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A Love Long Lost

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Cullen had never thought he’d stick his fingers into a box of pomade again, but here he was, slicking back his overgrown hair like he had done so many times in the past. The substance was nothing short of vile; it stuck to his skin and left an itch, its sickly smell making his stomach turn. It was nothing like the stuff he’d gotten used to back in the Frostback Mountains during the peak years of the Inquisition.

It had now been two years since he had stolen into the night with Knight-Captain Rylen by his side. They had given no forewarning of their plans; hastily scribbled letters of resignation had been all they had left behind. Cullen had followed the lead of his friend, who had largely been responsible for the scheme in the first place; they were to set base in the man's home city, get clean from lyrium, and re-establish themselves as respectable civilians through Rylen’s connections.

It hadn't quite worked the way they had planned, but it was close enough.

He glanced in the mirror once more, deeming his hair sufficiently tamed, but frowning at his reflection; much had changed in two years. His cheeks were hollow and pale, and dark bags hung just beneath his eyes. Food had lost its appeal once the lyrium withdrawals had kicked in, causing his body to wither away until it was little more than a frame that held his equally withered spirit. Feeling hunger was a recent development - a sure sign that the lyrium was leaving his system at last.

Had he known the withdrawals would be so much worse on his second attempt at going clean, he would have refused the Inquisitor’s demand to take lyrium again. It was a miracle he yet lived and seemed to be taking small, but certain steps on the path of recovery.

The first signs of his lyrium starvation had manifested on Fereldan soil, and they had gotten progressively worse as they had travelled. It had started with suffering from a chill beyond what the weather granted for, quickly progressing into headaches and to a thirst that could not be sated. There had been nights when he’d lain awake in his tent, cradling his thumping head in his hands, unable to sleep despite feeling exhausted to the core of his bones. The days he was capable of traveling had become ever rarer; there were times when Rylen had lifted him on his horse and held onto him as they rode. It would have been degrading had he the mind to give thought to it - it was strange how dignity had become trivial in the face of survival.

Once they had finally arrived at Starkhaven - much later than they had anticipated - they had settled in a cheap inn to rest off the journey. Rylen had visited the town, reconnecting with family and friends he had long since left behind, and it wasn’t long until Prince Vael got wind of their arrival. The hero’s welcome extended to them both had thrown them by surprise; it seemed as if the members of the court had willingly ignored that they had both technically fled the Inquisition, and had stubbornly celebrated them as the people that helped defeat Corypheus. Prince Vael had offered them both positions in Starkhaven’s forces, and while Rylen had agreed to rejoin as the Knight-Captain of the Order, Cullen had neither the will nor ability to accept.

His stay at the inn had grown long - it had taken him more than a year to recover enough to stand on his own. He remembered very little from his first year in Starkhaven: the days had sped by as he’d shivered between the sheets, drifting in and out of consciousness - both states equally horrid. Rylen, and later Hilda, had kept him company as much as their duties allowed, trying to coax him back into the world of the living. As impossible as it had seemed, he’d swam back from his isolated island, slowly at first, but increasing in speed and determination, encouraged by the progress he had made. No-one had been more surprised than Rylen, whose face had portrayed the perpetual anticipation of doom, even if he’d never voiced his concerns out loud.

Cullen took a sniff at the pomade, wincing at the smell once more before sealing it, along with the uncomfortable memories. It was not the right time to bury himself in the past - it was supposed to be a happy day.

Rylen was to marry his Hilda today. He’d met her at the Fort: she was related to the Prince in one way or another - Cullen’s spotty memory failed to recall the exact details - and Rylen had courted the woman for a year and a half, inappropriately so for a man of his position. Hilda, however, had little respect for rules of conduct; she was a brisk woman in her early forties, unconcerned by minor aspects such as money or birth - mostly because she, a noblewoman of considerable fortune and a frequenter at the Prince’s court, was quite free to ignore such trivialities.

Cullen had made fast friends with her, and her advice and company had soon grown irreplaceable. It was largely thanks to her industrious efforts that he now possessed a humble home and an occupation as a blacksmith. Where Rylen tended to coddle and hover, Hilda would push and challenge.

He dressed himself, pulling on a finely crafted suit jacket and a soft checkered kilt. He drew on a long pair of socks over his shins, finishing off the outfit with shiny leather shoes. These were the neatest clothes he owned; he had no desire to embarrass his friends by sticking out from the crowd - the happiest day of their lives required some consideration on his part.

He stepped outside, a gentle breeze greeting his face. It was rare for Starkhaven to get windy - especially Lowtown, where his new apartment resided right next to the city walls. The river Minanter flowed just on the other side, its sloshing and humming an ever present ambiance in his life now. There was something strange in hearing the sound of water without seeing it, so he had taken to strolling the docks on the nights when he felt restless. The city was intriguingly different from Kirkwall; while the wails of the seagulls were present at both locations, the rolling hills blocked much of the harsh winds that Kirkwall suffered from. The gusts that escaped into the city brought the sweet scent of the moors with them, the quality of air on a level only the Frostback Mountains could compete with.

He glanced skywards at the reclining sun, determining it was high time to join the party. He took towards the harbor, his steps only slightly pained: the night before had come with its usual nightmares and had deprived him of proper rest, but a smile spread on his face regardless - it was a happy day, indeed, and small pains and aches would not put him out of good humour today. He walked through the city gates and crossed a bridge to a small island in the middle of the river, joining the crowd gathered at the docks.

Soon after, a gentleman in a red kilt bid them welcome and declared the celebrations now started. Rylen and Hilda walked out of a building, their beaming faces scanning the crowd, and Cullen’s own smile widened at the sight. A surge of gratitude towards his friends ran through him; they had helped him out of the ditch and back onto his feet - seeing them so happy was contagious, and he couldn't help but pray that they remained so.

The crowd began with a song that was accompanied by a dance he didn't know the steps to, but he made an attempt to mimic the others to the best of his ability. The happy pair walked back towards the city, their guests following in tow, the song and dance not pausing for a moment. They crossed the Lowtown houses to the marketplace, taking a turn towards the large and imposing chantry by the edge. The Fort stood a stone’s throw away, its figure equally impressive and threatening - without a doubt designed that way to frighten off any passing thoughts of civic rebellions.

The crowd followed the pair into the cool interior of the chantry, dispersing into the pews. It occurred to him that he’d never set foot inside the building before, despite his recent hardships having strengthened his faith in the Maker. Torches and candles lit up the gilded marble pillars, and the roof stood tall and lavishly decorated - every spot of the walls and ceiling were covered by intricate decorations depicting Andraste’s journeys and eventual demise: the building was every bit as luxurious as the rest of Starkhaven’s Hightown. He slipped into a pew near the back just as the choir began singing the Chant.

The door behind him opened and closed one more time, and he he turned to see the newcomer: Prince Vael walked in with two royal guards in tow, an apologetic smile on his face as he took a seat two rows behind him. Their eyes met for a fleeting moment, but he could have sworn that time stood still as they regarded one another in shocked silence. His heart stopped beating, it seemed, before bursting into a wild rhythm inside its cage. He tore his eyes away in haste, red hot heat rushing to his cheeks.

He had done his best to avoid meeting the ruler; he had declined the position in his military - twice now, for the man had sent yet another offer by a courier some two months back - and made sure not to cross paths with him again. He’d perfected evasion to a near art form, claiming to feel too ill to attend dinner parties at the Fort for which Rylen had extended invitations to, and had even gone as far as slip behind corners whenever the royal carriage sped the streets, and when the courier returned with an invitation to a garden party, he had sent him away with a note stating he was too busy to attend.

It would have been a tremendously unwise to risk insulting the man had he not known him.

He sat deeper in the pew, hoping in vain to hide himself from the eyes he knew were watching him. He crossed his arms on his chest, hugging his lanky form as shame twisted in his gut; the risk of running into the Prince was something he had acknowledged upon agreeing to come here, but he hadn't been prepared for the man’s interest in him - not after what had passed between them. If he had expected any reaction, it would have been cold civility or even outright dismissal - the warm welcome and repeated invitations were extremely puzzling under the circumstances.

Even as Rylen had grown increasingly close to the Prince, Cullen had deluded himself into believing he could avoid meeting him again; after all, he was little more than a peasant while Sebastian was the highest authority within the city walls. A frown deepened on his face as he reminded himself of their positions; there was hardly anything left in him of the man Sebastian had known - the prolonged exposure to lyrium had left him but a shadow of who he used to be. It was degrading that the Prince should he see him this state again, only marginally improved from last they had met.



“Will you pray with me, ser?” The man in dark robes asked with a sweet smile, kneeling by Andraste’s statue with his hands pressed together. Without a second thought, Cullen dipped his knees and dropped next to him, the sound of his armor clinking loud in the silence of the chantry. He was surprised by his inability to decline; Meredith waited for him at the Gallows, probably impatient by this point, but something about the simple request had stopped him in his tracks.

He looked at the Brother from the corner of his eye; his auburn hair was pulled back, wavy at its tips, blue eyes striking in the orange morning glow, full lips pulled into a benevolent arc. His demeanor was serene, as if all of life was simple to him, his existence affirmed by the peace the Maker had granted him. Every aspect to him was endearing - Cullen was captivated by his presence alone, and an involuntary smile tugged at the corner of his lips as the Brother began his prayer.

He knew the words by heart, but their familiar comfort was much amplified by the colour of the Brother’s voice, the soft accent singing joy into his soul. He closed his eyes and let himself be lulled into warmth and comfort; the threat of Meredith’s wrath slipped from his mind, replaced by images of the sun, open fields, and happier times. For a moment, he forgot about the things he was seeking solace from and his breath flowed freely.

He forced himself to focus on the present as the ceremony proceeded, watching his friends share gulps of wine from an iron chalice. The Revered Mother quoted familiar passages from the Chant, but the choir behind her repeated the words in a melody he wasn’t used to. A lone musician played the harp between the verses, and the crowd watched the sacrament in respectful silence.

He gathered a fistful of his jacket between his fingers and squeezed it, only to relax again and repeat the exercise, trying to breathe in the same rhythm. Biting the insides of his cheeks, he made himself follow the proceedings, resisting the urge to meet the Prince’s eyes.

Chapter Text

With the formal ceremonies completed, the festivities had been moved back to the docks - its long piers had been cleared for the crowd that now danced and sang alongside the happy couple. The rhythm to which the guests thumped their feet and clapped their hands was growing ever faster, the beat nearly chaotic, and Cullen was happy to sit a good distance away and rest his legs; it was getting increasingly hard to ignore the weariness that had settled deep into his bones.

The sky above was darkening, and the hilly horizon melted into its navy blue shade, the distinction between heaven and land perceivable only by the evening stars that were beginning to twinkle. The sun had set behind the Fortress a while back, and the celebration continued in the light of bonfires that sat at the edges of water. He took in a deep breath, stretching his calves underneath the table; for the first time in a good while, air flowed with ease - many hours had passed in tedious discomfort: forgettable introductions, tiring conversations, and ceaseless noise. It seemed everyone was angling for heroic stories from his Inquisition days, but he was reluctant to share; he would not be sorry if those days were entirely forgotten.

He hunched forward, elbows leaned on the table and bony hands seeking warmth from his armpits; the late summer nights were getting chilly, but that wasn't the only reason why his hands were cold - it was yet another symptom of lyrium starvation, and one he believed would linger for the rest of his days. It was but a minor inconvenience - many other side effects were much more dire, and he thanked the Maker that he’d been spared from most of them.

His gaze wandered back to the sky and its glimmering lights; the docks had become a favourite night time haunt of his, as it was from here he could view the wilderness beyond the walls. When sleep evaded him, or the confines of the city became oppressive, he would come here with Dog; it was a small luxury he allowed himself from time to time, a joy of most harmless type, and best of all - free. The skies of Starkhaven were not greatly different from those of the Frostbacks, but some Northern constellations were visible to which he knew not the names for, and was only beginning to recognise. Perhaps someday a local would share the stories behind them - every form in the sky had its legend, after all, and he was keen to add to his knowledge.

A roaring laughter from the crowd drew his attention and he straightened with a jolt: where was the Prince? He had kept an eye on the man, for being mindful of his location helped to better evade him, but as he now scanned the guests, he spotted none who looked like him - nor were the royal bodyguards anywhere to be seen. He licked his lips and huddled against the chill, guarding himself in case he was being watched; his form must have stood out like an Avvar in Val Royeaux: not a soul lingered anywhere near him, for that was what he had desired - a moment of solitude.

It was a sad affair, he knew, to avoid the person whose smile had brought him such joy and whose tenderness he had entirely relied upon, but much had changed in a decade: any kindness from the man would now be borne out of pity, or - worse yet - duty, and he wanted none of it.

He wondered if the Prince had left the party - somehow slipping his notice - and promptly suppressed the stab of disappointment at that line of thought; it should have been a relief if he had, but alas! He scanned the island, searching every corner for a familiar form, but stopped as a rustle came from his side. The Prince approached him from the shadows, his steps slow and measured, a neutral expression on his face. He was clad in a green and blue kilt and a fine silken shirt that hugged his figure, and Cullen hastened to look away until the man spoke.

“It is good to see you,” he greeted. He pulled a chair from across Cullen and sat down, the back of his jaw twitching as he straightened his kilt.

“And you as well, Your Highness.” It sounded like a lie, but it wasn’t; seeing the man was always a pleasure - that had never changed - but Cullen would have preferred to watch him from afar. It was the part where he had to form complete sentences - composed of polite and meaningless words - that he wished to avoid, for attempting small talk with a man he had held most dear would only leave his heart aching.

The corner of the Prince’s lip twitched downwards, but he schooled his face into an affable smile and folded his hands in his lap. “I have wanted to see you for a while, now,” he began, his voice barely audible over the boisterous song the crowd behind him was singing, “but it seems my invitations have always been ill-timed.”

“It has been most unfortunate, Your Highness,” Cullen replied, rubbing at the back of his neck. It should have been surprising how the man insisted upon helping him - after all, Cullen had given him nothing but reasons to resent him - but goodwill had always been intrinsic to Sebastian, and Cullen knew that even a position of absolute power could not sully that in him.

“It feels strange to hear you call me that.” The Prince gazed past him at the darkened waters of Minanter, his cordial smile betraying a hint of melancholy. “I almost wish you’d call me Sebastian, like you used to.”

Cullen couldn't hide his surprise; he cleared his throat and tore his eyes away, heat creeping to the tips of his ears. “I-- I hardly think I deserve to, Your Highness.”

“I suppose I understand,” the Prince sighed. A beat of silence passed before he continued, his voice low and hesitant, “But I don’t mind my friends calling me by my given name, and-- and as I recall, you were once a friend.”

Cullen struggled to find a prudent response; never had he expected such a reckless statement from the man. Surely there was no reason to remind him of the years he had stood by his side, worshipping the ground he walked on, committing his heart to him entirely - until the day came that put an end to all but his innermost devotion. No, this was terribly unkind of the Prince, and even if Cullen knew he had deserved the jab, he could not help but return it in kind. “I am surprised you still remember that, Your Highness.”

Sebastian scoffed, but composed himself just as fast, turning to observe the celebrations as he worried his lower lip. The years had been kind to him; subtle streaks of grey accented the auburn hair that curled behind his ears, and the lines on his forehead had deepened, and the crow's feet at the corners of his eyes were new, but his lips were still plush and delicate, and his eyes were as striking as ever. The brown of his skin glowed golden in the light of the bonfires, accentuating the curves and contours of his sculpted face - if anything, his allure had increased with age.

The tension in Cullen shifted as the Prince turned to watch him again: the gleam in his eyes had softened, and an apologetic smile spread on his lips.

The service was finally over. Cullen trailed behind his group of templars, deliberately slow and inconspicuous. The others chattered on, but he could not have focused even if he’d tried; he had no intention of leaving the chantry and entering the mundane world that awaited behind its doors, for there was something - someone - far more compelling waiting for him inside of these walls. A step to the side, and then another, and then a door creaked open in the hallway and he slipped in like a shadow, quite certain he hadn't been seen.

Sebastian pushed the double doors closed behind him. “As much as I love Elthina’s sermons, I wasn't sure that one would ever end,” he whispered. “I’m glad you managed to sneak away, leannan.” His hand cupped Cullen’s cheek, thumb stroking the corner of his eye, the tender smile on his face kindling Cullen from the inside out. He could have stood here forever, watching the way Sebastian’s lips curled and how the warmth rushed to his eyes, their depths overflowing with affection Cullen had never known and only tentatively allowed himself a taste of now.

“I wouldn’t have missed this for anything.” Cullen pulled the Brother into his arms, closing his eyes as the man sighed in contentment. The scent of his hair wafted into his nose - soap, and an undernote of cinnamon - and the man’s breaths tickled the side of his neck. All was quiet in the storage room, but it was only when Sebastian held him closer that the unrest in his soul finally turned to silence.

Cullen crossed his arms on his chest, clutching himself by instinct, and winced; he shouldn't have said that. In fact, he shouldn't be anywhere near the man, for he was so far below him in every measure that even addressing him felt inappropriate. They had been inseparable in the past, but life had thrown them in opposing directions; the soft-spoken Brother had become the rightful ruler of Starkhaven, but the Knight-Captain was now little more than a beggar, struggling to make ends meet with the smithing that he did. Shame burned at the pit of his stomach and for a moment he regretted coming to this city; to think he could avoid the man forever had been ridiculous.

“You give yourself too little credit, Cullen. I see that hasn't changed,” the Prince mused, the crease of his brows more thoughtful than provoked.

The words struck him and he ducked his head, for he had stared too long; this was why it was a terrible idea to be in the Prince’s presence. It sounded like nostalgia when it was nothing of the kind; surely he heard only what he wanted to hear, taking meaning where there was none. The man cleared his throat, and Cullen rushed to meet his eyes again; he never had been good at ignoring him.

“I’m sorry if I’ve made you uncomfortable, but there really is a matter we ought to discuss. I will extend one more invitation to you so that we may do so,” The Prince said, but it sounded forced, as if he was speaking against his better judgment, “however, if you decline me once more, I will respect your wishes and never again attempt to contact you.”

The man got up from his seat and leaned on the table, sincerity in his voice as he continued, “I do wish you would come, though.” He then turned to leave, but halted only a few steps later and gazed from behind his shoulder, the intensity in his eyes pinning Cullen to the spot. “And I’ll have you know, you are not easy to forget.”

The words hung in the air as the man walked away, and it was long after his form had been obscured by the darkness that their meaning struck Cullen at last. He leaned back on his chair and let out a shaky breath, a familiar tingling sensation spreading in his chest.

Chapter Text

Cullen’s smithy was a modest little building where Lowtown met Hightown, surrounded by grandiose buildings that rose high and imposing, concealing it from those who knew not where to look. The markethouse loomed beside it and blocked the sunlight from filtering through his window, but it was all the same to him; he did not come here to bask in the sun, for there was much work to be done - it was merely a pity he needed to waste so many torches to see what he was doing.

He lowered his hammer and staggered backwards, sighing in exasperation: the umpteenth damaged breastplate sat on his anvil, its dents resistant to remodelling. He would bend it to his will, as he had all the others, but the task seemed neverending; the pile of armour at the end of the smithy seemed to replenish itself - as one plate was done with, he could have sworn another manifested to take its place.

He scoffed as he sat down on the lone chair at the corner of the room: the royal armory had started sending their faulty pieces several times a week - for a nation at peace, Starkhaven’s forces seemed to burn through armour as if they were at war. He was grateful for the work, as gruelling as it was, for it kept him busy and distracted; two weeks had passed since the wedding and he had yet to receive word from the Prince. Perhaps it had been a dream, after all - Rylen’s lack of teasing certainly supported this theory - and if that was not the case, maybe it was for the best that the silence persisted.

The hands in his lap shook and he pressed them together to suppress the tremors. It was close to midday, and already he was exhausted and out of breath; his stamina wasn’t what it used to be, and it was hard to accept that some of his strength might never return. He exercised but the progress was slow, if not non-existent; he hadn’t managed more than three pull-ups at a time for months, and the fourth seemed a far away goal at this point.

Sometimes it was hard not to blame the Order and the Inquisition for what had happened to him, but most of all he blamed himself; had he been a smarter boy and heeded the advice of his parents, he could have avoided this fate. Maybe he would have ended up a smith all along; save for his lack of strength, it seemed he had a talent for fixing what was broken and forging what was needed.

A thought struck him and he pursed his lips, reaching for an orange that sat on the rickety table beside him. If he had never joined the Order, there was a person he wouldn’t have met, and no matter how wrong things between them had gone in the end, he wouldn’t have wanted the memories erased - not even the one that still filled him with anguish, and much less the good ones that--

The door flung open and Rylen strode in, a grin spreading on his face as he spotted Cullen in the corner. “Munching on oranges and avoiding work, slacker?”

Cullen had nearly dropped the fruit upon the sudden entrance of his friend, but he recovered promptly; Rylen never did remember to knock. “Says the man who escaped the Fortress in the middle of his shift, apparently.”

Rylen merely shrugged and made towards the anvil; he was always interested in what Cullen was working on and keen on offering his advice on how to do it. The man weighed the breastplate in his hand, turning it around, a thoughtful frown on his face. “Where did you get these?”

“What do you mean?” Cullen stood, slipped a piece of orange into his mouth, and joined his friend. “The royal armory, of course. These are for your templars.”

Rylen shook his head and continued inspecting the piece, “That can’t be right. I’ve not seen these in ages - they’re an older model we don’t use anymore.”

“Well, this is the second delivery this week and I could have sworn the woman who brought them was one of yours. I even have the work orders signed by the royal quartermaster.”

Rylen shrugged and put the armour down, pursing his lips. “If you say so, I guess. The new armour for knights and recruits has a golden breastplate with white leather attachments. If you like, I could check with the quartermaster to see if there’s been a mistake-- but be honest,” he turned to face Cullen, lifting a brow, “do you need the work? I could just let it go - it might be useful to have spares lying around.”

Cullen chewed on the last of his fruit and ran a hand through his hair; the royal armory had been his main commissioner for the last few weeks, and he hadn’t been this busy since his Inquisition days. It was good coin, and - more importantly - a welcome occupation, but he wouldn’t ask Rylen to be dishonest with his superiors. “Do what you see is best, I am fine either way. Now, was there a reason you barged in here, wholly uninvited?”

“What do you mean ‘barged’? And what do you mean ‘uninvited’? I thought your door was always open to me,” he pouted in mock-offence, but let out an exasperated sigh as Cullen crossed his arms over his chest and waited. “Alright, fine. I was wondering if you’d care for a pint at The Stingy Thistle later tonight? Hilda’s siblings are in town and she’s seeing them in the evening, and we all know how they feel about me. I thought we could--”

Cullen pressed a hand on his friend's shoulder, agreeing to the scheme without hesitation. It wasn't like he had anything better to do but to sit at home and complain to Dog, who responded to his musings with pitying eyes - and it was clear Rylen would need someone to walk him home tonight.

A knock on the door surprised them both. “Come in!”

A royal courier rushed in, planting an envelope in Cullen’s palm. “A message for you, Serah Rutherford.” He nodded his greetings to Rylen, and left without waiting for a response, closing the door behind him. Cullen stood nailed to the spot, too astonished to protest when Rylen snatched the letter from his hand.

“What’s this? Another love letter from your Prince?” Rylen grinned, pointing at the coat of arms indented in the seal. “You should just accept his proposal and marry him. Settle whatever it is that’s going on between you two. Happily ever after and all that!”

“Be quiet,” Cullen barked and seized the envelope from his friend. The tips of his ears burned hot and he turned his back on Rylen before the man could see how his words affected him. He traced the seal with the tip of his finger before hiding the letter underneath his shirt, the end of his spine tingling and his heartbeat raging wild in his ears.

Such beautiful days were rare in Kirkwall, and even rarer was getting to rest on one of them. The sun shone from a cloudless sky as they lay on the grass, the courtyard empty save for the two of them; the Brothers and Sisters had taken to the Gallows. It was the day the mages and the templars would have Maker’s Word brought to them, but Sebastian had stayed behind to tend to chores - only they were all finished by the time Cullen had made it to the chantry.

Cullen’s fingers were buried in the hair at the back of Sebastian’s neck, and he could hardly help the smile that spread on his face; the brother was almost asleep in his lap, his eyes closed and mouth slightly parted - he hesitated to wake him, but he had to voice the thought that wouldn’t leave him be: it only grew louder as he watched Sebastian like this. “What if I wrote home about you? Would you be horrified?”

The man turned towards him, a languid smile spreading on his face as he nudged Cullen’s palm with his cheek, and for a moment Cullen was distracted; butterflies fluttered in his stomach as he held Sebastian’s head, the expression on the man’s face so contented and peaceful.

“What would you tell them?”

“T-that there’s a person whom I--” The words died in his throat as Sebastian opened his eyes. Their warmth punched the breath out of him, and all he could think to do was to let out a nervous chuckle and brush the high of the man’s cheekbone with a hesitant thumb.

“What can you tell them that you can’t tell me, I wonder,” Sebastian pressed a kiss to his palm and relaxed again, closing his eyes. “But I think horror would be the opposite of what I’d feel.”

“Right, I see you’re lost in your daydreams again,” Rylen interrupted his thoughts with a teasing chuckle. “I guess I’ll leave you to it. Just don’t forget to show up!”

