Cullen returned to Skyhold on a cool, clear morning two days behind Essa, Bull, and the Chargers. Most of the ride back from Clifton had passed in companionable enough silence with Cassandra, and he was a tangle of nerves from keeping his own council for so long. The more personal events of the Winter Palace repeated over and over in his head and even as he ached for Essa, Cullen couldn’t help worrying.
He had dreamed of her ever since. Her naked body sprawled across his bed, hands everywhere that his should have been, eyes passion-glazed as he drove her with nothing more than his voice and her obedience. Cullen wouldn’t have expected it from either of them; he gave enough orders every day that he rarely had the desire for anything less than equal engagement in the bedroom, but Essa’s compliance had nothing to do with submission and everything to do with the willful concession of her trust, and--Maker, forgive him--that had made it the most erotic experience of his life.
And yet, he had barely been able to touch her. Hadn’t been able to kiss her without seeing memory’s hungry ghosts gleaming in her eyes. Maker’s breath, he had dropped her, pushed her away as if she were on fire. He had dreamed of that too. And of demons wearing her face and form coming out of the worst parts of his past, dragging him down beneath the singing blue. He was better now, with days between him and Orlais, and he knew—even without having seen her—that she was too, but surely she’d had second thoughts?
Are you? Cari had asked before he left Clifton. I don’t mean fears or worries, but doubts. Do you doubt what you want and feel for Essa?
Of course he didn’t. But sex should not be this difficult. People had it all the time. It wasn’t as if this would be the first time they had been naked together. Since the spring they had become more than familiar with one another’s bodies. He knew what she enjoyed, what she didn’t, knew what pushed her too close to her demons and what brought her back. He was confident enough that he knew the signs of her magic responding to passion’s climb. The blaze in her eyes was nearly as rare as the fire in her hands. He had assurances aplenty if she needed them, but somehow, Cullen had forgotten to keep any for himself.
Cari was right, he needed to talk to Essa. Cullen drew himself up and marshalled what courage he could as they passed beneath Skyhold’s portcullis.
“Welcome back.” The yard was busy, but Fin was the first to greet them. He dodged Cacique’s half-hearted bite and caught the stallion’s reins. “She’s down in the valley,” he offered without Cullen’s asking. “Should be home this evening.”
“Thank you, Fin. Will you…?” He nodded at the horse as he dismounted.
“Yeah.” He had already taken Cassandra’s horse from her.
“Send word when she returns.”
Fin smiled, blue eyes as bright as the sky and just as encompassing. “If she doesn’t beat a runner to you.”
Cullen chuckled. “Fair enough.”
The delay was unwanted, but perhaps for the best. After three weeks away and with the cold impending, there was too much to do for him to worry first about his personal life. Cullen threw himself back into his work with a single-minded determination that might have worried him had he witnessed it in another. Time grew short and there was a campaign to plan and a winter to weather. For the rest of the day and late into the blue of the evening, Cullen’s office saw a constant stream of officers, secretaries, and messengers. The piles of orders, requisitions, and reports that had been waiting for him were the best and worst kind of overwhelming. He felt he would never catch up, but he also hadn't the time to brood over him and Essa. After so many days of nothing else, his thoughts felt empty, a colorless march of a war he no longer believed unending.
Cullen glanced out of the main tower door. So many had been packed into his office all day that he had left it open for fresh air. The night beyond held the first crackle of frost, the stars glittering overhead, moons soft in their descent. It was past late, he realized, and there had been no word from Essa, but he was finally wearing down enough that he might sleep. Cullen eyed the parchment before him, checked off the final point of the day.
“Rylen’s men will monitor the situation,” he said, trying to ignore the ink stains on his gloves. He would need new ones soon; he made another note to put in a requisition.
Had he been alone, Cullen would have laughed. He had so many lists now that he’d made a list just to keep up with them all. This was tacked onto a target dummy, held in place by more daggers than the parchment required. That his desk remained clear enough for the wine remaining from the dinner Nadie and Ola bullied him into taking time for was owed to the three repurposed vegetable crates some helpful soul had brought him early that afternoon.
