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Another Man's Baby

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Cullen woke himself up coughing. It was a dry, hacking sound that would've made him cringe if he'd been awake enough to process it. He knew that this unfortunate routine, which had plagued him for years, was a result of gasping when a frightening new element snuck its way into his nightmares, and gasping in the middle of the night with a dry mouth and a throat constricted with fear could only ever lead to one thing. He supposed he should be grateful. Even waking up unable to breathe or see through the haze between the Fade and the physical world was better than being trapped in whatever terrible and depressingly inventive dream he was inevitably having. He put his face in his hands and tried to breathe through his nose. The night air, sharp at the back of his throat, was like the first sip of alcohol. 

            They were getting worse, Maker knows how. They had been pretty grim to begin with after all, but now that the past melded with the present every time he fell asleep, new fears were becoming intertwined with old memories, like a sharp scratch across scar tissue or the nauseating feeling of cold wind ghosting through a badly-healed bone. It felt cruel. Evelyn hadn't been at Kinloch, or at Kirkwall, so why was she such a frequent player in each new nightmare, and why did his dream-self never manage to rationalise her presence away like he was doing now? He'd joined the Inquisition with nothing left to lose other than his life, and nothing left to give but a determination to repent, to finally contribute something positive to the world like he'd yearned to for more than twenty long, tiring years. He'd felt older than he was, much, much older, and the Inquisition was to be his swansong. Until Evelyn.

            Evelyn made him feel young again, like there was a life beyond the war, like there was something more for him to do, to be, once his role in the Inquisition was over. Was it too much to hope that after everything, he could really move on and be a better man? It felt far too much to ask, far more than he deserved, but she assured him every day, with every touch, with every smile and every kiss, that he was still worth something, and still had more to give. But now, he also had more to lose.

            He reached for her, rolling to face her side of the bed – her side of the bed; how could such a simple thing seem so miraculous? He was selfish and greedy after every nightmare, desperate for her touch and her soft, unintelligible words of reassurance, but she never seemed to mind. The moonlight through the hole in the roof made his hand glow, just like hers did, but the ghostly whiteness of him cast around blindly for that comforting green light, groping at the sheets but finding nothing. He reached for her, as he so often did, but this time, she wasn't there.

            He sat up sharply to scan the room, which only made him cough again. There was an easy explanation for her absence, he thought between wheezes; perhaps she was down in the office finishing something off, some missive that had come between her and sleep like a druffalo in the mouth of a cave, or maybe she hadn't been here tonight at all. Yes, she was probably just in her own quarters, fast asleep, not having to wake up and soothe him like a scared child. He grunted derisively, but turned his shoulder against self-loathing before it could creep up on him.

            He quickly pulled on some clothes and made for the ladder. He was being foolish, he knew he was, but he just needed to reassure himself that she was fine. Of course she would be completely safe, but the nightmare had been particularly vivid. Perhaps he could just sneak into her quarters and check on her without waking her up. Maker's breath, he was going mad. He just needed to go for a walk, calm his nerves, perhaps get some water for his aching throat, and then go back to bed. Judging by the sky, it was nowhere near morning yet. Maybe he could get some more work done while he was awake anyway.

            No, he thought with a smile. She'd be able to tell if I did. She always can.

            Down in his office, he pulled on his boots and surcoat, and, deciding not to risk going through the main hall in case he was tempted to damn it all and go to her quarters anyway, he took the leftmost door out onto the battlements. He wouldn't disturb Solas this way either, not that the man was particularly easy to wake while he was doing whatever it is he did in the Fade. He made his way across the battlements with a purposeful stride that belied the fact that he had no idea where he was going. When you're thrust into a leadership role at a young age, the art of the 'I'm busy on my way to do something important, get out of the way' walk soon becomes second nature. His eyes lifted to her balcony as soon as the tower came into sight, where a faint glimmer of candlelight was dancing across the stone. Was she still awake? Was something wrong? Purely out of habit, he reached into his pocket for his lucky coin, knowing as he did that it wouldn't be there. He smiled to himself, but it was only the briefest flicker across his face before his fingers closed around something cold and smooth.

            He pulled the object out tentatively, his mind scattered in a million different directions. It couldn't be, could it? But it was. The coin he had kept safe for all those years until he had given it to Evelyn was winking at him from the centre of a trembling palm. This was something else that could easily be explained away; he had picked it up by accident when he was in her quarters, she had snuck it back into his pocket when he needed some luck, something like that. It wasn't important, was nothing to worry about, but his heart was racing anyway. Stuffing it back into his pocket, he strode even faster on his path to nowhere in particular. He was angrily pounding down a flight of stone stairs like each step had done him a personal wrong when the sound of leaves whispering in the breeze finally brought him back to himself. He should've known he'd end up in the garden.

            It was always peaceful here no matter what else was going on in the castle, the day The Iron Bull had been found spinning around rapidly with children clinging to his horns not included. One little boy had ended up on the gazebo roof. It had all been decidedly un-peaceful. Other than that, this was a calm place, a place for secret kisses, for coy flirting over a game of chess and quiet mornings praying in the tiny, ramshackle chantry. In truth, the little room's modesty and disrepair only managed to make him more comfortable there, more so than he would be in a vaulting room with towering stained-glass windows and enough incense to sting your eyes. Like at Greenfell, where everything was exaggerated, too perfect, sterile, quiet but still so loud, every watching, sceptical eye pounding against his skull like a migraine. However, even here in the safety of Skyhold, he always kept the little chantry's door open. Some habits don't vanish just because you're praying.

            He had mostly made up his mind to pray for a while when a sudden movement and the sound of boots scuffing stone had him reaching for a sword he wasn't carrying. He felt its absence like a missing limb, but the figure his eyes found, no more than a silhouette with its back to a single lit sconce, was far from threatening. They were leaning heavily against the low wall that surrounded the garden, elbows on the stone, chin in one hand, staring listlessly at the gazebo and by the sounds of it, rhythmically kicking their heel into the ground over and over. Cullen stepped out onto the grass slowly, trying to look equally non-threatening even as his fingers flexed over the pommel of his missing weapon. The figure turned their head to watch him, and moonlight danced up their neck and lit up their face, a living candle.

            'Evelyn!'

            His shoulders dropped, her name coming out in a relieved exhale, and he hurried over to her until all that was between them was the garden wall she leaned upon. He sent a quick prayer to the Maker, both a thank you and a request to be whatever Evelyn needed him to be in that moment; she didn't usually wander the castle alone in the dead of night unless something was bothering her, after all. He reached out to take the hand that draped over the lip of the wall, but something about how she was looking at him made him falter.

            'Evelyn,' he repeated. The feeling of her name on his lips had never stopped feeling like magic. It was an intimacy she only afforded to those closest to her, and he remembered the first time she asked him to use her first name and how his stupid heart had turned it into something huge when it was likely nothing more than a pleasantry. It had felt wrong for a while, invasive, but now, calling for her was the easiest thing in the world. 'What are you doing up so late, my love?'

            She furrowed her eyebrows. 'Very familiar tonight, Commander.' When he opened and closed his mouth a few times, unsure how to respond, she exhaled sharply through her nose and added, 'I could ask you the same thing.'

            'I couldn't sleep,' he said baldly.

            'Same.'

            She looked him up and down impassively and offered nothing more. Cullen started to feel the start of a horrible weightlessness, like he wasn't tethered to the ground anymore, like he had no grip on anything around him. Something was wrong.

            'Is anything the matter, Evelyn? You seem...distant.'

            'Inquisitor,' she snapped.

            'Pardon?'

            'You will address me as "Inquisitor" or not at all.'

            As his body started to feel lighter, his stomach began to feel heavier, weighted down, filled with stones made of bile and fear. His eyes darted across her face, searching for something that wasn't there.

            'I apologise...Inquisitor. If I have done something to offend you...'

            'No,' she sighed, 'not offended. Just tired. And grumpy. I'm sorry.'

            'That's alright,' he replied softly, cautious. 'You are a very busy woman, after all. You're allowed to be tired.'

            'And grumpy?'

            'And grumpy.' He smiled and tentatively moved his hand so it was beside hers on the wall. When she didn't pull away, he began to feel some weight come back into his body, felt his stomach creeping back to where it belonged. 'Only one fix for tiredness, I'm afraid,' he continued. 'Come back to bed with me. Or we can go to your quarters if you'd prefer, them being closer.'

            'I beg your pardon, Commander?'

            He'd said something very wrong. Her eyes had grown wide like they always did when she was angry, nostrils flared. He knew he had to say something further, but he was hurt and confused by her response and her bizarre refusal to call him by anything other than his title. He could only manage a clipped 'Sorry', which just seemed to anger her more.

            'You think it's appropriate to imply that your superior takes her advisors to bed with her? Or do I have another senseless rumour to add to the pile of shit I don't have the energy to deal with?'

            'No, no, Evelyn, that is, Inquisitor, I didn't mean to offend you. I just meant-'  

            'You meant I don't take all my advisors to bed? Just you?'

            'Yes,' he said dubiously. It felt like a trap. 'Just me.'

            She gave him a sad half-smile and turned away from him, crossing her arms across her body and gripping her elbows in each hand, whether to shield herself from the cold or to soothe herself he couldn't tell. She wasn't a woman to be trifled with; she had the determination of a bull but the tightly-coiled grace of a cat, a smile that could pacify kings and queens, but a tongue so barbed that she could strip an enemy's morale with words alone. But holding herself like that, her face to the warmth of the torch, her back to the cold night wind, she looked so small.

            Cullen rounded the wall, and when she didn't turn to face him, he gently took her shoulders in his hands and guided her to lean back against his chest, shielding her from the harsh moonlight with his broader body. He stroked his fingers ever-so-softly down her arms and placed his hands over hers where she continued to cling to her elbows, and with a final burst of boldness brought on by the sweet smell of her hair, he leant down and rested his chin on her shoulder. Things felt right again, if only for a moment.

            'What are you doing?'

            'I'm...you looked cold.' He brushed against her ear with his nose and planted a whisper-soft kiss against her jawline. 'I thought I could warm you up.'

            'While I appreciate the thought,' she started, her voice amused, 'your methods are highly unorthodox. Some would say inappropriate.'

            'You're teasing me,' he smirked. When she turned her face away from his, exposing her neck, he took the opportunity to press more kisses against her soft skin, from earlobe to collarbone. He hadn't expected her to stiffen so much as he did.

            'What's gotten into you?' she hissed, trying to pull away.

            'Evelyn, wait, I don't...help me understand what-Maker's breath!'

            He had reached out to stop her from dashing away, instinctively wrapping his arms around her middle, but his hands didn't meet when he expected them to. Instead, each one landed on either side of something firm and round, something solid and serious that he didn't expect to feel there. His brain told him to pull back, but his hands disobeyed, fingers flitting across this impossible expanse as though its mystery was engraved across it in runes, like he could feel his way out of his alarm and confusion. It was Evelyn who put a stop to his frantic searching.

            'I don't like people touching it,' she protested sharply.

            She broke away from his hold and turned to face him, nostrils flared again. She looked at his hands where they hung uselessly in the air and, as if for good measure, smacked them away like she would a meddlesome insect. He could feel her gaze boring into him, challenging him to meet her eyes, but he couldn't look away from her swollen belly.

            'What...what happened to your...'

            She followed his gaze down to her own midriff and laughed humourlessly. 'You mean you forgot? Wish I could. Magical experience, my arse. I'm almost looking forward to childbirth just so I won't be pregnant anymore.'

            Cullen's weightlessness was fast being replaced by the sensation that all of his body parts were suddenly independent of each other. His brain and his tongue may as well have been a thousand miles apart. He was fairly certain that there was no blood left in his face, if the icy, tingly feeling in his cheeks was any indication.

            'Childbirth?'

            'My, my, Commander, I didn't clock you as the squeamish type,' she teased, before her face turned more sombre. 'Having said that, I've seen more disembodied limbs and spilt innards this year than I ever wished to see in my whole life and I still feel a bit sick thinking about the actual birth. That's pathetic, isn't it? Big, brave Inquisitor, scared of a baby.'

            'No, Ev...Inquisitor, it's not pathetic at all.' A semi-coherent sentence. A good start. 'My mother helped other women in the village I grew up in have their children and she always said it's like nothing else someone can go through, that it's the worst pain in the world and...' Oh, no. His tongue had left his brain behind after all. 'That is...I mean, it's probably normal to be...Sorry.'

            She gave him a strange, sidelong look. He couldn't tell if it was amusement or confusion. Either was better than anger. He decided it was best to turn away from telling her how she was hurtling headlong into the worst pain she'd likely ever experience, or that one of his neighbours had actually begged his mother for death during the birth of her first child.

            'So...' He cleared his throat. 'Remind me how far on you are?'

            She laughed. 'You're much more forgetful than I realised. I'm six months, which in your defence is quite easy to get wrong, because I'm bloody enormous.' She busied herself with rolling a loose stone across the top of the wall with her index finger. 'You forgetting is reassuring in a way, actually. If you can forget your boss is pregnant then I can't be letting it get in the way of my work. Not yet anyway.' She huffed and flicked the little stone from the wall, causing it to crash into the Ghoul's Beard she had spent weeks so carefully cultivating. She huffed louder and crossed her arms above her bump.

            'I...didn't forget,' Cullen tried. He never was good at lying. 'How could I?'

            'What's that supposed to mean?' Evelyn snapped.

            Maker, this conversation was like trying to navigate a horse across a foggy field covered in invisible caltrops.

            'Only that...how could I forget that you...that we are going to...to have a child?'

            She laughed, with a little more mirth this time, eyes softening. 'Ah, you're in the "we" camp, are you? Seems half my inner circle want nothing to do with it while the rest have taken the baby on as some kind of, I don't know, Inquisition mascot that belongs to all of us. I shall ask Josephine to source it a little vest that says "Property of the Inquisition".'

            'No, Evelyn.' His stomach was churning and fluttering at the same time. He suddenly felt acutely unwell. 'I meant "we" as in us...me and you. Right?'

            She looked at him like he'd suddenly turned into a nuggalope. She took a step backwards and Cullen had to restrain himself from following, helplessly pulled into her gravity and still having a hard time looking anywhere but at her gravid belly.

            'What in the world are you talking about?' she said. 'Because it sounds like you're trying to imply that you're, well, the baby's father. Comman...Cullen, you don't look too good, are you-'

            'Who else would it be?' he interrupted. A rush of anger pulsed through him and he forced himself to take a deep, steadying breath; whatever was going on, he didn't want to shout at Evelyn. 'Of course I'm their father.'

            'Hold on,' she said, a bemused expression on her face. 'You're accusing me of cheating on my husband?' Her confusion vanished as her face turned stony. 'With you.'

            'Husband?'

            'Yes, husband,' she replied waspishly, holding out her hand to draw attention to where a truly enormous diamond glistened on a thick gold ring on her third finger.

            It started to become clearer. Cullen knew for a fact that the ring was infinitely beyond anything he could have afforded. She wasn't his anymore, she had married someone else, he'd figured that much out. But how? What about all the memories he had of them happy and in love? And how did they go from that to her marrying another man without him remembering what happened in between? He knew there had been times in the past when his brain had seemed to fail to store upsetting memories, at least for a while, but how many weeks or months was he missing now as he stood before an Evelyn he barely knew?

            There were other points in the sequence of his life where days and weeks, perhaps even months ceased to exist in his mind, turning instead into an indecipherable heap of shifting images and unattached thoughts, of nauseatingly powerful sense memories and body-numbing emptiness. Would he wake up tomorrow with a new image to try and slot into this new, unmappable region of his memory? Would a phantom sound fill in all the next day's silences, aural threads to sew together two disparate memories that he'd know, even before they came into focus, that he didn't want reconnected? Would the ghost of an old sensation keep him awake for the rest of the week, make his palms sweat and his heart race and his vision pulse pink around the edges until he'd wish for the dark spaces between to swallow him up again?

            He had to stop thinking about it. He had to focus before it consumed him.

            'Well...well...'

            'Well, well, well,' she mocked, an unkind edge in her voice.

            'Well...' He cursed himself and swallowed the next inevitable repetition. Behind his back, he dragged his knuckles across the gritty stone wall, focussing on the feeling of his skin tearing open, letting the pain centre him in the moment. 'How long have you been married again?'

            'Nine months,' she replied. 'Why?'

            'Alright,' he began. He fought to control his breathing as he gathered the courage to ask the question he couldn't shake from his mind. Another man? Maybe. Maker knows she deserved better. But a baby? There was something about her starting a family with someone other than him that he just couldn't move past in his head. He flexed his bleeding knuckles. 'And when were we last...together?'

            'Together?' She cocked an eyebrow.

            'Yes...that is, together, ah...intimately.'

            Her mouth fell open, then snapped back into a grimace, nostrils flaring.

            'What the fuck is your problem?' she hissed. 'You and I have never, ever, slept together, if that's what you're implying. And if in whatever disgusting fantasy you're living in the baby is yours, then I apparently also slept with you while I was already married? Maker's balls, you're mad.'

            'How can you say that?' His hands were shaking badly now, and he could feel the sweat that had been gathering along his hairline begin to creep down his forehead, a tickling both light and invasive, like spider's footsteps on your skin. 'Of course we've...been together, before you were married, then. We were...we loved each other. I've only ever wanted you, Evelyn, no one else. You were my first, my only-'

            'You're a virgin?' she interrupted with a sneer, voice nasty, derisive. He had already felt small and pathetic even saying it, so her tone stung like acid. 'That's hilarious. Doesn't seem like you need to worry about getting anyone pregnant in that case, Commander.' She rubbed her eyes roughly with closed fists. There was something oddly childlike about the movement. 'How about this,' she continued. 'If you go around telling lies about me, claiming that we were together, that I cheated on my husband, I'll tell your men that their brave commander is still a blushing maiden. Fair?'

            'But-'

            'But nothing!' She moved so quickly that it looked like she was about to topple over, but when she fell against his chest, it was to shove him away with both hands. 'After what you did, I wouldn't be with you if you were the last man in Thedas. You're an idiot, Cullen.'

            His name on her lips, which usually sent shivers through him, felt like venom, and it all finally fell into place. This must be how it felt to be enthralled by a desire demon, with all the things you'd ever dreamed of right there in front of you, only to have someone braver, someone better, slay the monster and pull you back into the real world. What if he had given in all them years ago after all? What other explanation could there be? He felt pathetic, utterly worthless. He wanted to get down on his knees and beg forgiveness for whatever he'd done, to plead with her, but he felt angry around the edges of the emptiness in his chest and even now, hating himself for it, he was too proud.

            'I apologise,' he said stiffly.

            'For what?' she spat. 'For this nonsense or for selling me like a prize pig to the highest bidder?' She tutted. 'You're actually stood here claiming to be in love with me, but where was that when the Inquisition needed resources and my advisors, you in particular in fact, were all too willing to guilt me into marrying my piece-of-shit husband so you could get your hands on more troops? More arms and money and allies? Where was your adamancy that I was your one and only then? This is bullshit.'

            'Evelyn, I would never-'

            'Well you did!' She stood as close to him as her belly would allow and glared up at him. 'And I told you, you will address me as "Inquisitor" or not at all!'

            He wanted to shout back. He felt angry enough to raze Skyhold to the ground stone by stone, but his entire body was pins and needles and he couldn't move.

            'The Lyrium,' he whispered. 'It must be the lyrium. I'm forgetting...getting confused...'

            'Oh, for fuck's sake, Cullen! I was more than willing to support you through your withdrawal, even after what you did, but Maker's balls, I didn't think you were the type of man to blame every little mistake on the lyrium instead of taking some responsibility for your actions.'

            'No, Ev...Inquisitor, it's not like that.'

            'I suppose it was the lyrium that made you so keen to marry me off as well?'

            'No...'

            'Fuck this,' she huffed, kicking the wall. 'I came out here to escape, to clear my head, and you've made everything worse. I'm tired and cold and angry, but I absolutely refuse to go back to bed yet. It makes me feel sick to be anywhere near him.'

            A heavy silence fell, so dense and uncomfortable that for a time, neither one of them drew breath. Evelyn was the first to break through, sniffing in sharply through her nose and then holding onto it possessively, a captive breath. It was as if she believed that she could hold the world static if she just kept that breath unspoiled. She shivered in the cold, forcing a tiny huff to shake its way out of her lungs and into the night, where it hung in the cold air like pale smoke, unsaid words. Ever so slowly, in the way you'd approach a feral cat, Cullen shrugged off his surcoat and held it out to her. She glared at him briefly, then nodded, turning away so that he could drape it over her shoulders. Her movement threw half her face into the icy moonlight and cast the other into the rippling orange glare of the torch, and in that moment, neither side looked familiar.

            'I'll leave you be.'

            'That's alright,' she sighed. 'I'll take a walk. May I keep the coat for a little longer? I'll have it back to you by morning.'

            'Of course, keep it as long as you want. Do you need help getting anywhere?'

            'No thank you,' she said, staring up at the moon. 'I'm not an invalid just yet. Goodnight, Commander.'

            'Goodnight...Inquisitor.'

            She offered him a small smile, more than he deserved, and made her way across the garden and up the stairs he had entered by earlier. Her steps were still proud and sure, but slower, less nimble. Watching her made his heart felt heavy and sluggish, as though it knew how worthless he was and had decided to do the bare minimum to keep him alive. Leaning against the cold stone wall, Cullen put his head in his hands and quietly caved in.

Chapter Text

It had been two weeks since the disastrous meeting in the garden, and Evelyn had been decidedly cold towards Cullen the entire time. In the War Room, she only acknowledged him when he spoke or, Maker forbid, she needed to ask him a direct question, and outside of the War Room, she reacted to their eyes meeting by turning away as if he wasn't there at all. He took some reassurance from the fact that she often snapped at everyone, not just him, over the tiniest things, but at other times she was full of smiles and patience, although on those days, for everyone except him.

            He dreaded the uncomfortable clenching of his chest whenever she looked through him, and knew that the best way to avoid it would be to avoid her, but he couldn't always help himself. There had been a definite change in her over the last fortnight and he found himself giving in to the urge to check up on her, even if it had to be from a distance. Her proud, erect gait, the walk of a woman raised amongst nobility, had started to seem forced, and she would frequently lean on whatever was to hand and ever so slightly arch her back, hips pushed out backwards. She would sometimes flare her nostrils or even screw up her eyes if she thought no one was around, then she would straighten up and march off to wherever she had been going as if nothing had happened, stubbornly trying to hide the way her body would sometimes start to stoop against her will. Cullen recognised the mask she wore, knew the slow, measured walk, because he was aware that he did the same on his more difficult days. She was in pain, and near constantly.

            It was this revelation that led to him sweating nervously throughout the entirety of the next day's war council meeting. He knew he'd taken a risk, having witnessed first-hand how the Inquisitor had sharply shut down Josephine's suggestion that they move the meeting to her office so Evelyn could sit down on one of the comfy armchairs by the fire less than a week ago. He recognised that anger too. He knew what it was to want to keep pain private, knew the need to keep it hidden from others even if it meant overseeing training while a migraine obscured people's faces with pulsing black shapes and flashing lights only he could see, even if it meant holding up a shield to spar while ignoring the burning ache in his shoulders until he had no choice but to go somewhere quiet to vomit. He always carried a little tin box of mint leaves, cloves and parsley to chew on, one of his only little extravagances, for that very reason. He knew his attempts to help her may have been misguided even before he took the steps to do so, but then again, outside of military strategy, he had always been good at going against his better judgement.

            That's how he found himself doggedly avoiding the Inquisitor's eye as she scrutinised each of her advisors in turn, clearly affronted at entering the War Room only to be greeted by a high-backed chair dominating the space where she customarily stood. When Cullen had dragged it in during the night when everyone was abed, he'd realised it would put her much too low to actually see the map, so he'd had put it on top of a wooden pallet he found leant against a wall in the Main Hall. It had seemed such a good idea at the time, but now it just seemed to make the provocative chair even more conspicuous, even more offensively unsubtle. A large stone he had taken from the broken wall just outside the War Room had been his finishing touch, placed in front of the chair to act as a rudimentary footrest. With the type of pain he suspected she was experiencing, he'd personally discovered that it was always helpful to have your knees level with or higher than your hips. Looking at it now in the light of day, he realised that the whole setup was remarkably untidy, certainly not befitting their noble Inquisitor.

            He was grateful that neither Josephine nor Leliana had professed their innocence as Evelyn silently interrogated them with her eyes, but then he realised with a horrible swooping feeling in his stomach that of everyone there, he was the most likely to have been able to carry the items. The brick alone had weighed as much as a small adult. Perhaps she'd put together in her mind an image of the two women joining forces to carry each heavy object. He could only hope.

            'Nobody wanting to fess up?' she said.

            'Confess to what, Inquisitor?' Leliana replied, smiling conspiratorially.

            Evelyn seemed unable to hold back her own small, exasperated smile. Did that mean she suspected Leliana? Cullen would have to thank the spymaster later. He had to make a conscious effort to keep the surprise from showing on his face when Evelyn gave an exaggerated sigh and stepped up onto the pallet, apparently resigned to the fact that it was there and she may as well make the most of it. Leliana caught Cullen's eye while Evelyn wasn't looking and smirked.

            'Maker's balls,' Evelyn huffed, apparently to herself. She was having trouble getting herself between the chair and the table because of her gravid belly. Cullen began to round the table to help her, but she held up a hand to stop him. He tried not to feel hurt by it, because he understood that for her, accepting the mysterious chair wasn't the same as accepting hands-on help in front of other people. Perhaps the reason the chair seemed permissible to her today but was an insult when Josephine offered was because it wasn't asked for or offered, but was given. Asking for help was hard; accepting something given freely, something that required no question and no answer, was always easier. He stored that information away for future reference.

            Once Evelyn had wrestled the chair into submission, the meeting went on for longer than it had in weeks, and she didn't snap at a single one of her advisors. She even laughed when Cullen squirmed as Josephine read out yet another marriage proposal sent for him, but whatever window she'd allowed open quickly snapped closed, so suddenly and completely that Josephine's voice trailed off in the relative quietness and the meeting was called to an end not five minutes later. As everyone began to file out, she caught Cullen's eye and this time, she didn't look away. 

            'Commander, a word.'

            Leliana nodded to them both and closed the heavy wooden door behind herself and Josephine as Cullen approached the Inquisitor warily. The top of Evelyn's head usually only came up to just below his chin, the perfect height for tucking her into his chest when they had held each other in the dream, when he had been with what his brain was still stupidly calling 'the other Evelyn'. Stood on the wooden pallet, she was almost the same height as him, and he was struck with an overwhelming urge to lean forward and press his lips to hers. It should have been the most natural thing in the world, and stopping himself felt like fighting with his sword in the wrong hand.

            'What can I do for you, Inquisitor?'

            She tapped a finger against the back of the chair. 'Do you happen to know anything about this?'

            Her tone was serious, and Cullen found himself wishing for the sound of her happy and laughing again, even though it had been at his expense and had make his lungs feel too small to breathe properly. She tapped her finger more severely when he didn't answer and he felt his hand go to rub the back of his neck almost involuntarily.

            'Ah...well, I mean, I wanted to...that is-'

            'Why?'

            'Why?' he repeated lamely.

            'Why help me?' she said. 'We're not friends, I haven't been particularly nice to you since, well, since the whole marriage thing, so why do this? Unless you're denying your involvement in the mystery throne?'

            'I didn't realise,' he said with a small smile. 'That it looked like a throne, I mean.'

            'The footrest was a nice touch, by the way.'

            'I thought it would help with the...Oh, Maker.'

            She laughed, albeit half-heartedly. 'I'm guessing that's all the admission I'm going to get, but I still want to know why. Am I becoming that unbearable? That you have to pander to me like a spoilt child and-'

            'You're not unbearable, Inquisitor,' he interrupted, but the look she gave him was full of suspicion. 'Not at all. I've just noticed that...that you get tired, no, not tired, I mean you...' He sighed and put a hand over his eyes. 'You are a very busy woman, Inquisitor, on top of...well...' He gestured vaguely at her stomach. 'It's alright to take small breaks. It's not like your sitting down made any difference to the meeting.'

            'We both know that it did,' she sighed, then turned her head away and hugged herself, hands gripping her elbows. 'In a good way, I mean. I don't know. I just promised myself that none of this would...'

            'Interfere?'

            'Interfere,' she agreed. She was quiet for a while, during which Cullen argued with himself for and against gushing about how well she was doing, how it wasn't interfering at all, but eventually she sighed again and asked, 'Do you still have headaches, Commander?'

            'Every so often,' he lied, taken aback. Surely she hadn't noticed him covertly angling his head away from the sunlight while they pored over the map, had she? 'Why do you ask?'

            'Just wondering,' she said, non-committal. 'And...do you have things that help when you do have one?'

            'Even the worst ones are self-limiting,' he replied. 'So eventually they just...go away by themselves.'  

            'I suppose my problems are "self-limiting" too,' she said. 'Or it's all just the calm before the storm and I'll look back on today's me and laugh at what a clueless idiot I was.'

            'Inquisitor, don't-'

            'I have to go,' she barked. The cold finality she seemed able to control returned to her voice. 'Thank you for your time, Commander.'

            When she stepped down from the pallet, she audibly winced, then looked furious with herself. Cullen held open the door for her and watched her take off down the corridor in what could only be described as a fast limp that made him cringe to see. He followed slowly, giving her a plentiful head-start. It was clear she didn't want to talk to him anymore, and he knew he shouldn't complain; it was the most she'd said to him in weeks, but her cold words had felt like sharp fingers on a fresh bruise even though her voice still made him feel warm all over. We're not friends. He ignored Josephine when she called after him as he marched through her office, which only made him feel worse.

            He had time to spend ten minutes in the little Chantry before he had to head back to his mountains of paperwork, and decided it would be for the best to clear his head anyway. He nodded to Varric as he passed, hating for the millionth time in his life that the dwarf always looked like he knew something he himself didn't, and made his way out into the garden. Mother Giselle was there, as was Morrigan and her son, and a few refugees that he thought of as 'the regulars' were tending to the plants or chatting happily in loose circles. He was glad Skyhold could be a place they could smile again, even as it felt more and more like a prison to him. But he had to stop that thought where it was. He wasn't to think about prisons, especially not with Lady Morrigan standing less than ten feet away. The space between them was clear, no shimmering barriers in sight to obscure the whiteness of her skin or thin the air around him until he was close to fainting, but even so the thought of catching her eye made his stomach churn, and he had to quickly turn away.

            'Good afternoon, Commander.'

            The unfamiliar voice made him jump, though hopefully he hadn't startled as visibly as he knew he once had. Lifting your shoulders and throwing a protective arm in front of your face when someone did nothing worse than sneeze had gotten very embarrassing very quickly. Setting his face into a mask of indifference, he turned to see who had spoken, eyes landing on a weasel-faced man with greasy chin-length hair where he was reclining in one of two chairs that flanked a little table, upon which a chess board was set up. Cullen's gut clenched. He and Evelyn used to play here, in this exact spot, on afternoons when both had free time, and they'd laugh and tease each other and-

            No, he thought. We didn't 'used to' do anything. None of it was real.  

            'Forgive me, I was lost in thought,' he said to the stranger, who was resting his feet on the chair opposite. This struck Cullen as very rude behaviour. 'Is there something I can do for you?'

            'No, no, just saying hello,' the man replied. 'Evelyn's off doing whatever it is she does here and my next hunting trip isn't for another fortnight, so my lot is to hang around this blasted castle feeling sorry for myself, I'm afraid.'

            The man's voice was nasal, and something about how he drawled each word and lounged on the chair like he owned the whole garden had Cullen absolutely convinced, within two minutes of meeting him, that he was unbearably arrogant. And what in the Maker's name did he mean by 'whatever it is Evelyn does here'?

            'How about it, Commander?' he continued. 'Help a poor noble out and play a game of chess with him. Even finding someone literate can be a nightmare in this place.'

            Cullen bristled. Who did this pompous git think he was? It was one thing to be rude about the Inquisitor, she was used to enemies within and without, but something else entirely to be so disparaging about some of the innocent residents of Skyhold. He was in half a mind to throw the over-dressed arse off the battlements, whoever he was.

            'You! Come here!'

            Cullen had his hand on his sword before he realised that the man was shouting at someone else, a servant girl with a tray of what appeared to be milk and biscuits.

            'Put that tray down here, like a good lass,' he drawled, patting an empty space on the wall beside him.

            'It's for the children, ser,' the girl said. 'For after their lessons, ser.'

            'Well now it's for me,' he simpered. 'Hand them over at once.'

            The girl looked between the man and the tray uncomfortably. Cullen was about to cut in when the man leant forward and added, just loud enough to be heard, 'You do know who I am, don't you?'

            'Yes, Messere Harimann,' she muttered.

            Harimann...Cullen recognised that name from somewhere, but didn't have time to sift through the treacherous jungle of his memory because the servant girl was handing over the tray after all. When she went to place it on the wall, Cullen stopped her with a gentle hand on her elbow. 'Take them to the children,' he ordered. When she hesitated, he added a sharp 'Now', and watched her scurry away, milk sloshing onto the tray.

            Harimann was smiling, but it was clear he was only doing so to hide his evident irritation. Cullen had been trained to read an opponent's body language since he was barely more than a boy, and the man's twitching eye and shallow breathing were as easy to read as a children's book.

            'Now what shall I have for dinner, Commander?' Harimann asked.

            'Whatever's being served in the hall, I imagine.'

            The two men glared at each other for a moment, then Harimann rearranged his feet on the vacant chair and shook his head, his lank hair staying exactly as it was despite the movement.

            'So sorry to have to bring it up, my friend,' he started, not sounding sorry at all, 'but I think you're aware that I'm the most important person in this castle, and therefore, my word goes before yours. Next time I make an order to a servant, I hope you'll be so kind as to let her do her job. And as for that one,' he gestured after the girl with the tray, 'I'll be seeing to it that she knows what happens when I'm disobeyed.'

            'You'll do nothing of the sort,' Cullen snapped. 'And I'm aware of no such thing as you being the most important person in Skyhold. That role has always been occupied by the Inquisitor and she will not appreciate people disrespecting the staff.'

            'Disrespecting the staff! The daft wench was disrespecting me! And I don't know what it's like in Ferelden, Commander, but where Evelyn and I come from, the dog owns the bitch. That makes me the most important person, as the good Inquisitor's husband, no?'

            Cullen felt like he'd missed a step on the way down the stairs to understanding. He knew there was a reason he'd hated this man as soon as he'd heard his grating voice. He had been relieved when he was told that the Inquisitor's husband was away hunting of all things, but nobody had warned him that the man would be returning so soon. And there he was, right in front of him, grimacing at the refugees like you would a rotting wound, disrespecting the Inquisitor for anyone and everyone to hear.

            Before he could reason with himself, Cullen pulled out the vacant chair, enjoying how Harimann's feet flopped ungraciously to the floor, and sat down, moving a pawn as he did. Harimann seemed to balk, and then sneer unpleasantly as he looked at the board to decide his own move. It was clear he thought he'd already won. After all, what would some oaf from Ferelden know? Cullen tightened both fists on either arm of his chair, enjoying the creak of the leather of his gloves.

            'Bad morning, Commander?'

            'No,' he grumbled. 'Just a minor headache.'

            'Oh, I know all about those,' Harimann guffawed, moving a piece. 'Try sharing a tiny living space with Evelyn. She's like a dragon with dropsy recently. Sick to the back teeth of her whinging, I am.'

            'She is...with child,' he said through gritted teeth. 'She's allowed to be irritable.'

            'Oh, nonsense, she's just being a prima donna. She's only doing what women are meant to do, after all. I've told her again and again that she should give up all this Inquisitor business while she's like this, but she's stubborn as an ox.'

            'I'm sorry, but "give up all this Inquisitor business"? She's the figurehead for one of the most prominent forces in Thedas, that's not something you put on hold.'

            'Of course it is,' Harimann said, waving his hand as though dismissing Cullen's retort. 'Someone else would be just as capable for a few months, you for example, then she could pick up where she left off. I was against her continuing in the role at all, how can you raise a fine heir if you're still playing at queen, I said to her, but it was the one condition she insisted upon.' He moved a piece lazily. 'Speaking of the conditions of my marriage, how are my kinsmen holding up? I imagine the extra troops have bolstered your forces considerably.'

            He wasn't wrong. Training had become more difficult recently owing to the fact that an extra twelve thousand Marcher soldiers had arrived seemingly overnight, but Cullen couldn't deny that his confidence in the Inquisition's success had grown with every thousandth solider that marched into camp. They had come with enough arms and armour to have not put too much strain on the blacksmiths or existing stock, and the vast majority had at least basic training. When he'd expressed concerns about feeding so many new soldiers, the Inquisitor had only shrugged and said 'They don't call the Free Marches the breadbasket of Thedas for nothing'. He hated to admit it, but Evelyn's union to one of the most prominent Marcher noble houses had been hugely beneficial for the Inquisition. He knew from living so long in Kirkwall that Marchers were mistrusting of foreign powers, even of foreign people in general, and their response to the Inquisition thus far had been expectedly dubious, despite its leader being one of their own. This Harimann had managed to bring a number of the Marcher city states together to aid the Inquisition in its fight against Corypheus, and along with that came money, soldiers, arms, armour, enough food to feed the castle and forces twice over and an allied presence across the Waking Sea; Cullen would have found him easy to respect if not for what the man had taken in return.

            'They are fine men and women,' he managed. 'The Inquisition is glad to have so many talented soldiers under its banner.' 

            'I pray they serve you well, Commander, and make their home states proud. Marchers are descended from barbarians, you know, they know how to fight in a pinch. Not all of us, of course.' He brushed invisible dust from his padded shoulder. 'My ancestors are slightly more noble than that, hence why Evelyn insisting upon keeping her name is absurd. But it's no matter. My son will be taking the Harimann name whilst retaining the advantages of both mine and Evelyn's family estates. It's what you might call a win-win for the little man.'

            Cullen had plenty to say about that, but his brain latched onto one small, insignificant detail and pulled it to the forefront.

            'You know it's a boy?' he blurted out, not understanding why something that had next to nothing to do with him made his heart flutter so much.

            'Well, there's no way of knowing for certain, unfortunately,' Harimann sniffed. He had been covertly eyeing the board and must have come to the conclusion that he was losing, because he was sullenly avoiding taking his next move. 'But Evelyn knows full well how I'll feel if she doesn't give me a son. This whole thing, having to put up with her walking around looking like a bloated druffalo and her incessant complaining, will have been for nothing if it's not a boy. What am I meant to do with a female?'

            'She has no control over the sex of the child,' Cullen spat. He could feel the muscles of his hand twitching, wanting to reach for his sword. 'And regardless, I'm not sure what you think the difference would be either way. Whatever your hopes for a son can be the same for a daughter.'

            'Oh, hardly,' Harimann scoffed. 'I'll not have a woman being the head of my house when I die, and she certainly wouldn't be inheriting anything of import. Everything is to go to my firstborn son and I'll keep going until I get one. It's in Evelyn's best interest to just give me what I want.'

            'How dare...' He stopped himself, only just holding his tirade in. This man, like it or not, was influential in the Inquisition thanks to all he had secured them, and nothing good could come from smashing him face-first into a brick wall. Besides, he didn't want to start an altercation that would affect Evelyn. He settled for digging his fingers into his thigh muscles to try and stop him from reaching out and doing something stupid instead. 'A daughter could do everything a son could. I don't know if you've noticed, but Evelyn is a woman and also one of the most powerful people in Thedas.'

            'If you think I haven't noticed that she's a woman then you've somehow managed to miss the condition she's in because of me,' he sneered. Cullen felt sick with anger, the kind of anger where the only thing that would help would be to beat your antagonist into the ground. But Harimann was clearly not a warrior; Cullen thought he could use the flimsy rapier he had strapped to his waist as a toothpick. 'Also, does she know you refer to her by her given name with other people? "Inquisitor" would be more respectful, I think.'

            'I have to go.'

            He stood up so abruptly that his knees hit the table, sending the chess pieces scattering in all directions. Harimann looked surprised momentarily, and then slid back into his default look of smug satisfaction.

            'Of course, Commander,' he drawled, flicking a chess piece from his lap onto the floor. 'Thank you for taking pity on a bored, lonely noble. We gentlemen have to stick together, after all. What do you say we call this game a draw and battle it out next time we play?'

            Cullen didn't answer, only shoved his chair away and tore off across the gardens, slower than he'd intended because of the pins and needles he got in his feet if he sat still for too long. Poor circulation was just one of his many punishments for being deluded enough to quit lyrium whilst in the middle of a war. He hoped he didn't look too unsteady, fury glowing hotter at the thought of limping in front of Harimann. He pounded his feet harder into the earth, trying to shake off the horrible prickling that usually had him shuffling from foot to foot during conversations or working stood up at his desk. At least the circulation in his hands was holding up because of how many times he'd involuntarily clenched them during their pathetic excuse for a chess match.

            Maker knows how much work he could have done if he hadn't run into that blasted noble, but the thought of going back to his office to pore over endless missives in the terrible lighting was unbearable. One slight perk of having to suffer through Harimann's grating presence was that he'd been reminded of the need to talk to Horsemaster Dennet about the latest influx of horses set to arrive from the Free Marches. The horse veteran had been vocal about his opinions on how the donated horses had been raised and had been vehemently insisting that he should be allowed to oversee mounted training to 'break them useless habits out of 'em', and of course, it was left to Cullen as leader of the forces to assuage his concerns. It would keep him out of his office a while longer at least.

