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Flour, Ink, and Salt

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Astoria literally could not believe this guy.

She’d already had the shittiest week. After her apartment complex in what could only be called Haven’s elvhen alienage (despite alienages being banned and human cities became desegregated, de facto segregation took affect when most elves could not afford the lofty prices for the better neighborhoods, and unofficial alienages returned) became condemned after the 3rd floor fire, she was currently living in the guest room that belonged to her best friend’s partner (Girlfriend? Wife? Merrill had never actually specified) in an oversized townhouse in a very overpriced neighborhood (it was, Astoria supposed, one of the benefits of dating humans, not that Astoria would ever admit to knowing), where she’d had the cops called on her three times already for “suspicious activity” when entering the townhouse after work.

Then, of course, her hand sanitizer exploded in her bag, ruining her sketchbook full of drawings for her clients. Astoria was out thirty royals just to replace the large sketchbook, not to mention countless hours copying and re-drawing each design.

And now, this asshole on the subway sitting next to her was manspreading.

Since he was a human, and since Astoria’s ears were long and pointed, not to mention the light grey vallaslin that slashed and cut across her face, all she could do was pull her bag closer to her chest, squeeze her legs together, and make herself as small as possible. She buried her nose in the large scarf wrapped around her neck and face, and tried to ignore the fact that the guy’s knee was practically taking up half of her own seat.

The woman, human, sitting across from her gave her a look of sympathy. Astoria closed her eyes. You don’t get it, she wanted to say, if you were in my place, you could speak up to him, call him out. You wouldn’t get in trouble, you wouldn’t get hit, or yelled at, or get pulled aside by security for being assaultive. She didn’t say it. The pulse of frustration felt like needles behind her forehead.

“Excuse me, sir, but you’re invading her space.”

Astoria’s eyes shot open. She looked up to see a tall blonde human standing with his hands on his hips in front of the manspreader. Panic flared in her belly as her eyes flicked between the tall blonde and the human sitting next to her. Her muscles tightened, ready to flee at the slightest raise of his hand. She braced herself for the words. Bitch. Rabbit. Knife-ear. He looked at Astoria, his brows pinched and a scowl already pulling at his nose. Immediately she looked down at her lap.

“I don’t think she minds, do ya, darling?” Said his gruff voice. She could tell he was a Marcher just from his accent. The Marchers she ran into were especially ignorant to the Dalish. Astoria didn’t move her head. When the fuck is my stop. The train car rattled as the track curved around a bend.

“Sir I’m going to ask you to give the woman her space.” The tall blonde’s accent was Ferelden.

“And what if I don’t?”

The train car shuddered as it came to a stop. Astoria couldn’t stand up any faster, and was practically running out of the subway station and up the escalator to the street level. Her heart pounded in her chest, and she looked over her shoulder every other second, making sure neither human had followed her.

__

 

The exact moment that Astoria entered the tattoo parlor and slammed the door behind her, every ounce of stress fell away. Her limbs moved with the grace of a ballet dancer as she hung up her overcoat, scarf, and sweatshirt on the coat rack by the back door. By the time she’d finished undressing, Astoria was only wearing a loose sleeveless black shift for a dress.

Despite the temperature outside barely getting above freezing on a good day, the temperature inside Charger’s Tattoos and Body Piercing was consistently a balmy eighty degrees Fahrenheit. Astoria blamed it on its occupants – the Iron Bull was used to the heat of Par Vollen and Seheron much further north, and Krem and Dorian were both expats from the Tevinter Republic. Isabella was born in Rivain, and never wore much in the way of “long sleeves” or “real pants” anyway. Josephine was Antivan. But Josephine was also Josephine – nothing seemed to bother her. Astoria did not mind the heat as much as she had first expected – the Lavellan Clan's reservation in the United Free Marches experienced rather temperate weather, and she lived outside for most of her childhood anyway. Merrill, on the other hand, came from the Sabrae Clan's reservation in the Eastern woodlands of Ferelden, and loved the cold. She didn’t do too well when Dorian sometimes inched the temperature gauge higher than seventy-five.

“Astoria, your ten ‘o’clock appointment is here!” Josephine’s smooth voice called through the hallway into the annex entrance. Astoria sighed, pulled her sketchbook out of her bag, ran her hand through her short-cropped brown hair, and padded in her heavy winters boots out to greet the client.

__

 

The ten ‘o’clock client left at five minutes to one with his full sleeve tattoo completely outlined. He’d requested a design inspired by the Blights: griffons, burning skies, grey wardens, an Archdemon (Dumat, he had specified), and darkspawn in battle. Astoria worked tirelessly to come up with a design that appeased him, and set up three separate appointments: the outline, the coloring and shading, and the touch-ups that would be required for a piece this big. When she asked if he had a family history of Grey Wardens, he’d shrugged. “They were just sick as hell! If all seven Old Gods hadn’t already all been killed I totally would join the Grey Wardens!” Astoria was tipped 100% for a two hundred royal outline job, so she really didn’t care if he wore Grey Warden pajamas to bed with that much extra coin in her purse.

She checked in with Josephine – her one-thirty appointment hadn’t arrived early, so she climbed up the narrow staircase to the third floor of Charger’s.

The first floor held the main waiting and reception area, where the artist’s more popular designs hung framed and display cases showed an array of body jewelry. The annex in the back was a converted sunroom/mudroom and had a sizable room sectioned off for Isabella and Josephine’s body piercing room.

Upstairs were the main studios. The second floor held four rooms: Astoria’s, Merrill’s, the Iron Bull’s, and Krem’s studios, each decorated and arranged to their own comfort and desires (There was no elevator; to comply with the FDA (Fereldens with Disabilities Association) anyone could request a tattoo to be done in Josephine and Isabella’s body piercing room on the ground floor, but it required a lot of time to move their equipment).

The third floor was just for the artists. Dorian ran the books, and his office took up nearly half of the third floor, with windows facing both the street in front and the alley behind the shop. The rest comprised of the kitchen, two massive and severely beaten-up sofas, and a bathroom complete with a tub and shower (more often than not, some of the artists in residence would spend the night at Charger’s should their respective partners kick them out for a domestic argument). Dorian was in charge of the decoration of the third floor, as it was his studio. Despite the beaten-up state of the sofas, they were beautiful and fashionable in their own way. The ceiling, tall enough to accommodate a massive Qunari, was draped in little white Satinalia lights. He’d painted the walls a deep forest green, and hung sheer white and heavy maroon velvet drapes over the windows. Original wooden floorboards from more than an age ago were heavily policed by Dorian (“Cremisius Aclassi if I see you wear those Maker-forsaken boots on my floors one more time I will kill that awful cactus of yours. Bare feet only!”), and the small kitchen had pretty black tile countertops and a matching backsplash that Dorian himself installed.

Astoria walked directly towards the fridge and surveyed the meager pickings. She finally settled on reheating last night’s leftover noodles and curry, a banana, and one of Isabella’s fancy sodas in obscure flavors.

She’d just begun eating when Merrill bounced up the creaky staircase into the lounge.

“There you are!” She exclaimed, flouncing across the room to the sofas. Her light yellow sundress covered her torso and butt and left her legs, chest, and arms well exposed. Stark black, green, and red tattoos stood out like angry lines against her light brown skin. Astoria remembered that night three years ago, coming in after hours when Dorian and the Iron Bull had finally locked up to finish Merrill’s body vallaslin. The Charger’s owners turned a blind eye towards the act, completely refusing to address it, while knowing full well that it was happening. As soon as she’d finished Merrill’s, Merrill had begun on Astoria’s back, using the traditional Dalish tattooing tools to slowly chisel out the light grey ink into the marks honoring Dirthamen. Dorian said nothing when she came in the next morning bearing new light grey tattoos against her chestnut brown skin.

“Here I am?” Astoria said, chewing through rice noodles, tofu, and yellow curry.

“Josephine’s on the phone with a client. They want an appointment for tomorrow and you’re the only one with an open space.” Astoria didn’t know how Merrill could sustain her spunk, especially since the elf already had an eight-hour session that morning and had accidentally awoken Astoria when she left Hawke’s townhouse at five ‘o’clock.

“Sure, yeah I’ve got about an hour and a half. What does the client want?”

“Josephine didn’t say. It’s the girl’s first tattoo, though. Something about her wrist? And forever…”

“By the Dales, she didn’t say infinity tattoo did she.”

“Oh yes! That was it.”

“Ugh.” Astoria shoveled more noodles into her mouth. “Fine, Josie can book me, but I won’t be happy about it.”

“Great. Oh, and your one-thirty appointment just came in. He’s pretty, too,” Merrill added with a wink, and smacked a kiss on Astoria’s forehead. She watched the other elf descend down the stairs and groaned. Pretty, huh? He better be an elf, she thought. No way in hell was she dating a human again.

__

 

Anders had been nice to her, after all. He was nothing but pleasant during the four months they were seeing each other. But his life revolved around his clinic, his cats, his manifesto, his political intrigue, and his crusade. In everything he had devoted himself into, every fact that was stored in his brain, he seemed to ignore two major things: Astoria, and elves. Anders wasn’t racist, but his crusade did not include the rights of elves, and he failed to see how Astoria faced discrimination every day for her physical features rather than the hidden features he so rallied for. He spent days without answering phone calls, and Astoria had to walk all the way to the roughest human neighborhood to see him at his clinic, where he would be treating patients as normal, as if he didn’t also have a girlfriend he should be minding.

Not every human that Astoria dated was the same as Anders, but they were still ignorant to the fact that Astoria was an elf in a human-ruled world.

“I don’t see your ears” one human lover told her, “I don’t see an elf. I see Astoria.”

“Well, I’m also an elf, so fuck you.”

