?”

Kai nodded, a smile breaking out in response. “Yes, please.”

Both understood it was Kai’s first tentative step. Mia didn’t question because she didn’t need to know, she was satisfied that Kai was able to try. While Mia began preparing more tea, Kai heard shuffling and saw Cullen wander in, semi-awake and rubbing his eyes.

“Everyone’s asleep in there,” he muttered drowsily. “How are you two still awake?”

The straight-talking woman Kai spoke with now became the older sister once more, the one who protected and teased her younger siblings. Not a mask, simply a facet of who Mia was.

“Some of us handle our ale better,” she chuckled. “Want some tea?”

“Mmm,” Cullen murmured, nodding, and walked over to the chair near to Kai. He was halfway to sitting down when Mia called out.

“Why don’t you two sit outside, get some air and chat. I’ll bring the tea out.”

Cullen stopped mid movement and stood up, his eyebrows meeting in puzzlement before realisation came. He shut his eyes and sighed faintly, now fully awake and figuring out what was happening. Her husband was rarely slow to catch on.

“You two have been talking,” he asserted rubbing his neck, and glancing suspiciously between her and Mia.

Cullen often rubbed his neck in the past, more so than she’d seen him do in South Reach. His nervous tick, she called it. Just like her head scratching.

“Yes we have,” Mia confirmed, looking back before continuing. “Don’t worry, we’re done.”

“That’s not what...” His sentence remained unfinished, replaced by a groan as Cullen realised there was no point pressing the matter. He faced Kai with a resigned look and gestured with his head to the back door. “Shall we?”

Kai nodded, following him outside to the bench in the garden. It was dark, but the combination of moonlight and light streaming from the kitchen window provided sufficient illumination to see their way. As they sat down, side by side on the bench, Kai noted how he still favoured staying on her right side. She guessed he didn’t want to accidentally knock her left arm and cause her problems. It did mean he was on her blind side so she had to shift slightly to see him.

The nervous knot in her stomach was back, but other than that Kai felt more at peace than before. Now she had to work out how to tell Cullen, she couldn’t just blurt it out.

Mia appeared with a tray containing two mugs of tea and a plate of cookies. Kai smelt the apple and cinnamon as Mia rested the tray on the table. It was their favourite and Kai smiled appreciatively when Mia darted a look at each of them before leaving.

Cullen took his tea and Kai hers. He realised as she did, Mia had sent them out to talk. Yet there they sat, neither speaking, both just drinking and eating quietly, Cullen with a cookie in one hand and tea in other and Kai alternating between the two with her single hand. Two people who knew one another intimately were like strangers stuck together who didn’t know what to say.

It was Cullen who finally broke the silence. He stared at the amulet with her wedding ring dangling next to it, and then faced her with a smirk.

“I think we’ve been here before. But I know what it is this time.” Cullen’s eyes darted downward.

Kai couldn’t hold back the laugh as realisation came. He was referring to the wedding ring, or more accurately, the coin it once was and the night they got together. Neither of them knew quite how to begin back then either.

But she did now.

Putting her mug on the table, Kai took the ring into the palm of her hand, staring into Cullen’s eyes. “You once asked me to give you a chance if you had the courage and sense. I think I’ve found my courage to do something, and I’m asking if you’ll give me a chance.”

Cullen didn’t even hesitate as he held Kai’s gaze and folded his hand around hers. “Always.”

Chapter Text

Kai flexed her hand and Cullen released his grasp, allowing her to rest it on her lap. Times like these she missed having another hand. The feeling of one hand holding the other not only steadied both, but offered reassurance. He watched, waiting, recognising she had something to tell him.

“This will be difficult, but I need to bring it up because it feeds into what I have to say.” Kai smiled apologetically. “And I’m sorry, Cullen, how you see me will change.”

He looked puzzled, undoubtedly wondering what on earth it was. There was no backing out now, not that she would, not when she was committed to her confession.

During Kai’s training Heir told her an assassin had to recognise when. The when was as crucial as the where and how. Cullen couldn’t continue on this path. If he still wished to help afterwards, she would welcome it, but not as a rescue. Whatever the consequences, it was time he learned the truth. It was the when.

“Back in the Basin, after I took in Hope...” Kai saw his discomfort, yet there was no way around it. It was her awakening. “...Cole described the conversation we had in my dream, didn’t he?”

Cullen exhaled with a slight set to his jaw. “Yes,” he replied, plainly unhappy with reliving the events.

“Do you recall what he said?” she asked delicately.

“Some,” Cullen nodded. “I’ve tried not to dwell on what happened there. It isn’t one of my fondest memories and I’m just thankful we avoided the worst outcome.”

Even though the memory was no longer raw, remembering was unpleasant for him. But Kai had no option. It all linked together. Estre's words in her dream held the key, the telling phrase.

“Do you recall how she said I was Fade-touched?” She stressed the last words.

Cullen lowered his head, looking at the ground, thoughtful, reluctantly sifting through his memories, thoughts he’d rather not revisit. Kai waited patiently for his answer, her thumb rubbing her middle finger distractedly.

“Because of the Anchor?” he finally ventured.

“She didn’t strictly say so, only that it was a key to the Fade.”

Kai paused, letting the idea settle. She believed explaining in stages might be best, tying the threads together before revealing what she was. He was aware she was guiding the conversation, and trying to guess to what end.

Cullen wouldn’t have been such a successful Commander if he hadn’t seen ahead and considered multiple possibilities. The one significant difference between him and Rylen was how Cullen could imagine a range of eventualities at once, whereas Rylen was more linear in his thought processes. Cullen being attuned to Kai probably helped too. He intuitively recognised what would work with her and what to disregard.

“The Anchor had a part to play, but not entirely.” Kai paused, flicking her gaze down and then facing Cullen. “When I went to Ostwick for Papa's funeral, Lys and I spoke with our cousin, my father’s cousin. She...explained things about our family to us, things Ama would have, but was unable to because of her death.” Another pause. “The Frostback Basin wasn’t the first time where the phrase Fade-touched was used to describe me.”

“It happened before?” Cullen questioned, clearly curious.

Kai nodded. “When I was four apparently, although I don’t remember. A Rivaini woman, likely a seer, told my parents the same thing when we were at the Grand Tourney.”

The effect on her father and his subsequent response to her were not relevant at this stage. Depending on Cullen’s reaction, perhaps never. If he couldn’t accept what she was, the rest of her family’s history mattered not. Whatever anxiety she felt, Kai was set on admitting all to Cullen, including what she’d never told anyone else. There was no point to confessing, if not to all of it.

“I wouldn’t have understood what it meant, if it wasn’t for the events in the Basin. You see...” Kai deliberately waited, ensuring she had his full attention. “...I was born that way, Cullen. I was born Fade-touched.”

Curiosity became confusion, his brows almost meeting as he sought to understand. She could visualise the question forming in his mind, she wasn’t a mage so how could she have that connection with the Fade.

“How could...?”

“My soul...has lived before,” she confessed before he could finish. “When Hope and I merged, it awoke a memory buried deep inside, a memory of having a past life, a memory I was not meant to uncover. Re-incarnated souls are not supposed to know, the impact on an individual’s mind could be catastrophic. However, when I discovered what I was, I was no longer fully human. That shielded me from the immediate shock.”

Cullen stared at her, wide eyed in amazement. She said nothing, allowing the knowledge to sink in. It took a moment or two for him to absorb what she was saying. Shock transformed into suspicion and disbelief.

“Is this your idea of a joke?”

Kai shook her head. “No, Cullen. This is no joke, this is who I am. And before you ask, I have no idea who, or how, purely a sense of why. A purpose I suppose would be the closest description. A need to protect, to help...to be a guardian.

Her final word was used deliberately and produced a flash of recognition from Cullen. It was obvious what the memory was; the being she and Estre became, controlling her husband and her friends as effortlessly as breathing. Kai still felt a sense of sorrow for her loss, however dangerous she could have become.

But by keeping what she was a secret from him, Kai failed to be honest with Cullen. It seemed as though secrets had weaved their way through her entire life, and her life was the biggest secret of them all. Yet however firmly you held onto them, eventually they forced their way out, like bodies never properly laid to rest.

At first Cullen looked as if he’d stumbled into a dream. He might as well have. According to many she shouldn’t even exist. Kai hoped it wouldn’t turn into a nightmare for him. But if he didn’t know, any chance of a future together would rest on a flimsy foundation. If there was any hope of a chance.

Then, realising she was telling the truth, he shifted away from her, staring into the distance. Kai saw the muscles in his jaw moving, his brows furrowing then lifting, then furrowing once more as his mind raced through the implications of her words. She waited, allowing him time to think.

Finally Cullen faced her. His scowl was so heavy she saw the crease across the top of his nose as his eyebrows practically met. A clear sign he was furious. Just as he used to be when they quarrelled over her unwillingness to step back from her duty, when she walked away rather than risk the row degenerating into a war of words where things were said that couldn’t be taken back.

This time she couldn’t walk away, this time she had to take what came. He needed to vent the anger and hurt she caused.

“Maker’s breath, Kai! It always comes down to secrets with you, doesn’t it? I thought we’d agreed to be honest with one another. Clearly I was mistaken.” Cullen shook his head with an exasperated groan, fixing her with a steely stare. “I wanted to help you, no matter what you needed. How can I help you when I can’t even trust you to be straight with me?”

“I am sorry,” Kai apologised softly, realising what was to come would aggravate an already difficult situation. “Cullen...there’s...”

Cullen closed his eyes with a lengthy exhale. His expression revealed he guessed. “There’s more isn’t there?”

Kai nodded, seeing Cullen’s hand find the back of his neck, his nervous tick. She curbed the impulse to follow suit, and stilled her hand.

“I should have learnt by now,” he said as if to himself, glancing away.

Turning back, his expression was steady, and Kai realised his anger was now focused, intense, cold. Like this Cullen was harder to reach. She preferred it when his anger was hot, he would let rip and get it out of his system. As he was now, being careful and considered would simply make matters worse. He would assume she was being evasive. She had to be straightforward.

Kai kept her gaze steadfastly on him.

“When Estre and I separated…” she saw Cullen’s puzzled frown, “…that’s what Hope is called.” Kai explained, seeing him roll his eyes.

To Cullen, spirits were spirits, not individuals who had names. Only Cole was an exception owing to his dedication, and who, unlike her, had never shown himself to be dangerous. She, on the other hand, along with Estre, had only just avoided becoming a threat. His distrust was understandable.

“The separation, it wasn’t a clean break. Fragments of each other survive, of me in her and...she in me.”

“You’ve still...?” he exclaimed with exasperated incredulity. “Maker’s breath!”

“I’m not possessed, Cullen. She’s gone, you saw her. It’s only a few pieces, like echoes. A few slivers of hope in me, and some of my sense of humour in her.” His disapproval was evident. “You’re the only one I’ve told about this. Even Leliana doesn’t know. I had to tell her about everything else, in case...”

Cullen’s sharp scoff said it all. He understood why Leliana had to be told, but displeased at not being granted the same courtesy.

Kai quickly wound up. “Apart from you, only Cole knows because he sees it in me. He also understands I’m not a threat. If you don’t trust my words, you can ask him when he arrives.”

Cullen clearly expected more. But there was nothing. Everything she’d kept from him, he now knew.

“That’s all there is,” she announced. “I didn’t say anything at the time because I’d put you through more than enough with my decision, and...I was scared of losing you altogether.”

Cullen watched her with anger and revulsion. Kai felt in her heart he wasn’t seeing her anymore. She was no longer his wife or the woman he loved. She was the freak, the aberration she dreaded becoming in his eyes.

A small voice inside spoke. Did you honestly expect him to welcome you with open arms?

Kai was living the scenario she’d played repeatedly in her head, yet felt dislocated, as if she was observing someone else. Instead of the distress she expected to feel there was only numb emptiness inside, as though she spent so long reliving this moment she’d exhausted all emotion.

“I can’t undo what happened, Cullen. I can’t undo what I am. I understand this isn’t easy for you and I am genuinely sorry. I thought it was for the best at the time.”

“I assumed we’d simply lost touch with one another after being apart...” he remarked tersely. “But this...I don’t know what...” Cullen raised his hands and dropped them in a gesture of frustration.

The worst outcome was now reality and she had to face up to it. There was nothing left to be lost, and nothing to be gained by protracting the inevitable outcome. Kai straightened up and swallowed to clear her throat.

Her voice was emotionless in stark contrast to her words. “If you want an annulment, I’ll understand.”

Cullen turned aside, staring into the darkness. For a moment he didn’t move. Then he stood, still looking away, his voice tense and filled with emotion when he spoke.

“It comes so easily for you, doesn’t it?”

He confronted her, the hurt in his eyes unmistakable. “I wouldn’t have asked, Kai, even though you offered before. I never stopped loving you, perhaps deep down I hoped we had a chance in the future. But now...”

He rubbed his neck and drew a deep breath, steadying his voice.

“However shocked and angry I was, and there was no way I wouldn’t be, my wife would have waited for me to think things through, because my wife would have fought to the last. Even in her darkest moments, the woman I married never gave up if there was the tiniest chance.” A thread of sadness weaved into his final words. “I don’t know who you are.”

With that he strode away, leaving her staring after him as he disappeared back into the kitchen. I made it happen...he wouldn’t have... She faced her fear and in doing so, brought it to life.

The sound of voices punctured the stillness. Cullen and Mia. Not wanting to hear what they were saying, recognising it would be about her, Kai stood and silently wandered away from the house. The moon was full, large and particularly dazzling, allowing her to see. She recalled there was a brook some distance ahead, cutting across the pasture.

It wasn’t the flow of the sea, but it was all she had.

She needed to hear water flowing. She needed to remember when she used to feel so much, in the hope she would feel...something, anything to prove she wasn’t a hollow shell.

She walked until her feet encountered the bank of the brook, almost stumbling into it. Mechanically she sat down, pulled up the skirt of her dress revealing the dagger sheath strapped to her right calf, took off her shoes one by one and dangled her feet into the water. It was cold, sending a shiver down her back as she swept her feet from side to side.

The sensation bought back memories of the jetty where she and Lyssa would sometimes sit during their summer wanderings along the beach. Lyssa would sing little ditties she made up to whatever tune she’d heard. Sometimes they tended to be racy, as much as a ten year old could be at least. Ama caught Lyssa once singing one and tutted with a grin, declaring she would expect such words from Kai but was surprised at her supposedly level headed daughter.

Kai avoided singing; the voice that came out never seemed like her own. Now she had a reason why. Her life wasn’t her own.

She stared up at the luminous silver moon hanging heavy in the sky. It was so intense that when she looked down, the trees and bushes threw hazy shadows beneath them.

In the absence of light shadows thrive. It wasn’t always true; light itself could create shadows.

The words of the song she cherished seemed to lend themselves to this moment. The song Ama would sing to her, the song Leliana sang to her, the song Cullen sang to her. Now there was no one to sing it, except her. Somehow, fretting about the way she sang no longer seemed important. And the song would bring her comfort...she hoped.

For the first time in years, Kai started to sing.

“Shadows fall, and hope has fled, steel your heart, the dawn will come...”

Something strange happened as she sang. Word by word, line by line, the voice she’d felt didn’t belong to her, became her voice. Whether it was the song or the pure act of singing, she sensed her body binding with the soul she thought she merely carried...

 

When the Anchor threatened to take her life and time was running short, her last words to Solas were a question.

“Did you...do you know what I am?”

“Not before, but yes, I do know now. Likely that is how the orb was drawn to you.”

“How could it happen?”

Solas was measured in his response. “Spirits can reform, if the idea that created them is powerful enough or they’ve influenced others around them. Perhaps it is the same for human souls, although returning may be a more apt description in this case. After all, what is a spirit or a soul but energy.”

She believed he wasn’t telling her everything, but the immediacy of her situation left no more time.

What was it Leliana said? Perhaps now my friend will recall who she is, and learn not to be fixated on what she is.

 

It took her this long to understand.

She may never discover how this came about, and who she was before no longer really mattered. That person had lived their life, and this life was hers. She was Kai Rutherford and it was time she made peace with herself.

There had been too many sunsets, and nights filled with shadow. It was time for a dawn. It was time the sun’s crimson and amber tendrils snaked their way into the blue-black sky, drawing it aside like a curtain to let the light in.

“...look to the sky, for one day soon, the dawn will come.”

Scarcely had she finished singing when she heard footsteps behind her. Her hand reached down, slipping out the short blade from its sheath, her body reflexively readying for battle. She chided herself for being preoccupied, for missing the...his approach. Heavy, doubtless a man. Her senses were alerted to additional, lighter, footfalls. If they were determined she had little chance, but they’d damn well pay in blood before they took her down.

The voice of the former Inquisitor issued a warning.

“You might want to rethink your plan, I’m not as easy a target as you might imagine. Plus I’ve had a really shit day, and I might not extend the courtesy of leaving you alive.”

The footsteps halted. Kai heard a familiar voice.

“I imagine the numerous enemies you’ve left in your wake would attest to that,” Cullen observed.

Clearly she was in no danger, but surprised he was here. She turned to see him approach, Max and Izzy on either side. As he sat near her, Kai realised she was still holding the dagger, and quickly sheathed it. Cullen was frowning, although seemingly pensive rather than angry.

She knew his anger tended to flash and then ease, unless he was frustrated. Then it would simmer; a cause of many clashes between them before. She’d walk away for fear of escalating it, leaving him irritated and the matter unresolved. Their mutual annoyance would simply resurface in another bout at a later stage.

Izzy stayed beside Cullen while Max parked next to Kai, a gentle rumble in his throat as he squirmed against her. She nudged him back, guessing Max was how they found her. Kai couldn’t imagine why Cullen would want to even talk to her. Not after what she said to him.

“You’re always armed?” he asked, as much statement as question.

“Always. If not on me then in easy reach,” she explained. “Under my pillow or hanging on the side of the bath.”

“I see,” he replied, facing her. “You left yourself open though.”

“I know,” she conceded. “My mind was elsewhere. I should have been more careful.”

He nodded in agreement. “You will be next time.” His frown relaxed. “In all the time I’ve known you I don’t recall ever hearing you sing.”

“I don’t. It never sounded like me, or I thought it didn’t,” she sighed, shrugging. “Now...well...”

“Your voice, it’s...haunting...”

“Haunted might be more apt.”

He shook his head, lifting an eyebrow as he peered at her. “...haunting and beautiful. I was trying to pay you a compliment.”

“Ah.” She glanced down, reminding herself not to dive with a joke. “Thank you,” she added quietly.

He stared ahead thoughtful for a moment before speaking. “Do you want an annulment?”

She shook her head. “No. I...I thought you...”

If I did, I would have asked,” he stressed.

Kai darted her gaze away, embarrassed by her mistake in assuming it was what he would want. Her fear led her astray...again. She heard him sigh.

“To be honest, at first I wasn’t sure whether...” Cullen rubbed his neck and stretched it back, exhaling. “...look, it was a shock...finding out what...you are.”

“I know,” Kai nodded.

He took his hand away. “I was angry with you, and am still hurt that you kept secrets from me.”

“You have every right to be,” she said quietly.

“Perhaps so, Kai.” She saw regret in his eyes as he turned to her. “But...you’re not the only one keeping secrets. I berated you for doing exactly what I did, and that was unworthy of me. If you found the courage to tell me, then I can do no less.”

Concern gave way to curiosity, her brows wrinkling as she wondered what on earth he had to confess.

“When you were in the Fade, trapped with the demon...when you appeared in my dream...” he swallowed clearly uneasy. “...do you remember what was in my dream?”

All too well, she thought, unconsciously chewing her lip.

She urged the Hold spirits to find something that would hold him in a dream so she could reach him, and that’s what they latched onto. It was a surprise but shouldn’t have been unexpected. At the time, the danger they were all in took precedence over her feelings. She had to save them from the hunger demon, bring it out to allow the others to destroy it. Afterwards, she pushed the image aside. There was no point brooding on it, Cullen was leaving her.

“A family,” she answered.

Our family,” he corrected gently. “You, me, our daughter Ella, and...another child on the way.”

Kai’s eyebrows shot up, and her jaw fell. “I can’t have any, and you dream of two?” she exclaimed, her voice rising.

He glanced aside, and she heard the deep intake of breath before he faced her. “It wasn’t the first time, Kai,” he confessed, watching for her reaction. “...or the last.”

“How...long?” she managed to ask holding her expression steady.

“Since we married.”

Her hand shot up covering her mouth as she gaped at him. “You’ve wanted a family all this time...and you never said?” Her voice betrayed the blow she felt.

“Kai, listen to me. I appreciate we cannot have children and I accepted that. I still do.” He rubbed his forehead distractedly. She could see there was more. “But I do dream about it...and imagine what it might be like.”

“You never said,” she repeated, the words falling to a whisper.

His voice was reassuring as he sought to explain. “I thought it would hurt you if you knew, and you’d been through so much I couldn’t add to what you bore already. Kai, please believe me...it’s not the thought of having a family...it’s always been our family. It’s only ever been with you.”

It’s only ever been with you, she repeated to herself.

She stared at him, blinking. Then shock became sadness, and she shifted so he wouldn’t see the tears welling up. They trickled down her face, slowly and silently. He’d held this in, hiding it from her because he hadn’t wanted to hurt her, to add to the burden she carried.

“Kai,” he said softly, tentatively. “I’m sorry, I should have told you.”

“I am too, Cullen,” she replied, wiping her face, but the tears kept falling. “You should have been able to, I should have...” her voice cracked. I should have heard you.

Kai drew up her knees, wrapping her one arm around them and laying her head on them, the tears still running down her face. Just as she was empty before, desperate to feel, now she felt too much, a flood of emotions like a dam breaking and a torrent pouring in to fill the vacant space. Guilt, sadness, and worst of all, realisation that she’d been losing her husband long before he left her, excusing neglect by insisting they had too little time together and how her duty had to come first.

You always had a choice, a voice inside reminded her.

A warm body pressed comfortingly against her back and strong arms wrapped around her. He would do that when she was lost; he would hold her, silently letting her know he was there for her.

It was achingly familiar and desperately welcome. A relieved sigh escaped, sounding more like a gurgle as she wept. He kissed her head, and she couldn’t stop herself. She turned into his embrace, burying her head into his shoulder and holding onto him. He kissed her again, settling his face against her head.

She didn’t want him to let go ever again. She wanted, she needed her husband back. But not like it was before. Cullen was hurt too and yet again he was the one protecting her. It wasn’t right and it wasn’t fair. However vulnerable she was, he shouldn’t be the one to shoulder her instability.

The realisation bought her to her senses. If there was any hope of a future for them, it had to be on equal ground.

Kai took a deep breath and drew away, causing him to relax his hold. Cullen rested his arms on her waist, tilting his head, undoubtedly wondering what was happening as she smiled weakly. The tears subsided, and she dried her wet face seeing his shirt damp from where she laid her head.

Perhaps there was too much hurt to repair what they’d lost, but if she walked away from telling him how she felt, she would regret it for the rest of her life. If he didn’t want to, she would accept his decision. At least she was honest with him.

She looked him straight in the eyes, laying her heart on the line.

“I love you, Cullen, and want to be with you. What I’m asking is...would you give me a second chance?”

His eyes grew wide, clearly taken aback by her candour. She placed her hand on his chest, feeling the faint patter of his heartbeat, a little quicker than before.

“I can’t promise you an ordinary life, and I can’t say we won’t face danger and difficulty. We both know what’s coming. But I give you my solemn word, whatever choices or decisions there were to make, we would make them together. We found a friendship. It could be a foundation to build on...as equal partners.”

His hand rubbed the back of his neck, but he didn’t look apprehensive or reluctant, simply surprised.

“Well,” he exhaled. “I must admit I wasn’t expecting...”

“I understand I’m throwing this at you. All I ask is that you think on it.”

He narrowed his eyes in contemplation, quietly watching her. It was barely a moment when the reply came.

“Alright,” he nodded.

At least he didn’t say no, she thought.

Cullen cleared his throat. “Perhaps we should...um...head back? I daresay Mia will be waiting.”

“Ok,” Kai acknowledged.

He let go, and stood helping her up. Kai picked up her shoes.

“Aren’t you going to put those on?” he inquired, glancing at her shoes and her bare feet.

She shook her head, smiling, seeing the resigned eye roll. The four of them started to walk back. They’d only gone a little further when Kai screeched. A stabbing pain in her right heel brought her to a stop. She lifted her foot to see what she’d trod on, and would have over balanced if Cullen hadn’t caught her.

“What happened?”

“I think my right heel caught something. It was sharp.”

“It’s too dark to see. Hold onto me, let me see if I can feel anything.”

She held onto his shoulder, one foot in the air as he ran his finger over her heel. As soon as he touched the spot she caught, another sharp pain hit and Kai winced with a yelp.

Cullen exhaled. “You have something stuck in there, but I can’t tell what without better light. And clearly you can’t walk back.” As the thought occurred, the corner of his mouth lifted along with an eyebrow. “Well, there’s only one way then.” He bent down and grabbed her right arm.

“Cullen, you don’t have to...”

“Keep your left arm out of the way,” he warned, ignoring her protestation. “Ready?”

Kai moved her arm. “Yes.”

Cullen stood, hoisting Kai over his over his shoulder, her head hanging over his back and her legs dangling in front. Kai spotted Izzy watching, head cocked and what seemed suspiciously like a grin as she panted. Cullen held onto her legs, and resumed walking with Kai bouncing on his shoulder as he strode along, Izzy and Max following on.

The two of them with their mabari, she reflected.

It wasn’t exactly reconciliation, it may never be as husband and wife, but at least they’d cleared the air between them. Whatever came would be on a more honest footing.

“Cullen,” she called, her voice shaking from the movement.

“What?”

“I’m glad you came to find me.”

He halted, holding her legs a little tighter. “I know too well how secrets can fester and develop into more than they should. Letting them go is half the battle, the rest is repairing what’s left behind. Someone once told me ‘bad things don’t like the light'. That person offered me a foundation to build upon, to repair the damage done. I’d like to return the help...if they want me to that is.” He waited for her answer.

He wasn’t suggesting a rescue or a shoulder to lean on, but a helping hand if she fell. She instinctively recognised what he meant.

“They would welcome being helped up off their arse,” she accepted gratefully, a smile breaking out.

Kai didn’t have to see Cullen to sense he was smiling too. His shoulders flexed and straightened.

“Right then.” He patted her thigh. “Let’s get you back and see what you’ve managed to pick up this time.”

“Besides a handsome Fereldan,” shot out, voicing what was supposed to be a thought in her head. “Oh!” she gasped. “That was...”

“...a compliment, I believe,” he coughed.

She thought she heard him covering up a laugh, but said nothing. He continued heading back to the house, and Kai kept silent the rest of the way. The only sound she made was the noise of her amulet and wedding ring clinking together as he strode on.

When Cullen stepped through the door with her over his shoulder, she heard Mia chortle.

“It seems your time with the Avvar had an indelible effect, brother. Maker, you didn’t need to drag her bodily back.”

Cullen groaned. “I didn’t. She’s got something stuck in her foot.”

Concern replaced the levity in Mia’s voice. “Let me see.”

Cullen bent down allowing Kai to stand on her good foot, still holding on to keep her steady. The scrape of a chair leg behind Kai indicated Mia was moving a chair there.

“Sit here, Kai,” she directed.

Cullen let go, taking her hand to help her sit. Another chair was brought forward and Kai lifted her right leg onto it. Cullen and Mia bent down peering at her foot then exchanged glances.

“What is it?” Kai asked worriedly.

“Part of a rusty nail, and we need to get it out.” Mia looked up at her. “Does it not hurt you?”

“Not much, but I took another draught as a precaution before we left. I had a bad spell of pain earlier on.”

Cullen looked a little worried, and she had to admit it was a lot of potions in a short space of time.

“Well, it’ll help when we remove it,” Mia replied. “Lucky for you I keep plenty of supplies, but I just need to find something to take the nail out with.”

Kai watched as she gathered alcohol, bandages, clean cloth and what looked like elfroot ointment, before disappearing to search for the ‘something’.

Cullen lifted her leg and sat on the chair, resting it on his lap. “I think we should take off your blade, if you’ll allow me.”

Kai nodded and he pushed up the skirt of her dress to her knees and unbuckled the sheath, placing it on the table. She noticed his expression sadden.

“What you have to do to stay safe...” He shook his head. “All the things you’ve lived through and still you have no peace. It doesn’t seem fair, Kai.”

“This is my life, Cullen,” she responded with a sigh. “Knowing what you do now, do you imagine it would ever have been anything other than what it is?”

“Perhaps not, but don’t you ever wish things were different? Don’t you ever wonder what your life might have been like if you weren’t...?

“Sometimes, but it wouldn’t have been me,” she declared.

“True,” he conceded. “But it would have been yours...it...”

Kai gently interrupted. “Perhaps everything that happened was meant to...”

She saw his questioning smile at her admission and shrugged. She’d constantly railed against the idea of destiny in the past, so hearing those words from her was strange.

“...but I’ve always had a choice on how I react. Sometimes I’ve been right, sometimes I’ve been wrong. Regardless of how this came about, I’m only human...” she sighed, “...and fallible.”

He chuckled at her assertion. “Far be from me to contradict you.”

She smiled. “Cullen...whatever else I might wish could have been different, there’s one thing I’ll never regret...”

“What’s that?” he asked, his eyes finding hers.

Her smile widened. “...meeting you.”

Cullen’s smile grew into a smirk. “Me neither,” he answered, resting his hand on her leg and caressing it with his thumb.

It was meant to be a gesture of affection. Yet as their gazes remained locked on each other, something shifted between them. A physical reaction to the contact, and awareness that whatever else had changed, the attraction to one another was unaltered. It was a dilemma for them back in the Basin, and still clearly unresolved.

Mia’s arrival broke the hold neither of them could. They turned to see her wielding a large pair of tweezers.

“Right,” she announced. “Let’s get cracking, shall we?”

Cullen moved Kai’s leg off his lap and stood up, allowing Mia to take his place. Breaking their contact gave Kai a chance to recover her senses.

“Cullen, can you bring that lamp over?” Mia requested, with only a quick glance at the dagger sheath before she examined Kai’s foot.

Cullen brought it over, moving the sheath and setting the lamp on the table. He stood beside Mia, watching what she did. After a few minutes spent trying to obtain a firm grip on the nail, Mia finally managed to tug it out. A short, sharp pain and it was over. She carefully cleaned the wound, put on some ointment and dressed it lightly to protect it.

“Try not to put weight on your heel, give the wound a chance to knit,” Mia advised. “With the ointment, it should be on the way by morning.”

“Thank you,” Kai nodded gratefully.

Mia patted her leg and smiled. “You get into more scrapes than most children do.”

“I’ve had longer to practice,” Kai joked, grinning back.

“Always with an answer,” Mia chuckled.

Cullen rolled his eyes. “You don’t know the half of it, sister.”

Mia glanced between Kai and Cullen, a quiet smirk passing over her face. She stood, setting Kai’s foot back on the chair and busied herself gathering the items on the table.

“Oh yes,” Mia remarked as if recalling something she overlooked. “As all the other rooms were accounted for, I’ve set up a couple of cots for you two in the front parlour.”

“What?!” came Kai and Cullen’s exclamations, darting worried looks at each other before turning to Mia.

Mia gave a heavy groan and shook her head. “Maker, give me strength! It’s no wonder someone else had to shove the two of you together in the first place.” She set down the items on the table and faced them with a weary expression.

“If you two were left to your own devices, whatever progress you made would come to a shuddering stop.” Mia peered from one to the other with a look only an older sister would adopt. “You’re obviously talking to each other, don’t let it drift now. The next few days you’ll be busy working. But here, tonight, you have a chance to consider what you both want. Don’t waste it.

Cullen moved to object, but Mia held up her hand to check him, and pointed in the direction of the front parlour before turning her back on them. Evidently the discussion was over. Kai saw Cullen exhale, his shoulders slump slightly submitting to his sister’s determination. She had to marvel at Mia’s skill in manoeuvring her siblings. It was an impressive ability, clearly refined over the years. It was no wonder their parents gave Mia the duty of safeguarding her siblings and not solely because she was the oldest.

Cullen walked over to Kai and held out his hand, helping her up. “Here,” he offered, “put your arm over my shoulder.”

She did as instructed, and Cullen wrapped his arm around her waist. He gestured ahead and she nodded to confirm she was ready. Whether it was because they weren’t alone or if the earlier excitement had lessened, this time the sensation wasn’t as intense.

Walking out of the kitchen, they heard Mia chuckle. “Besides, what else could you get up to on cots?”

“Maker’s breath!” Cullen groaned.

Kai couldn’t help snorting a snigger, grateful not see Cullen’s response as he was on her blind side.

They made their way to the front parlour, Cullen closing the door behind them, and then helping Kai to one of the cots. Barely had she sat down, than it collapsed beneath her. Momentarily stunned she looked up at Cullen, his eyes wide.

“Are you alright?” he questioned. She nodded.

An memory popped into her head and Kai started to laugh, seeing Cullen smile at her mirth.

“I haven’t heard you laugh like that for...ohh...” He suddenly realised what was she was thinking.

He sat beside her on the collapsed cot, nudging her “We’re just missing a tent.”

“And you halfway out of your breeches,” she teased with a wink.

His smile widened. “I believe it then went something like this.” He tucked his arm around her.

“And then like this,” she replied, settling her hand on his arm.

Both laughed at how silly they were being. It was unsurprising they evoked that night so easily; it was the first time they realised, albeit separately, they felt something more than friendship for one another.

The laughter slowly eased, leaving them gazing at each other. Kai felt warmth in her belly again and by the look in his eyes, Cullen felt the same. He shifted slightly, resting his hand on her cheek. Her heart picked up in pace.

“There’s much to mend between us, but...” He took a breath and exhaled. “...we can at least try, and see where this goes.”

She needed him to be certain; that he wasn’t just doing this for her. “Cullen, are you...?”

His thumb brushed over her lips, stopping her. “I want to.”

“I want to...too,” she whispered, wondering if this time she’d stumbled into a dream.

“To too?” Cullen chuckled at her awkward reply. “The woman of words clearly cannot string a sentence together.”

“Because you overwhelm me, Cullen,” Kai grinned, only partially joking.

He leaned closer, his breath flowing over her mouth when he asked. “Do I?”

“Yes,” she breathed in, no longer joking.

“So...easily,” he smirked.

His lips found hers, capturing the sigh. After months apart it wasn’t surprising the kiss swiftly deepened, becoming passionate; the longing for one another never left them.

But the bond between them was never just sex. Nor did they rely on one another to feel complete. They’d lived without each another before the Inquisition, and for months since he left. Their bond was the companionship they shared; the laughter, the long conversations whether serious or silly, and the feeling of his body against hers. Life was always...more...together, however easy or difficult it could be.

Their first kiss, years earlier, was full of anticipation. This second, first kiss was also filled with all they’d been through together as well as all they’d missed being apart. It was comfort and contentment, love and desire, yet above all else, it was open and hopeful. It was a beginning, a chance, not simply to locate what was lost, but to discover something new.

There had been days she would drown in his kiss. This time Kai felt the flow of the sea when Cullen kissed her.

Chapter Text

No one had ever made him feel like Kai did and no one responded to him like her. Their bond went beyond mere sex. It was a sensual intimacy of one another’s bodies, and comfort in knowing they could be lost in one another for those moments they were together. Now as they kissed, he wanted that contact again, he wanted her. The little noises she made, the way she pressed against him as he held her, how the scent of sandalwood grew more marked as her body warmed with desire. She was both invitation and surrender.

But however good it would feel, and he knew it would be, Cullen understood they were moving too fast. If they didn’t stop now, any lingering sense would be subsumed in their hunger for each other. Much as he wanted her and she him, charging headlong down a path they’d scarcely begun to walk might lead them to echo the mistakes of the past. They had a second chance and couldn’t ruin it for lack of forethought.

Nor did he wish their first time to be on a flattened cot in his sister’s front parlour.

Apart for so long, what on earth did you imagine would happen when you kissed her?

Cullen slowly drew away, seeing Kai’s eye blink open, initially confused then understanding why he checked them.

He sought to be gentle, his voice slightly breathless. “Kai, we shouldn’t...”

“I know,” she said faintly, glancing aside. He could hear her breathing quickened. “We should...talk? I suppose neither of us was actually open with one another.”

“I suppose not,” he conceded.

Cullen hadn’t seen it that way when she confessed; all he saw was her secrecy, berating her for precisely what he’d been doing for much longer. Later, he appreciated some of the anger he directed at Kai was likely for his own guilt. Seeing how hurt she was by his admission, at first he feared he’d forced her deeper into whatever lonely place she stumbled into. What he didn’t foresee was her lack of anger. Clearly Kai was more forgiving than he.

Cullen always accepted they couldn’t have children. From the moment Kai told him, he knew ‘what he was getting’. Only when Corypheus was gone, and their future together settled when they married, was there a chance consider more than mere survival.

It was then the dreams began, and the idle speculations, developing into a fully fledged imagining of how their future might have been, if things were different. He understood it would never be, yet in his dreams it was real. His hands resting on the swell of his wife’s belly, hers resting on his, knowing that inside was a life they created together. Their child.

And his secret. One he kept hidden for fear of hurting her, and adding to an increasingly strained relationship.

Cullen never spoke of it until Mia asked him how he felt about not having a family. In turn, Mia finally confirmed something he long suspected, she couldn’t have children either. That was when she told him about Edwin. By then he and Kai were apart, and Cullen considered it best to leave the matter unsaid. There seemed little to gain and much to lose by heaping more hurt into a situation where they’d garnered the best outcome they could.

Mia. His sister had an uncanny knack of seeing the whole picture when the individuals concerned could not. Left to his own devices he might have been still sitting in the kitchen brooding, not aware Kai was missing.

 

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Cullen trudged into the kitchen, scowling as he slumped into a chair. Mia sat at the table drinking tea, with a look of resigned concern.

“I’m guessing here, but you two are talking,” she observed.

“That’s what you call it?” he snapped. “Try a lie of omission, and you might be closer to the truth.”

“Does she feel the same?” Mia inquired, watching him sadly.

Cullen jerked his head back, perplexed at her question. “What do you mean?”

A quizzical frown passed over her face. She leant forward. “She’s not the only one keeping secrets...is she Cullen?

“I’m not...” he objected then faltered, suddenly understanding.

Cullen looked down, his resentment waning, recognising he was guilty of the same thing, secrecy. Blinded by his anger he’d raged at Kai for her hypocrisy, and hurt by her offer of an annulment he lashed out.

Mia waited for him to calm, then placed her hand on his. Her voice was compassionate, yet there was no mistaking the instruction.

“Cullen, I told her and I’m telling you...get it all out in the open. The two of you have come to a fork in the road, two possibilities ahead of you. If you find you wish to try again then do it knowing you’ve been honest with one another. Should you both agree it won’t work...better the wounds now than dragging it out.” She patted his hand. “Go back and tell her.”

“Mia, she’ll be...” he sighed.

“...hurt and angry?” Mia finished the words hard for him to express. “Remember what Ma used to say...don’t hand out what you’re not willing to accept.”

Mia gestured to the back door and Cullen nodded. He scolded Kai for her actions, and had to take whatever she said, however difficult it was. Heading outside, he found Kai was nowhere to be seen. Cullen looked around calling to her repeatedly, but there was no reply. She was gone, and he couldn’t imagine to where. A panicky, sick feeling grew in his gut.

Mia came outside, evidently wondering what was happening. “Cullen?”

The words sounded flat as he spoke. “She’s gone.”

“Gone?” Mia repeated, worry flashing across her face before fixing her expression.

“Maker,” he murmured, scrunching his eyes as he remembered his last words to Kai.

Cullen’s hand found the back of his neck. What possessed me to say that to her?

He knew full well what; frustration, hurt and rage. Clearly she didn’t seem willing to give him a chance to think, or to fight to keep him. Was everyone else more deserving of her determination than he was?

Thinking about it now, had he made her believe it was what he wanted? What if she’d been anticipating a rejection all this time, his words confirming her fears?

His sister was the picture of calmness. “Cullen?”

He groaned. “I may have been somewhat...”

“Fierce?” Mia suggested sympathetically. “You were the same as a child. Quick to anger if you felt something was wrong or unfair.”

He shrugged his admission. “I may have been a little more than that.” Cullen sighed heavily. “Kai said she would understand if I wanted an annulment.” Mia’s eyebrows lifted. “I accused her of not trying...I said...” he paused, “I said, I don’t know who you are.

Mia puffed out a brief stunned breath. “Oh...I see. Based on her current state of mind, perhaps that wasn’t the...”

“I know,” Cullen groaned. “I wasn’t thinking...I...just reacted."

Mia, pragmatic as ever, stepped in with a solution. “Fetch Max,” she urged, “he’ll find her.”

Cullen nodded, praying his words hadn’t pushed her over the edge. He doubted she would do anything rash, she promised him she wouldn’t. But he feared she would wander too far and become lost, literally lost as well as emotionally. And out there alone, anything could happen to her.

Maker, did she even have the means to defend herself if she got into trouble?

Mia walked up to him, brushing his arm comfortingly. “Find her and tell her. She needs to know, Cullen. Whatever she’s going through right now, the worst will be remorse for hurting you again and she’s carrying enough already.” She smiled softly. “You’ll feel better for letting it go too.”

“Alright,” he acknowledged.

“One further piece of advice,” she offered. “You’re all behaving as if she’s fragile. She may be vulnerable and lost, but fragile? Never.” Mia shook her head. “She’s never needed rescuing, Cullen, only a helping hand.” Mia gave his arm an encouraging squeeze. “Go.”

Cullen kissed Mia on the cheek. “Thank you,” he said gratefully.

“You can pay me back in babysitting duties,” she teased, causing Cullen to let out a nervous chuckle.

He went inside, quietly fetching Max and Izzy while the rest of them still dozed, oblivious to the drama playing out. Cullen had to bring Kai back safe, and not just for her sake, or so they could talk. If something happened to her, he’d be facing the wrath of the Divine and her Right Hand. That was something he had no wish to experience.

Once outside he instructed Max to seek out Kai and the three of them headed off, Izzy and him following Max.

 

-------------------------------------------------------

Cullen stared at his wife, safe in his arms as they sat on the collapsed cot. He honestly didn’t know how this would end, whether they would be able to move past all that took place, but he was positive he wanted to try. And he was absolutely convinced Kai did. Although distant and quiet when offering an annulment, she was the polar opposite when appealing for another chance, energetic and determined.

When he agreed to think on her offer, he sensed something shift inside her. He couldn’t explain what it was, other than as if a flicker of light suddenly emerged, like an ember glowing when a breeze blew over it. As she stared at him, he felt it still there, and couldn’t help but smile.

“What?” she asked.

“You still are the most impossible woman,” Cullen said, intending to make her smile.

Instead she became serious, and for a moment he feared he’d misread her. When she spoke he was relieved to discover she was only thinking.

“I know.” Kai sighed and stared down, sweeping her fingers distractedly over his forearm. “You probably have questions.” She looked up. “Ask me anything you want, Cullen. Whatever I know, I’ll tell you.”

Confronted with such an offer he was unsure where to start, because he genuinely didn’t know what to think. Yet no matter what she was, who she was hadn’t changed. She was still Kai.

Cullen recalled Cassandra musing on Kai’s significance, and guessed Leliana had told her. He also supposed Kai was unaware Cassandra knew. With the two of them separated, it was unsurprising Leliana would seek someone else to look out for Kai, and protect her if need be. Because if news somehow leaked out about her condition she would doubtless need protection. The knowledge a soul had returned from the Fade would demolish the belief they never came back, unless as shades or ghosts, and that those that didn’t reach the Maker were forever lost in the Void. She would be in grave danger if it ever became public.

In Cassandra’s position, Cullen would have made provision for Kai’s safety, and he assumed Cassandra would have as well. A discussion with his friend was decidedly in order.

“Cullen?” Kai called, sounding uneasy, likely worried by his silence.

Cullen realised he was frowning. “Just thinking where to start,” he assured her with a smile.

She calmed, blinking an acknowledgement. “Alright.” With her single eye he couldn’t help thinking it resembled more of a slow wink. It was the same with Bull.

There was one issue he had an answer to now, the true reason for all those tomes she procured

“So...the books on magic were to...?” he ventured.

Kai nodded. “To research how it...l...could come about.” She sighed. “There was nothing, but I did learn some technical aspects of magic in the process. Not everything depends on actually being a mage, you know. I struggled on my own, so I...drafted in Dagna to help me.”

“Dagna?” Cullen questioned. “You didn’t...?”

Kai shook her head. “No. I just told her I wanted to learn more of magic, lyrium, spirits and the Fade after all our strange experiences. She knows so much already, but the books broadened her knowledge further. We both benefited. I gave them to her as thanks.” She shrugged. “They weren’t any use to me anymore.”

She flexed her fingers absentmindedly. “I did find sketchy hints and obscure references...elsewhere.”

“Such as?” Cullen inquired.

Kai stared at him earnestly. “In the Chant of Light.”

“What?” he exclaimed, his astonishment showing. “Where?”

“ ‘Here lies the abyss, the well of all souls. In these emerald waters does life begin anew,’ ” she recited. “From Canticle of Andraste.”

Cullen was sceptical. “Kai, I’m not exactly the person to debate particulars of the Chant with you, but I think you’re reaching here.”

Kai peered at him. “I talked with Mother Andrea and she told me of a group, the Cult of Spirits, who believed that passage spoke of reincarnation.”

“A cult, Kai? Really?” Cullen remarked dismissively. “Haven’t you had more than enough of cults?”

“I know,” she sighed, rolling her eye. “But there’s so little out there. I tried to research whatever seemed promising, wherever it led. Most were dead ends, some too daft even to contemplate.” She stared down, her fingers rubbing his arm as she bit her lip.

“There was something...more substantial.” Kai faced him, her gaze wary.

He recognised she was warning him, you might not like this.

Cullen cleared his throat, raising an eyebrow in acceptance. “I get it. Just...tell me.”

She offered an appreciative smile. “The Avvar have a belief that some souls are destined to return. The Augur reads the signs at birth, and on their death an offering of a Fade-touched animal is placed under the body when it’s given a sky burial. That way part of the soul remains, allowing the rest to return in a new body.”

“I grant you they have knowledge we did not imagine possible,” he cautiously conceded. “But that does not mean everything they believe is reliable. Much of it is quite frankly foolish...if not dangerous.”

Cullen respected the Avvar they met in Stone-Bear and Black-Wolf holds. They were straightforward, sensible and brave people who endured a hard existence to live where they were, a life laced through with a sense of humour that grounded them. What he remained uncomfortable with was some of their practices; living cheek by jowl with spirits and allowing mages to be possessed.

Yet he’d done something he never imagined he would have before their time in the Basin. When Sigrid asked him to accompany her he initially declined, yet she stubbornly persisted.

 

“Why me?” Cullen questioned, his hand rubbing his neck. “Surely there are...”

“So you can see, and Arrken says you are one of the best warriors he has known,” Sigrid asserted.

