Some days are still better than others. Some mornings he wakes up, no memory of a dream, and feeling bright and refreshed. Sme nights he wakes up, sweating, gripping the sheets, Astoria, his hair. He apologizes. She says its ok.
One night he went to the cabinet again, the one with a million little drawers. It called to him; it pulled him like a rope. He fell into its orbit.
His fingers traced the space between the drawers, leading him through like a maze. Some of them opened; they had dried herbs in them, small crystals, tiny animal bones. He found one with tiny plastic bottles of ink. One had a key in it. Two were locked.
He respected Astoria too much to try the key in the locked drawers.
But one of those drawers made his fingers shake; he felt the gnawing desire in his liver, in his veins; his mouth went dry.
He subtly convinced her to start spending more nights in his bed instead of hers.
To him, she shines. He’s never known anything like her, or anyone like her. He kisses every tattoo on her body, every little freckle. When she starts work on a sleeve of flowers – wild roses that grew in his mother’s garden in Honnleath, vines that wrap around the golden chesspiece, barely touch the lion on his shoulder – she kisses him tenderly and cares for him. She listens to him talk about his mother, smiles at him, falls in love with the memory of his family.
She holds him when he wakes up sweating in the middle of the night. He holds her one night, while watching TV, when a trailer for a documentary on one of the Dalish massacres showed a scene far too graphic for her. He wipes away her tears and tells her that she’s okay, she’s alive, cry it out, I’m here for you.
He falls in love.
Cullen is bouncing on his heels. The woman at the desk is typing far too slowly on the computer. The beeping of the printer makes him nervous.
“Enjoy your flight!” she finally says when his boarding pass is printed and she’s handing him the ticket. He manages a shoddy smile. He hates airports.
The tal-vashoth was bleeding from the wrists, and his gun fired before she could finish the spell. His breath was hot under his mask. Kirkwall Aero-Porte patrons around him screamed.
Astoria is texting on her phone when he reaches her. Her boarding pass is already in her backpack, which is resting on top of her suitcase. He hoists his duffel bag up off the ground and goes to join her.
She looks up when he approaches and puts away her phone. “Ready?” she says. Her eyes are bright, happy. Her scar frames the side of her face. What a pair they make.
“Yep,” he nods, and she pulls her suitcase and backpack behind her as they walk towards the terminals.
AntivaAir Flight 798 to Antiva City boarded in an hour, but getting through security would take awhile. Astoria got a coffeecake at the airport café before security, and let Cullen take bites out of it. They moved forward in line. Cullen took out his Fereldan passport and boarding pass. Astoria took out her Universal Dalish Clan Card and boarding pass.
The Transportation Security Agent checking Astoria’s card and boarding pass scanned her intently. “What are you traveling to Antiva for?”
Astoria was a little startled. Behind her, Cullen bristled. “I’m going to a friends wedding. I’m the Maid of Honor,” she replied.
“Where is the wedding?”
“The Grand Cathedral in Antiva City.”
“Where will you be staying?”
“At the bride’s family’s home.”
“Are you traveling with anyone?”
“Yes,” she said, and reached behind herself for Cullen’s hand. He dropped his duffel bag to grasp hers. “I’m traveling with my partner.”
The security agent turned her scathing eyes on Cullen. She turned her gaze back onto Astoria. “May I see your visa?”
“I—yes,” she said. Her hand was clammy in Cullen’s. She withdrew it to open her wallet, where she pulled out her Fereldan Visa. Cullen had never seen it before. Her hair was longer in the photo – chin length, and furiously wavy. Astoria handed it to the security agent. Cullen looked at his watch – thirty minutes until boarding, fifty until takeoff.
The security agent scrutinized her paperwork. Cullen put a reassuring hand on her waist.
“Have a good trip,” the security agent told Astoria and handed back her boarding pass, her Clan Card, and her Visa. She moved forward to the metal detectors, but not before looking back at Cullen as the security agent only took one look at his passport and boarding pass and let him through.
They rushed through the rest of security, taking shoes off and putting shoes back on, loading their luggage onto the beltway through the X-ray machines. Astoria stopped at another café to get a coffee. Her hands were still shaking.
