“Are you ready?” he asked, announcing his presence as he soundlessly gained the top of the stairs.
Essa glanced up sharply from the book she was reading. She was sprawled on the floor in front of the couch where her sister was sitting patiently combing Essa’s dark hair.
“Ready for what?” She glanced toward the windows, then the water clock, as if she needed to confirm the lateness of the hour.
He was rewarded with such a dumbstruck expression that Cullen knew he owed Leliana a very fancy, very Orlesian pair of shoes.
“What?” Disbelief and confusion tangled amid Essa’s brows.
“It’s a heist.” Cari’s laugh was delicate, her voice bright with unshed mirth. “Now be still, let me finish your hair.”
She tugged Essa’s head back straight, deftly weaving her hair into a loose, short plait and securing the end with a thin strip of leather.
“I’ve already packed your bag. Yes, with those horrible things you call clothes,” she continued before Essa could hope to interrupt. “I sent it ahead with Fin. Leliana and I are going to use this week as trial. I will be playing you in the Skyhold performance of the Everyday Life of the Inquisitor. We need you elsewhere for that.”
“That’s a horrible title,” Essa retorted, frowning as she bounced to her feet. “You people need Varric.” She turned to Cullen, disappointment mingling with the questions in her eyes. “So all of this was to get me out of the keep?”
“What?” Cullen cut Cari a sharp glare. “No!”
He stepped farther into the room, came to stand as close to Essa as she would allow in the distance that had grown between them since Adamant.
“No,” he repeated, touching her chin briefly to redirect her skittish gaze to his. She winced slightly and he drew away, covering his hurt with explanation. “They’re taking advantage of our absence. Apparently I create problems for their subterfuge.”
“You do,” Cari agreed without elaborating.
The truth was, when Cari was wandering around Skyhold in imitation of Essa, Cullen didn’t notice her, didn’t glance up when she was near, didn’t follow her every move like the besotted adolescent he had since learned he was. People noticed.
“No fooling you?” Essa guessed.
“No.” Though he worried some days that Leliana considered that the final test of Cari’s skill.
Essa reached down to retrieve her socks from the floor, standing on one foot to shove the other into a thickly knitted set of colorful stripes, a gift from Ola, Cullen was almost certain. She hopped about, casting a suspicious glance back and forth between him and her sister.
She swapped feet, hobbling a bit and Cullen checked the urge to reach out and steady her.
“Hard to see you with the sneaking, Commander,” Essa accused.
But still she was going with him. That was all that mattered. He needed the time. Time for both of them away from everyone else, time for him to figure out the magnitude of what had gone wrong between them. She was glaring at him as she returned both feet to the floor, gaze guarded and wary. Cullen pretended to take offense.
“I can be quite stealthy when the occasion calls for it, and this one does.” Her boots were half under one of the parlor chairs, Cullen nudged them out and kicked them toward her, didn’t give her the chance to notice his sudden nerves. “Hurry up. We have to time our breaks in the watch perfectly.”
Essa scowled, obviously still trying to catch up with the sudden interruption to her evening. She stepped into her boots, took the dark, non-descript cloak her sister held out and glowered at Cari.
“You knew about this.”
“I did,” Cari admitted without a shred of remorse. “We depart for Halamshiral in three weeks. I need you out of Skyhold if I’m going to prepare.”
She opened her mouth to protest and Cari shook her head. “And you need a respite, whether you like it or not.”
Essa spun back to Cullen and before she could argue, he continued their forward momentum. He had learned that with Essa sometimes that was the only way. Keep her mind moving until her feet caught up.
“Fin took the horses and supplies to Geri’s gap,” Cullen told her.
The small cove was well-hidden, still filled with late summer oats. Essa nodded absently, cast a searching glance around her quarters. Her staff leaned against one of her bookshelves and she stared at it, then at him, one brow raised in challenge.
“As you wish.” Cullen smiled. “We will certainly attract less attention if you leave it behind.”
Finally she rallied, fastening her cloak with deft hands and giving her sister a list of suggestions for her role that Cari did not need but accepted with a graceful smile.
“Ready?” Cullen caught Essa’s hand and for a moment, she tensed.
“You’re not wearing gloves,” she faltered, and Cullen realized that for all their many intimacies, it was still a rare thing for him to touch her skin to skin in front of others. He started to let go, and she frowned at him, fingers twining through his to hold fast.
