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Of Her Choosing

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The wind on the battlements at Skyhold cut into her in a punishing way. She wrapped her arms around her chest and drew the sleeves of her lustrous cotton shirt & white longcoat close. Her face turned away from the late night patrol, arm reaching up to cover her eyes as she passed by. She could not help grazing her forehead with her fingers. It felt alien without the raised scar vines of her Vallaslin.

It made no sense. He made no sense. After months of constant work together. The time they spent talking. The adventures into the fade. She felt dizzy, nauseous. A dark, prickling, cold, well of anxiety stormed inside her. Had she missed something important- made an unwitting error? This was her fault somehow: He passed an invisible judgement upon her, at some point and, found her less than. She dissected a million scenes in her mind, ripping apart her treasured memories of being together, a thousand adventures and quiet moments over the past few years, hunting for the piece she missed, getting angrier at herself, him, everything.

She felt the cold air spike into her lungs. Inhale. Exhale. Her body wracked with shivers. How long had she been crying? How many patrolling troops had crossed her path in the last... 20 minutes? Two hours? It was time to get inside and out of sight. She headed for the tower door, her eyes swimming.

As she flung open the creaky door, familiar smells and sights waved over her with the warmth from the fireplace. The desk, shelves, roaring hearth. This was the Commander’s tower.

“Seven hells, apologies.” She cursed, looking around, quickly stepping inside, and throwing the bolt behind her.

Cullen looked up from where he was crouched by a pile of books in the corner of his office. “Inquisitor!” He bolted upright. His face was glazed in a thin sheen of sweat, jaw clenched. Aside from being the middle of the night, It was the absolute worst time to have a surprise visit from the Herald. He was a mess. Lyrium withdrawal made the worst of its mark in the insomnia.

“Are you alright?” they blurted out in unison.

She laughed first as he stammered and brushed a massive hand across the back of his neck.

“No, I feel the way you look,” she blurted out, sheepishly.

“Maker. If it’s that bad, I should get us both some of this tea Leliana sent up earlier.” He shot her his trademark smirk. He thought it was a relief that their banter was this easy, even at this hour.

It had taken work to recover his soldiers sense of humor with her. She had a way of breaking through his command facade with her constant questions. Her presence. He paused to take her appearance in before striding towards the hearth and setting up the kettle.

He had increased Skyhold’s battlement patrols since closing out the withdrawal plan for the Arbour Wilds. Between four to seven guards could have seen the inquisitor head into his quarters at this hour. He welcomed her company but was not particularly looking forward to the steely looks from her Apostate companion when the gossip made its rounds.

More importantly, His reputation with his troops was built on his honor. How could he be trustworthy of his people if he was seen to interfere in the personal affairs of the leadership of the Inquisition? Friendship is one thing but they had built an organization from nothing into a political juggernaut. Optics are king as far as The Game is played. None of this was his field of strength and he reminded himself to be very careful here, now, even as his mind raced.

Something was deeply troubling his friend and as much as it was his job to support her, he knew he'd have to be very careful with what the Orlesians refer to as masks. He paused his thoughts to ask: “Is it the voices from the well? Leliana briefed me.”

She nodded once, observing his contemplation between speaking. He was conflicted. It was the same face he made when offering counter proposals to the war-table tactics of his fellow advisors. It was tough not to smile at seeing his strategic mind working a little too hard, even here.

“I imagine we’re not the only people in this keep forcibly kept from sleep by ghosts," He offered, "If you wanted to talk, I’d listen. I may not have any useful counsel but, I can listen. You did as much for me.” His tone softened as he looked over the kettle to meet her eyes.

She had most definitely been crying- for a while, it seemed. Zeroing in on her eyes, he started suddenly, spilling water as he anchored the kettle over the fire. Her markings! The Elvish clan tattoos common amoungst the Dalish. They were gone! How could he have missed that? He couldn’t just blame the pressure inside his head as his nerves rattled out their requirement of lyrium. His whole body ached but, there was no excuse for missing details. He made a note to seek Cassandra tomorrow for a leave of absence, it was time. For now, he forced himself to be present.

“How-... Your? Forgive me for staring.” He stammered and rubbed his eyes. With the Vallaslin gone and the way she curled in onto herself as she stood, she seemed so very different from the woman who had grown to renew his faith in leadership. He clocked her hands shaking slightly at her sides. He could not help examining her for errant sparks or barrier signals that her magic was slipping outside of her control. Turning off his Templar instincts was impossible, even now. While he looked he could not neglect how stunningly beautiful she was. It reached him in a deep and familiar place of pain, that he could see the most powerful woman in Thedas before him like this: Looking like she would fold in on herself and implode.

