The flicker of the candlelight makes it hard to pick out, but Cullen swears he catches Inquisitor Lavellan’s lip wobble after Josephine delivers the news.
He must have been right, since Josephine reaches out to touch the Inquisitor's arm, and she offers the ambassador a faint smile, little more than a slight tug at the corners of her mouth. Her smile falters after a moment, and she hangs her head, drawing in a breath that rattles with grief. His heart breaks a little for her.
Leliana shakes her head as Josephine's hand drops. "Perhaps we should reconvene at a later date."
The Inquisitor's head jerks up. "No," she says with force, then shrinks back a little on herself. "Ah... no. That won't be necessary." She swipes at her mutinous eyes, frowns, and stares at the map.
"If you're certain," says Leliana warily, looking pained.
The Inquisitor reaches out to lift and place a marker on the map near the Emprise du Lion, brow knit. The four begin to plan their next move.
By the time the Inquisitor exits the war room, the stars have begun wheeling through the night sky. The three advisors stay behind for a time, arranging provisions for the Inquisitor's next excursion, but the conversation is stilted, and they avoid the topic of the Inquisitor’s dead clan altogether.
Skyhold bustles with activity on the slowest of days, but the Inquisition has received word that several soldiers have gone missing in the Fallow Mire. The Inquisitor changed tack, diverting her attention from the Emprise du Lion, and has spent the last few days preparing for an extended foray to find them. Between the apothecary, the quartermaster, and horsemaster Dennet barking orders at the stable hands and setting the runners to fetch this and that, the fortress has been buzzing like a wasp's nest.
One day, the Inquisitor walks into the war room, gaze distant and unfocused. She stands frozen before the door for a few moments after it swings shut — then a mewl of anguish escapes her and her hands fly to her face. Josie’s noteboard clatters to the ground, and in the next instant, both she and Leliana have swept the elf into a tangle of arms and comforting words. Cullen joins in, too shocked to be self-conscious.
The Inquisitor makes little strangled noises and tries to stop, tries to tell them to please stop so she can stop crying, but they’re having none of it. “You are allowed to feel,” says Leliana, and the shock of those words coming from that particular person is what seems to allow the Inquisitor to let her sense of propriety go. She sobs like a child, face buried in her hands and forehead pressed to the spymaster’s shoulder, and it feels like he’s being pulled apart.
No work gets done that day, but once the Inquisitor is sent to her quarters (followed closely behind by servants bearing a tub of hot water and a bag of bath salts laced with fragrant herbs), the trio of advisors agree that they had accomplished something important anyway.
Afterwards, the servants whisper about Vivienne importing a strange contraption from Val Royeaux that the Inquisitor slips her arms into. It makes her stand like a courtier. They whisper about the Inquisitor being made to walk back and forth on the balcony with a book on her head. How she teaches her how to control her voice. How to lift her chin and straighten her back, and how it begins transforming the woman into someone who can act like nothing in the world is wrong, even when the world itself crumbles to ash around her.
The servants whisper about how the Inquisitor sits in Solas’ rotunda, letting him guide her through meditation after meditation until they begin to build a method that works for her. His patience is thin, at first, until one morning she’s seated herself on the floor by his desk before he wakes up, legs crossed and eyes screwed stubbornly shut. “Even I can’t meditate when the smell of fresh paint so permeates the room,” he says, dry as sand, and the corner of her mouth turns up.
“Seeing, seeking, surrounding, searching, and secretly wishing for answers she cannot give,” says Cole, startling Cullen the one evening he takes his supper in the tavern instead of his office. “She can’t let them down. She can’t let herself down. She walks, but learns how to walk again. She thinks, but learns how to think again, for all of their sakes.”
Cullen had noticed her quiet determination long ago, but the crucible of her clan’s death seems to have begun the process of forging her anew. He hears her talk unflinchingly about her loss with other Dalish. He watches her (surreptitiously, he hopes) trot around the fortress with her shoulders back and chin held high.
He’d be lying if he said he wasn’t concerned that she was pushing herself, but with a sudden burst of clarity, he realizes that that’s what she’s been doing all along.
He finds her in the garden.
She has her back to him. He pauses at the door, hesitating, uncertain if he should stay.
Then he squints into the dark. The torches cast thin light over the spot where the Inquisitor kneels, but he can make out a bucket, a pile of dirt, a trowel, and a small parcel, carefully opened and set aside, propped up against the stonework. She's gardening. Gardening?