Cullen remained resistant, which Sigrid clearly spotted. She stepped up to him, pulling down her hood.

“Avvar-Friend, you told me Templars protect mages too,” Sigrid claimed, quoting his own words back at him. “If one of the gurguts strays too near during my ritual would I also not require protection?”

Cullen realised then he’d been outmanoeuvred by a teenage girl using his own reasoning. He reluctantly agreed, standing guard as Sigrid made her preparations and then began the ritual. He didn’t know how old Sigrid was, but guessed possibly sixteen or seventeen, barely more than a handful of years older than Cassie. The strain on her was evident, but she continued the incantation.

And he stood there watching, the idea came to him, like illumination. Cullen knew immediately it was a difficult concept and was doubtful if it could ever gain acceptance outside of the Avvar. Or indeed if it was safe for the people who had willingly helped them to have the outside world know what they did.

If the Avvar could banish spirits, what would that mean for possessed mages elsewhere? With the Templar Order virtually gone, what solution was there should the worst occur? With this knowledge, mages could actually be helped rather than killed. Especially young mages like Cassie. It would break his heart to see something happen to Cassie. Her ambitions were no different to his at the same age, and he could identify with her desire to help people. He couldn’t imagine a better role model to inspire others.

Cullen heard a cry, and saw the spirit was out. Sigrid slumped to her knees, exhausted from the effort. He moved to help her, but she raised her hand, signalling she was alright. The spirit floated before her as Sigrid got back onto her feet.

She bowed her head respectfully, just as any mage would to their human teacher. “Thank you, I will be ever grateful for all you have taught me.”

The female voice which answered sounded patient and kind, just as Sigrid claimed. “You are no longer just a pupil, but never forget...if you imagine you know everything...”

“...you have learnt nothing,” Sigrid completed. “I promise I shall not forget.”

“Be well, child,” the spirit responded with affection before fading away.

Sigrid took a deep breath and straightened her posture, then turned to face him.

“It feels quiet now,” she revealed with a hint of sorrow, answering a question he hadn’t asked. She nodded to him. “Thank you, Avvar-Friend.”

She proved possession could be reversed and did not invariably mean madness or death. Even though he knew this could be a solution, Cullen also realised such knowledge could be misused. If possession could be reversed, no doubt some would exploit it, using the power of spirits for their own ends.

Only a year ago they defeated Corypheus, and there were still those who yearned for a resurgent Tevinter. Not to mention they killed a dragon made significantly more powerful with the spirit of Hakkon inside it. The potential solution to an old problem was even trickier than he first imagined, and right then he didn’t have an answer.

Cullen turned his attention to Sigrid as she wandered over to him, her jaw set, seeking to look more assured than she was likely feeling. He had seen what she wanted him to see, but more significantly he saw how a lonely young girl found the courage to overcome her fear and let go of her only friend.

 

He was reminded again of the words of a lay sister in Greenfell. Some of the clerics there spouted platitudes at him; intended to console, yet bereft of real compassion. This young woman sat with him, looked into his eyes and spoke to him.

“The true measure of a person is revealed by how they deal with adversity,” she told him. “Everyone stumbles at some stage in their life. Some fall never to rise again, and some rise and charge on forgetting. But those who rise and recognise why they stumbled, they learn they can recover the next time they do.”

At the time he wasn’t thinking clearly and assumed she was talking nonsense. Only later did he understand. Surviving the worst was only the first stage. Being able to continue, to not slip back, took determination and inner strength. And sometimes it took letting go of what you loved.

Cullen noticed Kai watching him, patiently waiting while his mind strayed. What was she saying? Cullen smiled to reassure her as he sought to remember.

“In Ostwick,” she began, seeing he was listening. “Lys and I learned we have an Avvar ancestor.”

Cullen’s gaze widened. That might explain why she resembled the Avvar. Even Ragnar thought Kai ‘carried their blood’. Maybe she carried a lot more than their blood.

“Do you think it’s...you’re...?”

“Her?” Kai shrugged. “Probably not. This was three hundred years ago, in the middle of a war, and she converted to marry a Fereldan. Somehow I doubt Andrastians would have carried out an Avvar ritual on her death.”

“Quite,” Cullen coughed.

“Apart from the story about her,” Kai went on, “the only other things we have are the Avvar word for mother, Ama, and an Avvar tale, both passed down the female line.” She smiled. “Lys resolved to carry it on when we found out. It may take a while for the girls to get used to calling her Ama. But at least one of us can...”

Cullen saw her face crumple as she stalled. He had an inkling what was coming, and gathered her to him. Kai leaned into him, and he felt her breathe in and exhale slowly, an action she would perform to steady herself.

“Have you...do you...ever wish we could?” she questioned hesitantly.

Kai had never asked so directly, and he couldn’t trot out the same response as he usually did. He never lied, but likewise never said what he really thought.

“Sometimes,” he revealed, seeing her head droop.

He placed his fingers under her chin, bringing her up to face him. Instead of hurt, he saw resigned sadness, and sensed she might be ready to talk. However difficult, he knew both needed to address it.

“As have you,” Cullen reminded her. “The difference is you voiced it. I thought if I told you, it would make things worse between us.”

She was about to apologise and he softly shushed her. “Kai, we both appreciate the distinction between wishing and reality.” He smiled reassuringly. “We may have quarrelled about other things, but never that, because we both understood it was a given.”

“That’s true,” she acknowledged, seemingly encouraged by his words.

It was sufficient to produce an opportunity, to try to help her see that thinking about a family was just that. Purely an imagined idea and no reflection on her.

Cullen stroked her cheek. “Besides,” he said, with an upturn in the corner of his mouth, “you do realise any child of ours would doubtless be exceptionally stubborn, if you and I are anything to go by.”

A slight smile of recognition broke through. “Maker, can you imagine?” she remarked, biting her lip. “She’d be an infant battering ram.”

Cullen could imagine, noting how Kai said ‘she’, obviously alluding to the child he dreamt of. He hadn’t expected her to latch on so swiftly, and took the opportunity to press her a little further.

“Worse than that,” Cullen added, seeing curiosity win over. “A canny infant battering ram if she took after her mother.”

“More like her clever father I think,” Kai insisted, smiling affectionately at him. “Who always knows what to do with his hopeless wife.”

And there it was. Acknowledgement and acceptance of what he sought to do.

Cullen raised an eyebrow. “Not always, but enough. After all, I’ve had plenty of practice with said hopeless wife.”

Kai’s mouth opened in an O before she narrowed her gaze, a glint in her eye as she tried to subdue the smile.

“Cullen Rutherford! Is that any way...”

Her reproach faltered as he smirked at her, making her laugh. A wonderful, rich, melodious laugh that burrowed its way down to his very soul.

Cullen knew it would take time for Kai to heal and find herself again, but hearing her laugh told him there was a strong chance she could. He found his redemption with her, and if he could offer Kai the same foundation, he would willingly do that for her, regardless of what they had to repair between them.

Because even though they all had to be ready to face what was to come, Kai especially needed to be prepared. Cassandra was correct in identifying they would have to call on her based on what Solas had planned. Even though he didn’t like the concept, he understood she was a symbol of hope. The Divine held influence and authority, but Kai held something far more persuasive. The Herald of Andraste held sway in the hearts of those who knew her and those she saved, and could rally people like no other.

And who better to offer her assistance than someone who had stumbled himself, and had plenty of practice picking her up off her arse.

Handy considering, Cullen reflected.

Suddenly he heard a humming noise, and saw Kai shuffle to sit up, her hand on the amulet hanging around her neck.

“At this time of night, he’s probably drunk, annoyed or troubled,” she sighed. “Or potentially any combination of the three.”

“Who is?” Cullen questioned, following her movement as she pressed the side of the amulet, opening it to reveal a pulsating blue crystal inside. “And what is that?” He pointed at the crystal.

“A sending crystal,” she answered. “I’ll explain later. He’ll worry if I don’t make contact.”

She touched it and a slightly slurred, familiar voice issued from the crystal.

“Hello, darling,” Dorian drawled effusively.

“Hello, sweetie,” Kai cooed in reply.

“Sweetie?” Cullen mouthed, seeing her shrug and mouth back, “codewords.” He nodded an acknowledgement.

“Well, now that’s over with,” Dorian went on, his tone less theatrical. “How are you?”

Kai stared at Cullen, a grin breaking out. “I’m in Ferelden.”

“Oh, that’s...” Dorian stalled and proclaimed loudly, “OHHH...of course. Silly me. I take from your tone you’ve seen him. Tell me, does he still have that shockingly delectable arse?”

Kai sought to stifle a giggle as Cullen leant closer, smirking. “I’m rather well, Dorian. How are you?”

A momentary silence met his words, then smooth as ever Dorian came back. “Hello, Cullen. I’m working getting inebriated with some relish.” A raucous chortle broke through. “So tell me...what are you two doing together so late at night? I haven’t interrupted anything...have I?” His final words dripped with insinuation.

“We were talking,” Kai responded emphatically.

“Is that a euphemism? I bet it is,” Dorian teased. “You two always did have your little code. I do recall requirements being a particularly fond...”

Cullen felt his face warm as Dorian exaggerated the word. To this day he had no idea how Dorian found out what it meant. Kai spotted his reaction and quickly dived in.

“Dorian, I take it you had a reason for getting in touch?” she suggested sweetly.

“Did I?” he mused. “Yes I did...I have some good news. The Lucerni have enlisted two more members of the Magisterium to their ranks, although that probably sounds grander than it actually is.” He gave a heavy sigh, his voice fading a little as if turning aside. “Sadly their capacity for alcohol does not appear to match their enthusiasm. The two of them are lying comatose on the floor of this exquisite villa as we speak.”

His voice returned to the previous volume. “Oh, and Maevaris sends her love. She’s off liberating more of the good stuff from the wine cellar, though I fear we’ve probably demolished most of it already to celebrate.”

“I always knew you could do this, Dorian,” Kai announced proudly.

“What, get drunk?” Dorian laughed.

“That too,” Kai chuckled. “Though I suspect that’s merely an ancillary talent to your true ability. My dear friend always had the potential to be an inspirational leader. He just needed to discover it in himself.”

“Flattery, I love it,” Dorian sighed contentedly. “Cullen, your wife has both a laconic wit and a sweet tongue. And I adore both. She keeps me going, and in return I make sure she keeps doing that.”

Although said jokingly, Cullen sensed the sincerity behind Dorian’s claim. Like Kai, Dorian often couched what mattered to him in humour. Away from his friends and Bull, it couldn’t be easy giving up the support he found in recent years. Cullen knew from Kai what Maevaris and Dorian hoped to achieve with their fledgling faction. It was a tall order and he was glad Dorian had at least one person in Tevinter who he could trust.

“I’ll always be here for you, Dorian,” she assured him earnestly then lightening her tone. “After all, it’s such a pretty amulet, I wouldn’t dream of taking it off.”

“Always with an answer,” Dorian remarked. “Though I doubt your wits would remain as sharp without the assistance of yours truly.”

“How would I know? You never give me a chance to find out,” Kai teased, winking at Cullen.

“That prod is undoubtedly a hint you miss me. Humour as a rebuke. Well, perhaps I’ll find some time to visit. Clearly things are afoot there and I do hate missing out.” There was a lull and the sound of drinking before Dorian continued. “So...you two...talking...together?”

Kai looked at Cullen questioningly, and he blinked a yes. She beamed and he couldn’t help smiling.

She repeated his words to her like it was a mantra. “We’re going to try, and see where it goes.”

An enthusiastic ‘YES!’ resounded from the crystal, followed by the noise of glass shattering.

“Oh dear,” Dorian voiced quietly. “I appear to have wrecked someone’s family heirloom. Don’t worry, I’ll blame on them. I doubt they’ll remember who they are, let alone what they’ve done.”

Their laughter joined in with his, eventually easing back.

“I’m truly happy for you both.” Cullen could hear the delight in Dorian’s voice. “Circumstances aside, you two are stronger together. Call it...synergy, the whole being more than the sum of its parts. You were like a rare oasis the rest of us would come and rejuvenate ourselves at...when you weren’t squabbling of course....”

“Point taken,” Cullen coughed. “But people don’t live in a fairytale, Dorian. Sometimes they...”

“...get a second chance. So take some advice from an old friend. Do not fuck it up or I’ll set Bull on you. Trust me, his bite is nothing compared to his bark.” Dorian laughed heartily at his own joke. “Bark, get it? Rather appropriate since you two have mutts of your own.”

“They’re mabari, not mutts,” Cullen groaned.

“Very well, mabari,” Dorian acquiesced reluctantly. “That was a wasted joke. Clearly I’m too drunk or you’re too sober.”

“Dorian!” Kai called.

“Hmm?”

“I don’t think either of us wants to fuck it up this time,” Kai told him candidly. Cullen shook his head.

“Good, and don’t think I won’t hold you to that,” Dorian insisted. There was a pause then he asked. “When...did you decide?”

“Tonight, just before we spoke with you,” Cullen told him.

Dorian gave an amused hum. “So I’m the first to find out?”

Cullen exchanged glances with Kai, wondering why Dorian wanted to know. “Err...yes.”

A satisfied chortle answered Cullen. “He assumed he’d be the first. For all his fancy training, he never bargained on drunken happenstance. Fate is occasionally kind.”

The distant noise of bottles clinking could be heard.

“Doubly so in my case,” Dorian laughed. “Maevaris returns with the spoils of her looting.”

The voice that answered Dorian sounded a little deeper than most female voices, but it wasn’t surprising. “Are you still gossiping, Dorian?”

“Absolutely!” Dorian insisted. “And I’ve just discovered Kai and Cullen are back together. How about that?"

“Really!?” Maevaris exclaimed. “Your Amatus will be pissed when he finds out how much...”

She was cut short by a hurried Dorian. “Well, duty calls and all that. These bottles won’t drink themselves. Toodle-oo both!”

The crystal went dark, the connection clearly cut. Cullen and Kai stared at each other as she snapped shut the amulet.

“Did they have a...” Kai trailed off, shaking her head.

“Shall we ask ‘Amatus’ when he arrives?” Cullen asked pointedly, seeing Kai nod.

She watched him for a moment, a wry smile breaking out. “It appears they had more confidence in us than we did."

“And probably wagered on it,” Cullen stressed, rolling his eyes.

“At least it wasn’t Varric this time,” Kai shrugged, aware of his lack of tolerance on the matter.

Cullen did not appreciate aspects of their life being the subject of betting. Though to be fair he had wagered on other things, so perhaps he shouldn’t judge so. He actually made a modest profit betting against his wife when she sparred with her sister. Thankfully Kai took it in good humour.

More important was hearing her with Dorian, how she boosted him with humour, building up his fortitude.

The true measure of a person is revealed by how they deal with adversity...

He could add something to that observation. And how, even in the deepest depths of loss, they could still inspire hope in others.

Because even with her own loss, she nevertheless undertook to do that. No matter her origin, Kai was human and fallible, and it didn’t detract from how noble she could be at her best, wanting to offer whatever she could to help.

Nourish her and she will give of herself unconditionally, Leliana said to him once. An instruction which had slipped into the mire of neglect. Even before the Basin he’d lost sight of how readily she responded to encouragement. What he focused on was her impatience, and her tendency to dig her heels in, refusing to listen or discuss issues. All things which infuriated him.

Before she nearly lost her life and took in the spirit, they hoped to try harder with one another. Looking back now, he realised they may not have succeeded in repairing a fragmenting marriage when still surrounded by the conditions that fostered their situation. This time, he believed they stood a stronger chance.

Kai watched him, plainly wondering what he was thinking. “Are you going to tell me?” she challenged, tilting her head.

He lifted his arm, allowing her to snuggle against him. “I think...” he kissed her head, “...we have a chance this time.”

Kai hummed optimistically. “I think...you’re right.”

“Can I have that in writing?” Cullen chuckled. “You know...for future reference.”

He was unprepared for the attack; her right hand found his side and started to tickle him. He pulled her away, frowning mock sternly while she snickered mischievously.

It barely lasted seconds because Cullen couldn’t hold back the grin. “You are...”

Kai smiled a radiant smile, the one only for him. “...always and only yours.”

“As am I yours.” Cullen drew her to him once more, taking her hand into his. “This isn’t going to be easy, Kai.”

“Nothing worth doing ever is,” Kai maintained, squeezing his hand. “But this time...we do it together.

Together. She said the word with such strength and conviction he briefly forgot how vulnerable she was. When Kai decided on a course of action, she tenaciously stuck with it, seeing it through to the end. Cullen had no doubt she would fight, for him and for them. He could offer no less in return.

Together,” Cullen promised, resting his head on hers.

Chapter Text

As the letters started to blur on the page again, Kai couldn’t help lamenting Josephine’s insistence in writing such small script and squeezing it tightly on the page. Cross referencing Josephine's records with the Sanctuary's was a straightforward task, only made difficult because Kai was unable to read for lengthy periods, and doubly so with tiny writing. Even Lace with two eyes was taking breaks. With Kai’s single eye it was twice as often.

She looked up and closed her eye to rest it. She didn’t need a headache adding to the hum in her arm. Dealing with one eye was second nature now; she hoped eventually it would be the same with her arm as well.

One eye and one arm. The remarks of those Orlesian courtiers came back to her. Who would want that?

A despondent frown settled on her face.

Cullen asked if she wished things were different. At times she did, but to negate all she’d been through would mean not meeting him, and that was the one thing she never regretted.

Sometimes she wondered what her life would have been like if she hadn’t been Inquisitor or the Herald of Andraste, when she was reassuringly oblivious in her old secure world. Oblivious to the threats she encountered, the losses she faced, and the shattering secrets she unearthed.

But wishful thinking would never alter what she was, or turn back the clock. This path had always been waiting for her. Now she had to come to terms with the consequences of being a guardian and a symbol.

Marked and hollow.

Once she sported her physical scars like a badge of honour; marks showing she’d paid her dues, willing to take the same risks as her people. Proof she was worthy of the title of Inquisitor. Inside, the changes were more gradual, but attachment to her duty robbed from her the time to consider where she was heading. Or perhaps it became harder to try, to halt or indeed reverse the change.

But when did enough become too much?

When you stared at yourself naked in the mirror and turned aside from the reflection you saw there. When your sense of self was no longer secure enough to weather the sense of loss. Clothed, the scars were hidden away, something other she could overlook. Just as she distanced herself from the emptiness inside, clothed in the conviction she invariably carried on.

Her former self would have handled the damage more readily. She would have made wisecracks and meant them, not used humour as a shield hoping to deflect the pain. It never worked. Something always slipped past even the strongest defences. And hers were far from the strongest these days. At some point Cullen would have to see what she truly was, without and within.

When he took his shirt off he was still beautiful; when she took her dress off she was still flawed. He had discovered himself, becoming who he was meant to be; she was lost, no longer who she was. She knew he wouldn’t reject her, but would he pity her? Pity was almost worse than rejection; pity demeaned you, made you less than a person.

Last night was a whirlwind of emotions, despair followed with hope, her anxiety forgotten in the comfort of being with him again. It was an optimistic second chance, another opportunity for a life together. He spoke of how he thought about her and about them, when he was alone.

Since last night she had time to think, and time for fear and doubt to sneak in. Today her new found optimism waned, worrying whether she was up to the task of being the wife Cullen deserved. She was plainly no longer the woman he remembered, or fantasised about.

Doubt and fear were the worst companions to have walking beside you, and she regularly walked with both. If Aunt Ada caught her like this she’d soon set her straight.

“Wallowing in self pity, child,” she would tell Kai, “is a waste of your valuable time. We only have one life, live it to the fullest.”

In her case it was patently untrue. She idly wondered if the first life had been any better, and then a thought struck her.

Was the last one even a first one? What if...

An object hit her head, breaking her train of thought. She opened her eye to see a small parchment dart sitting on the desk. Kai picked it up and faced Lace, catching the disapproving frown.

Kai brandished the little dart. “A reminder?”

“With that face you’re lucky it wasn’t bigger,” Lace remarked pointedly.

“Was it truly that bad?” Kai asked, knowing the answer.

Lace snorted, lifting an eyebrow. “It was that bad.”

“Ah.” Kai smiled apologetically with a shrug.

Reproach turned into concern as Lace exhaled. “I thought you’d be happier?”

It was obvious to everyone at breakfast something had changed between her and Cullen. There were darted looks, and furtive whispers when they assumed the two of them couldn’t hear. All except Mia. But it was Rosalie who voiced the question. Cullen looked to Kai who blinked her consent, and then revealed that ‘yes, they were’, accompanied by an appeal that ‘could they finish breakfast now’.

“I am happy,” Kai replied. Her friend seemed doubtful. “Well, maybe that’s...I’m glad we’re back together.”

Lace looked behind her, out of the window. “At least it’ll stop you pining after him.”

“I do not pine,” Kai intoned emphatically, rolling her eye. “I have never pined.”

Lace faced her with a grin. Kai scoffed realising she’d been duped into a distraction.

“Stopped you brooding, didn't it?” Lace chuckled.

“Smart arse,” Kai threw back, a smile breaking out. She aimed the dart at Lace, who deftly ducked out of the way laughing.

“Maybe you’d have better luck aiming a potato?” Lace teased.

Kai snickered, recalling Cullen’s amused grin as he saw the potato sitting in his lap. “I couldn’t have done it if I’d actually tried to,” she remarked.

”Probably not,” Lace agreed. She gave an impish chuckle. “But you did get his shift off.”

Kai groaned loudly as Lace retrieved the dart from the floor. She set it back onto the desk, ready for the next time Kai needed reminding not to brood. Kai often poked at Cullen for brooding, which he was prone to do. Always so serious, she teased, seeing him roll his eyes. The boot was apparently on the other foot now.

Where did that light-hearted, absurd woman go? The one who could weather these events in her stride. The one who didn’t need reminding not to brood. The one who reminded others instead. It was less of a question as to when she’d come back, rather if she’d come back.

Another shot caught her unawares.

Lace tutted, shaking her head. “I guess I need a bigger dart after all.”

Kai picked it up and was in the process of throwing it back when the door opened. As the dart flew to Lace, Kai heard Cassandra.

“We came to fetch you for lunch...but it seems your break has already begun.”

They shifted to see her both her and Cullen standing in the doorway with questioning faces.

Not missing a beat, Lace came to the rescue. “We’ve had an extremely productive morning, and we were just celebrating.”

Kai kept a straight face as she nodded in agreement. Both Cassandra and Cullen knew them well enough to recognise this was only somewhat accurate.

“Well then,” Cassandra grinned knowingly. “In that case, I look forward to learning about your progress over lunch.”

As Kai and Lace glanced at each other, they heard chuckling from their friends.

“I am quite aware of how demanding it is to read Josephine’s ledgers from previous experience,” Cassandra relented. “Anyone would assume she was saving money.”

“She doubtless was,” Kai assumed. “She invariably did think ahead.”

“Is it that bad?” Cullen inquired, his smile slipping.

Kai sighed, nodding. “No more Inquisition, no more glory to bask in, no more money.”

“Yep, our usefulness is over,” Lace concurred, getting up from her chair.

“Politics,” Cassandra snorted dismissively. “Such nonsense helped to precipitate the turmoil in the first place. You would imagine they would have learned.”

From Cassandra's expression, Kai knew something was wrong.

“What’s happened?” Kai questioned, frowning.

Cassandra sighed, reached in her pocket and pulled out a folded up letter. Cullen spotted it and pointedly cleared his throat.

“Yes, yes, I know I intended to leave this until after lunch,” she groaned. “But she’s going to find out anyway.”

“Find out what?” Kai puzzled.

“Here, read it.” Cassandra walked over, presenting the letter to Kai.

Kai took it from her and unfolded it. As soon as she saw the name she had a gut feeling what it would be. Reading the message proved her right. The hushed expletive wasn’t long coming.

“Fucking Vivienne.”

It was no surprise Vivienne would restore the Circle. From their initial encounter it was a stated objective of hers.

She had been secretly building her own little faction even as she sat on the College Council, and it was only a matter of time before her faction split away. As expected the Loyalists left with her, taking up residence in the White Spire in Val Royeaux and aligning the new Circle with the Chantry.

What didn’t slip past Kai was the irony of Vivienne’s public announcement, how the reformed Circle would be ‘loyal to the people of Thedas’. Vivienne was only devoted to one person, herself, conspicuous in her new title, Grand Enchanter.

Taking some of the Aequitarians with her was more of a problem. They hadn’t bargained on as many leaving. Many being small in terms of all the mages, but significant in terms of representational balance on the Council. It reduced their stabilising influence in the College, and they needed the College to remain steady, not just for what they faced. Kai wanted a secure environment for Cassie, just as Eri had in Highever. Both girls were thriving away from the bitter and draining life they experienced in Nevarra, and Kai was resolved not to have that end.

She still wanted to believe in a hopeful future for her nieces and nephews, and all the children whose lives had yet to begin. Like Rosalie’s baby. Innocents who deserved better than a few years of comfort before destruction. It was the future she’d fought for, sacrificed for, and would continue to fight for, regardless of the intentions of her former friend, or this selfish woman who veiled her rampant ambition with a veneer of fake altruism.

Fucking Vivienne.

Kai looked back at Cassandra, sensing Lace beside her, hand outstretched. She handed Lace the letter.

“Perhaps the only surprise is she delayed until now,” Cassandra remarked.

“Distance and time,” Kai scowled, her irritation showing. “She couldn’t outright bad mouth us as she was so closely associated with the Inquisition. Playing the populist angle sidetracks the issue. We’re not bad, but she is better.”

Kai took a slow breath, seeking to curb her swelling anger. They foresaw this eventuality and had made provision. This move was manageable, but woe betide Vivienne if she became an actual threat.

Lace handed the letter back to Cassandra who tucked into her pocket.

“They’ll be back soon enough,” Lace announced confidently. “Once the polished smile wears off they’ll find out what a tyrant she really is.”

For someone who’d seen the worst people could do, Kai was often amazed how optimistic Lace remained. Instead of dwelling on how grim things were, she would find a positive side. It reminded Kai of how she used to be.

How you should be.

“Very true,” Cassandra agreed with an easy smile. “Vivienne is the type of person who cultivates allies, but not someone who has friends. Such an individual loses even those when they lose their influence.”

Cullen nodded in agreement. It appeared Kai was the only one viewing this negatively. No wonder Cullen wanted Cassandra to delay in telling her, he knew it would annoy her. Lunch was a chance to unwind and chat; not have her melancholy spoiling it.

Kai forced out a smile, and turned to Cullen. “So,” she said, changing the subject. “Cheese again for lunch?”

He grinned. “Not...entirely.”

His answer produced laughs of recognition. At breakfast, Mia had invited them to dinner tonight, explaining, much to Cullen’s dismay, how the quality of evening meals provided in the Sanctuary kitchen was not consistently of an exceptional standard. Breakfast and lunch were supposedly safe though, less cooking required.

Cullen sought to justify their thinking, how they aimed to make the former Templars self sufficient and ready to face life outside the confines of orders and rules. Learning to cook was one the skills they needed. Completely straight faced Cassandra said, perhaps she should send some of her Seekers along for lessons from the better cooks. There was momentary pause and then Cullen shot back.

“Templars teaching Seekers? The world has indeed changed.”

Laughter from Cassandra, Lace and Kai met his remark; weary resigned laughter knowing what had been lost. The others peered at them in bemusement.

Only the four of them understood the significance of those words. The Templar Order was no more, the Seekers slowly recovering from near eradication, and the once feared status of the latter gone as they looked to those they previously policed for recruits. With mages in the ascendant, the world they all grew up in was turned on its head.

Kai stood, planning to follow Lace and Cassandra now filing out, but Cullen stopped her.

“Would the former Inquisitor consider joining her former Commander for a private lunch?” He offered a courteous bow, smiling.

The supposed formality caused Kai to grin. “A private lunch?” she queried. “Why, Ser Cullen,” she emphasised his title, “anyone would assume you were seeking to get me alone with you.”

Comtesse Rutherford, I assure you my intent is purely honourable,” he responded with a smirk.

Cullen’s smirk was ever disarming, and Kai’s mouth engaged before her mind did. “Such a shame” she said saucily.

His amused cough and raised eyebrow brought her to her senses. What were you thinking?

Kai stuttered out a flustered apology. “I didn’t mean...I realise we shouldn’t...” She scratched her head.

Cullen took her hand, his face softening. “Look, last night I only meant we shouldn’t rush, not that...”

“You’re right,” Kai interrupted, feeling foolish.

“Kai, we are still married. I do believe flirting with one another is permitted.” A smiled wink accompanied his gentle dig at her nervousness.

“I’m just...” being an idiot, she thought as Cullen waited, “...being silly,” she conceded.

“You silly?” he chuckled. “Surely not.”

Kai rolled her eye, sighing. “I rather walked into that one, didn’t I?”

“You rather did,” he teased. “But, you have had plenty of practice at being silly.”

Kai squinted at him and attempted to pull her hand away, but Cullen held on tight.

“Not this time,” he insisted, brows wrinkled mock sternly. “I’m keeping your hand where it’s safe.” He brought his face closer to hers. “You’re too prone to sneak attacks.”

His breath swept over her face, and she blinked. He was so close she could...

“So...lunch?” he asked, moving back.

The moment had passed. Kai caught the sigh before it slipped out, and nodded.

“Lunch,” she agreed.

“I think you may like the venue,” he proposed.

Although tempted to ask where, she decided to wait and see. When he arranged a surprise it was always worth waiting for, and more often than not done when she wasn’t at her finest. Somewhat appropriate in the circumstances.

She curtsied, seeing him chuckle. “Lead on, Ser Cullen.”

“Your wish is my command, Comtesse Rutherford,” he acknowledged, bowing.

As they left his office, Cullen collected a picnic basket and backpack sitting on one of the desks outside.

Kai couldn’t resist asking. “Does lunch come with a chess set?”

Cullen stopped and turned, sporting a smirk. “Of course. And I’ve had plenty of practice playing Mia since the last occasion we played. When you beat me.”

“Really?” Kai raised an eyebrow, smiling. “Did you manage to beat her again?”

His smirk turned into a smug grin. “I did. Quite a few times in fact.”

“Oh,” she uttered, her smile fading she groaned. “Shit, I’m in trouble.”

Cullen laughed. “I would have to concur with your assessment.”

“Will I need to bring bandages?” she asked, inclining her head.

They hadn’t used that exchange for a long time, well before their marriage. It started years earlier as light-hearted banter from chess matches with her sister. But with Cullen it was a reminder of their first night and first morning together, and how she watched him sleep until no longer able to remain awake. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d done that before they separated.

His clearly recalled how it went. Cullen nodded. “But I promise to be...reasonably gentle with the pasting.”

“Alright then,” she confirmed.

Cullen gestured for them to head out. “Come on.”

As Kai walked past Cullen, she brushed her hand against his. They would often do it when in public, maintaining their roles. A small gesture of affection easily obscured, just to say ‘I’m here’. She didn’t have to look back to know he smiled.

-----------------------------------------------------

Cullen stared at the peaceful pool next to where they sat. It was gouged out by a small waterfall flowing over an outcrop of rocks. It probably started shallow, but deepened over the years. Since he was a child the sound of water soothed him. That was why he came here when he wanted to find peace. He hoped bringing Kai here and playing chess would be a chance for her to discover the same.

At first it seemed to work. Both grabbed some food and drink from the picnic basket, chatted a little and then began the game. Scarcely a few moves in, she fell silent. As they continued, instead of relaxing she was becoming increasingly agitated, the opposite of what he intended.

So much for your plan, he thought, waiting for her make her move.

Cullen finished the pastry and drank some ale to wash it down. Looking back, he spotted her food still sitting there, hardly touched.

Kai was either out of practice, or her concentration was poorer than he recalled it ever being. The mistakes she was making were ones someone as accomplished as her rarely did, unless she was letting him win. It was obviously not the case here, because she would intersperse them so as to maintain the pretence. He did the same with her. A means of one telling the other they were backing away from whatever intransigent position they put themselves into without actually apologising.

I’m still right but I admit you have a point, was the message.

Looking back, it was ridiculous. Both were stubborn people, and they should have prepared themselves better to handle such situations. Unfortunately, habits become progressively harder to break the more ingrained they become.

Cullen watched how she strained to focus, wavering as her hand reached for a piece before pulling back. She exhaled heavily scratching her head and dropped her hand, rapidly and repeatedly balling it into a fist. She was losing control, unable to mask her mounting frustration. If this continued unabated she would slide over into anger.

In the past it took longer than the accelerated process he was witnessing here, and invariably came with a quarrel. This time a chess game was provoking it, a game Kai could so easily play even when tired.

His inclination was to intervene, to say it’s fine, let’s just leave it until another time. Then it dawned on him. This was the first time since they met he saw intense hard emotion in Kai. The news about Vivienne annoyed her, but that was understandable. Vivienne’s actions affected Cassie, and Kai’s protective instinct for her niece kicked in.

What Cullen saw now was different. He knew enough of Kai’s moods to recognise this wasn’t normal. This extreme reaction was unhealthy, a symptom of her deeper problem. Before, he would have sought to distract or calm her. But knowing what he did now, his gut feeling was that whatever was churning away inside her needed to come out. And counter to his natural instinct to protect Kai, he had to force her to do it.

Cullen broke the silence, prodding Kai about the promised reward for the winner. Her response confirmed his suspicions.

“I have a feeling I shall be enjoying those sweets,” he declared smugly.

“Stop putting me off!” she snapped, throwing a glare at him. “I’m trying to concentrate.”

“I haven’t said a word until now,” he maintained calmly.

She was unable to disguise the anger in her reply. “You keep...staring at me.”

Kai’s fist clenched tighter, her knuckles whitening as she struggled to cling onto what limited restraint was left. One more push would tip her over the edge. Cullen readied another remark, preparing himself for the inevitable outcome.

Then, he spotted a spider crawling over the blanket towards her. It was on her blind side so she wouldn’t notice it until too late. This would work much better.

I’m sorry, Kai, but you need this.

He shifted his attention to the chess board, waiting for the impending explosion. The moment she saw or felt the spider, he wasn’t sure which because he didn’t dare look, she was up on her feet, cursing and yelling, and stamping on it.

“Fucking spiders!” she hissed.

Cullen stared up to see her red-faced with rage, her breath coming in heavy ragged pants, looking as if she was ready for battle. The spider now crushed out of existence, her attention turned to him.

“You!” she screamed at him. “This was your idea! Bringing me here to have lunch in a fucking spider-infested hole. What were you thinking?” She caught her breath and went on angrily. “You know how I hate them. But oh no, you were too busy waiting for your sodding win, watching me make a complete tit of myself because I can’t...”

Cullen saw her eye glisten as the tears threatened to burst out. She sniffed them in, clearly struggling. No doubt she would view him as heartless, but if he tried to console her now, it would make her worse later. She had to let this out.

Anguish bled into resentment as her words poured out.

“Have your fucking win, and have your fucking sweets! I concede, alright? I can’t do this. I can’t be what you expect me to be Cullen. I can’t be the person I was. She’s gone and what’s left is...” the tears were falling as her voice cracked, “...nothing...nothing but fucking scars holding me together.”

She wiped her sleeve over her face, swallowing hard. He wanted to embrace her and tell her it would be alright, but he knew it would be a lie and so would she. She had to lance the pain first, and then he could step in.

Her anger ebbed as fear set in.

“I’m not her anymore.” She stared at him, intoning the words. “Do you understand?” Kai took another deep breath and sniffed hard. “You...you’re whole and healthy, and everything you hoped to be. I’m just...just...damaged goods, not fit for purpose.”

Those words almost crushed his resolve not to react. That was how she described herself when talking about her accident, and her father’s response. Cullen hated hearing her talk about herself as if she was mere chattel.

She shook her head, her words wracked by sobs as she broke down, remorse bleeding through. “I’m so sorry...it’s all...my fault...I...shouldn’t...have...asked. You...don’t...deserve...”

She slumped to her knees, head dropping to her chest as she wrapped her arm around her body as if to protect herself.

Now he could comfort her.

Cullen went to Kai, carefully taking hold of her shoulders. She didn’t resist and he shifted her into a sitting position between his legs, wrapping his arms around her as he’d done on countless occasions before. She instinctively leant against him, and he began to rock her gently.

“You’re wrong, Kai,” he said tenderly. “I have no expectations. I’ve been where you are, remember?”

Cullen kissed her head and held Kai as she wept, her hand clutching onto his arm.

Her failure to concentrate on the game clearly strengthened the dread that she was inadequate... damaged as she put it. She had been broken, damaged by what happened to her, but his wife was never goods nor would he ever describe her in that way.

The mental scars would take care and time to heal, but he could help to allay her distress over the physical scars. This was different from when she lost her eye. Then she confronted him expecting rejection. Now she knew he wouldn’t do that. This time her fear stemmed from misguidedly comparing how she looked to how he did, that she was somehow less than he, because she wasn’t ‘whole’

Admittedly he couldn’t appreciate what it was like to live with the loss of a limb or an eye, but he could show Kai how he saw her. Right now, that was the hurdle they needed to get over together, and he had a hunch how to do that.

Sometimes being sensible and considered wasn’t the way. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut and do what feels right, even if it seems extreme. A childlike, and occasionally wise woman, taught him that. Strangely, it was her talk of bandages that lingered in his head, prompting the idea.

Cullen waited until she settled. Her grip relaxed and she stroked his arm. He was unsure whether the comfort was for him, or for her.

“I’m so sorry, Cullen. I behaved badly,” she apologised, “and I shouldn’t have.”

There were times Cullen wanted to drag the Trevelyan stoicism out of her. It had served her well, but this was not the time for putting on a brave face.

“Kai,” he called gently. “Do you trust me?”

There was no hesitation or uncertainty in her reply. “With my life.”

Cullen released his hold, moving away carefully. As he stood, Kai twisted around to see what he was doing. He offered her his hand, helping her stand. She looked confused, wondering what was happening.

He rested his hands on her shoulders. “I have another game in mind,” he smiled. “It’s quite straightforward, but once you agree there’s no going back.”

Her curiosity was roused but she remained wary. “What...sort of...game?”

Cullen thanked the Maker that her natural curiosity wasn’t lost, otherwise the whole thing could have ground to halt there and then. If this was going work he had to be a little sneaky. He smirked, knowing full well the disarming effect it had on her.

“An item for an item,” he explained.

Her gaze, which had fallen on his mouth, snapped back up, eye wide in alarm. She recognised what he was proposing. He was challenging her fear by suggesting they both strip naked item by item, as they had on their first night together. His shirt was the first thing to come off back then, and the incident with the potato fitted in perfectly here.

“After all,” he continued, “you started this by flinging a potato at me just to get my shirt off. I think it’s only fair.”

“But...but that...that was an accident,” she stuttered.

“So you say,” he shot back, letting go of her shoulders and folding his arms, apparently doubtful. “I saw your face afterwards.”

Her mouth gaped in shock at his supposed disbelief. Cullen leant forward, his face above hers.

“So then, an item for an item?” he reiterated, his breath flowing over her face and into her open mouth.

She blinked, swallowing hard as she stared, first at him and then through him. He recognised she no longer saw him. Her focus now was on the battle in her head; whether to agree to his offer. Should she show him or should she continue to hide. He’d pushed her all he dared, and now he had to wait...and hope.

It went on for several minutes until she closed her eye scrunching up her face. Cullen thought he’d lost her. Then her tense expression softened, and Kai opened her eye.

She took a deep breath, and exhaled. “Alright.”

Cullen wanted to cheer for her courage, but smiled instead. “No going back,” he cautioned.

“No going back,” she echoed, straightening her shoulders.

“Alright, let’s...”

Suddenly Kai panicked and reached out for his arm. His heart skipped a beat, dreading she changed her mind.

“What if someone comes?” she asked worriedly.

Cullen breathed an inward relieved sigh and shook his head, settling his hand on hers. “No-one comes here. I know, because it’s where I come, to get away...when we lose one of the elders.”

Kai squeezed his arm consolingly. She knew how close they grew to them. Repeatedly watching people you cared for die was never easy. What was supposed to be a chance for her to let go, now turned into his unburdening.

“We all have our own ways of coping,” Cullen told her. “I come here because it provides the same peace as the lake outside Honnleath used to. Lysette has her garden, and every time one of the elders dies she plants another bush in their memory. Life from death she calls it. Tamsin and Eleanor, they spar together until both are exhausted.”

“What do you do when you come here?”

Cullen never told anyone what he did, not even Mia. But as Kai gazed at him, he realised she would understand.

“Sometimes I just sit here, and sometimes...I take off my clothes and float in the pool, staring up at the sky. One day the thought just came into my head, and to be honest, I’m not sure I can explain why it works.”

She nodded. “I know what you mean. Ever since I was a child, I’ve felt the same about water. But with me it was the sea.”

Someone else might have claimed he was touched for such an admission. Not Kai though.

She glanced at the pool. “Could we...I mean, would you mind if we both...I know it’s your place but...”

Even with everything she went through, she still surprised him. The plan he came up with was unravelling, but he didn’t care. This result was so much more than he imagined.

“Together?” he asked, echoing what she said last night.

She nodded. “Yes.”

“Alright,” he agreed.

Item for an item now became each of them undressing. Some anxiety clearly remained as she faced away when taking off her dress. He noticed how the buttons went practically to her waist, and observing how she slipped out of it revealed why. When undone it was easier for Kai to pull down the sleeve of her missing arm before removing the other one. Kai pushed down each side of the dress and over her hips in turn, clearly practiced at it.

Short hair and clothes tailored to her needs; practical measures to promote independence. But she was ever a practical woman, and he was glad to see she hadn’t lost that either.

He saw the scars on her back. Some he identified from before, as well a few more recent, the latter less conspicuous. More obvious was her lion rampant tattoo, sitting proudly on her lower back.

“He’s my valiant warrior, brave, steadfast and true,” she announced on their wedding day. “My protector when you’re not there.”

A wave of sorrow washed over him. Neither he, nor it, had been any use when she needed protecting. It was only ink, and he wasn’t there when she confronted the prospect of her own death, yet again.

Had she died, his last memory of her would have been seeing Kai standing alone, waving to him from the gates as he looked back one last time before riding away. Although both understood it was for the best, it was the hardest goodbye they ever experienced. It could have been their final goodbye. All the things they never told one another would have remained unsaid.

Cullen pushed back on the feeling and finished undressing. He noticed Kai now standing naked, her hand twitching, and thought he could hear murmuring. He twisted his head straining to pick up whatever it was.

“You can do this, you can do this,” she recited over and over again.

Then she stopped and lifted her left arm, tugging something off. Kai dropped both arms by her sides and swung around, staring down.

Cullen knew he had only a short time before she would interpret his pause as wavering. Years of training and experience in swiftly reading a situation kicked in as he scanned her body.

He spotted the scar from Corypheus’ dragon, but above it was a pale brown burn scar that covered part of her midriff, shaped like a sunburst, akin to pictures children painted. Another lasting consequence of the Anchor. The remnant of her arm appeared normal until he sighted the stump, skin puckered and scarred an angry red. He heard what Bull and Dorian did to save her and this was the aftermath she had to live with.

Cullen now focused on her.

Dorian once described Kai as like ‘a statue bought to life by magic, except for her face, the profile wasn’t quite right’. Kai laughed, saying ‘just the profile? I could describe a litany of errors’. To Cullen, it was that ‘litany of errors’ which made her unique, and the light inside which made her even more beautiful. To him the marks she bore were no more than maps of her journey.

He saw how her once honed muscles were now softer, except for her legs which she used to wrap tightly around him to stop him from getting out of bed on mornings when his day began earlier than hers, and her breasts, still firm, and Maker, they were beautiful.

Cullen was distracted recalling how they felt, how he felt when he touched her, and how she responded to his touch. How he would stand behind her, kiss and bite her neck gently as he slid his arms around her, cupping each breast. She would gasp and push against him, wanting more. He could taste the desire on her skin, sense the anticipation in her moans...

Maker’s breath! He had to get a grip on himself, before his imagination took over and he forgot his wife waited for him.

Kai still stared down, fingers fluttering, obviously scared. Cullen quickly closed the distance between them. He placed his fingers under her chin and lifted her head to face him. She peered at him warily.

He smiled softly, seeing her tension ease. “You missed something,” he said, glancing at her eye patch.

“Oh!” she exclaimed.

Cullen watched fascinated as she first lifted her left arm, pressing it against the strap of the eye patch, then reached back with her right hand to unclip it. Once undone, she moved her right hand underneath her face, and took away her left arm. The eye patch dropped it into her hand, and she dropped it onto her clothes. Last night he’d turned away when she undressed and missed this.

He couldn’t help wondering how long, and how much practice it took to perfect that technique, and what she did to put it back on. This time he would see both.

She glanced aside, scratching her head. “I realise seeing this might not be...” She sighed. “I’m not exactly the stuff of someone’s...fantasies.”

It was a reference to what he admitted last night, how he thought about her late at night. And ironic considering his distraction only moments before.

Cullen took her face in his hands and kissed her softly on the mouth. “That surely depends on the someone,” he told her, every word said with affection.

Her astonishment was swiftly followed by relief, and Kai hugged him, laying her head on his shoulder. Cullen smiled, and folded his arms around her.

“Thank you, Cullen,” she whispered, her hand caressing his back.

He lifted his hand and stroked her hair. “For what?”

“For being kind when I behaved like an arse.”

“Don’t worry,” he grinned, although she couldn’t see. “I can take it out of your hide if you misbehave in future.”

She snorted a laugh, her breath tickling his skin. As Kai looked up at him he caught the smile lighting up her face. He saw his Kai.

Cullen knew it was only one small breakthrough. Her dark days were not over, and they were at the beginning of their journey. She wasn’t the same person and he didn’t expect her to be, but neither was he the same as when they met. It was his turn to provide her a foundation to become who she was meant to be.

But right now they had an appointment with a pool.

“Shall we try the water then?” he suggested, seeing her nod.

Cullen had negotiated extra time with Cassandra to bring Kai here. They might be back later than he aimed, but he doubted Cassandra would complain if the result helped Kai. That was Leliana’s directive after all, and he wouldn’t dream of disobeying the Divine.

He took her hand and together they headed to the pool. Cullen waded in first, the cool water reminding him he should have warned...

Kai yelped, tugging on his hand. “It’s bloody freezing!”

“I’ll grant you it’s on the cool side, but it’s hardly freezing,” he maintained.

“Well, you wouldn’t think so,” she scoffed. “You spent years practically living outside in that draughty loft.”

“As did you,” he reminded her. “You spent more time there than in your own quarters.”

“But I’m used to proper heat now. This is...”

“...a chance to stop being a soft Marcher,” he retorted.

She rolled her eye, making him chuckle. Cullen went to move forward, but she held firm refusing to budge. Her shift in mood convinced him this would help her, and he wasn’t about to let her back out now.

There was only one way left.

Cullen let go of her hand and picked her up before she could react. He waded in ignoring her protests, dumping her into the water with a resounding splash. He knew she would be fine, the water was only waist high and swimming was practically second nature to Kai.

When they visited Ostwick they spent a few days at her family’s summer house, and she would swim in the sea every morning and evening. He recalled how she was at her happiest there, with nothing to think about except being together. Those few days more than made up for the rest of the visit, an experience he had no intention of repeating.

