Cullen stood amidst the shattered, red lyrium-encrusted doors of the elven temple, ignoring the way it sang out and tried to set his blood aflame with need. He had no time for thoughts of anything but the simple fact that the Inquisitor had entered this temple, Corypheus had followed, and only he had returned from within. The fact that he fled the field with his archdemon implied that he had found what he sought, and no longer needed the army that suddenly collapsed on itself, like a puppet with cut strings.
And if Corypheus had succeeded, then logic would dictate that the Inquisitor had failed.
Cullen shoved the thought to the back of his mind and pushed foward through the antechamber. Leliana had insisted that they wait until Scout Harding returned from the bowels of the temple, and not “barrel in like a herd of crazed druffalo.” While Cullen could see the value in being cautious, it did not, in his opinion, outweigh the need for haste. Madelena — the Inquisitor — could be injured, and minutes spent scouting might mean her death.
“Should have gone with her — Blackwall’s good, but I’m better.” The Bull’s voice broke into a growl on the last two words, betraying more about his mental state than he usually let on. Cullen glanced over at the qunari, surrounded by a few of his Chargers, Varric, and Dorian. His words echoed Cullen’s own thoughts. At least as Commander he was used to being left behind — the Iron Bull was almost always at the Inquisitor’s side, along with Dorian and Cole. But the high stakes of the battle meant Bull had been left back to lead the Chargers, and going to an ancient elven temple meant Solas had replaced the Tevinter mage. Neither seemed pleased about the arrangement.
The dwarf shrugged. “Not hardly. When it comes to wholesale slaughter? Sure. But if we’re talking defense, not even the Seeker is better than Blackwall. If something happened, it sure as hell wasn’t your fault, Tiny.”
The nickname addressed the Bull, but Varric was looking straight at Cullen as he said it. Easy for you to say. She was fighting Calpernia — who knows what difference a templar might have made? That would have required him to still be a templar, however; and despite the fact that some of his abilities were usable without lyrium, he was certainly diminished from his previous strength. The guilt that rose up to gnaw on his guts threatened to overtake both withdrawal and worry, so Cullen forged ahead through the temple, the others trailing in his wake.
They saw endless groups of dead elves and Venatori, sprinkled liberally with red templar monstrosities and grey wardens, passed by a giant hole in the ground, and came finally to a large open area with a dry pool and a broken mirror at the far side. Leliana’s scouts had beaten them there, but even they seemed at a loss.
Harding’s mouth twisted into a worried frown as she gave her report. “I’m sorry, but she just doesn’t seem to even be here.”
Cullen shook his head. “That’s impossible. No one has gone in or out of this temple since Corypheus. She has to be here somewhere.”
A thoughtful hum caught everyone’s attention and directed it to the spymaster. Leliana tapped her fingers against her lower lip in thought. “What about the eluvian? Morrigan claimed the mirrors could be used for traveling great distances, and we have one at Skyhold. Is it possible that the Inquisitor might have used it to flee Corypheus, and broken it behind her?”
All eyes shifted to Dorian, and the mage raised his hands in defense. “How should I know? I’m not exactly an expert on ancient elven artifacts, you know.”
“Didn’t we have two of those at one point? Would have been nice for her Inquisitorialness to leave one here. But she didn’t, so that means you’re the best we’ve got, Sparkler.” Varric’s voice was light and dry, but Cullen had spent enough time around the dwarf to hear the undercurrent of strain.
“Fine! I’ll look at it, perhaps I can get a read on if there’s any magic left lingering in it. If it’s been activated recently, then maybe I’d be able to feel it.”
Dorian headed towards the eluvian while Cullen surveyed the area. There were no signs of battle, magical or otherwise, which was strange. It was here, in front of the eluvian, that he had expected to see the greatest concentration of dead elves, since they had apparently dedicated themselves to protecting this place. Where better to make a final stand? Calpernia, too, was missing, gone as if she had never been.
Cullen joined Dorian where he stood in front of the mirror, its silvery surface webbed with fine cracks. “Any luck?”