Cullen felt some small measure of distance vanish between them.
“Let’s commence with the sneaking,” she said with a careful smile. “I’ll follow your lead, Commander.”
They snuck out of Skyhold like thieves beneath cloud-occluded moons, breaths held and Essa’s eyes shining bright with near laughter. Every time she opened her mouth to speak, Cullen shushed her and the third time he did so, he had the great pleasure of watching realization bloom in her shadowed face. He wasn’t serious about the shushing, at least not after the first time. The shared merriment was as intoxicating as anything Bull might raise in cheer.
“Cullen,” she hissed once they had finally and truly made it away from the keep.
“Shh!” He leveled his most severely censuring gaze upon her and Essa clamped one hand over her lips. “You should see your face.”
He could barely hold back his own laughter so Cullen could hardly fault her for the giggles that escaped her fingers. She caught her breath and scowled at him anew.
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on?” she asked when she could finally breathe enough to do so.
Maker’s breath, he had missed her laughter. The sound of it bubbling around him, the way it limned the smoke of her eyes with silver.
“Not yet,” he replied. “Horses first, then a few hours ride before we make camp.”
Essa stared up at the cloudy sky. “We’ll get no rest that way, Commander. You’d think this was the first expedition you had ever planned.”
“I’m wounded by your lack of faith, Inquisitor.” He pointed toward the road. “It’ll be clear enough to at least ride beyond the farthest patrols.”
“So much sneaking!” Essa admonished, hand lifted to her throat in feigned shock.
“If you two are quite through,” Fin stepped out of the mountain’s shadow leading Geri and Cacique. The warhorse had a curious of habit of taking to Essa’s favorite men. He stood placidly between Fin and the forder.
“Who are you riding?” Essa asked Cullen, as smirk twisting her lips.
She seemed to be slowly relaxing, the wind and the night and their clandestine mischief had torn so many worries from them both. By morning they might not be themselves, not Inquisitor nor Commander. Templar nor mage. It was a heady, impossible thought and Cullen couldn’t decide if he should chastise himself for his fancy or take the rare moment with gladness.
Cacique snorted softly at Cullen, dragging him from his wonderings with a nose stretched out and lips greedy for the carrots in Cullen’s pocket. He snuck the horse a second treat, rubbed the proudly arched neck and shrugged.
“This one, unless you object.”
Essa snorted, eyes rolling in an expression not unlike the brute at his elbow. Cullen watched as she hugged Fin, mumbled something he couldn’t quite hear before taking her horse’s reins. “I suppose if you annoy him, Geri and I can pack your broken bones to the nearest healer.”
When Cacique stood without quarrel for Cullen to mount, her eyes narrowed to knife edges in the dark.
“Traitor,” she muttered.
Cullen wasn’t sure if her insult was directed at him or the horse, nor how seriously offended she was.
Essa stared at the dark line of Cullen’s back as they rode, or more precisely at Cacique’s rump, white patches bright and almost glowing as the clouds finally moved across the face of Satina, granting them light to travel by. The piebald stallion was a shimmer of luminescence, the dark liver markings gleaming black in the night. Essa watched every docile step with a mixture of tentative hope, helpless laughter, and no small amount of suspicion. She wondered how long Cullen had been sneaking treats to the blighted horse, and why those shriveled carrots seemed to have worked. Cacique wasn’t one to be easily bribed. She huffed out a nervous breath, watched as it clouded before her.
The bastard had betrayed her.
She nudged Geri into a faster walk, pulled up beside Cacique.
“How much farther?” She spoke quietly, still caught in the violet quiet of Cullen’s surreptitious bolt from Skyhold.
An hour had passed since he snuck them out of the keep, but still he had not spoken and the mysterious maneuvers were only half-amusing. As they’d crept through the quiet night, dodging the watch, and hiding from Sera—she had seen them, Essa just knew it—she had been caught up in the mischief and merriment that gleamed behind the uncertainty in Cullen’s eyes. But now that her heartbeat had slowed, she had finally caught up with rush of events and she needed answers.
“Tired?” Cullen asked, his gaze not shifting from the dark road ahead.
