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“Maker’s breath!  I didn’t hear you enter.”

The self-recrimination in Cullen’s voice was breathless and dark, his previous shout of frustration still echoing off the stone walls of his office. Essa stared down at the broken philter, kicked a piece of shrapnel from the toe of her boot with more viciousness than she intended.

“I—,” Cullen broke off abruptly, amber gaze skittering away. “Forgive me.”

Forgive him. The entreaty fell into the desolate afternoon, a fearling that would haunt her for the rest of her life. By the Mabari! What could the man possibly have to ask her forgiveness? For a moment, Essa could only stare at him, grief choking a torrent of words from her lips. They had left Adamant victorious, and while she knew that the lyrium singing blue and cloying beneath her skin had called to him, she had left as soon as she was able, hoping against all reason that no damage had been done.

Too late, she saw as he turned and staggered toward her.  A year and a half of struggle, diligence, resistance...brutal and stalwart grace…all undone by three nights when neither of them could bear for her to sleep anywhere but in his arms. She should be begging his forgiveness for failing him, but she knew that to do so would only wound him more.

“Cullen…if you need to talk to me…” Me, she thought, with uncommon possession. Not Cassandra. Me.

But she couldn’t meet his eyes, knew the jealousy was mostly untrue and certainly unworthy of both of them.

“You don’t have to—“  He caught himself on the edge of his desk and Essa rushed forward, a thousand fears burning in her chest, cold and sharp like winter’s killing grasp.

“I never meant for this to interfere.”

He shook his head, denying her touch. Tears burst bright in her eyes and Essa blinked them away before he saw them, shoved the rest back behind her selfish, breaking heart.

“Are you going to be alright?” she asked. The first of a litany she would not rail at him. Is this it? Are we going to have to give up on us? Because she would. It would destroy her, but if he was better without her then she would walk away.

It was one of the few things she knew she was good for.

“Yes…” Cullen answered almost immediately, but then he shook his head. “I don’t know. You asked what happened to Ferelden’s Circle…”

She had, what felt a lifetime ago, and he had told her in long, halting sentences, years of grief laid bare beneath an early summer sky. But he did not tell her now for either of their comfort. Every word was instead a weapon, thrown with bitter regret to wound them both.

“It was taken over by abominations,” he continued. He swayed on his feet , and she knew that he was caught again in helpless rage. “The templars—my friends—were slaughtered. I was tortured. They tried to break my mind, and I—how can you be the same person after that?”

Essa reached for him, and he turned away, paced toward the window and stood, face lifted toward the sunlight as if seeking the Maker’s grace.

In the absence of light, shadows thrive, the verse came unbidden to Essa’s mind and she shook her head in sharp denial, watching impotently as he drew farther away from her.

“Still, I wanted to serve. They sent me to Kirkwall. I trusted my Knight-Commander, and for what?” He glanced toward her, a wordless syllable challenging her to deny the ruthless summary, to give him a single reason why that time had not been worse than wasted. “Her fear of mages ended in madness. Kirkwall’s Circle fell. Innocent people died in the streets. Can’t you see why I want nothing to do with that life?”

Couldn’t she see? Essa blinked at him in confusion. Why would he think that she would even want him to—

“Cullen, of course I can. I—“

“Don’t!” he interrupted harshly and Essa struggled not to recoil from the doubt in his eyes. “You should be questioning what I’ve done.  I thought this would be better—that I would regain some control over my life, but these thoughts won’t leave me…”

The memory came unbidden, blurred around the edges with fever and exhaustion. Cullen’s voice whispering through the desert night.

This is what it would be like, if you were truly a mage.” His nose skimmed the pulse in her neck, his inhale dragging warm air across skin that was still too cool. “I should go.”

She had known then, but she had been too afraid to ask. Now she clasped her hands together so that he wouldn’t see them shaking as she held back the blinding avalanche of her sorrow.

“How many lives depend on our success?” he demanded pacing by her as if she weren’t there. “I swore myself to this cause…I will not give less to the Inquisition than I did the Chantry. I should be taking it!”

He lashed out, fist connecting with the bookshelf before him, knocking heavy volumes to the floor at his feet and Essa felt each land, a stone to seal away the valiant dead.  “I should be taking it!”

She stared at him, stupefied by her own belated realization from the black mire of her own wretchedness. He thought—By the Mabar, the stubborn, daft man!

“This isn’t—“ No, she thought, that wouldn’t get through his thick skull. She took a breath, tried again. “This doesn’t have to be about the Inquisition.” Something faint, like the last flickering of an altar votive, sparked in his yes. Essa charged on. “Is this what you want?”

She lifted her chin, pushed her sorrow behind a façade of temper, and all but dared him to answer her wrong. For a moment, he stared through her, so caught in his own despair that he seemed to have forgotten her, forgotten that with all he knew of her, she would never ask such a thing of him.

“Cullen?”

His breath left him in on a tired sigh, tension sliding from his arm as he turned–finally!–to face her truly.

“No.” He bent toward her, eyes searching hers through the darkness he carried. “But these memories have always haunted me—if they become worse, if I cannot endure this…”

Blessed are the righteous, the lights in the shadow. In their blood the Maker’s will is written.

“Cullen…”

Essa reached for him, wanted to crumble with relief when he didn’t step away. Her hand lay against his armor, fingers trembling against the gleam, as if she could feel his heart pounding through the steel.

“You can,” she promised, hoping desperately that he could see the certainty in her eyes.  “I’ll—“

But she couldn’t bring herself to say it. Didn’t have the strength to promise to stay away from him.

“You can,” she said again.

And when he kissed her, with aching hesitance breaking golden through the gathering clouds, she told herself it wasn’t goodbye.

Chapter Text

Cullen said he needed time, and when it became obvious that he did not mean hours or even days Essa exiled herself to a month and a half in the Western Approach tying up loose ends around Adamant and making such noise that even the Empress of Orlais could not deny her importance.  She sent no letters back to Skyhold beyond the reports she spent too much time composing, carefully eradicating any word that might be mistaken for personal, but tales of her daring flew on the wings of other ravens and those only added to the flurry of unanswered questions she had left behind.

The morning after judgment Essa had taken Solas, Varric, and Blackwall and departed for Griffon Wing Keep without giving anyone enough warning to try to stop her.  She had been back at Skyhold for only a handful of days, but those days had been the exact opposite of restful; she had fared better in the Hinterlands. If Cullen needed time, then so did she. Time to grieve for hope lost, for promises that had never been made, but that she had kept in her heart nonetheless.

She had chosen her party selfishly for once, without regard for the terrain or the missions or their comfort. Of her companions, Solas, Varric, and Blackwall were the least likely to pry when she didn’t feel like talking. And she really didn’t feel like talking.  If she were pressed—and her sister had sure as the Maker pressed her before she let her go—Essa could admit that she was as grateful for their respect of her silence as she was knowing that Cullen would have the support of Sera, Bull, Dorian, and Cassandra once she was gone.

Cari and Fin had promised to send word immediately if anything changed for the worse, and Essa had fled into the first blinding rays of dawn, her heart storming the Bride’s ears with prayers for Cullen’s comfort and continued strength. She had given Cacique his head and let the imprudent warhorse put as much distance behind them as he would. When they finally stopped, ears crackling and sides heaving, no small amount of tiny boulders and scree tumbling behind their dangerous descent, Essa told herself it was the cold sting of the mountain that blurred her eyes and squeezed her chest to burning.

At least the boys had the sense not to follow her too closely.

She did not tarry in her return to the Western Approach, driving the four of them and their mounts hard enough that the other horses had to be swapped out regularly at camps along the way. Cacique—the brute—loved it, feeding off of Essa’s brooding until Varric accused the cursed thing of being a sadist. The horse was thirsty for blood and Essa was a little glad that Cassandra was not around to watch the horse bare down on their enemies, hooves striking and teeth rending with the ferocity of any demon.

For three weeks, they choked on sun and sand while Essa fought her own helplessness. They based out of Griffon Wing Keep—her only concession to anyone’s comfort—and at night Essa wandered the battlements listless and weary. She had stopped bewailing her fate years ago, but now she again felt trapped by circumstances beyond her control.

“Nice night, Inquisitor.” Essa turned just as Knight-Captain Rylen gained the top of the stairs.“I believe we will miss seeing you wander the battlements.”

“It is,” she agreed, staring up at the blue-black sky. The stars here were the brightest she had ever seen. “There’s still a great deal to do in the region.”

“There is.” He stepped up beside her and Essa watched torchlight move across the tattoos on his face. She knew little to nothing about the man beyond that he was beloved by his men and trusted by Cullen. These were usually enough, but he watched her with more care than a mere subordinate and that made her wary. “But nothing we can’t handle, your worship.”

They stood in silence for several moments.

“So you’ll be heading back in the morning then?” he asked, though she had given no sign of planning on doing so.

Essa frowned. “Not quite yet, Knight-Captain. Perhaps another week. Are you trying to get rid of me?”

He shook his head. “No, ser, but—“

Worry slunk through the night, curled at Essa’s feet like wounded hound. Why was Rylen trying to send her back to Skyhold?

“Everything’s fine,” he assured her, blue eyes steady as they met hers in the flickering light. “But he’s concerned. He won’t admit it, and if you tell him I told you so, I’ll deny it.”

Rylen smiled and Essa’s lips curved in wry reply.

“I should apologize for sending the raven out at this afternoon. Told him you were on your way.”

Should apologize. Essa got the impression that he wouldn’t.

“Are you bullying me, Knight-Captain?” She couldn’t believe the harsh snap of authority in her voice. From the look on his face, even Rylen thought her ill-suited to it. Essa did not lead from a crumbling pedestal of false superiority.

“No, ser. And if the Inquisitor,” he placed mild emphasis on the title. “Believes I have made an error, I will send word in the morning and take my lumps when they come.”

Essa sighed. “No, Rylen. I appreciate the consideration, I think.”

He chuckled.  “Go home, ser. There’s work to be done all over. Leave us something to do out here.”

*

The morning was clear and the leaves had begun changing to gold and russet and flame in Skyhold’s garden. Cullen stood upon the battlements dragging in long breaths of cold wind. He had learned to take more time for himself, and by learned, he meant Cassandra had threatened to set Sera on him if he didn’t. I’ll wager she can distract you sufficiently over the course of a day. Cullen had been properly horrified by the potential devastation to his productivity. He had taken the lesser evil of scheduling regular breaks and making certain Cassandra knew about them.

He liked mornings best, after prayers. He sometimes shared breakfast with Fin, and found the smith’s quiet presence as grounding as no doubt did Essa.This morning was his alone, however, and he appreciated the solitude all the more for its scarcity. He stared down into the gorge below, watched the muted roar of the sluggish river. It was too large to freeze completely, but it was slowing. In another month or so there would be ice riming the stones and creating new currents. Hard to believe that they were already facing their second winter in the Frostbacks.

“Good morning.”  

Her salutation reached him as she gained the last step and he could feel her hovering there, just beyond his periphery, just beyond his reach. Cullen had to stop himself from spinning to face her, fight every impulse not to cross the battlements and wrap his arms around her. It was, he feared, a privilege he no longer held.

Essa had gotten back late the night before and after the way their last conversation had gone, followed by her hasty departure, Cullen hadn’t expected to see her until the next council meeting.  His heart leapt once and he glanced up at the sky, sought to drag calm from the clear, bright sky. He tried vainly to think of something useful to say, but the same wind that blew her greeting to his ears, rushed past him, tore softer words from his lips and carried them away over the mountains. Cullen turned toward her to try again and for a moment was speechless.

She was wearing her uniform—down to those blighted boots she hated—and her hair had been pulled back into something elegant but efficient. There was guardedness in her gaze, bruises beneath her eyes. If not for the freckles across her once-broken nose and the scent of lemon balm and rosemary teasing through the brisk air, he might have mistaken her for her sister.

“I wanted to thank you,” he ventured, watching her eyes for signs of life. There was nothing; no softening in those grey shadows, no hardening around the edges. “When you came to see me—If there’s anything—” He sighed and she took a step forward. “This sounded much better in my head.”

“I trust you’re feeling better?” She was so carefully impersonal and Cullen wondered what had broken between them, her faith in him or them, and could it be repaired? They had already faced so much.

“I—yes.” He was. He had good people, friends. He could hardly imagine.

“Is it always that bad?” Essa asked.

It was and it wasn’t, but she had never asked for explicit detail and he had kept the worst of it from her. And then there was Adamant…

“The pain comes and goes,” he admitted. ”Sometimes I feel as if I’m back there.”

Essa nodded, took another step closer, and he wasn’t sure if it was him she didn’t trust or herself.

"I should not have pushed myself so far that day.”

“I’m just glad you’re alright.” Truth warmed her voice and she finally came to stand beside him. He could feel the heat coming off of her, as familiar as citrus notes amid the whispering of summer’s lingering.

“I am,” he replied surprising them both with his certainty. “I’ve never told anyone what truly happened to me at Ferelden’s Circle.“ 

And yet he continued to tell her. Would continue to tell her, because she demanded of him no less than that he face his past, and because she had been willing to face it with him. 

“I was not myself after that. For years that anger blinded me. I’m not proud of the man that made me. The way I saw mages…I’m not sure I would have cared about you. The thought of that sickens me.”

She reached for him and light danced golden over the pale silvering of scars on sun-kissed fingers. There were new ones now, and it bothered him that he did not know if she had gotten them at Adamant or upon her return to the Western Approach. Her palm tucked back and she pulled away at the last moment.  

“Now I can put some distance between myself and everything that happened.”  Cullen took a breath, stared out into the deepening morning. “It’s a start.”

“For what it’s worth,” Essa began, an almost imperceptible tremble behind the soft words. “I like who you are now.”

Cullen closed his eyes against a bright fount of rash hope. “Even after—?” but he couldn’t finish the question. After I failed you. After I pushed you away. After I couldn’t see your face through a haze of lyrium…

“Cullen.” She touched him then, lightly, her hand on his arm warm through so many layers. “I care about you. You’ve done nothing to change that—“

She bit her lip, held back words he desperately wanted but knew he didn’t deserve, and stepped away again. She glanced once toward the stairs.

“What about you?” he asked, hoping to keep her with him a little longer. “You have troubles of your own. How are you holding up?”

Her gaze moved past him and back to the mountains, wandered up sharp peaks of grey and ice.

“I’ve met good people here,” she murmured distantly. “Knowing they have my back—it helps.”

“You certainly keep interesting company.”  She smiled and finally the bleak and the cold melted from her eyes. Cullen followed her gaze, hid his relief behind a hesitant grin. “I suppose I do as well.”

*

“There you are,” Cullen said and suddenly Essa couldn’t remember why she had come to his office in the first place.