When she moved from the Lavellan reservation to attend college, the human boys at Redcliffe University would try to sleep with her to check “fucking an elf” off of their bucket list. There weren’t a lot of elves in the dating pool at RU. She dated a dwarf named Lace for most of her college career, until graduation, when Lace moved to Crestwood for whatever job Astoria didn’t know, and Astoria moved with the flow of available jobs into Haven.

It’s been four years since she came to the small city, full of stout old buildings and tall shiny new ones, since Astoria looked up at the Iron Bull in her first interview and knew that Chargers was where she belonged, in a two hundred year old building that likely had actual skeletons under the cellar and thick stone and mud walls that trapped heat like a sauna. She fell in love with the way the stairs creaked, how light filtered through the ancient and slightly warped diamond window grids, and the way the exterior walls blocked the city noise. She fell in love with her coworkers, her friends, the people whose souls were also intertwined within the old building. Her old apartment back in the alienage, what she had used for a home for the last four years, had nothing on Chargers. She had fallen in love with Chargers and in that love, found no need for finding any other kind.

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Her one-thirty appointment was not an elf, but a human, and he was certainly pretty.

Astoria cursed at her foul luck.

(In her Clan, she had always been encouraged to date, sleep with, and marry elvhen men as so to keep her bloodline strong. Her genealogy dictates her to hold the position of First of her Clan, a position that she had trained for until leaving for university. Astoria intended to study Law and Politics, and halfway through her first year switched to Art, Design, and Lettering, severely disappointed the Keeper, and decided to not return to her Clan by graduation. She still sent money to her younger sister, the new First, every month.)

The guy’s name was Rylen, he already had tattoos (the most obvious being those on his face – Astoria recognized them as a Starkhaven design), and had the most melodious voice imaginable. It was similar to the accents of many of the Dalish clans. It reminded her of home.

He was getting a tattoo covered up, Astoria found out. He wanted it completely covered, changed into a geometric design of perpendicular bars extending up his forearm and wrapping around his quite defined muscles. Astoria asked to see the current tattoo. She tried not to show her panic when Rylen rolled up his sleeve to reveal the insignia of the Templar Order: the flaming sword.

“I’m not part of them anymore,” Rylen said softly with his sweet Starkhaven accent, knowing exactly what Astoria was feeling. “I’m ashamed to have it. It’s why I wanted to cover it up.”

Astoria nodded. Forced a smile. “It’s good to recognize change within your life.” He presented himself as an ally, a changed man. Astoria still saw the flaming sword.

__

 

Two hours with Rylen in her chair turned into two hours of conversation about the Free Marches. Rylen was technically the only “real” Marcher of the two of them, as the Lavellan reservation is recognized as sovereign to the Clan within the United Free Marches. But with the bond of shared homeland geography and similar accents, that of the Dalish slightly more rounded and higher pitched than that of Starkhaven, Astoria found herself more and more at ease with the ex-templar. Each flame embarking from the blade became a plain black bar – four in total – and the sword itself a long black bar extending up his right forearm, encircling his elbow. Rylen was pleased.

“I’ll say that’s no more than a hundred royals,” she told him as she finished wrapping his arm in the clear plastic bandage. Rylen gave her a quizzical look. He must have known that she was undercharging him – she typically charged a hundred per hour, and he’d been there for two. “It was…nice talking to someone who knows home. Even if it’s not my home, it’s…close enough.”

Rylen grinned. “Please, I think I sustained most of the enjoyment here. My mates don’t exactly appreciate me droning on and on about the Marches. I never get to talk this much.”

Stop thinking humans are attractive, stop being attracted to humans, stop thinking humans are attractive…

There was a knock on the doorframe to her studio. Astoria swiveled in her chair to see Krem leaning in, dressed in a pair of denim cutoffs and a tank top that read “SUNS OUT GUNS OUT” in large block letters. He held the cordless phone in his hand, and the “mute” button was lit up.

“Hey Astoria, Josie’s got a former client on the phone with some questions about a tattoo that’s blistering? Says he doesn’t know what to do.”

“Ugh.” There was a reason she sent each client home with careful instructions for tattoo care. “Alright, hand it to me.” She turned to Rylen. “Thank you so much for coming in! I had an amazing time talking to you and poking your arm.”

“No, thank you, Miss Lavellan.” Rylen gave a short bow. Astoria blushed furiously.

“Of course. Krem, can you ring up Rylen? Just a hundred.” Krem gave her a look – she was really undercharging the guy – and he handed her the phone, and waved Rylen out of the studio and down the stairs.

When Astoria finished the call with the client, she scampered down the stairs to the reception room. Josephine and Krem were chatting, but Rylen was gone. Astoria returned the phone to its receiver.

“Oh, hey,” Krem waved her over, and she followed. “Rylen’s tip.” There were a hundred royals, all in twenty-note paper bills. Astoria cursed in elvish. “Also, I got his number, so he’s totally mine.”

Astoria cursed again. Krem smiled and waved the sticky note with a phone number written in a rather sturdy hand.

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Rylen shuddered as he stepped from the intense heat of Chargers out onto the frosty Haven air. Despite his long sleeve shirt and well insulated down coat, he was always cold in Haven. Delrin had promised the weather would warm up once spring took hold, but it was now halfway through Cloudreach and still a few frozen snowflakes fluttered down from the sky. At least the river was no longer frozen solid.

His hands shoved into his pockets, Rylen made his way down the street to the coffee shop on the corner of the old cobblestone path. Cars rarely drove these streets, and people instead favored to park in garages in the more modern sectors of town and walk or bike through the ancient streets and alleys. It was reminiscent of the borough he’d grown up in in Starkhaven.

He missed Starkhaven. His home, his family, the culture and the food all called to him across the Waking Sea. His talk with Astoria had made him slightly homesick, missing the days of his youth, before he’d joined the Templar Order. Even though he left of his own accord, he couldn’t return. Not yet. Not until he was done healing.

He felt his phone vibrate as he pulled open the door to the coffee shop. He wondered if it was Krem already – the man was attractive, charming, and persistent. The thought of him already texting him made Rylen’s stomach jump in excitement.

Though, when he pulled out his phone, the text hadn’t come from Krem.

[3:45pm – From: Cullen R] Just signed the lease. The place is ours. [picture attached]

Rylen tapped on the link to open the picture. It was a picture of Delrin with his thumbs up standing in front of the little storefront. Cullen stood next to him, his hands in his pockets and his shoulders square as a soldier’s, but the smile on his face was more relaxed than Rylen had seen on him.

Another text came in, vibrating his phone.

[3:46pm – From: Unknown] Drinks tomorrow night? – Krem

Rylen smiled. Good things were happening.

Chapter Text

“I think we need to go over your overall behavior.”

“I think you need to shut it.”

Sera had agreed to meet her at the coffee shop on the corner. Both elves were bundled up in massive layers that remained, for the most part, attached to their bodies as they sipped hot tea: lemongrass mint for Sera, earl grey for Astoria. Sera had gotten a haircut since she’d last seen her and was sporting the shaved undercut rather nicely.

Sera had also received a black eye on her last job.

“Sera I’m seriously concerned about you. You need to tone it down, play it safer next time. You’re getting too reckless.”

“Hey, I didn’t ask for this,” she pointed vigorously at the ugly bruise around her eye. “I was being careful. Someone just got a lucky shot.”

“You were caught on camera.

“I was wearing a ski mask, no-one saw my face. If anything they just saw the pointy ears. Bet that was a slap in the face, a bitty little elf besting two of their big boys.”

Sera was a private investigator that dallied far too much into the world of hacking and trespassing. Her last job had her literally stealing photos from the vault of some wealthy businessman, and the security guards who responded to the tripped alarm put up a fight. Until Sera had knocked them out cold, of course.

“You know I worry because you’re my best friend, right? Not just because I’m some stick-in-the-mud.”

“No, you’re a stick-in-the-mud. But I get it, yeah?” Sera picked at her coffee cake. The bruise on her eye was really bad. “You’re looking out for me. We Jennies stick together, yeah? I appreciate you.”

“Then please, please just be more careful next time.”

“Fine, stick-in-the-mud.”

__

 

Delrin grunted as he pushed the industrial oven into place in the kitchen. Rylen sat on a stainless steel table at the center of the room, overseeing a checklist.

“Barris, d‘you know if the fridge comes in today or tomorrow?”

“Today,” he huffed, and straightened his back, feeling the joints in his spine pop. “I know because Cullen wanted the kitchen set up before the tables and chairs arrived, which is tomorrow.”

Rylen nodded, and marked something on the list. He checked his watch for the sixth time that day. Delrin finally asked him about it.

“I’ve got somewhere to be at seven, I just don’t want to be late.”

“It’s only three and you’re more anxious than a fennec. What are you doing?”

Rylen looked up at him over the checklist, then looked back to it with a severe concentration for someone looking at a list of kitchen appliances. Delrin tapped the paper and bent it down. “As if that’s not suspicious,” he teased.

“I’m just meeting someone for drinks,” he shrugged, though the blush that stained his cheeks pink gave away the nature of the meet.

“We’ve been here three days and you already have a date? By the Maker, Rylen, share some of your blasted luck with the rest of us.”

“Rylen lucky? Now there’s a thought,” Cullen said as he entered the kitchen. On instinct Delrin’s feet snapped to attention, but he managed to at least keep his shoulders relaxed. It had taken weeks to stop saluting the man every time he saw him.

“I’m just meeting someone for drinks, not exactly a date, thank you,” he said, and hopped off the table to give Cullen the checklist. “We’re just waiting on the fridge now. Everything else is either in a box or already installed.”

“And the electric guy comes at four to hook up the stove, ovens, and fridge, once it finally arrives,” Delrin reported.

“Good,” Cullen said, still scanning the checklist. The tall blonde man scratched at his left arm. Delrin felt a phantom itch on his leg. “I’ll call the furniture people, make sure their stuff is coming in on time.” He turned around and left the kitchen for the backroom office.