<<<In a 70/30 vote, the Orlesian parliament voted in the Mage Registration Act. Free mages could register with the Templar Order and remain free, so long as they never used magic. Each mage would have to comply with any rules or stipulations thrown at them. Any unregistered mage, caught using magic or not, would be sent to prison. >>>
<<<This morning, Val Royaux saw the bloodiest riot in an age as protestors of the Act clashed with Templars and riot police.>>>
<<<Rumors say that Ferelden is considering a similar legislative act.>>>
Cullen closed the news feed on his phone and relaxed into his seat. The pilot gave the takeoff announcement. Tray tables up, electronics away, seat backs up.
Astoria finished her coffee, and her hand was still shaking on the armrest. Cullen laced his fingers with hers. She turned to him and gave him a weak smile, patting his arm with her other hand. She traced the roses on his skin.
I’m sorry, his lips told her. Me too, she worded back.
Going through Immigration in Antiva was much of the same song and dance as security in Haven.
Waiting for them on the other side was Leliana, Josephine, Cassandra, and Varric. They greeted the couple with strong arms and gentle cheek-kisses. Varric treated all six to lunch in the airport.
“Dorian and Iron Bull’s flight gets in a couple hours from now, and Hawke and Merrill got here yesterday. They’re having a couple’s day at the beach right now. Oh, and Krem, Rylen, Delrin, and Isabella’s plane gets in at 10 tonight. We’ll go get them after dinner,” Josephine reported as they ate half-shrimp, half-veggie paella.
While they waited for their friends to land, Cullen and Astoria browsed the various stores in the airport (“Is this an airport or a mall?” “Por qué no los dos?”). Cullen bought a magnet with a picture of Antiva City’s most famous beach, Playa de Oro. Astoria bought a necklace with an enamel-coated shell pendant, and a box of tampons (“I’m supposed to start this weekend, and I didn’t know if they were allowed on planes! Don’t laugh at me, asshole”).
After Dorian and Iron Bull arrived (more cheek-kisses, more squeezing hugs), the party of eight loaded into Josephine’s large SUV. It was 2:45pm Antiva Time. The drive to Josephine’s parent’s house was fairly long, winding through country roads and along chaparral plains with juniper shrubs and olive trees.
The Montilyet family home was…not what either Cullen or Astoria had expected.
Josephine had never mentioned that she grew up in a mansion.
Astoria’s jaw was permanently on the floor as they entered the massive foyer, complete with a grand staircase and elegant chandelier.
They met Yves and Catalina Montilyet in the foyer, greeted with yet more gentle cheek kisses. The four new, weary travelers were shown to their rooms upstairs, with the promise of a short walk to the crest of a hill on the property to see panoramic views of Antiva City and the bay before they washed up for dinner.
Once in their guest room, more lavish than any place Astoria had ever slept in before, she sunk into the bed and sighed. “Can we just sleep here for the entire four days before the wedding?”
Cullen dropped his bag on the bench at the end of the bed and flopped onto the bed next to her. “It’s only three hours’ time difference, I don’t understand why I’m so tired.”
“Air travel is awful.”
“Better than traveling by sea.”
Astoria rolled over to smirk at him. “I knew a dwarf in college who hated flying and being in the air so much that she took the train to her study abroad instead of flying across the Waking Sea. Mind you, I went to college in Redcliffe. Her study abroad program was in Ostwick.”
“Maker’s breath,” Cullen laughed, “and I thought I was bad.”
She washed her face in the bathroom and he changed his shoes before they met Josephine, Leliana, Varric, Cassandra, Dorian, Iron Bull, and Yves, Catalina, and Josephine’s brothers Laurien, Antoine, Sebastián, and her sister, Yvette. Astoria was overwhelmingly aware of being the only elf in the house – even the butler, the maids, and the cooks were humans. Luckily, the Iron Bull’s horns, size, and gray skin drew most of the focus away from her.
The Montilyet’s owned several acres of property on top of and along a ridge that bordered Antiva City’s western side. Much of it was forested with juniper and olive trees, and small cacti and agave plants dotted the sub-desert landscape. The party took a well-worn trail through the little wilderness, up a low-grade hill. Astoria stopped at an olive tree to observe the small, ovular fruit. She wasn’t sure she liked the smell, but she loved the texture of the skin and the small leaves that grew from the stems.