Essa shook her head. “No,” she murmured. “But I need to know what’s going on, Cullen. This was all very cute and I admit that I had fun, but—“
But he couldn’t know what it had meant to her, what memories Cari’s merry collaboration had resurrected. She had tried to slow him down when they first left her room, when she had still been reeling with nerves, but he had shushed her—there was a guard just ahead—and the look on his face had been so suddenly serious, so perfectly him, that she had forgotten everything in a near collapse of helpless, stinging laughter. It had taken her too long to realize that he had continued purely to keep her breathless and giggling, both hands clamped down over her mouth as they slunk through the darkest corners of the keep and out into the mountains.
But now that the rush had worn off, she needed answers if she were to ever hope to get her feet back under her.
“There’s an old camp not far ahead, from when we first came through from Haven. We’ll stop there for the night.” Cullen turned to her then and she cursed the inconstant moons. She could see too little of his face beneath the hood of his cloak, and when he spoke, his voice was devoid of all inflection.
She dropped Geri back again and they passed the remainder of the journey in silence. When they veered off of the road and onto the broken trail that had brought them through the Frostbacks the autumn before, she wanted to cheer. She didn’t wait for him to choose a spot, riding instead to an overhanging of stone, a small natural shelter against the side of the mountain.
“You don’t have to picket them.” She slipped from Geri’s back and removed her pack, dropping it to the ground at her feet. “They won’t go far.”
Cacique’s ears flicked back at her words and Essa glared at him. “You’re certain?” Cullen asked.
“I’m certain,” Essa assured him, quickly untacking the forder. “And if for some reason they do, they’ll come back at a whistle. Let them go forage.”
She tossed her saddle into the shelter, called flame to her palm after a terse warning of “light,” and began looking for firewood while Cullen followed her absent orders. When she caught herself bossing him around, Essa chuckled.
“You wondered once what it would be like out in the field with me,” she reminded him.
“Regretting that now?” She dropped her firewood to the ground and crouched, arranging it carefully into a proper cone, kindling at the bottom.
“Not at all.” He was close, and without warning. Essa glanced up to see him standing over her, pack held in one hand, bedroll in the other. He gestured with the coil of wool. “For sitting?”
“Yes.” She jerked her chin in a short nod toward the sheltering wall. “That’s fine.”
The flame in her palm leapt and Essa cast it against the base of the wood, watched it devour the smaller twigs and leaves before climbing up onto the logs, shades of the sun writ small. When she turned back to the mountain, she saw that Cullen had arranged their saddles and packs to one side, their bedrolls spread against the ground. His cloak was gone and he sat back against the wall of the mountain, gaze direct and waiting for hers as the firelight moved greedily across his face.
“We surprised you,” he observed, and wasn’t that just the fucking understatement of the evening? “And you’re angry.”
Essa plunked down where she was, ass in the sand, too close to the flames but not noticing the heat.
“I’m not angry.” She shook her head, drew sharp vertical line in the dirt with one fingertip. “I’m—“
She stopped, stared down at her knees and tried to decide how much to tell him.
“The last time my sister saw me off like this was my wedding day.”
The words fell flat into the cool night to be met with utter silence.
“I know she didn’t think about it,” Essa drew another line, an outward facing curve connecting both ends of the first line before she erased them both. “It’s been eleven years now, nearly twelve…By the Mabari, it goes fast doesn’t it?”
Hope would be eleven this year.
“I can’t imagine the thought crossed Cari’s mind.” She felt the need to defend her sister. “To be honest, that was the day I realized she loved me, so even with everything, that was a blessing. Until then, only Diar, Fin, and my father had ever shown such interest in my happiness.”
But Cari had been so filled with joy for her that it had trailed in shining rivulets down her cheeks.
“Maker’s breath! Essa—I didn’t—“
She heard him move toward her and shook her head sharply, held up one hand in case he didn’t understand that if he touched her then she would fly to pieces.
“Of course you didn’t know. Please, don’t apologize. I just…I wanted you to know. I’m not angry, Cullen. I’m sad. I’m nervous. I’m still completely confused at how we ended up where we are. I thought—“
She stared at her shadow, watched as it flowed over him, darkening fawn-colored leather, golden hair, amber eyes—so much brightness she was nearly blinded by him—before breaking against the grey-brown stone of the mountain.