__

 

“Is it going to hurt?”

“Well,” Astoria said, pulling back the tattoo gun for the fifth time in the last three minutes to explain one thing or another or to answer any number of questions for this human girl getting, of all things, an infinity loop on her inner wrist. Hiding the exasperation in her voice must count as a Grey Wardian feat of perseverance. “Some people experience very little pain, like a slight abrasion. Others feel it more like scratching a sunburn. Your tattoo is very small, so if you breathe evenly and calmly, it should be over before you know it.”

The human girl, Leelah Brown, nodded in response. Astoria guessed that the girl had just turned eighteen, if she was this young and still passed Josephine’s strict eighteen-and-up policy. Her friend, another young looking human girl, sat on the padded bench with Leelah and held her hand.

Finally Astoria was able to make contact between the tattoo gun and her skin, drawing it over the light purple stencil. The girl’s muscles clenched and she gave a hiss of pain. She closed the loop on the infinity symbol, and wiped away the excess ink and blood. Leelah Brown had a tear coming from her eye, but she was also smiling. Astoria looked away, not wanting to ruin the girl’s moment.

Her friend looked to Astoria. “I really like your vallaslin,” she said a little shyly, “I’ve never seen one in person, especially not vallaslin that covers the arms and shoulders like yours does.”

Astoria was a little taken aback. Humans tended to ignore her tattooed face, the mark of the Dalish, the culture they tried to eradicate an age ago. “Thank you. If you ever visit a Dalish reservation, many people I know get them all the way to their feet.”

The girl looked amazed. She opened her mouth to ask something else, but her friend Leelah Brown distracted her with her excitement over her new tattoo.

She dressed the tattoo and gave Leelah Brown all the instructions for aftercare, charged her forty-five royals for the whole thing, and sent her off to Josephine to pay. As she cleaned her tattoo gun and reorganized her inks, Josephine knocked on her studio door.

“Infinity girl left you a nice tip,” she told her, and placed a twenty-note bill on the table next to her equipment. “They’re coming back for her friend’s eighteenth birthday. I think you have admirers.”

“I’m an admirable person,” Astoria said, all matter-of-factly. Josephine gave a short “hah!” and smacked a kiss to the top of her head before leaving, her fluffy blue sundress flowing like the ocean with each step.

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Krem left for his date with Rylen at six forty-five, so Astoria and the Iron Bull took the brunt of the walk-ins that evening until nine fifteen. Isabella bought burritos for everyone, and at ten ‘o’clock Astoria was eating the last of her vegetarian burrito in her studio while she sketched when Merrill came in and closed the door behind her.

“I just got off the phone with Sera,” she said, and pulled in the tiny rolling stool to sit very close to Astoria. “She finished the background check on Revanna Nerandis. She’s clean – and she’s bringing her in tonight.”

“What’s the rush?” Astoria asked through a mouthful of burrito.

“Revanna wants it done before her wedding next month but can’t make it to the Dalish reservation at Ostagar if she wants her vallaslin to be healed in time.”

Astoria thought a moment about this. “Well, we know Krem will be gone tonight, Isabella left an hour ago, Josie will probably leave in the next twenty minutes, and Dorian and Iron Bull not long after that. Tell Sera to bring her in at midnight, just to be safe.”

“Okay. I’ll tell Hawke we won’t be home tonight,” Merrill said as she stood up and smoothed out her extremely fluffy pink skirt. Astoria had stopped being amazed at how Merrill looked good in everything and made everything look good on her. Now it was just fact.

“Also,” Astoria said, pushing off on her rolling chair over to an ancient wooden cabinet with about a million little drawers, “we’re a little low on Felandaris. It’ll get us through tonight, but we need more before our next session.”

“I’ll call our guy,” Merrill sighed. The woman was tired – she had a long day of appointments after appointments. Astoria made a note to get her to drink some coffee before tonight.

__

 

Delrin left the shop that night absolutely exhausted from moving in an entire commercial kitchen. The cold night was lulling him to sleep, drawing him across the borough to his apartment with his warm, warm bed. As he walked down the cobbled street, he thought he saw a shadow move across the rooftops. Blinking in the slight snow, Delrin scanned the chimney-speckled sloped roofs of the stone buildings, seeing nothing at all.

 

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They set up in Astoria’s studio. She pulled down the blackout curtains, keeping all light from entering the room as well as keeping anyone from looking in. She had pulled her tattoo bench into the center of the room, and was now arranging her herbs on the black leather surface, biding time as incense filled the room from the bowl of burning herbs on the desk.

Merrill and Sera led Revanna, blindfolded, into the room. They carefully guided her onto the bench, on top of the herbs. Astoria squeezed Sera’s hand, and Sera left, silent. Astoria removed the blindfold.

Merrill prepared Revanna in complete silence, as the ritual requires. She cleaned and wiped away the oils from Revanna’s face while Astoria unboxed her tools.

Revanna had requested yellow ink for her vallaslin, and wished to carry the branches of Mythal’s tree over her chin, cheekbones, nose, and forehead. Astoria had just enough yellow Dalish ink in her stores for the job. She took the needle, lashed to the end of a short and sturdy stick, and dipped it into a small clay pot holding the ink.

Across Revanna’s face, Merrill and Astoria took each other’s left hands together. They breathed, in and out, eyes in complete focus with each other. Then, in the space between their hands, the smallest crackle of electricity. A pulse of energy emanated from their conjoined hands, and the room stirred, the flames of the candles flickering back and forth as if blown by breath. Then, releasing each other’s hands, Astoria took the mallet, lined up the needle with the bottom of Revanna’s lip, and began slowly patting the needle stick, injecting one point at a time the yellow ink into Revanna’s pale skin, thus beginning the illicit act of a Vallaslin Rite.

_

 

A little over an Age ago, when the Chantry began its plan to eradicate elvhen culture from Thedas for the complete assimilation of the elves, one of their first acts was to outlaw the vallaslin in human cities. Dalish elves, even the elderly who had their vallaslin rites done fifty or sixty years ago, were barred from entry into any major city in the human nations. The Dalish by and large stopped giving their children vallaslin in order for their Clans to continue trading in the cities – trading was their only means of monetary gain in a world where machines, industrialism, and capitalism ran society – and the ritual was gone for an entire generation.

After thirty years of this, the ritual was rarely practiced anymore. Only Keepers and their Firsts (Which were purely ceremonial roles at this point. The Veil thickened three ages ago, and most mage bloodlines lost all magic. Entire Clans were mageless, and mages of all races, even those within Tevinter, went into hiding) and Seconds received the Vallaslin Rite. The Chantry called for an end to the nomadic Clans of the Dalish, intending to force them into city alienages with the rest of the elves. The Parliament of Ferelden opposed this. They had an excellent example of the Dalish receiving lands of their own within Ferelden to live and do with as they please, a large tract of land that was granted at the end of the Fifth Blight containing the ruins of Ostagar. Because of Ferelden’s input, all across Thedas, sections of land were granted to different Clans. Usually these lands were still wild territory, mostly unoccupied. Faced with the choice of being shooed away and closed off from the rest of the world, and being forced to dissolve and live in the cities, the Dalish chose the reservations.

The vallaslin was still illegal within human cities until fifty-five years ago, when the Divine changed the law. Now, vallaslin could be worn within the cities. But the Chantry made it illegal to perform the Vallaslin Rite anywhere outside of a Dalish reservation. To this, the human nations complied. Vallaslin resurged among the elves, and Dalish culture resurged, despite the Chantry’s continued distaste of it.

Growing up as Firsts, both Astoria and Merrill learned to perform the Vallaslin Rite at a young age, and received their vallaslin as children. Even though they both left their Clan lives behind, they brought the Dalish with them into Haven. They performed the Vallaslin Rite for elves who truly wanted them, but could not travel to a reservation. Sera connected them, checked their backgrounds, to ensure they were not undercover spies rooting out the illicit vallaslin scribes. Astoria and Merrill cared very much about not getting caught - but that fear never stopped them.

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Astoria sustained the old Dalish spell as long as she could. She finished Revanna’s chin, and passed the needle stick and mallet to Merrill. Merrill took up the spell, and Astoria sagged with the relief. She took up the soft cloth, wiping away the ink and blood that welled on the surface of Revanna’s cheekbone as Merrill worked away.

It was necessary to take turns. The spell was ceremonial, but so was everything else in the ritual. It preserved the old ways of the Dalish. Back when magic was abundant, the Keeper alone could sustain the spell and give the tattoo for several hours at once. Now with magic so weak in the world, Astoria could only last thirty minutes.

(When the Veil thickened, only the strongest of bloodlines could sustain a connection with the fade. It was part of the pressure placed on Astoria to mate with another elf, especially a mage elf. Her sister had magic, yes, but both were needed to reproduce enough mage babies for the Clan. This pressure was only part of why Astoria left. She imagined something similar might have happened to Merrill.)

It was also necessary to be discrete. The Circle was no more, now that any mage still with magic hid their abilities, but the Templars roamed the streets. They served to protect the Chantry, as the Divine’s peacekeepers, and included among the potential crimes against Thedas was keeping secret one’s connection to the Fade. Instead of being sent to a Circle, a found mage was sent to prison. One could say it was the same thing.

It was a good thing the Templars had no jurisdiction inside Dalish reservations.

Merrill sustained the spell. Astoria wiped away blood and ink. Merrill tapped the needle into the branching patterns. Both elves were strained. Astoria’s hands shook with exhaustion, her magical reserves almost completely depleted. Merrill would need to trade off soon.

Silently, taking a break from wiping away blood and ink, Astoria crossed to her cabinet of many little drawers. In one of the drawers, locked with a key in a drawer locked by another key, was a little iron box. The contents inside glowed blue when she opened it.