“Yes, ser,” Adria nodded sharply, bringing him back from his thoughts. “We’ll begin preparations at once. “
Cullen bent over his desk to make yet another note. “In the meantime we’ll send soldiers to…”
He looked up and his words failed him. Essa was leaning against the far wall, shoulder brushing the back of the open door. The cluster of bodies in front of his desk immediately became faceless, nameless impediments. Cullen tried not to wish them ill as they jostled between him and the unexpected gift of her smile.
“…assist with the relief effort.” He picked up the end of his dropped orders, could only hope the interminable moment that he floundered in her eyes was not in actuality more than a single stoppered breath.
Andraste, give him strength. She was beautiful, even tucked into the uniform she didn’t care for. Her hair was windblown, and she had pulled the front back, a braid at each temple, not too dissimilar from how she had worn it when it was shorter. Her posture was deliberately relaxed, but he saw her nerves in the fold of her arms at her waist, the brush of one fist against her jawline, worrying an old scar.
“That will be all.” That would have to be, because suddenly his concentration was shattered beyond immediate repair. He could think of nothing but having her in his arms.
Cullen ushered everyone out the open door, nodding absently to well wishes and glad-to-have-you-backs. If anyone noticed the Inquisitor lurking in the shadows they gave no sign. No doubt they were too grateful to find the day's work finally at an end. Cullen closed the heavy door behind them, hung a moment, palms pressed against the stalwart oak as he stared at the stone beneath his feet and drew the first breath in hours that he might call his own.
But it wasn’t his. Not only his. The scents of frost and rich soil struck him first, mingling with lemon balm and mint, a day spent beneath the late autumn sun. He pulled her in, held the inhale until the air warmed and died in his lungs, and he had no choice but to let it go.
“There’s always something more isn’t there.” He wasn’t yet certain he could touch her. They had spoken only briefly after waking up together at the Winter Palace. He knew the days in the field would have been good for her, but not yet how much.
“Wishing we were somewhere else?” Essa smiled again, the expression just a little hesitant, the soft corners rising and falling like summer moons.
Cullen’s laughter was just as fleeting when he pushed back to stand. “I barely found time to get away before.” He turned from her—lest he reach too quickly, too soon—and paced back toward his desk. “This war won’t last forever. When it started I hadn’t considered much beyond our survival, but things are different now.”
She no longer made him merely impulsive; she scattered his discipline, made him foolish and hopeful. Two things that a man with his responsibilities could not afford to be. That he was completely without remorse only made it worse.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
Which he supposed was only right, Essa would always have from him the words that caught in his throat like unventured prayers.
He hadn’t heard her move, but suddenly she was standing close enough to touch. Cullen took another step toward her, until he could feel the heat from her body. Except he couldn’t. Maker’s breath, she was as nervous as he was, maybe more if she had gone so close to cold. Essa swallowed thickly and lifted her chin in askance. Her eyes were bated, breath held in watchful expectation.
Courage, Rutherford. He dragged in a slow inhale, let it out halfway, as if he faced an enemy rather than the best friend he had ever had.
“I find myself wondering what will happen after,” he confessed carefully, watching her face, the subtle shifts of her stance. “When this is over, I won’t want to move on.”
He reached for her on instinct and when she turned her cheek into his hand, Cullen could breathe again. “Not from you. But I don’t know what you—“
He huffed out a frustrated sigh, and her eyes rounded, as wide and guileless as the first time he saw her charging across a battlefield that seemed less dangerous than the one they now faced. After everything they had been through, the war of trust and uncertainty in her expression could still leave him stuttering. “That is, if you, ah…”
He turned back to his desk, stared down unseeing at what little awaited the crates. Surely she knew what she was to him. What even now he shouldn’t dare to hope for them.
“Cullen.” Essa pushed between him and the desk, elbows bumping him upright, familiar scowl leaving him no recourse but to smile. “Do you need to ask?”