The door shut with a click and Cullen returned to the anvil, picking up his hammer. He had written the letters to Mia, Branson, and Rosalie, but he hadn’t sent any of them; he’d sworn to say the words to Sebastian first, but each time he had tried, something inside of him had shut down. As the years had passed by, he’d never questioned his devotion to the man, but insecurity had taken hold as things had begun to change for Sebastian. The letters had remained hidden in a lockbox.

He frowned and struck the breastplate with the hammer, deciding to ignore the envelope pressed against his skin until he was home.

---

The Stingy Thistle was crowded, its patrons loud and jolly in the welcoming warmth. Long tables shone with spilled mead despite it being early in the evening; Starkhaven’s National Day was just around the corner and working men from all over Lowtown preferred to start the celebrations well in advance, filling the streets and taverns with their exuberant glee. Cullen strode through the pub, a jolt of pain bursting in his head at every eruption of laughter; what had started as mild discomfort in the morning had bloomed into a throbbing headache as the day had progressed, but he couldn’t even consider breaking the promise he had made to Rylen - not for a mere headache.

He ordered two pints of ale and slipped to the back room of the establishment, where a fireplace crackled, and one table was free out of sheer luck. The noise was much less prevalent here; the jolly crews preferred the wide open space that was conveniently close to the beer barrels, and the back room was usually more attractive for those who wanted privacy for their conversations. Cullen didn’t look around; he had no desire to know who occupied the nearby tables, for now he finally had a moment to read the letter tucked underneath his shirt. He would have much preferred to do so in the privacy of his home, but his resolve was at its end; he had to know - and he had to know now.

He examined the envelope once more, drawing in an unsteady breath before pulling it open with shaky hands, careful not to shatter the seal.

Dear Serah Rutherford,

It would be my greatest pleasure if you would join me for lunch two days from now. Should you accept, a trusted servant will meet you at your door and escort you to the Fortress. I am a man of my word, as you may remember, and this will be my last attempt to contact you should you wish it so. That said, I am anxious to speak with you again. I await your timely response.

Sincerely Yours,
Sebastian Vael

He sank deeper into the plush armchair and read the letter again - a lunch! Was he to think that the Prince wished for them to talk alone? All of the previous invitations had been to affairs with added company, but a tête-à-tête with the Prince of Starkhaven... A cold stone settled in the pit of his stomach and he took a long swig of his ale, as if to flush it away.

Had the man not sought him out at the wedding, he would have declined the honour; it had been much easier to do so while he imagined him sitting on his throne, all of his whims satisfied, but now… now things were different; something inside of him had moved. The Prince had been so open, so vulnerable, that the stitches that kept Cullen’s heart together had nearly torn.

“And I’ll have you know, you are not easy to forget.”

He let out a wretched sigh; he’d tried so hard not to think about the evening at the docks, but despite his best efforts, the words kept playing in his head along with the look that had accompanied them. What had he meant by it? And why did he tell him that? Surely it hadn’t been a mean-spirited comment aimed to hurt him, but to what end was such an admission made? A voice inside of him thought it knew, but he muffled it - that path was one to certain pain and disappointment, and he was no longer the foolish young man he had once been.

The decision, however, had to be made at once; when Sebastian made a promise, no force aside from the Maker’s wish would sway him from keeping it - there might never be another chance to talk to him. Cullen’s heartbeat hammered in his ears as he thought about meeting the man again, but after all that had happened - and now the eyes, the words - he had no real choice but to go: he would never forgive himself if he didn’t - and worse yet, neither would Sebastian.

Chapter Text

The sun rose from behind the hills, its rays barely reaching the surface of River Minanter as Cullen dipped his toes in the water. It was cool, but tolerable, and he couldn’t afford to stall; the dock workers would arrive soon, and he would prefer not to be seen here, nude and graceless, so he closed his eyes and dove in, leaving Dog to guard his clothes.

He shivered in the water’s harsh embrace, gasping as he willed himself to get accustomed to the temperature - and then he rolled to his back and let the river carry him with its gentle current. The sky above the city was dusky still, the last morning stars shimmering behind the Fortress, but the tower already basked in the orange glow; it was beautiful, and for a fleeting moment he wondered if the Prince was awake yet.

This was a ritual he seldom indulged in - when sleep evaded him, or the walls felt too close for comfort, he would stroll through the empty streets and down to the docks, gazing at the stars from the piers or bathing in the river, hoping clarity would await outside the city gates and his breath would flow easy before the wide open view.

The meeting with the Prince was scheduled for noon, and Cullen hadn’t rested much at all since receiving the invitation. Dreams of blue eyes widened in shock, and horrible, pained words plagued him during the precious few hours he had slept. The scene had repeated in his mind over and over: his dream self would beg for forgiveness and kneel on the floor, swearing he hadn’t meant any of it and that it all had been a mistake, his voice growing more desperate by every word - but it was always too late, for the damage was done and the man walked away no matter what, leaving him behind without so much as a backwards glance.

It was unbearable. He banished the thoughts and relaxed against the current, focusing on how the cool water caressed his skin, trying to picture how it washed away the last tendrils of horror, taking the poison to the far-away sea with its steady flow. If only it was as simple as that - if only the river could wipe away the remnants of nightmares that took his memories and perverted them into something worse than they had been, twisting the knife that was already buried in his gut.

He frowned; it wasn’t working. He flipped to his stomach and struggled back to the pier until his feet found purchase on the riverbed. “Towel-- please,” he panted, leaning on a nearby post. Dog sprung to action, fetching the washcloth and dropping it before him. “Thank you, boy.”

He rubbed his skin, worrying his lip between his teeth; the dip in the water had done little to calm his nerves - the same circular thoughts kept clouding his mind. What did the Prince want? If it had been another invitation sent out of the blue, he would have been certain it was another offer of employment, but the encounter at the wedding had left him unsure; there was something fragile in how the man had spoken and acted. He didn’t know what to make of it.

He let out a breath and shuddered; if the man wanted the truth, he wasn't sure he had the strength to keep it from him - but what good would it do to let it out now, a decade too late? Nothing would change; the burden of knowledge would simply shift to another set of shoulders - and would Sebastian feel any better for knowing?

He rinsed the washcloth with a frustrated sigh and climbed the pier, getting dressed in haste; the chatter of approaching workers echoed over yonder as the city awoke to the morning light. Whistling for Dog, he took towards the gates, no closer to answers than he had been since coming here.

---

The way to the Fortress was paved with granite, the tiles meticulously lined in a perfect grid. He followed the brisk steps of the Prince’s servant - an elven woman in her late twenties, her hair an unruly cloud of blonde curls - as she shuffled through the crowd with perfect ease. It was a busy day at the market; tents and cartwheels lined the pavements and accents both foreign and domestic rushed to give Cullen their sales pitches - but he kept his eyes on the pair of feet he was following, barely keeping up.

It would have been so easy to disappear into the crowd, to go back home and try to forget all about this, but picturing the Prince’s disappointment made him quicken his steps. What power a simple chance encounter exerted over him! He had been fine for the most part, focused on healing himself and in need of nothing but the company of his friends, but what tenuous peace of mind he had acquired had shattered when the Prince had looked at him, his eyes betraying the sorrow behind the polite smile.

It hadn’t been this bad when Starkhaven had celebrated Rylen and him as if they were returning heroes - the Prince had shaken his trembling hand and said a few polite words. Cullen hadn’t forgotten the touch on his palm - how it tingled! - nor the smile he hadn’t seen since Kirkwall, but the reunion had lasted a mere moment before the man had hurried off to greet other guests - it had been impersonal, and therefore much easier to bury than the night at the docks.

The Fortress doors were opened for them, and Cullen stepped inside, following his silent companion. They made their way across large marble halls, past several giant statues, through rooms decorated with impressive paintings, until finally stepping out into a spacious garden enclosed by the castle walls. A large tree stood in the middle of it, and bushes of various species dotted the grounds.

Sebastian stood by a lavishly embellished fountain at the edge of the gardens, his hands clasped in front of his hips. His white uniform gleamed in the sun, the rays bringing out the red undertone of his hair, but it was his smile that illuminated the scene more than anything else. Nervous anticipation tugged at Cullen’s lips as he forgot how to breathe.

“I’m pleased you could make it, Serah,” the Prince called out, and gestured at the table set up beside him.

Schooling his face, Cullen returned the pleasantry and hastened to join him, avoiding his eyes; this was the Prince of Starkhaven and not the man he had known. He bowed and sat down after the man had done so. A plate of fish pie awaited him, but butterflies fluttered in his stomach and he could barely register the delicious odour emanating from the dish. It occurred to him that the servant had left and they were now alone, and the realisation sent shivers down his spine.

“There is an important matter I wish to discuss with you,” the Prince began, holding his fork and smiling, “but you should try the food first - I ordered it especially for you, in case you haven't tried this local specialty. I will present my business in the meantime.”

Business? The bottom of Cullen’s stomach dropped; he should have known this meeting was meant to convey another offer, and to expect otherwise had been absurd. How could he have been such a fool? Jaw tensing, he picked up his fork and dug into the pie. “As you wish, Your Highness.”

From the corner of his eye he could see how the Prince's face fell for a fleeting moment, but the man cleared his throat and began, “The Captain of my armed forces is retiring, and while Commander Brothaigh could promote the next highest ranking officer to take his place,” he paused, biting his bottom lip, “I would prefer to appoint you.”

Cullen swallowed and met the man’s eyes, trying to bite back his irrational disappointment. “B-but why? I have no experience with your forces and I doubt I could perform to a satisfying standard.”

“I beg to differ. You would become accustomed to our ways and strategies in no time - I have faith in your abilities. There is no-one better to fill this role within the city walls, that much I’m certain of,” The Prince's eyes shone with sincerity - he really believed in what he was saying, but Cullen’s mouth flooded with a bad taste that the food couldn't wash away.

“Will you at least consider it?”

Cullen agreed, but it was a falsehood; he would pretend to think about the offer for a day or two before sending in his declination. He had no desire to walk the halls of the Fortress, frequently catching glimpses of the man who saw him a valuable asset and nothing more - his insides turned to stone from the thought alone. Perhaps what he had done in Kirkwall had been less of a mistake than he’d previously thought. The lunch commenced in awkward silence, and he barely tasted the food in his mouth - so wounded was his spirit.

Optimism seemed to have drained from the Prince, as well; he chewed slowly, casting his eyes anywhere but on him. His cheekbones betrayed a hint of red, but his smile had faltered, and there was no mirth in his eyes. Cullen should have known to expect his face was still easy for Sebastian to read - and similarly he could decipher the signs of hurt in his host; years had changed much, but some things had remained the same.

“You’re going to say no, aren’t you?” The Prince’s voice was low and dejected, the back of his jaw twitching as he lifted his gaze. “And it’s because of me.”

The atmosphere shifted and a cold weight settled on Cullen’s chest. The man’s eyes bore to him, but this time it was he who couldn’t meet them; the truth in his own would be clear as day. “Yes,” he whispered, but it wasn’t his intention to do so - the word made it through his agitation on its own, and his shoulders slumped in defeat. “I'm sorry.”

A beat of silence passed, and a lump formed in the depths of Cullen’s throat as he set down his fork; the truth had slipped out of him with such ease in the man’s presence - that was another thing that hadn’t changed.

“I'm sorry, too. I suppose I should have expected as much,” the Prince began quietly, “I should have known you'd want nothing to do with me - you've given me no reason to think otherwise - but perhaps I thought that…” he drifted off, staring at a nearby bush, his lips drawing into a straight line.

“T-that's not entirely true, Your Highness,” Cullen rushed to protest, but snapped his mouth shut before more impulsive words could escape him.

“You needn’t explain.”

The resignation in the Prince’s voice struck Cullen like a lightning bolt, and he dragged his gaze away, scrunching his eyes shut. Sebastian had only ever known rejection; his parents had abandoned him, his mother figure had disapproved of him, a companion had betrayed him in the worst way imaginable, and finally, Cullen had left him as well - and now the man sat there, taking another rejection with such serenity, as if he expected nothing else, as if he hadn’t deserved better. Cullen steeled himself and let out a long exhale - he couldn’t let the misunderstanding last a moment longer. It was his final chance to explain himself, and suddenly the truth burned on his tongue like an ember.

“But I-- I do need to explain, if you’ll listen,” he stuttered and licked his lips. His host stayed silent, quirking his brow as he looked away, and Cullen continued before he had a chance to change his mind. “Back in Kirkwall, I was… I was extorted. The Resolusionists, a-- a mage organisation, found out about us and they-- they threatened to ruin you, us both, but I couldn’t--”

“Wait,” Sebastian frowned as he turned towards him, gripping the edge of the table. “You were… extorted?”

“Yes, and that’s the only reason I-- I couldn’t let that happen to you, I couldn’t be the reason you’d lose everything.” Chills ran through his body as he pressed on, sweating under the questioning gaze. “They wanted me to arrange for the escape of some mages, and I couldn’t back then, I was so headstrong-- and, and they had it all wrong, about us. They thought you’d broken your vows, but how was I to prove-- no, I had no choice, I had to leave you - for your sake. There could be no doubts surrounding you.”

Silence fell between them. The Prince rose from his seat with a scoff and turned his back, the line of his shoulders tense as he stood in place, rubbing the back of his neck. The rush of courage drained from Cullen, leaving him on his toes as he waited for Sebastian to react - the truth was out at last, and a decade of keeping it had come to an end with a few unpolished words. Birds sang their joy in the lone tree - wings flapping, hopping from one branch to the next - as if nothing had happened, as if the world hadn't been permanently altered.

“You-- you didn’t think to tell me this,” the Prince looked at him from over his shoulder, the corner of his lips twitching in vexation, “when it happened?”

Heat rose to Cullen’s cheeks and he grimaced, “You would have hunted them down. Kirkwall’s streets would have flooded with more mage blood, and the situation was dire enough as it was.”

The Prince sighed and rolled his shoulders before falling quiet again, leaving Cullen to study his hands while biting the inside of his cheek, mouth dry.

“You didn’t tell me even after the ch-- even after the explosion.”

It wasn’t a question, but words pushed out of Cullen - there was no end to his truths now that the dam had broken, “I tried to find you, but-- Maker’s breath, you were fast to leave. I knew you’d come here and claim the throne, and I wanted to write to you, but-- there was no place for me in Starkhaven. I would have been nothing but a hindrance to you; a-- a burden.”

The Prince spun around and rushed back to the table, looming over him like a storm cloud. “A burden? H-how dare you! I had told you so many times that I would take you with me - that I wouldn’t leave without you!”

The birds escaped the tree behind the Prince as he shouted, his words echoing off the castle walls.

Long-hidden wounds slashed open again, infected and as deep as the day they were made, and Cullen met the Prince’s challenging glare with a sigh: “But what help would I have been to you? You didn’t need me - you never did. You were perfectly capable on your own, and-- and it’s evident I was right to think so.” Anguish rippled through him anew, and he paused to take a breath before he continued, “After Meredith died, I had to step up - the Circle needed me.”

The man pursed his lips before pressing them flat together, averting his eyes as his knuckles turned white on the table. “You chose The Order over me.”

“You chose the throne over me.” The claim made little sense, but Cullen felt the truth of it to the core of his bones; the countless nights he’d lain awake - wondering when Sebastian would leave him behind, praying for a miraculous change of heart - had ultimately culminated in what he had feared the most: the man had left.

A bitter laugh bubbled from Sebastian at the accusation. He slumped to his chair, shaking his head, crossing his arms on his chest, his smile entirely devoid of humour. “I didn’t. I had decided to stay in Kirkwall. I was going to propose to you - Elthina could have married us in the eyes of the Maker, and the hiding could have ended.” A pained grimace spread on his face as he paused, closing his eyes. “But you-- you left me before I could tell you any of this!”

Cullen’s heart stopped at the words, falling to the pit of his stomach, stealing his breath along with it. He’d been so certain Sebastian would decide in favour of reclaiming the throne and that it would have put an end to their love in any case - the assumption had had him too paralysed to fight the Resolutionists. To now hear that the man had been determined to stay by his side shocked him to his core and turned his world upside down; the full weight of his mistake hit him like an avalanche. “I-- I had no idea.”

“Of course you didn’t. You didn’t think you were worth that much, did you? But you were. You were everything to me.”

His eyes locked on Sebastian’s. The look on the man’s face was a mixture of anger and defeat, his anguish stabbing Cullen straight through his unguarded chest. He wanted to run, to curl up in his bed - to forget everything he had heard; he had hurt the man in a way he hadn’t imagined possible. He had thrown his own life away in one thoughtless act; he was so much worse than he had previously believed - and utterly undeserving of Sebastian’s devotion, past or present. He hid his face in his hands, staring at the table as he finally spoke: “I-- I don't know what to say.”

He could have told the truth that his heart so easily supplied, even now; he would have never declined such a proposal - but words were cheap. He could have apologised, but to do so would be woefully inadequate - he could never repair the damage he had done. Nothing he could say would matter now; the gap between them had grown so large, their respective positions so far apart that a leap would only result in a graceless fall. Their differences had been great enough in Kirkwall - the commoner Knight-Captain and the royal Brother - but it was nothing in comparison to what they were now; a peasant had no place beside a prince.

The pressure in his chest grew too much to bear, so he forced himself back to present matters, swallowing around the lump in his throat. “I don’t understand why you would wish for me to work for you now. You have nothing but reasons to-- to resent me, and yet you offer me a place at your side. Why?”

Sebastian huffed, cradling his forehead in his hands. “Because I'm a fool, but I didn’t take you for one. You’ve-- you’ve struggled so much, and I’m in a position where I can help--”

Cullen’s mouth opened as he came to a realisation. “Those old breastplates I’ve been getting.”

“Yes. Those, among many other small things.”

“But why?” Cullen asked, heat rising to his cheeks anew; this couldn’t possibly be what the tiny voice in his head suggested.

“I'm sure you can figure it out.” Sebastian rose to leave, arching his brow as he regarded him. “Please, consider the offer I’ve made - I am still very serious about it.” He rubbed the back of his neck and turned around, his next words quiet. “Maker knows I’ll need some time to think, too. My servant will see you out.”

Cullen’s heart hammered in his chest as the Prince walked away and cast an unreadable glance over his shoulder.

Chapter Text

The market square was crowded below an overcast sky and large bronze statues stood at its centre - regal, as if watching over the townspeople. Dozens of carts were spread out over the area and the citizens of Starkhaven flocked to obtain their fresh produce, fish, and fabrics, while guardsmen walked the edges, raising flags on poles as they went. The celebrations for the National Day were set to begin the next morning, and preparations were well underway; it was the last chance to acquire supplies before the Hightown market would be cleared to host parades and ceremonies.

Cullen stood before a cart, weighing oranges in his hands, Dog sitting impassively by his side. The craving for citrus had started since the worst of his withdrawals had subsided, and it was the most curious thing; he had never much fancied fruits before. “How much for three oranges?”

“Twelve coppers, Serah,” the merchant responded with a thick Orlesian accent.

He rummaged through his pockets, producing the coins and handing them to the woman with a smile. She thanked him and he turned away, his face falling the moment courtesy was no longer needed, navigating his way through the thick crowd. He held the fruit safely to his chest, Dog following his steps with an exasperated huff.

“Cullen!” A cry came from somewhere to his side. He paused to look for its source, and spotted Hilda hurrying towards him. A smile spread on his lips as he approached to meet her; her cheeks were red with exertion, bulging bags hanging from both of her hands.

“I haven’t seen you in two weeks!” she exclaimed with a scowl, but her face softened as Dog greeted her with a muffled bark.

“I apologise - I have been very busy at the smithy,” he explained, rubbing the back of his neck and holding back a cringe, “besides, I heard your family decided to grace you with a visit - I had no desire to come across them.”

She sighed, blowing on a loose strand of auburn hair. “You wouldn't believe the utter nonsense they put me through.” She straightened her stature, lifting her chin to match the imperious stance: “Come back to Tantervale with us; father is unwell and he misses you. He can help you nullify this,” her lips twisted downward, “embarrassing marriage you’re tied to.”

Cullen grimaced. “I’m sorry to hear.”

Hilda had more or less escaped her tyrannical family; the Prince had invited her to visit Starkhaven many years ago, but she had never returned home. When asked about it, her explanation was that she had merely forgotten to do so, but everyone knew an unhappy union had awaited her in Tantervale. Her family had sent people to fetch her during the first few years, but she had remained immovable throughout their relentless bombarding. It wasn't until the Prince had insisted his court couldn't do without her that the harassment had finally ended, but the news of her marrying a stonemason’s son had clearly ignited their efforts anew.

“No matter. Are you done here? I was about to head home for some tea. Would you care to join me?”

Cullen agreed with ease and pried a bag out of her hand; he was in dire need of company and distraction after the confrontation with the Prince the day before. Little else had occupied his mind once he’d left the Fortress - his heart had been stripped bare and belted raw, and a series of what-ifs kept invading his mind.

He shook his head and followed his friend from the bustling streets into the coolness of her home - one of the smaller estates in upper Hightown - heaving a relieved sigh as he rested the large bag on the kitchen floor. He would never own up to it, but the simple task of carrying a sack of groceries across the city exhausted him now. He took a seat by the kitchen table and steadied his oranges on its surface, hiding his hitching breaths as Hilda prepared the tea, Dog bustling at her legs.

The scent of herbs and spices filled the air as they discussed the encounter with Hilda’s siblings; she insisted they were an annoyance more than anything else, but Cullen sympathised and offered what meagre advice he could think of. She deflected his words by turning them all into jokes, and despite himself, Cullen laughed alongside her.

Hilda poured the tea into two hefty cups, finally sitting across from him. Her eyes turned to the fruit spread out between them, humour twitching the edge of her lips. “I see you still have an appetite for those things. How have you been doing?”

He peeled an orange and wondered how to answer the question; everything was in chaos. He had tried to suppress all the pain and remorse ever since he had ended things with Sebastian - and succeeded for the most part, but none of his methods worked now. The look in the man’s eyes haunted him and his voice echoed in his head without pause, and he was powerless to stop the barrage of memories. The previous night had come with a cruel nightmare; sea blue eyes looked down at him from a darkened sky, their tears soaking him as he walked through the emptiness of Void. He had awoken coated in sweat, for a fleeting moment thinking he was covered in tears, a name pushing past his lips in a cry - and never had he longed for lyrium’s liquid warmth more. “Quite alright.”

“But of course. You could have your arm cut off and you would still say that,” Hilda scoffed. “I heard you finally agreed to meet with the Prince. How did that go?”

He stopped chewing the fruit, his brows drawing together. “How do you know about that?”

She smiled with a secretive tilt to her lips. “The servants talk, my friend. I overheard them saying the Prince had shouted in the garden, withdrawing to his chambers for the rest of the day. He had audiences scheduled for the evening, but apparently Seneschal Granger had to take over. What happened?”

Cullen swallowed, heartbeat elevating as the significance behind the words registered - the Prince had been affected by their conversation. He had little desire to talk about it - he himself could barely comprehend what had transpired - but Hilda was leaning over the table, her gaze prying the story out of him. “I-- We talked about some things.”

“And these things,” she arched her brow, “got quite heated?”

“No--” he tried, but was cut off by her disapproving tut. “Very well. It got a little heated.”

“Cullen, you do know that you can trust me, don’t you? Sebastian is my second cousin, but you are my friend, too. Don’t you think it would make you feel better if you confided in someone? This thing between you two must be something,” her mouth drew into a thoughtful line as she cradled her cup in her hands, “big.”

He couldn't respond; whatever would come out would only offend, for her best intentions did nothing but unnerve him. This was a matter he had never told a soul about - his best kept secret that, once upon a time, he had wanted to yell from the rooftops, but now... now it was a testament of his failure, of how he inevitably brought misery to everyone he loved.

“I’m not pushing you because I want gossip. I just want you to have someone to talk to.” Her tone was gentle and quiet, and the twinkle of humour had drained from her brown eyes.

Cullen chewed the inside of his cheeks, considering her appeal. If she had asked on any other day, he would have brushed her off with ease and changed the topic - but he was tired. “I appreciate the sentiment, but this matter is simply too… painful for me to speak of,” he muttered at last.

Hilda took a sip of tea, mouth drawn in concern as she regarded him. Cullen bit into the last of his orange, hoping she would accept the response and steer the conversation onto something else.

“You were involved, weren't you? Back in Kirkwall?” she finally asked, cutting off his protest with a wave of her hand once more. “I can’t think of any other explanation for Sebastian’s behaviour - he’s been different since you and my husband arrived to the city. It’s subtle, but I have known him for many years. The servants tell me he sits in the Fortress’ garden in the middle of the night, staring at the sky for hours on end. He writes letters, but burns them as soon as they’re written - I’ve seen it myself. And when you decline to meet him? Oh, what a rainy day it is. He asks questions about you, trying to seem nonchalant about it, but he’s not a very good actor.”

“H-he asks questions about me?”

Dog, the traitorous creature, had settled next to her, and she pampered him absently as her face settled to a stern expression. “Yes, but how about you answer my question now?”

Cullen heaved a sigh and shifted in his seat; what use would it be to deny her the truth now? Maker knew his lies had done enough. “Fine - you’re right. We were together for many years, but then I made a mistake I could never hope to atone for.”

Her eyes flared up, her posture straightening. “I knew it! I wasn't sure if it was just him, but after I saw you together at our wedding, I could tell there are wounds that haven’t healed in you both.” She let go of Dog and picked up her mug again, tilting her head. “So, what happened yesterday?”

