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Happily ever after

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It’s far too quiet.

Cullen rubs his temple, his eyes bleary and staring blankly at the paper before him. Pinching the bridge of his nose he attempts to concentrate once more. So many days in his time with the Inquisition and the templars he had wished for such silence to help him write, yet now it’s driving him to near madness.

Worries scratch as they repeat in circles round his mind. She’s never this quiet. She should never be this quiet.

Glancing up he looks to Annabel. She’s sat, silently, gazing out of a window coated in streams of steady rain. The window’s edges are beautifully adorned with stained glass roses and other flowers which he doesn’t know. The intricate portraits do their best to throw light and colour into the room with vivid reds, luscious greens and enchanting yellows, all outlined in gold. Really, it was as one might expect from the honeymoon suite at the prestigious Val Royeaux hotel.

But Annabel was not enthralled by the colours, not as she had been on their first morning as husband and wife. He’d taken her against that window seat, the morning’s pink rays dappling a rainbow across her sweat slicked skin as she writhed under him. After she had insisted they rest there, so she could admire how the colours played across his golden curls and they had spent a great length of time tracing idle patterns over each other’s skin.

That seemed like a lifetime ago.

What a difference a few days could make. Now she seemed to be staring straight past the colour, instead focusing on the foreboding clouds, so laden with storm they’re almost black.

He studies where his wife’s hand should be and the linen bandages carefully, but tightly wrapped around the stump of her arm. He stares for the longest time. Wishing, wishing to the Holy Andraste it was him instead. The silence is resounding. It fills his mind, seeping into every corner, saturating it with worry and dread until it makes his head pound. The quiet screams at him, telling him something is deeply wrong, something devastating has happened, is happening.

Annabel hasn’t spoken all day.

Even with all the upset they've faced with the Inquisition, even after their worst arguments, he has never known her stay quiet for more than an hour or so. He’d learnt early on that her silence was a sign she was truly upset, too upset to risk speaking and have everything simply spill out.

Even his morning kiss had been bluntly turned away by a roll to her side. He’d asked about breakfast, normally she’d eagerly place a large request, then fail to eat half, leaving him to grow concerned about his waistline with all his second helpings. This morning however she hadn’t eaten, despite the medic’s advice and his own persistent coaxing. A crumb hasn’t passed her lips all day. She had at least drunk the tea the medic provided, and pulled a grimace at the taste. His heart had lifted for a moment, that was the Annabel he knew, unable to hide even the most basic reaction, but it had been short lived.

Somehow, he had to convince his wife that things would get better, she, they’d adjust… But his own heart grew heavy whenever he looked her in the eye. She may not have said anything, barely even two words since she had lost her hand, yet her eyes told a heart-breaking tale. Her eyes truly were a window to her soul. What she considered a flaw, especially when it came to politics, he considered a blessing from Maker. To look at someone, hear them say the most wonderful things about you, things you simply know cannot be true, and see pure honesty burn earnestly in their eyes. To know she truly believed him to be those glorious things. Well its more than he’d known was possible.

You could be forgiven for looking at her now and seeing someone broken. The way her shoulders hunched, how she hugged her knees to her chest, how she seemed so much smaller, weaker, than usual. As if her fire was no longer a blazing inferno but a mere candle, flickering in shadows which seem to loom around her. He knows it won’t take much to relight her, although he’s failed so far, he is at least satisfied she will get through this. She is easily the strongest person he knows in that regard, not least of all because she didn’t believe in letting thoughts and feelings fester, therefore the longer her silence continued the greater his fears become.

Blinking heavily, he looks down at the letter he’s been writing to her brother. It's one of the few things she had requested of him, and he can see why she can’t bring herself to write it. That did not make the task any easier for him though. Her brother had always been fiercely protective of her and a man who little over a month ago Cullen had written to requesting Annabel’s hand in marriage. He knows how close the siblings are, and reminds him slightly of Mia, always looking out for him, or trying to, and it makes the letter near impossible to write.

Somehow –

Dear Lord Bryan Trevelyan, Bann of Ostwick,

 We have finally wed and I shall be glad to call you family – however your sister has lost her shield hand and a new enemy threatens to destroy Thedas which we have vowed to stop. The Inquisition will now serve the divine but we hope to take you up on your kind offer and visit once we are done at the Exalted Council.

Kind Regards, Cullen and Annabel’

– doesn't seem right.

He clenches his own fist. Trying to imagine what it would be like to have such an intrinsic part of him removed. Annabel was every part the sword and shield warrior as him, maybe more so, entering tourneys from a young age, even winning on occasion. He supposed it could be worse, at least the mark was not on her sword hand, but that was a very thin silver lining.

When was enough, enough? That simple question is another which loops in his mind. After all she had been through, all the sacrifices, the hardships, the blood, sweat and tears, after saving all of Thedas, this was her reward? Must she continue to struggle through? Could something simply good not be granted?

If the Maker had a plan it is beyond his understanding.

Finally, the silence is too loud and he simply must break it.

“Annabel,” he calls to her softly. She stirs and her eyes flick to him but she doesn’t move or respond. “I was thinking of having dinner-“ Instantly her gaze returns back out the window and he slumps.

He doesn’t know what to do. What to say. Annabel has always been so good with words, knowing exactly what he needed to hear, when he needed to hear it. And now she’s suffering and he’s failing her. Failing to return the favour she provided so effortlessly. He can’t even write a simple letter and he scrunches the parchment up into his fist with a low growl.

“I’m sorry,” he murmurs, barely loud enough for her to hear. “I…” Looking up he can see her heavy eyes looking at him patiently. Forcing his chair back he closes the small gap between them and perches on the window seat to face her, his hand resting on her foot and the large woolly socks she’s wearing hiked up to her knees.

“I want to say something to make it all better,” he admits finally. “But I don’t know how…” his eyes dart away as he struggles. He senses her shift then feels the warmth of her hand resting on top of his. It brings the faintest traces of a smile to his lips. Until he realises its happening again, she’s comforting him and it should be the other way around. His gaze returns to her eyes and locks there, hoping, against hope that his expression can convey something which his mouth cannot.

The depth of love in Cullen’s amber rich eyes soothes her. She can see it melts right through to his core. It’s still there, despite her missing hand and her desolate attitude, his devotion remains. He’s worried, that much is painfully clear in the wrinkles embedded in the corners of his eyes and the bags that sit under them.  Their honey moon shouldn’t be like this...

She can’t bear to see the hurt in his gaze so instead resumes her watch of the people below. She can see into a tavern across the way, busy and lively with people escaping the misery of the weather. She’s been watching people come and go, witnessing some of her companion’s drink and chat, picking out Sera’s yellow bottoms and the great looming bulk of Iron Bull as they laughed, oblivious to her gaze.

Only the medics, including Dorian and her husband had seen her since the operation. She hadn’t really wanted to see Cullen but had known he would simply barge anyone out the way who tried to stop him. She didn’t want to be seen like this. This isn’t her.

 

They sit in silence for a few moments and with his mere presence she can feel tears begin burn the back of her throat, wanting out.

All of her wants out. The numbness which has sedated her emotions is starting to wane under the strain. It had followed on from scorching rage at having to lose her hand, but in the end, unbearable pain had made the decision for her. Lose her hand or die in agony as acid burnt her from the inside out. It hadn’t been much of a choice.

As Inquisitor, she knew she should be strong and resilient, so after the rage had passed and she’d accepted her fate she’d stuck to solemn silence and numbed. She knew her eyes betrayed her but it was her words that really let her down, just pouring like the incessant rain outside if she let them. She hopes the emptiness lasts a while longer. What lay damned behind it will be as unbearably painful as her hand had been, but with Cullen’s warm and solid presence so close she can already feel the facade starting to crack.

Protecting and proud - echoes in her mind. Cole had popped up often in her thoughts lately, she knew the spirit was lingering close by as she could feel his reassuring presence even in her deepest despair. Right now, it urges her to speak. Safe and solid.

Her lips move, she’s about too, but bites the words back, instead just making a grunting noise.

“Please,” Cullen’s other hand accompanies his plea and gently brushes the dark hair from her face. “Talk to me.”

“You can’t make it better,” she states croakily.

“I wish I could, but it will be ok, you have my word.” His fingers curl to intertwine with her hand. Her only hand. And that’s it.

Whatever control she had is wiped out. One single sentence, one simple action and one stupid thought tear everything down. Tears burst from her, spilling hot and fast, as a sob wracks her body.

Shuddering forward with a wailing cry she collapses against his chest and buries herself in his fur mantle. His arms wrap over to pull her close. “I can’t…” she blurts. “I …No….No don’t…please…” her words are a jumbled with sobs so powerful they steal the air from her lungs.

She can’t do this. She’s too tired. Been through too much. Its overwhelming and for the first time since becoming Inquisitor she truly feels the weight of the burden, and its crushing.

She had done her best, worked day and night, endured terrors, fought countless battles, mountains of papers and more noble gatherings than she could count. Still it wasn’t enough. Thedas was in danger. Again. And now a cripple she somehow had to continue to lead. Never mind that her body, was damaged beyond repair…She should’ve taken the chance the Exalted council had presented, should have dissolved the Inquisition, but her own stubbornness had got her into trouble again. Refusing to yield when Thedas was threated, when she was threated, they’d pushed her into a corner and she’d push back. When would she learn?

Losing her hand, was the final straw, proof that the Maker had no regard for her or her plans. Her positive outlook had finally been broken by betrayal, pain, anger and fear. By loss. She would never be the same, would she? How could she?

This morning she had struggled to do up her laces, Cullen had silently moved into help, and she had given him a glare which could’ve melted steel. She didn’t want his help, not like that, and had kicked the boots away. It wasn’t like she planned to go outside anyway. He looked up at her in that moment, eyes full of hurt, and she couldn’t stand it. Anger had rolled and rippled through, to see pain in those copper rich eyes, to know she was the cause, it was the opposite of what she wanted. All she wanted, all she had ever wanted, was to make him happy, to see him smile and hear him chuckle, to open him and bask in the warmth he’d spent years diligently storing away. Yet now she sobs in his chest, heart rushing inside her, heat stifling her, barely able to take the most ragged of breaths.

Her heart more than aches, it physically hurts, like someone is crushing it inside her chest, her lungs clenching around it, her stomach and muscles pulling tight, preparing to fight whatever this pain was. But there was no fighting it. And another wrack of despairing tears thunder through.

Her disability to even perform simple tasks was by far the most distressing part of everything. She had never realised how much she had taken her hands for granted; doing her laces, her hair, her buttons, cutting her food, even trying to fold a damn blanket had reduced her to frustrated tears. Never mind how she could never fight again, could never hope to wield a shield as a secondary weapon, the one they never saw coming. To charge behind it, blood pounding in her ears with a roar on her lips. It was glorious. And it had been taken from her. Even with a fake hand she would never be as good. How could she? Her balance would be off, and it had never been her greatest attribute to begin with. A huge chunk of her life, her future, has been taken from her, and she mourns it bitterly. 

On top of that she's lost someone she trusted, someone she had thought of as a friend, has lied and tricked her every step of the way. She isn't prepared to give up on him, not yet, but she's not sure she will ever get over the betrayal.

What comes next, for her at least, is the ugliness of it. Of her. When she’d walked into a room people had stared, even at a young age, as the only daughter of a prestigious noble house she had gathered more than her fair share of attention. Mostly from noble lordings looking for a future trophy wife or a famous notch for his bedpost. There were others who merely watched her every step because they sought to tear her down. Constantly trying to trip her over, in every sense, preying on her lack of skill at the game, and pouncing like a fox on a hen. Her brother had been an immense help in keeping the worst of them at bay with his chillingly cold and dangerous exterior, but some still tried their luck.

She’d lost count the number of lords, dukes, sirs and ladies, who had called her ‘beautiful’. She had no doubt part of every compliant was paid to win favour or influence. Leaving her always wondering if she actually was all that pretty, after all when they spoke so grandly of her, nothing but coldness shone in their eyes. It was never her intellect, her wit, personality, skill, or anything else she might possess that they spoke of, always her looks. Or had been anyway.

She could probably live with their horrid looks and whispered comments. She never had any time for the game or what nobility thought, and had enough fire to front them out. What she’s struggling with is that Cullen will have to live with it. He’s stuck with her now, bound by a vow she knew in her heart he would never break. He’d have to care for her in ways he shouldn’t have to, have to look at her and say she was beautiful, even though she knows now that can’t possibly be true. He would still have to pretend she was just as irresistible as before, and she’s not sure she can face seeing a lie in his eyes. Not his.

“Shh,” Cullen murmurs into her unkempt hair. “Everything will be fine,” his voice is surprisingly calm and matter of fact. She never failed to be awed by his inner strength, how he was able to pull something firm and tangible from darkness. “We’ll find a way. We have resources. I’ll set to work at once, you’ll wield your shield once more and do much of what you did before. And I will be there. Always. I promise.”

She shakes her head against him. “No, you don’t understand…” Annabel snorts back another sob and pulls back slightly to look him in the eye. “How am I supposed to be Inquisitor with one arm? I can’t even get dressed by myself! And I clearly am not a good judge of character,” forcefully she pushes his embrace away. “And I don’t want you out of pity,” her voice sneers as she curls up her knees once more. “No… It’s hideous Cullen. I’m hideous.”

“What!?” His eyebrows shot up in reply.

“It is, don’t…don’t try to deny it, look at it, is that sexy to you? Huh?” Her eyes narrow slightly, puffy and red, anger stirs in their depths as she moves what little of her arm she has left.

He makes a point of looking to the bandages then back to her. Despite the fear that clutches her heart, clenching her breath right in her core, she still stares at him. She needs to know the truth and often the only way with Cullen was to read it in his eyes, in the shift of his expression and the change of his tone. She’s slightly surprised therefore when his eyes narrow and his forehead creases, genuine anger sparking behind his gaze and slipping through in the light grunt he emits without knowing.

“Don’t be absurd,” he grabs both her shoulders to hold her, to make sure her eyes are on his. “You’re beautiful Annabel, as lovely as ever, it has nothing to do with your hand.”

Shaking her head, she pulls away from him, trying to stand, to escape the conversation. She can’t, his fingers grip tight and when she tugs, he resists, refusing to yield and let her go, let her storm off and drink herself to stupor, alone, as she wishes too.

“Listen to me,” Cullen’s growl is firm and demanding and despite her whirling emotions it gains her attention. The urgency of the tears is gone, leaving her eyes sore and her heart racing in her chest.

“You don’t see it, do you?” he asks, his expression softening lightly, eyes widening in something like shock.

He can’t believe what he’s hearing but it’s plain to see she believes what she says and it’s the tip of a complex iceberg. He witnesses his comforting words hit the fire in her eyes and burn away, leaving nothing in their wake. The sight sends a pang through his chest.

Instinctively his hand moves to her face, his fingers wiping a few straggling tears away, before cupping and lifting her chin. “You are…” his words fail him once more. He wants to tell her she is the most beautiful woman he’s ever known, that she only need cock an eyebrow and he’s aroused, but all his lips can manage is a deep, tender, kiss against her own.

As it ends he rests his forehead against hers, closing his eyes, he searches for the words once more, letting the walls fall down he speaks in a breath. “You are… beyond beautiful. You light the darkness with your smile, your laugh. Your eyes, your gaze, knows only truth… that is something beyond precious...its…” he sighs, his eloquent thoughts becoming muddled once more. “Annabel, it’s not about your curves, though Maker they are glorious...” he pulls back a little. Wiping a few loose strands of hair from her face again and he sees it. Sees that little spark reflect from deep in her eyes and knows he’s getting through.

Encouraged he continues. “I love you, Maker preserve me, for I do not know what I’ve done to deserve you. Your fire is as alluring as it is dangerous, the fact that everything that comes into your head is then on your lips, the passion you bring with you to everything, your compassion, how you never back down, no matter what… Your beauty goes far deeper than what’s on the outside.”

A tear slips down her face, his own eyes have filled, wanting, needing her to understand. He thought no less of her, he never could, it wouldn’t matter if she was scared from head to toe, provided she was still her. She had done the impossible, with compassion and light, she had brought peace and happiness to his life. How could she not see how radiant she was?

Holding his breath, he searches her eyes, and notes the rage has gone, like a brief summer storm, its swept through and left calm azure waters in its wake. That is until she pounces, her hand wrapping around his neck, dragging their bodies together in a passionate kiss. At the heat his hands can’t help but shift to her waist, pulling her into his lap where he’s starting to stir for her, the touch of her skin on his sending pulses of arousal through him and deepening the kiss.

She giggles and his eyes hazily open, the corner of his lips twitch into a smirk. “What?” he asks his large hands comfortably rubbing her thighs as they straddle him.

“Nothing…” she smiles. Finally. A small coy smile. The kind he cherishes. “It’s just that, actions speak louder than words Commander, and someone is clearly ready for action,” her eyes flick down under thick lashes to hint at his groin.

His chuckle is thick and dark, his hand cupping her cheek and dragging her mouth back to his. “Always,” he rumbles.

He falters, his kiss turning to a gasp as she grinds her hips, thrusting her core against his growing erection. It throbs, his face contorting as he aches for the clothes between them to be shed, to feel her slick folds, her warm smooth flesh.

“Cullen,” her voice is soft and she goes still, drawing his eyes back to hers as she perches in his arms. “I love you,” her hand rests lightly on his cheek. “More than you could ever know.”

Warmth spreads through his chest, taking the edge off the pain which had buried itself there, dulling the worry which had gnawed at his insides and lifting the pressure. It makes a soft smile curl his lips as he nuzzles into her hand, eyes resting, not from exhaustion, but relief. She’d be ok. He had been foolish to fear otherwise. She always came back. No matter how violent the storm or how perilous the odds.

“Now,” she purrs placing her nose against his, her eyes glinting. “Let’s start our honey moon again, shall we?”

He can hardly believe it, within minutes she travelled from nearly inconsolable grief through to grinding on his crotch. “If you’re sure… I wouldn’t want to-“ Her lips crash against his to silence the niggling worries and banish them far from his mind.  His trousers feel uncomfortably tight, and he pops his belt open. If the Lady insisted…

Grabbing the back of her neck he shifts and pulls up her into a kiss, freeing him enough to shuffle his trousers open, his erection bobbing free to rub against her. Her hand soon finds it, cupping the tip before lightly squeezing, slowly and snuggly running down his entire length in a way that makes his muscles stiffen and his breath hitch.

Once he can focus he promptly undoes her the button on her bottoms, noting she’s only bothered with one. Smirking between a kiss he issues his command. “Stand.”

Annabel blinks, her head tilting slightly to the side, but the mere pressure of his thumb pressing over her clothed entrance makes her mewl and all but fall into him. “Stand,” this time he grabs her thighs and helps her rise to tower above him.

Looking down she catches a wolfish grin tug up his delicious scar and bites her own lip in reply. Just what did her Commander have in mind? Soon her trousers and smalls are tugged down and tossed aside. His heavy hands wrap around the back of her bare thighs, firm grip sending a pulse right to her core, that’s when she realises, she’s all but splayed directly in front of him. In front of his hungry lips. And she smirks.

He’s tongue is gentle, in strong contrast to the grip that helps hold her in place, and he laps with broad strokes that pool heat in her centre. He nuzzles in, slinking his body lower, so his lips can kiss her entrance already scorching with need.

Bracing her good arm against the glass she bends to help him bury his mouth, his lips, his kiss inside her. Stubble scratches at the sensitive skin around her folds, flushed pink with desire, and heightens the pleasure as he explores her. Hungry and attentive, as always, she can feel him savour her, feel his tongue press against her nub making her shudder. Utter divine pleasure slinks through her in waves, engrossing her, banishing the rest of the world away, as he circles round it. Then he sucks.

Pleasure slams through, clenching her fist she cries out a broken sound, her forehead banging into the painted glass as her body crumples under her. She’s fairly certain that his hold is the only thing keeping her standing as she rides the climax, his mouth still kissing her singing flesh, his stubble still scratching as he laps tenderly.

When he withdraws she cracks her eyes open in search of him. Her hair has spilt down over her neck but she can just see him as he leans back, his hair starting to curl against the fogged glass, then his eyes flick up to her. The amber has turned molten in the heat, darkened and become distinctly more sinful. He doesn’t bother with words, the rest of his clothes soon join hers on the floor, his skin so heated that small spirals of steam emanate from his broad shoulders where they pressed against the freezing cold.

Locking eyes with her once more she gives a sultry chuckle, now steady enough on her feet to splay a little further from him, watching as his gaze instantly diverts and feeling a rumble resound from his chest. She cards her fingers through his hair, creating a mess of curls, as she slowly lowers herself over him and his arms wrap around her.

His tip presses against her entrance, wet, pulsing and begging, and she indulges with a deep blissful moan. She’s slick from his attentions, but even still she moves slowly, sinking inch by inch, feeling the muscles in his arms tighten, as she takes him, feeling herself stretch, as he fills her. Then she’s down to the hilt and left almost overwhelmed by the simple feeling of him inside her, so completely, as if its where he’s meant to be. His hands knead at her rear and his face moves to nuzzle against her still clothed chest.

Clearly her shirt deeply offends him and soon her pert nipples are naked against his lips. He toys with one, providing all the encouragement she needs. She rolls her hips and begins to ride him, grinding with powerful muscles, her good hand plastered to the glass as new throbs of pleasure start to resound inside her. Growing which each movement, she drives faster, feeling him tense, and driving panted moans from her own lips.

Cullen seems to takes this as his que to take over, grabbing her hips firmly he yanks her down, slamming himself deep inside, making her cry out as he hits that sweet spot. Panting himself he starts to thrust into her, hips lurching, driving pleasure through her until she loses all control and simply lets him pound as he desires.

A nip at her breast brings her ecstasy drunk mind back to focus and she looks down, his lips have already moved on, sucking and mouthing the soft flesh of the other nipple, his hair a wild golden mane beneath her. Another slam hits inside her core she clenches, the pleasure is overwhelming and driving up through her until she screams out his name.

He speeds up his movements, there’s a distinct grunt and she knows he’s close. When he pulls her down hard once more, he comes apart, spilling hot seed deep inside her, with a loud broken moan against her chest. She can feel him panting under her as it ends, feel the rapid rise and fall of his chest, the thunder of his heart, and it all matches her own as she slowly begins to come round from her dishevelled state into a contented hum.

Smiling softly, she wraps some of his curls in her fingers, gently playing with his sweat slicked hair as he continues to calm under her, she can feel his smile, the way the stubble shifts against her skin as she toys with his honey locks.

Finally, he groans, pulling away and looking up at her, his eyes have softened, and where there was heat before, now is purely satisfied warmth.

“You are…” his hand trails up, across the bandages of her arm up to her chin as he gazes in wonderment. It was hard not to feel like the most beautiful goddess and luckiest woman in all of Thedas when he studied her like that, as if she truly was something divine. And that is just what she needed right now.

“…yours,” she finishes his sentence for him and leans down to share a soft tender kiss.

Chapter Text

Skyhold is significantly quieter now.

The bulk of their men had been sent to Divine Victoria’s side and the rest had mostly returned to their lives, or tried to, after all they had seen.

There was, of course, still a regiment of officers guarding Skyhold and Cullen had saved a few of the best for that sole purpose. The heart of the Inquisition would always need protection. Although to his mind it wasn’t the stones and mortar of Skyhold that represented that heart and those closest to him knew it.

Wearily Annabel plods up the steps to her chamber, its only late morning and she already feels exhausted, despite collapsing early last night with Cullen after there long journey, although at least her uneasy stomach has settled.

Her room is warm, the fire lit for her and it makes a sincere piece of comfort blossom in her chest. She wonders if such little things will be remembered once Josephine leaves? That will be a difficult farewell.

The exalted council hadn’t gone exactly to plan. It would be a lie to say she wasn’t a little bit daunted by reforming the Inquisition to a peacekeeping force serving Divine Victoria. She’d have much rather they stayed as they were, Thedas was always in need of a decent fighting men, especially given Solas’s future plans. Not that anyone had listened or cared of course, the Inquisition’s army was too mighty, too influential and too well connected, it was simply too great a threat.

Annabel supposed she understood the nobility’s perspective but that didn't mean it didn’t rile her. Like the Inquisition hadn’t, she hadn’t, done enough to prove they could be trusted with such power?

She rolls her eyes at the mountain of paper work on her desk. You would think turning to a smaller, more dedicated force, would result in less paper work. But it seems a curse which is doomed to follow her for all time. Several parcels are a sat on top and like any sane person she reaches for those first. Her artificial gauntleted hand may fool people at a glance but it has no movement and is useless at the task of opening anything so she resorts to using her teeth as fangs.

There is some dubious looking liquor from Bull and the charges, with a note to toast to the Inquisition on their return and of course to promise not kill any dragons without him. Huffing at the suggestion she examines the label on the clear liquid, it’s in a script she can’t understand, but the dragon skull hints its the same stuff they’d drunk at the bar. Or at least she thinks it does, her memory from that day has always been rather hazy.

The next one contains something scandalous made of rich maroon lace from Vivien, with note: ‘because you’re still beautiful darling’ It touches her heart in a way sexy lingerie probably shouldn’t and she runs the luxurious material through her fingers until a darkness creeps over her eyes. There was a time she would have giggled and jumped up to try it on, to race over to Cullen in little else save an overcoat and offer him a pleasant afternoon’s distraction. She glances at the clunky gauntlet in place of her limb with a scowl and pushes the garment aside. Once upon a time... was now long gone.

To avoid dwelling on the thought she to moves onto the next parcel. A box of cookies from Sera with a note ‘Jennies look out for each other, keep you going til I get back, yeah?’ she cracks a smile and takes one out to take an enormous bite. The tingle of chocolate sends a hum of pleasure through her, generating a soft sigh as she savours the sugar drenched taste. Maker she’d needed that. Popping the other half in her mouth she finally opens the last one parcel.

Peeling the layers of wrapping away reveals a small but beautifully carved wooded dragon, perched on a rocky outcrop, completed in exquisite detail down to individual scales. There is a simple note attached to its wing. ‘Thank you for this chance – Thom Rainier’.

Each gift warms her in its own way and without noticing tear well in her eyes as they drag over the presents. Her friends are largely gone. She’d had plenty of time to get used to the notion and knew they would never truly abandon her, but she still feels their absence like a gaping hole.

She twirls Dorian’s crystal in her hand, at least she would always have someone to talk too. Varric was around although leaving soon, Cole still popped up, and Sera was off running a mission but still considered this her ‘home’, along with Dagana, Leliana, and for the moment Josie. Of course, Cullen was tucked safely behind his desk although she’d already set about, unknown to him, delegating a great deal of his previous responsibilities. He’d worked too hard for too long and she wouldn't have him work himself into an early grave, not when he'd given so much.

Wiping the forming tears away she slumps melancholy against the desk, wondering how many of the others would even recognise her in this state. Despite constant reassurances and offers of support from everyone around her, the loss of her hand haunts her like a waking nightmare, one she can’t escape, one that never ends, no matter how hard she pinches herself.