What a stupid thing to say, Essa thought, staring up at him. Of course he had to ask. He would always ask and so would she, one way or another. There might one day come a time when the roughest parts of themselves did not have the potential to cause such damage, but they were not there yet. The Winter Palace had been their worst so far, but she had only hope whispering to her that they were where they had been before Halamshiral. Essa closed her hands on the edge of Cullen’s desk and held on, knuckles white as she waited to find out where they were.
“I suppose not. I want—“
Cullen took another step toward her and Essa lifted up on her arms, sliding back just enough on the desk for her knees to part. His legs brushed hers and she jolted, desire suddenly more powerful than fear. They were home, and what wariness she had seen in his amber eyes was all but gone, drifting away into the lengthening hours of the night. Essa reached back for greater balance and her clumsy fingers collided with a wine bottle. They watched it fall together, Essa’s gasp louder than the shattering glass and full, so blighted full, of everything she couldn’t seem to say.
I want you. I missed you. I love you. But the declarations found no purchase on her tongue. Essa licked her lips, tried to swallow past the thick beat of her heart as a dozen platitudes rushed to the tip of her tongue only to vanish like seafoam, cast ashore and then to nothing before greater waves. He smiled then, just the barest hitch to the corner of his mouth. Essa was about to ask him why when his eyes lit, whiskey bright. His smile deepened to something soft and buoyant, and she could only blink when he turned to sweep the day’s work from his desk. Books, parchment, and glass scattered to the floor amid worries she realized they no longer carried.
Essa knew she was gaping at him, couldn’t seem to get her mouth to close or her breath to come as Cullen caught her by the waist, backing her onto the desk as he climbed after her. She yielded gladly, giving ground for a stronger position, and when he bent over her, she closed her eyes, breathed in the scents of ink and parchment, leather, and armor oil, let all that he was surround her, blocking out the clamor of a world that seemed to always need more from them both, until there was nothing left but the two of them. Nothing beyond that moment, no past to ruin them or future waiting to bruise them. Whatever might loom, they would handle it together as they had everything before. For now--now--there was only the press of his body, the breadth of his shoulders, the sheer quiet he brought to her screaming skin as he settled between her thighs, hand tracing a long, deliberate line from her breast to her hip.
“Are you certain?” she whispered.
He pushed his hips forward against her and Essa’s eyes rolled back, body arching hard against him in immediate reply. Cullen caught her head before she cracked it onto the desk, his hand splaying up from the nape of her neck, fingers tangling gently in her hair. The gesture wasn’t new, but it was gilded now as she stared up into his eyes. Her reflection waited, cast in shades of gold and made infinitely more precious by the love in in his gaze.
“I am.” He withdrew just a little and Essa clung to him, fingers moving blindly over familiar buckles. When his breastplate sagged toward her on one side, he frowned at her.
“You’ve very clever fingers,” he said, sounding surprised and not a little impressed.
Essa grinned as he leaned up, sinking back on his knees as she sat up before him. He pulled his gloves off without prompting, surcoat quickly following. Her heart kicked hard against her ribs as she reached for the buckles on the other side.
“It’s not that the armor doesn’t do it for me.” Essa waggled her brows at him until he could only laugh with her. They both knew that the armor definitely did it for her. “But skin is better, yes?”
He caught the breastplate in hands as the last buckle slid free and Essa worked her fingers beneath layers of leather and linen that separated them. Cullen’s breath hissed out in agreement, muscles leaping beneath her bold touch.
“Skin is better.”
He dropped the armor to the floor with a loud clatter and Essa jumped, nerves working a giggle free as Cullen caught her in his arms. For a breath they were still, hearts beating fast against ribs, as if they might break free of their cages to find one another in the scant space between.
“There you are,” he murmured, fingertips tracing the curve of one cheek in invocation.
“And there you are,” Essa replied, the rejoinder something holy, weighted. She wrapped her arms tightly around his waist, another breath shuddering loose, molding her breasts to the warm planes of his chest. “I missed you.”