The mage let out an exasperated noise worthy of Cassandra on a bad day. “I can tell it has been activated recently, yes. But with an artifact of this power and antiquity, ‘recently’ could be a hour ago, or it could be a hundred years ago. There’s no way for me to tell. If only that damned witch had let me study her eluvian in greater detail instead of shooing me away like some unruly child!” Dorian abruptly cut off his tirade when Cullen reached up and squeezed his shoulder.
“We’ll find her, Dorian.”
“Yes, well. I should certainly hope so. No one else in the Inquisition seems to be capable of acquiring a decent vintage of wine.” Dorian bent his head and adjusted the folds of his robe, suddenly unable to meet Cullen’s eyes.
A soft Orlesian voice made known Leliana’s presence at Cullen’s left side, as she too stared up at the shattered eluvian. “I am returning to Skyhold. If there is a possibility that the Inquisitor is there, it should be investigated, and even if she is not, Skyhold is where I am best equipped to find her.”
Once, during a quiet moment in bed, Cullen and Madelena had gotten onto the topic of the other members of the Inquisition’s leadership. He had described Leliana as a spider, settled into the center of a web that stretched all over Thedas, feeling the vibrations of different strands of the web, connected to her innumerable scouts and spies. Lena had hit him in the face with a pillow, and declared her quarters a “spider-free zone.” The fearless Inquisitor, who faced down demons and insane mages and red lyrium monstrosities on a daily basis, was afraid of a bug. He’d laughed at her until she threatened to kick him out of her room, and then he’d knelt between her knees until she forgave him.
The memory squeezed itself around Cullen’s chest, making it hard to breathe. If we’ve lost her — if I’ve lost her…
Staying in the Wilds and searching would drive him mad. There was too much ground to cover alone, but the army could manage it, and do so without his direct oversight.
He needed to do something, not sit in the forest and wait for reports.
“I’ll come with you.”
Days of hard riding, of switching out mounts at villages and outposts because theirs were too exhausted to carry them further. Days of arriving at those same villages and outposts to find raven-borne reports from the army, saying they had seen nothing, found nothing; and then, once they reached the mountains, no word at all. Days of silently murmuring the familiar cadence of the Chant, and when he lost the breath for that in the mountain air, simply repeating the words Maker, Andraste, please, let her be in Skyhold, let her be safe, over and over in his mind, like a mantra against despair.
On the dusk of the sixth day since they set out, the small company of Leliana, Harding, Iron Bull, Dorian, Varric, and Cullen himself rode across the bridge into Skyhold.
Madelena Trevelyan stood at the entrance to the main fortress, flanked by Cassandra and Josephine, and Cullen thought for a moment that he might fall off his horse in dizzy relief. The reversal of their positions did not escape him; normally she was the road-weary traveler, and he the one waiting impatiently for her return. The pure, desperate release of happiness at seeing her whole and unharmed was familiar, at least.
They normally tried to maintain some semblance of decorum in front of the rest of the Inquisition, but Cullen vaulted off his horse and nearly sprinted up the steps before his better judgment had time to rear its head, wrapping one gauntleted hand around Madelena's hip and sinking the other into the thick mass of black hair at the nape of her neck, pulling her mouth up and into his with more force than he had intended.
The concern that he might have hurt her died in its infancy at the sound of a half-strangled moan and the way her fingers knotted in his mantle, dragging him closer still. Cullen’s senses narrowed themselves down to the sensation of the living, breathing woman molded against his body, cutting out all sight and sound until only taste and touch remained. Holding her was like holding lightning during a snowstorm; rare and fierce and beautiful, making his skin prickle and nerves ache. He would have gladly stayed like that forever, but slowly, gently, Madelena pulled back until space existed between them again, and sharp blue eyes caught his own as swollen pink lips curved into a small, smug smile.
“Miss me, did you?”