It’s a constant source of frustration, a weakness where there had once been strength. A part of her identity, the sword and shield warrior, something she’d developed since she was five years old, has been stripped from her. She's not sure how she's supposed to be the same person as before with such a chunk of her life, her independence, taken from her.

She yawns, she’d been increasingly tired recently, no matter how much she slept and it’s growing irksome. Resting with her chin propped on the desk, her eyes flutter closed then stubbornly open. She studies the dragon figure, welcoming the distraction its detailing brings, fangs bared, talons lashing out in fury... Moping is not a dragon’s way she muses

Abruptly she sits up. Moping is not her way. The dragon is her house emblem, their spirit animal, full of untamed fire and power. Not a creature for meekly brooding and sulking in dreary self-pity. That is not the Trevelyan way. Well unless you were her brother who never had got that memo.

Picking at some reports she starts to sort them the way Cullen had taught her. She finds a letter with her brother’s hand writing and instinctively she goes to open it, but pauses, not sure she’s quite ready for his condolences on her injury. Twirling it in her hand she contemplates if she has the engery to invest it what will surely be a heart felt message of sympathy and most likely anger. He'd said she'd get hurt playing Inquisitor, urged her to come home, but of course she hadn't listened. It wasn't like she could drop this life the Maker has given her! She finally decides the letter can wait so squeezes it in the bottom of the pile.

It’s then she sees another parcel, tucked under reams of paper. With a frown, she drags it out to find it's wrapped plainly. Frown deepening, she picks it up, surprised by its lightness, and tries to open it carefully. Her bumbling onehandedness however results in a loud clunk as its contents hit the desk followed by the flutter of parchment.

Her eyes are instantly drawn to an oval pale green gem stone. Picking it up she notes how it fits perfectly in her palm, its smooth to the touch, like glass and she begins to examine how the fire light shifts through the near clear crystal with a degree of awe. Held at a certain angle it reflects the same hue of green as the anchor had, her head cocks to one side, eye’s roaming over it as she twists in the light.

Odd. Why was someone sending her pretty stones? She collected enough of her own, although this one seems somehow special. Swiftly she turns her attention to the note.

- My friend,

I thank you for showing me not all humans are one and the same.

 I heard of your recent struggles and would like to help in any small way that I can. So, please find enclosed an enchanted gem stone and the instructions on its use, which should keep Dagna busy for quite some time. It cannot replace what you lost but I hope it will help ease your suffering, dear friend. -

The note ends there but she instantly knows who it’s from. On the back is a diagram which showed the gem in various gauntlets, some algebra, a strange diagram involving triangles and random numbers which even when turned upside down makes no sense. 

She scrutinises the eleven script, but can’t decipher it. Scanning the desk, she tries to spy more clues and starts to wonder how the parcel had found its way here in the first place. At least one of Fen'harel’s spies was still in their ranks it seemed. With a grumble and brows still scrunched she heads down to the under croft.

-

 

“Inquisitor! It’s good to see you,” Dagna’s voice fills up the cavernous space along with her warm smile.

“I wasn’t gone that long, was I?” asks Annabel with a cocked brow.

“Ah, no, but what with the Exalted Council and all…I was…worried there might be no Inquisition for you to come back too,” the dwarf gives a light nervous chuckle.

“It’s good to see you too Dagna, and I have surprise for you…” Annabel teases, her good hand tucked safely behind her back as her a small smile appears with a hint of its old mischief.

“Is it cookies?!”

Annabel blinks, thinking of the giant pile waiting in her office, feeling slightly guilty she’d intend to eat them all herself, maybe share them with Cullen, after some teasing and riling up of course. He was simply adorable when he pouted.

Shaking her head she dismisses the excited guess. “No, but I think for you, it’s even better,” she states revealing the gem stone and slightly crumpled note.

The dwarf’s eyes light up and she gives a tiny bounce on the balls of her feet as its placed in her hands.

Annabel can’t help but smile in return at such open wonderment, like when she received a new blade, and she supposed this was the equivalent for the scholar. “It looks very technical and fancy,” she goes on. “And if you turn the page like this, I think that diagram looks like a Fennec, see with the ears?” She nudges the random lines with her thumb. “But I don’t think that means anything…Unless it’s a wolf?”

Dagna just blinks wide eyed up at her.

“I think it came from Solas, or whatever he wants to call himself,” she finally hands the parchment over so Dagna can examine it.

“Good guess, but I think the symbol is just a coincidence, it seems to relate to the ability to draw magic from the Fade, weak magic, but still magic, joining and movement magic…” muses Dagna already starting to wander off with the goods in hand.

“So, I can leave it with you to figure out? Maybe bring by some tea and cookies later?” Annabel calls out and receives a distracted ‘ah huh’ as the dwarf meanders to her work table.

 -

 

“How is that possible?” Cullen’s golden irises narrow and he stares down Dagna with scrutiny. Not because he doesn’t trust her, but because he doesn’t understand any of it. He’d considered himself to have a fairly good handle on how mana worked but this was beyond confusing.

“It’s not the same as how a mage works with magic, not really,” Dagna bumbles, spreading out a large complex diagram on the war table. “But I spoke with Dorian and wrote to Vivienne, both agree, it is possible for a non-mage, using this enhancement to use a very basic, low level, of magic…Although,” she pauses eyes darting between the party gathered around the war table. She appears to shift on the spot and the tenseness in the room increases tenfold. “For it to work it requires an input of magic…Blood magic to be precise…”

“What!?” His posture and brows shot upright with his hand instinctively coiling around his sword hilt. He’s never heard such a ridiculousness notion! They very idea of the Inquisition practising blood magic is beyond unthinkable. Its madness!

“I know, I know,” Dagana holds out her hands trying to calm the clamour. “It would require just a drop or so from Annabel herself, to link the enchantment to her and-“

“Bind it to her you mean!” Cullen growls, his eyes bearing into her with the same sternness that sent young recruits scurrying, even the mabari at his side, head proped up on the table produces a low menacing growl.

“Cullen!” Annabel snaps, forcing his piercing stare from the rather sheepish Dagana to her. “Will you let her speak, please!” There is a strain to her voice which seeped through under its sharpness, a strain that spoke of weariness and reluctantly he crosses his arms over his chest.

He will not let it go. Not the easily. He has seen first hand the results of blood magic and he will not have the Inquisitor, his wife, exposed to such dangers. "I refuse to believe this is safe,” he states simply, his tone considerably more reasonable.

“Actually Commander, it seems to be,” confirms Leliana with a brisk nod, allowing Dagana more time to compose herself. “All our sources suggest the level of magic is so weak that nothing, untoward should happen.”

“Like ripping holes in the veil?” Annabel quips.

 “Or attracting the attention of demons?” murmurs Cullen his voice low and considerably more serious, his fingers absentmindedly clenching tighter around his sword.

“Look,” Dagna points to the odd algebra. “See even a child mage, before they show they possess magic, have stronger mana than this, its harmless!”

“Harmless?” snorts Varric. “Blood magic is never harmless. Next you’ll be saying she needs to lick red lyrium or some nonsense.”

“My concern is not the magic itself but where this knowledge comes from,” adds Leliana, leant over the drawings with her narrowed eyes studying them. “Solas’s power as a mage is far beyond anything we have ever known, who’s to say he does not somehow use this against us? Use it track you Inquisitor, or worse bind you to him? We must be certain this is not possible before we proceed, no?”

“Whatever Solas has done,” states Annabel. “He still helped us, risked his life, and I still consider him a friend. And will do, right up until the last moment when he tries to tear the veil down, and if it comes to that, I will cut him down myself. He’s already betrayed us, me, and he seemed genuinely remorseful at the cross roads… I don’t think he’d do it again, not now he’s exposed his agenda,” Annabel rolls the gem stone in her palm. Its polished smooth and warm to the touch from handling, the green glow it generates in the varying shafts of sunlight somehow seems to visibly soothe her.

“So, you where this in your gloves, your fake hand, and what it lets you use it? As if it was a hand? Solas is literally lending you a hand?” Varric asks doubtfully.

“In theory, yes…how well it will work, I can’t say,” Dagna’s voice is almost meek with the admission. “It should connect your thoughts back to your hand and allow you to move it, feel it once more, or memories of feelings at least. You should be able to pick this up, use your fingers, maybe even retrain it to fight.”

“Let me get this straight,” Varric leans over the complex papers to meet Dagna’s eye. “You propose we use unknown blood magic, on a gem from an untrustworthy source, to perform a complex, never before done ritual on our Inquisitor?” The room falls silent in wake of the question, all eyes resting on the enchanter.

Ultimately Dagana nods. “Yes, Dorian is already on route, and this really could work! Inquisitor, we can give you your hand back! Ok, not your hand, but close!”

Annabel looks solemnly down at her artificial hand, the gauntlet resting askew against the table, and Cullen senses she’s at least giving the proposal the gravity of thought it deserved.

“Gone, forever gone, like so much else, gone but not forgotten,” Cole’s light voice covers over the heavy silence as he appears by the table and begins to pace, hat flopping as he walks tightly back and forth. “I can still move them, can see them, they’re there, they should be there,” he continues, his voice growing increasingly frantic to match his pace. “Why won’t they work? I need them! I need it!” he growls spinning back to face the eyes all staring at him. “She doesn’t want to forget… but the memories hurt her, shame, regret... proud and stubborn, it twists and claws inside her, darkness and-“

“That’s enough Cole,” Annabel interjects, her voice fairly calm but stern.

“Yes, stop, it needs to stop,” Cole swivels to Dagna. “You can make it stop!”

“Err… I…” wide eyed Dagna glances round the table.

“It’s ok kid,” Varric pats Cole’s shoulder and gives it a reassuring squeeze to settle the spirit.

The mismatch of words from Cole hit Cullen hard. Annabel had opened up to him, but still, hearing the spirit speak her feelings with such empathy and distress makes him realise the anguish she feels now is the same as the first day she'd lost her hand. Despite his, and everyone’s best efforts, their Inquisitor, his love, his wife, was still grieving,  and nothing he'd done has helped. The thought strikes pain right through his core.

Stirring he rests a hand on her arm. He'd seen how terribly she’s been affected by the loss, not just physically, but emotionally. He’d watched her struggle through day by day with an air of melancholy about her. What made this all the more unbearable was the knowledge that it wasn’t her, not the real her. She was bright, bubbly, bursting with energy, love and passion… but now a dark shadow seemed to loom over it all, turning her cheery disposition grey. Stealing away the light he knew burned in her centre, a light that had drove away his own darkness, bringing light to the blackest parts of him. No matter how hard he tried however he can't seem to lift her from the bleak place she’s fallen into.

This plan is dangerous, that much is plain to see, and he would never condone the use of blood magic, it went against his core principles and she knew it. Everyone did, but what everyone might not know, is that his heart is heavy from watching her suffer. Watching her flame, once so bright, be doused to something so weak that at times he fears it may go out altogether. A fear that keeps him up at night, that brings back nightmares he's not suffered in years, as he slowly watched her fade away.

He has no doubt her own stubbornness has made the adjustment to being one handed more difficult. She had finally accepted his help with dressing and tying her hair, although still only ate foods which did not require a knife and fork, and no amount of coaxing could convince her otherwise. The mention of him cutting her food had received a glare so ferocious sweat had beaded down his back at the time.

She’d also taken to spending a lot of time with the spirit boy. He seemed able to distract her with small fluffy animals on occasion enough to bring out a genuine smile. A smile which had once been worn in abundance but now seemed as rare as summer’s snow.

Small tender smiles, ones of love, devotion, and gratitude were still traded with him, but he misses the big beaming grins, the erratic giggles, the playful sparkle of her eyes, all of which had become somehow so much duller.

Finally, he knows what he must do, he rests his eyes, offering a silent prayer that the Maker will forgive him. When they open again their amber pools are dark and set in determination. “Whatever decision you make,” he states, squeezing her arm. “I will support it.”

Her head swivels up to him, eyes widened. “But Cullen, it’s blood magic! What if-“

“No, Annabel,” he takes her hand in his making sure their eyes lock. “How I feel about blood magic is irrelevant, you deserve to be happy. I…” his eyes glance nervously round the table, the other advisors all dutifully pretend to look away in an attempt to afford them some privacy. Even still he lowers his tone. “You supported me, in spite of the risks, it’s time for me to the same. Provided that is what you wish?”

She gives a tiny nod up at him, her eyes full to near bursting, the shimmer of unshed tears glimmer as her lower lip quakes.

“It’s alright.” The words have barely left his mouth when her arms lift to wrap around his neck in a crushing hug followed by a muffled sob into his mantle.

 -

 

“Can it go on the record that I said this was a really bad idea?” said Varric, readying Bianca.

“Is that really necessary?” asks Dorian his gaze flicking to the cross bow.

“Hey, when demons start popping out that crystal, you’ll be glad she’s here,” he pats her as the mage rolls his eyes.

“For the hundredth time, it’s not dangerous, I-“

“Is that why it needed you to come all the way from Tevinter, yeah?” Sera’s bow is drawn, she’s perched on the undercroft stair case with the arrow pointed firmly at Annabel.

“You would shot the Inquisitor!?” Josie gasps from her position safely behind the elf.

“She goes all greened eyed and glowly? Your damn right I’ll shot ‘er.”

“Good to know,” Annabel murmurs sarcastically, although it does in fact give her a small piece of comfort. She’s certain if something awful was to happen, if a demon somehow joined with her, there was no way Cullen would be able to cut her down. The fact he remained by her side, sword sheaved, confirmed it.

“Can we get on with this now, please?” she grumbles, holding out her leather gauntleted artificial hand, the gem sown into the palm, for Dagna’s inspection.

The dwarf nods. “All right, your Worship, the crystals ready,” she steps back and Dorian takes her place, a swirl of smoking green air emanating from his hand.

Tension fills the lofty space, Annabel’s heart clenches in her chest, her body turning ridged. This was it. She’d either have some resemblance of a hand, or make a huge mistake. She knows which her luck usually favours and tries to swallow the hard lump in her throat.

Whilst most ready for battle or take a precautionary step back, Cullen actually moves closer, as close as possible without touching. Her eyes flick to the side at him. His face is drawn in a light scowl, what she calls his ‘serious face’ and her lips crack a small hopeful smile at him. “It’s alright,” she states softly as the magic begins to circle and eddy around her glove.

He gives a stiff but gentle nod, pupils wide, his eyes betraying the fear his face is desperately trying to hide behind the mask of Commander. A mask she’d seen through since day one. She locks eyes with him. If this was to be the end, then she wants the contrasting beauty between clear sky blue and rich honeyed gold to be their lasting memory of the other, not the blood ritual that goes on around them or what it may result in.

Blood begins to well on Annabel’s pricked finger, she’d barely noticed the nick, allowing Dorian to do what he needs to, trusting him implicitly, while her and Cullen hold each other, safe in their gaze.

Squeezing her finger over the gemstone, the hot crimson liquid drips fat droplets onto the gem. It comes to life in an instant, starting to glow a dull green as the blood splatters and trickles over its surface.

Another drop and a pulse of humming energy spreads through Annabel, from her artificial hand up her shoulder then down her spine, every nerve firing and jolting to life. It wasn’t pain, not really, not like when the anchor had flared near the end, it was more like a buzz, unsettling and unpleasant, something foreign and impossible to describe.

Her gaze with Cullen finally breaks, eyes closing as another drip flashes the gem, lighting the room as the anchor once had, only this time it does hurt.

Pain screams suddenly up her arm and through her chest. Her good hand clamps down on her palm, the source of the blinding, shearing pain which shots through her body stinging every nerve in its path. Her knees give way, tears flowing as she crumples to the ground with cry of pain ripping from her core. It's a terrified and garbled noise, half scream, half sob and fills the cavernous space to echo off damp walls. 

Doubling over the shearing pain sets her veins on fire as she claws her wrist, unable to see, to think, to hear anything around her, only the over riding scream of her hand, burning from the inside out. Relentless, her body sets on fire, temperature soaring and sweat pouring as her heart pounds, spreading the pain through her with every agonising beat.

“What’s happening!” Cullen’s shout cuts through the air and Dorian appears to have no answer.

“An echo, a memory, never forgotten, burned into blood and bone,” Cole’s voice is almost hypnotic over Annabel’s pitiful whimpers. "It will pass."

She can vaguely hear Cole but can’t register what he says, more sense his presence, something calm lingering on the edge of something raw. Her jaw is locks tight, teeth gritted, and her warrior's resolve tries to push her back to her feet. When downed you had to get up. She has to get up. Every part of her mind not drenched in pain drowns her with that single thought. A lifetime of training lifts her up on shaky legs with help from who she only assume is Cullen.

Tears run freely down her face as she pants, her lips pull back, snarling at the dulling pain in her artificial hand, and she curls her fingers into fists against it. Bloody anchor!

It felt as it had when it had finally broken down, seeping pure magic to burn and poison her veins. Distraught she snuffles and blinks the tears away as best she can. Her attention darts to Cullen, expecting to find a look of anguish, or sympathy… only to see him wide eyed and smiling. Staring at her hand and genuinely smiling.

Swiftly she looks to it, cracking it open to reveal the crystal in her palm and realising through the slow crackle of dying pain…she should not be able to do that. She had not been able to do that. Her lips pull back in a smile as she twists her wrist freely, examining the gauntlet from every angle and she barks a laugh when she tries to wiggle her fingers and they actually respond!

The movements are stiff, a little slow and clunky but it works, she didn’t know how or why, but it works! There was not a demon in sight and she certainly felt no different, the pain and old familiar hum of the anchor are both gone. She’s complete once more, or that’s certainly how it feels and blissful relief erupts in her.

Swivelling she grabs Dorian by the collar and plants a massive kiss on his cheek before spinning back to her husband and jumping into him. He catches her leap, spinning her on the spot, both with broken barks of disbelieving laughter as he settles and places her feet back on the ground to rest his forehead against hers.

Everyone has rushed over, keen to examine the artificial limb which has come to life. Even Sera lowers her bow and pushes her way to the front of the crowd. Wearing a glare she snatched the gloved hand and scrutinises the blood magic stone. It certainly didn't look evil, it’s simply a peridot green, shiny and clear. Seemingly satisfied she drops the hand and instead hugs her friend tightly.

“I believe this calls for a celebration! A feast tonight, for everyone!” Josephine’s excited tone captures the mood of the entire gathering who all clamour in agreement.

 -

 

“Cullen, what’s going on?” Annabel follows his echoing footsteps down to grand halls under chamber, cloaked in shadow despite the late afternoon sun outside. The hall itself is a buzz of activity as Josephine busies herself with preparations for the feast and Annabel had been quite content to share a quiet drink with her husband before everything got loud again.

Looking over his shoulder, she spies a small smirk on his lips and distinct boyish charm in his eyes. “You’ll see.”

Intrigued she picks up the pace and stepping into the torch light she grunts in surprise as a shield is shoved into her new hand.

“You’ve been making excuses for weeks,” he murmurs picking up a blunt training sword and holding it out to her. “I know why. You feared your artificial hand would hinder you. But now. No more excuses,” his voice is serious and brows are narrow, but his eyes betray something playful in their glint.

Taking the sword, she twirls and spins it with fluid grace acquired over almost twenty years of practice. He was right, she hadn’t held a weapon since losing her hand, and it had been out of pure fear. It was not something she was proud of, the Inquisitor, Herald of Andrstrate, scared to death of her own weapons. Weapons which had once felt like an extension of her… ones which had been taken along with her hand.

She can’t deny the delight she feels at having a blade back in her hand, even if it is dull and dented to bits. Maybe they should invest in new training equipment? She ponders on this and he taps her shield with his training blade and startles her, feeling the vibration run up her artificial hand and arm.

 A smile lights up her face, and she tiptoes up to kiss him, but he pulls back.

“I don’t make a habit of fraternising with my recruits,” he states, avoiding her gaze, he steps away and swings his blade lazily.

Her smile grows to enormous grin. So, he wants to play Commander and recruit, does he? Forcing the smile down she drops her voice to something meek. “Of course not, Sire,” she curls her leather gauntlet fingers tightly round the hold of the shield. It feels different, heavier, despite only being made of wood and being half the size of her griffon one.

Cullen catches the beam of her smile and feels a giant weight lift from his chest. That is the Annabel he knew. Only a tiny smile gives away his joy and he continues to study her trying to adjust to the new shield. The smile she wore quickly faded to another well-known expression of hers, one of petulant frustration.

Maker’s breath, she hadn’t really expected to be given a shield and have it feel the same after all that had happened, had she? Clearly, it seems she had and his heart sinks a little at that, but the determined crease in her brow tells him she’s not about to give up. Stubborn as ever. She’s back.

“Remember,” he barks, her great blue eyes flicking up to him, making it all the more difficult to stay in character. “It will feel heavy, clumsy, you’ll make mistakes that you haven’t made in years, but that’s what makes your arm stronger.”

It was no accident he’d dragged her under here, away from prying eyes. She may have expected to perform as a skilled warrior, he however had suspected it would take a great deal of time to retrain her body, even with whatever magic was helping. There is no way she would have taken failing in front of others well, and being the Inquisitor always drew a crowd to the training ring. A fact he’d not forgotten after their first spar their together.

“It’s just me and you,” he adds finally, the facade of Commander dropping completely for a moment as he meets her eye.

She nods, he can swear there are tears shimmering in her eyes again but she smacks her blade against the shield with a resounding crack. Nothing wrong with her blade arm it seemed, he’d have to watch that, he’s no desire to wind up on his back again. Not in that way anyway.

Mimicking the gesture, he sets a firm expression in place, every sense firing and focusing. Within seconds he performs a basic lunge which she easily swipes away with her blade. The next swipe is met with the clang of her sword, as is the next and the next, followed by her trading a few of her own. Reluctant to use her shield. Holding it back. Keeping it in reserve every time, defying the whole purpose of the exercise!

A snarl slips from him as he sweeps and arches his blade to side. His shield up to block any parley she may try. There’s a solid crack as his blade hits her shield and she staggers behind the force of it. She’s hidden out of sight but he hears her growl in reply as his own breath grows to steady pants, fueling his lungs, his blood as it rushes through.

She smacks his blade away with her round shield and the snarl he wears curls slightly. That’s better! She lashes out and he side steps a brutal slash, metal ringing as he catches the next strike just before it hits his shield. Blades locked and panting hard they lock eyes, both dark in the torch light, in the pooling of battle lust, both chasing the thrill of the fight, both completely primal and wildly focused.

He delivers another slash and her shield rises up to take the blow but she falters under it. A panic flushes him as she falls to one knee and guilt spreads fast through him. He’s pushed too fast too soon, forgetting in the heat of the moment her disadvantage, so used to her meeting him almost like for like and fooled by the flare of the fighter in her eyes.

“Annabel! Are you-“ his concern is swept away as she rolls in a fluid blur, her blade coming to rest at the back of his knees in a move that would have downed any opponent.

Eyes still wide he looks down to find her panting hard, her shield resting on the stones, her new hand visibly trembling. An apology sits on his lips but as looks up to him, her eyes are still blazing. Filled with ancient fire he’d grown to cherish, she gave every fight her all and it’s probably what’s kept her alive all this time. He’d feared for her, watched the fire dull to vacant embers these past few months, but now it’s back. Smouldering passion in its full unabashed glory, and Maker’s breath, it’s glorious.

Rising to her feet she tosses loose hair, damp from sweat, to the side then with a stubborn grunt hefts up her shield. Settling into a fighter’s stance easily she scowls him and begins bashing her sword against her shield once more in blatant challenge.

But that isn’t the challenge he’s interested in.

Slinging his weapons to one side he rushes her, both hands cupping her jaw and drawing her up into a heavy kiss. He hears her weapons clang, feels her push back into him, her tongue finding his as they melt into each other’s steaming embrace.

It’s only moments before her hands, both her hands, are roaming through his hair then dragging down his jaw. They part, both sharing ragged breaths, as her new thumb strokes over his cheek. Taking her hand in both his, he places a reverent kiss against her knuckles. It may never be quite the same, it will never be her skin on his, but Maker preserve him, the expression of pure awestruck beauty she wears is almost enough to make him cry.

He never thought he’d be grateful for blood magic or owe it his thanks, and yet as her fingers curl around his, he feels as though he ought to sing praise to it. Those tiny drops of blood have brought so much of her back to him.

“Thank you, Cullen, I…”

He shakes his head in reply. “There’s no need,” his own gloved thumb sets about wiping away the tear that’s slipped almost unnoticed down her cheek.

Jumping up her arms wrap round his mantle and he pulls her close, holding her as she buries into the crook of his neck. “I love you,” she whispers, its a hot breath against his skin, her lips pressed there while her nose nuzzles in the way he cherishes so much.

Resting his own nose against her hair, a tiny smile tugs his lips, drinking in her heavenly scent, contented his weary eyes finally rest as he holds her. “I love you too.”

 

Chapter Text

There were often whispers that the Inquisitor and her Commander had little in common, but as they huddle together all weathers above deck, skin pale and clammy, they seem to at least share one thing - neither have sea legs.

His ability to remain in the hold only lasted a few hours. The roof was simply too close, the walls pressing in, the heat stifling, their was no air, cramped and confined, there was too much pressure and it dragged up ancient thoughts and images he wished to forget. The looming weight above and around had threatened to crush the air out of his lungs while making his heart hammer in his chest. He knew he couldn’t stay down there, not without falling apart and turning into a nervous wreck, and he’s not about to let that happen.

Now two days in and neither him nor Annabel has ventured below since. She’s barely finished being sick when he joins suit suddenly retching over the side. She grimaces at the noise and takes a precautionary step away from her husband, holding the fur of his mantle cloak up against her neck as sheets of rain continue to fall. She’d been dreading this journey, memories of a week of laid in a cot, sick as a dog from over two years ago still feel all to recent, and this time she genuinely feels like death walking.

Her mind is slow, groggy from lack of sleep and there is a niggling headache in her temple that just won’t shift, but that pales in comparison to her stomach, which churns with the waves, just as violent and angry as them. Leaning against the rail she rocks with the roll of the deck, still trying to determine if facing a different direction to the onslaught is helping or just making things worse.

Despite the bitter wind and driving rain that soaked her through she’s unnaturally hot, and wipes the hair from her face where it keeps clinging from either rain, spray or sweat. Moaning she clutches her stomach as bubbles fizz, she doesn’t care if her brother is Bann of Ostwick, next time he wants to meet he can cross the bloody sea himself!

The boat lurches on another wave, the Waking Sea proving true to its name and she’s flung forward than back into the railing, sending her heart pounding as she scrabbles for a steady hold. Her trembling hand wraps around the salt soaked wood and her nails dig in, the enchanted artificial hand able to do little but meekly curl its fingers over the edge. She’s still getting used to it and some days finds the connection to her body more difficult to feel than others, especially when distracted for example by being tossed like a rag doll by violent waves.

She’s about to praise the Maker for a brief lull when another wave rolls through and sends Cullen crashing into her side. With a yelp they’re sent sprawling on the slippery deck, both cursing and trying to find their bearings in a place that simply won’t remain stationary.