Curiosity piqued, Cullen settles his hand on the pommel of his sword and steps off the flagstone path onto the grass, clearing his throat. The Inquisitor jumps, turning, but relaxes when she sees him. Sitting up straighter, she greets Cullen with a wan smile and a quiet "Commander," and he stifles the urge to swallow. Her scarred cheek bears a smear of dirt, and while there are no fresh tear tracks, her eyes are puffy and red. A sapling, no larger than a foot in height, sits opposite her, a trail of dirt leading from its root ball to the opened parcel.
He rubs the back of his neck and flushes. "I, ah, I'm sorry -- I didn't mean to -- intrude," he finishes, awkward. He pauses, then lolls his head backwards and grimaces at himself in exasperation. "Let me start again. I apologize, Inquisitor; after... well. I saw you while I was making the rounds, and I was worried about you." His eyes widen, and he blurts out (perhaps a little too quickly), “As were all of us.”
Her smile softens again. For a moment, her chin wrinkles and it seems as though she might lose her gravity, but she regains her equilibrium with little more than a sniffle, smoothing her expression out. She breaks her gaze away and directs it at the ground -- at her hands (still balled into fists), covered in dirt (even though she has tools to dig with), at the (clean) tools — anything, it seems, to avoid making eye contact. "Thank you, Commander. I appreciate the concern. I am... not fine. Not yet," she says slowly, "but I will be. It wasn't anyone's fault... and there's nothing I can do about it now."
Cullen's armor clanks as he shifts his weight, shaking his head and frowning. "You are giving yourself space to grieve, I hope."
“Would that the world pause long enough for me to weep,” she murmurs, voice low and bitter.
She looks up at him as he closes the gap between them in measured strides, and she watches as he kneels on the grass beside her. For a moment, under her scrutiny, he loses his nerve. The words turn over and over in his head, and he frowns in thought. Finally, one hand lifts from of the pommel of his sword to touch fingertips to her shoulder, almost of its own volition. “Should you need such, you know you can rely on me — on all of us — to take over at least some of your duties for a time.”
Her breath leaves in a slow, ragged sigh as she slouches a little. “Thank you… but the missing soldiers — I’d like to search for them personally.”
“You’d like to see to a lot of things that you don’t necessarily have to,” he observes dryly.
Her lips quirk up and she casts him a half-hearted glare. He smiles at the insincerity of it. “You’d do the same, you hypocrite,” she says, amused.
“Quite.” He tries not to think about how easily she slips into teasing him. He fails. “Now, if you don't mind the turnabout--"
Her eyebrows rise in puzzlement.
"You ask a lot of questions,” he says with a chuckle.
Sheepishly, she ducks her head and opens one hand in a placating gesture. “Do go on.”
"May I ask why you're gardening at two in the morning?"
The smile falters and fades. She's silent for long enough that he begins to fret that he's offended her. "I hope I don't make you feel too bad," she says at length, and Cullen's eyebrows immediately wrench into a worried vee, "but ... planting a tree to mark a grave is customary. For my people." She takes the sapling in her slim fingers and presses it into a hole Cullen hadn't noticed before. "Though I haven’t made a staff to bury with it, and I can't make it out to Wycome for some time to -- to collect the --" her voice catches, and she musses with the soil for a moment in strained silence. "I thought performing a small ritual might grant some peace."
His next inhalation is sharp, as though hit, and he rocks back a little. "Maker's Breath. Forgive my ignorance.”
She shakes her head, though she turns to look at Cullen as the buckles of his armor rattle and creak with his movement. “There’s no need to apologize, Commander.” Swiping at her nose, she makes a disgusted noise and gazes at the sapling again, mouth pressing into a thin line. “Tonight is a bad night for me. Thank you for checking in.”
Taking the dismissal for what it is, he inclines his head in acknowledgment and departs.
He lays awake for hours, cursing himself for assuming anything about her funerary customs — for assuming she was just gardening, of course she wasn’t just gardening — and the nightmarish woman that haunts him nightly develops delicate, pointed ears.
The Inquisitor does not spend a moment diverging from her usual routine; she simply adds a daily stop to the garden.
One afternoon, Cullen takes his leave from training the troops and returns to his office. He's surprised to see the Inquisitor already there. He's even more surprised to see the inexpertly whittled, diminutive oak staff he had been working on in his spare time being turned over in her hands, her lips parted in -- dismay? Astonishment? Cold horror knots in his stomach. He had forgotten to put it away.