“I missed you.”
He kissed her, or maybe she kissed him, Essa didn’t know or care, and looking back the uncertainty of it was as perfect as the certainty of everything else. Their lips moved with familiar grace, each touch a homecoming even as they sped with a stinging anticipation toward the unfamiliar.
Cullen's hands were on her jacket, but she had less trouble with buckles than he did buttons. He pulled away, muttering curses about the endless row of closures as Essa’s fingers moved with practiced ease. His spaulders and vambraces added their own joyful noise as she dropped them to the floor.
“Just—“ she raised her arms and he pulled impatiently, but the fit was too tight. The fabric caught on her shoulders, trapped her head beneath fine wool. “If you laugh, I swear…”
Her threat broke against the sound of buttons pinging onto stone. The cool air of the tower hit her face and Essa stared through her parting jacket as Cullen smirked down at her, knife blade winking in the candlelight.
“I’ll sew them back on.” He was fooling neither of them.
“You didn’t sew my tunic last time,” she reminded him as he finally pulled her free. “And that was one I actually like.”
He dropped the jacket and dagger to the growing pile of discarded armor and clothing beside the desk.
“Oh,” Essa said in appreciation as she got a better look at him. “You’re down to this?”
She ran her hands over the soft linen of his shirt, arched a brow. “How long did you leave me struggling in my coat?”
“Not that long.” Cullen caught her face in his hands, palms a sigh against her jaw as he kissed her slow and sweet. “Consider me extremely motivated.”
“You should have kept the knife,” she muttered against his mouth. “We still have my boots.”
She was laughing as they pulled apart, each too eager to wait any longer through the slow undressing of the other. Essa hopped down from the desk, made short, brutal, and utterly impenitent work of her boots and trousers. Half the laces were useless when she was done. She heard his boots and poleyns hit the floor, was wriggling out of her smalls when she felt him behind her, body warm against her lingering chill. Cullen wrapped his arms around her waist, pulled her back until their bodies were flush and the hard length of him pressed hot against the small of her back. Essa whimpered, rose up on her toes, and pressed back with her hips, not remotely ashamed of the pitiful sound.
“We can stop whenever you want,” Cullen whispered in kisses down the side of her neck. “You know that, yes?”
Essa nodded, head falling to the side to give him better access. “I do.”
But she also knew he could feel the kiss of winter on her skin. She wasn’t cold, not nearly so anxious as she had been, but uncertainty still pooled amid the rush of lust. The last time she had done this—
He spun her to face him, his gaze deep and earnest as he searched her face.
“I want you,” she said, in case he needed it stated plainly. “Now. Tonight. No more waiting.”
She lifted her chin and he met the oblation of her lips with a kiss that threatened to undo the composure she clung to. Essa stretched up higher on her toes, body curving back in a taut arc as he leaned over her, hands sweeping down her sides, settling on her hips before he lifted her back to the desk. His hands spread wide across her back, held fast as he kissed a slow, maddening trail from her lips to her sternum, fingers working diligently at the laces of her breastband.
“You do know,” Essa whispered, eyes falling closed as the silk fell away and the cool air of the office stroked over her skin. She braced her hands on the desk behind her, the leather blotter smooth beneath her palms. “That most of this is unnecessary.”
Cullen’s quiet laughter puffed against one tight nipple. He rubbed her breast with his cheek, the rasp of stubble raising a crest of gooseflesh and drawing from her a trembling sigh.
“I already told you.” He flicked his tongue against pebbled skin; Essa moaned. “I am not doing this clumsily, and certainly no more quickly than—“
His teasing stuttered so suddenly to a halt that Essa opened her eyes. His gaze was steadfastly turned away from her, but she could see color high in his cheeks.
“’Than’...?” Essa reached for his face, scratched lightly over his jaw as she coaxed his eyes back to hers. “I thought we were past the blushing?”
“I doubt I’ll ever be past the blushing,” he chuckled ruefully. “You remember…”
He closed his eyes and she knew he was reciting verses in his head. “It’s been some time…I don’t want—I mean—“
Oh. Oh. Essa stared at him for too long before she remembered he could see nothing but her silence.