            By the time he exited the kitchens and was on the stairs leading down to the stables, the feeling in his feet had returned, but his anger, which had been vacillating wildly during the short journey, was hotter than ever. A sharp cry and the thud of something heavy striking stone caught his attention, and a breath he didn't know he'd been holding onto in his rage burst from his body in a sharp puff of alarm and amazement. 

            Looking over the edge of the steps, his eyes landed on an incredibly red and sweaty Inquisitor where she was repeatedly whacking a small grey statue with her enormous two-handed sword, which she had sheathed in a protective padded leather scabbard, whether to protect the sword or the poor statue he wasn't sure. From above, her belly looked truly enormous, and every twist of her body to hoist the sword off the ground and down upon the statue made Cullen wince.

            'Inquisitor?'

            She jumped, looking up at him with an unguarded expression, but she quickly schooled her features into a look of calm control. However, the sleeveless tunic she was wearing clearly wasn't intended for a pregnant body, and it clung so tightly to her chest and belly that her near-hyperventilation was all too obvious.

            'Good afternoon, Commander,' she panted. 'Did you need something?'

            'No, no. Just on my way to see Horsemaster Dennet.' He bit his bottom lip. 'Is...everything alright?'

            'Of course,' she smiled, broad but not wholly convincing. 'Just working to keep my stamina up. I'm losing some core strength, going soft from all that sitting down I've been doing.'

            She glared up at him on the words 'sitting down', but her smirk made the expression more teasing than accusatory. Cullen felt his cheeks flush and ducked his head, taking the opportunity to head down the remaining steps and join her where she was now placing her sword on the wall of the stone well in the middle of the small courtyard.

            'Is there any reason why you're training over here by yourself instead of up in the main courtyard?' he asked.

            'Oh, that, well,' Evelyn said, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand. 'Just a bit more private here, I suppose. People tend to...gawp. Can't imagine why.'

            'It was a...impressive sight,' Cullen said, an unwelcome pride bubbling up under his diaphragm.  

            'I don't think they stare because I'm impressive,' she griped. 'It's clear how many disapprove of me training at all. The rest just act like they're watching me bash my head against a brick wall over and over.' She tried to pull herself up to sit on the well, but couldn't quite manage it. Cullen pretended he hadn't seen. 'And absolutely nobody, not a single person in the whole sodding castle, will spar with me. So I just do what I can when and where I can. I'm the Inquisitor, I have to stay on top of my training.'

            'I'm sure they're only worried about harming you, Inquisitor,' Cullen tried, hating the way her face was growing stormier and stormier. 'Nobody here doubts your skills, or your dedication.'

            'Bullshit,' she said scowling at the grass. 'Do you think my enemies are worried about harming me? I have to stay on top of my game if I'm to stay safe, but nobody here has the balls to spar with me just because I'm pregnant. They feel sorry for me. They pity me.'

            'That's not true,' he tried. 'You and that sword of yours have a reputation for not taking prisoners. Perhaps now people just have a convenient excuse as to why they dare not challenge you. I for one think pity would be wasted on you. That...sounded worse than how I meant it. I only mean it's the last feeling you inspire in me. In...in anyone, that is.'

            She shrugged her shoulders, but then a questioning glint appeared in her eye.

            'So will you spar with me, Commander?'

            Cullen forgot how to breathe for at least a minute, he was certain. She looked so hopeful and vulnerable that it hurt just to look at her, like holding your hand too close to a flame or staring too long at a sunrise. The thought of picking up a weapon and striking at her, knowing that an enemy would go straight for a pommel strike to her belly, made his stomach drop, but the thought of dashing that open and hopeful look from her face seemed unthinkable. In the end, the decision was made for him.

            'Fuck,' she groaned, doubling over. She placed her hands against the well's wall and leant against it heavily, tucking her chin in to her chest and breathing shakily through whatever pain had caught up with her. Her legs began to tremble and she screwed her eyes up tight, blowing air out of flared nostrils urgently.

            'Evelyn, what's-'

            'Is anyone looking?'

            'Is...What?'

            'Is anyone looking?' she gritted out through her teeth.

            'No, nobody's here,' Cullen reassured, feeling helpless. 'It's just us.' She didn't reply, but she did groan quietly and place her head on her forearm where it rested on the wall. Cullen wanted to touch her shoulder, to comfort her somehow, but he didn't know that it would be welcome. 'What can I do, Evelyn?'

            'I'm fine,' she said weakly. 'It'll go off, give me a minute. I...I just need a drink and I'll be alright.'

            Words weren't his strong suit, but taking action, now that was something Cullen could do. So he quickly drew up some water from the well, thanking the Maker that it was so close to hand, and gently placed a gloved hand on Evelyn's elbow.

            'Can you stand up for a moment?' he asked. 'I'll pour some into your hands.'

            With slow determination, Evelyn straightened up and cupped her hands to allow Cullen to give her the water. When she had drank, she cupped her hands for more another two times, then took a final handful and splashed it across her face and neck. She nodded curtly to show she was done.

            'I apologise that you have to see me this way,' she said eventually, not looking at him.

            'Not at all, Ev...Inquisitor.' Maker, had he been calling her Evelyn the whole time? 'I could never think less of you.' She cast him a curious look, and he quickly swallowed the lump that formed in his throat whenever she held his eye contact. 'I only mean that...I respect your determination to...persevere, and...' He sighed heavily. 'And to answer your question, yes, it would be my pleasure to spar with you. Although, perhaps another time.'

            She laughed feebly, and he wondered if she believed him or if she thought he was only saying what was kind. He vowed to himself that he'd find a way to give her what she wanted, even if it had to be slightly different to what she was likely expecting.

            'Thank you, Commander,' she said, pushing off from the wall tentatively. 'For your help and, I hope, for keeping all of this to yourself.'

            He wanted to tell her that she had nothing to be ashamed about, but knew that those words would only irritate if used against him, so instead he simply nodded, heart pounding with something he didn't understand when she placed a hand beneath her bump and gently caressed it with her thumb. She inclined her head to him in turn, picked up her sword, and then made to set off towards the stables, but she didn't get far. She'd taken less than a half dozen steps before pain gripped her again, forcing her to a stop. Cullen restrained himself from bolting to her side, instead taking long strides that he hoped weren't too conspicuous to anyone looking on.

            'Give me your sword,' he said in her ear when he drew level. 'I'll take it to the armoury for you to retrieve later.'

            'Thank you,' she panted. 'I'll make sure to pick it up next week once I'm finally up all these fucking stairs.' She glared ferociously at the enormous flights of stone steps she had to tackle to reach the Main Hall.

            Cullen slid the sword from her grasp and stepped away to lean it against the well. It should be safe there for a while, he thought; surely everybody in Skyhold would recognise the evil looking thing as the Inquisitor's favourite weapon. When he was back at Evelyn's side, he took a deep breath, knowing that he had to ask even if it opened him up to the sting of rejection.

            'Will you allow me to help you, Inquisitor?'

            'What do you mean?' Evelyn replied looking dubious. 'I'm a big girl, I'm sure I'll manage.'

            'I know that,' he sighed. 'I just mean...I know you don't want anyone to see you like this. Not...not that there's anything wrong with struggling, I mean, not struggling, but being in pain and...If you'll allow it, I can help you take the quieter indoor route through the kitchens up to the Main Hall. I...I've already seen you like...Everyone here has nothing but respect for you, but if you would rather no further persons but myself see you suffering, please allow me to assist you through the castle.' He shook his head and furiously rubbed at the back of his neck. She'd already called him an idiot once, there likely wasn't any way her opinion of him could sink any lower, but feeling so completely foolish in front of her was still painful.

            'I would appreciate that, Commander.'

            If she hadn't have been staring at him with open confusion when he didn't respond, he was certain he would have stayed rooted to the spot in shock for the rest of the day. Regaining control of himself, he quickly looked around for onlookers, then, satisfied they weren't being watched, offered her his arm. She looped both of her arms around the crook of his elbow, leaning on him heavily as he led her to the stairs back up into the kitchen. When they reached the bottom step, he noticed the shame and apprehension on her face and felt his heart trip over its own beat.

            'Inquisitor,' he began. 'Would you be alright to...place an arm around my waist?'

            Evelyn opened her mouth as if to argue, but seemed to choose compliance instead. She looked so tired, and Cullen wondered if she simply didn't have the energy to fight. When he somewhat felt her arm sling around his waist, he had to remind himself that wishing he could feel her touch for real instead of through his armour was wrong, shameful.

            'Commander?' Evelyn asked gently. 'Everything okay?'

            'Yes, of course,' he replied, reining in the scowl that must have been spreading across his face. 'Hold on quite tightly, if you don't mind. May I...do the same to you? Place my arm around you...around your waist, I mean?'

            To his relief, she nodded without hesitation, so he slid his arm across her back and to her side quickly before his nerve failed him, but there was a problem. He hadn't accounted for the fact that her bump had largely eaten up her waist. Praying that she wouldn't mind, he moved his hand higher up her side.

            'Just...a bit higher,' he mumbled. 'Don't want to put too much pressure on the...' Baby, he thought. 'Bump,' he said.

            If Evelyn had questions, she didn't have time to ask them before Cullen bent his knees and, squeezing her tightly to his side, hoisted her from the ground. He took the stairs two at a time, Evelyn clinging to him but apparently not as alarmed as he feared she might have been. She wasn't attacking him, at least.

            Once they were into the kitchen, which was thankfully unoccupied, and had closed the door behind them, he bent his knees once more and placed her gently on the floor. When he dared look at her, she was smiling.

            'For a moment I thought you were going to offer to carry me bridal-style all the way to my quarters,' she laughed. 'Your way is a lot less patronising. And much less, I don't know, restrictive.'

            'I am...glad to be of assistance.' He cringed at himself, cursing his lack of eloquence.

            'Will we be doing that up the stairs to Josie's office too?' Evelyn asked.

            'Only if you'd be comfortable doing so, Inquisitor.'

            'It's just the two of us, Commander, you can call me Evelyn. Plus, you just hauled me up a flight of stairs like a sack of missives, so first names are only fair.'

            'Thank you...Evelyn.' Her name on his lips, now that he had her permission and he wasn't meaninglessly repeating it into the darkness of his room after a nightmare, was like a caress. 'You can call me...can use my given name too. If you wish.'

            'Didn't I just use it?'

            'No, Inqu...you called me "Commander".'

            'Maker, my brain feels like its floating in a jar somewhere far away from my body,' she grumbled. 'Sorry, Cullen.'

            He managed to force out a breathless, 'That's alright' before he felt his throat constrict completely. Hearing her say his name for the first time since their meeting in the garden, when she had only said it harshly, made him want to do something stupid like throw himself at her feet and tell her that he was madly in love with her. Instead, he coughed away the emotion and offered her his arm.

            They walked at a slow, steady pace out of the kitchens and into the long rectangular room that led to the stairs up to Josephine's office on the left and the Main Hall on the right. When Evelyn would wince or falter, Cullen would pause and wait patiently for her to tug on his arm before setting off again. When it became apparent that this was proving even more difficult than either of them had predicted, Cullen let her stop and lean against the cold stone wall.

            'Do you have any potions for the pain, Inq...Evelyn? Could I fetch one for you?'

            'No,' she grunted. 'No potions. The ones we stockpile have witherstalk in them.' She inhaled sharply through her teeth, stretching her hips from side to side. 'Keeps the potion from denaturing as quickly. Could hurt the baby.'

            'Surely there's some other type of-'

            A strangled sob that cruelly echoed around the vacant room cut him off. Evelyn was sagging against the wall, one hand pushed back against the stone, the other pressed firmly over her mouth. Tears were gathering across the seam of her closed eyes and her shoulders were shaking with the effort to keep herself silent. Cullen went to take her in his arms, consequences be damned, but she had started to sidle across the wall, seemingly intent on getting somewhere.

            'Library,' she gasped.

            When Cullen didn't respond, she pointed to the corridor she was creeping towards, signalling her destination. As gently but firmly as he could, he took her arm and placed it around his waist once more, and when she didn't resist, he hoisted her up and took her in the direction she was pointing, turning the corner and heading through the wooden door that greeted them. Once inside the secret library, the very one that Evelyn's dream-counterpart had loved so much, Cullen guided her carefully into the only chair and watched helplessly as she put her face in her hands and wept.

            A cold sweat prickled as it erupted from each pore across his body, and a familiar icy feeling that he dreaded began to lick at his fingertips. His heart, which had lurched to a near-stop when Evelyn had started to cry, now sped up so rapidly that he thought he might be sick. He was glad that Evelyn wasn't looking, glad that he could get control of his features and wipe the first wave of sweat from his forehead without her asking questions. She didn't need to know about his problems, especially not when she was clearly so distressed, and either way, this fear, this pain, was private.

            'I'm sorry,' she whispered.

            'Don't be.' His voice sounded firm, thank the Maker.

            'I'm the Inquisitor,' she sobbed. 'I-I have to stay strong, f-for everyone's sake.'

            It felt as though the tall bookshelves around them were pressing closer, creeping into his peripheral vision while he tried his hardest to focus on Evelyn. They felt like a prison, penning him in. A circular prison.

            'You have as much right as anyone to complain, Evelyn,' he said, making an effort to speak slowly and clearly. 'Perhaps even more.'

            'I'm letting everybody down.'

            'Evelyn, please don't say that.' The walls around them pulsed and the air became thinner. 'Think of everything you have achieved, of all the people you have helped and given hope to. You could never let us down.'

            'What if I...what if I sometimes wish I did?'

            'Let us down?'

            She nodded pitifully. 'Lower people's expectations a bit,' she sniffled.

            The rush of protectiveness that surged through him pushed the encroaching walls back ever so slightly. He was at her side and leaning down to put an arm around her before he could think better of it. When she turned into him, fisting a hand in the fur of his surcoat, he felt as though he'd rather crush every damned bookshelf into splinters than leave her there alone. 

            'I'm scared,' she murmured against him. 'I don't know what I'm d-doing, or who I am anymore. I can't look my own friends in the eye, I'm too ashamed, I can't bear f-facing their disappointment, I'm too scared of having them turn away once and for all so I'm pushing them away before they can h-hurt me, I can't...I can't...'

            'Shh, Evelyn, it'll be alright.' He placed a hand on her head and gently stroked her hair, still a sweaty mess from sparring with the statue. 'Take a breath and slow down for me.'

            'I hate him,' she sobbed.

            'Who?' he asked, even though he knew the answer.

            'Brett. My pathetic excuse for a husband. I can't b-bear to even be in the same room as him, he makes me s-sick, makes me ashamed, makes me see all the things I hate most about myself and...and...' She gulped down some shuddering lungfuls of air and pulled away from Cullen, clenching her fists in her lap and hanging her head. 'I can't bear the thought of having a child with him. I can't...What kind of mother thinks about how much easier things would be if...the kind of mother who felt disappointed when she felt her baby quicken...thought about taking the witherstalk just to...Maker, Maker, Maker...'

            'It's alright, Evelyn,' he repeated for what felt like the hundredth time, even though it wasn't alright, not at all. He was watching the woman he loved falling apart before his eyes.

            'I'm sick of the pain,' she groaned. 'Sick of feeling more and more useless each time I head out on a mission...losing my skills...sick of being tired. I wish...I wish...'

            'What do you wish, my love?' Cullen soothed, gently smoothing her hair back from where it was plastered to her forehead. 'Tell me.'

            The change was frightening in its speed. One moment she was crying, curled in on herself, and the next she was sat up straight, head held erect, face completely blank. Evelyn pushed herself up from the chair and wiped away her tears with almost mechanical movements. It was as though she'd turned to clockwork, like the heartbroken princess who had been turned into a wind-up doll in the story Cullen's mother used to tell him. He had a feeling that true love's kiss wasn't the answer to Evelyn's problems, as much as he wished that it was.

            'Thank you for your assistance and company today, Commander,' she droned, emotionless. 'I may just take you up on your kind offer to spar with me.'

            And then she was marching as fast as her pain would allow, out of the library and towards the stairs. Cullen raced after her, feeling his lungs expand as the space around him widened, and placed a gentle hand on the small of her back. She stiffened, and he reproached himself for letting himself be so familiar with her.

            'Allow me to assist you up the stairs, my lady,' he implored.

            'Very well.'

            She looped her arms through one of his and gripped him tightly, a clear signal that this was all the help she was willing to accede, that he mustn't try do anything else. They made their way slowly up the stairs towards the Main Hall, silent as Chantry mice, the torchlight from the sconces catching on the tracks left behind by Evelyn's tears, lines of fire etched down her face. When they reached the top, she let go of his arm like it had stung her and placed her hand on the door leading to the Main Hall.

            'Good day to you, Commander.'

            'Let me help you to your-'

            'Good day,' she barked. Then she threw herself through the door and slammed it behind her. The horrible creaking and clanging made Cullen's brain spasm, but the finality of the sound was like a hook in his heart, and as he looked down and saw her tears drying on the fur of his mantle, the hook pulled his heart down, down, down into his belly, where it throbbed brokenly for the rest of the day.

Chapter Text

            'Will you help me or not?'

            The Seeker rolled her eyes.

            'Yes, I will help you,' she replied forcefully. 'I have the Inquisitor's best interests in mind as well as you do, but we must be conscious of her safety.'

            'Maker's breath, Cassandra,' Cullen blustered. 'I'm not asking you to beat the living daylights out of her. I only think that she should be finding new ways of defending herself that don't involve that blasted greatsword of hers.'

            'She won't like it.'

            Cullen rubbed his right temple roughly. 'I know that, but what is our alternative?'

            'She won't like that either,' Cassandra frowned, placing her drink down on the rickety table.

            'You don't mean...'

            'I do,' she said firmly. 'She is seven months with child and clearly struggles outside of Skyhold. She can't walk as far, we all but have to carry her up steep inclines, and Maker forbid I ever have to see her struggling to get off of a horse after a long ride again.' She gestured towards Cullen's wine, which was so far barely touched, and he swallowed some begrudgingly. 'It won't be for forever, Cullen. All being well, she could be strong enough to start accompanying a trusted group on smaller missions as soon as the child doesn't rely on her for its sustenance.'

            'How old are they when they start eating for themselves?'

            'I...have no idea,' she admitted. 'I know very little of children, infants even less so.'   

            They sat in a rather glum silence for a while, both sipping at their drinks in an entirely perfunctory manner. Cullen, aware that the longer a lapse in conversation lasted the harder it would be for him to come up with anything more to say, was considering downing the rest of his drink in one and excusing himself, but Cassandra took the bottle of wine and refilled his glass before he could do either. Perhaps Seekers could read minds after all.

            'Tell me, Cullen,' she said. 'Why is this so important to you? Why are you so resistant to the idea of her stepping down from combat?'

            'She's the Inquisitor,' he grumbled, as if that was all the answer that was necessary. Cassandra watched him unblinkingly until he ceded. 'We're getting closer to Corypheus by the day. Why would any of us want her removed from vital missions just yet?'

            'Because it has to happen sooner or later. Whether she likes it or not, there will come a point when she cannot keep pushing herself like this. Do you remember the woman who lost her husband at Haven? The stress of his death and the journey to Skyhold made her go into childbirth months too soon. What would we do if the same happened to-?'

            'Don't say that,' Cullen snapped. 'That won't happen to Evelyn. Or...or her baby.'

            'We don't know that.'

            Another silence fell, heavier than before. Cullen began drinking his wine more enthusiastically just so he had something to do other than look at Cassandra.

            'Is there a reason why you want to personally oversee her retraining?' Her voice was too measured to achieve the nonchalance she had clearly been aiming for, and she knew it, for she shook her head and took a generous swig of her wine.

            'Well, I'm the commander of her forces,' Cullen replied, not meeting the woman's intense gaze. 'It's my job to train people in the use of weapons.'

            'And none of your captains could do this task for you?'

            'For the love of the Maker, Cassandra, just say whatever it is you want to say.'

            'I have no idea what you mean,' she retorted. 'I am simply intrigued by your personal interest in this matter. Unless...' She traced her finger around the rim of her glass. 'Unless your interest is less in the retraining and more in the...trainee?'

            Cullen felt his cheeks go red and quickly took another drink.

            'She's the Inquisitor,' he stated again. 'Of course I have a...professional interest in her, and in her wellbeing.'

            'Do you approve of her marriage?'

            'Maker's breath!'

            'It is only a question!'

            'A question that came completely out of nowhere,' he countered.

            'So you have no opinion?'

            'You may well remember that I was quite vehement in my approval of it when the proposal was on the table, if that answers your question.'

            She didn't need to know that he still had absolutely no memory of discussing the proposal whatsoever. It existed in a hazy period between Haven and the present in which all military and Inquisition-related matters were still crystal clear in his mind, while all of his personal affairs seemed to have evaporated from the cracks in between individual missions and notable victories and losses.

            'I do, but you weren't yourself then.'

            'What...what do you mean?' he asked, voice rough. He tried to keep his breathing under control, wishing and dreading all at once that Cassandra was about to fill in some missing piece of his memory for him.

            'Just what I said,' she shrugged. 'You seemed very closed off for a while, focussed only on your work and the task at hand, but you didn't come speak to me as per our arrangement, so I assumed it wasn't lyrium related and that it was something you would overcome in your own time. Which you have.' She eyed him questioningly. 'I was surprised by your support for the proposed marriage of Lord Harimann to the Inquisitor even so. I had been under the impression that you were...'

            'I was what?' he groused, squirming under her knowing gaze.

            'Interested in the Inquisitor,' she said slowly, 'outside of your professional role as her commander.'

            Cullen's heart squeezed uncomfortably in his chest and he swallowed another mouthful of his drink, wondering vaguely if maybe he shouldn't be doing so because his ears were starting to feel very hot and he couldn't hold his words in anymore.

            'Yes, well,' he grumbled. 'That hardly matters now.'

            'Doesn't it?' Cassandra finished her glass, not taking her accusatory eyes from Cullen's scowling face. 'Do you approve of the marriage?'

            'Maker's sake, I can't keep up with your tangents, Cassandra!'

            'Answer the question.'

            'Fine, yes, I do,' he hissed. 'The extra troops have made all the difference, we stand a better chance than ever of-'

            'Do you approve of the marriage?' she said, louder than before. 'You, Cullen, not the commander.'

            'Again,' he sighed, suddenly feeling very tired, 'it hardly matters now.' He placed a hand over his eyes and enjoyed the silence without having to worry about Cassandra's perceptive gaze on him.

            'Arrange a time with the Inquisitor and send me a note,' she said eventually. 'I will meet you by the training dummies outside any afternoon this week, if that suits.'

            'Thank you, Cassandra. And I apologise if I've been...snappy this evening.'

            'I would be more worried if you ever weren't snappy, Commander,' she said with a smile. 'Between you and the Inquisitor, it's a wonder anyone still dares to live within the castle walls.'

            Cullen smiled too at that, thankful that Cassandra never took his griping to heart. She had seen him very close to his worst at times, on the boat from Kirkwall and in the early days of his withdrawal, but she never patronised him or treated him like something broken to be gentle with, and she gave as good as she got. He wondered if this was what one would class as a friendship. If it was, he hoped he was as good a friend to Cassandra as she was to him, even knowing in his heart that he brought very little to the relationship. He hadn't even provided the wine. He never had been good at the whole friendship thing.

            'I'll let you know,' he said, standing. 'Thank you, Cassandra. I appreciate your willingness to help. And I'm sorry to have taken up so much of your evening.'

            'Not at all, Cullen.' She extended her hand, and he shook it gratefully. 'I am glad you came to me.'

            'Goodnight, Seeker.'

            'Goodnight, Commander.'

            Cullen headed down the stairs and stepped out of the armoury into the courtyard. The darkness cast everything into a hushed shade of steely blue, a colour that looked like silence, making the roaring of laughter and bursts of merrymaking that crept through the stone walls of the Herald's Rest to die in the muted moonlight feel jarringly incongruent. Cullen doubted Evelyn would be in the Rest so late; she really had been pulling away from her friends despite their best efforts, and besides, she retired to her quarters much earlier recently. Unable to stop himself, he looked up towards her balcony, but it was all in darkness. He sent a prayer to the Maker that she was asleep and not in pain, and then thanked him for granting him an acquaintance, a friend, as loyal and honest as Cassandra. How baffling it was that someone like Harimann could think so little of a daughter when women like Evelyn and Cassandra existed in the world.

            As he walked the battlements, he asked the Maker to guide him in his efforts to help Evelyn, and as he ascended the ladder into his quarters, he prayed that Evelyn's baby would be safe and wouldn't be born too soon.

            That night he dreamt of a wilful little girl with Evelyn's eyes swinging a practice sword at a stone statue over and over until she fell backwards, exhausted. He didn't reach her in time to stop her hitting the floor, and when he scooped her up into his arms and softly called her name, the guilt of failing her woke him up.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

There was no reason for him to be so nervous. It was Evelyn who had asked him to spar after all, so he was only doing as she requested. He told himself that he was anxious about how she would react to the changes he was going to propose to her fighting style, knowing how much dedication she had shown to perfecting her technique with a greatsword, but deep down he knew that he simply wasn't ready to admit that he was always nervous around her, dreading his inevitable stuttering and stammering and the way her eyes on him made him want to cast his pride aside to please her at any cost.  

            He had checked with Josephine the day before that Evelyn's schedule would be clear for a couple of hours the following afternoon, and had then sent a note to Cassandra asking if she could spare the time to help him out. She had replied promptly with a straight-to-the-point 'Yes, noon', so at 11 bells the next morning, Cullen finished off the requisition request he was filling in and headed to the main keep to look for Evelyn.

            In the Main Hall, he ran into a rather harried looking Josephine, who appeared to be carrying the entirety of her office's paperwork under one arm. He rushed over to her and managed to snatch up most of the stack before it slipped onto the floor.

            'Thank you, Commander,' she said, placing a hand to her brow in exasperation. 'You just saved my day from becoming even more of a...never mind.'

            'Is anything the matter?' he asked, bending to help pick up the rogue sheets.

            'Nothing that can't be fixed,' she smiled, albeit unconvincingly. 'I appear to have found myself sans office for the moment and now all my paperwork is in the wrong order. Would it be inappropriate to sort it here in the hall?' Cullen opened his mouth to answer but the agitated ambassador quickly continued. 'What am I saying, of course it would be inappropriate! Anyone could look over my shoulder and see the contents of private documents. I simply must find a more suitable place to-'

            'Lady Ambassador,' he tried. When she looked up in response it was as though she had forgotten he had been standing there at all. 'I will be out of my office for the next few hours if you would like to commandeer it in the meantime.'

            'I would like to say that you are too kind and that I couldn't possible inconvenience you so, but I'm not sure I have many other options. Perhaps the upper floor of the Herald's Rest...'

            'I insist, Lady Ambassador,' he said. 'I'll have a runner help you with your paperwork. Put whatever's on the desk on the floor by the bookshelf and make yourself at home. I will warn you though, the lighting is not half as good as it is in your own office.'

            'Please, Commander, just having the work space is more than enough,' she said, her usual perky manner rapidly returning. 'I shall try and be done and out of your way as soon as possible.'

            'Take all the time you need,' he assured her whilst beckoning a passing runner. When they approached, he handed them the stack of documents he had salvaged and said, 'Take the Lady Ambassador's paperwork to my office right away.'

            He waved off Josephine's attempts to insist she would take it herself and bade her a good afternoon. She was about to enter the door leading to the rotunda when he realised he had forgotten to ask her something.

            'Lady Ambassador!' he called after her. 'Would you happen to know where the Inquisitor is?'

            Josephine stopped dead and for a few moments, didn't turn around to face him. When she did, her lips were pursed and her eyes darted here and there without focussing on him.

            'She is in my office, Commander,' she said finally. 'She is...not to be disturbed. I'm sure if you wait here she will be out soon enough.'

            Cullen thought about asking her what in Thedas had happened that meant Evelyn had kicked the ambassador out of her own office, but she had already took off after the runner, her footsteps lacking some of their usual poise. He considered just marching into the office and finding out for himself, but Evelyn was usually always peaceable with Josephine, even when the two of them disagreed; something serious must have happened if this was the result. After standing stupidly in the hall avoiding eye contact for five minutes, he started to get irritated, but after ten minutes, his aggravation had shifted into a sense of dread, that prickling feeling of 'something isn't right' that was like someone breathing down your neck. He was a minute away from ignoring Josephine's warning and charging into the office when the door he was scrutinising finally opened.

            Out sauntered Harimann, looking as smug as ever and adjusting the belt that his laughable little sword was always strapped to. He cast his ferrety face around the hall, then snatched a plate of fruit from the table beside him and swaggered out of the main door and down the front steps. Cullen still wasn't used to the vile man's presence in the castle, and considered following him at a distance; what did the useless layabout do all day? The same door creaking open once again, quieter than before, caught his attention before he could set off after the cocky noble, however. Apparently this person wasn't as confident about people noticing their entry, for they opened the door slowly and sidled through it when it was sufficiently ajar instead of opening it fully.

            It was Evelyn, and she was limping. Her hair was in disarray, nowhere near her usual pristine style, and she appeared to have some of the buttons of her blouse done up wrong, as though she'd put it on in a hurry. Cullen felt himself pulled towards her as always, but after a single step, realisation hit him and he felt every muscle in his body seize up, his throat constricting so tightly that he couldn't draw breath.

            Not now, he thought. Please, please, not now.

            But his eyesight had already shrunk until he could only see right in front of him, and seeing as nobody else was reacting to the loud ringing that suddenly filled the hall, he was fairly certain that only he could hear it. The frayed edges of his tunnel vision were pulsing a sickly pink colour, and all he could see clearly was Evelyn, walking shakily, stooped over, holding onto the wall with one hand and clutching the underside of her bump with the other. Her cheeks were puffy and she kept furiously dabbing at her eyes whenever screwing them shut in pain caused unwelcome tears to fall.    

            He had to run, he had to go somewhere quiet and shut his eyes and focus on his breathing until it was over, but how could he when Evelyn was not ten feet away from him and so clearly in need of help? He took a shaky step towards her and heard cruel laughter echo in his right ear. Another step, magic that felt like electricity snaking around his wrists and ankles. Another step and claws scraped down his chest, cold hands drawing warm blood, and with the next step they went lower, touching where they weren't welcome, in places he was saving for a wife like the Chantry had told him to. He could hear his heartbeat beneath the ringing in his ears. Dirty, Dirty, Dirty. But people were starting to look at Evelyn, and just because he wanted to protect her privacy didn't mean the gossiping nobles who always clogged up the Main Hall would feel the same way. So he pushed through the panic and the sensations his body should have forgotten by now and went to her side, hoping his wider frame would shield her somewhat from prying eyes.

            She must have felt his shadow fall over her, because she flinched and looked up at him with wide, fearful eyes, but the way she said his name was full of relief.

            'Cullen,' she said, shoulders dropping. 'Good afternoon. I was just...I'm...'

            'Can I escort you to your quarters, Inquisitor?' His voice was steady, as far as he could hear over the phantom noises in his head. Evelyn nodded and gripped the arm he offered her with both hands, allowing him to lead her through the hall. Once they were safely through the door to her quarters and at the bottom of the first, smaller set of stairs, she released his arm. She looked angry, but he knew the anger for what it was; he saw his own shame mirrored back at him.

            'Thank you,' she grumbled. 'You seem to come to my rescue quite a lot recently. I appreciate...your discretion in these matters. I'd like to promise it won't happen again, but as Skyhold's resident liability, that might be a promise I can't keep. Anyway,' she said, pre-emptively cutting off Cullen's reassurances. 'What brought you to the Main Hall? Isn't this usually prime paperwork time for you?'

            'I was looking for you. I mean...I wanted to ask you...I had hoped to...ah...'

            'What is it?' she asked softly, so softly that it caught him off guard.

            'I was going to ask you if you wanted to spar this afternoon...with me,' he said. 'But I can see that this may not be a good time. I would be more than happy to rearrange, if you still want to that is.'

            'You want to spar with me?'

            'I...yes. But it can wait until you-'

            'No!' she exclaimed. 'No, I'd love to spar with you! Let me just freshen up a bit and take a potion and I'll meet you in the courtyard.'

            He wondered for a second why she would need to freshen up so early in the day, then he remembered and he felt anger and then fear burn through him, and his vision began to narrow again.

            'Of course,' he replied, trying to cut off his thoughts before they floored him, 'but only if you are certain. I have managed to rope Cassandra into helping us as well. I hope that won't be a problem.'

            'Of course not,' Evelyn smiled weakly. 'The more the merrier. I won't be long, give me fifteen minutes. Actually make that twenty. Twenty five even. It takes me ten minutes just to get down the front steps.'

            'Could I wait for you and assist you with them?'

            'No, don't worry,' she said, starting to slowly make her way up the steps. 'The potions help a lot.'

            'Potions?' he asked. The innocent tone he was hoping for came out significantly higher than he usually spoke and he cringed inwardly.

            'That's right,' she said. 'Elfroot potions without the witherstalk in them keep miraculously finding their way into my room. I thought someone might've been trying to poison me at first, but every batch comes with a little note folded up on top that just says "Safety confirmed" and signed with an "L". They're Maker sent, I swear. Either that or I have a guardian spirit.'

            'Yes, perhaps,' he coughed. He should have known Leliana would have a way of checking any mysterious packages appearing in the Inquisitor's room. Evelyn was looking down at him from her vantage point at the top of the stairs with a glint in her eye that was both questioning and teasing. Cullen felt very exposed when she looked at him like that and bowed his head so she wouldn't see him blushing. 'Meet us at the training dummies by the armoury whenever you're ready,' he said, then turned around and rushed away without looking back. He hoped he had imagined the soft thud and broken sob he heard as he shut the door behind him.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

The castle was quiet. All Cullen could hear was the wind whistling through the gaps in the roof above in his bedroom, the scratching of his quill and the irritating buzzing sound that his ears imagined whenever there wasn't enough background noise. He was deathly tired, barely able to keep his eyes open, rapidly losing sensation in his hands and feet and feeling somewhat queasy from the overpowering smell of Josephine's scented paper that still lingered on the desk. Even so, he couldn't bear the thought of getting into bed just yet. After his episode in the Main Hall, he knew that his dreams would be even more realistic, even crueller, and the thought of reliving the same memory again in crystal clear detail as he slept made his stomach churn.

            Evelyn was incredible. Here he was over ten years later too scared to go to sleep like a frightened child, while Evelyn had been able to brush herself off and go about her day like nothing had happened. Then again, just because you can't see someone's suffering doesn't mean it isn't there, itching at the underside of their skin, growing more and more unbearable the longer they try to suppress it; Cullen was all too familiar with that bone-deep itch, had been scratching himself raw each night alone in his bed for years. He wanted to help her, to tell her that he understood, that she could share her pain with him, that she was strong and incredible and perfect, but he knew she would hate to be coddled or treated like something in need of repair. He knew how it felt for people to look at you with pity in their eyes, maybe even fear, like your jumpiness and trembling hands and restless gaze were somehow contagious, when all you wanted was to move on and recover away from the scrutiny of others. He'd moved hundreds of miles away from his home to escape anything connected to his own shame, after all. The only problem was, he couldn't escape himself, and his own mind was the most treacherous place of all.

            He remembered Evelyn laughing at him in the gardens, mocking him for his inexperience, but perhaps it was for the best that she thought of him like that. He would rather she saw him as a hopeless virgin, would rather have Bull poking fun at him just to make him blush and stammer than have anyone know the truth. Dream Evelyn had understood, had reassured him over and over again that it didn't matter, that he wasn't dirty or worthless, that he still deserved to be loved and touched and held, that he wasn't indelibly stained despite the scars and the nightmares. But this wasn't the dream, and he was back to being lonely, back to being unable to see a life after the war, back to feeling old and stiff and no fun to be around. It somewhat helped that Evelyn wasn't the same towards him as she had been during that disastrous meeting in the garden. She was kinder to him now, thanked him for his help instead of pushing him away, and whenever she smiled at him he thought he'd burst with unsaid feelings and the deep ache of what could never be.

            The sparring that afternoon had gone much better than he'd been expecting. The potions he was having sent were clearly having a positive effect, and if he hadn't known better, he would have had no idea that her day so far had been so atrocious. When he had passed her the one-handed sword, she hadn't reacted with anger as he'd expected, but had gasped and took it from him eagerly.

            'It's like a mini Redemptor!' she had marvelled.

            'I thought you would prefer a new weapon to be as similar to your greatsword as possible,' he had replied, blushing when she beamed at him. He had thought for a moment that she was going to hug him, but Cassandra had stepped between them and thrust the finely-crafted shield they had commissioned for Evelyn into her free hand. He didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed.

            She didn't seem as thrilled with the shield, having never fought with one, but when Cassandra explained that they had chosen a kite shield so that her stomach would be easier to protect, she had warmed to it somewhat. She had actually proven quite proficient, having enough strength from wielding Redemptor to be able to keep a shield held up for extended periods, and within an hour she had been ready to spar with Cassandra, albeit slowly and leniently, while Cullen watched and gave pointers.

            'Angle your shield forward, Inquisitor,' he had reminded her for what felt like the hundredth time.

            'My stomach's in the way!'

            He had chuckled at her exasperation and offered to show her what he meant, but when he stood behind her and placed his arms on hers to guide her movements, Cassandra had narrowed her eyes and smiled at him until he thought he would combust from embarrassment. Evelyn, thank the Maker, didn't appear to have noticed, and when he had stepped away, she continued to hold her shield how he'd shown her. He tried to keep the pride from his voice when he remarked on the improvement.

            When it became apparent that she was tiring, Cullen suggested that they call it a day, but neither woman appeared to have heard him, for they continued to strike at each other.

            'Cassandra, perhaps we should stop for today.'

            'I will stop when the Inquisitor has yielded.'

            'Cassandra, I think it would be wise if-'

            But he had been cut off by a thump and an undignified 'oof' as Cassandra fell backwards and landed flat on her backside. Evelyn, who had stepped forward and kicked the Seeker's legs out from under her, was roaring with laughter, so breathless with amusement that she'd had to drop her sword and shield to clutch at her stomach. When she reached out her hand to help Cassandra to her feet, she had almost toppled over onto her instead, which only made her laugh more, and then her mirth had begun to take root in the Seeker as well. Cullen thought his heart would explode at seeing her so happy.

            'I'm sorry,' she had managed to wheeze. 'I laugh like a donkey.'

            As Cassandra got back to her feet, she added, 'You kick like one too', and then the three of them had descended into such an uncivilised outbreak of hysterics that people training in the main courtyard had stopped to stare at them, some joining in just from the sight of three of the most prominent members of the Inquisition guffawing like children. Cullen couldn't remember the last time he had laughed so much, and when Evelyn lolled against him, exhausted from laughing so hard, the world had felt right for a moment. Even if the lyrium took his memory after all, he knew he'd still remember Evelyn like this, bursting at the seams with cheer, leaning on Cassandra with tears of joy rolling down her cheeks and clutching at her bump, looking for all to see like the happiest woman in Thedas. When she had looked up at him and very quietly, so quietly that he almost didn't hear her, said 'You look very handsome when you smile', he was certain he'd never felt so jubilant in his entire life.

            Cullen sighed and put down his quill. His mood had lifted somewhat at the memories of the mostly successful afternoon, but he suddenly felt as though something terrible would happen if he didn't get out of his office right away. He had this feeling often, a sense that the world was about to end and it all depended on his next move, however mundane, even if it was just needing to rearrange his bookshelf or finger count his age three times. He knew that it was nonsense, but even so, ignoring it made him feel like ants were crawling under his skin and nipping at nerve endings all over his body at random. So he pulled his surcoat on over his loose shirt, having removed his armour some time ago, and bolted from the room, already knowing that his destination was the War Room, a favourite haunt of his during sleepless nights.

            The Main Hall was deserted, lit only by a few sleepy candles whose light he stepped in and out of as he made his way to the opposite side of the room. He watched the bare skin of his hands glow in the candlelight and then vanish into darkness and was reminded of Cole; Cullen sometimes wished he could vanish and reappear at will too. Josephine's office was dark and cold, but the moon lit up the corridor leading to the War Room where it spilled through the unrepaired wall and onto the ancient stone floor.

            He expected the War Room to be in near darkness as he opened the door, and was just about to turn back to filch a candle from the hall when he noticed that the room was already illuminated. A lantern placed on the edge of the table covered most of the centre of the room with its light, chasing away the shadows that the moon's rays couldn't reach. Someone gasped as he stepped into the room, but Cullen couldn't see them around the wide expanse of the Inquisitor's rudimentary 'throne' which, to his secret delight, was now a permanent fixture in the War Room. Cullen took another step, squinting to see who else was there as his eyes adjusted to the clashing light sources that fought for dominance throughout the room. His heart slowed down in relief at discovering who it was that stood across the table from him, then sped back up as he realised that they were alone together under the cover of night once again. It was the second time that he had met Evelyn as she stood framed between moonlight and firelight, and he prayed to the Maker that this time would be less mortifying.

            'Good evening, Commander.'

            'Good...very late evening to you, Inquisitor,' he whispered. 'Why aren't you sat on your throne?'

            'Why are you whispering?'

            'Sorry,' he said, clearing his throat. Her answering smile made him feel like he was being lit up from the inside out.

            'I was sat on it, but wanted to stretch my legs for a while,' she explained. 'Sitting down too long isn't always helpful. Plus, I couldn't see this side of the map very well from there with it being so dark.'

            'You're working?'