Cullen cleared his throat, cheeks burning hot; how surreal it was to think of the day before - and even more so to talk to someone about it! “He offered me a position in the military.”

“And did you take it?”

“I said I would think about it, but-- I don’t know if I can accept. T-to be so close to him again…” he trailed off, watching the leaves swirling in his cup.

“He wouldn't ask if he didn't want you there. Perhaps he still loves you. I mean, judging by what I’ve seen--”

“No - that’s ridiculous!” Cullen snapped and rubbed his temple, battling the early signs of a headache. “And even if he did, what place have I in his life? He is the Prince and I am nobody. I have no means to make up for what I did. Besides, what have I to offer him?”

Hilda stared at him as though he was dense. “What have you to offer? Are you out of your mind? Only the very thing every living person in Thedas wants,” she scolded - and groaned in frustration: “Maker, you are dumber than you seem.”

Exposed and uncomfortable, Cullen tried changing the topic. They spoke briefly of Rylen’s work and of the new servant the couple had recently hired, but it didn’t take long before Hilda was offering him unasked for advice on how to proceed with the Prince’s offer; she was convinced Cullen ought to take him up on it and become a military man again, whether or not he could ever get the past mistakes settled with the man.

“So, what do you think about the Inquisition coming to town?” she inquired as she rose to boil more water.

Cullen’s breath caught in his throat, heart stopping in his chest. “The-- what? When? Who’s coming?”

“You didn’t know? From what I heard, the Inquisitor and the Lady Ambassador are to arrive tonight. They are attending the National Day festivities as a courtesy, I believe. Have you really not heard? It’s the talk of the town. Everywhere I go, I hear people talking about it. I’m afraid my poor husband is far less enthused than most,” she pondered, stopping only as she turned to look at Cullen.

“I-- I should get going. Thank you f-for the tea,” Cullen muttered apologetically, knees quivering as he got up. Hilda watched him with wide eyes; Rylen was clearly a better keeper of secrets than he had given him credit for. He gathered the two remaining oranges in his arms and headed for the door in haste, whistling for Dog to follow. Hilda called after him, but he was falling into a chasm and her words were unintelligible to his ears.

The pit of his stomach burned, waves of nausea coursing through his body as he dashed away. The face of the man he’d escaped from emerged before his eyes, changing to that of a woman as he tried to blink it away - but to no avail. Hastening his step in the busy streets, a familiar prayer fell from his lips in broken whispers.

“I-- I am not alone, e-even,” he ran across the market square, shuffling past carts and townspeople, “as I stumble on the p-path,” an orange fell from his arms, rolling to the ground, “with my e-eyes closed,” he rushed down a narrow street, the back of his mouth filling with cold saliva, “yet I see,” past a group of exuberant revellers, heart thundering in his ears, “The L-light is here.”

He reached home at last and pulled the door closed behind Dog, dropping the remaining orange to the floor and crashing onto his bed. Hands shaking violently, he pulled a basin from under his bed and retched until his stomach was heaving empty.

“You know, I’ve heard about you before,” the Inquisitor said, seemingly nonchalant. It had been many months since they had met and the man hadn't even been to his office before; it was quite clear he avoided seeing Cullen outside of the War Room.

The man continued talking, taking in the room as he did. “I had a friend in the Gallows before she escaped, and she told me all about what went on under your watch. Perhaps you remember her? Thalia - a former Dalish elf who left for Kirkwall in hopes of changing her life, but ended up in the Gallows instead?”

Cullen held back a grimace, trying for a polite smile instead. “I can’t say I do - there were many like her.”

“At first I wasn't sure it was you, but a letter from her confirmed it.” The man watched him with a sceptical tilt to his lips. “I wasn't too happy to learn that. Frankly, I’m not pleased to be working with you, but everyone else seems to think you are the right man for the job, so I’m giving you a chance to change my mind. But I hope to see you repent for what you did in Kirkwall - such actions shouldn’t go unpunished,” he mused, running his fingers over the smooth surface of Cullen’s desk, his eyes inscrutable.

“I make no excuses for myself. What would you have me do, Inquisitor?” Cullen willed his hands to stop trembling underneath his desk - he should have known this was the reason behind the cold treatment.

“For starters, you should start taking lyrium again.” The Inquisitor straightened himself. “A little bird told me you've been trying to go without it, and I’d rather not have the Commander of my forces weakened by withdrawals.”

“S-ser?” Cullen stumbled, aghast. He’d been clean for so long; five months off the substance and he’d only just started feeling like he’d come out of this alive. The withdrawals ravaged his body day and night, but he was making headway, and every small improvement gave him hope.

“That is just one of the many things I’ll require of you. We have a war to win and I’d rather not have your pet project cost us a single life. Show me you’re worth my trust.”

For a fleeting moment, an eerie sense of recognition ran through Cullen, but he suppressed it as the Inquisitor glided out of the room, clicking the door shut behind him.

Chapter Text

 

It had been three days since the Inquisition had marched into town; Cullen hadn’t seen them for himself, but the excited yells and loud chatter of every passerby in the streets below had delivered the news in a way he could hardly ignore. The celebrations had begun the next morning, and he had made sure to hear none of it; instead, he had locked himself inside of his small apartment and focused on writing letters - most of them woefully late responses to his siblings.

Time had slowed to a crawl as the days had passed - the confines of his home had turned from a comfort to a stockade as hours had dragged by, quiet and meaningless. There was little to do but to be buried in thoughts, and few of them were pleasant. Even Dog seemed to be in hibernation - he rested on the bed, offering none of his attention as Cullen sat on his spot by the opened window. The air stood still and stale in the early autumn afternoon, thick grey clouds hiding the sun behind them.

“My entire clan is dead because of you!” The shout reverberated from the stone walls of the office as the Inquisitor slammed his hand on Cullen’s desk. “Your Lieutenant is as worthless as you are!”

Cullen swallowed around the lump in his throat, silenced by the outburst. The mission had been one unfortunate turn of events after another, and Lieutenant Chambreterre and her men had been reduced to reactionary choices the circumstances had lead to - but he knew they had done their best with what they had. And yet Clan Lavellan had perished, and their blood was on his hands.

“I-inquisitor,” he began, his voice coming out raspy, “I am so sorry for your loss. I have failed y-you. Some of my finest men died—”

“Your men? Your men, Commander? How dare you compare the deaths of people who willingly risk their lives every day,” the Inquisitor took a sharp breath and schooled himself, blinking slowly and staring at Cullen with inscrutable eyes, “to those who only wanted a peaceful life?”

The cold mask was back in place, the Inquisitor’s face betraying little of the fury Cullen assumed to lurk underneath the facade. The calm of his demeanour promised the arrival of a great storm - but how it would unleash, Cullen dared not imagine.

“I truly am sorry for your loss,” was all Cullen could say - and he meant it from the bottom of his heart; he’d had all the confidence the situation could be resolved peacefully, and yet he had failed. The blood of innocents flooded the fields of Wycome and there was nothing he could do about it.

*

It wasn’t many weeks later that he’d been made to watch Lieutenant Chambreterre’s execution; she had been a fine soldier - as clever as she was skilled - and yet the Inquisitor gave no care nor pardon. The head of the young woman had rolled down the battlements and into the chasm beyond, and as the rest of her body had been flung over the edge, with it had gone the last bits of sanity the Inquisitor had clung to. Months later Cullen had found the corpse of Raleigh Samson - an old friend turned enemy - killed by dehydration. He had done his best to smuggle food and drink to the prison, but the guards were under the Inquisitor’s direct command, and sneaking past them hadn’t been possible in days.

*

That night, tears of anger and bewilderment sliding down his cheeks, Cullen had gathered what courage he’d had and written to Rylen, but circumstances held the man at Griffon Wing Keep until Corypheus had been defeated. Cullen had kept him informed about the reign of terror that originated from Skyhold: prisoners were tortured, nobles - allies and enemies alike - extorted, their lands confiscated and wares stolen. The Inquisition had changed from a cause of preservation to a force of destruction - its leader driven past his limits and finally corrupted by the absolute power bestowed upon him.

Corypheus had fallen - but at what price to all of them! The noble pursuit for peace had been all but tainted, the tyranny of the Inquisitor rivalling that of Knight-Commander Meredith. The similarities between the two were as striking as their differences - while Meredith had coerced and taken advantage, the Inquisitor wasn’t afraid to threaten and blackmail. The end result, however, was the same. Oh, the things he had done - the crimes to which he had been an unwilling accomplice.

Cullen shook his head, pacing by the opened window, hoping to catch news from below. There was no telling if the Inquisition was still in town; he would have to climb to the roof and try seeing if their colours were still raised to Hightown’s flag poles - or take to the streets and go look. He resigned to do neither and sat by the table, attempting a friendly letter to his younger sister - but his hand trembled so that the effort was doomed from the start.

Days had passed in trepidation; the Prince had no way of knowing his sordid history with the Inquisitor, and there was a risk of him revealing Cullen’s whereabouts. He had pondered whether it would be wise to run out of the city gates and linger in the wilds until the bannered chariots rolled out of Starkhaven - but something made him stand his ground. The terrible man was in the Fort with the Prince - with Sebastian! - and Cullen couldn’t simply leave: the idea of being out of reach if he were needed was intolerable. He scoffed - it was ridiculous to even think such an occasion might come! - but his heart was adamant: he had to stay, and he had to be strong.

The Inquisitor had been intent on destroying whatever was left of Cullen ever since the news of Clan Lavellan’s demise had arrived; the man had sent him on suicide missions, disappointment clear in his eyes whenever Cullen returned mostly unscathed - but it wasn’t before Rylen had returned to Skyhold that the gravity of the situation had dawned on him at last. He had been subdued to the cause, all too ready to sacrifice himself for whatever had been needed at the time, but Rylen’s words had reached him through the fog.

“We’ve already won. Do you really want to die a slave?”

A slave to lyrium, a slave to the whims of a person not unlike Knight-Commander Meredith; and finally, a slave to a cause he could no longer recognise as his own. The road had come to an end underneath his legs, but Cullen hadn’t realised it was truly over; the Inquisitor had cleared the ranks of the organisation in order to serve Divine Victoria - he was no longer needed, but breaking off from the man’s grasp had never occurred to him aside from fleeting thoughts.

Rylen’s presence in Skyhold had been a fortification he hadn’t known he had needed, much less earned. The man had spoken evenings on end, his words untangling knots Cullen’s mind couldn’t have cleared on its own. It had taken a long time to deem himself worthy of another chance, a life free of the shadow of death looming over him, a life free of leaders with short leashes. Together, he and Rylen had sworn to abandon the duties neither no longer believed in. Together, they had taken to the night, leaving letters of resignation and their lyrium kits behind.

A crash on the door surprised him; the quill he’d been holding fell to the blank parchment, his breath catching in his throat - had the Inquisitor learnt where he lived? Cold saliva emerged in his mouth before he could finish the thought; he was all but ready to retch again, or to jump out of the window - but then his uninvited visitor knocked on the door.

“Open up, you slacker. I know you’re in there - the smithy was empty.”

Relief coursed through his strained muscles and he closed his eyes. “One moment,” he sighed, piecing himself together; he released his grip on the chair he was sat on, rubbed his eyes to clear them, and rushed to open the door.

Rylen strode in, carrying a brown package he left on the table by the window, and turned to regard him. “You look like shite.”

Cullen shrugged; it had been days since he had last had something akin to rest  - and neither had the circumstances allowed for a bath. The trip down to Lowtown’s well had been risky enough for drinking water - he’d made sure not to loiter outside any longer than strictly necessary. “What does he want?”

Rylen scoffed, crossing his arms on his chest, not at all surprised by the question. “Void if I know. I’m not exactly privy to such information. I know the Prince is very cross with him - I haven’t seen such a false smile on his face for,” the man rubbed his chin, squinting his eyes, “well, ever. And he keeps talking to seneschal Granger in Starkhavenian.”

Cullen knitted his brows; that was a dire sign, indeed. Sebastian turned to his other language when he was especially annoyed, or-- Cullen cleared his throat, resisting the images that threatened to surface, forbidding his mind from summoning the memory of a soft smile and a gentle finger tracing his cheek. “So, he is after something?”

“I don’t know - it looks like a courtesy call by all intents and purposes, but he always wants something, doesn’t he? Whatever he’s after, it looks like he’s not getting it,” Rylen mused, taking a seat in front of the package. “Anyway, they’re leaving tomorrow morning. Come, have a bite. I figured you probably haven’t eaten.”

A tentative smile dawned on Cullen’s face; trust Rylen to escape from his duties to care for a friend. Having Hilda in his life had lessened his hovering a fair deal, but the man hadn’t changed. “You shouldn’t have - but thank you.”

“Yeah, well,” Rylen grumbled, the corner of his lips twitching to a smile. He tore the paper open to reveal a large bowl of soup, and the delicious scent of fish and potatoes spread to each corner of the small apartment.

Cullen retrieved two bowls and spoons from the cupboard, placing them on the table and gesturing for his friend to share the meal with him. It was only when the flavour spread on his tongue that he realised just how hungry he was; his stomach roared as he chewed and swallowed, impatient to be sated for the first time in two days.

“He doesn’t really want you, you know.” Rylen’s face was thoughtful as he rolled his shoulders and leaned back, pausing his meal.

Cullen halted as well, spoon suspended mid air, his heart stopping as the words sunk in.

“Stupid. I mean the Inquisitor. He doesn’t care - about either of us. You don’t need to hide from him, you know. The worst he can do is sneer at you - Maker knows he sneered at me when he saw me in the halls.” The laugh that passed from Rylen’s lips was dry. “But he’s got his new Commander. He’s got his new Captain. If he really wanted to have his revenge on us, he would’ve had it already.”

Cullen heaved a breath, scratching his brow; it made sense and he could recognise the truth in Rylen’s words, and yet… “I- I suppose you’re right.”

“I am,” Rylen smiled, but the look in his eyes left no room for argument. “Now, finish your soup.”

The rest of the meal passed in better spirits; Rylen spoke of his recent recruits, complaining about what sorry bunch they were, and of how they had been a much better sort in the days of his youth. Cullen agreed, grumbling about how youngsters were far too self-indulgent these days, having not experienced or - worse yet - even heard of the Blight. He leaned in to listen through the window ever so often, but grew more at ease as time passed, reassured that this disruption would come to an end soon enough.



Chapter Text

 

The sky was blue above Starkhaven, the clouds sheer and sparse as a spider’s web hung high, their slow crawl imperceptible to Cullen’s eyes. He sat by the door to the smithy, shadowed by the tall buildings of Hightown, relieved to be shielded as the sun did its best to stretch the summer for one more day. It was useless; the bushes by the nearby fountain were turning yellow, and the cool nights had wilted the flowers sitting on window panes. Despite the heat, the scent of autumn was in the air, mixing with the smell of fish wafting from his sandwich.

Cullen stretched his legs and took a bite, leaning back and closing his eyes; it had been two days since the Inquisition had left, and he was clean and well rested. On the morning of their departure, he had carried a basin of water from the Lowtown well and bathed in peace - and then he had slept, waking up only as the first rays of dawn had stolen through his window. Out of sleep, he had strolled through the deserted streets with Dog, relieved to see the flags of the Inquisition already gone from the poles, and taking to the moors overlooking the city. The morning was chilly and clear, and he had watched as migrant birds flew through the sky to the North, while the dog ran through the fields of heather, happy to end their isolation.

Once it had become clear the fog in his head wouldn’t completely lift, he had climbed down the steep hills, passed through the city gates, and headed to the Hightown market. He had waited as the merchants opened their stalls one by one and secured as much as he could reasonably afford; Nevarran mystery berries that proved to be delicious, minced meat for Dog, pork pie from a local baker for breakfast, and finally the trout sandwich he was enjoying now - the fish freshly caught the night before, the merchant had assured.

He’d had an early start to the day’s work, and the order on the damaged breastplates was almost finished now; only a dozen more lay in wait, and he couldn’t help but wonder if a new batch would soon be delivered.

His brows pulled to a frown as he chewed the last of his bread, snatching his feet from the strip of light that escaped through the buildings and tucking his legs underneath the chair.

The Prince, no doubt, awaited his response, but he was no closer to decisions. The previous days had been a terrible reminder of his luck when it came to a life in uniform - and yet a part of him wanted to try again, for the circumstances in the Fortress surely couldn’t have been comparable to those of Kirkwall or Skyhold. Not while the Prince oversaw the operations. A reasonable part of him wanted to decline, for how was he to stay professional under such a leader? The time and distance had done little to temper the erratic beat of his heart while in the Prince’s presence, or the way his breath caught in his throat as the man’s striking blue eyes landed upon him.

His life was adequate at last; his income was small but sufficient, and the withdrawals were subsiding to a tolerable level, perhaps eventually to give way completely - it was good enough. Why was he even considering the offer? He wrapped the empty paper of his sandwich and pinched the bridge of his nose.

Of course he knew why.

“You’re-- you’re leaving me?” Sebastian’s voice was incredulous. A chopped laugh left him as he turned his back, gripping his chainmail with one hand and rubbing his neck with the other.

Cullen shifted in place, the tips of his ears burning hot, gaze fixed on the floor tiles. He cleared his throat, the collar of his armour pressing against his skin, the cool metal too close for comfort. “Only because I must. My duties have grown too great, and I can no longer afford a-- a di-distraction.”

The air stood still and oppressive, and time slowed to a drag before halting entirely. The silence that settled in the room was unnatural. The wrongness of it all had his heart thundering with the force of a tempest and the hair at the back of his neck stood in fearful anticipation.

“Is that what I am? A distraction?”

The words were calm - deceptively so - but anger lurked in the slight cracks of Sebastian’s voice, the notes tense as a bowstring. Cullen swallowed and closed his eyes, sweat beading on his temples. “No, I-- I’m sorry,” he stuttered, drawing in a shaky breath. The lie he had prepared failed to pass his lips - he shook his head, clearing his throat again. “I don’t--”

“Breugair,” Sebastian shouted, turning to face him in haste, eyes burning like wildfire and lips pulled to a grimace, “get out! Get out of my sight!”

He nodded slowly and turned away like the coward he was, speeding out of the quarters that were home to his heart, too undeserving to steal one last glance of the man he’d do anything to protect - including this horrid injustice.

Cullen frowned as he rose from the chair and whistled for the dog, who was busy getting petted by the owner of the neighbouring inn. He waved a greeting to the woman as Dog approached him with reluctant steps, followed him into the smithy, and slumped to the floor without a sound. Ignoring his companion’s silent rebellion, Cullen got back to work, the taste of regret overpowering that of his lunch.

He had lost the right to feel this way by leaving the man. The Prince now knowing his motivations changed nothing at all; the damage was done and they were two different people, so impossibly far apart that nothing could rectify the situation - not even taking the Captain’s post.

But was that the man’s plan; correct their courses so they would better align?

He looked over his shoulder into Dog’s bored eyes, a joyless chuckle bubbling out. “I’m quite ridiculous, aren’t I?”

The whine he got in response left no room for interpretation. Cullen brought the hammer down on the breastplate with a huff, thoughts returning to the Prince at once. Why was the man asking this of him? Was he so well recovered that having him in the Fort wouldn’t affect him in any way?

“He wouldn't ask if he didn't want you there. Perhaps he still loves you. I mean, judging by what I’ve seen--”

Hilda’s words tried to counter whatever explanations he attempted to apply to the situation. Could there be any truth to this - that the Prince wished him near?

It made no sense to think so, and yet a decade ago he would have readily believed it. The Sebastian he had known was calm, smooth, and well in control of himself, but beneath the surface lurked passion that drove him forward and steered his course. The man had functioned on emotion - and yet it had worked for him; his compass was nearly unerring and his campaigns always heartfelt. He had been full of seemingly impossible contradictions - a puzzle only few could piece together: he was as stubborn as he was lenient, as restless as he was mellow, and as furious as he was tender.

Cullen had admired him endlessly, for he represented everything he found lacking within himself; defiance, the will to do what his heart believed right, and the optimism that could never be stifled. The Sebastian he had known had inspired him, soothed him, and reached him past the walls he had erected around himself; the love in the man’s smile hadn’t repaired what was broken inside of him, but it had banished the demons long enough for the sun to pour into his soul. He had been the one shining light in darkness - the sole warmth that could melt the ice encasing his fragile core.

To think he could have stolen him for the rest of eternity had he not been so weak--

He shook his head to clear it - this was madness! What good did it do to wallow in nostalgia and long-lost love? What sense was there to nurse the memory of a person who probably no longer existed? How the years must have hardened the man - how different he must have grown, how pragmatic he must be! Would there be anything left of the Sebastian he had known if he were to look - and would it wreck him to find nothing of the old in the quirk of his lips or the touch of his hand? No, Hilda was mistaken; the Prince would not - could not! - love him after all this time.

And yet his heart persisted, claiming it knew better than his mind - that the polite smile sheltered the same warmth, that the tips of his fingers were longing to touch, just like before.

He groaned and wiped his sweaty forehead; surely this torment would only get worse if he were to accept the Prince’s offer. He would look for signs and find them, whether they were there or not - and what of the man himself! If something were to happen - against all odds - an attachment to a commoner could bring the man no advantage or popularity amongst his allies nor subjects - nothing he could offer the Prince would be to his best interests, professionally or otherwise. And who was to say Cullen wouldn’t let him down again? He was no wiser now than he had been back then.

His lips pulled to a tight line as he lay down a repaired plate and sought out the next one to work on. There was no justification, no selfless reason, to accept the place by the man’s side. The only way to do right by him was to decline - and request for no more charity from the royal armoury.

 

——

The sunny day had given way to a rainy night as Cullen finally closed the door to his smithy, stepping into the damp streets with Dog in tow. The work order was finished and its delivery arranged for; templars would pick up the breastplates come morning, and he would make sure to catch a messenger to deliver his letter to the Prince after the business was settled. It was only a matter of composing it that now remained. An inexplicable ache shot through his chest, but he ignored it as he set out to piece the words together as he walked.

A group of men appeared from behind, chatting heatedly in Antivan, brushing his shoulder as they passed. He wanted to protest, but they were running up the street to Hightown already, and only narrowly dodged a lady who hurried the other way.

Cullen knitted his brows; the streets were bustling with extraordinary activity considering the late hour - people were flocking towards the market, save for the lone figure marching his way. He recognised Hilda’s face and the urgency in the lines of her forehead, and rushed to meet her.

“Cullen, dear, we have to go now,” she insisted, linking their arms as soon as she reached him. “The Prince is about to deliver a speech and he wants you to hear it.”

“Me? Surely you’re mistaken.” Cullen slowed to a halt, earning a frustrated huff from his friend.

“Yes, you. He was very specific.” She pulled his arm until he started walking again, and they made it to the market in a blink.

The crowd that had gathered was impressive in size: every corner of the market was packed, but the presence of Dog ensured space for him and Hilda. At the end of the square the Prince stood on a beautifully embellished pedestal, clad in flowy white clothes, his expression benevolent from what Cullen could tell from the distance. A row of guards separated him from the residents, and a circle of well dressed people - the national court, no doubt - stood behind him.

It was clear they had arrived just in time, for the Prince lifted his palm and the people quietened down to listen to him at once.

“Ladies and gentlemen - fellow citizens of Starkhaven! I am humbled to see you have arrived in such great numbers to hear the news I have to impart.” He paused briefly to smile at the applauding crowd. “I wish I was here to tell you of something more pleasant, but unfortunately I must inform you we have severed our alliance with the Inquisition. It has come to our attention that the organisation uses certain practices no Andrastian order ought to--”

Hilda’s hold on his arm tightened and she gasped while he tensed in place, breath caught in his throat; Maker’s breath! Was he hearing this right? The crowd’s exclamations of surprise were but a dull background sound as he stared directly at the Prince, half of the man’s words lost to the ringing of his ears.

“-- and this is not a declaration of war against their forces - do not worry. Our association to them will merely cease to exist--”

He realised he was moving, dragging Hilda through the astonished audience, approaching the pedestal on which the Prince stood. He stopped just before the line of guards and peered over their shoulders at the Fort; the banners of allies and friends decorated the market side wall, and a spot stood empty where the Inquisition’s colours had once been.

“-- you not to be alarmed. Life in Starkhaven will continue as usual and we are under no threats from the Inquisition or from anyone else. ”

He shot his wide eyes at the Prince, who stood just a short distance away, and for a heart-stopping moment, their gazes locked. The man reclined his jaw as if to acknowledge him, but Cullen stood petrified to the spot, dread knocking in the back of his head. The rain took a turn for the worse as the Prince shifted his attention back to his audience and calmed them with a gentle hand gesture.

“The Maker willing, I will do my utmost to help this wonderful city flourish. Rest easy tonight, esteemed citizens, for Starkhaven stands strong. Thank you for your attention!”

The Prince waited for a beat, scanned the crowd, and began anew - this time in Starkhavenian. There were shadows underneath his eyes and a tenseness to his jaw that spoke of badly slept nights and unspoken concerns, but he was impeccably dressed; a white silk uniform embellished with golden braids hugged his body, imposing and elegant, and a simple diadem rested on his forehead. His hair was meticulously swept back, but the curls at the back of his neck were as untamed as they had always been. His maidservant attempted to shield him from the rain with a cloth, but he interrupted his speech to guide her away with murmured words Cullen couldn’t quite catch.

He watched in astonishment as the Prince repeated the news briefly in Orlesian, before finally taking a deep bow and descending from the pedestal, walking towards the Fort with a few guards and the members of his court in tow.