When they reached the crest of the hill, Astoria marveled at the spread of the city along the coastline. Headlands split the coast into numerous beaches, and the bay beyond the city was a vast blue expanse. The water looked calm, serene – and unlike the Waking Sea, Astoria wanted to swim in it.
At the top of the hill, Leliana got a call from Hawke. She and Merrill were on their way back and would meet them at Montilyet Manor for dinner.
“I didn’t know we would need to dress up,” Astoria said, a note of resentment in her tone as she leaned against the bathroom counter. Merrill and Hawke were both applying different styles of eyeliner. Hawke went full cat-eye, while Merrill made little wings. They were both dressed formally – Hawke in a pair of tweed capris and a silk blouse, and Merrill in a simple gray long-sleeved shirt and an elegant knee-length pink skirt. Astoria had work her sleeveless black shift dress.
“Here,” Merrill said, and handed over her silk scarf. It had a pattern of cherry blossoms on it.
Astoria put it on and wrapped it around her neck. “Thanks.” The shell necklace she’d bought at the airport peeked out from below the scarf.
Hawke held out her eyeliner pen. “Are you sure you don’t want to put anything on? I promise I don’t have pink eye.”
“No thanks,” she shook her head. She couldn’t pack her makeup remover anyway, because it was over three fluid ounces.
If she was going to be honest, she just wanted to get through this dinner. She was in a foul mood from the flight and felt no desire to eat a fancy dinner with fancy-dressed people.
She stepped into the separate toilet room to piss and put in a tampon—just in case—then washed her hands and left Hawke and Merrill in the bathroom.
Cullen intercepted her as she descended the grand staircase. “You look beautiful,” he said and leaned down to press a kiss to her temple. She felt warmth in her core as he wrapped an arm around her waist to walk her the rest of the way down the stairs.
If she was being honest, Astoria zoned out for much of the dinner conversation. The only information she’d picked up was that the Montilyets owned acres of olive tree farms and grape vineyards just west of here, and their long-standing family fortune was built out of olive oil and making Antivan wine. Yvette was studying art history and restoration in Val Royeaux, and her brothers worked in the family business. Small talk about Varric’s writing, the Chargers’ business, and Hawke’s acting career followed. All of this filled the space around her ears, swimming into her mind for seconds before she focused once more on the way the crystal candlesticks sparked with light as the candles burned down. She nibbled on her roasted brussel sprouts and stuffed peppers.
Halfway through dessert, Leliana saved her. “It’s almost 9, we should get going to the airport to pick up our friends.”
In the car, Astoria leaned her head against the cool window, watching the street lamps and the city lights blur past. They blurred like the minutes did, hazy and far away, reaching her eyes not in their organic shapes but in circles and hexagons and octagons like an out-of-focus camera. Cullen’s dinner jacket rested across her shoulders. There was laughter in the car as Josephine raced with Hawke’s rented town car for a little while on the empty highway.
She jumped when the car slowed to a stop in the airport parking garage.
“Are you okay?”
She nodded. “I’m fine, Cullen. Just zoned out.”
But she had a feeling – a gnawing, gutting feeling in her chest that gripped and pulled at her ribs. It was like another sense was telling her to run, to hide, to get out – fight or flight was kicking in, and all she could do was freeze.
The feeling was recognized as fear. Airport TVs are always either the arrivals and the departures, or they are playing the news.
A news anchor in a brown suit with a blue tie was talking at a desk. Astoria stopped behind the others to watch, and to read the subtitles. The audio was in Antivan, but the subtitles were in Trade.
<<<The Government of Antiva signed into law today the Mage Registration Act following the lead of the Orlesian Parliament amidst a cacophony of protest. The wildly unpopular Act follows a long-awaited resolution to the issue of free and undocumented mages in sovereign nations, and leaders are sitting uneasily as they watch the maelstrom of unrest that continues in Val Royeaux. Mage solidarity protests have continued past clashes with police and Templar forces. Thedas now looks towards Ferelden to see how the home of the Temple of Sacred Ashes and the current residence of our Most Holy Divine will move forward in this unclear time.>>>
She didn’t know who said it. Hawke, Merrill, and Dorian had all joined her. At some point, the four of them were holding hands together. A little bit of magic was passed between their palms. I stand with you, they told each other, together always.