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Flour, Ink, and Salt

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They drove to the beach. She didn’t remember who had suggested it, just that they all wanted to go to the fucking beach. Krem, Rylen, Delrin, and Isabella didn’t complain. It was midnight and they were going to the fucking beach.

Hawke’s car stopped at a liquor store for booze. When all fourteen of them met up on the mostly-empty beach, the bottles were opened and quickly drained. Cassandra and Varric went for a walk down the tide line. The Iron Bull rolled up his jeans and waded into the surf. Cullen and Leliana shared a bottle of wine. Josephine and Isabella and Delrin and Rylen built a sand castle with an abandoned sand bucket. Krem sat on the dry sand, watching the stars. Merrill, Hawke, Dorian, and Astoria drank their sorrows.

“I’ll register,” Hawke said slowly, and took a swig. Astoria didn’t know what she was drinking, and she was pretty sure Hawke didn’t either. “I’ll be okay. It’ll kill my career, I’m sure, but I’ll do it.”

“Varric won’t let that happen,” Merrill whispered, lightly tracing her fingers along Hawke’s exposed ankle.

“I’m fucking registering.”

“He won’t let your career die, love. That’s all I meant.”

Dorian was pushing sand back and forth between his fingers. “I left Tevinter for this. I won’t register. They can arrest me if they fucking please – I haven’t used magic in years, anyways. What’s the rest of my life?”

“Don’t you miss it?” Merrill queried. “It’s electrifying. I feel like I can feel the whole world through the Fade, but I’m here, on real earth and in real air.”

Dorian lifted a handful of sand and let it fall through is fist. “I miss it like a limb.”

“If Ferelden passes, I’m not going back.”

The mages turned to her. Dorian gave her a horrified look. “Excuse me?”

“I said I won’t go back. If Ferelden passes, I’m leaving Haven, I’m going home.”

“They haven’t been your home for a long time.”

“Don’t fucking preach to me about what home is, Dorian,” she seethed, “you love to call Iron Bull, you love to call the Chargers your home, us your home, but we all know it is and always will be Tevinter.”

“And what kind of home will the Clan be, huh?” he raised his voice. “You bitch and moan about how stifling the Clan was to you, how you had no freedom to be yourself. How will it be any better now? They’ll never let you go, Astoria. Once they have you back you’re never leaving that tiny fucking spot on the map.”

Astoria fumed. She felt the static in the air, the ions rolling in on the ocean waves passing through her. “At least in the Clan I can use my magic! If I can’t have my magic, Dorian, I might as well be dead. As little as I get to use it, it’s the last I have of her.”

She pulled a mouthful from the bottle of mezcal she’d kept at her feet. The group was silent and angry and hurt.

“You can’t tell Cullen.”

Hawke glared at her. “What the fuck, Astoria?”

“What, you think he’d take it well? Think I should go tell him right now?”

“If you drop off the face of the fucking earth into a backwater Clan town of course I’ll fucking tell him why. I’ve known that man for a lot longer than you have, okay? Remember that. Bastard doesn’t take surprises easily. If you’re gonna ditch him, tell him yourself or I’m telling him for you.”

“I don’t want to ruin the wedding for him, okay? His best friend is getting married. He’s clean. He and I are in a good place—”

“—That’s a fucking joke—”

“Let me finish. I’ll tell him when it’s time. Just don’t tell him before I do, before the wedding is over.”

Hawke’s jaw was set, but she was silent. Merrill looked uneasily between her lover and her friend, and Dorian’s face was shadowed as he looked down between his feet where he sat in the sand. Hawke stood up and sand dusted off of her legs as she stomped away down to the water, letting the tide wash over her feet. Merrill squeezed Astoria’s hand before running after Hawke.

Astoria looked over her shoulder, down the beach, where Cullen and Leliana leaned their shoulders together, watching the moon cresting above the horizon where the ocean met the night sky.

 

___

 

Everyone woke up with a hangover. Cullen was certain that no one was legally allowed to drive back to Montilyet Manor, but they did it anyways, as the horizon turned light blue and the traffic started up again. Brunch was served past noon, and there was more than one bottle of painkillers present at the table.

After brunch, Cullen returned to their room to get dressed. Josephine wanted to take them to the markets, and wanted to leave in an hour.