Some errand for Josie, perhaps? She had somehow lost most of her morning to the ambassador’s and Cari’s clever schemings. It was possible. There was so much to do, so many plans to finalize now that the blighted invitation to the Winter Palace had finally arrived.

“Were you waiting for me?” Essa asked in surprise.

They had spoken very little in the few days since her first morning back at Skyhold. Polite conversations across the war table and a single almost-comfortable dinner shared with Fin, Sera, Bull, and the Chargers.

“Yes—“ Cullen said, then quickly shook his head. “I mean no.”

Essa hazarded a smile. “I can come back later if you’d prefer.”

He chuckled, soft and familiar and Essa closed her eyes against the sting.

“No. Please stay.” She nodded and Cullen continued. “We have some dealings in Ferelden. I was hoping you might accompany me. When you can spare the time of course.”

“Is something wrong?” You know, that we’re actually talking about, she finished the thought in her head. She knew that she had no right to demand an explanation from him. Worse, she knew exactly why they needed distance from one another, but some perverse part of her needed to hear him say that he couldn’t take a chance with her. Couldn’t risk her breaking another promise to herself.

“What? No!” His answer was so sharp that she feared he had read her woes on her face. Essa frowned and Cullen looked away, eyes quiet, secretive. “I—I would rather explain there. If you wish to go.”

Go with him to Ferelden? Spend who knew how many days and nights with him…alone. Essa’s foolish heart leapt, danced a silly, hopeful dervish through her pitching stomach.  

“I believe there’s time now.”

Cullen shifted a bit in his stance, gaze finally searching for hers and holding. From the narrow window, a slant of afternoon light pierced the shadows and found him and for a moment there was only the bright amber of his stare, the soft gold of his hair, the planes of his face gilded gold by the sun.

Essa held her breath and nodded, once, as if her affirmation needed repeating.

“I will make the necessary arrangements,” Cullen told her, and this time the relief in his voice was unmistakable.

Chapter Text

Cullen still didn’t know what had possessed him—that was a lie, he blamed a very wine-soaked conversation with Leliana—but instead of leaving Skyhold with the proper fanfare as befit both Inquisitor and Commander, he showed up to Essa’s quarters in the middle of the night, dressed in plainclothes, leather armor, and a heavy cloak.  Clearly he had lost his mind.

“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.

“To depart.”

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.

“Thank you.”

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.

“I did.”

“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.

“Es?”

“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.

 

Chapter Text

Essa woke slowly in the last hour before dawn. Ordinarily it would have been one of the last hours of her watch, but Cullen had flipped her for the watches, some egalitarian notion that made her grin and call heads as he pulled a silver from his pocket.

“The Bride smiles upon you,” he had said, showing her the coin. “Heads it is. First watch is yours.”

Essa had frowned. “Winner chooses.”

“Winner gets first watch,” Cullen had disagreed, ignoring her attempts to argue, and tugging her down to lie before him. “Maker, you’re warm. I won’t need a blanket.”

He had placed a chaste kiss on the back of her neck, wrapped his arms around her waist and snuggled close; Essa had been unable to form a decent dispute. He had slipped easily into sleep, and Essa knew that the gift of that trust would never diminish.  She had tucked that heavy, precious weight against her heart and stared out at the night, listening to the not-too-distant sounds of Cacique and Geri foraging along the trail. She hadn’t expected to fall asleep so quickly when it was her turn, but then she hadn’t expected Cullen to remain just where he was, curved around her back, chin resting on her shoulder. “Go to sleep, my darling,” murmured soft against her ear.

Now she drifted awake in that same unimagined haven, the sounds of her horses traveling to her through the cool air. The sky had cleared while she slept and the stars shone brightly in the last moments before dawn began chasing them from the sky. She took in a slow, deep breath, let the air tingle her lungs with frost.

“I could get used to this,” Cullen pressed the words to her neck and Essa smiled.

“Really?” she asked, voice hushed with the quiet of almost morning. “Sleeping outside on the hard ground. I fear even your stalwart bones would soon tire of the abuse.”

He chuckled. “No.” Another kiss, this one on the scar beneath her jaw. “Sleeping with you.”

They were becoming daring, speaking of future possibles and wishes. Essa turned in his arms, breaking the gentle hold of his embrace and placing her back against their bedrolls. There was still one impediment that remained between them, well in addition to a mage army, untold numbers of demons, the Elder One…and a dragon.

“Cullen…”

“What’s wrong?”

Better to tell him now, Essa thought. If she were to ever. And she knew that she couldn’t continue keeping such a secret from him. It might not matter now, but one day–if they were fortunate enough to have a one day–it would matter that she had waited.

“I need your foolishness this morning,” she whispered. “I need to know that you really believe we can weather anything together.”

She felt him tense against her side.  “I do.”

Essa nodded, told herself that she believed him even as fear clawed louder than her faith deep in her gut.

“You know I hate secrets. This is my only one, and it’s important. I have guarded her so carefully, even the Fade does not know. Even my demons never reached her. In eleven years, I have told only Fin.”

“Her?” There was something in his voice, like maybe he suspected what she was about to tell him. It made it easier for her to forge ahead.

“My daughter.”

“Your daughter.” His confirmation feel somewhere between question and statement, as if he had to say shape the words after her in order to trust them.

Essa bit her lip to stop its trembling.

“I haven’t seen her since she was three months old.” The words came in a rush now, and she was afraid that if she stopped she would never tell him. “She has a good life, parents who love her, who loved her father. A horse, at least one dog. I get a letter once a year. Carefully disguised, of course…” She glanced toward the dying fire, stretched her arm out across the ground, fingers curling to coax the stumbling flames to back to life. “I’m told she looks like me, but that she has his eyes.”

She was glad. Miranda Trevelyan’s cold, empty gaze had no place in the face of Diar’s child.

“Es…” 

She didn’t realize she was crying until his thumb swept the tears from her cheek. She turned back to him and he cupped the side of her face with one bare hand. His fingertips were not as rough as hers and it made her smile through her heartache as he traced the path of sorrow down her jaw.

No one can know, Cullen. Do you understand?”

She stared up into his eyes, trying to read the silence that loomed dark and dissonant amid amber’s warmth.

“I kept her from the Chantry for all these years,” Essa continued quietly. “And now I have enemies, real enemies.”

She closed her eyes. “I honestly don’t know what would happen if she were used against me.”

For an eternity, he said nothing, and she knew that he was trying to choose the right words with which to offer reply. He had to have questions, and she could hardly fault him for them, could only hope she had the strength of resolve to answer them. Fin had not needed more than her short, terse confession, but then, his love had not resurrected long dried tears. He had taken one look at her and known the measure of all her burdens.

She was not so unfair as to expect the same from Cullen.

“Is she a mage?” Cullen finally asked, voice removed, cool on the edges.

Essa’s eyes flashed open, breath caged behind sudden rush of battle blood. She wasn’t expecting that either.

“Does it matter?” She sat up, scooting back so that she didn’t have him trapped between her and the stone behind him.

Cullen propped his elbow on the ground, head on his hand, as he stared through the muting darkness. His posture was deliberately relaxed and for a moment he reminded her of a great mountain cat, long loose ropes of predator’s muscles. She had seen them strike from a state of apparent rest.  Watched them tear life from the unsuspecting without exertion. It was a ruthlessness she admired, one she could even understand.

And she also understood that when she answered him with her challenge she became every apostate from the tumult of his past.

“Cullen.” She looked down at him and she knew that in that moment she stared into the hard, unflinching stare of the man he had been. “Does it matter?”

He either trusted her or he didn’t. She could either trust him, or she had made a grave error. One that she would find a way to rectify. And the consequences of which she would learn to live with.

“I—“ he sighed, passed his free hand over his eyes and then through the unkempt glory of his curls. He rubbed the back of his neck. “No, Essa, it doesn’t matter.”

When his eyes met hers again, they were soft, warmed by firelight and something else she couldn’t name. Cullen reached for her hand.

“Good.” Essa’s breath left her in a tremulous burst and she stared down at him, not quite ready to slip her hand in his.

“She’s not a mage.” If he were relieved—and as she was each year, Essa could only sympathize—Cullen didn’t show it. “But she is the child of a mage, and…an unusual one at that. I know her fate. She would have been locked in a blighted tower, watched for signs of magic for the rest of her life…” She huffed out another breath. “No child of mine will be caged.” She shrugged. “Of course, there’s only Hope. Will only ever be Hope, so the point is moot.”

“Only ever?” he asked curiously.

“Mage remember?” she said with no small amount of bitterness. “Even if I could have another child, I wouldn’t. But now that we’ve arrived at that, you should know. I can’t have any more.” Essa pulled her knees up, wrapped her arms around her legs. When it came, her laughter was rueful. “I’m sorry, this was probably a conversation better had once Corypheus was dead. You know, if we’re both alive to worry about such things.”

He was silent again and she stared through her shadow at him.

“Do you want children, Cullen?”

“I don’t know.” He held his hand out to her again, waited for her to take it. “I never really thought about it. I know that I want you.”

She watched his hand, wondered how long he would wait. He crooked one finger at her, wiggled the others, and she felt her lips twitch in a smile. Essa slipped her hand in his and he hauled her toward him. She fell forward with a little gasp and he grinned, used her surprise to fold her back into his arms.

“If we ever decide we want children, there are plenty who would be lucky to have you—“

“Us,” Essa corrected, so severely that he chuckled. “But that’s not true. I’m half feral.”

“Us,” he amended, kissing her temple. “And I can’t imagine the child who wouldn’t love having a parent who slept half her nights in the barn.”

“Fin was so happy when he was old enough to sleep out there with me,” Essa mused.

“Well there you go,” Cullen said.  He held her close. “Hope is safe. There is no torment, no threat that would tear your secret from me.”

Essa choked on a sob, knew that if anyone could make that vow with certainty it was Cullen.

“I’m here,” he whispered, and she knew that he misunderstood her heartbreak.

Essa stared instead into the flames and cried for both of them.

 

Chapter Text

They arrived at Redcliffe Village late on the third evening beneath a steady curtain of sullen silver rain. The streets ran orange with mud and though Cacique had continued to be uncommonly considerate of Cullen, both warhorse and commander were surly and thoroughly soaked by the time they rode into town. Essa took pity on them both, sending Cullen to procure a room or rooms for them for the night.

“Go on,” she said, giving him a quick kiss and a nudge toward the door. She led their bedraggled mounts toward the stable. “Get dry and warm, find us a bowl or two of stew the size of my head.  I’ll be along.”

Essa wanted to tease him. Ask how he felt about field work after half a day in the wet and the cold, but she wanted him inside and out of both more. The rain was coming down so heavily that she could barely see the warm glow of light in the tavern windows. The night crowded close, and the streets were both shorter and endless as they vanished into the weather and the dark. Essa had to resist the urge call light to her palm.

The false sense of isolation was unnerving. She never minded the solitude of the wild—most of the time she preferred it—but abandoned buildings were something else entirely. She did not like the hopelessness that lingered in such structures once they were left behind. Had they not passed a handful of villagers on their way in, she would have worried that Redcliffe suffered the fate of so many other settlements in the wake of the Breach.

“Yes?” Essa came back from her maudlin thoughts to find Cullen suddenly standing before her, the dark hood of his waxed canvas cloak struggling valiantly to keep some of the wet from his head and face.

“You forgot something.”

Essa’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully, she had both horses and most of their gear. “What—?“

Her question tangled between their lips, was brushed away by his hands when he cupped her neck, calluses a fine abrasion over skin cooled by hours beneath the torrent.  His thumbs swept her jaw, pushed back the damp clinging locks of her hair. Cullen kissed her with unhurried urgency, mouth slip-sliding from her lips to her chin, to the pulse that hammered in her throat as he sipped raindrops from her slowly warming skin.

“There.” He nipped her neck lightly, placed an almost chaste peck over the tiny sting. “Much better.”

*

How had she missed that Cullen Rutherford was the most frustrating man in all of Thedas? Essa brushed Cacique down with more fervor than usual, channeling her physical frustration into something at least someone could appreciate. The horse leaned into her violent currying, upper lip curled in bliss. She had spent two nights now–two nights–wrapped in Cullen’s perfectly innocent embrace. The man either no longer found her appealing—unlikely given his proclivity for kissing her until both of them could barely stand—or he had the self-discipline of a chantry mother.

She knew exactly which one it was, and Essa, despite living as if she’d taken vows for the past ten years, was definitely no chantry mother.They were going to have to talk. She was going to either need his hands on her again or half an hour to herself and soon.  

“Damned templar willpower,” she grumbled.

Essa swapped brushes, dragging the coarse bristles over the piebald’s coat with vicious strokes. Cacique sighed his appreciation. Geri was already brushed and drying; the forder munched on sweet grain and hay. Essa wished the familiar sounds of contentment would sooth her jagged nerves.

She didn’t know where she and Cullen stood in the aftermath of Adamant. That was her biggest problem. The frustration she could handle, but the not knowing where they were was making her even edgier. She had shared his tent for nearly two weeks before the siege, and each night they had marveled, exploring one another with reverent hands. Of course that had been before their best intentions scattered pieces of them both across the sands of Orlais.

Now those desperate, intimate moments in the weeks before crowded her mind, tempting her to take what she wanted from both of them. Sleeping in his arms and waking to his affections this morning had done nothing to ease her body’s clamoring. A body that was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with her own attentions…when she could spare the time to give them.

“You’re done,” she griped, shoving at Cacique’s shoulder. “Don’t be so greedy.”

She unhooked him from the ties, turned him into his stall, and received a swish of tail to her face for her trouble.

“Bastard.”

She swatted him fondly on the rump before grabbing her pack and dashing back out into the rain. She might not mind it as much as most, but after drying out in the stable, she was no hurry to be summarily soaked again. She made it to the tavern with minimal splashing and sliding, then spent entirely too long trying to clean her boots on the scrapers by the door.

“Don’t worry about it, miss,” a polite voice called from the bar. “There’s no help for the mud. We can clean your boots for you if you want to put them outside your door tonight. “

Miss, not your worship or my lady or ser. It took Essa a moment to realize that the barkeep was speaking to her.

“Thank you.” Essa pushed back the hood of her cloak and offered the older woman a smile of greeting. “I’m afraid the only way out of the mud is out of everything I’m wearing.”

Brown eyes twinkled from a round face. The woman nodded. “Your man had the same idea. Just hauled two buckets of water up himself.  Go on. Room four. I’ll give you two time to get settled and send Jolie up with some stew and tea.”

If Essa hadn’t been stuck on ‘your man’, she might have made whimpering noises at the promise of a hot meal.

“I’m Dot. You just let us know if you need anything.” The barkeep glanced toward the mostly empty common room. “The wet keeps most folks indoors. I already told him,” Dot nodded up the stairs. “But you folks be careful if you’re heading south tomorrow. Demons’ve been spotted in the hills between here and Honnleath. The Herald cleaned up the Hinterlands last spring, but these cropped up in the last few weeks.”

