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Raveled, Spliced, and Braided

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He shouldn’t go out there, that much was certain. His heart had already been given to another, someone who he loved with everything he was. The other half of his soul. So why was he out here?

Maybe it was because she was all alone. An outsider, in a world of soultwins. A person with no marking on her skin to match another’s. Not that it mattered that much in the grand scheme of things. There were many who never met their soultwin, due to circumstance, distance, premature death. And there were still others who had met the other half of their heart, and were denied a future together because of politics, or class status, or duty. Like him.

How long had it been now? Almost 20 years since he had found the other person who bore the same marking as him, and precious few of those years spent in his company. They had an understanding, at least. Freedom to pursue other physical relationships, both of them secure in the knowledge that it would only be a dalliance, for anything more would be impossible to give. It all paled in the face of their love. For how could anyone else compete with the man who literally was the other half of his soul?

A gift from the Maker, the Chantry called it. Cullen wasn’t so sure.

Either way, it didn’t matter. Alistair was in the capital, king of the whole bloody country of Ferelden, and needed to marry a woman so that he could produce an heir. And Cullen was here. Standing behind a set of elegantly carved double doors in Halamshiral, nervously watching her through the paned glass.

Blood had seeped through the fine wool of her fitted coat from the battles from earlier in the night, creating splotchy, dark rusted shadows that shifted as her shoulders lifted in a weary sigh. The intricate braid that the servants had so meticulously woven through her ebony hair had fallen into disarray around her face, and yet, she apparently hadn’t yet found the strength to care enough to do something else with it at this late hour. Her entire body language screamed an unspoken request for solitude and peace.

So why was he here?

Maybe it was because he still vividly remembered the first day he had met her, how wide her eyes had been as she took in the carnage that surrounded the Temple of Sacred Ashes. How she had tried to stand tall despite her terror and inexperience with battle, someone who had never before that day known that demons existed in physical form. From a different world, she had told them. A place with no magic, only one moon, no demons. An easier life, a softer life. And yet she had still risen to the challenge with a grace that had surprised them all. Gritted her teeth, pushed herself harder every day, endured the pain that flared from the anchor in her hand, trained until she was no longer a burden to her team, until even Cassandra gave her approval and admiration. And he, his.

He had wanted to find fault with her at first. A quiet woman, not fit for leading, with no knowledge of the political or practical intricacies of Thedas. Someone who instantly sympathized with the mages’ plight, despite his constant warnings of vigilance and possession. Maker’s breath, she had taken it upon herself to offer the rebel mages a full alliance with the Inquisition, without consulting any of the others. How furious had he been that day?

And still she had stayed. Despite the fact that she was not invested in this world, beyond the possibility that she might be stuck here for the rest of her life. She had no family, precious few that she would call friend. Yet still she had helped, offering what comfort and succor she could to those in need. Still she had completed everything they had asked of her, shying from the menial and seemingly trivial tasks that were sometimes asked of her. Still she had sought him out, asked after his health and for his opinion, deferring easily to him when she was out of her depth, which she had once admitted to him with a sheepish laugh, was often.

She had faced down an ancient magister, survived an avalanche, and then smiled at him when he found her, near frozen in the snow and whispered in his ear as he desperately clutched her to his chest, “I knew you would find me.”

Not even a month ago, now bearing the title of Inquisitor, she walked the Fade itself, chose between life and death for one of her number, and offered only mercy and a second chance to the Grey Wardens who had caused the disaster.

Then tonight, she had not just survived the Game of the Orlesian court- the Inquisitor had thrived, and prevailed over the impossible machinations of the Grand Duchess Florianne and the would-be emperor, Gaspard, saved the Empress and brought Orlais to heel at her feet.

So I suppose the question is, how could I be anywhere else? He could at the very least offer a friendly shoulder to lean on. Never mind the fact that he wanted her to do more than just turn to him for support.

Straightening his own crimson jacket, smoothing the cobalt sash over his waist, Cullen pushed open the door and stepped out onto the balcony. “There you are,” he called, as if he had just found her, and hadn’t been standing and staring at her for the last several minutes. “Everyone’s been looking for you.” That much was true.

A muffled groan slipped through her fingers, her stained white gloves pressed to her face. “Are you here to drag me back in? For the record, I’ll go, but let it be known I was not willing.”

“I rather thought I’d hide out here with you. There’s a distinct lack of nobility in this area I find quite appealing,” he grinned as he leaned on the marble balustrade next to where she stood.

“Slumming, Commander? Josephine would be appalled.” One dark eye peeked out from behind her fingers, the barest hint of a smile playing at the edge of her lips. Struck by how utterly exhausted she looked, Cullen frowned down at his own feet. How much had they asked of her? Kept asking of her? Had she ever complained? Not to him, that much he knew.