Kai’s head surfaced, but her body remained submerged. Water dripped off her as she narrowed her gaze, but couldn’t mask the smile tugging at her mouth.

“Don’t imagine this is over, Cullen Rutherford,” she complained as he grinned, arms folded. “I’ll get you back for this.”

“Not so cold now though, is it?” he observed, dropping into the water.

“Arse,” she scoffed.

He smirked, beckoning her closer. “Come here.”

She peered at him. “You throw me into freezing water and then expect me to fall for your charms.” Kai scooped up a handful of water and launched it at him. As drops of water fell off his hair and dribbled down his face, she snickered. “Not this time...Curly.”

Cullen brushed back his partially wet hair, and fixed Kai with a reproving stare. It only made her smile. This was a well worn game, but he loved it. More than that he loved seeing her playful.

He retained the frown, beckoning to her again. “Come here,” he demanded.

She shook her head, her smile growing.

He sighed in mock frustration. “Do I have to come and fetch you?”

She grinned. “Assuming you can catch me.”

Cullen raised an eyebrow, his stern face relaxing as he moved forward a little. “Are you challenging me?”

She moved back slightly. “If you feel you’re up to it,” she winked.

“I think I might be,” he insisted, instantly diving forward through the water, but missing her as she pushed away from him.

“Too slow,” she mocked, snickering. “You’ll have to do better than that.”

Cullen decided to even the odds. He swept his hand through the water, splashing her with considerably more than she had, and lunged forward. Although she recovered and turned, the delay was sufficient to catch her. He dragged her against him, arms wrapped around her waist.

“Now who was too slow,” he taunted, chuckling.

“That was an unfair advantage,” she objected. “You splash harder.”

Cullen span her around to face him, careful to hold on. She feigned a frown, but he saw the corners of her mouth twitching.

“You wet my hair. You do realise it’ll curl now,” he pretended to complain, forcing out the laugh she tried to curb.

The laugh wasn’t as lengthy and fulsome as before, but it nevertheless came from deep inside. Like the smile he saw in the morning when he woke her with tea. She was slowly rediscovering her inner core.

Cullen had come to understand it wasn’t just a resolution Cassandra and Leliana sought from him. They hoped he would reach Kai when her friends were unable to, and it was obviously working. The problem was that he only had a few days with her. . If he moved slowly, once she left she would retreat back behind her steel wall. Knowing how stubborn she was, it was possible even he couldn’t break through a second time.

There was no choice but to move faster, force her to let out more pain now. It would leave her weakened, but back at Skyhold, she would have friends to support her and help move forward until they were together again. Yet moving faster meant taking steps that overlooked the lingering issues between them. With a shaky foundation, the chance of failing to rebuild their relationship increased.

Cullen finally grasped the tough choices, the sacrifices Kai was obliged to make as Inquisitor. She vowed to fight for everyone, a vow underpinning everything she did and all the risks she undertook. He left her because the decision she made in the Frostback Basin was one risk too far for him. But she made her choice based on the many people who would die if she didn’t, including him. To save him meant losing him.

She was no longer Inquisitor, but Cassandra was correct, the Herald of Andraste still had a part to play and Kai needed to be ready when the time came. In making his decision to help her, he had to accept the possible loss of their future together. He had no doubt she would do the same in his place.

He saw Kai watching him curiously and realised he’d come to a stop, absorbed in his thoughts.

“What are you thinking about?” she asked, tilting her head.

“You,” he smiled, lifting his hand to caress her cheek. “And how I love hearing you laugh.”

She leaned into his hand. “You make me laugh.”

“I do?” he exclaimed, seeing her realise how it sounded.

“Oh! I meant...” her explanation cut off as he chuckled.

“So easily,” he drawled, seeing her roll her eye and then laugh again.

Making her laugh was merely part of it. He had something else in mind, something he knew would release more pain. There was insufficient time now, but he could lay the ground, convince her it was the right thing to do, even though he had claimed they should wait. He had to carefully seduce his wife.

Cullen pulled Kai closer, sliding his arm around her waist. “It’s not all I love about you.”

“Oh?” she smiled.

The woman he once knew would have laughed and asked him suspiciously what he was up to. But not the woman before him. His words were the reassurance she needed. Seeing her trusting face, a small part of him felt bad for manipulating her, but the greater part understood this was to help her.

Cullen settled his cheek beside Kai’s, and lowered the pitch of his voice, aware of the effect it had on her. “I also love...hearing you moan,” he murmured, caressing her back as he kissed her neck.

She twitched involuntary with a sharp intake of breath. “Cullen...”

“When I saw you standing there, naked, I could scarcely stop thinking about what it felt like to touch you.”

“Maker...” she gasped.

It was then his plan almost went awry.

Suddenly she pulled back, her fingers threading into his hair and dragging his face to hers to kiss him. The intensity of her desire took him by surprise, and his body instinctively responded, tugging her to him and encouraging her deeper into the kiss. She pressed closer, her breasts against his chest. He felt the blood pooling in his groin as his erection grew along with his longing for her.

He’d thought about this so many times, about her, the feel, smell and taste of her, being lost with her, inside her...he wanted...

Cullen realised he was on the brink of losing control, and scrambled to hold onto what little sense remained. Her hunger was feeding into his, and if they continued it wouldn’t be his mind in charge. Planning this, he clearly didn’t consider all eventualities, namely his own reaction.

He broke the kiss as carefully as he could. Her fingers held onto his hair at first, then let go as he pulled away.

“Kai...”

She interrupted, clearly worried by her response. “I shouldn’t have...I...”

He placed his finger on her lips, shushing her. “Just...not here.”

Her gaze widened in confusion. “But you said...”

“I know what I said. But this, what we feel for one another, isn’t going to go away.” He exhaled. “Sooner or later we have to face it. There are only so many times we can put it off.”

She frowned, seemingly thoughtful. “And it’ll only get harder...”

Cullen coughed. “Quite.”

Kai sighed, realising what she said. “Sorry, occasionally my mouth engages before my mind.”

“Yes, that much is true,” he chuckled, seeing her ‘I know’ face.

“I have a solution,” he suggested, lifting an eyebrow.

This time she caught on instantly. “Tell me.”

Cullen smiled, resting his left palm on her right cheek. “Would my wife consider sharing a bed with her husband tonight?”

Kai rested her right hand on his, smiling back. “Your wife would be honoured to share a bed with her husband tonight.”

"Thank you," He acknowledged.

She gave a little giggle. “Asking permission almost feels like you’re...courting me.”

“Wouldn’t that be considered romantic?” Cullen teased. “And I’m sure I recall someone saying how I wasn’t.”

Kai inclined her head, puckering her lips with a hum. “You...have your moments.”

She moved her hand away, touching the wedding ring, hanging around her neck. Even though he wasn’t with her when she faced what he hoped was her final threat, it was. They may have been just coins in his brother’s pocket given as a last minute good luck symbol, but both had seen them through the worst of times. Times where either could have easily died.

“Perhaps I do at that,” Cullen replied. “But, as you also claim, I’m sensible too, and we’ll have to head back shortly. Before we go though...” he tapped her nose, “...you need to eat some food.”

Kai stared towards the blanket where her plate sat, her smile fading. “I will,” she promised. “I just wasn’t...”

Cullen drew her back to face him. “You don’t have to explain to me, Kai. I’ve been here, remember?”

“I know.” Kai gazed intently at him. “I didn’t see it before, but I think I do now.”

“See what?” he asked.

“You.”

“Me?”

She nodded. “ You’re proof things can get better.”

Cullen’s optimism for her grew along with the smile. He took her hand. “They do, but never forget it takes time, and it isn’t easy.”

She smiled back. “Nothing worth doing ever is,” she replied, echoing her words from last night.

Cullen pulled Kai to him, kissing her head. Right now she wasn’t thinking clearly, but at some stage she would recognise what he was doing and work through the implications for their future together. He knew she would understand why, he only hoped she would be more forgiving than he was with her.

Chapter Text

As Kai and Cullen strolled through the gates of the Sanctuary, she sighted the carts. One was Mia’s seemingly back from market, and the other unknown. Standing nearby she noticed a squad of Fereldan soldiers chatting with some of the residents.

A pleased smile passed over her face recognising Lace’s parents must have arrived. Likely the second cart was theirs. She’d probably pick up a rebuke from her friend, easily outweighed by the delight of being with them if only for a short while. Alistair was always as good as his word and understood sacrifice better than most. Not just in being King, but a Grey Warden too.

Lace sacrificed her former life to support the Inquisition, and even with its end wouldn’t be returning to it. She promised to remain with Kai knowing the fight was nowhere near over. This reunion was brief, but when the Inquisition finally wrapped up, Kai would ensure Lace had a lengthy break in Denerim where she could, for a while at least, be a daughter again. The Hardings would never be conscious of all Lace had done, but they learned enough to realise how her actions mattered.

Light reflecting off metal caught Kai’s eye. One of the soldiers was flipping his cloak over his shoulder and she caught sight of the insignia on his pauldron. These soldiers were part of the Royal Guard. That meant…

A voice calling to Cullen drew her attention. Tamsin walked briskly towards them.

“Thank the Maker you’re both back,” she announced, thankful to see them. “The King is here.”

“King Alistair? Here?” Cullen asked, his gaze widening.

Cullen looked to Kai as if to say, ‘what have you been up to this time’. He and Tamsin knew the Hardings were expected with an escort, but nobody imagined Alistair would turn up as well.

“Yes,” Tamsin nodded and stared specifically at Kai. “And he’s asking for you, Inqui…Kai.”

“Of course he is,” Kai remarked with a slight sigh.

“When we explained you were out with Cullen,” Tamsin went on, “he said ‘typical, she demands a favour, then isn’t even here to greet me'.”

Kai smiled, she could picture Alistair's expression “Did he call me Katarina by any chance?”

Lady Katarina,” Tamsin emphasised.

“I see,” Kai noted. A suitable officious response was definitely called for. “Where is he now?”

“In the refectory with Cassandra, Lace and her parents, and Mia,” Tamsin answered. A grin broke out. “And three mabari. Eleanor asked if we were breeding them now.”

Kai and Cullen both chuckled before he asked. “Whose is the third?”

“The Hardings bought theirs along,” Tamsin explained. “Contessa I believe she’s called. Lace seems happy to see her.” She shifted to Cullen. “We’ve sorted out food for everyone, and prepared for the escort, but maybe we can discuss where to accommodate the King?”

Kai knew Cullen and Tamsin were still in the process of furnishing the last dormitory for those remaining Inquisition Templars yet to arrive. They had enough beds for the party, but Tamsin was plainly nervous at the prospect of putting the King of Ferelden in what were essentially comfortable barracks. Kai doubted Alistair would object.

“Thank you, Tamsin,” Cullen acknowledged. “We’ll speak with King Alistair first, and later you and I can review what to do.”

“And it sounds as though I need to make up for my absence on His Majesty's appearance.” Kai smiled at Tamsin. “Would you mind letting him know we’re on our way?”

Tamsin acknowledged them both and headed back to the main building.

Kai smoothed down her slightly creased dress, facing Cullen with a smirk. “So, am I presentable enough for royalty?”

Cullen shook his head with a laugh. “You’ll do. Though your hair is a little…” he gestured a glance at her hair.

“What?” Kai puzzled.

Cullen leant forward and whispered in her ear. “A touch of the hedge backwards.”

Kai snickered and licked her hand, smoothing it over her head in an attempt to tame her hair. Ever since it was cut short, it tended to stick up more than before, seemingly more so after a hasty rub over with the blanket to dry it.

“More to the point,” Cullen remarked with a raised eyebrow, “you never mentioned he was coming.”

“Neither did he,” Kai told him, getting a curious stare. “I assumed he was just providing an escort to bring Lace's parents here.” She exhaled. “Alistair clearly chose to tag along.”

Cullen hummed, thoughtful. “After what took place at the Exalted Council, he may wish to find out how you are.”

Apart from the message Alistair sent via Cullen, her contact with him was largely official, not wanting to add to an already delicate situation by overly playing on their friendship. Now all of that was behind them. She was no longer Inquisitor, and in a while there would be no more Inquisition. Her agents, her army and her diplomats were all being phased out, and the edifice they all worked hard to establish dismantled.

Even though there was little option but to end the Inquisition, much remained unachieved, and Kai would always bear a sense of regret for that. All they could do now was to disband with as much consideration for those who stood with them, some from the very beginning. In appreciation of their service, Kai’s directive was that everyone should have sufficient coin to either rebuild or restart their lives, and Josephine had astutely ensured there would be. A consequence of her instruction meant having to complete this audit so the Sanctuary could remain on a steady footing.

Cullen was doubtless right though, she and Alistair had been friends long before she tumbled into being Inquisitor, and his message indicated that wasn’t forgotten in the political wrangles. Maybe now they could return to being just friends, not two leaders cautiously viewing one another, or pushed into a showdown.

Kai smiled and nodded. “Perhaps he does at that.”

“Shall we?” Cullen gestured with his head towards the main building.

Kai blinked an acknowledgement and the two of them headed in, finding the group in the refectory, food on the table, and Alistair busy eating.

Max and Izzy caught sight of her and Cullen, trotting over to meet them, Izzy sedately pleased and Max boisterously happy. As she bent down to fuss Max, Kai recalled Aedan’s reflection about how he and Alistair were always munching on something while Oghren was invariably swigging whatever alcoholic concoction he was hauling at the time.

When Cullen left, she searched out her former fiancé’s diary, not to reconnect with him, but to understand how he coped as he was evermore pushed to the fore. Knowing what she did now, she saw his account in a totally different light. Like her, his duty drove him, first to accept leadership, then to accept the ultimate sacrifice. Unlike her, his focus was characterized by a burning need to avenge the loss of his family, not aware Fergus survived.

For all her previous romantic notions, the truth was they barely knew each other and she, blinkered by her then love for Aedan, filled in the gaps with how she wished him to be. Now reading through again, she saw he was simply human and flawed like everyone, not some imagined ideal.

Their partners settled, Kai and Cullen wandered over to Alistair seeing an impish grin on his face.

“Lady Katarina, you grace us with your presence,” he emphasised somewhat formally. Then realising he’d missed Cullen he hastily added, “oh…you too Cullen.”

Kai noted how the formality dropped to politeness when addressing Cullen.

She offered an exaggerated bow. “As do you, your Majesty. We are deeply honoured.” She smiled demurely as Alistair rolled his eyes.

Cullen gave a more modest nod of the head with an acknowledgement of ‘Your Majesty’.

Cassandra and Lace watched the scene smiling. They were wise to the friendly needling between her and Alistair, and Mia clearly caught on this was some sort of well established farce. Only Lace’s parents seemed a tad puzzled at the over effusive ceremony playing out.

Alistair smiled, seeing the Hardings’ baffled faces. “Don’t mind us,” he assured them. “This is a little ritual of ours. Her Worship and I have been friends for many years.”

“Yes,” Kai agreed. “King Alistair has been a…”

Alistair cleared his throat. “Maybe we can dispense with the…”

“Of course,” Kai concurred with a smirk.

Lace, sensing the foolishness was over, caught Kai’s eye. “Inquisitor, may I present my parents, Wulfram and Cora Harding.”

Walking over to Lace’s parents Kai waved to prevent them standing, and stooped down, shaking each by the hand. Wulfram darted a glance at her left arm, but Cora kept her gaze on Kai’s face.

“Thank you for coming, and I apologise for the short notice,” Kai smiled, “but it seemed a perfect opportunity for you to see one another while we were here, sort of nearby.”

She glanced at Lace, who appeared overjoyed to be with her family, yet also with a look in her eye that said, ‘you may have snuck this one past me but I’ll be on my toes from now on’.

“Inquisitor, we were just so pleased for the chance to see Lace,” Cora affirmed. “And it’s not every day we get a royal escort to visit our daughter.”

“I’m pleased you did, because I do appreciate the Inquisition has somewhat monopolized Lace since she joined us,” Kai told them, shifting her gaze between the two. “But she has been an invaluable part of the Inquisition and of immeasurable assistance to me personally. We’re extremely fortunate she made the decision to join us.”

The Hardings beamed proudly at their daughter while Lace stared at Contessa, a hint of pink on her cheeks as she stroked Contessa's head. More accustomed to relative anonymity in her role as Chief Scout, she seldom sought attention. Even as Kai’s assistant, Lace often stayed in the background. Better ‘to keep an eye on the surroundings’ she explained.

This recognition was forcing her into the limelight, but Kai figured Lace would forgive her...after a few choice words first.

“Not to mention Lace is a shockingly excellent marksman with her bow,” Kai went on, grinning. “She rescued me from a bandit once by shooting him right in the unmentionables. The clearance for her shot was only this much.” Kai held up a thumb and forefinger indicating the few inches gap.

Laughter ensued, as well as slightly pained faces on the men.

“It was the only clear shot I had, but he got the message,” Lace explained with a grin, producing another round of amusement.

“Remind me not to get on your bad side,” Alistair quipped, shuddering. “I’d like to hang onto my…unmentionables.”

Cora gasped, her hand shooting to her mouth. “Oh, Your Majesty, I’m positive our daughter wouldn’t dream of…”

“Indeed,” Wulfram added swiftly, sounding concerned.

“I’m sure Alistair was merely joking,” Kai interjected, eyeing her friend.

“I was,” Alistair confirmed reassuringly. “But I also recognise a loyal friend when I see one, and those are rare and valuable things, especially so when in a position of authority.”

The conversation stalled briefly as understanding crossed the faces of those in group who felt the significance of his remark.

Mia deftly turned a contemplative moment into an acknowledgement of her countrywoman. “We’ve only known each other a short while, but Lace’s integrity is unmistakable, as well as her straightforwardness. She’s the best of what it means to be Fereldan.”

Cries of ‘hear, hear’ answered Mia, leading Lace to actually blush.

“And she likes cheese almost as much as me,” Alistair added, facing Lace. “In my book, that’s a winner.”

More laughter broke out, eventually dying down. Kai saw Alistair reach into his pocket, and then stand, crossing the few steps to where Lace sat.

“Well, I can see you’re not for fuss either. I can appreciate that.” He smiled at her parents and glanced around the group. “As the important people are here, I may have to make you suffer just a little more. Would you join me?” He stepped back so in clear view of the entire table.

Lace glanced at Kai to say ‘what’s going on’, and Kai shrugged back ‘I’ve no idea’, mystified as to Alistair’s intention. She rose and stepped over to him.

Alistair cleared his throat. “Lieutenant Harding, I hear on good authority your service to the Inquisition has been over and above what was demanded of you, and in doing so, you have exhibited exceptional bravery, loyalty, and quick thinking. You are an example of what Fereldans should aspire to.”

He opened his hand, revealing the medal to proud exclamations from Lace’s parents.

“It is my honour, and that of the Queen,” he declared, bending down to fasten the medal to her tunic, “to award you the Silver Medallion of Service on behalf of Ferelden.”

Lace stood there momentarily dazed while tears welled up in Cora’s eyes, Wulfram rubbing his wife’s shoulder affectionately as he beamed proudly. Kai too couldn’t have been prouder for her friend.

A round of applause started, and Cassandra called out. “Well deserved too!”

Lace gave a flustered smile as she bowed. “Your Majesty, I...I don’t know what to say but thank you.”

Alistair chuckled. “Thank you is absolutely fine. Though, it’s we who should be thanking you.”

He stepped aside, allowing Lace’s parents to rush and hug their daughter, chattering away as they examined her new honour. Contessa waited beside them, panting happily.

“I do like doing the good stuff as King,” Alistair exhaled, distinctly pleased. He turned to Cullen. “Now, is there anywhere private here?”

“You can use my office, it’s through there,” Cullen advised, pointing towards the other side of the refectory.

Alistair addressed the assembled group. “If you’ll forgive us, I have matters to discuss,” he looked to Kai, “with Her Worship.” A cheeky smile passed over his face.

Kai resisted the impulse to retort merely responding with a lifted brow. She rounded to go, exchanging glances with Cullen before he joined the others. Judging from his face, he too guessed there may be more to this visit than one old friend seeing another.

Kai headed through the side door across the hallway to the Sanctuary office and through to Cullen’s, seeing the ledgers still on the desk from beforehand. Lace would be occupied with her parents during their visit, so she briefly considered asking Alistair if he fancied helping with the auditing, then decided against it. He’d be bored within half an hour.

Alistair shut the door behind him and both sat, facing one another across the desk.

He glanced from her eye to her arm and grinned. “Well, all you need now is a tattoo and a hook, and you could be a pirate.”

Kai snorted a laugh. Trust Alistair to skirt the niceties and say it like it was. But they’d known each other for long enough not to need them.

“Funny you should say that,” Kai remarked earnestly. “Isabella said if I was ever at a loss, she’d hire me.” She frowned intently, tapping her chin. “I have the tattoo already, but I’m not sure about the hook... then again…”

“Seriously?” he exclaimed, gaze wide before narrowing his eyes. “No, you’re having me on.”

Kai shrugged. “What else can I do, Alistair? Girl’s got earn a livelihood somehow, now I’m not saving the world.”

Alistair peered at her, smirking. “I suspect Cullen would have a view on that notion.”

“Oh, he definitely would,” Kai agreed, laughing. “But it would be fun to see his face if I proposed it, for all of two seconds before he caught on.”

Alistair scratched his cheek absentmindedly. “So…are you two…you know?”

“Are we…what?” Kai tilted her head questioningly.

Alistair sighed wearily at having to spell it out. “Back together.”

“Sort of…yes,” she confirmed, seeing a broad smile appear.

“I told Anora you two wouldn’t be able to remain apart once you saw one another again, especially now the Inquisition was done,” Alistair chuckled triumphantly. “I can’t wait to see the look on her face when…” He stalled, suddenly conscious he’d revealed more than intended.

Kai wrinkled her brows with a sense of déjà vu. “Alistair…did you have a wager on us with your wife?”

“Me?” he smiled nervously, his eyes darting to the ledgers on the desk. “Err…why would you imagine such a thing?”

“Why indeed?” Kai rolled her eye with a hefty sigh. “You wouldn’t be the only one if you had. Maker’s breath! Is it open season on the two of us?”

“Maker’s breath,” Alistair parroted, chuckling. “You even sound like him when you say it.”

Kai shook her head despairingly. “So, what was Anora’s take on...us?”

Alistair stared at her for a moment before giving up the information. “She expected you would, but that it would take longer. She thought it would take you longer, bearing in mind what you...what happened. But she has a more pragmatic view on things. Apparently I’m the romantic...”

Kai stared at Alistair, only half listening as he went on to relate some story about rose bushes.

However astute Anora was, her assessment was wrong. It was altogether the opposite; Kai was the one who was pushing faster. Cullen was the one who advised caution, wanting them to move slowly...except...he’d changed his mind. So grateful to move past her fears she hadn’t thought to question why before, and so readily. Cullen wasn’t one to change his mind unless there was a pretty good reason behind it. Now the thought was planted in her head, niggling away.

She wasn’t conscious of the pensive frown forming on her face. Why would he...?

“Kai!” Alistair called.

“Hmm?” She saw him watching her. “I’m sorry, you were saying?”

“Something not very interesting, obviously,” he teased.

Kai sighed. “I’m sorry. It’s just...it’s nothing.” She smiled. “Please, carry on.”

“Well, Anora explained that one day she looked at me and realised if she expressed a wish for a rose bush, she knew I would personally get it for her whereas Cailan would have had someone fetch it. She claimed that was the day she started to see me other than someone she’d been pressed into a marriage with.” He gave a slight smile. “I suspect without your intervention neither of us would have admitted to what we felt. We’d have probably ambled along as we were.”

“If it helped, then I’m glad,” Kai smiled back.

Alistair nodded. “I may have another fifteen years before the Calling grows too strong. Maybe less, maybe more, it’s different for everyone. Spending those years comfortable is the least I could ask for. Having some contentment is even better.”

He shuffled forward in the chair. “Which brings me to what I wanted to discuss with you. Much as we’ve tried, it’s clear Anora and I won’t be able to produce an heir. Not only does that mean the end of the Theirin line, it leaves the question of succession precariously open.”

“You’re concerned about the country sliding into turmoil,” Kai stated, seeing him nod.

“It’s a risk, one that Anora and I want to prevent. Maker knows Ferelden has been through enough with the Blight and Corypheus, not to mention the latest shenanigans. We need stability, we need to concentrate on rebuilding, and we need to plan for the future.” Alistair watched her attentively. “Anora and I intend to hold a Landsmeet where we’ll propose House Cousland as our successors. They are the most influential family in Ferelden after the monarchy, and well regarded.”

Kai’s gaze widened.

“This bit of news isn’t out yet,” he continued, “and Lyssa asked me to apologise she couldn’t tell you herself, because they’ve only just found out. Fergus and Lyssa are expecting their first child.”

Kai smiled. Fergus had taken on the girls as his own, but she knew Lyssa wanted to give him a child. Her sister understood it would heal the wound left by Oren’s death, and Lyssa knew all their children, whether by birth or adoption, would be treated with equal value and affection by Fergus.

“I must write to her,” Kai insisted.

“Fergus and Lyssa hoped you might be able to visit too,” he told her.

“I’d love to,” she replied. “When everything’s wound up, I’ll go to Highever.”

“They’d like that,” he acknowledged, then continued with a serious tone. “When the news is announced, we can start putting our plans in motion. The intention is, when I leave Anora will step down allowing Fergus and Lyssa to assume the throne. Obviously the during the intervening years we will prepare them for their future duties. The child they’re expecting will be a Cousland, and will take the throne when their time comes.”

He smiled at her apologetically. “I know Fergus is officially adopting Eri and Cassie, but they’re not Couslands by birth. And after the Orlesian occupation, if we suggested Eri follow her parents some may not take it well. Memories of foreigners on the throne are long here.”

“I understand,” Kai asserted, her mind running through the practicalities. “But if Eri assisted, if need be, that would be accepted.”

“It would, she’s already well respected in the Terynir, and by the Banns and Arls she’s come into contact with,” Alistair confirmed. “Obviously we wish Fergus and Lyssa a long life, but with all that’s happened we have to consider all possibilities.”

“It’s a practical arrangement,” Kai agreed. “It provides continuity and certainty.”

“This plan was merely a loose idea before,” Alistair explained, “but the events around the Exalted Council, and finding out some of own people proposed to blow us up, concentrated our minds somewhat.”

Kai puffed out a breath. “It definitely does that.”

“Which brings me to the last point.” Alistair paused, watching Kai. “Once the Landsmeet confirms the transition, and we expect they will, you’ll be sister to the next Queen and aunt to a future Cousland monarch of Ferelden. Add to that, the Herald of Andraste still commands respect in many quarters, and you’re married to Cullen, a national hero here. Maker, you might as well be an honorary Fereldan.” Alistair waited for the significance to sink in.

Kai stared. “What are you suggesting...?”

“A contingency plan should the worst case scenario occur, and trust me, we’ve seen too many of those to be complacent,” Alistair insisted. “Should we all go down and only the child remains, we need someone we can trust implicitly to protect them, to guide them. And you’re not exactly a stranger to leadership.”

Kai sat there blinking as Alistair continued. “The role wouldn’t have any formal authority for political reasons, but neither could you be removed. We’d make certain of that. A sort of Royal Guardian if you will.”

The name was so close to home Kai sharply drew in a breath causing her cough as saliva went down the wrong way. Alistair looked worried as she sought to catch her breath, so Kai waved her hand to prove she was alright.

“Well, it’s not often I get to shock you,” Alistair remarked, a grin forming. “I should mark this one up.”

“Make the most of it, Theirin,” Kai retorted, slightly breathless. “When I’m back on form, you might have less chance.”

“Such disrespect for my station, Rutherford,” Alistair tutted, shaking his head, as a smile played on his lips. “I could have you...” He scratched his chin, pondering. “Actually, what could I have you done for?”

“Actually not a lot, Your Majesty...I thought Fereldans were free to speak their minds,” Kai smirked, cocking her head. “Or are they not?”

“Aedan always claimed you had a smart mouth,” Alistair laughed, shaking his head. “And he never saw the half of it.”

Now that she saw her former fiancé for who he was rather than what he meant to her, a thought arose, offering another chance to tease Alistair.

“You know what, Alistair,” she proposed. “If things had gone differently, it could have been Aedan and I instead of Lyssa and Fergus. Now there’s a thought.”

The laugh she expected didn’t come. Alistair’s brows creased, a rather wistful expression replacing the smile. He gave a lengthy sigh.

“Do you wish they had gone differently, now I mean?” he inquired, searching her face.

She had for many years, but no longer, not even after finding out Aedan could have survived had he taken up Morrigan’s offer. She once loved Aedan for who she thought he was, but she loved Cullen for who he was.

Kai shook her head confidently. “No, even with all that’s happened I don’t.” She leaned forward, her elbow resting on the desk. “It was his choice, his duty as he saw it. My path led in another direction.” She smiled. “And whatever we’ve been through, I would never, ever, forgo the chance to meet Cullen.”

“Good,” Alistair acknowledged, sounding brighter.

“Do you...still feel bad for letting Aedan take the killing blow?” she asked gently.

“I did for a long time,” he admitted, then shook his head. “But not anymore.” He leant forward and whispered. “Truthfully, much as Aedan was a good friend and I trusted him to have my back, I’m glad he isn’t in Fergus’s place. He was more than a bit scary when he lost his temper. I even saw Sten back off once and virtually nothing bothered him.”

“Perhaps everything turned out for the best then,” Kai suggested, whispering back. “Plus it wouldn’t do for the world to know the Hero of Ferelden could be a scary arse.”

“A secret known solely to the select few,” Alistair chuckled as Kai nodded. He sat back taking a deep slow breath. “So…are you in with the contingency plan, would you step up if it came to it?”

Both Alistair and Kai realised she would, he wouldn’t have asked her otherwise. But she’d also made a promise to Cullen that they would take all important decisions together, and this one was high up the scale of significant decisions.

“I’m truly honoured that you thought of me,” Kai replied, sitting back. “But…before I give you an answer, I’d like to talk with Cullen. This involves him equally and I want to ask for his thoughts.”

Alistair blinked an acknowledgement. “I understand, and I’d do the same in your position.”

“Thank you,” Kai offered gratefully. “So...was there anything else you wanted to stun me with?”

“No, I think I’m done...for now at least.” Alistair chuckled seeing Kai roll her eye. His expression became pensive. “Joking aside, Kai, how are you really doing with all this?” He gestured in the direction of her missing eye and arm.

Kai couldn’t admit to the whole truth, or that the last couple of hours were mostly spent sobbing in her husband’s arms, her emotions raging. Especially not after being asked to become a Royal Guardian. But she could talk about the practical side; people generally understood more of what they could see.

“I’m like an infant, learning how to do for myself again,” she confessed. “It can be frustrating and demoralising at times, especially as I’ve always been independent.”

“Hmm,” Alistair hummed with a knowing nod. “Sometimes the opposite can be liberating though. To let go, to let others help or do for you when they want to. Everyone feels good, and it’s a win all round.”

Kai gave a shrewd smile. “That’s your technique. But I know you’re more capable than you let on.”

Alistair put his finger to his lips. “Sshh, don’t you give away my secret.”

“You have my word,” Kai blinked.

He waved his finger as if to make the point. “Not to mention you’d be amazed at what people inadvertently let slip when they assume not all your dogs are barking.”

Kai snickered. “Shouldn’t that be your mabaris, Your Majesty?”

“Yes, yes,” Alistair sighed. “You can add that to the ‘tales of my hounds’. Maker only knows how much mileage you got out of that pun over the years.”

“What can I say, I love word play,” she trilled.

He shook his head. “Both you and Leliana…damn,” he groaned, “I’m supposed to remember to call her Divine Victoria. I still can’t get used to it, even after all this time.”

“Well, at least you’re not calling her Princess Stabbity,” Kai poked, repeating Alistair’s remark about their friend.

“Ugh, that will haunt me to my pyre…she won’t let it go, that’s for sure. You know, I thought her quite harmless at first, more a sort of ‘oo pretty colours’ crazy woman with her vision. I got that one wrong, clearly. That woman is sharper than a dragon’s tooth. And the way she and Zevran used to discuss stabbing and slashing as if they were contemplating the weather…too ghoulish.”

“We assassins tend to do that sort of thing,” Kai offered with a wink.

“Maker!” he exclaimed. “Not you as well? It’s bad enough she taught you to sneak around like she does.”

Alistair shook his head groaning, making Kai laugh.

He then fixed Kai with a wry look. “You know, if someone told me years ago she’d be Divine and you the Inquisitor, I’d have called them crazy...or more likely laughed myself stupid.”

So would she once, at least about herself. “But I no longer am, whereas she still has a difficult path ahead of her. And whatever happens, she’ll always need her friends.” Her last words were said deliberately.

Alistair clearly understood. “Whatever happens publicly, privately she’ll always have my help,” he assured her.

Kai smiled broadly. “Well then, all matters discussed, shall we go back and eat? I’m feeling peckish.”

“I thought you already had lunch with Cullen. Or…did you work up an appetite while you were out?” Alistair smirked cheekily at the innuendo.

Kai rolled her eye, tutting. “We went swimming, well…sort of.”

“Ahh I see, swim-ming,” he emphasised, waggling his eyebrows.

Kai groaned, her gaze falling on the desk, spying the parchment dart still sitting there. She shifted her hand and flicked the dart at Alistair, observing it ricochet off his shoulder and land in his lap.

He picked it up and brandished it at her, professing to frown. “Now that is an assault on the royal personage,” he pointed out. “I could have my guards arrest you, you know.”

She leant forward, narrowing her eye sternly.

Alistair pulled back with a disturbed grimace, shuddering. “Yikes, do you know how creepy that looks with one eye?”

Kai winked slowly, smirking. “Maybe I will make a decent pirate after all.”

“Right, very funny.” Alistair said, rolling his eyes.

Sitting here, bantering with Alistair bought back memories, and a sense of her old self. Back before she was the Herald and then Inquisitor, back before she discovered the truth of her existence. The comfortable camaraderie of two old friends who had seen and shared adversity, yet nevertheless took pleasure in ribbing one another, was reassuringly welcome and sorely needed.

She looked at him with a grateful smile. “Thank you, Alistair.”

“For what?” he puzzled.

“For encouraging me to remember who I was before all this,” she told him. “It means a lot.”

Alistair rested his left hand on the desk palm up offering it to her, and Kai placed her hand onto his. He folded his hand around hers squeezing it gently.

He gave her a warm smile. “What are friends for?”

Chapter Text

Kai gazed out of the window, distracted by the laughter and chatter of the Sanctuary’s residents readying for tonight; furniture being relocated, food being prepared, and some form of grill apparatus being constructed. A device roughly based on Alistair's description of the gift presented to him and Anora from the Rivaini ambassador to Ferelden. Alistair swore it cooked some of the best meat he ever tasted, and would be perfect for a party. Idle musings soon turned into enthusiastic plans, and now it seemed as if the whole Sanctuary was on the move, busying for the party.

Lace and Cassandra, the Hardings and Mia, along with three carts, plus Alistair and his men, were fetching provisions, meaning more food and even more ale. Because it was Alistair’s suggestion, he maintained it was only proper he ‘cough up for it’, which meant sending the accounts to the Royal Palace.

When Kai jokingly asked how he would prove who he was, he twisted sideways holding up a silver coin with his head on it, and replied ‘can’t you spot the resemblance?’ She laughed, wondering what Anora would think when the bills arrived. But she had been married to him for over ten years; probably nothing surprised her now.

Kai was left behind, supposedly because there was no room for her on the carts, so she’d drifted from group to group in the Sanctuary attempting to offer her assistance. After the fourth time of “thank you, Your Worship, but we’re fine,” she realised she was only embarrassing people who were too polite to say you need two hands to do this. She gave up and went to Cullen’s office to work on the ledgers instead.

Tearing her gaze from the window with a sigh, she vainly sought to focus on the ledgers, her finger playing with the tip of the parchment dart.

Like everyone, she felt a buzz of excitement at the chance to have some fun. Even her arm felt still, relaxed by the pain relief potion she drank as a precaution. After yesterday Kai took keener notice of the subtle warnings her body gave, having no inclination to suffer the same agony again, not with the party later, and specifically not afterward. She and Cullen would have the house to themselves tonight.

Kai smiled. She’d agreed to put herself in his hands. Cullen was concerned she may find it difficult because of their separation, yet after the reassurance he gave her, how could she not trust him?

The way she felt this morning seemed like a world away thanks to Cullen and Alistair, and Kai was resolved to relish feeling better. It gave her hope that although there may be dark days to come, eventually there would be light, the dawn would come. And she had Cullen to help her when she fell on her arse, literally and figuratively.

Kai heard footsteps and voices approach.

“...I know it’s just two the two of us, but it’ll be better if we do it now,” Lysette claimed. “The Elders will settle before the...what did he call he again?”

“Maker I can’t remember either, some Rivaini word meaning a grill,” Eleanor answered casually. “It sounds fun though. Lots of food and ale, what’s not to like. We should do this more often.”

Lysette hummed in agreement and offered a slight chuckle. “Can you imagine us doing this sort of thing back when we were in the Order?”

“Such frivolity is hardly behaviour becoming of the Order,” Eleanor mimicked, her voice loaded with comedic disdain, immediately followed by fulsome laughter.

Lysette’s easy laughter joined in with Eleanor’s as they pushed open the door to discover Kai sitting at Cullen’s desk.

“Oh! Your Worship,” Lysette exclaimed, clearly not expecting Kai to be there.

Kai smiled. “I thought I’d better work on the audit as I’m probably not much help out there.” She apologetically darted a glance at her arm.

Eleanor offered a sympathetic smile then turned to Lysette. “We...might welcome some help, don’t you think?” she hinted, with an eye flick to Kai.

Lysette caught on to whatever Eleanor was proposing and nodded. “We would...if you’d be willing to aid with the lyrium round for the Elders, Your Worship.”

Grateful to be of use, Kai readily agreed. “Of course I would.”

“We should warn you, it can be distressing sometimes,” Lysette pointed out, watching for Kai’s reaction.

“We’ve had to remove a few from the rounds,” Eleanor cautioned. “Seeing what they could have become was too much for some.”

“I understand,” Kai accepted, recognising it could be traumatic. Thankfully she was no stranger to challenging situations. “But I think I’ve proved I can hold my own.”

Eleanor chuckled. “You certainly have at that, Your Worship.”

“I have one condition...” Kai paused, glancing earnestly at each of them, “...please call me Kai.” Her serious expression gave way to a smile.

“Very well...Kai,” Eleanor saluted, grinning as Lysette smiled.

“So, what would you like me to do?” Kai asked standing up, ready to assist.

“Carry the lyrium vials while Lysette and I hand out the doses,” Eleanor explained, as Lysette headed to the strongbox. “Technically two of us can do it, but the practice is to use three people just to be safe.”

“Can it be...unsafe?” Kai asked delicately.

“It’s not that...” Eleanor paused, seemingly uncertain how to explain.

“The Elders can become agitated, but it’s not...unsafe,” Lysette dived in to assure Kai she wasn’t walking into a risky situation.

She caught the two women dart cagey looks at one another. Clearly something else was at play here.

Cullen and his small team were undoubtedly proud of their work, and wanted the best for those they’d been charged with supporting. But Kai knew from experience, however meticulous the planning you couldn’t anticipate every obstacle that might pop up. This project had no precedent, and doubtless faced more than its fair share of unexpected issues. In addition, she was here as part of a team to inspect and report for the Divine. Their apprehension was understandable in the circumstances.

“Look, if you’re worried about me reporting whatever it is, please don’t be,” she told them encouragingly. “I appreciate how important the Sanctuary is to Cullen, and to you. I imagine this practice exists for good reason.”

Lysette gestured to Eleanor as if to say ‘alright, tell her’.

Eleanor exhaled, folding her arms. “There was an incident, a while ago, where two of the residents stole lyrium from the Elders as they were doing their rounds...”

Kai’s gaze widened. Amongst the former Templars here, stealing from those in the greatest need would have been regarded as the worst possible betrayal.

“...they sought to be devious, a phial here and there, but we recognised something was amiss,” Eleanor went on. “Some Elders wouldn’t settle after their dose when they should have and it only occurred on their rounds. In the end we set a trap and caught them. Cullen expelled both men, and since then we’ve had a third person involved, separate from the pairing on the rota.”

“It is sad we have to do this,” Lysette regretted, setting the lyrium box and a carry bag on the table. She opened the box and started to count out the phials.

Eleanor nodded. “It is, but with each fresh batch of arrivals, we have to be cautious. Those who were helping before understand why, no one wants it to happen again. For the new ones, it’s simply normal practice.” A flash of anger burst through. “To do such a thing to people who have sacrificed their lives and minds for others...it’s unforgivable.”

“And the rest of us are conscious how fortunate we are to have another chance,” Lysette chimed in, Eleanor nodding her approval. “Something the Elders do not have.”

“This Sanctuary affords them the opportunity to live out their lives in dignity,” Eleanor stated proudly. “And we,” she looked at Lysette, “will not tolerate anyone endangering them.”

Cullen always selected the people around him thoughtfully, demonstrated by the two women here, and Tamsin. It was no wonder he would run the Sanctuary with the same consideration as he had the Inquisition’s army. The officers he promoted in the Inquisition were men and woman who were competent, practical, and cared about those they were responsible for. They would also challenge a bad order. Cullen never said, but Kai surmised it was an added safeguard should he become unstable during his own withdrawal. Through bitter experience he was mindful of the repercussions when leadership became perverted.

“I know this Sanctuary means a lot to you all,” Kai observed. “Cullen is lucky to have you supporting him.”

“And we are lucky to have him,” Lysette maintained, presenting the packed lyrium bag to Kai. “He sets an example for everybody here.”

Kai carefully slipped the bag over her head so as not to disturb the phials, and placed it on her left shoulder so it lay across her body, resting it on her right hip. She watched as Lysette knelt to lock the safe, pocketing the key.

“Cullen is straight with everyone when they arrive,” Eleanor explained, steadfast in her esteem. “He doesn’t sugar coat how difficult withdrawal is, so no one is under the misconception they can breeze through. But he also offers them hope. Hope that they won’t end up mad or dead if they try.”

Of course he would, Kai thought.

She expected no less of her husband than to provide those who chose to throw off the lyrium leash every opportunity to succeed, and a chance to begin anew. Seeing the Elders, they likewise recognised what their fate could have been. Few Templars saw the final stages of lyrium addiction before the Sanctuary, because those suffering were shipped off out of sight so as not to unnerve their brethren to what awaited them.

But no one was hidden away in the Sanctuary, stuffed into some out of the way place like Greenfell to die. Seeing how it was there, Cullen vowed his Sanctuary would afford those at end of their lives the respect they deserved, something the individuals here worked hard to achieve.

If Max had survived, Kai would have doggedly tracked him down, chiefly to keep him safe with the Inquisition, but also to ensure he ended up here. Knowing her brother, he would have insisted on helping, no matter his own state of health. More than once she reflected on how he and Cullen shared similar qualities.

“That sounds just like Cullen,” Kai smiled proudly, watching the two women smile back in acknowledgment.

“We should press on,” Lysette proposed. “Once the Elders are settled, I think they will enjoy tonight as well. It’s not often we all get together quite like this.”

“Very true, so...” Eleanor looked to Kai, gesturing to the door, “...ready, Kai?”

“Ready,” Kai confirmed.

As Eleanor headed out, Kai felt a hand on her arm, and turned to see Lysette watch as Eleanor moved into the outer office. She then leant forward and whispered.

“She didn’t know him well before this but I did. Having you here has boosted him.” She squeezed Kai’s arm lightly. “I hope you can find your way to one another again.” With that she stepped away, and smiled kindly before heading out.

I hope so too, Kai thought, her gaze tracking Lysette.

Deciding to try again was not the same as making it through. Reconciliation would take effort, perseverance, and time. And a sense of perspective, something she lacked in her present state of mind, whereas Cullen saw matters much more clearly. Kai had resolved to set her fretting about his decision aside. Too often in the past she’d discounted Cullen’s judgment; it was about time she listened to him.

He was correct that their attraction to one another wasn’t something they could keep pushing away, assuming it was a physical response to be checked. The need for one another went deeper than desire. It was bonding, telling one another...I’m home with you where I belong. And she craved that connection with him.

The memory came, powerful as ever.

He smirked, drawing her to him, hands grasping her hips, warm breath fanning over her skin, kissing his way down to the crook of her neck then softly biting there, knowing how it made her melt.

Kai sighed, her hand instinctively going to her hip as if to link her fingers with his.

Sometimes sex was an act of devotion savoured languidly; sometimes it was feverish, stripped bare to pure raw passion; sometimes it was joyfully playful; sometimes it was needing an emotional catharsis; and sometimes a fusion of any or all of those things. Yet it was always with love, and not just because of the vow to love each other for the rest of their days. Whatever else broke between them, they never stopped loving one another. Now they had another chance to have the rest of their days together.

A precious second chance, Kai thought, hopeful.

She smiled and straightened up, walking out of Cullen’s office to catch up with Eleanor and Lysette.

-------------------------

How hard could it be to track down someone as physically distinctive as Kai? Cullen thought, standing in his office, munching on one of the blueberry pastries he snagged from the kitchen.

They were still a little warm, just how Kai liked them. But the other pastry sat on his desk, its intended recipient missing.

Caught up with the arrangements for tonight, Cullen suddenly realised he’d not seen Kai around and became concerned. True, she was in a more positive frame of mind when he last saw her, and he didn’t doubt she’d hold steady in public, but if her mood dipped again, seeking to retain her resolve while everyone around was in a state of excitement might make her worse. He recognised it was risky pressing her, but he couldn’t allow the woman he loved to fade forever into a shadow of herself. That was one sacrifice too far.

Cullen stared absentmindedly at the pastry.

In the kitchen, Alice told him Kai mentioned heading back to his office. If she had come here, she was gone now.

What if she’s left the Sanctuary seeking some respite? She’s already wandered off before in a distressed state.

The thought alarmed him and Cullen looked under his desk, sighting her knapsack. Picking it up, he checked inside. Her other dagger was there, which meant she was still inside. A welcome sense of relief came over him.

After last night, he made her promise to carry it outside for extra protection, insisting the short dagger strapped to her leg was hardly sufficient defence. Next to the dagger sat the smaller box of potions she carried around with her. Cullen took it out, opening it to check how many remained. One less than before. She took one before they left the pool, and apparently now she’d taken yet another.

Cullen’s hand found the back of his neck, rubbing it. Just how many of these was she taking?

The frequency with which she used them had started to trouble him. When Cullen questioned her, Kai admitted she took them to relax her muscles when they tensed too much. She cited the crushing agony as proof of the result if she ignored ‘the twinges’, claiming she couldn’t collapse in public as she had yesterday with him. The reason was valid, but he caught a hint of evasiveness in her voice.

Truthfully, Cullen didn’t know which disturbed him more, the agony he witnessed, or the amount of pain relief she appeared to be consuming. Here he was, seeking to wean people off one addiction, wondering if his own wife might be in danger of succumbing to...