Essa’s concern must have shown on her face. Dot shook her head. “Don’t you worry, her worship’ll be back to clean it up just as soon as word reaches her. Just stay on the road and keep your eyes open.”

“Thank you, Dot.” Essa, humbled by the woman’s faith, promised silently to close the rift just as soon as she could find it.

Dot smiled and waved her toward the stairs. “Go get out of those wet things.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Essa clunked up to the second floor, surprised to find that the short, brightly lit landing opened to only a half dozen rooms. The tavern below was cozy, with fires roaring in large hearths on either end of the long open floor. She had expected similar accommodations upstairs, nearly a dozen small neat rooms with enough space for a bed and a washstand, if she was lucky.

“There you are,” the door on the far side of the landing opened and Cullen leaned against one post, a towel around his neck, hair a wild riot of water-dark curls.  “I picked the largest room. It’s the end of the season, so they could probably use the extra coin.”

He frowned slightly, used the ends of the towel to pat water from his bare chest. Essa tried—and failed—not to stare at the droplets that escaped his attention, running down toward the low, loose waistband of soft linen trousers.

“If you want your own room…”

“I most certainly do not want my own room,” Essa snapped, sharper than she intended. She scrubbed one hand across her face. “I’m sorry. I—”

She licked lips that were suddenly too dry.  “This is fine,” she crossed the landing with a tentative smile, peering past him into the room. “This is perfect. May I come in, or should I strip down in the hall so that I don’t get mud everywhere?”

Cullen chuckled. “I believe that between the two of us we can get you out of all of this without any undue harm befalling the room.”

He stepped back and Essa crossed the threshold with sigh that was both relief and trepidation.

*

“Well,” Essa spun around in a slow circle. “This is lovely!”

Cullen smiled. He had also been pleasantly surprised by the room. He had worried a bit that Essa would feel closed in by a small room, had all but resigned himself to her sleeping in the barn, but the room had turned out to be easily as large as his loft and with fewer structural impediments. A wardrobe and changing screen spanned the boundary between two dedicated spaces, one for sleeping, one for taking meals or simply sitting by the fire. Cullen’s wet clothes—now mostly clean—hung over the top of the partition.

“There’s clean water,” he nodded toward the screen. “A few different soaps on the bottom of the washstand. Dot said if we just put our wet and muddy things outside the door, they’ll tend them for us.”

“And you’ll no doubt overpay them for the courtesy.”

“I—“ Cullen frowned. “Redcliffe has been hit very hard of late, most people don’t want charity but—“

“Cullen,” Essa stopped his lecture with a smile. “I wasn’t criticizing. I think you’re very kind.”

She shrugged out of her pack, dropped it to the hardwood floor, and began struggling out of her boots. Cullen took a step toward her one hand extended to catch her elbow as she wobbled down to bare feet. Essa shook her head.

“Don’t you dare, you’ve only just gotten clean!”

He laughed. “If you will stand still,” he admonished. “Instead of wriggling around like a puppy in the muck, I can probably get you out of this with less mess than you can.”

She glared up at him, dropped her hands from crusted buckles and let out a long suffering sigh that would have stood Cacique proud. Cullen unclasped her cloak, folded it carefully before laying it atop her muddy boots. Neither had survived the day in any better shape than the other. Her tunic and leggings were plastered to her skin. How had he forgotten that she wore so few layers?

“Gloves,” he murmured, holding his hand out for hers.

He peeled the leather off slowly, took advantage of the mostly clean swath of palm that he revealed and placed a kiss in the center. Essa’s breath left her in rush and he repeated the gesture, nipping lightly, then a little harder at the heel of her palm. Her fingers curled against his cheek, a soft press of her fingertips.

“Es…”

He wasn’t going to be able to stop touching her.  Well, he would, but he was getting tired of having to, and he sure as the Void couldn’t remember why he was supposed to. He lifted his lips from her skin, the taste of rain, leather, and Essa clinging to his tongue like an accusation.

“Other hand.” The command was gruff. He stripped the glove from her left hand with far less finesse than he had managed the right.  

“Cullen?”

His name hardly registered and Essa tapped his foot with hers, drawing him back from thoughts of her with yet more thoughts of her as her bare toes slid across the top of his.

“Arms up,” he ordered tersely. He caught the hem of her tunic in both hands, gathering the sodden fabric as he made his way up her body. He took a breath, mentally prepared himself for temptation.

“You’re wearing a breast band?” he asked in confusion.

Essa snorted with laughter, the hesitance he thought he might have heard now gone from her voice; Cullen would have given anything to call the impulsive question back.

“I certainly don’t ride around without one,” she grinned up at him as the collar of her tunic finally cleared her face. “There are times when support is important.” 

She dropped her arms and Cullen folded her tunic as carefully as her had her cloak. She raised one brow at him.  “All this chivalry was just an excuse for you to ogle me? Commander, I’m shocked.”

“It wasn’t,” he flushed, scowling at her for the inconvenience. “I was merely surprised. I’ve never seen you in proper undergarments.”

Essa’s lips twitched, and he couldn’t blame her. For a moment there he had sounded a little too like Josephine.

“You can you know.” Her foot touched his again and Cullen dragged his gaze from the tiny row of silver embroidery at the top of the dark blue linen.  

He didn’t miss the uncertainty, or the challenge, in her stare. “Can what?”

“Ogle me.” She reached behind her, undid the laces at her back, and dropped the band to the floor without ceremony.

“Essa.” He closed his eyes, called himself tens kinds of fool before opening them again and letting his gaze roam hungrily over her.  

“And I wish you would do a great deal more than ogle,” she whispered, not quite meeting his eyes.

“Do you?”

She gaped at him. “Of course I do!” 

But she paced away from him before he could touch her, disappearing behind the changing screen while he was still reeling over the look of astonishment he had seen on her face.

“I want you,” Essa said shortly from the other side of the darkly stained oak. Funny, she didn’t sound particularly happy about it. Cullen listened to the sound of water moving before her leggings joined his drying clothes. “Just as I did before Adamant, but we got set back, didn’t we? With the lyrium and the distance…”

He could hear her scrubbing furiously, knew her skin would be bright from the abuse.

“If for some reason you don’t want to want me anymore…” Essa sighed, he heard a slap of wet cloth. “Well, I’m going to need some serious answers about why you’ve whisked me off alone with you.”

She stepped back around the screen, clean, completely naked, a towel wrapped around her wet hair. She folded her arms beneath her breasts lifting them like an offering. Two steps, he thought, there were only two steps between them.

“I want you too,” he said softly, though the way his body was responding to her, there shouldn’t have been any doubt. “I wanted you before Adamant and after. I wanted you this morning when I woke with you in my arms, and I want you now.”

It was his turn to glance away. “Perhaps especially now.”

She took a step toward him then paused. 

“Being with you makes me edgy,” she sighed, shook her head. “Not being with you makes me edgy.  I have nearly shaken out of my skin the last two nights. If we aren’t back to where we were, I’ll adjust, but you’re going to have to either give me some time alone…”

She gestured ruthlessly to her body and Cullen was suddenly and unreasonably jealous of her hands.

“Or?“ 

Cullen took the final step between them and brought his lips to hers, question, answer, and utter oblation. Anything, he whispered without words. You can have anything you want. Anything you will

And Maker’s breath, how he wanted those promises to be true.

Essa kissed him back, teeth scraping as she lifted up on her toes, leaning into his mouth with a soft whine. Her hands skidded against his chest as she reached for him, then yanked back. Her lips were trembling when he pulled away.

“Is that close to ‘or’?”

“It is,” but her smile was a faltering thing.

Cullen let her go, put that maddening step back between them, and clasped his hands together behind his back to keep from reaching for her again.

“Tell me what you’re feeling.” It was not an old request, but a script that they had already relied upon.

Essa nodded. “I’m…edgier than the times before. It makes me nervous, but not nervous enough.” She brushed the tips of her fingers against his cheek; she was the warmest he had ever felt her.  “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“I know. What do you want?”

She laughed, but there was no joy in the sound. “I want to make love with you,” she told him, bluntly and without elaboration. The confession stretched taut between them, unyielding, unwavering, reverberating with a hundred wishes yet unspoken.

“I know.” Cullen murmured again. Maker, did he know. “But—“

But there were many reasons, even beyond hers, for why they weren’t there yet.

Essa nodded. “Yes.”

She stared down at the floor between them. “And even though I understand why taking things slow is so blighted important, there’s still a part of me that is in a hurry anyway.”

There were tears in her eyes, frustrations and fears that he couldn’t conquer. Cullen ran one hand through his hair.

“A part of me as well,” He waited a beat, reached forward to nudge her with his foot. “A rather…substantial part.”

He waited another beat and the shock that slowly spread across her face was nothing less than divine revelation. Her eyes widened, filled instantly with bright tears of shocked merriment.

“Andraste forgive you, Cullen Rutherford!” Her shout was muffled behind her hands as she fought to deny him her laughter. “That is a terrible pun!”

It was, in fact, the worst pun of his life and he and Sera had spent no small part of the last winter in something of a competition. He was a little sad that he wouldn’t be able to share this one with her.

“You horrible man!” Essa chortled.

And then she was laughing too hard to stand. Cullen swept her up in his arms rather than watch her crawl across the floor to the nearest piece of furniture. 

“You have slain me!” Tears were streaming down her face as he dropped her to the bed. “Murdered me with your appalling sense of humor!”

Essa threw one arm out, flailing across the patchwork quilt. She clutched weakly at the blanket.

“You just wait until I tell Sera that one,” she threatened, finally flopping onto her stomach and burying her face in one of the pillows.

“You wouldn’t.”

The horror in his voice only called forth fresh glee. Cullen stood beside the bed staring down at her, unabashedly aroused and helplessly amused by the woman before him. Never would he have imagined a relationship such as this, and wasn’t that a blighted shame?

“I bloody well will,” Essa crowed, rolling over to grin at him. She wiped tears from puffy eyes, breath coming in sharp pants, chest heaving. For a moment he could only marvel.

“Cullen?” She blinked up at him, eyes slipping rapidly from starlight to storm clouds as her gaze traveled up the line of his body.  She leaned toward him, reached boldly for the laces of his trousers.

“Of course, I might reconsider.”

“Really?” The word emerged more needy than skeptical as she tugged him closer to bed. His knees hit the mattress and Cullen wondered idly how much longer they were going to hold him up.

“If I’m well-bribed,” she offered with a smile.

She pulled him down beside her and curled close, body warm as she draped half her limbs over him. Her hands were in his hair, fingers tangling, blunt nails moving in hard eddies across his scalp. She tugged his face close to hers.

“Well-bribed, you say?” He brushed his lips over hers, light and testing. Her eyes fell shut on a groan and Cullen pulled her closer, opened his mouth over hers with every intention of finally devouring her.

“Substantially,” Essa whispered.

Cullen nearly choked on her giggles.

“Though, I hadn’t realized there was a scale,” she kissed him once, soundly, leaning up to stare down his body.

Cullen covered his eyes with one hand.

“Is there a scale, Commander? Perhaps I should do a comparative study. ’Substantial’ sounds vaguely intimidating,” she rambled on merrily, scattering kissed down his torso between questions that he sincerely hoped were rhetorical. “How do you walk or—By the Mabari!—sit a horse?” She continued in a rush, and he suspected it was only because if she hadn’t, she would have been laughing too hard to speak. “I haven’t had sex in eleven years, you know. You might break me. How worried should I be?“

“Shut up, Essa,” Despite his exasperation, he was laughing as hard as she was. Cullen uncovered his face and grabbed her arms, hauling her up against him. “It was a jest. One that worked as intended, though I find myself currently consumed with regret.”

She was calmer—debilitating laughter aside—and they were blessedly comfortable in one another’s arms again.

“I didn’t think men liked when people laughed at their—“ Essa continued.

Cullen slapped one hand over her mouth, the sound louder than the impact. Her cheeks were bright beneath her freckles as she stared into his eyes.

“Not another word,” he said so severely that for one painfully silent moment he worried she believed him serious.

She pointed at his face and a fresh track of tears rolled down toward his hand. He released her, gave up on all defenses and lay back, basking in the sound of her happiness as it filled the room.

“I can’t make any promises.” She gulped down air as if she were drowning in joy before finally collapsing across his chest. “Andraste’s knickers, that hurts.”

She clutched at her stomach and Cullen snickered again.

“No less than you deserve,” he muttered, curling up to place a kiss on the back of her head.  She pinched him, a sharp bite against his hip, and he snorted.

“I’m a terrible person,” she admitted.

“We both are,” he agreed, taking a deep, shuddering breath and letting it out slowly.

“But we’re good,” she mused.

“I believe we are, yes.”

For several long moments, they were quiet. Cullen stared up at the ceiling, listened to the drumming of the rain on the roof. Across the room, the logs in fire settled, threw a rustle of sparks toward the chimney. Cullen dragged lazy fingers along Essa’s spine, waited for her breathing to return to normal.

“Better?” he asked when she had remained steady for a dozen heartbeats.

“Sub—“

“Don’t say it.”

She was still laughing when Jolie brought up their dinner. Looking back, Cullen thought it was a miracle they both survived.

Chapter Text

“I told you,” Essa sang cheerfully as she came back to bed with the large tray.

Though the sky was still dark, they had both been awake when Jolie quietly left breakfast outside their door. It was an elaborate fair, one worthy of Skyhold’s kitchens, and Cullen couldn’t say he wasn’t glad to see the spread.

“You can’t base your assumption on food,” he argued, not bothering to rise from the bed. Cullen leaned up on one arm, snatching a strip of still warm bacon from the tray in her hands with the other hand. He folded it into his mouth with a hum of pleasure.

“I’m not wrong.”

Essa placed the tray on the bed beside him, nodding toward the bunch of colorful wildflowers that were tucked into a small earthenware vase. She climbed up on top of the coverlet, lifted a scrap of parchment from the tray and waved it at him like child’s pennant at the tourney.

Congratulations—Cullen caught her hand, tried to steady the fluttering scrap—to you both from Dot and Jolie

“That could mean anything,” he declared, rolling his eyes at what he had decided was simply a flight of Essa’s fancy.

“Yes,” she agreed dryly, tucking her legs up tailor-fashion before her and pouring them each a cup of strong, dark tea. “I’m certain they’re congratulating me on the considerable noise someone helped me make last night.”

Cullen blushed and Essa took a smug sip. For a moment he floundered. 

“Deep breaths, Commander.”  She took pity on him, flipped the parchment over.

Should have known you were newly wed-D

“You were saying?” she asked taking another sip. Her grin cracked wide past the edge of her cup.