The crowd stood in stunned awe, erupting into conversation as if by unspoken contract, and Cullen turned to Hilda, whose brown eyes were squinted in thought.

“What— what is this? Did you know of this?”

“No, I don’t sit in the national court,” she pursed her lips and frowned, tugging at his arm to get him moving. “But we can certainly speculate over tea.”



Chapter Text

Satina hung low in the sky behind him as Cullen walked the main street towards the Fortress. The granite pavement was still wet from the previous night’s rain, puddles reflecting the picture of the lonely moon while its twin hid somewhere beneath the horizon. Silence reigned as he made his way; not a gust of wind stole from the moors above, and the only sounds of people he could hear were merchants packing their chariots. The hum of the river and the splashing waterfall behind the Fort were a constant ambiance he had learnt to ignore, but now the sounds pushed through the stillness of night, joining the cacophony in his soul.

Guards stood at the skirts of the market square and templars were stationed by the doors to the chantry, moonbeams glimmering off their golden armour. None of them moved, but as he circled around the statues at the centre of the plaza, Cullen felt their eyes following him, and so he distracted himself by watching the window panes of the residential palaces that were now decorated with heather - warm candlelight shone through some of them despite the late hour.

Certainty wavered with every step, however - growing stronger and shrinking in turns - and he paused to pull in a steadying breath. He turned around to gaze at the river that was visible from this part of the city, but fog had formed above the water, its ghostly grey tendrils concealing the rippling surface. The night sky was clear, but the air was cool and damp, and clung to his bare knees; he shivered in the freezing embrace, finding none of the calm the landscape normally supplied him.

He bunched the fabric of his kilt in a fist and carried on, approaching the Fortress gates where the Prince’s personal servant waited, her blond curls a shock against the dark walls of the building. She inclined her head in a voiceless greeting and motioned for him to follow, her steps far too brisk for someone of her size. Heart drumming in his ears and breath coming in choppy bursts, he kept up as they passed through the gates and crossed a spacious lobby, taking a sharp turn to the right.

Torches lined the long hallways, and the white walls were covered in portraits he had no time to examine. Their footsteps were heavy on the ornate marble tiles, light reflecting off of the polished surface. The servant led him in silence, hurrying up a staircase with a gilded railing, through corridors with life-sized busts of what Cullen could only assume were past leaders. The deeper into the Fortress they penetrated, the less embellished it became, until finally the walls were nearly bare, and the carvings shone with their absence.

The servant paused before a large wooden door, gesturing at it quietly, a small smile on her lips before she dashed away, leaving him no chance to thank her.

As the footsteps faded into silence, his shoulders slumped and he drew a shaky inhale, scrunching his eyes shut as he prayed: “My Creator, judge me whole - find me well within Your grace,” he pressed a hand to his chest, feeling the cadence of his heart, “touch me with fire that I be cleansed, tell me I have sung to Your approval.”

He opened his eyes. Though the anxiety would not ease, his resolution did not falter. Perhaps The Maker would approve of this - perhaps He would find no fault in this need to protect. The decision felt right to the core of his soul. Despite his past wrongs, and his current feelings, he could be part of something greater than himself. He could do this - he could put his desires in a box and seal them away, if it meant securing the city and all whom he held dear.

The Prince awaited behind the door and Cullen forced himself to knock.

“Come in!”

Swallowing past a lump in his throat, he gripped the knob and entered the room, closing the door behind him. The Prince sat behind a large wooden table, wearing the same white uniform as on their lunch meeting not so long ago. The man smiled, the quill in his hand suspended in place as he regarded Cullen. The look in the Prince’s eyes rooted him to the spot, heat rushing to the tips of his ears as he, with great effort, kept his eyes level.

“Good evening, Your Highness,” the steadiness of his voice came as a surprise as he folded his hands behind his back, assuming a straight posture. “Thank you for receiving me.”

The smile on his host’s face quivered before it deepened, and Cullen hastened to pull his gaze away from the eyes in which gentle candlelight danced, lest he’d stare for too long. The room was spacious and much more comfortable than the bare halls that lead to it; the ceiling was high and curtains made of red velvet cascaded in rich folds, almost reaching the marble floor. A tall bookshelf rose behind the Prince, its tiers curving underneath the weight of thick, leather-bound volumes. A love seat stood on the wall opposing the Prince’s desk, and a small dinner table was set between a hearth and a window. There were no doors to adjoining rooms, nor a bed; this was clearly the man’s study.

“Good evening, serah. It really is no trouble at all.”

The words drew his attention back to his host just in time to see the man set his diadem down on a pile of papers before getting up.

“I apologise for the late hour - after reading your message, I thought it prudent to meet you as soon as possible,” the Prince continued, circling the desk and leaning on it, crossing his arms loosely on his chest, “but I was engaged the entire day. Shall we have dinner while we discuss your matter?”

Cullen cleared his throat, resisting the urge to rub the back of his neck. A meal! He couldn’t quite hide his nerves as he followed his host to the dinner table, biting his lip between his teeth and fussing with the folds of his kilt as they sat across one another. “Thank you, Y-your Highness, I did not expect to dine…”

He trailed off as a shadow flickered across the Prince’s features, and it seemed the man was about to say something, but he placed his forearms on the table and crossed his fingers instead, schooling his face back to a polite smile. “It is no trouble.” The Prince took hold of a small brass bell between his fingers and ringed it, the bright sound loud over the crackling hearth. “I assume you want to talk about the offer.”

Cullen nodded, folding his hands in his lap; whatever confidence he had gained since the Prince’s speech escaped him now that he had the chance to talk. Perhaps it had been a mistake to request an audience - a simple letter would have surely sufficed, but he had to see the state the man was in, no matter how difficult the meeting would prove to be. What a fool he was, rushing into this so unprepared!

“Hold on - slow down!” Hilda’s brows were drawn together as she cut off Cullen’s rambling, her hands waving in the air. “The last we talked you were very unsure, and now you’re full of confidence?”

“He— Starkhaven needs me. What if the Inquisitor turns against us?” Cullen insisted, rubbing his temple. “I know his manoeuvres, the group tactics, all of it - I planned great many of them! Who better help protect this city than I?”

“And what of Sebastian?” She stirred her tea, and would have passed for calm if it wasn’t for the fire in her eyes and the vehemence in her voice. “Have you thought of the effect your presence will have on him?”

“He— you cannot seriously believe that he—” he closed his eyes and fought the growing exasperation. “He doesn’t. But I— I need him safe.”

Hilda heaved out a resigned breath. “Then I suppose you’d better write to him, but,” she leaned across the table and pushed a finger to his chest, the tip of her nail pressing painfully through his soaked shirt. “I know I’m right about him, and if you resist him due to some supposedly noble reasons, I will have your hide. Do you understand?”

The smile on his host’s face had flagged and the silence between them grew awkward. The Prince examined his laced fingers, waiting for Cullen to begin.

“I— yes, I wished to know if the offer still stands,” he stumbled, struggling to keep his voice even as heat spread to the back of his neck, “I would like to accept, if it does.”

It took all his determination not to avert his eyes as the Prince’s lips pulled into a smile that smoothed the lines on his forehead and illuminated the room with its warmth. The light from the flames danced on his brown skin, painting it golden, and the dimples in his cheeks deepened as he held Cullen’s gaze. “I’ll admit I’m surprised - and delighted. I was sure you’d decline.”

“I intended to, but then you gave that speech,” the truth came out in an unexpected rush, and Cullen grabbed the fabric of his kilt underneath the table, trying to rein himself in; why was it that he could never quite bring himself to lie to the man? It was like a spell that would not wear off. His knuckles turned white as he summoned his manners. “Y-your Highness.”

The joy brightening the Prince’s face dimmed, the crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes evening out. “Oh.” The back of his jaw tensed and, for a moment, Cullen forgot to breathe as the man stared at his interlaced hands once more. “Of course.”

Oh, how Cullen craved for the smile to return at once - no matter how dangerous it was, how devastating its effect on him. How urgently he needed to see it, genuine and devoid of the signs of exhaustion and worry that were etched on the man’s face, for they gnawed at the corners of his heart.

“The post is yours, of course. You will make an invaluable addition to our forces, but you need not concern yourself with the Inquisition; the situation is well under control.” The Prince leaned back, his face smoothing to a polite mask.

Cullen closed his eyes to gather himself, but the thought that had been on his mind since the previous night stole free: “Is it, really? Do you know who it is you’re defying?”

A servant entered the room, balancing a tray in his hands - and breaking the moment. The Prince was quick to smile and pull his arms from the table, making space for two bowls of steaming soup, bread, and a bottle of wine that were quickly set out on the desk. The servant was about to pour the wine when the Prince stilled his hand and thanked him by name, and then the man bowed, hurried out of the room, and closed the door behind him with a soft click.

“Please.” The Prince gestured at the bowl, before pouring the wine into their glasses. “Salmon soup. I seem to recall you used to like it.”

Heat rushed to Cullen’s cheeks now; a long time ago, it had been an reoccurring argument whether sweet water fish or sea dwelling ones made for the best soup - he had always been of the opinion the latter were better, while Sebastian favoured the species native to Starkhaven. To think the man remembered such a trivial detail from the past! His fingers trembled as he picked up the spoon, coming up empty on words to say.

“As for your question… yes, I believe we know who we are dealing with.” The Prince took a sip of wine and pulled his brows together, lips settling to a straight line. “I hope this doesn’t affect your decision, serah?”

“No,” he hurried to respond. The news of the severed alliance had driven him to a quick decision, but even if the Inquisition posed no threat to Starkhaven, he was prepared to assume the role - despite the effect the Prince’s proximity had on him. Even if the man and his staff believed there to be no harm coming from the Inquisitor, Cullen would be able to observe and read signs that an eye untrained with the organisation’s tactics might miss; it was the one thing he could offer the Prince - the one way he could be of use.

The dinner progressed in silence and Cullen resisted the urge to steal glances of his host - instead, he stared out of the window that, upon closer inspection, gave view of the waterfall behind the city. He ignored the tightness that constricted his chest and helped himself to spoonfuls of the soup, soft and creamy and savoury on his tongue, and took careful sips of the wine that was better than any he’d had in years. The fireplace crackled gently and enveloped him in its warmth; if it weren’t for the tension in the air, the silence would have been nearly comfortable, and had he closed his eyes, he could have almost imagined them in Sebastian’s quarters at the chantry, sitting by the hearth as the man read and he rested — but he banished the memory before it could consume him.

The Prince broke the silence to clarify the practicalities that were to take place before he could assume the role of Captain; he was to swear an oath of allegiance the following week, and any matters he had to conclude would have to be finished before the day, for he was expected to start working the very next morning after the ceremony. The man was friendly, and yet formal, and sat with his posture straightened, his eye contact unwavering — but softness emerged to the corners of his eyes as the meal concluded and he rose to bid goodnight.

“I can’t help but express my relief that you finally decided to say yes,” he smiled as he paused to stand before Cullen, extending his arm for a handshake.

In an instant, Cullen’s mind went to another offer he would have said yes to, a long time ago. His eyes widened and a gasp stole from his lips, and before he could regain his composure, his reaction was already mirrored by the Prince’s face - they stared at one another in bewilderment.

“I— I mean to say,” his host ducked his head and pulled the hand to his side, biting his bottom lip as a hint of red rose to his cheeks, “that it is— good that you have accepted my— joined our forces. Serah.”

“Y-yes, it is— good,” he stammered without grace, gripping his kilt in an attempt to busy his hands. A beat of silence passed and Cullen fixed his eyes to the fire, trying to regain his balance while his host flexed his fingers at the edge of his vision. “Thank you very much, Y-your Highness, for receiving me. And for the position.”

Cullen tried a bow, but aborted halfway through, for there was too little space between him and Prince to maintain respectable distance while doing so - and so he stepped back, raising wary eyes to the man. It was as though a lever had been pulled, for his host snapped out of his confusion and offered a firm handshake, a courteous smile pulling at his lips. “It is my pleasure, serah - Starkhaven and her people will thank you for your dedication to them.”

Cullen got through the pleasantries, but only barely; his heart threatened to break from his chest, so rapid was its beat. The tingling on his hand, where the Prince’s skin had touched, still lingered as he crossed the market square, dazed and breathless.

Chapter Text

Glimmering lights danced at the edges of Cullen’s vision as he stood at the end of the line, waiting for his turn to swear allegiance to the Crown. The throne room was windowless, but crystal chandeliers shone with brightness that rivalled the sun at its morning brilliance, lighting up decorative pillars that were gilded from the bottom to the top, their golden tendrils seamlessly melting into the painting that spanned the ceiling.

A bead of sweat trickled down his temple to the back of his jaw; such had been his state since waking up, and nothing Rylen and Hilda had said would reassure him. It hardly helped his headache and discomfort that the hall had grown warm as its numerous occupants breathed the same air, some of them panting in the same state he was in. He swallowed as he adjusted the neck of his armour; it had been fitted the evening before, but despite its perfect measurements, the collar bit into his skin and the weight of the chain mail would not settle. He sought his friends from the crowd, but found only nobility regarding him with calculating eyes.

He withdrew his gaze as subtly as he could. It was no accident that they watched him; his position at the tail of the line was deliberate. The new recruits of Starkhaven’s many armed branches were the first to swear their oaths, while bureaucrats and higher ranking officers-to-be trailed behind them: a trial of fire for the whelps, and an exercise in patience for their new leaders. He wondered - and not for the first time - about the risk the Prince was taking in appointing him over competent, familiar, and trusted figures the nobles surely would have preferred. Was this agreement harmful to the man, after all?

The Prince’s voice rose over the crowd’s murmur as he accepted the oaths of the recruits, but Cullen couldn’t see him from this vantage point; pillars blocked his view to the throne which, for some reason, was only slightly elevated from the floor. He had seen it before the ceremony had begun; he had been busy studying his surroundings while his friends attempted to pile on supportive words.

They had done little to aid him; how were they to know the full weight of the situation? He was to kneel before the Prince and commit to him, when— when it could have gone the other way around ten long years ago; Sebastian on his knees before him, proposing a much more joyous alliance. The spit in his mouth turned sour and he fought to keep his face neutral; the weight of many expectant eyes lay upon him and one scowl could have begun his career with speculations of his reluctance.

The line nudged forward and he saw the Prince at last; white silk hugged his body once more, but this time a golden cape hung from his broad shoulders, falling in luxurious folds. The simple diadem glinted in the light as he ducked his head to watch a dwarven woman kneel before him. He looked every bit the confident and graceful leader; a reassuring smile curved his lips as the woman stuttered through her oath, his eye contact unwavering but not a bit intimidating.

They sat in the privacy of Cullen’s room, Sebastian comfortably settled between his legs, head leaned on his shoulder. Cullen couldn’t quite help himself - his fingers twirled around locks of hair, so soft to the touch, the scent of them as captivating as ever. The man had been sent to bring medical supplies to the Gallows, and as oftentimes happened, he’d sneaked past the offices into the living quarters.

“If I claimed the throne, would you come with me?”

His finger paused on Sebastian’s forehead; the tone of the man’s voice was earnest, whereas before he had only agonised over the topic, pushing it aside with a frustrated groan. “What would I do? There is no Circle in Starkhaven and I doubt the chantry would have a position for someone of my rank.”

Sebastian turned his head and, drawn to him, as always, he met the sky blue eyes. Their intensity took him by surprise; Maker’s breath, he really was serious about this.

“I would, if you really wanted me there,” he whispered, but it came out as uncertain as he felt. His arm tightened around his love’s chest even as the rift between them cracked open, tremors running through his body as his face settled to a poor imitation of a smile.

“I really,” Sebastian kissed the back of his jaw, “really would,” nudged his cheek with his nose. “In fact,” he brought his hand to cup Cullen’s chin, bringing their lips level, “I wouldn’t do it without you.”

He closed the distance between them, hoping the chill spreading from the pit of his stomach wouldn’t radiate through his lips.

Cullen fought the urge to shake his head; such foolish, juvenile promises - and yet it was his own fault the man who now sat on the throne could not keep them. Had he been stronger and wiser, perhaps he would now watch these proceedings from the crowd — or even by the Prince’s side. He sucked in a calming breath and withheld from fixing the collar of his armour again, stepping forth as the line shortened once more, this time to allow an elven man his turn to swear allegiance.

It was not too late to turn back and run, to choose the simple life over whatever complexities being in the Prince’s service would bring forth. He bit his lip, the lobes of his ears burning; was he really going through with this for the city's best interests — or was he hoping to leap across the chasm? Was this really about protecting the man — or was it about the blood that ran red and hot upon the mere sight of him, and the heart that raced at the memory of hair that smelled like cinnamon and lips that tasted like spring dew?

The last person before him was fetched by the seneschal and introduced to the spectators; she knelt before the Prince and offered her vows. Cullen swallowed, squeezing his eyes shut, trying to get his thoughts under control. This was it — a new life begun here. It was supposed to be a chance to begin his career anew — not to mourn over what couldn’t be.

The seneschal came for him next, his moustached face drawn to a stern scowl as he asked for Cullen to follow. “Serah Cullen Stanton Rutherford of Honnleath, Ferelden,” he announced before the crowd — a round of murmurs followed. Cullen steeled himself and bowed before the nobles and the tradesmen, sweat pearling at the back of his neck, before facing the Prince and taking a few hesitant steps towards the throne. The Prince watched him expectantly, mouth drawn to a polite smile, but his eyes were alert; a look Cullen had seen so many times before. He dropped to his knee, pressing a hand to his chest, almost feeling the thumping of his heart through the armour.

“I, Cullen Stanton Rutherford of Honnleath, hereby renounce my citizenship of Ferelden and solemnly swear to serve His Serene Highness Sebastian Vael, Sovereign Prince of Starkhaven - and his heirs and successors - to the best of my ability. I pledge my heart and my sword for the good of Starkhaven and her people, and will do my utmost to do justice in the eyes of the Maker and His Holy Bride. This I swear.”

The corner of the Prince’s lip quirked in surprised satisfaction. The change was small - barely there - but the set of his shoulders lowered almost imperceptibly and he let out a quiet exhale.

“I, Prince Sebastian Vael of Starkhaven, hereby accept your pledge on behalf of Starkhaven and her people.”

Cullen could have sworn the tone of his voice was softer than it had been for the recruits.

The air between them turned as thick as a cloud as the Prince lifted his hand, offering it for him to take. Cullen swallowed - though his mouth was dry - curling his fingers around the man’s, and looked up; the Prince watched him with rapt attention, wetting his lips with a quick flick of his tongue, his eyes brilliant in the light. Cullen brought the hand to his mouth, closed his eyes, and inhaled; the scent filled his nostrils and hit him in a heady rush — it was just as he had remembered it. He opened his eyes and sought the man’s gaze as he pressed his lips on the signet ring, its coolness a contrast to the warm skin that brushed the underside of his nose. Sebastian’s eyes widened at the contact, a soft sound breaking through his lips, his fingers squeezing Cullen’s for a fleeting moment before he pulled away, trembling ever so slightly.

“You may rise, Cullen Stanton Rutherford of Starkhaven,” the Prince announced, his formal tone at odds with the barely veiled bewilderment colouring his face.

Maker’s breath! It was as though he had forgotten where he was; so enraptured had he been. He stood up on shaky legs, bowing as deep as he was able, butterflies fluttering in his stomach. “Thank you, Your Serene Highness.”

He turned and bowed to the spectators before walking away, his heart threatening to break free from his chest.

————

Cullen had hurried out of the Fortress after the ceremony and concluded the sale of the smithy before joining Rylen and Hilda at The Stingy Thistle. He had been in sore need of a drink - many of them, in fact. The pleasant pulse of ale warmed him from the inside out, even being wet as he was; he’d been caught in a storm as he’d walked home. The harsh pour had transformed to a slow, gentle rain that tapped on his window and danced on the roof. Now he lay in bed, studying the hand that had held that of the Prince’s. A faint tingle prickled the skin of his fingers and he fought a smile that threatened to pull his lips.

His thoughts lingered on the Prince and the intensity in his eyes as he anticipated the kiss upon his ring. Oh, what a sight he had been; lips parted the smallest fraction, breath suspended in his chest. How his fingers had trembled! Cullen was almost certain he had heard a gasp as his nose brushed the back of the man’s hand; it had been soft and almost undetectable through the murmur of the crowd, but each of his senses had tuned in on the man, the world around them disappearing for a beat.

It had been the same sound Sebastian had made the first time their lips had touched. He remembered the gust of air on his skin, the shivers that had run down his back, and the soft hair around his fingers; it was like it had happened yesterday, not sixteen years ago. The effect that gasp had had on him was the same he now suffered; heat pooled underneath his skin, travelling downward as surely as the river flowed to the sea.

He glanced around the room and saw what he expected; Dog lay on the floor, his breath coming in heavy inhales and exhales, completely unaware of his surroundings.

Oh, blessed Andraste! A few pints too many, and he was considering undoing all his hard work in battling these thoughts?

He closed his eyes and the scent of the man’s skin returned to him — he bit his lip and squeezed his hand to a fist on his chest. Could an odour be sweet, fresh, and warm, all at once? The moment he had caught a sniff, he’d been hit by the realisation that this was Sebastian. The Prince looked like him, talked like him, smiled like him — and even smelled like him. He was neither a mirage or a memory, but the person he had most loved; flesh and blood, right there in the Fortress.

Oh, Holy Bride, how was he to unlearn this? Even if the core of the man remained unchanged, he was still out of reach and his innermost workings a mystery; it was quite obvious they would never again come to be. How was he to endure, now that he knew this?

He curled his fist tighter and sighed; it had been too long, and as a result, he’d grown too restless — he’d believed abstaining from his want while thinking of Sebastian would help him stay in control, but it was painfully clear it had been to no avail. Why was it he couldn’t shove it back anymore? Why was it that after all these years, Sebastian still had him bewitched?

Their relationship had been chaste back in Kirkwall; desire had crackled between them in abundance - always lurking just beneath the surface, barely voiced and never acted on - but the man’s vows were absolute, and Cullen had been perfectly satisfied helping himself in the privacy of his quarters.

However, lust hadn’t been the reason he’d gravitated towards Sebastian. His presence had punched the breath out of him, riled him up and driven him wild, but it was his tenderness and forbearance that had drawn him like a moth to a flame, locking him to the man’s side. It was the gentle smiles, the long conversations, the sweet nothings whispered into his ear, the fingers that sank into his hair… It had been better than he could have hoped for; he wouldn’t have asked for more. He had already had everything.

It hadn’t meant he’d never indulged in thoughts of things that couldn’t be; on the contrary, such images had helped him tame the worst of his desire, and knowing Sebastian had similar thoughts on his mind had justified him. Unlike him, Sebastian had probably stopped thinking about them long ago, but Cullen had made an effort to quit his daydreams only upon arriving here; knowing the man resided on the other side of the city had brought a sense of impropriety he hadn’t felt in the privacy of his tower in Skyhold, or his quarters back in the Gallows.

But Maker, how hard it was to abstain now, when fresh images of the man flooded his mind and drove him mad. How was he to mask this turmoil when every sight of him did nothing but strengthen his desire to draw closer and breathe him in? How was he to protect him when his thoughts were derailed the moment he heard the man's voice — that cursed gasp!

He sighed and let his fist unfurl on his chest. What if the only way to retain control was to trap his dreams to this room? Fighting them was like taking to the battlefield without healers; a campaign he was certain to lose — a campaign he had already lost.

No-one would know.

Dog’s breathing was steady and deep, and the rain had stopped tapping on the window. He squeezed his eyes shut and inhaled, relaxing again upon a long, raspy exhale, and slid his fingers down his stomach, giving his imagination free reign.

Chapter Text

The day following the ceremony, Cullen had met with the Prince and the leader of Starkhaven’s forces, Commander Brothaigh. They had explained his tasks in great detail; he’d had few questions about his role at the end of the day. The following weeks had been a bustle, and as time passed, the pieces of a puzzle came together to form a clearer view of the situation of Starkhaven was in: it was obvious he was needed here.

He had been tasked to recruit more footmen to bolster their ranks, just in case the severed relations to the Inquisition caused trouble — and surely enough, a week after the ceremony, scouts had been spotted stalking the moors. It hadn’t been hard to guess who had employed them. Commander Brothaigh - a good-humoured woman in her sixties, and Cullen’s superior - had assured him that the Prince had the situation under control, and Cullen need not worry. Her words, as convincing as they were, did little to settle the unease that took base in the back of his mind, especially as the same concerns were plain to see in the eyes of everyone of rank that walked the long corridors of the Fortress — including the Prince himself.

The recruiting process had seemed to go on forever; he’d welcomed a great number of elves, humans, and even the occasional surface dwarf to his office - a surprisingly large and comfortable room with two windows and a sturdy desk - for interviews, and so passed the first weeks of his new job. None were to be discriminated against based on race or status — only the merits mattered, and the Commander had fixed him with a challenging look as she made this clear, “The Prince’s orders,” as if expecting him to object. He hadn’t.

The training of the recruits was a task for the Lieutenants to oversee, but Cullen took it upon himself to visit the sparring grounds, hoping to boost morale by his presence as well as improve his own physical condition. Such indulgence had grown rarer as weeks passed and he was tasked with bringing home the troops stationed in Kirkwall. The Prince had sent a great number of soldiers and their superiors to help with relief efforts many years ago, and the job of bringing them back proved more challenging than anyone had anticipated: many men and women had formed families in Kirkwall and were reluctant to leave.