It suddenly dawned on him.

“Damn it!” Cullen cursed under his breath. How did I not see?

In his haste to help Kai, he foolishly overlooked something he should have easily recognised from experience, how emotional stress and physical symptoms were often interlaced, with one accentuating the other. His ‘good intentions’ would merely encourage more discomfort. No wonder she was taking so many of the damn things.

Cullen groaned, scrunching his eyes in annoyance at his lack of forethought.

You’ve been through this and you’re surrounded every day by people struggling through the same thing. And yet you couldn’t see this as an issue with your own wife?

Weakening her could only make her more susceptible to overusing the draughts. Her friends may not be the only things ‘leaned on’ when she returned to Skyhold, away from where he could watch her.

Maker’s breath! What were you thinking?

And their ‘little tryst’ as she jokingly called it, would increase her instability. The intention to seduce his wife, encouraging her out of the shadows into the light, now seemed more akin to forcing her into a different form of darkness. Arranging tonight so they could have time together alone and uninterrupted, Cullen even enlisted Mia’s support in housing everyone else for the night. Lace and Cassandra didn’t require any convincing that this was to help Kai, they trusted him, as did Kai when Cullen told her.

Kai settled her palm on his tunic with a knowing look. “My husband always has a plan.”

“Will you place yourself in my hands tonight?” Cullen asked, purposely using the same expression as before.

Cullen was asking Kai to give herself over to him. Back then it allowed her to set aside her role. The idea developed after a somewhat drunken conversation with Bull, one night in the tavern. Used sparingly, it worked for while, until one day her response was ‘another time’ instead of ‘yes'. Another time never came because they gradually slipped away from each other.

Kai smiled just as she used to before. “Yes,” she agreed willingly.

Cullen rested his palm on her cheek, his thumb stroking it gently. “I appreciate it might not be easy, with everything that took place.”

Her smile softened as she gazed at him. “Whatever else passed between us, I’ve always trusted you, Cullen.”

His biggest concern had been a rocky foundation to build their reconciliation upon, but that worry paled in comparison to what might happen now. Had he actually taken time to think matters through instead of leaping to a solution, he might have spotted the pitfalls ahead. Now it was too late. If he changed his mind about tonight, she may interpret it as a rejection, undoing his efforts to show her it didn’t bother him how scarred she was.

Cullen exhaled slowly and closed the box of draughts, placing it into her knapsack and tucking it back under the desk.

Although he truly wished to help her find her way and be prepared for what awaited them, and however altruistic his intention, he would be deceiving himself if he imagined it was his sole motivation for bedding his wife.

“It’s like...being home with you, where I belong,” Kai told him, wanting to explain how it felt for her when they made love, more so after being apart.

She put into words exactly how he felt too. It was home; it was being where he belonged with the woman he loved, a haven from the world outside, especially when he grappled with his own withdrawal. The sense of anticipation when she threaded her fingers into his hair drawing his face to hers to kiss him, smiling as if he was the only thing that mattered. Their shared loss of self when he was inside her, hearing her breathlessly whisper his name as if it were an invocation.

He wanted to feel all those things again, and with his Kai, the enchanting, annoying and impossible woman who shone brightly when she laughed. But the practical, sensible part of him knew people changed when they lived through traumatic situations, and that she wouldn’t ever be exactly the person she once was.

Cullen exhaled, aware if he was to help her he had to be more careful in his planning, otherwise what he wanted would only lead him astray again. His gaze fell on the desk spotting the little dart Kai and Lace were playing with earlier, the tip slightly crooked.

He couldn’t take back his offer to Kai, but he could alleviate the damage by enlisting the aid of her friends. Lace, Bull and Cole, he knew they would watch out for her when he couldn’t. He could also contact Rylen and sound out how far along they were with winding down the Inquisition, to get an idea of how long she would be away. The two of them already discussed Rylen coming here to start his own withdrawal from lyrium when his work was done.

Ensuring Kai had substantial support back in Skyhold was only part of it. He would free time for her return by increasing the size of their team and redistributing the duties. The four of them already realised that with the sudden jump in numbers they couldn’t continue as before. It was simply a question of picking the right people who would...

Cullen’s planning was cut short by hurried footsteps heading through the main office towards his. He stepped in view of the doorway to see who it was. As soon as Lysette saw him she came to a standstill, gesturing animatedly for him to join her.

“Come quick, you have to see this!” she urged excitedly.

He strode towards her. “See what?” he puzzled.

She smiled. “Evald’s talking with Kai.”

Cullen came to a halt, eyes large and mouth agape in amazement. “What?” he exclaimed, wondering if he heard her correctly. “Say again?”

“Evald...is...talking...with...Kai,” Lysette repeated deliberately.

Cullen ran his hand over the back of his head, still stunned. “Maker’s breath!”

Evald was their oldest Elder, his mind given way to lyrium confusion. He was formerly a Templar in Ostwick, so it was no surprise Kai would choose to talk with him. To discover he was communicating though was...extraordinary. Most of the time Evald would mumble incoherently with occasionally the odd lucid phrase after his lyrium dose. One of his companions, Michael, was the only who could make sense of what he said, and only then some of it.

Lysette chuckled delightedly. “First time I’ve known Eleanor stumped for words.” She waved him on. “I don’t know how long it will last so don’t dawdle.” With that she hurried off.

It wasn’t the only first, Cullen mused, following on swiftly. Lysette was normally considered; it was unusual to see her so excited. He caught her up in the Main Hall, seeing most of the tables and benches already moved out to the grounds as they headed through the side door into the inner courtyard.

This was their quiet place where the Elders seemed to be at their most peaceful. Lysette had designed it to be tranquil, with a small pond in the centre and plenty of shrubs, plants and herbs mainly for touch and scent. Although open to the sky, it was surrounded by a colonnade on all sides for shelter in poor weather, an oasis for anyone who wished to sit quietly or contemplate.

Cullen spotted the two of them, Evald in his customary place by the pond, and Kai sitting on a stool in front of him, chatting away. As he and Lysette made their way to Eleanor and Michael, Kai glanced round and smiled before shifting her attention back to Evald. Their little group was far away enough not to intrude on the pair, but close enough to listen.

“...Puppy Eyes they named him. Oh, the girls liked him.” Evald gave a rasping laugh. “Such a kind boy, always wanting...wanting...” his raised a finger his to lips, tapping them as if to ease the words out.

“...to help?” Kai offered kindly.

“Yes, yes,” Evald nodded, wagging his finger in accord. “Always wanting to help. Shouldn’t have gone to the Circle. Such a shame.”

Cullen guessed from their exchange it might be Kai’s brother, Max, they spoke of. From the people Evald arrived with, they learned he had been removed from the Ostwick Circle when he could no longer guard his charges effectively, and located to the Chantry where he could perform duties less onerous. Somewhere along the line he must have met Max.

Kai leaned forward and whispered something in Evald’s ear. Whatever it was it caused him to sigh and nod as if agreeing. He took Kai’s hand and squeezed it.

“Good girl,” he approved.

“Maker, I still can’t believe I’m seeing this,” Eleanor murmured.

“I know,” Lysette whispered back. She turned to Cullen. “It’s not just Evald. She had every one of them peaceful when we gave out the doses. It’s been the easiest round I’ve experienced.”

“What did she do?” Cullen asked quietly, fascinated by the sight of his wife telling a story about Max and her mother’s dog while Evald listened, smiling.

“She introduced herself to each of them, offering her hand,” Eleanor explained, keeping her voice down. “Then she asked their name, saying she hoped they didn’t mind her being there. They just settled and smiled like meek little lambs. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Eleanor shook her head. “I swear she could’ve done the round on her own.”

“It’s the way she spoke with them, soothing,” Michael remarked wistfully. “It reminded me of my mother. As a young child, she would talk with me the same way if I was upset.”

The three of them swung to stare at him.

“You’re right,” Lysette concurred, a touch of surprise in her tone. “I didn’t see it before, but you’re right.”

“Maybe yours did, Michael, but mine wouldn’t have,” Eleanor snorted a little too emphatically. She quickly cleared her throat and dropped her voice. “If you didn’t have four legs and whinny, she wasn’t interested.”

The offhand way she expressed it produced smiles all round.

Eleanor shrugged, grinning back. “It was alright, we had an awesome nanny instead.”

Thinking about it now, Cullen realised perhaps it wasn’t surprising Kai had a way with the Elders. In age they wouldn’t be deemed elderly, but the effects of lyrium confusion were comparable to senility. The old and the young were not dissimilar in some regards, and Kai related to children like no one else he knew. Even so, her conversation with Evald was still startling.

“Now child, our deal,” Evald insisted excitedly. They looked back to catch him pointing his finger at Kai with a wide smile.

Kai bowed her head respectfully. Her voice lilted as she spoke. “I did promise, didn’t l?”

“Promised what?” Cullen asked, flicking a glance at the others before looking back.

“To sing to him.” Michael explained thoughtfully. “If he would talk with her, she said he could ask for something in return. His first words were...sing for me.”

“He used to like someone singing for him,” Lysette reflected, a little sadly. “Until he...lost interest.”

Until the final stages of the addiction began was what she really meant. When the world around ceased to matter, when the music in their head became more real than the people around them. Cullen had heard some mages describe lyrium as singing to them. Templars in the last stages of the addiction spoke of the same, before they stopped communicating altogether. Death came shortly after.

They heard Kai. “So Evald, did you decide which song? Remember, I don’t know that many.”

“The Dawn Will Come?” Evald requested, virtually a plea as if she wouldn’t know it.

Kai chuckled brightly. “You’re in luck, I know that one. My mother used to sing it to me when I was little.”

“Mine too,” he replied with childlike eagerness.

Looking at Kai and Evald, Cullen reflected that for all their work here, sometimes they weren’t able to reach behind the faces to bring back some of who these people once were. They made certain the Elders were comfortable and safeguarded their doses after the episode with Palmer and Morris. Lysette even established a voluntary companion system, where she paired up two sufficiently recovered residents with an Elder, to provide company if they wished it.

But sometimes it wasn’t enough.

Sometimes it took a childlike woman to find that connection. A childlike woman who was now standing ready to sing to the eagerly awaiting Elder before her. Unlike the others, Cullen knew what was coming. It would be haunting and beautiful, but he worried the melancholy he heard in her voice last night might be too bleak.

When she began to sing though, Cullen couldn’t have been more mistaken.

“Shadows fall, and hope has fled, steel your heart, the dawn will come...”

Last night it felt like Kai was singing a lament, a bittersweet longing. Today it was like a clarion call to fight on, to not give up because there would be light however dark the journey to reach it. Hope may have fled in the words of the song, but not in Kai’s voice as she sang.

Cullen heard Lysette join in, then Eleanor and Michael, then the other companions there and some of the Elders began to sing. Even Evald was mouthing the words along with her. Cullen couldn’t help but join them, and by the second verse more voices were joining theirs. He scanned the courtyard seeing residents coming in through all the doors into the colonnade. More and more adding their voices to the song until it became an ocean of sound swelling louder and louder, as if to escape to the sky above.

But Kai’s attention was squarely on Evald, singing solely for him, and he was oblivious to all but her.

Cullen recalled Leliana’s words when they made Kai Inquisitor. Skyhold buzzed with excitement and optimism after Kai stood on the steps and made her pledge, holding aloft the Dragon greatsword.

“This is what she does, Cullen. They were cheering for her, not just because she is the Herald or Inquisitor, but because she offers them hope, and because they know she will always stand up for them.”

Kai’s voice was no longer audible, but it didn’t matter. The feeling of hope she initiated was spreading through the crowd of people there via the song itself. Hope that the long road those struggling through withdrawal wouldn’t be in vain; hope there would be second chance and a fresh start for those who had made it; and hope for the Elders that the light of the Maker would be waiting for them at the end of their hard journey.

Even though Cullen appreciated how human and fallible his wife was, in those moments with what sounded like the whole Sanctuary singing, he felt the sheer power of influence she could wield. Not to command as the Inquisitor, but to inspire as the Herald.

This was why Leliana and Cassandra agreed with the decision to disband the Inquisition; this was what they sought to protect, and to employ when the time arrived. Because they were conscious of something he didn’t discover until Kai told him. What she truly was.

But Cullen knew something they didn’t; what else lived inside Kai. Not all the hope she offered though the song would have originated from her. She was plainly drawing on the remnants of the spirit left behind. When she initially told him about the echoes as she called them, it disturbed him. Yet hearing her, watching what she did, it seemed both were bound together, but they reacted to her instead of the other way around. Last night her song reflected her sorrow, today her song offered the hope she wanted to give.

Did Kai even understand what was happening? Cullen wondered, unsure whether she did.

The song drew finally to a close, voices quietening, but the feeling of optimism it brought remained.

Kai offered Evald the Templar salute, and he returned his own as firmly as his trembling arm could manage. She then turned around seeing the courtyard crowded with the Sanctuary’s residents and saluted those there with a small bow. Almost as one, everyone responded in kind, the verbal affirmation sounding like rumble of joyous thunder.

As Kai looked to him, Cullen couldn’t help but grin, seeing her beam at him.

A male voice called out. “If there’s a vacancy on your squad, Inquisitor, I think there’s a candidate here who’d offer his...assistance.”

A ripple of laughter and more than a few sniggers followed the veiled insinuation. Cullen groaned faintly, recognising the voice. Stephan, their resident joker, who apparently had an ale or more already.

“Not again,” a female voice grumbled audibly.

And there was Alice, Cullen thought.

Stephan was in trouble yet again by the sound of it. On Alistair’s initial visit, Stephan offered him one of Alice’s blueberry pastries with the invitation to ‘slap your chops around that, Sire, and you won’t regret it’. Alice didn’t speak to him for three days when she heard what he said to the King. How long she’d refuse to talk to him this time was anyone’s guess.

Kai laughed, shouting back to Stephan. “I no longer have a squad, I’m retired.” She stared straight at Cullen with a smirk. “But I’d accept the candidate’s...assistance.”

This time the laughter was fuller, a few wolf whistles added. Cullen arched an eyebrow at her mock sternly. Her smile only broadened.

It was Eleanor who stepped in, chivying them all back to work. “C’mon you lot, we’re supposed to be getting ready for a party. Shake some legs.”

Stephan couldn’t resist a parting shot. “Not the only thing that’ll be shaking tonight.”

“That’s what you think,” Alice threw back before marching off in disgust.

Cullen never understood how their relationship worked as it did, but underneath his teasing and her irritation at his antics they were devoted to one another. Lysette insisted that without Stephan, Alice would have wavered in her withdrawal and perhaps even given up. Now they were both lyrium free, and hopefully still planning a life together.

As people filed out, Cullen looked back to see Kai bending down, Evald whispering in her ear. He saw her twitch ever so slightly before she recovered her composure, and straightened up, taking his hand to thank him. She stepped aside as Michael joined him.

Kai came to Cullen, seeming thoughtful.

“Are you alright?” Cullen asked.

“Yes,” she nodded reassuringly, settling her hand over his heart. “I am.” There was a quiet confidence in her voice, distinct from how she sounded since her arrival. “Does my husband have a few moments to spare his silly wife before ploughing back into the fray?” She smiled expectantly.

“As it happens, he does.” Cullen leant closer. “And...I might have something for you in my office,” he hinted temptingly.

“What is it?” Kai asked, curious.

“Wouldn’t you rather wait and see?” he suggested, tantalizing her to try to guess.

Kai tilted her head, searching his face. “Maybe I would,” was her enigmatic reply.

His surprise showed. “Really?”

“Really,” she echoed, and stepped back with a wink. “If you don’t keep a lady waiting too long.”

“I would never dream of keeping a lady waiting,” he declared with a modest bow, then smirked. “But for you...I’ll try.”

Kai rolled her eye, sighing exaggeratedly, which caused Cullen to chuckle. She fixed him with an amused stare.

“A gentleman...” she wiped the corner of his mouth with her index finger, holding it up to reveal a blueberry seed, “...wouldn’t have scoffed his blueberry pastry first. Not to mention flaunting the evidence.”

Cullen cleared his throat and gestured to the door. As Kai smiled smugly, and took a step forward, Cullen released his retort.

“They were still a little warm...before.”

Her smile was supplanted by a muffled groan. “Bugger,” she muttered, with a sigh. The smile suddenly came back. “It was in a good cause though, Cullen.”

He blinked a smile in acknowledgment. “A very good cause, Kai.”

Kai turned, still smiling, and headed off out. Cullen could swear there was a lightness in her step not there before.

It is ever the darkest before dawn, he recalled his mother saying to him, but the sun always rises. It was likewise true for flashes of insight, often striking in what were desperate moments.

It would take time for Solas to realise his plans, and with the Inquisition soon to be over, Kai lacked a more immediate focus, a purpose, something she’d always had. He could offer Kai a purpose here with him, to utilise what she possessed for good, providing encouragement and hope to the people here. He knew it would help her too, because he’d just seen it happen. What she did here reflected back on her. As long as they both were sensible and eased back on her dark days, Cullen believed it could work.

And this time it could be a purpose born not out of duty or obligation, but out of choice. Her choice if...she wished it. A second chance for the woman who offered the same to so many.

Tonight too may not turn out be the disaster he imagined it to be, although he would still make certain there were safeguards when she left.

Maybe sometimes things do happen for a reason, he thought.

Cullen smiled, catching up with Kai as they headed back to his office.

Chapter Text

Cullen glanced at Kai to see her staring with a strained expression. A knot of worry instantly formed in his gut.

Is she struggling? I should...

Kai caught his gaze, immediately offering a reassuring smile, and the knot quickly dissipated realising she wasn’t seeking his help. Her smile was genuine, a wordless instruction telling him not to worry. Whatever disturbed her seemed to have passed. Cullen gave Kai a questioning look, a silent ‘are you alright’, getting a slow blink to say ‘I am’.

Although Kai was in a happier mood now, earlier she’d been in profound distress. Cullen knew traumatised people did not simply turn a corner and get better. There were relapses, often coming on unexpectedly, a fact he was all too conscious of. Sometimes it manifested as fear, sometimes as anger. Kai, never one to do things by halves, managed to run through a slew of emotions in the space of minutes.

You knew what you were getting, she would joke. Now there was an added twist. Who was he getting? Cullen sought not to dwell on the thought; his focus had to remain on helping Kai.

A polite cough reminded Cullen his ostensibly quick check distracted him from the conversation with Alistair.

Cullen cleared his throat. “Sorry, I was just...”

“...looking out for her,” Alistair finished, returning his attention to Cullen “Understandable, she is more subdued these days. Clearly all this business has taken a toll on her, but...I’m sure having you around now will help.”

Although meant as encouragement, there was no mistaking the intent in Alistair's remark. Look after her.

It wasn’t unexpected. Kai and Alistair had been friends for longer than Cullen knew her, bonded initially through shared loss and subsequently by friendship. Kai didn’t spot the darted look in her direction after Alistair spoke of loyalty, a quality held in regard by Fereldans. Loyalty to an old friend that Alistair could not maintain as King. No matter that Kai would understand, the apology Alistair sent revealed personal regret for the steps he was obligated to take.

Before Cullen could respond, Alistair pointed his beer bottle at him, announcing cheerfully, “Right then, let’s go see this enormous nug.”

No wonder Alistair and Kai were friends, Cullen thought.

The sudden shift in tone and the delight in his face could have easily come from her. It prompted an idea, the chance to pull Alistair’s leg a little.

“Of course,” Cullen nodded, straight faced. “It should be safe now.”

“Safe?” Alistair asked, mystified, likely wondering what made Tiddles ‘unsafe’.

Cullen smirked. “Tiddles devoured a rather large lunch, but the aftereffects should have worn off.”

Realisation dawned on Alistair’s face. “Ohhh...” He then grinned, as though a thought suddenly struck him. “Maybe I should get one for Anora.”

Cullen wondered why an oversized, flatulent nug would make a good present, but thought twice about actually asking. Sometimes, it was better not to know. Setting off to the stables, Cullen glanced once more in Kai’s direction as they left. She was still watching and raised an inquiring eyebrow. A clear indication she wanted to know everything when he returned.

“Well!” Alistair exclaimed, looking bemused when he finally saw Tiddles. He stepped closer, settling his hand on her flank. “Just checking she’s real,” he added with a wink, making Cullen laugh.

“She created a fair bit of amusement on her arrival,” Cullen told him, as Alistair walked around her, examining Tiddles while she stood there placidly.

“I’ll bet,” Alistair replied, with a wry chuckle. “Never one to do things by halves is Kai.”

“That’s for certain,” Cullen agreed, with a resigned sigh.

Alistair hummed in recognition, and faced Cullen, observing him closely. “Did she mention my ‘little request’?”

“She did,” Cullen acknowledged.

The ‘little request’ was actually a considerable responsibility and demonstrated trust in Kai. With the Inquisition soon to be gone and Kai no longer Inquisitor, even Teagan wouldn’t oppose Kai's involvement. No matter his hostility to the Inquisition, his regard for Kai personally appeared to remain, revealed in the brief but telling note to her following the official disbanding. How ‘Redcliffe remembered its saviour’.

Regardless of the Inquisition’s infiltration, her team’s actions at Halamshiral ensured the nations of Southern Thedas still had their freedom, and some citizens, their lives. An achievement short lived should Solas succeed in his objective, and none of them wished to see that come to fruition.

When Kai told him of Alistair’s request, Cullen was initially surprised. Not that she was considered; there was no doubt she’d do her utmost to protect and guide the child should the worst occur. What surprised Cullen was that she hadn’t said yes straight away. Even though Kai promised they would make important decisions together, he half suspected she might carry on as before, taking decisions, and only then informing him. He sometimes wondered how she viewed him, as her husband or her Commander.

But Kai was true to her promise, and he should have had more faith in her. Of course he agreed, recognising how important this was.

 

Kai rightly pointed out, “It’s not just to support my family; this is for your homeland too.”

“Don’t you mean our homeland?” he corrected, smiling as he offered his hand to her.

“Quite right. Ours.” She smiled back, tucking her hand into his.

 

“And?” Alistair queried, stroking Tiddles who snorted contentedly.

Although they all recognised Kai would agree to Alistair's request, he needed to understand now was not the time to rush her into any sort of preparation.

Cullen exhaled. “Truthfully, if it was right now I would have concerns, but, given time I believe she’d be ready.”

Alistair grinned. “Great! And I do understand. But...it wasn’t all I had to ask of you both.”

Cullen inclined his head, intrigued as to what else Alistair had in mind.

“And before you give me an answer,” Alistair continued, the grin easing into an astute smile, “I suspect you will wish to talk with Kai.”

Cullen's gaze widened and Alistair chuckled. “Don’t worry this one is right up your street.”

Alistair’s light-hearted manner then altered into one more...royal, and Cullen found himself reflexively straightening up. Kai had previously cautioned him, ‘don’t let Alistair’s amiable disposition fool you into thinking he doesn’t take his role seriously. He just doesn’t let it rule him.’ Cullen should have reminded Kai of those words. Whether it would have made a difference was another matter.

“The Crown...wishes to engage you as a military advisor to Fereldan forces," Alistair announced. “Obviously we would recompense you for your time, and I would imagine the coin might assist with supporting the Sanctuary.”

Cullen’s mouth opened before he promptly closed it. Whatever he might have imagined, it wasn’t this. The momentary shock passing, he recognised Alistair was asking on behalf of the Crown, of the office rather than himself. Monarchs were merely occupants of the office, ruling Ferelden at the pleasure of the Landsmeet and the people. Even those with long bloodlines. His conversations with Kai about protocol, and the nuances between office and individual, came into their own. At least the times he paid sufficient attention.

“Twice in one day, I’m getting good at this,” Alistair murmured to himself before continuing. “I appreciate your focus is the Sanctuary, but I’m certain we can find a way to minimise disruption to your work here.” He leaned forward slightly, his official manner easing into a smile. “I have it on good authority you’re quite adept with the old planning.”

An involuntary chuckle burst out. “I may have had a bit of practice,” Cullen remarked, his mind already running through the ramifications of what he was being asked to do.

“You know Ferelden doesn’t function like the Inquisition, and we’re not suggesting you recreate that,” Alistair explained. “A single standing army under Royal command won’t work here. However, there’s much to be gained with improved training and organisation for the forces we have. Ferelden must be ready for whenever and wherever a threat may arise, which means we have to be flexible.” His tone became insistent. “Past events have proved how badly things go wrong when command becomes fixated on one threat at the expense of all others.”

Both knew who Alistair referred to.

Alistair paused and cleared his throat, softening his stance. “That’s why we need someone like you, someone well used to handling all manner of...weird things.”

Cullen nodded in recognition. He certainly had experience with ‘weird things’, and not merely from his time with the Inquisition. Alistair’s request to provide his skill and knowledge was an honour, and both understood Cullen wouldn’t say no. Kai too would appreciate the importance, and he may require her support.

She already had ties with a number of Fereldan houses, some of whom he’d be liaising with, and there was her familial relationship with the next King and Queen. It would make his task easier when submitting proposals for improvement. Fereldans were by and large a stubborn people, so smoothing the path, as Josephine often put it, would come in handy. First the Couslands, then him and Kai; it appeared Alistair and Anora had mapped out their preparation in remarkable detail.

Now Cullen had to be equally meticulous in balancing a growing list of duties. Cassandra was correct, neither he nor Kai would be afforded a normal life, but if he planned this right, he could ensure there was sufficient time set aside to help her. Time needed now rather than later. Assessments could be staggered, but her recovery couldn’t.

Cullen had just one question. “Would I be given free rein on the initial assessments, timescales and such?”

“Of course,” Alistair confirmed.

“In that case,” Cullen replied, “I’ll speak with Kai and give you an answer.”

“Good,” Alistair acknowledged. “Though I daresay she’ll be pestering you first. I could feel her watching us when we left.” Alistair chuckled. “And that one,” he pointed the ale bottle, sloshing the contents, “is relentless when she sets her mind to it.”

Cullen sighed a groan. “You have no idea.”

“Actually I do,” Alistair claimed, nodding as Cullen gave him an inquiring look. “And for something you’d least expect in the circumstances. It was the first time I found myself facing Kai’s determination; when I finally understood what Aedan said about her.”

“What was it?” Cullen questioned, skirting the reference to Aedan Cousland.

Alistair chuckled ironically. “The statue of Loghain in Denerim. After what he did, I was against anything which recognised the man. Kai persuaded me otherwise. She said, ‘bite down your anger, be gracious in victory and do it for Anora. Whatever else she did, she publicly stood with you and Aedan against a father she loved, losing him in the duel. You’re acknowledging her courage and her loss, not Loghain, and she will be grateful’. Bear in mind this was from someone who had little warm feeling toward Anora or Loghain herself.”

He paused, breathing out slowly. “And she was right. Much I still dislike having the damn thing around, Anora goes there every year to lay flowers, and it gives her peace. Agreeing to it went quite a way in making things between us less...fraught.” He smiled with a shrug. “Who knew one compromise would have such a lasting impact.”

Cullen smiled back. “I see your point.”

“Funny where decisions can take you,” Alistair mused, inclining his head. “When we first met all those years ago, I don’t expect either of imagined we’d be where we are now.”

Cullen rubbed the back of his neck. “Particularly as it wasn’t the most promising first meeting. I wasn’t...”

Alistair raised his hand, stopping Cullen. “I understand,” he said sympathetically. “Had I not become a Warden, who knows, I might have ended up at Kinloch too, and my fate the same.”

Alistair paused briefly as if gathering his thoughts. His subsequent words and hopeful smile revealed why. Unlike Kai, Alistair had two requests for Cullen.

“Cullen, you understand what it’s like to deal with...difficult situations. Do a favour for an old friend, and bring her through this.”

“I give you my word,” Cullen pledged, offering the salute both knew well.

“In that case, my work here is done,” Alistair declared happily. He turned and gave Tiddles a solid pat on her flank. “What do you say, Tiddles?”

A loud retort answered him as Tiddles let out an explosive fart, accompanied by an overpowering aroma. The two former Templars clapped their hands over their faces with a joint exclamation of ‘Maker’s breath!’ as they bolted from the stables. Both would claim the snort they heard when leaving sounded suspiciously like a laugh.

=====

Kai munched on her grilled chicken sandwich, pondering on Alistair’s motive for pulling Cullen away to see Tiddles. It was definitely a ruse; the question was, what for? She swallowed her mouthful and resolved to find out when they returned. She also had to assure Cullen he didn’t need to keep watching out for her; he had enough to do already. In turn, she had to remember her training, and not let every random thought show, making him worry.

As Cullen stood with Alistair picking up bottles of ale, she reflected on how well he looked; healthy, his mind intact and free of the leash she saw afflicting the Elders. Free from the possible future which was their actual present.

Seeing the Elders didn’t have the distressing effect Lysette and Eleanor thought it might, possibly because she wasn’t a Templar. What Kai saw were simply people, some frail, some lost and some both. They didn’t warrant pity, pity made you less than a person. They deserved better, they deserved to be treated with compassion and consideration. The sacrifices she’d made were minor in comparison to what these men and women surrendered.

Yet in the back of her mind was another, more troubling thought. This might have been Cullen’s fate had things gone differently.

Thankfully they hadn’t, but it set her thinking. His fate, everything he was now, rested on a single decision made after Adamant. A decision she let him make thinking it was his to do so. What if she had been wrong? What if Cullen had chosen to resume taking lyrium? Would she have accepted his decision, or would she have sought to discourage him?

And if he had gone down that road again, would he, could he, have weaned himself off it a second time? The feeling of empowerment it offered might have been too difficult to relinquish after months of pain and struggle. Kai only experienced one dose, but the effect lingered even after she and Estre were separated. Like a faint song calling to her, ultimately fading. It wasn’t a surprise, bearing in mind what she was, and what lyrium actually was. Titan's blood.

Her fear was for Cullen though. He could have been locked into a future lost to the addiction as the Elders were; tied to ancient being's life force. Ice cold dread slithered down her spine at the prospect, and it must have shown in her face. She caught Cullen watching her, brows wrinkled in concern. Kai quickly smiled to reassure him, and he relaxed.

She had to be more circumspect around him in future.

“Your Worship?” Cora called.

An accompanying soft tap on her thigh came from Lace, a technique she used in public if Kai was distracted. She turned to see Cora watching her, clearly still loath to use her name.

Kai smiled kindly. “Cora, please call me Kai.”

“I...” Cora fidgeted uneasily in her seat, glancing down.

Occasionally people were reluctant to use her name, worrying it may be disrespectful. But eventually they relented. Cora’s unwillingness seemed to go deeper than appearing impolite. Kai sought to calm her agitation.

“I’m sorry,” Kai apologised. “I didn’t mean to...”

“Ohh,” Cora sighed plaintively, clasping her hands. “It’s not you, it’s...” she sighed again, and stared pleadingly at her daughter.

“Ma, what’s wrong?” Lace asked softly, settling her hand on her mother’s.

Cora beckoned to her, Lace listening closely as she whispered. Whatever this was, Cora appeared embarrassed to say it out loud. From the exchanged glances, Kai wasn’t the only one curious as to what it could be. Conscious not to exacerbate Cora’s discomfort, everyone at the table continued eating and drinking. Only the chatter lessened. Suddenly Lace’s expression changed, and just as swiftly she steadied it. It was a familiar look, the one people got when hearing something awkward and at the same time funny. Kai was now intrigued.

When Cora finished, Lace whispered back to her mother’s visible relief, nodding her agreement. Lace turned to Kai with an eye flick to move closer, and Kai leaned forward fixing her expression, just in case. As Lace whispered the story to her, Kai was grateful for Leliana's training.

The problem seemed to be a demon rooster from Cora’s childhood. Not an actual demon, just a violently aggressive bird, although she wouldn’t have been shocked to discover it was possessed. It terrorised Cora and her father whenever they had to feed the chickens they kept, yet was as good as gold around her mother who maintained they weren’t handling him properly. After several fruitless attempts to ‘lose’ the rooster, Cora and her father finally succeeded.

The demon rooster became a distant memory until she discovered Katarina Rutherford called herself Kai...the same name as this creature. She could cope with others using the name, but Cora couldn’t bring herself to do so, and in her mind equate the Herald of Andraste with a lunatic bird.

Although Kai had never been called a bird, her sanity had been challenged on occasion. Perhaps the comparison wasn’t so strange.

Demon poultry aside, she had an idea to ease Cora’s discomfort. Not one Kai usually suggested, but Lace had sacrificed an ordinary life to support her so this was an opportunity to offer something in return, however modest.

Kai smiled sympathetically at Cora. “I quite understand,” she comforted, seeing a relieved sigh. “And I have a suggestion.” She paused, bracing herself for the reaction. “Why don’t you call me Katarina instead?”

The table came to a hushed stop as everyone except Cora and Wulfram stared at Kai in disbelief. Those close to her knew of Kai’s aversion to her names. Only a few people aside from her parents got away with using them; Leliana, Cullen, Alistair, and one other but only in particular circumstances. The remarks were not long coming.

Mia broke the astonished silence. “Cora,” she called, getting her attention, “you do realise you have joined an exclusive group.”

“Indeed,” Cassandra nodded, seemingly earnest. “Only the privileged are permitted to address her so.”

“Quite momentous wouldn’t you say?” Branson suggested straight faced, to hummed nods of agreement.

Rosalie coughed affectedly. “Should we mark it in some way?”

Kai simply sighed. It could have been worse.

Cora stared around confused, then at Lace as if to ask ‘should I?’ Lace patted her mother’s hand, blinking a yes.

“Just do as she asks, Ma. It’s fine.”

“Oh, alright then.” Cora relaxed, beaming gratefully at Kai. “Thank you, Your...Katarina.”

Hearing Cora’s slip, Branson grinned, spotting an opportunity. “Your Katarina. Hmm, I like that. Maybe I can...”

Kai’s arched brow and reproving stare cut him off, but the grin persisted.

Rosalie nudged her brother, tutting. “Bran, you should know better than to annoy a trained assassin,” she cautioned.

Branson waved away her words with an amused scoff. “Don’t worry, sis.” He swung to Kai. “You wouldn’t dream of harming your beloved brother-in-law would you...Your Katarina?”

Kai stared back impassively, spying a chance to tease him. Like some men, Branson favoured looser breeches with braces for comfort, but unlike most he occasionally wore nothing underneath, as she’d accidentally discovered in his workshop on her initial visit to South Reach. Fortunately for both it was only a flash of bare buttocks, but that knowledge now came in handy.

“I would never dream of harming my beloved brother-in-law,” Kai echoed. “But...if you chose to title me so...” she leaned forward, expression determined, “...I could sneak behind you, slice through those braces and be away before your breeches reached your ankles.”

As Branson gawped wide eyed at Kai, she didn’t falter. Knowing their brother’s habit, Mia and Rosalie cottoned on instantly and started laughing, the rest joining in although unaware of the joke. Branson, wary that she meant it, continued watching Kai, so she broke her expression with a huge grin.

He blew out a relieved breath, shaking his head. “Maker’s balls! For a minute you had me going there.”

“Bran,” Mia called, catching her breath as the remnants of mirth persisted. Branson faced her. “She may be joking, but I wouldn’t test that out if I were you.”

“Wait till I tell Ari,” Rosalie giggled. “She’ll love...”

“Rosie, no!” Branson panicked. “She’d milk this for all its worth.”

“What...is it worth?” Rosalie intoned sneakily.

Branson narrowed his eyes with a groan, realising he’d been out manoeuvred by his sibling. Kai spotted Mia watching them with a smug smile.

“Alright,” he sighed in defeat. “I’ll finish the door for you and fit it.”

Rosalie kissed Branson on the cheek, beaming. “Thanks, Bran.”

Branson looked to Mia. “I suppose I need to buy your silence too,” he grumbled.

Mia tilted her head, puckering her lips. “Hmm, not yet. I’ll let you know when I’m calling it in.”

Branson exhaled heavily, glancing up and then around the table. “Anyone else want to blackmail a poor cabinet maker?” he inquired, lifting his palms in mock supplication.

“Oh please!” Mia scoffed, snorting a laugh. “You easily dish out worse.”

Cora smiled. “I can see you’re close. Only family comfortable with one another tease so openly.”

Branson grinned. “I suppose we are. Much as my sisters and brother give me grief...” there was a marked clearing of the throat from Mia and raised eyebrows from Rosalie, “...we get on fine.”

“We get by,” Mia added casually.

Rosalie gave a happy sigh. “Even better now Cullen’s back.”

“True,” Branson agreed, with a slight nod. “But I’ve still got quite a few years of teasing to make up with him.”

Another round of laughter erupted, notably from those who knew Cullen well.

Cora was correct in her observation. There was an undeniable bond amongst the Rutherford siblings, born out of their closeness growing up, and nurtured by their late parents. A world away from the expectations of duty marking Kai’s childhood. Instead, she and Lyssa formed their own little family. Kai idly wondered if perhaps her upbringing had been ordinary, she might have been more restrained in her sense of duty, and maybe hers and Cullen’s marriage might not have suffered as it had. She would never know.

Kai suddenly remembered. Before this started, Cora was trying to get her attention.

“I’m sorry, Cora, you wanted to say something...earlier?”

“Oh yes,” she confirmed, “It was a question, actually. Wulf and I,” Cora glanced at her husband, “well, we were wondering about dragons. What are they like up close?”

Kai had a hunch as to what this was really about; the episode with the Hivernal dragon. The story had escaped the Inquisition and taken on legs, or should it be wings. From repeated retellings it had altered from an accidental landing onto a dragon and flying around for some minutes, to a full scale ride with reins and a saddle. Some versions even had the dragon in residence at Skyhold as Kai’s personal transport.

Was my life seen as so weird that people accepted such nonsense?

Evidently yes, judging by the popularity of Varric’s book. Lace's parents would know the real story at least, but even people who did were fascinated with what it felt like to ride a dragon. Kai assiduously avoided the topic around Cullen as the tale of ‘Dragonrider Trevelyan’ remained a sore spot with him, and considering Cora and Wulfram waited until he was gone to ask, Lace likely warned them.

“We’ve only seen one flying overhead, the dragon near Redcliffe,” Wulfram added, with a glance at Cora who nodded. “Before you took care of it.”

“Yes, I remember that one,” Cassandra recalled wearily, rolling her eyes. “Rushing around, trying to dodge flames and not run into mounds of dragon dung as big as a house. I ended up too close to one and a torrent of flame clearly meant for me caught it instead.” She groaned and shuddered. “Ugh, the smell was indescribable.”

As fulsome laughter greeted her words, she added dryly, “trust me, fighting them is not as glamorous as it sounds.”

Kai waited for the laughter to abate, then answered Cora’s question.

“When you’re really close, you can feel the raw power and magic,” Kai explained, “like...a hum resonating through your whole body.”

Cassandra snorted a laugh. “Some of us closer than others.”

Kai smiled, scratching her head. “Admittedly that time...was a little too close.”

“We heard what happened from Lace,” Wulfram solicited, apparently wanting more.

“I expect most of Thedas has heard that tale,” Branson laughed. “It’s fun watching my brother groan and change the subject if we mention it.” He looked to Kai. “Clearly not his favourite story.”

She shook her head, pressing her lips together to say ‘I keep quiet’. Branson didn’t though, regarding it as an excuse to tease Cullen.

Kai may have got away with strict instructions never to get into the same position again, but she knew not to press the subject with Cullen. He wasn’t aware of her other escapades, clambering atop dragons to kill them...yet. Apart from the time in the Frostback Basin. Then, the threat she posed was more compelling than the manner in which she killed Hakkon. But those were confessions for another day.

Maker only knew what he’d say when he learned it wasn’t the first time.

“Cullen was obviously not amused at the time,” Cassandra remarked, “judging by the lecture the rest of us received for allowing it to happen.”

“What was it like though? Flying around on its back I mean,” Cora asked, face bright with curiosity.

“Scary, because I don’t like heights,” Kai admitted to a chorus of laughter. “But...a tad exciting too,” she added, grinning enthusiastically.

That’s what concerned Cullen,” Mia observed, arching an eyebrow with a modest smile.

“I know,” Kai exhaled. “When Lace reported there was a dragon in the Hissing Wastes, Sera insisted on tagging along. For her go she claimed. Cullen heard about it and was most insistent.” Kai wagged her finger, glancing around as she mimicked Cullen. “ ‘If Sera wants to pull some insane manoeuvre on the blasted thing that’s her business, but you stay well clear, understood'.”

“That’s not bad,” Branson approved with a smirk. “Get the pitch lower and you’re practically there.”

“It’s trickier with male voices,” Kai explained. “But nailing the inflection and accent at least gives a flavour of the person.”

Rosalie was still processing the notion of someone actually intending to climb atop a dragon. “Your friend wanted to do the same?” she asked incredulously.

Kai nodded. “She didn’t manage to, but not for want of trying. Sera even asked Bull to throw her up onto its back, right in the middle of the battle.”

“Not surprising,” Cassandra scoffed “Sera is quite mad.”

“Even Bull thought that was nuts,” Kai laughed, as those sitting opposite looked over her shoulder. “And he’s no stranger to doing crazy things.”

A familiar deep voice came from behind. “That’s because I’ve spent the last few years working with you, Boss.”

As louder laughter met Bull’s observation, Kai turned around with a broad smile to see Bull, Cole, and Grim wandering over.

“You have a point there, Bull,” she accepted, then furrowed her brows questioningly. “You’re early?”

Prior to her return from Ostwick, word reached her Advisory Council about pockets of demons appearing near Lake Calenhad. With the closeness to Redcliffe, Rylen was hesitant to commit Inquisition forces, so the Chargers took on the job with Cole going along. His ability to sense things was useful, and he and Cole had gelled into a fighting unit of their own.

“Went quicker than expected,” Bull replied with a shrug. “Took out those we found, left Krem doing a few last sweeps with the rest of the Chargers, and headed here.” Bull’s sideways eye flick at Cole told her this was his idea. “And it seems we timed it right. Looks like someone’s having a party.”

“King Alistair’s suggestion,” Kai told him. “He came along with Lace’s parents.” She motioned to Cora and Wulfram sitting beside Lace. “May I introduce Cora and Wulfram Harding, without whom we wouldn’t have the amazing Lace Harding.”

A swift prod in the side by Lace answered Kai’s lavish compliment. She offered an innocent smile in return, catching Lace roll her eyes.

Bull nodded politely to Cora and Wulfram. “Good to meet you. You’ve a fine daughter there. Nifty with the old bow too.”

Wulfram cleared his throat, doubtless thinking of the story about the bandits. “So we’ve discovered.”

“The King presented her with a medal earlier,” Cora added proudly as Lace blushed.

Bull gave Lace a wink with a simple, “Well deserved too.” She smiled a thank you at the lack of fuss. “So then, where’s the food and drink?” Bull grinned expectantly. “On the road all day, we’ve worked up a bit of a thirst, not to mention an appetite.”

“It’s just as well we stocked up then,” Mia observed, Bull meeting her gaze. “Last time you were here, the Chargers practically drank my sister-in-law’s tavern dry.”

Bull furrowed his brows briefly as he stared at her, then grinned. “You’re one of Cullen’s sisters.” He scanned the table, momentarily halting at Rosalie before exchanging nods with Cassandra and then greeting Branson. “Hey Bran, how you doing?”

Branson raised his hand in greeting with a smirk. “Fine, as long as I stay away from another drinking bout with you lot. Ari asked me to tell you she had the cards ready.”

Bull threw his head back with a raucous laugh. “Nice try, but once was enough. She not here?”

Branson shook his head. “No staff tonight, so she’s working. Little un’s with her sister.”

“Right,” Bull nodded.

When the Chargers came to South Reach before, they ended up at the Fennec’s Tale, Ariane’s tavern on the edge of town. The first and last visit as it turned out; they were politely asked to leave by the Mayor, after collapsing a hill to the annoyance of some local residents.

When Branson found out who they were, he joined them wanting to hear about their adventures, and no doubt fishing for juicy snippets. Recounting stories turned into a drinking session with Branson ending up drunk, stripped naked to the waist and standing on one of the tables outside, singing the Chargers' chant at the top of his voice. He ended with a flourish, overbalanced and tumbled off, lurching into nearby bushes before passing out.

Bull and Grim carried him inside, apologising to Ariane as they put him to bed. She just grinned with a nonchalant wave of the hand, saying ‘It’s fine, that’s just Bran. I’ll have my fun in the morning’. Then, rather than sending them away as they imagined, Ariane sat with Bull and some of the Chargers, trouncing them in a game of Wicked Grace. Like the Rutherford siblings, Ariane and her sister were refugees from the Blight ending up in South Reach. Evidently surviving that horror either made you or broke you. Ariane, her sister and Cullen’s siblings were definitely in the former group.

Bull stroked his chin, his gaze flicking between Rosalie and Mia. “Hmm, looks like both sisters are here. Let’s see if I can guess who’s who.”

Far from being a guess, Bull would have already worked it out. This was the first time he met them, but he had sufficient knowledge about the two sisters to spot the difference with how they sat watching him. Physical similarity aside, the siblings’ personalities were distinctive. Mia gave little away while Rosalie smiled expectantly. Bull contemplated for a moment, chiefly for effect, and then pointed each one out to Rosalie’s exclamation.

“How did you guess?”

Bull winked, with a wry smile. “I just have a knack for these things.”

His former Ben-Hassrath status was known to those around Kai. However, revealing it in the prevailing post-Exalted Council climate was not the best idea. The same went for Cole. Although less unusual now he was more human, they nevertheless had to be circumspect. Few outside her Advisors and companions knew what Cole was, and not all the Templars here were from the Inquisition where he was accepted as simply a little weird.

Kai’s position was not dissimilar. Luckily even fewer knew about her, all of whom she trusted implicitly. She would never regain her relative anonymity, but surrendering the role of Inquisitor might bring less scrutiny. Her losses aside, the amount of times she cheated death could seem suspicious to someone who was inquisitive enough, someone who may not accept the perceived wisdom that the Maker protected Andraste's Herald.

Kai would be more than curious if was someone else in her position.

But tonight all that could be set aside for relaxation and fun, and as Kai looked around, she couldn’t have been in better company. For the first time in a while, she felt more hopeful. She had her friends and two families, one with Cullen’s siblings, and the other with Lyssa, Fergus and their children. Most of all she had a chance to reconcile with the man she loved.

Remaining introductions made, Bull and Grim headed for the food and booze while Cole sat beside Cassandra. Once suspicious, Cassandra had come to trust him. Kai believed Cole recovering her locket from the rat was the turning point. The tiny painted portrait of Anthony inside was the only thing Cassandra had to remember her brother by. Sometimes the smallest of actions rippled out further than imagined, and Cole being more human also made him easier to relate to. He still struggled on occasion, but had grown to the point he now had a girlfriend, Maryden.

Cole proved a spirit could be more than a purpose. That with enough will and self-awareness they could break from the singular constraint to develop into an individual with their own personality, and yet not lose the attribute which previously governed them.