“Nothing,” Cullen replied quickly. “Absolutely nothing.”

“Smart man.” Essa blew him a kiss and broke a warm scone in two before smearing half with clotted cream and blackberry jam. “Because in case it’s escaped your notice, we’ve basically been in this room, naked, for the past ten hours, and we may have slept four of those.”

“I’ve survived on less and for worse reasons.” He caught her hand in his, licked jam and cream from her fingertips before swiping the other half of her scone.

“Poacher,” Essa muttered, leaning forward to steal an errant fleck of cream from his lips. “Do you think the weapon smith will open early?”

“I imagine she’s at the forge now,” Cullen glanced toward the panes of cool black glass. The morning was yet a whisper, but her voice was lifting steadily toward clear skies.

Essa nodded. “I packed while you slept. Dried whatever hadn’t yet,” she wiggled her fingers at him. “We can ruin Dot’s illusions by heading out before any newly bonded couple in their right mind would.”

She gulped back the rest of her tea.

”I’ll get the boys ready while you wait at the shop. With any luck, we’ll find that rift without much trouble and have it closed before sundown.”

Cullen stretched up, caught her lips with his and smiled against her teeth.

“Have I told you what a wonder you are?”

Essa laughed softly. “Enough that I’m starting to doubt it, Commander. You’ve a pretty tongue, I hadn’t expected that.”

“And you’re a terrible liar,” he said kissing her again. “I definitely expected that.”

*

Dawn found Essa wandering through Redcliffe, horses groomed, tacked, and in tow. She was still grinning. By the Mabari, her face hurt from so much joy, and while she had known that she was in trouble, she hadn’t realized just how much until she woke up beside him in bed. A strange bed, for Andraste’s sake!

“Irrefutably doomed,” she mumbled to herself.

She could still feel his hands on her body, smell their combined scents on her skin. Rainwater and leather, the sharp edge of steel, cedar and citrus. Hints of parchment. There was always a dark smattering of ink, a stronger bite of black flecks across his knuckles. He had smiled sheepishly when she kissed them, confessed he thought they might be a permanent addition.

“I miss time with books,” Essa murmured, placing kisses on each knuckle. “But I suppose you’ll do.”

His laughter had rolled through her, deep and perpetual, and despite her teasing that morning, she knew that she was as bonded to him as she had ever been to another. Sunlight slid warm and golden through the street and Essa sighed, watched mud puddles turn to watercolors. She caught herself marveling at a particularly tawny pool of light’s reflection and shook her head.

“Irrefutably,” she repeated, scattering her thoughts. She continued down the muddy street, stepping deliberately into the most distracting puddles.

“You the one joining up?” a voice called.

Essa blinked at the query, dragged her gaze from the ground to the merchant whose shop she was passing.

“I’m sorry?”

“The Inquisition,” the man continued. He frowned, bushy brows drawing together as he tapped one finger to the end of his nose. “You’re…Geri, right? Stayed at Dot’s last night.” He pointed back toward the tavern. “Your man’s up at Loral’s checking over an order for Commander Rutherford. Just brought you over from the Free Marches.”

Essa stared at him, brows near her hairline.  The merchant misunderstood her confusion, but his explanation filled in a few of far too many gaps in her knowledge.

“Sorry, girl,” he grinned in an affable way. “Gossip travels fast around these parts. Congratulations, by the by. Wife and I’ve been together thirty years. Wish you both the best.”

She gaped at him then closed her mouth with a snap. Did the whole village think--?

“Name’s Galen, folks call me Gal.” He stepped back, gestured toward his shop. “Interest you in some armor? I’ve some leather that’s at least as good as those they’ll issue you and I can fit it to you this morning. Perhaps a shield to go with that long sword?”

He nodded toward weapon belted low around her hips. Essa was too flustered to think of a polite refusal. She looped Geri and Cacique’s reins over the porch rail.

“Uh…sure, I’ll have a look.”

As she stepped inside, Essa was already resigned to buying armor she didn’t need. She was too distracted by the snippets of what was shaping up to be an absolutely ridiculous subterfuge. She knew that they were supposed to be traveling without attracting attention. This was why they had camped outside of Haven the night before instead of going in for a proper meal for them and the horses, but an alias? And a half-ass back story? The man had named her after her horse, for Andraste’s sake!

Essa shook her head, quickly perused a half dozen armor stands, noted a craftsmanship worthy of recruitment. She would have to send someone back to Redcliffe to speak with Gal.

“I’ll leave you to look,” he said, stepping behind a long counter. “Shields are in the back,” he jerked his chin toward a narrow door. “Let me know if you have any questions.”

She wandered in that direction. She might not have the chance to use them, but she still enjoyed admiring a good shield. She missed her old battered kite, didn’t mind a slick targe; she had seen quite a few adept in their use.

“By the--!” She didn’t make it through the door before her words failed her utterly. Essa stared at the kite shield in the center of the small room. She craned her head around the door post. “Gal! Where did you find this?”

The armorer smiled proudly. He didn’t bother asking her which shield had caught her attention. “Finished that up myself two days ago,” he said. “Beautiful isn’t she?”

Beautiful was an understatement. The steel shone, polished to near blinding even in the low light of the morning. A mabari stood, chest raised, eyes blazing with inner fire, grey scars on a black hide. Her teeth were bared beneath red war paint, and an armored collar encircled a thick neck. Behind the hound raged a field of flames, righteous fury writ in silver and blue.

“You know,” Gal said, leaning conversationally on the other side of the door. “They say the Herald was raised by a nanny mabari. Some say she swears by Andraste’s.”

Essa could only nod and hope her reverence was not unusual.

“She’s a Marcher,” the craftsman continued easily. “Like you. But I think there must be some Ferelden in her blood.”

Essa reached out, trailed her fingers over the metal. “May I?”

“It’s costly,” he warned, taking the shield down and holding it out for her to slip her arm through the leather straps on the back. He adjusted the buckles for her before letting her take its weight.

“I don’t care,” she softened her words with a smile. “It’s the most beautiful shield I’ve ever seen, Gal. I want it and I’ll give you everything but my horses for it.”

She raised her arm, fell easily into a familiar stance. The kite was perfect. A little heavier than she once would have liked, and it was definitely too big for her.  Gal’s eyes narrowed slightly, a wistful look coming into them, as if he knew he was about to lose the sale.

Essa shook her head. “It’s not for me,” she assured him. “Can you wrap it up?”

*

She was waiting for him when he stepped outside, a broad smirk on her face, eyes so bright that Cullen knew, just knew, he was going to catch grief for the rest of the morning. She was conspicuously quiet as she held Cacique’s bridle for him to mount, and when he leaned down to kiss her in full view of anyone who might be watching, her lips twitched before she kissed him back.

“Business concluded?” she asked, swinging up into Geri’s saddle.

“Yes, the shipment should reach Skyhold before we do.”

She didn’t ask him to elaborate. Though not quite a ruse, his excuse to get her alone had been largely unnecessary. He had done business with Loral in the past via currier and he had known that the buttons she had forged for the Inquisition’s uniforms were exactly what he wanted even before he saw them.

“I’m certain that Commander Rutherford appreciates your diligence,” Essa said with such a perfectly straight face that Cullen wanted to cover his with his hands. “Gossip travels fast in Redcliffe, you know.”

She waved cheerfully to a couple of well-wishers as she turned toward the gate.

“Tell the nice people thank you,” she sang between the fierceness of her smile. 

“Yes, darling.” Cullen feigned a browbeaten sigh.

Her lips twitched again and whatever inconveniences his morning improvisation had caused them, Cullen couldn’t help thinking she was having as much fun as he was. Probably more, given that half her entertainment seemed to be very much at his expense.  He knew that he would have to apologize—if nothing else for allowing this misconception of their relationship to persist—but Cullen wasn’t certain he could summon the proper remorse when her eyes were shining almost blue with merriment.

They quickly left the village behind them, horses maintaining a jaunty prance beneath a fine wash of autumn color. Russets, golds, and every song of flame moved in an orchestral riot against the red cliffside. Cullen lifted his face to a wind that crackled, a snap of cold against summer’s last kiss. It called his blood to his cheeks, filled his lungs with bright urgency, and made him feel younger and freer than he could recall even with the constant tumble of his thoughts. He wondered how long Essa would leave him to them. She was as comfortable with silence as she was with conversation. She might let him suffer the day away.

“Well,” she said, huffing out a breath as the road curved more directly south. “Redcliffe is going to be talking about us for most of the winter…How about you tell me just who ‘we’ ended up being?”

Her eyes scanned to the west and he knew she was looking for broken trail that was supposed to lead them toward the rumored rift.

“There,” he nodded.

Some helpful soul had placed a crude sign pointing danger toward the mountains. Essa shifted in the saddle and Geri sprang into a rough trot. Cullen watched as her hat fell back, caught at her throat by long leather ties. The wind snapped at her face, dragged her hair out behind her in dark waves. For a moment, he could almost feel that tangle of silk in his hands.

“Cullen?” She glanced back in askance.

“Yes. I’m sorry,” he gathered his thoughts and tried to explain. “When I left the room this morning, I didn’t realize that word of our—“

“Nuptials,” Essa offered, grinning when he blushed.

“Presumed status,” he corrected stiffly. “Would have spread through the town so early. By the time I reached the weapon smith, everyone I encountered had wished me congratulations. One young man cheered at me!”

He was determined not to dwell on just why he had received that particularly bawdy shout of praise.

Essa’s cackle bounced off of the cliffs. “Oh, Maker! You poor thing. I’m sorry!”

She did not sound sorry, and the false apology only added to a growing feeling of indignation.

“I was forced to improvise,” he continued doggedly. “I certainly couldn’t let it be known that the Inquisitor was…carrying on half the night in the local tavern.”

“No,” Essa shook her head, eyes wide, cheeks filled fair to bursting with restrained laughter. It was a wonder, he thought wryly, that she could speak at all. “We couldn’t have that. And with the Inquisition’s stalwart commander no less.”

Cullen scowled at her. “So when Loral asked who I was, I made up a name, claimed to have been sent by myself to look at her work and deliver payment.”

What had seemed, at the time, to be a perfectly reasonable subterfuge was sounding less so beneath the burden of explanation.  But what else was he to have done?

“You named me after my horse.”

Anyone else might have been insulted, but Cullen knew better.

“That detail I will not regret. I needed a name you would immediately recognize, and yet one that could not be easily traced back to you. I could hardly call you Donya.”

Essa snickered. “No one beyond the inner circle knows my middle name, Cullen.” She raised a brow. “But it’s not ‘Cullen’ is it? I suppose I should know the name of the man Redcliffe thinks I’ve wedded. Well…not me,” she added.

She needed to stop saying “wedded” or “nuptials” or “bonded”. Every time she did he feared she would discover his apprehension and that was certainly not a conversation for which he was prepared.

“Ah-hem.” Essa tapped her foot in the stirrup.

“Branson,” he mumbled.

“You married me off to your brother!” she shouted.  

Essa lost her grip on her laughter then, fell forward against Geri’s shoulder and howled.

“Again,” Cullen pointed out, not even certain she could hear him over her guffaws. “It was a name that I thought you would recognize…”

She slapped the forder on the neck in companionable mirth. For his part, Geri seemed unconcerned. 

“I believe you’re enjoying this a bit too much,” Cullen said staunchly.

“Am I?” she snorted. “You just wait until word reaches Leliana. She’s going to know everything. And what Leliana knows…”

“Josephine knows.” Cullen sighed.

She was right. His clumsy attempts at protecting a reputation he had never intended to endanger were going to cost them. 

“Inquisitor,” he affected a tone of careful formality. “I’m afraid that I must tender my resignation, effective—“

Essa leaned over and punched him inelegantly on the arm. 

“Don’t you dare,” she gasped between giggles. Cullen could only laugh as she glared at him, shoving herself upright in the saddle and pushing back her hair. “I am not facing this mess alone, Branson. At least Josephine’s remonstrance will be discreet. We should probably both pray that Sera’s jennies don’t send her word…”

That was it, Cullen thought, he was doomed. His dejection must have shown on his face because Essa finally relented in her teasing. She patted his arm. 

“If it helps, I bought you a present.”

“What?”

She pulled off of the road and drew Geri to a halt. “A pre-sent,” she said slowly, as if she doubted either his hearing or his comprehension.  “Like that scarf you gave me, only not locked in a blighted puzzle box.”

Cullen glared at her and she grinned.

“You finally got it open.” He had been too afraid to ask.

Essa stuck her tongue out at him. “Three months, you jerk. And I nearly caved twice and asked Dagna for help. ”

She hopped down, caught Cacique’s reins and waited for him to join her on the ground.

“It is beautiful by the way.” She leaned up, placed a gentle kiss on his cheek. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

He was reaching for her when she spun away. His hands landed low on her hips and she paused, muscles tensing beneath the sweep of his thumbs.

“You’ve really no one but yourself to blame for Redcliffe,” she accused with a laugh.

Cullen pulled her back, moved her hair with fingertips that he always worried were too rough. “Oh, I think you have a share in that.” She shivered and he placed an open kiss on the soft transition between her neck and shoulder.

“You are distracting,” she admonished, leaning back against him. “Present was not a euphemism.”

He kissed her again and she grumbled, taking a step away from him as she reached for Geri’s saddle.

“I can’t take credit for anything more than the luck of stumbling upon it, but I thought…” She struggled to untie the large wrapped parcel that she had been somewhat hiding beneath her cloak for most of the morning. “I thought it was lovely.”

Her hands shook and Cullen realized she was nervous.

“Es?”

“I’m being silly,” she waved off his concern. “Here.” 

She turned back to him, thrust what was rather obviously a shield wrapped in burlap into his hands. “I saw it and I wanted you to have it. That’s all.”

When he took the weight from her, Essa nodded once, sharply, before she scowled and stalked away. Cullen was torn between unwrapping his gift and following after her.

“Essa,” he called, was relieved when he heard her stop stomping. “Thank you.”

“Open it first.”

The horses shifted between them, blocking her from view as Cullen finally managed to remove the tangle of rough cloth and twine. He caught the kite shield by the edges, turned it over in his hands to look at the front.

Her name caught in his throat.

“Well?” she called. “It’s supposed to honor the Herald. Seems like everyone knows I was mostly raised by a mabari. Greta was brindle, but I thought the sentiment was nice, and—“

“Essa,” he tried again. The syllables were soft, heavy as a prayer. Cullen settled the shield on his arm, adjusted gleaming buckles and well-tanned leather, felt the weight of more than carefully worked steel.

“What?”

He didn’t think he had ever heard her so disgruntled.

“Come here, please.”

The words were harsh. He didn’t trust his voice, didn’t think he would ever have the words that he should give her. He heard every step as she stalked back through the wet grass.