After all else had failed, Cullen had had an idea, and its practical arrangements had been carried out by Hilda and her associates from the city court. Cullen had written to Viscount Tethras, appealing to him to find the deserters and convince them to return. He had sweetened the deal with a vow to house each family in The Fort until they were able to afford lodgings of their own, provided the soldiers remain loyal to the Crown and were ready to continue their duties once in Starkhaven. Varric had been surprisingly eager to agree to this scheme; he’d assured friendship and alliance in his letter back to Cullen, and he’d found it a little strange, but once the troops marched through the city gates with the exception of very few men, he’d thought of it no longer.

The Fortress was brimming with people in armour and uniforms several weeks after his recruitment. He had barely caught sight of Sebastian, so busy had the man been, but each time he had seen him in the halls, Sebastian’s smile was ever more tired, the shadows beneath his eyes growing darker by every passing day. There had been no chance to talk, which was a relief, as Cullen struggled to mask his concern each time their eyes lingered on one another.

As the Captain, he had been offered quarters in the Fort, but he had declined the honour and insisted he was better off living in Lowtown, explaining that a high ranking officer lodging amongst the people set a fine example to the citizens and helped them feel secure. That had, of course, been an excuse; he dreaded to think what would happen if he was to meet Sebastian during one of his nightly strolls. It would take pitifully little to lure him out of his resolve, as no amount of reasoning seemed to quench his thirst for the man. Letting his thoughts roam free in the confines of his apartment had proved to be a temporary relief, but he indulged himself often, as sleep came easier after his heartbeat had settled.

Sebastian had written him a personal letter of thanks after the situation with the Kirkwall units had been resolved peacefully, and Cullen had pressed it to his chest, feeling quite ridiculous, and locked it in a box along with the profit he had made from selling the smithy. He had found a buyer for the property in a surface dwarf with a thick Antivan accent, and despite the deal granting him less funds than he had expected, he’d been able to put aside a comfortable amount, which in turn helped put his mind at ease: if he were to fail in his role or disappoint Sebastian somehow, the money granted him the option of standing down and giving him time to come up with a new plan.

However, the funds would be little consolation if the city drifted to an open conflict with the Inquisition, as seemed probable. Diplomats worked night and day, pulling the same gruesome hours as the officers of every defensive branch in Starkhaven, but scout activity on the hills was on the rise despite the efforts, and the personnel of the Fort were advised to keep their mouths sealed in case of spies. Commander Brothaigh had absolute faith in Sebastian and his plan, but she wouldn’t relate it to Cullen, explaining it was classified information. He could only hope it would work, whatever the scheme was.

————

The war room was larger than the Prince’s personal study, and much barer in its decorations. An oval table dominated the space and windows gave view to the soldier’s training yard. Sunlight filtered to the room, but the rays were pale and cold; the autumn had settled in and it was a miracle it wasn’t raining. Sebastian had called forth a meeting between his closest advisers, the leaders of the Order, the heads of the re-established Circle of Magi, and the command of the royal armed forces — it was on that account that Cullen sat by the table, almost opposite of the Prince himself.

It was the first time he was taking part in one of the strategy meetings, and he was beginning to understand why Commander Brothaigh had been so curt with him for several days now; the gathering had barely started, and already there was tension in the air. Cullen fiddled with the hem of his uniform underneath the table to occupy his hands, swallowing despite his dry mouth — the Prince darted his eyes to him from time to time, making it difficult to focus on present matters.

This was ridiculous. There was a threat of war hanging in the air and still his skin heated under the occasional glances.

“If I may, I’d like to thank the Prince for allowing the mages more responsibility,” First Enchanter Siosal’s voice was lazy and nonchalant as he straightened the sleeves of his robes. “Should these new battleplans ever be employed, I think we will all learn that a mage in every squad on the front lines greatly increases the security of our soldiers.”

Knight-Commander Connon barely concealed a snort while Rylen nodded quietly next to her, stopping the moment she shot him a dirty look. “With all due respect, First Enchanter,” she began her rebuttal, and a collective groan left the other participants.

It was obvious that this discussion had been had many times before. The Knight-Commander carried on, her tone prickly and unpleasant. Her words bore no ill will on the surface, but it was abundantly clear the Mage-Templar War hadn’t quite ended for her. Cullen sat in silence, resisting the temptation to cross his arms over his chest, chewing at the inside of his cheek as he listened in increasing astonishment.

He must have been so much like her in the past! He’d allowed his fear to govern him, and by supporting Meredith’s tyranny, he had unknowingly fuelled the destruction of a system that was already rotting at its heart. He’d thought it his duty to protect the ages old ways, but doubts had entered his mind at around the same time Sebastian had started speaking in favour of mages deserving more freedoms. To now hear such archaic thoughts still lived - in Starkhaven, of all places! - after everything that had happened during the last decade..!

He risked a glance at Sebastian - merely to see what he thought of Connon’s monologue - and caught him looking back at him, his brows knit in thought. His eyes were cloudy and absent, but the daylight brightened their blue to astonishing vivacity and brought out the hint of red in his hair. The man nibbled his lower lip between his teeth, pausing only when he became aware of their locked gazes. Cullen’s train of thought halted and he was transfixed before he could stop himself.

Cullen sat on the grassy bed of the chantry’s courtyard, the last rays of the evening sun painting his shadow long and blending it together with that of Sebastian’s. He had helped him set up the targets for his archery practice, taking any excuse he could to remain just a little longer, if only to watch his love master his art. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a creature as beautiful as you,” he mused, his eyes glued on the man frowning in concentration.

Sebastian’s face relaxed and lips quirked as he aimed the bow - a large and well-designed weapon, a family heirloom recently restored to him - and grinned as the arrow hit the bullseye. “That was a nice try, leannan,” he chuckled, “but you’re going to have to work harder than that if you intend to distract me.”

Quirking his brow, Cullen met the triumphant eyes of his love, confused for a moment before realisation hit him: “Did I say that out loud? That— that was not my intention.”

The grin on Sebastian’s face softened into a small smirk before he turned away. “Then I suppose I ought to pretend I didn’t hear it.” He aimed again, hitting another bullseye with perfect ease. “But if you were to say such things intentionally, I would respond with similar sentiments.”

Cullen tore his gaze away in a rush, the tips of his ears heating — it had been but one look, and yet he had become distracted that instant, his eyes lingering on those of the Prince for much longer than was appropriate. Maker’s breath! He’d been so professional and single-minded during the previous weeks, contained and controlled, but now sweet words hid just behind his lips, ready to spill out in the middle of a strategy meeting.

He hastened to turn his attention back to what was becoming a heated debate between the Knight-Commander and the First Enchanter, but he could barely hear the words they exchanged. Siosal seemed ready to bolt from his chair while Connon carried on with her stoic sarcasm, lips curled in disdain. Rylen caught Cullen’s eyes from across the table, shaking his head in bored exasperation.

“That’s enough, both of you,” the Prince interrupted abruptly, drawing the eyes of all participants on him. “I will see all the department heads and advisers separately and hear your opinions, as it seems we cannot have these meetings without a fight breaking out.”

“But Your Highness, that is madness!” Seneschal Granger’s eyes were wide, and the ends of his moustache twitched. “Your schedule— You do not have the time to—”

“No. This is madness,” Sebastian gestured at the Knight-Commander and the First Enchanter, both of whom met the accusation with a blank stare. “We can no longer postpone finishing the battleplans, but you insist on bickering like children and wasting precious time! I want all of you to have your opinions ready by tomorrow. I expect you to have studied the plans thoroughly. My servant will fetch you when it’s your turn to speak to me,” he commanded, standing up and straightening his uniform with an irate tug. “Go back to your duties!”

Granger held up a finger and opened his mouth, but Sebastian silenced him with words hissed in Starkhavenian that made him go pale, before striding off, indignation drawing his posture rigid. Cullen stood on shaky legs and looked at Commander Brothaigh in wordless inquiry. The woman merely shrugged, laying a hand on his shoulder. “Well, it looks like we have a case to prepare. Let’s get on it.”

He followed her back to their wing in silence, half impressed and half concerned by the outburst.

 

 

Chapter Text

The two-handed sword cut through the sky as Cullen lunged forward, aiming for his opponent’s shoulder. Rain poured down in violent waves, soaking his hair and sneaking underneath his armour, dripping all the way to his boots. He made a swift turn to the left and swung the sword with savage speed, meeting a shield with a resounding clang — and twisted to the right to dodge the inevitable counterattack coming from behind the shield.

Just as he was regaining balance, a kick to his knee toppled him over, and he fell to the wet ground, grunting on impact. He opened his eyes as a blade’s tip pressed to his exposed neck, threatening but not hurting, and the figure of his opponent hovered like a tower against the dark clouds above.

“Do you yield?”

A pang of anger surged through him, defiant and wild — but he was outmanoeuvred. A heavy boot rested on his armoured chest, not quite pushing him down, but the message was clear; he would do best not to try anything. Knight-Lieutenant Gundry stared down at him, mirth glinting in his eyes. Knight-Commander Connon was many things, but it was clear she trained her templars well.

“I yield,” Cullen scoffed.

The pressure from his neck and chest eased, and the young man offered Cullen a hand, but he scrambled up on his own and spat on the ground. “I have very little practice with two-handed swords. Had I chosen a shield and a longsword—”

A gentle cough interrupted his explanation, and he turned to see the Prince’s personal servant behind him, a small smile on her face. She gestured for him to follow.

“Does the Prince wish to see me? Now?”

She nodded.

Maker’s breath! He thought their meeting had been postponed for the next day; First Enchanter Siosal had been fetched to see the Prince early in the morning, and Knight-Commander Connon had been absent during dinner — it had been easy to deduct more urgent matters had demanded Sebastian’s attention. Cullen had sat in his office all day, wearing his fine uniform, attempting to finish off paperwork while he waited for the servant to fetch him. When the day had turned to night, he had concluded the meeting must have been rescheduled, changed into armour, and joined the templars sparring in the training yard to unleash the nervous energy he’d garnered throughout the day.

Cullen followed the elf inside and stripped his gauntlets with frustrated tugs, tucking them under his armpits. He ran a sweaty hand over his equally sweaty face, stomach tightening anxiously. He was hardly presentable! Water sloshed inside of his boots and dirt undoubtedly stained his armour, and he tried wiping off the worst of it as discreetly as he could while he followed the servant’s brisk steps. Why was Commander Brothaigh sending him to speak with the Prince in the first place? Surely her other duties couldn’t be more important than reporting to her direct superior!

He bit his lip and forced the embarrassed turmoil into a passable pretence of calm; he could do this. He was a professional. He and Brothaigh had studied the battleplans late into the night, discussing the necessary adjustments and going over every aspect imaginable — their suggestions would stand up to scrutiny, and Cullen believed the Prince would be impressed. Dirty armour and sweat dampened hair would hardly impair the strategies he was to present.

The clanks of his boots were heavy on the marble tiles as he made way through the long corridors and up the gold-railed staircase, following the swift and soundless servant who’d never spoken in his company. He tried sweeping back his hair as they walked, but the rain and sweat had rinsed off the pomade he had applied in the morning, and stubborn strands jumped back to his cheeks and forehead, still dripping with water. He swallowed, confidence faltering with every step, a flush high on his cheeks by the time they stopped before the door to Sebastian’s office.

The servant offered an encouraging smile and bowed her head, blond cloud of curls bobbing as she rushed away. He thanked her, and waited until she disappeared a corner, before leaning forward, panting for breath. Water dripped to the immaculate floor tiles and he closed his eyes, cursing himself. What a foolish error in his judgement! What a picture of professionalism he was about to present!

Steeling himself, he knocked on the door and entered the room upon getting permission. The Prince sat by his desk in his white silken uniform, quite like all those weeks ago, the grin on his face turning teasing as he eyed Cullen up and down. The man set down his quill, eyes twinkling in delight. “Captain! Have you arrived from a battlefield? I was not aware we had arrived to open conflict yet.”

Cullen bit his lip and rubbed the back of his neck before he could think better of the gesture, wincing. “I apologise, Your Highness. I assumed the meeting was postponed due to the late hour, and uhh— I sparred with the templars.”

“You need not apologise for my sake — it is I who should apologise for dragging you in here so late. There came some matters that needed to be seen to right away.” Sebastian rose from the table, his grin melting to a secretive smile. “Besides, disarray is very becoming on you; as is that armour.”

The latter part was muttered in a lower tone of voice, and Cullen was certain he had misheard the words. Butterflies erupted in his stomach regardless, and he gripped the hem of his chainmail and cleared his throat, gaze darting to the fine rug underneath his dirty boots. Oh, dear Maker!

“Have you an appetite? I thought we might discuss strategy as we dine.” The Prince pointed at the table they had occupied not long ago; tempting dishes were laid out between two empty plates, along with a bowl of oranges and a pitcher of red wine, two candles illuminating the array.

“A-as you wish, Your Highness.”

He dared a glance at the man and found his smile was almost shy, his eyes on the display as he stood before the fireplace. “I don’t usually eat quite like this, but I thought you might— the last time there was only soup, and—”

Cullen swallowed, fighting to keep his face neutral; was this for him? That couldn’t be. Why would the man arrange for such lavish meal for a mere Captain? He followed Sebastian to sit by the table and settled his gauntlets on the empty chair beside him, straightening his chainmail with exaggerated care — avoiding the man’s eyes. He had not the slightest idea what to say.

The Prince filled his plate and gestured for Cullen to do the same, poured the red wine into their goblets, and opened the conversation on the battleplans. Cullen explained the stance he and Brothaigh had arrived at; the best results would be attained through teams that included both a mage and a templar. The Inquisition still had some of the rebel mages in their ranks, and the templars would be useful at dispelling their attacks while Starkhaven's mages would tip the scales in their favour. Sebastian nodded and encouraged him to elaborate, refilling the goblet Cullen had emptied in a rush.

It hit him that he was almost comfortable, discussing matters he was well versed in, able to hold eye contact despite the nerves tingling beneath his skin. Sebastian watched him with rapt attention, humming his agreement between mouthfuls of fish, letting him explain without interruptions. The fireplace radiated its warmth, drying his hair and caressing his skin, melting the autumn chill that had taken refuge deep in his bones.

“And this is your opinion, too, not just that of Brothaigh’s?” Sebastian asked at last, wrapping his wine-stained lips around a forkful of dessert before pulling it away, slowly.

Cullen’s throat tightened, and he grabbed an orange from the bowl, setting to peel it without lifting his eyes to meet Sebastian’s. “It is that of both of us. A mage in every squadron would protect the footmen, whether they were a healer or an offensive. An offensive can create openings in battlefields, their magic scattering enemies out of formation out of fear alone, or their spells making it so that we control the terrain. A healer in the squadron would make our men quite difficult to defeat. A templar would best protect the mage, but also disable the enemy mages, and we know the Inquisition has no shortage of them. However, they do not have many templars in their ranks.” He paused to pull apart a piece of orange before dropping it into his mouth, feigning calm he didn’t quite feel. “Perhaps Knight-Commander Connon would be appeased by the compromise.”

“That is very clever. We do intend to have templars in most squadrons, but perhaps a promise to have one of her men in each would help settle her.” The Prince crossed his arms on his chest and leaned back in the chair, considering Cullen with a crooked smile. “I must admit I expected you to side with Connon; I don’t recall you being a friend of the mages.”

Cullen turned to the swirling flames of the fireplace, chewing on the fresh fruit. A bitter smile tugged at his lips, and he spoke without lifting his gaze. “I might have done so a long time ago, Your Highness. I have had my—” he knitted his brows, searching for the right word, “prejudices proved wrong on several occasions. My former sentiments embarrass me now.”

There was a beat of silence, and, alarmed, Cullen gazed at the Prince: there was surprise in the man’s eyes, in how his lips were open as if to say something, but he closed them around his goblet instead. The illusion of comfort drained in a flash; had he said something to offend? It had been the truth, and he had thought the admission would please Sebastian, who was evidently more sympathetic of the mages than he had been in the past.

“I’m happy to hear you’ve changed your views regarding mages, Cullen,” Sebastian began in a low voice, “and I hope you don’t think this too forward of me, but I hope you don’t regret… all your former sentiments?”

Cullen’s brows shot up and the sound escaping him was something between a chuckle and a cough. “Maker, no! I would never regret—” he cleared his throat, locking gazes with his host. The look on the man’s face was all too familiar; lips parted ever so slightly, eyes wide and intent on his, brows lifted the barest hint. Anticipation. As if waiting for a kiss.

Cullen cleared his throat again, helplessly lost in what he saw and couldn’t comprehend, electing to pluck apart every individual chunk of the orange on his plate instead of marvelling at the sight. If only he could deaden his heart, to look at the man and see only the Prince, and not Sebastian, waiting for him — because surely he wasn’t. It was wishful thinking. His traitorous mouth stumbled out the truth despite his better judgement: “No, I don’t regret… everything.”

The Prince finished his goblet with an audible swallow, then poured more wine from the pitcher into both of their glasses. Cullen dared not meet his eyes, lest he’d become distracted again — or worse yet, follow through with whims that could only end in misery.

“I apologise. That was tactless of me. Perhaps a change of topic is best.” Sebastian smoothed the table linen before picking up his goblet and straightening his posture. “Can I ask you why you left the Inquisition and came here?”

The charge in the air did not dissipate, but this was a topic Cullen could discuss; it wasn’t safe, but under the circumstances it was relevant. He took a deep breath and brought his hands to his lap, clutching the hem of his chainmail. “Would you like the long story or the brief one?”

“Tell me everything you’re willing to share.”

Omitting his personal troubles with Lavellan, Cullen spoke of lyrium, of how it enslaved the templars to the Chantry’s leash, and of the Inquisitor, who was willing to use the tool while simultaneously advocating for mage rights. He shared stories of how allies were treated, how enemies were tortured — how Samson had died, how his own Lieutenant was executed, his voice surprisingly steady despite the terrible memories he rarely allowed himself to think of. Sebastian watched him with increasing astonishment, the grip on his goblet turning hard, the set of his jaw tight.

“Why did you stay?” The tone of Sebastian’s voice was thick with anger and incredulity, but the man collected himself and set his wine on the table. “I would assume such a man impossible to work with, and not at all deserving of your loyalty.”

Cullen’s lips curled to a bitter smile. “I had sworn to serve the cause. I couldn’t imagine leaving without seeing it through. When Rylen started talking of Starkhaven and planning a life here for both of us, and the Inquisitor re-purposed us to serve the Divine, I— I realised we had completed our service. Did you not know all of this already, Your Highness?”

“No. Not all of it.” Sebastian’s brows were knitted and lip bitten between his teeth. He spoke again before Cullen could force his attention elsewhere. “I knew of the poor treatment of allies, and there was evidence of how the Inquisitor misused his power all over Thedas. I assumed he was tyrannical to his people, but there was no proof to back that up. I suspected a great many things and heard incredulous tales from visiting dignitaries, but I couldn’t know for sure.”

Cullen’s mouth went dry; he’d presumed the man privy to what had happened between him and the Inquisitor - why else would he wish him there when he publicly severed the alliance? He grabbed a piece of fruit and chewed it, cursing inwardly. Such foolishness! Somewhere in the depths of his mind he’d believed he held significance beyond his position — that perhaps he had been one of the reasons behind the Prince’s actions. Anger spiked in a hot wave, aimed at his own silly heart, but the words that poured out of his mouth were clipped. “You assumed right - he is a tyrant. He forced me back on lyrium and held me personally accountable for the death of his clan. He wanted me dead, but not before I had paid for every mistake I have ever made. He was sorry to see me return from the suicide missions he ordered me on. If there ever was a tyrant, he is the very definition of one.”

The Prince sat very still, eyes wide in bewilderment. Then his hand curled into a tight fist, mouth drawing to a thin line and shoulders settling to a tense posture. “I— I did not know it was that bad.” He let out a sigh, making a visible effort to gather himself. “Had I known, I might have done something rash and terribly unwise.”

Maker’s breath! Cullen grabbed his goblet and took a liberal mouthful; how was he to read this? The fireplace crackled gently, heating his cheeks, and the candles burned without a flicker in the still air of the room — and he found no response he could say out loud. But there was a question he needed answered: “Why did you sever the alliance?”

“There are many reasons,” Sebastian’s mouth twitched as he stared at his hands. “The actions of the Inquisition are incompatible with Andraste’s teachings. The Inquisitor accomplishes what is set out for him, but at what cost? Must there be loss of innocent lives? Must there be terror left in his wake? Must he steal when he can simply make a request? He does not serve; he yearns for power and prestige.”

Cullen nodded, encouraging his host to continue.

“I cannot, in good conscience, ally this city with someone like him. It is as though he seeks to undo every good deed he has done with pillaging and death. I don’t understand why the Divine would choose someone like him to lead her armies, but I will go against her if I must; she’s not infallible and I should like to see this tyranny dissolved. She must be made to see reason.” Sebastian paused, pinching the bridge of his nose between his fingers. “And when the Inquisitor was here, he asked for something I would never part with.”

The hairs on Cullen’s arm stood erect, breath suspended by the softness in his host’s voice. An irrational thought flitted through his head, but he dismissed it with haste — that wasn’t it, and he wouldn’t ask. “I— I understand,” he replied through reluctant lips. “Brothaigh and I will do our utmost to ensure we are prepared for a possible conflict.”

The candles burned low on the table between them, the dishes mostly gone and the pitcher empty. Moonlight shone from the window, illuminating the restless waterfall; there was no sign of the rain that had fallen in forceful bursts. The water sloshing in his boots was reduced to damp socks now — how long had he been here?

Sebastian’s smile wilted as he rose from the table and faced the fireplace. “I know you will — I have faith in you. I will make sure Connon and Siosal cooperate - you needn’t worry about it.” He rubbed the back of his neck, the hem of his uniform rising just so. “Let’s hope all the preparations will be unnecessary, though; I still have some cards left to play.”

Cullen followed his host and stood up, clearing his throat and forcing his mind to present matters.

“I promise you, Cullen,” Sebastian turned, eyes aflame with sudden conviction, “you will never again know tyranny as long as you stay here. I will see to it myself.”

Cullen dared not breathe; the words flooded his insides with warmth they surely mustn’t warrant, and a tentative smile threatened to spread on his face over the sound of his name coming from those lips. He stared instead, thrown off balance for the umpteenth time that night. “I— I thank you, Y-your Highness.”

“I cannot guarantee your safety, but,” Sebastian held out a hand, “I promise I will do my best to ensure it.”  

His safety! He hadn’t given thought to such a thing; not when Sebastian was threatened! Cullen reached for the handshake, rendered speechless. Silence persisted as he felt a finger brushing his wrist, ever so slightly, gooseflesh erupting on his arm, the tingling sensation travelling all the way to his face, turning to heat on his cheeks. The palm was warm - uncalloused, not like it had been - and the fingers long and slender, their tips smooth like those of a diplomat’s — not like those of an archer used to manual labour.

The sensation was old and new, all at once; the way his stomach clenched and heart galloped was familiar, as though it was only yesterday he’d held this hand in this manner — in a lover’s touch. He couldn’t pull away; not when Sebastian held his gaze with such anticipation, such raw intensity, candlelight swirling in the eyes that held his whole world within them.

“Tell me if there’s anything you need,” Sebastian whispered, accentuating his words with another brush at his wrist, “or want.”

His heart somersaulted at the tone, and he closed his eyes to break the spell that would have pulled him in, closer to the man, revealing this terrible misunderstanding his mind insisted on. He pulled his hand away slowly, Sebastian’s fingers tracing the inside of his palm, wearing down what little remained of his sanity.

“Y-your Highness.” He bowed curtly and took his leave without waiting for a response. His steps were swift as he made his way through the long corridors, eyes blind and ears deaf — but no amount of praying helped him escape from the thoughts that ran wild in his head.

Chapter Text

Cullen sat by his office desk, chewing on what remained of his lunch. Rylen sat across from him, focused on his own food; they had taken to eating in their offices ever since the number of personnel increased due to the recruiting efforts and the return of the units formerly placed in Kirkwall — the dining hall had grown unbearably loud and busy. Sometimes Rylen would join him, and sometimes he would eat at Rylen’s office, but most days they ate separately; it was challenging enough to find time for a meal, let alone have it together.

A loud knock on the door pierced the companionable silence. “Yes?”

The Prince’s personal servant shuffled in, a familiar pair of gauntlets held in her hands. She offered them to him, that mysterious smile on her face — and then she bowed curtly, leaving as swiftly as she had arrived. 

Rylen cleared his throat and Cullen met his eyes in a snap. Oh no.

“Well, well, well. Looks like someone got his shit sorted with Prince Sebastian. About time, too.” The man’s grin was downright evil; his lips stretched from ear to ear while his brows waggled teasingly. 

Treacherous heat rose to Cullen’s cheeks. “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.” 

Rylen crossed his arms on his chest and leaned back, undeterred by the attempt at nonchalance. “Oh, come on. I’m sure there’s a perfectly innocent explanation as to why you were seen sneaking out of the Prince’s wing in the dead of night, cheeks nice and rosy, hair all tousled. I’m sure it’s no biggie at all that Bonnie’s running through the Fort to return your lost bits of armour.”

“Bonnie? Is that her name? Have you ever heard her speak?” Cullen endeavoured, desperate to change the topic. 