Kai smiled as she glanced around the table. Cullen often claimed she surrounded herself with a peculiar assortment of people, and except for Vivienne, they were people she trusted and valued as friends. Even Solas, when he was with the Inquisition. His motives for helping them may have been for a darker purpose, but he had been a friend and wasn’t without honour. Yet if they couldn’t stop him through persuasion, she would have no qualms about taking on both him and whatever forces he gathered, to save her world. And he knew that.

======

Arriving back with Alistair, Cullen found Bull holding court beside his wife, Cole sitting with Cassandra, and Grim, one of Bull’s people, at the end of the table.

They’re early, Cullen thought, frowning as his mind leapt straight to the most immediate worry. Cole and his utterances, in a Sanctuary full of former Templars.

Not everyone here was as pragmatic as him or Rylen; some were fairly dogmatic in their views about spirits and demons. The intended overnight stay would have been easier to handle. Now they’d be here for another two days at least, if the scheduled visit held to time, which was looking less likely. Cullen needed Kai to speak with Cole, to ask him to moderate his ‘help’ whilst here.

Cullen took a breath to ease his thoughts and walked up to the table, tapping Bull on the shoulder. “Hello Bull.”

Bull swung around with a broad grin. “Cullen!” he greeted him heartily. “Don’t worry; I was just keeping the seat warm for you.”

Bull shuffled aside allowing Cullen to reclaim his spot. He saw Cole shifting along the bench allowing Alistair to retake his seat next to Cassandra. Although less worried about Alistair than the residents here, probably because he came into contact with stranger things during the Blight, Cullen remained wary. At least Cassandra was on hand and could step in if things became too...odd.

Cullen’s attention was attracted by Bull pushing a glass in front of him.

“Here, try this,” Bull offered.

Aware of the strange concoctions Bull favoured, Cullen stared at it suspiciously before glancing to see what Kai was drinking. The liquid in her glass appeared identical, reinforcing his suspicion it was some revolting mixture. How the two of them stomached the stuff they drank remained a mystery.

“What...is it?” Cullen asked warily.

Bull laughed and turned the bottle around. “Don’t worry, it’s only cinnamon whisky.”

Cullen read the label to be sure, only then risking a small sip. He was fond of cinnamon and whisky, but never thought of the two together. It was surprisingly smooth and warming, and not at all appalling.

“This is...rather good,” he exclaimed, taking a bigger sip this time. “I’m surprised, considering your usual choices.”

Bull chortled. “Variety is the spice and all that. Sometimes a tickle is nicer than a bite.”

As Cullen raised his glass, his gaze fell on Cole again, now speaking to Alistair. Cullen hesitated, wondering what nugget of insight he might be revealing to the King.

A Sanctuary full of former Templars, the King of Ferelden, and Cole here for another couple of days at least. What could conceivably go wrong? Cullen sighed inwardly and took a mouthful of whisky.

A soft voice whispered in his ear. “Don’t worry, he won’t invite unnecessary attention.

Cullen faced Kai, seeing her comforting smile. “I hope you’re right,” he whispered back.

She gave a reassuring wink, and tipped her head questioningly in Alistair’s direction. “So?”

It didn’t take her long, Cullen thought. “Later,” he promised.

Kai sighed reluctantly. “All...right.” A cheeky grin burst out. “Amongst...other things?” she whispered.

Cullen smirked. “Later.”

She sighed again rolling her eye. It was always funnier when she did that, and Cullen couldn’t help but grin. Seeing his wife more like herself felt as warming as the whisky inside him. Cullen rested the back of his hand lightly against her thigh. A tiny upturn in the side of her mouth meant she understood, deftly moving her hand down and brushing her fingers over his palm. Another of the little gestures they adopted for reassurance when they couldn’t be free with one another in official settings. They didn’t need to be clandestine in the same manner here, but occasionally it was nice to have some privacy.

However, it seemed their action did not go unnoticed.

“So,” Bull cleared his throat. “I guess you two are...?” He left the obvious question hanging.

Cullen and Kai exchanged glances. Consideration for two close friends was his main motive in asking, but as they discovered, not the only one. She gestured with her eye to say ‘all yours’.

“We are,” Cullen confirmed, smiling as he faced Bull.

Bull’s grin widened, no doubt believing he’d won the wager with Dorian. “I’m happy you are.”

The grin eased a little as he leaned in, lowering his voice. “Just one piece of advice...don’t fuck it up this time. That said,” he winked, raising his glass to them, “I can’t think of a better cause for celebration.” Bull drained the glass with a satisfied sigh.

His delight at their reconciliation was genuine and Cullen hesitated, wondering if this was the right time mention the wager. His wife on the other hand, clearly had no such qualms. As Bull reached for the bottle of cinnamon whiskey to pour out more, Cullen heard Kai.

“That’s so...spooky,” she gasped.

Bull stopped and stared at her, mystified. “What is?”

Her wide-eyed expression didn’t waver. “Dorian said exactly the same thing.”

It was no longer than a few seconds, but Bull’s face transformed from confusion to understanding to realisation that he’d lost the wager. A few choice curses were muttered along with a frustrated grunt, before shifting his gaze to Kai.

She stared back with a shrewd smile. “How much?”

Rather than appearing caught out, Bull shrugged, grinning. “Nothing I can’t make up, plus the Chargers get a settlement like everybody in the Inquisition.”

Kai threw back her head and laughed. A beautiful rich melodious sound that hitched mid laugh, making Cullen smile to hear it. This time it seemed lighter, as if from some part of her unaffected by the trauma she suffered. Whatever she was, whoever she was, or whatever she carried, he was grateful to see her like this. It gave him hope, for her.

Kai’s mirth drew Lace’s attention. “What’s tickled you?” she inquired, grinning.

As Kai explained, Bull murmured an aside to Cullen. “She’s looking better.”

Cullen whispered back, still smiling. “She is.”

“It’ll take time,” Bull advised.

“I know,” Cullen blinked.

Both knew there was more to be said, and with the extended stay the two of them would have the time to talk. For now, Bull simply acknowledged Cullen’s reply with a slight nod, and turned his attention to Grim.

“Hey Grim, you bring your fiddle? We could do with some music. Liven this party up a bit.”

Grim grunted a nod, rootling around in a bag at his feet, eventually pulling out a smaller bag, and within that one was a battered violin and bow. Somehow Cullen had never imagined Grim as musical, but he knew little about him other than he was a talented warrior, and seldom spoke or changed his expression. When Grim began to play, Cullen could have sworn he’d been switched with an altogether different person. He was smiling; the violin in his hands an extension of the man, notes flowing seamlessly as if was no more effort than breathing.

Heads turned to discover where the music was coming from, first stopping to listen, then some smiling and others tapping along with the lively reel.

“Maker, he’s good,” Branson grinned. “We should get people dancing.”

The two former Templars and the Seeker sitting at the table burst out laughing at Branson’s remark.

Cassandra turned to a bemused Branson sitting beside her. “Dancing is not one of the requisite skills taught to trainee Templars, or Seekers.”

“That’s a shame,” Rosalie reflected. “Dancing is fun.”

“I think that’s why they never taught it,” Alistair quipped with a smirk.

Laughter greeted his observation. The Chantry was many things, but not known for its sense of fun. That was before the present Divine; anything could happen now.

“You could teach them,” Cole claimed, watching Lace. “You’re patient when they get the steps wrong.”

Everyone’s gaze settled on Lace who coughed a little nervously. “Me?”

“Hah,” Bull chortled. “That’s not a bad idea, you know. Everyone needs a bit of fun.” Bull smiled at Lace. “How about it, Teacher?”

“It’s been a while since I’ve done this,” Lace answered, a little dubious, “and they may not be interested.”

Bull arched an eyebrow. “Why don’t we give them the option? Can’t hurt.”

“You want to offer dancing lessons?” Cullen asked in amazement.

“Why not?” Bull challenged, smirking.

Cullen realised he didn’t have a reason why not. Their focus had been on the practical, teaching skills useful for life outside the Order rather than the social side. Probably because everybody here, residents and his team alike, had a military background. Even Tamsin was part of her local militia before joining the Inquisition. All were products of their earlier lives. Maybe it took someone else to see an aspect they missed.

Cullen smiled at Bull. “Why not,” he replied, echoing the words as agreement.

Bull beamed and beckoned to Lace. “Come with me...Mistress Harding.”

Lace sighed and stood up, straightening her tunic. “All right, if we’re going to do this,” she told him, “it’s better to start with something simple like...the Remigold.”

A barely stifled snigger came from Kai, drawing everyone’s attention. Her hand was cupped over her mouth, struggling to hold back laughter as she looked straight at Alistair. He stared at Kai, brows stern, eyes narrowed as he pointedly cleared his throat. She took a deep breath stilling her mirth, and removed her hand, offering a deferential nod to Alistair. He, seemingly satisfied, eased his expression and acknowledged her gesture with a ‘hmm’ in reply.

Kai and Alistair often joshed in public, yet whatever this involved, it was undoubtedly off limits. Cullen wasn’t the only one intrigued by the wordless exchange. No one was brave enough to ask the question though; what made the Remigold so amusing? Cullen had one advantage over everyone else. He could persuade his wife to tell him, given the proper incentive.

Later, Cullen thought.

Bull called to Grim, signalling to cease playing, and let out a loud whistle to grab everybody’s attention. Along with Lace, they walked to a position broadly visible to the crowd. Bull was broader and taller than other Qunari Cullen had come across, his sheer physicality commanding attention. Yet Lace, less than half his size and who most of the time chose to stay in the background, stood confidently beside him equal to his presence.

Early on in the Inquisition, Cullen learned how effectively Scout Harding organised his troops when checking out unfamiliar territory, directing patrols to collect information. Even Leliana’s agents deferred to her when Lieutenant Harding was in the field. She was smart, considered, and quietly achieved results, balancing her orders with the conditions they faced. Those traits along with her friendship with Kai, was why they asked Lace to be her assistant. From what Cassandra told him, she was very good at her role, to the extent Lace achieved something he and her Advisors often struggled with when Kai was truly determined. If Lace said ‘don’t’, Kai didn’t.

That was the measure of the woman standing next to Bull.

With all eyes on them, Bull began promoting the opportunity of dancing lessons with ‘Mistress Harding’, adding that whoever took up the offer first got him as a partner. The unexpectedly speedy and fulsome response astonished Cullen. Not all but a substantial number of those present appeared to want to learn to dance. Alcohol likely had a hand in the interest, but essentially it was Bull’s persuasive manner.

As Bull called out his partner, Cullen’s eyes grew large. He watched, not quite believing who it was. Lysette made her way to Bull, cheeks tinged red and smiling.

“Give people who care what they need,” Cole observed softly, a slight smile on his face.

Who knew? Cullen thought. Evidently not him.

Grim resumed playing, a slower melody as Lace deftly organised her ‘pupils’, pairing them off and going through the steps. A hand settling gently on his thigh pulled his attention from the scene before him. Cullen faced Kai to see her watching him.

“I’m sorry if we disrupted your well oiled machine,” she teased lightly.

Cullen was tempted to answer ‘it wouldn’t be the first time’, but instead gave a casual shrug of the head. “It’s not so bad...making it up as you go along.”

As Kai smiled at his admission, Cullen heard Branson snigger and ask laughingly.

“Who are you, and what have you done with my brother?”

Cullen and Kai looked at Branson, then each other.

“Oh, you know how it is,” Kai replied, her beaming gaze on Cullen. “Something shiny can work both ways.”

A confused “huh?” came from Branson, but Cullen only had eyes for the radiant smile lighting up his wife’s face. A picture came to him of brilliant sunlight suddenly streaming through a gap in storm clouds.

“Maybe it can at that,” he smirked, catching her gaze dip to his mouth.

Varric had described Cullen as a gruff, moody and world weary; Kai as smooth talking and wise cracking. It suggested he was only serious and she was only funny. Perhaps it was closer to the truth once, but together they were much more, drawing out other facets of one another. Synergy, Dorian called it. Mostly it was for the better, but sometimes for the worse.

Their mutual inexperience with relationships meant when theirs started to flounder under the pressure, both were ill equipped to adapt, leading to frustration and anger. Tendencies became habits; patience and understanding were overtaken by irritation and intolerance. Events in the Basin were merely a final blow to a marriage already fracturing. Because their friendship, the core of what brought them together, had slipped away without either noticing.

It took a separation for the two of them to find their friendship again. Maybe it had to.

Cullen laid his hand on Kai’s, taking her hand into his.

Friendship, he mused. It felt like a good foundation to build a second chance on.

Chapter Text

Cullen bent down, sliding Kai off his shoulder and setting her onto the floor. Brilliant moonlight shone into the kitchen through the open back door, a warmer, kinder hue than before. Or perhaps her perspective merely changed. Last night she assumed she lost him for good, tonight they were together again. This evening and the walk home were happy, and she felt lighter inside.

In the absence of light shadows thrive.

Twice she heard those words since she arrived, from two different people. Once she would have dismissed it as coincidence, these days nothing was too weird. Although her shadows would take time to fade, Cullen would be there, helping Kai off her arse if she faltered and fell. Her light, illuminating the ‘bad things’ to take their ‘oomph’ away.

He looked pleased at fulfilling another of her ‘romantic notions’. This one involved an archaic Ferelden custom, where a groom carried his bride over the threshold of their new home. She discovered the practice whilst conducting research, but at the time they were married and living in Skyhold. After describing it to him, Kai had joked, ‘perhaps you can do it when we have our own home’. Cullen had his nose in a book at the time, and although he made encouraging noises as she rambled on, she presumed he wasn’t actually listening. She was wrong.

The origin was Alamarri, where a ‘groom’ snatched a ‘bride’ from another tribe taking her back to his own. With the burgeoning influence of the Chantry, the ritual itself transformed into something less dramatic before vanishing into obscurity. Unknowingly, her husband embraced the ancient way, hoisting her over his shoulder rather than carrying her in his arms. Kai appreciated why she was borne in such a fashion, but couldn’t resist teasing him.

“Hmm, I don’t believe it’s meant to be like that,” she doubted, puckering her lips. “This was more like carting in a sack of potatoes than daintily carrying one’s beloved over the threshold.”

“Well,” Cullen exhaled, “if my beloved was daintier, perhaps it might have been easier to do.”

No one could ever describe Kai as dainty, that much was true. She was taller than most other women, and statuesque was probably one of more generous descriptions. Even so, his remark was not going to go unchallenged.

Kai drew back her head, brows lifted in feigned astonishment. “Excuse me?”

Cullen ignored her pretence at being shocked, resting his hand cautiously on her left shoulder, “I didn’t wish to create problems with your arm.”

“I know,” she accepted, a smile breaking out. “Thank you.”

He blinked in acknowledgement.

Whether it was the whisky or a sense of anticipation making her mind race, a thought occurred as she scanned her husband’s face, her gaze fixing on his beard. She ran her fingertips over his short facial hair, cocking her head with a smirk.

“What now?” he wondered, half expecting another wisecrack.

Kai winked. “That’s going to tickle.”

Cullen looked baffled for a few seconds, until the penny dropped. He draped an arm around her waist, drawing her closer.

“Presumptuous, Mrs Rutherford,” he smirked.

“Am I?” Kai questioned, observing him coyly.

Cullen’s answer was to raise his eyebrow adding to the smirk. Evidently, he wasn’t going to give up his plan, yet absence of a denial was revealing. He leant closer to whisper in her ear. Kai bit her lip, smiling, and angled her head slightly, offering up her neck. When she ‘put herself into his hands’, anything could happen. On occasion sex was not even involved, though she doubted that was the case tonight.

“So then…” he murmured, his breath warm on her skin.

“Yes?” she breathed expectantly.

“…tea?” he suggested.

His impeccable timing forced out a laugh. “Yes, please,” she nodded seeing the grin as he raised his head.

Cullen went to move, but Kai held onto his arm, wanting to hear him call her Mrs Rutherford again. Out of all the titles she inherited or been granted, this one counted.

“Call me that that again, please?”

“Mrs Rutherford,” he repeated, as happy to say it as she was to hear it.

Kai closed her eye with a contented hum, leaning into Cullen’s hand as his fingers caressed her face, tracks of rough skin catching her cheek.

It was one of the little things she missed most about Cullen. Little but meaningful acts, which, to her shame she’d taken for granted. A hand on her shoulder and a kiss on her head when she was buried deep in paperwork; a conspiratorial wink if a mission marker was planted near Lake Calenhad on the War Table; his hand brushing hers to provide comfort as they stood on the battlements staring at the vast forces of the Inquisition in the valley below. All reminders she wasn’t only the Inquisitor, and he was there for her.

Never again, she swore, never again would she take him or what he did for granted.

“Kai?” Cullen called, his voice troubled.

Her feelings must be bleeding through, again. Masking her emotions was easier with other people, less so with Cullen; as though something inside resisted pretending with him. She opened her eye to catch him scrutinizing her face. Kai smiled, and his expression relaxed.

“I’m alright,” she reassured him, squeezing his arm. “Just thinking,”

“About?” he solicited, still watching her.

“Little things,” she explained, settling her palm on his chest, warm through his shirt as she felt his heart faintly beating. She stared into his eyes, voicing her vow aloud this time. “I should have never taken them or you for granted, and I swear to you I’ll never do it again.”

Cullen took her hand into his, his gaze softening. “We both made mistakes, Kai. We were both at fault for not stopping to see where we were heading.” He paused, took a breath and let it out. “I’ve thought about us and what transpired, and I believe we lost the very thing that brought us together, our friendship. We overlooked that we enjoyed one another’s company for its own sake.”

“We did, didn’t we.” Kai inclined her head with a smile. “You didn’t feel the same way at the outset.”

Cullen sighed, rolling his eyes. “No, I didn’t.” He smiled. “Tell me something though.”

“What?” Kai asked.

“Back in Haven, did you manoeuvre Varric into making the wager?” His expression revealed he already guessed.

“You’ve never asked before,” Kai noted, “and guilty as charged.” Cullen acknowledged her admission with a nod as if to say, ‘I thought so’.

“I hoped you might enjoy it,” she added.

When Kai split the winnings, Cullen’s grin was the warmest she’d seen, more so than the smile she prompted to win the wager, beautiful as that was. Afterwards, he no longer merely tolerated her presence, instead he seemed almost glad to see her when she did her rounds.

“Was that the sole reason?” he inquired further.

Funny how they’d never talked about this before, she mused, wondering why. She shook her head. “No, I thought it might make things between us less...”

“Awkward?” he proposed.

Kai nodded. “I hoped you might think of me as more than a noble pain in the arse.”

Cullen exhaled. “I did assume, wrongly I know, that you were the same as many I’d come across. More concerned with their own interests than having sense of responsibility.”

In both her roles, she too had met self-regarding nobles who cared more for what they were owed than their duty. Sadly, selfishness shouted louder than stoicism, drowning out those who took care of the people they were obligated to.

“A lot depends on how you’re raised,” Kai told him. “In my family, duty always came first. Even Wilhelm sees to his commitments.”

Cullen’s face soured at the mention of her brother. He had scant time for Wilhelm and she couldn’t fault him. However skilled her brother was as Bann, he had an irritatingly condescending manner at times. Once they’d wrapped up the required visit in Ostwick, Kai took Cullen to the summer house. The few days there were blissfully happy ones, with no interruptions and time exclusively for one another.

“Your brother is definitely a noble pain in the arse,” Cullen grumbled.

Kai had to agree. “True, but luckily his sons didn’t inherit that trait. The next generation will be better.”

He tapped her nose. “Luckily some of this generation were better as well.”

“Do the better people get tea?” she quipped, making him chuckle. “Someone did offer as I recall.”

Cullen kissed her forehead. “They do. Why don’t you sit while I make a start?”

Kai shifted one of the chairs to sit and shuffled off her shoes, settling her feet on another while Cullen lit a lamp on the table. The light illuminated items not there this morning when they returned for a change of clothes. Cookies and sweets, Fereldan sweets. She stared up beaming, spotting Cullen’s shrewd smile.

“Mia,” she observed, catching the slight nod. “Plotting with your sister I see.”

“Hardly, more...making arrangements,” he maintained.

Kai waited while Cullen fetched his tunic and her shawl from outside, closing the door. Lamps lit, she watched him crouch to light and stoke the stove.

This was what they used to imagine, the two of them in their own home and an ordinary life. While an ordinary life would never be possible, their future was, and once the Inquisition was disbanded, she would come here for good. The house she and Cullen designed together would be their home after all, along with their partners. The four of them would be a family. A family to give her hope, and grant her strength. Enough to deal with what was to come, and Kai would fight to the last to prevent this future being lost.

Cullen bent over to scoop water from the barrel, his breeches clinging tighter around his backside. Clothed or naked, his arse was always shockingly cute. A sighed moan escaped.

“What is it this time?” he asked wearily turning to meet her gaze, shifted to his face.

Kai snickered. “Your arse, it’s just too cute.”

Cullen shook his head, a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Woman, you are obsessed with my...arse.”

“You did ask,” Kai reminded him.

He groaned. “You think I would have learnt by now not to ask.”

“I think you like it,” she claimed, daring him to disagree. “Even though you pretend otherwise.”

A knowing smile grew on Cullen’s face. “Perhaps I do at that. In truth, I have missed it.”

He set the kettle on the stove and came to her. Kai moved her feet from the chair allowing him to sit opposite. Pulling the chair closer, Cullen offered Kai his hand and she rested her hand in his. He watched her, thinking, his thumb brushing her hand absentmindedly. When Cullen was considered like this, she recognised he was working out how to voice what was on his mind. Unlike Kai, whose thoughts could tumble out of her mouth unchecked, he was measured when it mattered.

“There’s something I haven’t told you…about when I first left…”

He hadn’t mentioned it, but Mia had. Kai guessed where this was heading.

“When I originally came here, I almost came back because I felt I’d abandoned you…left you alone to handle the repercussions of…”

Kai didn’t wish him to feel bad or sorry for leaving. However painful the outcome, it had been the right thing to do. Her decision in the Basin aside, they were losing respect for one another, and without a separation their marriage may have ended up like her sister’s, disintegrating into acrimony.

“Cullen, you don’t have…”

“Hear me out,” he said gently.

“Sorry,” she apologised.

He smiled. “You don’t have to keep apologising, Kai. We both had a part in what took place, before the Basin. Events there were simply the final straw for me.”

“I took the decision, knowing the cost,” Kai told him, seeing his expression sadden. “To save you and everyone we cared about.”

“Much as your decision remains…painful…for me, at least I know you won’t do it again.” Cullen exhaled heavily. “I recognise none of us would be here had you chosen otherwise. Nor would I have the chance to make a difference here. My work with the Sanctuary and being with my family, it’s allowed me to discover who I can be.”

Cullen glanced down. “I appear to have strayed from what I was trying to tell you.”

Kai opened her mouth to apologise again, closing it when she spotted his determined expression.

“As I said, I almost came back. It was Mia who advised me to wait and then decide. When it was time to return to Skyhold, I knew leaving was the right decision. Had you been there when I arrived, it might have been harder to go through with it though.”

He gave a wry chuckle. “As you said in your letter, perhaps things do happen for a reason.”

Kai returned a brave smile. When the urgent summons to Kirkwall came, and realising she wouldn’t see Cullen, Kai sat up all night struggling to write the letter. Numerous drafts went on the fire, either too emotional, too funny or just sounding wrong. Because Cullen wrote little about them in his letters, chiefly news about his family and how construction was proceeding, she assumed he was moving on and didn’t wish to hold him back. She hoped, providing the opportunity to walk away should he wish would protect their friendship. To lose him altogether would have been too much to bear.

Only when she returned and read the letter he left, did Kai appreciate fear misguided her. Cullen was making s fresh start, but he hadn’t forgotten about them. He never took up the implied offer of an annulment, allowing a faint glimmer of hope that maybe one day there could be more than friendship. However often she fantasised though, Kai never truly let herself believe it was possible.

Yet here they were, together in their home, with a second chance at their marriage.

“Whatever our regrets,” Cullen continued, holding her gaze. “I think we needed to be apart to appreciate the value of what was lost. Had I come back and we continued….”

Kai dived in and this time he didn’t stop her. “…we could have ended up like Anton and Lyssa,” she concluded.

Cullen nodded. “Our situation was different, but the result could have been the same. I thought of your words, how you would rather I walk away while we still loved each other, than see me leave with resentment and hostility in my heart.” He gave a light chuckle. “Sometimes you’re wiser than you realise.”

Kai sighed heavily. “Sometimes I’m far from it.”

Cullen cleared his throat with a knowing smile, and Kai rolled her eye, making him laugh.

He squeezed her hand. “There is one other thing.”

She sensed this was something good. “Which is?”

“I am happy here, but whenever I received a letter from you, my life felt more,” he confided. “Having you here with me…this house finally feels like home.” He folded his other hand over hers, as though to protect it. “I have missed your joking and teasing, and your laughter. I’ve missed you, Kai.”

“I’ve missed you too, Cullen,” she revealed, her smile widening as they gazed at one another.

Until this moment she didn’t realise how much she missed him. Strange that it wasn’t sad, just joyfully honest. No more pretence. Her joy invariably bubbled over into humour.

“Besides,” Kai smirked. “No one else appreciates my jokes and teasing quite like you do.”

“Presumably because they’re not subjected to as much of it,” Cullen remarked.

“True,” she agreed. “You always did bear the brunt of it, even before we got together.”

Cullen tilted his head. “Yes, I do recall. Until I worked out what was happening.”

Until we both finally recognised what was happening, Kai thought.

A slow creep of growing affection, culminating in a realisation that one loved the other when they battled for their lives in Haven. Like Cullen there was a question she never asked him. Unlike him, she was unsure of the answer.

“That day on the lake when you first flirted with me…did you intend to start something?”

He reflected for a moment and smiled. “Not consciously. The way you squeezed my hand and looked at me before letting go, it felt good. The rest just…happened.”

“You made me feel secure,” Kai smiled back, “but you always have, Cullen. It helped me more than you realise.”

His smile saddened a little. “Perhaps not always, but I’m glad to have been of some help.”

Feeling his pang of regret, Kai’s instinct was to show Cullen what he meant to her. She stood, pulling away her hand, Cullen wondering what she was doing. She flicked a glance at his lap and he understood, taking hold of her waist, assisting Kai to sit there. She settled her hand on his cheek and gazed into his warm, amber eyes.

“You are my rock in fast water. You comfort me, care for me, anchor me. You told me I gave you a foundation to find yourself. You are my touchstone, even though I didn’t always appreciate that, or listen to you when I should have.” She smiled, her fingers stroking his cheek. “Everything I am, is, and will always be yours. I love you, Cullen.”

“I love you too, Kai,” he declared, taking her hand as if to kiss it.

His breath on her hand produced a tickling sensation, mirrored in the one no longer there. It was the first time she felt something other than pain or discomfort, and so strange it prompted Kai to giggle.

“What did I do now?” Cullen puzzled, drawing his head back.

“I don’t know how, but…you tickled both hands.” She giggled again at his stunned expression.

He looked at her right hand, then her left arm, then back at her face, mystified. “How in the…?”

Kai shrugged. “Don’t ask me, I’m as confused as you are.”

“It didn’t hurt?” Cullen wondered.

Kai shook her head. “It was actually rather nice.”

Cullen’s wrinkled brows straightened, a smile replacing the puzzlement. “So…when you said everything?”

His reply made Kai laugh. “Everything,” she acknowledged. “Evidently including the missing bits.”

“Hmm, something to remember,” he mused.

Instead of kissing her hand, he placed it on his shoulder, and put his arm around her waist. “Shall we try something else?” Cullen suggested with a smirk.

“Let’s,” Kai winked.

As they leant toward one another, the sound of scraping at the door handle interrupted them. Two resigned sighs came as they turned to face the door.

Max and Izzy were left outside chasing around like a pair of pups, but right at the point where things were developing, their two partners were about to let themselves in. Or Izzy was, apparently having learnt how to use the door, which now flew open and in they strolled, looking tired and happy. As Izzy forced the door shut behind them, the kettle also started to boil.

Kai and Cullen turned to one another and burst out laughing. Their partners peered at them, heads cocked, likely wondering what was wrong with these humans, before flopping onto the huge bear pelt by the fireplace. Cullen gestured they should move and helped her up. His hands settled on her hips and she reflexively dropped hers, linking her fingers with his.

Cullen whispered in her ear. “I’ll make tea, but hold that last thought. I’m not done with you yet.”

“I can manage that,” Kai said coyly as Cullen let go and stepped away.

She turned intending to sit, when a smack caught her square on the right buttock. As ever, a beautiful balance of firm and pleasurable, prompting a flash of heat inside. Kai snickered, rubbing her backside as she peered over her shoulder.

“Presumptuous, Mr Rutherford,” she declared, seeing the shameless smirk.

“Am I?” he challenged.

“You’ll have to find that out, won’t you?” she tempted, sitting down.

His answer came with a wicked chuckle. “I intend to.”

Surprised, Kai looked up, but he was already walking away. She watched him, intrigued, as he made tea. Cullen could be bold on occasion, yet Kai never recalled him being quite so determinedly confident before. Obviously discovering who he could be covered a wider range than she realised. A thought arose.

“Am I expected to be…obedient?” she queried with mirth in her voice.

Cullen brought over a tray with a pot of tea and two mugs.

“I would say…required,” he insisted smoothly, pouring out the tea. “After all, you did agree to put yourself in my hands.”

Kai bit her lip, thinking she rather liked this side of him. “I see.”

“I trust you won’t object,” he stressed.

Kai shook her head, smiling as he set a mug of tea before her.

“But first,” he continued, sitting facing her. “We have matters to discuss.”

Kai wrinkled her brows, curious as to what it might be. Cullen explained Alistair’s request on the way home, seeking her support. She readily agreed, aware how important it was to Cullen, and suggested enlisting Fergus and Lyssa’s aid as well. After all, it would benefit them in the future, not to mention both had immense confidence in Cullen’s organisational and martial abilities. He proved what he could achieve with the Inquisition forces, where soldiers, former Templars, and numerous mercenary companies were skilfully integrated to create the most disciplined, effective army Thedas had probably seen.

Varric once quipped they could take over Ferelden just by looking east. Not that they would, but it was no idle joke. Now Cullen would help ensure Ferelden was safeguarded against someone having the same idea.

Cullen leaned back in his chair and sipped his tea. “When the Inquisition is fully disbanded and you come here…” he paused to ensure he had her attention, “…I’d like you to work with me at the Sanctuary.”

Kai’s gaze widened, her immediate thought popping straight out. “Doing what?”

“Exactly what you did earlier on,” he explained. “What you achieved with the Elders, and the optimism you fostered with just a song, that is a gift.” He exhaled, gathering his thoughts. “We, my team that is, work hard to provide the best care and support we can…”

“And it shows,” Kai insisted. “What you’ve established is extraordinary. They believe in you and your vision for the Sanctuary.”

“It’s kind of you to say,” Cullen acknowledged. “But we both know any sort of endeavour relies on more than one individual. My point is, what you do can support our work.”

He set down his mug and sat forward.

“I was…uncomfortable with what remains inside you,” he indicated, obviously referring to the echoes of Estre. “Until I recognised what good you can accomplish, and how you enjoyed helping the people here. In turn, I believe it can aid you, offer you a purpose.”

Cullen inclined his head, waiting expectantly. “So, what do you think?”

A purpose, she thought. He knew her so well.

With the end of the Inquisition, her purpose as Inquisitor would disappear along with it. Alistair’s request was a contingency plan, and any preparations to come later. The plan to stop Solas needed intelligence and that would take time to gather. Cullen was giving Kai the opportunity to do what she loved most now, offering hope and second chances. And to work with him again, this time as colleagues.

Kai also foresaw a possible glitch. Even with their limited investigation to date, the hard work invested in the Sanctuary was clear to see. Cassandra especially was pleased, and it took a lot for her to be generous in her praise. There was no doubt the report would be complimentary. However, in Cullen’s eagerness to offer her a position he forgot one detail.

The broad smile spreading on Kai’s face revealed her answer and Cullen grinned.

“I believe you’ve just gained a recruit,” she quipped. “But it’s perhaps better we conclude the audit and report first, before you inform anyone.”

“Ah,” Cullen realised, registering the implication. “Your work on the audit could be judged as biased.”

“Exactly,” Kai nodded.

Cullen mulled this over. “I may have a solution,” he proposed.

“Such as?” Kai puzzled, curious about this solution.

Cullen arched his brow with a smug smile. “You could be a special advisor to the Director, and your salary payment in kind. That way there are no issues.”

Kai snorted a laugh, impressed by his bare cheek. Two could play at this game, she thought.

Payment in kind you say. Well, that may not do,” she sniffed affectedly. “I have other offers for my skills, ones which pay in coin.

“Such as?” he challenged, eyes narrowed.

Cullen understood she was playing, as was he, but wasn’t aware of this particular ‘offer’. It would be worth those few seconds of stunned incredulity. Kai up sat straight, hand in her lap as she drew a deep breath and exhaled.

“A pirate with the Felicisima Armada,” she explained straight faced. Seeing Cullen’s eyes become large and mouth gape, she hurriedly continued, knowing he would soon spot this was a tease. “Isabela offered me a place on her ship…”

Kai got no further as Cullen started to chuckle.

“Isabela asked you?”

“Yes…” Kai replied hesitantly, not anticipating this reaction. “Admittedly it was a while back, but…”

“Did she offer to share her cabin as it was spacious enough?” he inquired, the implication explicit.

Kai sighed. “Yes, and I understood what she meant. I tactfully explained if she was counting on a dalliance, she would be disappointed.”

Cullen continued to grin as if there was more. “I just…wondered.”

Kai decided to bite. “Why?”

“She made the same offer to me, if I ever fancied a change of career,” he admitted.

Seeing Kai’s inquisitorial expression, he hurriedly sought to explain.

“Of course, I declined. She was…and I was….” He coughed. “It wouldn’t have been…appropriate.”

The hint of a blush and his last words revealed an admission by omission. Although Cullen didn’t accept Isabela’s overture, the thought had been there. Isabela was smart, attractive and funny, and behind the bravado and bluntness, a vulnerability. No matter his own troubles in Kirkwall, and that Cullen could be shyer then, Kai could imagine Isabela’s humour chipping a dent into his self-imposed defences. Because that was precisely what she’d done, albeit less forcibly and over time.

Reluctant to say more and a little flustered, Cullen grabbed his mug of tea and a cookie, likely hoping she wouldn’t press him further. But this was an opening her impulsiveness couldn’t resist.

Only later, when she reflected on why what tumbled out of her mouth had, Kai wondered if it was some strange unconscious compulsion, loosened by alcohol and mutual confession. What started as teasing would ultimately unravel into a revelation she never imagined she would give up.

She glanced down, plucking a strand of hair from her dress. “I wouldn’t fault you if you’d taken up her offer,” Kai noted casually. “Isabela can be rather charming. Had I not been in love with you, I might have been tempted.”

The mouthful of tea he drank was spat out in stunned amazement, drops catching her dress as the remainder dribbled down his chin. Cullen wiped his mouth, staring at her deadpan face, uncertain whether she was joking or serious. Kai winked.

“So…easily,” she drawled.

“Maker’s breath, Katarina!” he scolded, seeking to look stern.

She snickered. “I’m sorry about the tea, but I just couldn’t resist.”

He appeared sceptical. “Your timing makes me somewhat doubt that.”

Kai reached for the box of sweets on the table, taking one out and holding it up. “Would this be a more suitable apology?” she suggested coyly.

He peered at her then the sweet. A slight smile broke out. “At the very least,” Cullen emphasised, beckoning her over.

Cullen helped her hitch up her dress, holding onto her waist as she shuffled onto his lap, this time with legs astride him. “I warn you, I may be a little rusty,” she advised, grinning cheekily.

“I’m certain we can get some training in before you leave,” he smirked.

One hand traced a path from her waist to her thigh, circling the inner part with his thumb. Her body twitched as Kai felt the familiar clench down below, a shudder chasing up her spine. Years together, exploring one another’s bodies, had taught them each other’s slow burn and fast trigger spots. Cullen knew full well the effect it would have on her.

“You are trying to distract me,” she protested. “How can I concentrate if you do…that.”

“My apologies.” Cullen moved his hands higher, resting them on her waist. “Better?”

“Helpful,” she accepted, catching his chuckle.

Kai placed the sweet just shy of the tip of her tongue, slowly moving her head towards Cullen so as not to dislodge it. Pressing her open mouth against his, she successfully managed the drop, drawing away to see him smile as he chewed.

“Not bad, but perhaps more practice,” he declared, swallowing it.

Kai took another sweet from the box. “How much more?” she winked suggestively.

Cullen raised an eyebrow. “Until I’m satisfied with my recruit’s performance.”

Kai mirrored his action. “What does your recruit get if she performs to your satisfaction?”

A slow lazy grin spread on Cullen’s face. His hands found her hips, a firm grasp as she was dragged closer, the bulge in his breeches fitting snugly into the gap between her legs, only few layers of fabric between them.

“Payment in kind,” he murmured, his voice pitched low, breath flowing over her mouth.

Nights alone, she fantasised about the two of them, fingers between her legs bringing her to climax, hushed moans accompanying her release. Now it was real. A needy whimper escaped before Kai could hold it back.

“So…easily,” Cullen drawled.

His hand cradled her head drawing her into an intense, hungry kiss. She desperately wanted this, wanted him, and had feared it, feared him seeing her as she now was. But no longer. Although Kai may never be the woman Cullen flirted with at the lake in Haven, finally she understood, not everything slipped away into the abyss of despair, something of the woman she once was endured.

All because her husband saw her with better eyes than she saw herself.

Spreading her legs wider, she brushed against him, a surge of anticipatory warmth merging with an ache swiftly building, her smalls clinging where the fabric became damp with arousal. Just as in the pool, she felt him swell and harden, thrusting against her, tugging her tighter to him.

One word sang in her head as Kai dropped the sweet, and threaded her fingers into Cullen’s hair.

Home.

Chapter Text

Kai froze as Cullen pulled away breaking the kiss, her fingers slipping from his hair.

Maker, no, please, not again.

Expecting to see the same apologetic look at having to stop them, she warily opened her eye. What she saw instead was a reassuring smile, and a comforting hand rested on her cheek. Her anxiety abated, and she breathed out in relief. He hadn’t changed his mind, so why had he…?

“Cullen?”

“I think we need to go someplace without an audience.” Cullen gestured with his eyes toward the fireplace.

Kai turned, suddenly realising what he meant. Max and Izzy were lying there staring up at her and Cullen, with some interest.

And no wonder. There they were, she on her husband’s lap, dress hitched up to her hips, bare legs astride him, and him with his hand on her thigh. Had he not checked them, desire would have overridden whatever sense remained their heads, potentially providing their two companions a ringside view of the mating habits of humans.

“Ah,” she exclaimed, a dusting of crimson on her cheeks when she shifted back.

Cullen scanned her face, spotting it. “Are you…blushing?”

“I’m just a little warm.” She blew a puff of air upward as if to cool down. “The heat…from the stove…it’s...” Her fumbled excuse stuttered to a halt as Cullen grinned, plainly unconvinced.

“I see,” he remarked. “Perhaps somewhere cooler for the Comtesse then.”

Kai rolled her eye, hearing him chuckle. For some reason he found that especially amusing, and she suspected he would occasionally engineer a situation just to see her roll her eye, akin to when she would tease Cullen to hear him groan. It was fun, the sort of easy uncomplicated fun which diminished when things became strained between them. Cullen was right, they had lost sight of what drew them to one another, wanting to be together because they enjoyed each another’s company.

Kai acquiesced with a smile. “Somewhere cooler then.”

“Come with me,” he directed with a nod to the kitchen door.

Helping her back on to her feet, Cullen put out all the lamps except the one on the table. He snagged the box of sweets, tucking them under his arm, and then picked up the lamp.

“Practice,” he winked, making her chuckle.

With a last check on their companions, the two of them headed to Cullen’s bedroom.

All she’d seen of it was a glance through the partially ajar door, until now. As Cullen placed the lamp on the desk, she scanned the room. Most of the furniture appeared to be standard items from Branson’s workshop, but the bed was clearly one of his commission pieces, carved with individualised decorative symbolism. The details weren’t discernible from this distance, but she was curious to see what Branson included for his brother.

In a corner near the window stood an armour stand covered with a dust sheet. Kai wondered if Cullen’s old armour was underneath along with his trademark coat. It would feel odd seeing it after so long. His coat had especially fond, and interesting, memories.

What struck Kai most of all was how tidy the room was, along with a neatly made bed. Had Mia tidied up when she dropped off the sweets and cookies?

Cullen was meticulous with his personal things, clothes, weapons, armour, and items related to his work, but with all else Cullen could be generously described as on the ‘untidy side’. Books and bottles hung around for days before being removed, not to mention occasionally finding biscuit crumbs in unexpected places.

And his bed always had the covers flung back over it rather than tucked in. She knew why, because Max would do the same when visiting on leave. Templars were drilled to make their beds daily with military precision, and Cullen, like Max, admitted he loathed doing it. With his own bed he could do as he wished, but always kept to the same rules he set his troops when out on operations.

Cullen walked towards the bed, pausing briefly as if checking where to go, before heading to one side and setting the sweets on a bedside table. Recalling his remark about the house now feeling like a home, Kai wondered how much time he spent here.

She had to ask. “Cullen, do you actually live here?”

“Only occasionally,” he admitted, a little sheepish as he turned back. “Quite honestly, it’s always felt too big and too quiet.” He hesitated, thoughtful. “Until you arrived, I didn’t appreciate it was because there was something…someone…missing.”

She couldn’t help feeling sad for him, and responsible, because it was she who made him promise to build the house. Kai wanted to give Cullen a home for his future…and space for a family if that was what he wanted. A choice she was strangely at peace with at the time. Only afterward, did the fear he might worry at her.

Kai closed the distance between them and took his hand. “When I come here, you may yearn for that space and quiet,” she whispered, as though confiding a secret.

It made him smile. “Never,” he replied, squeezing her hand. “I’ll have my room to escape to, should the rest of the house get commandeered.” His smile grew into a grin when she laughed. “That was the arrangement as I recall, our own space.”

“It was,” she concurred with a nod. “But…I believe use of one another’s beds was likewise part of the deal.”

Her cheeky wink prompted a lift of the brows as he tugged her against him to kiss her, resting his hand on her hip. This kiss was less fervent, yet no less needful as the longing returned, wanting to be a part of him. He drew away gently, and this time there was no fear.

Cullen watched, expectant. She nodded her consent, and he silently accepted.

Putting herself in his hands meant submitting to whatever he chose to do; he didn’t ask permission, and she didn’t question why. There was only one exception; if at any point she became too uncomfortable, she could ask him to stop. She never had.

His plans could be bizarrely challenging; like the time he bathed her head to toe while she had to remain silent. Aside from injury, she never sought help for bathing and Kai felt embarrassed, as if she was being pandered to. The inclusion of imposed silence prevented her joking to deflect the awkwardness. All to demonstrate that accepting help was just as essential as providing it. Sadly, the lesson didn’t take root, as was borne out later.

Until she was obliged to step back as Inquisitor. Even though she relinquished some of her duties, coming to terms with it proved difficult at first. Kai felt as if she was negating her responsibility to all those who promised themselves to the Inquisition. Eventually she came to accept it, recognising she could keep in touch through Lace. On a personal level, battling against her predisposition to be self-sufficient proved tougher. Maybe Alistair had a point though, maybe occasionally allowing others to do for you could be a good thing.

Maybe tonight could be a step in that direction.

“So?” she asked, head tilted.

His voice bore quietly confident authority. “Take off your dress, and sit on the bed.”

Kai supposed he was wary about undressing her as he’d done in the past, in case he snagged her arm. While Cullen sat on a chair removing his and her dagger from his boots, she slipped out of her dress. So easy to do with her new clothes, thanks to the wonderful seamstresses in the Inquisition who gave Kai the capability to clothe herself. Something most people took as given.

Perching on the bed, she watched Cullen take off his boots and socks, followed by his breeches, leaving him clad in only shirt and smalls. She had a hunch what would happen next, bracing her hand on the bed and feet on the floor. As he climbed onto the bed, the mattress dipped abruptly and sprang up like a wave. Not surprising with all that man and muscle, but Kai held fast.

“I would have warned you, but you were ahead of me,” he noted, settling behind her and resting his hands on her shoulders.

“Landing on your dodgy floor left an enduring imprint,” she reminded him, hearing the chuckle.

Especially pitching forward onto his loft’s decrepit wooden floor, knees first. Cullen spent quarter of an hour unsuccessfully trying to coax out a splinter lodged in her left knee, in the end having to prise it out with the tip of his dagger. It left her with a slight limp for a couple of days, and a scar to remind her not to become distracted staring at her husband.

“I suspect this the first time since…” he began hesitantly.

“…the last time you did it,” she finished gently.

Both skirted around the obvious. Because of their separation.

Whenever she returned from a trip, he would insist on massaging her back and shoulders to alleviate the tension she stored up whilst away. It had been the best part of a year since the last occasion, and although once done she would feel better, it would be uncomfortable if not painful. Kai didn’t care, he wanted to do it to help her and she wanted him to. The act itself was bonding of a kind.

Cullen kissed her head. “It will hurt…”

“I know…”

“…but if it starts to affect your arm, tell me straight away.”

Kai gave a little chuckle. “I think you can take that as read.”

“Good,” he acknowledged. “Now, close your eye and focus.”

Kai closed her eye, concentrating on the movements of his fingers as they felt their way over her shoulders and back, probing for problematic spots. He then stopped, and took off her eye patch and pendant. Other than Lace adding her wedding ring to the chain, she hadn’t taken it off since Dorian put it on for her. It was odd not to have it around her neck.

“Ready?” he asked.

“Yes,” she confirmed.

He started, first gently stretching and pressing on the muscles in her shoulders and upper back, then gradually harder. Kai’s breathing quickened and intensified as she sought to adjust before her muscles relaxed under his touch. The pain she would grumble about before was nothing compared to what she endured since.

It was therapeutic, cathartic, and intimate, but not sexual like a spanking. Kai’s mind wandered, wondering if that too was on the agenda, just his hands pushed hard on an especially tense spot on her left shoulder. She started with a squeal.

Cullen immediately paused, his voice clipped with concern. “Kai?”

“It’s fine,” she panted, gathering herself. “My focus…slipped.”

A relieved and almost inaudible ‘Thank the Maker’ shot out. He wavered, and she worried he might be loath to carry on.

“Cullen, it’s ok,” she soothed. “I want you to do this.”

“Alright,” he agreed, the tightness in his voice gone.

He continued at the same spot, tentative at first, evidently checking for her reaction before applying firmer pressure. The pain gradually eased into a comfortable warmth.

If only life was as simple as this, she mused, pain soothed by release.

People like her were never granted a simple life, but if he was with her, the hard times would be bearable. Kai exhaled quietly, stilling her thoughts to concentrate solely on Cullen’s hands as he kneaded, stretched and soothed. By the time he patted her shoulder to signal he was finished, she felt lighter, virtually floating. Even the perpetual hum in her arm lessened. She swung to face him, catching his curious expression as he searched her face.

“Thank you,” she said gratefully.

“You were...quieter this time,” he observed. “Except for…”

Kai sighed. “I know, I got distracted.”