Lyrium was incredibly illegal to possess for anyone who wasn’t a templar. If her stash were found, Astoria would go away for a very, very long time.

Hence the multiple locks and keys.

She plucked a capsule full of liquid blue lyrium with trembling fingers. Exhaustion almost consumed her, and would consume Merrill as well, if they didn’t swallow the pills soon. Astoria placed it on her tongue, tipped her head back, and swallowed.

Almost instantly, she felt like a million royals.

She pulled one more capsule from the box and closed it, placed it in its drawer, locked it, and locked the key away. She returned to Merrill.

The right cheekbone was almost complete. Merrill’s legs were trembling, but her hands remained steady. Astoria gently took Merrill’s jaw in her hand, Merrill opened her mouth, and Astoria placed the lyrium capsule on her tongue, and she swallowed. Merrill finished the cheekbone. Her eyes were almost glowing with energy.

Together they finished the nose and the other cheekbone. Revanna was doing so well – she made no whimper of pain, only breathed slowly in and out, refusing to even open her mouth.

Merrill was putting the finishing touches on the other cheekbone’s branches when the creak of the stairs in their little building resounded like thunder through the silent vigil. Merrill and Astoria exchanged a worried look. Revanna’s eyes flashed open.

Astoria patted her forehead, bringing her finger to her lips. Maintain your vigil, she seemed to say.

__

 

“You’re sure no one is there?” Rylen’s voice was like chocolate sex in Krem’s ear. He jimmied his keys in the door, unlocking the door.

“All for us,” he replied, and captured Rylen’s mouth in a crushing kiss. They pushed through into the annex of Chargers, and Krem took his hand, leading Rylen to his studio upstairs.

__

 

Astoria, her blood still thrumming with restored mana from the lyrium, prepared a mind blast spell for whatever intruder she came across. She heard shifting, furniture moving, and footsteps from Krem’s studio. The door was left ajar, and the lights off.

Gearing up her courage, Astoria opened her clenched fist and pressed the door open, ready to fight using the only defensive spell she knew.

Seeing Krem with his pants down on his tattoo bench, legs hooked over Rylen’s shoulders with Rylen’s face buried in Krem’s cunt was not exactly the sight she expected to see.

“Holy shit Astoria-“ Krem exclaimed and sat up straight. Rylen instantly jumped back, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.

“Krem, fuck,” she covered her eyes with her hand. “Always a pleasure to see you, Rylen,” she added sarcastically.

“Hi, Astoria,” he waved sheepishly.

“Krem can I talk to you, upstairs maybe? After you pull your pants back on.”

“Uhm, maybe I should…” Rylen pointed to the door, looking to Krem for permission.

“No, Rylen stay,” Krem said as he pulled his pants on.

“Actually,” Astoria lowered her hand and crossed her arms, “Rylen, you should go. Sorry to ruin what was obviously a very good date. I just need to have a word with my buddy Krem here, you know, artist to artist.

Rylen looked between Astoria and Krem, the furious glares between the two enough to make even the most ferocious soldiers balk.

“I’ll meet you downstairs,” Krem finally said to Rylen, “this won’t take long.”

Relieved to have an out, Rylen slunk out of the room.

“What the fuck are you doing here?”

“I could really ask you the same thing,” Krem retorted, “seeing as it is almost one in the morning, and literally all you could talk about today was going back to Merrill and Hawke’s to take a fucking bubble bath.”

“I work here. I have the keys to this establishment. I have the right to be in my studio and work without anyone’s permission.”

“Oh yeah? What are you working on?”

Astoria growled. Literally growled. “The problem here is you having sex on your tattoo bench. I know my studio is my home, but by the grace of the Creators I would never have sex in my studio. Do you even realize how unsanitary that is?”

Krem only snarled in response. He picked up his coat, lying abandoned on the floor, and stalked over to stand next to Astoria, almost a foot taller than her. “Dorian may not care what you do here at night, but whatever it is, you better not put the rest of us in danger. Also, whatever the fuck you’re burning smells awful.” Then Krem was gone. Astoria stood in the doorway of his studio until she heard him and Rylen shut the door downstairs.

She took a shaky breath, and returned to her studio to finish the Vallaslin Rite.

__

 

Across the street, in a decent two-bedroom apartment for one man above a soon-to-be-opened bakery and café, Cullen Rutherford awoke from his fitful sleep to the heart-stopping pulse of magic.

I’m imagining it, he told himself, repeating that phrase over and over until it was no longer in his head but being shouted from his lips. He rolled over in bed and scrambled with the bedside table drawer, his hands shaking as he searched for relief.

The little lyrium capsules glowed blue like a pulse of life in their bottle. You could take them all. Shut out the nightmares for good. Cullen shook his head. He took only one capsule from the bottle and swallowed it dry.

He felt guilty for it. Delrin Barris and Rylen had pledged to stave off lyrium. They were truly beginning to wean themselves off, no longer taking the drug every day but just once a week, enough to stave off the worst of the withdrawal symptoms. That was their promise when the three of them left the Order together.

Cullen had done so well, but the nightmares were too much. His memories of Kinloch Prison invaded his dreams every night. He needed lyrium to stay sane – the irony was, lyrium would eventually destroy his mind anyways. He took a capsule almost every other day.

He flopped back onto the pillows, one arm over his eyes. He waited for the lyrium to take hold, to stop the false sensations of magic thrumming against his hypersensitive nerves. He still felt the magic pulsating throughout the street surrounding his apartment as sleep overtook him once more, pulling him down into the nightmares that waited for him from the fade.

 

Chapter Text

Delrin and Cullen were busy kneading dough when Rylen rolled into the kitchen at six in the morning, yawning and holding two black coffees (both for him).

“That’s four nights in a row, Rylen,” Delrin teased, “I’m shocked. I guess this guy really butters your roll.”

Rylen groaned, almost a whine, as he sluggishly pulled off his coat. Cullen flicked flour at Delrin’s face.

“No, really, at this rate we should meet him. See if he rises to our standards.” Rylen groaned (again).

“Let Rylen introduce his special friends on his own time,” said Cullen, already beginning to work on the next blob of dough. “You and I will just have to wheat and see.”

Rylen grabbed a handful of flour from the bucket and rubbed it into Cullen’s stupidly curly hair, groaning at a very loud volume.

__

 

When Dorian sensed the tension between Astoria and Krem, he made the two put on one of Bull’s t-shirts together for almost an entire day. It ended with Krem playfully trying to nip Astoria’s ears every time she tickled him.

The underlying problem, however, still needed to be addressed. Which was why Astoria found herself sitting in Dorian’s office, across the desk from him.

“I don’t think I need to remind you to be careful,” he said.

“We were careful, Dorian. We took every measure, locked every door and window, and pulled down all the blackout curtains in my studio. Revanna was blindfolded for ten blocks before Sera brought her in.”

“You were using magic. I can feel it still, Andraste preserve me; I miss being able to use magic as often as you and Merrill seem to use it. But Krem is seeing an ex-templar. They can feel the magic as we do, as long as they still take lyrium. We’re just lucky he was too turned on from fucking Krem that he didn’t seem to notice the fact that in the next room you and Merrill were casting. What if he did notice? You, Merrill, and I would all be in major shit.”

Astoria slunk down in the soft armchair. The heat on the third floor was almost too much. Sweat slipped right off of her and onto the plush fabric. Dorian looked cool and refreshed. Fucking scare tactic.

“Astoria I’m cross because I care about your safety. Next time you and Merrill – next time this happens, just make sure nobody’s going to use the building as their personal sex house. Which reminds me…” Dorian rubbed his forehead; “I need to talk to Krem about that. I for one deeply enjoy oral sex in my office, but there are sanitary issues…”

And that was all Astoria really ever needed to know about Dorian and the Iron Bull’s love life.

“I promise we will be more careful.”

“Good. Do not think of this as me dismissing your actions. I am not as ignorant as you may think, my dear. The plight of your people is important to me, and I would see things changed. I support you, you know.”

Astoria nodded, fighting the tremble that threatened her lip. Creators, she had such a weak spot for Dorian that he always seemed to hit. “Come here,” he said, rising from his chair. Astoria met him halfway around the table and was pulled into a hug. His skin was delightfully chill, and his silk shirt smelled of jasmine and vetiver.

Dorian kissed the top of her head and ruffled her short brown hair. “Now go, I know you have an appointment in ten minutes.”

__

 

If Rylen was going to be honest, sex with Krem was probably the best sex he’d ever had.

After getting walked in on by Astoria, he took Krem back to his apartment five blocks over – he’d barely moved in, but didn’t have much in the way of belongings anyways – and continued right where he’d left off.

They were together for the next three nights. Unlike the first night, neither Rylen nor Krem needed the excuse of going out for drinks before one invited the other over, and it usually ended with one or both leaving in the morning for their early-to-rise jobs. Sometimes they had breakfast together, sometimes all Rylen got was a kiss and a promise for later that night.

Delrin and Cullen could tease all they liked. Since meeting Krem, Rylen hadn’t so much as thought about lyrium once.

The door comm buzzed. Rylen jumped up from his chair to answer the call.

“It’s me.”

Rylen buzzed him in. A minute later, Krem knocked on the door. When Rylen opened it, Krem was leaning against the doorframe, dangling an impressive looking strap-on from his fingers.

“You up for it?” he asked coyly.

Rylen, six feet five inches of muscle mass and war stories basically purred, and pulled Krem into the apartment by his waist and pressed a deep kiss to his mouth.

Krem grinned. “I guess that’s a yes,” he murmured against his lips.

__

 

“Isabella,” Merrill asked over lunch in the artist’s lounge, “do you think you could pierce my nipples today?”

The Iron Bull was spread out on one of the sofas, with Astoria settled on his shoulders, her arms resting on his gigantic horns. Dorian and Krem were both able to sit comfortably in his lap. On the other sofa, Josephine and Isabella leaned against each other, while Merrill draped her legs over Isabella’s lap. Merrill’s inquiry had Josephine sputter through her yogurt cup.