“Nice try, Rutherford. Hilda saw you when she was heading home. Said you didn’t hear her greeting and just rushed towards your office, red as a beet.” Rylen paused to rub his chin, squinting at the pale daylight pouring through the windows. “I’m surprised by your bedside manner, though. I thought if you ever figured it out and ‘fessed up, nothing could tear you away.”

“Maker’s breath,” Cullen buried his face in his hands, cold palms easing the burn of his cheeks. “Will you stop? The Prince and I merely talked of the battleplans. The Commander and I had many suggestions.” 

Rylen scoffed. “Right.” He went back to his soup, twirling it with a spoon for a while, before pausing. “Actually, to the Void with this tiptoeing. Don’t tell me you got scared and rushed out?”

Cullen ran a hand through his hair with a sigh, an icy pool spreading in the bottom of his stomach; wasn’t that exactly what he had done? “I don’t see how my affairs are any of your concern.”

“Actually,” there was no sign of Rylen’s good humour now; his eyes were level as he stared at Cullen, lips drawn to a straight line, “I’m the guy who saw you almost die, if you recall. I sat by your bed at the inn and listened to your fevered whines. ‘Sebastian, Sebastian,’ you kept saying.” He rose from the table, picking up his half-finished bowl. “Didn't know you meant the Prince back then, but it became obvious at our welcoming party. Now you’re here and your fever dream is just a stone’s throw away, waiting for you, while you insist on staying miserable and alone. It’s Void-damned hard to watch. So you see, it does concern me.”

Cullen swallowed. Rylen had never spoken of this before — and he had never gone beyond light-hearted teasing when it came to Sebastian. “Do you— do you really think he’s waiting for me?”

Rylen frowned and rubbed his temple as though fending off a headache. “Is that a serious question? Are you blind?” He paused by the door, rolling his shoulders. “I’m so fucking sick of watching you two zone out and stare at each other like love sick puppies. Especially when you could just ‘fess up and be done with it. Get over yourself and be happy. It’s not that hard.”

“It’s easy for you to say!”  

“Easy? Easy?!” Dog startled awake in his place by the windows. Rylen’s nostrils flared, the grip on his bowl turning white-knuckled. “I married the Lord Chancellor’s niece and got her disowned from her family! I have to live with that every day — that it’s because of me she can never go back to Tantervale! But you know what, Rutherford? It’s worth it.” His brows knitted together and he pointed a challenging finger Cullen’s way. “Any sacrifice is worth it. Forgive me if don’t want to see you waste your second chance for some bullshit, made-up reasons your stupid little head is spinning. Forgive me if I want to see you happy.” 

Before Cullen had the chance to argue, Rylen slipped out of the room, pulling the door shut with a forceful snap, eliciting a whine out of Dog. 

————

Cullen achieved very little after the encounter; paperwork lay scattered on his desk and he stared at the letters with unseeing eyes. Had Rylen been right? Hilda seemed to agree with him — she had said so in no uncertain terms, even before Cullen had agreed to take this post. 

Had he really called out for Sebastian in his delirium, back when they had first arrived in Starkhaven?

He gave up trying to work and gazed out of the window. The marketplace was almost deserted; night was falling and the skies were bright with stars. A few merchants were still packing their wagons, their dark silhouettes barely visible in the pale moonlight. It wasn’t his own feelings he doubted; the illusion of indifference had never sat right on him, and upon meeting Sebastian at the wedding, the ill-fitting shroud had been torn from him, revealing sentiments quite unmistakable. Not that he could have given them voice then, even if their names were clear and familiar to him; longing, love, desire, tenderness…

He was scared — that much he could admit to. Scared of himself, his feelings, the way blood rushed hot and cold in turns, swayed by the tiniest changes in Sebastian’s expressions; scared of the power the man held over him. How was he to dare a touch when there was the slightest chance of rejection — when the very real possibility of being turned away would bruise his dainty heart beyond repair? How could Rylen and Hilda claim to know Sebastian’s sentiments when they were obscured to him? 

He rose from his chair, slowly, careful not to rouse Dog, who still slumbered beneath the windows. Perhaps a stroll through the Fortress gardens would clear his head and help him focus on more pressing issues; the Commander needed the papers done come morning, and Cullen couldn’t dream of going home before the task was completed. 

He walked through empty corridors, past offices that revealed their occupants still hard at work, should the strips of faint light shining from beneath the doors be anything to go by. All was silent, however, and his steps were faint on the marble floor tiles. He stretched his neck as he went, but the stiffness borne of long nights hunched over his desk wouldn’t let up, nor the mild headache that followed it. 

A gust of cool air greeted him as he approached the gardens; the double doors were wide open, moonlight spilling into the halls. His steps faltered; had someone else had the same idea? The hairs at the back of his neck stood up as he set about to explore. It was ridiculous; surely he hadn’t expected privacy in a castle full of soldiers, diplomats, and civilians — and yet his heart thumped in alarm as he looked around. 

“Cullen? Is that you?”

The familiar voice came from a bench that stood by the pathway between the fountain and the lone tree - bare now, its leaves shed and cleaned away long ago - and Cullen sucked in a breath. Sebastian leaned back to watch him, hair hanging loose, the smile on his face squeezing Cullen’s throat. “Y-yes, Your Highness.”

There was no escaping now that Sebastian had seen him; he joined the man on the bench, sitting a respectable distance away. “There is much work to be done, but I needed some air.” 

The explanation sounded lame and unnecessary to Cullen’s own ears, but Sebastian nodded, smoothing the chest of his uniform before leaning back and setting his gaze on the sky. “I suppose if I were to ask you to go home and sleep, you’d ignore me.” 

There was a small smile tugging at the edges of his lips, but Cullen hastened to follow his eyes upwards. The sky was filled to the brim with glimmering lights; a belt of stars stretched in a glorious arc, through the two moons that cast their pale glow down to the garden — to Sebastian’s beautiful face. The man’s eyes were only halfway open, exhaustion radiating from him in waves, and for a moment Cullen wanted nothing more than to tell him to get some rest — to convince him he would fix whatever needed tending to, if only Sebastian would sleep. 

He kept the ridiculous thought to himself and forced his eyes away, tuning into the gentle tinkling coming from the fountain, and tuning out of the barely-audible breaths coming from the man next to him. Winter was only a few weeks away, but the grass had persisted through the cold nights, the strands painted ghostly grey by the moonlight. Unusual lilies grew behind the bench — still in season, but the blooms had closed for the night. However, their fragrance escaped through the seams and mixed with the earthy scent of autumn, heavy and enveloping like a blanket. 

Lilies. So much like the scent of where Sebastian’s hair met the skin of his neck; lilies, and cinnamon, and the warm aroma of his skin.

Cullen scrunched his eyes shut and took in a steadying breath, fending off the memories that threatened to surface. He clasped his hands on his lap and leaned back on the bench. He should make his excuses and leave - this was neither the time or place for lingering daydreams - but his legs were heavy and the ache in his head strangely muted. 

Sebastian shifted, crossing his arms on his chest, catching Cullen’s attention. Moonlight danced in his eyes as he kept staring skyward, lips parted. “In the long hours of the night, when hope has abandoned me—”

“—I will see the stars and know Your Light remains,” Cullen finished, the words pouring out without effort — brought on by a habit he’d thought long-forgotten. He swallowed when his companion shot him a pleased smile.

Silence fell and he played with the hem of his uniform, the fabric smooth between his fingertips. He should go back to work, but—

“Do you still find yourself marvelling at the Maker’s lights, Cullen?” Sebastian’s voice was low and soft, and he turned to regard Cullen, serious, as if the question held hidden importance.

“Whenever I can, Your Highness.” 

The answering smile caught him by surprise, and he fidgeted in place, skin heating underneath the gaze fixed on his face. His fingers trembled as they reached the back of his neck, rubbing in a nervous gesture he was never fast enough to abort. “I, uhh—”

“Good! Then you remember the constellation of Fervenial, I believe? The Oak?” Sebastian pointed skyward where the great tree stood, tall and majestic, its trunk slashed by the belt of stars stretching over the sky. 

Cullen nodded.

“I’ve done some reading, and, according to the ancient Starkhavenians, this constellation is the picture of Hoyem and Adrian - lovers kept apart by their warring families and the difference in their situations - embracing as they reunite after years of separation.” Sebastian shifted toward him, folding his hands in his lap. The breath leaving him turned to fog between them. “Some of the Starkhavenian-speaking people still refer to it as Na Leannanan — The Lovers.”

The words struck Cullen like a lightning bolt from cloudless skies, and he dared not breathe as their gazes locked; Sebastian’s eyes were dark pools swirling with anticipation, pulling him into their depths, beseeching. He heard nothing but the wild cadence of his heart, felt nothing but the urgency to move closer — take in the scent of cinnamon missing from the air, bask in the heat emanating from the perfect skin— “Will there be a war?”

The question had left his lips unbidden. 

Sebastian’s face fell in a flash, and he closed his eyes, straightening himself. “Is that all you—” he let out a long sigh, rubbing the side of his face. “I— I don’t know. The Maker willing, we can win by diplomacy—”

“I’m sorry.” Panic swelled his insides, the words pushing out of his throat thick and heavy. He’d do anything, say whatever was needed to wipe the growing disappointment from Sebastian’s face — anything to see the smile returned to where it belonged.

But the man couldn’t see the cause of his distress; he placed a hand on Cullen’s shoulder for the briefest moment before pulling away. “Think nothing of it,” he mumbled, rising from the bench. “Goodnight, Captain.”

Cullen’s hand darted out before he realised what he was doing, and tugged at Sebastian’s wrist — satisfied only once the man landed next to him with a gasp, much closer than he had been. He wrapped an arm around him, pulling nearer still until their foreheads met, Sebastian’s smooth skin pressed against the clammy, sweaty mess that was his. There was nothing he could say as his trembling fingers tucked stray strands of auburn hair behind the man’s ear, before cupping his cheek, warmth seeping through his freezing skin.

He gazed into the eyes that were like the bottomless sea, half-hidden by lids that drooped as though the man was drugged — so much like they had once been, made drowsy by Cullen’s fingers rubbing his scalp; sated by a short, stolen moment in the chantry cellars. His breath hitched as the man’s hand came to rest on his side - the touch barely-there, tentative - and still no words were forthcoming.

How could he make him see? How could he express what he felt; the tangled mess of emotions, the boundless joys and crippling afflictions he hardly understood himself? Longing, love, desire, tenderness. He realised with startling clarity that every sentiment was reflected back at him in abundance, waiting for him to reclaim it all.

Leannan…

It was a whisper only Cullen could hear and the only plea he needed; a simple request in want of a simple answer.

Cullen closed what distance remained between them — a soft brush of lips, an inhaled sigh, and he was engulfed by the force of nature that was Sebastian. The touch on his side turned to a grip pulling their bodies closer; another hand pressed the small of his back — the lips crushing on his were a fever dream turned reality, sucking in his choppy breaths, the point of contact sending warmth from his hazy head all the way to the tips of his toes.

He surrendered completely; he would give anything - everything - for this to never end, for the familiar scent flooding him never to evaporate, for the need in Sebastian’s touch never to wane, for the heat of his skin never to vanish from under Cullen’s fingertips. He pushed back with purpose, angling for a taste of the man’s mouth, hungry for the pulse throbbing underneath the elegant jaw; hands seeking the spots that had once turned Sebastian soft and pliant against his chest.

Sebastian moaned deep and low, and Cullen swelled too large for his uniform by the sound alone, the maddening vibration pressing directly to his lips. He could never get enough of this; how freely Sebastian expressed himself when the tips of his fingers dug behind his ears just so, how— 

Somewhere in the distance - as if in another world - someone cleared their throat at an ever increasing urgency, but it wasn’t before Sebastian pulled away that Cullen stiffened to the realisation they were not alone.

“I’m so sorry, Captain, Your Highness — I really am,” a man spoke, his vaguely familiar voice piercing through Cullen’s dream, “but it’s time, Your Highness. The carriage is waiting.” 

Maker’s breath! The Prince of Starkhaven sat before him, lips bruised and hair tousled, his glazed eyes fixed on Cullen’s. He had done this; leapt across the chasm separating them, crashing directly into the arms of His Serene Highness Sebastian Vael, sovereign of the most important state in the Free Marches, a ruler by birthright— 

Sebastian’s hands cupped his face. “No, don’t do this.” 

— the superior of his commanding officer, a man so high above his situation that the fall would be endless before he hit the ground— 

“Stay with me, leannan ! Please.” 

Sebastian’s voice quivered, the gentle caress of his thumbs on Cullen’s cheeks sending jolts down his spine. It wasn’t before the man leaned in for a tender kiss that the pangs of panic subsided; just enough for him to respond in kind — but not enough to forget the company.

“I— I have to go, leannan ,” Sebastian pressed their foreheads together, pushing back the curls hanging loose by Cullen’s temple, “I wish it wasn’t so, but I must. I can’t tell you where, but I will come back in two weeks, the Maker willing.”

A cold tendril squeezed the pit of Cullen’s stomach, while another strangled his heart — and, as if by instinct, Sebastian laid a warm palm over his chest, easing the pain that throbbed within. 

“Your Highness—” The man behind them tried. 

Sebastian spat a litany of heated words from over his shoulder - none of them in a language Cullen could understand - before turning back to him, anger draining as their gazes locked. “Will you wait for me? Will you come see me once I return?” 

The plea was so earnest; Sebastian’s voice so low and full of need. Anything and everything — wasn’t that what he had thought just moments before? “Y-yes, of course,” he forced out, bringing a shaky hand to cover the one pressed on his chest. 

The man’s lips curled into a smile before he dived in for one last kiss. Seneschal Granger came into view as Sebastian stood from the bench and backed away, holding onto Cullen’s fingers for as long as he was able.

“The Commander is looking for you, Captain Rutherford,” Granger informed him over his shoulder as the men walked away, but Cullen’s eyes followed only the silhouette glowing white in the moonlight; the shape of his love.

 

Chapter Text

The sun rose behind the moors, hidden beneath a thick layer of clouds that turned the golden light into a pale glow. The blooms of heather were rusty brown, having succumbed to the cold and damp that characterised Starkhaven’s winters. Similar rust corroded Cullen’s heart, gnawing at the edges, restricting each beat. Even Dog was sluggish - reflecting the mood of his owner - pulling disinterested sniffs from the sides of rocks and roaming after invisible trails Cullen couldn’t hope to detect.

It had been a week since Sebastian left.

Sebastian, whom he had kissed; held him close, swallowed his gasps, sank his hands in his hair, breathed his scent, and tasted his lips. Sebastian, whose carriage he had watched disappear into the darkness of night. Sebastian, who was guarded by three soldiers and an armoured mage on horseback. Sebastian, who had called him by an old endearment and implored him to wait — placed his trust in Cullen’s promise.

A promise he had made in the heat of the moment, but binding all the same. Whether kissing Sebastian had been right or wrong, sane or mad, was something to consider if… no, once he returned; fear for the man’s life reigned over all other thoughts swirling in his mind.

He drew a shuddering inhale, almost tasting the rotting plants under his feet. He stretched by pulling his elbows to his chest, and tried steering his mind away from the man whose absence was like a stab in the gut.

The Inquisition’s troops had entered the Free Marches through the docks of Hercinia; a letter from Starkhaven’s ambassador had arrived by raven the very night Sebastian had hastened out of the Fort. According to ambassador Bellamy’s missive, the troops had settled outside the city limits, possibly awaiting reinforcements from overseas. Had the Inquisition been denied passage through Kirkwall and Ostwick?

The remote point of entry and early discovery of their arrival granted some time for preparations. Cullen had set to work after meeting Commander Brothaigh, Sebastian’s kiss still tingling on his lips, a strange haze obscuring everything but his duties from closer inspection. He’d ignored his exhaustion and overseen the Lieutenants training the last batch of recruits, finished the paperwork he’d agonised over before the interlude in the garden, and scrutinised the spare equipment in the armoury — some of which he had fixed himself not long ago.

He sighed; it was only when he had closed the door to his lodgings and fed Dog that he’d let his mind wander, and wandered it had ever since. A gust of wind whipped his face and he blinked back the moisture in his eyes.

Waiting had proven difficult. Days passed and he had performed his duties, leading rehearsals with the mages and templars, forming practice squadrons underneath skies that threatened to rain — skies that had been so abundant with stars mere nights ago. Now the twilight came with images of assassins sneaking up on Sebastian’s carriage, overpowering the guards and being too swift or numerous for the man’s bow. The constellation of Fervenial - no, The Lovers - had remained hidden by dark clouds, granting no solace in his helpless situation. If Sebastian yet lived and gazed upon it, he did so alone while Cullen lay restless in bed or slumped over his desk.

Maker’s breath! There was no if to it; Sebastian was resourceful and perfectly capable of defending himself. He was not dead. Cullen refused to believe so, and yet every day that passed without news bore the hole in his soul deeper, lodging the dreadful images to such central places that they were increasingly hard to ignore.

He whistled for Dog; this was not helping. Neither had a swim in the freezing waters of Minanter, nor an evening in the Stingy Thistle with Rylen and Hilda — in fact, all his usual ways of relaxation brought little serenity to him now. Strolling the moors for fresh air had been a foolish last resort - riddled with Inquisition scouts as it was - and he was not surprised it had failed; but he’d had to try. The scouts hardly threatened the life of a modestly dressed man and his mabari, especially since war hadn’t been declared yet, but to dally in their sight was a small risk, nevertheless.

The precipice down to the river was steep, and he held onto Dog for support as they approached the quiet docks. Not a soul traipsed the solitary road leading away from Starkhaven — the same road that Sebastian’s carriage had taken to destinations unknown. Where was he now? Sitting in council with important people? Kneeling for his morning prayers in a nondescript inn? Fighting for his life against Lavellan’s assassins?

No.

He reached the gates to the city and talked with the guards holding position, responding to every question presented to him for the third time in the space of a few days. They were well aware of who he was, but Commander Brothaigh and Seneschal Granger had ordered the gates closed and everyone seeking entrance queried and recorded. The guardswomen performed their duties with efficiency before pulling the doors open for him.

It was time to return to war preparations.

————

Six days later, Cullen sat by the war room table between Commander Brothaigh and Rylen. Ever since the news of the Inquisition’s forces entering the Free Marches had arrived, the advisers and officers had taken to convening every morning before beginning their duties. Seneschal Granger sat at the end of the oval table, perusing through a thick pile of envelopes that had arrived over the course of the night, until he slid two of them apart from the rest and cracked the seals open.

“There is a letter from Ambassador Bonham, whose position is in the city state of Markham. It reads as follows,”

Granger went onto read the contents aloud; a force of at least five hundred Inquisition soldiers had passed through the city of Markham. The letter was dated three days prior, which meant the troops couldn’t be far off; the participants responded with shocked gasps and exclamations as realisation dawned to each of them.

Maker’s breath! Would Sebastian make it back before the armies reached the city gates? Cullen’s blood turned to ice as the noise around him rose; everyone was speaking at the same time, their voices blending into an incomprehensible cacophony. He watched with blurry eyes as the meeting continued, barely deciphering what was happening around him.

Commander Brothaigh bellowed for silence, slamming her armoured fist on the table. “I suggest we lock the city at once!”

Granger nodded, closing his eyes before calling for a servant. “Summon Councillor Rylen, please.”

Where was Sebastian? Lifeless in a forest, his body covered by tree branches and pine cones? Cullen squeezed the hem of his chainmail to the rhythm of his breathing, fighting to stay in control. He had to keep it together; he needed his head clear to help ensure there was a home for Sebastian to return to.

Hilda rushed into the room, nodding a solemn greeting to all who had gathered, her eyes lingering on Cullen and Rylen before she turned to Granger, and spoke. “You wished to see me, Seneschal?”

“Send word to those living outside the walls that the gates will be locked by sundown, Councillor,” Granger frowned, handing her the letter. “War is upon us and we must bring our citizens to safety.”

Hilda’s eyes widened as she scanned the missive. She gave it back with haste, hand visibly shaking. “At once, Seneschal!”

Granger opened the second letter as Hilda left, and stilled as he read on. A moment passed in suspense before a small smile quirked his lips. He reined it in and read aloud: “A note has arrived from the Prince. It reads as follows,

G,

We are returning in a few days time. Please inform those who need to know of our safety. We are aware of recent developments and know to avoid unnecessary risks.

Respectfully, S.

The war room erupted in cries of relief as Cullen kept his face neutral, fighting the urge to wrestle the paper for himself, to see the elegant cursive with which Sebastian wrote, to inspect the evidence of his survival.

He did no such thing. Rylen pressed his hand between Cullen’s shoulder blades, and whispered something he couldn’t catch from under the pulse thundering in his ears.

Granger grinned in open triumph, pushing the remaining pile of letters to an elven adviser for processing, slapping the table with the palm of his hand for attention. “People! Shall we get back to work? There is much to be done.”

The gathering scattered in a matter of moments, and Cullen rushed to his office, slumped against his desk, and prayed for Sebastian’s safe return.

————

The sky above was dark; the heavy clouds had held the promise of rain all day, but not a drop had fallen. The ground below his feet was wet, however; the damp wouldn’t dry in the humid cold of late Firstfall.

Cullen circled around the trebuchets his soldiers had set up between the marketplace and the Fort, ensuring the calibrations were properly set; two were aimed at the docks, one at the bridge between the docks and the river bank, and three at choice points on the road leading to Starkhaven. They were impressive in the low light of the evening; tall shadows reaching from the wet granite skyward — and yet he hoped these marvels of technology would never see use.

There were no flaws to correct with the calibrations; the Lieutenants had known what they were doing. Cullen cast his eyes to the road descending from the hilltops for the umpteenth time, but saw nothing but a pony cart approaching the city; even from this distance it was clear the newcomer was one of the many evacuees seeking refuge from within the walls, and not the fine carriage of the person he was most anxious to see. He swallowed his disappointment and looked for an excuse to stay outdoors for a moment longer.

A runner followed his trail, keeping a discreet distance, as he made to query the cavalrymen and archers stationed near the Fort’s entrance. The Seneschal had assigned a messenger boy to each high-ranking officer to ensure the quick exchange of information, and sent several to the streets to advise the citizens to stay indoors. Those who had chosen to disregard the advice stood in watch of the proceedings, respectfully out of the way, but nervous, their murmuring conversations covered by the snorts of horses.

Cullen approached the leader of the cavalry, scrutinising the postures of the riders. “Are your orders clear, Lieutenant?”

“Yes, Captain,” the woman responded without hesitation, bowing her armoured head as her steed pranced in place.

“Any questions, Lieutenant?”

“None, Captain.”

Cullen suppressed a sigh; of course she had no questions. Each of the leaders had impressed the battleplans upon their men with care — including himself. The cavalry, footmen, archers, mages, and templars were under their separate orders whilst defending the city from within the walls; should the battle take the men to the open, they would fall into squadrons consisting of members of each defensive branch, save for those assigned to defend the Fort. “As you were, Lieutenant.”

He turned to glance at the hills again; the cart had probably reached the gates, for the road was empty of travellers. Scrunching his eyes closed, a pulse of fear ran through him; where was Sebastian? Would he meet the Inquisition’s forces on the way and end up a hostage — or worse yet, killed? Cullen had no trust in Lavellan; the man would not abide by gentlemen’s ways were he to meet Sebastian on the road, poorly defended and devoid of witnesses.

He bit his lip and forced himself to move, this time to enquire whether the archers were ready for the conflict that seemed inevitable; the elven Lieutenant knew his orders and posed no questions.

There was nothing more to do — he had ran out of reasons to linger outdoors. Dusk would fall within moments and there was little to achieve in the darkness, aside from dispatching letters. Correspondence by ravens had proved unreliable during the daytime; many missives were lost to the scouts hiding in the moors, and almost none reached the city should the birds be unfortunate in their timing. Should he write to his siblings? If they were never to hear from him again, at least they would know what had happened.

He made for the Fort’s entrance, but slowed down as he saw a familiar cloud of blond curls from the corner of his eye; Bonnie stood by the wall, her hands folded on her chest, watching the hills with a far-away expression on her face. He hadn’t seen her since the day she returned his gauntlets.

“Waiting for the Prince?”

She nodded, casting a solemn glance Cullen’s way, and returned to gazing at the road, as if wishing for his return made Sebastian’s carriage move faster. If only it was so; Cullen would have willed him back on the very night he left. “Do you believe he’ll return today?”

Bonnie shrugged, chewing on her bottom lip. Apprehension emanated from her in waves, matching the dread Cullen had tried to bury, and he wanted to say something - anything - to alleviate the woman’s concerns, to lull them both in a blanket of false security.

“I miss him, too,” he blurted instead, snapping his mouth shut as soon as the words were out. Bonnie regarded him for a while, raising a slow eyebrow before her lips curled into a smile, and nodded — the significance of his confession clearly registering. She gestured for a spot by the wall next to her, and Cullen settled to her side, falling quiet.

There was a strange camaraderie to the silence; it comforted and soothed without a companionable word or a touch. Bonnie’s breaths were soundless, but her exhales turned to mist in the ever cooler air. The runner had settled out of hearing distance, chatting with a cavalryman, occasionally glancing at Cullen — awaiting orders.

The sun was setting behind the Fort when Bonnie grabbed his wrist and tugged urgently, pointing over yonder — silhouetted on the hills were men carrying torches on horseback, growing more numerous as they came into view.