“Kai, I didn’t mean…” He paused, furrowing his brows. “You’ve never been so restrained when I do this.”

Then she understood. Usually she groaned and yelped her way through, and undoubtedly what he expected.

“I’ve had worse since then,” she shrugged matter-of-factly. “This was...easy.”

Cullen looked as if he was about to say something, but then took her face into his hands, bending forward to plant a kiss on her forehead. When he drew away, he was smiling. A familiar, warm smile echoed in his eyes, a smile that came from deep inside.

And just as beautiful as the first time she noticed it, in the tavern back in Haven.

The lucky recipient was one of Flissa’s staff. Cullen smiled as he thanked her for bringing a jug of ale for him and Rylen. They resumed their conversation and didn’t catch the girl’s delighted grin and spring in her step as she headed back to the bar. Kai was so engrossed watching them she forgot about Varric sitting with her, until he chortled, “Wishing that was you, Dopey?”. It was in that moment Kai realised she had a solution to alleviate the awkward situation with Cullen. It served to lighten things between them, as well as Varric’s pocket, but went further than she could have ever imagined.

Kai beamed at her husband, seeing his smile broaden as his thumbs caressed her cheeks.

“Maker,” he breathed. “You’re so beautiful when you smile like that.”

He meant it, but doubt didn’t allow her to accept the compliment easily. A little embarrassed she looked down, stiffening when she caught sight of her left arm, the stump gnarled and angry without the dressing to hide it. She seldom left the stump uncovered. Too difficult to see. Even her ‘sunburst’ was easier to cope with.

Maker, did I take it off without even realising?

As she stared at it, trapped by grim fascination, the reality he encouraged her to forget came crashing back like a wave, sweeping away her courage. Kai forced herself to turn away from it. And him.

The question was inevitable.

“Even with…the way I am?” she asked, hating how needy for assurance she sounded, but unable to avoid seeking it.

Instead of a reassuring response, Cullen exhaled hard and lifted his hands away. Kai looked back warily. The smile was gone, ousted by a frown as he stared steadily at her

Carry on like this and he’s going to tire of your foolishness, a small voice inside taunted.

An anxious knot formed in her gut. She had to apologise, tell him she was just being stupid. “Cullen...”

He spoke over her before she got the apology out.

“I believe we are still under the same conditions, so stand up,” he ordered with a manner reminiscent of the former Commander, expecting her full attention and compliance.

Her gaze grew large, but she stayed quiet. When he was like this, even the former Inquisitor knew the value of silence. She got up from the bed, watching him cautiously as he clambered off. Cullen stood in front of her, jaw set with his face only inches from Kai’s.

“Remain here, as you are.”

Kai nodded, not moving as he strode behind her to the other side of the room. She heard a scraping noise and a rush of air accompanying the sound of cloth being yanked aside, then more scraping and deep breathing, and finally a reverberation through the floor as something substantial was set down. Curiosity began to bite, driving back her nervousness.

What’s going on?

Rustling followed, like clothes being removed. At that point she almost spun around, until she heard Cullen’s footsteps padding back. He paused behind her, putting his hands on her hips, thumbs tucked inside her smalls, and pulled them down, letting them to drop to the floor. Kai stood silent and still, smalls around her ankles, unsure and more than a little confused.

What the hell is going on?

He crouched beside her and she spotted he too was naked.

“Lean on me when you step out of them,” he directed.

Kai did as he said, stepping out of her smalls, and waiting as he stood up, simultaneously wishing she’d kept her mouth shut and dying to know what he was up to.

“Close your eye,” he instructed, his tone less demanding. Cullen took her arm with one hand, resting the other on her waist. “I’ll guide you.”

She nodded to indicate she understood, and closed her eye, feeling him turn her around, leading her carefully to where the noises came from. He stopped them and stood behind her, so close she could feel the warmth of his body. His beard brushed against her face as he whispered in her right ear.

“You can look now.”

Kai opened her eye to see her reflection in a tall mirror leaning against the fireplace, illuminated by the lamp now on the dresser nearby. Her whole reflection.

She panicked, instinctively looking away, but Cullen placed his hand on her left cheek, bringing her back to face the mirror, making her acknowledge what she saw there. For the first time, she wanted him to stop.

“Cullen, please don’t, I…”

He ignored her protestation, dangling the offer like bait to tempt her inquisitiveness. “Don’t you want to know how I see you?”

Half of her wanted to end this now and retreat into the comfort of ignorance, the other half irresistibly drawn to finding out what he saw. He knew her so well. He knew given sufficient incentive, curiosity could overcome reluctance, compelling her to think through the fear. Just like at the pool.

He’d been right then, and how could she trust him any less now.

Kai sighed heavily, reluctantly agreeing. “Yes.”

She watched as he touched the scar trailing her left cheek.

“This is when you…someone forced to take on a role they were never prepared for… faced a darkspawn magister and his dragon, allowing the people in Haven to escape. You never wavered despite being terrified.”

“Cullen, I got it from landing on a rock afterward,” she reminded him.

“Kai, just because you’re clumsy at times does not detract from your actions,” he declared, prompting a nervous snort short of a giggle.

He ran his finger over the scar on her right shoulder. “This is when you combined intelligence and tactics to take on superior numbers, and although you took a risk, you prevented significant injuries to your team.”

“I tripped and a blade caught me,” she pointed out.

Cullen coughed deliberately and Kai fell silent. He rested his forefinger gently under the empty socket of her right eye.

“This is when you stood up to Samson and his Red Templars at Mythal, fighting on even when you realised there were shards of red lyrium inside your eye. And, by showing respect and using diplomacy, you obtained use of the Well to grant us a fighting chance against Corypheus…”

Even though they may have cause to regret that decision in the future, she reflected.

“…It’s also having the courage to make hard choices, and live with the consequences. Not the first time, or the last time you’ve had to do that.”

Kai could sense the emotion in Cullen’s voice. Not surprising. He supported her, encouraged her to learn to live with one of those choices, and see past the consequences.

Cullen placed his hand on her right hip, over the deep scar there. “This is when you faced down Corypheus and his dragon for the second time, continuing to fight even though you were losing blood. Cassandra told me how you carried on, rallying everyone, and how fiercely you fought, taunting him into making mistakes. This is also when you closed the breach for the second time, saving the world again.

He was tracking the timeline of her major scars, so it was clear where the next would be. The site of two scars, one of which would have taken her life but for Estre’s intervention. It marked the events in the Frostback Basin that led to their estrangement. Cullen rested his thumb on the scar and exhaled, stroking it distractedly. His eyes seemed to stare somewhere past her into the mirror itself. Kai waited, half wondering if he would move on. But her husband, like her, was stubborn.

“This one,” he began, clearing his throat and finding her gaze, “symbolises sacrifice and loss. Although I have managed to put some distance from the events now, some memories from our time there…” he swallowed audibly, “…challenge me still.”

This was causing him pain, and it was her fault. She couldn’t let him suffer trying to allay her childish need.

“Cullen, you don’t need to…”

“I do need to do this, Kai,” he urged.

She was taken aback by the speed of his reply and the resolve in his voice. He took a breath, collecting himself.

“Whatever else I feel was wrong…it took courage and strength for you to carry the burden of responsibility and mistrust, and I recognise that. You made a hard choice and bore the consequences, both then and later.”

When Cullen moved his hand away settling it on her hip, she was thankful for both their sakes. Kai reached down and linked her fingers with his. He didn’t need to touch her arm to show where the final stage of this journey lay.

“Bull once told me how the Qunari pick their leaders,” he related. “He said, they don’t choose the smartest, or strongest, or bravest; they pick the ones willing to make the hard decisions and live with the consequences. He said, they choose people just like you. But make enough hard decisions, store up enough consequences, and even the most resilient will break, eventually. Even someone…”

Someone like her, she understood, finishing his unvoiced words.

“…however this…you…happened…you are only human, and I have no desire to see that happen to the woman I love.”

His words were a warning and an earnest plea. Kai swallowed hard, blinking back the tears pricking at her. Cullen rested his cheek against hers, their gazes linked once more through the mirror. His face lightened, the tension fading.

“And not just because I love you, but because you are extraordinary, brave, enchanting, funny, and always prepared to give others a chance to redeem themselves.” He smiled. “But, you can also be irritating, exasperating, stubborn and downright impossible.”

A slight nervous chuckle popped out. For all his kindness, she was grateful for the honesty too.

His smile grew warmer, wider. “Katarina Rutherford, you remain the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known, because you are all of those things, and for me, the scars you bear are simply stories that map your journey. In your worst moments you still seek to offer hope, and at your finest you shine brightly like a light in the darkness.”

Cullen used to tell her how she shone, and how she made him feel alive. Through him she could almost see that again, like a hazy recollection. It made her sad, and yet hopeful at the same time.

“However long we have, and no matter what happens, let’s not squander this chance to try again. I will always be there for you, Kai, whenever and wherever you need me.”

The tears she’d held back broke through, silently rolling down her face. She opened her mouth to speak, her mind scrambling to find something, anything, even remotely worthy to express how deeply his words touched her. But the ‘woman of words’ had no words. The result was to leave her staring at him, mouth agape as if her wits had abandoned her.

He stepped back and turned her to face him, his thumbs wiping her cheeks.

“That is what I see when I look at you.”

He gathered her into his arms, his lips brushing hers. Kai could feel his breath fan over her mouth when he spoke.

“This is what I feel when I look at you.”

Cullen kissed her, taking her breath away with a kiss uncompromising in its honesty, as though he was giving her all he felt, and never wanted to let go. Kai’s heart swelled, feeling like it would burst out of her chest. Right there and then, she wanted more than anything to be that light again. For him, because he believed in her. Her husband, friend and lover, her Lion of…

Ohh…

The thought struck her out of nowhere, causing her to smile against his mouth. Cullen drew back with a bemused grin.

“Kai?”

“You missed my lion rampant.”

Seeing his incredulous face, she gasped, realising how that sounded. Here he was, showing her how much she meant to him, and there she was, distracted by random thoughts like an infant.

“Cullen, I’m really, really sorry. It’s just one thought led to another and…uh…” Kai groaned, her rushed and lame apology grinding to a halt. You need to do better than that, she chided.

Rather than being upset, Cullen chuckled knowingly. “You got distracted.”

“Yes,” she revealed, sighing.

Cullen looked at her, pensive. Thankfully he wasn’t hurt. Probably because he understood her mind had an annoying habit of wandering. And lately, often at the wrong time. Still, she had to try harder to maintain her attention, not let her thoughts meander to Maker knew what.

“You do have a point though,” he mused. “I did miss your lion rampant.” He watched her, an inviting smirk playing on his lips. “But…wouldn’t you prefer the real thing.”

Kai blinked, surprised, before recognising he’d turned the conversation onto quite different ground. She smiled. “Are you trying to turn a girl’s head?”

He ignored her question. “You haven’t answered me,” he insisted, arching a challenging brow. “Well?”

“Uh…yes…I…” was all she managed to utter before Cullen grabbed her hand and strode over to the bed, Kai trotting behind him.

“Wait here,” he told her, letting go.

She nodded, watching him create a small obtuse mound of pillows on the bed. Kai sighed faintly, chewing her lip in hope and expectation. Once complete, he beckoned her to him.

“Thank you,” she said gratefully, seeing him nod as she clambered onto the bed.

Kai settled herself face down over the mound, hips high and bottom proud as she stretched out her arms and legs. She sighed blissfully, hearing him chuckle. Now she had to wait. The anticipation itself was exquisite, recognising the first smack would come only when he chose. Sometimes it would be a minute, or two, or indeed more, and sometimes it was straight away. Cullen shifted slightly beside her and Kai closed her eye, grinning, toes wiggling as excitement built inside. This would be…

What happened next was unquestionably not what she expected. Kai’s eye flew open as a yelped curse shot out of her mouth.

He bit her…on the buttock?

Kai pushed herself onto her elbow and faced Cullen. He was kneeling, an even smile on his face as if it was all perfectly normal.

“You bit me!?” she exclaimed. “Why would you...?”

You didn’t specify which part of the lion you wanted,” Cullen pointed out casually, “so…I improvised.”

Kai gawped in astonishment, and then began to laugh, Cullen joining in. Silly and exuberant laughter with snorts and cackles, laughter that wasn’t self-conscious, that didn’t care how ridiculous it sounded. They sought to stop, only to look at one another, starting again. This continued for several minutes, well past what the joke warranted, until finally calming down. Her belly ached, she had to catch her breath, and their faces were wet from weeping with laughter, but she felt lighter inside.

Cullen wiped his face and stretched out, edging along the bed towards Kai, until his head rested immediately below hers. He reached up, and for the second time he dried her cheeks.

“Well, that’s one way of turning a girl’s head,” she snickered, and lowered onto her front bringing her face closer to his.

“Quite literally it seems,” he smirked, idly fingering her hair.

She sighed. “Cullen Rutherford, you could melt a girl’s heart with that smirk.”

“Katarina Rutherford,” he responded, still smirking. “I thought I already had.”

His gaze never left hers as his finger sensuously traced a line down the side of her face, over her jawline, and down her neck, reaching an end just above her breasts hidden by the pillows. Earlier her reaction to him was rapid, now the heat in her groin radiated languidly into her thighs and lower back, like slowly sliding into a warm bath.

“So,” she declared, arching a questioning brow, “turning a girl’s head, melting a girl’s heart…what next?”

He patted the vacant spot next to him. “Come here.”

Kai pushed herself up and onto her knees, shuffling over Cullen’s legs to kneel beside him. He shifted onto his elbow facing her.

“I’m here, so what now?” she inquired.

Cullen flicked a glance at the bed beside him. “Lie down,” he grinned.

Kai felt playful and couldn’t resist teasing him. She shook her head, grinning.

“No?” Cullen questioned.

“Maybe…if you frame the request correctly,” she suggested enticingly.

There was a brief puzzled frown before a smile of understanding. When he spoke, it wasn’t just the bold command, although that worked, it was the pitch of his voice, low and rough. She fell for it, and him, every time.

“On your back…now.”

“I am obedient for you,” she lilted with a gleam in her eye, enjoying the shiver racing up her spine

The same one as every time before. There were some things she didn’t want to change, and this was one of them. It was achingly familiar and invariably made her feel good, as well as other things. Kai shifted position and laid down, head on the pillow he placed there for her. She peered up at the smiling face of her husband as he moved closer. He settled his hand on her hip, and Kai reached up, ruffling his hair.

“I like it longer, looser, like this,” she smiled.

“I believe I recall you mentioning it…once or twice,” he observed with a chuckle. “But I have to confess it’s only longer because I forgot to get it cut.”

“Please don’t,” she urged. “Not any shorter at least.”

He jutted out his chin. “What about the beard?”

Kai tracked the curve of his face, caressing his beard. “Hmm, it’s growing on me. Just don’t let it get too long.”

“I see. Longer hair and a short beard,” Cullen noted, squinting at her. “Does my wife have any other demands she wishes to make of my appearance?”

“Not right now,” she nudged, “but I may think of something later.”

Kai saw him studying her hair. He hadn’t mentioned anything, but when they arrived his gaze shot to straight to it, his surprise evident. One of the reasons she grew it so long was because he loved to play with it, and to ‘watch her walk away her plait swaying in time with her hips’ as he put it. The plait was gone, snipped away in the Divine’s chambers at Halamshiral, the remainder barely more than a few inches in length.

He may still see her as beautiful, but he clearly missed her hair. She answered the question he hadn’t asked.

“My hair is easier to manage short.”

“I guessed,” he replied wistfully.

Her impulse was to make a joke to ease him. “It’s not everyone who can claim their hairdresser was the Divine,” she twinkled, “and who sang to me while cutting it.”

That prompted a smile. “Well then, far be from me to question the actions of Most Holy. Especially as we will be working for her.” He glanced behind, seemingly thinking. “It’s not just the hair, I noticed your clothes…all specially made…”

“…so I don’t have to rely on others for the everyday things,” she confirmed. “I’m not always good… with help.”

He appreciated that better than anyone, because he had suffered her refusals most of all. In her case, the old adage of hurting those you love most was shamefully accurate. It had been, she reminded herself, but no longer. Now she understood the cost, and it was a price too dear to pay again.

Cullen nodded, agreeing with her. “True, but you’re also particularly good at adapting when made to. In fact, sometimes it’s the only way.”

There was no reproach in his words, merely an observation of the obvious. Her persistence had had seen her through much, but being too determined had its own shortcomings. What she needed was someone to help her maintain a balance. More than that she needed to listen to them.

“You’re right,” she acknowledged, touching her hand to his chest. “I need someone to guide me if I stray.” Kai looked at him hopefully. “And I know I need to listen this time.”

Cullen’s smile disclosed his answer, his words confirmed it. “Sometimes I need to remember to be patient with that guidance, and not to overreact.”

She pressed her hand flat against his chest. “Thank you.”

His response couldn’t have been more encouraging. “We’re in this together, remember.”

“Together,” she echoed, staring into his eyes, determined to prove she meant it.

He took her hand, palm up, kissing it softly. And there it was again, same as before. The feel of his lips on her skin reflected in her missing hand made her sigh this time. Cullen spotted her reaction, his eyes darting between her face and her hand.

“Is it...like before?” he inquired.

Kai nodded.

A mischievous grin crossed his face. “Close your eye, and focus.”

She peered at him quizzically only to be met by a look that said, ‘do as you are told’. Kai exhaled and closed her eye. He kissed her palm again, then slowly kissed his way to her wrist, the sensation in both her actual and imaginary hands.

He moved past her wrist onto the inside of her forearm, and did the strangest thing. It was like a cross between kissing, nipping and sucking, something he’d never done before. She felt his breath, warm, as he drew up her skin between his lips just deep enough to feel his teeth, then let go leaving her skin slightly wet and tingling behind, the air immediately cooling it as he moved on. The tingle grew, tracking his path up her arms and over her shoulders.

Then he found her neck, biting softly there. In every fantasy she had about him, and there were many variations, it always involved him doing exactly this. Because she adored it when he did exactly this. Hushed, breathy moans began to fall from her lips as her mind became hazy, even dreamlike and the tingle changed into a low hum, resonating down her body, to her breasts and lower. Much lower.

Had she been capable of rational thought, she would have sworn it was like standing too near a static cage. The buzz of electricity could have a similarly odd stimulating effect.

One began feeding into the other, the heavier her moans, the firmer his bites became, charting a route from her neck to the soft flesh of her breasts, sharp stings of ecstasy intensifying the insistent ache between her legs. His hand gripped her breast, nipple pressed tightly between his thumb and forefinger, her body arching into him with a hissed ‘fuck’. It hurt, but not as much as the ache below was starting to hurt. Raw, primal need took over. Need for him. Inside her.

Her voice was breathlessly low. “Cullen…”

She didn’t get a chance to finish as his mouth held hers in an unrelenting and hungry kiss, dimly aware neither was in control anymore. She sensed him moving position, intuitively knowing what he was doing, and opened her legs giving him access. His erection, hard and demanding, nudged against her as he settled between them. Only then did he break the kiss, breathing deep. Kai opened her eye to meet his eyes, half-lidded, shining dark and devouring, not conscious it was matched in hers.

The fact they’d been apart for months, meaning there would be complications and pain, entered neither of their heads.

He reached down with one arm, his other locking to hold himself steady, and she arched her back tilting her pelvis upwards, ready to take him. His cock held in a firm grasp, he tried to guide himself inside, slipping because she was so wet, until he found his mark. With one hard thrust he was sheathed deep inside. She yelped, eye closing as she felt the pain. It quickly passed.

Too quickly, she suddenly realised, a flash of sense returning. It shouldn’t have been that easy.

Even when they had longer stretches of time together, where sex was more frequent, it wasn’t this easy. She could still feel him tight inside her, but it was as though she adapted to him faster than usual. Something had changed.

She became aware Cullen wasn’t moving. Kai opened her eye to see him looking at her, perplexed too, but also concerned, and a little guilty. Like her he’d lost control, and no doubt taken aback by it.

“Forgive me, I didn’t…”

I didn’t think, was what he wanted to say, and realising how it might sound. The last time he said that, he looked so mortified. It wasn’t his fault then, or now.

“Neither did I. I was too…” She sighed, unable to finish the sentence. I was too distracted. It was hardly an excuse.

He smiled in understanding. “So was I.” His smile dimmed as the apprehension returned. “I hurt you though, didn’t I?”

“It did hurt, but we did that together. And it was over so quickly.” Her brows creased in a faint frown. “I don’t know how or why, but it’s different,” her frown relaxed into a steady smile, “and honestly it’s easier.”

He nodded, his expression easing. “I…noticed that too.”

She glanced down at the two of them, joined together. Sense may have kicked in, but it had done nothing to dampen his arousal or hers, or take away the strange hum inside, muted now. When she faced him, he was watching her, waiting.

Cullen arched a questioning brow. “So, what now?”

Kai bit her lip, smiling coyly. “Cullen, do you really need to ask?”

Her husband never needed to be told twice.

He drew out half way, and thrust back into her, forcing out a gasp, her muscles constricting, clinging onto him. She felt him twitch inside her and groan, his eyes briefly closing, before thrusting in again. And again, and again, and again, his pace settling into a rhythm, her ache burning hotter with each stroke, ragged moans falling from her mouth. The friction of his thrusts caught her slightly, but she liked that pain. Maybe more than she should.

Her throat became dry, forcing her to swallow, her silence letting in his sounds. Grunts and groans, sharp intakes and exhales of breath. All him, all real, and all so beautiful. She opened her eye and caught his. For a moment their gazes locked onto one another, and both paused as though suspended in time. Kai touched her fingers to Cullen’s chest, and in that moment, it was almost as if she could sense…

He thrust even deeper, making her cry out, her eye closing, her hand dropping down onto the bed. The moment was eclipsed as he rode her with such determination she could scarcely keep sense together. Fucking her and making love to her all at once; joined and lost in one another. And it was good, so good. Because he felt good and he made her feel good. She needed him, and this, more than she ever understood, and had missed him, more than she ever admitted. Even to herself. Memories flowed over her like a waterfall.

His body warm beside her, holding her, kisses on her head, ‘I’m here’, with love and tenderness when she is dark and hurting; morning tea with kisses and laughter, her hand and his fingers, swallowing one another’s cries of pleasure with open mouths as they come; smiling smugly when he wins at chess, watching her kneeling, naked, mouth full with him, and just as smugly when she does, sprawled across his desk or hers, bound and blindfolded, his coat’s mane brushing her thighs as his tongue teases…

She groaned, driving against him, the power of her memories ramping up sensations and emotion, aware of all at once.

Body aching tight and burning hot, streaks of sweat as they slide down her neck, blood pounding in her head, hand hard-fisted clutching at the bedclothes on the verge of…need to…

“Please…”

He changed position slightly, and the friction as he caught her with each stroke was nearly too much pain and pleasure to bear…until it was perfect.

“Cullen…”

She screamed and shook as release came like a wave of desperately welcome relief, muscles repeatedly clenching hard then loosening, forcing him to follow. A loud grunted “Maker” came as he swelled and shuddered, his heat adding to hers as he emptied inside her. The hum subsided as her pulse began to slow and tiredness seeped into her limbs.

A tad breathless and disoriented still, Kai opened her eye, feeling her lashes and face wet. She saw Cullen watching her, his face and chest flushed, sweat beading on him as he caught his breath. A happy, tired smile broke out on her face, reflected in his as he lowered himself onto his elbows.

“Don’t leave just yet,” she implored, settling her hand on his back, still hot.

“I won’t,” he promised, kissing her breasts and settling his head in between, mindful not put his full weight onto her.

His hair was all loose golden curls, slightly damp, and far too irresistible. She laced her fingers into his hair, lightly rubbing his head. Cullen hummed contentedly under her touch. He loved it when she used to massage his scalp…when she had both hands. Kai had a thought.

“If we find a more comfortable position, I can actually massage it for you. It’ll take longer with one hand…”

“Longer sounds good to me,” he accepted, the sound slightly muffled.

He lifted his head, waiting for her to say yes. Kai nodded and Cullen pushed himself up, pulling out, and shifting into a kneeling position, still between her open legs. He glanced at the pillows, the headboard, and turned back to her.

“I have just the position in mind,” he suggested. “Trust me?”

Kai grinned. “Always.”

She sat up and waited as he got busy, grabbing pillows and siting them against the headboard, building a cosy padding against which he settled himself with a contented exhale. He beckoned her to him, and Kai shuffled over, Cullen helping her to sit astride his legs.

She lifted her hand but he held it, making her pause.

“I have an idea, something I believe can help you,” he offered, eyeing her carefully. “But it isn’t without a little risk.”

Kai inclined her head, curious. “What is it?”

Cullen rested his other hand on her left shoulder. “While you’re massaging my head, I could do the same,” he darted a look at her left arm, “for your arm.”

She startled, horrified. “No!” The last episode was still fresh in her mind and the thought of it going wrong was too scary.

Cullen sought to convince her. “Kai, not like your back. I will be gentle and careful, I swear.”

Kai shook her head, her tone almost strident. “Cullen, the last time I tried to do it, you found me on my knees in agony. I really don’t think…”

“Last time,” he interrupted firmly, frowning, “the whole of your body was tensed up, judging by what I found. You…”

Her gaze narrowed in frustration. No doubt it was. Then. But he also claimed there was a risk. Now.

Cullen exhaled, softening his tone when he saw her expression. “I have no desire to see you in agony again especially when I think we can prevent it. Of course there’s a risk. I’d be lying if I said otherwise. However, now you’re more relaxed I truly believe that risk is extremely slight.”

The dread was subsiding, yet she remained reluctant, and he knew it.

Cullen stroked her shoulder, his voice as soothing as his touch. “Kai, please trust me. I only want to help you.”

Kai understood it was difficult for him to see her in so much pain, plus he had a point about the tension stored up in her arm. Cullen had been right many times over these last few days, whereas her instincts were clearly off the mark. And hadn’t she resolved to accept more help.

Kai sighed, agreeing. “Alright.”

“Thank you,” Cullen acknowledged softly, letting go of her hand to kiss her. “You begin, and I’ll work around you.”

She eased her fingers through his hair to the top of his scalp, massaging with circular motions, half waiting for him to start. He didn’t, not straight away at least, waiting a few minutes until she was settled and concentrated on her task. At first, she didn’t realise he had begun, and then she felt his thumb mirroring her movements, but considerably gentler, like a caress. He too was doing it one handed.

Kai smiled.

“Should I take that as approval?” he queried, with a confident ‘was I right?’ tone.

“Smart arse,” she threw back, her smile widening as she moved to another spot, her fingers playing with his hair a little before resuming his massage.

Cullen tutted with a chuckle. “That’s coming out of your hide, later.”

Kai just raised an eyebrow.

No more was said, focusing on each other with merely the odd glance and smile. But his fingers were soothing, and by the time it was over, her arm felt almost normal. She finished a few minutes after him.

Kai rested her hand at the base of his neck, stroking lightly, and gazed into his eyes. “Thank you for guiding me, and bearing with my reluctance.”

“Thank you for listening, and..” he sighed with a swift eye roll, “for bearing with my impatience.”

She smiled. “Perhaps we both need a little more practice?”

“Of that I have no doubt,” he grinned, tapping her nose. “But I’m confident we can find a way to make it…interesting.”

Kai stared at her husband. Earlier was intense emotion, and more than a little frantic and hot, but now it felt quiet, warm and comfortable. Whatever weirdness the future would bring, at least here and now, and in the still small moments of peace between the inevitable periods of craziness, they would have each other. And this time value what they had, and simply enjoy being together.

“My husband always has a plan,” Kai blinked still smiling, “and I look forward to him surprising me.”

He chuckled. “No doubt my wife will occasionally tweak those plans to surprise me, and I look forward to the challenge.”

Kai gave him a loving peck on the lips. “And you always know when to pick me up off my arse.”

“Maybe so,” he smirked, resting his hand on her thigh. “But right now, I prefer your arse exactly where it is.”

“And why is that?” she asked coyly.

Cullen leaned over to the bedside table and picked up the box of sweets, placing it on the bed, taking out a single sweet.

“Practice,” he winked.

She snickered and took the sweet from his hand. “And if I do well?”

“Payment in kind,” he answered, voice low and smooth, circling her thigh sensuously with his thumb.

Kai didn’t need to be told twice.

Chapter Text

Cullen set the mug of tea on the bedside table, seeing his wife soundly asleep. He recalled her saying how Lyssa would joke that raising the dead was probably easier than waking Kai.

Did I do the right thing?

Last night he thought it was. He convinced her how she looked didn’t matter to him, and watching as the woman he fell in love with emerge, his decision to break through her steel wall seemed the right one. In the light of dawn, he reflected on the potential cost of that decision.

He had offered his support as someone who understood the effects of trauma and regret. She willingly accepted, trusting him to take care of her. Perhaps too willingly. Even in her moments of doubt, Kai had never lost her self-reliance. Now it seemed lessened. By weakening her, Kai’s dependence on him was more than Cullen anticipated.

At times she seemed like a nervous child clinging onto a comforting hand, scared it would be taken away if she didn’t behave. Deferring to his judgement, apologising for every perceived mistake as if her actions would hurt him or worse, make him leave her. And not without cause. Hadn’t he already left her because of a decision she made? He was taking a risk. Yet the alternative was losing who she was entirely, and he couldn’t bear for that to happen.

Cullen sighed, rubbing his forehead.

He was committed…they were committed…to this path, and it was his responsibility to see her safely through to the end. He could only pray his words and actions, along with the support of her friends, would be sufficient until her return.

Cullen stared at the mug on the bedside table. If he didn’t rouse her now, by the time she was fully awake the tea would be cold. He climbed onto the bed behind Kai, pulled back the covers and slapped her on the backside. A twitch and sleepy groan answered him, and then quiet. He did it again with the same response, and once more she fell silent.

Raising the dead, he reflected as he delivered a third smack, this time heavier.

This time it prompted a giggle. Evidently her sense of fun was still intact.

He leant over and murmured in her ear. “Sneaky.”

Kai snickered. “Maybe just third time lucky?”

“Really?” Cullen replied, doubtful.

“And you bought me tea!” she added cheerfully, shifting onto her back to face him with a happy smile. “Thank you.”

He sighted the bite marks above her breasts and promptly turned his attention to her face. Luckily, they would be concealed by her dress, but he could guess the reaction when she discovered them. He traced his fingers over Kai’s cheek.

“Have you been awake all this time?” he challenged, aware of the answer.

Kai winked. “Only way I could get my ‘requirements’. You forgot last night.”

Cullen sought not to laugh. She wasn’t wrong, but only because they were preoccupied with other things. He recognized what came next because this was such a familiar game. And he loved it because it was fun, silly, and exclusively theirs.

“Are you complaining?” he demanded, feigning a frown.

“Yes,” she asserted, jutting out her jaw defiantly. “So…what do you intend to do about it?”

Cullen leaned over, his lips resting above hers. “Only one way to keep you quiet,” he declared, kissing her.

Her fingers threaded their way into his hair as she pressed him deeper into the kiss, her tongue sliding sensuously over his with the softest of moans. The effect shot straight to his groin, his hand finding her hip and gripping tightly. She moaned louder, and opened her legs. He gently drew back, breaking the kiss.

“Your tea will get cold,” he smirked, catching her gaze flick to his mouth.

Kai met his gaze, raising a cheeky eyebrow with a half-smile, her hip grazing his cock ever so lightly. “My husband won’t though.”

“Well…” Cullen lazily glided his hand up her inner thigh, watching her lips part with a slight inhale, “…far be from me to disappoint a lady.”

The stress on his final words made her laugh as she recalled his teasing.

Now I’m a lady?” she exclaimed, smiling.

Cullen cocked his head. “You…have your moments.”

Kai laughed again, and darted a look at his hand, sighing affectedly. “A gentleman would have asked permission.”

“True,” he conceded. “But we’re not strangers…”

The smile greeting him was as warm as the comfortable feel of her fingers touching his cheek. “Never, ever, Cullen.”

“And?” he grinned.

“Asking is for strangers,” she replied invitingly, drawing her teeth over her bottom lip.

Cullen bent down to kiss Kai, capturing the gasp as his fingers slid inside her, discovering the earlier kiss had produced the same effect for her as with him. He pulled his fingers out and gently upward, finding on the small, swollen spot he was after, and started stroking steadily, sensing her lean into him, wanting him to move faster. He held steady against her silent demand until she gave in.

He had missed these quiet mornings where they set aside time for one another, mornings which were almost a ritual for them. Most of all he had missed her, more than he ever understood.

Last night his need for her overwhelmed him. This morning he took his time; listening to the noises she made, the whimpers and moans; feeling the heat of her body triggering the scent of sandalwood; watching the involuntary faces she made as pleasure engulfed her.

Her breathing accelerated and muscles tensed, and he sensed she was getting close. Rather than push her through, he slowed his movements, enough to maintain her level of arousal but not bring her to orgasm. The objection came swiftly as a hummed whine, yet he held his pace, waiting until her body became still while inside she swelled. Only then did he go faster and a little rougher. Years of learning about one another’s bodies taught him how to intensify the sensations for her when she came.

And the feeling…the elation…when she arched against him, her body shaking with release, hearing her call his name, her voice caressing the syllables before she curled into his arms…it was beyond measure. He kissed her head receiving a happy hum, and smiled.

After a few moments lying there, Cullen was about to propose breakfast when he noticed Kai had other ideas. Her hand grasped his cock with resolute strokes, intent on reawakening the erection which had been lessening. Thoughts of breakfast or tea slipped aside as she gently moved him onto his back without slowing her actions. His eyes closed, giving in, allowing her to take charge.

Memories of his loft came to him, the smell of crisp, cold mornings and warm sleepy bodies snuggled under blankets, hands and fingers seeking one another out. Precious moments of carefree affection and comfortable intimacy which he never wanted to end.

Moments that ended but not forgotten, developing into one of his night-time fantasies about the woman he left but never forgot.

Now she was here. The familiar deft touch of her hand making him ache with need, better than his own when he thought of her on those nights apart. Doing to him exactly what he’d done to her, delaying the moment of orgasm by momentarily slowing and loosening her grip when he was close. It was deliberate and unhurried, and he was lost in ecstasy, not wanting these moments to ever end again.

Her strokes become harder, faster, his heart racing now as the blood surged in his head and his groin, muscles tightening, cock aching for relief. And then…he felt the warmth of her mouth envelop him, and welcome release shuddering through his body as he came. He instinctively called out to her, in gratitude or as a plea or as simply confirmation she was truly here, he didn’t know.

Cullen reached down and cradled Kai’s head as she slowly lifted it, smiling. He returned an exhausted smile, and folded his arm round her as she snuggled up to him once more. And there they lay, silent, tired and content, enjoying just being together. Duties would drag them back into reality soon enough. A few more moments of rest, caring about nothing other than one another, was the least they deserved.

Cullen had found his redemption with Kai, now it was his turn. Whatever it took, whatever she needed. Not because it was a debt he owed, but a promise he chose to make.

Warm and relaxed beside his wife, Cullen closed his eyes.

 

He felt someone nudging him.

“Wake up, sleepyhead.”

Cullen opened his eyes to find Kai leaning over him, already dressed. Seeing him awake, she tapped his nose.

“Someone promised his daughter eggy breads for breakfast, and she’s waiting. You’re lucky Uncle Dorian and Uncle Bull are keeping her entertained, otherwise she’d be here bouncing on you.”

Cullen sat up and groaned, hearing Kai laugh. The last thing he needed was making breakfast on top of a rapidly growing headache. The aftermath of far too much whisky and ale celebrating Dorian’s return, finally able to visit them and meet up with Bull on one of the rare occasions they could see one another.

Cullen rubbed his head in a fruitless attempt to relieve the discomfort. “Maker’s breath! I really shouldn’t have…”

“…drunk so much,” Kai snickered, offering him a flask. “Here, drink this. A few minutes and you’ll be fine.”

He took the draught from her and gulped it down, pulling a face and sticking out his tongue from the vile taste. Kai rarely used pain relief now, but invariably kept some on hand as insurance. Waiting for the effect to kick in, he watched as she took fresh clothes from the chest of draws for him, laying them on the armchair. Some things she still struggled to do one handed, but with many others she found a way. His wife was nothing if not tenacious.

He still thanked the Maker they’d seen one another before she left for Kirkwall. It brought home how they’d missed each other, and the time together, although brief, offered a chance to talk. They chose to make another attempt at their marriage, recognising there was plenty to mend, but nevertheless wanting to try. She was still Inquisitor, and the Sanctuary remained his focus, but they found time for one another whenever they could, gradually rebuilding their fractured relationship.

Even though he couldn’t be with her at the Exalted Council, Cullen made certain he was waiting for her at Highever when she returned from Ostwick. Had Kai lost him on top of her other losses, he feared what may have become of her.

Their reconciliation hadn’t been easy, but they persevered through the difficult times. And then came the startling news neither ever thought to hear...she was expecting their child, their beautiful daughter, Ella. Now their second child was due soon, and Ella would be two years old in a couple of days.

As the pain abated, he smirked seeing her bend over, this time resisting the temptation to lean forward and land a smack. Kai finished smoothing his shirt and turned around, flicking her hair over her shoulder.

Spotting his smirk, she chuckled. “Feeling better, are we?”

“Some,” he shrugged, then winked. “A little extra encouragement might help.”

She hummed, lifting an eyebrow. “I see.”

Cullen made space for her to sit beside him. He rested his hand on her belly, and she placed her hand on his, sitting in silence. It took a minute before he felt their child move and give a solid kick, reverberating against his palm. He should have been used to this by now, yet each time remained thrilling. Cullen’s smile couldn’t have been broader or prouder, or Kai’s happier.

Her expression abruptly shifted to one of hesitation, causing him to worry. “Kai, what’s wrong?”

She patted his hand and sought to smile reassuringly. “I think the munchkin is on his way…my waters just broke.”

“Oh…right…we should…” Cullen stalled as his mind went blank with a sense of panic, just as before.

He had run major military campaigns with an army greater than those of city states, pulled together the Templars in Kirkwall following Meredith’s downfall whilst helping Aveline keep order, not to mention organising training for Ferelden forces while running the Sanctuary. Yet the birth of a baby was scarier than all those together. Because he had no control over what happened.

Cullen heard Kai calling to him. He struggled to focus as her voice became distant, her face fading as his vision dimmed and he lost consciousness.

 

“Cullen, wake up.”

Cullen’s eyes snapped open to see Kai sitting beside him, clad solely in a smile. For a moment he was disoriented, seeing her naked with short hair.

Her hair, where was...

He quickly realised he must have fallen asleep and been dreaming again. This was the first time he had one of ‘the dreams’ while Kai was here, and they appeared to be adapting to her presence. Cullen had idly wondered how events would have turned out had he arrived earlier at Skyhold, and seen her before she left for Kirkwall. Now it was playing out in his dreams.

“I must have nodded off,” he admitted, seeing a smug smile as he sat up.

“Perhaps I wore you out?” she teased, patting his cheek.

Cullen lifted an eyebrow, settling his hand on her hip. “Well, you are rather insistent with your…demands.”

“My demands?” she questioned, narrowing her gaze and puckering her lips to suppress the smile. “Whose hands roamed over me while poking me in the back with his…”

“Only after you shamelessly paraded around in my coat,” Cullen interrupted with a fixed stare.

Kai’s mock stern face burst into a bold grin. “That was fun,” she mused. “I’d forgotten how sensuous your coat felt.” She cocked her head. “I think a chess game is in order.”

His wife never failed to surprise him. Only yesterday, she broke down in fear and anger over a game. Today she wanted to play again, doubtless prompted by the chance of a reward. Maybe he’d even let her win just to see the excitement, but it would have to be convincing. Then again, the thought of seeing Kai in his coat, on her knees…

“Why not,” he smirked. “But,” Cullen ran his thumb over her lips, “if I win, you wear the coat.”

A broad smile and suggestive wink answered him. “If I’d known it would illicit such a reaction, I’d have done it sooner.”

Cullen shook his head. “All right.” He tapped her nose. “Shall I do breakfast while you set up the board?”

Kai nodded enthusiastically making him laugh. As she moved to clamber off the bed, a thought arose and he stopped her.

“What?” she asked, curious.

“Why don’t you lie across me and find out,” he suggested, seeing realisation come.

Several smacks and moans of satisfaction later, he in his pyjama bottoms and her in a nightshirt headed to the kitchen. Cullen could swear there was a bounce in her step as she walked ahead of him. He supposed the smacking offered some form of release for Kai, but more importantly it made her happy.

Reaching the kitchen, she peered around. “Where are our two?”

“Running the fields, I imagine,” Cullen remarked. “Izzy has more freedom here than she had at Skyhold, and takes full advantage. If it’s not a market day, she goes off for her ‘constitutional’, whether I’m here or at the Sanctuary.”

“I hope Max is alright,” Kai said uneasily. “He’s got used to having someone around.”

Cullen wrapped his arms around her waist from behind, and kissed her cheek. “He has to learn to be a mabari, not just a pet, Kai. Izzy will take care of him.”

She drew a deep breath, exhaling. “All right.” Her hand stroked his. “So, where do you keep the chess set?”

He let go and pointed to the large dresser. “There. Bottom draw.”

Kai gave a little laugh as she ambled over. “You don’t know the whereabouts of your bedside table, but you know where the chess set lives.”

“The dresser, it’s…” he scratched his beard absentmindedly, “…been here longer than some of the other furniture.”

Kai bent over pulling out the bottom draw, and Cullen found himself momentarily distracted staring at her naked bottom, or more precisely the rosy handprint on her right cheek. His hand found the back of his neck.

Maker, did I smack harder than I realised?

No matter it was what she wanted, and the delighted grin showed she approved, he had to be more restrained in future.

Cullen headed to the small larder to fetch food, picking up bread, butter, and a specific cheese wheel. Doubtless Kai would have a ready comment at being served cheese again, but he had a response for her this time. Returning, he found her munching as she set up the chess board on the side of the table, the box of sweets he brought back earlier now open.

“Couldn’t wait I see,” he observed knowingly, setting the tray of food on the table.

“I needed the energy,” she sighed, glancing at the tray. An impish grin grew. “Why Cullen…might that be cheese?”

“Not just any cheese,” he emphasised, fetching a couple of plates.

She watched him quizzically, but he purposely delayed his answer by adding more wood to the stove. It would take a few minutes for the water to heat fully, so he leaned against the bench and folded his arms.

“This is Inquisitor cheese,” he declared straight faced.

Kai’s gaze widened in disbelief before snorting a snigger. “Seriously, what…”

Cullen held up his hand. “It starts off soft, mild, lulling you into complacency. Then…bam,” he said the word loudly making her jump as she watched him, “it catches you unawares as the heat hits.”

Her expression veered from scepticism to confusion. Holding in the smile was hard, and Cullen was on the verge of telling her what the cheese was when he saw her frown, stare at the small cheese wheel, and take a few sniffs.

Kai looked back up, her voice lilting. “Are you positive it’s not Commander cheese? Reticent at first, suddenly bold, ultimately overwhelming you into submission as the heat rolls over your tongue.”

She smiled. “It’s got Rivaini hot pepper, hasn’t it?”

Cullen nodded, chuckling. “And well played.”

“You too,” Kai acknowledged, still smiling. “Where did Rosie get it? I wouldn’t have thought it was available here.”

“Rosie’s constantly searching for something new to create. So, when Helsdim passed through a while back, Mia exchanged a few cheeses and some beer for some of his spices and dried hot peppers,” Cullen explained. “Unfortunately, this combination didn’t turn out as popular as some of her other ones. A little too spicy for some Fereldan palates.”

He heard the kettle boil and took it off the plate, starting the tea. “Therefore, my sisters passed a few my way for free when they found out you were coming.”

“I wasn’t aware Mia and Helsdim knew one another,” Kai queried.

“Neither did they,” Cullen replied.

He briefly detailed the events as he brought the mugs to the table, without mentioning the lurid pamphlet which was the main reason for Helsdim’s detour to South Reach. Thankfully the offending item was safely in Josephine’s hands, assuring him it was under investigation.

“Oh, I see,” Kai acknowledged.

She watched as he prepared plates of bread and cheese for them, apparently mulling this over. Cullen hoped she wouldn’t inquire further on Helsdim’s visit, and fortunately for him, she didn’t. As Cullen passed a plate to her, it turned out her thoughts were elsewhere.

“You know, all this interconnectedness used to niggle at me, but honestly, after all we’ve discovered,” she shrugged, “I think Varric nailed it. All this shit is weird.”

“Destiny, perhaps?” Cullen offered with a teasing smile.

Kai gave a long exhale, glancing at the chess board. “Wouldn’t that just make us pieces to be moved? To think there was nothing more would deny us will and choice.”

Cullen gave her a puzzled look. “I thought it didn’t bother you now? The other day you said…”

“I know,” she sighed. “It’s just sometimes…” she scratched her head, “…I wish there was less world shattering destiny, and more boring and ordinary destiny.”

Both recognised it would never be so. All he could do was provide a little comfort, and with Kai small distractions were often enough.

“Maybe we can create our own destiny, right here and now,” he offered, bringing the chess board closer to them.

He noticed how she set the white pieces on his side, making the first move his. Kai stared at him quizzically as he smiled and moved a piece.

“We can choose to be two boring and ordinary people sitting together for breakfast, while playing chess. How does that sound?”

She looked at him with a grateful smile. “I’d like that.”

“So, usual rules?” he proposed, seeing the smile grow into a grin.

“Cullen, do you need to ask?” Kai remarked, moving her piece and taking a piece of cheese.

Cullen chuckled. “I suppose not.”

The two of them grabbed bites in between moves as they continued to play.

This time Kai was focused on the game, thinking through the possibilities before reacting to his moves, with no trace of the distress he saw the previous day. He was glad because chess games were another of their little rituals, and he would have hated to lose them. It was a chance to unwind, with promised gratification as a reward.

This fantasy they were indulging in wasn’t solely for her benefit. Before things fell apart, this was the sort of morning Cullen would imagine, just the two of them as part of a normal life. In reality, their lives would never be normal, but he could ensure they had boring and ordinary moments like this.

Cullen heard Kai exhale and looked up to discover her smiling wistfully. Her words mirrored his thoughts.

“I like this, Cullen. Us…here.” She took a breath, glancing around. “It’s what I imagined things would be like.”

“Me too,” he replied gently.

Kai’s fingers sought out her wedding ring. “Perhaps I should…” she began, “…have my ring adjusted…for this hand.”

The tone of her voice made the statement sound like a question, as if to ask, ‘am I being presumptuous’. Cullen smiled reassuringly, seeing Kai’s smile grow brighter.

“Take it to Harrit and Dagna when you’re back at Skyhold,” he advised. “And when you return, I can put on back on for you.”

She nodded. “I will.”

Kai flicked a glance at his wedding ring, but it took another couple of moves before she asked the question.

“Did you…I mean have you…worn your ring since we…” her voice trailed off as he met her gaze.

His answer was clear. “I’ve never taken it off, Kai.”

“Neither have I,” she maintained. “Well, not until…” Kai sighed as she half lifted her left arm.