He was changing out of his pajama shirt and into a clean tee shirt when Astoria burst into the room in a whirlwind.

“Everything alright?” he said as he pulled the tee shirt over his head. She made a frustrated noise as she dug through her backpack and pulled out her planner. He changed his shorts while she flipped furiously through the pages. Then she dropped the planner.

Fuck.

“Astoria?”

“Fuck, fuck me, fuck,” she picked up the planner again and flipped through the pages once more. “Fucking Falon’Din fucker fucking fuck.”

“Astoria.”

She threw down the planner onto the bed. It bounced. She turned to him, and placed her hands on her hips. She was still in her pajamas. Her face was unreadable to him.

“I’m late.”

“Late for what?” he asked stupidly.

“I put in a tampon before dinner last night, and didn’t take it out until this morning. I was supposed to start today, but I checked my planner, and I was supposed to get my period last weekend.

“Shit.”

Shit is fucking right,” she huffed. “Creators, this is not the fucking time for this.”

Cullen abruptly sat down on the edge of the bed. For a second, he couldn’t feel his legs. No, it certainly wasn’t the time for this – not with the Mage Registration Act on their heels, on their doorsteps.

His mouth opened and closed but his throat was closed. He didn’t know how to respond.

He was eighteen, he had just graduated high school, he was packing for the Templar Academy.

Solona knocked on his bedroom door. He knew, of course, what was about to happen, what they had discussed since his acceptance letter came in the mail. Three years together and it was his future that was about to tear them apart.

“Come in,” he said awkwardly. He ran a hand through his long curly hair. It would all be shaved off in three days, when he arrived at the Academy.

Solona looked at him with her dark eyes, her raven hair pulled up in a bun on top of her head. Her face was wet. He wondered if she talked to his mom before she came upstairs.

“I…don’t want to say goodbye,” he said.

Solona stayed in the doorway. “I had an abortion,” was all she said. “Good luck at the Academy.” Then she turned and left.

Astoria lay down on the bed and rested her head in his lap, staring outwards at the wall. She took his hand and held it to her chest.

 

___

 

They parked in a ten-story garage in downtown Antiva City and started walking towards the boardwalk, where the market stalls were set up since eight in the morning.

“You all go on without me,” he said suddenly, “I’m just gonna stop by this drugstore. I really need a painkiller.”

Astoria gave him a knowing look, but continued on and linked arms with Isabella.

Cullen ducked into the drugstore. He looked around the aisles, confused by the organization of the little shop. It had one of those big round mirrors mounted in the corner. He watched his reflection for a moment.

He didn’t know how many to get. One? Two? Was one brand better than the other? He grabbed two, each a different brand, and a bottle of painkillers and brought them to the counter, where the clerk was watching some sports game on a tiny TV. He looked down at Cullen’s items.

“Congratulations, señor,” the clerk said in a thick Antivan accent. “I hope it is a boy!”

Cullen forced a smile. “We’ll see,” he said through clenched teeth, and paid with his credit card.

He put the paper bag with the…items inside his backpack, and hurried along to catch up with the group.

He caught them at the market entrance. He wrapped an arm around Astoria’s shoulder, and marveled at the variety of seafood’s and handmade wares.

Though they diffused, the group was never more than four stalls away from each other. Cullen bought Astoria a ball cap that just said “ANTIVA” in big letters. She said it was tacky and touristy but put it on immediately and refused to allow Cullen to take it off.

They ate lunch near the food stands, and walked to the Sea Wall, where the city’s ancient stone wall stood between the beach and the market. Cullen traced his fingers along words and names carved ages ago by people now long dead. He let the wind blow over his face and through his hair. Astoria held onto her hat. Merrill and Hawke ran up alongside them and Merrill pointed excitedly at the sight of dolphins in the bay.

Though the thought of the Thing was on the back of his mind constantly – it would never leave now that it was there – Cullen found himself feeling free of stress, free of the knowledge of all the bad things in the world, free of all the weights on his life.

Of course, someone had to scream right at that very moment.

Under his arm, Astoria whipped around as more screams arose in the market crowd behind them. Hawke and Merrill also jumped to attention, their eyes scanning the crowd.

Cullen felt his blood run cold.

“Rage demon,” he heard Hawke exclaim, “someone summoned a Maker-damned Rage demon!”