Chapter Text

 

A drop of water landed on Cullen’s nose as he stood on the battlements of Starkhaven, stationed between Commander Brothaigh and Seneschal Granger. The sky had threatened rain for days now, and how fitting that it would make good on its promise just as a menace of a different kind had arrived. The Inquisition troops had spread outside the city walls, the moors occupied on both sides of the river, and the docks filled with men holding their hands on the hilts of their swords. 

Seneschal Granger’s moustache quivered as he addressed the man leading the forces — the man Cullen had hoped never again to set eyes on. Inquisitor Lavellan’s long, dark hair was sweat-matted on his scalp, strands sticking to his bony cheeks. For a man so formidable, his stature looked weak and frail, and not even the light from the torch he held could bring a healthy tint to his pale skin. Cullen observed the man in silence, biting the inside of his cheek and holding his posture as straight as a rod; the mages and archers stationed on the battlements looked up to their leaders, their morale subject to waiver at the slightest sign of fear they detected. 

“Any business you wish to conduct with the Prince can be brought to me in his absence.” Granger’s words were almost a snarl; his arms were crossed on his chest, loathing eyes looking down at the Inquisitor. The show of confidence was probably convincing to those outside the city walls, but the man’s foot was tapping an urgent rhythm out of their line of sight. Suppressing a sigh, Cullen hoped none of their men would notice the gesture, for it was a nervous tick if there ever was one.

“I said I’d like to talk to the Prince, so why don’t you go fetch him from that pretty little castle of his,” Lavellan spat on the ground, his unnerved steed stepping side to side. “I’d like to see his eyes grow wide as I declare war. Watching you soil your pants? Less satisfying.” 

Was he serious? Cullen had never been able to tell, but would he stand here, hurling insults, had he known Sebastian was absent? Would the man stall if he’d met Sebastian on the road and overpowered the meagre defences? Hope swelled in his chest; perhaps there was a chance the Prince might return intact — but to what chaos! 

Granger was unaffected by the insult; most of them were. None had expected a friendly chat. “And I said he's not present! On what basis would you declare war? Have you the Divine’s approval for such actions?” 

Lavellan quirked a brow. “Oh, she won’t mind if we bring some lost sheep back into the fold.” 

The ludicrous exchange went on as the rain intensified, large droplets tapping on the surface of Cullen’s pauldrons. Lavellan looked so small from this vantage point, the obsessive glint in his eyes more pronounced than before, his shiny armour dirtied by the road. Was this the same man he had feared before? The years had changed his demeanour; the once powerful leader had well and truly fallen — he was erratic, careless. 

What exactly was the man playing at, launching a war without the approval of the Divine? Cullen had expected a force capable of overpowering Starkhaven’s defences, but the sight before him was bizarre; men with tired eyes - ready, numerous, well-equipped, but visibly reluctant - and a Commander who stood at the Inquisitor’s tail, lips twitching in obvious insecurity. Some of the men looked familiar - Cullen could put a name to several faces - and they avoided his gaze, shifting in place and casting their eyes downward as he regarded them. 

A pang of sympathy rippled through him. It was clear there could be no victory here, no matter which side triumphed.

The walls would hold unless the Inquisition had a trebuchet hidden somewhere, waiting to be put together. What exactly was the plan here? Had he not known better, it would have looked as though the Inquisitor wished to frighten them into surrender without a drop of blood spilt on the ground — the troops were stationed in no distinct strategy, so spread out were they. 

The argument between Lavellan and Granger faded into background noise as Cullen leaned in to whisper to Commander Brothaigh’s ear: “They do not wish to attack, it seems.” 

She nodded, steely grey eyes scanning the occupied hills. “They wish to appear more numerous than they really are. Look at how they’re standing on the hills. I see no torchlight glowing behind them — this is all of them.” 

Maker’s breath! She was right! What was this travesty? 

A thought hit him and he suppressed a gasp, turning back to Brothaigh. “Commander, Granger can’t sign alliance contracts of this magnitude. That’s why they’re asking for the Prince.” 

She pursed her lips, but reined in her reaction as quickly as it had appeared, and stood in silence for a while, crossing her arms on her chest. “This reeks of desperation.”

It did, and he whispered his assent; the Inquisitor was losing control. The power bestowed on him had decreased over time; ever since the new Divine had been elected, the man’s hold over Thedas had started slipping. The inner circle had scattered over the years, many of the good men and women considering their duties done and not lingering a moment longer than necessary. Cullen had been among the last of the founding members to leave, and Maker only knew if any of the others still remained. 

Starkhaven breaking off must have been the final blow for Lavellan — no wonder the man was yelling at the gates, demanding an audience with the Prince. Starting a war, however, would be a terrible move, and surely he must have been aware of that. Starkhaven’s forces would best them, and in case the Inquisition should triumph, whatever sympathy they still had would scatter into the wind.

“There is no way they can win — unless we ally ourselves with them again.” 

Commander Brothaigh cast a meaningful glance at him, nodding again. “We shall wait until they play their cards, Captain.”

The torch in Cullen’s hand hissed and struggled as the rain poured down harder. The night was cold even without the water trickling down his scalp and slipping underneath his armour, but he stood still, resisting the urge to move and warm himself. His gaze travelled back to the Inquisitor, who had just finished yelling something to Seneschal Granger — and it was then that their eyes locked.

For the first time in five years, Cullen did not falter. He held the emerald gaze - not inscrutable, as it used to be, but full of loathing - and wouldn’t back down. A sneer tugged at Lavellan’s lips, and it seemed as though he was about to talk, but something caught his attention, and Cullen followed his eyes. 

A carriage hurried down the hills, accompanied by four guards on horseback, the sounds of its approach masked by the heavy rainfall. Cullen’s heart skipped a beat as it drew closer, the banners of Starkhaven becoming visible on either side of the driver — those had not been on display when Sebastian had departed. The Inquisition’s soldiers stepped aside to make way for the newcomer. He forgot to breathe as the carriage stopped by the gates and the driver hopped down, rushing to open the door.

The Prince of Starkhaven stepped into the rain, unhurried in his movements, a thin smile on his face.

Sebastian.

“I demand to speak with you right now, Vael!”

Granger sputtered at the disrespectful address, but Sebastian merely nodded and moved in to talk with Lavellan, before requesting the gate to be opened for the man, his Commander, and a small group of his elite guard.

Cullen couldn’t distinguish the words the men exchanged over the beat of his heart thundering in his ears; Sebastian was safe! Everything around him animated at once; Granger and Brothaigh descended from the battlements and left him in charge of the situation, following Sebastian and the Inquisitor to the Fortress. The postures of the enemy soldiers relaxed as their leaders rode away, and Cullen could barely resist the urge to seek shelter from their eyes long enough to steady his breath.

“At ease!” he bellowed, and the mages and archers on the battlements slacked, shaking their arms and rolling their necks. 

His own respite was short-lived, however; what would the Inquisitor demand of Sebastian? The only way the man could save face without a battle would be a renewed alliance or something equally valuable. 

“And when the Inquisitor was here, he asked for something I would never part with.

Cullen closed his eyes, centering himself. He hadn’t pondered over what it was Sebastian had said at dinner; he had, in fact, driven his first thought to the depths of oblivion, and he wasn’t about to summon it now. He hoped whatever the man held dear and worth protecting would remain in his possession. Perhaps it was a relic of the Chantry?

Familiar faces watched him from below, in open curiosity now that the tension had ebbed. He cast his eyes to the river, ignoring the twinge of pity he felt for his former soldiers still trapped by the Inquisitor's tyranny. The desire to address them and convince them of a better life awaiting them in the service of someone else was getting stronger, but who was he to assume their paths were wrong? He opted for a sympathetic smile instead, hoping it would relay the message to whomever wanted to receive it.

What felt like hours passed in silence, the rain slowing from a pour to a shower as Cullen prayed wordlessly; thanking the Maker for Sebastian’s safe return; pleading for a peaceful resolution to this conflict. He had no desire to raise a sword against the soldiers he had fought beside — but he would if he must. The chill had settled to the core of his bones by the time his ears caught the sound of approaching hooves; the negotiators returned to the gates, which opened to let Lavellan’s entourage out.

The man ordered his forces to follow him, riding towards the bridge to the riverbank, casting one last vitriolic glance at Cullen. 

He stood in place, careful to keep his face impassive, watching the retreating backs of the soldiers. The rust gnawing at the edges of his heart lifted its hold, blood rushing to all extremities of his body, breath flowing freely for the first time in weeks. A tingling sensation in the back of his neck roused him from his thoughts — a feeling he’d known over a decade past, a feeling he’d anticipated each time he’d knelt to hear a sermon at Kirkwall’s chantry.

He knew before he turned to look.

Sebastian’s gaze was fixed on Cullen, a secret smile tugging at his lips. For a while they merely stared at one another, as though suspended in time. Finally, he gestured for Cullen to come down, and, breath caught and cheeks ablaze, he obeyed. Sebastian met him before he could step out of the small corridor, standing at the doorway, ushering him into a corner, hiding them from the prying eyes of the others. 

“It seems our unwanted visitors are leaving. You may order the men to return to their homes once we are sure they won’t come back — not that I think they will.” A small smile played on Sebastian’s lips, smug and victorious, but the exhaustion in his countenance made Cullen’s heart lurch. 

“Yes, Your Highness.”

Silence stretched between them, and Cullen couldn’t look away from the face illuminated by torchlight — not even when Sebastian glanced to the side, a bashful shade of red rising to his cheeks. “That said… I suppose it would be selfish of me to invite you to my office tonight, but perhaps tomorrow, after dinner..?” Sebastian’s voice was low; the soft, familiar brogue heavy with meaning. “Unless you have changed your mind, that is.”

Cullen didn’t hesitate. “I have not.” It was true; not once during the last two weeks had he considered backing down from his promise, wherever that would lead to. Sebastian stood before him in the flesh; alive and beautiful — irresistible. How was he to walk away, to live without another kiss? 

The smile on Sebastian’s face broke into a grin that deepened the dimples on his cheeks, the sheer joy of it erasing the glassy sheen of weariness from his eyes — Cullen’s stomach twisted in response, a breathless chuckle leaving him unbidden. 

Sebastian took hold of his armoured hand and brought it to his mouth, plush lips pressing a dozen of small kisses on the knuckles of cold metal, eyes crinkling with delight. He squeezed the fingers before letting go, murmuring; “Until tomorrow, leannan.”

Chapter Text

 

It was well past dawn by the time Cullen made his way towards the Fortress, Dog in tow. The rain hadn’t let up; pools of water were scattered across the market square, droplets playing on the surface as if to a soundless melody. The sky was the hue of tarnished silver; dark blue spots stained the clouds. It would rain for a good while yet — perhaps until the spring came. It didn’t matter.

“Messere!”

He glanced around, spotting the Orlesian fruit merchant at the edge of the square, surrounded by carts and tables. It was so much like a normal day; citizens were out picking up their produce, shielding themselves from the rain with their hands, flocking near where the cavalry and archers had grouped on the night before. Only a few soldiers stood before the Fort, and two templars guarded the doors to the chantry.

“Very good oranges today, Messere,” her foreign lilt was as thick as always, and she beamed at him, trebuchets rising skyward behind her — a peculiar sight. Life was so quick to move on.

He made his way over, nodded a greeting, and weighed the fruit in his hand, stealing a brief sniff. The scent had his eyes drooping shut, and it hit him at once; it had been weeks since he’d eaten and really tasted his food; two weeks since a pleasant aroma had last wafted into his nose, filling his heart and head alike with its sweet embrace. Perhaps it was high time to indulge. “How much for three?”

“Six coppers, Messere.”

Cullen frowned, ready to protest, but the merchant tilted her head and cut in; “Half the price for a defender of Starkhaven.”

Heat crept to his cheeks and he rummaged through his pockets, producing two dozen copper coins and pressing them into the woman’s hands. He grabbed the fruit and strode off, dodging pools of water and ignoring the merchant’s outraged sputtering, a smile tugging at his lips.

“A defender of Starkhaven, she said. What do you think about that?” he asked Dog, wiping his boots on the carpet in the lobby. Dog cast him an exasperated look and shook off the water in his fur, making Cullen jolt out of the way, an orange falling from his arms.

He wasn’t ready to believe the threat had subsided entirely, and yet he felt lighter, as though the root of his problems had started withdrawing the moment Lavellan had ridden through the gates and into the night. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d slept past dawn, but this morning he had awakened after scattered light poured through his window, Dog’s wet tongue lapping at his hand — the Maker only knew how long he would have slumbered, had he been left to his own devices.

Hopefully not past dinner time.

The pit of his stomach stirred at the thought as he entered his office and sat behind his desk. Dog took his spot under the windows with a relieved huff and closed his eyes, ignorant to the way Cullen’s fingers trembled as he peeled an orange.

————

Cullen stood by the window and watched as his soldiers dismantled the trebuchets, the view towards the marketplace clearing again. The cavalrymen he’d sent to trail the Inquisition troops had returned in the morning with a report that the forces had taken the turn towards Markham, with no sign of stopping — of course the Inquisitor would care little for the welfare of his men and horses.

It had, however, meant that the threat had really subsided for now, and the war preparations could be disassembled. He’d spent the better part of the morning giving out orders, careful not to let his mind wander too far from the tasks at hand.

“Cullen, mate. We’re talking to you.”

He turned around, the bowl of fish soup in his hand almost toppling. Rylen and Hilda were staring at him, identical smirks on their faces. He’d zoned out of the conversation; forgotten to eat. “Sorry, what were you saying?”

“I asked if the Prince kissed you hello. Couldn’t see into that corridor he backed you into,” Rylen’s brows waggled and Hilda snorted, muffling her laughter into her hand. “Your grand reunion looked like something from a Tethras book.”

Hilda swatted at Rylen’s shoulder from across the table, but her expression was far from scolding. “What he means to ask is if you’ve come to your senses.”

A defensive retort formed on his tongue, ready for launch, but he held it back. Another set of words came to mind; ‘No, but I kissed him goodbye before he left on his journey.’ He couldn’t say it out loud; it was too early to talk about this. What if everything fell apart tonight? Perhaps Sebastian would finally see how damaged he was and deem him a lost cause? Maybe Cullen would scare and run as fast as his legs would carry, spoiling his last chance?

No. He would not do that again — not after the kiss, not after the way Sebastian had looked at him the night before. Sparks still flew between them, even after all these years, despite everything that had happened. It was frightening - and probably impossible - but he would not run away from this. He had to see this through.

“I have.” The conviction in his voice took him by surprise, no matter how true it rang.

Hilda’s snickering died, her brows climbing high. Rylen’s spoon dropped from his hand, clinking against the edge of his bowl. Matching grins grew on their faces, and Rylen turned in his chair to give Cullen his full attention.

“Shut up,” Cullen scoffed, knowing full well his friend was moments away from a suggestive joke.

But it was Hilda who broke the silence: “Was it those oranges I told Sebastian to offer you?”

Oh, Andraste preserve him; they would never let this go.

————

Time had slowed to a halt, but somehow he’d suffered through the day and its final meal. Anticipation and dread had taken turns in terrorising him; one moment he was drowning in crippling fear - disbelief that something good could happen, concern that whatever happiness he’d gain would be fleeting - and the next he was flying high, warmth spreading inside him as he thought of meeting Sebastian in the evening and finding out what exactly would follow.

The two alternating states had morphed into one inexplicable feeling as he stood behind the familiar wooden door, catching his breath. He’d been so sure of himself in the morning, so optimistic and quite ready; affected by the triumph of the night before, no doubt. Now that certainty was faltering. Was it wise to make this leap; to offer his broken self for the Prince of Starkhaven to bear burden? What had he to offer the man who had everything, if not trouble and grief? And yet he hoped. Perhaps the feeling of his troubles uprooting was not a false alarm, and his spirits would keep improving — perhaps, in time, he could become worthy of Sebastian’s affection?

Something flashed in the edge of his vision, and before he could react, a slender hand gave the door three vigorous knocks. He stared, horrified, as Bonnie strode down the corridor, casting him a wicked grin over her shoulder.

“Come in!”

He obeyed; there was no turning back now. He could at least talk with the man and see what would follow.

Sebastian sat on the loveseat at the back of the room, holding a stack of papers. He wore a white linen shirt and simple brown pants that hugged his legs; it was the first time Cullen had seen him out of his uniform, looking as casual as a commoner. A loopy smile grew on the man’s face before it faltered and died; he pressed his lips together and cast Cullen a wary look from under his brows. “I wasn’t sure you would come, but I’m happy you did.”

Maker’s breath! How long had he stood before the door, distracted by his thoughts? His heart plummeted; was Sebastian disappointed in him already? “I was delayed. I apologise.”

The hearth crackled as silence set between them. Cullen stood in the middle of the room, unsure of what to do with his hands. He folded them behind his back, puffing his chest out; the posture of a soldier before his commanding officer; a habit easy to fall back on.

Sebastian looked uncertain, breaking eye contact and rubbing the back of his neck. “I— I suppose I need to tell you something. You have the right to know. Will you sit with me awhile?”

Cullen cleared his throat and nodded, murmuring out an affirmative. His legs were heavy as he made it to the loveseat and sat down, crossing his hands in his lap. Was this when the man would tell him he’d changed his mind? Would he explain the kiss away as a product of heightened emotions, a mistake made in distressing times?

Sebastian picked four papers from the top of his pile and handed them to Cullen. “I left that night so we could finalise these. They are treaties between us, Kirkwall, Ostwick, and Tantervale.”

Cullen skimmed through the text on the first document; it was an oath of mutual aid should one of the cities come under attack; a military alliance. All the other papers included the same words, signed by the respective leaders of each city.

“I had to do this in person, and considering how closely the Inquisition was watching us, I had no choice but to depart with some subterfuge. I am sorry, for what it’s worth. I can’t imagine it was easy to keep our men motivated in my absence.”

It hadn’t been, especially when many of the leaders had been antsy ever since Sebastian had left and the news of the Inquisition troops arriving to Hercinia had reached Starkhaven. “Are these contracts the reason why the Inquisition withdrew last night?”

“Yes, they were defeated. If they had attacked, they would have had to fight the forces of four cities at once, and they would have lost all the support they still have,” Sebastian accepted the contracts back and placed them on a side table. “Although I suspect they intended to block trade and starve us instead, since their forces were no match to ours, and the Inquisitor had much to lose by starting a war. Still, that would have counted as an attack, and I would have called for our new allies.”

It was ingenious, really. Even a man as proud and vengeful as Lavellan would have no choice but to back away and count his blessings. Cullen suppressed an urge to grin, to congratulate Sebastian on a scheme well played, but it seemed there was something else to follow. Sebastian was rubbing his forehead, eyes fixed on the fireplace.

“But you would have learnt all this tomorrow, as I intend to make it known to the public by the end of the week. I— I have something to confess, and you are not going to like it.”

Cullen’s shoulders stiffened, an uneasy feeling poking at his stomach. His throat swelled in dread and he barely got out a whisper; “What is it?”

Sebastian still wasn’t looking at him; he swallowed, closing his eyes and folding his hands in his lap. “I thought up this plan when you and Rylen came to live here. With you safe in Starkhaven, I knew I could break this cursed alliance that had brought nothing but misery to these lands, but—” he let out a bitter chuckle, shaking his head and opening his eyes to cast Cullen a wary glance. “But it wasn’t meant to happen yet. I needed more time to propagate doubts in the leaders of other Marcher cities. And then the Inquisitor paid us a visit and requested I’d hand over you and Rylen for trial over a breach of contract.”

A beat of silence passed, and Cullen’s heart skipped a beat. “W-what?”

“He wanted to take you back to Skyhold and I— I knew enough about him to imagine what would follow. I— I lost it, Cullen. I was out of my senses and severed the alliance as soon as I could, against the advice of my court. I couldn’t trust the Inquisitor not to act and— and abduct you and Rylen, I couldn’t imagine living if—” Sebastian paused his feverish ramble to breathe, leaning forward and hiding his face in his hands.

Cullen couldn’t wrap his head around this news, the multitude of thoughts circulating in his mind coming to a halt all at once, leaving him blank.

“I knew you’d detest me once you found out I had done this because of you, but I was selfish and needed you in my sight until everything was resolved. I knew the Inquisitor would make me pay for cutting him off, one way or another, and I knew you would never accept my protection.” Anguish dripped from his voice, thick and heavy. “And so I chose not to withdraw my offer of employment, I chose not to tell you any of this. I— I pursued you under false pretenses, and I told myself I would confess all of this to you soon, but I kept stalling because I feared you’d volunteer to sacrifice yourself. But it was secrets that tore us apart in Kirkwall, and I was well on my way to repeating the past.” Sebastian’s voice faltered, and he sat still for a moment. “What hope could there be for us unless I was truthful to you?”

Anger flickered in Cullen’s chest - people could have died! - but it was weak in the face of Sebastian’s misery. He pulled a long inhale, bit his lip, and tried to think. Had Sebastian admitted to manoeuvring against the Inquisition only after he knew Cullen to be safe? Had he severed the alliance to protect him? Had he said he’d pursued Cullen? “What— what do you mean to say?”

Sebastian let out a shaky breath and looked at him, eyes misty. “I endangered the lives of my subjects in my fervour to guard you. I held the truth from you because I needed to have you near. I took away your right to choose because I was selfish in my love for you, and I see that now. I know it isn’t worth much, but I am sorry.”

Cullen drew his gaze to his lap, playing with the hem of his uniform. His fingers shook as he picked on the fine stitching on the fabric, a singular thought rising above the chaotic swirling in his mind. “You… you love me?”

Sebastian snorted, a wet and ugly sound. “I can’t believe you would question that.”

“After everything I did in Kirkwall? After I made you believe I— I didn’t feel the same way?” He closed his eyes to weather the wave of bitterness that coursed through him at the memory of that awful night he had lied to Sebastian, how his feet - heavy as iron - had carried him out of the man’s life.

“I thought I hated you, but I couldn’t make myself move against the Inquisition with you in their ranks. Then you came here with Rylen, and I thought you and him—” Sebastian paused to shake his head, lips thinning to a straight line. “I had to see for myself, so we threw you a welcoming party. But your eyes never followed him. Instead, I felt your gaze on me, and it was then I realised it wasn’t hate that spurred me on. I had to swallow my pride and try to win back your favour if I wanted to be happy again — and now I’ve ruined my chances. But at least you’re safe.”

“You thought Rylen and I were… uhh… together?” Cullen could hardly believe what he was hearing — and yet, how had he not seen this earlier? The pieces slotted together to form a seamless picture; not an image without fault, but one with strong lines and a sturdy frame.

Sebastian had the good sense to look embarrassed; colour rose to his cheekbones, and he scratched at the bridge of his nose with a trembling finger. “I feared so.”

Cullen nodded; perhaps such a thought would be feasible for someone to entertain, considering how close they had become during their Inquisition years — but it was ludicrous! Preposterous! “There was never anyone after you. I couldn’t imagine anyone else taking— taking your place. I knew I condemned myself to solitude the day I left you.”

Sebastian buried his face in his hands again, breath coming in hitched whispers. Silence stretched between them, and for a moment Cullen worried he had said too much — or perhaps what he had said hadn’t been what Sebastian had heard.

“You’re torturing me, and I deserve it, but,” Sebastian wiped his cheeks and lowered his hands, casting tearful eyes at him, “will you please tell me whether there is hope for your forgiveness? If there’s even the slightest reason to think I could have you—”

Understanding struck him like a lightning bolt, and he cut Sebastian off with his lips; a mere ghost of a kiss before he pulled back, watching the shadows of despair withdraw from Sebastian’s face. They were on equal ground at last; the secrets were on the table, their weight no longer there to pull them down. What he had learnt was appalling — but he had done many a terrible thing in his life, and once he had hurt Sebastian with an ill-judged, if not a well-meaning action. He knew all too well the need to protect; it had been the reason he had walked out of Sebastian’s life, and the reason he’d accepted this post by his side. What were they if not two peas in a pod, trying to do right and failing?

There was only one person who could make him happy, and while he wasn’t the perfect, idolised memory Cullen had cradled all these years, he was still the sole person in all of Thedas who could make Cullen’s heart soar. There would be much to talk about and many issues to untangle, but he wanted nothing more than to be the anchor tying Sebastian to the ground once more. It would work; it had to.

“You have me. I’m yours. I will forgive you.” The words came out of him with little trouble, the truth behind them undeniable. “Can you forgive me for leaving you? And for being so obtuse; I simply didn’t know whether you were still—”

“Of course. I forgave you a long time ago, even before I knew why you did that.”

The smile that dawned on Sebastian’s face buried what little anger Cullen still harboured, and, before he could say something stupid and ruin the moment, he cradled Sebastian’s cheek in the palm of his hand and pulled him into a kiss.

Chapter Text

Cullen shouldn’t have been surprised to discover Sebastian’s bedroom was sparsely decorated. The man had never expressed a fondness for luxury or wealth; his modest room in the chantry had been home to his bow, a pile of books, and the few items of clothing and armour he had owned. Somehow Cullen had assumed that becoming the Prince would have changed things, but the only self-indulgent items in the room were a large, soft-looking bed covered by silky blankets and plush pillows, and a fur pelt set out before a crackling fireplace, an open book resting by its side.

They had spent hours in the study, talking and kissing, untangling misunderstandings and drifting closer and closer until they were two halves of a whole again; physically and emotionally. How easy it had been to let go of his reservations with Sebastian pressed to his side, his warmth mingling with his own. How natural their connection had proved; as if the tether had never snapped.