“Well, I suppose I can forgive you for that,” he remarked with a slight smile.

His words caused her to laugh, her earlier uncertainty easing. As when she lost her eye, Kai said she didn’t want him to avoid talking about her arm. Although he wouldn’t dream of joking about her appearance, this felt like safe ground and he was proved right.

She gazed at him. “Thank you.”

Cullen tilted his head. “For what?”

“Giving us another chance, and…” Kai glanced down before facing him again, “…for believing in me. I never thanked you for what you did last night…”

“Kai, you don’t have…”

She held her hand up, halting him. “Please, Cullen?”

He nodded “All right.”

Where there was hesitation before, now Kai’s voice brimmed with conviction. “What you said, what you did for me last night…I can never truly thank you enough. All I can do is honour you by promising I won’t waste it.”

However lost she may be, there was no doubt in his mind about her determination when it came to their relationship. Cullen rested his open hand on their kitchen table, folding his hand around hers as she placed it in his.

“Neither will I, Kai,” he vowed. “We do this together.”

“Together,” she echoed like a mantra.

“Maybe we should finish our game now,” he winked. “So there’s time for that reward.”

“I believe it’s your move,” Kai smiled, her fingers sliding smoothly over his palm as he released his hold, leaving behind a tingling sensation in their wake. Just like last night, but fainter.

“So it is,” Cullen agreed, picking up a piece.

As he made his move, a humming sound issued from Kai’s pendant. This time he knew what, and who it was. Kai explained Dorian kept in constant contact for encouragement, and gossip. Yesterday, Dorian and Bull also had a chance to talk, their first contact since the Council.

“Maker’s breath!” Kai exclaimed, shaking her head. “Has he been up all night again?

“He wouldn’t be the only one,” Cullen smirked, making Kai snicker.

“Shush now,” she scolded unconvincingly, grinning as she clicked open the pendant.

A familiar voice came through, somewhat unsteady. “Hello Katarina.”

Had Cullen not been watching Kai, he would have missed the transformation. With a single blink, his wife, smiling only a second ago, was gone. In her place sat the Inquisitor, staring so steadily at the chess board even he would struggle to detect a flaw in the mask. He knew Dorian and Kai had codewords, but not what they all were or what they signified. The fact Dorian used her given name, along with her subsequent reaction, clearly meant this was bad.

Her tone was completely natural as she answered. “Dorian! How are you?”

“I’m in a bit of a pickle, darling...I…”

Whatever Dorian intended to say was cut off as another male voice took over, oily in its snide arrogance.

“Inquisitor, or should that be Comtesse Rutherford now? Power can be so fickle, can’t it? One day you’re the toast of Thedas, the next they toss you into the midden like yesterday’s left overs.” There was a disingenuous sigh. “I appreciate things personally must be dreadful for you as well, first an eye, now an arm, but…I’m afraid I must add to your woes.”

Was it Venatori? Who else would it be in Tevinter?

Cullen felt his anger building, a heavy frown forming on his face along with the worry as to where this was heading, and what effect it would have on Kai. True to her training, she didn’t flinch, and her manner was smooth when she responded. Anyone listening to the tone alone would have assumed this was merely a social encounter.

“I’m sorry, I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.”

“Where are my manners?” the voice came back. “Lord Septimus Erimond. I believe you were acquainted with my brother, Livius.”

“I believe I was,” she responded, not missing a beat. “So, I take it you have a reason for contacting me.”

“Down to business I see, very well,” Erimond replied, a little less confident, apparently anticipating more shock on Kai’s part. “As you’ve likely guessed we’re hosting a good friend of yours and his…colleague. I have a proposition, a straightforward exchange. Your freedom for theirs.”

Maker, no. Not this. Not now.

Cullen’s heart sank, because he recognised what she would do. What she invariably did. The right thing. In this instance the right thing meant saving Dorian, and he guessed Maevaris, by giving herself up. Her concentration was so firmly fixed on the chess board, if he tried to get her attention he could break it, and maybe even the steely façade she was maintaining to handle this. She, and he, were caught between a rock and a hard place.

It left Cullen with no choice but to sit and listen with a burgeoning sense of resentment and desperation, while Kai and Erimond continued as though they were making dinner arrangements rather than a hostage exchange.

“On one condition,” she bargained. “I expect your solemn word that neither will be harmed.”

“Very well, you have my word they will not be harmed. I’ll even throw in periodic contact to show you I am a man of my word,” he granted, as if doing her a favour. “So, do we have an arrangement?”

“We have an arrangement,” Kai confirmed.

“Oh, and,” Erimond remarked, practically as an afterthought, “don’t think about bringing Inquisition forces with you, there’s a good girl.”

“Very well, but I will require an escort,” Kai persuaded. “I am no longer capable of defending myself, and you wouldn’t wish bandits to deprive you of your prize, would you?”

Erimond scoffed wearily. “Alright, an escort of no more than ten. I imagine that should be ample safeguard, notwithstanding casualties.”

“Where will we be meeting?”

“Make your way to Trevis, there’s a tavern on the outskirts, the Silent Stone. There will be instructions waiting for you inside.”

“Understood, Lord Erimond.”

“Well then, I suspect that concludes our business. I look forward to our meeting, Comtesse Rutherford.”

The crystal went dark as the connection cut, and Kai snapped shut the pendant. There was a slight clink as her wedding ring knocked against it. The ring she was planning to have adjusted. The ring he would have put on her finger a second time. Now she, and it, would head to Tevinter.

What the Venatori couldn’t assassinate, they would destroy by deceit. All they had to do was ask her to save someone she cared for. Because that’s what the Herald of Andraste did, she saved people. Everybody knew it, and the Venatori worked out how to exploit that to trap her. A trap which worked perfectly because she was walking into it willingly.

Cullen closed his eyes, his jaw clenching hard as he struggled to force down the anger swelling inside. Anger at the Venatori for their blackmail, anger at Dorian for getting captured, anger at her for submitting so readily, and anger at himself for allowing her to, Maker forgive him.

He felt her hand rest on his, so tenderly it was too much and his anger flared.

Cullen snatched his hand away, snapping at her. “Don’t!”

Kai left so quietly and quickly, he didn’t even realise she was gone until he opened his eyes to find himself alone.

Chapter Text

Cullen closed his eyes taking a deep breath, allowing the vestiges of his anger to dissipate. Whether Kai intended to or not, her tentative gesture had forced his frustration to the surface, venting it. His heart rate slowed and the tension in his body eased.

This was well-trodden ground. Whenever he became angry and shouted at her, she would walk away. Rarely would she engage in an argument. In the past, occasionally he wished she would, because at least they could thrash things out and not have matters fester between them. Today though, she was right to leave and let him settle. A quarrel now would benefit neither.

Cullen opened his eyes, feeling calmer. What else did you expect her to do in the circumstances?

Trap or not, Kai would never walk away from saving someone she cared about. Or anybody else for that matter.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Through the best of intentions, he had undermined her when she needed to be strong. Whatever awaited her, she had to be prepared to deal with it; she needed to rely on her steel. His work with her couldn’t continue, and therein came the prospect she could regress.

Cullen exhaled heavily, rubbing the back of his neck. What choice do you have?

Like Kai, he also wished they were boring, ordinary people. Clearly this would never to be the case, not for the foreseeable future at least. But right now, Kai needed him, so he had to set aside his distaste for the situation and help her in the limited time they had. Cullen glanced at the unfinished chess game on the table. The next move was hers, and depending on her choice, she had a good chance of winning. He hoped it was an indication that her adaptability held firm. She would need it.

From fear to focus, Cullen mused as the door opened, and two panting mabari trotted in from their run.

Izzy came to him, sitting by his side with her head resting on his leg. Max searched the kitchen for Kai, swiftly realising she wasn’t there and headed off to find her. As Cullen stroked Izzy hearing her contented soft whine, he wondered if Kai planned on taking Max with her. He had some basic training, but still lacked discipline. Given time with him and Izzy, they could have had him in shape.

Izzy looked up at him with her familiar panting grin, and Cullen couldn’t help but smile back. When he and Kai married, the three of them were a little family, and now Max was their latest addition. A family recovered, but more importantly a family he prayed he wouldn’t lose to the Venatori.

Cullen took a breath. Brooding on what might be wouldn’t help matters, they had to deal with what was real. He headed out of the kitchen to where he guessed she would be, Izzy following behind.

Cullen found Kai in his room, staring out of the window, her right arm wrapped protectively around her waist. Max sat patiently beside her. The rays of the morning sun streamed through the glass, making Kai appear to glow with a golden hue. Although it was merely a trick of the light and Cullen wouldn’t have thought twice before, now everything seemed to have significance. She turned her head to face him with a nervous frown until she realised he was no longer annoyed, her expression then softening.

This is no good, he thought, they shouldn’t be making one another feel bad.

Cullen sought to apologise. “Kai, I shouldn’t have…”

She interrupted him, her tone soothingly contrite. “I’m so sorry, I promised you we would always make important decisions together, and I failed when it counted. You had every right to be angry, Cullen.”

Focused on his own frustration and the injustice of the situation, their promise to one another hadn’t even occurred to him. Evidently, she assumed this was the reason for his animosity.

“But I need to do this,” Kai stressed, managing to seem both conciliatory and determined. “Dorian is one of our closest friends. I couldn’t leave him with them, nor could I face Bull ever again if I refused to save the man he loves.”

“I realise that, I just…” Cullen rubbed the back of his neck as she walked over. He took her outstretched hand. “Kai, I was angry, but not entirely at you for agreeing. The Venatori for doing this, myself for letting you, even Dorian for getting captured.”

“Oh,” she replied quietly, understanding. Her thumb stroked his hand tenderly as though to offer comfort. “Cullen, we knew they wouldn’t give up. The only difference this time is the means.”

He sighed. “I realise that, but did it have to be now?” Cullen paused, considering how to phrase his concern diplomatically. “You’re not exactly…at your best.”

“No, I’m not,” Kai admitted with a sigh. “Especially when we have this chance to take them down.”

His thoughts mirrored her words, a sense of dismay washing over him. Take them down? Surely, she didn’t imagine…

Cullen quickly pushed back on that train of thought, realising he was overreacting. Kai may not be stable, but her wits hadn’t abandoned her. Even she wouldn’t take on Venatori forces with merely a security escort. Curiosity overcame concern.

“I presume you have something in mind other than confronting them with this ‘escort’?” Cullen questioned.

Kai cocked her head with a familiar slight smile and twinkle in her eye. ‘I have an idea’ was what she was silently saying. Something which she wanted to run past him, and a sign she was thinking clearly. He blinked a smile to say, ‘all right, let’s hear it’.

“Bull always says you give your enemy what they want,” she explained. “That way, if you ask something of them, there’s more chance of obtaining it.”

“Not always guaranteed,” Cullen pointed out.

“True, but Erimond tipped his hand,” she maintained, her smile steady as her thumb continued to stroke his hand. The sensation was somehow comforting. “He could have easily let Dorian draw us into a rescue, claiming it was bandits or whatever. I doubt he would realise the greeting already alerted me.”

“Hello Katarina?” Cullen ventured.

Kai nodded. “We set up code greetings if Dorian was under duress and couldn’t speak freely. Katarina was for the Venatori.” She paused momentarily. “After Dorian’s father was assassinated, Charter’s information led us to suspect the Venatori had a hand in it, working covertly with some members of the Magisterium. Their influence may not be what it was, but nevertheless there’s still enough idiots in the Imperium who hark back to the glory days of the ancient empire. Plus, the Archon’s attention is concentrated on the Qunari threat. Dealing with the remnants doesn’t come so high up on his to do list.”

Cullen mulled this over as she spoke. Alongside Erimond’s urging not to bring Inquisition forces was the ready acceptance of Kai’s requests. True, he had Dorian as a bargaining chip, but other than that, his hand wasn’t strong. Cullen hadn’t devised strategies without recognising when someone was seeking to force their opponent into an unfavourable position to mitigate their own weak one. A fact he didn’t appreciate at the time because he let his emotions get the better of him.

“He doesn’t have the numbers,” Cullen proposed, “that’s why he insisted no Inquisition forces.”

“That’s what I suspected,” she confirmed. “You see, I did listen and learn something from my Commander.”

He couldn’t resist teasing her a little. “Which one?”

Kai rolled her eye, causing him to chuckle.

“Rylen is an outstanding Commander, especially if you need a bucket of water dumped on something or someone. Even me at times. Metaphorically of course. But you,” she winked, nudging him lightly with the side of her stump, “will always be my Commander.”

The significance of that unconscious action touched him more than her words. It showed Kai’s discomfort with her body had abated, at least around him. When his wife was prepared to listen, she was surprisingly easy to help. Even better, she was soliciting his input. Perhaps the situation was more promising than he imagined.

Cullen raised an eyebrow. “All right, you did listen, I’ll grant you that. So then, what do you have in mind?”

“We have alternative resources not far from there,” she replied with an amused smile, as if she told herself a joke. “If asked, oh I believe they would be more than willing to help dispose of some troublesome Tevinters.”

He had a sneaking suspicion where this was heading, and his growing optimism waned.

“Movran’s clan,” she declared cheerfully, affirming what he thought.

After Corypheus was defeated, Cullen and Josephine had recommended cutting ties with Wyvern-Fang Hold, citing the repercussions should their connection to the Inquisition be discovered. But Leliana, and then Charter, disagreed, claiming the settlement was a valuable front for their spies. Unsurprisingly, Kai sided with them.

“The weird part is I’d virtually forgotten about them,” she mused, “until we had a review before I came here. Who to pay off now, who to maintain for the time being. Lucky, don’t you think?”

Lucky wouldn’t be the term he would use. Where Avvar were concerned Wyvern-Fang were nothing like Stone-Bear. They devoted most of their time to drinking and brawling, hardly the sort of skilled support she would require. Cullen eyed her wearily, his lack of optimism evident.

Kai sighed. “I take it you’re not impressed.”

“Well they could be a drunken distraction if nothing else,” he retorted with more than a hint of cynicism. “If they agree to help.”

“I think they will, Avvar-Friend,” Kai announced, undeterred by his pessimism. “We killed Hakkon, remember? Giving them one of their gods back should count for something.”

She made a valid point. Such a claim was unlikely to be made without cause.

According to Kai, their defeat of Hakkon had inspired Sigrid to craft a saga celebrating the victory, securing the young skald her own legend mark, Sigrid Saga-Spinner. Although the tale had circulated amongst the Holds in the Basin, Cullen doubted Wyvern-Fang knew of it, having spent the last years in Tevinter. But their defeat of Hakkon, along with the covert support over the years, might be sufficient to bring Movran's clan on board. For what it was worth.

Cullen partially relented. “All right, point taken. But they won’t be as effective as trained Inquisition forces, Kai.”

A resigned look crossed her face. “What other choice do we have, Cullen?” She took a breath, exhaling. “Dorian is only alive now because the Venatori want me, and...”

“…and they’re likely to kill you both once they have you,” he warned, brows furrowed.

“Not if we kill them first,” she emphasised, her voice louder. “I have no intention of meekly giving myself up to die. I want them, along with the names of their collaborators in the Magisterium. Dorian can exploit the information to benefit the Lucerni. With what Solas plans, we have to try to gather all the support we can.”

His eyes opened wide, taken aback by the scale of her intention. This wasn’t just a rescue, or a chance to crush the Venatori. This was swaying the political balance in Tevinter towards future co-operation.

Cassandra said Kai would be ‘working in the background with information and occasionally as an intermediary’. Was this part of their plans, Kai working with Dorian to garner influence in the Imperium? With the sending crystal, they had a secure means of communication. There was no need of couriers who could be accosted, and documents seized. Protection against opponents in Tevinter, and Solas’s agents. It was breathtakingly simple…if dangerous. Cullen sensed Leliana’s hand at work here.

She always could find an advantage, he reflected.

Bringing in Tevinter support was extremely ambitious though, even measured against Kai’s past accomplishments, which were not trivial. Centuries of mistrust and hostility were not easily overcome.

“You want to enlist the Imperium as an ally against Solas?” he asked, as much statement as question.

She nodded. “If it came to actual war...yes. We just need to tip the political balance sufficiently in our favour and hope their collective sense of self-preservation outweighs the incessant infighting.”

Cullen exhaled heavily. “Maker!”

“It’s a vast undertaking, I know,” Kai admitted, searching his face. “And it may not work, but we have to try. If we can’t convince Solas peacefully, there is no alternative. I have no intention of watching him tear this world apart to bring back his own.”

He didn’t doubt her conviction, but their intentions were for nought if this hostage situation went awry. Kai’s death would be a setback to any strategy to counter Solas, and gathering support for the Lucerni might stall without Dorian’s influence.

“Cullen, now you understand why we have to make this work.” Her expression was hopeful. “We have the means, we just require a strategy. For that...” she smiled, “...I need my Commander’s guidance.”

Watching her seek support reminded Cullen of how she used to be, accepting input from others before forming a decision. And whatever her state of mind, give the woman a crisis and she rose to meet it.

“Of course, I’d be happy to provide whatever guidance I can,” he agreed wholeheartedly. “But without better intelligence any plan will be limited in scope.”

There was a slight pause before Kai’s smile brightened, and she kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you, I hoped you would.” She let go of his hand. “We should finish breakfast and go to Mia’s. The others need to be told. Maker, Bull’s going to be livid when he finds out.”

When she headed out of the door, he felt he missed something, but couldn’t place his finger on what. Reflexively Cullen’s hand found the back of his neck as he followed on. Deep in thought, he didn’t notice the undone catch on the potion box as he passed the open door of the study.

==================

Cullen glanced around their friends assembled in Mia's back garden. A strange and eclectic group, framed by his sister’s apple trees, and herb garden. He stayed to one side, observing their reactions as Kai recounted what took place and what they learned. All except Cole were focused on her, instead he peered down shuffling a little. Cassandra and Lace were visibly concerned, Grim was inscrutable as ever, and Bull’s firmly set jaw and dead eyed stare belied the simmering anger he must be feeling. Objectivity is harder when the person in danger is someone you love. The same was true of his own reaction.

Kai was handling the situation better than Cullen could have imagined. The distress he saw yesterday was nowhere to be seen in the assured person standing there. No doubt some stemmed from being Inquisitor, a persona she easily slipped into, but not all. Kai had purpose again; her desire to rescue a friend and right a wrong.

Yet underneath the facade her vulnerability remained. That worried him, especially as he identified what it was he missed. Years together had taught Cullen that sometimes he had to look beyond her words, to the nuance behind them. This time it was something she needed but wouldn’t ask. For him to go with her.

A noise behind drew Cullen’s attention, and he swung round to see Mia standing at a discrete distance, beckoning to him. Cullen went over to her.

“What is it?” he inquired.

She gestured with her head to Bull. “Tell him if he wants to take it out on something, I’ve got wood by the barn that needs chopping.”

Cullen stared at her and she sighed.

“Things get damaged when people have that look,” Mia explained, “and I don’t want his fist going through my walls.” Her tone softened as she glanced in Bull’s direction. “He’s a good man, and I don’t want him feeling bad because he wrecked something. Not after…” She cleared her throat as though to check herself from saying more.

Although curious, he knew better than to press Mia. More than likely she’d change the subject if he tried. Much of the person he recalled as a child endured, but Cullen knew the flight from Honnleath to South Reach during the Blight had impacted all his siblings in various ways. Some things Mia had spoken of, the rest he suspected he would never know. However, his sister was not easily swayed, so whatever Bull had done or said it undoubtedly had an impact.

“All right,” Cullen nodded.

“Thank you,” she acknowledged, heading back to the kitchen.

Cullen re-joined the others hearing Kai reference him.

“...and Cullen has agreed to provide guidance, bearing in mind his experience with the Avvar as well as Venatori forces. We have the pieces, we just need to work out a game plan.”

Everybody looked at him, and Cullen wondered if they were expecting him to go with them. But no one asked, and Kai continued.

“This won’t be an official operation for obvious reasons.” She glanced around the group, an understanding smile on her face. “So, this time it’s volunteers only. I’ll understand if anyone feels they can’t…”

“I’m in,” Bull interrupted, unambiguous in his conviction. He turned to Grim, who gave a grunt of affirmation.

“Yes,” Cole nodded, finally fixing his gaze on Kai.

“I’m in too,” Harding added decisively.

It was no surprise they would go with her, however hazardous the mission. Probably even follow her to the ends of Thedas if she asked.

“As am I,” Cassandra announced, all eyes shifting to her.

Everyone recognised this was especially perilous for Cassandra. If the Divine's Right Hand was caught sneaking into Tevinter, the political ramifications for the Southern Chantry could be disastrous and may scupper any chance of subsequent co-operation. Recognising the danger, Kai sought to dissuade her friend.

“Cassandra, I appreciate your offer, but bearing in mind…”

“I fully understand the repercussions,” Cassandra insisted, cutting Kai off.

From her demeanour it was evident she wouldn’t back down, and Cullen recognised why Cassandra was taking the risk. To protect Kai, and not only because of what she symbolised. Kai was her friend, and after he left his wife, Cassandra watched out for her. A personal pledge to Leliana.

“Alright,” Kai acquiesced gratefully.

Cassandra exhaled. “And yes, I will need to inform Most Holy so we can agree…a solution.”

Kai answered with a slight nod and returned her attention to the group.

“Today, we continue as normal until Alistair and Lace’s parents leave,” she instructed, receiving acknowledging noises. “Tonight, we meet up here as arranged, and review how to proceed, then tomorrow we send word to Skyhold. We may not have Inquisition forces, but we have access to Inquisition resources, and I mean to make full use of them.”

She smiled at everybody in turn. “I couldn’t do this without you. Thank you for agreeing to come with me.”

And with that, her entourage was in place. Everyone here; friends who would support Kai and stand by her as she would them. Everyone…except him.

Suddenly Cullen felt the distance of their time apart, a sad, hollow sensation in the pit of his stomach. Finally appreciating how his absence in her life had been filled by others, he wondered if he misunderstood what Kai wanted. Maybe it was just him, wishing to believe that she needed him with her. After all, everybody here stood by Kai when all she had of him was her wedding ring, his letters and the occasional box of sweets.

As the group dispersed, Cole came up to him, looked Cullen straight in the eye and said, “Ask her.”

Cullen watched Cole follow Cassandra and Harding back to the house, his words both reassurance, and a challenge. To ask a question. The question he had ruminated on and hadn’t come to a decision whether to ask. The fact he could hear Leliana’s voice claiming inaction was also a decision didn’t help.

Do you want me to go with you?

On the surface, a blindingly straightforward question, yet each answer held repercussions beyond the two of them. Considering possible outcomes had led Cullen down a dark and uncomfortable path, further reinforced by the fact Cassandra hadn’t sought to involve him.

Cullen reflexively reached for the back of his neck, until he realised what he was doing and removed his hand. Instead he turned to find Kai, seeing her standing some distance away with Grim. That was odd enough, if not for the fact the man who said next to nothing was talking to her. Although intrigued to discover why Grim was talking to his wife, the sight of Bull seemingly rooted to the spot with arms folded and glaring into the middle distance, led Cullen to think passing on Mia’s message first might be a wise move.

He strode up to Bull, clearing his throat to get Bull’s attention. Bull fixed his gaze on him, and Cullen was glad not to be in the firing line.

“Cullen,” was the crisp response.

“Mia asked me to mention there is wood by the barn which needs chopping…” he relayed, attempting to not make it sound like an instruction., “…should you…feel the need.”

Bull proceeded to stare at him, but the corners of his mouth relaxed. “Hmph,” he grunted, throwing a glance at the kitchen window, “it’ll do…for now.”

Bull headed towards the barn flexing his shoulders while Cullen turned his attention back to Kai and Grim. Just in time to catch her place a consoling hand on Grim’s shoulder. He’d seen her do this on numerous occasions, yet this time something seemed…different. Frustratingly, he couldn’t explain why or how, and the uncertainty troubled Cullen, causing him to frown. Their exchange ended, and Kai looked back, spotting him. As she came over, Grim went to Bull, who was now attacking the logs with considerable force.

Kai gave a weary sigh. “Why is nothing ever easy?”

“Problems?” he asked, trying not to sound overly keen.

Kai spoke quietly even though Grim and Bull were out of earshot. “You remember how Bull always thought Grim was a chieftain or king of some minor country who escaped. Well, he wasn’t far off the mark.”

Curious, watched her with a mystified expression. “How so?”

“Grim is the youngest son of an Avvar Thane, and left behind his clan long before meeting Bull,” Kai revealed. “More to the point for us, the Hold he left was…Wyvern-Fang.”

Cullen’s earlier unease was supplanted by stunned amazement. “Maker’s breath, he’s Movran’s son?” he muttered seeing Kai blink with a slight nod.

“He thought we should know considering we’re about to ask for their aid,” she continued, exhaling. “Apparently, he left because of his half-brother; the same half-brother who we killed in the Fallow Mire. Luckily, he’s alright about it. Even though my brother is an arse, I’m not confident I would be as forgiving in his position.”

Sometimes Kai had a peculiar concept of luck, Cullen mused. He drew his mind back to the point in hand.

“How…” Cullen cleared his throat, “…how does he feel about returning?”

“Not excited, that’s for certain,” she remarked. “But whatever happens, he’ll ensure it doesn’t affect the mission.”

“I see,” Cullen acknowledged, his surprise turning to suspicion.

Of course, they had to be informed of Grim’s connection to Wyvern-Fang, but why had he chosen to tell Kai and not Bull? To the woman who killed his half-sibling?

This, along with the niggling feeling he had watching Kai and Grim, led Cullen to suspect there was more at play here.

He stared Kai in the eye. “Grim barely says two words to anyone…” she held his stare, “…but he has a conversation, an actual conversation with you.”

Cullen caught her reflexively swallow, and sensed he was onto something.

“Care to explain?” he challenged, folding his arms.

Kai drew a deep breath and gradually let it out, steadying herself. Cullen frowned, seeing her regard him warily.

“Cullen, you and I promised one another we wouldn’t pry about previous…dalliances, and would only discuss them if the person involved raised it…”

Cullen’s eyes widened as realisation came. “You…and he...?” His mouth gaped slightly, unable to complete the sentence.

“Yes,” she confirmed.

His hand found the back of his neck. “Maker’s breath!”

“Back in Nevarra, at my sister’s winter home...with the spiders.” Kai scratched her head. “I think you already heard part of the story.” She sighed. “It was years ago, and we both accepted it was no more than two people finding brief comfort with one another.”

Cullen stared at her as he sought to absorb the implication. Kai admitted she had dalliances as she described them, but he never envisaged actually meeting one of them. It was obvious he and Grim bore some physical similarities, but the thought of lingering affection concerned him more. He needed to know but didn’t want to sound accusatory.

“Is that why…he talks to you?” Cullen inquired cautiously.

Kai stepped closer with a soft smile, no doubt aware of what he wasn’t voicing.

“Cullen, he talks to me because I allow him time to speak when he stammers,” she revealed. “Wilhelm’s youngest, Blake, was the same when he was little, but his mother helped by encouraging him to sing, because he never stammered when he sang. Now you’d barely notice it. Sadly, Grim wasn’t afforded the same consideration.”

“Oh,” Cullen uttered, his concern fading and feeling foolish for his suspicions.

“His half-brother mocked Grim mercilessly when they were young,” she went on, “egging on the other siblings to join in. That’s why he took off when he was old enough, and why he seldom speaks even amongst the Chargers. He maintains that his true voice only comes out in the music when he plays his fiddle.”

She held out her hand and he took it. “Cullen, you know what happened after Aedan died.”

All too well, he thought.

Had it not been for Cole, or Compassion as he was then, she probably would have died too. She claimed Cole had given her the gift of a second chance. Cullen felt her thumb caressing his hand with the same soothing sensation as she held his gaze.

“Afterwards I vowed I wouldn’t settle for anything less,” she told him. “Now I realise I was setting an unattainable goal so as not to suffer the same way. But it didn’t mean I wouldn’t…on occasion…”

“Quite,” Cullen coughed, feeling a hue of warmth bloom in his cheeks.

Although no longer as self-conscious talking about such matters, on rare occasions his old shyness would strike unexpectedly. Kai clearly spotted it and cocked her head with a slightly crooked smile, deftly shifting the conversation.

“That was until I met a certain Cullen Stanton Rutherford. Clever, handsome, intriguing, and definitely not interested…at first.”

“That much is true,” he conceded, his awkwardness fading.

She snickered. “Oh, but it was such fun to tease him when he eventually relented.”

“Was it now?” he mock frowned, watching her struggle not to grin.

“It was,” she sighed wistfully, then narrowed her gaze pretending to be serious. “Up until the point the cheeky bugger got his own back by making me fall for him.”

“Quite literally if I recall,” Cullen smirked, lifting an eyebrow. “On her arse, on the ice no less.”

The smile in response was stunningly radiant. He recognised what was coming, only this time her words carried a bittersweet note in their honesty.

“Everything I am is, and will always be yours, Cullen. Until my last breath.”

There and then, Cullen made his decision; mindful of the consequences, but finally feeling in his heart it was the right one. Cullen cradled Kai’s neck gently in his palm, brought her lips to his and kissed her. An intense and protective kiss to show he’d always love her and always look after her. She gave way in his embrace as if to say that she would always trust him to. Their past wasn’t perfect, and their future would be challenging, but Dorian was right, they were stronger together. Eventually he broke the kiss, seeing her smile with a contented hum.

Cullen held her gaze and asked the question. “Do you want me to come with you?”

Her smile vanished. “I can’t ask that of you, Cullen,” she fretted, shaking her head. “You have...”

He cut off her protest, repeating the question. “Do you want me to come with you?”

Kai’s face revealed her inner conflict. Because, like him, she understood the ramifications. Cullen waited, wondering if she would refuse, denying what she needed. But then her expression settled, and he knew.

“Yes,” she confessed, her relief palpable.

Cullen kissed her forehead. “I’ll see what I can do, all right?”

Kai nodded. “All right.” She squeezed his hand. “I love you, Cullen.”

“I love you too,” he responded, caressing her cheek.

Even though Cullen knew going with Kai was the right thing, he nevertheless had to agree it with his team, and establish support for them in his absence. But if he didn’t try, Cullen would never forgive himself if something went wrong and he wasn’t at her side to help. Whatever luck enabled her to survive this long, he wasn’t prepared to wager her life on it enduring.

Their tender moment was abruptly interrupted by an ear-piercing crack and frustrated curse.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake!”

There was Bull, glowering at the fragments of a shattered axe, and Grim trying not to smile. Bull turned his attention the kitchen window and bellowed.

“Mia!”

They followed his stare seeing Mia's head bob back, and a minute later emerge with Bull’s axe, taking it to him. At this distance, they couldn’t pick up what was said, but Bull’s fierce expression lightened into a smile. He leant down and kissed Mia’s cheek.

“Well I’ll be...” Cullen muttered. What on earth did she say to Bull?

Kai snickered, and Cullen turned to catch her grinning as she stared at Bull and Mia.

“Oh, she’s really good,” Kai remarked admiringly, before facing him and lilting, “but she is a Rutherford.”

“By the way, so are you, Mrs Rutherford,” Cullen pointed out, smiling.

Kai beamed with a gleam in her eye, and this time she seemed stronger, as though something inside was reawakening.

“Mr Rutherford,” she announced. “What do you say we teach these Venatori what we Rutherfords can do?”

“Why not,” he concurred, grinning.

His impossible wife, human and fallible, battling her own demons yet stubbornly refusing to bow down before adversity. Because she believed the world deserved another chance, and she would take on anybody who threatened that. Strangely in that moment, Cullen recalled what Solas said to him at Erimond’s execution. At the time, he took as an observation; in hindsight Solas could have been evaluating a prospective adversary. Even so, his words remained apt.

“If you seek it, she is redemption. But for those who threaten the innocent, she will be judgement.”

Chapter Text

Blessed are those who stand before the corrupt and wicked, and do not falter.

Max lived his life by those words…and died fulfilling them. No matter who, her brother never stood by when an injustice was committed. Nor did she falter when she avenged the injustice of his death.

Hearing Dorian’s greeting that morning, she felt as though time slowed. Then, a sense of calm as those words came to her. Whether it was a powerful memory or some other intervention, it was precisely what she needed, granting her focus to hold steady.

Do not falter.

Kai stared at the draught in her hand. Even though the degree of discomfort was manageable now, the tension churning away inside could alter that in an instant. She swiftly drained the potion and stashed the empty flask in her backpack, replacing it under Cullen’s desk. Resting her hand on the open ledger Kai closed her eye, waiting, as the warm, soft, soothing relief relaxed her taut muscles.

She could not falter before her enemies...and needed to be strong in front of her friends. Especially now. Slipping out to take Tiddles a few treats, Kai found herself accidentally overhearing a conversation she was not meant to.

 

Three sets of footsteps entered the stables when Kai was on her knees in the stall opposite Tiddles, retrieving an apple which rolled there. The footsteps came to a halt partway in. Hidden from view, Kai was about to get up, but stayed put when she heard Cassandra.

“So, what is so secretive we must sneak around like spies?”

“Hey, I was a spy,” Bull complained. “As was your Divine by the way.”

Cassandra groaned. “I did not intend to malign…”

“We don’t have much time,” Cullen interrupted hastily. “Bull, you had something.”

“Right,” Bull acknowledged. “Not sure if this has anything to do with the Venatori taking Dorian, but you should know…” he paused with a deliberate exhale, “…he’s been looking into what happened in the Basin...”

...with the spirit, she thought, silently voicing what he was loath to say out loud.

Kai hoped her explanation sufficient, but underestimated Dorian’s perseverance. She sighed inside. Although Cullen learned some techniques from her, this would catch him off guard. Bull could detect the slightest shift in his expression, and she was stuck, hiding, unable to see Cullen's reaction.

Bull grunted. “Seriously! You two couldn’t keep a secret if you tried. The way you looked at one another, that’s one helluva tell.”

“We…” Cassandra began, then stalled with a groan sensing she gave herself away.

She had. Bull could work with far less than what her friend provided with that one word, let alone what he observed in their faces. So could Kai. She knew Leliana would share the events with Cassandra, but not the rest. Not what she was.

Wonder how that conversation went down, Kai mused.

She should be upset, yet it made sense. With Cullen not around, who else could Leliana turn to if Kai got into trouble. The knowledge that the Herald of Andraste was a reborn soul, along with her experience with Estre, it was like detonating a gaatlok barrel. All they hoped to accomplish could be blown to pieces. Not to mention the danger to Kai, and not only from her adversaries.

“You know what’s going on with her, don’t you?” Bull probed with a tone she, and they, knew well; ‘don’t bullshit me, cos I’ll know.’

Cullen confirmed his suspicion. “Yes.”

“Fuck!” Bull cursed, his voice a hissed whisper. “Dorian warned Cullen months ago what could happen if it got out. He was trying to work out how and why it happened, so he could find a means to protect her. A little information earlier on might have been useful.”

Cullen exhaled. “I didn’t know…then.”

“Neither did I…until later,” Cassandra admitted.

“Oh,” Bull remarked, his irritation fading.

“And we were not conscious of Dorian’s…research,” Cassandra pointed out.

“Yeah,” Bull accepted with a sigh. “Look, I’m not asking for a confession right now, we can discuss the whys and wherefores later. All I care about is getting Dorian back in one piece, and not losing Kai in the process, all right?”

So do I, Kai mouthed silently. Her secrecy had put Dorian at risk.

“I have no intention of losing either Dorian or Kai, Bull,” Cullen reassured him. “That’s why I’m coming with you.”

“What?” Cassandra’s astonishment was palpable.

Cullen continued undeterred. “I’ve discussed it with my team, and we’ve made arrangements for the Sanctuary whilst I’m away…”

“That’s not the point,” Cassandra emphasised, her voice rising before she corrected herself. “One of us…” She gave a frustrated scoff.

Kai could visualise Cullen’s resolute expression challenging Cassandra’s objection. Neither gave in easily when determined.

One of us...must stay behind. In case it goes wrong.

If this mission failed, Leliana would be left to pick up the pieces alone. Without a team of close friends she trusted, Leliana would be forced to painstakingly build another, undermining any strategy to stop Solas. It was Kai's initial thought when Cullen offered to come with her. Understanding the repercussions, the old Kai who put duty first would have instantly refused. But she was no longer that person.

“We cannot do this without Wyvern-Fang’s support,” Cullen maintained, not backing down. “But, they are an undisciplined rag-tag…”

And Cullen knows better than either of us how to whip a rag-tag bunch into an organised force, Seeker,” Bull pointed out, following Cullen’s lead to convince her.

“There are wider considerations…” Cassandra protested, albeit less forcibly.

“You’re worried about who’s left to go up against Solas if this goes tits up, I get that,” Bull revealed, his tone conciliatory.

Although their team was secret, Bull recognised what was at stake, and rightly assumed disbanding the Inquisition was not the end of it.

“Cullen coming along gives us all a stronger chance of surviving this,” Bull persuaded. “If this has anything to do with Dorian’s research…” he paused, “…who knows what else they’ve got waiting for us. We need every advantage.”

Cassandra’s footsteps paced for a moment, doubtless thinking over their words before she spoke.

“Very well,” she sighed, surrendering her objections. “But it is better we do not speak of this other matter to Kai. At least, not yet. It would simply create...concern.”

“She won’t be happy we kept this from her,” Cullen warned.

You’re not wrong there, Kai thought.

“Yeah, I know,” Bull conceded, “But Cass is right. For now, we keep this between us.”

Cullen took a deep breath. “All right. We should return, before we’re missed.”

“One last point,” Bull added. “Cullen, whatever you’re doing with her, keep doing it.

There was a hesitation before Cullen answered. “I’m not certain…in the circumstances...”

“I am,” Bull insisted. “We need her back; and focused to deal with this. So do it for her sake and ours.”

Cullen slowly exhaled. “Understood.”

With that, the three of them walked out, leaving Kai kneeling in the straw, clutching Tiddles’ treat. Cullen’s response to Bull was likewise a tell; she should have trusted her instincts.

 

With the tension eased, Kai was able to focus.

Their caution was understandable, but they were mistaken. She did need to know about Dorian's research if it was a factor. Another possibility was her own investigation; some texts came from Tevinter, albeit via a broker. Yet, without the knowledge of her joining with Estre there seemed no discernible connection.

Right now, Kai couldn’t rule out any possibility.

The Venatori plan may be precisely what it seemed. A straightforward hostage exchange designed so they could deal with their hated nemesis. Her. Septimus may exude the same arrogance as his brother, yet the plan was clever, straightforward and effective. Get her onto their territory, on their terms, with no allies to call upon.

Until they had better intelligence, everything was conjecture.

Inquisition assets in Tevinter were few, but deliberately placed and tactically used to escape suspicion. What worried Kai was that none of this had made it to their ears, forcing her to conclude this plan was limited to a small group. However, Charter was nothing if not ingenious at achieving the impossible.

Kai did recognise what Cullen was doing though. She should have seen this. He provided a safe space to forget what she was to the rest of the world, allowing her to release the stresses inside. A sort of safety valve. Until outside pressures overwhelmed them, and her insistence on duty drove him away.

She gave a deep, lengthy exhale. Cullen, why didn’t you trust me…

He was the one who insisted they take things gradually to get it right this time, yet Cullen must have believed her state of mind warranted taking the risk. Perhaps he thought it wouldn’t work if she knew. Or he was shielding her for another reason. Because by choosing to help her, by rushing their reconciliation, it could destabilise the foundation for their future together.

I would rather have known, Cullen.

Now she did and couldn’t pretend otherwise. She just had to find a way to tell him.

No more secrets.

Kai heard footsteps approaching through the outer office. Light footfalls, the softest rustle of leather, a quiet ting of a bangle as his hand pushed on the door and he stepped into the room.

“Hello, Cole. Are they ready to leave?” She opened her eye.

“Yes,” Cole acknowledged. “They’re waiting for you.”

“No doubt Alistair had something to say,” Kai smiled.

“He asked if ‘Lady Katarina could grace us with her presence’,” Cole reported, with a hint of levity in his voice.

Of course he did.

A suitable response was definitely in order. Their teasing was a long-standing custom, a reassuringly comfortable one, and welcome right now. Kai closed the ledger and carefully placed it on the other one. As she rose, she heard Cole.

“Would it have made a difference…if you knew?”

Kai sighed. Of course, he would have heard. Although Cole no longer ‘listened’ to her, he could always sense when she was distraught. The link they acquired in the Basin still lingered, albeit weaker.

“If he told me, I would have had a choice, Cole,” Kai explained.

“If he told you, what would you have done?” Cole questioned.

Kai stared at him thinking, Cole watching her. Had she known, she would have feared doing the wrong thing, losing this second chance, and worst of all, losing Cullen...again. But this was with hindsight. Truthfully, Kai wasn’t confident she would have refused. The desire for her husband might have eclipsed the risk.

“Only those who believe may cross,” Cole remarked as he moved nearer.

An involuntary chuckle popped out. Although the recollection was amusing, she recognised Cole’s purpose was earnest. A message carved on a rock in the Deep Roads. Words challenging you to take a leap of faith into the abyss, if you wished to reach the other side. She was braver back then, taking that leap, and they discovered the fabled Nug King.

“He took a leap of faith,” Cole suggested gently. “Because he wanted to reach you, give you a path to follow.”

A path back from her abyss, from her shadows into the light.

Cullen watching her smile, hand caressing her cheek, voice soft as he smiled ‘there you are’.

Her husband saw her with better eyes, showing Kai not all was lost. But, for their marriage to be truly on an equal footing as she promised, Kai had to find her way back. Otherwise she would remain reliant on him. And by going with her to Tevinter, he was setting aside his duty to support her. Something she had been lamentably bad at doing. This time, Kai couldn’t...wouldn’t...let Cullen down.

She straightened her dress and draped her shawl over her shoulders. “Well then...perhaps it’s time to start making my way.”

Cole offered a little smile. “He will be glad, he misses you.”

“So do I, Cole,” Kai responded, with a twinge of sorrow.

He nodded, his smile replaced by a reflective gaze. “They did it because they care, they want to protect you.”

Kai dropped her head and exhaled. The way her friends would watch her, it was as though they expected her to snap. She couldn’t blame them. These days she often felt vulnerable, sometimes scared; certainly not like the woman who doggedly forged a path, joking her way through adversity. But they bargained without one thing, the little ptarmigan who didn’t give up easily. That stubborn little bird was still inside...somewhere.

“I know, Cole,” she accepted, raising her head. “But tiptoeing around me won’t help.”

“What will you do?” he asked, searching her face.

Kai considered his question. It would make matters awkward if they realised she overhead their discussion. However, there was another way to bring it into the open. Apart from Grim, everybody else knew about her and Estre, and Kai bargained his Avvar heritage would help him understand.

But at some point, Kai would have to tell Bull everything. He wouldn’t give up until he learned the truth, and better it came from her. But there was also Lace. She supported and stood by Kai, more a friend than her assistant now. Lace sacrificed the chance to return to her parents, staying because she knew the threat to their world was far from over. If Cullen, Leliana and now Cassandra all knew about Kai, how could she not tell Lace.

Telling the truth was one thing. How they would then see her, was an entirely different matter.

“I have a thought,” she disclosed, looking to Cole. “What do you think?”

Cole nodded. “He will understand.”

She presumed he meant Grim, it was only later she wondered whether his seemingly straightforward answer had more than one meaning. With Cole, it generally did.

“Come on, we’d better go,” she gestured, heading for the door. “Don’t want to keep His Majesty waiting.”

As she stepped into the outer office, she didn’t see Cole’s worried glance to her backpack before following on.

--------------------------------------------------------

At Cullen's request, Mia persuaded Branson and Rosalie to take a break for tonight, allowing her team to plan for Tevinter. Although the atmosphere around the dinner table was less animated than previous nights, there was still enough banter, and hearty appetites as everyone tucked into Mia’s chicken and roast potatoes, washed down with lashings of her signature honey beer. Perhaps a tad too much in Kai’s case.

As plates were finished and everybody sat back with satiated sighs, Kai spotted Bull smile at Mia who nodded back. While the rest of them sat in the parlour before dinner, Bull disappeared into the kitchen with Mia. Now they discovered why.

“Right, loosen your belts,” Bull declared. He rose and headed to the oven to take out a large pot, chortling. “You’re gonna love this.”

He returned to the table and set the pot in the centre, aromas of rice, cream and alcohol wafting out.

“What is that?” Cassandra puzzled, half standing to get a better look.

Bull smirked. “For the uninitiated… this is Bull’s bounty…”

His enthusiastic declaration was interrupted by Lace’s snorted giggle. Bull stared at her.

“Sorry,” Lace apologised, “it’s just…erm…” She stalled, seeking not to giggle again, as everyone viewed the exchange with some interest.

“Yes?” Bull raised an eyebrow.

Lace managed to regain her composure. “Some of the kitchen girls…that you knew…well…Bull’s bounty was a sort of code for…” The inference was left hanging.

“Really?” Bull’s questioning look was replaced by a broad grin and raucous laugh. “I never heard that one.”

Cassandra sighed wearily. “Why is it always something smutty with you, Bull?”

Bull winked. “I just have that effect on people, Cass.”

Cassandra rolled her eyes as the table burst into laughter, and even she joined in.

“As I was about to say,” Bull paused, firing a glance at Lace who grinned, “it’s basically rice pudding, but this version has a little extra…oomph.”

Kai sensed Cullen stand. “Pass your plates,” he instructed, still smiling as he collected them.

Cullen took them to the side table as Mia fetched bowls and spoons, passing them around. There was a synchronicity in their movements, as though they’d done this often. Kai knew when they were younger, the Rutherford siblings had their own duties and chores, working together to support their parents with the farm.

A world away from Kai’s privileged upbringing, where children were groomed for arranged marriages and running estates. Except for those who joined the Order or the Chantry, like Max and Alex. Helpfully for her future role, Trevelyan children were also given basic combat and weapons training as part of their education.

Kai smiled as she remembered Lyssa deftly wielding a pike bigger than she was, joking how the two of them could start a mercenary company if Papa couldn’t marry them off. Lyssa would have been good at it too, she was a natural fighter. Now her pike wielding sister would be the next Queen of Ferelden…if this world survived.

“Kai!” Cullen’s voice drew Kai from her thoughts. He held an empty bowl in his hand. “Pudding?”

“Oh, sorry.” She nodded. “Yes, please.”

Bull ladled a portion for her, and Cullen placed the bowl and spoon within easy reach. It was invariably the little things with Cullen she loved, things he did intuitively. Things she never wanted to lose again. Kai blinked a thank you, Cullen acknowledging her in kind.

She peered at her bowl. This didn’t resemble any rice pudding she had seen; it was curiously dark…with bits inside. Suspicious, Kai poked around and fished one out. It looked like a plumped-up raisin. She sniffed her spoon, recognising the smell. Rum. This was a combination she would have never imagined. Kai tried a spoonful. Bizarrely, it tasted amazing…if somewhat alcoholic. From the surprised murmurs, she wasn’t alone in her appreciation.

“Bull, I had my doubts considering it looks ghastly, but this is actually rather good,” Cassandra complimented.