            'War doesn't sleep,' she sighed. 'And apparently neither do I at the minute. Finally have the bed to myself and it still feels like lying on rocks.'

            Cullen began to make his way slowly around to her side of the table. Talking across it felt too formal, like they were in a council meeting.

            'Where's Harimann?'

            'Off hunting again,' she said, rolling her eyes. 'He'll bring back something impressive, but I'm fairly certain it will have been someone else's kill. Bet he's shite at hunting.'

            'Yes, well,' Cullen began as he thought of the correct way to respond, but Evelyn was moving to meet him as he rounded the table and it took him by surprise. She stood in front of him, craning her neck slightly to meet his eye.

            'We really should stop meeting like this,' she teased.

            'I...don't mind.'

            'Really? Why's that?' she asked, eyes unwavering as they looked into his, locking him in place. He sometimes wondered if she had some kind of magic he'd never encountered before, magic that made his knees feel weak and his skin buzz with a potent mixture of fear and anticipation.

            'I like spending time with you.' He noticed he was whispering again a few seconds before he realised what he'd said. 'That is, I find your...being around you is...ah...'

            She was giving him a curious, searching look, but then her expression turned to one of intense discomfort. She doubled over slightly and inhaled sharply through her teeth.

            'Evelyn!' Cullen cried. 'What is it? What's wrong?'

            'Nothing's wrong,' she said, and to his surprise she chuckled slightly. 'They're very active this evening is all. Another reason why sleep is eluding me tonight.'

            'You can feel them moving?'

            'It feels more like dancing actually,' she huffed. 'Right on my bladder of all places.'

            'Can I...' Maker's breath, what was he thinking? 'Sorry. That would be...inappropriate.'

            'Were you,' she said, brow furrowed, 'wanting to feel?'

            'No,' he blurted. 'I mean...I know you don't like people touching it, your stomach I mean. It's nothing.'

            'I don't like people touching it without permission,' she corrected. 'Ever since I've started showing it's felt like I've become some kind of public commodity, something owned by absolutely everyone, and suddenly every single person has the right to touch my body without asking me even though they wouldn't have dared before. It's...infuriating.'

            'That does sound awful,' he mused. Even the thought of people running their hands over him without permission made him recoil. 'And disrespectful. People should know better than to invade your personal space just because you're...or any woman's space. Your body is your own.'

            She frowned slightly, as though realising something, but Cullen didn't know what. 'Yes it is,' she said slowly. 'Come here.'

            'What?'

            'Give me your hands.'

            Cullen's heart started to skip over every other beat then, willing him to obey even as his brain told him not to.

            'Are you sure?'

            'Mhm.'

            He held out his hands, and when Evelyn took both of them in hers, so surprisingly dainty for a warrior such as herself, he felt heat travel from his fingertips up into his spine, where it simmered in a way that was both comforting and terrifying. Evelyn gently placed his trembling hands on either side of her stomach and held them there, shifting them ever so slightly when nothing happened. She let out an agitated puff of air.

            'Maker's breath,' he said, barely louder than a whisper, as though he was scared to frighten away the little life that he could feel beneath his hands, like it was some baby bird he didn't want to startle.

            'Can you feel them?'

            'Yes. Yes, I can.'

            'Ouch! Little bugger's going wild,' she groaned. 'They seem to have taken a shine to you.'

            Whatever Cullen was about to say didn't manage to get past the lump in his throat. He was glad of this in hindsight, because he was surely about to say something absurd in his amazement.

            'They're strong,' he finally managed. 'Perhaps they'll be a warrior like their mother.'

            'As certain as I am that my ribcage is a worthy opponent, I'd prefer them to discover their fighting spirit outside of the womb,' she laughed. 'Will you help me train them when they're old enough?'

            'I would...like that very much.'

            A silence followed as they looked into each other's eyes. Cullen clung greedily to the moment, trying to commit every tiny detail to memory, but when he realised that he was still holding her belly and now, Maker take him, gently stroking it with his thumbs, he quickly dropped one hand and raised the other to rub at the back of his neck. Evelyn only smiled at him, almost shyly, and tried to pull herself up to sit on the table. When she found herself unable, Cullen didn't hesitate to carefully take her under the arms and hoist her up.

            Maker's breath, what is wrong with me? he thought. It was like the darkness had overshadowed the part of him that usually second-guessed all his actions.

            But Evelyn didn't seem to mind. She thanked him quietly and then patted the space beside her. He didn't respond at first, sure he was misreading her somehow, but when she patted the table once again and motioned with her head for him to join her, he became a slave willing to follow her into the abyss. Sat beside her, she seemed so small, but he didn't have much time to consider it before she shuffled closer to him and his mind went blank.

            'Nobody has ever really...wanted to feel them moving before,' she said. It would have sounded timid if it were anyone but Evelyn. 'My friends...I don't really...'

            'I know,' he soothed.

            'I shouldn't have pushed them away,' she continued. 'The ones who forgave me after the marriage thing at least. I don't understand it. I spend every single day surrounded by people, so why do I feel...how can I be so lonely?'

            'Sometimes crowds are much lonelier than being alone with just one or two good friends. And leadership sets you apart. People can start seeing you as...not quite like them. You're the mighty Inquisitor, how could you feel lonely or vulnerable? Something like that,' he finished clumsily.

            'Were you lonely in Kirkwall?' she asked. 'When you were Knight-Commander?'

            'Sometimes,' he replied. 'I had few friends to begin with, and then after I took over as Knight-Captain it felt like I was looked at as something apart from the rest of the Templars, which only got worse when I became Knight-Commander. I wasn't someone to be friends with or to talk to about anything outside of work. It felt like I was more approachable or...less intimidating perhaps when I was seen as something stolid, something without thoughts that went beyond the Circle walls. The lyrium...helped with that. But all of that is nothing compared to how it must be for you. I don't mean to compare, or to complain.'

            'You're not complaining,' Evelyn said, watching the light of the lantern cast dancing shadows on the ceiling. 'So you didn't leave anyone special behind? When you left Kirkwall, I mean.'

            'Special?' he said, fidgeting slightly.

            'Yes, someone special,' she repeated. She had that stubborn look on her face, but her cheeks also looked somewhat flushed. Or perhaps it was a trick of the firelight.

            'No,' he answered when she didn't elaborate. 'I didn't have many friends, as I've said, and there was no one...not like that.'

            He didn't think he could get any redder, until Evelyn asked, 'Nobody caught your eye?'

            'N-not...' he stammered. 'Not in Kirkwall.'

            The silence after that was uncomfortable, at least for Cullen. Evelyn seemed unfazed and was swinging her legs nonchalantly, but something about the hard line of her mouth didn't have Cullen convinced.

            'Is anything else bothering you, Evelyn?'

            'You mean other than the darling little brute currently punching me in the gut?'

            'Yes, other than that.'

            'Thank you for asking,' she said. 'Thank you for...caring, but I'm fine. Energetic baby, tad lonely, but otherwise alright. This afternoon was the most fun I've had in ages. I had a...difficult morning, so it really meant a lot to me that you and Cassandra were there to, I don't know, just spend time with me.' She scowled then. She clearly wasn't used to being so open, as much as she clearly wanted to be.

            'Difficult morning,' Cullen repeated, feeling nauseous. 'When is he back?' Evelyn looked at him like he'd just slapped her grandmother in the face. There was the hush of night taking away his better judgement again. 'Sorry,' he said hurriedly. 'I shouldn't have said anything.'

            'No, it's...I trust you. It seems you...well, when you came to help me this morning you probably...you're not stupid, but...' She looked away briefly and made a show of adjusting the long robe she was wearing. 'He never really says,' she continued with a calmness that Cullen would've found convincing a few weeks ago. 'It's usually two or three blissful weeks or peace and quiet. I normally receive a raven when the party is on its way back.' 

            'When he returns, could I...perhaps...escort you on your way between appointments? I could meet you, or you could come to my office and I could...ah...'

            'Would you escort me to my room at night and stand vigil while I sleep beside him?'

            Her words were sharp though not malicious, but they still hurt like a pommel strike in the teeth. Evelyn inhaled shakily and put her face into her hands, trying to muffle the sobs that Cullen could see racking her body despite her attempts to hide them.

            'I'm sorry,' he whispered. He really was useless. He felt the urge to run, to leave her alone before he could make everything worse for her, but in a moment of anxiety-induced boldness, he wrapped an arm around her shoulder instead. 'Is...is this alright?' he asked as he hesitantly stroked her upper arm.

            She leant into him, nodding her head against his chest. She placed a gentle hand on his thigh and he felt himself go light-headed, as though all the blood in his body had rushed to be as close to the soft pressure of her fingers as it could. She cried quietly for a while, occasionally allowing Cullen to wipe away her tears with his surcoat as he ran a soothing hand up and down her arm. Eventually, she sat upright, twisting at the hips so she she could face him properly.

            'Cullen?' she said, as if there was any doubt that she had his full attention.

            'Yes?'

            'Do you remember when we bumped into each other in the garden that night and we, well, argued a bit?'

            Oh no, he thought, knowing that his futile hopes were about to be dashed to pieces once again. The heat where she still touched him fizzled and died.

            'You said you thought we were together. Do you remember?'

            'I...yes, I do. I'm so sorry about that. I don't think I ever apologised properly. I have...very vivid nightm...dreams sometimes, I had just woken up so I must have been confused, I really am very-'

            'Shhh,' she soothed, squeezing his thigh. 'I'm not angry at you. How could I be? You've been kinder to me than anyone else while I've...struggled over the past few weeks. I can't say with confidence that I've figured you out yet, but you've been a good friend when I needed one but didn't know how to...how to ask for help.' She gripped him tighter. 'You said that we were in love.'

            Cullen cringed so hard that he actually felt his neck crack.

            'I truly am sorry if I caused you any embarrassment,' he grimaced.

            'What about now?' she continued. 'Have you realised that I'm not the perfect woman from your dream yet? Have you...left those feelings behind?'

            'Not...not exactly.'

            'Look at me, Cullen,' she ordered, but so gently that he obeyed without question. 'Do you still care about me? Here, now, in the real world?'

            Lie, he thought.

            'Yes.'

            Damn it all.

            'Then kiss me.'

            Of all the things he was expecting to hear, that was most certainly not one of them. He had to have misheard her, or imagined her words, filling in a heart-breaking silence before she could tear him apart for his silly, inappropriate feelings. But when she softly stroked her thumb across his temple and tucked a loose curl behind his ear, he found himself closing his eyes and leaning into her anyway, happy to accept the consequences if it meant that she wouldn't stop touching him. When her lips met his, he was shocked back into his body, having felt up to that point like he had been watching the scene play out from somewhere up on the ceiling, and he pulled away, terrified that he had crossed a line.

            'We shouldn't,' he said hoarsely.

            Evelyn went frighteningly pale, eyes wide and jaw clenched tight. 'Because I'm married?' she said though gritted teeth.

            'No, Evelyn.' He lightly swiped his thumb across her chin, just beneath her perfect lips. 'Because you're upset. Because you've had a hard day.'

            'Maker,' she said on a shaky exhale. 'Why are you so considerate? Don't get me wrong, it's part of what I lo...like about you, but right now, I feel more clear-headed than I have in weeks, months even. If it doesn't feel right to you, or you don't feel the same, then I'll understand. Only don't pity me, don't do something because you feel-'

            Before she could finish, before she could convince herself this wasn't exactly how the world was meant to be, he cupped both her cheeks in his hands and kissed her like he'd never get the chance again. He tried not to rush, just tentatively brushed his lips across hers, giving her the chance to change her mind, but when she wrapped her arms around his neck and sighed against him, he pressed into her with less restraint, desperate to show her all the things he couldn't say. When she tilted her head to deepen the kiss and gently swept her tongue across his closed lips, he gasped and allowed her to slowly chase his tongue with her own, feeling his hands move of their own volition to hold her body closer to his.

            He had little experience of kissing, but any nerves he thought he would feel were entirely absent. He followed her lead, mirrored her movements when she did something that felt good, and let himself fall headfirst into the way her lips danced against his and the solid press of her warm body between his arms. He felt awake, alive, in a way he'd never felt before. He never wanted the moment to end, but eventually Evelyn pulled away and pressed her face into his shoulder.

            He felt a strange rippling under his fingers and realised that he had one hand sprawled across her belly as the baby moved beneath it. His other hand was cradling the back of her head, and he stroked her hair and planted a kiss on her forehead as she clung to the front of his shirt and pressed a tender kiss against his neck in return. Cullen would've been more than content to stay like that forever, wrapped up in each other's arms feeling certain in his heart that they belonged together, but Evelyn had started to fidget. Twisting her body for such a long time (or had it been hardly any time at all?) can't have felt good on her hips.

            'We should get you to bed,' he whispered.

            'Stairs,' she mumbled back.

            He held her tighter, smiling into her hair. 'I can help with that.'

            When she looked up at him, it was clear that she was sleepy. The kiss had had a similar effect on Cullen, like he was so happy and relaxed that he could sink through the floor. Her lips glistened red in the light of the lantern while the moon turned her hair an ethereal colour that Cullen didn't have a name for. She looked so beautiful, unreal even, and he dipped his head to claim her kisses once more.

            Not long after, or so Cullen supposed, as time seemed to have no meaning when her body was so close to his, they were standing hand in hand at the second set of stairs that led up into her quarters. He blew out the lantern he held in his free hand and placed it on the ground.

            'May I lift you, my lady?' he asked, feeling stupid and giddy and light.

            'Yes, you may,' she sighed, but instead of wrapping an arm around his waist, she snaked both arms up around his neck. Cullen gave her a questioning look, feeling uncertain, but she only smiled and stroked the hair at the nape of his neck. Trying to conceal how much her touch was making him shiver, he picked her up, one arm around her shoulders and the other beneath her knees, and carried her up the stairs into her room.

            Miraculously, it was exactly how it was in his dream, even down to the colourful paintings above the mezzanine and the vaulting owl statues that seemed to grow out of the stone organically. A large stag's head mounted on the wall and a small rack of rapiers were the only items that were out of place. He carried Evelyn over to her large four-poster bed, precisely the one he had seen in the Fade, and ever so carefully placed her on top of the covers.

            'You treat me like I'm something precious,' she mumbled, and there was a coyness there that Cullen hadn't seen before. It did something to his chest that he would analyse later, when he wasn't completely enthralled by her eyes. 'Not like the battered warrior that I am.'

            'Why can't you be both?' he replied breathlessly.

            She rolled her eyes but without scorn, and reached for a silk nightgown that lay folded across her pillow. Realising that she would need to undress before bed, Cullen felt his face go red and looked down at the floor.

            'Can I help you with anything else before I leave?' he asked.

            'Yes,' she said. 'You can come over here and kiss me goodnight.'

            He felt one side of his mouth quirk up at her words.

            'I think I can manage that.'

            Placing one knee on the bed, he leant in and placed a gentle hand under her chin, tipping her head back so he could kiss her. It was slow, sensual, but still chaste. He thought another kiss like the one downstairs would stop his heart completely. At least he'd die happy, he mused abstractedly.

            'Goodnight, Evelyn,' he whispered against her lips.

            'Goodnight, Cullen,' she sighed, leaning back into her numerous pillows. 'And thank you. For everything.'

            There was so much more he wanted to say, but his thoughts were like a thousand water droplets scattered across his mind, merging together as they crossed paths, leaving tiny fresh droplets in their wake and splitting up when he thought he'd put his finger on one, so he kissed her once more instead, actions so much easier than words. As he kissed her forehead, her cheeks, her nose, he brushed a hand across her stomach, a silent goodbye to her little warrior too, who had become something tangible that evening, something real and alive and precious. He managed to croakily wish her goodnight, holding in an apology when he realised he'd already done so. He couldn't take his eyes off of her even as he left, staring at her in amazement until he was too low down the stairs to see her anymore.

            Next thing he knew he was in his office. The walk there was nothing more than the reliving of all that had happened that day, from Evelyn's laughter while they sparred to the sensation of her lips on his, from Evelyn's triumphant crowing when she had kicked Cassandra's legs from under her to the feeling of her baby kicking under his shaking hand. He barely slept that night, too filled up with joy to risk losing it to a cruel nightmare, but even so, he got up the next morning feeling more awake, more alive, than he had in years.

Chapter Text

Cullen was struggling to concentrate on his work. In truth, he had felt like that ever since his and Evelyn's kiss in the War Room almost two weeks ago. He'd spent every day since feeling like his head was full of rising bubbles like in a glass of champagne and his colours were bleeding outside of the lines, too bright and vibrant to be contained. The stresses of command weren't any less, but every time their eyes caught and she smiled just for him or brushed her hand against his as she passed, he felt like he could push through it all for another day, especially if that day ended with him carrying her up to bed and kissing her goodnight as it often had over the past week or so.

            Sometimes Evelyn would come and visit, ostensibly to deliver some kind of paperwork or to organise a war council meeting, but each time she would stroke her thumb across his cheek or place her hands against his breastplate and smile up at him shyly until he was powerless to stop himself from leaning down and kissing her. They knew they had to be careful, that just because Harimann wasn't around didn't mean word wouldn't get back to him if they were caught, but when the castle around them was quiet, the urge to press against each other and lose themselves in the feeling of their lips moving together overtook them. Cullen didn't know if it was something about her kisses themselves or simply the distraction they provided, but the edge was always filed off of his aches and pains for a good half an hour after each caress. Unfortunately, the sharp point of the withdrawals always managed to use the inside of his skull as a whetstone and return as strong as ever each time.

            Cullen was tapping his quill against a piece of parchment, not realising that he was ruining it, when the door in front of him swung open and startled him into sitting up straight and adopting the expression of someone who had been busy working instead of having inappropriate daydreams about a married woman. He couldn't help but smile and let out a small huff of amusement when the very reason for his distractedness walked in, chewing on her bottom lip and carrying a small box, half holding and half balancing it on her rounded stomach. She turned her head away as she placed the box down on an empty-ish area of desk, as if not looking at it meant she could escape the culpability of having brought it in to begin with.

            'Good afternoon, Inquisitor. Do you need me for something?'

            'Good afternoon, Commander,' she replied. 'Nothing important. I just wanted to bring you this.' She gestured nonchalantly at the box. 'It's a little thank you gift, I suppose,' she cut in before he could ask. 'To show that I appreciate your help in training me the past few weeks. And just in general, for your patience and...company.'

            Cullen stood up to go to her, but realised he couldn't really feel his feet, so he leaned across the table instead while he tried to quietly kick the floor to wake them back up.

            'You really did not need to bring me anything...' He listened for outside noise for a moment before calling her by her name. 'Evelyn. I enjoy training with you, and it is...my pleasure to spend time with you.'

            They stared at one another for a moment that felt full and heavy with unsaid feelings. Maker's breath, her eyes were perfect, so he looked away before he could be rendered completely helpless by them.

            'Would you like to sit down?' He stepped sideways, using the table for balance, and gestured to his empty chair.

            'That depends,' Evelyn said. 'Do you have some time?' She looked away from him and tucked her hair behind her ear. Cullen hadn't realised until that moment in the dim lighting that it was wet.

            'For you, always.'

            She looked back at him then, eyes wide, mouth slightly open, and he blushed fiercely. Perhaps that had been too far.

            'You're sure?' she asked.

            When he nodded, not trusting himself with words anymore, she came round to his side of the desk and placed her hands on his vambraces. He wished, not for the first time, that he could feel her touch properly. 'Give me a hand?'

            'You really can have the chair,' he protested.

            She narrowed her eyes at him, but her lips were pulled tightly together, restraining a smile, so he shoved some papers and a tankard out of the way, took her under the arms and lifted her onto the desk. She trailed her hands up his arms and into the fur of his surcoat, then higher until she was stroking his stubbled jaw with her thumbs.

            'I need to shave,' he blurted.

            'Oh well,' Evelyn said, shrugging her shoulders. 'I have wet hair.'

            'I noticed. Is it raining?'

            'No, not raining. I've just had a bath. It's been much easier since this weird little step stool thing appeared in my bathroom. Now I can get in and out of the tub without a care in the world. My guardian spirit strikes again.' She looked at him sidelong as she stretched both arms above her head and made about tying her hair up in a ribbon, the movement making her breasts strain against the fabric of her tunic. Had they always been that big? Cullen looked away quickly, blush deepening until he could feel it like fire along his cheekbones. He shouldn't be thinking such things; it wasn't like him and it was disrespectful, inappropriate. 'Anyway,' Evelyn continued, oblivious to his turmoil, 'it spares me the humiliation of having the midwife manhandle me out of the water like a bloated fish. I can do it all by myself now,' she finished, lifting her chin in mock pride.

            'We have a midwife?'

            'Well, I do,' she huffed, crossing her arms over the top of her bump. 'She's from the Harimann estate, and she's an overbearing bint. Do you know how weird it is to have a woman follow you around asking about your breasts?'

            'I...ah...imagine that would be...irksome.' For the love of the Maker, why did she have to remind him of them?

            'Am I embarrassing you?' Her tone was playful, but Cullen sensed a tension in the way she self-consciously readjusted herself on the edge of the desk.

            'No,' he denied. 'Not at all.'

            Evelyn smiled at him, but it was a small, half-hearted thing. 'I bet the me from your dream didn't overshare or make you blush with her inappropriateness.'

            'She did, actually.'

            'Really?'

            He nodded, not sure that he liked where this was headed.

            'So what was she like?' she asked casually. 'What made you fall in love with her?'

            Cullen felt his mouth go dry. If only she knew that everything he loved about Dream Evelyn was what he loved about her.

            'She was very...competent. Sorry, I mean...' Maker's breath, he hated himself so much it hurt sometimes. 'I meant confident, a strong leader, but also a kind and generous friend. She always had time for the people she cared about. Sometimes she would put other's needs first, or the cause first, and worried about herself second, which drove me mad, but was also one of the things I...' The way Evelyn was watching him, hanging on his every word, spurred him on further. 'She was strong and dependable and loyal, remarkably discerning and fiendishly quick witted. She cared for me even though I don't deserve to have her so much as look me in the eye. And she is...was...breathtakingly beautiful.'

            'Nothing like me then,' Evelyn frowned. 'I've treated my friends horribly, I've let being pregnant hinder my comrades in the field, and any beauty I had is in the past, before I had a puffy face and swollen ankles and bags under my eyes. Before I-'

            'Please, don't,' he interrupted. 'Don't say that. How can you...how do you not see how lovely you are?'

            'Lovely?'

            'Yes,' he said hoarsely. 'Lovely.'

            'And this?' she frowned, poking her stomach.

            'B...beautiful.'

            He hadn't realised how close he'd gotten until he felt her shaky exhale on his face. His hands were holding her hips firmly, and the cold metal of his lower breastplate was pressed against the warm swell of her belly. Her feet hung lightly on either side of his legs, framing his knees. It looked for a moment like Evelyn was expecting a kiss, but she quickly turned her face from his and tucked an imaginary stray lock of hair behind her ear.

            'Then it's a shame that no man will ever want me again,' she said quietly.

            'I want you,' he whispered. 'I always have.'

            'But you...' She closed her eyes and shook her head. 'You wanted me to get married.'

            It felt like she'd just stabbed an arrow through his armour and right into his chest. He threw himself back into his chair, only realising when he saw Evelyn's hurt expression how dismissive and disparaging the action must have looked. Panicking, he held his arms out to her like a child, and to his surprise and relief, she slid from the desk and went to him, lowering herself to sit across his lap. He wrapped one arm around his waist and gripped around her thigh with the other, tethering her to him, filled by an overwhelming feeling that he wasn't sure he could name, something like an unbidden primal possessiveness.

            'I'm so sorry,' he whispered into her neck when she rested her head against his. 'This is all my fault.'

            'How so?' she murmured. 'The final decision was with me.'

            'But I was so...I pushed you to accept, and...Forgive me.'

            'Why?'

            'Why?' he repeated uncertainly.

            'Why be so for the arrangement and then turn against it now that I can't escape?'

            He was torn then between relief at finally starting to remember and torment at not being so in the dark about the past that he could still distance himself from it somewhat. He screwed his eyes shut, unable to look at her, but when she ghosted her lips hesitantly across his temple, he knew that he would never be able to lie to her.

            'On the journey to Skyhold,' he began, not opening his eyes, 'I was...that is, I wasn't able to...stay strong, and morale was low, but...walking all day and...You were still recovering, so people were looking to me for...ah...'

            'Cullen,' she said gently. 'Just say what you mean to say.'

            'Alright.' When he opened his eyes, she was looking at him with such open sympathy, a sympathy he didn't deserve, that he could hardly bear to tell her his secret shame. How could she forgive him when he couldn't forgive himself? 'I...took lyrium,' he groaned. 'I was always going to stop again, as soon as we found somewhere to settle, and I have, it's been months now, but I couldn't do it, I couldn't fulfil my role and keep everyone safe while I was...too dizzy and cold and tired to keep up, I only meant to...I regret it terribly, but-'

            'Slow down,' she said firmly. 'I understand. You don't need to explain yourself.'

            'I-I do,' he snapped. 'I do because I took advantage of what it did to me. It was easier to have everything...numbed again. I didn't have to hold onto as much fear or shame or...I was able to put my feelings to the back of my mind again, to only think about...about the task in hand.' He sighed heavily. 'We spent so much time together in Haven.'

            'We did,' Evelyn said sadly.

            'It scared me. I had never...I didn't know what to do with such feelings.'

            'I know.'

            'But to know that I let something happen to you because I was able to close off again...I'm sickened by myself. I was...I became...' The very person I was trying to leave behind. The man who sat back and let bad things happen to good people because it was easier than looking in the mirror and questioning everything that told him not to. 'Don't...don't come near me again. Keep away from me. I'm...' Vile. Deplorable. Dirty. 'Not worthy.'

            'Do you still take it?'

            'No, I swear it. I stopped the day after we arrived.'

            'So here, now, this is the real you?'

            'It was all the real me.'

            Evelyn seemed to contemplate that for a while, during which time Cullen continuously let go of her and then clung to her more fiercely in a tense, febrile cycle.

            'Do you think I've never done unforgivable things?' she said finally. 'Haven't you noticed me sentencing people to death, banishing people, only for the reputation of my organisation? Have you honestly never looked at me and thought I was mad with power or that I thought of myself above the Maker? Throwing my weight around to get my own way, marching into people's homes and making demands, putting my compassion, my heart, to one side so that I could get the job done?'

            'I have never thought of you like that.'

            'Then you're either stupid or you judge me too leniently. Either way, plenty of people do see me like that, and at least some of them may be right.' Before he could reply, she put both hands on his cheeks and forced him to look at her. 'Are you sorry for your part in all this?'

            'Yes, Maker, yes. Evelyn, I will never forgive myself for the part I have played in your suffering. I will never-'

            'Will you take lyrium again?'

            'Never.'

            'Despite the withdrawals? Despite the risk?'

            'Never,' he repeated. 'I set myself back weeks of progress, made it all the harder for myself, but I accept the punishment. It's no less than I deserve.'

            'And my suffering is much less than I deserve,' she said, releasing his face. 'I accept it reluctantly, but these are my flames to bear. And for what it's worth,' she continued, frowning stubbornly, daring him to argue, 'I like who you are now, off of the lyrium. I think this is the real you sitting here now; kind, thoughtful, selfless, brave-'

            'Don't.'

            'A man who's hurting but not taking it out on others. I can't say I always succeed in doing the same. I've pushed away my own friends and tried to push aside any guilt I feel at hurting them, and I don't have lyrium as an excuse. I'm working on it, but...it may take time. Do you despise me for it?'

            'No, Evelyn,' he said, mesmerised by her eyes so close to his. 'I have nothing but respect for you.'

            'Then you're a fool.'

            She leant in and kissed him with more fervour than he had been expecting, and he tried in vain to pull her closer, cursing his armour for what must have been the millionth time. He began to shiver uncontrollably, overwhelmed by the feeling of her tongue parting his lips and her hand gripping his hair, nails lightly grazing his scalp. He tried to loosen his grip on her side, worried about hurting her, and made an effort to lower the volume of the helpless sounds he was moaning into her mouth, but when she shifted higher up his lap, he clung on all the tighter and gasped loudly.

            'I love the sounds you make when I kiss you,' she purred against his lips.

            'Maker's breath...'

            'I wish we could-'

            A knock on the door made her jump so exaggeratedly that Cullen had to stop her tipping onto the floor. Cognitive function kicking back in, he hurriedly stood her on her feet and nudged at her to move away from him. Surprisingly quickly considering her size, she dashed to the other side of the desk and picked up the first piece of paper she could lay hands on; the potions were clearly still helping with the pain. Cullen had just enough time to turn the paper she was holding the right way up when the door opened.

            'Commander, we...oh, my apologies, Inquisitor. I didn't know you were here.'

            'That's alright,' she reassured the messenger. 'I was just leaving.'

            'Wait, Ev...Inquisitor,' Cullen blurted. 'Just let me finish signing this so you don't have to pick it up later.'

            He scrawled his note on the back of a dud report and pressed it into her hand. She nodded formally as though she'd been expecting it, then wished both he and the messenger a good day and left the office with her chin raised, back straight, the picture of composure.

            'She's right big now,' the messenger marvelled once she was gone. 'Some of us reckon it's twins.'

            'Yes, well, that's nobody's business but hers.'

            'And Lord Harimann's.'

            Cullen clenched his fists and growled in the back of his throat. 'Yes, and...Deliver your message, now!'

 

                                                *          *          *          *          *

 

Every hour that passed in which Evelyn hadn't replied to his note felt like one step closer to the executioner's noose. He had written it so hastily, barely thinking, that he had started to wonder if he'd worded it all wrong, if it was somehow offensive or just plain ridiculous. He wondered if he should be glad, that maybe she had looked back over their conversation and decided that she should stay away from him after all, but the arrival of a folded note the following afternoon had him both devastated that she hadn't heeded his warning and overjoyed that she had agreed. At least everything he had prepared wouldn't go to waste.

            Her reply was written beneath his original note.

            Would you like to accompany me outside of the castle whenever you are next free? And beneath it, a glorious, beautiful, I'd love to. How is five days' time?

            And so, five days later, Cullen found himself waiting for her by the stables, feeling so nervous that he thought he might be sick. He had already strapped everything they would need to his horse and was missing having something to do with his hands. He had been doggedly avoiding eye contact for what felt like an age when a strange magnetism dragged his eyes upwards in time to see her approaching him from the direction of the kitchens. She looked well, but was walking quite slowly, and Cullen suddenly felt very dense for planning to put her on a horse.

            'Hello,' he greeted her stupidly.

            'Hi,' she replied, looking around and then stroking her fingers over the back of his gloved hand. 'Was I meant to bring anything? Because all I've brought is myself.'

            'You are enough,' he said quietly, trying not to blush at the way his words seemed to please her. 'I may have miscalculated things however, having planned for us to go by horse. I wouldn't want you to be in pain.'

            'You may have to help me on and off, but otherwise I'll be as little of a nuisance as possible,' she said.

            'Of course,' he nodded. 'I thought we could ride together so that...If you wouldn't mind.'

            'Not at all,' she beamed.

            'Well,' he began, preoccupied by her smile. 'I would usually suggest you sit behind and...hold onto me, but I'm not sure if that will be possible, because, well...'

            'You're calling me fat?'

            'No! Of course, not!'

            'I'm only teasing,' Evelyn smirked, holding her hands up. 'I'll sit in front if it won't cause too many problems.'

            He leant in closer to her and added, 'Do you think people will find it odd?'

            'Why would they?' she frowned. 'Surely it's not too strange for my commander to escort me out to camp while I'm, shall we say, hors de combat?'

            'Alright,' he agreed, distracted by the way she had said 'my commander'. 'I'll climb on behind you once we clear the bridge. Once there are...less people.'

            She nodded rather gravely, clearly catching on to his concerns. Quite ready to be away from prodding, probing people altogether, Cullen whistled for his horse, who clopped towards them with a doleful backwards glance at his bag of oats.

            'Maker, he's a big lad,' Evelyn balked.

            'He looks scary, but he's a big softie really,' he chuckled, stroking along the white stripe down the centre of the enormous Ferledan Forder's face.

            'Like you?'

            Cullen blushed and looked at the ground. 'He's called Grim.'

            Great deflection, he scolded himself. Very smooth, not obvious at all.

            'Well, Grim is very handsome,' she cooed, patting the beast's shoulder. 'Any suggestions as to how I can actually mount him, Commander?'

            'Grim, kneel.'

            To Evelyn's obvious surprise, the horse dropped onto its front knees and lowered its belly to the ground. 'Well, I wish my horse did that,' she laughed.

            'It took a while to teach him,' Cullen said. 'Easier to put wounded soldiers on him this way.'

            'I can imagine,' Evelyn remarked. 'I think I'll still need a hand though.'

            'Right, yes, of course.'

            Very carefully, hoping that nothing about how he was touching her seemed inappropriate to any watching eyes, he helped her up into the saddle. Cullen ordered Grim back onto his feet and pretended to ignore the surprised squeak he heard from the mighty Inquisitor.

            'Ready?' he called up to her.

            Evelyn looked around the courtyard surreptitiously before giving a firm nod, so Cullen took the reins and guided Grim out onto the bridge. Once they had crossed and were some way past the entrance tower, Cullen pulled himself up behind Evelyn.

            'Are we going far?' she asked.

            'Not too far,' he replied. 'No more than a half hour's ride.'

            'Let's get to it them. I'm rather excited for our little adventure.'

            They set off at a gentle trot, Cullen holding the reins on either side of Evelyn and thanking the Maker she was so much shorter than him, for he had a very clear view over the top of her head. When he was sure Evelyn was comfortable, he had Grim speed up, but didn't miss her stiffen slightly as they began to move quicker. He slid an arm around her to comfort her, to reassure her that he wouldn't let her fall, but spent so long moving his hand up and down her stomach trying to find the best place to grip her that she started to laugh.

            'You're tickling me!' she protested.

            'Sorry.'

            'Here's just fine,' she said, placing her hand over his where he held the underside of her bump. 'Let them know you're there. They're a bit weird with horses.'

            That strange, unprecedented protectiveness rushed through him again, and he splayed his fingers so that he could touch as much of her belly as possible. She sighed and leant back into him, head pillowed on the fur of his surcoat, and they rode like that for a while, Cullen concentrating on the path and the chill of the air rather than the way Grim's pace made Evelyn move rhythmically against him, leaving him breathless and painfully red-faced. After what felt like an age, he was finally able to call Grim to a halt.

            'We're here,' he said.

            'Maker, it's beautiful.'

            Evelyn looked around at the little grove with her mouth open in amazement, taking in the lazy swaying of dozens of colourful flowers, so different from the plants usually found near the castle, and the unhurried water of a clear stream winding its way deeper into the trees beyond the small clearing as though it had all the time in the world, like its homeland wasn't currently being torn apart by war and calamity. Cullen helped her down from the horse and untied the provisions from where he had secured them by the saddle. He then spread a large blanket across the grass and helped Evelyn sit down upon it, slowly lowering her to the ground.

            'Do you need to tie up Grim?' she asked.

            'He'll be fine. He'll probably go for a drink.' As if on cue, Grim sauntered over to the stream and bent his head to drink. 'How very predictable of him,' Cullen laughed, sitting down beside Evelyn.

            'I can handle predictable,' she said. 'I like predictable. If only humans could be relied upon like that.'

            'That would certainly make our jobs easier.'

            'Wouldn't it just,' she sighed. 'So, what's in the bag?'

            'Oh, that, yes,' he stammered. There was no reason for him to feel so nervous, but his heart began to race faster anyway. 'Some food, another blanket, that sort of thing.'

            'Like a picnic?'

            'I...suppose. I hope that's...'

            'Oh, Maker, I haven't had a picnic in years!' she beamed. 'What a wonderful treat. Thank you, Cullen, thank you.'

            She got onto her knees and leant into him, steadying herself against his solid frame as she threw her arms around his shoulders. When she let go, she sat down beside him once more and he went about pulling the second blanket from the bag to hide the fact that he was still thoroughly flustered from the way she had softly nuzzled his ear with her nose.

            'Are you cold?'

            'I'm not freezing,' she shrugged.

            'So yes,' he said, laughing gently. 'Here.'

            He draped the blanket around her shoulders.

            'Aren't you joining me?'

            'Only if...' But she was already busying herself with throwing some blanket over him as well until they were both wrapped up in its warmth, snuggled together against the breeze. Cullen began to wonder in earnest what had possessed him to wear his armour. 'Would you like a drink?'

            'What have you got?' Evelyn grinned. He hadn't seen her look this happy in, well, he couldn't remember. It was like he was seeing a childlike side to her he'd never seen before.

            'Well,' he began, rifling in the bag whilst trying not to disturb the blanket. 'We've got wine, but there's also some kind of, I'm not sure actually. It's like Orlesian...fruit juice? I haven't actually tried it. I just thought you might like the option if you didn't want to drink the wine. I read that sometimes women don't drink when they're...not that I think you shouldn't. I just...wanted you to be able to choose.'

            'What do you mean you read it?' Evelyn said slowly. 'Have you been nosing through pregnancy guidebooks or something?'

            Cullen blushed so brilliantly that he was sure he'd never go back to his normal colour, but Evelyn didn't rebuke him or laugh at him as he'd feared. She only shuffled closer and pulled his arm around her so she could rest her head against his shoulder and lay a hand on his knee, which after that embarrassing revelation, was an enormous relief. He didn't want her to think he was being overbearing or trying to involve himself in things that didn't concern him, but truth be told, he was suddenly fascinated by the whole pregnancy thing, having never really stopped to think about it at any other point in his life. He couldn't get over the fact that there was an actual living human growing inside of Evelyn, and that he was able to watch her become bigger and bigger week after week as they did so. He was also petrified of all the unknowns, of the risks and the things that could go wrong and his own powerlessness to stop them, and the books gave him some peace of mind on sleepless nights when he would lie awake overcome with fear and loneliness.

            'I'll try the juice, please,' she said.

            It was a struggle to pour the drink into the glasses with only one hand, but he managed. He most certainly wasn't going to take his arm from around Evelyn just yet, not when they were finally away from the risk of being overseen.

            'There's some strawberries and shortbread too, if you want some,' he said, handing her the glass.

            'I love shortbread!' she exclaimed, and Cullen had to stop himself from saying, 'I know.' She turned her face to look at him. 'Did you get all this for me?'

            'I...yes. I thought you deserved...' But he didn't know how to say what she deserved without reminding himself of all the things he could never give her and all the things he had played an active role in taking from her. 'Not everything,' he said instead. 'I believe you got these for me.' He handed her the last item from the bag. 'I must admit I've already eaten some, but I thought it would be nice to share too.'

            Evelyn took the box of butterscotch she had given him and stared down at it with an unwarranted intensity, possibly in an attempt to hide the colour Cullen could see rising on her cheeks.

            They sat like that for a while, eating and drinking and chatting about everything and nothing, just enjoying the feel of their sides pressed together and of their shared body heat protecting them from the wind. At one point, Evelyn lifted a butterscotch to his lips, and he was so shocked by the intimate gesture that he forgot to open his mouth. She gently traced around his lips with the smooth candy and when he finally relented, she pressed it onto his tongue, letting her fingers linger on his lips until he was breathless and shivery. He wasn't sure if it was the correct procedure, having never done this sort of thing, but he was overwhelmed by the need to return the gesture, and when she took the sweet he offered and softly lapped at the tip of his finger, he was almost certain he was going to pass out.

            'Apparently some of the messengers think you're having twins,' he said after they'd sat in a heady silence for a while, enjoying their butterscotch and not daring to speak and spoil the delicious moment.

            'Maker's balls, don't I know it,' she huffed.

            'You're not, are you?'

            'No, I'm not,' she grumbled. 'They're just an enormous brute.'

            'A very adorable enormous brute, I'm sure,' he laughed.

            'I hope so,' she sighed. 'I mean of course they'll be adorable, what baby isn't? But I do worry...'

            'What is it?'

            'Do you think the mark will affect them?' She looked down at the roiling green scar on her left hand and flexed her fingers.

            'We have no reason to think so,' Cullen soothed, despite the knot in his stomach. He hadn't thought of that. 'They're growing as they should be, aren't they?'

            'They are. The heartbeat is fine too. It's stupid, like I don't have enough to be worrying about without wasting energy on a baseless "what if".'

            'It's not stupid,' he said, squeezing her shoulder. 'All mothers worry about their children. How have you...how did you hear their heartbeat?'

            'Midwife has a weird little trumpet that she presses to my belly and listens to the baby's heartbeat through. I haven't heard it, the trumpet thing is only small, but she's happy that it's normal.' She sighed again, even louder than before. 'Just over a month and a half until we know for sure.' She turned to him and placed a hand on his breastplate. 'Anyway, enough misery. How can I ever thank you for today? It's been perfect. Obviously you know my missions are all but non-existent now, so being out of the castle like this is...'

            'You don't have to thank me,' he said. 'I just wanted to do something nice for you.'

            'Can I thank you anyway?'

            'You really don't-'

            But she had gripped the fur of his surcoat and pulled him into an insistent kiss, and any rebuttals he might have had vanished. She tasted of the butterscotch he had placed in her mouth, and the thought of her tongue on his fingertip burned through him until he was lowering her onto the grass and chasing that same tongue with his own, cradling the back of her head to protect her from the ground below and tugging lightly on her hair to angle her just the way he needed to make the kiss even deeper, to better show her his passion. She squirmed and gasped as she clung to his surcoat, huffing whenever her stomach stopped her from pulling him closer. He ran his free hand up and down her side, then lower to grip her thigh as she desperately tried to tangle her legs with his, arching up into his kiss and moaning in a way that set his blood on fire. It wasn't until Evelyn had sneakily gotten one hand under the fabric of his clothes and was stroking across his bare hipbone that he realised what was happening, and he jerked away instinctively. She sighed happily and smiled up at him as he caught his breath.