“What did you think?” he asked so quietly she could barely hear him over the crackling fire.
She couldn’t meet his earnest gaze, but Essa lifted her chin.
“I thought we were through.”
Thank the Maker, he was sitting down. Cullen silently muttered a prayer of gratitude as the admission struck him with the ferocity of a well-executed shield bash. Had he been standing, Essa’s grave revelation would surely would have knocked him flat. He stared at her for a too-long moment trying to pierce the gloom around her face, to glean some kind of understanding.
“Did you want to be through?” he finally asked.
Essa’s gaze snapped to his and she looked at him as if he was the one gone completely daft.
“Why would I want us to be through?” she demanded, voice rising a little shrill at the end.
Cullen reached up to rub the back of his neck and took a breath so that he wouldn’t shout back at her. “Why would you think that we were?”
For a moment, they gaped at one another and he could only assume that her mind was racing as fast as his. Cullen waited, arms crossed defensively, as if he might help hold his pounding heart behind his ribs. He had known things were strained between them after Adamant, but—
“Because you wouldn’t talk to me!” she burst out, throwing up her hands in exasperation.
“I said I needed time, not for you to banish yourself to the desert for a month!” He was shouting anyway, and Cullen couldn’t make himself care. Perhaps it was the only way to get through that impossibly thick skull. “I thought giving one another time was something we were good at!”
“And I thought talking was!”
She was on her feet, scattering dirt into the fire with a hiss as she stormed a few steps away. She stood with her back to him and he knew that she was fighting something he couldn’t see. Cullen followed her, leaving the warmth of the campfire and the comfort of the light behind him.
“Essa?” Her name was prayer and entreaty, and he spoke low as he reached for her, fingers grazing the end of her short braid. He caught the leather tie and tugged lightly until she turned to face him. Cullen stared down into the dark contours of her face. “Why would I give up on us?”
Her fists were shaking as they came up between them. Cullen caught her hands in his, eased them open, placed one over his heart, lifted the other to his lips. She sighed, fingers flexing against his touch in a small embrace.
“Because I have no intention of using lyrium with even the most remote regularity, but I can’t promise I’ll never take it again,” she whispered toward his chest. “And while my heart aches for it, I’m not sorry, Cullen. I’m not sorry that we all made it back alive. I’m not sorry that it only cost me the naïve promises I made myself a lifetime ago.” She shook her head slowly, drew in a shuddering breath. “But I’m sorry for what I did to you–-to us-–coming to your bed with lyrium still singing in my veins.”
“Maker’s breath!” He gave her hands a little shake. “You didn’t come to my bed with lyrium still singing in your veins. If I recall, I carried you there! “
She drew away, hands sliding from his like dreams he had held too tightly.
“No,” Cullen said tersely, denying the fear, denying her escape. He caught her chin in his hand, pulled her gently back to him. Her eyes sparked at his audacity and Cullen smiled. “And no matter how ill-advised it might have been,” he continued belligerently. “I needed you there as much as you needed to be there, and we weathered that as well.”
“Did we?” she sighed. “Cullen, you were going to leave the Inquisition…worse, you—”
But she didn’t speak the worst.
His grip gentled, thumb sweeping across her jaw and back to her bottom lip. It quivered beneath his touch and for one moment he was afraid that she was crying.
“I know.” He smiled hesitantly. “But you were there. You were—you are my friend. Do you know what a gift that is?”
He had never really had friends, never thought about what they might mean to him. For too long there had been only service and duty.
“I do,” Essa vowed against the unhurried caress of his thumb.
“I missed you.” And his sudden, soft confession made of the night a holy place.
“I missed you.”
Her response was spoken with equal devotion, face slowly lifting to his. Moonlight silvered the reverence in her eyes and Cullen’s breath caught. His voice was hoarse when he spoke again.
“And most days,” he paused to clear his throat, tucked an escaped wisp of hair behind her ear with a skimming touch. “Most days I believe there isn’t much we can’t face together. Do you think me foolish?”
He bent slowly toward her, giving her time to pull away from him.
“Cullen…” she breathed against his lips and he kissed her in answer, kissed her slowly, deeply, teeth grazing, hands framing her face until she pressed against him with a sigh, until her only reply was the murmured repetition of his name, chanted like a prayer into the starlit cathedral of the mountains.