“If you don’t like it, I’ll keep it. It’s a little heavy for me but—”

He met her eyes above the shield’s edge and whatever she saw in his face had her stumbling to a halt before him.

“Oh…” Her gaze slid away, came back to his with a shimmer over the grey.

“It is perfect,” Cullen told her earnestly. “I can’t—“

She had accused him of having a pretty tongue, but what did one say to such a gift?

“You’re still too far away.”

She took the final step toward him and he pulled her in close with his sword arm, held her between his shield and his heart until she relaxed against him.

“Thank you,” he murmured, nuzzling her hair back from her temple. He placed a kiss against a sliver of scar.  “For everything.”

 

Chapter Text

They rode back toward the mountains across rolling swaths of land thick with scrub brush and sparse copses of small trees. It had been farmland before the Blight and if the Maker smiled upon them it would be farmland once again. The sky was a brilliant blue, the air cold and bright as it slid heavily down from the Frostbacks and Cullen tried not to think of how he would rather face another winter cooped up in Skyhold than in Halamshiral.

“Just ahead,” Essa said, pulling Geri to a stop and dismounting with a bounce.

Cullen followed the jut of her chin around the curve of a mostly dry stream bed.

“You can see it?”

She shook her head. “No, but I can feel it.”

Her voice was no longer soaked in light and the morning’s laughter. She waved her left hand at him.  Already there was a flicker of green against the day.

“I’m going to need my warhorse,” she warned him, removing her cloak and folding it into a pouch on Geri’s saddle.  She wriggled out of her tunic, every movement short and clipped and perfunctory. Cullen pulled Cacique to a stop beside her as Essa unpacked a quilted gambeson.

“Allow me.”

He stepped down beside her and took the garment from her hands. Essa smiled but her gaze was distant as he slid the sleeves over her arms. Her breathing had slowed, deepened. He brushed her neck with his fingertips, felt nothing of battle’s trembling fury.

“You’re not going to like my strategy,” she began, lifting her chin while he tied the thick laces.

“You have a strategy?” Cullen took the leather jacket she held out to him next, shook it from the tight roll it had been packed in. “Cassandra’s reports suggest otherwise.”

She didn’t smile, though her eyes teased wide at the corners.

“I have unorthodox tactics,” she admitted. “But they have thus far proven effective.”

She sighed. “I have no idea how to fight with you.”

Cullen chuckled. “You have fought with me before.”

“A long time ago,” Essa replied. “And then in the arena. And never like this.”

He finished buckling her into her jacket, tugged on a few straps just to make certain he was satisfied with the fit. It was not her usual armor. Nothing they had was what either of them ordinarily fought in.

“Cullen?”

“Yes?” He checked her gloves, tightened a few loose laces at her wrist.

“I’m going to be throwing a lot of magic around. Including using the anchor even though it’s magic none of us fully understand.”

She was warning him, worrying for him. Cullen nodded.

“And that doesn’t bother you?” he asked.

Essa shrugged. “It obeys, I don’t actually care about the rest. If that changes, we’ll hack the thing off and give it to the mages to research.”

Well, that was certainly a conversation for another time. Cullen stepped back.

“Alright, what would you have of me, Inquisitor?”

She smiled and leaned up to kiss him. Slow and sweet while the cold embarkation of battle sifted down into her eyes.

“I always attack first.” She held up one hand to silence his immediate protests. “Don’t want to hear it. I hit them with this.”

She waved her left hand at him. “Then a whole bunch of fire.”

“And have their attention immediately focused on you!” He was going to have to talk with her companions just as soon as they returned to Skyhold.

“Not for long,” she retorted.

She began lightening Cacique’s load, transferring everything but his saddle to Geri’s back. “Oh, and the horse fights too. He’s a bigger target than I am.”

Cullen opened his mouth to speak and Essa shook her head.

“Nope. Shut it. I’ll have a barrier up on all of us, that ass will take less damage than me or you. You pull the biggest and meanest ones off him, because he’ll pull them off of me. I kill as many of the smaller ones as fast as I can and then I’ll help you finish off whatever you have. I can take a fair amount of damage. Do not come to my rescue. I can account for where you will be better than you can account for where I’ll be.”

“And the horse?” he couldn’t believe he was having this conversation. Cacique snorted and for once Cullen saw no commiseration in his dark eyes.

“The horse will be fine. I haven’t skewered him yet.”

The horse in question shoved at her with his nose and Essa elbowed him just before his teeth connected with her arm.

“Though if I ever do, the bastard will deserve it.” She grinned.

“You fight…with the horse,” Cullen repeated, certain that he couldn’t possibly be hearing correctly. Cassandra had not mentioned this. Surely she would have mentioned this.

“Don’t tell Cassandra,” Essa mumbled.

“Cassandra doesn’t know?” While that was a mystery solved, Cullen couldn’t say he felt better for it.

“She hates Cacique,” Essa groused. “Doesn’t trust him. Do you really think she’d fight alongside him?”

But clearly Essa expected him to.

“Blackwall and Bull have no trouble,” she barreled on. “Bull’s nearly as big as he is anyway.”

Cullen stared down at her helplessly. Would she listen if he ordered her to leave the horse behind? Her chin lifted. No, the answer was unequivocally no. Cullen prayed for patience. Then added further petitions for their safety and success.

“He won’t run you over,” she reassured him, turning back to remove Geri’s bridle. She looped it carefully to his saddle. “Sound good?”

That was not the word he would have chosen.

“It is a miracle,” Cullen gritted out between his teeth. “That you are alive.”

“Gear up, Rutherford,” Essa smirked. “And get your shield off of my damn warhorse. We have work to do.”

*

They were fucking insane. Not just Essa—Maker knew she was mad—but that blighted piebald who had spent the last few days pretending to be a docile saddlehorse, making over Cullen, accepting treats with delicate lips as if he weren’t himself a demon bent on blood and terror.  Cullen could see now that his trust was misplaced. He didn’t have any useful experience with warhorses, but he had read tales of them. Monstrous brutes who dealt violence with greater enthusiasm than their riders. Teeth and hooves inflicting damage with sadistic glee. It was little wonder Cassandra didn’t trust the creature; he was clearly an abomination.

Cullen absorbed the attack of a terror demon, noting with offhanded satisfaction the perfect redistribution of force afforded by his new shield. He could only be thankful for years of training, for muscles that remembered to block, parry, and attack without his mind because he was, he knew, officially addled.

She had charged a swath of demons.

He knew he shouldn’t be surprised. It was, after all, one of his earliest memories of her, but he thought they had somewhat cured her of that madness. Was this even a madness that could be cured?

No, he thought, with grim certainty as he bore down on a pair of lesser shades. She had charged into the middle of the writhing, screaming fray on the back of what was clearly a possessed warhorse. Did she think she was a chevalier? No…that would almost make sense, and Essa Trevelyan didn’t make sense on her best day. Essa didn’t have a lance. Or a shield. Or more than a few months training for a tourney she hadn’t placed in eleven fucking years ago.

But did that stop her?

Of course not.

She hadn’t even stayed on the horse! He was still reeling, not from the demons in the rift but from watching Essa and that blighted horse. That the skirmish had unfolded just as she promised did not earn her a shred of forgiveness. While Cullen counted two terror demons and a handful of lesser shades, the first shimmer of Essa’s barrier encased him. Her magic was cold, and he hadn’t quite expected it to shine as blue as the fire she sometimes held within her eyes.

“Oh, good,” she’d said, eyes quickly scanning the land around the rift. “It’s just a little one.”

And then she had unleashed the power of the anchor, a great green guttering that sucked their enemies back toward the Fade, trapped them in impotent, screaming agony, voices rising sharp like fraying glass into the clear autumn sky. For too brief seconds, they were stunned, and then a rain of flames poured down upon them. Their attention turned immediately to Essa, who had dropped her arms. She drew her sword with her right hand and bared her teeth at him, a mulish grin he would forever swear he had seen mirrored on her horse’s lips.

And then Cacique charged them all.

He had been somewhat prepared for that. The demons clustered toward Essa and the stallion bore down upon them with a single-minded fury that Cullen might have found admirable were his hungry strides not also bearing into the thick of combat an under-geared, under-armored knight enchanter with the same battle madness in her eyes. She didn’t look at all as if she were pining for the staff she had left behind, leaning over Cacique’s broad shoulder for a ride-by attack that sent fluids and fade and dark ichors spraying in a fan of shade shrieks.

Cacique pivoted into a spinning rear, caught the charge of a terror demon full on his wide chest with a clarion of indignation. The stallion struck out with his hooves, bore the demon to the ground with his body.

And then Essa jumped off his back.

Her booted feet landed in the chest of a shade and she vanished, cloaked in the Fade. Cullen waited for her to reappear, watched her draw the wounded terror demon from beneath Cacique’s chest, her spirit blade a haze above her left hand before she plunged both swords into the demon’s head.

He didn’t remember killing the other, or the three shades Essa later credited him for. He only knew that while he stared at her, convinced that she was completely out of her mind, she winked at him.  

Winked at him!

When he wasn’t contemplating the considerable sacrilege of strangling the Herald of Andraste, Cullen couldn’t help staring. She was beautiful.  Simply and terribly. She stood at the center of a storm of power, one hand on the shoulder of an absolutely insane horse, jacket and weapon spattered with gore, a dozen tiny wounds on her face.  The rift sputtered and flickered above them, but she was calm.

He wondered if he had ever seen her so calm.

“Well done, Commander!” She lifted her chin, eyes narrowed, obsidian and silverite, at the hissing, thundering rift. “Second wave should be a bit more of a challenge.”

A stuttering of sharp concussives boomed and tendrils of shadowed chartreuse shattered outward from the rift.  Essa raised her left hand, brought the mark against the demons before they landed too firmly on this side of the Veil. The demons were still screaming when she caught the pommel of Cacique’s saddle with her right arm, sword still clasped in her hand and angling down the horse’s side. Cullen couldn’t see what command she gave, but she lifted her feet and the horse burst forward. His short, terse run carried her to the far side of the rift. The demons turned with them and Cullen felt the renewed shiver of Essa’s defensive barrier.

Again there was flame and the warhorse spun in a furious arc, flinging Essa into the thick of the fray, twin blades moving in a blur of dreams and steel no less effective for the coarse execution of their thrusts. She wasn’t trained for dual weapons, but Cullen watched her rise from the ground, sword gripped easily in one hand, spirit blade fading from the other.  They had made a mistake replacing Essa’s shield with a mage’s blade. She had become skilled with her off hand and her right still remembered its life before.

Cullen turned, cut the arm from the terror demon that suddenly appeared, fear and grating cries shivering down his spine.   He slammed his shield into the creature’s chest, kicked it to the ground, shoved the point of his sword through a gaping maw with too many teeth.

“That’s the last of them!” Essa called, and giving no further warning she reached her hand up toward the sky

Chapter Text

The rift closed with a booming jolt, winking out as if it had never been. The air emptied, for a moment devoid of light or sound, and the tension in Essa’s arm was an immediate and painful release. The land washed green and grey and then tipped on the wrong side. She breathed through the acidic bite at the back of her teeth, waiting for the world to return or for her to return to it. Essa never knew which. It never took her long to realign, a few dizzyingly deep breaths and movement to get her blood flowing again, but the effects never lessened.

 “That!” She shouted breathlessly, stretching her arms toward the brightening and the blue above her. “Was splendid!”

She flexed her fingers wide, had learned already not to rub at her palm and draw attention to the now silent, now invisible anchor. She jogged over to Cullen, lungs exulting in the untainted air.

The fight had been a quick one, the demons at the rift less powerful than those she had more recently been encountering.  They had done well. A few handfuls of shades, a couple of terrors of varying strengths. A wraith…she was pretty sure she had pulled down a wraith. The rift was closed, the countryside safe again. Cacique’s combat prowess was improving. Essa didn’t think she could have asked for a better scrap. She bounced lightly on her feet, spun in a little circle to embrace the afternoon. Cacique, currently well satisfied by having helped kill things, trotted behind her like an affable hound. When she reached Cullen, she leaned in close for a victory kiss. The horse shoved her in demand.

“Well, you did earn it,” she muttered, righting herself with a grunt. She reached over, rucked up the end of Cullen’s mail shirt and began rooting for his pocket.

“Is there something you need?” he asked, voice higher than usual with no small amount of indignation.

Essa laughed. “A reward for our champion here. I know you have some in your pocket.”

Cullen glared at her, produced three nearly dried stubs of carrot.

“Thank you.” She turned back to Cacique with praise. “And you are still the best monster I have ever had.”

She dodged bared teeth to kiss the end of his blaze. Cacique snorted at her, the great rise and fall of his sides slowing with declining exertion.  Essa held her hand out and let him slobber onto her glove as he took the reward with a rough bite. His coat was flecked with sweat and assorted gore, but he was getting better at avoiding excessive damage. The saddle was going to need some mostly cosmetic repair; otherwise he looked good. Dennett would be pleased. He insisted that while few horses were truly suited to battle, this one certainly was.

“There’s a pond not far,” Essa said, whistling loudly for Geri. She smiled when she heard the forder’s immediate neigh of reply.  “We can regroup…?”

She turned back to Cullen, suggestions fading into a wordless question. He was wearing one of his more impressive scowls. Though somewhat masked by a two day growth of beard and some small amount of battle detritus, she had seen some of their staunchest recruits wither before his less furious stares.

“Ooorrr…we can redistribute the packs here. Let the horses suffer back to the main road.”

Right. Essa thought. That wasn’t going to happen. Geri came trotting up and she smiled at the forder, leaving Cullen to whatever had blackened his thoughts. Unlike Cacique, Geri was more than willing to stay well away from the fray. He was a good lead horse, generally herding the other mounts away from combat and bringing them back.

“That’s my sweet boy,” Essa murmured, reaching for Cullen’s pocket and another carrot.

“I only have a few left,” he muttered, handing her a single shriveled treat. Essa raised a brow. “What? He didn’t work as hard!”

She very loudly said nothing. Then: “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine.”

Andraste give her strength.

“You are not fine.” Essa countered. “You’re angry, though I can’t for the life of me figure out why.”

“I’m fine,” he repeated. But the answer was too short to be anything but false.

Essa glanced down at herself then at Cullen. Neither of them was injured. Cullen appeared to have weathered the fight well even with her employing what some had called “unpredictable combat casting.” He had certainly suffered no restrictions to his abilities, despite the lighter armor he was wearing and the unfamiliar shield; he had landed the killing blows on most of their prey.

“Was it my magic?” she asked, genuinely curious.

“No.” This one she believed, but the clench of his jaw did not reassure her.

“And here I thought we were having a lovely afternoon.” Essa tossed Cacique’s reins at him, didn’t bother to see if he caught them.  “Come on.”