            When Cullen suggested that they should get back to the castle, once they both felt slightly sick from all the sweet food and very much drunk on each other's kisses, Evelyn begged to quickly dip her feet in the stream before they left.

            'But it will be freezing!' he'd protested.

            'Just for a moment,' she pleaded. 'I used to love the feel of the water on my toes when I was younger, living at home. I miss...'

            But whatever she missed went unspoken, abandoned while she kicked off her boots and just about managed to pull off her socks by reaching around her enormous belly. Watching her standing up to her ankles in the tinkling water, head tilted back and eyes closed against the harsh winter sun, he feared that the bone-deep longing he felt for her was becoming too heavy to bear, but then a wonderful idea bisected the cloud of his heartache like lightning. The idea flashed into his head fully formed, and as he watched her hum in pleasure at the feeling of the cold water on her sore feet, he knew exactly where to take her and what to do.

 

                                                *          *          *          *          *

 

The day ended as Cullen had expected, with him scooping Evelyn up and carrying her to her room. She had clearly been in discomfort on the ride back to the castle and he had apologised profusely for not packing her an extra potion, so he was more than grateful for the chance to make it up to her come night time. Apparently spurred on by the good mood she had been in after their trip, Evelyn had told him that she would be taking her evening meal at the Herald's Rest in the hope of running into some of her friends. She had seemed both anxious and determined, with Cullen finding the complete juxtaposition of the nervous biting of her bottom lip and the stubborn furrowing of her eyebrows completely endearing. He had arrived outside of her quarters much too early, but the smile on her exhausted face when she finally showed up melted away any aggravation. He lifted her into his arms as he always did and took her to her room, glad that this time he had removed his armour beforehand; he could feel every inch of where her warm body touched his through the thin material of his shirt.

            'Did you meet any of your friends?'

            'I did,' she smiled, stroking the back of his neck as he carried her. 'I was so nervous at first, but at some point I had to admit that it was all on me. It was me who pulled away and it had to me to make the effort to talk to them again. They were all surprisingly kind.'

            'Well done, Evelyn,' he whispered as he kissed the curve of her ear. When they stepped round the bannister and the amber glow of the fireplace struck her face, he saw that her cheeks were flushed.

            'Will you stay a while?' she asked almost shyly when he placed her on her feet. 'I have tea, if that suits.'

            'I'd like that very much.'

            For a moment they just smiled at each other, and Cullen was thrilled and amazed to see his own giddy nerves reflected on Evelyn's face.

            'I think I'll have a quick bucket bath while the water boils,' she said, then frowned. 'Or would that be rude? To leave you sitting out here?'

            'It's fine,' he reassured. 'If you show me where everything is I'll get the tea started while I wait.'

            'You're sure?'

            'Yes, I'm sure,' he laughed.

            Some ten minutes later, the water was just about boiling when the sloshing from the side room came to a stop and he heard Evelyn humming to herself, which Cullen found agonisingly adorable. He lifted the kettle from over the fire with the tong-like contraption Evelyn had told him to use and set in on the hearth before turning to smile at her as she entered the room, but his smile faltered and ultimately fell from his face.

            He'd never seen so much of her skin before. He thought the housecoat she was wearing must have been from before her pregnancy, because it most certainly wasn't made to accommodate her current shape as most of her day-to-day clothes did. The fabric barely covered her bump and her swollen breasts forced the overlap of each side of the robe to gape, exposing a wide expanse of her collarbone and upper chest.

            'Maker, this fit me fine only recently, I swear,' she grumbled. She readjusted the cord so it was beneath her stomach, then growled in frustration and tied it above the bump as it had been to begin with. 'Is the water done?'

            Cullen had opened his mouth to answer, but felt it go completely dry when she crossed her arms and forced her breasts together, her cleavage completely uncovered. He really was trying not to look, but then he noticed that he could see the outline of her nipples, which had stiffened in the relative chill of the main room, and he froze up all over again. He felt a wave of revulsion, not at Evelyn, Maker, Evelyn was perfect, but at himself. This wasn't how you looked at people. This shouldn't be how he was looking at Evelyn.

            'I need to...I think I should go,' he sputtered, jumping to his feet and looking towards the stairs. 'I...should let you rest.'

            'Cullen, what's wrong?'

            'N-nothing's wrong,' he lied. 'You've had a long day, I should...'

            But he didn't know what he should do. He hadn't felt that shameful stirring in his trousers for years, and even before that, he'd never felt it and not been entirely desperate to get away from whatever had triggered it. Standing in front of Evelyn knowing that he did want to be near her, that he did want to touch her and kiss her and perhaps even let her touch him, he felt torn in two. He put his hands behind his back and dug his nails into the wrist of the opposite hand, hoping the pain would ground him.

            'You're white as a sheet!' Evelyn exclaimed. 'What is it, Cullen? What's wrong?' She placed her hands gently on his biceps and his traitorous body leant into her touch.

            'I feel overwhelmed.'

            It was clumsy but honest, and all he could hope for was that Evelyn would understand at least in some small way.

            'Me too,' she said on a shaky exhale, and he noticed then that she was trembling slightly. She slid her hands from his biceps up to his shoulders, and then down to splay across his chest. One hand stayed there while the other dipped lower so she could tease her thumb across the muscles of his abdomen. 'Maker's breath, you're exceptional.'

            'Evelyn,' he pleaded, but he didn't know what he was pleading for. All he knew was that it took every ounce of his restraint not to cling on to her when she stepped away.

            She turned her back to him and appeared to take a steadying breath. She took another small step away, and then another, then straightened her back and raised her chin. Before he could ask her what was wrong, her robe tumbled to the ground and she stood before him wholly and utterly uncovered. With another grounding breath, she turned once more to face him and the sight was like a punch in the gut, completely stealing his breath away as he felt his jaw drop open and his entire body began to quake. Did this mean she wouldn't hate him for the effect her body was having on him? Did this mean she wanted him to...to...

            'Fuck,' she cursed. 'Stupid fucking...fuck.' She tried to reach down for the fallen housecoat but her stomach was in the way, and she growled furiously and stamped on it instead. Her anger was enough to rouse Cullen from his stupor.

            'Evelyn?'

            'I'm a fucking idiot,' she barked. 'Stupid, stupid woman.'

            'Don't say that.'

            'Why shouldn't I?' she shouted, glaring at him fearsomely, nostrils flared. 'You must think exactly the same. As if any man would want me looking like this. I'm disgusting, he's right, I'm completely fucking disgusting.'

            Cullen's brain had been sluggishly trying to figure out what had gone so horribly wrong so horribly quickly, but finally he understood; she had misread his reaction.

            'Wait, Evelyn, you don't understand.'

            'I understand perfectly,' she hissed, trying again to reach down for her robe. When Cullen picked it up for her she snatched it from him and held it up to cover herself. 'I've made a fool of myself. Again. And on top of that I've ruined our friendship, Maker I've ruined our friendship in less than five seconds. I'm an idiot, a fat, disgusting idiot.'

            'You're not.'

            'Your face says otherwise.'

            'No, you don't...Let me explain.'

            'No,' she snapped.

            'Please, Evelyn, you have it wrong. I-'

            'No!'

            'Listen to me!'

            'NO!'

            He would later blame a mixture of panic and anger for his rather drastic attempt to show her how very wrong she was. There was no other explanation for why he had chosen to grab her firmly by the wrist and press her open palm to the front of his trousers. Evelyn's eyes grew almost impossibly wide and she exhaled sharply. Admittedly, his erection had been waning in response to her devastating reaction to his complete idiocy, but when she dropped her housecoat once more in her shock, he wondered if she felt it thicken further under her palm.

            'You're...you're perfect, Evelyn,' he managed hoarsely.

            She stared up into his eyes, looking from one to the other as if to discern some kind of falsehood, but apparently finding none, she slowly palmed him through his trousers, gently moving her hand up and down. He screwed his eyes shut and fought to breathe more steadily, trying to allow himself to enjoy the feeling without guilt or shame, but when she curled her fingers to try and take hold of him more fully, it became too much and he jerked away from her touch. His eyes shot open and she filled his vision once again. He didn't like the remaining doubt he saw in her face.

            'Can I...touch you, Evelyn?'

            She nodded but didn't speak, so he decided to start on comfortable ground, with a kiss that he tried to make confident and reassuring. He ran his fingers over her hair, then smoothed them down her back. When she relaxed into the kiss, he tentatively skimmed his knuckles across her collarbone and down towards the swell of her breasts, but he couldn't get close enough. He needed to get closer.

            'Come with me,' he whispered in her ear. She cocked an eyebrow at him, but took the hand he offered and followed him without question. Until she realised his intention, that is.

            'No, not that,' she said turning her head away.

            'Please, Evelyn,' he breathed into her hair. 'Can't you see how beautiful you are?'

            She still seemed uncertain, but she allowed him to turn her back to face the full-length mirror before them. Cullen stood behind her and rested his chin on her shoulder. She cast a cursory glance across her body and then looked away, which only made Cullen more determined. When he began to trail his fingers down her arms, he saw her following the movement in the mirror. He raised each of her hands in turn and kissed them before he looped them back around his neck so that her body was stretched and open for him. He grazed the backs of his fingers down the underside of her upstretched arms, and she sighed shakily and closed her eyes.

            'Keep looking at us, Evelyn,' he pleaded. 'Can I...would it be okay if I were to...ah...' She must have seen where he was looking in the mirror, because she nodded without needing him to elaborate. 'Are you sure?'

            'I'm sure,' she smiled. 'Just be gentle. They're a bit sensitive.'

            He wanted to reassure her that he would never hurt her, but his throat was too tight and the pulse that he could feel all over his body was too loud to talk over anyway. So he watched himself in the mirror as he slowly, slowly, dragged his knuckles down Evelyn's chest and followed the curve of her heavy breasts. Evelyn shivered and sighed his name, and it was all the encouragement he needed to press his palms to each side of her ribcage and slide them forward to take the weight of her into his hands. Her erect nipples grazed against his rough palms, and Evelyn jerked back against him with a small cry. Sensitive had been an understatement.

            Following some kind of nameless instinct, he traced one finger around the outline of each nipple then gently pinched them, which got such a glorious response that he quickly did it again.

            'Harder,' she panted.

            'Are you-?'

            'Yes!'

            He obeyed, how could he not with her so warm and pliant between his arms, but only with one hand. He trailed the other one lower so that he could feel the weight of her gravid belly without his gloves in the way for once. He marvelled at the tight, soft skin and the smooth texture of the evenly-spaced red stripes he could see in the mirror.

            'Don't,' she ordered, squirmed. 'I don't like them.'

            'They're remarkable,' he whispered against her shoulder. Evelyn dropped one hand from behind his neck and began to pluck at her neglected nipple, ignoring his words. 'I love every last one.'

            Desperate to convince her, he traced each one from top to bottom with his finger whilst kissing up and down her neck, all the while continuing to circle and pinch her nipple and knead the delicious flesh of her breast with his other hand. When he lovingly followed one mark far down enough under her belly that his fingers brushed against the soft hair between her legs, they both gasped, but Cullen froze while Evelyn squirmed harder and pinched at her nipple more frantically. She looked into the mirror to see his hand touching her there, then caught his eyes with her own.

            'Maker, yes,' she sighed.

            He thrust his hips against her soft backside without meaning to, moaning at the feeling and having to concentrate extremely hard on not doing it again, but Evelyn had noticed and was arching her back and wriggling against him. It felt good. It felt really good, but it was too much. Luckily, Evelyn pulled away and took his hand before he could embarrass himself and began to pull him towards the bed. He followed and laid down with her, feeling like all his bones had turned to water, like every last part of him had gone soft and limp except...well...

            'I want to feel more of you,' she purred, tugging at the bottom of his shirt.

            'Should I...take it off?' She nodded, rolling it higher up his stomach. Before he lost his nerve, he sat up and pulled it over his head. 'S-sorry about...ah...' He gestured vaguely at some of his nastier scars.

            'They're remarkable,' she parroted. 'I love every last one.'

            To prove her point, she pulled him down to lay on his back, propped herself up on her elbow and set about kissing every scar, large and small, neat and ragged, that she could reach. Her lips on his bare skin felt like the pleasant tingling of healing salve but without any of the numbness; he felt every last press of her soft mouth as it quested further across his torso. As she leant over him more to press a gentle sucking kiss on his collarbone, her stomach pushed roughly against his side, too full and round to give her the reach she wanted. She huffed almost petulantly when she couldn't get to the scar on his lip, and Cullen laughed and pulled her close until he could feel every inch of her and could reach every part of her with his greedy hands. He gently squeezed the back of her neck, then dragged his knuckles down the dip of her spine, all the way down until he rather boldly spread his hand across the generous swell of her buttocks, then lower still, until he could pull on her thigh to wrap it around his waist. But of course, her stomach was in the way and he smirked into her hair as he settled for caressing the obstacle itself while Evelyn tenderly traced the outline of his stomach muscles with one finger.

            'Evelyn,' he whispered. This moment was too perfect, too fragile, to ruin with anything louder. 'Should I...that is, do you want me to...touch you?'

            'You are touching me,' she teased.

            'Yes, but...ah...'

            'Do you want me to touch you?' she asked, looking up at him.

            'I want to look after you tonight,' he managed to say, albeit slightly higher-pitched than usual because Evelyn had begun to slide her fingers under the waistband of his trousers. His words stilled her adventuring hand however, and her eyebrows furrowed.

            'What do you mean?'

            'I...I want to...please you,' he mumbled. 'I want to take care of you.'

            Evelyn still looked confused, lips quirking downwards, hand now trailing absentmindedly backwards and forwards across the soft hair on his stomach. Words weren't working. When did they ever, he thought. All he could do now was take action, charge forward onto the frontline and hope he had enough courage to see it through. He'd survived worse, he knew that, but he felt like everything he truly wanted balanced precariously on the thin point of this moment, and that his next move could either redeem him or doom him altogether.

            It wasn't that he didn't want Evelyn to touch him. Maker, he did, but he felt like a bowstring pulled too tight and knew that it would take only the tiniest touch, the barest sensation, to catapult him from this magnificent moment into a very vivid and terrifying episode. He never ever wanted to regret being close to Evelyn, and he just couldn't bring himself to risk it. For now he would be content to give, to pour out all of his feelings for her with his caresses. The rush of excitement when he thought about her gasping and moaning with pleasure under his touch emboldened him, and before he had thought it through he had scooped her up and positioned her at the end of the bed, laid on her back with her legs hanging off of the edge. He had already knelt before her, placed her legs over his shoulders and was kissing up and down the inside of her thighs when he realised what he was about to do.

            Oh no. What in the Maker's name did he think he was doing? He had remembered doing this for her in that blasted dream he was trying so hard to forget, was so aroused by the idea of it that he could feel his cock leaking where it was still straining against his trousers, but now, face to face as it were with the object of his fantasies, he realised that he'd effectively done the love-making equivalent of skipping basic training and heading straight for the battlefield unarmed and unarmoured. But it was too late to turn back. Evelyn was reacting so beautifully to just his hand sliding up and down her inner thigh and seemed to be holding her breath in anticipation. He was a fool, a ridiculous, hopeless fool, but he'd rather die than disappoint her. So, clearing his mind, steadily breathing in her intoxicating scent, he slowly trailed kisses down the underside of her bump until his lips met hers.

            He kissed her slowly at first, only using his lips, soothingly stroking her thighs like it was her that needed comforting and not him. Evelyn was sighing lightly at his touch, which was significantly better than laughing or pushing him away. Once he had kissed her long enough to shake off the pleasant torpor that her scent had driven him into, he pressed against her with his tongue and mapped out the shape of her from top to bottom in long slow strokes. His mind was calling this stage reconnaissance without him wanting it to and it was irritating him; she was a woman, not a battlefield, and yet the analogy did help him to plan out the rest of the stressful task he had managed to set himself. His reconnaissance had helped him find some vantage points that made Evelyn hum and sigh, as well as some places that were seemingly not advantageous, but most importantly he had found the base of operations, the spot that sent shivers through her and had her reaching down to grip his wrist or fist her hands in the sheets.

            The plan of attack was simple: alternate between the vantage points and the base without concentrating too long on either. It seemed to be the best way to slowly build her up, because with every circuit of his tongue her hands gripped tighter, her legs trembled harder and the exquisite sounds she was making grew louder and less restrained. He was relaxing into an even rhythm and moaning along with her as her taste coated his mouth and lips when his carefully planned out mission hit a snag.

            'A finger,' she gasped. 'Please, Cullen.' He pulled his face away from her, too dazed to fully grasp what she wanted, and she writhed and groaned at the loss of contact. 'Put your fingers in me! Please!' she sobbed.

            Well, this hadn't been part of the plan. She let out a small frustrated mewl, and any thoughts of denying her blew away in the hurricane of his arousal. Hoping she wouldn't feel how much he was trembling, he ran his index finger up and down her wet lips, gathering her juices and apologising under his breath when he brushed too teasingly past the place where his tongue had been circling moments before. Ever so slowly, he followed the shape of her downwards until he felt his finger slip inside her, further and further until his knuckles were pressed against her body. She moaned and wiggled her hips, and when he felt her clench around his finger, his balls tightened so sharply that he was sure he was about to come without even being touched.

            'Another,' she whimpered. When he hesitated, she added a helpless, 'Cullen, please!'

            He complied, feeling breathless just from the way she was moaning his name and wiggling her hips to try and force his fingers in deeper. He was scared to hurt her, but when both fingers were all the way in, it was blatantly obvious that she wasn't anywhere near in pain.

            'Do this,' she panted, but he couldn't see what she meant. 'Look at my hand, darling. Do this.'

            The tips of his ears started to burn at the term of endearment, then possibly set on fire altogether when he copied the curling motion she was doing with her fingers and caused her to cry out his name so loudly that he was scared half the castle would hear it. Thank the Maker her quarters were tucked away. She was panting and moaning and gyrating her hips to take his fingers deeper, but she was also groaning in a way that he didn't like. It didn't sound like pain, it sounded more like...frustration.

            Furious at himself for unwittingly torturing her, he dived forward and pressed his open mouth to her wet cunt, lapping at her with a fervour he hoped conveyed his apology. He forgot the slow method he had been following, choosing instead to circle her clit as fast as he could with the tip of his tongue while he pushed his fingers into her again and again, curling them and tickling the rough patch she had clearly been hoping he would find. Her cries were becoming louder and more desperate, but she sounded far away, like his whole world had narrowed down to the sensation of his tongue on her slick skin and her body clamping down  on his fingers, holding him in place, right where she wanted them. And then it happened.

            She keened his name once, then held her breath as her whole body went rigid. The moment seemed to last an age and when it finally ended it was like being hit by a wave and dragged into the depths of the sea. She exhaled loudly on a cry of ecstasy at the exact moment he felt her muscles begin to dance around his fingers, contracting wildly, pulling him in and out without him having to do a thing. Maker's breath, how would that feel around a different part of him, desperately clenching around his length, milking him...

            When her cries became quiet, breathless panting, he stopped the movement of his tongue and pulled away to look at her face over the top of her belly. He left his fingers where they were, because every few seconds she would still quiver around them. To his horror, she looked alarmingly like she had fainted.

            'Evelyn? Are you alright?'

            'Am I alright?' she laughed wheezily. 'If I ever recover I'll let you know.'

            Begrudgingly, he pulled his fingers from her, feeling guilty when she shivered at the sudden emptiness. He quickly wiped his face and hands on his discarded shirt, then pulled her back onto the bed properly, rolling her onto her side and clinging to her fiercely, her back against his chest. She was so warm and pliant, allowing him to rearrange her like she was a ragdoll, but eventually she recovered enough to lay her hand over his where it rested on her belly.

            'Have you recovered?' he asked, surprised by how husky he sounded.

            'I don't think so. Not yet. Maker, that was...incredible.'

            He couldn't help but glow at the praise, feeling embarrassingly like a dog that had pleased its owner, and was glad that she couldn't see his face. She lazily stroked up and down his arm for a while, then rolled towards him onto her back and looked up at him questioningly. He waited patiently for her to voice whatever it was she wanted to ask, kissing her nose and cheeks and forehead over and over while he did so. Then he felt her hand light softly across where his erection, which was becoming painful by this point, was still pushing insistently against his trousers. Telling himself to stay calm, to move slowly, he took her by the wrist and lifted her hand away, bringing it to his face to kiss tenderly.

            'But...'

            'Don't worry,' he hummed against her palm. 'I just wanted to take care of you this evening.'

            'But you're still...'

            'It doesn't matter.' He leant in and kissed her ever so softly, just barely brushing his lips over hers, selfishly sharing her breath.

            'Maker,' she said shakily. 'Thank...Would it be weird to thank you? Maker's sake, of course it's weird.'

            'You thanked me enough,' he said, heart swelling with pride and gratitude. 'Your body...how you...when you...Maker.'

            He felt her chuckle lightly against his chest. 'It feels ungrateful not to say it,' she mused. 'I don't think I've ever came that hard before. It was...I mean it feels good just to come at all for the first time in at least a year, but Maker, what a reintroduction. If I'd known you could do that with your mouth I'd never have been able to concentrate through war council meetings. Oh, Maker, how will I concentrate through war council meetings?'

            But Cullen's brain had stalled a few sentences ago.

            'What do you mean you've...not in a year?'

            'What about it?'

            'But you're...married. You're pregnant.'

            'Do either of those things guarantee orgasms?'

            'They should.'

            She frowned and shrugged her shoulders. 'Does it matter?'

            'I don't mean to upset you,' he added hurriedly. 'I just think that...never mind.'

            'No, go on,' she prompted.

            'Well...if you can't...if you don't...take care of a lady then why should she...a man should prove that he cares about making her feel...he should...show her that he's worthy of her.' He covered his eyes with his hand. 'I can't explain what I mean.'

            'No, I think I get you,' she said softly. 'You mean like, a man should see to a woman's pleasure before his own, or at least alongside his own? Like he should prove his devotion before she opens her body to him?'

            He could only nod, not trusting himself to talk anymore, but Evelyn's eyes widened slightly and she gave him a tempting sidelong look that reawoke what had up until that point been a gradually waning, half-hard cock.

            'That's not why I...' he started. 'I didn't kiss your...I only wanted to please you, I don't expect you to...for us to...'

            'I understand,' she said, taking his face in her hands and bringing him down for another kiss, deeper than the last but still restrained. He sighed into her mouth when she gently tugged on his hair and nipped his bottom lip.

            'I should leave you to rest.'

            'But I don't want today to be over,' she murmured.

            'The later I stay the more likely people will talk if they see me leaving.'

            'I know,' she huffed. 'I only wish things were simpler. If I was ever going to be able to put aside this silly crush I seem to have developed for you, that time has well and truly passed after tonight.'

            'Silly crush?' he repeated baffled.

            'You think I do this with just anyone?'

            'No! I only meant...I didn't know you felt like that.'

            'Well I do,' she said stubbornly. 'I have a silly crush on you, Cullen, or at least I did this morning. It feels like something, I don't know, it feels different now. How about you? Do you have a silly crush on me?' She batted her eyelashes exaggeratedly.

            'No,' he winced, feeling winded. He could feel her bare skin on his, could still taste her on his tongue, could smell the sweet perfume of her hair, was surrounded by her, wrapped up in her. 'I...I lov...

            A raven squawked obnoxiously as it flew past the open balcony doors, startling the both of them. Some kind of spell seemed to have been broken, because Cullen suddenly felt like he couldn't look Evelyn in the eye anymore.

            'I'll let you rest,' he mumbled.

            'No goodnight kiss tonight?' she teased, and it was enough to make him smile, even though his head was ablaze with confusion and his body was abuzz with overstimulation.

            'I can do that,' he replied, leaning in to kiss her one last time. 'Goodnight, Evelyn.'

            'Goodnight, Cullen,' she hummed contentedly.

            He pulled the blankets up over her, stopping halfway to swipe his hand across her belly reverently, holding in the urge to bend down and whisper a goodnight against the place he could feel a tiny hand or foot or elbow pressed under his palm; he knew how ridiculous and foolish it was to hope that they knew his voice. So he tucked the blanket under Evelyn's chin, kissed her forehead, and quickly pulled on his shirt. He stopped at the top of the stairs for one last look at her and felt his heart swell with all his unsaid words of love and devotion as he saw that she had already closed her eyes, was perhaps already half asleep with a contented smile on her face. Despite the dream-like perfection of the scene, a horrible sense of dread began to prickle under his skin, and he had to race back over and touch her to make sure she was real and solid and unharmed. He could feel her warmth lingering on his hand even as he climbed into his own bed, which was much colder, harder and lonelier than the one he had left a little piece of his tattered heart on not an hour before. 

Chapter Text

As incredible as the past few weeks had been, Cullen hated to admit that his new relationship with Evelyn had been marred by guilt from the beginning. He felt guilty about his role in agreeing to the marriage, guilty about the type of man he had pushed her towards and the pain her husband had inflicted on her, guilty about now interfering with said marriage and wishing he could have her all for himself, but today he had felt guiltier than he had during his entire time with the Inquisition. The morning after the beautiful, nerve-racking evening they had spent together, the decision to mobilise the Inquisition's combined forces to march on the Arbor Wilds was formalised and less than a week later, he had sent a heavily-pregnant woman, a woman that he loved, into a confrontation with a would-be god and his pet dragon. He didn't feel great about her heading into an ancient temple most likely full of traps and dangerous magic either, but there was no other choice. He had faith in her, he always had, but he couldn't hold back the near-constant fear that something would happen to her, that she wouldn't come back and it would all be his fault.

            He was surprised with himself when he became plagued by nightmares that she came back alive, but alone, returning as one person when she had gone in as two, and he would have to watch her stomach shrink day after day until there was no evidence at all that the baby had ever existed. He didn't know when he'd become so attached to them or why his dreams so often featured a child that wasn't his own; all he knew for certain was that his fear extended to them both, to Evelyn and her baby. Now, lying awake in his lonely tent, the memories of the day's events stung him over and over like the bees from when he'd rather stupidly used their hive as a makeshift training dummy as a child and had whacked it again and again with a heavy stick that he had imagined was his fearsome sword.

            When she had finally reached him near the entrance to the temple that morning, he had already been fighting for nearly two days and was furious that the area wasn't clear ready for her arrival; it was just another bullet point on the long list of ways in which he had failed her. Her breastplate still looked bizarre to him, making her enormous stomach seem even bigger because of the thick layer of protective padding beneath the moulded metal. She was using her one-handed sword and the Inquisition shield he and Cassandra had commissioned for her, which she was holding perfectly to protect her torso, and he felt a fierce rush of pride. He was so exhausted he could have laughed out loud when he saw her do exactly what she'd done to Cassandra to a Grey Warden, kicking them in the knees and knocking them flat on their back. Luckily for Cassandra, she hadn't gotten a sword through the throat, as was the fate of the poor brainwashed Warden. When Evelyn was targeted by a particularly nasty-looking corrupted Templar, he was relieved to see that her party members, Bull, Dorian and Cole, had moved into a clearly well-practised formation that allowed her to retreat for cover and deploy the crossbow he had seen Varric training her to use over the past week. It had been difficult finishing off the last few Red Templars whilst also feeling compelled to track her every movement, but eventually all the enemies were slain, and he was racing towards her before he'd even sheathed his sword.

            'Inquisitor,' he called. 'Are you alright?'

            'Right as rain,' she panted. 'A little sit down wouldn't hurt though.'

            'Of course.'

            He linked an arm with hers and guided her to a nearby boulder. Her walking seemed unsteady and he hoped it was just fatigue from the fighting and nothing more sinister.

            'Thank you,' she smiled as he lowered her to sit on the rock. 'I'll take a potion and press on. No time to hang about.'

            'It would be better to rest properly now and be able to push through the temple than to rush in before you are ready and struggle to make progress.'

            'It's irritating how right you are,' she grimaced, then her eyes went wide. 'Maker, you're bleeding!'

            'Am I?' He quickly looked down at himself, seeing nothing.

            'Your head,' she frowned. 'Sit.'

            She pulled a rag and a bottle of elfroot potion from the small bag attached to her belt, then soaked the fabric with the healing liquid. When he sat beside her, she placed her hand on his cheek to hold him still and pressed the cloth to his forehead. To his surprise, it did sting a bit.

            'They were throwing rocks at one point when we took cover,' he thought out loud. 'I must not have realised I'd been hit.'

            'It doesn't look too bad actually,' she said, lowering the cloth. 'Head wounds are deceptive, bleed like crazy even when it's barely a scratch. Where in Thedas is your helmet?'

            'I lent it to a soldier when his got damaged. He should be around here somewhere.'

            'Well he'd better bring it back. I love that helmet.'

            She went to take her hand from his cheek, but he placed his own hand over hers and held it there. She looked at him uncertainly, but Cullen could already feel the two of them being drawn together, knew that they were almost powerless to stop the kiss they were both leaning in for, but Evelyn seemed to come to her senses first and looked away, gently taking back her hand. There were too many people around, including some of the troops that Harimann had brought with him from the Free Marches, and such shows of affection just weren't safe. She made a fuss of downing the rest of the unstoppered elfroot potion in one long gulp while Cullen cleared his throat, which suddenly felt very tight.

            'Are they your adjusted potions?'

            'They are,' she replied. 'If I run out I won't have a choice but to dip into the main stock, but it shouldn't be a problem for just this one day.'

            'You're sure it will be safe?'

            'It'll have to be.' She slid from the boulder into the ankle-deep and now very bloody water. 'Time to go. No rest for the wicked, right?'

            'Please, Evelyn. Please be careful.'

            'Aren't I always?'

            'Not even remotely,' he grumbled.

            'Then this time I'll do my best.' She covertly ran her fingers across his jaw. 'For you.'

            He watched her walk over towards her team, who all immediately set to fussing over her and proudly patting her on the back with the exception of Morrigan, who seemed eager to keep moving. It was nice to see them be so supportive of her, but when Bull began to check her armour and ran a huge hand over the rounded belly of her breastplate, Cullen felt a surge of anger, or something like anger, something that made him want to pummel Bull with his shield until he stopped touching her, even if it was through a thick plate of metal. He was so busy trying to suppress the unwarranted rage that he hadn't noticed Dorian approaching him.

            'Still alive, Commander?'

            'Dorian,' he greeted. 'Just about. And yourself?'

            'Alive, yes, happy, no. Look at my robes, they're filthy! They're all the way from Minrathous and now they're all vile and bloody. Just how you Fereldans like it, I imagine.'

            'You're worried about your clothes at a time like this?'

            'A time like what?' Dorian smirked. 'I'm quite enjoying my little jaunt through the woods.' When Cullen only rolled his eyes, Dorian took a step closer and placed a hand on his shoulder. 'We'll take good care of her, Cullen. We won't let anything happen to her.'

            'You're her teammates, that's your job,' he snapped.

            'Cullen, look at me,' Dorian said sternly. 'We won't let anything happen to her.'

            Cullen immediately felt ashamed of his harsh words. Dorian was only trying to reassure him after all, but the knowing look in the mage's eye had taken him by surprise. He and Evelyn had been very close before the stress of her marriage had made her withdraw from companionship, so perhaps they were back to being the best of friends, telling each other everything and going to each other for advice. He trusted Dorian, but wasn't quite comfortable with the idea of others knowing about his and Evelyn's forbidden relationship.

            'Thank you, Dorian.'

            'Hey, Cullen!' Bull called, obnoxiously loud as always. 'Don't worry about the boss. I've brought the papoose for if she gets tired.'

            From somewhere in the near distance, he heard Evelyn shout, 'Are you talking about that fucking papoose again?!'

            Bull roared with laughter in response and headed up the stone steps towards the Inquisitor's phantom voice. 

            'He's brought what?'

            'He hasn't brought anything,' Dorian tutted. 'He thinks it's funny to tell people that he has a contraption that he carries the Inquisitor around with, like those slings women wrap around themselves to carry babies in.'

            'I must admit, the image is quite entertaining,' Cullen smiled, shaking his head.

            'Don't let Evelyn hear you say that,' he grinned. 'Right, off we go. Do try not to worry too much, Commander.'

            'No promises on that one.'

            'Didn't think so,' Dorian said, but in a tone that suggested fondness rather than exasperation. 'See you on the other side, Commander.'

            The mage took off after Bull, Evelyn and Morrigan, holding up his robes to stop them trailing in the filthy water despite them already being ruined. Cullen could hear him muttering angrily to himself.

            'Don't worry, she's safe.'

            'Maker's-! I've told you not to sneak up on people, Cole!'

            'But you're so loud,' the boy answered, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. 'She's not hurt. You can be quiet about it now.'

            'I know she's not hurt,' he scowled. 'I've just spoken to her and she's fine.'

            'How did you speak to her?' Cole asked, cocking his head.

            'I opened my mouth and words came out.'

            'But she can't talk yet.'

            'What are you talking about?' Cullen sighed, feeling a vein in his left temple start to throb viciously.

            'How did you speak to her when she can't talk? And when she can't hear you anyway? Everything is too loud. She doesn't like the running and the shouting. She can't sleep.'

            'Cole,' he said slowly. 'Who are you talking about?'

            'Evie's baby,' he said simply.

            Cullen felt like he'd been turned to stone, petrified by the revelation.  

            'You can hear her?' he said on an exhale.

            'Yes,' Cole nodded, his floppy hat flapping comically. 'But she's very quiet.'

            'She's...she's a girl?'

            'Yes, but it's a secret. Evie told me not to tell her, she doesn't want to know, but she didn't say not to tell anyone else.'

            'Cole,' Cullen said firmly, thinking of what Harimann might do if he were to find out. 'It's very important that you don't tell anyone else. Who else knows?'

            'Just you,' he said. 'Nobody else thinks about her as much as you do. Other than Evie. Evie is her mother.'

            'Yes, she is,' he replied feeling numb, like Cole's insight was a lightning spell that had zipped through his body and frazzled all his nerve endings. 'You are...She is definitely alright?'

            'I already said so,' Cole shrugged. 'She can't sleep.'

            'But she's not hurt?' Cullen always quickly lost his patience with the strange boy, but he tried to keep himself calm, needing to know the answer.

            'No, not hurt. Scared, but safe. It's too loud, everything is moving too much, jostled around, can't sleep, mother's heartbeat too fast. She likes the quiet. She likes when it's quiet and she can only hear you and Evie. She wants it to be quiet and still so she might hear your voice again.'

            Cullen couldn't speak. It was like his brain was in a bubble far away from the physical world, like he was alone with his thoughts while his body floated somewhere nearby. She's fine. She's safe. She's a little girl. She knows his voice. He stood up quickly, desperately compelled to run after Evelyn and stop her from entering the temple, to stop her from putting herself in danger even though they both knew she had to.

            'Cole,' he said, turning back to question him further, but the boy was gone. There was only his tired soldiers where they rested against boulders or sprawled out on the grass in relief, patching up their friends' injuries or cleaning off their weapons in the small areas of water that were not yet tainted by blood and death. He decided he would give them another ten minutes before he ordered them back to camp, but the well-earned peace of the immediate aftermath of a battle won was completely desecrated when the horrifying dragon that Corypheus controlled swept over the trees above them, swooping down to descend upon the temple where Evelyn may already have been fighting for her life, for the lives of everyone in all of Thedas. The fear and guilt mixed together into a thick tar in his chest, and he called to his soldiers to retreat before it could suffocate him completely.  

            When Evelyn had arrived back at the main camp many nail-biting hours later, battered and bruised but alive, the leaves on the trees shook from the magnitude of the cheering that erupted as soon as she was spotted. She walked straight-backed, with all the dignity and grace of a noble-born lady, stopping to shake hands and acknowledge every bowing person even though their numbers were great. Cullen had a feeling that he was the only person in the crowd that could see the strain in her walk or the carefully-controlled pain that would periodically flicker across her face as she moved through the throngs of her adoring followers. When the war council and Morrigan had retreated into his tent to debrief on the happenings in the temple, she took the chair he offered her without any fuss or indignation.

            The news that Corypheus had been defeated only to rise again was devastating. Cullen saw his feelings of hopelessness reflected on the faces of all his colleagues, but the heavy salve of relief kept him from giving up altogether. The battle wasn't over, Evelyn would have to face that monster all over again, but at least she was safe, looking exhausted but unharmed, and the fact that Corypheus had now lost his most trusted lieutenant was still a significant victory. When everyone filed out of the tent looking subdued and out of place amongst the celebrating troops, Evelyn stayed behind. She approached him looking tired and uneasy, so it took him entirely by surprise when she pulled him down for a kiss that lacked all restraint, a kiss of desperation and fear and relief.

            'Thank the Maker,' he murmured against her insistent lips. 'I was so worried.'

            She didn't reply, only fisted her hands in his hair and thrust her tongue into his mouth, rendering him unable to say more. He gripped her face in both hands, pushing back against her tongue with his own, a competition over who could show the most passion, a competition that she won when she gently nipped his lower lip and his mind went blank for a number of seconds. He was squeezing the meat of her hips and gasping at the feeling of her fingers finding their way beneath his breastplate by his hipbones when the sound of someone clearing their throat had them pulling apart like they'd burnt each other. Cullen wondered for a moment if they actually had, because the skin where she had been touching him felt branded.

            'You need to start being more careful,' came Leliana's disapproving voice. 'You are lucky that it was me who caught you and not someone less prone to discretion.'

            'Maker's balls,' Evelyn hissed. 'I'm...I'm sorry.'

            Cullen's exhaustion caught up to him as Evelyn bolted from his grasp and out of the tent, while Leliana watched him with an intensity that made his skin prickle.

            'Will you tell anyone?'

            'Of course not,' Leliana scoffed. 'We are all on the same side and your private affairs are of little concern to me. Between us, I care too much for Evelyn to put her in unnecessary danger, but bear in mind that you risk harming both her and the Inquisition's reputation if you aren't more vigilant. If I was going to expose the two of you I would have done it weeks ago.'

            'Weeks ago,' Cullen groaned. Of course she'd known all along.

            'You should debrief the troops,' she said. 'Then I think we all deserve a good night's rest.'

            She had left without another word.

            Now it was late in the evening and Cullen was alone in his tent, laid flat on his narrow cot and trying not to be irritated by the noisy bouts of revelry he could hear outside. The guilt was still eating away at him, and he knew that despite his bone-deep weariness, he wouldn't sleep tonight. The rustling of the tent flap being pulled aside had him sitting up swiftly and reaching for his sword.

            'Cullen, it's me.'

            'Evelyn? What are you doing here?'

            'Don't worry,' she said, pulling down the thick hood of the cloak she was wearing. 'Nobody saw me.'

            'Is something wrong?' He felt his stomach start to churn. She had bad news, she had to have bad news and she'd come to tell him first. He dug his fingernails into his thigh, then did the same to his other leg because it felt uneven otherwise.

            'Everything's fine,' she sighed. 'Well, obviously it's not. You could argue that today couldn't really have gone worse, but-'

            'It could have gone worse,' he said quietly.

            'You're right. I'm sorry.'

            She shrugged off her cloak, letting it drop to the floor, and went to him, standing before where he sat on the cot and raising her hand to stroke his cheek. Her belly, which was inches from his face, looked strangely small without her padded armour over it, and that overwhelming urge to destroy everyone and everything that so much as bumped into her triggered an adrenaline surge so powerful that Cullen felt dizzy and no longer remotely tired at all. Too full of love and devotion and protectiveness to care, he took the hem of her nightgown and pulled it up to expose her stomach. He placed a hand on either side and gently pressed her forehead to the firm roundness of it. She gasped, causing her bump to jump slightly as she did.

            'Cullen?'

            'I was so worried,' he whispered against her. He brushed his lips against the skin below her stretched bellybutton, then in a soft line to one side and then the other. 'Thank the Maker, thank the Maker.'

            As he was murmuring small prayers of thanks, he felt movement under his hand and told himself it was because she could hear him and was listening to him in the quietness like Cole had said she liked to do. The memory of Cole's words made his heart clench tightly, and he recited his favourite passages from the Chant of Light to calm himself and to revel in the knowledge that she knew his voice. She moved under his hands again, and he remembered how the book he had hidden under his mattress back at Skyhold had said she would be fully-formed, a real baby, but small and skinny, not quite ready to be born yet. Even if the stress of the war made Evelyn go into labour too soon, like the trauma of Haven had done to the poor refugee, at least the baby would have a fighting chance. When a hand lighted softly on his hair, he came back to the present and wondered how long he had been nuzzling Evelyn's stomach and peppering it in small kisses. He blushed and pulled back, reaching up to rub the back of his neck. Evelyn took advantage of his open posture and slipped onto his lap.

            'You were really that worried about us?'

            'So worried,' he breathed against her neck. 'I have faith in you, I've seen for myself how much work you've put into retraining, but I couldn't help it. I hope...I hope I haven't offended you.'

            'I was worried about you too,' she said, stroking his hair. 'Maker knows why. Seeing you fighting was...amazing. You're amazing.'

            He blushed again. 'I've just had a lot of practice.'

            'But...you were worried about them too?' She poked her stomach.

            'Of course I was.'

            'But why?'

            'Well...I didn't want them to get hurt.'