Back on his feet, at last, Cullen extends his hand and helps steady her, only for her to lose her balance once more, the deck shifting and throwing her into his chest. Staggering, he topples and he finds himself flat out on the floor... Annabel somehow straddling his hips and his head flops back against the deck. Why are they even bothering trying to stand? He’s beyond weary and can’t lie, despite the hundred discomforts of being pinned like this, he is at least relieved to be laying down.

Rain and salt stings at his eyes as he rubs them with a groan into his hand. The ocean is relentless. In constant motion, how anyone could survive the continuous dips and lurches is beyond him. Daring to open red streaked eyes once more he looks to his wife, sat on his lap, lent over, pale and distant as water dribbles off her face. His hand instinctively travels to her thigh and squeezes in reassurance which seems to bring her blinking back to him with a soft smile in a vain attempt to show she was fine.

“Curly – I’m not sure this is the time or place!” Varric’s shout is just audible over driving rain and pounding sea and catches their attention. Huddled under a cloak in the doorway to the main cabins he too wobbles on his feet. They’re all heading to Kirkwall where the ship will dock before setting off up the Free Marches to end in Ostwick, Annabel’s family eagerly waiting to inspect their newest member, but they have to survive the journey first. “You should both come inside before you’re swept out to sea! How do you suppose I explain that to Cassandra?”

Annabel’s hand is curled in the soaked fabric of Cullen’s cloak, trying to anchor herself, her skin and lips far paler than usual as she rocks. Whilst he loves her dearly, especially draped over his groin, he has no desire to be the victim of her upset stomach…again. “Go with Varric,” his voice strains over the wind. Loose strands of her hair have turned black where they’re plastered to her face, her once sky blue eyes now match the sea, dark and heavy. She shakes her head giving the appearance of being drunk, overly leaning to one side or the other to combat the movement of the ship.

“No,” her grip tightens slightly on the mantle and her eyes lift up to lock on his, rivers of water stream down her face and pour off her nose as she shakes her head firmly. It's enough to make him growl at her damn stubbornness, are all Trevelyan’s like this? He supposed he’s about to find out, but the thought is terrifying and best saved for later. Before he can argue with her, Varric is there helping her up so that with a grunt he can climb to his own feet. The dwarf begins to usher her away and in her state she follows for a moment, that is until she seemingly notices he isn’t coming along and halts.

“Just because I’m out here, doesn’t mean you have to be,” he urges. He wants her safe and warm, especially after all she’s been through recently, her body is still healing. He can already tell though that’s not going to happen and knows his heartfelt statement has fallen on deaf ears.

“At least use the shelter for Andraste’s sake! Even the dog figured that out!” Varric points to a flimsy wooden structure which looks no drier than the rest of the deck and is almost completely filled by the hunched form of the mabari, looking as miserable as they felt.

“What do you think we’ve been trying to do!” Annabel’s complaint is sharp and bitter. They had tried and failed several times to make it to the shelter, one of them slipping, usually her and dragging him down with her. Varric clearly hits a nerve, she’s seemingly in as good as mood as he is, and despite this he finds that her flare and knotted brows make him smile faintly. Always defiant and brazen…it’s no wonder she made such a fine Inquisitor.

“Hey, don’t get your soggy panties in a twist! I just came to check up on you two love birds,” said Varric with his hands held up at her and a shake of his head.

“I’m sorry,” her head drops at the apology and Cullen spies his chance to pounce.

“Please, go inside…I’ll be fine. Ferelden’s are born in this,” he motions the blackened midday sky above pouring with rain slanted by high winds.

“How many times? No! I’m not leaving you out here alone, would you leave me?” Her arms fold across her chest as she rocks but fire blazes in her eyes as they glare up at him. She has a point, he would not leave her to face such elements alone, although he is steadier on his feet, can swim and seems to only be sick following on from her. In reality her presence is more of a hindrance than a help, making him worry endlessly, especially given how her new disability, but how can he say that? After all she’s been through, all they’ve been through, to call her a liability when she only wants to help? He can’t. He can’t even find it in his heart to truly believe that, not knowing the degree of comfort her hand on his brought, or the moments of peace he gained when she caressed curls from his face. He sighs heavily.

“Varric,” he turns to his friend, eyes warm with gratitude that he’d faced the ocean for them. “As the lady won’t be joining you, could you have some of that hot tea brought out? The one that helps with sickness? When the Maker decides he’s done hurling us around that is.”

Annabel crinkles her nose. “That stuff’s disgusting it tastes like nug cra-“

“Make sure there’s enough for two,” he cuts across, his eyes settling on hers with stern authority that lets her know it’s non-negotiable. If she insisted on being out here the least she could do was indulge him in this little attempt at comfort. She huffs and he takes this as her defeat and nods in thanks to Varric.

“Ok, whatever you say Curly, I’ll be inside, where it’s dry and almost comfy.”

When the weather settles to a drizzle Varric ventures out once more to bring the tea himself, plus a special blanket, enchanted by a storm mage who said it should resist water. The newlyweds were no longer clinging onto the sides but seems to have finally made it to the porch shelter. He finds Cullen wedged in one corner with Annabel tucked up in his lap and the mabari’s head resting on her legs. The hound’s eyes open and gaze up at him, despite Varric being certain he’s not made a sound, and its stump of a tail gives a half-hearted wag. 

With a light smile Varric’s attention travels to Annabel, curled up under that old bear cloak, eyes closed, lips pouting as she rests against Cullen’s chest. Now the Commander’s nick name truly does suit him, with abundant loose curls hanging limp and sodden as he too sleeps, mouth half open.

Shaking his head he casts the pair of them a crooked smile. They look more like drowned castaways then love’s young dream but he can’t help but feel a tiny pang of jealousy for what they share. They truly seemed as one when together, it sounded like something cheesy out of one of his novels, and it would be a lie to say their romance hadn’t sparked an idea or two. Of course, it would have to be published before Curly got wind of it, but that would be easy enough now they were soon to head their separate ways.

It would also be a lie to say he wouldn’t miss them having provided more than their fair share of comedic and heart-warming moments over the past few years. Draping the blanket over them and doing his best to tuck it in and include the dog, he still recalls being sat in a corner of the tavern in Haven with Cullen. Both several pints of ale in, Curly asked if he thought Annabel might ‘like him’.

Never had the man seemed more a chantry boy than in that moment. When he’d burst out laughing and told him that he was a blind fool for even needing to ask, and the blush that had crept across the man’s face, a face he was used to seeing set in a serious scowl, was miles from the templar he recalled meeting in Kirkwall. And the man resting here now was unrecognisable as the Knight Captain he’d once known. The removal of lyrium has surely played a part, breaking his leash, but he has also softened, lightened, and Varric can’t help but wonder how much of that had been down to the Inquisitor. “Look after ‘em for me boy, alright?” he pats Prince’s head who gives a whine in reply before he heads back inside.

The stench is what hits him first. Rotten fish and human waste, otherwise known as the distinctly delightfully aroma of Kirkwall’s dock side. Cullen’s nose wrinkles briefly in distaste, attention focused on the men readying the ship for unloading then drifting up to the grotesque statues that welcome him now as they had all those years ago. Somehow an old worn sense of foreboding creeps in as he studies their detail like never before, Maker they are hideous.

“Please tell me, you get used to the smell…”

His lips twitch in a smile at Annabel’s comment and propped on the railing he offers her a sideways glance. “You do. Besides it’s not so bad in the gallows. I thought I might pop in, see how things are,” his attention is drawn back to the dock and towards two templars in full armour as they patrol. He still remembers all the routes, all the nasty back alleys, all the criminal hide outs. The sight of darkening blood, the crackle of lyrium, the acrid tang of mage fire, all this and so more forever etched into his mind. Endless nights spent patrolling because even the mere thought of sleep was a prospect to daunting to face. That darkness, the bleak, hopeless nightmare of his time here tries to drag him back…Calling to him with the promise of familiarity, siren like, promising refuge with its emptiness. The very thought makes him feel sick to the pit of his stomach even though the pound of the waves has long past.

“Long as it smells better than here it gets my vote,” she quips. He hardly notices the attempt at humour, still watching as the templars disappear into the crowd. He wonders if he’ll even recognise any of them, if the conditions have improved, but most of all, if walking those corridors will bring back too many memories of his former self. Memories of a time when he was truly broken, filled with distrust and anger. A young man whose world was nothing but black and grey, order and discipline, committed beyond measure to his role, all to mask emotion, pain. A man driven by fear and the burning desire to do what was right, even though it had often felt wrong. A man he’s deeply ashamed of.

A hand rests on his arm and squeezes to draw him back from dark corridors. “We don’t have to go there, Varric has offered to buy drinks at the Hanged Man. I thought we could walk some of those coastal routes I’ve heard about? Just enjoy, the beautiful surroundings… Also, for later on tonight I hear the blooming rose is rather cosy.”

Now he does scoff a laugh, she always had a way of providing comfort, reassurance, distracting him from the pull of even the bleakest corners of his mind. He reaches his hand over to squeeze hers. “I can’t say I’d know, I always did my best to keep my eyes down and get out of there quickly as possible, if I ever had need to be in there in the first place,” he meets her gaze now and finds nothing but warmth in hers. He can’t help but think she’s far too beautiful for the likes of Kirkwall. Although he must admit she would probably enjoy the hustle and general debauchery of the place it didn’t mean she belonged there. He feels the wedding band under his palm and realises then, it’s not where he belongs either, not anymore. “I’ll be fine,” he nods and places a peck against her lips. “It’s only a short visit, and whilst I made few friends, I did still make one or two who I would like to see again.”

“Plus, you get to show off your new wife,” she smiles broadly and flutters her lashes, clearly feeling much more like herself now the harbour shelters them. “And brag about saving the whole of Thedas of course. And leading the largest army in all of Ferelden. And banging the Herald of Andraste, although they probably figured that out from the first one.”

Chuckling he swiftly moves round to grab her in a bear hug, letting his troubles blow away on the ocean breeze as he envelopes her, letting the scent of her fill his lungs over all else... this is meant to be their honeymoon after all. “Would I do a thing like that?”

She giggles wildly and nods her head.

“Hmmm…And just how did you figure out my ulterior motives for this visit, my dear Inquisitor?” Playfully he squeezes her tight with the interrogation making her squeal and laugh while the mabari begins to bounce around their feet. Pressing his lips against her ear he whispers. “I shall have to find a way to make you confess your cunning wiles tonight…”

There is a throat clearing cough from behind and he lurches back, all but dropping Annabel like a hot coal. Grunting disapprovingly he promptly helps right her before turning to Varric, who has clearly been waiting a while judging by the hand on his hip.

“You two love birds done yet? I would come back later but that smell says this is my stop.”

Smoothing down her cloak Annabel shots her husband a glare then smiles to the dwarf. “Now, now Varric, you don’t smell that awful.”

His arms fold across his broad chest. “Shall I assume you’ll be buying the drinks later?”

She sighs, her gaze shifting down cast at the mock scrutiny of his hurt feelings, and nods.

“Good. Oh, and here,” he presents a key on a long chain to Cullen which she presses in to examine quizzically. “It’s to Hawke’s estate, it’s empty with Isabella out to sea and Hawke…well who knows where Hawke is…but she said you can use it. Might be more fitting than a room at the Hanged Man or the gallows.”

“That’s very kind, but I’m not sure-“

“Hush Curly, she said it’s fine so it’s fine, now just take the damn key and enjoy it.”

With a slightly bemused blink Cullen finally accepts the hospitality with a nod of thanks before the pair begin to follow Varric down onto Kirkwall’s city streets.

 

“So this is the infamous Kirkwall circle huh? I thought it would be bigger, more…grand?” Annabel’s question is met with the turn of several nearby Templar heads and glares as they make their way to the Knight Captain’s office.

Cullen offers them polite smiles and shuffles her along as the men return to their mumbled conversation. He didn’t recognise them, not surprising really, given the numbers who’d died in the chaos, but taking steps so familiar he could transverse them with his eyes closed and yet not know the men on guard is rather surreal.

“Yes, and the Knight Captain is an old friend, so please try to not insult his home, my love,” still walking albeit a little brisker they pass guardsmen who issue them a nod of respect.

“What do you take me for!?” she retorts sharply pulling up short with a firm frown.

A few mages mill in the open corridor, some he does remember, and all stop speaking to stare in poorly concealed curiosity. They’re clearly given more freedoms than in his time, which can only be a step in the right direction he’s sure, but now means they bear witness to their former Knight Captain being cut down to size by the feisty woman at his side. “You know what I mean,” he retorts briskly, keeping his military composure and walking off to round the next corner. He’s surprised to find the Knight Captain’s office open, armoured figure hunched over the desk shuffling through papers the same way he does, clearing his throat Cullen makes a point of knocking on the door.

“Commander!” The tone is bright and cheerful, the word rolling from the Knight Captain’s lips with warmth as he straightens up to move round the desk. Knight Captain Alexander, with amber eyes set against sun kissed skin and dark hair made for a man many ladies considered attractive. Or so Cullen assumed based on the number of ‘visits’ he’d had to cover for over their times on duty together. It was never really an imposition, Alex had proven to be a good listener, a former Lord, yet compassionate and easy to speak to, someone who over a few ales could have you spilling your life story, which is just what Alex had done to him all those years ago. And Maker he had needed it.

“Knight Captain Alexander,” he replies with a smile crinkling the corner of his eyes, holding out his hand for a strong shake with the fellow warrior. “It’s been too long.”

“Far too long… Ah, and I see you’ve brought your lovely wife, Lady Annabel,” Alex’s eyes briefly flick to her. A smirk tugs at his lips as he takes her false hand then dips to bow and place a kiss against her knuckles.  “Again, my lady, it has been far too long.”

A coy smile tugs at her lips as she drops her head in a bow. “Indeed, Alex.”

Frowning Cullen does a double take, eyes darting back and forth to study each of them carefully. There is something of mischief in her eyes which only makes his frown deepen. “You already know each other?”

She nods and wraps her arm through his to press lightly against his side. “Once upon a time, yes, he was my…commanding officer in Ostwick when I trained with the Templars there.”

“I must say you have done well for yourself Commander, I’ve had no finer trainee. I was not surprised to hear of either of your new titles. Inquisitor, I only hope some of the lessons I taught have fared you well?”

Annabel nods with a cheeky smile that brims over with pride leaving Cullen to feel awkwardly left out, until his friend’s focus returns to him. “Oh, why…yes...I suppose I have,” he isn’t quite sure what to make of the looks that pass between them but does feel a stirring of something primal…the urge to protect her maybe? A twinge of defence almost. Is he jealous? He shakes his head, dismissing the notion and feeling ridiculous. She’s a fine warrior, clearly beautiful and they would have known each other from the game long ago, that history is surely all that’s between them. Even still his arm clinches around hers a little tighter.

“How long are you planning on staying?” Alex’s voice is curious but non prying as he steps back to his desk, clearly a busy man.

“Just tonight, we set sail for Ostwick on tomorrow’s high tide, no offence to Kirkwall but it’s not my ideal holiday destination,” Annabel smiles as the Captain chuckles in the way all Ostwick nobility did when comparing the two city states.

“So just a flying visit then? Pity, but I can understand,” Alex leans on his desk casually. “In that case I must insist you join me for a drink this evening at the hanged man, when I’m off duty, so to speak. As you must be aware, you are still the talk of Thedas, it would be remiss of me to not hear some of your accounts first hand, besides true friends and charming company are hard to come by.” They are both already nodding in agreement before he’s even finished speaking.

 

Annabel decides it best to not drink too much, her stomach is still queasy and she just knows when the waves hit her in the morning she’ll deeply regret any ounce of alcohol in her blood. She’s perfectly content to be dry and warm, snagging her place by the hearth in the back room Varric had shut off for them with her husband by her side. When Alex joins he takes the seat opposite and as he smiles fondly he sparks an old kindling of feeling in her chest. Panic lurches through and clutches her stomach, maybe it had been such a good idea to see him after so long, after so much had happened between them… 

Most of her memories of her time with him are hazy...pockets of heated desire, both soaked in battle lust, hungry and wanton they had found release in the other. It had started to develop into something more though, gentle kisses and warm words, until it was shattered and he was stolen away, away and seemingly into Cullen’s path. Years may have passed, and she’s happily married, not able to wish for more than Cullen but she briefly wonders how different her life might had been if not for the interference of her father by sending him away, splitting whatever they had, apart. How different it would have been if not for the conclave, the Inquisition. Could she have joined the templars by Alex’s side? Could they have made a ‘real’ couple? Lasted the distance? Could she now be bound by the lyrium she’d watch almost destroy a man far stronger than her? What would have become of Cullen? It doesn’t really bare thinking about.

Alex proves to be everything she remembered and old memories flicker in the lapses of conversation, sparking whenever she catches his handsome wolfish smirk and the deep timbre of his tone. Charming did not begin to cover it, and it’s no wonder he has done so well for himself, charismatic gentlemen were a rare find in these times. Despite all this though she feels her heart lift whenever the rumble of Cullen’s chuckle fills the small space, whenever the corner of his eyes crinkle, whenever he looks to her with amber pools gleaming in the fire light. She’s beyond grateful to share in his jubilant mood and feels the stirring of guilt that she could even ponder on a life without him in it.

When Cullen and Varric venture to the bar she’s left to smile lovingly after her husband, dressed casually with his hair set in place once more, walking with relax confidence in his stride that she adored. She doesn’t have a single regret about stepping foot in that conclave.

“Small place, the Free Marches,” Varric comments as they wait to be serve and he tosses a look over his shoulder back to where Annabel is listening to the templar eagerly. “Even still, didn’t think it was that small, for you to be pals with your wife’s former lover, must feel kinda weird…”

Bemused Cullen frowns. “Former lover?” even as the question forms in his mouth he glances back, seeing them both laugh, the sound lost in the din of the crowd but the gesture clear as they both bellow. How has he been so blind? It’s obvious now, the looks that had passed between them, the little snippets of conversation, the smirks, everything all hits him at once like a sledge hammer and proves just how stupid he’s been not to see it. Maker’s breath, he’d been her ‘commanding’ officer...

“Ah, I thought you knew,” Varric’s comment brings him back.

“I…No. No, I did not.” Rubbing at his neck he returns his attention to the bar and the drink that’s sloshed before him to help fill the awkward silence that’s taken over the moment.

“That was a long a time ago Curly, I wouldn’t worry yourself about it, seems like ancient history. I must admit I’m a little shocked, I thought little minx told you everything?”

He nods, knowing deep down Varric is right, both Annabel and Alex are as loyal as they come, but the notion that they’d been intimate, that his old friend knew her, in that way, is deeply disconcerting. “I knew she had a former templar lover, yes, who she suspected her father had transferred…to Kirkwall… at around the same time Alex and two of his officers joined…” he shakes his head again, he’d make no spymaster that’s for sure, even without the man’s name he should have been able to piece it together. Their natures alone fit, and not for the first time he rubs at the wedding band, wondering why she’s chosen him. She’s told him of course, a million times in a million different ways, but he has never understood why someone so bright, so gregarious, so passionate would settle for him, someone so broken. Surely the charming former lord, with a smooth voice and winning smirk was better suited to a lady of her standing?

“Curly, she’s crazy about you, I mean she is crazy too, but that’s another story,” Varric’s heavy hand rests on his forearm, clearly his silence on the matter has spoken volumes. “It’s just one of those things... we all have a past.”

Blinking he straightens himself with a nod, Varric’s right, again, but he can’t help but study them in a different light as takes ale back the table. Annabel’s face lights up as he approaches, warming him in the same way it always did, for whatever reason she had chosen him, that much he’s never doubted.

Cullen is slightly more reserved at first, observing every action between Alexander and Annabel with scrutiny he can’t help and keeps his hand wrapped over hers. Soon however it’s perfectly clear there is no need for jealousy, the banter between the pair is light and full of mockery, just like she is with all her companions and Alex is always only a moment away from something clever or witty that makes him laugh. Chuckling he’s drawn back into the flow of conversation, sharing old tales and listening to Varric speak of Hawke’s many adventures, most of which he raises serious doubts over.

When Annabel’s head leans over to rest against his shoulder and he takes that as their queue to leave, besides after the journey they’ve shared he has no desire for a late-night drinking session. Perhaps he is old, as Varric suggests when the get up to leave, he certainly feels it, and the call of a mansion’s comforts is rather more alluring than it perhaps should be. Alex flashes him a winning smile, commenting that all the best things in life improve with age and bids them farewell warmly as they step out into the relative fresh air of Kirkwall’s night.

Wandering along old streets he’s surprised by how much they’ve changed in such a short time, and yet how much they’ve remained the same. The shops which have changed hands, homes extended, trees planted, all seemingly in an attempt to bolster the city after so much upheaval. It’s good to see it still thrives, that life goes on regardless of what hardships is thrown at it.   

Once in Hawke’s estate Annabel seems to flurry back into life and along with Prince scurries off to investigate every corner while he menders behind. Every so often he hears a bark of laughter and a ‘Cullen have you seen this?’; the result normally being some crude drawing or comment left by Isabel or Hawke. It’s a far cry from the hovel he remembers dragging Hawke’s sister from all those years ago…Maker that had been a difficult thing to do, but the right thing, the necessary thing, or so he’d always told himself. To let the mage continue to wander around unsupervised because of her sister’s fame was wrong, especially to all those brought to the circle because they had more modest families, although even with his wary eye he must admit Bethany had never once seemed like a danger.

He’s not certain Hawke has ever forgiven him for it, and he knows he has no right to expect as much. The fact that she’s willing to share her home with him however speaks highly of her integrity, something which had often come into question in his mind over the years.

Finally satisfied that every room had been explored, with the exception of Leandra’s, Annabel perches herself on the edge of the bed and throws off her shoes with a heavy sigh. Collapsing backwards into there is a giggle. “Oh, it’s soft and squidgy!”  

A smile cracks across his lips from his spot in the doorway, she must sense something off about the way stands, how he moves towards her, maybe more reserved than normal, or simply quiet, but either way she sits up after a moment  to pay him her full attention. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he gives a light smile and she shakes her head knowingly.

“You know I don’t believe your lies, so tell me, what’s wrong?”

Diverting his gaze downcast he decides he should say something, she’ll pester it out of him sooner or later anyway, one of her more annoying, yet useful habits. “I know,” he states bluntly as he sits himself on the edge of the bed, deliberately avoiding her eye contact and letting out a heavy sigh, feeling lighter already.

“You ‘know’?” She frowns and crawls to him. “Cullen, my love, you know a lot of things, you need to be more specific.”

Sighing again he summons the courage to meet her gaze. “I know about you and Alex…that you were…were…” he begins trying to motion with his hands but promptly gives up on that as a bad idea, not that his words are much more helpful.

“Oh! Oh, Cullen, no… that was a long time ago, there isn’t anything-“

“I know,” he cuts across squeezing her hand on his shoulder at the worried nature to her tone. “It was just strange, seeing you together, thinking of you together... I hadn’t realised…you never said the templar was Alexander…”

“Well no…I mean but you never asked. My first was Lord named Riley Blackwolf, and I fooled around with a few other Lords when I was young, if you want their names as well…Sorry…I...What I mean is, it was never a secret Cullen …I’m sorry. You never said who your friends in Kirkwall were, if you had mentioned him or asked…”

“I know,” he huffs a laugh with a dismissive shake of his head, that seems to be the only thing he’s capable of saying and it’s doing him no good at all. “I suppose…I just didn’t like to think of you, in that way…in that way with other men, I mean…”

A kiss is planted against his cheek and her arms wrap around his neck to nestle herself close. “Then stop thinking, my love.”

He huffs out a snort. “Stop thinking?” he retorts, she may as well ask him to stop breathing and she damn well knows it.

“Ah huh,” she sings, swinging her body round until she’s sat straddling his lap. Her fingers lightly scratch at the stubble of his jaw as she continues. “Cullen, what we have, it doesn’t compare, doesn’t come close to anything I’ve had before,” her fingertips toy with his hair, pulling loose a few curls to play with them delicately, something he would only ever allow her to do. “Because you don’t compare to anyone I’ve had before… I wish you could see what I see when I look at you,” her words fade with a kiss against his lips, she tastes of vanilla cakes and watered-down wine, so sweet, so soft and oh so inviting.

“So, we can sit here, and think about things we don’t like,” she murmurs against his mouth. “Or you can trust your wife. I knew it was different with you, from that first kiss, I knew it was right, that you were, are, right,” she offers him a warm smile, her nose nudging against his and any heaviness he’d felt, any worry, or care dissolves in the wake of her affection.

“Maker, I love you,” it’s a murmur, a prayer as he takes her lips against his.

“Hmmm…I love you too…” her words are broken by his fervent kiss. Her fingers curl in his hair as she lurches herself forward, pinning him under her with momentum and power all her own, accompanied with a giggle of delight that he falls in place against the bed so easily for her. Straddled across his lap Annabel paws at his shirt, plucking open several buttons on his shirt, her bottom lip tucked up under the nip of her teeth coyly.

To think he had almost bottled out of that kiss those years ago, had almost run, had almost let his fears, his doubts, ruin what’s become the most wonderful thing in his life. Running his hands up her thighs he holds onto her hips and smirks boyishly as he stirs to life under the subtle roll of her body.  “You know there is something that may help stop me thinking…”

She chuckles and leans over, letting her dark hair drape across his chest as her voice drops low for him. “Hmmm, no Commander, I don’t know…” Sneaky as ever her hand has slipped between them and rubs over his concealed erection, jerking him in pleasure and surprise. “Oh…you mean this?” She smiles wickedly as she pops open his trousers and traces her finger over his heated tip, cupping her hand around him then starting to stroking him wondrously slowly.

There is nothing he can do but grunt his approval. Her body had learnt to master his long ago and he has to use all his restraint to stop himself simply coming undone by her deft hand. Cracking open copper rich eyes, he catches sight of hers, full of almost equal pleasure and brimming over with mischief, no one has ever looked more exquisite. She’s stood by him through the hard times, through the sweats, the shakes, the screams in the night. She’s bore witness to his suffering under unrelenting strain, the dark stories of his past, the glimpses of his battered soul, and accepted it all. Opened up her arms and welcomed him in, smothering him with warmth, light, love. Why she’s chosen him doesn’t seem to matter so much anymore…

He’s regains his senses enough to pull her body flush against his, to devour her lips, her unique taste as he rolls them both over with ease that makes her laugh and nip at his scar. Although no longer bothered as such by her past he still feels the stirring urge to claim her…The primal drive he’d suppressed earlier, when the darkest corners of his mind had demanded he bend her over the table and bury himself to the hilt inside her. That he be her ‘commanding officer’ and make her scream his name as he pounded, turning her knuckles white with pleasure and filling her with his seed until it dribbled down her thighs. He knows it’s wrong, sinful even, but he doesn’t care as he swiftly tugs down her bottoms and pulls up her top to reveal luscious bosoms crowned with pert nipples begging for his mouth.