When he makes a choked noise, she starts and turns towards him, eyes wide as she holds the little rod aloft. "Cullen?”
"It's -- Maker, Velthei — Inquisitor! I hope I —” He's red. Red as a beet, skin burning from tips of his ears down past the collar of his breastplate, and he curses his inability to remain collected in front of her. “That is, I did a little reading on Dalish funerals -- I know it's small, but it was meant to go with the sapling you planted and I'm sorry, I-I --"
Velthei interrupts his stream of apologetic babble by flinging her arms around his neck and burying her face in his mantle. He has the grace not to flap his arms, at least, but the awkward pat on the back he gives her is probably going to give him shameful waking nightmares for months. He casts a frantic glance in the direction of the still-open door, and he's glad Varric isn't there to witness this.
After a few long (short, pounding) heartbeats, Cullen finally brings one hand to rest between her shoulder blades with the same care he'd take in handling a bird. He realizes he's going to remember how she smells for a long time — leather from her new jacket, the herbal soap she makes herself when she has the time to — and he resists the urge to drop his nose into her hair.
The sun slanting through the door shifts as they stay frozen in place for some time, both people trying to control their breathing for different reasons. Finally, the Inquisitor dashes the tears from her eyes, sniffles, and says her thanks in a thick voice, parting from the embrace. Her hands trail down the ruff of fur around his shoulders before she lets them drop to her sides.
Cullen, fighting off the goofy smile that threatens to smear itself across his face, gives Velthei’s shoulder the gentlest of squeezes before his hand returns to the back of his neck. She looks up at the movement, then rolls her eyes with a fond shake of her head.
"I'm not much of an artist," he says, voice soft, then he frowns a little. "... actually, I'm terrible at anything involving the arts,” — she laughs at this — “but I was confident that whittling a staff didn't involve a lot of artistic ability."
"Cullen, I -- you don't need to worry. Thank you, again," she replies, then turns her gaze to the staff she holds in her hand. "Is it finished?"
He grimaces. "I should hope not. At the very least, it requires sanding and a good polish. I-- I thought it didn't deserve anything less."
She places it back on the desk and gives her eyes another scrub. "I look forward to seeing it, then," she says, then levels a smile at him that has more lightness in it than he's seen on her face in days. “And please, start calling me Velthei.”
Cullen inclines his head, a faint smile tugging at the scar on his lip. "Inquisitor."
The miniature staff, polished and oiled, gets lowered into the ground beside the sapling that evening. Cullen was a little embarrassed when Velthei asked if she could invite Josephine, Leliana and Cassandra to the honorary funeral, but in the end, he’s glad she did. Varric, Iron Bull, and Dorian, ever the gossips, “accidentally” found their way to the gardens, Varric bearing a platter of pastries filched from the kitchen. The group of them make it a point to tease a laugh out of the Inquisitor, and though Cullen keeps out of it for the most part, he finds himself chuckling along more than once.
When Velthei pats the final fistful of dirt onto the grave and rises to her feet, Cullen, smiling softly, bows a little at the waist, tapping his fist over his heart in salute. The rest of the assembled group follow suit, and Velthei vents a watery laugh before burying her face in her hands again and thanking them all through her fingers. He’s seen her cry three times over the last week, but this didn’t make his heart hurt.
One by one, the companions filter out of the green. Some embrace her and murmur things into her ear that make her erupt in braying laughter before they depart (Dorian). Some don’t bother murmuring at all and laugh uproariously at themselves (Iron Bull). Some issue awkward nods before issuing awkward stares and even more awkward pats on her back (Cassandra).
Some laugh as they accuse her of using feminine tears to manipulate the audience into giving her more than her fair share of pastries (Varric, as he hands her a small cupcake piped with buttercream flowers). Some he hadn’t even realized had arrived to begin with (Cole)… and the last two exchange knowing glances and arched eyebrows as they exit the gardens (Josephine and Leliana). Those two, he glares after.
Once Velthei and Cullen are left alone, they turn to each other and exchange smiles, though his hand immediately goes to the back of his neck. “Are you going to be all right, Velthei?” asks Cullen, taking charge before she can fluster him.
Velthei bobs her head, smiling. “I will be, yes. I … Doubtless I’ll have my moments, but tonight felt as though something had been set right,” she says, reaching out to lay a hand on his shoulder, and he finds himself agreeing. “Thank you, Cullen. For everything.”
When she leaves on her hart with her war party in tow the next morning, he stands on the battlements, staring into the distance long after losing sight of them.