The force of that understatement hit him like a physical blow, and he was caught between laughing, crying, and staring at her like she’d grown a second head. He settled for closing his eyes and resting his forehead against hers. “I was afraid you were dead. You disappeared, and no one could find you.” A distant corner of his brain was very very proud that his voice was steady and didn’t break at all under the weight of the emotion behind it.
He felt more than heard the sharp inhalation of breath, and opened his eyes to see her face twist with chagrin. “We sent word to the army. Did they not reach you?”
Lena melted back into his arms, her own winding around his torso. “Maker. Cullen, I’m so sorry.”
A small cough finally drew Cullen’s attention away from the Inquisitor and to the two women who were still — had always been — standing behind her. Cassandra, the source of the sound, was doing her best to look disapproving, while Josephine had actual tears in her eyes and was covering her mouth with one hand.
I am never going to hear the end of this.
The Antivan diplomat reached out with one hand and shoved Cassandra’s arm. “It was so beautiful, and you ruined it!”
Light, musical laughter echoed across the courtyard. “Oh, Josie. You’re adorable.”
Cassandra sighed, but it was edged in amusement. “Commander, I believe you have a report to make on the state of our army?”
The Iron Bull draped one arm around Cassandra’s shoulders and slapped Cullen on the back with his other hand, nearly knocking him forward onto Madelena. “Ah, c’mon. Let the lovebirds have their moment. I can brief you on what happened after the Inquisitor left.”
“Besides, Seeker, if you keep interrupting all the big romantic moments, how am I supposed to get the material I need to continue my romance serial?” Varric grinned over his shoulder as he slipped past the group and into the keep.
“You’re still working on it? I thought you said you were done!” Cassandra seemed to utterly forget whatever composure she had been working towards, and took off after the laughing dwarf.
“Cassandra? A romance serial? Maker’s breath, what—”
Lena cut off his confused mutter with a laugh and a kiss against one stubbled cheek. “Did I not tell you about that? Remind me later.”
A sharp tap on his shoulder diverted his attention again, to realize that everyone had gone inside, save himself, Madelena, and Dorian, who was standing behind him. “Pardon me, Commander, but you cannot have our lovely Inquisitor entirely to yourself. There are other, rather more charming and better-dressed men who might also want a moment of her time.”
“Dorian! I missed you, too.” Any other man, and Cullen might have been jealous at the way Lena’s mouth pulled into a wide smile, and she disentangled herself from his arms to pull the weakly-protesting Dorian into a hug. The Tevinter awkwardly patted her back, as if uncertain of what to do with this overflowing of familial affection, but Cullen caught the fondness in his smile.
Dorian extricated himself from Madelena's grip, planted a kiss on the back of her hand with a flourish, and disappeared into the keep while grumbling about barbaric southerners keeping him out in the cold.
Suddenly, just like that, they were alone (or as alone as anyone ever was in the Skyhold courtyard), and Madelena was staring up at him, her cheeks pink and glowing. “You must be cold and tired too, riding all that way. Why don’t you come upstairs and warm up?”
Cullen’s heart stuttered a little, just like it did every time she offered him something of herself; sometimes, it was still hard to believe that she wanted him. That he wanted her was a foregone conclusion, inescapable and unrelenting, but the knowledge that she saw him for who he was and still reached for him would have been unbearable if not for how wonderful it was.
“I—” he coughed, to cover the sudden crack in his voice, and then started again, “I’d love to.”
Small, slender fingers entwined themselves with Cullen’s larger ones, and tugged him down the hallway to her chambers, both of them ignoring the amused murmurs and shocked whispers from the gathered nobles. No sooner had the door shut behind him then Cullen twisted and had Madelena pressed against it, mouth trailing kisses down her neck.
She let her head fall back against the wood with a thunk and a groan, but after a moment, he felt a hand in his hair, tugging him back up. “Not here. I want you in my bed, Commander, and without your armor.”