Annabel can’t help the shudder that runs through her at the heavy suck of lips against her sensitive flesh, calloused fingers rubbing her slowly along her folds and flushing her body to life with heat. He treats her with such reverence, as if she was something divine to be worshipped. She goes to speak, to urge him to fuck her senseless, but she can only hum in pleasure as his fingers delve inside, hips bucking into the cup of his palm as he pumps. Head back she moans as he moves, but when he blows cool air against her peak she squeaks, eyes shooting open at the mixture of sensations which only serves to make him chuckle darkly while wearing that deviant lop sided smirk of his.

Suddenly he shifts and she looks down to him, shirt half open showing the hint of muscles that contour his chest, she’s drawn to his hefty arms, sleeves rolled up to the elbow revealing the ripple of muscle and lines of scars as he pulls her smalls off in one yank. Molten gold eyes lift to meet hers under a nestle of wheaten curls and he smirks once more, the scar of his lip lifting in wolfish delight as she squirms for his attention.

“Hmmm…you’re still thinking far too much, my dear Commander,” she teases, dropping her splayed thighs even further for him, inviting and taunting him.

Chuckling he kisses her navel. “And you are still talking far too much, my dear Lady,” his words are swiftly followed by the drag of his tongue up her folds. The sensation sends a warm throbbing hum through her, a tingle as the tip of his tongue pokes and teases. Her body bucks under him, but firm hands keep her thighs pinned to the sheets as he steals the breath from her lungs with a hot and heavy kiss. Another moan escapes her and she twines her fingers through his hair, the artificial hand able to do nothing more than paw at the linen.

“That’s better,” the rumble of his timbre against her core makes her gasp and dig her nails in. Maker she *needs* more.

“Please…Cullen,” she begs, her back arching, all thoughts of those dreadful days at sea washed away by the lap of his tongue, all worry about her past, about upsetting him, all lapped away to leave nothing but burning want.

He growls at the push of her hips against his steady hold. “Please, what Lady Annabel…?” he digs his blunt nails in her flesh then dips to bury his tongue inside and suck until she’s crying out, her body starting to tremble as he keeps her hovering at the edge. “Please, claim you? Fuck you?” 

His words sound hazy through the fog but she nods eagerly, her sense of mischief long gone to the burning need that throbs from between her legs. “Please… I’m yours…” is all she can muster, pulling lightly on his hair as her heart and lungs race inside her chest, pounding blood through so hot and fast all coherent thought is lost to the rush. She barely notices him sit up, although she feels her hips drag and lift in one smooth motion, feels his tip press up against her before she’s overwhelmed with pleasure as he slowly enters. The next thing she knows her legs are lifted and splayed and she moans at what’s to come, hearing his distant chuckle from between her legs she smiles, pressing her cheek against the sheets. “What are you waiting for?” she goads in pant, flicking her hair while wearing a smirk she knows drives him crazy. Within one an achingly long moment, he slides almost all the way out then thrust himself to the hilt.

Every muscle clenches and she pants out a cry of his name at the pitch of the pleasure. Every nerve sings and contracts in the pulse of pure bliss as he fills her entirely, pressing against that sweet spot buried deep inside. Only then does he start to plough, his body jarring with every slam of his hips, hands wrapped tightly round her thighs, restricting her, driving her pulse and chest wild with the brutal pace. Fingers clasping at sheets she gives her body over to him as he grunts, filling the air with his musk, with the scent of them , with the rhythmic smack of flesh on flesh and the high-pitched moan of her voice as she reaches her peak. He stutters another groan and she’s know he’s close, he’s holding back, his thrusts suddenly slowing to land a deep powerful one that finally unravels her.

Crying out, her back arches and her nails find his thighs, baking hot and smooth under her skin she digs in, an outlet for the scorching pleasure that burns through and ignites her in its crescendo. His voice joins hers, buried to the hilt he gives a deep unabashed groan, chest heaving as he steadies himself, loose curls flopping against his forehead as he sits back to seemingly savour the pleasure of her wrapped around him as he spills inside. 

His euphoric expression drags a warm smile to her lips, her mind already soaked in bliss, foggy from the pressure of him still seated so deep inside. He’s bloody gorgeous like this… shirt flung open, chest heaving under a thin sheen of sweat that makes his skin appear almost golden, matching his damp curls that bob with his heavy breathing, wrinkles creasing the corners of his eyes, still pressed shut as the hum of ecstasy curls his lips.

“Maker…” he pants, eyes finally opening, their amber hue the colour of the most picturesque sunset, and she smiles widely up at him, brimming over with love.

“No…It’s definitely you I belong to…”

Huffing a chuckle he slowly slides out and sets her down against damp sheets, her thighs trembling when the support of his touch leaves them. “Hmmm, yes, I believe you do…” smirking briefly seemingly at the marks he’s left on her  before he shuffles. She can help but laugh as he pulls his trousers off all the way, seems they hadn’t even the sense to fully undress before both of them had needed him inside her.

She groans lightly as the mattress dips and he lays against her side, her artificial hand stroking down the scars of his forearm which he flops over her stomach. Senses returning, she gazes at the canopy above and suddenly remembers where they are. Casting him a cheeky sideways look she finds his eyes are already resting as he nuzzles against her shoulder. “Do you think Hawke will mind that the Commander claimed the Inquisitor in her bed?”

Laughing his eyes lift to meet hers with softness. “I think it’s best she doesn’t know…”

“Hmmm, good thinking,” she leans in to places against his forehead then rests her face against his hair as they settle, breathing in the distinct musky scent of him she finds her eyes start to close, humming in contentment as she lets sleep take hold.

 

Chapter Text

He can’t help the slight drop of his jaw on sight of the massive stone structure which struts out of the coastal rock face as if owns the whole damn harbour. Cullen can see now why Annabel had not been overly fazed by Skyhold, and that the rumours of her family being incredibly wealthy were no mere rumours. By the looks of it, the Trevelyan family stronghold could repel any attack. That added to Ostwick’s infamous double city walls confirms that city-state is something immensely defensible, a requirement he supposed given the history of Qunari invasions.

“Can you see it?”

Blinking he looks to his wife who’s pointing up at her childhood home. Can he see the castle? He knows his eyesight isn’t quite what it used to be, but he isn’t blind. His indignation must play across his features as she shakes her head with a light chuckle.

“The dragon, in the stone, can you see it? Those two spikes of rocks, they’re its horns.”

Squinting he picks out the granite spikes, which seem somewhat out of place until he sees they crown the head of a gigantic statue, so weather-beaten it’s faded into the very rock itself.

“Ah, yes!” A smile creases his lips, it’s an impressive sight, it’s over the top of course, but then that seemed to sum up her branch of the Trevelyan family tree. “An impressive beast…”

“He’s known as the Champion of Ostwick, but we just call him Arlen, named after the dragon my ancestors tamed,” her voice holds a sing-song hum as she leans on the deck’s railing.

Cullen has never believed that story of hers, although always found it endearing that she clearly did from the way her eyes lit up when she spoke of it. “A fine name.” There's bark from his side joined by Prince standing on his hind legs seemingly attempting to get a good view of whatever has his humans so engrossed, and he ruffles the mutt’s ears. “As is yours,” he chuckles lightly, feeling Annabel slip her arm around his waist.

He wonders briefly what she'll make of his family home back in Honnleath. Mia has insisted she has space to spare and that they stay with her, although he feels rather awkward about it. It’s been a lifetime since his seen his siblings, even longer since he’s seen his old home, returning will no doubt bring back ancient memories, but he hopes at least he is now some semblance of a man they could be proud of.

“Nervous?” she asks, leaning her head against his shoulder and dragging him back to the current moment as the boat begins to dock.

“Of meeting the powerful Trevelyan’s?” he cocks a brow mock playfully before releasing a puff of air. “I’m terrified.”

“You’ll be fine! You’ve survived me all this time, should be a piece of cake…oh and there will be lots of cake. And wine, my brother will no doubt have a feast, maybe even a soiree planned to celebrate our arrival…I’m afraid it’s time for best attire and polite smiles again.”

“Hmm, wonderful…” he resists the urge to roll his eyes, this is her, and he supposes now his family after all.

“It won’t be as grand as the winter palace, but the game is the game, even in this corner of Thedas. Bryan is surprisingly good at it, although he hates it… He’s a good, sensitive man underneath it all, you’ll see, just watch his deeds and don’t pay his words to much heed. Mind you, if you're not careful he'll twist your words on their head and reveal his fierce scowl, the likes of which could stop a charging druffalo!” She laughs to herself although Cullen finds the prospect far less assuming. Seemingly sensing this she offers him a squeeze.

“Just be yourself, be polite and you’ll be fine. Oh, and remember, his role as Bann is to oversee the cities defences, much like you, so, if you find yourself floundering he loves to talk defence and calibrations and all that.”

In all of Cullen’s correspondence with the Bann, he had gathered the impression he was competent and direct. A no-nonsense warrior. A man in a sense he might get along with, if it wasn’t for the heavy dose of politics he brought with him. He can't say he’s ever met any ‘good or sensitive’ Banns before, but he’d never met anyone like Annabel before either. Seems that if anyone can surprise him it’s a Trevelyan and he decides to withhold judgement, for now.

Nodding along he takes it all in as the ship inches to a stop. “Any subjects I should avoid?” he asks, picking up their bag, wanting to be as fully prepared as possible.

“Hmmm, anything to do with our parents is off limits, mother’s death…well, we were so young and father... The less said about the former Bann the better, he put a lot of pressure on Bryan, too much really… And there is no way he would’ve approved of you, I mean he might’ve come around if he’d gotten to know you, equally likely he would’ve just cut me off from the family without trying.”

“Annabel,” he stops her from walking off with a light grasp of her arm. “That’s awful… I… don’t know what to say… I know you said some in your family might disapprove of us, but to cut you out?”

She waves dismissively at him, the hurt old and clearly long since healed. “It’s fine… It’s just a good job it’s Bryan’s approval you had to seek and not his. Don’t get me wrong, he was a good man, in the end too good, died from a knife to the stomach fighting slave hunters when they came sniffing around. He took them out to of course, but hardly a victory is it?”

Digging his fingers in a little tighter he tries to press down to the emotions he can see in her eyes which ill match the casual tone of her voice. “Why have you never told me this? You said he died, but…”

Shrugging Annabel places her hand over his to rub at his knuckles. “Being a good man and being a good father are not the same thing… He loved us, I’m sure of that, but had a habitat of putting his role, of putting Ostwick first…” she trails off, eyes glancing at and over the city as if not truly seeing it. “He wasn’t always like that - before mother died he was everything, or was to me at least… Encouraged me to be bold, fearless, played silly games, gave enormous cuddles and endless soft words… I guess, I just like to remember him like that?”

Her bright eyes flick back to him with the shimmer of tears and placing the bag gently down he wraps his arms around her. He’d known her father had died shortly before she’d gone to the conclave, but beyond the odd snippets she had never spoken much about him, it had always been about Bryan as if he was the only family she had ever known. And he guesses from this revelation that is probably how she felt… no wonder she feared abandonment so…

“You should remember him however you wish,” he places a kiss on the top of her head. “And know that I am always here to listen.”

“Even when I blather on about nothing?” Her eyes glance up to flutter under heavy lashes, blinking tears away with the creeping of a smile.

“Especially then.”

 

The Trevelyan keep is just as impressive up close as it was at sea. Having wandered through the lower and upper quarters of Ostwick it sits slightly apart at the end of its own trail along with several other wealthy estates that branch off along the way. Grand and ancient, her home seems in places to be carved out of the rock itself, and quite out of place compared to the other architecture. It’s high position see’s it nestled against the mountainside, wilderness to one side and a sheer drop to the ocean on the other.

Cullen can’t help but be overwhelmed by the structure and its military prowess. It is no wonder the Trevelyan name was now one of the most extensive noble lines in the Free Marches, with a home seat of power as defensible as this who would dare challenge them? Walking through the gates, he’s reminded of the first time he’d stepped inside Skyhold, although this place lacked the serene welcome and derelict nature, it still reeked of history. The stories its stones could tell.

Annabel releases a squeal as does Prince as she runs up to a bounding shaggy wolfhound. The lanky dog all but leaps into her arms, tongue licking in time with the furious wag of its whip-like tail. The reunion spreads warmth through him. Despite the nerves that had previously clenched his stomach he finds himself relax slightly and join them, crouching to offer the dog his hand to sniff. “You must be Fion I presume,” the mutt wags its scruffy tail wildly in return greeting with a whine. “A pleasure to meet you too.”

“Well, one usually introduces themselves to the Bann first and foremost, but seeing as your Ferelden, I should have expected as much.”

The blunt and icy tone cuts through Cullen’s back and makes his breath hitch in his throat. His wife squeals again, only louder, and he turns just in time to see her literally jump into another man’s arm. A man he can only assume is the infamous Bryan. To the Bann’s credit, he does welcome the jubilant embrace, hugging his sister tight for a moment, although prising her off him far sooner than she probably would have liked.

He has the same sky-blue eyes as Annabel, the same fair complexion made all the more striking by thick brunette hair, holding the hint of waves which have been smoothed back stylishly. Cullen notices that he doesn’t seem to radiate warmth like Annabel and when he finally meets his eye the only emotion he finds is a mild semblance of curiosity, while Annabel’s beam with overflowing excitement. Her brother’s posture turns rigid, hands resting neatly behind his back, and dressed in a fine doubletted jack he stands to attention like a soldier. Apparently, the title of Bann means a great deal more to him than whatever lady had ever meant to Annabel.

“Bryan, this is my husband, Cullen… Commander Cullen Stanton Rutherford, leader of the Inquisition forces. Cullen this is Lord Bryan Edwin Dracon Trevelyan, Bann of Ostwick and General of Defence…” she gives a sweeping bow and steps away to let them shake hands, like a true Lady, although she can’t stand still and ends up bouncing on the balls of her feet.

“A pleasure to finally meet in the flesh Commander,” Bryan looks him up and down, but his expression remains unchanged, if he is at all impressed or disappointed then Cullen is none the wiser.

“Yes, likewise…” Cullen is grateful he doesn’t stammer, it’s been many years since he’d faced an inspection, but that feels precisely what this is like. A test, he quickly realises, standing a little straighter. He’s considerably taller and broader than the Lord, but it doesn’t appear to faze him. Instead, Bryan’s attention returns to Annabel, a small smile cracking across his lips.

“It’s good to have you back,” reaching out he squeeze his sister’s arm in an action that seems sincere. As quickly as the smile had appeared is vanishes, a frown to creasing his brow, his eyes darting down. Cullen realises suddenly he’s holding her prosthetic arm, the false one of Silverite covered over in nug skin that hides under her layers, kept animated by the glowing green gem. Taking her false hand in his, Bryan turns it over and examines the pale humming stone stitched into the glove, running almost tender fingertips over it.

Cullen notes a degree of care he had not expected to see from a man who had always presented himself as distant and cold. Seems that Annabel’s reassurances about her brother are proving correct, by ignoring his words and focusing on subtle actions a whole different side of the man can be glimpsed.

His bright eyes promptly narrow to scowl at Cullen though, taking him by surprise, making his chest clench and eyes widen slightly. They seem to pierce through him with frosty flames, and in no uncertain terms set blame and damnation on his shoulders.

“You are aware the threats I made to the Inquisition regarding her imprisonment at Haven I presume? I believe it was something along the lines of, ‘if you don’t return her to me unharmed and in one piece I will burn your petty excuse for an organisation to the ground’. Or something to that effect. And yet,” Bryan icy glare somehow scorches him with heat that makes his mouth run dry and warmth flush up his neck.

“I…I had heard…But, the anchor was not the Inquisition’s doing, my Lord… I…”

Annabel scoffs a little laugh. “Don’t tease him, Bryan! He has enough of that from me… And I would like to request, as a personal favour to the Inquisitor, that you do not burn Skyhold to the ground if that’s alright with you?”

“I suppose that is something I could agree too, although I would, of course, expect a favour in return,” Bryan folds his arms, his mask cracking to show an inkling of good humour under the harsh exterior, although he makes no apology for the fierceness of his earlier expression.

“Of course, Bann Trevelyan! And the favour I grant you is that you no longer have to worry about me moving back in!” She beams a great big smile, and her brother huffs a chuckle and his smile, despite being only a fraction the size of hers, seems to display no less warmth.

“That seems fair,” patting her on the arm they share another brief hug.

Cullen frowns, they’re unlike any siblings he’s ever come across, so different yet undeniably similar, and he can see under everything there is a deep connection. Thankful it also seems the Bann is in jesting spirits which allows his nerves to subside a little. The glare had seemed genuine though, if only for a second, and only adds to the heap of guilt he already feels about Annabel’s hand.

“Come on, I imagine you can’t wait for some real food…and ale,” Bryan gives a waving gesture to include Cullen in the discussion as they set off on a meandering walk. “No jellied meat or eels you’ll be pleased to hear. Or not until tomorrow at least, as of course, I have celebrations planned. I suppose I should tell you these will be joint celebrations, to welcome you home and Cullen into the family, along with closing that hole in the sky, but they will not solely focus on the pair of you I’m afraid.”

“Pity, my husband just adores being the centre of attention,” Annabel smiles slyly, linking her arm through Cullen’s as he mildly shakes his head.

“And I’m sure on most occasions he is, but alas, there will be another flawless couple stealing some of the limelight… I asked Lady Kelandris to marry me, and she said yes, so-“

He’s broken off by a loud squeal followed by another embracing hug from Annabel. “Congratulations! Why didn’t you tell me!?”

 “I could ask the same of you,” Bryan’s eyes flick to Cullen in what he’s sure is something akin to disdain leaving him babbling non-words once more. “I am at least bothering to invite you to my wedding,”

“I… I did write, but…I…It was…”

“It was a spur of the moment thing,” she jumps in to save him as he gathers his thoughts from the scrambled mess in his head. That look really could stop a druffalo. “It really wasn’t planned, a small, private affair…there was so much going on… but I missed having you there, I’m sorry,” she squeezes her brother’s arm, and he replies with a casual flick of hair from his eyes.

“I heard… and I suppose he did at least ask for my permission first. I told him that anyone brave enough to take you on was welcome to try,” there is a tiny twitch of a smirk, and she slaps his arm.

“You wouldn’t dare! You’ve been trying to get me off your hands for too long to risk scaring him off like that!”

“Ah, you may be right,” Bryan smiles now and Cullen can sense something genuine about it, a tiny sliver of warmth that peeks through the icy exterior. “I want you to know Commander that I harbour no ill will against you. I can see you make her happy, she’s positively glowing…That is all that matters to me, but as the older brother I felt it only fair to test you.”

It’s been a harrowing few minutes, but it seems he’s passed this so-called ‘test’, although how he isn’t entirely sure, he’s barely said two words and nothing coherent whatsoever. Still, the brief warm smile settles his frazzled nerves, and he feels his shoulders unclench slightly. He’s been thoroughly reminded of all the reasons he hates nobility. Annabel being the exception to the rule, as always. “Ah, yes…well… I’m pleased to have met your standards, my lord.”

“Hmm, well like she said, who else would have her?” For that, he receives a chuckle and a smack from his sister.

Taking the steps up and entering through heavy oaken doors they enter an impressive central chamber, not dissimilar to Skyhold, with benches lining its sides, although at its end stands a grand table and hearth rather than a throne. Tapestry’s and paintings line the walls, their family coat of arms, relatives dressed in splendour, and above the vast fireplace was one of a black dragon with vibrant amber eyes, being hushed by an armoured knight in Trevelyan colours. Seems Annabel had every right to believe all those tales she’d been told, growing up gazing at such a magnificent painting, so realistic he felt if he touched it he might feel the bump of the scales under his fingertips.

“I must say, your keep is impressive, my background is rather more, humble,” Cullen’s tone is thoughtful, eyes still studying the paintings, far more exquisite than Mia’s depictions of flowery meadows, although somehow lacking the same stir emotions.

“Bet it’s a lot cosier though,” quips Annabel, with a little shudder, nodding to a guard who smiles as she ushers them through to a back room. “This place is almost as cold as Skyhold, even with the fire’s all lit!” He smiles affectionally at her, at the way she always found the goodness in everything.

“I wouldn’t worry yourself too much Commander,” states Bryan pouring himself a drink of fine Antivan brandy and offering them one. “We were taught the value of hard graft, and simple pleasures, a warm fire, a drink and some respect are all any Trevelyan requires. Or that is true for our branch at least.”

He’s beyond relieved that behind closed doors the Lord seems more human, approachable even, and gratefully accepts the drink. When Bryan holds his up in a toast to the happy couples, he gladly clinks his glass to that.

  

He doesn’t want to get up the next morning, but it's not for the old reasons of weariness and fatigue after endless hours spent tossing and turning. No, instead it’s because the moment is truly serene, so perfect that it seems like a sin to have it end.

Annabel is curled by his side, what remains of her arm resting on his chest, her knee propped up on his thigh, rosy lips slightly parted as she continues to dream. Dancing his fingers up her arm Cullen can’t help but touch her, pale, smooth skin too tempting in the feeble rays of dawn. He knows she doesn’t mind, and in fact, she snuggles closer, lips finding his shoulder and kissing there as she stirs.

Waking up in a strange room had confused him at first, any panic though had been quickly soothed by the reminders of his wife at every turn. Their trunks sat side by side, the sprawling mess of her travel clothes, her perfume sat on the dresser, the faint green hum of the gemstone sat beside it which catches the cut crystal to cast a peculiar rainbow against the wall.

Scanning over it all his bleary gaze finally came to rest on yet another painting, but this is one of her as a young child, nestled amongst a loving family plus faithful hound. She’s changed little over the years, he notes, and silently praises the artist for doing a magnificent job of capturing the cheeky glint in her eyes.

Humming to himself in contentment he studies her now, edges of her mouth lifted even in rest, he can’t believe he’d almost lost her, that he’d seen the brightness in her wane… It doesn’t bear thinking about.

“It’s rude to stare…” she murmurs lazily into his skin, nuzzling there seemingly in an attempt to hide her growing smile.

Chuckling he shifts to envelop her in both his arms, safe. “Paraphs I’m saving all my best manners for later this evening, for this grand soiree of yours,” calloused fingertips trace patterns between her shoulder blades, connecting freckles he knows by heart.

“Hmmm, in that case,” she hooks her thigh high over his hip, dragging it along his morning erection which throbs at the heated touch.

With a grunt, he grasps her hip to stop the roll he knows will follow. “Your brother’s next door…” his whisper is sharp and absolute. “And I do not wish to wake him by, well…you know what…”

“I’ll be quiet-“

A bark of laughter bursts from his chest and shatters the peaceful dawn. Scowling lightly, she taps his arm, apparently telling him off for his brashness. Kissing her forehead, he then gently lifts her leg off him. She huffs, eyes peering up through thick lashes and his light smile turns to a smirk as his lifts his palm to cup her cheek.

“Perhaps I don’t desire you to be quiet,” the hushed nature of his voice grows husky as he gently brushes her hair away. “And you know my feelings on noble gatherings… We could always slip away early…”  Lifting her chin, he meets her gaze as she smiles with dark mischief once more.

“Hmmm, as you wish, dear husband,” the sultry title wraps around his heart and cock alike. Her body rubs up against his, combining with the hooded nature of her eyes and her naughty smirk to present a temptation he cannot refuse. And nor does he have to. This is real. She is real. And wants him in all the ways he’s ever dreamed of.

His hefty hand wraps around to squeeze her rear and splay her open flush against his thigh, his mouth seeking hers for a hot and wanton kiss. Maker’s breath the things this woman does to him…

“You know…” she whispers against his lips. “There are ways to keep me quiet,” her fingertips drag across his lower lip, made plump by the kiss as her hips roll against his.

Now Cullen’s chuckle is dark, deviant, as he kneads her rear keenly before slipping his fingers down to rub teasingly against her folds. She hums against him, and a hungry smirk returns to his lips. “As you wish, Mrs Rutherford.”

Teasing her with quick, playful touches against her clit she moans and pants lightly, all sound quickly swallowed by his mouth in a deep and overpowering kiss as he slips one digit inside her. Even with the hot and heavy kiss mumbles of moans escape until he’s left chuckling, Annabel biting her lower lip, attempting to quell the sounds as he curls his finger inside her.

Letting her go from his teasing touch his burnt amber eyes study the curves of her body as she moves. He can’t help but cup a breast as she leans over him, thumb pressing down and rubbing at her nipple until it’s a stiff peak and she’s humming once more, he finds himself lightly biting his own lip to prevent a wanton sound from escaping. This time it's her who breaks from his embrace. Pulling his hand away, seemingly ignoring his pout, she shifts until her knees are resting either side of his loose curls.

“Are you trying to tease me, dear husband?” she purrs, bending, lowering herself deviously slowly, brushing those now pert nipples across his skin as she begins to crawl over him, kissing a line down his chest. He knows she’s keeping her centre deliberately out of his reach, but she’s wet and wanton, calling to him with her heady scent. A growl vibrates from his chest, eyes drinking in the glorious sight of her splayed form, hands curling round to dig blunt fingers into her thighs. Her bosom ghosts down his chest as her lips trail down to his navel, edging herself closer to where he needs her.

“You should know better by now,” her husky voice is utterly sinful, and the tip of her tongue confirms it by licking the very end of his own tip. It brings a grunt from him, sweat starting to bead and shimmer over his skin as he resists the urge to buck against her. Instead, he kisses her inner thigh, then sucks, hard, producing another moan from her, another move closer.

“Oh, I do,” he rumbles, running his stubble up her sensitive skin before lifting himself up slightly. Lapping, his lip pucker against her entrance, her scent all-consuming, her taste sweetly divine, deriving his desires to new burning heights as his pulse picks up and his cock strains. He needs more and growls with hunger against her core.

A hitched gasp sounds in reply before suddenly she’s lowered herself, welcoming his devouring mouth, his arms wrapping around her waist to willing probe himself deep. Distraction makes him gasp and buck against her as the wet heat of her mouth sucks and swallows him down along with the smooth drag of her hand.

Andraste preserve him, she is perfection personified, and he buries his mouth against her fervently to let her know.

Humming deliciously, she licks down his shaft, letting his salty taste soak into her tongue until she’s rumbling, hips grinding only to have her breath snatched by the dance of his tongue. Clever, clever man. He delves and swirls it, pitching pleasure up through her spine until she’s moaning in a long heavy breath against him. She feels him throb and twitch under her lips. Smirking she copies the moments of his tongue as best she can, dragging and circling it over his tip which leaks for her to lap up. But his moan, his heated breath against her centre spikes something primal, carnal and suddenly she’s ravenous with want, dipping back down to take him fully in her mouth once more.

He replies in kind, flicking and darting his tongue against her clit, every stroke sending pleasure thronging through her. Pumping with her hand, she speeds the pace and sounds a low bellied moan when one of his hands splays her rear as he consumes her, worships her. Heat is already sticking her body to his, already scorching the air and her skin alike as her pulse surges with every ounce of pleasure he sends coursing through her.

Maker’s breath, he’s bloody glorious!