“I don’t know, kitten, I’m pretty booked today,” Isabella hummed. “But I bet if you and Hawke wanted to have a threesome, I could squeeze you in.”

“Okay!” Merrill grinned, and pulled out her phone to text her partner (girlfriend? Wife? Astoria still didn’t know).

The group ate in silent anticipation for Hawke’s reply.

“I think I’m going to ask Leliana to marry me.”

Jaws dropped as Josephine blushed deep scarlet after her confession. Barely anyone paid noticed when Merrill exclaimed, “She’s in!”

“Holy shit Josie, really?” Bull asked. Astoria, perched on his shoulders, moved with the turn of his head.

Josephine took a deep breath. “Yes. I’ve thought and thought and thought about it and every time I turn around, she’s the one. I’m certain of it.”

“Aww,” Isabella nuzzled her head onto Josephine’s shoulder, “you’re getting all grown and hitched and stuff.” Josephine patted her cheek.

“Do you have a ring?” Krem asked.

Josephine shook her head. “Not yet. I’m waiting for my father’s birthday next week to ask him for my abuela’s engagement ring. I know he likes Leliana too – she gets him his favorite Orlesian chocolates every Satinalia.”

“How are you gonna ask her?” asked Astoria.

Josephine shrugged. Merrill piped in; “You could tie it around Schmooples’ collar!”

“And risk the beast eating a priceless family heirloom?” Dorian scoffed, “I doubt it.”

“Look,” Josephine cut off the chatter, “I don’t know how or when I’m going to ask her. I just know that this is happening and I - well, I wanted all of you to know first.”

Isabella smiled. “Oh, you big sap.”

__

 

Suddenly, Haven emerged from the frozen air of Cloudreach into Bloomingtide. The sky was no longer overcast, the sun melted any residual ice that stuck to the roofs of the buildings and houses over the long winter, and the temperature of the air reached sixty degrees in one fell swoop. It was exactly a week since Rylen entered the lives of the artists of Chargers, and now, Astoria noted, everyone working at Chargers had a developing relationship (even Isabella had a steady open relationship and lover-without-love in Fenris, but now that Merrill’s nipples were pierced, she, Merrill, and Hawke were due any day to take up the agreement for that threesome), except for her.

The loneliness almost had her calling Anders one particularly lonely night. She managed to resist the urge once she remembered that the last time they had sex, he went right back to working on the Mage Anarchist Manifesto. To remedy this, Astoria drew a hot bath in the guest bathroom of Hawke’s townhouse, popped in a bath bomb, and rubbed herself to orgasm. As good as it felt, it was a little sad.

She really needed a place of her own.

On her way to Chargers in the morning on the subway, she scanned the newspaper for apartment listings, circling all the apartments closest to Chargers in one color of highlighter, and all the ones she could afford with her current income in another color. None of them overlapped. Astoria sighed in defeat.

As she emerged from the subway station, her little cobblestone street was far busier than she remembered. There was decent foot traffic; plenty of restaurants, boutiques, and little law and insurance offices lined the street, as well as the four- to five-story ancient apartments that sat on top of them. But she’d never seen a line.

And the line was leading to the just recently occupied storefront directly across from Chargers. Astoria read the beautifully hand painted sign above it (and recognized Krem’s handiwork with fonts): CHAMPIONS OF THE CRUST est. 18:41 Atomic.

“Are you fucking kidding me” she groaned.

“It’s a horrendous pun.” Dorian appeared at her side. He wore a pretty black leather jacket and nice slacks. From his pocket he pulled a ten-note bill. “Want a fancy little cake? Seems they’re rather popular today,” he said, and Astoria watched a pair of kids leaving the bakery, both snacking on what looked like shards of chocolate on a literal giant raspberry.

“For a bunch of ex-templars, they’re very good cake decorators and bakers.”

“Probably had nothing better to do in the Order,” Astoria scowled. Rylen was okay – he brought the artists at Chargers cookies the other day – but her general distaste for templars, both current and previous, held firm. “I’ll pass on the fancy cake.”

Astoria adjusted the strap of her shoulder bag and turned to enter Chargers and begin her day.

__

 

The work kept his mind off of lyrium. He would roll the dough, place it in the oven, and repeat. It kept his hands busy. He had a rhythm. He felt grounded to his history and the bakery his family used to run in Honnleath. He felt human again.

Or maybe his mood was good because he’d taken another lyrium capsule last night.

Rylen worked across the kitchen, decorating more of the small cakes that seemed to be selling faster than Rylen could make them. Delrin ran the counter, took orders, and made sure neither Cullen nor Rylen collapsed in the kitchen. We really need some extra hired hands, Cullen thought.

Halfway through the day, Cullen leaned against the stainless steel countertop and wiped the sweat from his forehead (and smearing flour across it in the process). The crowd of workers and schoolchildren coming through for breakfast had subsided dramatically, though every indoor table was filled, as well as half of the outdoor tables.

Cullen admired their work. The bakery was a project over a year in the making, an idea that had formed as Cullen wrote his letter of resignation from the Order. Rylen and Delrin joined in down the road, and soon their combined efforts made all of this possible. Cullen believed that the bakery could be a sort of halfway house for ex-templars fighting lyrium addiction. It was already working for Rylen and Delrin.

It just had to work for him, too.

__

 

As night fell, Astoria watched the descent of the suns light on the whitewashed stones that covered the building and bakery across the street. The windows of the apartments above it were illuminated from the inside, and Astoria could see little vignettes of life in each window. In the uppermost, a woman bounced a baby to sleep in front of a crib. In the left window the floor below, an elderly man sat in a large armchair, reading. Another floor down, a family was sitting down for dinner.

The bakery was closing down for the night. Astoria sometimes checked in, watching the flow of customers grow and ebb. The bakery had an immensely successful first day, by all standards. Astoria just couldn’t get over the fact that three mages now worked across the street from three former templars, and the other two were perfectly fine with it.

Hours later, she was still sketching in her studio. Apparently tonight was the night of Isabella, Merrill, and Hawke’s big threesome, and Astoria was politely kicked out of the house for the night. Which was fine with her – had she gone home, they might have asked her to join in, and she was far too starved of sex to be comfortable with facing that decision.

She dared a glance across the street once more. Most of the lights were out, except for the second floor apartment. A single man stood in his kitchen, rolling what seemed to be dough on the countertop, working and reworking the same ball of dough for a few minutes, then throwing it in the oven and starting a new one. Astoria checked the clock on her cell phone: it was almost four in the morning. He was definitely alone, from what Astoria could see.

Every other building on the street was dark. Only their two rooms, exactly across the street from each other, were illuminated.

Astoria wondered on the man’s demons, the things that kept him up at night. Astoria wondered on her own.

Chapter Text

The next two days she spent with a singular client, carefully and meticulously tattooing a massive dragon back piece. The day before was purely black linework. Today, they started on colors and shading.

Astoria was standing to shade in the dragon’s eyes in a brilliant yellow. She would be lying if she said she wasn’t proud of her design; Astoria spent the last week sketching, erasing, and adding fine minute details.   If she weren’t the kind of person who challenged herself to do better, she would call it her magnum opus.

(Bull and the others sometimes knocked on her studio door to check in on the progress. Last night, after the linework was complete and she was taking pictures with the Chargers shared DSLR camera, Bull commented that he wanted her to do a similar piece on him. Astoria happily agreed.)

When she pulled the tattoo gun away after finishing the second eye’s color, her client asked, “Can we take a break? I really gotta pee. And eat.”

“Of course,” she said, and leaned back to let him stand up. Her dwarven client, Hammond, rolled off of the bench and groaned with relief. “I don’t think I need to remind you not to put a shirt on, or to touch your back with anything.”

“Please, just admit you like looking at all this,” Hammond joked, and dramatically ran his hands over his hairy chest.

“Oh, you got me there,” she laughed. Hammond had come to her a few times over the years. She’d done his entire right arm, some of his leg, as well as the piece on his stomach. He liked her work, and she liked his company. It was too bad he was already married to another man.

Hammond went upstairs to use the restroom, and Astoria made her way down to the reception room. Josephine had worn a loose tank top today and a pair of shorts that showed off the lovely floral tattoos that decorated her thighs. She stood at the jewelry counter, rearranging the gauges. Astoria dropped bodily onto one of the cushioned benches in the waiting room.

“Low on energy?” Josephine asked without having to turn around.

“So. Tired. Need. Sustenance.”

“You could go to Champions for lunch,” Josephine added coyly. Astoria grunted.

“Then I have to put a coat on,” she whined.

“Then suck it up and put a coat on. Or run across the street as fast as you can and avoid getting frostbite.”

Not a terrible idea, she thought.

__

 

Delrin was refilling the front display case with sourdough loaves when an elf ran in through the front door and shut it hastily. He raised an eyebrow. She was short and had even shorter hair, chestnut brown, the same as her skin.

And her skin was exposed.

Delrin wondered at her ability to survive the cold air that still blew in from the Frostbacks (In Bloomingtide, the weather varied from being in the pleasant mid-sixties to the chilly lower forties, thanks to the Frostback Mountains that surrounded the city) when he noticed that the elf wore only what looked like a very long very loose black tank top and a pair of green boots. Her arms were dotted with gray swooping lines and dashes of vallaslin; similar to those that adorned her face. And her face – he’d never seen such pretty eyes, one green and one blue. But his awe was shut down when he finally noticed the scar across the right side of her face.

The elvhen woman came to the counter, holding in her hand a twenty-note bill.

“Hi,” she breathed, as if she’d just run. Delrin supposed she probably had.

“Hi,” he said stupidly, and then remembered himself. “Uh, can I get you anything?”