She leaned back against the wall and took her head in her hands, running her fingers up to her temples. “It’s gone. They were... slave markings. Like the way the Tevinter marked slaves. Elves enslaved their own people. Our history is.. wrong.” She shook her head and choked back a nasel sob, her face twisted in self loathing and grief.

He crossed to his desk, retrieving a silk handkerchief from a drawer, grimacing from his own headache and unsure of where to go next, with both of them in their current state. He crossed back to her and offered the folded square at arms length, barely able to look at the suffering in her eyes. She took it from him and wiped her face, smudging and pushing around the wet dirt and grit around.

He spoke slowly, carefully. “It makes sense that pieces of your history are lost to time. Human history in patches of Ferelden is the same, The dwarves- they've also lost long ages worth of knowledge, particularly in the fallen Thaigs. Our understanding of what has passed even within the last 30 years relies heavily on what the Chantry saved from blight and burning or, stole from damaged Tevinter archives as they retreated. You can’t-..”

“It just made sense in the moment, to get rid of it," She cut him off, continuing with fresh tears, "to be more supportive of the truth right now but, the meaning changed with time... What it means to our people now is, so different. But then, he just walked away, like he was embarrassed of me, Or for me.” She slumped down, back against the wall until her knees drew up to her chin. She tried to hide herself from him there with her arms and legs.

Cullen’s eyebrows arched up at this new information. Solas...left her? After revealing some grand, dark historic truth to shame the foundations of her culture? After everything she had given him? Collaborated with full inquisition resource support in his pet research projects? It did not sit right with him. He was not alone amoungst the other advisors in knowing the pair of mages were involved, all three of them had seen the Inquisitor’s romance with the Apostate unfold. They had agreed that the pair’s feelings for each other seemed genuine, their influences on each other, positive. He had put down his own feelings for the Inquisitor then. It made more sense for her to be with her own.

The Apostate’s work with the fade led the organization to greater magical and sometimes financial resources. It helped stabilize regions across Thedas. Cullen had come to accept the Apostate’s value to the cause and to her as legitimate enough to temper any loss he felt from setting aside the idea of becoming close to her. Solas’s abrupt detachment, with that bit of demeaning magical theatre, made no sense. Something else had to have been at play with his motivations. It seemed uncharacteristically crude.

The apostate was known for his chilly and often arrogant demeanor but Cullen had never seen or heard of any signs of cruelty from him. Save perhaps an unusual rage at other mages who tampered ineptly with the fade, or the bloodlust of the occasional dragon hunt. It alarmed him that he missed something so important in his observance of the Herald’s inner circle. There would be time to address that inconsistency, with the other advisors, later.The right thing to do now was to restore the support that the Mage gave her before he abruptly ripped it out from under her. He stepped closer to his Herald, willing himself to put his feelings aside and focus on the leader before him.

She continued, distraught: “It is our people, our culture and he just took it because it suited his idea of what was right and then he left. He left me there.” She balled up the silk handkerchief in her hand while her whole body shook with her tears. Her anchor pulsed menacingly in her hand and a green arc suddenly shot across her palm, bouncing off of the stone wall on the other side of the room.

Cullen jumped back from her before he could neutralize his shock. He had thought they had more time. This was a new side-effect of the mark. He had been advised by Vivienne and Dorian via their respective non-elven research that magical markings grounded in the physical body could increase in their intensity. Over time, they informed him, it would progress into to the inability to control the marking and an increase in it’s aggression when the mage was distressed. It was a bad time to be in the final phases of his lyrium withdrawal. What if she needed him, needed him as a templar, to give them all more time to finish the work of the inquisition?

Those thoughts swirled around his mind until he realized what he must do. He quickly strode over to her and reached for her wrist. She looked up at him in surprise, trying to twist out of his grasp. He locked his fingers around the hand with the anchor and pulled a slight drain of her mana from her energy field around the mark.

He watched the fear fall away from her eyes as she realized what he was doing. Had she been seized by a circle, he wondered? He never really inquired to her history with templars before the inquisition. Perhaps another reason why she chose Solas. He willed his mind back to the present. Right now, he did not have the power to pull enough magic off of her mark to soothe it properly. Not with out Lyrium. He grimaced as his nervous system punished him for the sudden expense of energy. He tried to put down his thoughts of losing her, sooner than later, in a very final way.