The world is nothing now save for endless rolls of pleasure, the slight involuntary rock of her hips and welcoming taste of him. Sliding her hand down she gently cups and rubs his sac, his muscles stiffening in reply as his actions splutter to a stop with another moan of pleasure. He throbs in her mouth, hot and hard, and oh so delicious as she massages her hand up him.

Seemingly overcome his tongue flicks quicker, distracting her with a consistent high of pleasure that shots down her nerves to stiffen her body over him. Then he sucks against that sensitive nub, one arm clenching around her as he bucks in delight for her.

An overwhelming surge of pleasure bursts through, blinding her and searing through every muscle as she peaks. Her high-pitched cry muffles and vibrates around his cock, and seems to stokes something primal in him as after a quick brutal rut she tastes him. His groan is all but drowned out against her thigh, feeling his body clench under her before he releases his seed in hot, heavy spurts which she drinks down eagerly.

Lapping and humming she cleans him, her breath panting lightly as her body calms and steadies, his lips now tracing the most tender kisses against her thighs. Praise perhaps, or gratitude, she is still awed by the fact he feels she is something beyond precious, something too good for him, something to praise the Maker for. Of course, it could just be simple affection, but as she climbs off the look she catches in his eyes suggests its anything but simple. Its deep and immensely complex, layers of thoughts intertwined with emotions he can’t express, save for in the heavenly rich depths of gazing amber.

Sweetly smiling she cups his cheek. “I love you,” she murmurs, placing a soft kiss against his lips and nudging his nose with hers as she lifts away.

“Hmmm, I love you too,” with his smile soft he takes her hand and threads their fingers together. It was going to be a long day, and an even longer evening, but he knows it’s a small price to pay to have such perfection curl back up to nuzzle by his side.

Chapter Text

 

They’re late for breakfast, not that either is complaining about why after the morning of delights they’ve just shared. Even so, Cullen would've rather made a better second impression with Annabel’s brother than he had his first. Entering the small private dining room saved for intimate settings he spies Bryan. He finds it quite remarkable how his eyes, hair and skin tone are startlingly similar to Annabel's and even at a distance, there is no mistaking their kinship. The woman sat next to him, however, stands out, her hair touched by fire, eyes by amethyst, her skin pale with freckles marking out high cheekbones, all above thick pursed lips. She's beautiful, poised and graceful, but the tug of his wife’s small hand puts any desire to explore her further aside.

“Lady Kelandris,” Annabel beams the warmth of her greeting with a sunny smile. “It’s good to see you again…and I hear congratulations are in order.”

There is a tender smile in return as they’re invited to sit. “Bryan said he’d told you, secretly he couldn’t wait for the big reveal,” a sharp but quick smirk passes over Kelandris face before she delicately picks up buttered toast, ignoring the mild scowl of the man by her side.

“I bet, must’ve been difficult to keep it to yourself for so long,” with a cheeky grin Annabel reaches for the scrambled eggs which he brother snatches away like a sullen child. Pouting lightly, she eagerly accepts the toast rack which Kelandris slides across the ivory tablecloth.

The setting is a far cry from the breakfast’s Cullen had been used to growing up, although the behaviour between siblings at least seems familiar. They’d never had a linen tablecloth with embroidered edges, or such a rich selection of meats, bread, fruits or cheese, but even still some of his fondest memories were from being sat around the oak table in his family’s kitchen. His lively siblings exchanging banter and teasing while his parents tried hard to hurry everyone along.

This morning’s meal, however, smacks of courtly intrigue, and already his posture is stiff because of it. He’d presented less than an ideal first impression yesterday and is on high alert to ensure he doesn’t repeat the mistake.

“You’re late,” Bryan’s tone is decidedly cold as he fills his plate. “I wanted to start without you, but apparently that is not suitable etiquette, even between close family, so now we all have to have cold eggs.”

“And you’re extra grumpy,” Annabel leans over, tugging the bowl back. “So, if you’re going to bring up etiquette I suggest you look in the mirror first.”

Bryan scowls further and Cullen’s stomach knots. Ah, nothing like noble politics and sibling rivalry to start your day.

“Apologies, I didn’t sleep well, then was woken up by an awful racket this morning,” Bryan’s eyes drift subtly to his, one eyebrow lifting ever so slightly in suggestion.

Maker’s breath! So, he had heard their amorous acts this morning. Cullen’s heart stutters in his chest.  He feels his skin heat, despite all his will to prevent it and he knows its prickled red under the cold stare of the Lord.

“Strange, I didn’t hear anything,” Annabel continues setting out her breakfast, although from the corner of his eye he notes that her’s glint with a hint of mischief. 

“The apologies should be mine, I kept him up into the early hours,” Kelandris's nonchalant tone and dismissive wave of the toast held poised between two delicate fingers makes Cullen falter. Are they all discussing the same thing? He blinks, cheeks and neck flushed red and tries to focus his attention on the meal in front of him rather than anything that may embarrass him further.

“Wedding planning is proving to be a complex task,” she continues, sipping her tea, keeping her expression aloof. Cullen promptly decides to give up trying to understand what’s going on, although he’s figured out one thing, the two opposite are most certainly well suited.

“Wasn’t for us, was it Cullen?”

“Huh?” Blinking he’s forced into the conversation, a place he really doesn’t want to be, and it shows in the way his eyes dart while his mind scrabbles to catch up. “Oh, right, well no, not really. I mean, I did have a plan, but then there was Prince, and Mother Giselle was there. And. So, no, not really. We didn’t need a plan.”

“Sounds rather romantic,” Kelandris lifts her gaze to meet his, bright violet intrigued. “Did Bryan tell you how he proposed?”

“I’m sure they’re not interested-“ Bryan interjects with his hand over hers and a soft smile that apparently wins him no favour.

“Speak for yourself! I’d love to hear about how sulky here went all romantically soppy,” Annabel giggles and Cullen can tell it means trouble. Trouble he best avoid.

“Hmmm, yes, your brother can be quite the old romantic at heart. We were in the secluded flower garden, in the very spot where we shared our first kiss. Only this time we were under a sky full of stars, surrounded by the flicker of candles, and he delicately bends to pluck a single red rose,” Kelandris mimics the action with her tiny silver spoon in her cup. “The next thing I know he hands it to me and I spy the glitter of gold around its stem. Before I can even speak, he’s down on one knee and asking for my hand.”

Annabel actually squeals beside him.  “Kew you were a big old softie! Wait until the other lords hear about this, they’ll love it,” grinning broadly Annabel adds honey to her tea and Cullen dares glance at Bryan. To his surprise, the Lord isn’t glowering. In fact, he seems to be wearing a rather faint, but distinctly warm smile.

“Yes, well, they can say as they please, at the end of the day, it is I marrying the most beautiful lady in the entire court, not them and they’d do well to remember it.”

Huh. Perhaps there is a softer side to that cold exterior. Slowly Cullen thinks he’s beginning to understand. After all, how would he have survived in a world of nobility, of gossip, intrigue and rumour? He’s not sure he would’ve, but one thing is certain, he would have spent a great degree of his time scowling, and in a foul mood, so perhaps he has more in common Bryan than he first thought.

 

His day is spent exploring the keep with Annabel, hearing various tales of her wild childhood adventures, sparring in the yard, falling off horses and running amuck over the castle's defences. Cullen can’t recall a more perfect day. No reports, no officers, no meetings, no schedules… just him and his wife wondering around a stronghold which seems to bring joy to her eyes every time they pass a new corner. Every statute has a story to tell, every painting, every person in fact as he finds out she knows a great deal of the guards and staff, many of whom are greeted with hugs and questions about friends and family.

It’s no wonder she’d excelled at the role of Inquisitor. A natural born people person, able to sense what someone needed and with more than enough compassion to go around. Even if she was lousy at paperwork and meetings, having the ability to win hearts and minds was undoubtedly a more useful skill. Or so he thought. He smiles at each and exchanges pleasantries, chuckling along with their jokes, but before long he finds himself starting to tire and wane. Although he is briefly reprieved and revived by Bryan showing him the trebuchets along with a rousing discussion about their correct calibration. That's more his strength, one on one, detailed, practical discussions about useful things, even as he noted Annabel wonder of halfway through. He knew she’d return and ask him all about it, and pretend to show an interest until she got distracted once more at least.

Thankfully, however, they break for lunch alone, he’s not sure he can handle round two of the game so soon. Settling on a bench in the gardens two sets of sad eager eyes peer up as they unpack a panic.

“Oh, go on then, but don’t tell cook I gave you the good meat,” pointing her finger sternly Annabel then tosses the two hounds each a sizable chunk of chicken before wiping her fingers delicately. The last piece she pushes to Cullen. “You should stock up, it’ll be fancy food tonight, but we can always sneak into the kitchen… If you’re brave enough… Cook has been known to chase even royalty away with her pan.”

Chuckling Cullen hopes she’s joking, although the expression on her face suggests otherwise. Calm settles over him once more, the fresh air and hearty food a soothing balm, although the rest of her head against him is even better. Soon it would be best polite smiles and idle chatter amidst vipers. Something he dreads with every passing moment that brings it closer.

When Annabel swiftly leaps up from nowhere, he follows her moves with curiosity and frowns as she begins to pluck several roses. He never would understand what went through her mind, although it must be a whirl of activity. 

Within a moment she’s back, four different colour roses in her hand, still confused he watches as she presents them to the hounds. Prince sniffs at the burnished yellow one, so she lays it at his paws with distinct grace, while Fion, her family mutt, takes a liking to the white one. The dog's slender muzzle picks up the stem, seemingly unbothered by the prickles and with a dainty little trot jogs back to the keep with its tail wagging, leaving the mabari to cock its head after the apparently upper-class creature.

“So, that leaves pink and red…and I think you shall have the pink,” she declares with a polite little bow as she hands Cullen the rose like he was a lady at a tourney.

“And why the pink?” With one eyebrow raised he runs calloused fingertips over the petals, unbelievably soft when compared to the stem beneath.

“Because it suits you,” she smiles. “If you blush at the ball tonight like you did this morning, you’ll match!” 

“Ha, ha, very funny,” shaking his head he bops her on the nose with the flower, a waft of its fragrance reaching him. She always did smell like roses, and now he supposes he knows why they’re her favourite, they must remind her of home. “You sure it’s not just because red is your favourite colour?” He asks already smiling softly at how she brushes the petals over her lips and cheek with a barely audible hum.

“Hmmm, well it is the colour of passion,” she smirks, full lips half hidden behind the vibrant petals. “Here,” she kisses it gently then swaps their roses with ease. “Your right, red is my favourite colour, and if you’re wearing it, I get to enjoy it more.”

“Selfless as ever,” he chuckles, one eyebrow lifting as she stands, tucking the rose through her buttonhole and extending her hand to him.

“Come on, we need to practice…”

A heavy sigh falls from him as he realises what she’s getting at. “Fine… but I make no promises tonight to not stand on your toes, knock anyone over or become hopelessly lost…” reluctantly rising he feels his drop in mood lifts with the soft curl of fingers around his.

“Oh Cullen, I thought you were always hopelessly lost in my presence?” Annabel smiles and flutters long lashes up at him, and he can’t help but wrap an arm around her waist to tug her in close.

A smirk lifts the corner of his lip again, raising and arching his scar as his honey drenched eyes melt on sight of hers. “Oh, Annabel, you have no idea,” with that his mouth cups hers to share the kind of slow, steamy, kiss only true lovers could.

 

 Stepping into the hall of her childhood home filled to the brim with stringed music, chatter and the scent of cooked meats sends a rush of excitement up Annabel’s spine. Cullen feels warm and steadfast beside her, although she can sense the subtle ebb of tension in the stiffness of his arm under her fingers.

“You’ll be fine,” she reassures him with a bright smile that follows her gaze around the room picking out people she hadn’t seen for years. Some welcome, others not so much. Politics was not her favourite thing either, but at least she had a wealth of a experience to help her cope, something she only hopes Cullen will develop over time.

“Hmmm, so long as no one asks me to dance,” he grumbles, but when she shots him a sideways glance he’s quick to rectify his error. “Other than my wife, of course.”

Chuckling she squeezes tight against his side. “They’re all here to celebrate us, remember? Ok, yes they’re snakes and will try to trip you up or get a rise out of you, but just smile and nod politely…”

“I’m not sure nobility understand the concept of ‘celebration’…”

She taps his arm at the gripe, but can’t help but snicker. He’s not wrong. Although at least they did put out a splendid selection of wine. It’s just a pity her brother had already warned her to ‘take it easy’ with the drinking… For good reason, she may have embarrassed him and herself on several notable occasions in the past. Noble ladies didn’t take kindly to being puked on, knocked over or insulted loudly, and fighting was something it turned out many nobles didn’t have a clue about. So she’ll just have to make do with grazing the buffet and dancing the night away.

“Ah, there you are,” Bryan’s smooth nonchalant tone greets them as he sweeps over, looking splendidly handsome in his doubletted formal attire, although clearly not a patch on her Cullen. “Just in time for the first dance.”

“Perfect,” Cullen grits out and she squeezes his arm all too tightly.

Bryan clearly notices the sarcasm and coldly stares for a moment, eyes searing into the other man’s in sharp warning. Best behaviour was called for and he apparently won’t tolerate anything less. “Hmm, don’t worry Commander, I’m sure your wife’s elegance will make up for your floundering… besides, I’ll wager all eyes will be on Kelandris and me.”

The single chime of a bell announces the dance and Bryan is swift to depart with an all to smug smirk. It seems as if the chatter that had filled the lofty space suddenly grows still, and as she leads Cullen to the dance floor people actually part to make way, casting their eyes up and down, some in admiration but most in scorn. She had married a common Fereldan after all, no matter his Inquisition title or his former templar rank, he would still be viewed by many as simple farming stock from a backward land. Something she hopes might change after tonight, after speaking with him, after hearing of his tales of leadership and valour, of support. Of course, many would never shift their opinions, far too set in their ways, beside it provided too good a source of ammunition to bring scorn against a prestigious rival house. Annabel only hopes that for a few perhaps his calm demeanour, solid polite form and effort may impress.

Kelandris glides over, the lilac and gold of her dress catching her eye with the swish of full-length fabric, all set off by a familiar white rose in her hair. As Bryan bows deeply Annabel spies a genuinely warm smile on his face, one that matches the lady who accepts his hand with a soft murmur of approval from the crowd. For once, however, Annabel feels no need to compete with him, it seems they both have found what they needed, and although his dance partner is superior to even her in skill, it doesn’t matter in the slightest. She’s found a man who had promised her a dance, despite knowing he’d struggle, despite despising the limelight, and despite the nerves which must be making him feel sick to his stomach. She’s found perfection and couldn’t be happier.

“I’m not sure about this,” Cullen’s murmur is hot against her ear as he lays one hand over her hip. “Everyone’s watching.”

“Of course, they are,” she looks up at him with a playful smile lighting her eyes. “It’s called jealousy, Commander.” Their fingers intertwine and he cracks a tiny half smile, she can tell he doesn’t believe her, but that only makes him all the more perfect. He squeezes her hand this time and nods, amber eyes set in determination as they meet hers along with the lock of his jaw. Just as he did before any battle, she notes.

The melody starts up, slowly and hypnotic with soft harps and she prompts him with a nudge of her toe, and he begins to slowly sway them. Annabel's impressed that he’s able to put all the staring eyes to one side so promptly, and when the tempo increases, other stringed instruments joining the fray her heart flutters in her chest. With a tap she urges him to shuffle back, then forth, until they perform the small ungainly routine they’d spent hours learning. A clumsy foxtrot which is slightly out of time with the couple to their right and the flow of music, making it even more difficult, but they continue. Maker how she loves this stubborn man.

After a few repeats Cullen seems to grasp the moves and to her surprise holds out his arm to spin her round in a twirl of burgundy and sparkle. She giggles as she whirls, the party and other nobles forgotten as her skirt flurries around her. Clumsily he pulls her back and she stumbles into his chest with a laugh, the display for the visiting nobility already forgotten as she lifts up her eyes to meet his.

A twitch, a hint of a smile crooks his lip and she suspects he may be starting to enjoy himself too. Her heart swells with pride and endearment, even as he kicks her in the shin by accident. Following the error in his step, he seemingly loses all abandon and throws her in another twirl, narrowly missing a whirl of purple as the two ladies almost collide in a glitter of fabric and sparkle. Even if she’d had the sense about her to care, Annabel wouldn't have looked over, certain her brother’s scowl would be harsh enough to wound, instead, she lets the moment capture her for what it is. Beautiful.  

Laughing, Annabel spins back into arms that wrap around her. Delicately she lifts her head to find him wearing a heart-warming smile which she returns before resting her head against his chest, beyond grateful. His warm, distinct musk underlies his sandalwood scent, and she finds herself hum contently against him. Feeling truly happy as their bodies entwine and sway while the tempo slows, their movements growing ever slower, ever subtler until the music fades.

“That wasn’t so difficult, was it?” she asks, still buried against him.

 “Hmm… well, I had a good teacher,” he murmurs against her hair. Leaning up she moves to kiss him but a round of applause catches them both off guard. Sharing a peck instead of the smouldering kiss one she’d desired she snuggles back against him. The cheering was most likely for the other dancers, but it's nice to bask in it regardless. The music starts up once more and others begin to fill the space around them. Cracking open one eye she spots Kelandris with her arms wrapped up around Bryan’s neck and watches as he leans to press their foreheads together, lightly smiling and still swaying to their own tune, that fills Annabel with fresh happiness once again.

Fancy gowns and dancing always agreed with Annabel, no matter how horrid the noble gathering, those things, plus the wine, usually made any event bearable. She’s quickly discovering however that the lavish food on offer tonight does not agree with her. Not in the slightest.

Resting her palms and forehead against the frozen marble the cold provides a soothing respite to the flush of heat which has followed after being sick. She’d at least made it outside and into a more discreet corner of the gardens before being violently ill. Although it seems she won’t be spared the by the gossips as she spies several guests whispering while they meander along of the sparsely light pathways. Great. They’ll probably think she’s drunkenly disgraced herself again, although nothing could be further from the truth. Stupid sea food.

Tugging up her long silken gloves she tries to fan her dress and settle out the creases, offering a polite smile to the passers-by which abruptly fades when they’re out of sight. She should never have tried pickled cockles. What had she been thinking? Slimy shellfish on an empty hyped up stomach was surely asking for this kind of disaster. Her stomach churns, beyond bloated and angry, the corset dress making it all ten times worse by digging into her ribs unbearably tight. So much for a joint celebration…

“Annabel, are you alright? You ran out like-“ Bryan breaks off when he spies the state of the poor flowers and her calmly skin. “Ah, it seems not…”

“I’m fine,” Annabel shakes her head lightly, eyes resting as she leans against the pillar, trying to settle the roll in her stomach, it’s almost like being back at sea as it churns and babbles away.

“The fact that my flower beds are covered in sick says otherwise,” Bryan is quick to hold his hand up. “I’m not going to drop this lightly, so you may as well go to your room while I call for the doctor… and your husband.”

“=No, I’ll be fine in a few minutes… just fetch me some water and-“

“He shall do no such thing,” Kelandris appears from thin air with a delicate but precise sway to her plush gown. Sighing Annabel tries in vain to at least fix her hair by tucking back loose strands, or she does until the other woman’s hand clasps over hers anyway. “You’re not well, come, I’ll escort you, I imagine you're dying to get out of that dress and it would be a shame to ruin it if you should have another, episode.”

That much is all true… and Annabel has no doubt Cullen will be grateful to retire early, especially since she’d abandoned him at some point by mistake. “Fine,” she relents with another sigh, they were making rather a big fuss over a simple tummy blip. She dreads to think how they’d behave if they’d seen some of the states she’d returned to Skyhold in. “I’m sure it’s just all the travelling, the seafood must’ve brought back bad memories of the ocean…”

“Then go get that confirmed,” Bryan nods politely although his eyes are stern. “Please see the doctor, I have enough to worry about with the likes of Lord Tristan and his lot. Besides if it is contagious, I have no desire to spend my engagement party evening throwing up, thank you.”

She chuckles faintly and lifts one eyebrow almost crudely to her older sibling. “Let me guess, you two have other plans?”

“Go,” sternness vibrates in his voice, although Kelandris smirks darkly as she links their arms to start leading her away.

 

Cullen arrives at their private bedroom quarters panting and flushed. “Are you alright?” shutting the door behind him, he hurries to the window seat where Annabel is haunched, looking decidedly more pale than usual. Make up gone, hair a mess and her body wrapped in a fluffy dressing gown her appearance is a far cry from what it had been the last time he’d seen her this evening and only fuels his worry further. “Bryan said he’d sent for the doctor…” panic has widened his pupils which now search her up and down. 

“There’s nothing wrong,” she gives a small smile, clearly attempting to be reassuring, but its meekness makes it fail.

“You're certain?” His brows furrow. “You don’t look well. You know you don’t have to pretend…I mean after everything-“

“I’m fine, Cullen, honest,” she interrupts and taps the space next to her, but his muscles are wound too tight to sit so easily.

“People are not sick for no reason, especially at balls being held in their honour,” he’s suspicious. She’d not been drinking. Unless she’d been doing so on the sly, which while it wouldn’t surprise him doesn’t seem likely given her demeanour. She was usually a rowdy and randy drunk after all. Poison perhaps? Either accidental or worse on purpose…

“I think you should sit down,” she shuffles a little to one side, apparently trying to encourage him, but all it does is make his stomach churn tighter. Whatever it is, it’s serious and a lump wedges in his throat while fear clutches his heart.

“No,” he folds his arms, determined to not be swayed by her false stoicism. “Not until you tell me what’s wrong.”

“You need to sit down-“

“No, Annabel, not-“

“Just sit down!” She snaps, flashing her teeth in a fierce snarl which blazes heat in her eyes. The expression quickly dissolves and is followed by a feeble apology. Whatever she needs to say it’s evidently important and the pressing anxiety he’s been trying to keep at bay thunders his heart and slicks his palms. Rubbing at the tightness in his neck he shakes his head, Maker’s breath, if she is sick, truly sick… he doesn’t know what he’ll do. He’s almost lost her so many times… to the snow, the fade, the darkspawn magister, the anchor… the thought of going through it all again is enough to make despair sting the back of his eyes. With reluctance, he perches stiffly beside her.

“Cullen, I…” she trails off and nibbles at her lower lip, a sure sign she’s holding back. He must be patient. Whatever is wrong they will get through it, together, or so he tells himself, for the hundredth time. Besides surely if it was that grave the doctor would be here? She’d been passed out? Or worse…

“I’m pregnant.”

The words knock the sense right out of him. Blinking, utterly dumbfounded, he sits up and stares at her. He must've heard her wrong, but she merely sits there, eyes earnest and hopeful, although betraying a shimmer of fear. “You… you’re pregnant?” he repeats the words although his voice cracks, he needs to hear them, needs to be sure he hasn’t imagined them. His breath hitches as she nods, her eyes starting to fill with unshed tears while his heart flip-flops in his chest.

Disbelief clouds his mind. It isn’t that he thinks she can’t possibly be pregnant, he knows well enough that the moon tea potion wasn’t always effective, no, it’s the notion that he deserves such a gift that he finds unfathomable. A precious tiny infant, him and her combined into a small and innocent bundle… How by the blessed Andstrae has he earnt such a thing?

 “Cullen?” Her tone is one of concern, her hand tentative as it reaches for his but when she does he latches on tight. His grip only grows tighter as a pure smile, natural and unabashed grows to fill his face and chase the darkness from his eyes.

“Annabel, that’s…that’s…I can’t…Maker’s breath…That, it’s the best thing I’ve ever heard!” His almost boyish excitement spills out in the widening of his grin and the way he grabs hold to pull her close. “I can’t…Maker…” he utters a few words of jumbled of prayer, a mixture of gratitude and disbelief, all mumbled into the scent of her hair. A giggle sounds from her and it is the purest, most beautiful sound he’s ever heard.

“You had me worried for a second …” she retorts. Pulling away she toys with his fingers. “I know it wasn’t planned…and we haven’t discussed it, not seriously…I mean I know you, we, wanted children, but right now? With the Inquisition changing so much, I wasn’t sure-“

He cuts off her nonsense with a kiss, lips moulding and melding over hers to shh any such talk far away. As if he could ever not want to be part of something so divine with her…A son…Or a daughter. Andraste preserve him. His thumb traces over her cheek, the rosy hue returning under his touch as solid conviction stirs his soul.

“Some of the greatest gifts the Maker bestows on us are unplanned, unfathomable, unforeseen… like meeting you,” his reverent words are followed by the press of his forehead against hers to share the blessing he feels radiating through his core. It feels… surreal… but wonderful..

“How… I mean… when…” Cullen loses his sense and sentence as he reaches his hand down, hovering over Annabel’s stomach, not daring to touch it, to taint it. A tiny babe, untarnished by the world, innocent, and defenceless, and theirs, to protect, to love and nurture, and with the Maker as his witness, he will do just that.

“If you need to ask how, I might have to question your chantry upbringing Mr Rutherford,” she snickers, taking his hand with both of hers and laying it on her bloated stomach. He can’t help but give his own small snigger at her comment, although his eyes never leave his hand, his touch so gentle it must barely even register.

“I meant…When…How far along,” gingerly his thumb rubs tiny circles over her robe, still uncertain he’s even allowed to touch something so pure…

Annabel deftly unfastens the garment and tugs at his calloused fingers to press his hand firmly against her tummy. “The doctor said about four months…about the time I lost my hand…He thinks maybe the potions I was having may have stopped the moon tea? I don’t know… Although he seems to think you must have strong seed in you,” she chuckles again, her free hand reaching up and cupping his face to stroke down his stubbled jaw.

He can’t believe she’s been carrying their child all that time and neither of them knew. Four months. Maker’s breath! They’d been across the Waking sea! And to Kirkwall! Such dangers he’d never have undertaken if he’d had even the faintest idea… “All that time?” He shakes his head in disbelief.

She nods and curls her feet up under her so she can snuggle into his lap, an action he gratefully welcomes. It really has been quite a day. One he’s certain he’ll never forget. As her warmth spreads through his chest, he’s hit with a sudden memory that snaps the air from his lungs with a hiss.

“Maker’s breath! In training, I hit you with a shield!” he exclaims, generating a bark of laughter from her curled form.

“Cullen, I get hit by shields all the time!" she exclaims, still laughing, although it fails to make him feel any better about it. Apparently sensing his worry she peeks up at him from under thick lashes, the brilliant blue of her iris’s shinning with all the love and certainty he’s ever dreamed of. “This is no ordinary baby, it has the blood of two warriors, two survivors, two leaders, tinged blue with nobility and scarlet with Ferelden… it's no ordinary baby,” she rubs their joint hands lightly over the small swell of her stomach. “This is our baby, Cullen.”

Chapter Text

“You are allowed to touch my tummy you know,” Annabel cracks one eye open against the growing light to peer at her husband. “It’s not like you’re going to break the baby somehow,” spying the warm wonderment Cullen wears she blinks the remaining sleep away to instead try and focus on the liquid amber of his eyes which dart up from staring at her stomach.