“I realise it’s not much.” Sebastian let go of Cullen’s hand with a soft squeeze, a sheepish smile on his face. 

Cullen almost chased the touch as Sebastian crossed the room, palm tingling where the man’s had been; he was strangely at a loss without it. “No, it… It looks like you.”

Sebastian arched an inquisitive brow over his shoulder, a smile tugging at his lips, before lighting a candelabra on a bedside table.  

“That is— there’s— uhh, everything a man needs.” 

Oh, Holy Bride! The things coming out of his mouth tonight! The soft chuckle from across the room stirred a warmth in him, however, and plans to clarify what he had meant flew out of his mind. He clasped his unsteady hands behind his back, fighting the urge to rub the back of his neck. It was true either way, and to hold back now would be silly.

The walls were tall and bare, save for the large painting of Andraste in her final moments. Flames licked her body and a sword pierced her chest, but her countenance betrayed no fear or remorse; what a very Sebastian thing to own! Did the man look upon the painting for strength on days when his own was lacking? There were more books on both of the nightstands framing the bed, and he suspected if he were to look closer, half of them would be for work and the other half for the soul. 

A sheer curtain covered double doors at the end of the room, and he approached them while Sebastian lit candles on a nearby desk. “Does the balcony give a view to the city?” 

“It does,” Sebastian moved to Cullen’s side and pulled the curtain out of the way, “and a marvellous view of the stars, too.” He tugged the doors open, letting in a violent gust of wind that had the candlelight dancing on the walls. “When it’s a clear night, that is.” 

He followed Sebastian outside and settled next to him, leaning on the railing. Rain fell in a gentle shower, as if the skies had grown tired towards the night, small droplets landing on his heated face. The city was open before him, but Sebastian was smiling at him; the same private smile he’d been so used to seeing; the one that squeezed his heart and trapped his breath — and Cullen was caught in the moment, helplessly smiling back.

“I used to sit here and stare at the stars, wondering if you were doing the same. And then one night,” Sebastian slid a hand on top of Cullen’s, lacing their fingers on the railing, “I saw a figure on the roof of your building; perhaps it was you. I certainly thought so.” 

Cullen nodded; it wasn’t something he did often, but he’d climbed the roof of his lodgings on a few occasions. Sometimes the night weighed heavy on him and the walls drew too close; he would sweat through the linens, rejecting sleep, for it offered nothing but twisted nightmares. Sometimes he would walk to the docks and take a dip in the river, but on nights it got particularly bad and he couldn’t stand a stranger’s eyes upon him, he would climb the roof and gaze at the stars until he could breathe again. 

“… it was then I started writing letters to you. Ones I never sent. I had to— I had to get the words out somehow, but I couldn’t presume you would still feel the same way.” Sebastian looked at their joined hands, brushing Cullen’s skin with his thumb. “Tell me, did you ever think of me?” 

Cullen remembered how, what felt like a lifetime ago, Hilda had mentioned the letters and how he’d brushed off the suggestion they were for him. How foolish he had been. Now, after hours in Sebastian’s arms, lips kiss-swollen and heart on the mend, he could believe almost anything. Sebastian could tell him clouds were green and stars were ships in the sky, and Cullen would call it gospel.

“I tried not to,” he flipped their hands and brought Sebastian’s knuckles to his lips, the cool and wet skin like morning dew, “but I thought about you constantly.” The wind was pulling Sebastian’s carefully arranged hair loose in wild auburn strands, and he reached for a flailing lock and pushed it behind Sebastian’s ear. “I wasn’t sure if you were still… you, but I thought about you all the same.”

The unruly strand of hair broke free just as the smile on Sebastian’s lips widened to a grin and he turned to face Cullen, “And do I meet your expectations, I wonder?” 

Such a ridiculous thing to ask; Cullen almost chuckled. Instead, he placed his palm on Sebastian’s neck and brushed a thumb over a dimple indenting the man’s cheek. How he’d relished pressing the tips of his fingers there; how he’d delighted in the laughter that followed. The demons would scatter and run upon the lovely sound reverberating in his chest, too weak to challenge Sebastian's light. Something would always shift inside of him at the sight of the man; it was like the air would arrange itself into a bubble around them, leaving no space for thoughts other than how Cullen could make the man smile.

None of that had changed. 

However, before him stood the Prince of Starkhaven, his life vastly different to that of the Brother he had cherished; the man behind the titles was the same, and Cullen ached in his desire to shield him in his arms and forget the world around them, but alas. “You exceed them, only,” the dimple under his thumb smoothed as Sebastian’s smile wilted, “how will this work, you and I?” 

Sebastian stepped closer, pressing a hand on the small of Cullen’s back, their bodies a hair’s breadth from touching. “I’ll take whatever you are willing to give me,” his face was solemn as he searched Cullen’s eyes, “but I would like to have all of you. No more secrets, no more shame, no more hiding.”

“I would like that, too, but you’re the Prince and—”

“And if I ask for one thing for myself, everyone else will just have to accept it.” Sebastian drew closer still, the firm tone of voice at odds with the dazed look in his eyes. His hand at Cullen’s back stroked soothing circles through the uniform, pressing until their rain-dampened bodies met. 

Cullen shivered at the touch, circling his arms around the man’s form and pulling until they were so close Sebastian’s jaw lodged on his shoulder, warm breath tingling at his neck. Blood rushed through him, heart hammering in his ears at the sudden proximity — forbidden desire rising in the pit of his stomach. His mouth was dry and he dared not speak; something was hanging in the air and he needed Sebastian to voice it, stomach drawing taut as he waited.

“Perhaps you recall,” Sebastian murmured against his skin, voice low and heavy, “I had plans for us back in Kirkwall. And I was thinking,” his nose brushed the lobe of Cullen’s ear, sending ripples of heat through his body, “if you’ll stay with me and let us navigate this thing between us,” Sebastian pressed a kiss to the side of his neck, gooseflesh rising in its wake, “such ideas could easily arise again. Will you stay?” 

Heart jumping at the words, Cullen hugged the man closer still, pulling a greedy inhale from his hair, the scent of cinnamon stirring his senses. “I’ll stay for as long as you’ll have me.” 

The hand at the small of his back was more insistent now, thumb rubbing the fabric of his uniform as though seeking to get through it. It was with a shaky breath Cullen brought their lips together. The kiss deepened fast and he cupped the man’s neck, sinking his fingers into his hair, caressing the spot behind his ear that had always made him sigh. 

It was like falling into darkness, everything but Sebastian blurry and irrelevant - the soft sounds against his mouth had the hairs at the back of his neck stand erect, and the hand that finally slipped underneath his uniform was kindling to a fire he could scarcely manage. The man pushed as close as he could get, but it would not do; the layers between them kept him at a frustrating distance. How he longed to feel Sebastian’s skin on his; to revel in his warmth, to run his fingers over the ridges and plains of the man’s body. 

Dangerous waters loomed before him, luring him into their forbidden depths. Sebastian moaned into the kiss, writhing against him, the hardness pressing to his groin undeniable — and it was so difficult not to let go; not to plunge headfirst into the old desire never fulfilled. Cullen was out of practice and barely in control, stuck between needing to see this storm of a kiss through and wanting to pull away, to show Sebastian he still respected his vows. The tide was rising with each ragged gasp he breathed into Sebastian’s mouth, with each caress on his scarred back — he was sinking helplessly. Oh, but the waters were warm and tempting.

It seemed an Age had passed by the time Sebastian finally pulled away, just far enough to press their foreheads together and share gasping breaths that turned to steam in the night, carried away by the whipping wind. He lifted a hand to Cullen’s cheek, the other one still rubbing circles on his back, a husky laugh bubbling from his throat. “I want to be with you so badly I think I might lose my mind. Will you please stay the night?” 

“I— I don’t know if I can control myself,” Cullen confessed, shuddering at the thought of them falling into bed, the silken sheets tangling around them as they kissed and touched, skirting at the limits of what Sebastian’s vows allowed. It was inevitable he would, at some point, trip past the invisible line, causing untold damage with his fall. “Not tonight, at least. Perhaps I ought to go.”

Sebastian’s hold on him tightened and he pressed a kiss to Cullen’s lips, the feel of him lingering even as he drew away to speak. “You needn’t worry about that. I’m no longer bound by chastity vows, and I have sixteen years worth of pent up desire to lavish upon you,” he twirled a finger in Cullen’s hair, “should you want me to.”

Maker’s breath! He’d followed Sebastian into his bedroom under the assumption they would talk more, undisturbed by servants and business, and consummate their reunion with kisses and chaste touches. Was it even possible to renounce such vows once they were taken? A terrible thought rushed to his mind, and he voiced it before the waves of lust could silence him; “You are— are you saying this to please me? You do realise that I’m yours, even if we were to never—”

“I know, I know, and that only makes me want you more,” Sebastian pushed his head to the crook of Cullen’s neck, breath hot on his damp skin. “And I’m not just saying that, although I would love to please you, if you let me.” 

Cullen struggled for coherence, the urge to ask more questions warring with the need coursing through him, impairing his ability to think. His arms tightened around Sebastian at their own accord, a moan pushing past his lips when the man kissed just underneath his ear, tongue lapping at the sensitive skin — and just like that, his thoughts escaped him. He was distantly aware of Sebastian backing him into the room, the sound of a door being kicked shut barely registering at the edge of his consciousness. The back of his knees met the edge of the bed and buckled, the feel of Sebastian's lips parting from his skin as he landed on his behind. 

He had but a second to recover before the man climbed into his lap, thighs hugging his sides. Sebastian cupped his head in his hands, tilting it so there was no hiding from those intense eyes; no doubts as to what he wanted. “ Leannan , will you stay tonight?” 

The sheer, white curtain whipped about behind Sebastian, the wind stealing through the door that remained open, candlelight quivering with its force. Cullen circled his arms around Sebastian's waist, pulling him closer until the man could feel the effect he had on him, watching his eyes darken. He was like a visage in a desert; otherworldly and bewitching, too good to be true, drawing Cullen in with the promise in his eyes. But the body on top of him was real, the shape of it fitting so seamlessly against his own, every muscle and tendon begging to be explored with hands and tongue, with lingering kisses and appreciative eyes. He would be mad to decline; he would have to be dead not to want this, not to give into the pull so many years ignored. “Of course.”

Sebastian grinned, and set about to work on the buttons of Cullen’s uniform, lips latching to the skin of his neck as it was exposed, the heady scent of his damp hair travelling to Cullen’s nose. His trembling hands smoothed the man’s back in the meantime, coming down to the waistband of his trousers, stopping to rub at the end of his spine through the wet shirt. He lifted the garment slowly, pulling it free from his breeches, and Sebastian paused in anticipation as his hand slipped underneath it, gliding up the smooth skin. The heat of it had him in awe, its faultless surface inviting him to feel and touch, and it was not with a clear mind that his lips slid up Sebastian’s throat, an experimental flick of tongue revealing the taste of him; it was like drinking from a forbidden well - alluring, refreshing, maddening, and thoroughly frightening. He needed more of it; more of the taste, more of Sebastian, more of the wild desire unleashing between them.

The man in his lap moaned and pushed against his exploring hands, responding to every kiss and lick like a starved man; Cullen’s jacket remained half-opened as Sebastian’s hands came to hold his shoulders, hips grinding against his stomach. He dipped two experimental fingers under the waistband of Sebastian’s breeches, relishing in the shudder running through the man’s body. Oh, sweet merciful Maker, Sebastian would have him come undone long before they were undressed, so pliant and willing was he under these hands. If kissing and touching had him writhing so, how would he sound with no fabric between them; how would he look when they were united in flesh? Unbelievable.

He closed his eyes against the mental image, fighting the rising urge to rub them together just like this and spend in their clothes. No, Sebastian deserved better; he deserved every inch of him worshipped, to be laid down on the luxurious pillows and loved until he could take no more. He gave the man’s neck a long final lick, pulled his hands away with a great deal of regret, and rumbled through his thickened throat; “Shall we undress?” 

Unbuttoning his clothes was no easy task as he watched Sebastian pull off his shirt; toned muscles rippled before him, framed by the wide shoulders of an archer, windswept hair coming to rest just above them. He averted his eyes, pulled off his undershirt and wiggled out of his trousers; he would look his fill once they were both nude. A tingle of shame ran through him as the garments came off, revealing his pale body; there were only hints left of the musculature he had once sported. How unworthy he was to be in the presence of someone as beautiful and elegant as Sebastian; how wretched was he in comparison! He had forgotten himself for a moment, but now he examined his thighs, new bruises marring the skin; where had they come from? Perhaps Sebastian would finally see him for the broken husk he was; wilted, weak, and undesirable.

Leannan ,” fingers settled beneath his chin, lifting his face to meet Sebastian’s eyes. “Stay with me.” 

Such affection met him that, were he standing, he would have staggered on his feet. Sebastian was crouching before him, eyes alight with love and concern. He lowered himself back to Cullen’s lap, unrelenting hardness lodging against his stomach, and rested his forehead on Cullen’s. “A copper for your thoughts?”

Shivers erupted in him when Sebastian’s hand ran down the side of his arm, over the back of his hand, until finally linking their fingers and squeezing. “I, uhh— I apologise for the way I look, it’s— it’s been a hard few years.” 

“Ah,” Sebastian half-laughed, the gust of warm air landing on Cullen’s lips, “Apology accepted. It’s been exceedingly challenging to exercise self-control with you running around the Fort, taunting me.” He gave a slight roll of his hips, a sigh leaving him. “I don’t think you realise the effect you have on me. For instance, that day you swore your oaths and kissed my hand,” he ducked his head, bringing their cheeks together, mouth so close to Cullen’s ear, “you had me in such a state that I could barely hold a quill the next day.” 

He remembered meeting Sebastian and Commander Brothaigh the next morning, Sebastian’s intent eyes fixed on him the entire time; Brothaigh writing down the necessary information on the contracts, Sebastian’s hand shaking as he signed. He’d thought the man regretted hiring him; read the gaze as scrutiny and trembling fingers as insecurity — yet another sign he’d misinterpreted. The heat surged from a withered simmer to a raging flame; Cullen put a hand on the small of Sebastian’s back, rubbing the smooth skin, slowly gliding lower. “It— it was the same for me. You gasped, and I— I couldn’t stop thinking about it.” 

Sebastian laughed, the puff of breath sending a jolt straight to Cullen’s groin. “Then I suppose I ought to apologise as well. I’m sorry. Now,” his voice turned into a husky whisper, “why don’t we lay down? You can find out exactly how much I crave you.” 

He obeyed without question, pressing the man on the lush pillows, settling between his thighs. Sebastian chuckled, but it turned into a moan as Cullen pressed his lips to his neck, sucking at the delicate skin just beneath his ear, tasting the salt that clung to his tongue. Cullen’s breaths were harsh, heated, and for once it didn’t matter — for once it was right. Sebastian shivered beneath him, hands seeking to pull him closer, stomach arching against his, half-formed sighs falling from his mouth as their bodies pushed together.

The pleasure was climbing at an alarming speed, and they weren’t even lined up yet. Cullen pushed to his hands, reluctant to break the contact, but desperate to drink in his lover. Not for the first time, his breath was suspended by the vision before him; Sebastian’s chest heaved as he panted, swollen lips quirking to a smile, his hair fanned on the pillow beneath his head. For a passing moment, Cullen thanked the Maker, for it was His will that lead him back to this man - His scheme that granted him this second chance. When Sebastian tugged at his shoulder, the last thing on his mind was to resist. 

As he pressed his chest on that of his love, a wave of desire flooded him, crashing past the walls of self-restraint he’d built — it was with desperation and greed that he grabbed the back of Sebastian’s head and crushed their lips together, wanting all of it: his taste on his tongue, his voice in his mouth, the heat of his lips on him.  

When Sebastian rolled against his stomach, Cullen went with the movement and ground them together with the fervour of a drowning man, grunting as Sebastian’s hands slid down his back and over his buttocks, searching and squeezing, the blunt tips of his nails scratching his skin. He pushed and pushed, trapping their erections between them, swallowing every sound the man made. It was surreal and natural all at once; Sebastian was nothing short of divine, but solid and real - a dream realised.

He pressed their cheeks together, a shaky grin tugging at his lips. A bead of sweat crept down the side of his face; already he was fatigued, the nights of little rest weighing on him, but he was determined not to let Sebastian down — not when he finally had him here, moving with him. There was no fantasy that could be sweeter, no delight that could be greater than this. His grin faltered as Sebastian sneaked a hand between them, gripping them together, stealing whatever was left of his higher thoughts.

It was better than he could have ever imagined; there were sparks floating at the edge of his vision, and he marvelled at his love’s lips pouring out heated sighs onto his earlobe. They ground in unison at an unfaltering rhythm as if it had always been so, as if there was no effort to be made. He slipped his arms underneath the man’s shoulders, holding firm as he pushed them together, bringing Sebastian over the edge with whispered confessions and ample kisses, swallowing his moans with the utmost greed. When Sebastian’s slick hand tugged at him hard and long, he lost the little self-control he’d clung to, spilling with a deep groan.

He collapsed to Sebastian’s side, panting against his shoulder, an incredulous laugh bubbling from him. His love turned to face him, bringing their foreheads together, his gentle hand cupping Cullen’s cheek and a lovely leg slipping between his own. 

It should have been surprising how easily the conversation flew from there, and how natural it was to hold Sebastian in his arms - not a thread of fabric between them - but it was like falling back to a rhythm never quite forgotten. The steady sense of belonging, suppressed for a decade, settled in the back of his head. He made no effort to evict it; it was right.

Cullen’s eyes drifted closed as he buried his nose in Sebastian’s hair. Years of hardships flashed through his mind; the solitude, the misery, the anger, the regret, and the longing. All the poor choices he’d made, the consequences he’d endured, the withdrawals and the insecurities — they had all lead him here, when by every probability he ought to lay dead in a ditch. How strange that he should have such a life and still end up in bed with his one true love; how odd that he should end up breathing in his scent, basking in his protective light! 

As they awoke to early morning sun flooding into the room - rain clouds finally giving way to a clear day - he prepared Sebastian with careful fingers, sinking into his heat with the slow reverence his love deserved. It was when they came down together, Sebastian’s smile pressing into his neck, that Cullen confessed one final truth he’d withheld; he loved him, and never again would he let anything come between them.

 

Chapter Text

A strip of sunlight fell to Cullen’s lap from the window of the carriage, warming his hands and casting a glint to the roof from his ring. He watched the reflection bob and dance, his eyes drooping and mouth parting. The journey from Ostwick to Starkhaven was long and exhausting - the roads unkempt and dangerous - but the moors were flashing through the window, the heady scent of summer flowers seeping inside.

They had crossed over to Starkhaven’s lands sometime after noon and Cullen had slept through the smooth stretches of road — and yet it felt as though he hadn’t slept for weeks. There was no telling precisely how long they had travelled, or how long there was still left to journey; it was only the third time he had left Starkhaven since settling there. The roads slashing through the Free Marches were unfamiliar to him still.

He picked up the leather-bound book from the empty seat beside him. Legends of Starkhaven - Ballads, Fables, and Traditions. The scent of new leather caught his nostrils as he opened it, but many of the pages were already worn. Sebastian had had the book translated to Common not long ago and gifted the first copy to him.

A smile spread on his lips as his heart somersaulted; it wouldn't be long until they were reunited, making up for the time he had spent in Ostwick.

He browsed the book until he came across the pages most worn; the astronomical legends. The story of Hoyem and Adrian - The Lovers in the sky - always fetched memories of a night from years ago. How quickly time had passed — and how astonishing that some things should remain the same!

Had the skies been clear in Starkhaven during his absence?

He read until his eyes failed him, the text rippling in his vision like the waters of Minanter in the Spring. A yawn broke free and he settled against the window of the carriage, the view of buttercups and dandelions turning into a blur of yellow and green before he closed his eyes.

————

Cullen jolted awake as the carriage pulled to a stop. The door opened moments later and the driver, an aged Antivan man, offered a hand to help him down, but Cullen thanked him, straightened his uniform, and hopped to the ground without aid. The world swam for a moment, but a hand wrapped around his arm to steady him.

Leannan?”

The corners of his mouth tugged into a helpless smile at the soft voice; at the warmth emanating from the body pressing close to his. The blue eyes fixed on his were full of concern, and he watched as the parted lips curled into a grin to match his own. “I’m all right, love.”

“Let me guess: you haven’t slept,” Sebastian whispered, and, without waiting for a response, started walking him through the small number of staff gathered to receive him. “Or eaten.”

Cullen straightened his back and linked their hands, raising a teasing brow. “Oh, I’ve eaten. How could I miss the opportunity to have soup made of sea-dwelling fish?”

Sebastian pushed him with his shoulder, opening his mouth to no doubt argue the case for freshwater fish for the umpteenth time, but footsteps caught up to them and the man pressed his lips together.

“Prince-Consort, how did the planning go? Will you report to the court tonight?” Seneschal Granger rushed to Cullen’s side, earning a scowl from Sebastian and a scoff from Cullen; the man was indomitable in his address — despite having been told to call him Commander.

The planning for a joint rehearsal had gone well - Starkhaven’s armed forces would receive training for defending against ships in the coming winter - but it was the last thing on his mind at present; Sebastian was close to his side, his touch an answer to a yearning he’d endured for too long.

“He most certainly will not.” The tone of Sebastian’s voice left no room for argument, and the Seneschal accepted with a curt bow, letting them pass through. “Please reschedule the rest of my appointments for tomorrow, Granger.”

The inside of the Fortress was cool and refreshing, and Cullen let Sebastian lead him through familiar corridors and stairs, each step serving to draw apart the curtains of sleep still lingering in his eyes. The weeks apart caught up to him at last, and, upon entering their bedroom, Cullen pressed Sebastian against the door and dove in for a kiss, sinking his fingers into the man’s hair.

“Maker’s breath but I’ve missed you,” he murmured against Sebastian’s lips, curling an arm around the man’s waist to pull them closer together. “All those meetings and dinners, idle conversations and ceremonies… I kept thinking about you through all of them.”

Sebastian surged forth, claiming Cullen’s mouth with his, a breathless chuckle bubbling from his chest. Clothes flew in a heap on the floor, bodies in a tangle on the silken sheets, and when it was over - and it was over much faster than he would have liked - Cullen wrapped an arm around the man, lodging him to his side. Sebastian’s breath tickled the side of his neck, the harsh panting slowing to a restful rhythm; the arm gripping Cullen by the waist slowly relaxing.

Just as Cullen was drifting off, dipping his toes into the waters of sleep, Sebastian let out a long sigh and nudged his neck with his nose. “I’ve missed you, too. More than I can say. I can’t believe we survived ten years apart.”

He pressed a kiss to Sebastian’s forehead, settling them comfortably on the sheets. It was not often he thought back to the decade of half-life he’d spent held together by stitches and functioning on duty alone. The times of fear were long past; Divine Victoria had dissolved the Inquisition as nation after nation had followed Starkhaven’s example and renounced them. What remained was a group of mercenaries, holding base in the Dales the last he’d heard, hiding from the accusations raining from both Orlais and Ferelden.

He was indifferent to how this last stand would end for the Inquisitor — the man held no relevance in Cullen’s life now.

His life was that of friendship and peace. He was the Commander of Starkhaven’s military, responsible for defending the city and upholding connections to the forces of allied city states. Commander Brothaigh had retired the year before, electing to spend her twilight years with her grandchildren; the rumour had it they were growing up quite the capable soldiers under her vigilant eye. Rylen and Hilda had welcomed their firstborn some months ago, and Dog had taken such a liking to the child that he would not be removed from her side.

It was not something he could truly fault the beast for; his life was all about the man he had married — and loved more than anything in the world. A mere year had passed since the night they had reconciled when Sebastian had proposed. The common people had celebrated the Prince’s union to a man of common birth; the nobles had needed a plethora of reassurances and time to get past the shock; the merchants had been indifferent as long as the trade flowed — and flowed it had. Cullen, however, had gotten everything he had ever wanted and then some; not a day went by when he wasn’t grateful.

Sebastian’s breath had grown slow and steady, his body a limp weight against his side. A hand stuck upward from between their hips, fingers curled in the air, the golden ring with engravings of stars barely visible in the fading light of the evening. Cullen turned to face him - gently, trying not to rouse his sleeping lover - longing to see his familiar features smoothed by slumber.

This was where he needed to be; where he belonged. Life was hectic and time rushed with the speed only the happy can know. The pit of his stomach twisted, and he brought their foreheads together with a surge of emotion he could hardly explain, noses brushing together. To think he had given this up all those years ago — and what darkness had followed! Sebastian’s eyes blinked open, a smile tugging at his lips, and Cullen planted a whisper of a kiss on the edge of his mouth.

“That will never happen again,” he murmured, tangling fingers in the strands of silver and auburn. “I’m with you even when I’m away, and I will always return to you.”

There was no running from destiny, no hiding from the force that made him strong and whole. He carried his half in his heart: a light brighter than all the stars combined, a gift and a purpose — a power he dared not hide. It was a torch illuminating their path for as long as they both held onto it — and he would not let go. He would never return to darkness; never again would he try to smother its flame.

A soft chuckle tickled Cullen’s lips; a familiar glint shining in Sebastian’s eyes. “I know — and I feel the same way.”

Cullen’s eyes drifted shut and he pushed closer, seeking the warmth of his love. Once he would have doubted and questioned, looked for an explanation beyond the obvious. Now, however, he knew it to be true.