She turned around and started walking.

“By all means, Inquisitor.” Cullen’s voice was so formal that Essa wondered how many days the skirmish had set them back.  “Lead the way.”

She groaned. Just keep walking, she repeated to herself. Just. keep. walking.

She dragged them along the stream bed. The farther south she went, the wetter the ground became. There was an old oxbow ahead, dammed at one end and long dry at the other, leaving a shallow pond with clear water. She would get the horses settled, she decided, make a campfire, perhaps warm up the meat pies Dot had sent with them.  

And then begin the slow process of dragging from Cullen the splinters of his ire.

“You are ruining my calm, Rutherford.”  Geri tucked in beside her and she ran her fingers beneath his chin.  Essa sighed. “Ruining it.”

*

Ruining her calm? Ruining her calm. Of all the—

“How can you be calm?” he demanded, stalking after her.

Essa didn’t look back. “Is there a reason I shouldn’t have been calm?”

Have been, her slight emphasis on the words was all he needed to know that she was calm no longer.

“I—“ he stopped speaking, glared at the back of her head.

“Do you even know why you’re mad at me?” Essa groused.

Cullen didn’t answer and she stomped forward, stride increasing with her temper. “Figure that out first, Commander. Then rant at me.”

She didn’t speak to him again until they reached the pond. Her eyes were guarded when she sent him to gather firewood and Cullen gladly left her to the task of making camp. It was a little early, but he had tersely agreed that they were unlikely to find a better spot with another hour of riding and after the fight she wanted Cacique to rest, to let the horse stretch and ease his muscles with lazy foraging and slow grazing. She was worried more about the blighted horse than herself.

“Leave your mail,” she called before he had gone too far. Her voice was carefully devoid of inflection. “I’ll clean it with my leather.”

Cullen considered refusing, but couldn’t think of a good reason beyond his own belligerence. Why that never seemed to be enough for him where Essa was concerned, he didn’t know. It worked well enough on everyone else.

He left it to her along with the rest of her self-imposed chores. Cacique’s dark eyes followed him and Cullen wondered if the hostility he saw in the horse’s stare was real or his own paranoia. It was deserved, he thought, still helpless in the grip of his anger. No matter which.

The sun was making its way toward the horizon, one moon rose cold and bright against the day above the not-too-distant mountains. Cullen scouted a wide perimeter around their camp, hoping the time alone would soothe the sudden and determined insistence of his temper. He followed the remnants of the stream bed, found its natural diversion not far to the west beyond a stand of water oaks. Spindleweed grew in profusion, and close enough to the bank that he wouldn’t have to take off his boots to pick them a cluster of dawn lotus bloomed.  The water ran cold and grey in the center of the rush. There was no way to know how deep it was or what lay below, but the edges were clear, sparkling in a sunlit flow over tumbled stones.

Cullen crouched, snatching off his gloves and tucking them into his belt to wash his hands. He splashed water on his face, a shock of winter’s threat. He needed a shave, he thought, scrubbing at the coarse hair on his cheeks.

“Oh, this is beautiful.”

Cullen paused, still leaning over the water.

“I was worried that you had gotten lost,” Essa said. “But you were just enjoying the quiet.”

Cullen turned slowly toward her, drying his face on the ends of his tunic as he rose.

“I can leave you to it,” she offered, giving him a smile that didn’t reach her eyes.

“No.” He took a slow breath. “Stay. Please.”

She didn’t come any nearer, leaning instead against the broad grey trunk of an oak tree. She was waiting him out. She was always waiting him out.

“Did you figure out why you’re angry with me?” she asked.

Sunlight moved across her face. She had cleaned up too, twisted wet hair into some sort of knot behind her head, changed back into her tunic. She wasn’t wearing any shoes and there was a small cut on her forehead shining with ointment.

Cullen reached up, rubbed haplessly at the tension in the back of his neck.

“Where are your boots?”

Essa frowned. “Where are my boots?” she repeated.

“Yes. Your boots. People do not walk around barefooted!”

“It’s a five minute walk here!” she retorted, as if that made all the sense in the world.

“Through Maker knows what!” Cullen shouted.

She smiled at him then, a curve of genuine amusement stretching her lips against her teeth. 

“I don’t know what’s worse,” he decided, pacing away from her. “The fact that everything you do seems to be so thoughtless or that I know you think a great deal about everything you do!”

Essa’s laughter rolled, rich and heady through the afternoon. “Oh, Cullen.”

“Nothing you do makes sense, Essa,” he turned back, stalked toward her. “How can anyone fight safely beside you, or plan for what you’re going to do next if you’re completely unpredictable?”

“We manage fine,” she replied, surprising him with the collectedness of her response. “For one thing, I’m not so unpredictable once you get used to me. That’s a mostly direct quote from Cassandra in case you’re wondering. For another, I am very good at keeping up with my people during battle. I even managed it blind when we were in the Fade.”

She huffed out a breath. “I’m sorry that I make you feel out of control.”

*

It was not quite the right choice of words and Essa knew it the moment they left her lips. His tawny eyes blazed with a mixture of indignation and incredulity.

“Control?” Cullen demanded in the same tone he might have dressed down a recalcitrant recruit. “You think this is about control?”

He stalked toward her, muscles shifting beneath the thin, damp cloth of his tunic. Essa felt an immediate and irrational hatred for the armor he usually wore. She might be helplessly smitten by shining plate and the regalia of command, but by the Mabari, it was a shame the man always had on so many layers.

“Well, what else could it be?”

Cullen’s nostrils flared. She watched his hands crush into fists at his side, heard his knuckles pop in protest. Oh no, surely this wasn’t about control. Not at all. Essa folded her arms across her chest.

“Everything in my life is carefully controlled,” Cullen began, glaring down at her. Essa smiled, but he shook his head denying her the point. “But not you. You, Essa Trevelyan, are chaos incarnate, utterly unpredictable—“

“Bull. Shit.” Essa said, straightening from the trunk of the tree. She took a breath, chest expanding into his space. He didn’t step back and she glared through him. “Everything I do is slow and deliberate so that I don’t spook horses or you bloody warrior types. I spent ten years training a circle full of templars and mages—without them realizing mind you!–not to jump when I came around a fucking corner so don’t you dare tell me that I am unpredictable!”

He glowered at her and she watched the entire past year and a half move like sunlight and shadow across his eyes.

“Fine,” Cullen muttered.

He caught her hips in his hands, pushed her roughly back against the tree. She hit hard, probably harder than he meant for her too, but Essa had already hooked one foot behind his ankle, and the retaliatory preparation had unbalanced her. Her palms hit him center mass, and she was about to knock him on his ass when his lips crashed down her hers.

He kissed her until she forgot to breathe, until only a small cantankerous corner of her mind remembered that she was cross with him for being cross with her. Essa’s fingers tightened, clenched the soft fabric of his shirt, and held fast.

“And the lack of shoes really shouldn’t surprise me,” Cullen murmured when she pulled back chasing air. “But, Essa…”

The gentleness of his lips was a shocking contrast to the tension she could feel in his body. His tongue swept across her lower lip, dipped into her mouth to catch her sigh before it cleared her teeth.  Essa’s foot slid higher, dragging her leg up so that she could pull him closer still. Cullen’s mouth traveled along the scar at her jaw; he whispered his refutation against her skittering pulse.

“No one can possibly be prepared for what you and Cacique just did.”

He came back to her lips before she could argue and Essa chuckled, turned her face into his neck while her brain was still somewhat functioning. She nipped at him, a little harder than she knew he usually liked.

“No one,” he repeated. Undeterred by her attack, Cullen placed warm, slow bites against her throat, beard scraping, over-sensitizing greedy flesh.

Essa’s head fell back, a solid thud against the rough bark of the tree. Acorns fell down around them amid a sparse shower of leaves. She laughed and Cullen shook his head against her, the answering vibrations in his chest thrumming into hers. She caught his face her hands and brought his gaze to hers.

He was, marginally, less grumpy than before.

“If this is your idea of punishment,” Essa began only to be rewarded with a false glare. “I won’t—“

He fed her laughter from his lips, smiled against the wide open curve. His cheek found hers and Essa squirmed against coarse gold. She ran her fingers through the thick growth along his jaw, scratching gently, brows lifted in askance.

“Hardly punishment.” But he sighed and dropped his forehead to her collarbone.

For a moment he was impossibly still.

“You shocked me,” he admitted finally, words cool against the linen over her heart. He placed a kiss there, a chaste peck, then something wider and wetter. “And you’re right, you don’t usually do that, bare feet aside.”

Essa shimmied a little within the hard clasp of his hands on her hips.

“So your plan was to kiss sense into me?” She grinned. “I have to say, I thought you smarter than—“

He kissed her again, silencing her with lips and teeth and a roguish swipe of tongue. Essa’s knees abandoned her, her leg sliding down his toward the ground.

“My plan?” he murmured thickly against the straining tendons in her neck. “I have everything in my life planned.”

He caught her leg, lifted the back of her knee to his hip and angled her up on the toes of her other foot. Essa’s back arched, chest brushing his, head flung back against the tree.

“But not with you.”

His teeth scored her collarbone, plucked a strident note from her tightly strung voice.

“Because you don’t have to?” she asked hoarsely.

His hands were everywhere at once. Had the man grown extra when she wasn’t looking? There was a slow glide of palm at her waist, a skim of thumb just below one breast. Knuckles danced, rough and smelling of leather and water and blood, against the side of her cheek. She turned her face, caught at his fingers with her lips, laved one small wound with her tongue until she tasted the bright sting of copper.

Cullen groaned. “No, I don’t have to.”

Lust bloomed heavy in her limbs, weighed her eyelids down, heightening her other senses with the absence of sight. Essa fought her eyes, open needing to see what new secrets he held within his gaze. The anger was gone.

“Because you trust me.”

“I do.” Whatever troubles he had found in the midst of their battle, they were gone.  Replaced by a bemused sort of wondering. “Andraste, have mercy on me, but I do.”

Essa grinned and reached for him. She threaded her hands through his hair, brought him down for another kiss. “This isn’t the way we usually fight.”

Cullen laughed into the scant space between them. “We aren’t fighting,” he told her, taking her mouth again. “I was just a little angry with you.”

She was smirking when he kissed her, but so was he. Essa ran her tongue over the smooth line of his scar, sipped his lip into her mouth and sucked lightly. Her hands wandered down his back and she didn’t even think to ask before she began rucking up the hem of his tunic.

“No,” Cullen said softly. He caught her hands, kissed them both in turn before lifting them above her head, stretching her arms high along the trunk of the tree. He pressed her palms to the bark, grip gentle, a brief embrace before he released her. “Leave them there.”

Her breath caught before she remembered to be contrary. One side of his mouth twitched up in a smile and she realized the damage was done.

“It is,” he whispered, sliding his hands slowly down her arms. “Perhaps.” His fingers tangled in the knot of her hair, tugged the wet locks loose to fall around her shoulders. “A bit about control.”

Essa shivered and the promised smile became something richer, more dangerous when she scowled at him.

“Do you trust me?” he asked, reaching for the laces of her tunic.

“Absolutely not,” Essa retorted, failing to hide a grin.

“Liar,” he mocked, mouth hovering above her breast. His tongue darted out, trailed with maddening restraint over linen.

“Cullen?” Essa stared at the top of his head willing him to look up.

“Yes?”

He did not oblige her and she let out a long-suffering sigh, closed her eyes against the sight of him leaning over her, the late afternoon sun sliding through his hair and his hands as he slowly bared her to him.

“Fine,” she grumbled. “If this will really make you feel better.”

“My love is too kind.”

Her shirt gaped and air hit her skin, cool from its dance across the water. Cullen reached the last of the eyelets and frowned. They only went down so far. Essa licked parched lips, tried to think of an appropriate quip. Something about how she might help if he hadn’t ordered her to keep her hands above her head. He smiled up at her.

And ripped her shirt straight down the seam.

“Cullen!” She almost dropped her arms, but he snapped a glance toward her hands and something caught behind the playfulness in his eyes.

“It’s a clean tear,” he informed her smugly. “Just thread. I’ll mend it for you myself if you don’t mind uneven stitches.”

Then he covered her breasts with his hands, came back to her lips with familiar devotion, and Essa lost whatever hopeless grip she had been pretending to have on her annoyance.

“You’ll forgive me.” He sounded so certain as he pressed his smile to the valley between her breasts. His teeth scraped down her sternum and Essa trembled, body caught between the rough bark of the tree and the many textures of the man before her. His hands were at the waist of her leggings. She heard fabric protest against his uncharacteristic impatience and her knees shook again.

“What are you doing?”

It shouldn’t have felt new, this mixture of seriousness and play, but his focus was shaded, dark and vibrant with new intensity. She felt the knots below her waist ease and laces part, then his fingers swept beneath the fabric. Her vision blurred white and hot as he leaned closer to her.

“I am...” Cullen caught her earlobe between his teeth, swept his tongue in the hollow behind it. Essa bit her lips suffocating a broken cry. “...confirming your predictability.”

His hand slid lower, fingertips rough and searching. The heel of his palm landed just so against her and Essa gritted her teeth, trapped another cry on the back of her tongue as his lips teased down the curve of her throat to the desperate rise and fall of her chest.

“Cullen.” Her hands flailed above her. “I’m going to fall.”

He released her leg, and she had a single quaking breath to get her feet beneath her before his knee slid between hers. He wrapped one arm around her waist, pushed her back more firmly against the oak and pulled her hips forward, grinding the heat of her against his thigh as his fingers worked with deft persistence. His mouth closed tight over one nipple, and she thought that the sound that escaped her could not be fully human.

“Blasphemies or profanities?” Essa gasped, voice ragged, soul broken open by desire.

Cullen lifted his head in askance, releasing her nipple with a wet sound that traveled down her body. Essa’s fingers grasped helplessly against the tree, nails raking, body screaming as she rocked against him.  

“I’m going to be shouting one or the other,” she managed, struggling beyond her body’s delight to meet his gaze. “I thought I’d let you choose.”

His smile was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen and his chuckle rumbled to the deepest places within her.

“Your choice,” he breathed, then drew the rest of his request around the straining peak of her other nipple. “But let the Maker hear you.”

When his fingers slipped inside of her, Essa screamed. The sudden movement came with a sharp snap of his hips and drew from her a string of profanities woven through with praises to him and his Maker.  She thrust back against him, restricted by the fraught extension of her body. Arms pinned by her will and his, torso arched for worship, hips trapped against him. He worked her until she was boneless, languid and liquid, golden and begging. His name became an undying entreaty tumbling from her lips.

His mouth left her breasts, dropped cool comfort against her throat.  