“Thank you, Seeker,” Bull grinned.

“You should tell them the tale behind this,” Mia prompted, turning to Bull.

Grim nodded with a grunt, pushing his empty bowl forward for more rice pudding, which Bull duly furnished.

“And the name…” Mia chuckled, raising an eyebrow “…aside from kitchen girls, that is.”

A ripple of laughter spread through the table.

“Yes, ma’am,” Bull replied with a deferential nod.

It was then Kai twigged. Bull would appreciate Mia’s intellect and talent with people, but his regard for her clearly went deeper. He often spoke fondly of his old ‘Tama’, the tamassaran who raised him. Perhaps he saw something of his Tama in in Mia.

“This was before we joined the Inquisition,” Bull began, recounting the story. “Because we’re expensive, most jobs the Chargers did were for nobles. But there was this one occasion an entire village wanted to hire us. They were being repeatedly raided by the same group of bandits, but it was only when one of the villagers protested and they killed him, did the rest decide enough was enough.”

“Where was this?” Lace asked.

“Southern Orlais,” Bull told her. “Small place; not on any map I’ve seen. They didn’t look as though they could afford much, so we decided to go in light; just me and Krem with Rocky, Skinner, Dalish, Stitches…” Bull gestured in Grim’s direction, “…and Grim here.”

Grim nodded.

“What they failed to mention was exactly how many bandits there were,” Bull went on. “Seven of us up against fifty bandits. Rocky set up a few charges and managed to whittle down the numbers. Even then, it was heavy work, but Stitches kept us on our feet.”

Bull stopped to grab a swig of honey beer.

“And this connects to the rice pudding how?” Cullen queried.

“Ahh, I’m getting to that,” Bull told him, gesturing with the bottle. “The villagers had even less than we thought. Our ‘payment’ was a sack of rice each, two quarts of raisins, and a small barrel of rum they’d buried.” He chuckled. “At least it was Llomerryn rum.”

“And the name?” Kai smirked. “Bull’s…bounty?”

Bull laughed. “Krem. He named it the first time I made the pudding. As a reminder. Not to begrudge doing a good deed, but since then, I’ve always taken coin up front.”

“It was nevertheless a noble thing, Bull,” Cassandra observed. “To go up against the odds to save the innocent, for little in return.”

Bull shook his head. “Nah, it was just a job, and we got something. Noble is going up against the odds when you don’t expect anything in return.”

“That is also true,” Cassandra agreed, nodding. “But it does not detract from your efforts for that small village. They will remember it for much longer than any noble you’ve worked for.”

“Maybe so.” Bull gave a wry smile, swinging his attention to Kai. “Anyway…I’m more curious about another story.”

Kai recognised that watchful look and remained steady, unsure what was coming.

“What’s so funny about the Remigold?” he solicited.

All eyes focused on Kai, filled with curiosity and expectation. Her face eased into a grin, but she didn’t respond. Sadly, they would be disappointed, because this was one story she would never tell.

A cursory mention in Aeden’s journal to his rescue from Fort Drakon was the start of it. Normally, Aedan wrote in considerable detail about where they went and what they did, but this was so brief Kai’s curiosity was aroused. Even Leliana wouldn’t elaborate when she sought to discover more, telling Kai she promised Alistair. Only with exceedingly delicate persuasion, the aid of a jug of whiskey, and a pledge never to repeat it, did she manage to elicit the story from Alistair.

Bull persisted. “From what we saw, it’s got to be good.” He glanced around the table, encouraging support. “And we all want to know, don’t we?”

“I absolutely do,” Mia remarked.

“Definitely,” Lace agreed.

“I admit to some curiosity also,” Cassandra added.

Grim remained silent, but an eager gaze spoke for him.

Judging by the consensus, this was something they had likely discussed. All except her husband, because he already tried to find out last night. Or more precisely he attempted to ‘persuade’ her with seduction. But a promise is a promise, and she didn’t cave in. Even if a couple of times she was close. Cullen recognised she was teasing them and stepped in.

“There’s no point asking,” he declared, quelling their enthusiasm. “I already tried, and she won’t say. She gave her word, and that’s that.”

There were groans and sighs of frustration, all except Cole who smiled to himself.

“Damn!” Bull grunted, then grinned. “Bet it’s a doozy, though.”

Kai couldn’t resist a little more teasing. “Oh hell, yes,” she smirked.

This time laughter greeted her words, with a few murmurs of resignation.

A few second helpings later, dinner was over. Cullen cleared the table, as Mia fetched the map of Thedas they asked for. Mia knew their destination from Cullen, but not the details. For her protection.

Returning, Mia set the map on the table. “Right, I’ll leave you all to it. I have a couple of friends here who were promised treats for their work.”

She shot a glance at Kai before calling Izzy and Max and leaving with a generous pack of crunch, a reminder of another promise Kai made.

 

“I can’t stop him running off into danger with you,” Mia insisted. “Maker knows you been through enough together already. But give me your word you’ll do everything to make sure he comes back.”

“On my life,” Kai vowed. “Whatever happens, I’ll make certain he comes back.”

“Good,” Mia accepted.

 

Ordinarily it would be Kai leading the mission, but aware of the concern about her state of mind, she would agree if they chose to have someone else in charge. She could still put forward her proposal for them to consider. The Inquisition cultivated many contacts over its time, and with its disbanding, they would be reliant on those relationships to acquire support along the way.

“Well, then,” Cullen remarked. “Let’s get started, shall we…Inquisitor.”

Kai turned to face her husband, her former Commander, to see him waiting. Her gaze travelled around the table to see them all waiting. Whatever their concerns, they apparently still believed in her. She took a breath and exhaled, drawing on her resolve and the mantle she once wore.

“Thank you, Cullen,” she acknowledged. “But I no longer have that title…”

“That title did not make you Inquisitor,” Cassandra interrupted. “Your actions did.”

“So then…Boss,” Bull added, emphasising his name for her.

“All right,” Kai smiled. “I do have some thoughts how to get there.” Kai turned again to Cullen. “Could you set up the map at that end of the table please, Cullen.”

Once everybody was in place, Kai started to set out her framework, her finger tracing the route she plotted.

“From South Reach, the swiftest way to the Storm Coast port is through the Bannorn. We’re less likely to be slowed down by bandits. It seems they prefer to hit the major highways, more traffic and richer pickings.”

“Why not go to Denerim?” Cassandra queried. “It’s nearer and we can easily obtain passage from there.”

“Informers,” Bull suggested. “Always a risk in major ports. She wants as little exposure as possible.”

“Yes, the longer we can keep the Venatori in the dark, the better,” Kai concurred, nodding. “Plus I need equipment from Skyhold and it’ll reach the port before we arrive. Josie can also request the Blades prepare a ship just for us.”

The next part of her route took them to a place Cullen probably never imagined returning to. She hoped he would understand it was for pragmatic reasons. Just a brief stopover to obtain aid from Varric. And she had a barter in mind…for magical items to assist their journey onward.

Cullen was already ahead of her, but he wouldn’t have been such an excellent Commander if he didn’t anticipate the Inquisitor’s actions. Her finger was yet to trace across the Waking Sea when he spoke.

“You want to sail to Kirkwall,” he observed, his brows knitted in concentration.

“Yes,” Kai replied, cautiously watching him. “Is that…?”

Cullen’s expression softened. “I didn’t imagine returning…but it’s alright.”

Kai smiled gratefully, seeing him wink to allay her concern. The Cullen that left Kirkwall was not the same man standing beside her today. He had grown and healed, but bad memories could nevertheless have an impact.

“If we are avoiding Denerim, why go to Kirkwall?” Cassandra questioned. “Surely it is more likely to have informers. Some Tevinter slavers still operate there, even though Varric is working to eradicate them. Would that not be exposure?”

“We can use the tunnels,” Lace explained. “They stretch all the way from the Wounded Coast to Kirkwall, and into Hawke’s cellar. He showed some of them to us when we closed the rift in the harbour.” She looked to Kai. “That was what you meant?”

“Exactly. Thank you, Lace,” Kai offered appreciatively. “Apparently, my new estate borders Hawke’s, so, just knock a hole through and we can slip in without anyone knowing.”

“And Varric can provide supplies, transport and whatever else we need,” Bull observed. “Friends in high places, eh?”

“Some, but not all,” Kai pointed out. “The Inquisition helped a lot of people, and I intend to call in some favours.” She traced a route through the Vimmark Pass to the Imperial Highway bridge in Nevarra. “We then head north this way. However, we will need more supplies to reach the Silent Plains. For that, I hope to use one of your relatives, Cassandra, along with Sera’s Red Jennies. They can bring the supplies to a meeting point, so we don’t have to make a diversion.”

Cassandra gave a puzzled frown. “Who?”

“Octavian Pentaghast,” Kai announced. “Can we count on him to be discreet?”

“In Cumberland or Nevarra?” Cassandra questioned, her frown deepening.

Kai began to worry. Octavian promised her a favour in return for saving him from the Venatori, but if she couldn’t use him, that part of her plan would have to be revised. She figuratively crossed her fingers and answered. “Cumberland.”

“Then yes, he is an honourable man,” Cassandra confirmed, her frown easing. “The one in Nevarra is an odious individual, I would not touch him with a yardstick.”

“Bargepole,” Bull corrected.

“That…would be even better...” Cassandra observed.

“Thank you, Cassandra,” Kai interjected, before the conversation got side-tracked by wooden implements.

She traced the final part of their journey to the Silent Plains, her finger stopping at the edge.

“Movran’s camp is around here.” Kai straightened up. “Let’s hope Charter can gather some intelligence before we arrive.”

“If anyone can, it’s Charter,” Cullen offered reassuringly. “She’s very…thorough…in her duties.”

Lace chuckled at Cullen’s diplomacy. “You could say that.”

The three of them knew Charter was known to crack a few heads to secure what she needed, more so than Leliana. Although agents were being reduced, Kai suspected Charter would maintain some in the North. If only to keep an eye on Qunari activity.

“What we do know is they’re holding Dorian and Maevaris, hopefully still together,” Cullen noted. His fingers traced a perimeter around Trevis. “And I would suggest somewhere in this area, not far from Trevis.”

“Cullen’s right,” Bull agreed, rubbing his chin. “Wherever they’re holed up, it likely wouldn’t be far from Trevis or the border.” He pointed at Kai. “You’re not exactly hard to miss and they wouldn’t chance you being found further in.”

Kai inclined her head questioningly.

“Think about it,” Bull advised. “Tevinter may be on the brink of war with Qunandar; risking a possible Exalted March from the South because the Venatori are trying to kill the Inquisitor would stretch them too thin.”

“Oh,” Kai exclaimed, wondering how she missed that angle.

“Their base is likely to be out of the way,” Lace suggested.

“And defensible,” Cullen pointed out.

“Right, right,” Bull agreed. “That would rule out villas.”

Cassandra was still peering at the map, her fingers seemingly searching for something. Then she stopped and faced them with a knowing smile.

“Look here,” she instructed.

They all peered at the map to where she was pointing, awaiting the revelation.

“The Shrine of Dumat is around here,” she explained. “Just on the juncture between Tevinter and Nevarra. Perhaps it is further away than…”

Cassandra’s analysis came to a sudden halt as Bull grabbed her, plonking a heavy kiss right on the lips. As Bull pulled back, Cassandra gasped a breath.

“Seeker,” he grinned, “I’d drag you upstairs and pleasure you…”

Cassandra’s gaze narrowed. “It’s not happening.”

“…if I wasn’t already taken,” Bull finished, letting her go with a laugh.

She smiled. “I just thought it a possibility.”

Bull nodded his appreciation, and a sense of optimism started to grow in the team. Perhaps this was more straightforward than they imagined.

“It’s definitely a possibility,” Cullen agreed, thoughtful. “Except for the fact inside the Shrine was infested with red lyrium. Would the Venatori risk their mages around it?”

The confident atmosphere became more circumspect, but they couldn’t discount Cassandra’s suggestion.

“Charter can send someone to investigate,” Kai proposed. “If we’re right and that’s where they are, that’s our target. If we’re wrong and the Shrine is deserted, at least we can rule it out.”

Cullen nodded. “Good.”

“She also has…other avenues she can pursue,” Kai suggested cautiously. Hopefully useful ones.

Outside of Charter and Rector, no one else in the Inquisition knew the identities of their assets in Tevinter. Even Kai only had their codenames. Betrayals in the past caused them to reduce access to the resources they held. After the Exalted Council, Charter initiated a complete lockdown. All they had, all they knew, would be given to Leliana, so remaining intelligence and assets had to be protected.

Bull hummed, thinking. “If they are holed up in the Shrine, it’s likely to be more heavily defended than when the Red Templars were there.” He gestured to Cullen. “Let’s hope Wyvern Fang know how to climb. Be messy if they don’t.”

“It would be preferable,” Cullen agreed.

No-one broached why the Venatori had chosen to do this now, but she had to. Kai felt her heartbeat speed up a little and took a couple of light breaths to ease it down.

“There are a few other things…that may have a bearing on the mission,” she advised, sounding calmer than she felt.

She looked to Grim, seeing him blink his consent. Informing her companions about Grim’s heritage was the easiest part, the rest would be…difficult but necessary.

Kai glanced around. “Firstly, you should know Grim is originally from Wyvern Fang, and his full name is Grímur Movrensen…”

Not surprisingly, Bull was the first to react. He always suspected Grim was more than he seemed.

“He’s…fuck!” Bull stared at Grim. “You’re Movren’s son?”

Grim nodded. “Yes.”

From the exclamations, Kai wasn’t sure what astonished them more; who he was, or that they heard his voice. Even with Bull, he seldom spoke. She swiftly continued before they besieged him with questions.

“Grim has explained his reasons for leaving. They are of a family nature and I’m confident they won’t affect the mission.”

“You’re certain?” Cassandra queried, flashing looks between Kai and Grim.

“Yes,” Kai assured her.

“You mentioned a few things,” Cullen prompted, moving them on with an uneasy frown. “What else?”

Kai sensed tension in her throat, and reflexively swallowed. Do not falter. “It’s related to the Frostback Basin. Most of you know what took place there…except Grim.”

“Is this wise?” Cullen warned.

“It’s necessary,” Kai persuaded. “We don’t know why the Venatori chose to do this now, but I’m concerned some of my actions afterwards might have a bearing. I think it’s important you know…just in case.”

Her words prompted a mix of curiosity, concern and a hint of puzzlement on Bull’s part. She faced Grim.

“Whilst in the Basin, I was mortally injured, and would have died. I was offered a choice, to join with a spirit to keep me alive so my wounds could be treated. I agreed.”

Grim’s reaction was an interested nod, certainly no shock. Spirits temporarily joining human hosts in battle was not uncommon amongst the Avvar. The edgy silence of her husband and friends was more telling. They had to handle the consequences of her decision. The next part was trickier; the story of the spirit dragon was known, if not widely. But not the truth about how it was defeated.

Do not falter.

“You know about Hakkon and the dragon?” Kai asked.

Another nod.

“Well, the spirit I joined with was a powerful one of Hope,” Kai explained. “She sought to aid the last Inquisitor in defeating Hakkon, but they were not strong enough together. With the Anchor, though, she believed she and I could succeed.” Kai drew a deep breath. “Unfortunately, I was still very weak from my injuries and reliant on her energy…we…”

The sound of shuffling boots broke her concentration, her hand instinctively reaching to scratch her head as she glanced at the others. Everyone looked uneasy, but it was Cullen’s taut expression as he stared at the floor that made her heart sink. She had to get this over with, and quickly.

“…we started to merge. Almost to the point we were no longer human and spirit in one body, but something…else. A unified being.” She took a breath, continuing. “Clearly, we didn’t reach that point…or I wouldn’t be standing here today. I think you can appreciate why this has remained secret.”

Grim’s usual expression was replaced by one of astonishment.

Kai faced her team. “I am truly sorry, I understand this is hard. For everyone. But I needed to find out the reason behind it. I sought out as much knowledge and lore as I could.” She looked at everybody in turn. “Some of the texts came from Tevinter, albeit through a broker. What if the Venatori somehow…”

“We made certain they weren’t connected to you,” Lace insisted. “I know, because Charter was really careful.”

Bull gave a heavy groan. “Crap!”

He didn’t look at Cullen or Cassandra although their glances at him were revealing. Their agreement was about to collapse, because Bull understood holding back now was pointless.

“You weren’t the only one investigating,” Bull admitted with a deep exhale. “Dorian… he was worried and wanted to find a means to protect you…so he was researching how and why it happened.”

Do not falter.

Kai’s gaze widened, exactly as it should have. If she was learning this for the first time. “What?!”

“He kept hitting dead ends,” Bull elaborated. “But yesterday…he said he had a strong lead, a contact of a contact. I told him it sounded risky…”

This time her dismay was real. “Oh no…”

It’ll be fine, Amatus, don’t fuss,” Bull parroted, shaking his head in frustration. “Stubborn ass, he’s worse than a mutt with a bone.”

Kai went to him, wrapping her hand over his, voice soothing. “Bull, I give you my word, we’ll get him back safe…whatever it takes.”

Bull gave her a small, wry smile, his agitation easing. “Kai, your 'whatever it takes' can be a little spooky, but thanks. I know you will.”

She let go, stepping back with an encouraging nod.

“So…did you…find out the reason behind it?” Bull enquired. His relaxed tone belied the gravity of the question.

It was then Kai appreciated she was not the only one steering the conversation. In her eagerness to elicit their information, she left an opening. With anyone else, she might have got away with fudging her answer. But not with Bull.

It should have made her panic, yet there was a strange sense of relief.

For months, she had clung onto the secret of her origin, scared of the repercussions. There was danger, but she had been in danger since falling out of the Fade in Haven. What really frightened her was losing those she loved and cared for. Yet, out of the six people here tonight three already knew, and they still stood by her. Now she was asking her friends to follow her on a perilous mission, perhaps even caused by what she was.

This was her responsibility, and she would not falter.

Kai caught Cullen’s gaze. She flashed a gently apologetic look, seeing him realise what she intended to do. This was unplanned, and she was unsure if he would intervene. But then, she spotted him reach for Cassandra’s arm, to prevent her from stepping in. He understood she had to do this, whatever the outcome.

“I already learned why it happened,” Kai admitted. “I was trying to discover how...I...happened.”

She drew a breath and exhaled as Lace, Bull and Grim stared, perplexed, while Cullen, Cole and Cassandra watched, anticipating the inevitable shock.

This is it.

Kai offered a contrite shrug. “After all…it’s not every day you discover you’re a reborn soul.”

Stunned silence greeted her confession, broken only by Grim’s hushed "by the Lady!".

Chapter Text

Kai may have just dropped a bombshell on her friends, but she couldn’t stop now. If Cassandra admitted she knew, Kai wanted Lace to understand it was not from her. Lace supported Kai, even at her lowest, and the thought of her friend feeling neglected, or even worse hurt, troubled Kai.

“Apart from Cole, and all of you here tonight,” Kai explained, her gaze sweeping the group, “I’ve only told two people. Leliana, when we visited her after Kirkwall, and Cullen, when we came here for the audit…”

She paused, spotting Lace stare down at her feet. Unable to see her friend’s face, Kai feared the worst. Until Lace faced her. Instead of hurt or anger, Lace looked sheepish, as though caught out. Momentary confusion changed to stunned realisation as the truth dawned on Kai.

She…knows.

Lace turned to Cassandra as if to seek permission, Cassandra agreeing to her unspoken request with a slow blink.

“Cassandra and I, we knew…about you,” Lace admitted, checking for Kai’s reaction before continuing.

Kai’s wide-eyed shock, originally meant as a feigned response to Cassandra, was now very real.

“Leliana tasked us with protecting you, should it come to that.” Lace gave a slight smile as she glanced at Cole, catching him nod. “Cole and I were to take you someplace safe, until Cassandra could make arrangements.”

Cole too?

Kai’s world seemed to narrow, suddenly keenly aware of how much in the dark she was. For all the secrecy, they acted with the best of intentions, so how could she be angry. Yet, by failing to notice those around her were hiding this, it proved her once sharp instincts were no longer so. Distracted, Kai missed Bull’s intense expression and Cullen’s pensive frown.

“Yes,” Cassandra affirmed, her attention shifting from Lace to Kai. “Since I could not be there, Cole and Lace agreed to watch out for you. If your…origin…was discovered, Leliana would seek to manipulate any rumours. However, should it become necessary, we were to take you into hiding for your protection.”

Bull stepped in, raising his hand and his voice. “Back up here a minute!”

He sounded more impatient than annoyed, but when Bull commanded attention, they listened.

He exhaled, fixed Kai with a doubtful stare, and lowered his voice. “While I’m sure you all believe this, how can she,” he pointed at Kai, “be back from the dead when she’s standing here, obviously alive?”

If anybody would question, it was Bull. Everything has an explanation, he once told her, as long as you look long enough and hard enough. Providing proof was not possible as all she had was an awakened memory. Kai had no recollection of the past life that might help in convincing him.

Or lives, she mused distractedly. The random thought lingered.

Cole answered Bull. “She didn’t come back from the dead. She was born with a Fade-touched soul. Fade-touched because it lived before.” He paused as everyone focused on him. “You all saw how she shone. Some is her, some comes from the Fade.”

Bull became thoughtful, while the rest of them watched how this would play out.

“And…I’ve seen others,” Cole went on, adding his own revelation to the steadily building tally. “From the Fade. Lights amongst shadows. I didn’t know what they were…then.”

Cole told her about the other souls, to reassure Kai she wasn’t a solitary freak. Except for Grim, their surprised expressions revealed they imagined she was a peculiarity, a one off.

“There’s more…like her?” Bull questioned, his astonishment palpable.

“Yes,” Cole confirmed, nodding. “Estre’s…Hope’s…knowledge woke the memory, buried deep. And the She they became, showed me. Someone to remember, in case…”

They all recognised Cole spoke of the being she and Estre formed.

She recognised her existence was dangerous, and her death necessary. Yet in those last moments before entering the Fade, She wanted someone to understand who She was. Her inevitable loss still produced a sense of sadness, and Kai was never entirely certain if the feeling was her own, or Hers.

Bull gave a long, heavy groan. “I need a drink.” He grabbed a bottle of honey beer before heading back to his seat, swiftly draining it.

“I think we all might,” Cullen remarked resignedly, joining him.

The others followed suit, likely welcoming this hiatus after the spate of confessions. Only Kai and Cole remained standing, watching, as enthusiastic planning had turned into silent reflection. With honey beer. When Kai started this with her confession, she didn’t envisage this outcome.

Admitting long kept secrets was akin to lifting off a heavy load, while those on the receiving end were burdened with the sudden weight of that knowledge. No one here was untouched.

She had just one question for her friend, voiced silently in her mind. ‘Did they all ask you?

“Yes,” he whispered, so she alone could hear.

Even Cullen.

Naturally they wanted validation from someone else. In their place, she would too, suspicious that she might be ‘touched’. And not necessarily by the Fade.

Crazy, little ptarmigan, she reflected.

The bird in the Avvar tale succeeded in recovering the heart, but its indomitable persistence could likewise be regarded as single-mindedness to the point of folly. Crazy or not, if her origin was the catalyst, Kai would need the ‘little ptarmigan’. Because Bull was right; who knew what might be waiting for them in Tevinter.

Kai sighed inwardly. No matter what it was, tonight’s events had put a halt to their planning. Even though Cole was more human, he remained Compassion, and she held fragments of Hope inside her. They could help ameliorate the situation. Cole nodded to indicate he understood, and the two of them joined the others.

Kai took her part-full bottle, the contents sloshing as she tapped it on the table to get people’s attention. She smiled sympathetically, her voice exuding calm encouragement.

“Tonight has been demanding for all of us.” She was met by tired nods and wry murmurs of agreement. “I imagine you have questions, I know I do. So let’s ask them. Whatever we want to know.” There was curiosity, a positive sign. Kai took a breath. “Whatever is said here tonight, is said honestly. This can be an opportunity, a chance to move ahead on a more open footing.”

“A second chance…” Cole added helpfully, greeted by ironic half smiles.

The guiding principle that underpinned her actions; a second chance, an opportunity for redemption. Cullen helped her discover that purpose again.

“So then,” Kai suggested. “Questions?”

The first one was unexpected, but thankfully straightforward.

“Grim wonders if you have Avvar blood,” Cole voiced on Grim’s behalf, receiving an affirmative nod from Grim.

Kai could guess why. Although she couldn’t fully discount the possibility of her Avvar ancestor, it seemed too long ago. Avvar lore was frustratingly vague on timescales, but Kai surmised it would not take hundreds of years.

“Yes,” Kai acknowledged. “From three ages ago. I don’t imagine it’s her, because she married a Fereldan and became Andrastian. But I can’t be certain.”

Grim responded with his usual grunt, while Bull seemed to be mulling this over. Kai answered the question she suspected he might ask.

“The Avvar believe some souls are destined to be reborn, so a piece of fade-touched animal is placed underneath the body during sky burial. A sort of anchor for part of the soul, so the rest can find its way to a new body. However, they aren’t supposed to remember, and as far as I’ve discovered, no-one’s confirmed this actually happens.”

Bull turned to Grim. “You do that?”

Grim nodded to confirm Kai’s answer.

“No offence, but you Avvar have some wacky ideas,” Bull remarked, shaking his head.

Kai could understand his concern. The notion of reincarnated souls, things returning from the Fade, was still fresh for Bull, and likely an uncomfortable one. Although he was no longer Qunari, under the Qun the Land of the Dead was viewed with dread. Kai remembered Bull fighting his fears as well as their enemies in the Fade at Adamant.

Bull wrinkled his brows, unsure. “I get that all of you have taken this on board.” He stared straight at Kai. “I know the shit that happens to you is weird. And Cole’s right to say there was something unusual about you.” He exhaled. “But this?”

“I appreciate it’s a lot to take in,” Kai sympathised.

“Ya think,” Bull retorted a tad sharply, then apologised. “Sorry…ah shit…just give me some time to deal with it.” He groaned faintly, his thumb idly rubbing the beer bottle. “Look, all I want is to get Dorian out, take these Venatori down, and have everybody come back in one piece.”

“As do we, Bull,” Cassandra assured him. “And we will.”

“I have a question,” Cullen announced, frowning as he stared at Cassandra. “Your plan…why didn’t you come to me?”

It seemed Cassandra neglected to mention details of the plan to Cullen. Lace’s gaze flicked between Cullen and Cassandra. Like Kai, she knew how exchanges between the two of them could end up.

“We erred on the side of caution, Cullen,” Cassandra explained, her expression steady and voice even. “After the events in the Basin…we were unsure what you may think…” she glanced meaningfully at Kai, “…and the impact of your reaction.”

Kai could guess why. Leliana knew she feared losing Cullen entirely if he found out, and one particularly worrying incident must have factored into their caution. Likely from Lace.

Cullen leaving proved tougher to handle than Kai anticipated, burying herself in her work and research as a distraction. Until one ‘dark day’ the sense of grief threatened to bury her, and she drank to block out the suffocating despair. However, getting drunk enough ended up in oblivious intoxication. Lace and Cole found her slumped against the stone parapet on the mountain side balcony, comatose. Kai had no recollection of going out there, uncertain if she just wanted fresh air…or had a darker intent in mind. If Cole knew why, he never said, and she dared not ask.

Whatever her motive, it was a wake-up call. Kai arranged to have the loft repaired for Rylen, bringing Cullen’s belongings to her quarters. Although she still missed him, having his things with her provided solace, sufficient to continue without slipping back. It was only after she returned from Kirkwall and read his letter, did the anxiety he would forget her fade.

Cullen’s response to Cassandra was testy. “No matter the circumstances, if Kai was in trouble, I would always be there for her.” He leant forward. “She’s my wife.”

Kai could have kissed him. However, this declaration was meant for Cassandra. Unusually, she remained calm, her reply more conciliatory than normal.

“Perhaps our caution was misplaced, and we should have included you,” she conceded. “But we only acted with the best of intentions, Cullen.”

“Thank you,” Cullen acknowledged, assuaged by her admission. “However, I can appreciate your…concern.”

Cassandra nodded in reply.

It was their version of an apology. Although from diverse backgrounds, Cullen and Cassandra shared many traits, and held great respect for one another. Even if they occasionally bickered like siblings.

Sensing the situation had eased, Kai decided to pose her question. She had a hunch about the timing of this plan, but needed confirmation, unsure if her instincts were reliable anymore.

“I’d like to know…” she began.

“Yes, then. With the nugs,” Cole dived in. Everyone, bar Lace and Cassandra, appeared puzzled.

“Kid,” Bull sighed, lifting a mildly scolding eyebrow. “Remember what we talked about.”

“Oh…sorry,” Cole apologised. “She wanted to know when…”

“It’s alright, Cole,” Lace reassured him, smiling gently. “I suspect it was meant for us.” After a cursory glance at Cassandra, Lace faced Kai. “It was then, after Kirkwall, when I stayed to find nugs for Leliana.”

“Just a couple of weeks and I’ll send her back with an escort,” Leliana appealed. “You know how good she is at finding the best nugs for breeding. I can’t possibly hire new staff without seeing their reactions to the little ones.”

Because Lace had undertaken this on other occasions, Kai didn’t imagine an ulterior motive behind Leliana’s request. That and Kai’s immense relief Leliana accepted her.

“I see,” Kai noted, encouraging Lace to continue.

“Leliana took us aside,” another glance at Cassandra, “and described what you told her, also what Cole said.” Lace then faced Bull, her tone empathetic. “Our reaction was the same as yours, Bull. Until we thought about it…and talked it through with one another.”

That stirred Bull’s curiosity. “And?”

Lace smiled at Kai. “We agreed that whatever you are, you’re still Kai. You’re still the woman that stood before the people in Skyhold and pledged to fight for everyone. No matter what you did, you’ve always kept that promise.”

“Even if you do make it up most of the time,” Cassandra added dryly, prompting snorts of amusement.

The other trait Kai was infamous for. Mostly it worked out, sometimes better than intended, sometimes not so well.

“As your friends we recognise you are not perfect,” Cassandra continued, her blunt honesty causing Kai to smile. “But neither are we.”

“Speak for yourself,” Bull retorted with a wry grin.

Cassandra rolled her eyes yet smiling. “Whatever our mistakes and whatever our detractors may claim, the Inquisition will be remembered for its even-handedness, and that we offered hope when there was none to be found elsewhere.”

“And second chances,” Cole repeated decisively.

“Yes, yes,” Cassandra sighed. “And second chances. The point I’m trying to make, is that you gave the Inquisition and the people who joined it a purpose. To be more, and to fight for something better. When they leave, they will take those values with them.”

“And no matter what or who you are, that’s why we will always stand with you,” Lace promised brightly.

Gratified as Kai was by their support, she felt they missed the core of the Inquisition, what made it truly work.

“Grateful as I am for your kind words, and believe me I am truly grateful,” she offered appreciatively, “the Inquisition was never just about one person. Everyone’s contribution mattered, everyone’s contribution made the Inquisition what it was. We were all in this together. All of us here still are.”

Bull chuckled to himself. “You know, that’s almost Qunari.” He cocked his head, eyeing her. “Maybe….” he was pensive for a few seconds, then waved his hand dismissing the thought, “…nah.”

He leant back in his chair, picking up another bottle of honey beer before settling back.

Their words, and Cullen’s last night, were an apt reminder of who she once was, and who she needed to be again. Although Kai was proud to provide a chance for people to redeem themselves, even to her enemies on occasion, she did not hesitate to pass judgement when required. The Venatori pursued their goals with a fanatical zeal and would never give up. Perversely even after Corypheus was long gone. For the safety of their captured friends and the future security of Thedas, the Venatori needed to be crushed completely.

Kai stood, straightening up, all eyes on her.

“Cassandra is right, we sought to be fair, offering protection, justice and hope, regardless of origin. Cole is right too, we gladly offered a second chance to those who wished it. But…we didn’t shy away from judgement when that was called for. The Venatori have demonstrated repeatedly they are beyond redemption. This time, we take them, and their allies, out for good.”

She picked up her bottle of honey beer, resolute in her call to arms. “We save our friends, and we send the Venatori to their would-be god. Every last one.” Kai stretched out her right arm, holding the beer bottle aloft as she previously held the dragon greatsword. “I say…no quarter. Who’s with me?”

Unsurprisingly Bull was the first to stand, swiftly followed by her remaining friends, arms raised aloft together.

“Wait for me,” Lace appealed, as she clambered onto her chair, the rest moving to join her.

The former members of the Inquisition clinked their bottles together as one, a robust, resonant “No quarter!” declared as both battle cry and promise. As they sat back down, Kai spotted Cullen smiling at her. It was the smile he gave her whenever she returned home, the one that said, ‘welcome back’.

Cullen once spoke about ‘a way out and a way back’. Kai finally grasped what he meant.

……………………………………..

Cole stood outside, watching Kai and Cullen walking away, Max and Izzy trotting alongside. The rest of them stayed because Bull had questions for Lace and Cassandra, matters he did not want to raise in front of Kai. Whatever his discomfort, Bull recognised that underneath her renewed sense of purpose Kai remained vulnerable.

Cole sensed Lace coming, and turned to see her looking up, expectant.

“Well, apart from a few bumps, it seemed to work,” she noted quietly. A statement and question, seeking reassurance.

Cole nodded. “Yes, she found her purpose again. She can heal now, and he will help her.”

As Lace smiled Cole reflected how stoic she was, her inner strength undiminished by the ordeals they endured. This was her idea and Cole helped her bring it to fruition, with a few apples and a little intervention. Where secrecy was once a necessity, now it became a liability. Kai needed to let go of the fear and remorse; she needed to banish her shadows to restore what was lost. Only then would she be ready to confront the dark fanaticism of the Venatori.

“I’m glad it’s finally all out in the open,” Lace exhaled in relief. “And nobody’s mad at one another.”

“Bull is still unsure,” Cole observed.

“Yeah, I know,” Lace acknowledged. “So was I, at first. He just needs time to see she’s still her.” She tapped Cole’s arm. “Come on, he’s making cocoa, and…” Lace winked, her voice lilting, “…there’s Mia’s cookies.”

Cole did not require food, but had learned to eat, so as not to stand out. Most food held little interest, except for cookies. The soft biscuits produced a feeling of delight inside that even he could not explain. Mia’s especially.

Little pieces of resilience.

Cole smiled as he followed Lace back inside.

 

****************************

 

Kai was thoughtful, chin resting on her hand, as Cullen made cocoa for them from the stash Bull gave him.

The only thing that remained unchanged from this morning was the chess game on the kitchen table. Mostly she was relieved, no longer needing to hide from those she cared about, but still concerned about Bull, who was a little more distant than normal. Lace sought to reassure Kai, saying he just needed time. Kai hoped Lace was right, she would hate to lose a good friend like Bull.

Soon, they would head to Tevinter, but in these few precious moments in their kitchen, in their home, she could fantasise this was their normal, boring life with Max and Izzy. The family she would give her all for. Her attention focused on Cullen. Her Cullen.

An involuntary deep sigh escaped, prompting Cullen to look around and shake his head seeing her soppy face.

“You truly are the most…”

“…incongruous, impossible, exhausting?” Kai ventured, only half joking as she rested her hand, flexing her fingers.

Cullen managed to lift a brow and wrinkle them at the same time before relaxing. It was impressive.

“All of the above,” he stressed. “Sometimes it’s tiring just trying to fathom what will happen with you next.”

“I know,” Kai admitted apologetically, her finger idly brushing the table. “I’m sorry.”

Cullen peered at her, gently reproving. “It wasn’t an accusation, Kai, simply an observation. You don’t have to keep apologising.”

“I know,” she sighed. “I’ll try.”

“I’ll accept trying,” he smiled. “At least it means you’re listening.” The smile became a smirk.

Kai rolled her eye causing him to chuckle. Cullen turned away, continuing with the cocoa. His comment was to remind Kai she could not lapse back into her old ways. She understood Cullen’s caution, well aware this mission was only possible with his support, and that of their friends.

It was one of the things they discussed on the way home. Another was more troubling. What concerned Cullen was the number of people who knew of her origin. Not because he distrusted their friends, but because he saw an angle the rest of them missed.

“The Venatori are willing to use blood magic,” he told her, “and blood magic can control your thoughts, make you see things…say things. We have no idea if they know what you are, but with everyone on the team aware, the potential for discovery is uncomfortably high.”

If they were confronted with the prospect of blood magic, and if it came to the crunch, Kai would not let anyone suffer that, especially not Cullen. And not just because of her promise to Mia.

Cullen brought over two mugs of cocoa, placing hers within easy reach before fetching the box of apple and cinnamon cookies. And a small plate for her.

He always remembers the little things, Kai thought, beaming at him. “Thank you.”

Cullen grinned. “You’re always welcome.”

Both of them snagged a cookie, and it was then, as she stared at her cocoa, Kai had a thought. She broke her cookie into quarters, dunking one into the cocoa much to Cullen’s bemusement. Kai placed the dunked piece into her mouth, savouring the flavours before she devoured it, smacking her lips.

She and Lyssa used to do this as children, but with cakes and tea. They were supposed to be practicing etiquette, but the resulting boredom invariably led them to being silly. Doubly so, because the cake often collapsed dropping into the tea, the resulting mush only salvaged with a spoon. Childish then as now, but in the most fun sense.

“Really?” he sighed, trying not to smile.

Kai snickered. “I was just curious to see what it tasted like.”

“And?” Cullen prompted, the smile breaking through.

“Try it and see,” she winked.

Kai waited as Cullen broke off a piece, dunked and then ate it, a childlike grin giving him away.

“Funny what can prompt a memory,” he mused, a slight chuckle escaping. “Bran would dunk cookies in his milk as a child, and slurp to make Rosie laugh.”

“That sounds like Bran,” Kai remarked, seeing Cullen agree.

“Ma would scold him for teaching his sister bad habits,” Cullen went on, “until Rosie fell seriously ill with a fever.” The smile eased as he became thoughtful. “It eventually broke, leaving her weak and she wouldn’t eat, even though we tried. But Bran came up with an idea.”

“What was it?” Kai asked as Cullen drank some cocoa.

“He took Rosie a bowl of soup and made her laugh by slurping it,” Cullen explained, the smile returning. “He told her he would teach her how to slurp, it would be their secret. And it worked. Admittedly it was a small bowl, but by the end of the ‘lesson’ she’d eaten almost half by slurping.”

“You must have all been so relieved,” Kai suggested.

“Very much so,” Cullen nodded. “Ma was so proud of him. She put him on ‘Rosie duty’ as she called it, while Mia and I took on his chores.”

Kai could see in Cullen’s expression how proud he was of Branson as well.

“For the next week, my eight-year-old brother nursed his four-year-old sister back to health.” Cullen paused, smiling. “You know, Bran may take great pleasure in teasing us and joking around, but inside,” he tapped his chest, “he’s deeply serious, more so than I.”

Kai inclined her head. “Someone more serious than my husband, that’s pretty…serious.”

Cullen furrowed his brows mock dismissively. “Kai Rutherford, I recall coming quite a distant second to you…on occasion.”

“Yeah, I know,” Kai acquiesced. “I just forgot how to be absurd. But…I am trying to remember.”

Cullen grinned. “Hence the cookies and cocoa? Which was tasty, by the way.”

“It was a spur-of-the-moment thing,” she conceded, smiling. “Lys and I used to do it with tea and cakes when we became bored with endless etiquette lessons.”

“Why does that not surprise me?” he remarked with a faintly lifted eyebrow.

She leant forward and winked. “Just give me time, I’m sure I can surprise you.”

“Of that, I have no doubt,” Cullen exhaled.

His expression changed, observing her intently. It was the look he got when there was something on his mind, considering how to voice it. Kai waited for him, drinking her cocoa and finishing off the cookie. When Cullen finally spoke, she understood why he took so long.

“When I returned to Skyhold after the three months here, both Cassie and Josephine mentioned you…felt my absence.”

Kai swallowed, guessing he worked out there was more to it. She would rather not tell him, not to hide what happened, but because she knew he would feel responsible. The last thing she wanted. It was her foolishness and her fault.

“And…after the way Cassandra looked at you…” Cullen hesitated, then breathed out, rubbing his neck. “I had this all worked out in my head…” He dropped his hand and peered at her. “Did you…was there…something more?”

Did you try to do what you promised you never would again, was the question he feared asking directly.

It left her no choice but to be truthful. Otherwise their promises to one another would mean nothing.

“You’re asking if I broke my promise and tried to take my life again,” she stated, seeing the reluctant nod. Kai took a breath, letting it out. “Honestly…I have no idea.”

Cullen looked perplexed. “How…?”

“…can I not know?” Kai finished for him. “I got blind drunk, royally rat-arsed as Sera would say.” She watched him apologetically. “When you first left, I found it…difficult…not having you there. So, I did what I always have…”

“You worked,” he proposed, troubled now.

Kai nodded. “And researched. But one day, I…” She drew another breath, it was harder to voice than she imagined. “It became too much…so I drank. I remember up to a point, and then it’s just…blank.”

His frown was so heavy it accentuated the crease between his eyebrows.

“Cole and Lace found me on the balcony, unconscious. They took me inside, put me to bed and watched over me until I woke in the morning.” She took yet another breath to calm herself. “I still have no idea why I ended up out there.”

“Maker, Kai.” Cullen shook his head as if scolding himself. “I should have come back. I shouldn’t have left you…”

Kai stood, gesturing for him to move his chair, so she could sit on his lap. To have physical contact, allowing her to soothe his worry. As she sat across his legs and took hold of his hand, Cullen’s other hand reached for Kai’s waist as if to protect her.

“You were right not to come back, Cullen,” she persuaded gently. “We wouldn’t be here together if you had.”

“You don’t know that,” he insisted, frowning. “We could have…worked something out.”

This was guilt talking. Deep down he understood that was not possible. Not then at least.

“Do you really think so…honestly?” she suggested.

Cullen closed his eyes for a moment, then exhaled, opening them. “No.” His hand brushed her side absentmindedly.

Kai spoke softly, deliberately. “We would have slipped into the same routine, and another split would have devastated us both.” Her thumb rubbed his hand to comfort him. “We’d have lost the friendship we rebuilt, and neither of us wanted that.”

Cullen nodded with an almost smile. “You have a point.”

“You did the right thing for both of us,” Kai encouraged, squeezing his hand. “After what happened, I still missed you, but I learnt to handle it better. And when I came back after Kirkwall and read your letter, I realised that if I ever needed you, you’d be there.”

“For you, always,” Cullen affirmed, gazing at her.

Kai let go of his hand, cupping his cheek as she held his gaze.

“The past is the past and we can’t change what we did. What counts now, is our future. We have each other and another chance.” Her thumb stroked his beard. “We will make mistakes…” Cullen raised a knowing eyebrow. “…but we keep trying and keep talking to one another. We do this together.”

Together,” he echoed with certainty.

Cullen smiled, a beautifully warm smile that came from inside, the unchanged centre. Seeing him relax, she risked a little teasing. Kai settled her hand on his shoulder, tilting her head.

“Besides, I’ve been told I need keeping in check.” She saw Cullen grin, recognising his own words, and gave him a playful smile. “And I do believe wrangling the Inquisitor was, and still is, Commander Cullen’s forte.”

Cullen shook his head, chuckling. “That’s my....” he paused, then smirked, “…Katarina.”

Although he often got away with using her given name, this time he was daring her to object. Kai was intrigued and decided to bite.

“Watch it, Rutherford,” she warned mock seriously, narrowing her gaze. “You only get so many passes for the name.”

He responded in kind, matching her stance. “I see. And what if I disagree with your estimation?”

Kai spied the unfinished chess game behind them on the table and had an idea. She gestured to the board with her head. “A game to decide. No holds barred, winner gets to dictate terms.”

Cullen looked at the board, then back to her. “Challenge accepted,” he agreed.

She leaned closer and whispered. “Better get ready for a real pasting.”

He smiled smugly. “Oh, I’m ready…” he moved even closer, practically eye to eye, his voice quiet, “…to wipe the floor with you.”

Kai’s gaze widened, but she really liked his boldness. “We’ll see,” she smirked blithely.

Cullen lifted a determined eyebrow. “I think we will, Katarina,” he insisted, emphasising her name yet again.

Their playful banter was interrupted, by a rapid burst of hammering on the back door. A familiar voice shouted out.

“Hello! It’s Eleanor.”

Cullen looked over to the door, the buoyant mood deflating as his expression became sombre. Kai sensed from his reaction this was neither good nor unexpected, but unsure what it meant.

He faced her with a sigh. “I have to…”

“Of course,” Kai nodded, Cullen helping her stand.

He straightened up before heading to open the door, a more than familiar action. Cullen was putting on the mantle of duty, just as she had done countless times in the past. The Sanctuary may not run under lines of command like the Inquisition, but as Director, responsibility ultimately lay with him.

Eleanor came into the kitchen, a little breathless as though she had been rushing. When she spoke Kai realised why.

“Mia said you’d be here, but I wasn’t sure if…” she seemed to reassess her words “…I’m glad I caught you.”

Instead of querying why she was here, Cullen simply asked, “Who is it?”

“Evald,” Eleanor told him, her face saddening. “He probably won’t make the night.”

Kai’s heart sank; she had become fond of Evald even though they only talked briefly. He brought back memories of Max, good ones. However, her sorrow could not compare to the grief Cullen and his team must be feeling. They had lived with the Elders long before she arrived.

“Understood,” Cullen accepted. “And thank you.” He darted a look at Kai before continuing. “Just give me a moment with Kai, and we’ll head back.”

Instead of waiting, Eleanor pressed on. “Cullen, before Evald lost consciousness, he asked for Kai.” Eleanor faced her with an expectant expression. “We were hoping…you would come and sit with him.”

This was exactly what Cullen asked of her, to support the residents and the work of the Sanctuary however she could. The Inquisition was disbanding, but some of its purpose could live on here. Not to mention Cullen’s team were making a sacrifice by allowing him to go with her to Tevinter. If she could help them in any way, Kai would gladly do so.

“I’d be honoured to,” Kai agreed readily, seeing Eleanor nod her thanks.

Cullen turned to Kai, his grateful smile voicing the unspoken words. “I’ll fetch our things,” he offered, Kai giving a slow blink in reply.

While Cullen headed to collect them, on a whim Kai took a cookie from the box and pressed it into Eleanor’s hand.

Eleanor seemed a little confused. “Erm…”

“They’re Mia’s cookies,” Kai explained. “It won’t make the world right, but it’ll help you bear it.”

The bizarre nature of Kai’s remark made Eleanor smile. “Well, I won’t say no to that. Thank you.” She gave a salute, cookie in hand.

Cullen returned with his tunic and her shawl. As they dressed, Eleanor munched her way through the cookie, seeming easier. Sometimes little things could make a difference, whether a kind gesture, or a tasty cookie, or even a comforting letter; where the impact could far outweigh the thing itself.

And there may be need for more little things before the night was over.

After calling Max and Izzy back from the fields, Cullen, Kai and their partners, along with Eleanor, headed to the Sanctuary, their path defined by the light of the waning moon.