“Maker’s breath!” She dragged his head up, kissed him hard upon the lips, peppered gentler affection across his cheeks. “Eleven—“ she grimaced. “Nearly twelve years, Cullen, if I can find a flaw in your performance I need my ass kicked.”
She wrapped her legs loosely around his hips, was rewarded with a sudden look of disbelief as his eyes flashed open.
“Better,” she said when he smiled. She placed a kiss at the corner of each eye. “Now, enough of that. I have wanted you for so long. Come here.”
Essa’s hands slipped from his face, hung for a moment in the space between them as if she weren’t certain she should let go.
“We’ll work up to whatever epic aspirations you have,” she promised, teeth sinking lightly into her lower lip. “I am more than willing volunteer for practice whenever you’ve the time.”
Cullen laughed. "I'll keep that in mind."
The moons hung behind the tower now. They filled the windows, shone pale as frost across the desk. Essa stretched, muscles shifting, scars gleaming--dark and silver--in the dying candlelight, and Cullen remembered his unuttered promise to both of them to memorize every new mark. He placed a kiss on the brightest, at her shoulder, worked his way down the jagged contours when she lay back, unabashed as she made of herself an offering, mischief teasing her lips when she settled into the place he had first made for them.
“Unless…” she began.
“Maker’s breath,” Cullen muttered. She so often seemed to read his thoughts that he forgot in truth she couldn’t. He watched hesitation spin back across her stare and shook his head sharply. “There’s no ‘unless’ tonight. Not for me.”
She reached out one hand, and he let her pull him up and into the cradle of her body. They fit too perfectly and too easily, had learned that early on and been careful of the positions in which passion entangled them, but such caution was no longer needed. Cullen settled his knees between her thighs, took a fortifying breath.
“You’re still too far away,” Essa accused.
Andraste, preserve him, there would be no luxury of veneration, he thought, not yet. He wanted her too much, and she him. Essa curled up, brushed her fingers over his cock a heartbeat before she caught him by the neck, pulled him down and pressed her lips to his. Cullen groaned, hips rolling forward of their own accord, pressing himself deeper into her grip. She squeezed him gently, once, then again and he broke their kiss on a ragged sigh, watched her smile become something ancient and knowing as she wrapped her fingers around him properly, a movement no less wicked or wonderful for its familiarity.
“Essa…” Cullen didn’t know if her name was warning or adulation, but he sealed his prayer to her lips as her spine bowed up to meet him. Her breasts brushed across his chest, nipples stirring fine golden hair and his hands became greedy, running over her body too quickly, he was certain, to be of any use to her as he took that fierce pleasure for himself.
Her head fell back into his waiting hands, eyes closed tightly. He watched each sensation chase another across her face, kissed the column of her throat. Cullen blew a shaky breath over her leaping pulse, fought desperately to slow his own avarice, to keep from rushing them both. He had vowed to deny her a quick, clumsy encounter, but when she lifted her hips, guided him in a long, slick slide, he feared it would soon be all he could give them.
“Cullen, oh, Maker…” Blasphemies fell like worship amid the sanctuary of Skyhold's walls. Essa's fingers moved, graceless and persistent as she rubbed his length through swollen flesh and over her clit, body bucking up against him as she hummed her pleasure against his teeth, her other hand running roughly through his hair.
“Essa.” He didn’t recognize his own voice, but he knew the weight of exaltation when he heard it, and so did she. She opened her eyes and Cullen watched passion surge—blue sparks on flint—as her eyes drifted to smoke. He rolled his hips forward, and she keened, slapped one hand over her mouth to muffle the sound when he repeated the motion, bumping against wet fingers and wetter flesh, until she was writhing, fingers grasping, legs clenched around his hips.
“Cullen, please.” The petition broke from between her trembling fingers. She angled up at just the right moment and the head of his cock stroked her entrance.