The order in her voice simultaneously turned his knees to water and his hands to steel — she always, always had this effect on him. On the rare occasions that she wanted gentleness, all she needed do was be soft and sweet and he was hers. A kind word would have him kneel at her altar and worship her for as long and as lovingly as she could handle. But the moment she looked at him with iron in her gaze and mouth curved in smirking challenge, he was undone. He needed to take her, possess her, feel her shatter apart in his hands.
She trusted him enough to give a templar command over her body, and he trusted her enough to let a mage hold the leash.
“As you wish, my lady.”
He swept her up in his arms and carried her (though not without some difficulty) up the stairs before tossing her down on her absurdly fluffy bed. The gesture was somewhat spoiled by the fact that instead of gazing up at him in lust, Lena was currently consumed with giggles, but Cullen chalked it up as a win regardless, especially when she sat up and reached for his belt.
He caught her wrist before she could grab him and pressed a kiss to the pulse point before stepping back out of her reach and slowly, methodically, undoing the buckles and straps that held his armor in place. He thought about leaving it on — there was something undeniably arousing about being fully clothed and having a naked woman completely at his mercy — but there would be time for those games later. After almost a week of fearing for her safety, plus a huge pitched battle, Cullen needed to feel skin against his own, needed the intimacy and the base, physical knowledge that yes, she was alive.
Besides, there was the heat that he’d been looking for in her eyes, as she watched him strip down to just his breeches. He stepped forward and pulled her up into a kiss, one-handedly unsnapping the fastenings down the front of her shirt and trousers, then pulled back to watch it slide open, revealing small, perfectly formed breasts. She shrugged out of her clothing (smallclothes and all) with a remarkable lack of self-consciousness, before curling one hand into the waistband of Cullen’s trousers and tugging him closer.
His breath caught — beautiful, so damn beautiful — and he grabbed her wrists again, bearing down on her until her back was against the bed and her hands pinned above her head by one of his, leaving the other free to roam as he pleased. One of his knees slid between her legs and parted them, while his hand found one small nipple and pinched it, his mouth covering the other. The two-pronged attack wrenched a groan out of Madelena's throat and she arched up into him, ready and willing. Normally, the more demanding she was, the more maddeningly slow he went, but Cullen’s control was already at its breaking point when he reached down to find her as wet as if he’d already had his mouth there.
“Cullen, please.” The slick heat around his hand and the need in her voice splintered what little remaining discipline he had, and he released her hands to shuck his pants and sink, slowly, blissfully, between her thighs. His forehead came to rest against hers as she wriggled her hips to find the most comfortable position beneath him, and then she looked him dead in the eye and squeezed.
Heat bloomed in his center and spread in tingles down to his fingers and toes, making them curl. He sucked in a breath and grabbed Madelena's legs, hooking her knees over his shoulders for a better angle, and drove in deep.
A moan sounded, low and deep, and her hands scrabbled for purchase on the bedsheets as he pushed in at that spot that made her eyes roll back in her head, with a force and a pace that only increased as her volume did.
Propped up on his arms as he was, with her legs tangled around his back, there was nothing he could do but move the way she wanted him. Except, perhaps…
Trying to think past the pleasure that was building in him, he dropped his head to hers and growled in his best, deepest Commander voice (the one she said made her weak-kneed and light-headed, the one that had led to more than a few silent, fierce kisses that ended with her bent over the war table on days when he was particularly stressed or frustrated): “Touch yourself.”
One small hand whipped up to the back of his neck to keep him close, and the other squirmed its way between their bodies to the small nub right above where they were joined. It took only the space of a few strokes before she dissolved around him, pulsing and writhing and — Maker’s breath, yes — he followed her over the edge.
Slowly, the sparkles behind his eyelids faded, and his breathing calmed. With some wiggling and his help, Lena unhooked her legs from his shoulders, but slid them around his waist instead, holding him flush inside her as he softened. She slid her hands through his sweat-soaked hair and tugged him down into a soft, melting kiss.
“I love you, Cullen. And I will not leave you.”
Cullen looked into her eyes, and though he knew there was no way that she could know that for certain…
He believed her.