            'But...' She looked down at her feet where they dangled near the floor. 'I'm already married.'

            'I know,' he said.

            'So there's obstacle number one,' she frowned. 'And on top of that I'm having a child, so there's obstacle number two. Wouldn't it be easier for you if...if...' She bit her bottom lip and looked away.

            'Don't say that,' he pleaded. 'I would never want anything to happen to...' He stepped himself. He'd almost said 'her'. 'I...that is, I don't see them as...I wouldn't...I hope...ah...' He couldn't look at her anymore, feeling embarrassed and confused and overwhelmed, but then the flickering of the candlelight across her still exposed stomach highlighted something he hadn't noticed. 'Maker's breath, what's that?'

            'Huh?' She craned her neck to the side to see where he was tracing his fingers. 'Oh, it's nothing.'

            'It doesn't look like nothing.'

            'It's a tiny little bruise, Cullen,' she huffed. 'I've had worse than that and you know it.'

            'But it's right where-'

            'I've had it checked out,' she interrupted. 'By the surgeon and a mage healer. Neither of them are worried, especially since my armour isn't damaged. They've said to look out for blood in the next few days, but if there's nothing in the next twenty-four hours then it's really unlikely any harm's been done.'

            'Blood?'

            'You know, like, in my smalls. But it won't happen. It was only a punch, a half-hearted whack from a dying, disarmed wretch. I'm surprised it's even bruised.'

            She sounded so confident, so convinced, but her nostrils were flared and she had clenched her hands into fists. Her eyes were wide, but she wouldn't look at him. A few weeks ago he wouldn't have dared try to comfort her when she was like this, most likely wouldn't even have known that there was anything less firm and secure beneath her hard exterior, but that was then. He wrapped his arms around her tightly and tucked his head under her chin, her breasts pillowing his face.

            'You really do care about them,' she said quietly, almost like she half hoped he wouldn't hear.

            'I do.'

            She placed a hand under his chin and raised his head so she could look into his eyes. Whatever she was hoping to see, she found, because her expression turned relieved and then desperate. She strained to get closer to him and pressed her forehead to his, wrapping her arms around his shoulders. He could feel her trembling.

            'Thank you,' she whispered shakily. 'Maker, thank you.'

            Their lips seemed to meet by accident, like they had come together without their owners' permission. Cullen kissed her more firmly, but something like a hiccup against his lips had him pulling back. She had tears in her eyes, but she was smiling at him like he was worthy of her, even though he knew he wasn't. The kiss continued, slow and measured, but when Cullen began to taste the salt of the tears that had flowed down her cheeks, he decided to take charge. He traced her lips with his tongue, then sucked one ever so gently between his, grazing his teeth across it. When she moaned and gripped the back of his neck harder, he slid his tongue into her mouth and allowed her to take over for a while, allowed her to dominate the kiss as her hands roamed up and down his bare back and circled round to splay against his chest.

            'Cullen...' she sighed breathily, setting him on fire, sending him into a frenzy that he was powerless to stop. He gripped her nightgown and pulled it up higher until he could take a naked breast into his hand. When Evelyn moaned deeply and threw her head back, he used the break in their kiss to pull the nightgown over her head and throw it on the floor. He squeezed the fullness of her, lifting her breast so he could kiss it, so he could suck some of the flesh into his mouth roughly. He was deliberating whether or not it would be inappropriate to take her nipple into his mouth to lick and tease with his tongue when he felt her deft fingers undoing the laces of his trousers. He waited for the fear, but it didn't come. Still torn, racking his brain for anything he'd ever heard that implied whether or not one should suck on a woman's nipples, he began to kiss up her jawline instead and settled for circling the pink flesh with his thumb. He felt her wrap her fingers around his erection and he frantically starting to pinch and pluck at her nipple as she slowly, almost shyly, stroked him downwards, pulling back the skin. It felt so good that nothing in the world seemed to matter, so he licked a small circle around her stiff nipple then covered it with his mouth. She gasped loudly and began to pant, wriggling her hips, desperate for more friction than Cullen's thigh was currently affording, so he nervously slid his hand down until his fingers brushed against her smalls, but then a loud voice by the entrance to the tent made them freeze in shock. Cullen froze too, letting her nipple slip from his mouth as horror overcame him. They hadn't even been trying to be quiet.

            'What?' the voice outside said.

            'He has nightmares,' someone further away called back. 'Leave him alone.'

            'Fine. But it's your fault if it turns out there's a killer nug in there and nobody went to help him.'

            'Fuck off, Jim!' someone shouted, and a whole group of people laughed loudly and jeered good-naturedly at the would-be rescuer.

            They waited in silence until they were certain the tent was undisturbed once again, during which time Evelyn slid her hand from inside his breeches and looked down at the floor.

            'I should get back to my tent,' she whispered. 'I...I'm glad you're alright.'

            She stood up, shivering from the cold now that she wasn't pressed skin to skin with him. Cullen scooped up her nightgown from the floor and helped her pull it back on, then retrieved the cloak she had arrived in and carefully arranged it around her shoulders. The guilt resurfaced as he watched her huddle into the cloak's warmth; he could have exposed her in front of the whole Inquisition, to all the people who would see their relationship as something dirty and wrong and shameful. The word 'affair' floated through his mind for the first time and he felt sick until Evelyn went up on her tiptoes and pressed a kiss to his stubbled jaw.

            'See you tomorrow,' she whispered. Then she put her eye to the slit between the entrance flaps of the tent and, apparently satisfied, snuck out into the night.

            Cullen shuffled towards his cot and threw himself face down upon it. The noise it made as he did so was far from healthy, but he couldn't bring himself to care. His head was a mess, feelings of happiness and adoration and feelings of guilt and shame warring for the higher ground, and for the first time in his life, he was almost glad that he had an erection, because it was providing a quite welcome distraction. It was pressing into the thin bedroll beneath him and the pressure of it reminded him of Evelyn's hand.

            It was clear that their relationship, affair, whatever it was, was heading in a direction that had him terrified and tenuously intrigued all at once. After Kinloch, he thought he'd never want a naked woman without ten feet of him for as long as he lived, but Evelyn, Maker, Evelyn did strange things to him, strange impossible things like enchanting him into thinking it was a good idea to suckle on her breast like an infant. He groaned into his pillow, imagining her sitting in her tent and laughing at him. He had no idea what he was doing, was bound to disappoint her again and again, but if she asked, he knew he would give her whatever she wanted.

            'Of course I wouldn't,' he growled. He'd give her as much as he had tonight and then fly into a blind panic and spend the next few days half stuck in the past.

            He'd made sure that thoughts like the ones he was having now didn't have a place in his head, had even conditioned his body to keep himself safe. It had become apparent early on when he was made Knight-Captain that being a young man was going to be to his disadvantage in more ways than one. He lost count of how many people had tried to bribe him or change his mind with flirtation, or flashes of their body, or even sometimes with their hands, coming close and groping at places they shouldn't be touching. The first time it had happened, when a desperate mother had pressed a hand against the front of his Templar skirt, he had vomited the moment he was on his own. The second time, he had been praying at night without his armour to protect him, vulnerable in a simple shirt and trousers, and the mage caught out of bed who had tried to convince him to keep it to himself had flinched away like she'd been electrocuted, evidently not expecting for her questing hand to meet cold, hard metal. He was fairly certain that his reputation as something cold and unfeeling, something lacking in normal human emotion, had increased tenfold after that. Even the ladies at the Rose seemed terrified of him, even though all he ever wanted was to ask them questions about suspected blood magic. Hardly any of them ever even tried to coerce him into staying to spend some coin, and the one or two that did clearly had no idea that he feared them as much as their colleagues feared him.

            His body had betrayed him before, reacted in the worst possible way, swelled to feel more even as he begged for it to stop and willed his body to listen to him. He'd made sure it would never happen again, and eventually it wasn't something he had to worry about at all, something he had effectively shut off from, mind and body. Except now there was Evelyn, and she'd ruined it all with nothing more than the sight of her body overfilling her undersized housecoat.

            Damn it all, now he was remembering her like that and he was even stiffer and pressing even harder into the bedroll. He rolled onto his back, shoved his breeches down with an irritated growl and kicked them off. It felt good once his erection wasn't restrained anymore, but now he felt stupidly like it was looking at him and considered rolling back over. Choosing boldness, he stayed where he was and trailed his hand down his chest, over his stomach, and slowly wrapped his fingers around himself. The skin there felt hot, much hotter than the rest of his body. He closed his eyes and thought of Evelyn, her smile and her clear voice and her perfect body. The revulsion rose, this isn't how you think about people, but he wanted to please her, wanted to pass through this barrier for her so that they could be together and be close, as close as physically possible. So he swallowed it down and tentatively squeezed himself, stroking himself up and down a few times. 

            But his hand was too rough, the friction too great to be truly enjoyable. He thought of when he'd kissed Evelyn's most private place, had gently sucked her clit and licked her from top to bottom, and remembered how wet she had been. Maker, that's what he needed, that delicious moisture that had flowed from her more and more as he had slid his fingers inside her; he needed it all over his cock and his hand so he could stroke himself and have it feel good. He was almost fully certain that women weren't like that all the time, he imagined it would be uncomfortable if they were, which meant that her wetness had been all for him, that she must have liked how he was touching her or been pleased with him in some way.

            'Maker...'

            He had begun to pump himself faster as he remembered their night together, but it still wasn't enough. He looked around, wondering what he could use as an alternative to the arousal he had tasted between Evelyn's thighs, but found nothing. Feeling like he was doing something very dirty, he spat into his palm and went back to teasing himself, but felt significantly less embarrassed about doing so when it turned out to have been just what he was hoping for.

            The friction was much better now, and he slid his hand up and down at a measured pace, concentrating on his breathing and determinedly avoiding the tip. Whenever he would feel himself start to breathe too fast, he would slow down and count to ten, and whenever his mind started to wander to dark places, places where these sensations had been painful, he would think of Evelyn, keeping her central in his mind's eye. He remembered how her cunt had rhythmically clenched and relaxed around his fingers when he'd miraculously managed to fumble his way into giving her an orgasm, and he tried to recreate the feeling around his cock by squeezing up and down his length. He could hear the noises she had made and felt himself thicken further, and when he remembered her gasping and moaning his name, his sac tightened so exquisitely that he couldn't stop himself from speeding up. His fist brushed against the head of his cock and he had to stifle his moan with the back of his spare hand, and on his next upward stroke, he moved higher, snuck closer to his tip on purpose. The ridge behind his balls started to feel hot and tight.

            He began to feel a sense of inevitability and didn't know what to do with it. A hundred thoughts flashed through his mind, each one punctuated by a helpless moan or gasp as he continued to stroke himself. He would have to send Evelyn to Corypheus again, maybe soon, his withdrawals and nightmares would be terrible for the next few days, he wanted to squash Evelyn's husband like a bug, he wanted to take her away and keep her safe and he would help her look after the baby, he remembered some things from helping with his sister, would love the baby and protect her, why couldn't he be her father, why wasn't she his, a demon face and horns pushed away by the image of a baby girl with Evelyn's eyes, pink around the edges, but safe, he was safe, and he imagined pushing his cock as deep into Evelyn as he could and holding himself there while her body grips him in place and he comes inside of her, fills her up, fills her belly with his child and...and...

            'Evelyn!'

            Everything ceased to exist for a few seconds, and he was only aware of how good it felt, how he tightened and released over and over and how Evelyn's body greedily swallowed every drop of his spend. At some point he realised despairingly that there was no Evelyn, only his own hand, and that his spend was actually spread up his stomach and chest and slowly drying on his fist. He felt loose and heavy, pleasantly exhausted, until the smell of blood filled his nostrils. He looked down, panicked, but there was no blood. He felt anxiety start to bubble in his stomach and his relaxed limbs suddenly felt like a risk, like if he didn't pull himself together and run away as soon as possible he'd die and it would all be his own fault for being weak and dropping his guard. He screwed his eyes shut and tried to breathe evenly.

            The sound of people singing outside grounded him, and he managed to stand up and find a rag to wipe himself clean with. He felt shaky and unsteady, but it didn't matter; he'd done it, done what he thought he'd never want to do, and had done it successfully at that. Once he was clean, he pulled back his bedsheet and laid back down on his cot. He listened more carefully to the bawdy song the revellers were singing, disgracefully loud and out of tune, and hoped that he had been quiet, or at least that their celebrating had drowned him out. It had been a bizarre, disappointing, jubilant, guilt-ridden, relief-inducing day, and to his surprise, he was tired enough to fall asleep in next to no time at all. He only wished that the night's tiny triumph hadn't triggered some of his least favourite nightmares, and when he woke up later jerking and screaming and erect, he had pulled on his breeches and laced them up so tightly that it hurt.

Chapter Text

The journey back to Skyhold from the Arbor Wilds was uneventful. The triumphant cheer and celebration from the Inquisitor's jubilant return steadily dwindled as news of Corypheus' horrific resurrection trickled down to the troops, and the change in mood could be tracked across each person's face the closer they got to the castle. Cullen had woken up the morning after the assault on the Temple of Mythal feeling embarrassed and confused from his night spent fluctuating between aroused and ashamed. Bursts of insight into the racing thoughts he had experienced as he was pleasuring himself kept igniting in his head, and he spent much of the journey hoping nobody would notice that he would periodically turn bright red for no reason. He steadfastly avoided Evelyn's eye, filled with a horrible dread that somehow she would know what he'd done while thinking of her, plagued by images of her outside his tent listening in as he moaned her name. His paranoia went as far as convincing him that he'd spoken all his thoughts out loud or worse, that Evelyn could read his mind and was disgusted by the way he had thought about putting his own child in her belly.

            Doesn't seem like you need to worry about getting anyone pregnant, Commander. That's what she'd said to him that night in the garden when he'd made a fool of himself. It still hurt to think about how cold she had been, how disdainful, but when he'd failed in avoiding her gaze as they made their way through the Frostbacks, she had smiled at him so sweetly that he felt like he'd die if he didn't pull his heart out and beg her to take it.

            It was one thing to fantasise about Evelyn carrying his baby, but another thing altogether to imagine caring for her real child, who was very much nothing to do with him. In the blur of his overstimulated mind, he'd pictured holding her and keeping her safe even knowing that she wasn't of his blood, because in that moment it just didn't seem to matter. He knew he was a wreck, had known for years that he wasn't a good or likeable person and that in some inherent way he was simply broken beyond repair, so the only rational explanation for his perplexing imaginings was that he was an emotionally-stunted fool in way over his head. He had seriously been considering whether it was kinder to Evelyn for him to pull back, to not expose her any further to his issues and the inevitability that he would let her down again and again, but before he could convince himself either way, she made the decision for him.

            It had been three days since they'd arrived back at Skyhold and she hadn't voluntarily spoken to him the entire time. She listened attentively to him in the War Room, asking for his ideas and opinions, but in any other part of the castle it was like she didn't see or hear him at all. If he asked to talk to her, she would say she was busy or late for another commitment, and if he suggested another time, she averred that she simply wouldn't be able to fit it in. She never stopped by his office anymore and seemed to be eating alone in her quarters, as he never saw her when he forced himself to eat meals with other people in the hopes of bumping into her. Twice he had written her a quick letter asking if she was alright and if she could find time to talk, but she hadn't replied to either of them. He felt so drained, physically and emotionally, that even holding his quill felt like a challenge and his irritability had become so severe that soon it was not just Evelyn who appeared to be giving him a wide berth.

            He'd pushed himself very close to his limit in the Arbor Wilds, so he knew his withdrawals and nightmares would peak soon after they got back. When they took hold almost straight away, he took some grim pleasure in saying 'I told you so' to the tiny, feeble creature that lived in the back of his head, a remnant of a time when optimism had come naturally. The first two days back at the castle, he had needed to put his head down on the desk every fifteen minutes just to breathe through the dizziness, and had had so little control over his hands, which had been alternating between violent trembling and complete numbness, that even the briefest of missives took him half an hour to write. He'd felt a fever dawning in the evening of the second day and had gone to bed early to wait for it to break, armed with a bucket and his tin of chewing herbs. He'd never understood how someone could vomit so much without eating a thing.

            He woke the next day feeling shaky and weak, but somewhat better, and decided to start his day with a bath in the hot spring buried deep beneath the castle. It was reserved for the higher-ranking members of the Inquisition and he knew that Leliana and Josephine bathed in the evenings and that Evelyn preferred to bathe in her room, which meant he would have it to himself and not have to pretend to be a functional human being; he had to save all his scant people skills up for that evening, for the ridiculous ball Josephine was throwing for Evelyn and her husband's families. He almost wished he was still too ill to stand for more than five minutes at a time, though he was sure that wouldn't have stopped Josephine from dragging him to the Main Hall to mingle with soul-sapping nobles and fawning social-climbers all night anyway. 'A united front'. 'A consistent presence.' A consistent headache, Cullen thought.

            Sitting in one of the natural basins of warm spring water, soothed by the sound of the waterfall that thundered behind him through the open wall and the dim light of a sun not yet fully risen, he actually felt himself beginning to relax until he heard someone approaching down the tunnel that served as the spring's only entrance and exit. He growled under his breath, frustrated that he was to be thwarted in his attempts to unwind on the one day he had actually decided to visit the baths, but when the Inquisitor's head cautiously peeked out of the tunnel, all his annoyance turned to a mixture of panic and embarrassment.

            Evelyn managed to speak first, her usually clear voice barely audible over the waterfall. 'Sorry,' she said. 'I didn't think anyone would be here.'

            'That's alright,' Cullen said. 'I was...just about to leave.'

            'That sounds like a lie.'

            'Does it?'

            'A bit, yes,' she said with a small attempt at a smile. 'I'll come back later.'

            'No, wait!' He could hear the desperation in his voice and internally berated himself. 'I have been hoping to talk to you.'

            'I know,' she sighed. 'It's not that I don't want to talk to you, it's just...Anyway, now isn't the best time.'

            'You're busy?' he asked, trying not to sound annoyed or worse, hurt.

            'Not in particular.'

            'Then why? Why not now?'

            She laughed then, and it seemed genuine. Cullen could feel a smile forming on his own face in response, but his gladness didn't last long.

            'Well, you're naked.'

            Maker, he was, wasn't he? He quickly covered himself with his hands and looked away, blushing so hotly that he was sure the water around him would soon start to boil him alive. It didn't help that he could see her out of the corner of his eye shrugging off her long coat and revealing herself to be in nothing more than a thin slip. She must have been staying after all, in which case he somehow needed to excuse himself without flashing her in the process.

            'I...ah...I'll just...give me a moment and I'll...'

            'It's alright, I'm not looking,' she said evenly, but he could see her biting her lip to hold back a smirk. She turned to him and he fought the urge to cross his legs. 'I mean I am looking, but nowhere I shouldn't be. I've already seen your face from many different angles, so surely it's still permissible to look at it even though you're...au naturel.'

            He watched her approach, towering over him where he sat half-submerged in water in the hollowed-out depression in the cave floor, and felt like a prey animal trapped in a corner without any hope of fighting back. She sat down on the edge of the basin and eased her feet and calves into the warm water beside him, lifting her slip so that it didn't get wet. When Cullen dared himself to look up at her, he saw an expression on her face that he didn't like, something like pain or sadness, and he reached up to lightly squeeze her knee. She placed a hand on his shoulder in turn and he shuffled closer, obeying the desire to be touched and to have someone else's skin against his own even as the feeling terrified him.

            'I'm sorry, Cullen.'

            'It's alright,' he said. 'I...I'm sorry too.'

            'What for?' she frowned.

            'For whatever I did to...upset you.'

            'I'm not upset with you, silly man,' she said fondly.

            When she slid her hand up his neck and into his hair, he exhaled sharply and tried to press himself closer to her again. 'Then why...I've been wanting to...You didn't respond to my notes.'

            'Maker, I'm sorry.' She took her hand from where it had been smoothing back his curls and covered her eyes with it. 'I'm so sorry, Cullen.'

            He got onto his knees so he could face her properly and eased her hand away from her face. 'Don't apologise,' he urged. 'I only want to talk to you. I mean, if you want to, if that would be...if you wouldn't mind.'

            'I got scared,' she said. 'Everything after the temple was like a dream. I was so disappointed and relieved and overwhelmed and you were there to comfort me and...' She covered her face once again as Cullen's hand on her wrist fell limp.

            'Oh,' he said. 'I...I understand.'

            His chest tightened so painfully that even breathing in felt like daggers between his ribs. She had only needed a distraction, a shoulder to cry on, and he'd stupidly fallen in love with the first person to show him a scrap of affection despite knowing that anyone he let in would throw him away eventually, would discover that he had nothing to give and move on while he got left behind. He was a fool, especially considering that he couldn't quite bring himself to regret any of it. He knew that the last soft, warm corner of his heart wouldn't recover from this, from the poisonous kiss of rejection, but at least he'd gotten to experience the last few exhilarating weeks when he'd truly believed that maybe it wouldn't be so bad to allow someone to know him, to give to someone else from a place that he had always locked away. At least he had gotten a small taste of what it would feel like to have his affections returned, had briefly felt the shadow of the quiet happiness he had craved his entire life, the happiness he had seen when his parents would hold each other as they watched the sunset together, tucked under a blanket on the doorstep in the time before, in a different life.

            'Thank you for telling me,' he said flatly. 'I won't allow any of this to get in the way of our work.'          

            'What are you talking about, Cullen?'

            'I'm talking about maintaining a positive professional relationship even though you no longer wish to...pursue...whatever it is we've been doing. Despite what happened in the Arbor Wilds.'

            He didn't even know what to call it. Clearly they hadn't been in the secret love affair he had so ardently believed them to be. He had suffered with nightmares for so long that he'd let himself be consumed by dreams of Evelyn, unrealistic as they were. It had told him he wouldn't ever find love, that the only way to have what he yearned for was to give in. But he hadn't given in, and he had grown more and more unworthy of love with every step he took away from that place, just like it said he would.

            'No, Cullen, that's not what I meant at all!' Evelyn cried. She placed her hands on either side of his jaw and pressed her forehead to his. 'I only meant that it all felt like a dream, like, I don't know, like I was free to do what felt right instead of what was necessary. I felt like a blushing girl again, getting giddy around her crush and going lightheaded if you so much as looked at me, then...then we got back to the castle and I saw him.' She scowled and flared her nostrils. 'I realised it may as well have been a dream. I realised that it was wrong of me to pull you into the fucking mess that is my life, and I thought that if I just ignored you that you'd get bored and I'd see you hanging around with some other woman and I'd know that I hadn't hurt you or let things go too far. I ruin everything I touch, and I never want to hurt you, Cullen.' He felt her hands begin to shake and placed his own over hers. 'I can't do anything right. I can't...I can't...'

            He was an idiot. He had made it about him when he should have been thinking of Evelyn, of what she needed him to be. He took her by the shoulders and gently encouraged her to join him in the water where it was warm and comforting and where he could wrap his arms around her properly. She pulled off her slip and dabbed her eyes with it, then allowed him to pull her into the water and close to his chest. She curled into him, turning sideways and draping her legs over his thighs and burrowing her head against his collarbone. He held her tightly, one arm around her shoulders and the other over her knees, tethering her to him.

            'I'm sorry,' he said over and over, kissing his apologies into her hair, heart aching more with each sob he felt break against his side. 'I'm sorry, I'm so sorry.'

            Evelyn seemed to find comfort in running her fingers through the hair on his chest as her grief gradually waned from sharp spasms of sorrow to hushed sniffling. Eventually, she looked up at him with wary, bloodshot eyes, and Cullen lowered his head to kiss her. He stopped just before their lips met, wondering if he'd misread the situation, if it was an inappropriate response, but Evelyn leaned up further to close the gap and days of torment vanished as though they'd never existed, like the pain was forming droplets on their skin in the heat of the spring and evaporating. He kissed a path from her lips to her temple.

            'You're in pain again,' he whispered.

            'A bit.'

            'Is it from the Wilds? Have the potions stopped working?'

            'Don't worry about it right now,' she said, kissing his chin. 'Just...be with me, here in this moment.'

            'Alright,' he replied. He felt a powerlessness that was full of security, like he knew he would do whatever she asked of him while still trusting that she wouldn't ask too much. 'Come sit in front of me.'

            She slid forward so she could sit between his thighs, her back against his chest, and he wrapped his arms around her stomach while she rested her head on his shoulder. He kissed up and down the length of her neck and stroked slow circles on either side of her belly with his thumbs. He felt dizzy from the intimacy, full of love and tingling everywhere that her skin touched his. Surely nobody had ever been as in love as he was now, surely if he loved her any more his heart would stop and he'd die with her name on his lips. This was the type of romance Varric could only wish to be able to recreate on paper in his novels, in the smutty literature that Cassandra loved so much. It was then, thinking of Varric's racy writing, that he realised.

            'Sorry,' he muttered. He tried to shuffle back, but the wall had him as trapped between it and Evelyn as his erection was between his stomach and her back. 'Just...just ignore it.'

            'I don't mind,' she sighed, bringing one of his hands to her lips. 'Maker, I love your hands. This is what a man's hands should look like. And feel like.' She brushed her lips across his palm then placed his hand over one of her breasts, rendering him useless until she pulled away and made to stand.

            'Evelyn?'

            'Don't worry,' she said. 'We're just swapping places.'

            'What do you mean?'

            She sat on the edge of the basin again and motioned for him to sit between her legs. 'Must you question everything? I want to wash your hair.'

            'Why? Sorry, I mean-'

            'Come here and be quiet,' she laughed.

            He turned and made to slide between her knees, but her belly was pressing into his head before his back could even hit the wall. She tried to shuffle further backwards, but her stomach still prevented him from getting any closer. Cullen wanted to laugh, but didn't want to risk upsetting her again.

            'Maker's balls,' she huffed. 'I can barely reach your head!'

            He did laugh then, a rather undignified snort because of how hard he had tried to hold it in. He heard a strange squeaking sound behind him and spun around to see Evelyn doubled over, silently laughing and gripping her belly like she was worried it might fall off. She made another sharp, squeaky inhale, and then her laughter found itself and began to echo from the ancient walls of the baths, almost as loud as the waterfall behind her. Tears of laughter were retracing the lines on her cheeks left over from her earlier despair, and Cullen felt light and young and alive to see her so happy. His own laughter burst back to life and this time, he didn't try to contain it. The two of them laughed until nothing else seemed to exist, until their stomachs hurt and Cullen's shoulder was sore from where Evelyn kept slapping it in her mirth, as if to try and make him stop laughing so she could stop too. When their laughter finally started to subside, Cullen made a happy humming sound that had Evelyn guffawing breathlessly all over again and infecting him in turn.

            'Right, stop now,' she panted. 'I feel sick.'

            'But it feels good,' he smirked. 'I haven't laughed like that in an age.'

            'That's my quota of laughter for the next week or two,' she pouted. 'I think I've pulled a muscle.'

            'I'll just wash my own hair, shall I?'

            'Don't,' she begged, clutching her chest. 'You'll set me off again.'

            'But I like seeing you laugh. You...your smile is...'

            He pulled himself out of the basin to sit beside her and took her into his arms. He was so preoccupied with cradling her head to his shoulder and pressing kisses into her hair that he didn't realise that the hand on his chest had been steadily moving downwards until she was wrapping her fingers around his cock, and he jumped so dramatically that she immediately let go again.

            'Sorry,' he winced.

            'No, no, I should have warned you. I'll keep my hands to myself.'

            'You don't...I mean, you could...'

            'I could what?' She traced his hipbone lightly with her nails, and when he didn't answer she tentatively wrapped her hand around him once more. 'Cullen?' He nodded and pulled her closer, holding her to his side as she began moving her hand up and down. 'Good boy.'

            He felt himself blush impressively at the compliment, swinging wildly between being mortally embarrassed and wanting to ask her to say it again. Her movements were slow and measured, and her grip was lighter and more patient than his own had been, which gave him time to focus on his breathing and keep himself grounded. Every time he edged too close to panic, he would run his fingers over her skin and breathe in the scent of her hair until he was in no doubt that she was real and he was safe. He was just starting to relax into it, to truly enjoy the way she was building him up higher and higher, when she stopped.

            'Funny angle,' she grumbled, flexing her wrist. 'I can barely reach round my belly.'

            'That's okay,' he said in a hoarse voice. 'I was...I was almost...I didn't want to, ah...not in the...' He gestured vaguely at the water just as Evelyn began to lower herself back into it. 'What are you doing?'

            'Changing the angle,' she purred, leaning her forearms on his thighs and gripping his hips. 'Returning a favour.'

            'I don't – Maker's breath!'

            He had most certainly not been expecting her to drag her tongue in a teasing circle around the head of his cock. He struggled to take a deep breath so that he could tell her she didn't have to, but then she took as much of him as she could into her mouth and started to move her head up and down, sucking a gentle pressure on every upstroke and swirling her tongue around the tip before pushing back down. He felt his cock harden further and heard his own breathless moans repeated back to him as they glanced off of the stone walls.

            'Evelyn,' he groaned. 'You don't...you...ah!'

            She released him from her mouth. 'What is it?' she asked, but she was kissing a line from his tip down to his balls, which wasn't helping him concentrate.

            'You don't have to...Oh, holy Maker, I didn't know that felt that good...'

            He heard her let out a huff of laughter through her nose as she continued to slowly suck and tease the skin of his sac. She tenderly licked the seam between his balls and then carefully took one into her mouth, circling her tongue around it as she gently coaxed it away from where it was trying to pull close to his body. After a while, she began to massage them with a hand instead as her tongue began questing higher once again.

            'Then all your previous lovers have let you down,' she hummed. He was about to remind her that there hadn't been any, but she spoke again before he could summon the strength. 'Maker, you're enormous.'

            He felt himself blush again, because the way she'd said it and the way she then began enthusiastically sucking on him felt like praise. She began to work him in earnest, sliding her mouth up and down with one hand pumping at the base of his cock where her lips couldn't reach and the other still carefully stroking and tugging on his balls as they fought to tighten more and more. Maker, it really was as good as people said, and to think he had accepted that he'd die without ever knowing how it felt to be inside any part of a woman. But it was all Evelyn, it would never feel this incredible if it wasn't Evelyn, and he felt himself approaching his peak as he desperately called out her name. He was going to come, he could feel his body start to tense, and then, of course, came the flood of anxiety and his loud moaning turned into panicked repetitions of her name.

            'Wait, Evelyn,' he panted. 'Someone might see us.'

            She pulled away and looked up at him through her eyelashes. He wondered how anyone could look so innocent with a swollen cock slipping out of their mouth. 'It felt a bit like we were nearly done,' she said, glancing towards the tunnel.

            'Yes, well...' His cock jerked so much that it brushed her lips and he groaned helplessly, trying to press forward into her mouth even as his mind told him to stop, to regain control. When she didn't take him back into her mouth, only waited for him to elaborate, he felt himself fall in love with her all over again. She was being patient with him, not pushing him or being forceful or making decisions for him even though it was clear what his body wanted. Maker, she was perfect. 'You stopped just in time,' he said.

            'In time for what?' she frowned. He didn't think she knew that she was flexing her fingers around his balls as she pondered, and he thought for a moment that it was going to happen anyway, whether he wanted it to or not.

            'Before I...in your mouth.'

            'Cullen,' she said firmly, pulling herself upright and placing her hands on his shoulders. 'Nobody will see us and I would have told you if I minded you finishing in my mouth. Tell me what's wrong. Tell me this is enough for today and we'll stop.'

            Overwhelmed, relieved, hopelessly in love, he stood and pulled her as close as her stomach would allow, leaning down to kiss her fiercely and running his hands up and down her back, then lower, cupping her soft behind. He couldn't get close enough, and didn't realise that he'd been shepherding her until the backs of her thighs hit the opposite edge of the basin and she was forced from the pool and onto her back, legs hanging uselessly in the water. Cullen gripped her under the knees and hoisted her legs up to frame his hips, feeling his erection brush against the underside of her belly as he did. She was laid out in front of him, chest heaving, breasts bare and moving with each shallow breath she took, and looking down he saw that her pussy was slick with arousal barely an inch from his cock, which was painfully engorged and a shade of red-purple he'd never seen it before. If he pulled his hips back ever so slightly, he'd be able to line himself up with the hot, wet place his fingers had once been and ease his length into her, grip her legs tighter and thrust in and out of her until she came for him, with him, around him.

            'S-sorry,' he croaked. He carefully lowered her legs and helped her into a sitting position. 'Are you hurt?'

            'No, I'm fine,' she said shakily. 'Are you alright?'

            He nodded silently, then realised that the cause of his embarrassment was rather aggressively bobbing in front of Evelyn's face and weakly apologised again. He was surprised when she only smiled affectionately and shook her head, then completely gobsmacked when she wrapped her hand around him once again.

            'Evelyn...'

            'Whatever you were just thinking of, keep thinking of it.'

            'What?'

            'Whatever was going through your head just then,' she said, 'keep thinking about that, and only that. Nothing else.'

            He couldn't help it, he was already thinking about it and now being encouraged made the images ten times more vivid. This time, when she slid her lips down his cock, he gave in to the fantasy, gave in to the heat of her tongue and the feeling of her humming as she reached for his hand and twined her fingers with his. He grasped her hand tightly, anchoring himself to her as he felt the rest of the world slipping away from him. He stroked over her hair with his other hand and held the back of her head, revelling in the feeling of it moving back and forth. He took some of her hair in his hand, telling himself that he'd stop her if she took him in too far or started looking uncomfortable, but the sight of her lips stretching around him and her eyelashes fluttering combined with the feelings she was giving him made it impossible for him to keep his eyes open. He shivered as a prickle of fear danced up his spine, but he kept the image of laying Evelyn down and making love to her in the front of his mind and soon felt his whole body becoming tight. His balls were trying to draw up towards his body, and he knew that that's all it would take, but Evelyn had them in her hand and was gently pulling them down. It was torture, but the best kind, and he was vaguely aware of panting and moaning her name over and over, whether in encouragement or to beg for mercy he wasn't sure. She finally took pity and let go, and it was like cutting the tension rope of a catapult, like everything became too much and then released just before he shattered into a million pieces. All he was aware of was the rapture, the warmth of Evelyn's mouth and the feeling of her hand stroking up and down his thigh as she eased him through it. He was pleasantly exhausted, not wanting to open his eyes yet, but when Evelyn tapped his hip and made a thoughtful noise, he immediately fell back into the real world.

            'Maker, Evelyn, I'm so sorry!' He let go of where he had his hand twisted in her hair, where he was holding her in place, and pulled himself out of her mouth. 'Have I hurt you? Please, please, forgive me.'

            'Come here,' she said, tugging on his hand until he sat beside her. 'What am I meant to be forgiving?'

            'I was...Was I rough with you?'

            'Quite the opposite,' she smiled. 'In fact I had no idea how much I liked having my hair petted until today.'

            'I'll...bear that in mind,' he replied, dazed and relieved. 'Oh!'

            'What is it? What are you looking for?'

            'Something for your mouth. To...ah...'

            'Relax,' she laughed. 'My mouth is fine. Very much fine.'

            She leant against his shoulder and pressed lingering kisses to his overheated skin.

            'But...' He managed to shut up before he embarrassed himself. She had apparently forgotten about his lack of experience, and he didn't feel that now was the time to remind her. He had hoped he would be able to warn her before he came so she could stop, but having failed spectacularly at that, he had been expecting her to spit it out with a disgusted look on her face. Maybe he hadn't spilled at all, though it certainly felt like he did. Or perhaps for some reason she had...no, surely not.

            'It doesn't bother me,' she said between kisses. 'Stop stressing about it, I can hear you thinking. And don't say sorry!'

            'S...Certainly.'

            'Certainly?' she scoffed.

            And then they were laughing again, interspersing their teasing with kisses until the sun was peeking intrusively in through the open wall past the waterfall. The mood quieted as they finished washing, then continued to sink so that by the time they were dry and dressed, the atmosphere was nothing less than subdued.

            'I suppose I'll see you tonight,' Evelyn said, looking at where their fingers were woven together between their chests. She looked sad again, and Cullen felt angry that things had to be this way, that she could only be happy for a fraction of her day before circumstances made her miserable again.

            'I suppose you will,' he replied. 'Kiss me.'

            She didn't seem to be able to go on her tiptoes anymore, so she tilted back her head and he leant down to press their lips together. She sighed into the kiss and it took every ounce of self-control for Cullen to stop himself from telling her that he loved her. He'd misunderstood her earlier, but for a heart-stopping minute he really had felt as though he'd lost her, and he needed her to know how much he appreciated her, how much he adored her, but now wasn't the time. Perhaps it wasn't too much to hope that somehow she would know, that he could show her with his actions until she couldn't possibly doubt what she meant to him. Instead of confessing his love, he kissed her deeply until she pulled away. She left without another word, looking over her shoulder at him until she was around the bend in the tunnel and out of sight.

 

                                                *          *          *          *          *

 

The ball was even more absurd than he'd feared. There were at least thirty people too many in the hall, his jacket was too tight and worst of all, he was having to watch Evelyn swan around playing the perfect hostess when he knew full well that she was miserable. Cullen was miserable too. He had arrived at the hall irritated, then rapidly descended into despair when Evelyn and Harimann had entered from her quarters to gasps of admiration and fervent applause. They were arm in arm, and when they stopped before the throne and turned to acknowledge their guests, he had kissed her on the cheek and touched her belly, looking every inch the perfect husband. Cullen had dug his teeth into the rim of his glass so hard that the entire thing had shattered in his hand and he had needed to quickly dispose of the evidence by kicking it into a corner and dropping a napkin over it. He was fairly certain that if Harimann so much as breathed near her stomach again that the next thing he'd shatter would be the pompous git's jaw. The happy couple were receiving gifts, none of which looked appropriate for a newborn to Cullen, when Josephine floated over to him, graceful as ever in a more elaborate version of the ruffled gold and blue dress she often wore.

            'Don't they look wonderful,' she chimed.

            'I suppose.'

            'Commander, why is your glove wet?'

            'I...spilt my drink.'

            'You...right,' she said, apparently deciding not to pursue that avenue of conversation. 'They'd look even better with matching chairs, don't you think?'

            'I hadn't really thought about it,' Cullen grumbled. 'Although now that you mention it, his is a little lacking compared to Evelyn's.'

            It was true. Evelyn sat upon her beautiful ornate throne, golden flames curling on either side and an image of Andraste herself rising up behind her, and Cullen was glad to see that what appeared to be an equally gilded footstool had been added to the arrangement since he'd last seen it. To the side of her, Harimann sat semi-dwarfed by the twisting metal flames on a simple stone chair, marbled and smooth, but looking stunted and pitiful squeezed between Evelyn's throne on one side and the steps on the other. Harimann appeared to be well aware of it too, because he kept eyeing the superior chair covetously when he thought no one was looking. Cullen laughed when he caught him doing so.

            'It's such a shame,' Josephine sighed. 'I really did try to source something more appropriate, but the commission fell through last minute.'

            'Couldn't you have used one of the other thrones? Evelyn has collected more than a few.'

            'That simply wouldn't do at all,' she rebutted, looking scandalised. 'To give the Inquisitor's husband a second-hand chair? How could I live with myself?'

            'You did it on purpose, didn't you?'

            'Did what on purpose?' the ambassador beamed. 'Enjoy the ball, Commander.'

            She hurried off in that busy way of hers, like she was rushing to give someone life or death news even if she was only going to get a glass of water. Cullen's eyes turned back to Evelyn, who was now talking animatedly with a woman who looked decidedly like Harimann but with a more open, less sour face. The woman seemed genuinely delighted to be talking with her, and Cullen could have sworn Evelyn looked equally pleased. Perhaps there were some good people here after all.

            'Isn't she just breathtaking?'

            'Maker's breath,' he gasped. 'My apologies, I did not hear you approach.'

            'Too busy keeping an eye on the lovely Inquisitor?' said a small, thin woman whose heavily-wrinkled face seemed to exude authority despite the depth of her laughter lines and the severe corrugation of her forehead. 'So I'll ask you again. Isn't she breathtaking?'

            'The Inquisitor?' he asked warily. The old woman nodded. 'Yes, she...she looks very beautiful.'

            'I agree!' she exclaimed. 'The most beautiful woman in the room, after my good self of course. Lady Lucille Trevelyan,' she said, switching her bejewelled cane to her left hand so she could offer her right. 'Evelyn's great-aunt and surrogate grandmother.'

            'Oh, I...forgive me, my lady.' Remembering that his glove was still soaked in wine, he looked away from where her dainty hand hovered in the air between them and bowed awkwardly instead. 'We are honoured to have you here, my lady. I'm-'

            'I know who you are, young man. There's a sizeable group of women over there who are talking about you rather energetically. Some men too actually.'

            'Oh, I...I hadn't noticed.'

            'I know that too. You only have eyes for one woman and she's at the complete opposite end of the room to them.' She gave him a knowing sidelong look and he blushed.

            'I am commander of the Inquisitor's forces and take her safety very seriously. I always make sure to watch for anything that could put her in danger in crowds such as this.'

            'Very convincing,' Lucille said with a small huff of laughter that reminded Cullen of Evelyn. 'I did not, however, mention the Inquisitor at all. You assumed that was who I was talking about. Read into that what you will.' He blushed further and very determinedly began to count the cracks in the stone floor beneath him. 'He's not suited to her at all,' Lucille sniffed. 'Too small, too puny and ferrety. She's a strong girl, she needs a big, strapping man like yourself. Not had the pleasure to talk to him at any length, but he seems like a real pretentious shit.'