“Yes, right, I know… but still, you’re sure?” Those honey glazed ambers peer up at her from under a mop of wheaten curls that’s fallen limply over his forehead, and she can’t help but feel like the luckiest woman alive. Silly, handsome, man.

“Yes, Cullen, I’m sure,” she nestles her cheek back into the pillow with a serene little smile. The room is filled with the pink hue of breaking dawn which tells her it’s far too early to rise, although it does make her wonder if he’s even slept at all since hearing the news.

The mattress shifts and tender fingers run over the small mound of her tummy, she hisses and jerks from him, and his hand withdraws like he’s touched hot coals.

“Maker’s breath! I- Annabel, are you-“

Her giggle breaks off the panic in his voice, and when she opens her bleary eyes, she finds him caught in some kind of mixed state of concern, confusion and chagrin.

“I’m joking!” she flashes the same beaming smile which has gotten her both into and out of countless mischiefs before. “In what way could you ever possibly hurt either of with a feather-light touch? Scratch that, in what way could you ever hurt us, period." Propping up on her elbow she gives a mildly exasperated shake of her head. "How about you save your worrying for the bigger things, ok?” She goes to reach out and brush the dusting of curls from his forehead but promptly discovers only a stump. She still expects it to be there, her hand, and can’t believe just how much she’d taken it for granted. The reminder that she’s now much less than she once was is able to fowl her mood like very few other things could. ”Like how I’m going to cope with one arm to start…” she grumbles with a passing glare at the end of the limb before flopping back down into the sheets.

“You’ll be brilliant,” Cullen’s tone is warm but rough, riddled with sleep and a whole host of loving emotions that she knows he’ll never likely be able to put into words. “You have the gem, and the false hands, you've been doing amazing," the bed dips slightly as he shifts closer, wrapping one leg over hers. "You'll find a way, you always do… Besides, I'm here, I always be here,” now his hand does rest on her stomach, and she sighs heavily.

Reassuring as his words are they don’t quite shake the feeling that she’s not ready, that she’ll never be ready. How was she supposed to change the babe when she couldn’t even do up her own buttons? The prosthetic hand was becoming easier to use, but it still would never match the natural dexterity or strength of the real thing.

“What if I can’t do it?” It’s a whisper, she makes with her eyes closed. Speaking aloud that tiny voice of doubt that has seeped in, that has soiled everything since she lost her limb, since she'd found out about the baby. “If I’m not ready… You know how emotional I get, how angry... What if I can't cope?” Another shift in the mattress and she feels his callous palm brush over her cheek, enticing her eyes open with the soft drag of his thumb.

“You can, I know you can,” Cullen nods, his eyes as earnest and devoted as she’s ever seen them. “I have many concerns; getting you home safely, the birth, making Skyhold infant proof. Then there’s the threat of kidnap, the cold in the mountains, the sicknesses that spread through barracks. And how I should pick it up when it cries? How do I know when it’s hungry? How am I to manage work and nappy changes? The list almost never ends. But one thing that never has, and never will worry me, is how you’ll cope. You’ll be a brilliant mother.”

Tears start to itch the back of her throat, and she nods, letting one spill over and down her cheek, only for him to place a kiss in the wake of its trail. Nuzzling against his jaws they share a kiss, tender and true, and the dark thoughts are chased away by his warm lips against hers, the slow slide of his tongue and the embracing hug of his arm as it hugs around her waist.

“And you’ll be a brilliant father…” she breathes against his lips, nose lifting to nudge against his before letting her eyes flutter closed once more. "Of that, I have no doubt."

 

 

“We should arrange to have you seen by the midwife, make sure you’re as well prepared as possible… I’ll look into sourcing a cot, a nanny, and all the things Maker only knows a baby must require…” Bryan is already scribbling out a list, his thoughts spilling too fast and furious to stay in his head. This is amazing news, incredible in fact, but also distinctly terrifying, and his mind has already worked out a dozen ways for things to turn disastrous. His aunt and his uncles had been quite significant in his life, trying to fill in the gaping holes his parents had left, and while he has no doubt that they'll make wonderful parents, he still wants to help any way he can.

“A nanny?” Cullen brows furrow across the table at him, his arms crossing, a tell-tale defensive sign which Bryan notes with a brief glance before continuing his list.

“Yes, a nanny, to help raise the child,” he’s already moved on to thinking about the crib and wondering where best to find the best advice on newborns. “I’ve heard-“

“No,” Cullen cuts across in the kind of stern tone all strong military commanders possess. “We shall not require a nanny, we shall raise the child, ourselves, besides there will be plenty of help at Skyhold.“

The quill in his hand stops what it’s doing, and Bryan takes a moment to gather himself, cracking his neck before he straightens. This child will be his niece or nephew, and Annabel is the closest family he has. To that extent, he knows her well, and while he knows she will be a warm, caring, fantastic mother, he is also not so naïve as to believe she won’t need some support. Support, which he fully intends to give, and he can hardly provide it with hundreds of miles between them.

He knows he can’t keep her here forever, she has moved on with her life, but he can at least help her through those first few days, weeks, or months even. Keep them both safe. Besides only a fool would take a pregnant first-time mother to be on such a long treacherous journey over the waking sea and miles of wild Fereldan countryside. “Yes, but what about when the babe first arrives here and is screaming through the night? What you do in Skyhold is up to you, but I shall not be kept awake all hours by a screaming-“

“Hang on,” Cullen’s palms come to rest firmly against the table with the hefty rustle of steel from his armour as his face twitches with a scowl. “What do you mean ‘when we get to Skyhold’? We are leaving, at once. The baby should be born at home.”

“And is no one going to ask for my opinion?” Annabel quips, one eyebrow and hand raised from her spot beside her husband.

Bryan barely registers her interruption, too focused on the stubborn man opposite and the challenge he represents. “The baby should be born here, Annabel should not have to endure months on the road. Besides this is the child’s ancestral home, countless Trevelyan’s have been born and raised under this roof, including-“

“This baby," snarks Cullen. "Our baby, is a Rutherford.”

Now its Bryans turn to scowl. To honestly think a commoner’s start to life is superior to the likes of what he has to offer here is absurd. “No offence,” he glowers. “But my niece or nephew should at least be born into the comforts of nobility, not on a Fereldan farm in the backend of nowhere.”

“No offence!” Cullen’s sharp tone and snarl slam through the air only to hit a wall of ice from the Lord which nothing, not even a lion’s roar could shake. Solid and steadfast Bryan rises to meet the heat of the commander’s glare with one of icy blue fire. He would not be intimidated and he certainly won’t allow a man he barely knows to make such life-changing decisions for his sister.

“Again, is no one going to ask me?” all playfulness to Annabel's tone is now evidently gone, apparently swallowed by the growing tension in the room which lifts even Kelandris to her feet beside him.

“The plan remains the same,” Annabel’s eyes narrow, her voice firm and authoritative. “As this baby is growing inside me, I’m the one who gets to decide. And I’ve decided our current plans are to remain the same. We’ll cross back to Fereldan, visit Cullen’s family in Honnleath then travel back to Skyhold, just all a bit earlier than we originally planned.”

“What!?” Both men twist to face her with expressions that scream as if she had just announced a most unholy blasphemy.

“I don’t see why things have to change just because I’m pregnant,” folding her arms, she also lifts her chin as any proper noble would. “I’ve been waiting two years to meet your family, my family. I’m not about to miss this chance. Once the baby arrives, we won’t be going aware for ages. So, no, I’m sorry, but that’s final.”

“Being pregnant changes everything, you should be resting,” Cullen steps towards her, hands outstretched in a silent plea.

“Yes, I agree with the commander,” Bryan nods. “You should be resting. Here, with all the comforts you require,” the quip receives an over the shoulder growl from Cullen but no rebuke.

“No,” she steps away from them both, genuine anger appearing to grow from the annoyance in the flicker of embers in her eyes. “It will only take a few weeks more travelling. I’ve spent years travelling, I’m quite accustomed to it. I do not need wrapping up in cotton wool or being waited on hand and foot. I’m the Inquisitor damn it!”

“Which is why you should be at Skyhold,“ Cullen implores with a softness to his tone which is overruled by a growl opposite.

“Which is precisely why she should remain here!” Bryan can’t keep his voice in check any longer, the debate is getting truly ridiculous. He senses Kelandris shift closer as he struggles to hold onto his control.

Had the damn Inquisition not done enough? Taking her from her home, her family, almost taking her life several times over, and not content with that taking a damn limb! All his life he’s protected her, kept her safe, be that from stupid childhood accidents or teenage courtly gossip quickly countered. As far as he can see this Inquisition had done nothing but put her in danger. “Let someone else deal with the title and the stress it entails, your priority will be with the child, not the Inquisition, and the further you are from it the better.”

“You’re unbelievable!” Annabel throws her arms up in open hostility,  but he doesn’t waver, standing rigid with absolute conviction. This is a battle he won't lose.

“If I might be the voice of reason?” A far calmer, but no less assertive voice finally makes itself heard as Kelandris steps to Bryan’s side. “How about we have this discussion with the physician and midwife, have them decide the best course of action? They are the experts after all.”

All three shift, tempers still clearly flared and hackles raised, but none seem to be able to find a reason to openly object.

“Fine,” Annabel huffs. “But I’ll not just wait around here-“

“No!” the slam of a fist thunders through the small room as Bryan’s eyes blaze and his lips curl back to reveal a flash of blunt fangs. He won’t see her come to any harm. He simply won’t.  “Damn it. For once in your life, Annabel, will you just listen to me!”

“What’s your problem!?” Her own iris’s flare with a kindred inferno as she snarls with equal ferocity, ignoring the attempting calming hand Cullen places on her shoulder. “You’ve not even seen me for years. I’ve been fighting giant demons, dragons, dark spawn magisters, and all a thousand miles away, how is this more dangerous? Huh!? How Bryan!?”

The outburst has left him panting lightly, unable to control the emotions the pulse through his veins with every pound of his heart in his chest. Lips curling, he snarls at the hostility, at the fear and hopelessness he can fill rising up from his stomach to clench every muscle in his body. He has to make her see.

“Because…” his voice is stern and he quickly trails off, reining back the ferocity with a shake of his head and an exasperated sigh, hands scrubbing at his hair. “Because I know you could fight those things and win. Even then, I still worried myself to death, first the conclave, then the reports about demons, dragons, the fade, bloody Orelsain royalty! Maker's breath it's as if you were trying to give me a heart attack. Then this with your hand… This Inquisition has put you through the void and back, and dragged me along with you, even though I knew you were capable… Knew you could thrive… I couldn't, can't help wanting to protect you, wanting you safe… And childbirth…” he trails off with a wave of his hand as his true fears finally become evident to him, the words choking in his throat. A heavy weight settles around his heart and drags his eyes down with it.

“… even a woman as strong as mother couldn’t survive that…” His voice is quiet now, speaking aloud words he’d rather have kept inside, words that only bring dark and vicious pain closer to the surface. “Perhaps you have forgotten,” he shakes his head and shuffles some papers uselessly in a vain attempt to distract from the crushing pressure in his chest. “But I have not, cannot,” as Kelandris arm rests on his shoulder and squeezes he gives up on the charade and puts the papers down. Emotions buried deep now ripple close to the surface, burning the back of his throat and clenching his chest like a fist curled around his heart. “How do you erase the sight of your mother’s blood-soaked sheets? Of mops smearing bloodied water across the flagstones by your mother’s bedside? Of her skin, so pale and cold to the touch. Of the way she screamed and clenched her teeth? The fear I saw in her eyes, heard in her voice… the weakness I felt as she tried to hold me, tried to tell me it would be ok… Made me promise, made me swear even, to always look after you, to keep you safe,” he shakes his head, dark hair flopping over his eyes as he does so. He hates this, opening up like this, it’s is so alien, and makes him terrifyingly vulnerable, but he hopes against hope it makes her see sense, see how serious this matter really is.

 “Annabel… I can’t risk losing you... I especially can’t have that happen a thousand miles away, have you die without my knowing, without being there. To lose you to such pain in some hovel or on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, to have that after we’ve been through so much… when you mean so much… I can’t…” His voice cracks as tears sting his eyes, but he refuses to cry, refuses even to lift his head and look at her, because he knows that’s all it'll take to open the floodgates.

“Oh, Bryan,” Kelandris’s tone and body are warm as they press against his side, both a small distinct comfort amidst the turmoil, not that he can even meet her gaze to tell her such. He can do nothing but keep his hold himself together with what little control that remained. He had looked after Annabel from the moment their mother died, had ensured she had food, a cosy fire, a shoulder to cry on, all while their father dismissed the staff in a drunken stupor. Everyone had just assumed the children would be taken care of. Two young nobles in a fancy castle… but at five and six with no adults, bar a few sparse guards, what were they to do? Even then he had been stubborn, unwilling to admit they needed help. Even at that age he understood the game and knew having everyone see their father, covered in his own vomit passed out amidst empty bottles would ruin him, ruin them.  So, he’d stepped up, and he doesn’t intend to step down now, nor ever.

The next thing he knows he’s tugged, shaking his head he recoils at the invasion, but it’s Annabel, and he knows resistance against her hugs is futile. A hot tear slips down his cheek as she holds him tight and he clenches his face against it, and hugs back. Soon his chin is being lifted, dragged up to find his sister staring at him, with eyes like his own, only far softer, far warmer.

He can’t believe he’s fallen apart like this. A man in his position could not afford such weaknesses, and yet, he can’t bring himself to detach from that ancient pain, that promise. It seems that the oldest scars ran the deepest, especially when etched in blood.

“You’re not going to lose me like that, ok?” Annabel’s soft but stern message reaches him, and he wishes he could believe her, but he’d learnt the world was a cruel place long ago, back when his mother screams had echoed in his chambers.

“You can’t know that, not for certain,” he murmurs with a shake of his head, blinking more tears away even though it stings his throat to hold them back.

“And you can’t know I’ll have the same complications as mother. Bryan, the team we have at Skyhold, the healers, the mages, are some of the best in Thedas… and you’ve met my personal lion. Cullen will make sure I’m ok. I’m not a little girl you need to rush into defend anymore, remember?”

He can’t deny the man she’d wed seemed capable, protective, loving, all the things he’d wanted for her, but still, he can’t fully hand responsibly over, it’s too much of a momentous task.  Finally, though he nods, wanting the discussion over more than anything else. “I know, but that doesn’t stop me being your big brother or worrying... No matter what happens, whatever decision you make, no matter how stupid, you know I’ll support you. Always have.”

“I know,” she smiles warmly. “I’ll be fine Bryan, and so will the little one,” tears shimmer in her eyes although none have slipped over. “Now don’t get too soppy or I might start crying, and you know how quickly that gets ugly.”

Scoffing a little chuckle as she lets go and pushes her gently from his grasp. “Finally, something we can agree on.” For that, he receives a tap against his arm. Somethings never change.

Cullen isn’t quite sure what to make of it, what to make of this Lord who one moment had been shouting insults in blind fury and the next broken and crumpled the way he’s seen few men do. The way he knows he has in the past when weighed down with burden, pain and regret. It isn’t a pretty sight, and he’d done his best to look away, to afford them some privacy, but the bond between them is so strong he could even feel it hum in the air.

He recalls the night of Haven’s attack when Annabel had stumbled out of the snow, racked by fever she had talked all night, had sought comfort in her delirious state from a ‘Bryan’ and it's now clear they are far closer than he’d realised. It seems that sharing such trauma so young had forged a sibling bond of steel. One he's loathed to come between, but he truly believes Skyhold, being home, is whats best for her.

“I can see your concern, Lord Bryan,” he remarks to fill the silence as Annabel slips back to his side. “But I promise by the Holy Andraste and Maker above; I will devote myself to her, and the child’s care. I will not falter in this task, that I swear.” His tone is serious, solemn, and he hopes to convey the gravity of what he says, of how much he means it, of how nothing has ever mattered more than this. Blinking he straightens a little as Bryan slowly steps around the table towards him, only to be blindsided as the man holds out his hand.

“I know you will,” Bryan nods. “And I’m sorry, for being so harsh, so brash, but she is dear to me, as I can see she is to you. Look after them for me,” with that they share a solid, heartfelt, handshake the kind Cullen had been hoping for all along.

Chapter Text

Cullen chuckles as his wife huffs and throws a blouse at him which he catches clumsily. That’s the third that no longer fits over the ever-growing bump of her belly and swell of her breasts. He’s not sure she’s ever looked more beautiful than she does right now, with the pink morning rays lighting her silhouette in dusty hues and highlighting every radiant curve. It's enough to make his groin stir to life. To think, he's gazing at his wife, carrying his baby - it's a gift that feels beyond divine. If someone had told him three years ago, that he would be here, right now, he would never have believed them.

His adoring gaze is broken by her heavy flop onto the edge of the bed, the contents of her trunk spread around her in a picture of chaos he's come to see for its natural beauty. Trying to make Annabel tidier had proven to be like trying to coax water uphill, so he'd quickly given up and come to accept the mess as a part of her. Proof she was close by, and now he finds it strangely comforting, even if he does have to clear a space before he can join her on the bed.

Resting her hand over her eyes, she shields out the light as she collapses onto her back, only to grumble, fishing under herself to pull a belt free. Despite the early hour and evident stress, she cracks him a little smirk with a raised brow. “Well, won't be needing that anytime soon.”

The little jest doesn't convince him that she's alright though, and sprawling on his side, he gently places a hand on her stomach. They should arrive at Mai’s in a few days, and even he must admit he feels a ball of nervous energy in the pit of his stomach about it. It's been so long... He pushes his own concerns to one side to focus on her instead, while he knows Annabel will fit in splendidly, she's already confessed several worries about the meeting. The latest of which was what she'll wear. Apparently, she didn't want to be too posh, and neither too common, although it now seems she would settle for anything that just fitted remotely comfortably.

“Stop fretting, my love.”

Annabel's eyebrows shot up incredulously. “I'm not fretting! You'd be annoyed too if you tried on your entire wardrobe and not a single thing fitted! I even struggled to put my socks on!” She raises her legs to wiggle her slightly wonky socks at him until he's smiling warmly once more. “Should’ve known I’d end up carrying some kind giant Rutherford baby. I mean look at me! It's ridiculous.”

With his calloused palm stroking over the soft rise of her belly he chuckles. She always managed to draw that sound out of him somehow, and he doesn't believe he's ever smiled so much outside her company. “I think you're beautiful just as you are,” leaning over he places a tender kiss against her belly, before dropping his head to rest his forehead against her. Against them. His little family.

“Yes, well you would, but I can hardly show up to meet your family in just my underwear. I don't want their lasting memory to be how I gave your grandma a heart attack.” There is a playfulness to her light scolding and his chuckle that follows. Contently resting against her, he soon feels delicate fingers toying with his hair as he continues to rub absent-mindedly at her stomach. When she twinges and grabs his hand, he all but shots upright with a jolt of panic.

"Now whose fretting?" She asks, taking his hand with one eyebrow cocked. "Here, can you feel?"

Cullen stares at her small hand pressed over his, still uncertain everything is alright. That is until he feels it, a small bump, a press, a jerk, even against his palm. His baby! Kicking! Wonderment renders him speechless, eyes glancing up at her's to see them full of warmth while his own are blown wide by the rush of excitement. It doesn't last long, and soon the babe settles down, but at that moment he could swear he already loved this child more than he knew was humanly possible. And that, in no small part, was down the woman who carried it. The fact that the babe would be the two of them, forever intertwined is entrancing and he knows represents a real chance for him to bring some good into the world. Perhaps he could not help all those he'd failed, could not go back and right wrongs, but he could raise this child to be a better person than him, and full of Annabel’s warmth it could light up the world. Or he could fail… but that is a thought reserved for only the bleakness of nights.

Cullen can't be sure how long he stays curled beside her, but its long enough that by the time he lifts his head she's deep asleep and the pink light has turned to bright sunshine. Kissing her belly once more he eases himself up. She won't thank him for waking her, and she did desperately need the rest, so instead, he slips from the room to make himself useful.

-

Waking confused and with an ache in her back, Annabel blinks her bleary eyes to try and clear them. The sun is well up now, and she groans as it blinds her. Stupid sun. A groggy corner of her mind tells her it means they're late setting off, again.

Perhaps Bryan had been right with his concern, this journey does feel like it's slowly killing her, never has exhaustion been at the forefront of her mind so often. After almost dangerously falling asleep in the saddle Cullen had insisted they stop for a few nights at an inn. Stubbornness told him that she was fine, although her eyes had said otherwise. Thankfully her husband knew her well. Sleeping in a real bed the past few nights had felt heaven sent, but they must continue unless she really did want to have her baby in the middle of nowhere.

Sitting up slowly with a groan she notes how the mess is gone, looking to her trunk she finds a small stack of garments neatly folded there. What's he been up to now? Holding her great swell of a belly, she pads over to investigate, finding a small note in Cullen's scratchy script.

‘Kindly donated by the innkeeper for saving the world. Love Cullen’

As always it's short, and she smiles faintly at the way he curls the ‘c’ of his name. She could be presented with a thousand versions of that name, but she’d know in an instant which had been done by his hand. It's much steadier than it used to be, but still unmistakable.

Placing the note to one side, she picks up the simple floral dress with thin stretchy leggings that no doubt would be far more comfortable than anything she currently owns. A kind gesture indeed. Then again, there had to be some perks to being Inquisitor and saving everyone.

She rubs the fabric between her fingers as worries begin to bubble up to the surface once more. Cullen had been right, she had been fretting, but with good reason. In all their discussion of his family, it had become clear they were large and close-knit, warm and welcoming, nothing at all like her own. With a sigh she sits back down to chew on her lip, she doesn’t usually worry about fitting in, as she never really had fitted anywhere, and she guesses that’s the reason she’s so concerned. She does somehow fit with Cullen… but if she doesn’t with his family? What then? What if she’s too brash, too loud, too exuberant? Or maybe just too noble?

For a long time, Bryan had been her own family, now to think she is about to be welcomed into the bosom of a much larger clan is a little intimidating. It’ll be nice though, she decides with a little-determined nod, being alone has never suited her, it leads to thinking like this, which is clearly to be avoided. Besides she'd been born a Trevelyan, and taught to be fearless in all things, so that is what she shall be.

Dressing is even more difficult thanks to the bump, but with much huffing and wriggling, she manages. Running her hand over the fabric, she smoothes it down, instinctively rubbing at her belly tenderly as she checks in the mirror. And for all her complaints, all her weariness and achiness, she wouldn't change a thing.

Slipping on her shoes is easier said than done but after some fiddling Annabel manages. Searching for her husband, she wanders the corridors then through the bar to be greeted by a fresh breeze let loose by wide-open doors. Several people appear to be hovering just outside, and she catches the deep baritone of Cullen’s voice although she can’t make out what he’s saying.

The sunlight is near blinding, but the weather is pleasantly mild, much to her relief, as she steps outside where the packed dirt path leads her eye to the grandest sight. A brilliant wooden carriage, adorned with sturdy but elaborately patterned iron decoration. As Scout Jim steps back, she catches sight of the freshly painted Inquisition symbol blazing proudly on the door. Her hand absentmindedly lifts to her mouth as she approaches, entranced by the way the structure dominated the road yet still looked so pretty.

She hears his boots crunch on the pebbles before she sees him, although her eyes can’t be dragged away from the carriage. “Cullen… how did you? It’s…” The truth is, it’s overwhelming. Maybe it's her hormones, or maybe its the lifting of the niggling worry about what the strain of the journey might be doing to the baby, either way, her eyes fill up. One of his hands steadies the swelling emotion before it can consume her and gives her arm a little squeeze to draw her focus to him.

“It’s what every growing family needs,” his smile is warm enough to light up the golden amber flecks in his eyes and the softness she finds there spills a tear down her cheek. “Although I was hoping for a slightly better reaction…”

Smile beaming she pulls him in as close possible so can nuzzle against his chest and wipe all the tears away on his mantle as she’s done a hundred times before. “Thank you, Cullen… I… I…”

“Shhh, I know,” his lips murmur the gentle words into her hair before she pulls back to reveal a glowing smile.

Like a child herself, she’s quick to hop inside, finding it cosy with plenty of cushions and blankets. With a giggle, she taps the space beside her, and his bulky frame soon climbs aboard.

“Not sure what the villagers will make of this turning up on their doorstep,” settling beside her, Cullen's forced to pick up a lilac cushion to make space. His family had moved back to Honnleath after the blight, and he’s certain the tiny settlement won’t have been graced with anything quite so grand before. “I should’ve known Josephine would only supply the best.”

Snatching the silk cushion, Annabel promptly rests it behind his head. “Of course! The Inquisitor and her Commander should arrive in style, don’t you think?”

Smirking he leans his head back against it. “Hmm… yes… although...it does feel awfully… Oreselian.” With that the pillow is whipped away so fast he bumps his head against wood. “Hey!”

“It’s an Ostwick design! My father had one when we were little… not sure what happened to it… But Josie has done her homework once again, bless that wonderful woman!”

“Hmm,” rubbing his head with a petulant frown Cullen sits up. “We'd best set off,” as he goes to move Annabel quickly grabs him by the collar.

“I don’t think so, I said the Inquisitor and her Commander were to arrive in style,” she gently places the fancy pillow in his lap with a little smile. “And before you argue, just know I’ll be ever so bored and lonely in here all by myself…” fluttering her eyelashes her fingernails toy with the frilly edge of the cushion perched precariously over his groin. Shifting she leans further into him, her thumb tracing down the edge of his jaw. “And I promise I’ll keep you entertained, Commander,” her voice drops with a deliberately inticing purr as she kisses him, hot but soft.

He hums into her lips, and she can feel a vibration run through him as their tongues slide sweetly over each other.

Suddenly sunlight floods their sultry moment. “Commander, sh-" Jim cuts off mid-sentence at the fierce glower both lovers cast him. “Sorry, Ser! I… You said too…” he shakes his head. “Never mind, Ser.” The door promptly closes once more.

Seems privacy is in as short a supply as ever. Likely only to be made worse by sharing a small cottage with Cullen’s extended family. Not that Annabel minded, in fact, she’s been looking forward to it from the moment the plans had been made. A chance to see where he's from and to meet the people who’d help shape him into the man she loved. Whether she fitted in well didn't really matter, what mattered was it was his family and a chance to him truly feel at home. With that in mind, she pulls back. He's right they really should get moving.

“Perhaps we can continue this later?” She offers a little naughty smirk his way as he sets about trying to leave once more.

“Of course, Inquisitor,” there is a richness to his baritone that betrays his arousal, but with a great deal of self-restraint, he merely pecks a kiss against her cheek. “In the meantime, however, I can think of a fellow who would love to keep you company.”

Annabel creases her brows as it takes a second for her mind to return from the gutter. When it does, she smiles and nods, and as Cullen climbs out, there's a sharp whistle. The carriage rocks and creaks in place as the great mabari bounds aboard. Tongue hanging out and stump wagging wildly, Prince leaps onto the cushions to sit upright, proud as punch beside her.