She looked at the menu, chewing her lip in thought. The vallaslin on her arms continued across her collarbones.

“Can I just get a BLT without the B and a lot of the T?”

Delrin nodded, “Sure. Drink or a cookie?”

“Definitely iced tea, definitely one of those…” she looked at the display case of cookies, pastries, and cupcakes, “Blackberry and chocolate muffins, actually.”

Delrin rang up the order. Ten royals.

“Cullen!” Delrin called back as he reached into the display case for the pretty elf’s muffin, “BLT no B extra T!”

There was no divide between the front counter and the kitchen, and Cullen waved back at him. When Delrin turned around to give the pretty elf her muffin, she was staring at Cullen.

__

 

Of course the guy on the subway who tried to stand up for her against the manspreader would be one of the ex-templars in charge of Champions. Of fucking course. Astoria recognized him by his insanely curly blonde hair.

“Hey, you’re one of the artists at Chargers, aren’t you?” the guy at the counter said. Astoria read his nametag. Delrin.

“Uh, yeah,” she said, looking away from the cook Delrin had called Cullen. Delrin handed her the muffin she ordered and moved to a large pitcher full of iced tea.

“Cool! Rylen’s over there all the time at lunch.” (That’s funny, she thought, since Krem is almost never here for lunch – oh) “I’m Delrin.” He pointed to his nametag. Astoria read it a second time. “What’s your name?”

“Astoria,” she said, and took a bite from the blackberry chocolate muffin. She did her best to contain a moan of satisfaction.

“Well, I really like your vallaslin, Astoria. How long have you had it?”

Merrill started on my right leg last month. “Almost ten years now. I’m from the Lavellan Clan in the Marches.” Good. Not totally lying – I did get my face done ten years ago.

“Oh, Rylen’s from Starkhaven! Oh well you probably know that. Anyway, here’s your tea.” Delrin was very energetic. Astoria bounced on the heels of her boots. “I really like the job you did on Rylen. That was you, right? He was really glad to have covered up the templar insignia.”

“Hmm.”

“I was actually thinking of getting a tattoo. Not a cover up, I don’t have any tattoos, but something Ferelden.”

“Cool. You should make an appointment with our Josie. Only when you meet her, don’t call her Josie. You generally only get that right if she pierces something of yours.” Astoria then pointed to the little silver septum ring in her nose.

The baker/ex-templar Delrin had called Cullen decided this was a grand time to bring her sandwich to the counter. He did a double take when he saw her.

“Have we met before?” Cullen asked her, his disgustingly gorgeous brown eyes fixated on her face.

“Nope,” she blurted, and took her lunch. “It was nice to meet you Delrin!”

She ran back to Chargers across the street. Hammond was eating happily with Josephine in the reception room.

“See?” Josie said when Astoria came in, “wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“Don’t make me do that again. No-one warned me they were all attractive.”

Josephine laughed. “Astoria, you have to date sometime.”

“Nope,” she said, and plunked herself down on the reception room’s cushioned bench. “I am swearing off dating. Completely swearing off it. No more. I choose spinsterdom.”

Josephine and Hammond exchanged a doubtful look.

__

 

Cullen went back to work in the kitchen, thinking about the pretty elf.

He’d definitely seen her before. He’d recognize those eyes anywhere; not to mention the vallaslin on her face, or the scar that dragged from her forehead to her jaw.

It wasn’t Leliana’s birthday party, or any of the million blind dates Cassandra tried to set him up with (he’d only actually gone on about three, none of them went well, and no second dates ever occurred, because Cullen was a right arse and never called back).

He racked his brain halfway into panic about lost memories – he took another lyrium capsule last night when the headache made him want to blow his brains out – until the image of a crowded subway and some asshole manspreading flashed into his mind.

Did she recognize me? He wondered. The Marcher was spread out, his arms loose and pressing against her side, and the elf had no room on the other side due to the plastic barrier between the seats and the subway car door. She was obviously uncomfortable. No one else was doing anything.

After she got off, which was coincidentally the same stop he needed, the Marcher tried to pick a fight, shouting curses at him. Cullen missed his stop and got off on the next one.

He looked past Delrin at the counter and out the front window. Across the street, the door to Chargers Tattoo and Body Piercing closed.

__

 

“So, hold up a minute, we’ve been invited to what now?

Cassandra rolled her eyes and tipped her glass of wine back, swallowing the last remaining in the glass. “Varric has invited us to the launch party for his new movie. He wants all his ‘muses’ and his actors to be there and to get wildly drunk and take pictures or something.”

Cullen groaned. He uncorked the bottle of wine to refill Cassandra’s glass. Leliana hummed.

“I’d be interested in finally meeting the woman playing me.”

“She’s not playing you,” Cassandra said, turning to Leliana, “she’s playing a character based off of some of the things you do. You both get subtle roles – if Varric didn’t name her ‘Magdalene Tetraclast’ I would sue him for identity theft.”

“You’d sue your own husband?”

“Don’t underestimate me,” she said pointedly.

The three stood in Cullen’s kitchen late at night, drinking into a half-stupor, just as they did twice a month like clockwork. Even though Cullen left the Order a year ago, Cassandra and Leliana (working in very secret and incredibly high positions in the Seekers and the Chantry, respectively) were still his two closest friends. They’d met when he was the Knight-Captain of Kirkwall six years ago, working together against a gang of blood mages slowly taking over the undercity.

(These bi-monthly meetings were part of the reason Cullen insisted on a two-bedroom apartment, as Cassandra and Leliana usually became too intoxicated to make it home safely. Usually, they shared the guestroom bed. Sometimes they crashed in Cullen’s bed with him, a reminder of the tiring late nights spent during their investigations in Kirkwall.)

“So we have to go to this fancy party,” Cullen rubbed his eye with the meat of his palm (Was he tired? Was his eye itchy? Cullen didn’t know. Cullen was halfway drunk.), “Lets just go, I’d rather do that than have Varric guilt trip me later.”

“Cullen, you hate parties,” Leliana said.

“Yes,” he said, pointing his mostly empty glass of wine at her, “that is true.”

“You don’t even have to stay the whole time,” Cassandra waved her hand, “It’s not like you’re the talented Marian Hawke, star of the movie, conqueror of the Qunari invaders of ages past and leader of a rebellion against the evil Templars.”

“Should you even be supporting this film? Considering your job?” asked Cullen.

“I’m a Seeker, technically. Plus, it’s my husband, even if the film were politically driven I can’t get in trouble for it.”

“Is that like the thing where a husband and a wife can’t get arrested for the same crime?” Leliana asked, looking at no one in particular, her glass of wine (refilled three times already) sat empty in her hand.

“No,” said Cullen, “and that’s not even a real thing.”

Leliana hummed. She poured herself a fourth glass. The trio had gone through two bottles already.

“Also,” said Cassandra, “Varric wants you both to bring a date.”

“Hey, that’s not fair,” Cullen said and pointed at Leliana, “she’s got Josephine. That’s a built in date. I don’t have a Josephine!” Cullen had five glasses of wine tonight.

“You don’t have to bring a date,” Leliana said, a matter-of-factly.

“Screw that, I’m bringing a date.”

__

 

Astoria really needed a new apartment.

This thought came to her as she heard Hawke coming to Merrill upstairs. Though she had her music turned up high through her headphones, the sheer knowledge of what was going on made their noise so much louder.

She’d saved up her tips and earnings from Chargers, and had enough left over in her bank account for a security deposit and a couple months’ rent at least; the problem was this: all her furniture and much of her clothes were destroyed or thrown out after the fire at her old place.

Hence wearing the same goddamn dress every day.

The cost to replace her furniture, as well as outfit herself with new clothes, would put her in a place of a lot of financial struggle. And because of the mage thing, Astoria was rather opposed to finding a roommate.

She even considered looking for apartments in the alienage again. She’d get less micro-aggressions directed towards her from the humans in the more upscale parts of the city, but at the cost of security, amount spent monthly on public transit, and the chance of another fire happening, she’d much rather get out of the alienage.

Astoria leaned back on the pillows of her temporary bed and closed her laptop. She thought about her magic and the small amount she could do: the peace aura for the Vallaslin Rite, the single defensive spell Keeper taught her, and her innate ability to create and conduct small amounts of electricity. Perhaps she could contain and hide her magic enough to have a non-mage roommate?

She thought about Krem. He already had three roommates (Skinner, Stitches, and Grim), and certainly had no need for another. There was no way she would try to live with Dorian and Iron Bull – Astoria had enough of couples – and neither Isabella nor Josephine had need of a roommate.

A resounding boom echoed from upstairs. Astoria pulled out her headphones and sighed. Three mages in one house was one too many. She checked the time on her cell phone – the last subway train to the Charger’s borough wouldn’t leave for another forty-five minutes. Astoria grabbed her bag.

__

 

Cullen was hardly the kind of person to enjoy parties. Sure, he could drink (and he could drink a lot), but being shoved in a room full of people and forced to socialize had never been his strong sort.

Also, he didn’t bring a date.

He basically clung to Cassandra’s sleeve as the party moved around them. Some part of him understood that half the people here were famous actors, pockets lined with gold and living on a completely separate tier than he did (“Are you an actor as well? Were you in the film?” “Actually I’m a baker. I also quit the Templar Order last year and I’m addicted to lyrium. What a nice dress you’re wearing tonight, miss”). Men and women alike kept trying to buy him drinks or invite him to their homes/hotels. He never felt a moment’s respite from the amount of people talking to Cassandra and trying to include him in the conversation.

“This is a nice suit,” one woman told him, her hand pressed flat against his chest. Cullen carefully picked off her hand and excused himself to the balcony.