            'You don't like Harimann?'

            'No, I don't like Harimann. Brett,' she spat disdainfully. 'A marriage of convenience, nothing more. A quid pro quo that doesn't extend beyond the war, if there is a beyond the war that is. If I know my girl, she'll be shot of him as soon as she has what she needs for her cause to succeed. I believe I'll throw a ball of my own when she does. Ha! A divorce party, how scandalous.'

            'That sounds like a ball even I could enjoy. M-My apologies, I didn't mean to-'

            'Oh, none of that. Neither of us want to be here for the reason we are and neither of us want to see them together long term. Great minds and all.' She raised her glass to him. 'With luck she'll be back to her headstrong, stubborn self soon enough, a little savage like when she was a child.'

            Cullen smiled at the image of a fiery younger Evelyn, but then he saw Harimann helping her down the steps and inviting her to dance and his mood plummeted again.

            'If they divorce, he'll take the child.'

            'Do you think so?' Lucille replied, sounding unfazed. 'Shame, I was planning on dying at some point in the next year or so and now I'll have to put it off. Again.' She took a regal sip of her wine. 'He can pry that baby out of my cold, dead hands.' She handed Cullen her empty wine glass and sighed. 'I must return to mingling with the commoners, I'm afraid. A pleasure to meet you, Commander. I hope to see more of you next time the world stops shaking for a while.'

            'Good evening, my lady,' he said, bowing.

            'I'd just forego the gloves altogether if I were you,' she said with a wink, then she marched back into the crowd, which seemed to clear her a path whichever way she went. It may have had something to do with the fact that Cullen saw her swatting at people's ankles with her cane at least twice.

            He didn't need to look very hard to find Evelyn in the crowd. She was wearing an astoundingly opulent gown, ice blue with gold thread woven into twisting vines and blooming flowers. She looked beautiful, but then again he had often thought the same thing as she rode into Skyhold caked in mud with twigs in her hair or when she sparred with him in tatty clothes with sweat dripping down her forehead. She was bent over slightly and swaying side to side, which struck him as odd, but when the crowd moved he saw that she was dancing with a little girl, who was squealing in delight as Evelyn spun her around and made her frilly pink dress twirl and flutter. The sight went straight to his heart. It looked so natural for her to be hand in hand with the giggling child, even though Cullen had seen her decapitate people with them same hands, albeit without the silk gloves on. He watched the two of them dance and laugh, wondering if he'd ever get to see Evelyn dancing with her own little girl like this, but then the woman from earlier came and coaxed the child away with a plate of cakes. Evelyn waved after them, then seemed to start feeling redundant, looking down and fiddling with her gloves. She must have felt his eyes on her, because she looked up and smiled when she saw him, radiant yet subdued, and motioned with her head for him to join her. He reluctantly made his way to where she was standing in the middle of the room.

            'I'm afraid I'm not much of a dancing partner, Inquisitor,' he murmured. 'The Templars didn't attend balls.'

            'If it makes you feel better, I grew up surrounded by all this nonsense and I feel as out of place as ever.' She laced her fingers with his, ostensibly so they could dance. 'Give me a sword over this any day.'

            'I miss my sword,' he sighed.

            'I miss being able to breathe,' she said glumly. 'Corset,' she added when he shot her a confused look.

            'You shouldn't be wearing a corset!' he hissed whilst also nodding politely at a passer-by. 'Come to the War Room, I'll help you out of it.'

            'My, my, I'm being propositioned by my commander in the middle of a ball,' she hummed.

            'No, I wasn't...that is...ah...'

            'I'm teasing,' she laughed, squeezing his hands. 'We've done our propositioning for the day, if I recall correctly.'

            She looked up at him through her eyelashes and he felt the blood rushing to his face, and to somewhere else. He cleared his throat and tried not to look at her flushed cheeks and pink lips.

            'Who was the little girl?'

            'Brett's sister's little girl, Johane. Isn't she precious? Flora, Brett's sister I mean, she's actually really kind and friendly, not what I expected at all. She had lots of good advice about motherhood and says she'll make sure to keep in touch while I'm still learning.' She dropped one hand to her bump and stroked it tenderly, something Cullen didn't think he'd ever seen her do. 'So little Johane will be baby's cousin, which is so lovely to think about, and me and Flora both want to make sure they see each other at least a couple of times a year. My darling father-in-law on the other hand...' She pulled a face. 'He seems nice enough, but is on the same "a boy will carry on the family name" boat as his son. Because Flora took her husband's name, she and Johane aren't quite giving him the legacy he was hoping for. He doesn't seem too bad though, and hats off to him for his resilience. I think I'd have gone mad. Imagine finding out, all in one day, that not only have you lost your wife, but that you and your children have spent the last Maker knows how many months possessed by a desire demon.'

            Cullen felt his stomach drop. 'A what?'

            'Evelyn!'

            'Who the fuck is shouting for me now?' she growled, waving when she saw that it was Flora. 'Nice dancing with you, Commander. Save me another?'

            'Of course.' He leant down and pressed a kiss to her cheek, hoping he wasn't being too bold even as the feel of her skin and the smell of her perfume made him desperate to do it again. She smiled at him in that shy way that looked entirely foreign and charming on her usually stoic face and turned to greet her sister-in-law.

            'Maker, is he single?' Flora said, looking Cullen up and down.

            'Flora, your husband is right over there!' Evelyn balked.

            'Oh, because you stopped looking at other men the day you married my brother?' she shrugged. Evelyn and Cullen caught each other's eyes and quickly looked away again. 'You should come sit for a while, Ev, don't overtire yourself. I was barely mobile when I was eight months with Johane. You're carrying wide, that's how I'm so certain they're a girl, but carrying wide in a distinctly more glamourous way than I did. Maker above, I was fat as a druffalo, I swear.'

            Cullen watched as the two women walked away arm in arm, hoping that he hadn't visibly reacted when Flora had supposed that the baby was a girl. He noticed then that the women that Lucille had mentioned were tittering and waving at him, so he quickly turned away and hurried back to the corner he had been in before, where he had been relatively well-hidden. However, luck wasn't on his side, for he hadn't been there even five minutes before he was disturbed again.

            'Commander, have you seen the Inquisitor?' Josephine asked, looking overwrought. 'She's meant to be addressing the guests soon.'

            'She's somewhere over there with Harimann's sister,' he said.

            'I was just with Lady Harimann and her husband, and the Inquisitor wasn't there.'

            'In that case, I...'

            His irritation transformed into a heavy stone of apprehension, which grew heavier and heavier in his stomach with each passing moment. He took off into the crowd, ignoring both Josephine as she called after him and the numerous people who squawked as he shoved his way past them. He had checked the perimeter twice before he realised that the door to the rotunda was ajar, despite it having being locked before guests had started to arrive. He slipped through into the darkness behind it and listened, trying to hear over the din of the party.

            'I've told you what will happen if you don't do as you're told!'

            'You won't do a damn thing, fucking coward.'

            'Ladies! Don't! Swear!'

            'Fuck the fuck off, piece of-' There was a thud and the curser let out a hiss of pain.

            'I'll kick the blasted thing right out of you! "Carrying wide", disobeying me again!'

            The screeching of something heavy, presumably Solas' desk, being pushed across the stone gave Cullen the chance to slip in unseen and unheard. He thought the sight of Evelyn bent forward over the desk, clutching her stomach where it was being shoved into the table edge with her dress being forced up over her hips had frozen him in horror, but then his fist was colliding with Harimann's face with a satisfying crunching sound and the puny man went flying backwards onto the floor a good five feet away. Cullen rushed to Evelyn and encouraged her to stand, pulling down her dress as she gawped open-mouthed between the two men.

            'Cullen?'

            'I'm here. Are you hurt?'

            'I don't think so,' she said slowly, looking incredibly dazed.

            He covered her hand with his where she was holding her belly. 'What about...'

            'I don't know.'

            'You!' Harimann barked, making his way over to them looking comically unsteady and leaving behind what appeared to be one of his teeth. 'Get your hands off my wife!'

            Harimann squared up to Cullen, forcing himself uncomfortably close, but once he realised he needed to crane his neck to look at his opponent's face, he seemed to deflate somewhat. He turned his attention to Evelyn instead.

            'Come here, stupid bitch!' he spat, sending a shower of blood down his chin. 'Heel!'

            Cullen felt a rush of rage unlike anything he'd felt before. This wasn't the disciplined focus before a battle or the well-practised harnessing of adrenaline when faced with someone or something trying to kill you; this was an anger so hot that it was boiling his blood and burning its way through his body like wildfire. The punch had been instinctive, but when he hoisted Harimann off the floor by the front of his frilly shirt and slammed him into the wall, it was wholly intentional, and it felt good. Shaking him like a ragdoll felt even better.

            'How dare you talk to her like that!' He slammed him into the wall again and heard the smaller man's teeth click together. 'You will not speak to her that way or put your hands on her ever again!'

            'Or what?' Harimann wheezed. 'She's my wife, I'll put my hands wherever I-'

            A swift headbutt to the nose and a sickening cracking sound shut him up quite effectively, as did letting him drop to the floor in an undignified heap.

            'You touch her again and I'll kill you,' he growled. 'Come on, Evelyn.'

            Apparently Harimann didn't know when to quit, because he arduously pulled himself to his feet, face and shirt covered in blood, and staggered towards them once again.

            'You seem to have taken a rather inappropriate interest in my wife, Commander,' he drawled.

            'She's the Inquisitor and a good woman. She deserves respect and you of all people should be supporting her and appreciating her while she's carrying your child.'

            'Oh, I appreciate her. I was trying to appreciate her when you came barging in on what doesn't concern you.'

            The high-pitched whimpering sound he made when Cullen kneed him between the legs was pathetic enough that Evelyn, who still appeared disorientated, actually laughed. Harimann doubled over and clutched himself through his trousers.

            'So you do have some,' Cullen muttered.

            'Take a look at my wife's stomach,' he managed to grunt. 'I would have thought it was pretty obvious to everyone that I've got the goods.'

            Cullen could have punched him again, but his white-hot aggression was dwindling into a simmering disdain, so he tutted instead. 'Your wife is Andraste's chosen. The child could be one of Evelyn's many miracles, a blessing from the Maker, perhaps.'

            Harimann's bloodied face went very red and then very white. 'You,' he whispered. 'How long? How long have you been sleeping with my wife?!'

            'No, that's...we haven't...'

            'I should have known,' Harimann seethed, reaching for the rapier he always carried at his waist.

            'You do not want to fight him, Brett,' Evelyn warned.

            'Why not? You don't want me to ruin your lover's pretty face?'

            'Because he's twice your size and weight even without his armour on, you stupid git!' she jeered.

            'Well then there's his first mistake,' Harimann said, smiling maniacally. 'He's not wearing his armour, or his sword. His second mistake will be underestimating me!'

            He lunged at Cullen, rapier thrust forward aiming for his rival's torso, but Cullen grabbed the flimsy sword by the blade with one hand and struck Harimann's wrist hard with the other. He dropped the weapon, and Cullen snapped it in half over his knee and threw it to the other side of the room.

            'That was to be given to my son!' Harimann squeaked.

            'No child of mine will be fighting with a toothpick,' Evelyn snarled.

            'Go to my quarters, stupid slut! I'll deal with you later.'

            'Make me,' she scoffed.

            He rushed towards Evelyn, but Cullen stepped in front of her, shielding her from her husband, who flinched and stepped back when he found himself blocked by Cullen's much larger body.

            'I'll tell everyone you're sleeping with my wife,' he spluttered. 'I'll ruin you, both of you. And if you think you're going to come out of this unpunished, Evelyn, then you're an idiot and a whore. I'm going to beat you so viciously that little rat will come out in pieces!'

            Cullen punched Harimann again, knocking him to the ground, but this time the bloodied noble didn't get back up. Cullen crouched over him and pressed a forearm to his neck. 'As long as I'm in this castle, if you so much as threaten her again, I'll break every bone in your body. You lay a hand on her and I'll crack your skull open, hang you from the battlements and have you used as target practice.'

            If Harimann had a rebuttal, he didn't have time to utter it before he fainted. Cullen stood and rushed back over to Evelyn, wrapping his arms around her and supporting her weight when she went limp against him. He felt her start to cry, felt her shoulders tremble and jerk with sobs, and his anger began to rise out of him like steam and float away into the rookery above. His vision cleared, and the haze of fury gave way to the harsh clarity of reality.

            'Holy Maker, I just threatened to kill your husband.'

            'I don't care,' she mumbled against his chest. Then she pulled away suddenly, standing up straight and schooling her face into that look of total haunting blankness that Cullen had always feared to see. 'I should get back to the party.'

            'No, Evelyn, you have to-'

            'I have to address my guests,' she snapped, wiping away the last of her tears. 'Thank you for...Thank you.' To his relief, she pulled him down for a kiss, but it was only for a brief moment before she smoothed out her dress, checked her hair delicately, and left with her chin raised and her shoulders back.

            Feeling numb and scared, trembling in the wake of the unbridled adrenaline that was sweating out of his palms, Cullen headed through the door that led directly to his office, leaving Harimann sprawled out on the floor. He felt a small pang of guilt when he thought about poor Solas returning to his desk to find the surrounding area covered in blood, but hopefully minus the unconscious noble. He entered his office and went straight up the ladder to his bedroom, then stripped out of his uncomfortable and now horribly dirty dress clothes. Knowing that his gloves had barely been salvageable even when all they had been soaked in was wine, he threw them into his designated sick bucket, which felt meaningful even though the receptacle was currently clean. He washed the blood from his face and hands where it had permeated his gloves and changed into a basic wool shirt and trousers, before going back down to his office and trying to lose himself in his work. He had been amending and re-amending the same infuriatingly obtuse strategy for almost two hours when a hesitant knock at the door brought him back to the present.

            'Come in.'

            The person opened the door very slowly, then sidled in as though they were hoping not to be seen. The hunched figure stepped into the room, and their tearstained, guilty face was illuminated as they flinched back from the light of the candles. They were wearing a long coat and cradling a large pillow to their front, and a small bag swung from their wrist.

            'Hi.'

            'Evelyn,' he said. 'Is everything alright?'

            'Yes, I just...'

            'What is it?' He stood and stumbled around the desk to go to her, stamping his numb feet as covertly as he could. 'What's happened?'

            'Nothing's happened,' she murmured. 'Can I stay with you tonight?'

            'In my quarters?'

            'Yes, if...Sorry, I shouldn't have asked. I'll go.'

            'Wait, Evelyn,' he urged, placing his hands on her arms to stop her from turning away. 'You can stay. If that's what you want.'

            'Are you sure?'

            She wouldn't look at him, so he traced his knuckles down her jaw, then titled her chin up with his fingers while his thumb swept across her lips.

            'You can stay.'

            'Thank you,' she breathed shakily. 'I-I don't want to sleep in my quarters, but I don't want to be alone either.'

            'I understand. Are you ready to...oh, no.'

            'What is it? I can leave if you-'

            'No, I don't want you to leave, but,' he sighed, 'the ladder.'

            'This ladder?' she asked, then nodded as if she was answering her own question. 'I'd completely forgotten you slept up there.'

            'Maybe there's somewhere else we can go,' Cullen frowned. 'Perhaps we could sleep in one of the spare rooms just for tonight.'

            'The guests have got there first, I'm afraid,' she shrugged. 'I think I'll manage. Hold my things?'

            She thrust her bag and pillow into his arms and was already arranging herself in a strange sideways position at the bottom of the ladder before he thought to stop her.

            'Let me help you! Evelyn, wait!'

            'It's fine, I think I've figured it out.'

            She continued to slowly make her way up the ladder at a strange angle, belly turned so it wasn't in the way and arms reaching sideways to grip the rungs as she went. It would have been funny if it didn't feel like he was having a heart attack watching her. He hovered beneath her, praying she wouldn't fall, which thankfully she didn't. She did however get stuck at the top, unable to pull herself onto the floor above, and he had needed to follow her up and then roughly shove her by the buttocks until she ascended into his bedroom with a thump. The situation had been so ridiculous that a look of bewildered amusement had briefly broken through the clouds of melancholy that obscured her face. Earlier that day, they would have laughed until they could hardly breathe, but now they only gave each other a small smile. Cullen grabbed her pillow, bag and a candle from his office and then ascended the ladder once more.

            Under her coat it turned out she was wearing nothing more than a thin slip like the one she had been in when they'd met in the baths. She shivered in the breeze coming in through the broken roof, but declined the jacket he offered her.

            'I'll just comb my hair and then I'll settle in, if that's still alright,' she said.

            'It's still alright. Even if it wasn't, I don't think I could cope watching you on that ladder two times in one night.'

            She looked at him curiously when he took the comb she had pulled from her little bag out of her hand and guided her to sit on the bed in front of him. When he began to comb her hair, she sighed happily and tilted her head back.

            'Am I doing it right?'

            'It's perfect,' she said. 'You're much gentler than I usually am.'

            'That's because you're a brute.'

            'Says you.'

            'I'm as meek as a lamb,' he smirked.

            'Bollocks.'

            He laughed and pressed a kiss to her bare shoulder, then finished combing her hair. She leant back against him and brushed her lips against his stubble.

            'Evelyn?'

            'Hmm?'

            'Could I look at your stomach?'

            She turned and frowned at him. 'Why?'

            He bit his bottom lip and reached up to rub the back of his neck, unsure how to explain without overstepping or bringing up a topic of conversation he was sure neither of them wanted to dwell on just yet. Evelyn stood and turned to face him, and he sighed in relief when she pulled up her slip and tucked it beneath her breasts.

            'Will you pass me the candle?' he asked.

            She nodded and handed it to him so he could use the light to check her stomach, while his free hand devotedly stroked across each new area of skin that he examined.

            'Well?'

            'It looks fine other than the marks from that stupid corset,' he grumbled. He leant round to put the candle back on the floor, then pressed a few reverent kisses to her belly. 'Come to bed.'

            'You're still sure it's-'

            'Come to bed.'

            She smiled down at him almost shyly and allowed him to tug her onto the bed beside him. She began the laborious process of getting comfortable, and Cullen pulled off his shirt and looked away to try and preserve some of her pride as she huffed and fussed.

            'I'm going to be really rude and sleep turned away from you,' she said. 'I have a comfier side.'

            'I'll try not to be too offended,' he smirked. 'Do you need this?' He offered her the pillow she had brought with her.

            'Goes between my knees. Maker, I sound like such an invalid.'

            'It's only for another month,' he said, feeling both sadness and anticipation at the thought. He helped her arrange the cushion between her legs and then laid on his side behind her. Yearning for her touch, he diffidently shuffled closer until his chest was pressed against her back. She hummed contentedly, which gave him the courage to slide his arm beneath her so he could wrap it around her chest and pull her close. He rested his other hand on her hip, then moved it further round so he could cradle her stomach. 'Is this alright?'

            'Yes,' she whispered, kissing his forearm where it was slung across her chest. 'You're lovely and warm.'

            'I don't think I've ever been called either of those things before,' he laughed quietly. 'Is there...Do you want to...talk...about tonight or...or just sleep?'

            'Just cuddle,' she replied. 'And sleep. But thank you. Maybe another day.'

            'Alright. I...I would be happy to listen and...well, not happy obviously, because it's not a happy...' He sighed heavily. 'I'm here if you need me.'

            'I know.' She twined her fingers with his where he held her belly. 'You always are. For both of us, it would seem. I might not fully understand your reasons, but I'm so glad there's at least one other person in the world who wants to keep them safe. Sometimes it just feels like me and them, us against the world, so it means a lot for us to have, well, an ally I suppose. To have someone on our side.'

            'I'm on your side. I...' He could feel words bubbling up that he knew might be best left unsaid, but she was safe and warm in his arms and once again, the moonlight seemed to melt away his better judgement. 'I...I care about her. I think of her...all the time, really. I know I'm not...I know we're not...ah...What I mean to say is, I wish to be in both your lives. I wish to help you keep her safe. If you would allow it.'

            Evelyn was quiet for a time, gently stroking his arm as though deep in thought. 'After your dream you said you thought the baby was yours and I laughed at you. Tonight Brett asked if the baby was yours, and I wished you'd been right after all.' She stiffened. 'Sorry. What a stupid thing to say, what a selfish thing to put on you. I don't even know what we are to each other.'

            'It isn't stupid,' he said shakily. He felt like his heart was trying to squeeze through the gaps between his ribs. 'And we're...me and you are...' He sighed. 'You said earlier that you thought if you ignored me I might find another woman. Evelyn, I...I haven't wanted anyone in my life for a very long time. You changed that. You are the only woman I've...I only want you. I...I...'

            'You said "her".'

            'Pardon?'

            'You called them "her". Seems everyone thinks they're a girl.'

            'Oh, right, I, ah...' he stammered. 'I hadn't realised I'd said it.'

            'If you're right, if she is a girl, then she isn't safe. She'll be in danger from the minute she's born, and it...' She squeezed his hand. 'Thank the Maker we have you. You certainly came to our rescue tonight.'

            Memories of the confrontation spilled across his mind's eye like ink, spreading outwards, forming disturbing shapes, bleeding into itself as it suffocates the parchment, until all he could see was Evelyn being forced over the desk, Harimann's tooth on the floor still attached to a gob of gum tissue, the look in Evelyn's eye when she had realised he was there to help her. She wasn't hurt, she was safe, and he was going to keep it that way no matter what he had to sacrifice. He hugged her tighter, fierce in his adoration, and let the tiny still-warm piece of his heart climb into his throat and onto his tongue.  

            'I love you.'

            It was the wrong time and the wrong place, too much had happened that day for it to be appropriate at all, but it was true. Evelyn squeezed his hand again and ran kisses up and down his forearm, some firm and sure like promises and some light and uncertain like whispered fears.

            'Goodnight, Cullen.'

            'Good...goodnight, Evelyn.'

            He knew he didn't deserve her soft kisses or the reassuring feeling of her relaxing against him. He knew she deserved so much more than a world-weary, broken-down soldier with a faulty body and a faultier mind.  But that night they only had each other, so he kissed the crown of her head, her neck, her shoulder, and curled around her like he could shield her from anything that might try and hurt her. Once her breathing had slowed and all the tension had left her arms and legs where they tangled with his, he whispered his love against her skin once again and then quickly followed her into the Fade, terrified of being left behind.  

Chapter Text

He was going to die. He was the only one left and he was going to die. He had no way of knowing how many hours or days or weeks had passed, no way of knowing if it was night or day, no way of knowing when he'd last had lyrium, but worst of all, he had no way of knowing whether or not what he was seeing was real. He'd seen his parents die in a hundred different ways, so he doubted it more and more each time they rounded the corner, though having to watch them be tortured never got any less soul-destroying. If he survived, he'd get to see them again, the real them. If he didn't give in, he could go home and be with them and with his siblings back in Honnleath where nothing ever happened.

            Now he craved the peace and quiet that as a child had felt like stagnation. Now he appreciated the freedom there was to be had in letting the sun tell you when to rise and when to go to bed, in living off the land and contributing to a community where everyone was equal. The tower was meant to be his freedom, the place where he could grow into something better, where he was to find movement in his life, but he was trapped. He had ran through fields and swam in lakes and felt contained, like there was something more, and now his something more was a cage, a literal cage, and he was going to die and he wasn't sure he minded anymore. He was nineteen, a grown man, but he wanted his parents. He wanted his big sister. He wanted to go back to having muddy knees and being forced to wear a stupid straw hat in the summer and to believing that the future was better than the present, that being a grown-up meant freedom and that being a Templar meant he'd never feel confined again. But it wasn't his parents who were being tortured in front of him. It was a woman. A woman he didn't know.

            She was shouting for help, dragging herself across the floor towards him while a hideous demon groped at her legs and tugged her backwards whenever she got too far ahead. She turned her tearstained face to him and reached out her hand.

            'Help! Help me, please!'

            'I can't!' he replied. 'I can't, I'm trapped!'

            'Help! It's killing me! Why won't you help me?!'

            'I can't! I...' He looked around the room as the woman screamed, pulled back by her ankles again. 'There's a sword, right there! Grab the sword!'

            He tasted bile on the back of his tongue. The sword was being held by a bloated corpse in Templar armour, its body covered in bulging sacks of blood and gristle while ropey sinew bound it to the wall.

            Not 'it', he thought. Him.

            The woman lunged for the body and grabbed the sword by the blade. Her hand was sliced open as she pulled it towards her, and when she tried to take the hilt, her fingers were so slippery with blood that she couldn't get a firm grip. The demon laughed and forced her onto her back. It crept up her body like a shadow, tearing at her clothing, exposing her breasts and stomach, and she screamed as the monster wrestled the sword from her grasp.

            'Help! Help me!'

            'Use your magic!' he shouted.

            'I don't have any!'

            No magic? He knew she wasn't one of the other Templars, so what was she doing in the tower if she didn't have any magic? Who was this woman?'

            'Cullen, please! Why won't you help me?!'

            'I can't, I...' The demon raised the sword above its head with both hands, blade pointing down at the woman's stomach, which was huge and distended, but not like the terrible growths on the body of the dead Templar. It was the same colour as the rest of her skin and looked firm and symmetrical. She was... 'Evelyn!'

            'Cullen, help! It's killing us, help!'

            'I'm coming, Evelyn! Fight it for just a while longer!'

            'I can't!'

            He threw himself at the barrier as hard as he could over and over. He punched it, he kicked it, he tried to force his fingers through the shimmering lines that gave him headaches and made him vomit, but nothing worked. If he just tried harder, he could break through. If he truly loved Evelyn, he should be able to break through. But he couldn't, and she screamed as the demon thrust the sword into her belly. Cullen fell to his knees, faced pressed to the barrier even though it was unbearably hot, and watched helplessly as Evelyn groaned and trembled. She weakly called his name.

            'Cullen...Cullen, get the baby. Please...'

            'Evelyn, I don't know what you-'

            The demon pulled a tiny baby from the wound in her stomach and threw it to the other side of the room. Cullen was frozen in shock, floored by nausea, but then a second, smaller black demon fell from the ceiling and began to crawl on its belly towards the child, which was still and silent, curled on its side on the stone floor.

            'Please, please, get the baby,' Evelyn whispered, eyelids fluttering.

            He was feeling too many emotions to process, and he couldn't move, he couldn't think, but then the barrier started to sag where he was slumped against it, bevelling under the weight of his body. It was stretching and cracking and the feeling of it turning icy cold brought him back to life, and he struggled again to break through. He leant against it and dug his heels into the ground, pushing against it with all his strength, and to his disbelief, the barrier vanished and he fell face first onto the cold stone. He began to crawl to Evelyn, who was pale and listless, entirely covered by the demon other than her head, which she shook weakly.

            'Get the baby.'

            'I'll help you both.'

            'Please,' she breathed. 'Please.'

            He looked between Evelyn and the baby, torn, rooted to the spot with indecision, but the smaller demon was nearly on the child and Evelyn was begging him desperately to go to them, so he did, rushing to pick them up before the shadow could claim them. They fit in the palm of his hand. He held them to his chest and turned back to Evelyn, but the demon had drowned her, was taking over her body from the outside in until she was jet black and her skin bubbled like tar. He choked, felt his will to survive turn to tears in his eyelashes, and the only thing that stopped him from slumping forward onto the stone was the baby cradled against him. They still hadn't moved or made a sound, and no matter how close he held them, they remained icy cold.

            He'd failed them. Failed them both. If he'd have broken the barrier in time, he could have saved Evelyn, or caught the baby when the demon had thrown them, but then the barrier sprang back up around him, sickeningly pink, buzzing, rippling, taller than ever. Hundreds of the small crawling demons swarmed around them, trying to climb up his legs and grab at the baby, who had started to squirm and cry, a terrible shrieking sound. He kicked at the monsters, punching them away with his free hand when they leapt at him, but they didn't stop coming up out of the stone and dropping from the ceiling. One of them snatched the baby from his hands and pulled it into the writhing tar-like mass building up around his feet, and he threw himself to his knees and plunged his hands into the sticky, congealing mass, desperately feeling for the baby before they could be suffocated like their mother. His fingers found a tiny arm and he dug in both his hands to pull her free, but when he scooped her up into his arms and softly called her name, the guilt of failing her...

            'Cullen? Cullen, can you hear me?'

            'Evelyn?'

            'You were expecting a different woman in your bed this morning?' 

            ...woke him up.

            Evelyn was sat beside him on the bed, huddled up in the jacket he had offered her the night before. She smiled at him as he looked around, coming back to himself, but there was something strained about her expression, something forced about the curve of her mouth. When he reached out to her, he was certain she flinched.

            'Is everything alright?' he asked.

            'I should be asking you,' she said, taking his hand. 'Do you feel okay?'

            'W-why wouldn't I?' He had a horrible, creeping sense of apprehension.

            'I think you were hallucinating,' she frowned. 'It looked like you were having a nightmare, but when I woke you up you still weren't...with it, I suppose. Are you alright now? Do you know where you are?'

            'Yes, I...I'm fine,' he said. It felt like all his muscles were filling with ice. 'I hope I didn't worry you.'

            'I was worried for a while,' she replied, pulling the jacket further around her. 'Your eyes were flickering from side to side, like you could see something I couldn't, then you were shouting my name but whenever I tried to touch you you were, I don't know, trying to fight me off. You looked terrified, screaming and thrashing about. I thought I'd have to go for help, but then you came round.'

            He was trembling, full of apologies and explanations, but he could only focus on one question. 'Did I hurt you?'

            'No, not really,' Evelyn shrugged. 'You landed quite the punch on my arm, but I backed off after that and just kept trying to talk to you.'

            'I punched you...'

            'Only because I'd just woken up. You won't be so lucky next time,' she smiled, squeezing his hand.  

            He slid his hand out of her grip. He had struck her, after he'd promised himself that he'd keep her safe and not let anyone harm her. How stupid of him not to realise that the person she most needed protecting from was himself. He could have seriously hurt her, he could have hit her face or neck or, Maker forbid, her stomach. He could have harmed the baby he had promised to help protect, the baby he had been dreaming about while he was lashing out in the waking world. He was a risk to them both. He wasn't to be trusted.

            'I...ah...I should get ready for the day.'

            'Sure,' Evelyn said, eyebrows raised. 'I'll go back to my quarters and do the same.'

            'But what if...' He wasn't the only risk to Evelyn's safety. The thought that he was just as bad as the man he despised filled him with anger and shame. 'What about...'

            Evelyn shrugged again. 'We'll see. Fingers crossed he'll still be unconscious in a corner somewhere.'

            'Wait here,' Cullen said, jumping out of bed and almost falling straight back in when he became lightheaded. 'I won't be long.'

            'Where are you going?'

            'Just wait here!'

            She furrowed her brows. 'Alright. Don't be long, whatever it is.'

            Cullen pulled on a shirt, then his boots, and headed for the ladder.

            'And don't try and use the ladder while I'm gone.'

            'Yes, Ser,' Evelyn scowled.

            'I only-'

            'It's fine.'

            She took his pillow and placed it over hers, punched it a few times, then got herself comfy against the headboard and crossed her arms. The aggression in her movements and the way she was doggedly glaring at the ceiling made Cullen nervous, and he quickly moved down the ladder and out of the office before the ice could return to his veins and completely immobilise him. It was past dawn, so he made his way into the main keep hoping that there was at least one friendly person already awake and ready to face the day. When he entered the rotunda, he was relieved to see that the blood had been cleaned up and the desk was back to where it should be, square in the middle of the room. He was looking to see if Harimann's tooth was still on the floor when he heard a banging sound from the floor above, followed by a muffled 'Fasta Vass!'. Apparently the Maker was on his side this morning, so he hurried up the stairs in time to see Dorian furiously picking up loose pages that appeared to have exploded out of a heavy tome he had dropped.

            'Dorian?'

            The crouching man looked up sharply, clearly surprised. 'Well, good morning, Commander. Care for a book on time magic with all the pages in the wrong order?'

            'Maybe another day. I was hoping to ask for a favour.'

            'How very intriguing,' Dorian said, standing and throwing the misshapen book down on his armchair. 'What's in it for me?'

            'Oh, well...I thought, ah...'

            'I do so enjoy watching you squirm, Commander,' he smirked. 'But I think I'll help you out of the kindness of my heart, me being so nice and all. What can I do for you?'

            'What's your schedule for today?' Cullen asked. 'Would you have time to, well, spend some time with Evelyn?'

            'I always have time for Evelyn,' Dorian said. 'When and where?'

            'I was thinking maybe...perhaps...you could accompany her to her quarters and do your research there, unless you have other commitments.'

            'I don't think I follow, Cullen.'

            'Right, well, I...I would like to keep an eye on her with her being so...' He made a vague sweeping motion over his stomach. 'But I won't be free until later this evening. So I hoped that you could...keep her company for me.'

            'What aren't you telling me?' Dorian said, narrowing his eyes.

            'Will you help me or not?'

            'I will help you,' he replied firmly, 'but I want to know why.'

            'Because I'm worried about her being alone with her husband! He has...threatened her. Threatened to hurt her and the baby.'

            'His own baby?'

            Cullen nodded. 'She has to go to her quarters to get ready, but he might be there and...He might try and get her alone at other points as well and it would make me feel better if somebody made sure he could not do that.'

            'I see,' Dorian said gravely. 'Spineless little worm. I'd love to study the effects of prolonged low-level fire magic on the human body on that worthless fool. But alas, my reputation is fragile as it is. I'll make sure she gets where she needs to safely. Where is she now?'

            'She's, ah...ah...'

            'If I didn't know better, I'd interpret that charming blush as meaning that she's in your quarters. Perhaps even in your bed.' Cullen blushed an ever deeper red. 'Well, that is exciting. Stop looking at me like that, I won't tell anyone. Come on then, take me to her if I am to be her handsome escort.'

            'Thank you, Dorian,' Cullen said, sighing in relief. 'I appreciate it.'

            'Always happy to help out a friend. Lead on.'

            Back in his office, Cullen was pleased to see that Evelyn hadn't used the ladder while he'd been gone, but she was stood at the top and glaring down at him like she would have jumped if he'd taken even a moment longer. Her eyes went wide when she saw Dorian.

            'Don't worry, dear,' he called up to her. 'I'm to be your gracious chaperone for the day.'

            'I don't need a...' she started, scowling ferociously. She looked at Cullen, nostrils flared, then exhaled slowly. 'Thank you, Dorian. You're a good friend.'

            'The best,' he smiled.

            Both men helped her down the ladder, which proved to be even more difficult and awkward than how she'd gotten up it to begin with, but eventually she was safely on the floor and wrapping her coat around her shoulders.

            'Thank you for taking in a helpless refugee, Commander,' she said. 'I'll try not to impinge on your hospitality again.'

            'That's...It was no trouble at all.'

            She nodded at him, then took Dorian's arm and turned for the door.

            'You're not wearing any shoes, Evelyn' Dorian said.

            'I can't reach my feet,' she grumbled. 'I'll sort it in my room.'

            'Would it be cruel to laugh?' he smirked.

            'What happened to "gracious chaperone"?'

            Dorian laughed and placed his hand over hers where it clutched his arm, then led her out of the office, chattering away about how he was going to tell all the nobles that the Inquisitor didn't wear shoes. Then Cullen was alone and everything hit him at once. He felt like he hadn't slept in weeks, his brain felt like it was too big for his skull, his stomach was doing somersaults in his throat and he couldn't feel his hands or feet, but worst of all, it felt like Evelyn would never talk to him again. Last night, falling asleep with her pressed against him, he'd felt happier than he'd ever felt before, and now it was all ruined and he was back to being miserable, a place so familiar that it was almost a comfort to sink back into the pain and loneliness. He'd lost her trust and scared her away in the space of ten minutes, or perhaps it had been before that. He groaned, remembering how he had told her he loved her. He had told her he loved her and she hadn't said it back, of course, because surely she knew as well as he did that she deserved so much better. It must have made her so uncomfortable, must have made him look so pathetic, and now he had pushed her even further away all because of a ridiculous nightmare and his inability to control his temper. He sighed and put his head in his hands. It was going to be a long day.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

It was absolutely freezing in the valley outside of the castle, and the sound of all the clashing swords and shouting voices was making him grind his teeth, which only made the pain in his temples worse. He was so busy snapping at the sparring soldiers, wallowing in his bad mood, that he didn't notice the only thing that could possibly ruin his day any further was marching towards him.

            'Commander!'

            He turned towards the voice, ready to grouse at whoever it was, but when he saw that it was Harimann, the words shrivelled up on his tongue. He was wearing a particularly opulent, frilly outfit that looked ridiculous against the backdrop of hundreds of soldiers in armour. A wide-brimmed hat threw a shadow over his heavily-bruised face and his lank hair was pulled back and tied with a ribbon, which only seemed to accentuate the black rings around his eyes and the red scab on his bust lip.

            'What do you want?' Cullen spat.

            'I've come to oversee the training of my troops,' he drawled. He had a slight lisp that Cullen was certain he hadn't had yesterday.

            'Your troops?'

            'Yes, my troops. My Marchers. They answer to me, not you.'

            Cullen laughed mirthlessly. 'I highly doubt that.' He noticed then that the skin under Harimann's eyes seemed to be cracking, and that the bruising was nowhere near as bad as it should be considering his nose was most definitely broken. 'Are you wearing makeup?'

            'Of course I'm not!' Harimann hissed. 'Anyway, it isn't unheard of for gentlemen to sometimes...just some light adjustments.'

            'You are no gentleman.'

            'You don't...' Harimann rounded on Cullen, then seemed to think better of it. He turned to the soldiers instead. 'Marchers!' he cried. 'Marchers, stand to attention!'

            The nearest soldiers looked at him with confused frowns on their face.

            'They're not going to-'

            'Step forward if you are a Marcher! If you are proud of your homeland!' Nobody moved. Harimann pointed to a young man near to where he stood. 'You, I recognise you. Step forward.'

            The young soldier looked at Cullen.

            'You do not need to listen to this man. Return to sparring, Taunton.'

            'Yes, Commander.'

            'I want a contest!' Harimann squeaked, his voice matching his ferrety face perfectly. 'I want to see a Marcher in one-on-one combat with another soldier! An Orlesian, or better, a Fereldan!'

            'What happened to his face?' a nearby soldier said.

            'Looks like he lost a fight,' her companion replied.

            'Yes, Harimann, what did happen to your face?' Cullen asked.

            Harimann glowered at him, opening and closing his mouth over and over like a landed fish. Knight-Captain Rylen, who was back from Griffon Wing Keep short-term to help coordinate the next assault on Corypheus, joined the two of them with what will have looked to all like a good-natured smile, but that to Cullen looked like the face a cat pulls before it bites you.

            'Good morning, Ser Harimann,' he said. 'You're looking for a Marcher to fight a Fereldan?'

            'That's what I said, isn't it?' Harimann sniffed.

            'Then I think I know just who would get the job done to your satisfaction, Ser.'

            'Oh yes?' Harimann said, interest clearly piqued.

            'Oh yes,' Rylen grinned, and Cullen saw a smugness in the stretch of his chin tattoos as he smiled. 'Who better to represent the Marcher honour than you? And who better to stand against you in the name of Ferelden than the Commander?'

            Harimann's mouth was flapping in that undignified, fish-like way again. Cullen scowled at Rylen, but the Knight-Captain was clearly too pleased with himself and the reaction he was getting from Harimann to either notice or care. There were murmurs of interest and some actual cheering from the soldiers, but unlike Rylen, they quieted when Cullen turned his glare to them.

            'I-I-I can't,' Harimann sputtered. 'I don't have my sword.'

            'You can borrow one from the armoury,' Rylen said, patting him rather roughly on the shoulder. 'Then you can face off in the ring in the courtyard. How about it, Commander?'

            To his enormous irritation, the soldiers seemed to have taken to the idea, because they began to shout and whistle and some banged their shields with the pommels of their swords. Apparently Harimann was as disliked outside of the castle as he was inside.

            'That's enough!' Cullen ordered, and while they obeyed immediately, the anticipatory smiles remained fixed on their faces. 'I have been training with a sword for nearly twenty years, while this man's experience barely extends past fencing. It would not be a fair fight.'

            'Then it's settled,' Rylen shrugged. 'Ferelden wins.'

            'Now-now wait just a moment!' Harimann said. 'I couldn't fight the commander even if I wanted to because...the Inquisition cannot afford to have him out of action at this pivotal time.'

            The soldiers actually laughed at that, and Cullen let them. He allowed them their fun until one of them grew too bold and tried to disguise her shout of 'Coward!' behind an unconvincing cough. He was about to tell them to be quiet when Harimann did it for him, his face bright red and spit flying from his mouth.

            'He's the coward!' he seethed, pointing at Cullen. 'He's too scared to fight me! He's the coward!'

            Cullen had remained calm up until that point, but then a fire sparked in his head, illuminating all the memories from the night before that he had been trying so hard not to focus on, and it took all of his self-control not to hoist Harimann off his feet and throw him onto someone's sword. He dared to call him a coward when it was Harimann that threatened pregnant women and hid behind his title and status as Evelyn's husband. Cullen thanked the Maker that unlike last night, he was able to keep from flying into an unstoppable rage, but the anger was there, right beneath his skin.

            'Pick a sword and we will see who's a coward. I'll even make it a fair fight. Go, now!'

            Harimann shrank away from him, taking a few steps back. He bumped into Rylen, who courteously bowed to him, possibly to hide the self-congratulatory look on his face, then ushered him in the direction of the castle. Cullen dismissed the soldiers for the day, but couldn't detain the bold group that had decided to tail him back to the castle, apparently eager to watch whatever was about to happen. By the time he made it to the courtyard, Harimann was already stood within the wooden sparring ring with a one-handed sword held limply at his side, point dragging against the ground like he didn't have the strength to lift it properly.