Chapter Text

“Mama! Mama! The imposition is here! Mama! Come see!”

The little girl’s jubilant cheer draws a bark from the mabari by Annabel’s side who bounces to stick his head out the window. Prince seems to favour the wind against his slobbery chops, and all but leans out the carriage with his stump wagging furiously as they pull to a stop. Annabel must admit she’s grateful too, the chance of a few weeks rest in a real bed has been calling to her in the way it always did after a long journey.

When the door opens the hound all but falls out, making the cabin lurch and sending her sprawling, thankfully, Cullen, is quick as always to lend a steady hand and catch her as she stumbles.

Hmm. The title ‘Imposition’ may have been correct after all. Honnelth isn’t so much a village as a small hamlet of stone farm cottages, and their arrival must have all but doubled the population of the place. The announcement had clearly reached every household, and a crowd had gathered to greet them with hushed murmurings. Annabel can’t help but be suspicious of the sideways looks that are traded, being judged was never a pleasant experience, even though it is one she’s used to. Years at playing the game allowed her to see past the whispers and find that most of the folk seemed merely curious and nod in welcome if her gaze lingers on them long. That wasn’t usually the vibe she got from crowds like this but in a way its what she should have expected, they were welcoming back a successful one of their own.

A tiny spark of paranoia about her hand crackles with the green gemstone, and she curls her prosthetic fingers to hide the faint glow. She wants to be seen for her and not as the Herald of Andraste, although that seems impossible nowadays, the two have largely become one and the same, forever interwoven, in the public’s eyes.

Glancing to Cullen, she notes how his eyebrows have drawn in, searching the scores of people with scrutiny, evidently seeking someone who isn’t there based on the way his eyes continue to narrow. She gives his hand a reassuring squeeze, whatever judgement she’s feeling must be tenfold for him, and she doesn’t envy him in the slightest. Excitement buzzes along with the nerves, and she bumps her hip against his in the hope of transferring some of that positive fizz over.

Her action has little to no effect, and she notes his focus is glued to a slow emerging path. It’s being cut through the mass by the forceful march of a tall and broad-shouldered woman. Her wavy golden hair is tied up in a loose bun, and strands of flaxen locks wisp in the breeze as she pushes her way through. The steely determination in her copper-rich eyes confirm what Annabel had already guessed; this must be Mia.


“Cullen Stanton Rutherford,” the lady remarks, one hand on her hip and a light smirk gracing her features. “And just what brings the Commander of the Inquisition’s mighty forces all the way out here?” Before he can answer a squeal from behind her sounds, and another shorter, plumper, blonde woman with a babe in arms pokes her head around. Unlike her big sister, Rosalie rushes straight over to him, with another young child in tow, and both proceed to hug him tightly.


Cullen can’t help but be overwhelmed at the turnout, at the way Mai somehow looks just how he remembered, despite the years, and how Rosalie clutches him like she had when they were small. Could it be they had really missed him? Even after all his failings? He’d lost count of the ways he’d let them down. From the blight, losing mother and father, the upheaval of the move, the poverty it had brought them, right up to the way they had rebuilt their lives piece by piece. All without him. All while he had been too consumed by his own Templar duties, his own dark obsessive mission to control mages in a way that would make his siblings skin crawl.

Their smiles though, welcome him in a way that only loved ones could and tentative warmth begins to creep through his chest. He might not deserve their love or such a heartfelt welcome, but Maker only knows he needed it. He hugs them back, his hand falling on his nephew's shoulder and squeezing. He’d been so foolish to stay away so long, too insecure of his worth he’d gladly let himself be blinded by his work, that he knows now had been a terrible mistake. Emotion wells in the back of his throat, and he has to pull away from their embrace or risk tears spilling out of him.

Cullen spies Branson approaching by Mai’s side and can’t believe just how much of a man his little brother has become, tall but lean with muscle, scars peppering his arms, and one across his cheek all combining to tell the tale of a hard life. He also can’t help but notice that while Mia and Rosalie's husbands hover on the sidelines, Branson’s wife is notably absent. Mia had let him know that she’d died shortly after giving birth to a little boy and guilt begins to ebb into the corners of Cullen’s mind. It’s just another example of a time when his family had needed him, and he hadn’t been there. Annabel’s burst of laughter, however, pulls him back from the dark tendrils of his thoughts before he can become consumed them. Glancing down finds that the source is the great big hug their nephew, Bran, is giving her waist.

Looking to the beaming smiles all around him and down then down at young Bran, Cullen can’t help but crack his own. Branson had muscled in to claim a spot and extends his hand for a hearty shake.

“It’s been far too long,” Mia murmurs, squeezing his arm, there's no chastity to it, just the tell-tale ache of old longing. Surrounded now by family, Cullen knows she’s right, and an apology begins to stutter from his lips, but she promptly shakes her head.

“There’s no need, it’s just good to see you,” Mia’s smile is soft, and she locks eyes with him. She’d always had a way of getting her point across, and it seems nothing had changed in that regard. She clearly would hear no apology, not now at least, so he refrains from trying to give one.

“And you must be Annabel!” Rosalie lights up as she turns to her.

Little Bran swivels his focus up at his new aunt. “The Herald? The warrior with the magic hand? Can I see?”

Instinct pulls Annabel's prosthetic hand away, hiding it slightly behind her back, a kindling of shame still marring her once open nature. This, however, is her nephew, and his gaze is nothing but brightly curious. Holding her palm out to him, she can almost feel the old crackle the mark would've made as her nerves tingle, but the stone merely pulses lightly.

“Wow! Papa, did you see!?” Tugging her hand Bran lifts it high over his head to show his father with all the grace of a clumsy four-year-old, and big dark eyes the sparkle in the green hue.

“Hmm, yes it’s very interesting, but that’s no way to treat a Lady is it? Especially not your new aunty,” Branson raises a brow, and his son instantly drops her hand.

“Oops, sorry!” The boy is scooped up by his father, and the baby in Rosalie's arms snuffles a cry at the commotion, or perhaps merely demanding some of the attention for herself.

“And here is little Julie, your niece,” Rosalie presents the baby to Annabel, and for a moment she stares blankly at the child. Annabel isn’t sure how she should hold her or that being handed to a stranger will improve the little one’s mood. Scrunching her face, the baby begins to muffle a sob, but Rosalie's press into Annabel’s arms is insistent. “Go on! You’ll have your own soon enough, oh, I can’t wait, another cousin for Julie!”

More than a little overwhelmed Annabel takes the baby and does her best to support her. She’d never been overly interested in babies, unlike many young noble ladies who might coo around a new arrival in frilly lace she was more likely to pull silly faces at them until they'd either laughed or cried. The same went for how she’d treated babies most of her life. She’d never even had a doll. She’d been gifted many as a child, ones in elaborate satin dresses with beautiful curls of hair and hand-painted smiles. They’d mostly sat on shelves gathering dust as she charged around with her brother and their wooden swords causing the kind of chaos such pristine dolls would no doubt roll their eyes at. That thought had always unnerved her slightly.

Despite whatever reservations Annabel might have, she finds a natural smile is drawn out of her at the sight of Julie. She must admit, she is awfully cute, with a tiny nose, flushed round cheeks and a faint dusting of blonde curls. Somehow, she even smells new, if such a thing was possible, and her tiny grunts, complimented by scrunched fists make Annabel’s chest start to glow. Sensing Cullen’s looming presence she looks up and finds him staring at the bundle with a soft lopsided smile that spoke of a besotted father to be. She can’t help but wonder if their child will have a mop of curls, it seems to be a Rutherford trait and one that Annabel hopes continues.

“Right, come on, let’s get you all inside. I imagine you could do with a cup of tea, maybe one of those cakes Rosalie made, come on now.” Mia ushers them like a mother goose, guiding the swollen family as one, after little Bran who rushes ahead with the dog to one of the stone buildings jutting around them.

Entering the cottage Cullen can’t help but find it much smaller than he remembered, quaint even. It’s no wonder really, he’d been but a child the last time he’d been in here and had since lived in circles, temples and Skyhold. Somehow the low beams and thick walls just make the space feel homelier, more lived in, loved. Dry and fresh herbs hang from the kitchen’s beams, along with copper pots all of which direct the gaze to the oak dining table set out with tea, crumpets and small buttercream cakes. The assorted goodies are all surrounding a painted vase filled with idyllic purple meadow flowers, ones which Cullen vaguely recalls were mother’s favourites. It does seem his sister has thought of everything, as always.

A thousand ancient, long lost memories, flutter to the surface. The strongest are drawn out by the smell of stew in the oven which reminds him of long chilly days, of laughter around a crowded table, of his mother, perched on his father’s hip, tea towel in hand which she used to wipe at his dirt-crusted hands. He struggles to recall her voice now, but the way her smile had always beamed with warmth had never left him. Tears begin to well in the corner of his eyes, but they’re quickly pushed aside as a child’s voice captures his attention.

“Uncle Cul, look,” with an instant shove, a folded travelling chess board that had long since seen better days, is placed in his hands. His fingers trail over the names etched into the side, his own, crudely scratched along with his sibling’s, and now with Bran’s. “Mia said you was good but not as good as me,” the boy gives an impish grin, cheeks flushed red with excitement. “Can we play?”

“After tea, now go, sit down,” Mia has already swooped in and is leading the boy to a stool set out just for him, leaving Cullen holding a piece of his childhood which, although battered and scarred, was still very much loved. He sure there is a metaphor in that somehow.

The others shuffle in, Mia pouring tea and Bran takes hold of his niece and begins to pull silly faces. When hands wrap around his waist, Cullen doesn’t need to look around to know who they belong too. He can feel her breath prickle the back of his neck, and soon her nose follows to nuzzle under his ear in the kind of open affection he’d come to love from her.
“Happy?” it’s a light word, whispered against his skin where Annabel’s lips pepper reassuring kisses.

Overcome, Cullen merely nods, turning so their eyes can meet. The dazzling blue of hers finally brings out the joyful smile which had been wanting out him from the moment he’d arrived. This is home. She is home. His lips find hers to share a tender kiss, one which is cut all too short thanks to the disgusted ‘ewwww’ that sounds from their nephew at the table.

 

“You've done well for yourself, Cullen,” Mia’s voice is deliberately soft as she emerges to lean against the door frame, tea towel over one shoulder and hair now slightly frazzled from steam. He glances up to her with a little nod, catching how that frazzled appearance went much further than skin deep. “I was worried… Well, I was worried for the longest time after what happened at Kinloch, then you moving to Kirkwall… but I can see, I don't need to worry anymore.”

“Mia...” his head lowers, shoulders slumping under the weight of years of guilt and failure. “I... I’m sorry, I didn’t, I -"

“That's enough, I won't have you apologising to me, you've done nothing wrong,” she taps him on the head with the spotted rag in mock sternness. “You helped save Thedas, helped hundreds of people, just like you said you would, just like I knew you would.” Her eyes and smile match in the depth of their warmth before she quickly nods out to the field. “You also somehow found yourself a most radiant wife… You should be proud.”

Cullen can sense the depth of emotion that wells within her eyes, and which lies hidden behind her cheery tone. To avoid more awkward apologies, and poor explanations he instead follows her line of sight to see Annabel playing sword with young Bran. Their brother is shouting advice from the sidelines while Prince bounds around in giddy excitement, do nothing to help the child’s concentration. That was an important part of battle though, learning to focus on the target when chaos ran riot around you, he smiles faintly to himself, he is not playing the role of Commander right now, but still, it seems he can’t help but judge their swings.

The cracks of their wooden practice blades can be heard clear across the field, as can the chortle of laughter and baying of the hound. Exact words are lost to the wind, but Cullen can see all are smiling from ear to ear. When his wife pauses to brush damp hair from her face, their eyes catch briefly despite the distance. He wasn't sure it was possible, but her smile appears to grow even wider as it greets him.

Sensing his chance, Bran rushes at her and Cullen can see it all unfold in slow motion horror before his eyes. The boy’s feet pound against the grass, sword held high above his head, his full force blow aimed right at her stomach. Muscles clenching, Cullen’s breath catches in his throat as panic rushes up, he goes to cry out, already halfway to his feet, but it all happens too fast, and he can’t find the words beyond a strangled anguished cry.

Annabel apparently spies his concern, and with a dart to the side, she rolls to avoid the strike which sails clear over her.

Thank the Maker… Cullen still clutches the bench tight under his fingernails, his breath sharp and erratic. Sometimes he still forgets that his bright and beautiful wife was not a defenceless lady, and she never had been. Pregnancy tummy or not, she wasn’t about to change into someone who froze or cowered at a blow. She’d been training since Bran’s age, and it shows in the way she swoops around to scoop the child up in her arms.

A gentle hand on his shoulder brings Cullen from his poised position and inches him back down onto the bench. All is well. In fact, Annabel is ruffling Bran’s curls in mock retribution, her bright, playful smile apparently dazzling the boy into a fit of giggling.

“She'll be a brilliant mother.” Mia’s voice cuts through the serene moment to bring Cullen back to her and one of near equal serenity. Sat on a bench made by their father, at the edge of a field which backed onto his family's homestead, enjoying life’s simple pleasures in the dappled shade of a tree he’d frequently climbed in his youth. The problems of the past two years, of the past decade, somehow seeming to fade into a haze in the freshness of the breeze.

“I know,” it's a murmur, a solemn affirmation made as his eyes never leave Annabel. She's already moved on to squaring up with his brother while Bran chases Prince, who has somehow got hold of his sword and is happy as can be with his new, highly prized, stick.

“I've never met anyone quite like her…” he trails off, his voice distant and awestruck. He still can’t believe his luck, that he’d found her, that she’d returned time after time to him, that she loved him, that she loved their baby…

“I imagine she thinks the same of you, or else she wouldn't have joined this shambles of a clan,” his sister nudges him playfully with her elbow. “Who would’ve thought, my shy little brother, stumbling over his words, able to woo himself a real noble Lady. Just to bring her home, and play with sticks in the dirt like a real Rutherford.”

Cullen chuckles, the sound made all the richer by witnessing his wife giving Branson a good thrashing from the moment they square off. He wouldn’t have believed it either if someone had told him back in Kirkwall this would be his future, he would have called them mad, heck, he probably would have called them possessed. The mere notion that he could marry a woman like her, could find happiness in the light she shone into his darkest places, well it was as alien as a fish on land.

“Why don't you join them? It looks like Branson could use your help,” Mia’s voice is light with laughter as Annabel shows that she's still very much the warrior she always had been.

Cullen shakes his head all too swiftly with the huff of another chuckle. “I've lost more than enough times to that woman. I'll never hear the end of it.”

“Ah, yes, well you always was the more sensible out of the pair of you,” Mia pauses and winces as Branson takes a strike which will no doubt leave a nice bruise on his arm. “Radiant... and dangerous, your wife.”

Casting her a sideways smirk Cullen all but brims over with pride. “Very much so.”

 

Annabel isn’t very good at washing dishes and despite everyone's instance that there was no need for her to help she’s determined to be useful, although she’s quickly handed to drying duty as a rather weary Branson washes. Sat at the oak table Cullen studies her, he’d tried, much in vain to help, but she’d pushed him back into his chair and said something about him needing a break.

While faint orange rays catch the bronze in her hair, he can’t help but think Mia’s description of her was spot on. She is truly radiant… and dangerous. There is a glow about her skin in the soft lighting and when she deliberately pokes at a sore spot on Branson’s arm for being too slow the later part of the description comes into play to make him chuckle.

Sipping at his warm tea he soaks in the serenity of the moment, his hound is asleep, snoring under the table, his family are chattering next door, and his pregnant wife is stubbornly trying to place glasses on a shelf that’s far too tall for her.

His brother steps in, and when done dips out with a nod to him and warm if not tired smile. Annabel is soon back at his side, arm wrapped over his shoulders as she perches against him in their first moment alone since arriving.

“How you feeling?” she asks, head leaning to one side to rest against his, instinct draws his arm around her waist to hug her close.

“It’s been a long day… but I’m glad we came.”

“So, in other words, still happy,” she jests, nudging and nuzzling her nose in his curls until he breaks out a smile.

“I’ve never been happier,” he gives her a little squeeze, the familiar scent and feel of her soothing his weariness away.

“Good,” slipping from his lap she tugs on his hand. “In that case, you can bring those bedroom eyes of you’ve been making at me all evening, to a more, private, setting,” her own eyes sparkle as a little inviting smirk dances over her lips.

The distance she’s put between them is too much, and Cullen finds himself stood up to wrap his arms around her once more. “A tempting offer, Mrs Rutherford, but I hardly want the whole household to know just how thoroughly you enjoy your husbands, intimate, company…”

Annabel gives a smile that on anyone else would be coy, but on her is always edged with mischief, her hand coming up to play with the curl that’s fallen loose over his forehead. “Don’t worry. I’m nothing if not discreet.”

“Oh, really?” Not believing it for a second, Cullen lifts one brow and studies how her eyes grow steadily darker in the fading light. With a chuckle she pulls away, hand clasped in his to drag him along, he gets a few steps, his body acting by will of its own before he pulls up short.

“Annabel… we shouldn’t…” It’s not that he doesn’t want to, Maker’s breath, he’s never wanted her more, but his eyes are drawn to the small but distinct swell of her stomach.

“Why... “ she trails off, her brow lightly furrowing as she lets go to regard him with suspicion. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing's wrong.”

“Don’t lie to me,” her eyes narrow to let him know she won’t tolerate his attempted cover-up. “You’ve not wanted to… you know… Well, I’ve never exactly had to force you into anything before, but ever since Ostwick you’ve been, off, with me. I can’t say I like it very much.”

“Annabel, I’m sorry,” his hand reaches out, but she takes a half step out of reach.

“Then tell me what's wrong,” she repeats, her heels clearly dug in and unwilling to budge. Knowing he can’t convince her otherwise Cullen sighs then gestures to her tummy.

“You mean because I’ve got fat!” Annabel’s eyebrows shoot up incredulously.

“Maker’s breath! What?! I… I, no, no, not all, that’s not what… What I meant was-”

“Everything ok in there?” Mia’s voice echoes down the stone corridor, and he has to step in quickly before Annabel has the chance to dig him an even bigger hole.

“We’re fine, thank you,” he hollers with a distinct old air of authority. Annabel stiffens and gives a little growl, but accepts his embrace and the way he presses his palm over the curve of her navel. “You know you're beautiful… radiant, even,” he murmurs, rubbing her tummy. “It's just... I don’t want to... you know…” he trails off, losing the words to the heat tickling up his neck and fraying his thoughts. “Hurt you. Either of you,” he nods downwards, and the penny seems to finally drop.

The harshness she’d embodied moments ago melts away, like the bristles of a hissing cat that turns to warm fluff under a soothing caress. “Oh, Cullen,” she murmurs, snuggling her body closer and wrapping her arms up around his neck until she’s gazing up at him from under long, thick lashes. “You do know that's impossible, right?”

“I know…” he sighs, eyes darting away, but the blush remaining. He had asked the midwife and the medic a thousand questions back in Ostwick, they’d been patient at first and indulged him, but he’d had to let his wife ask about lovemaking when he’d repeatedly failed to get the words out. “But… How can anyone be certain? I… I couldn’t bear it if I…” he trails off, the thought is too distressing to even put into coherent words. Her thumb comes up to brush his cheek and travels along the stubble of his jaw, a tender touch that speaks of nothing but care.

“We don’t have to do anything. But I promise you won’t hurt us, either of us… we can always go slow and gentle…” her lips brush over his now, the words and action a mirror of her suggestion. “See how we go… besides,” another brush of his cheek, her pitch lowering, darkening. “We both seem to be very good with our mouths,” her lips press against his, and he can’t resist the taste of her. The sound of her voice is honey sweet, with a rasp of lust that never fails to allure him, and the taste is like heaven itself.

Magnificent woman… who once again astounds him. A distinct pulse of arousal twitches him to life. It seems she approves as she hums against into the kiss, a delightful noise that only seems to deepen the pooling desire growing between them.

“I suppose I could try,” he murmurs, the hint of a smirk on his lips as they part.

“Well, only if it’s not too much of an imposition,” she drawls, fingertips plucking loosely at his collar. A loud squeak erupts from her as he squeezes both her ample cheeks in his broad palms. At the noise, the murmur from the front room grows quiet, and both know they’ve been heard. “This way,” with a conspiratorial whisper and a tug she’s already leading him out the back door.

“You Mrs Rutherford, are one very naughty woman,” he rumbles, holding her small hand in his, eyes transfixed on the sway of her hips as she leads him very much astray.

“So I’ve been told,” Annabel’s voice is now a purr radiating warmly through her chest as she treads carefully across the yard towards the carriage. Stepping up she tosses brunette locks over her shoulder before casting her wicked gaze at him. “But the question is, just how naughty?” Her smirk is the kind which would have made him blush in his teenage years and the kind which now only seeps a deviant look through his eyes.

Stepping in he finds the space is cramped, lit by one dim lantern, and the seating is still awash with silk cushions. For the most part, he can’t even stand up straight, but that doesn't matter… it seems his wife was resourceful after all, its private, secluded, and all too cosy. “Very,” he rumbles, the sound resounding in the small space to make her giggle, a sultry sound which is swiftly masked by the lock of the door.

His hands are all over her all at once, and Annabel can’t help but mould herself around him. Leg hitching as she stumbles in the tight space and falls to land with a chuckle against the cushions. Brushing hair from her face, Annabel looks up just in time to catch Cullen’s wolfish lopsided smirk. She narrows her eyes playfully, her foot rubbing against his leg as he looked down at her with all the predatory hunger of the lion she’d married.

Slipping to his knees, he pinches at her dress, then slowly inches it up over her thighs, his amber rich eyes firmly locked on hers as he takes his sweet time. Soon her leggings are being slowly peeled away to prise her thighs open before him, and a flood of want drowns her. Damn perfect man... kissing his way up her inner thigh tickles and excites, the scrape of his stubble over every damp patch of skin he leaves sends tiny pulses of pleasure up to her core.

“Naughty man…” she pants, her fingers finding those luscious golden curls and scritching against his scalp. Suddenly one of his hands has her splayed open, on full and glistening display, distinctly delicious enough to make him hungrily rumble. The sound shudders pleasure through the aching heat in her core. It’s been far too long since she’s had his undivided, his earnest and, oh so, sinful attention, far far too long.

“Very,” his rich baritone and the breath of air against wet folds is enough to make her gasp. Anticipation fires through every nerve to set her heart thundering, a pant tumbles from her, wanton and desperate. He answers with the flat of his tongue, and one long, languid lick, up her centre. A shock of pleasure pulls her muscles tight, the fingers in his hair now kneading, urging him to deliver more. And like the Maker sent man he is, he willingly obliges.

Dipping in, Cullen kisses at her entrance, dancing his tongue over the sweet bud that wants his utter devotion. Instinct rocks her hips as he takes his time paying every intimate inch of her his uppermost attention. His nose nuzzles against her, his fingers dig in a little tighter as he forces his tongue a little deeper, and when he sucks, pleasure throbs through to snatch the air from her lungs. Laying back she moans her most wholehearted approval. She could carry on like this forever, letting him explore, letting him devote himself to her and worship her in a way like no other had, always hungry for more.

Despite all this though, she still craves far more than his mouth. As glorious as it is, it doesn’t stretch her, doesn’t fill her, doesn’t pound her in the way she desperately desires. A tug on his scalp sees Cullen’s copper tinted eyes peer up from under his brow, jaw still very firmly nestled between her thighs.

“Please,” Annabel begs and writhes under him. It’s too damn hot in this tiny space, and she grapples with her dress while her mind swims in a heady concoction of pleasure and lust. She struggles, huffing as her hair tangles and soon he’s there, pulling the garment free to leave her in nothing but a breast band that is busting at the seams.

Cullen growls on sight of her, lurching forward to nestle his face, his raw kisses between the ample swell of her bosoms. Clawing up his side she welcomes him, thighs hitching over his body to find and rub his concealed erection against where she wants it the most. Bless him, he’s careful to place no weight on her, the brunt of his force bared by powerful arms that have her firmly trapped between him and cushions.

The ping her bra as it snaps free makes a giddy laugh spill from her. Within moments Cullen's nuzzling his way over each curve to land a hungry kiss against her nipples. The pulse of pleasure mingled with a tingle of pain makes her moan, half certain she’ll be sore tomorrow but not rightly caring as he hums and with his mouth full.

“Hmmm,” he pulls back slightly letting her pert bud pop from between his lips. “I shall be sorry to share these…” he murmurs, licking one cheekily before she can truly reply.

Deliciously wicked man. A deft tug of her hand’s spills open his trousers and tugs them down over his hips. “You shall be sorry to share me and my time, full stop,” she squeezes his peachy rear, hard, dragging him up against her by his toned arse until his lips all but crash into hers.

She’s not wrong, but the fact that it will be their baby taking up her time, her energy, well, he could hardly hold a grudge. She tastes all the sweeter for the nectar still on his lips, and Cullen can already feel her hand slipping over his navel. His kiss breaks into a pant as she pumps down the length of him to send a shot of blinding pleasure and throbbing need through him.

It’s been far too long… Rumbling he pulls her flush against him, dragging his stubble along her jaw until his lips reach her ear to whisper hotly. “But for now, your all mine, Mrs Rutherford,” with that, his hands are on her hips, already helping to twist her round underneath him. He won’t take any chances, so he guides her up onto the cushions and on her knees. Running his fingers down her spine makes her buck like the temptress of a woman she is, sticking out the delicious, ample curves of her rear so he can nestle himself between her cheeks. He gives one a little tap, to hear her squeal and have her arse bounce around his cock and deliver a pulse of pleasure to all his senses.

With a slowly guided thrust he enters her, her heat hugs around him, wet and wanton, and, oh so, glorious. A curse slips from his lips as she moans and embraces all of him. Perfect woman, carrying his perfect child... Worry still niggles the corner of his mind. Despite the desire pounding through his veins with every hammer of his heart, he pulls out slightly, one of his hands slipping around her hips to brush tenderly over her stomach. “If you want me to stop-”

“Don’t you dare,” with a sharp pant, she sinks herself over him to drag loud broken moans from them both. And with that, he’s lost to her, in her, with her, together as they should be, both building pleasure until there’s nothing else.

Maker, she can barely breathe, the heat of pleasure as he stretches her, as he begins a slow and dutiful rhythm is overwhelming. It’s not the wild rutting they so often were debased too, this is something much more tender, but his thrusts are no less deep, no less satisfying. If anything, the controlled slap of his hips against her arse only serves to drag the pleasure out. Legs spreading Annabel can’t help but seek more, always seeking more, chasing the edge over which she’ll tumble, wanting all of him and nothing else. Cullen’s panted breath is hot against the damp of her back, he’s grunts confirming he’s as consumed by her as she is by him. Together they rock, back and forth, his pace growing faster as her panted moans grow louder. The steamy air fills with the mixed scent of them, musk and sweat and sex and it's downright intoxicating.

One of his hands sneaks around, calloused and firm, they knead against the bounce of her breast. Her hands press firmly against the wall, seeking purchase, something to ground her as pleasure slams through with every snap of hips.