“I’m the son of a farmer,” he shrugged. “If anything, you’re the one debasing yourself by being out here with me, Inquisitor.”

“The horror,” she laughed. “Also, what do I have to bribe you with to stop calling me Inquisitor? Or Herald,” she added with a mock scowl as he opened his mouth.

“I’m particularly fond of the ale that Teryn Cousland sends us every now and then,” Cullen smirked. “Senaide.”

“Was that so hard?” Tilting her head up, Senaide huffed a breath of air, blowing a lock of hair away from her face.

“Surprisingly, yes.” With a gentle hand, he reached out to tuck the errant piece of hair behind her ear. And immediately froze, his face flushing a bright red as one of her eyebrows quirked up in surprise at the rather intimate gesture. “I, um… You did well tonight.”

Was that disappointment he read behind her moonlit eyes? “Oh. Um. Thank you,” she muttered, turning away from him. “I don’t even remember what I did. Or how I did it. Everything’s a blur. So much needless death.” Her skin wrinkled as she furrowed her brow at the memory. “I can’t wait to get out of here.”

“Long night?”

“The longest,” she nodded.

“In that case…” Clearing his throat, Cullen rose to his full height, and bowed as elegantly as he could muster, his scar tugging his upper lip askew with his smile. “May I have this dance, my lady?”

“I distinctly remember you grumbling through every dance lesson that Josephine managed to drag you to. And now you’re asking me to dance?” Senaide asked dubiously. “I feel like there’s an ulterior motive here, Commander.”

“Cullen. If you’re going to insist I call you by your name, you can at least call me by mine. And no hidden agenda, I promise. I just thought it would be a shame to waste all those lessons.” His shrug was casual, but she could see the hint of guarded caution in his stilted posture.

With a flourish of her arm, Senaide dipped into a curtsy that would make her ambassador proud, and held out one hand, doing her best to ignore the stains and the coppery tang that wafted from her uniform and not remember all the bodies of the servants that had been discarded like rag dolls, and-

His hand closed around hers, warm and strong. He recognized all too well the trauma of the battles she had seen that lurked within her eyes, had felt it himself so many times before. “There will be time later to mourn,” he murmured gently in her ear. “You’ve done enough tonight. Think of other, happier thoughts.”

Glancing up at him, she smiled. “Like Solas’ hat?”

“Maker,” he coughed. “I wasn’t sure if I had imagined it or not. Although I don’t think my mind could have conjured something so, so…”

“Careful, Cullen. You’re starting to sound like Vivienne.”

“Andraste preserve me.” No, he shouldn’t be out here. Physical liaisons were one thing; he had had his share of lovers in the past, and knew Alistair had the same. After all, neither wanted to begrudge the other what little pleasures they could find in their duty and separation. But this, with the Inqui- with Senaide, was different. The way he enjoyed her company, how he craved the feel of her in his arms, the rush of excitement that rolled through his belly at her presence- it felt perilously close to an emotional breach of trust as anything ever had.

That’s impossible though. Everyone knows you can’t fall in love with anyone else once you’ve found your soultwin.

So this wasn’t love. Lust? He felt that, undoubtedly. She was a beautiful woman after all, intelligent, witty, kind, strong. It was more than lust. But not love. Could never be love. The mark on his thigh burned.

Why did he feel so guilty?

“When can we go home, you think?”

Home. Unconsciously, his fingers tightened around hers. “Probably the day after tomorrow. I think Josephine has some meetings planned for you in the meantime.”

“Ugh.” Slumping in his arms, Senaide let her head fall forward to softly thud against his shoulder. “Nobles. They’re relentless parasites. Maybe if I stay out here, she won’t fi-”

“Inquisitor! There you are. Oh! Pardon me, am I interrupting?”

Failing miserably in her attempt to stifle her groan, Senaide raised her eyes to Cullen’s, her lips mouthing a silent plea- save me- even as Josephine swept out onto the balcony. “No, not at all,” she sighed heavily. “What do you need, Josie?”

The elegant Antivan threaded one arm through the Inquisitor’s, her smile dismissing Cullen even as she pulled their unwilling leader back into the ballroom. “Several things, actually. There is the Duke of Lydes, he has been waiting all night for a chance to speak to you. As well as the Marquise of Val Fontaine. Oh! And the…”

Cullen allowed himself a small, sympathetic smile as Senaide grimaced once, then plastered a pleasant expression, her own version of a courtly mask, over her face. Josephine’s interruption was most fortuitous. Had it remained just he and the Inquisitor for much longer, out here alone with no interference, what liberties might he have taken that were not his to have?

He loved Alistair. He should forget about her.

But how?