            As Cullen stepped over the fence to join him, he heard Harimann turn to Rylen and say, 'You're a Marcher too, aren't you? Why don't you fight in my place? Be my champion?'

            Rylen laughed loudly. 'You can call me a coward if you want, but I'm not stupid enough to challenge the commander when he's this pissed off.' Harimann visibly deflated upon hearing this, and looked at Cullen sidelong with wide, terrified eyes.

            'I believe I promised you a fair fight,' Cullen called.

            'Y-Yes, you did,' Harimann replied, looking cautiously optimistic.

            'Then I shall honour my word,' he said, resisting the urge to just rush at the man and wring his neck. He shrugged off his surcoat and then went about removing his armour and base layers until he was bare from the waist up. He put his vambraces back on, having needed to remove them to pull off his undershirt, then placed his sword, shield and armour outside of the ring. When he turned back to face Harimann, he found the noble looking somewhat more confident, but then he appeared to notice the growing crowd and the skin around the dark bruises on his face became deathly pale.

            'Ready?' Rylen asked him, to which he nodded weakly. 'Ready, Commander?' Cullen nodded too. 'Alright then. Remember this is only a friendly, so keep that in mind before you beat him into the ground, Cullen.'

            'What?' Harimann squeaked.

            Rylen pushed him so that he stumbled into the centre of the ring, sword leaving a line in the dirt where it scraped across the ground. Cullen raised his fists in front of his face and rolled his shoulders, trying to ignore the fact that somebody wolf-whistled as he did. He hated that kind of attention, but he almost appreciated that it had made him even angrier than he already was. For some reason, Harimann thought that the admiration had been for him, and seemingly encouraged, he raised his sword and swung it at Cullen, who deflected it so effectively with his vambrace that Harimann dropped the weapon altogether. The crowd laughed and jeered, and Harimann looked like he might either be sick or start crying, possibly both at once. However, he picked up his weapon and faced his opponent again, and Cullen remembered how persistent he had been the night before. He had almost respected his determination, but now he was thinking about Evelyn clutching her stomach as he forced her over the desk and everything went dark around the edges of his vision. When he blocked another blow, he stepped forward and punched Harimann in the centre of his face. He squealed like a piglet as his already broken nose was forced even further out of shape.

            The blow seemed to infuriate Harimann, and he became relentless in trying to land a strike on Cullen, but he was careless in his undisciplined onslaught and every single attempt was deflected with ease. Cullen was starting to tire of doing nothing more than blocking with his vambraces, so he grabbed the wrist of Harimann's sword hand and struck his elbow, not hard enough to break it, but hard enough to hurt. Harimann dropped the sword again and doubled over, and Cullen, thinking of what Evelyn might do in this situation, kicked him in the back of the knees, sending him sprawling forwards. Harimann managed to land on his chin, and he fell into a daze and slumped unceremoniously into a crumpled heap in the dirt.

            'Are you yielding, Harimann?' Rylen called over the laughing and cheering of the crowd. Harimann pulled himself onto his hands and knees and for a moment it looked like he would stand, but then he retched and vomited. There were noises of disgust and more catcalling from the onlookers. 'I'm taking that as a yes,' Rylen laughed. 'Round one to the commander.'

            'There will be no more rounds,' Cullen scowled. He'd proven his point, and Harimann looked so pathetic covered in his own blood and sick that there would be no satisfaction in beating him any further. He turned away and reached over the fence for his shirt.

            'Cullen, look out!'

            He heard someone screech in pain and felt a sharp stinging sensation run down his back. When he whipped around, he saw Rylen rushing over to him, but Cullen was more focussed on the fact that Harimann was writhing on the ground at his feet with an arrow through his wrist. To his surprise, Rylen kicked the floored noble in the back of the head, quieting his incessant howling.

            'Doaty fuck tried to stab you in the back!' he growled, Starkhaven accent growing stronger as it always did when he was angry. It looked like he was going to kick him again, but Harimann was clearly unconscious and Rylen must have felt the same sense of futility as Cullen had. 'You hurt?'

            'I don't think so,' Cullen said, reaching round and feeling warm blood between his shoulders. Rylen eyed the wound critically.

            'It's not too bad,' he said. 'He dropped the sword when the arrow struck and it must have caught your back as it fell. It's shallow, doubt it'll need stitches.'

            'It doesn't hurt,' Cullen shrugged, wiping his bloodied hand on his trousers. 'Someone should really get him to the surgeon though, and quickly. Who fired the arrow? I think I owe them a thank you.'

            'Not a clue. It seemed to come from the sky. Nobody near the front of the crowd has a bow and nobody at the back could've got such a clear shot. Mystery.'

            'Mystery indeed,' Cullen said quietly. 'You two, take Harimann to the surgeon.'

            The two soldiers looked at each other. 'Do we have to?' one asked.

            'Your commander gave you an order,' Rylen said. 'He didn't specify that you needed to be gentle though.'

            The soldiers smirked and dragged Harimann's limp body under the fence and off through the crowd. Cullen sighed and wiped his face on his shirt, then tilted his head back to do the same to his neck, and that's when his eyes founds Evelyn's and he froze. She was stood on the front steps leading up to the Main Hall, looking down at him with a conflicted expression on her face. He wondered how much she had seen, wondered how she would feel about him fighting her husband largely unprovoked, and couldn't bear how she was looking at him, so he grabbed the rest of his armour and hurried away before he could see the inevitable flash of disappointment in her eyes.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Everything ached. His shoulders ached, his hips ached, his legs ached, and no matter whether he stood, sat or paced around the office, he couldn't seem to lessen the pain. Even taking his armour off hadn't helped like it often did. He had hesitantly allowed a mage healer to see to the wound on his back, even though the feeling of the magic in the air around him combined with having someone other than Evelyn touch the bare skin of his back had made him nauseous and agitated. He had been annoyed with himself for not accepting the pain, for not allowing it to heal on its own, but now that his entire body was rebelling against him, that irritation had waned somewhat. It was late in the evening, well after sundown, and he had been contemplating taking an elfroot potion despite not liking how they made him feel when his door opened and Evelyn marched in looking determined, chin raised and back as straight as it could be considering the weight of her gravid belly.

            'Ev...Inquisitor,' he greeted as evenly as he could. 'What can I do for you?'

            'Are you busy?' she said.

            'It can wait.' He wanted to stand up and pull her into a hug, he wanted to kiss her and say sorry and beg for forgiveness, but he wasn't sure if any of those things would be welcome. 'Is there something you needed?'

            'I just wanted to talk really. Sorry to interrupt you while you're working.'   

            'No, I...I would be happy to talk with you.' He pulled himself to his feet, trying not to wince at the pain. 'Come and sit down.'

            'Are you in pain?'

            'It's nothing. Please, sit.'

            She rounded the desk and lowered herself into the chair, all the while eyeing him dubiously. 'Is it the wound? On your back?'

            'No, that has been seen to. I'm just a bit achy this evening.'

            'I'm sorry to hear that,' she frowned. 'Lyrium?'

            He nodded and looked away, embarrassed that she could see how badly he let it affect him. 'It's really nothing,' he said. She was silent for a while, picking at a loose thread on her sleeve, but when she finally opened her mouth to speak, he cut her off. 'Don't.' He shut his eyes and exhaled sharply through his nose. 'I don't think I can bear to hear you say it.'

            'Say what, Cullen?'

            'That...that you don't trust me anymore. That I've ruined everything. That we're... that it's...over.'

            'What in Thedas are you talking about?'

            'I hurt you this morning. I struck you and it sickens me to think how much worse it could have been. I could have seriously harmed you or your child. How can you trust me now? How will you be able to trust me around the baby knowing that I'm...'. He laughed sardonically. 'After I said I would protect you both. How ridiculous.'

            Evelyn was glowering at him, nostrils flared, arms crossed tightly on top of her belly. He shrank away from her anger, feeling small and worthless, and covered his eyes with one hand.

            'You really think so little of me?' she snapped.

            'What? No, I...I think the world of you.'

            'But you think that I wouldn't care for you anymore because you had a nightmare? You really think I'm that shallow or that heartless? You really think I care so little about you?'

            He reached out for her without thinking. 'No, I don't mean...You seemed so angry with me afterwards, and I thought that you had realised...that you deserve better. That I'm as much of a danger to you as-'

            'You stop talking, now,' she said, quiet but authoritative. 'You don't get to compare yourself to him. Not when all you've ever done is try to keep us safe, to keep him from hurting us. You had a nightmare, you hit me on the arm entirely by accident and now I know not to try and wake you if it happens again. I know that you'd never hurt me on purpose, Cullen, and there's nobody I trust more than you.'

            'But...you were angry with me this morning.'

            'You pissed me off because you demanded that I not use the ladder like I was some servant girl to be ordered about and then had Dorian follow me around all day without asking me about it first.'

            'I didn't mean to upset you.'

            'I know that too,' she huffed. 'But don't act like I pulled away and made you feel like I didn't trust you when it was you that barely looked at me this morning and snapped at me like I was a nuisance.'

            Cullen put his face in his hands, furious at himself but too tired and in too much pain to concentrate on it. 'I'm sorry,' he said. 'I thought you...that I...'

            'I know.'

            'A-and then I thought you had remembered what I said last night and that you were angry with me or that I had made you uncomfortable.'

            'Why would I be angry about that?' she said, exasperation clear in her voice. 'I thought you were angry at me because I didn't say it back.'

            'No, no, Evelyn, I didn't say it because I wanted you to...I shouldn't have said it, but it wasn't to...I was just so calm and...happy, but then I remembered what had happened and I couldn't get the visions of it out of my head and it just came out before I could stop myself. Please, forgive me.'

            She looked at him for a few seconds, then went back to playing with the loose thread. 'You think I won't trust you around the baby? You're expecting to be spending a lot of time with them?'

            'Maker's breath, I don't mean to-'

            'For fuck's sake, Cullen, I'm not angry with you! I'm not trying to coax an apology out of you because there's nothing to be sorry about. I'm asking you a simple question.'

            'Right,' he said, looking determinedly down at the floor. 'Sorry. I mean...' He growled under his breath. 'What I meant to imply was that they will be an important part of life in the castle when they are born, so it's inevitable that I will be around them sometimes. I hope that...that is, I'm glad that you still trust me. I-if you do trust me.'

            'I trust you,' she said. 'You're sure that's all you meant? That you'll kind of bump into them around the castle and nothing more?'

            'I, ah...' He felt like he was walking over ice, not knowing which step would turn out to be the fatal mistake. 'I mean, I would like to be...I wouldn't mind helping out a bit.'

            'I'm getting the impression that I'm going to be raising this child on my own despite being married,' she sighed. 'If you really mean it, I'd be glad of the help.'

            'Yes, I really mean it,' he said. He reached out to take her hand and she slid her fingers into his. 'I hope you know that I...I care for you a great deal. I want to be with you, that is, I want to continue spending time with you, and once the baby is born, they will be a part of that.'

            'That doesn't bother you?'

            'No, it doesn't. It will feel strange at first I'm sure, but no, it doesn't bother me. So if we are to...continue seeing each other like we have been, then they will be a part of my life and I...' He took a deep breath. 'I would be happy to be in her life too.'

            Evelyn's bottom lip had started to quiver and Cullen couldn't be certain if it was because she was happy or because he had said something terribly wrong. She tried to stand from the chair but couldn't quite manage, so he took both of her hands and helped pull her to her feet. When she fell against him, he thought she might have fainted or lost her balance, but then her arms wrapped around him and she pressed her face to his chest.

            'Thank you,' she whispered. 'Thank you, thank you, thank you.'

            'What for?' he asked, stroking her hair.

            'For being you.' She sniffled and dabbed her eyes on her sleeve. 'Can I be a pain and ask for another favour?'

            'Anything.'

            'Can I stay another night?'

            She was looking up at him with such vulnerability in her watery eyes that his heart felt like an icicle starting to melt from the heat she caused in his stomach. He leant down and kissed her, gently placing his hands on either side of her neck and running his thumbs up and down her jaw.

            'You can stay,' he whispered against her lips.

            'Thank you,' she sighed. 'I don't think there's much he can do with a gaping hole in his wrist but still...Oh, and Sera says you're welcome.'

            'Sera?'

            'You didn't know? Who else has aim like that?'

            'You mean she shot Harimann?'

            'She certainly did,' Evelyn laughed, dabbing at her eyes again. 'She hates nobles even more than you do. She was watching from upstairs in the Rest and her quick reactions saved the day.' She pressed her face into his chest again and gripped the front of his shirt fiercely. 'Maker, Cullen, what would I have done if she hadn't? What would I do if he'd have...if you were...' Then she descended into a flood of tears that soaked through Cullen's shirt and dried on the skin of chest, each tear feeling like fire burning through his ribcage and into his heart.

            'I'm fine,' he soothed, cradling her head against him. 'He won't force us apart so easily, my love. Nothing is going to keep me from you.' She murmured something, but it was muffled by his chest. 'Why don't we call it a day? Get some sleep.'

            'Alright,' she said weakly.

            'How strong is your grip?'

            'Fairly impressive, if I do say so myself,' she said. 'Why?'

            'Because I'm trying to think of other ways to get you up that blasted ladder.'

            'You're not planning on hoisting me up with a rope are you?'

            'You object?' he smirked.

            'If I was stuck down a well, I would allow you to hoist me out with a rope, but just to get me to bed?' She looked up at him and smiled. 'We're ridiculous.'

            'I like that about us,' he laughed. Something about saying 'us' made him feel tingly and warm, so he took her hands in his and gently squeezed them, making sure she was real. 'We need to find somewhere else to sleep. But-' he cut in when she opened her mouth to argue, 'we'll stay here tonight. Up you go.'

            She managed to ascend the ladder in the same way she had the night before, but Cullen didn't like how she kept laughing like it was the most exciting thing in the world. He told her to concentrate, but that only made her laugh more. He followed after her and shoved her up onto the floor above as he had last night.

            'My pillow!' she exclaimed. 'I completely forgot I'd left it here. Is my bag here too? Oh, Maker, I've got nothing to sleep in.'

            'You can borrow a shirt if you'd like,' Cullen said, not fully understanding why he was blushing so impressively.

            'It won't fit over my belly,' she frowned.

            'Right. Shall I go to your quarters and fetch something?'

            'Maker, no, don't do that,' she said. 'One more punch to that poor man's face and I'd have to try you for murder. Then all of Thedas will hear of my favouritism when I do nothing more than smack you on the wrist and give you a kiss.'

            'In front of everyone?' he said, pulling off his shirt. 'What a scandal we'd cause.'

            'More of a scandal than if someone caught me in your bed in nothing but my smallclothes?'

            'Your...ah...'

            'I'll keep my breastband on,' she said, beginning to unclasp her shirt. 'Even though taking it off is usually the highlight of my day. Oh, and...Maker's balls.'

            'What is it?'

            'It's fine, I'll manage,' she huffed. She pulled off her shirt and then sat on the bed and tried to kick a boot off with the opposite foot. She growled angrily and tried the other boot. Cullen had a feeling that if he offered to help she'd give him another 'It's fine', so he knelt in front of her without being asked and pulled her boots and socks off for her. When she shimmied out of her trousers, he eased them down over her calves and feet until they had joined her footwear on the floor. 'Thank you,' she whispered, running her fingers through his hair. 'Could you locate my bag?'

            'It's right here,' he said. 'Shall I brush your hair?'

            'That's alright. I have a better idea.' She patted the bed beside her. 'Come lie beside me. On your front.'

            'On my front?'

            'Still questioning everything,' she laughed, shaking her head.

            He decided it was best to just go along with whatever she had planned without asking any more questions. As he lowered himself onto his chest, he heard her rustling around in her little bag. She placed a gentle hand on his back, apparently choosing not to acknowledge how much he flinched as she did.

            'Sorry,' he mumbled.

            'For what?' She traced the faint mark where the sword had cut him earlier. 'It's healed.'

            'I did say I'd had it seen to.'

            'I'm glad.' She continued stroking his back up and down, making him shiver.

            'That feels really nice.'

            'Good,' she said softly. 'I want to give you a back rub. Would that be okay?'

            'Yes, I...that would be fine.' He adjusted his hands on the pillow above his head. 'I don't think I've ever had one before.'

            'Now I feel under pressure.'

            'Sorry, I didn't-'

            'I'm teasing, silly man,' she laughed. 'The cream might be a bit cold. It's what I rub on my belly, it smells lovely. I'll warm it in my hands for a while.'

            Some moments later, he felt her press both her hands to his back. The cream was somewhat cold, but her hands were warm and the pressure she applied as she swept them across his shoulders and down either side of his spine was like nothing he'd ever experienced. It felt like he was sinking through the mattress, so relaxed that he was floating somewhere between awake and asleep, a lovely middle ground where everything was calm and quiet. Sometimes her hands would snag on a knot and he would stiffen until she soothed it away with her knuckles in gentle, gliding motions or with her fingertips in firm, circling patterns.

            'Am I to take the noises you're making to mean you're enjoying it?' she said, squeezing the back of his neck and scraping her fingers up into his hair.

            'Mmm.'

            'Are you awake?'

            'Mmm.'

            She laughed quietly. 'Budge up.'

            He rolled onto his back and she laid beside him, pulling his head to her chest and cradling him against her. The fabric of her breastband was scratchy on his cheek, so he reached around and undid the ties, then pulled it away and threw it on the floor. A few quiet moments passed before Evelyn became restless.

            'That might not have been a good idea,' she said shakily.

            'What do you mean?'

            'I can...feel your breath on my nipples and it's...doing things to me.' Cullen thought he should move his head higher up her chest, but his body rebelled, too enamoured by the way she had started to squirm against him. So he stayed where he was and watched her nipples hardening further each time he breathed out. 'Cullen...' she whined.

            'Tell me what you want.'

            'I want you,' she whimpered.

            'You have me.'

            'Maker's...Fuck!'

            He wanted to take pity on her, but he wasn't quite sure how he should do so. He moved so he could kiss her neck instead, and her sigh was both relieved and disappointed. She was still wriggling slightly and pressing her thighs together, so he placed a hand on her belly and followed the curve of it until he could feel the top of her smalls, hoping he wasn't misreading the situation or about to do something to make her uncomfortable. But when he slid his fingers beneath the fabric, Evelyn gasped and tried to arch her back, huffing and wincing when her body wouldn't comply.

            'Are you alright?' he asked.

            'Yes, I'm alright,' she breathed, running her fingers through his hair and holding his mouth to her neck.

            'Do you...should I..?'

            She nodded vigorously and opened her legs wider, so Cullen moved his hand lower and stroked his middle finger up and down the seam of her private place. She sighed blissfully, which gave him the courage to part her lips, but he hadn't been expecting her to wail loudly and start to quiver all over.

            'Sensitive,' she panted. 'Terrible p-past few weeks. Just wearing tight breeches feels too...too...' She moaned desperately as Cullen began to slide his fingers up and down, never stopping too long where she clearly wanted him to.

            'Maker, you're...'

            'Is it bad?' she groaned.

            'Bad? No, it's just...'

            'It is,' she pouted. 'I'm soaked just from you b-breathing on me. Didn't even need that earlier.' She stopped to moan and press feverish kisses against his forehead. 'Your body. When you were fighting...your muscles, and you...Maker, your stomach when you...I was throbbing the rest of the afternoon...wanted to get on my knees in front of everyone and beg you to put your dick in my mouth and...Maker!'

            She descended into incoherence when Cullen slowly eased a finger inside her, which was a relief because the way she was talking was making him lightheaded and he could feel himself throbbing painfully against the laces of his breeches. He could tell she wanted to move her hips, but her belly and some kind of pain that kept making her wince were forcing her to be still. He tried to help her find the feeling she was seeking by adding a second finger to the first and sliding them in and out of her, gradually gaining speed until her legs were trembling and he thought she'd pass out from how fast she was breathing.

            'Wait!' she cried.

            'What is it? What's wrong?'

            She groaned when he pulled his fingers from her. 'Spin me round.'

            'What?'

            'Help me sit up so I can lay the other way,' she panted. 'And take your trousers off.'

            Cullen's brain had stopped working, so he followed her orders without much conscious thought. He pulled her into a sitting position and watched her lie back down the other way round, so that her feet were by the pillow and her head was near the end of the bed. She pulled off her smalls and then tugged on his trousers, so he quickly shoved them down and let Evelyn push him onto his back. They were lying in opposite directions, and he had absolutely no idea what her aim was until she was telling him to touch her again while she wrapped her fingers round his cock.

            'Hold on a minute,' she said, immediately letting go of him again. She groped around behind her head for a moment until she found the cream she had used on his back, then she scooped some up with her fingers and took hold of him once more, smoothing the cream up and down his length, twisting each time she reached the top. She closed her eyes and sighed, but her contented sighs quickly turned to moans of pleasure when Cullen entered her again. The feeling of her body gripping his fingers was enough to take away some of the anxiety, so he redoubled his efforts, curling his fingers like she had taught him to last time, in love with how she panted his name. He used to hate his name, because it was a label on all his failures, a word that followed him around reminding him that he couldn't ever really leave his mistakes and fears behind, but now it sounded like the most beautiful music in the world.

            He discovered entirely by accident that he could move his thumb against her clit without removing his fingers, and he tried his hardest to maintain a steady pace as he circled it even though the world was quickly narrowing down to only include the feeling of Evelyn's hand on him. She was growing tighter with each second, and the closer she inched to coming, the faster she pumped his length. He was determined to have her finish before him, worried that his hand would stop listening to him and ruin it for her if he came first, and he was biting his lip and groaning helplessly when he heard her go silent, felt her stiffen and hold her breath before she cried his name and shivered and gasped her way through the ecstasy. He felt a warm glow of pride and then that sense of inevitability that could be either exquisite or terrifying, so he focussed on the way she was still periodically sighing and clenching around his fingers, on how soft and warm it was inside of her, and on the feel of her hand, so much smaller and softer than his own, as it continued to work him closer and closer to oblivion.

            'Ev-Evelyn...'

            'You're alright, my darling. You're doing so well. Let go for me.'

            He cried out, but didn't let go. He was on the precipice, and he wanted to go over but a quiet voice kept insistently reminding him that he had just enough time to back out, that it might be safer to turn away from the point of no return and pretend it was never there at all.

            'That's it,' she soothed, and it was the combination of her hand speeding up and her next words that finally swept him over the edge. 'Good boy.'

            It was electricity without any of the pain, skin tingling, muscles tensing and relaxing, gasping for air and blind to anything but the whiteness that danced across his eyelids. When the numbness started to lift from his limbs, he reached out to pull Evelyn against him as he trembled through the last pulses of his orgasm, but all his searching hands found were her legs. He opened his eyes, slowly starting to recall why her head was at the wrong end of the bed.  

            'Evelyn?' he said hoarsely.

            'Are you alright up there?'

            'Yes. Are you alright down there?'

            She laughed and stroked his hipbone. 'I'm fine. Pleasantly sated, delightfully tired and possibly stuck here for the rest of the night.'

            'As lovely as your legs are, I would rather have you up here to cuddle properly.'

            'My legs are far from lovely,' she grumbled. 'My ankles are like tree trunks and there's veins sticking out in places I didn't know I had veins.'

            'They're beautiful,' he hummed, kissing her ankles. 'You're beautiful.'

            'Beautiful and still stuck.'

            'Give me a moment,' he laughed.

            He gripped her calf and pressed kisses against her shin, then dragged himself out of the warmth of the bed and grabbed a rag from beside the washbasin. The water would be freezing cold and Evelyn looked so limp and relaxed, so he decided against wetting the rag and shocking her back awake. He sat beside her on the bed and wiped his spend from her hand before cleaning himself.

            'Do you want me to...?'

            She made a noncommittal humming sound, so he folded the rag and gently wiped the arousal from her thighs and then from her swollen lips, which made her jump and open her eyes.

            'Sorry,' he said, throwing the offending rag into the bucket by the basin. He was so besotted by the lazy look on her face, dizzy from the knowledge that only he got to see her drowsy and satisfied like this, that he forgot what he was meant to be doing until she reached out for him. 'Come here,' he smiled.

            He scooped Evelyn up into his arms, feeling his stomach fluttering when she dotted a dozen sleepy kisses across his shoulder where her head lolled against him. He carried her to the opposite side of the bed so he could place her the right way up, head nestled on the pillows. When she was where she wanted to be, he helped her roll onto her side and adjusted the spare pillow between her knees before climbing in behind her and covering them both with the sheets.

            'Thank you,' she breathed.

            'You're welcome. I...Apologies in advance for any nightmares.'

            'No need to apologise,' she said, sighing happily when he wrapped his arm around her stomach. 'I'll keep you safe.'

            He kissed her head and the back of her neck to stop his lips from forming the words that were dancing around on his tongue. He'd already told her, there was no need to say it again and make her think he was pressuring her into saying it back even if she didn't mean it. Perhaps he would whisper it against her skin once she was asleep as he had the night before, satisfying the urge to tell her over and over how much he loved her but without scaring her away. She had been understanding last night. Perhaps she wouldn't be next time.

            'Thank you, Cullen,' she murmured. 'I've never felt like this before. Nobody has ever made me feel like you do, and I...I wish we could stay like this forever. Thank you, my darling, my love.'

            She lifted his hand to her lips and kissed his palm, and in that moment, Cullen thought maybe that was enough. She had sounded so anguished when she had thought about him being hurt, like she truly cared whether he lived or died, and he'd never had anyone feel that way about him since he was a child with his family. That was love, wasn't it? His heart felt like it had started to wander around his chest, soaking up his happiness and doubling in size, so he took a deep breath to try and force it back into its rightful place.

            'Evelyn?'

            'Hmm?'

            'Are you free two days from now to accompany me on business in Ferelden?'

            'My heart says yes. A hundred yesses. But my head says let me check my schedule with Josephine before I still say yes anyway. What're we going to do?'

            'I'll tell you nearer the time,' he smiled. 'Go to sleep.'

            'Goodnight, Cullen,' she whispered. 'I...I'm glad I'm here with you.'

            'And I with you. Goodnight, Evelyn.'

            He had hoped to stay awake to watch her sleep for a while by the light of the moon, to see her face when she was completely unguarded, completely open and real and beautiful, but the feeling of her breathing in time with him and the soft tattoo that the baby was drumming beneath his fingers made the world around him yawn, and he was swallowed up by sleep long before he could whisper his words of love into the night air.    

Chapter Text

            'Oh no, oh no, oh no.' He gripped his hair and tugged on it roughly. 'What have I done? I'm...I'm an idiot.'

            'Calm down!'

            'I can't. I...I should have known better than to take you out of the castle. We have to turn back right away.'

            'You just said we were nearly-'. She winced. 'Nearly there.'

            'Oh no. Oh no, oh no. I don't know how to deliver a baby, I don't-'

            'Andraste's...You're not going to be delivering any babies, now for the last time, calm down!'

            'But you're-'

            'No, I'm not.'

            'I can feel it with my own eyes, Evelyn!'

            'Holy Maker, listen to yourself,' she laughed. 'You can feel it with your eyes?'

            'I meant see it with my hands. No, I mean...' He closed his eyes and shook his head. 'It's so strong that I can feel it for myself, and see it. I think they're real.'

            'They're not real. It's just practice.'

            'How do you know?'

            'Because I'm talking to you. According to my hag of a midwife, I wouldn't be able to talk if they were real.'

            'What comes out first? It's...no, it's the head. Do you need to...pull on them, or..?'

            'Cullen, listen to me,' Evelyn said firmly, cupping his face. 'This has happened before, multiple times. It's just how your body practises for the real thing. I – ow! I can talk and it's more uncomfortable than painful. If it were real then there would have been some kind of...liquid, I think.'

            'Yes, I read about that.'

            'Right then,' she smiled. 'Everything's fine.'

            'Alright,' he sighed. 'It was still foolish of me to ask you to travel so close to the end.'

            'Not as foolish as it was for me to agree,' she shrugged. 'I've got three more weeks and after that, between the baby and Corypheus, I won't be making any choices just for myself anymore. Let me have this one selfish trip before everyone else comes first again. Look, it's already stopped.' She took his hand and pressed it to her stomach. 'Can you feel with your eyes that everything's back to normal?'

            'Very funny,' he grumbled.

            'Oh, and if the worst happens and the baby actually does come, please don't try and pull them out.'

            'I'll bear that in mind,' he said, wrapping his arm around her shoulder. 'I apologise for...I didn't mean to panic. I am not usually like that.'

            'It's alright,' she replied. 'It was odd to see you so anxious, I mean, you're normally so level-headed. I suppose you're relieved to know that you won't have to see the real thing.'

            'Right...yes.' He squeezed her shoulder and looked out of the window of the carriage, watching the moonlit landscape slide past. He wasn't relieved at all. He didn't know much about childbirth, but he did know that it hurt, a lot, and that it was dangerous. Perhaps the whole thing terrified him, but he was sure Evelyn was even more terrified and she couldn't exactly decide she didn't have the stomach to take part. He wanted to be with her, he wanted to learn how to help and support her, but most of all, he didn't want her to go through it alone, with nobody to reassure her but her brusque midwife and some disinterested maids. 'Will...he be there? When you..?'

            'You must be joking,' she scoffed. 'Men aren't allowed in the birthing room, and even if he was, he wouldn't be there for all the money in the world. He thinks it's disgusting, he says husbands shouldn't watch because then they'll be too revolted by their wives to be able to sire any more children.'

            'He's vile.'

            'He's a man. Don't you all think that?'

            'I certainly don't.'

            'Maybe you would if you saw it for yourself,' she said, crossing her arms. 'As if your father was there to see you born.'

            'He was actually. For all four of us.'

            Evelyn looked at him, incredulous. 'Really?'

            'That's right,' he said. 'Maybe it's a...a...'

            'A class thing?'

            'Yes, a...Yes.'

            'Just another reason to hate being a noble,' she huffed. 'And therefore another reason to hate myself.'

            'What do you mean?'

            'I had everything. I had all the toys and dresses and ponies a girl could ask for and I still had the gall to feel trapped. Your parents probably had to work hard to give you and your siblings nice things and my parents just threw inherited money at me and my brothers. I'm ungrateful and selfish and...Oh, shit.'

            'Is it happening again?' he fussed.

            'No, it's not that.' She pinched the bridge of her nose. 'I need the toilet.'

            'But you only just went.'

            'I almost wish they would come early so I could have my bladder back,' she grimaced.

            'Maker, don't say that. Wait here, I'll tell the coachman.'

            'He'll be so annoyed,' she groaned.

            'He'll survive.'

            Evelyn laughed then, one short, sharp burst of laughter. 'Sorry,' she said. 'I was picturing my enemies creeping up on me through the undergrowth while I relieve myself into a saucepan.'

            'Maybe that's what we've needed all along. The Venatori will rush back to Tevinter when they see the Inquisitor in such a display of power.' He tapped on the glass at the front of the carriage and the coachman pulled the horses to a stop. 'Give me a moment,' he said.

            'But we're almost there, ser,' the coachman said when Cullen explained the need for yet another stop.

            Cullen looked around. 'So we are,' he marvelled. 'I hadn't noticed.' Nothing like thinking you were going to have to deliver a baby in the back of a carriage to distract you from your surroundings. He laughed mirthlessly; he'd never even slept with a woman and he had thought he was going to have to assist one in childbirth. His father would have called that 'putting the cart before the horse'. He turned and poked his head back into the carriage where Evelyn was jiggling up and down. 'Come on,' he said, reaching out to help her down the steps. 'Don't forget your trusty saucepan.'

            'You leave my saucepan alone,' she grumbled.

            'Will you be alright?'

            'I'll scream if any Venatori get too close,' she said, heading off into the hedgerow and glaring down at the saucepan like the whole thing was its fault.

            'Will we be going straight to the inn, ser?' the coachman asked.

            'I was wondering if we could take a quick detour,' Cullen replied. 'Could you take us via the jetty?'

            ''Course, ser. Won't even add on ten minutes. You could walk from here in no time at all.'

            'I hoped to stop there a while. No longer than thirty minutes.'

            'No trouble, ser,' the coachman said. 'I'll let the horses drink and maybe take a swig myself if it makes no difference to you, ser.' He tapped a hip flask on his belt.

            'Not at all.'

            Evelyn re-emerged from the shrubbery and opened the carriage door on the opposite side to Cullen, discretely putting the saucepan in its satchel and back under the seat. Then she rounded the carriage to join him with her chin high, looking nothing short of a proud noblewoman on a dignified evening walk.

            'I'm so sorry for interrupting the journey,' she told the coachman. 'Again.'

            'It's no trouble, my lady,' he said, tipping his cap. 'My wife was the same. You wanting to walk the rest of the way and I'll wait here?'

            'I'll walk,' Cullen said. 'Take the Inquisitor to the water's edge.'

            'I can walk,' Evelyn insisted. 'I'm quite enjoying the fresh air.'

            'Sit on the carriage floor with your feet on the steps, my lady,' the coachman suggested. 'Just hold onto the door to stop it flapping about.'

            'Alright,' Evelyn said, looking quite pleased with the idea. 'Ready when you are.'

            The coachman took them the rest of the way at a slow pace, slow enough for Cullen to walk alongside and wake up his legs. Evelyn was grinning like she'd just won a grand tourney, and when she turned her smile to him, he was so stunned by her that he stopped walking for a moment.

            'It's like riding a horse again,' she beamed. 'But...sideways.'

            'Shall I speed up, my lady?' the coachman called. 'Leave him behind?'

            'Don't you dare!' Cullen shouted back, mock glaring at Evelyn who was laughing loudly at the idea.

            'Only joking, ser. Is this close enough?'

            'This will do fine, thank you.'

            'I'll be waiting,' the coachman said, tipping his hat. 'Take your time.'

            'Are we here?' Evelyn asked, peering around dubiously.

            'We're making a detour,' Cullen explained, taking her hands and helping her to the ground. 'Can you walk for a minute or two?'

            'A short walk will do me some good, plus I'd appreciate stretching my legs without having to carry the saucepan of shame. Where in Thedas are we going anyway?' She gripped the arm he offered her and let him lead her to the water. 'Am I walking into a trap?'

            'Yes, Evelyn, all this time I've been building up to having you ambushed in the middle of nowhere.'

            'Oh, and here I was just starting to think you liked me.'

            'You know I like you,' he smiled.

            'You have to, I'm your boss.'

            'Plenty of people hate their bosses.'

            'You're right,' she laughed. 'I'll have Leliana up my defences around the castle.'

            'Well we're not at the castle,' he smirked. 'No guard here, and I have you all to myself.'

            'So you do,' she purred, squeezing his arm and looking up at him through her eyelashes. 'Now you have me alone, what exactly are you planning to do to me?'

            'I...ah...' The moonlight was making her eyes shimmer and they made him think of dancing fire and rippling water all at once. 'We're here.'

            'Here?'

            He twined his fingers with hers as he led her down the jetty. 'I was going to bring you tomorrow, but I...'

            'It's very beautiful,' she said, looking out across the lake. 'There was something similar back home when I was a child.'

            'You mentioned liking to dip your feet in the water when you were younger.'

            'Did I?' she said, furrowing her eyebrows. 'And you remembered?'

            'Yes, I...You wanted to stand in the stream when we left the castle that day. You said you had liked to do the same when you were growing up.'

            'I loved that day,' she hummed happily.

            'As did I.' He rubbed his thumb across her wrist. It had been one of the most wonderful days of his life, spending time together away from the castle, just the two of them, getting to know each other, learning who they were beneath their titles, feeding each other, seeing her body for the first time. He blushed. 'I wanted to bring you somewhere quiet and safe. You spend your whole life surrounded by crowds and danger and Maker knows what else. I wanted to take you away from that, if only for a moment.'

            'I didn't know people as thoughtful as you existed,' she said.

            'Oh, well...It's also perfect for dipping your toes, but perhaps we should do that tomorrow when the sun is up.'

            'No, let's do it now!' she beamed. 'Can we?'

            'It will be freezing!'

            'Oh, come on, spoilsport.'

            'I've been called that before,' he chuckled. 'And once already on this trip I've thought "Maker, I've killed the Inquisitor", please don't make me go through that again.'

            'If you don't help I'll have to take matters into my own hands,' she shrugged. 'Then I might topple in and become a big, fat icicle.'

            He glared at her, but she only smirked in return. Unfortunately for him, her eyes had been able to render him helpless from the moment he met her. 'Fine.'

            'Yes!' she exclaimed, but her excitement lasted only a moment. She almost lost her balance when she tried to kick off her boots, and her face fell into a frown so severe that Cullen actually laughed. 'I'll leave if you're not nice to me,' she pouted.

            'You can't run anymore, I'd just pick you up and bring you back.' He kissed the top of her head when she huffed at him. 'Do you want help?'

            'No.'

            'Do you need help?'

            'You'll need help if you don't stop-'

            'Evelyn,' he laughed.

            'Yes, please,' she mumbled.

            'Don't worry,' he said, going down onto one knee. 'I won't tell anyone that the Inquisitor can't take her own shoes off.' She placed a hand on his shoulder to balance while he undid the laces of her boots and pulled them off.

            'Good, because if you did, I'd tell everyone that the Commander...'

            'That I what?' He lifted her foot to pull off a sock.

            'That you sleep with a cuddly toy. A little stuffed bear.'

            'But that's not true,' he countered as he rolled up her trouser legs. 'Anyway, how would you explain to everyone how you know about my sleeping arrangements?'

            She smiled at him fondly. 'That could be tricky.'

            He stood up and gripped her under the arms so he could slowly lower her to sit on the wooden jetty. When she was comfortable, she slid her feet into the water and hissed dramatically.

            'I said it would be cold.'

            'It's fine,' she wheezed. 'I'm just...acclimatising.'

            'Right, of course,' he said, rolling his eyes.

            'Come join me. Or are you a coward?'

            'You should see what happened to the last person to call me a coward.'

            'You're going to punch a pregnant woman in the face?'

            'Is it frowned upon to punch unarmed pregnant women in the face?' he smirked.

            'What you don't know is that I have my trusty saucepan hidden on my person, and I know how to use it.'

            He laughed, and she looked up at him with a smile so genuine that he felt privileged just to see it. He exhaled sharply, shook his head, then bent down to pull off his own boots and socks. Evelyn looked out across the lake, apparently trying to hide the smug smile he had seen settle on her face. The water was as cold as he'd been expecting.

            'Ffff...'

            'You were about to swear!' Evelyn gasped.

            'I was not.'

            'You were going to say "fuck"!'

            'I wasn't!'

            'Whatever you say,' she laughed, lifting his arm and pulling it round her shoulders. 'So you know this place?'

            'I do,' he replied. 'I grew up not far from here. This place was always quiet. I loved my siblings, but they were very loud. I would come here to clear my head. Of course, they always found me eventually.'

            'It sounds like this was a happy place for you.'

            'It was. It still is.' He put his hand into his pocket and took the coin between his fingers. When he had woken from his dream, he had reached for it instinctively before he remembered that he had given it to Evelyn. When it had been there after all, in his pocket where it always was, the metal that he had worn smooth over the years had felt like panic for the first time. It had felt like a heavy weight since then, like it didn't belong to him anymore, and he knew that it wouldn't feel right until it was with Evelyn, the real Evelyn; if there was even the tiniest possibility that it would help keep her safe, she had to have it. Her next confrontation with Corypheus would be the last, and only one of them would walk away. It had to be her, for the sake of all Thedas, not just because losing her would be the final mound of dirt over the coffin he had built himself out of guilt and failure. 'There's something else. Something I want to give you.'

            'A kiss?'

            'No, but...you can have one of them as well.'

            'What is it then?'

            He took a deep breath and held the coin out to her, hand shaking and making the moonlight shiver across the metal surface, just as it did across the lake's still water and Evelyn's curious eyes.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Cullen's elation at Evelyn accepting the coin was still at a high as he paid the landlady for their room at the inn. He felt foolish to be letting it affect him so much. After all, it wasn't like she had agreed to marry him, but it felt monumental all the same. The landlady's son was arm in arm with Evelyn, helping her to the room and carrying their bags, and Cullen's happiness became tinged with that strange protectiveness as he watched them walk away.

            'We'll have a nice meal sent to your room soon, alright?' the landlady smiled.

            'Thank you,' he said, still watching Evelyn as she rounded a corner.

            'And once my boy's back, I'll have him fetch you an extra pillow.' She reached over the counter and patted his arm. 'For your wife.'

            'My...'

            'Trust me, she'll thank you for it. Mothers-to-be always appreciate extra pillows.'

            'She will, yes. Thank you.'

            'What do you reckon you're having then?' she asked as she vigorously wiped the counter.

            'Oh, well, I...' he stammered. 'I think it's a girl.'

            'A lovely little girl,' she sighed. 'Wouldn't it be a shame not to have a little lad to train with swords?' she asked, pointing at the scabbard on Cullen's hip.

            'My daughter will be able to do anything a boy can,' he retorted, then frowned, taken aback by his own vehemence.

            'If only all girls had fathers like you,' the landlady said, nodding knowingly. 'What did you say your surname was?'

            'Rutherford.'

            'Rutherford,' she repeated. 'Have we met? Do I know your mother?'

            Cullen wondered if maybe she had. She looked about the age his mother would be, but even if she had known him once upon a time, he wasn't that boy anymore. 'I don't think so.'