“Es, let me have you.” His lips brushed hers, and she opened her eyes, fell into the hallowed fount of his gaze with a gasp as her body fought to both prolong her pleasure and rush her toward completion.  She started to reach for him, but he shook his head, held her gaze trapped in scorched amber.

“Keep them there.”

He drove her ruthlessly, and Essa wept against ecstasy’s onslaught. Soon she would climb too high, burn too brightly. He knew it too, saw the panic in her eyes before he turned from her floundering stare, took one straining nipple between his teeth and bit down, just hard enough draw her back. The pain was balm, it was focus, but already she was finding she enjoyed the sting too much.

“Now.” Cullen’s voice was harsh with command, rough with his own desire. “Now.”

And Essa broke beneath the urgency of his touch.

 

Chapter Text

The rain crept in just before the night’s first yielding sigh. Essa huddled inside her cloak, body tucked against the trunk of a solitary oak. Geri stood beside her, water collecting in fat droplets beneath his chin, dripping from rain-matted locks. The forder didn’t mind the wet, and normally Essa didn’t either, but the weather had turned well before the clouds rolled in; she was ready for daybreak, no matter how bleak and pale the dawn.

“Are you alright?”

She didn’t glance toward the tent as it opened, did not pretend to meet the remorseful gaze she couldn’t see through the darkness and the deluge.

“I am,” she answered, voice as careful as her hands had been, but more remote. “Are you?”

“Yes—“ Cullen sighed as he ducked out, pulling his cloak around him. “No. I don’t know.”

Essa nodded, waited for him, breath held like sunrise behind too much grey.

He joined her, sloshing through the mud and the muck. Essa smiled when she saw Cacique lurking behind him, proud head dropped beneath the onslaught, nose ghosting at Cullen’s elbow.

“Your boy needs a little reassurance,” Essa said, nodding toward the horse.

Cullen reached back for Cacique, ran his fingers down the warhorse’s nose. They held a fine tremble still. Essa watched him pull back beneath his cloak, knew that his hands would be clenched into fists.

“Es—“

She shook her head, scattering raindrops. “I expected more to be honest,” she shrugged, leaned away from the tree, and pressed her shoulder against his. “A lot of new territory for us. You didn’t think…”

She sighed. She wasn’t sure what he had expected. She wasn’t sure what she had expected. Maybe she should have asked.

“Don’t you ever get tired of coping?” he asked so softly that she couldn’t decide if she wanted to rage or weep.

“Every damn day,” Essa said with broken laugh. “But what’s the alternative?”

“Me not hurting you.”

Her breath fled the shadows of his despair and Essa threw back her hood, glared through the rain.  “You didn’t hurt me.”

“Not this time,” Cullen shook his head. “But I have. And I will again.”

“You might. And I might—“ but the flippant remark wouldn’t come.  “You take a greater risk with me and you know it, but if it’s not a risk you want to take then that’s something we should talk about.”

She couldn’t see his eyes, couldn’t see his face with the hood of his cloak pulled down so low.

“Cullen…it may not get any better than this. Ever.”

They weren’t supposed to talk of ever. Only today. And before she had woken him from bad memories, today had been filled with silly and sweet, demons and rifts, and Essa coming undone in his arms.

“It wasn’t you,” he told her gruffly. “When you called my name, I knew it was you. When I pulled you against my back, I knew it was you. But when I opened my eyes, your arms weren’t around me. They were—“

Essa waited. If they were to have a chance beyond perpetual todays, this was the only way forward.

“They were memories I would rather be rid of.”

His voice was harsh and Essa did not wait for more. She stepped close, arms tunneling through the obstructions of their cloaks, wrapping firmly around him.

“I know,” she whispered. “But that’s not a choice…”

It was a choice he had, she realized with a sick jolt. Lyrium had kept those memories at bay for years. If he had continued or—Maker forbid—if he were to resume his use, lyrium would eventually take them permanently.

“That’s not a choice we have,” he said, urging her closer, his arms a band of strength around her waist. “I know that, and I know that we have to decide what we can live with.”

“We do.” They were words that she had given him more than once.

“I need to know that you’ll walk away, Es.”

“What?” He may as well have asked the sun to fall or Sera to take up the Game.

“If you’re ever afraid of me, I need to know that you’ll walk away. That you will not let me hurt you beyond what I can live with.”

“Cullen—“

“No,” he caught her face in his hands, silencing her refusal with fingers that were rough and cold against the sides of her neck. The rain slowed, torrent fading to gentle sorrow. “You owe me. I gave you my vow. So many yesterdays past, I promised you death, Essa Trevelyan. Will you not give me this?”

“Death is easy,” Essa whispered and his grip tightened just shy of pain. “I’m sorry. Yes. I give you my vow, Cullen Rutheford. If ever I am afraid of you, I will walk away.”

Her fingers clenched in his shirt, a fist, knuckles creaking in damp linen, helpless with violent heartache.

“But I’m not going far,” she hissed. “Do you understand that. Friends don’t—“

He pushed back his hood, kissed her while the rain ran down into her face and the sun began its determined ascendance.

“There’s more,” he said, pressing his forehead to hers with a sigh. “You’re not going to like it any better.”

*

The rain tapered into mist and the morning caught with a snap of cold, unfurled swaths of scarlet over thick clouds heavy and violet with coming storms. Essa stood, a silent tempest, hands clutched behind her back. Her breath was a measured torrent drawn slowly through her nose, released between lips still parched from desire’s desperate gasps. The sharp white of her knuckles were her only exclamations.

“When were you going to tell me?”

The words fell between them, whispers heavier than the stones that languished beneath the frigid, blinding grey of the adjacent stream.

“I’m telling you now,” Cullen said finally. “We did not have to come back this way.”

She nodded once, eyes skidding away from him and toward the mountains before returning, jagged and bleak to the scorched bark of the tree. She raised her hands, pressed quaking fingers into the perfect burned imprints, palms sliding into soot as memory teased like broken chimes.

“Do you trust me?” Cullen asked, reaching for the laces of her tunic. His eyes were bright.

“Absolutely not,” Essa retorted, failing to hide a grin.

“Liar.”

“When?” Essa spat the question, didn’t dare look at him with such helpless fury blazing blue in her eyes.

How long had she writhed against him, death burning beneath her palms?

“Not until the end.”

“Es, let me have you.” His lips brushed hers, and she opened her eyes, fell into the hallowed fount of his gaze with a gasp as her body fought to both prolong her pleasure and rush her toward completion.  She started to reach for him, but he shook his head, held her gaze trapped in scorched amber.

“Keep them there.”

And she had, hands scrambling against rough bark, oblivious to everything but the power of the pleasure they had built within her.

“Do you trust me?” Cullen asked as if he knew the moments that hovered closest in her mind.

“You kept it from me.” She remembered now. She had thought nothing of it at the time, how he’d tugged her hands down from over her head, brushed them off on hem of his tunic. She had assumed the debris to be bark and moss, but now…

“I did,” he admitted. “I needed time to consider.”

“Consider what?” Essa shouted, spinning toward him. “That I might have killed you? That you might want to—“

“What I had seen!” he interrupted, slamming one hand down against the tree trunk.

Essa glared at him. “And what did you see?” she demanded, choking on decades old smoke.  

Cullen’s eyes fell closed, but not before she saw sadness cloud the sunlight of his eyes.

“Es, your magic…it’s fast, and it’s flame, but…”

His head hung toward her and Essa stepped away, ignoring the reflexive reach of her hands for him.

“But what, Cullen?”

“There’s still warning,” he said softly, words sliding toward the water. “Plenty of warning for someone who has trained with magic.”

The world washed sharp and crystal before it blurred.

“You’re saying that…that Diar’s death…” Essa sank to the ground. That such tragedy could have been avoided...Her vision swam and for a moment she could not draw air into her lungs.

“Maker’s breath! No.” Cullen crouched before her, pulled her hands into his amid her heart’s disquiet struggles. “I’m saying that your…desires…do not make you unpredictable. Not to other mages, I suspect, nor to templars.”

Essa stared up at him, a thousand furies crowding into her mind, a tangle gossamer wings.

“You really just watched me burn?” she asked numbly.

“We’ll say smolder.”  He rubbed her fingers briskly between his and Essa realized that her hands must have gone cold. “I won’t let you burn.”

“Is that even a promise you can make?” She searched his face, grasping for even the smallest certainty in his eyes as the moorings of her deepest fears strained, failed to hold.

“I’m beginning to believe it might be,” Cullen replied.

*

The morning moved in silence above the wet clomp of hooves along the muddy road.  Essa had stopped asking where they were going and now she brooded, eyes clouded and distant. Cullen left her to her thoughts. He knew they were heavy, and he was still grappling with his own as the sun climbed over them.  Still, she was taking everything better than he had feared, occasionally muttering something about trusting him and glaring at his back. He felt those words like praise sometimes. Sometimes he felt them like a curse, but Cullen couldn’t help feeling hopeful in either case. She made him daring.

Essa Trevelyan was a dangerous woman.

“Nothing will ever be simple between us, will it?” Cullen asked as the highway curved east. He turned Cacique onto a smaller trail of clay packed hard beneath a slick layer of wet. “Watch your step.”

This last was said absently to horse who slowed with an annoyed snort, glaring down at the narrow road once before sidling into the rougher brush beside it.

“’Between us’?” Essa pulled off her hat, nudged Geri off of the road and into a sloshing trot. She reached out, lay one hand on Cullen’s arm . “What’s between us is very simple.”

She met the questions in his eyes with earnest steel. He wanted to believe her. Most of him already did. Whatever they shared, there was more than enough stubbornness between them to level mountains.

She shrugged. “Nothing else is simple. I’m not. You’re not, and the Mabari knows we don’t make anything easy on ourselves, but… “ She took a breath let it out in an exasperated huff. “Today is yours, Cullen.  And you now know the best and worst of all my days before. Tomorrow—“

She shook the words loose, cast them into the warming day with a jerk of her chin. “I’m sorry. We don’t talk about tomorrow.”

“Perhaps we should,” he said quietly, and he had the great satisfaction of watching her mouth gape. “But first, some of my days before.”

Cullen smiled, nodded ahead to the leaning wooden sign. “I’m taking you to Honnleath.”

“What?" she blinked at him and he watched certainty light the corners of her stare. "That’s what this was whole trip was about?”

“Well, there were buttons,” he said.

“You still haven’t told me about the buttons,” she grumbled.

“And I won’t, not yet. I have something dramatic planned. I’m learning my way around the rest of them.”

“Will I at least be there for this dramatic button reveal?”

Cullen chuckled. “You will. In fact, I’m counting on both you and Cassandra if Josephine and Leliana aren't taken enough with the notion.”

“You could tell me now,” Essa wheedled. “Then I could prepare.”

“And have them worrying even more about the two of us teaming up against them?” He shook his head. “No I believe we’re better off without quite such an obvious alliance.”

Essa’s laughter rang out sudden and bright. “Ever the strategist.” She grinned at him. “I’m sure there is a rather spectacular disagreement in our future, Commander.”

“Oh, I don’t know, Inquisitor. Perhaps I’ll prove a staunch enough ally. I have a feeling you’ll be waging battles on more than enough fronts once we get back to Skyhold.”

“Remind me again," she groaned. "Why I agreed for my sister to take my place at the Winter Palace.”

“Because you’re an international incident waiting to happen?” he lifted the end of the statement into a cheerful question, but they both knew there wasn't any doubt.

“Point,” she grumbled.

“Look on the bright side,” Cullen offered. “You get to wear a pretty dress.”

She leaned over to punch him and Cacique shifted, bumping Geri with one broad shoulder and stealing her balance. Cullen caught her fist in his hand and tugged her close enough for a quick, jostling kiss.

“I recall even you liked the dresses Josephine found you for Summerday.”

He shifted his weight and Cacique stopped agreeably enough; Essa’s horse followed with a long suffering sigh.

“I recall so did you,” Essa smiled. “The garb for Halamshiral will be something else entirely.”

She sighed, then whined, “I’m going to have to wear layers of undergarments, Cullen.”

“Now that’s a blighted shame," he returned, kissing away the sting.

“I can’t thank you enough for bringing me here.”

Essa’s voice was nimble again, happiness held behind soft, unbreaking waves. She sat on the dock, legs hanging over the edge, feet moving lazily through the still water. There was a chill in the air along the foothills. Autumn was a promise that had just begun to gild the edges of leaves. The afternoon had lifted with the faltering determination of a foal’s new legs and they had ridden through Honnleath, baggage packed firmly away, lighter for having been aired between them. The rebuilt village was preparing for an early but bountiful harvest. Essa was absurdly proud of the tiny white pumpkin one of the village dogs had dropped at her feet.

“Well, she must like you,” the dog’s owner had grunted, staring shrewdly at Essa through a forest of bushy grey brows and overflowing facial hair. “Bitch never likes much of anyone. You get worried about the rain tonight and you’re welcome to what room we have.”

“Thank you, ser.” Cullen thought Essa had been as touched by his invitation as the dog’s offering, both sweetened by the fact that no one seemed to recognize her.

To be fair, he hardly did either.

She wasn’t wearing her armor, or carrying her staff or anything else that might have identified her.  She had left her sword in the sheath tucked against Geri’s saddle, but beyond that she looked like neither warrior nor mage. Her hair was down, long and loose, shining like mink around her face. It was past her shoulders now, and most days she hated it, complaining that it got in the way of everything if she didn’t keep it braided back. This trip had been different; she claimed to love his hands and the wind tangling through it.

Cullen reached down, pushed a lock back from her forehead just to hear her sigh. “You’re welcome.”

His heart beat too loudly now that that they were here.

“Are you going to stand there all afternoon?” She glanced up at him, raised her brows in askance.

“I was enjoying the view.”

“You were staring at me.”

“I was,” he admitted easily.

Essa rolled her eyes at him and Cullen’s lips twitched, a helpless grin quirking up on one side.

“That was a shameful line,” she accused.

“We both know I’ve said worse.”

He had been staring at her, ensnared and unfettered by the soaring of her smile as she stared out over the water. She looked nothing like the Inquisitor and yet seemed the most wholly herself he could recall. She was a riot of jewel tones, patched leggings that were more patches than leggings at this point and a brightly colored robe. Blues and browns and greens, tucked in swags around a wide leather belt.  The now short and jagged hem pooled on the dock behind her. She had taken off her favorite boots, the ones he had given her what felt a lifetime ago. After a year of wear they were starting to age into perfect slouches. She had been mistaken more than once as a traveling performer, a subject that was met with no small amount of delight.

“What are you doing?” Cullen finally asked, moving her boots away from the dock’s edge as he crouched beside her.

“Fishing,” Essa said as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. He followed her gaze to the line she had cast not nearly far enough away from the dock. “I want to take Bitch and her human some for dinner.”