Cullen’s hand immediately reached for his sidearm, but he only grabbed air.

He was powerless. He was defenseless. He didn’t have his gun.

(I’m not there)

He watched helplessly as Hawke and Merrill broke away into the crowd – the crowd that was now running away, off in every direction, trapped by it’s own disorganization. A high wailing shriek stabbed his eardrums, and he saw a Despair demon rise above the crowd, cold air dripping into the hot summer day.

Cullen wrapped his arm around Astoria, pulling her tight, trying to pull her away so that they could run – he had to run, he had no lyrium, he couldn’t protect her he couldn’t fight the demon he couldn’t protect her

Astoria broke away, off into the crowd, shouting at his now deafened ears. He pressed himself against the Sea Wall. He gripped the stone behind his back. His heart pounded in his ears.

He saw the Rage demon in the distance. He saw it freeze into a block of ice, then shatter under a wave of force. Arcs of lightning burst out of the street lamps and jettisoned through the Despair demon. It tried to get away, but it was attacked by another wave of lightning.

His hands were going numb—Astoria had run off towards the demons—he couldn’t protect her—he couldn’t protect her—

She was back, she was dragging him away, and her hands were shocking like static from rubbing your socked feet on a wool carpet, and he felt magic surge through him from her and the memory of that touch made him flinch; it made his mouth taste like metal, it made his spine shiver. He hesitated, eyes unfocused watching her, the space behind her, the crowd, and Hawke and Merrill dashed past them—

Cullen, let’s go!”

He ran after her, his hand cold and clammy in hers. He didn’t even blink when he saw Templars in black uniforms marching past, not sparing them a second glance.

Astoria pulled him along after Hawke and Merrill, dragging him down roads and sidewalks until the four had nearly made it back to the parking garage. Cullen faltered, stopped at a café with outdoor seating and abruptly sat down at one of the empty tables. Astoria knelt down next to him.

The hostess squeaked in surprise, “Señor, perdón, esa mesa—”

Astoria held up a cautionary hand towards the woman. “Un momento, por favor.”

She took both of his cold, clammy hands in hers, rubbing the numbness out of them.

“Are you okay?” she asked, her face full of worry.

He opened his mouth, shaking his head. “Shouldn’t I be—what—what do you think, I just watched you, watched the love of my life, my girlfriend—my pregnant girlfriend run towards demons and she’s the one asking if I’m okay?”

“We don’t know if I’m pregnant yet,” she murmured. Cullen let out a huff of almost cynical laughter. Astoria cupped her hand behind his neck and pulled their foreheads together after taking off the ball cap. “Breathe, just breathe. I’m here.”

Somewhere out of their sight, Cullen heard Hawke exclaim, “She’s pregnant?”

 

___

 

Astoria returned from the bathroom to the café table where Cullen, Hawke, and Merrill were sipping iced teas. She held up two different sticks with little blue minus signs on them.

“This is one barren womb.”

“Is it bad form if I say ‘thank the Maker?’”

“I’ll allow it,” she said, and collapsed into the fourth chair. A fourth iced tea sat in front of her. “Ok, none of you can mention that to anyone else. Ever.”

Hawke gave her a look that seemed to transcribe that’s enough secrets, but agreed. Merrill nodded her head. “It would probably upstage Josie and Leliana’s wedding.”

“And we’ve had enough excitement for one day,” Cullen agreed. He rested a hand on Astoria’s knee, and she squeezed his hand in return. We’ll talk about this later, they silently agreed.

“And, there’s the wave of texts,” Hawke commented as her phone buzzed multiple times in a row, as did Merrill’s, Astoria’s, and Cullen’s. All were from Leliana and Josephine and Dorian and Cassandra, wondering just where the hell the four of them had gone to after the demon attack, if they were alive, that Cassandra was going to kick every single one of their asses.

 

___

 

“We’ll talk about this later” became the moment that the party returned to Montilyet Manor, when the others found Hawke, Merrill, Astoria, and Cullen and very aggressively, very lovingly yelled at them for getting lost at the market in the midst of the first demon attack in Antiva City in “fucking years,” as worded by Josephine.

The mage, or mages, that summoned the demons were not found. Astoria was both upset, and relieved by this.

Yves and Catalina and Josephine’s siblings rightfully exploded in worry when they returned.