Essa moaned. “You know I hate begging,” she whispered.
Restraint coiled tight through his body, tested a leash he would not hold much longer, but Cullen grinned, knew that for the gift that it was. “Liar.”
Her laughter shimmered through another kiss, and Maker, the joyous sound tore through the last of his reservations, burned them away, cauterizing wounds he hadn’t realized still bled, until he was left clean and bright and clothed only certainty. Cullen reached back for her ankles, uncrossed them from the base of his spine and pushed her gently to the desk before him.
“Maker’s breath, you do know…” He spread her knees with reverent hands, kissing first one and then the other before he bent to place open-mouthed heat just above the dark thatch of curls that framed her sex.
“Unnecessary,” Essa gasped. “Though Andraste and women everywhere, forgive me for saying so.”
Cullen chuckled, lips and laughter drifting lower until she cried out against her fist.
“This is for me.” He licked a rasping shout from her, then another just to hear her voice bounce past her self-control and off of the tower stones. When he slipped one finger inside of her, Cullen bit back something dangerously like a whimper, part relief and part longing, his breath wholly hers. She was more than ready for him, just as she had promised, but he wasn’t yet. He had waited too long to rush, no matter how he might want to. Cullen added a second finger, thrust slow and easy while he sucked at her, pushed her over the first edge so quickly that she swore at him, pulling at his hair with one hand to drag him up her body.
“Now?” Essa asked, gaze filled with teasing exasperation.
She kissed herself from his lips, and arched again, body still trembling with aftershocks.
Her hand lay trapped between them and he let her fingers guide him, slowly, inexorably, perfectly, until he was surrounded by her heat, hips flush against hers. Her teeth sank hard into her bottom lip, the faintest of lines marring the bridge of her nose, and dear Maker, how she shuddered around him. Cullen slapped his hands to the desk on either side of her neck, held himself almost painfully still as he waited for her reassurance.
“Are you alright?”
Essa’s eyes were wild as they darted over his face, but they were more grey than blue and her skin against his was no warmer than it should have been. She swallowed hard and nodded.
“Just—oh, Maker—“ her muscles shuddered around him and Cullen groaned again. “I need a second.”
His body was well past pleading. Had it its own voice it would have been cursing him worse than she had. Cullen eased down to his elbows, bumped his forehead to hers and nuzzled her nose, breathed with her while desire shrieked a tempest through them both and she adjusted to the feel of him within her.
“Take what you need,” he whispered, the words both entreaty and offer, and for so much more than the the moment that stretched around them.
She moved slowly at first, a cautious shift of her hips that stole his breath, sent a storm of sensation through his body.
“Maker’s breath,” Essa sighed, hands coming back to his hips and pulling him forward. “Cullen…”
He followed her lead, kissed her until she was soft and warm beneath him, until everything fell away, and the sounds of their bodies meeting, retreating, and meeting again could be heard beneath the desperate chant of his name as it fell against his lips, his neck, his chest. Until he could feel nothing but her skin, the tight, wet, perfection of her, the shock of small orgasms as her teeth worried his flesh and pleasure became something bigger than both of them. Her muscles clenched, body whispering sacred, sinful promises to his, and passion untethered from the mundane, formed sharp and crystalline behind his eyelids. Grew to something he could not hope to hold onto. Essa’s legs wrapped around him again, pulling him deeper, faster, and for one foolish moment he wanted to slow their inevitable rush.
They deserved time.
“We’ve had time,” she murmured softly against his ear, moving with him, rhythm shattering the last fragments of his concentration. “We’ll have time again.”
Her urgency consumed him as her hands glided down his back, blunt nails scraping along his spine. Cullen lost his careful tempo, thrust into her roughly, breath stumbling to keep pace with the frantic staccato of his heart.
“Let go, Cullen.” She was panting, skin shining with sweat and moonlight and the guttering flames of a dozen candles as she fought closer to him and higher still. “I want to feel you before I lose myself completely.”