            'Forgive me,' she smiled. 'At a certain age you start thinking you know everyone. I'll have that pillow to you right away.'

            He thanked her and headed down the corridor he had seen Evelyn take until he reached an open door. He knocked and peeked his head into the room, only to find Evelyn being eaten up by an enormous armchair, wriggling furiously but unable to get her feet back onto the floor.

            'You look comfortable,' he smirked.

            'Piss off, sarcastic...Oh, hello again, Graham,' she finished with a forced smile. Graham, who turned out to be the landlady's son, handed Cullen a thick, white pillow then bowed and silently left the room. 'What was all that about?'

            'The landlady said she'd have him send us an extra pillow,' he explained. 'For my "wife". Apparently pregnant women swear by extra pillows.'

            'You should have told me your wife was here,' Evelyn said. 'I'm not really dressed for company.'

            'Be quiet,' he grumbled.

            'Did she have anything else to say about your charming wife?' Evelyn asked, batting her eyelashes.

            'She asked if I'd rather have a boy than a girl so I could train him with swords. I tried not to laugh in her face. She has no way of knowing that you could murder your way through the entire establishment in under five minutes with a sword twice the size of mine.'

            'Why, thank you,' she said, bowing her head exaggeratedly. 'What did you say to her?'

            'I said my daughter will be able to do anything a boy can. For the love of the Maker, just look at her mother.' Evelyn made a pained expression, and when Cullen realised what he'd said he felt his heart drop into his stomach. 'I only meant...because she thinks we...Sorry.'

            'No,' she said. 'I'm sorry.'

            'You've done nothing wrong, Evelyn.'

            'No, I have,' she said, face becoming stony. 'I married a man I don't love. A vile, despicable man who hates me almost as much as I hate him. Even if I'm able to end the marriage, I'll be a divorced woman with a child, and what man would want that? That is, if Brett doesn't try and take them away from me.' She clutched her stomach, but whatever she was about to say next was swept away as Graham opened the door again and silently set down two bowls of stew and a plate of scones on the table, before backing out in a deep bow once more.

            'He won't take them,' Cullen said.

            'He might try.' She shook her head. 'It's strange.'

            'What's strange?' he said, pulling the table to her armchair by the fireplace and then dragging another chair over for him to sit on.

            'I wasn't thrilled to find out that I was pregnant,' she admitted. 'I thought I was being careful, so not only was it unfortunate, it was a shock. A big, messy, unfortunate surprise. I...there were times I wished I could...that I wasn't...'

            'It's alright,' he soothed, reaching across the table and taking her hand. 'I understand.'

            'I know, darling. I suppose what I'm trying to say is I wasn't really attached to the idea of motherhood, but the more uncomfortable they make me, the bigger I get, the more they kick me in the spine and keep me up at night pirouetting on my bladder, the more attached I've grown to them. I was willing to give it a go, to do my best for them, but now I feel like if someone even breathes on them too hard, I'll gut that someone and hang them with their own intestines. If he tries to take them away from me...He's made my life hell and I've put up with it, but if he so much as touches this baby, I'll boil him alive.'

            'Your Aunt Lucille agrees with you,' Cullen said, watching Evelyn start angrily shovelling stew into her mouth. 'She told me she was thinking about dying soon, but she'll put it off for another year if he tries to take your baby away.'

            'When were you talking with my Aunt Lucille? And eat you stew, it'll go cold.'

            'Right, yes,' he said, picking up his spoon. 'At Josephine's disastrous ball. She said he could pry the baby from her cold, dead hands, or something to that effect. She seems a very formidable woman, though that seems to run in your family.'

            'Not really. My mother and grandmother were meek as mice, happy to leave everything important to the men and more interested in their waistlines than their selfhoods. When I expressed an interest in weapons, it was Aunt Lucille who organised my training. My father didn't much approve, but he's so scared of her that I think she could bully him into almost anything. If only more girls had fathers with your values.'

            They ate in silence for a while, listening to the logs in the fireplace popping and the inn's patrons down the corridor laughing and banging their tankards. Evelyn finished her meal quickly, then covertly checked Cullen's plate. She made an expression like she was wincing when she saw how much he had left still to eat, and dabbed the corners of her mouth delicately.

            'Evelyn, when you...I mean, if you do find a way to...end the marriage, it won't matter that you have a child or that you're divorced. That is, it won't matter if...to someone who truly cares for you.'

            'You know a man who would take on a stranger's child? Or...' She looked at her bowl and chased a pea with her spoon. 'Or someone who would wait long enough for me to have my freedom again?'

            'Well...Evelyn, I...'

            'Look at me, ruining the mood,' she said brightly. 'You've brought me all this way to get away from everything and I'm still being a misery. Forgive me.'

            'It's alright. We can talk about whatever you like. Do you need help?'

            Evelyn had resumed wriggling, but with more success, for she had managed to pull herself to the edge of her seat. She took a deep breath and pushed down on the arms of the chair until she was on her feet. She rounded the table and sat down on Cullen's knee instead, wrapping her arms around his neck.

            'I'm sorry,' she said. 'I really am happy to be away. To be with you.'

            'As am I.'

            She reached over the table and dipped her fingers into a small pot that sat nestled between the scones, scooping up some cream and then smudging it across his bottom lip. He started to ask her what she was doing, but she leant in and kissed him before he could finish his question. The kiss tasted sweet, the combination of the rich cream and Evelyn's soft lips making him hungry for more, but she pulled away too soon and started to lick the cream from her fingers. When she went to move her mouth from one finger to the next, Cullen took her wrist to stop her. She gave him a curious look, then her eyes went wide as he took her finger into his mouth, gently sucking away the cream from her fingertip. He wanted to look away, embarrassed by his boldness, but her eyes held his and the whole thing began to feel even more intimate, even more sensual. When he released her wrist, she kissed him again, and he took the opportunity to pull off his gloves and reach across the table for the little pot. Unwilling to break the kiss, he fumbled around until he found it, and he took some of the cream onto his fingers and traced her jaw with it, kissing away from her mouth and up the trail of white he had spread towards her ear. He felt her arms around his neck start to tremble.

            'I should...' she began shakily, 'get ready for bed. Long day.'

            'A reasonable idea,' he murmured, nipping at her ear. 'I hope you don't mind that there's only one bed. I thought that because we have been...because we already...'

            'I would've been very sad if I was all this way from the castle with you and we had to sleep in separate beds,' she grinned. 'And unlike last time we shared a bed, I've actually brought a nightdress.'

            'I wouldn't have minded if you hadn't,' he rumbled. He kissed her again to hide the fact that his face didn't feel like it was matching up to the confidence he had managed to put into his voice.

            'Well, now you get to enjoy taking it off,' she whispered against his lips, and his confidence ran out completely, so he pressed his face to her shoulder to hide his blushing.

            Evelyn went about undressing while Cullen forced himself to eat both of the scones so that he had something to do other than stare at her. It also provided an excellent excuse not to talk and inevitably embarrass himself. When he was finished, he turned and saw Evelyn sat at the edge of the bed looking glum and admittedly hilarious wearing a delicate nightdress with thick black boots still on her feet and her crumpled trousers stuck around her calves. Trying not to laugh, he helped her out of them without a word, but when he chanced a look at her face, he saw that she was holding a smile back too. Once she was bare except for her nightdress, she grabbed a book from her bag and used the fire to light some candles for her bedside. She also placed an ornate jewellery box on the small table beside the bed and put her necklace and his coin inside it, then settled herself against the pillows and patted the covers next to her.

            'Care to join me?' she said.

            'Once I'm out of my armour, perhaps.'

            'It comes off?'

            'You know full well that it comes off.'

            Her smile was both coy and inviting, and Cullen had a feeling that some kind of barrier had been breached, that the two of them were sliding towards something that had him excited and terrified all at once. He turned away and started to remove his armour, feeling very exposed and vulnerable, but when he looked over his shoulder, he found Evelyn engrossed in her book. He noticed then how enticing her nightdress was. It was blue silk with a white lace trim, held up only by two small straps and cut low at the neckline to expose a generous amount of cleavage. He finished removing his clothes and adjusted his smalls to try and mask the effect her body was having on him, before getting into bed beside her and kissing her on the cheek.

            'Shall we arrange the spare pillow?'

            'Isn't that for your wife?' she said innocently, not looking up from her book. She laughed when he tutted loudly. 'Maybe later. I was hoping to just cuddle for a while before we go to sleep.'

            'That sounds nice,' he smiled. 'Come here.'

            He wrapped an arm around her shoulder and she rested her head against his chest, curling into him as much as her belly would allow. They held each other for a while, enjoying being so close without fearing who might see them or worrying about the danger they were putting themselves in. For tonight, they could pretend none of it existed, and that they were just two people exploring an uncomplicated love in an uncomplicated place. Evelyn stroked his stomach, humming contentedly as he played with her hair, but after a while she began to fidget, eventually leaning her head back and looking up at him with a conflicted expression on her face.

            'Cullen?'

            'Yes?'

            'Do you remember earlier when I said that...that soon all my decisions will be for other people's benefit? For the baby, for the Inquisition, for Thedas?'

            'I do. Why do you ask?'

            'Because I don't have much time left to make selfish choices. To do things just for me, because it's what I want, not what other people need. Three weeks. Hardly any time at all, then Corypheus...'

            'I know,' he said, hugging her tighter.

            'So I want to do at least one more selfish thing before then. One more thing that's all mine and...all yours, hopefully.' She took a deep breath. 'I want to be with you, Cullen. I want to know how it feels to be yours, before it's too late.'

            'I...' His heart had stopped beating, his lungs had popped and were hanging from his ribcage like ragged bunting, his brain was stuck on 'before it's too late', but her face was growing uncertain the longer he didn't speak and he couldn't bear to see it. 'I want to be with you too.'

            'You're sure?' she said, reaching up to stroke his cheek.

            He couldn't talk, could barely think, so he nodded and hoped that it was enough. He wasn't completely certain what he was agreeing to, but he was with Evelyn, just the two of them far from Skyhold, so whatever she wanted, she could have. She shuffled further up the bed so that she could place a hand over his heart and kiss him. He felt like a damaged boat out at sea, like he was slowly filling up with water and sinking down into something vast and unknown, but kissing was safe and familiar, so he kissed her as passionately as he could, trying to show his love in the way his mouth moved against hers and in how his fingers caressed her cheeks and traced the outline of her ears.

            'Can I touch you?' she whispered.

            He still couldn't talk, still didn't know what to do, so once again he nodded helplessly. While his brain lagged behind, his body seemed to know exactly how to react, because when she stroked him through his smalls, his hips bucked against her hand and a groan escaped his lips. His hands likewise took their own initiative, moving up and down her body, grabbing at the meat of her hips and sliding under her nightdress to squeeze her thighs. She reached down for the hem of her nightie and began to pull it up her body, slowly revealing her smalls and stomach to him, but when he rolled her onto her back and tried to lift it higher, it wouldn't budge, stuck between her and the bed. She began wriggling and trying to sit up, and Cullen wanted to help her, but he was fixated by her swollen breasts straining against the tight fabric and by the outline of her nipples as she twisted and turned, rubbing them against the soft silk and causing them to stiffen. Without thinking, he took the top of the nightdress in both hands and tore the whole thing apart.

            'Maker, Cullen!'

            'Hold on.' He took one strap in each hand and snapped them until the garment was nothing more than torn fabric pooling at Evelyn's back. Her chest was heaving, and he tried to breathe through his passion before he did something else reckless and impulsive. Half succeeding, he began to gently stroke and fondle her breasts, which was an improvement on the other overwhelming desire he was just about managing to hold back, the urge that made him salivate just to think about.

            'That's lovely,' Evelyn cooed. 'Do you remember when you kissed them that night in the Arbor Wilds?'

            Cullen's hand stilled. 'I...yes.'

            'Do it again.'

            'Is that...something you like?'

            'Please,' she whined.

            'Maker's breath,' he murmured. And all this time he'd thought he was some kind of deviant. He'd thought she must have laughed once she'd left his tent after he'd lost control and sealed his lips around her. But now she was asking for it, holding her breath and watching him with anticipation in her eyes. 'Maker's breath,' he repeated, then he licked a circle around her nipple with the tip of his tongue. Her reaction was exceptional, so he mirrored the movement on her other breast. She was panting and squirming, just like she had earlier that week when even his breath had been too much for her, when merely blowing on them had made her unbelievably, temptingly wet. 'They're not too sensitive, are they? I don't want to hurt you.'

            'They're incredibly sensitive. As for hurting me, how rough are you planning on being with them?' she laughed breathlessly.

            'Ah...not t-too...'

            'I trust you, my love,' she said, kissing his forehead. 'Maybe no biting for now.'

            'No biting. That's...' But he never said what it was, because he couldn't resist taking a stiff nipple into his mouth. It was like playing an instrument as he learned which movements made her gasp, which made her moan and which made her beg for more. He moved to her other breast, coaxing sharp breaths from her with the flat of his tongue, making her pant and writhe when he nipped at her with his lips, and making her moan his name when he sucked on her with barely-restrained desperation or pressed her breasts together so he could lap at both nipples at once. She was groaning like it was torture and trying to arch up into his warm mouth, so he slid a hand between her legs and teasingly stroked her through her smalls. They were soaked, and he gasped himself when his cock thickened against the mattress. He pressed his fingers more firmly against her and massaged her breast, hungrily sucking her nipple in and out of his mouth, then he jerked away and her moans came to an abrupt stop.

            'Cullen, wha...what is it? What...what's wrong?'

            'N-nothing,' he lied. 'I just...remembered something.'

            'Okay,' she frowned. 'Do you want to stop?'

            'No!' he cried. 'No, I...I just-'

            'Oh, fuck...' she breathed. 'Andraste's bollocks, I can't believe it.' She started to grab at the remnants of her slip to try and cover herself, but Cullen took her wrists and gently joined their fingers.

            'It's fine,' he soothed. 'It just took me by surprise.'

            'I'm mortified,' she whispered, trying weakly to pull her hands from his. 'Holy Maker, I'm so sorry.'

            'Evelyn, it doesn't matter. It doesn't bother me.'

            'It doesn't bother you?' she hissed, clearly unconvinced. She looked down at the bead of liquid where it pearled on the tip of her nipple and shuddered. 'I think...I think I'm going to faint.'

            'Evelyn, it really isn't a problem. We can just do something else instead.'

            She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. 'You want to carry on?'

            'Why wouldn't I?'

            'Because I just...Holy Maker!' She pressed her hands to her face. 'You must be disgusted by me.'

            'Far from it,' he said, guiding her hands back into his. 'It surprised me, but it's fine, really. I just wasn't expecting it.'

            'Me neither,' she said, worrying her lip. 'I just assumed it wouldn't start until the baby came. Do you...Do you really want to keep going? Because I understand if you-'

            'I want to.' He kissed the corner of her mouth, then her chin. 'I'd like to continue what we were doing, as long as it still feels good for you.' He kissed her jaw, then her neck, then her collarbone. 'I was rather enjoying myself.'

            'But what if it happens again?'

            'It might not,' he said, kissing the top of her breast. 'And if it does, I won't be as surprised. I...I really didn't mean to embarrass you. Forgive me, Evelyn.'

            'That's alright,' she said, sounding slightly incredulous. 'You're sure-?'

            'I'm sure.' He kissed the edge of her nipple.

            'It doesn't...taste bad?'

            'It doesn't taste of anything,' he whispered, hovering his mouth over her, letting his breath tease her into an even firmer peak. 'May I?'

            She seemed torn for a moment, but then he flicked her with his tongue and she began panting for him to carry on. He was all too happy to oblige. He thought maybe he'd discovered his new favourite thing, enamoured by the feeling of her firm nipples on his tongue and the reactions he could draw from her. She was more restrained at first, clearly too focussed on her fears of leaking again, but when he slung an arm across her chest to tease and pinch at the breast not occupied by his mouth, she quickly lost control again, moaning his name and pressing up into his touch. Any last resistance she was putting up vanished when he slid his free hand into her smalls and sought out her clit with his fingers.

            'Cullen, I'm...I'm going to...'

            He resisted the urge to pull away and say 'Already?' choosing instead to stroke her clit more insistently. He had to concentrate on not sucking too hard and hurting her, but the mounting sounds she was making were going directly from his ears to his cock, wearing down his self-control. She fisted her hand in his hair, holding him over her breast as her repetitions of his name grew more breathless, then stopped completely. He counted it, one, two, three, and then she was screaming and gasping and shuddering until he was certain the whole inn knew what they were doing. She leaked again, squirting into his mouth, but he was prepared this time and didn't let it deter him from seeing her through her orgasm, which seemed to last an age. Eventually, she made a desperate sound and pulled on his hair until he released her nipple. He pulled his hand from her smalls and shuffled up the bed so he could take her in his arms and cradle her head to his chest while she breathed through the comedown of her ecstasy.

            'That was beautiful,' he murmured, kissing her hairline.

            'You're beautiful,' she sighed.

            'I can't speak to that.'

            'You don't own a mirror?' She trailed her hand down his chest and over the muscles of his stomach. 'You can't just look down and see how perfect you are?'

            'Evelyn...'

            'You're infuriating,' she grumbled. Her roving fingers stilled on his collarbone as she looked up at him. 'How do you want to do this?'

            'What...what do you mean?'

            She smoothed her hand up his neck and into his hair. 'I mean do you want to do more of this for a while? Cuddle, kiss, touch.' Her hand retraced its movements, sliding down his neck and chest, then further, over his stomach and hipbone until it stopped at the top of his thigh. 'Or are you ready now?'

            'Ready...' he repeated. He felt like he wouldn't be able to concentrate on talking with her hand there, not unless she moved it away or inched it ever so slightly inwards to put some pressure on the part of him that was begging for her touch. One finger stroked him teasingly and his cock jumped, like it was trying to remind her that it was there and that it wouldn't mind some attention. She brushed her hand further down his thigh and he breathed out sharply, but then she was sliding back up and pressing her palm to the front of his smalls. He heard himself do a half-gasp, half-moan of her name.

            'If you're ready then I'm ready,' she whispered, stretching up to press her lips to his. 'Make love to me, Cullen.'

            Her hand was rubbing his erection up and down determinedly, her weight was pressed against his side, her lips were parting over his as she sighed against him and he couldn't stop from gripping her tightly, trying to pull her as close as possible. He was almost glad that she was pregnant, because it was the only thing that stopped him from grabbing her by the hips and dragging her on top of him. He had to be gentle. He had to be considerate. He had to keep her safe. It was in the breath between two frantic kisses that he came to his senses.

            'We can't.'

            She kept pressing kisses to his lips for a moment before she realised he'd spoken, and she looked at him with eyes that were dark with passion. 'What?'

            'We...we shouldn't,' he panted, relieved when her hand on him stilled.

            'I don't understand,' she breathed. 'After everything...after all this time, this is your limit?' She tried to push herself up into a sitting position, glaring at Cullen's hand when it reached out to help her. She shuffled to the edge of the bed and lowered her legs as if she was about to stand. 'I've been married the entire time. You've kissed me and shared a bed with me, we've been intimate with each other, but now you decide to become all moralistic about it? It's all been fair game, but sex with a married woman is just too far for you?'

            'No, that isn't what I meant!' he blurted, hurriedly pulling himself up to sit beside her. 'You misunderstood me, I swear.'

            'I understood the part where you said you wanted to be with me and then decided it was wrong.'

            'I do want to be with you,' he said, tentatively wrapping an arm around her waist. 'I want to be with you in every way, but...'

            'But what?'

            'I'm...afraid.'

            'Afraid?'

            'Yes,' he said, taking her hand in his and bringing it to his lips. 'You're in pain. I want to keep you safe, and I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I did something that could be dangerous for you.' He kissed their joined hands then moved them to rest over her stomach. 'Or for them. Evelyn, I...I don't want to hurt her.'

            'You won't,' she promised. 'Look at me, Cullen. You won't hurt us.'

            'How can you be so sure?'

            'I just am,' she said with a sad smile. 'Trust me.'

            'But what if-?'

            'You don't think I've checked? You know what he's done and you don't think that maybe I've asked the midwife or the surgeon if it's hurting them? If he's going to kill them?'

            'I'm sorry, I didn't think, I'm...Evelyn, I'm so sorry, forgive me.' He pressed his face into the curve of her neck. 'I'm a fool.'

            'There's a fool in the room, and it's not you,' she said. 'If you're uncomfortable with any of this, you only need to say so.'

            'It doesn't make me uncomfortable. Evelyn, I...I adore you, I want to be with you, I really was just...too stupid to know I was worried for nothing.'

            'You're sure that's all it was?' she said, stroking his cheek.

            'I promise,' he vowed, leaning into her touch. 'I'm sorry I upset you. I didn't mean to be so thoughtless.'

            'And I'm sorry I snapped at you.' She let out a small huff of laughter. 'I was going to say it's a pregnancy thing, but I have enough self-awareness to know that I was snappy beforehand as well.' She kissed him firmly, but fleetingly. 'Stand up, my darling.'

            He bit his tongue, knowing how much it annoyed her when he repeated what she said to hide his uncertainty. Instead, he obeyed without question and let her guide him to stand in front of her where she sat on the edge of the bed. She hooked her fingers over the top of his smalls and tugged slightly.

            'Is this alright?' she asked. He nodded, and she pulled the fabric down his hips and thighs and let it fall to the floor. She wrapped a hand around his length, which had started stiffening again the moment she used the fatal combination of giving him an order and calling him her darling. 'And this?' He nodded again. She trailed kisses from the base of his cock up to the tip. 'And this?'

            'Maker, yes,' he breathed.

            'Good,' she purred.

            And then she was wrapping her lips around him and all of his fears and insecurities dissolved under the warmth of her tongue. It was just as good as he remembered, and he was eagerly thinking back to how incredible it had felt when she'd played with his balls when she slid a hand up his thigh and took them in her hand reverently. He smoothed his hand over her hair, telling himself he wouldn't grip her too tightly this time, and let himself get lost in her touch. The firelight was comforting, casting the room in muted pastel shades, Evelyn's hands were light and teasing, Skyhold felt a million miles away and the higher her tongue stoked him the more of the barbs that usually lived in his muscles lost their bite and fell away. The pleasure was building, his love for her was beginning to overflow, he was about to start thrusting into her mouth and showering her with words of adoration and devotion when she pulled away with a shocked look on her face.

            'Baby brain!' she exclaimed.

            'W-what?' His voice was an embarrassing croak.

            'Baby brain!' she repeated. 'I forget things. I forget really important things, like...Cullen?'

            'What is it?' he asked, sitting back beside her because he knew the sight of her lips hovering over his cock would make it hard for him to focus on her words.

            'When we spoke in the garden after you had that dream,' she started slowly, 'did you say that you'd never been with anyone before? Or...or have I made that up since?'

            Oh no. She had told him so sweetly that she wanted to be with him, to know how it felt to be his before everything became too complicated, and he'd already ruined it once by embarrassing her, then twice by making her think their being together was wrong, then thrice by forcing her to bring up her husband, and yet she had still been patient enough to understand and try again. Now he was ruining it for a fourth time. Perhaps this would be the obstacle she wouldn't be able to get past.

            'No, you...you heard right.' He looked away. 'I hope...never mind.'

            'I feel so stupid for forgetting,' she said. 'Cullen, you are a wonderful person. A good man. It was wrong of me to try and take something from you that might be best given to someone else.'

            'Wait, you...I don't understand.'

            She leant against his shoulder and wrapped her arms around his waist. 'I'm married. I'm pregnant. And sometimes they feel like the least of my sins. You deserve better than that, Cullen. Better than me.'

            'I-I don't want better,' he pleaded, taking her face in his hands and making her look at him. 'I only want you, I've only ever wanted you. I haven't wanted anything like this in a long time. Actually, I...I don't think I ever really wanted anything like this, until now, until you. I made sure it wasn't a part of my life, but then there was you and I...I feel things with you I didn't know I could feel. Please don't say I deserve better. I don't deserve anything you give me. I don't deserve your affection, your kindness, your time or attention, none of it. And how could anything be better than you?'

            'Cullen, do you want this?' She looked down. 'With me? As I am now?'

            'Yes,' he breathed, pressing his forehead to hers. 'I want this. I want you. Just as you are.'

            They kissed for some time, calm and measured, like nothing outside of the room existed anymore and it was only them in their own pocket of time, like the night-time quiet would never end because surely only the soft, patient glow of the moon could ever compare to their unhurried intimacy, their slow worship of each other too sacred to be witnessed by the unforgiving, intrusive rays of the sun. They reacquainted themselves with each other's bodies, the slope of her shoulders, the broad sweep of his back, the soft weight of her thighs and the hard line of his jaw, touching and moving against one another until both were free from everything that normally held them down. Evelyn pulled away first.

            'Out of interest,' she said. 'What's the most you've done?'

            'You mean...'

            'With a woman.' She must have noticed the way his eyes had started to dart around the room and how his confident hands grew stiff on her sides, because she asked instead of forcing him to tell. 'Hands?' He nodded. 'Mouths?' He nodded again. 'On you or on a woman?'

            'Both,' he wheezed.

            'That explains why you were so good at it,' she smirked.

            'Evelyn, I should...In truth, all of those things have been with...'

            'With?' she prompted. 'With one woman?'

            'Yes,' he mumbled.

            'Is she...still important to you?'

            She pulled a hurt face when he laughed sardonically, so he rushed to reassure her. 'Evelyn, all those things...I was telling the truth, but it was...it has all been with you. So yes, she's still important to me. The most important thing in my life, in fact. But before you...I had not...ah...'

            'So what you're saying is,' she said, tapping her chin, 'you're just naturally gifted?'

            They looked at each other for a moment and then both started to laugh.

            'I said it has only ever been you, Evelyn. And I...I still want this, i-if you do too. If me not...if it's alright that I haven't...I hope I can still please you, even though-'

            'I want this too,' she interrupted gently. 'And you've already pleased me, very, very well I might add. Don't worry, it'll feel like a first time for me too. I've never been with anyone even nearly as big as you.' He swallowed loudly and looked away. 'Should I...lean forward on the table maybe? So you can't see my stomach?'

            He frowned, wondering what had compelled her to suggest such a thing, but then he imagined her bent forward over the table and his stomach twisted into a knot as memories of finding her in the rotunda staggered into his head. He never wanted to see her like that again. He thought he had an idea of who had told her her belly was off-putting as well, and he clenched his fists.

            'I want to see you,' he said. 'Face to face. I'll...lie on my back and you can...' Blood rushed to his face and to his cock at the same time, which may have explained why he suddenly felt dizzy. It was really happening, and he was still getting flustered just thinking about it.

            'You're sure?' she asked, looking dubious.

            He got back onto the bed properly and laid flat on his back. He tried to control his breathing, which was close to hyperventilation between how aroused he was and how anxious he was becoming. She crawled to him, scrutinising his face as if she was waiting for him to change his mind, then she placed her hands on his chest and moved to mount him. Her leg was barely an inch from the bed before she screwed up her eyes and sucked air in sharply through her teeth.

            'Stop, Evelyn, don't hurt yourself.'

            'No,' she growled, trying again. 'I want this. I want you.'

            'We can find another way.'

            'I'm useless,' she groaned, sitting back on her heels.

            Cullen couldn't bear to see her like that, curled in on herself and self-conscious when she was the most beautiful, wonderful woman in all of Thedas, so he thought quickly, so determined to find a solution that his nerves abandoned him. He got back to his feet and grabbed the spare pillow, placing it at the edge of the bed and then reaching out to Evelyn.

            'Stand up,' he said, taking her under the arms and helping her upright.

            'What are you doing?'

            'Sit on the pillow and then lie back down. I'll keep hold of you.'

            She opened her mouth to question further, but seemed to choose against it, instead allowing him to ease her onto her back on the bed. It was just as he'd imagined it, just like his memory of looking down at her in the baths while she had been spread out before him, her legs held at either side of his hips. The pillow had been for comfort, but it turned out to put her at just the right height and angle for him to...He cleared his throat. She was grimacing, seemingly uncomfortable with her legs spread so wide, so he lifted them to lean against his chest instead, her ankles on his shoulders.

            'Are they...' He cleared his throat again. 'Is this comfortable?'

            'Yes,' she sighed. 'That feels perfect.'

            'Are you...Should I..?'

            'Please,' she breathed, stretching her arms out above her head.  

            This was it. He pressed his hips forwards until he felt himself gliding over her wet lips, and they both moaned. He looked down, trying to figure out the angle, and thrust forward again, but his cock only slid against her once more. Was he meant to be able to do this without using his hand to help him? Was he failing already, before they'd even started?

            'Stop teasing,' she pouted.

            She closed her eyes and gripped the sheets above her head, so he took himself in hand and pressed against her once more, sliding down her seam until he felt the resistance end, until the tip of him sank ever so slightly into her inviting body. She gasped and whimpered his name, which gave him the encouragement he needed to thrust his hips, pushing the head of his cock inside of her. She was panting loudly and tossing her head from side to side, so he stroked her shins and kissed her ankles to calm her.

            'Are...you alright?'

            'More,' she moaned. He looked down at what was still left of him. She felt so small and tight, surely she didn't want the whole thing, but she pleaded with him until he pushed in further and she made a choking sound. 'You're enormous,' she panted.

            'D-does it hurt?'

            'Maker, no, it feels – ah!'

            'S-sorry!'

            She had tightened so beautifully around him that he had bucked his hips without meaning to, fully seating himself inside of her. It was magnificent, better than her hand, even better than her mouth, better than anything he'd ever felt in his life and on top of that, it was like a scratch finally being itched, like waking up with the sun on your face, like...coming home.

            'You feel so good, my love,' Evelyn sighed. Cullen's hip bucked again at the praise and he gripped her shins tighter. 'You can move, darling.'

            'Move...' Right, yes, move. Be gentle, he told himself. Make sure it feels good for her. He carefully took both her legs and brought them together, putting both ankles on one shoulder so that her hips could rest. He hadn't accounted for the fact that this would make her tighter however, and when he felt the added pressure he began to move instinctively, no further instruction needed. If he thought it felt good before, now it was overwhelming, euphoric, almost too much, but too mind-blowing to stop. He moved his hips faster.

            He was used to ignoring his body; ignoring the withdrawals, eating even when he felt sick, training even when he was in pain, waking up even though he was still tired. He would charge headlong into battles his body told him to run away from, had faced enemies that made his skin crawl, stood his ground at the Winter Palace while monsters in masks asked personal questions and groped at him like animals. Now he was listening, giving over some control to a body that had only ever let him down, and it was foreign and terrifying, but liberating too. He wrapped one hand around Evelyn's ankles and his other arm around her knees, and let his hips move on instinct, thrusting into her over and over, moaning at the feeling of her cunt gripping him tighter every time he slid out of her, possessive, as though her body was at home with his too, as though the thought of them pulling apart was all wrong.

            'Cullen,' she groaned, reaching out to him. He let go of her ankles and took her hand in his, and they clung to each other like they were in the eye of a storm with only each other to stop from spinning out into chaos. 'I'm...close.'

            'M-me too.' He tried to slow down his thrusts, to make the experience last longer for her, but he was struggling to restrain himself, hips snapping back and forth, chasing a feeling that was starting to bloom low in his belly. 'Play with your nipples.'

            She let go of his hand and started to pinch herself as he'd told her to, her moans increasing in volume as she did. He noticed that her breasts were bouncing with each of his thrusts and tried to be gentler, but she pouted and plucked at her nipples furiously until he gave her more again. Her eyes were glazed, gaze idling somewhere on the ceiling, and he took a moment just to look at her, at the tones of her skin, the shape of her nose, the colour of her hair in the firelight and the sharp vertical lines that marked her belly. He placed a hand on her stomach and caressed it tenderly, and her unfocussed eyes snapped to his. He saw tears forming, glowing orange in the firelight where they clung to her eyelashes and spilled over onto her cheeks. He was about to ask if she wanted him to stop when she cried out and threw back her head. She panted his name three times, each repetition higher than the last, and he watched her come undone and finally, finally got to feel the beautiful rhythmic dance of her greedy pussy tightening and relaxing around him, and it was the most blissful feeling in the world. He loved her, and he was closer to her than he'd ever been to any other person. She claimed him as her own with each spasm of her body around his. He opened her legs slightly so that he could watch their bodies joining, could marvel at how she allowed him to enter her most private place over and over with increasingly desperate thrusts. He saw her arousal coating his cock each time he withdrew and he felt himself letting go, giving up control. As her cries of his name became a satisfied mantra of 'yes, yes, yes', her own name on his lips grew louder and louder. It was pure ecstasy, it was what love felt like, and then...

            Don't come, don't come, don't come.

            'No,' he whimpered.

            Don't come, whatever you do, don't come.

            Suddenly she was too tight, he felt trapped, he couldn't move his arms or legs even as his hips kept rolling eagerly. A cold, hissing voice dripped poison into his ear.

            'There's only one way to make it stop,' it purred.

            'No!'

            'Cullen?' He felt claws gripping at his wrist. 'Cullen, stop. Cullen!'

            He opened his eyes. Evelyn was looking up at him with a terrified expression on her face, but she was reaching for him, stroking her fingers up and down his wrist where it gripped her legs.

            'I'm sorry,' he breathed.

            'Come here, darling,' she said softly. 'Let me hold you.'

            He pulled away from her, hoping that her groan as he did so wasn't one of pain, and helped her shuffle further up the bed. When he lay beside her, she encouraged him to rest his head on her shoulder and soothingly stroked his back. His throbbing cock brushed her thigh and he gasped.

            'I'm sorry,' he said again.

            'I don't want you to be sorry.' She pushed his hair back from his forehead. 'I just want you to feel better. I want you to be alright.'

            'I'm...fine,' he lied. 'Though I suppose I...owe you an explanation.'

            'No explanation needed,' she said. 'As long as whatever it is is over and you feel a bit better.'

            'I...I do. Thank you. I...' Don't deserve you, knew I'd let you down, I love you, I love you, I love you. 'I sometimes struggle to...give up control. I would have needed to...pull away soon anyway.'

            'Pull away?'

            'I was about to...'

            'Cullen,' she laughed. 'I'm already pregnant. You could have just finished inside of me.' His cock jumped dramatically at that and he groaned helplessly as it brushed her thigh again. He could see that the head was swollen and purple and he held his breath. 'Does that excite you?' she asked.

            'Yes,' he whispered.

            'Well then do it,' she hummed. 'I'm happy to stop if you've had enough, but if you want to finish what we started, so to speak, I'm happy with that too. No pulling out necessary.'

            'Even after...You would still...You still want to...'

            'Get behind me and cuddle me. How we cuddle when we go to sleep.' He followed her instructions, albeit dazedly, but when he curled around her, feeling all her body against his own, his breathing slowed and he started to feel somewhat calmer. 'Pillow too,' she said, and he helped her arrange it between her knees. 'Tell me if you need to stop.'

            'I wi – oh!'

            She had reached behind her and wrapped her hand around his hypersensitive cock, guiding him back to her so they could be one again. 'Help me out, my love,' she crooned.

            Following her guidance, he angled his hips and after some awkward fumbling around, he was able to thrust up into her. She moaned breathily and took his hand, placing it over her breast. She was so warm and wet and tight that his body took over for him again, and he buried his face in her hair as he buried his cock inside her with measured strokes that soon lost any sense of rhythm. He fiercely squeezed her breast as he felt himself tensing, felt his balls draw close to his body and the space behind them grow hot and start to throb. She pulled his hand from where it clung to her breast, and he tried to splutter an apology for being too rough.

            'You're perfect, Cullen,' she sighed between thrusts, between each of her hitched breaths. 'Beautiful, selfless man. I love your voice, the sounds you make. I love your hands, I love your –'

            'Evelyn!'

            'Cullen,' she sighed. 'Come for me. Fill me up, make me yours.'

            'I love you,' he whispered, and then he let go, until nothing was left but her. It seemed to last forever, her body clenching and drawing even more from him until he was utterly spent, lightheaded from the aftershocks, so sensitive that even the movement of her breathing was making him shiver. He pressed kisses to her shoulder and waited for his heart to slow down, because it was beating so violently that it was a wonder Evelyn couldn't feel it hammering against her back. It made him feel alive. Once they were both still and calm, Evelyn joined their hands together and rested them on her belly.

            'You lied to me,' she said.

            'What?' he cried, head shooting up from where it had been drowsing against her shoulder. 'Evelyn, I would never lie to you, I swear it.'

            'I'm teasing,' she said, and her gentle laughter nearly forced him to slip out of her. He pressed his hips closer to her, not ready to part from her just yet, but he was quickly softening and his attempts to fully push back into her were in vain. 'I just find it hard to believe that you've never done that before,' she explained. 'You were magnificent.'

            'Oh, I...I doubt that.'

            'It was perfect,' she sighed, bringing his hand to her lips and kissing his knuckles. 'Help me get cleaned up?'

            'Right, yes, of course. I'm going to...ah...' He pulled back his hips, slowly sliding from her body, and this time they both groaned at the feeling of parting from each other. 'Wait here.'

            'I couldn't move even if I wanted to,' she smiled.

            He stumbled as he stood, but for once it wasn't because of poor circulation. His body felt warmer than ever, like he was full of blood and it was flowing freely like it had when he was young and healthy, but he was so sated that his limbs were heavy and walking wasn't agreeing with him. He found a jug of water and a washcloth underneath the basin in the corner, so he filled the bowl and hastily cleaned himself. He rinsed the cloth and then took it to Evelyn, who squirmed as he cleaned her, apparently still sensitive. He wondered if he'd made a mistake in not helping her to another orgasm while they cuddled and was about to offer to fix it, but the sight of his spend dripping from her made his balls feel heavy so he quickly finished cleaning her and made a hasty retreat back to the basin.

            'Do you know you drop your chin to your chest when you come?' she asked. 'I've never known a man do that.'

            'Oh. Is that..? I hope that doesn't bother you.'

            'Not in the slightest,' she said. 'In fact it's one of the things I love about you.'

            The moment felt charged. Neither of them moved, not even to blink or draw breath, until Cullen started to feel anxious from being still for too long and hurriedly picked her up and placed her at the top of the bed.

            'Sorry about your nightdress,' he said, hoping the diversion in conversation wasn't too clumsy or obvious. 'I can get you a new one.'

            'I have more,' she smiled, tossing the destroyed item onto the floor. 'I won't lie, you tearing it off is definitely the sexiest thing I've ever seen. You're almost painfully sexy sometimes.'

            'I don't think anyone's ever called me that.'

            'They bloody have,' she laughed. 'And to everyone's endless disappointment, you're oblivious to it. And here you are with me. If I'm not the luckiest girl in all of Thedas.'

            'I wouldn't go that far,' he mumbled, getting into bed next to her and pulling the covers over them.

            She reached into the jewellery box on the bedside table and pulled out his coin. She examined it for a few moments, a dreamy look on her face, then balanced it on top of her belly. 'What do you think, baby?' she said. 'Am I the luckiest woman in the world?' To their surprise, the coin jumped and slid from her stomach onto the bed. They looked at each other with wide eyes and then started to laugh. 'The child has spoken.'

            'They're biased,' he said, gently kissing her where the coin had been. 'They're siding with you because they know you have the food.'

            'Food,' she sighed. 'Are the scones still there?'

            'Oh.'

            'What?'

            'I ate them.'

            'Both of them?'

            'I was...really hungry.'

            She laughed loudly, feeling around for the coin and carefully putting it back in the jewellery box. 'I'll forgive you this once,' she smiled, stroking his jaw before rolling onto her side and blowing out the candles.

            'Evelyn?'

            'Hmm?'

            'I was wondering if...I was thinking maybe I could bring you away somewhere like this when the baby is born. Somewhere far from the castle where you can bond away from everyone's demands and expectations. Or maybe even before. Before they're born, that is. Somewhere you will both be...safe.'

            'Maker, Cullen, that sounds perfect, but you know we couldn't.' She placed her glowing hand over his where it held her belly. 'I have to be ready to face Corypheus. I need to keep on top of everything and be there to make decisions. And what would people say? And how could we deliver a baby and take care of it without the midwife? I...don't really know what I'm doing, after all. I'd love that, Cullen. I really would. But we can't.'

            He sighed heavily. 'I wish you weren't right.'

            'I'm always right.'

            'You're wrong right now,' he teased, kissing her neck in apology.

            'Meetings in the War Room with a newborn,' she groaned. 'Will you hold them for me when my arms get tired?'

            'Of course. It might be one of the only times I get to hold her without...people talking.'

            'I wish I could bond with her away from the castle,' she said. 'It'll just be me and her a lot of the time, perhaps until she's fully grown and I become one of those lonely old women who don't know what to do once their children move out.'

            'You forgot about that man. The man who will...wait for you to be free.'

            'I don't think that man really knows what he's promising.'

            'And he doesn't think you know how exceptional you are.'

            She was quiet for some time, and Cullen thought she might have gone to sleep, but then she whispered, 'You've got me calling them "she".'

            'Sorry,' he chuckled. 'Do you still not have any idea what they are? Evelyn?'

            But she had fallen asleep, so he whispered prayers until he started to feel sleepy too, feeling his stomach flutter whenever he thought about how they had given themselves to each other that night. He quickly returned to his prayers when he began to stiffen against the curve of her soft behind, and he fell asleep repeating 'nothing can break me except Your absence' over and over. In the Fade, he dreamt of Evelyn cradling a baby that was actually a blanket filled with scones before his regular nightmares returned to tarnish his otherwise perfect day.