They slunk upstairs, away from the foyer and Catalina’s uncontrollable sobbing. Astoria was exhausted, physically and emotionally. Cullen followed, but his mind was always a little somewhere else.

She shed her backpack, shoes, and socks when they entered the room. Cullen kicked off his shoes and tossed his backpack on the floor and collapsed on top of the bed.

He curled in on himself, pulling his knees to his chest and rolling to the side. His palms were pressed against his eyes. His shoulders were shaking. He was holding himself together, and now alone (with her, he was alone without being alone – she was constant now, and he was hers, and they could be bare and defenseless around each other; they were weak and strong and raw), he was falling apart.

She put one knee on the bed. The shift in the weight roused him. Like a holy painting from the Blessed Age, in the soft yellow evening light he showed his face, his crying, wet face, and reached his arm out for her like the People reaching for Mythal’s blessing.

Astoria laced her fingers with his. She lay down by his side, letting him fall into her, letting him bury his face into her neck, burying her fingers in his hair, and just like him, let herself fall apart. She fell to pieces as her lip trembled and her ribs seized and her face burned. But they held each other so tightly, so surely, that the shards intermixed and they would reform together like a patchwork puzzle – not quite right, but just as perfect, just as whole.

 

___

 

“We should talk about it.”

He groaned. The light from outside was dimming. “You’ll need to specify which ‘it,’ because there’s been a lot of ‘its’ today.” His voice was low and hoarse, his throat sounded sore and raw.

“Let’s start with the easy one, then.” Her own voice was low, hoarse, and her own throat felt sore and raw. That tended to happen when you cry for hours.

“Right,” he said, and then paused. “Wait, which one is the easy one?”

She let out a “Ha!” and kissed the top of his head. “Let me think. That’ll be the fiasco of this morning and our relatively short pregnancy scare.”

“Ah, that ‘it.’”

“I think I saw my life flash before my eyes when that tampon came out white as a pearl.”

“That’s a lot more information than I needed.”

“I’ve never been late. Like, never. And part of me was trying to be rational, because we’re always really good about using condoms, right? So I think – I might have overreacted.”

“I think your reaction was perfectly rational for the given situation.”

“Thank you for buying the tests. The pregnancy tests, I mean. And for being low-key about it with the others.”

“Anything for you,” he murmured into her chest.

“What would you do if they were positive?”

A pause. “What?”

She repeated the question.

Cullen lifted his head off of her chest, moving to prop himself up with his chin in his hand. “Well, I don’t know. I guess that would depend on what you wanted to do.”

“That’s evasion.”

“I’m being serious,” he said with conviction, staring her straight in the eye. “I mean I would follow your lead, whatever you wanted to do. You want to have a baby and raise a kid together? I’m all for it, I’m here. You want to have an abortion? I’ll hold your hand while you’re doing it. I’m here for you.

Astoria looked down, then away. Then, quietly, she said, “You called me the love of your life.”

“Oh.”

She looked at him. “Do you love me, Cullen?”

“Well, yes.”

“Oh.”

His face changed. He flushed red, embarrassed. “Oh, Maker, shit, I fucked this up didn’t I. Maker’s Bride on a bicycle, I said that but you weren’t ready—”

“You’re a dork,” she smiled, a sly and growing smile, and grabbed him by the sides of the face and kissed him like it was the very first time, the very last time. She smiled again, smiling against his lips, her breath a whisper of air between them. “Of course I love you.”

“I love you,” he said it again, and again, and again, until she kissed him again.

Later, she would ask him if it was the pregnancy scare or the demons that made him so scared. “Neither,” he would say, “Neither of those made me afraid.” She would ask, “what made you so upset?” and he would say “because I was powerless, and I couldn’t protect you.” She would tell him that she would protect him, that she was protecting him when she ran off.

He wouldn’t say it, wouldn’t ask what he already knew, what he already felt. She’d never used magic in his presence before, not until now. He wasn’t scared—no, he wouldn’t confirm her fears, he wouldn’t revisit their conversation months ago on the night before that morning. But he felt…odd. It didn’t bother him as much as it used to, but it still bothered him more than he wanted it to.

 

___

 

In the night the Ferelden Parliament voted, a narrow 26/24 majority, in favor of the Mage Registration Act.