“You need to steel yourself right now, Or I need to take a draught before you light this whole tower up.” He spoke plainly, trying not to laugh at her, like she was a recruit that slipped on morning dew during a sparring session at the training grounds. His body was inches from her face now, towering over her.

She pressed her forehead against his calves and pulled back, staring up into his amber eyes, shaking with grief.

“Cullen, I don’t want to do this any more. Any of it. I never asked for it. It’s too much,” she wavered. “I want to go home.” Even as the words left her lips, shame washed over her. She sounded like a child crying to the keeper about a knee skinned in the woods. She could see his chest rise and fall with his breath as he lowered himself, suddenly eye to eye with her, and immersed himself in her pain. He told himself he would not mention the news from Wycome. That would have to fall on another day. His only concern in this moment, was putting her back together.

“We fix this together, or there is no home to go to. Breathe with me. Deep breaths” His mouth was inches from hers. He could smell the perfumed oil she used to smooth her hair. Rich spices, roses, and honey. The peppermint on her breath. It was almost too much for him. He closed his eyes quickly to get away from her, to focus back into the breath work Cassandra trained him in: The work the seekers taught their acolytes in order to master the Templar powers without lyrium. If he was lucky, it be would be enough to soothe her. If he was very lucky he could drain enough of her magic to stabilize her without falling deeper into withdrawl. He just had to focus. FOCUS, he commanded himself.

She watched him turn his chin slightly away from her and slam his eyes shut. She took in his face with her eyes: his angular jaw, the little scar at the side of his mouth that pulled up whenever he smiled. Her knees bent forward slightly as she tried to ease herself back up a bit, slipping into the rhythm of their breathing. His hands were still locked on her wrists. Her legs bent forward to meet his, her back against the stone wall. She could not draw him up with her so she remained down, locked in place with him. She pressed the side of her head to his temple, resting her lips to his ear. “Cullen..” she whispered to him.

“Maker save me,” He whispered back, against her.” You are THE Inquisitor. It’s Unfair, brutally unfair to you and we all know it. Rumors start quickly around here, I wouldn’t want to harm you in any way, your reputation, our work here, It’s- “

“It’s over. Solas and I..We never. It does not matter. He never cared for me. I was only ever an idiot child he needed to teach lessons to. I made the wrong choice. I should have put you first. I made the wrong choice. I am so very sorry.” She trembled as she slid towards the floor, his knees giving out under him as he pulled her onto his lap. They sat there together on the floor for a moment. He took his left hand up to stroke the back of her neck, murmuring into her hair, sighing heavily. Please not this, he prayed silently. This was too much to ask of him tonight.

“It was never my place to pursue you. Everyone here admires you in there own way, what you need from me, what you have always needed, is someone who just does their job. It would never be fair to put what I wanted ahead of what was best for everyone.” Even as he the words left his mouth softly, true to his heart, he reeled in the utter disbelief of the Apostate not consummating this relationship, a several year long romantic relationship with the Herald. Maybe he had other tastes but, her blood must have been boiling with desire for so long. This made everything happening here in his office make a lot more sense now.

“Cullen, I don’t have any answers and I can’t offer anything. I just need you.”

They pulled back from each other for a beat, arms still entwined, watching the other. He groaned as she shifted her weight over him. Her warmth, her closeness made him so hard. He had no idea when it started, when she felt him but, it was long enough ago that his cock ached to feel her around him. She had him, there was no way he could ever say no to her. He knew it then. He tried not to let his mind race away from him again.

Whatever reasons Solas had, he would not put her aside in a permanent way, even if she was trivial to him, she was powerful and the proud do not set aside their valuables. More importantly, they all traveled together often. The Final March was coming. Cullen knew he would lose her, to her own kind, to a battle, to the mark on her hand. It would rip him apart when it happened but it would happen. It would still happen if they got no closer than they were in that moment. It would if...

The shrill whistle of the kettle went off.

She laughed. He smirked at her.

“Andraste’s brilliant timing, hmmm?” He carefully slid out from under her, stood up and blushed a dark crimson, shaking his head. Quickly turning from her and adjusting himself he moved over to the fireplace and poured the hot water over the crumbled leaves in the mugs. He tried to clear his mind again.

She studied him, out of his full-plate he was a massive man, even for a human. One of his biceps were easily bigger than both of her own thighs. The evening linen shirt and trousers he wore did little to hide his broad shoulders, chiseled core, or muscular legs. She let her eyes take in the shape of his length, tucked up against his smalls.