Cassandra and Varric’s penthouse apartment overlooked much of Haven. From here, he could spy the ancient sprawling boroughs, the river that led to the Temple of Sacred Ashes, as well as the central park around Lake Shartan. The city spilled over the valley, some parts climbing the high foothills of the surrounding Frostback Mountains. In the darkness of night, the city lights illuminated the snow-capped mountains, giving the valley an ethereal glow.

As Cullen took in the scope of the sights around him, he spotted the elvhen woman he’d seen before sitting alone on a bench at the other end of the balcony. She held a drink in her hand and was dressed in a plain green two-piece skirted outfit. She was also barefoot. Her presence in the bakery the other week was a curiosity to him – now, seeing her a third time in a city this big, seemed more than mere coincidence for a city so big.

Cullen found himself leaving the railing of the balcony and walking towards her. She seemed distracted, her eyes trained on the glowing mountains. She jumped when she saw him.

“Mind if I sit?” he asked.

She shook her head. “No,” she said quietly, “not at all.” Her Dalish accent was thick.

Cullen sat down on the bench, about a foot away from the elvhen woman. She sipped her drink.

“I know that I seem to get asked this myself a lot tonight –“

“I’m not an actress,” she said, “I’ve gotten the question plenty of times myself.”

“Ah.” Cullen took a drink. “How do you know Varric?”

She shrugged. “I don’t. I’m Marian Hawke’s roommate – sort of – I work with her…partner.” She seemed to chew on that last word, as if she weren’t sure it was right. “Hawke and Merrill dragged me here. I only agreed because of the open bar.”

Cullen chuckled. “Then you and I have something in common.”

She hummed, but was silent. Cullen wondered if she recognized him. The four drinks in him told him to ask. His own neuroses begged him not to.

“I couldn’t help but notice you were in my shop last week,” Andraste’s tits, Cullen, way to be subtle.

The elvhen woman turned to him. Up close, the scar on her face was brutal and jagged. Either she’d been cut with something very dull, or someone had done a poor job stitching it up. Cullen felt a phantom itch on his own scar, the one that bisected his mouth, dragging his lips into a perpetual unpleasant sneer. Like telepathy, he noted her eyes focus on his own scar. Her shoulders remained tight, but something changed in her eyes.

“I’m surprised you remember any one of your customers,” she said, “especially a one-time customer like me.”

Cullen didn’t remember what he said to that. But she smiled, then caught herself and took a drink. So do you work at Chargers? He tried to say the words. His own confidence and the alcohol were holding him back. Why can’t I just ask her? It’s not hard. Just say it.

“So what are you doing here?” she asks, “Are you an actor? Or a freeloader like me?”

Cullen, thankful for the continuation of the conversation, replies enthusiastically “Neither. Varric shadowed me when I worked in Kirkwall, and based one of the characters on me.”

She tilted her head. “Really? Which character?”

“Knight-Captain Conrad,” he replied, “I was Knight-Captain in Kirkwall at the time…” he trailed off, noticing that the elvhen woman quickly swallowed the rest of her drink.

“Excuse me,” she said, hurriedly, and stood up and left the balcony before Cullen could blink.

Chapter Text

“I think I’d rather just stay here and work on some of my sketches. Friday the thirteenth is coming up, and I’d like to have a new selection for people to choose from—“

“You have spent every night for the last month either sketching, at the studio, or sketching at the studio,” Hawke chirped. The very tall and very muscular human was dressed in a sleek red gown, and stood with her hands on her hips in the doorjamb to Astoria’s room. “If you don’t come to this party, I’ll kick you out. Maker’s balls, Astoria, have some fun for once in your life.”

Astoria groaned. Merrill came swooping into the room, dressed in a long silvery shift, holding a simple green crop top and a matching tea-length skirt. “I found it!” she announced. Astoria groaned again, and held her hand out to take the outfit from Merrill.

__

 

As soon as they entered the apartment, Astoria was lost from Hawke and Merrill. The high heels she borrowed hurt her ankles and squished her toes.

She ditched the shoes in the coatroom and wandered through Varric Tethras and Cassandra Pentaghast’s apartment, weaving through conversations between well-dressed actors and reporters and the crew of the film. Astoria supposed she should have felt star-struck to be around so many celebrities and important people; the truth was, Astoria never went to see movies and frankly didn’t know who most of these people were.

Salvation came in the form of an open bar. Astoria got her drink and found the loneliest corner possible inside the apartment. Too soon, her corner was invaded.

“I came to compliment your ensemble,” said a woman with a thick Orlesian accent. Her blonde hair was done up in a million little twists, “I will stay to further compliment your beauty. Were you part of the film as well?”

Astoria did her best to keep her internal annoyance from reaching her outer shell. “No, I’m a friend of Marian Hawke.”

“Oh! That makes you her elvhen lover then?” the Orlesian woman said coyly.

Astoria sneered. “No, but I’m sure the mistake is often made. Once you see the ears it’s hard to tell any of us apart.” She took a sip from her fruity drink and escaped into the throng of the party.

That was untoward, she told herself, stop being rude all the time, stop being rude all the time…

She repeated her mantra until Josephine and Leliana flagged her down.

“It’s good to see you again!” Leliana chimed.

“I didn’t know you were coming,” Josephine said, and pulled Astoria into a one-armed hug, “I’m so glad you came!”

“She had six shots of tequila,” Leliana whispered to Astoria.

“I can see that,” she whispered back, and placed a kiss on both of their cheeks. “Enjoy the party!”

Astoria wormed her way back to the bar, refilled her drink, and continued to wander. If she didn’t stop wandering about, she would look important, busy, and people wouldn’t come talk to her. Creators, Astoria hated parties.

The warmth of the apartment became far too much, and Astoria found herself sitting on a bench on the wide balcony. She enjoyed the view of Haven; though she preferred the wide-open grasslands and forests of her home in the United Free Marches, the mountains here were spectacular.

Her peace and quiet jumped off the balcony when she locked eyes with the templar baker Cullen.

What the hell is he doing at this party, she thought, and how the hell does he keep turning up in my life?

“Mind if I sit?” he asked.

She was lost for words. Be cool, be cool, be cool, she told herself. Her throat dried up. She shook her head, “No, not at all.” Cullen sat down a foot away from her. I’m definitely going to lose my cool. Astoria took a drink. I’m a casual person. I can be casual. Casualty is my middle name. Wait, that’s the wrong use of ‘casualty’…

“I know that I seem to get asked this myself a lot tonight –“

Astoria knew exactly what he was going to say. She interrupted him. “I’m not an actress,” she said, “I’ve gotten the question plenty of times myself.”

“Ah.” Cullen took a drink. Astoria tried to discretely take a drink. “How do you know Varric?” he asked, continuing the conversation. Astoria felt hopelessly awkward. She tried to shrug it off and seem cool.

“I don’t. I’m Marian Hawke’s roommate – sort of – I work with her…partner.” (Astoria really needed to find out if Hawke and Merrill were actually married) Please don’t assume I’m her elvhen lover. I don’t think I can be asked that question twice in one night without screaming. “Hawke and Merrill dragged me here. I only agreed because of the open bar.”

Cullen chuckled. “Then you and I have something in common.”

Astoria hummed. She watched him from the corner of her eye. He was handsome; she’ll give him that. She wondered if he recognized her from that day on the subway. A very, very small part of her wished he would ask about it, give some inclination that she wasn’t some unforgettable face. Truth be told, she wanted his attention, enjoyed it. Creators smite her from the surface of Thedas, but Astoria had to get over her prejudices with her own attraction to humans. It had truly been far too long since she was with anyone.

“I couldn’t help but notice you were in my shop last week,” he said, and Astoria continued to absolutely war with herself over how to respond to his attentions. She turned her head to the right to view his face full on. Of course his eyes were still absolutely disgustingly beautiful, brown like the earth, but also golden. Her gaze trickled down his straight nose to his mouth. She’d barely noticed it before, but now it had become one of the most important features on his face: the scar that bisected his lips, fierce and jagged, pulling at his skin up along his nose and down to the middle of his chin. The scars on her face, earned long ago, burned. They remained physical reminders of pain and horror for everyone to see. He knows. He understands.

“I’m surprised you remember any one of your customers,” she said finally, “especially a one-time customer like me.”

“I’m sure I’d remember more, if they were as beautiful as you are.”

The compliment felt like a rush of warm air. She smiled, feeling lightheaded. She took a drink to calm herself. Cullen wasn’t saying anything, just looking at her, so she said the first thing that came to mind.

“So what are you doing here?” she asked, “Are you an actor? Or a freeloader like me?”

Of course, she knew he wasn’t an actor – he was a baker, an ex-templar from across the street (If he were an actor Astoria would be both surprised and impressed with his time management skills).

Cullen responded with absolute enthusiasm. Astoria thought it was a little adorable. “Neither. Varric shadowed me when I worked in Kirkwall, and based one of the characters on me.”

She tilted her head. “Really? Which character?”

“Knight-Captain Conrad,” he replied, “I was Knight-Captain in Kirkwall at the time—“

Astoria stopped hearing.

Knight-Captain.

Kirkwall.

Knight-Captain.

The scrape of a knife on her face. Mamae had disabled the gun with her magic. He’d gone after Mamae and she fought back. Astoria couldn’t find Mamae. The knife nearly nicked her eye. She’d never felt pain like it before.

Astoria downed the last of her drink. “Excuse me,” she said, hurriedly, and stood up and left the balcony without looking back to Cullen.

She was going to be sick. Keeper had helped her lock away the memories, taught her how to suppress them. Keep your hands busy. Keep your mind somewhere else. Imagine flowers and daisies instead of blood. Astoria learned how to draw at the Clan’s reservation school. Astoria kept drawing. Astoria never stopped drawing. Astoria never slept.

Her shoes were on. Her coat was draped over her shoulders, sleeves loose at her sides. She left the empty glass on the bed of the coatroom.

Hawke grabbed her wrist on her way out.