Essa caught his lips in a hard kiss, but it was the tender sweep of her hands up his spine that unmade him, the cup of her palms at the nape of his neck, at once greedy and cherishing, that threw him over the final ledge. Cullen tore his mouth from hers, buried his hoarse shout in the hollow of her throat as she followed him over.
Dawn whispered at the edges of the sky, pearl grey and yearning bright toward rose beyond the shadows of the mountains. Essa stared up at the barrier she, Dorian, and Dagna had worked out before they departed for Halamshiral. It kept most of the cold at bay, would keep out the snow this winter if their calculations were correct, all while remaining as imperceptible as fine glass. A gift for Cullen, but also, Essa realized with a leap in her chest, the first concession beyond the sharing of themselves toward a life they might build together.
She sat on the edge of his bed, fidgeting with the remaining laces of those blighted boots. Another day, she told herself, then it would be obvious enough to everyone that the Inquisitor had returned to Skyhold and she would go back to clunking around in her preferred attire. She stared down at the gaping top of her jacket. She might never find the buttons, she thought with a grin, wrapping her arms around her drawn up knee. Essa stared at the crumpled sheets before her.
Andraste’s mabari, none it felt real, and she had to get outside, get a moment to herself before the magnitude settled down around her. There had been no smoke, no fire. Even the candles had died down as natural as the night. If she thought too seriously about the chains that lay broken, ghosts scattered across the floor of Cullen’s office, she would weep.
“No,” Cullen murmured in his sleep, drawing her back. “Leave me.”
His breathing was harsh, and she placed one hand on his stomach, fingers firm against the flex of sleep-trapped muscles. She had learned when and how to wake him, though he worried she wasn’t cautious enough.
He came awake with a jolt, and Essa pulled back, watching his eyes to see how far he had to swim to reach the shore where she waited. He wasn’t too far out, and they heaved a sigh of relief together as his gaze found hers and held.
“Bad dream?” Essa asked, which was, of course, a code of sorts for them. A way of asking if his slumber had been disturbed by the usual or something more.
“They always are.” He looked up to the sky, drew in a slow breath. “Without lyrium they’re worse.”
A reminder, she thought, to both of them. He still worried that this would never be enough. That she should have something easy instead of something worth all that she was and more. Essa turned to him, a thousand protests faltering when he rolled toward her, love lying bashful, asking for so much less than he deserved.
His reached for her, palm brushing her cheek, fingertips grazing the line of her jaw, the scar beneath it. “I didn’t mean to worry you.”
Essa’s smile was fragile as he pulled away, but her hand was steady when she cupped his cheek in turn.
“You can let me worry about you a little,” she reminded him, and she would keep reminding him. For as long as she was fortunate enough to do so.
Together, he had said, so many times now that she could only believe him. They were in this together.
Cullen chuckled, but he saw through her teasing, and the concession was more than simple acquiescence. “Alright.”
By the mabari, she loved him. Essa leaned close, forehead brushing his, her hair catching on sleep-tousled curls. He smelled warm, skin and breath a jumble of them both. The scent of her soap drifted from his cheek, lemon above the clean musk of great sex. There were darker notes of leather, the salt tang of their mingled sweat. They breathed together and Essa tried to remember her intentions for the day, to state them clearly into the morning.
She wanted to give him each and every one.
“You are…” Cullen sighed, a soft oh of disbelief that lodged somewhere above her heart. “I have never felt anything like this.”
“I love you,” she could not tell him enough, would never be able to tell him enough. “You know that right.”
And from the look in his eyes, she knew Cullen could never hear it enough. “I love you too.”
She kissed him gently, dragged herself away before she could become lost in them. The day and a war waited.
“I’m going to get us breakfast,” she said as he lay back among the covers. “Then I’m coming back and we’re going to attempt to put your office to rights before Sera stumbles in and makes you regret one of you finest romantic displays.”
He was still blushing, laughter rising into the dawn like a hymn of praise when she slipped down into the cooler shadows of the tower, and Essa thought that there wasn’t a sound in all of Thedas more perfect, nor a gift more precious.