Lightly pinching her nipple leaves sends a sharp wave of shock, pleasure and pain shooting through her until she’s left crying out his name while his cock sheaths deep inside her. Annabel’s nails claw at the wooden backboard as her cry breaks loudly from her, bliss buzzing through on the euphoric high that only he could bring. His pace falters as she shudders around him, a few sharp snaps, more brutal and carnal than the rest and it’s all too much. Another sinful moan resounds from her chest as pure pleasure blinds her. His groan meanwhile is decadently rich against her back, making a wave of molten pleasure tingle through every nerve as he comes in hot, heavy, spurts inside her.

Panting hard, Annabel comes too to find her face pressed against the carriage wall, nails still digging crescent moons into the wood's surface as she feels Cullen slide from her. The whole room rocks slightly as he collapses beside her and she wonders briefly if it had been shaking the entire time… So much for discreet. She smiles cheekily to herself, humming and nuzzling against her arm as the scorching pleasure inside fizzles down into a warm sedated glow.

Fingers lightly brush against her hip and softly her eyes open, blinking hazily in their bliss-soaked state they regard him lovingly.

“Your… I didn’t… Did I-?” Concern distorts his features as he pants the words out all too quickly.

“I’m fine… in fact… I’ve never been happier,” she mumbles, sinking to rest on her heels, head still leant against the wall, hair wildly splayed over to one side. Annabel knows a moment later she’s wrong, as Cullen smiles and rests his head back, eyes closing, chest still heaving, but his every scalped muscle relaxed… seeing him like this, that is what makes her happiest of all.

Shifting she curls herself against his side, his arms opening to loosely welcome her close, his hand finding her stomach where his fingertips lightly trace idol patterns over her skin.

“Me neither,” he replies, nestling a kiss against her forehead, his fingers continuing to devote his contented glow to her, and their baby.

Chapter Text

Anguish doesn't even begin to describe the knot in his stomach or the tension in his muscles. Cullen can already feel the distant rumble of a headache coming on, but can’t indulge in such weaknesses right now. Not when Annabel needs him. Not when Annabel needed him, and he'd been shooed away like some child!

She is having his *child*, damn it, and he should be there, supporting her, caring for her. That, however, is not what the incessant midwife thought best and so here he is, banished to wait in the great hall with everyone else. Pacing does little to dispel the raw fear that coils around him. He’s not certain anything has ever twisted his guts so tightly, not even his first harrowing had so profoundly reached into his core and squeezed him until he could hardly breathe. He finds himself reacting to the slightest sound, the most subtle movements, his body on high alert as his mind tumbled through a thousand different worries.

Dreary eyed, he'd been awoken by a sharp elbow in his side, and a hissed compliant. His wife having moaned bitterly about being uncomfortable all day, had woke him, holding her bump, wide-eyed in the dark, to whisper that the baby was coming. Instantly he'd been awake, cupping her cheeks in his hands, and asking if she was sure, if she was alright. Her response was best not repeated in polite company, but it seemed after one false alarm, this time she was correct. That had been many hours ago, and the pink rays of dawn were now lighting the great hall and casting long shadows in the wake of his pacing.

At least he's not alone, Sera is slumped over one of the tables, cheek propped up by her hand, and Josephine bustles from one room to the next, sometimes smiling with excitement and other times fussing with a worried frown. Leliana was up in the room with Annabel, apparently during her time as a sister she’d had experience with such matters, and Cullen knows above all else she will keep his family safe. Something which his mabari is also keen on doing if his soft whines and sniffing at the bedchamber door were anything to go by.

The only other main source of anguish in the room is the lonely figure resting on a bench by the bedchamber door, with dark hair covering his slumped face and a fine antivan brandy precariously balanced in his hand. As if sensing Cullen’s attention he grumbles. “You'll wear a groove in the stone at this rate,” Annabel's brother doesn't even bother to open his eyes as he makes the quip. Cullen snaps a glare at him, but it fails to generate a reaction, so he continues pacing regardless.

“Blood, so much blood, flagstones which run red, mops uselessly smear, it doesn't stop, sheets of white turned crimson, this isn’t right...” the telltale soft and distant voice of Cole fills the anxious silence and makes Cullen all but jump out of his skin.

A fierce scowl takes hold as he marches to the spirit, the talk of blood shooting fear through him as surely as a blade to his throat. “What? Is she alright?”

From under his floppy hat, the boy peers out, glancing from Cullen to the bedchamber door. Maker no… Panic rises and seizes Cullen's heart. It's only once he catches the steely blue eyes of Bryan that he realises it's him who Cole’s gaze is fixed on, and not the distant hollow cries of the woman upstairs.

“So young, she did not want you to see that, too young, too soft, she didn't want to let you go…her darling boy…”

“Who are you?” The hint of a snarl carries across as Bryan rises to his feet with his bristles prickled.

“Some squiffy demon thing,” dismisses Sera with a look of disgust. “Who was supposed to have left!”

“Well, whatever you are, you have no business being in my head, continue to do so, and it’s yours that will be in danger,” the snap from Bryan reflects a temper long since frayed, with dark, heavy bags under his eyes betraying countless hours of anguish.

"...You can't protect her, its not your-" Cole tilts his head softly to him but stops when a warning growl sounds. Wide-eyed the boy looks to each of them in turn. “But... I'm helping…”

“You can help by telling us if Annabel’s alright?” Cullen refuses to let anything distract him from the events going on in the adjacent room. He knows that fear had driven her brother over the waking sea, that worry had called Sera from Orlais, and that kindness kept Josephine busy. They care, and he knows Cole does too, he may not like the spirit, but Annabel trusted him, called him a friend, and right now Cole was the best link he had to her.

“It hurts…” Cole trails off, head dropping, face concealed once more by his hat. When he doesn't expand his statement a growl rumbles from Cullen’s chest, his patients long since spent.

“We know it damn well hurts! Will she be alright!?”

Cole flinches but continues. “Endless pain… out… make it stop, I can't, it's, it's-” a scream from upstairs breaks the nonsense and sends Cullen rushing to the door. That's his wife, and he will not stand here while she suffers! Usually, he would follow any rules laid down by Leliana, but not this time. Opening the door, he climbs the stairs two at a time, heart pounding in his ears to drown out all but his love's horrific cries.

Greeted by bloodied towels, he feels the blood drain from him, his heart falters in place, body swaying … Maker, please, no… Racing to the bed he finds Annabel sat uptight, brutally crushing a pillow under her nails. Her dark hair, slick with sweat and grease, is plastered over her flushed, clammy face, but she seems just as strong and radiant as ever. Panting hard she takes a moment to notice him, and he swears he can almost see the relief in her eyes. Kneeling by the bed, and sodden sheets, he wraps his hands over hers. “Annabel… I… I…”

“You shouldn't be here,” interjects the midwife with a hand on her hip. “The last thing she needs is you fretting. Now go on. Out. She's fine, the baby is fine, now go on.”

The way his wife pants for air, face crumpled in pain, suggests she's anything but fine and he remains rooted to her side. Where he should be. Where he belongs.

“Cullen… I can't … Cul-” Annabel snarls through clenched teeth, and he can almost feel the pain radiate through her trembling muscles, soon enough tears begin to spill down her cheeks before she slumps back against the pillows, shaking her head. “I can't do this… I can't…”

“Remember to breathe,” Leliana's tone is soft and reassuring, and Cullen isn't sure he'd ever heard her like that before. Mothering almost. “You can do this Inquisitor.”

“She's right,” Cullen squeezes her hand, filled with a sudden earnest rush of love and need to reassure her. “You can do this.”

Puffing, Annabel sits upright to glare hotly at him. “Then you bloody well do it,as I've had enough!”

“Time to leave, Commander,” there is a underlying seriousness to Leliana's shift in tone. The snap of his wife and the fold of the midwife arms all help encourage him back to his feet.

Perhaps the ladies did know best...

Dejected and feeling just as heavy as when he'd entered Cullen turns to leave, and that is when Annabel all but screams in visceral pain. Instantly he's by her side, both his hands clamping over hers as the midwife checks her. Maker above, did women go through this every time? Is this normal? Can’t they do something!?

“It's time to push now my lady, babies ready, so when you feel your body tell you, you push, really push.”

His heart skips a beat. This is it, lifting Annabel's hand to his lips he peppers a kiss against it while she sobs. Clearly beyond weary and sick with pain, Cullen wishes he could take it away, that he could shoulder it himself, and understands now more than ever the depth of his wife's strength.

“I can't…” another panted sob from Annabel, made while seeking to hide as she curls away her face under thick hair.

Cullen squeezes her hand tightly. “Yes, yes, you can,” when she only huffs in reply his hand reaches over to brush her dark locks away and lead her face back to his with a gentle cup of her chin. “...I love you… I love you more than I ever knew possible, if, if you only knew... You’ve beaten Corypheus, closed the breach, vanquished countless foes, all things many claimed impossible. Yet you, you did all that. You *can* do this,” his eyes lock onto hers burning with conviction that smoulders behind his words. There is nothing this woman could not do, and that is something he has never doubted.

Then he sees it, that determined flare, that tiny crease of her brow, that steely determination set in her eyes. His warrior. His Annabel.

She nods, even though she whimpers, and fixes her blue gaze on his. He finds his thumb stroking her hand as she puffs, and when the next contraction hits, she pushes.

The next few moments rush by in a blur. He spies Leliana with yet more towels, then it's here. His baby. Their baby is here, it's just a flash of ruddy pink, but his heart leaps in his chest on sight of it. The connection with it, the devotion to his child so powerful he finds himself on his feet without realising, earnest eyes searching the bundle as the two ladies fuss over it. Jubilation quickly begins to give rise to fear, Annabel makes an anguished noise and squeezes his hand. The next sound that follows brings him more joy than he knew possible. The baby cries, loud and clear, a screaming wail just like its mother. Relief sweeps over him and glancing down he finds Annabel crying once more, but these are not tears of pain. These are the same tears of overwhelming joy that fill his own eyes.

“Congratulations, you have a healthy little baby boy,” the midwife beams at them and Cullen all but collapses back onto the bed. A baby boy. A son. He has a son. He still can't wrap his mind around the concept and finds himself just repeating that single word over and over: son. What did that mean? Raising a boy into a man... How could he even achieve such a thing?

“Can I hold him?” Annabel's tone is quiet, yet almost desperate, and in all honesty, Cullen seeks to ask the question almost as urgently as her. That is his son.

“Of course.”

And there he is. A tiny red face, with the cuteness nose and most adorable cheeks Cullen has ever seen.

“Hello, little one,” Annabel stifles back a sound that's half giggle, half cry, before looking up at him. Cullen can see in her eyes that the pain and anguish of the morning have been washed away in a sea of all-consuming love who's depths knew no bounds. Leaning over he presses a kiss to her forehead, beyond proud of her and already utterly besotted with the teeny boy.

The baby sniffles and whimpers, shuffling angrily in his blanket, instinct draws Cullen’s hand to help loosen the sheet, but he pauses halfway. His hand so large, his son so tiny, so new and fragile.

“It’s alright,” Leliana's soft reassurances and the burning desire to touch him are enough to overcome the doubts. He loosens the sheet lightly, so his sons curled fists can punch out, and he can't help but chuckle.

“A warrior already I see,” he jests, taking the tiny balled fist between his fingers to gently soothe the child's ill temper.

“Well, what did you expect?” Annabel quips. “Takes after his mummy and daddy.”

Daddy. Dad. Father. Papa. Cullen swells with pride at the new title, undoubtedly the grandest he has ever received. Pressing over once more he places a kiss against the babies forehead, committing his newborn scent to cherished memory and as he pulls back, he finds that tiny fist has curled around his finger. Emotion lodges in his throat to bring fresh tears to his eyes. It's as if somehow this precious little bundle knew who he was...

“He's perfect…” Cullen’s awestruck murmur is made as he shakes his son's hand for the first time. The baby let's go and begins to snuggle against Annabel who instinctively pulls him close. Looking to his wife, his radiant, beautiful wife, he gives a dreamy smile. “You are perfect.” Reaching down he plants a soft kiss against her lips. For a moment they remain like that, with foreheads pressed together, with their baby nestled between them, a tiny perfect family all his own. The Maker has truly blessed him.

“We'll leave you three alone for a few minutes,” the midwife he'd forgotten was there interjects, and he looks up to find her and Leliana wearing gentle auras.

“Thank you,” he nods. “For everything.”

“Of course, Commander,” Leliana bows gently in reply and when she rises her smile is a tiny bit mischievous. “Although, there is one more thing, does he have a name? The Inquisition will need to welcome it's newest member accordingly.”

Glancing back at Annabel he blinks, they had vaguely discussed various names, but in the warm fuzzy haze of the morning light Cullen’s mind is blank.

“Well, I was talking to Mia, and she gave me an idea,” Annabel may be speaking to the room, but her attention is fixated on the baby in her arms, which had apparently distracted her so wholly she loses the thread of whatever trail she’d been taking.

“Oh? I didn't know you and Mia had discussed baby names?” Cullen’s prompt makes her eyes lift to him once more.

“We didn't, but we did discuss your father… She told me about him, a quite, honest family man, a man who died protecting his children from the blight… And I just thought, well, that it might be a nice way to honour him? I mean, I didn't know him, but I know he'd be proud of the man you’ve become, and it just seemed fitting, a strong name…”

Dazed once more Cullen blinks heavily at her, then at his son, her sweet words bringing back memories of a man he'd always wished to be, the notion that he might be proud of him, is a new but welcome one. One thing is certain though, Arthur would’ve been honoured to have his little grandson bare his name and would have made sure the whole village heard about it. Annabel is right, Cullen can not think of a more fitting tribute.

“I think that's a marvellous idea,” Cullen’s smile widens until it sparkles in the amber of his eyes which fixate once more on the most beautiful bundle he’s ever seen. “Welcome home, Arthur.”

Chapter Text

It’s far too quiet.

Annabel frowns as she slips her jacket off. Worry and suspicion bicker for her attention as she climbs the steps, listening carefully for any telltale cries or screeches that she usually received on her return.

When Cullen hadn’t met at the gate, she wasn’t overly surprised. He must’ve had his hands full without her around, and she never could quite shake the pang of guilt that leaving her family behind brought with it. The fading sun’s rays now pave her way back to them with a welcoming orange glow, and warm eagerness begins to replace her trepidations.

Maker, but she had missed them. It had only been just over a week, but it had felt like a lifetime. No doubt her weary husband would agree. Smiling to herself, she rounds the corner of the steps to be greeted by her boys.

Prince, the great lumbering marabi, and so-called ‘guard dog’ doesn’t even raise an eyebrow at her approach. It seems the boys had thoroughly worn the old dog out, based on his heavy snoring, that continues while Arthur marches a carved pony up the great mountain of the dog’s side, oblivious that his mother was merely a few feet away. A second pony follows, or brave knight, it seemed, as the toys continued their quest along a treacherous path of a snoring mabari’s stomach. Piled either side of Arthur, one sprawled over the dog’s paw while the other lay spread over the floor with a miniature carved dragon still in hand were her little twins, Bryan and Maxwell.

Leaning on the bannister, she spends a few silent moments savouring the sight of them, the rise and fall of her toddler’s chests and the tiny snippets of playful conversation she catches from their big, but altogether still small, brother. Arthur had blossomed in Skyhold, having more attention, more care and more adventure than any young boy could ever wish for. As she watches, he suddenly exclaims something in gibberish, then reaches over to grab a report. It’s then that she spies the sprawled line of paperwork between his play area and her desk. Ah. So, the picture wasn’t quite so perfectly innocent after all.

Time and time again he’d been told to leave the desks and paperwork alone, and yet he seemed drawn to them with an endless fascination of putting chalk and ink to paper. The smile on her lips becomes slightly crooked, it seemed little Arthur was a perfect combination of her and Cullen, free-spirited but still with a love for paperwork. In fact, she had already requisitioned a bespoke miniature desk for him so he could ‘help’ by practising his letters and doodling on paper that didn’t contain important military secrets.

All but chuckling to herself, Annabel decides to intervene, it’s only then that she realises she can, in fact, hear two distinct snores. Twisting, she spies Cullen, sprawled over the small sofa, flat on his back, with a children’s book loosely held in one drooped hand while the other wraps over his latest prized possession. Baby Rose.

The young babe, just under four months old, had nestled against her father’s chest, head resting right over the beat of his heart, and it seems that Cullen has never slept more soundly. Drawn to the tiny buddle, Annabel crouches by their side, carefully taking the ‘tale of the stubborn druffalo’ out of Cullen’s hold, making fingers twitch, ever alert, even when exhausted and lost deep in the Fade.

“Mama!!!”

The overly zealous shout wakes Cullen with a jolt, the baby griping in compliant as her pillow shifts under her, thankfully he has just enough sense to stop himself bolting upright and disturbing her completely. It had taken him hours to get her to sleep, as it had every evening that Annabel had been away, the infant finding sparse comfort against the relatively hard planes of his chest. Those trials were over now though, his bleary eyes catching sight of his radiant wife as she catches Arthur’s bear hug and squeezes him so tight he erupts in a fit of giggles.

Another snuffled complaint from Rose sounds, and he can already tell that’s it, the peace has been broken, and she begins to wail, but still, he couldn’t be happier.

“Annabel… I… What time is it?” Shuffling more upright he shushes the babe against him, but it’s no use, her tiny fists have already drawn tight as she demanded nothing less than everyone’s full attention.

Scuffing up her son’s dark mop of curls, Annabel dismisses his worry, then gestures to hold the baby, something Cullen feels rather guilty of being so relieved to see. Between the four of them, he’s not sure he’s had a moment’s peace since she’d departed, if it wasn’t Arthur trying to climb the battlement walls it was the twins squabbling, or Rose crying to be nursed. She had not been impressed by the milk Annabel had left behind. She’d thrown a tantrum at the bottle and refuse to quiet for anything but her favourite lullaby. That had made for an interesting war room meeting…

Suddenly Arthur is climbing to sit beside him, legs swinging as his brother’s take their turn at getting rather more subdued affection, rubbing puffy eyes and nuzzling against their mother’s side with loose grips around her waist.

“It’s time for bed,” she rocks the whimpering baby one-handed against her chest, the other prising that damn wooden dragon from Bryan’s grip. “Come on now.”

Cullen almost sighs in blessed relief. Oh, Maker only knows he loved his children more than anything, but taking care of four alone had proven to be the greatest challenge of his life. Of course, the other advisors and staff had helped out during the day, but every morning and night had been a battle to rise and settle them.

Slowly rising, Annabel has to wriggle her son’s hold free, and as Bryan begins to snuffle a cry, Cullen wraps him and his brother up into his arms to hold one on either hip. Arthur meanwhile has already scampered off, seemingly full of boundless energy, he proudly fetches some papers that look distinctly like the reports Cullen had spent the afternoon writing.

“Look, I helped Papa, just like you said. See,” eagerly he presents the ruined document with bright blue eyes which are the very picture of Annabel’s.

“Arthur,” Cullen’s tone verges on stern. “What did we tell you about not touching the papers on the grown up’s desks?”

Annabel raises an eyebrow and refuses to come to her son’s aid as he peers up at her.

“But it wasn’t on the desk! Honest, Prince knocked them all on the floor,” he points with a stubby finger at the hound who finally decides to wake up with a mighty yawn and little wag of his tail. “And I…” the child falters under his parent’s scrutiny, eyes eventually ending up on the floor. “…I just wanted to help. Like you said.”

Much like his mother, Arthur was impossible to stay mad at, and Cullen merely gives a resigned sigh. “Alright. Next time just check before you start helping, please.”

The boy nods and is playfully shoved forward by his mother. “Bed. Now. It’s Papa’s birthday tomorrow, and I’ve got lots planned.”

“Oh, really?” Cullen raises a smirk and a questioning eyebrow, his toddlers already sleeping against him.

“Yes,” Annabel nods, hand still urging Arthur forward least he forget the task. “But all of you only get your goodies if your well behaved.” Now it’s her turn to give a playful little smirk. “Now, bed.”

The family shuffles its way downstairs, the boys bedrooms and a small play area had been built into the once wasted space beneath the Inquisitor’s chamber and had proven to make the ideal nest for the family. Provided no more surprise children came along that was.

It’s a struggle to keep his eyes open, his heavy lids blinking as he watches Annabel nurse their little girl. Just how had he ended up so blessed? When Annabel places her in the cot, the babe settles without compliant, and Cullen finds himself wearing a humble smile as he continues to study his wife. He must have dozed off because the next thing he knows Annabel is curling up against his side, and the telltale nudge of her feet sneaking to slip between his for warmth pulls him back from the edge of the Fade. “I missed you…” voice croaky and broken, he plants a kiss against the top of her head, resting there to soak in the scent of her.

“I missed you too,” her finger traces circles over his heart. “All of you.”

 

-

 

Sluggishly Cullen opens his eyes to be greeted by sunlight. He hums as he rests his lids once more, he can’t remember the last time he’d woken so late or feeling so revived. The room is peaceful with nothing but a light breeze dancing across his chest, and it takes but a moment for concern to fully wake him.

Silence? That really was a worrying novelty when you had four small children.

Sitting up, he finds only crumpled sheets and a scruffy note on Annabel’s side of the bed. Blinking away the Fade, he reads it slowly through the lingering fog of sleep.

‘Thought you’d earned a rest, Birthday Boy. I’ll be with the children in the garden. Come join us when you’re ready, but don’t take too long - birthday surprises await!
Annabel x

He smiles softly to himself and lays his head back on his pillow. He’d always been an early riser, but right now, ten more minutes of peace sounded perfect. He ponders briefly on just what she meant by ‘surprises’, instantly he hopes for cake, and perhaps some time for them alone, although right now he would gladly welcome languid cuddles in front of the fire. And that is the image he takes with him back into the Fade.

-

“Papa!”

Strolling in his casual wear down to the garden the shout catches Cullen’s attention along with it’s high pitched chortling. Pausing at the bottom step, he spies Annabel sat on the grass with her back to him, the twins by her feet and a dark-haired stranger holding his daughter.

“Papa, look!”

He doesn’t know the voice, but vaguely recognises the small red-haired girl it belongs to as she rushes over with flowers in her hands. When the stranger looks up from the bundle in his arms, Cullen instantly knows it’s the ill-tempered Lord. Annabel’s brother. Is that what she’d meant by surprises? He had rather hoped for something more pleasurable. Although the scowl he remembered Bryan always wearing was gone, replaced by a soft smile that makes him decide to study the Trevelyan’s for a while.

“It’s lovely Evelyn, I’m sure auntie Annabel would love to wear it.”

“No, papa I made it for you!” With innocence and joy, the little girl holds out a scruffy daisy chain, as proud as anyone had ever been.

“Don’t fret, there are plenty for everyone,” Kelandris, his wife, holds out a bunch, already wearing one herself then placing one on little Bryan and Maxwell in turn. The toddlers instantly find their new headwear fascinating, it lasts for all of thirty seconds until they steal each other’s and ruin the delicate chains in the process. They seem happy enough with the flowers though, squashing and throwing tiny petals with glee.

“Ah, I see, in that case,” Bryan tips his head down to his daughters’ level to accept his new crown before rising like a king. “Thank you, my lady.” He nods respectfully as the girl chuckles and climbs into Annabel’s lap to crown her too.

“Plenty enough for you too Commander,” Bryan’s sideways remark catches Cullen off guard. The Lord had given no indication he’d spied him, and in fact, Cullen had expected the opposite given his rather uncharacteristic antics.

Annabel twists, greeting him with a beaming smile and the girl is soon rushing to him with her pink and white daisy chain. “Uncle!”

Crouching, he meets his niece, even still she can’t quite reach his head to place the delicate flowers there, so he boosts her up. She’s very endearing as she hurries back to her mother, and it seems Cullen fits right in as he joins the mini flower festival. Sitting crossed-legged by his wife, he greets her with a fleeting kiss, Maker he had missed those lips, and as much as he might wish to indulge in them further now was not the time. Perhaps that was one of his surprises? That certainly would be much more enjoyable than the company of nobles.

“Bran! Get down from there!”

Cullen instantly knows that voice, it seems to transport him hundreds of miles and decades into the past with its reprimand, back to Honnleath, although he can hardly believe it.
Whatever childish reply is made gets lost to the wind, but Mia’s certainly isn’t. “I don’t care what Arthur is doing! If he impaled himself on his blade would you do the same!?”

“Mmm, perhaps we should’ve recruited Mia as our Commander,” Annabel’s teasing quip brings a smile to Cullen’s lips.

“Aww, come on ma’am, I can take it,” Iron Bull’s telltale tenor catches Cullen attention and draws him up to his feet. Just how many people had Annabel managed to gather for his birthday? Any hopes of a lazy day of cake and cuddles were quickly fading. Although the sight of Bull carrying four children off his horns as he charges in with Mia close behind makes up for any disappointment.

Arthur drops from the Qunari with all the boldness of youth, and lands hard but is soon back on his feet, knees grazed and shirt already mud-stained. “Papa!” His joy is bright enough to light up the world as he rushes full pelt to him. “Did you see?”

Hauling him up in both his arms, Cullen swings him around on the spot, his son’s jubilation spreading a broad smile that crinkles at the corners of his eyes. “What’s wrong, huh, run out of trees and walls to climb?” He scruffs up his son’s thick curls before setting him down.

Laughing, Arthur pats the wooden play sword he wears on the belt around his waist. “We challenged him to a duel, and since we won, we got to ride the bull!”

Annabel scoffs back a spluttered chortle at the phrasing which Cullen makes sure to quickly skim over. “You bested worthy opponent indeed, but can you best the Commander of the Inquisition?”

“Or the Inquisitor herself?” Leaning with her hand on one hip Annabel has gracefully perched against his side, where she belonged.

Arthur’s eyes light up, and he nods eagerly. “Yeah! Kids versus grown ups! Kids versus grown-ups!” He declares the chant at the top of his lungs as he pulls his miniature sword free, and his cousins promptly gather around him to join in the rallying cry.
Between them all, they had produced quite the brood, and Cullen suddenly feels like his suggestion had perhaps been a bad idea.

“I’ve got cake!” Rosalie’s shout saves the day as she emerges with Branson carrying rolled up picnic blankets. Dropping their swords as one Bran, Julie, Arthur, William and Evelyn all rush over to the goodies, followed by two giddy toddlers who struggle on uncertain legs to catch up.

“Looks like she saved your ass there chief,” Bull mocks before beginning to absently wander towards the gathering. “Hmm, I wonder if she has those little fluffy ones with the pink frosting…”

Cullen shakes his head at the throng of his extended family. Mia naturally takes charge of seating the children while the other adults set out the brunch consisting of tea and cakes. For all the chaos, never had his heart felt so full. The laughter of his children, and his nieces and nephews bringing nourishing joy with it.

Still by his side, Annabel wraps her arm loosely around his waist to rest her head on his shoulder. It seems he would get cake and cuddles after all, but there would be nothing quiet about it. And turns out, that is just how he likes it.