It was unfair of her, to do this to him. He really did care for her, had since the very first days back at Haven. He had swallowed back his feelings after the mountain nearly killed her there, shared moments and long looks before every fortress raid or long march and, fought by her side unfailingly at every military operation that required their full military. He gave her privacy and respectful distance in her relationship with Solas at every turn, a stark contrast from Bull’s blunt flirting or Blackwell’s clingy adoration.

She looked over at him as he poured their tea. Even on the odd but increasingly frequent occasion where she had, after discussing business, tried to corner him into discussing their connection, he always pulled back into his role as Commander and advisor 1st. Over drinks, Cassandra was clear with her: Cullen would never share her with anyone. His pride could never stand to allow himself to be a second choice, he would never entertain a conversation that could be overhead and harm his reputation. He would never stand to be a fall-back but, that was exactly what she was begging him to be for her now. She felt another hot rush of shame and humiliation. To hurt someone this perfectly close to her just because she was hurting. It wasn’t right.

He brought her mug of tea down to her, extending it out at arm’s length, just as he had with the handkerchief, earlier.

He tried not to meet her eyes again, struggling to to force himself not to drink in the supple curves of her legs that traveled up to her perfect heart shaped ass, and on to breasts fuller than he had ever seen on an elf. Her body was almost as impossible as she was. He could fight Lyrium. He could fight half of Thedus at any given moment but, he couldn’t fight everything and her at the same time.

When she took her tea from him he brought his arm to his side and tried not to clench his fist. He could feel himself almost shaking. He could still be everything he is to her, give her more than that twit mage ever could, and be decent and honorable about it. He could allow himself the chance to be close to someone he loved and respected just one more time before the Lyrium or the war put him in the ground. He would show her how much more she was worth. They deserved everything of each other. He felt this sudden shift resonate within him. He looked into her eyes again, starting to speak again- slowly and carefully

“We have both been through a lot. We have a lot we still need to do. Even more people depending on us.”

She nodded, pulling the tea up to her mouth. Yes, she thought. It's definitely time to finish the tea and get out of here before she made an even bigger fool of herself. There was absolutely no reason to ruin two relationships within her inner circle in one night.

“I don’t see why we can’t be here for each other when we Need it.” He stated calmly.

She looked up at him. Was he...?

He put out his other hand to her.

“Inquisitor,” He smiled softly at her. “I need you to come to bed with me tonight.”

It was her turn to stammer. “I.. only...Ih.. if.”

“We are both adults. We will continue to both be adults. This won’t solve any of either of our problems but, Maker strike me if we both don’t need to be close to someone we trust right now.”

He drew closer to her, pulling her up easily with one hand, drawing her body to his in a single fluid motion. It was the perfect mirror of every time he reached for her after she had been knocked back in every battle they had ever fought together. She felt them all as her hand reached up to to take his. Standing next to each other now, he bent his neck down to her forehead and kissed her softly, working his way down her temple, her cheek, chin and finally meeting her lips.

She leaned up into him, parting his mouth with her tongue and breathing him in. At the taste of her, Cullen closed his eyes and moaned softly.The tea mug in his other hand fell and shattered on the floor. Using both of his hands, he wrapped around her, stroking the small of her back and pressed her closer to him. As they kissed, the door on the far side of the tower office creaked open.

“Begging your pardon, Sir! the noise, all well?.. oh. Ehem.” The patrol officer and accompanying scout each leapt back a half pace when they saw the commander locked in an embrace.

Cullen looked up and quickly pivoted, shielding the inquisitor’s face away from view. The soldier retreated quickly on meeting Cullen's eyes. He noted the scout lingered a moment on the unique leather over-vest and red shirt of the Inquisitor before quickly nodding “Commander,” and turning on his heal to follow his colleague.

She shook her head and stifled a nervous laugh as he stalked across the room to close and bolt the door the intruders came from.

“ Well,” She purred, “At this point everyone will know things about us that WE don’t yet know, before the coffee is set out for 4th watch. We might as well head up so we can make sure they get some of the details right.” She nodded back at the ladder to his sleeping loft.

He chuckled under his breath as he headed to bolt the last door in his office, the door that lead directly to...

“Always doing what’s best for the people. Go... Up the ladder now,” he quipped, slamming the floor deadbolts home on the last potential point of disturbance. She was sitting, poised on the corner of the bed before he started up the first rung. He could have sworn she teleported.

Maker save him, he thought. Finally, his work lead him where he wanted to be. He set tomorrow’s concerns and damage control aside and prepared himself to enjoy this prize waiting for him, however fleeting it may be.