She could have given them coins in reciprocation, and knowing Essa that would happen as well, but the money wasn’t hers—she would never see it as such—so a gift in return would have to be something she found or fought or made. Cullen glanced toward the far shoreline, not ready for her to see her heart in his eyes.

“This fishing,” he asked. “Is it maaggiicc….fishing?”

He dragged the word out to tease her and was rewarded with her immediate scowl.

“Did you just make a magic joke?” she demanded, a grin already pushing against the drop of her brows.

“Perhaps,” he smiled down at her. “Have you ever fished, Essa?”

“Um…no?”

He leaned down, caught her grin in a kiss that was warm and slow and so blighted easy. She sighed against his mouth and stretched up into the cage of his arms.

“Well, first,” he murmured, dragging his lips from hers to place a light kiss on her freckled, crooked nose. “You need to take your feet out of the water. You’re scaring them away from your bait.”

She drew her feet up reluctantly and crossed them before her. “Alright. Now what?”

“Draw your line back in, you’re going to want to cast it farther away.”

She did as he bid, winding in considerably more line than she should have dropped in the shallow water. Cullen bit his lip to keep from laughing.

“So…where are we?” Essa asked. “I mean specifically. You said that your family lived outside of the village...”

He nodded back behind them. “The house is gone now, I’m not certain if I want to see what’s left standing.”

She hummed an incoherent syllable, something he knew she meant to be a comfort, but he also knew she didn’t understand. Essa, for all her family’s wealth, had never really had a home. He wondered if she wanted one.

“I’ll go with you,” she said, finally pulling her baitless hook from the lake. “If you want, I mean.”

“Thank you.” He took the line from her hands, placed it on the dock beside her boots. “Perhaps another time. That’s not why I—“

His words failed him as she stared up at him, compassion shading her eyes as blue as fury ever did, but softer. He found himself speechless, touched beyond the capacity of the words he had rehearsed all morning. He hadn’t brought her here for fishing or for a sad pilgrimage. Cullen shook his head and stood, tugging her up with him. Essa quirked a curious brow and he forged on, assuring himself that his hands were not sweaty. That if they were, she wouldn’t notice, given that hers were wet with lake water.

“So why did you bring me here?”

He took a breath, began anew. “You walk into danger every day.  I wanted to take you away from that. If only for a moment.”

“You got more adventure than you’d bargained for this week.”

Cullen chuckled. “That I did.”

She grinned, and he could sense her waiting him out.

“I grew up not far from here,” he glanced back behind them. Once he would have seen smoke rising from their kitchen. Go where you will, my loves, his mother always said. But never farther than the hearth smoke.

Essa squeezed his fingers, drawing him back. “This place was always quiet,” he mused.

“Did you come here often?” she asked and he didn’t miss the wistful note in her voice. She would have loved growing up here. Like Rosalie, she would have roamed the wilds until she was too hungry to do anything but run home for supper.

“Every week,” Cullen remembered. “Weather permitting.”

 Usually after services when his heart was too filled with the Maker’s grandeur for him to want to return the pleasant noise of home.

“I loved my siblings,” he assured her. “But they were very loud. I would come here to clear my head. Of course, they always found me eventually. “

The memory was one of many, and a good one. He met it with a smile, let it wash over him in a rise and fall of voices he had thought forgotten.

“Did you really think you could shirk your duties?” Mia demanded with good-natured teasing. Her eyes were as bright as the tumble of her hair. “Some templar you’re going to make.”

“He’ll make a fine templar!” Rosalie, as always, leapt to his defense, her fists pressed fiercely to her waist, elbows jutting wide until she took up twice the space she needed. “He’s been following your orders his whole life, poor thing.”

Cullen laughed, tousled her hair with his hand until she wobbled beneath the assault.

“Branson will just have to work twice as hard now.” He turned to his younger brother. “Think you can manage?”

“Yes, ser.” Branson’s salute was cheerfully irreverent.

And he had, Cullen thought. Judging from Mia's letters.

“You were happy here,” Essa shifted in place, body swaying toward him then away, as if she were suddenly uncertain of how much room he needed.

“I was,” Cullen nodded, pulled her back in close. “I still am.”

She smiled, lifted her face to a caress of wind, cold from the water's touch. “It’s beautiful.”

It was, and more so for the brightness of her, he thought. He wasn’t certain if he had ever expected to return. To do so now, with her beside him, was an unexpected joy. One that he wasn’t certain he deserved. Not that he would make the mistake of telling Essa that. She had strong opinions about what one could and couldn’t earn.

“The last time I was here,” he began again. “Was the day I left for templar training. My brother gave me this.”

He released her hand, reached for the coin he had kept in his pocket since he was thirteen years old.

“It just happened to be in his pocket, but he said it was for luck. Templars are not supposed to carry such things, our faith should see us through.”

Essa stared down at the gleaming silver, Andraste’s blessed face polished nearly smooth by years of worry.

“You broke the Order’s rules?” She covered her mouth with one hand. “Commander, I’m shocked.”

Cullen smirked. “Until a year ago I was very good at following them," he defended. "Most of the time.”

Oh, but he was making up for so much good behavior. He supposed he had her to thank in part for that.

“This was the only thing I took from Ferelden that the templars didn’t give me.  Humor me.”

He tipped his hand. The coin slid to her palm and he watched her eyes round in surprise.

“We don’t know what you’ll face before the end." And Maker, forgive him, he wasn't certain he had the courage to face it knowing. "This can’t hurt. “

She opened her lips, brow furrowed as is she might refuse him.  Essa wasn’t much for luck--she was the kind to make her own--and he had prepared himself to not be hurt if she rejected the gift.

“I’ll keep it safe,” she whispered, fingers wrapping tightly over the coin.

“Good.” He traced a scar across her knuckle with the tip of one finger. “I know it’s foolish, but I’m glad.”

Essa leaned in, fist resting lightly over his heart as she lifted up on her toes to accept his kiss.

“But just so you know,” she breathed against his lips. “I don’t need luck. I can get myself out of trouble.”

Cullen chuckled, pulled back just enough to deny her. She stumbled toward him, fell with a little laugh against his chest. He smirked when she glowered at him, her other hand grasping for support at the back of his neck.

“You’re rather good at getting into it, as well,” he accused, wrapping both arms around her, and somehow pulling her closer. ”I’ve read the reports on your adventures.”

“And were they shocking?” Essa asked, eyes dancing merrily.

“None quite so much as your most recent exploits.”

He kissed her once, a slow questing over warm silk.

“You’re not trying to get out of teaching me to fish are you?”

“Perhaps.” He kissed her again, and again, until she sighed against his mouth and her fingers scraped through his hair.

“But—“

Cullen nipped at her lip. “You could just go kill them a bear or something.”

Essa snorted, nose bumping his .“You clearly have me confused with Cassandra.”

Cullen’s hands splayed across her back, arching her against him as his tongue swept against her smile.

“Clearly, I do not.”

 

Chapter Text

“Are you alright?” Cullen asked quietly, earnestly.

Essa was still trembling, eyes staring wide and sightless toward the velvet looming of late summer sky.

“’Alright’ is not the word I would choose.” Her voice was rough; she had screamed herself hoarse, face pushed into the folds of his coat in an attempt to muffle the sounds. “I’m amazing.”

She giggled. “No, that’s not right.  You’re amazing.”

He chuckled and bit a kiss against her inner thigh. Essa’s skin twitched beneath the contrast of sensations. The cool, wet perfection of his mouth, the soft scratch of stubble.

“I can’t believe…” the words trailed off and she flailed out one hand, reaching for him. Cullen climbed up her body, dragging wonderfully bare skin over hers in an unhurried tease before he dropped down to lie beside her. She hadn’t gotten him quite as naked as he had her, but she was making serious strides in that direction.

“No smoke,” he agreed. “Though I admit I didn’t expect you to shout down the mountain.”

Essa blushed, elbowed him with limbs that were far too languid to do any damage. 

“I wasn’t either,” she admitted, voice still a croak. She reached blindly for a wineskin. “By the Mabari, where did you learn that?”

She teetered upright to drink and sat staring down at him. She feared he was a wondrous dream, or some trick of the Fade and her own desperate longings.

“My imagination may not be as developed as yours,” he granted, stretching out one arm to trail lazy eddies over her hip. “But I have spent considerable time thinking about everything I want to do to you.”

Essa leaned into his touch, her body still shaking and unfettered.

“Come here,” Cullen urged, voice low and fingers grasping gently. “Let me hold you.”

The night lay heavy and hallowed around them. Essa felt as if they floated, light and golden between the deep navy above them and the shadows of the mountain surround. Their blanket was a spread of crimson gone black beneath the dark, and moonlight limned Cullen’s body in white and gold until he seemed sculpted in planes of radiance. His eyes were half closed, and the smug look of satisfaction on his face spread a grin across hers.

“Or…” Essa countered, closing the wineskin and tossing it behind her.  They still moved slowly, cautiously into greater intimacies, fearful of demons that would always haunt them both. She bent forward to place a warm kiss over his heart.

“Should I be grateful or concerned that you’re able to move enough to do that?” Cullen asked.

Essa laughed. “You are inspiring,” she amended, placing a second kiss low on his ribs.

“That is a claim you should keep for yourself,” he returned on a sigh.  His hand fell from her hip to the blanket between them. Essa watched as his fingers grasped unsteadily at the wool.

She kissed lower and he groaned. Essa’s heart stumbled, returning quickly to the pounding, erratic rhythm from which it had only just quieted. Her lips glided smoothly over fair skin. Her tongue slid into the dip of his navel, teeth catching gently on the ridges of taut muscle. His breath quickened and she slowed, lingering on the proud jut of his hipbone until he arched slightly toward her.

Calm, Essa reminded herself.

She reached back for Cullen’s hand, tangled their fingers together to ground them both. Her hair dragged across his chest, breasts warm against his side. Essa scattered her next kisses over the soft linen of his pants. It had been easier for her to stand naked before him. Easier for him to peel the linen and cotton and leather from her body, to reveal skin rarely glimpsed by the sun, but too often reached by violence. He had soothed kisses over every scar, his lips a precious balm that Essa knew he had used to distract her from fully returning the favor.

She ran her other hand up the inside of one leg, glancing up to watch his face for signs of pleasure or hesitation. She placed another kiss against linen.

“May I?” she whispered into the thin stretched starlight.

But she wasn’t certain what she was asking, so how could he be?

She watched him swallow thickly, saw his breath snag and hold sharp in his chest. She had already begun to retreat when he nodded. Essa sighed, a shuddering exhale that she hadn’t realized she was holding. The warm air fanned across him, disturbing the fabric that stretched over the hard proof of his arousal. Cullen jolted beneath her and Essa paused, feeling the weight of his trust like a prayer in the night. Her eyes slipped closed, and she drew in a breath ragged with hope.

“Should I stop?” Her voice was thin, crystalline and fragile.

She startled when his hand brushed her jaw. His fingers swept in toward her lips and she nuzzled a kiss against them.

“Not yet,” he murmured, and she knew that he was reaching the edge of his endurance, knew that when his hands were on her, he saw only her face, felt only her skin.

But it was different when she touched him. And by the Mabari, how she wanted to touch him. She wanted him awash in sensation, wanted him sinking in pleasure and spiraling toward the same ecstasy he built within her. She wanted to drown her every sense in him until there was nothing in her world but Cullen. The sound of his voice murmuring soft curses and rough endearments with equal sanctity. To taste his most secret wishes on his skin, feel every assurance in the strain of his muscles…

She squeezed her eyes shut more tightly, turned her face from his line of sight. Calm, she reminded herself again, slowing her breath and trying to stall the quaking in her hands. These were the moments when they forged hope from the persistence of their pasts.  When Cullen lay vulnerable to his own pleasure and they both fought to slowly indulge the voracious tumult of her desire for him.

She collected courage, forced restraint into her trembling body until her jaw ached with it. The kiss she placed next—hot and open mouthed against a negligible barrier of fabric—drew a deep groan from both of them. Lust sparked, a searing blue that heated her gaze and Essa knew that if she looked up at him, Cullen wouldn’t see her beyond the flashes of his worst memories. His hands tangled in her hair, tugging gently, and Essa wanted to weep.

“I’m sorry,” he said roughly.

Essa let him coax her back up his body, tuck her fast against his chest.

“Don’t you even think about being sorry,” she ordered softly, fervently. She kissed his neck. Her hands moved down his body, stroking firm, smooth caresses, and easing away tension’s edge. “Are my hands alright, or should we stop?”

“’Alright is not the word I would choose’.” He gave her words back to her with a smile, pulled her in and kissed her as if he didn’t mind the glow behind her eyelids.

Her hand slipped beneath the drawstring of his pants and whatever conviction he might have next whispered into her mouth faded to silence that stretched, tender and pulsing, into a low groan of surrender.

“Whether it’s tonight or a hundred nights from now,” Essa’s breath warmed the hollow beneath his ear. She ran her hand up and down the smooth, aching length of him as he strained within her grip. “When you get ready for my mouth on you, you just tell me.”

The invitation, so boldly and earnestly given, was Cullen’s undoing. He rolled her beneath him, eyes dark and hooded, hands grasping, mouth moving in a stinging, burning line from her throat to her breasts. Essa’s hand was still wrapped around him, trapped in a hard press between their bodies. Cullen moved against her, once, slowly, and Essa shifted, legs parting, hips rising to meet his. He surged forward again, harder, pushing her hand back against slick heat still over-sensitive from his earlier attentions, and the desperate, soaring cry that tore from her lips brought him shuddering with her.

Moments, hours, years later, Essa drifted back to him.

“Well that was new,” she managed past the pounding of her heart. She fought to open eyes that were slowly cooling from blue to grey, lazy owlish blinks that were only slightly exaggerated.

“Good new?”

“The best new.” She didn’t have to tell him what a miracle it all seemed to her, but one day she would try.

Cullen laughed softly in the stillness that pooled between them. “You are unbelievable,” he pronounced quietly, leaning down to press his forehead to hers.

“I’m very believable,” Essa assured him with grin. “So you should believe me when I say that I’m going to keep kissing you. As often as you’ll let me and wherever you want.”

They lay quietly together, neither yet willing to move. Essa ran her free hand slowly down his back, measured the depth of his sigh as passion slowly yielded to its aftermath.

“And who knows?” she teased. “Maybe one of these days you’ll say ‘on your knees , woman’, and I’ll hit you. And we’ll laugh about it. And then I’ll have my way with you.”

“What--?” he sputtered. “I would never—“

Essa yawned, eyed him speculatively.

“I love you.” Cullen threatened on a laugh, dipping his head down to playfully rub his chin against her neck.

Essa squealed with laughter. “I love you too,” she gasped out around giggles. “But if you—“ She screamed. “—don’t stop that, I may change my mind.”

“Liar,” he whispered.