“Astoria what’s wrong?”

What’s wrong?

What’s wrong Mamae?

Mamae why aren’t you getting up?

(I’m not there)

There was hardwood instead of the forest floor. It wasn’t as soft when her knees collapsed on it.

__

 

Merrill pet Astoria’s hair away from her forehead and flipped over the cold washcloth over her eyes. She hummed a tune her Hahren would sing at the campfire. At her other side, Hawke snored.

Varric and Cassandra’s guest room had a lovely bed. Merrill admired the soft sheets, the plush pillows, and the sheer curtains that hung over the windows. The moonlight barely drifted in, turning Astoria’s hair ashen gray, her cheeks to stone.

When Astoria collapsed, Hawke grabbed Varric. She carried Astoria to the guest bathroom to let her vomit. Varric gave her towels and Varric grabbed Merrill. He shut the guestroom door behind them.

Merrill had seen Astoria have panic attacks before. She calmed her through them, letting them run their course, until Astoria would fall asleep from exhaustion.

Her trigger was always Kirkwall. The Templars there, fifteen years ago, nearly killed her. They killed her mother. Astoria killed them back.

Merrill knew bits and pieces of the story. The Lavellan Reservation was between Wildervale and Starkhaven, but part of their ancestral roaming lands involved the Planasene Forest, just west of Kirkwall. They weren’t allowed to be there, but Ellyn wanted to take her firstborn daughter to the Shrine of Dirthamen, the Elvhen God Astoria chose to honor throughout her life. A patrol of Templars crossed paths with them. The rest lies with Ellyn, and within Astoria’s mind.

Astoria could handle Templars. She could handle Kirkwall. But at the mention of Knight-Captain Samson, or any Templar with any relation to Kirkwall, she was lost.

Only Merrill, Dorian, and Sera knew any of this.

Hawke rolled over next to Merrill. She touched her arm, fingers tracing vallaslin. She looked up to meet the luminous eyes of the love of her life.

“Three mages lie in bed together. There’s a punch line somewhere,” Hawke whispered, and kissed Merrill’s shoulder. “How is she doing?”

“Better. She just needs to sleep.”

“You need to sleep.”

“I’ll be fine,” she told Hawke. Merrill watched the gentle rise and fall of Astoria’s chest. Cassandra gave them all clothes to wear to sleep, and Astoria currently wore a t-shirt with a cartoon nug on it. Merrill thought it was cute.

“I shouldn’t have dragged her here.”

Merrill nudged Hawke. “You couldn’t have known. It’s not your fault.”

“Then why do I feel like it is?” Even in the darkness of the room, Merrill could see the shame on Hawke’s face.

“Because you want to assign blame to something, and you always blame yourself. No one is to blame here. This stuff just happens.”

Merrill gently turned over in the bed to kiss Hawke’s forehead. Hawke buried her face in Merrill’s shoulder. They slept soundly, all things considered.

__

 

Astoria woke with her head pounding and her mouth dry.

A slightly damp washcloth sat folded over her eyes. She carefully picked it off, mindful of the light in the room.

Merrill’s arm was draped over her waist. Astoria gently lifted it off and placed it on the silky sheets next to her. She carefully slid off the bed, refraining from awakening Hawke or Merrill.

In bare feet, an unfamiliar soft t-shirt, and her spandex shorts she’d worn under her skirt the night before, Astoria padded out of the bedroom to the bathroom.

Creators, she looked awful. Her eyes were puffy and tired, her skin slightly pale, and her lips were chapped beyond reason. Leaning over the sink, she turned on the faucet and washed her face of sweat and everything else. She dried her face on a fluffy towel.

From the door leading to the hallway, Astoria followed the sounds and smells of eggs and Orlesian toast into the penthouse kitchen.

At the stove, Varric stood on a stool as he cooked. Cassandra sat at the granite island table and flipped through the newspaper. Both were dressed in old t-shirts and soft-looking pajama pants. Astoria hovered in the doorway.

“I honestly don’t know how to thank you,” she said very quietly. Cassandra looked up from her newspaper.

“Eating about six of these eggs will probably do the trick,” Varric said from the stove. Cassandra smirked. Astoria’s stomach rumbled at the thought of food.

“What time is it?” she asked as she walked over to the island table to sit next to Cassandra.

“Almost noon,” Cassandra said after checking her watch. Astoria groaned and dropped her forehead onto the cool granite countertop. Josephine is going to kill me when she finds out I am missing appointments.

The sound of glass scraping made her lift her head. Varric had slid two plates across the island towards his wife and Astoria, who was some poor elf he’d just met who threw up in his toilet.

“Thanks,” she said, and started on the eggs. There were six of them on her plate. “So, did, uh, anyone happen to see me freak out last night, or was that as completely low key as I’d hoped it was?”

Cassandra pointed her fork at Varric. Varric scratched his chin. “Hawke got you to the bathroom pretty quick, but there were definitely about five or six people who saw you go down.”

Astoria nodded. She took a bite of her eggs (By the Dread Wolf, Varric could cook) and felt near instant relief in her stomach. So perhaps Cullen didn’t see that. Definitely for the best, all things considered.

“You know, I think I’d like to write a book about you. Seeker, where did I put my…oh there it is.” Varric pulled open a random drawer on his side of the kitchen island and pulled out a notepad and pen.

“Seeker?” Astoria side-eyed Cassandra.

She shrugged. “Don’t worry about me. I don’t go after apostates anymore, not unless they’re blood mages. You, Merrill, and Hawke are safe so long as I’m around.”

Astoria still felt uneasy, but decided that if she’d known that both Merrill and Hawke were mages and hadn’t turned them in, she wouldn’t start anytime soon.

Astoria looked back to Varric, who was squinting his eyes at her, and jotting down on his notepad at random.

“So why write a book about me?” she asked, and continued to eat her eggs and Orlesian toast.

“Because,” he muttered through focusing on his notes, “you have an interesting background, you have an interesting job, and you surely know a lot of interesting people. You’re an interesting person. You’d make a good character.”

“Character or a book?”

“That’s for the pen and the paper to decide, Pukey.”

__

 

Josephine had such a maddening hangover that she didn’t even care that Astoria missed her appointments. Dorian rescheduled everything for her when Merrill texted him that night, and even put Isabella on reception and register when Josephine couldn’t stand for longer than thirty minutes without getting nauseous.

Astoria ended up staying at Varric and Cassandra’s all day, joined by Hawke and Merrill when they finally awoke. Varric interviewed Astoria and decided to make a character of her, going so far as to ask if she would be willing to act the part if his (still yet unwritten) story were made into a film (“I can’t even act!” “Half the actors in the industry can’t act, kid.”)

She, Merrill, and Hawke returned to Hawke’s townhouse late that night, and Astoria passed out the instant her head hit the pillow.

__

 

Cullen spent the day after the party nursing a headache and wondering about the elvhen woman. He kept his eye on the entrance to Chargers all day, but never saw a glimpse of her.

Later that night, lying on his bed but not sleeping, memories of blood mages and rage demons roared in his brain. He took a lyrium capsule, his bottle of capsules now nearly empty. The bad memories faded away, taking one or two good ones with it.

Chapter Text

Josephine smiled at her lover, watching as the redhead pet a passing couple’s leashed nug. Her face was all a-glow; the evening had gone perfectly. The restaurant was delightful, the food perfect, and the Chantry District was lively and illuminated with street lamps and fairy lights wrapped around the trees. Leliana had the expression of someone experiencing pure bliss.

Leliana thanked the couple, and they walked on. She turned around and held her hand out for Josephine, her fingers playfully wiggling until she took them. Leliana snuck a light kiss to Josie’s cheek.

“I love you,” she said, and kissed her cheek again. Josephine squeezed her hand, and whispered back, “I love you too.”

In the middle of that magical street, Josephine dropped to one knee, and from the pocket of her dress pulled an ancient and exquisite family ring, her heart soaring as Leliana’s eyes filled with tears, a wide grin on her face.

 

--

 

“It’s got too many numbers,” Sera said unenthusiastically.

Astoria looked at the monthly rent listing. It was a lot of numbers. It was far too many numbers, based on her current average monthly paycheck. Astoria groaned, and looked around the two-bedroom apartment.

It was too much to ask to be able to afford a two-bedroom in the same district as Chargers. Sera, in need of a new place as well, decided to go in on half the rent with her. And, of course, Astoria didn’t actually know what kind of job Sera was actually paid for.

“I’m not living in the alienage again,” she said, rubbing her forehead. She pulled out the newspaper clipping of open houses in the city. They’d been to three so far in this district, and had no luck. The next cheapest above living in the alienage was a listing Astoria could barely afford in the River District.

Had she not been saving a third of her paycheck and sending another third to her sister back with the Lavellan Clan, Astoria could afford a lot more than the apartment she currently stood in. But those savings were for a really rainy day, and there was no way in hell that she’d give less to her sister. Sorcha needed those funds.

The apartment realtor, a bright-faced human, trotted up to where the two elves stood in the kitchen. “So, have we come to a decision?” she asked.

Astoria shook her head, “We’re going to keep looking. It’s a nice apartment, but we’re looking for something a little different.” A lot cheaper, more like it.

The realtor just nodded her head. “Okay! Here’s my card, give us a call if you change your mind!”

Astoria smiled, more of a grimace than a grin, and pocketed the card in her bag. Sera was already on her way out the door.

Astoria didn’t say anything until they got out onto the street. “Okay, lets just look at this place in the River District.”

“Fine,” she sighed, and scrubbed a hand through her short blonde hair. Her undercut was growing out unevenly. “I hate this city. Things keep getting expensive-er. Stupid.”

“I know,” Astoria nodded, “and I know that the River District apartment is at the top of our price range, but after that it’s back in the alienage.” Sera scoffed. “Same. Let’s just go, look at it, see if it’s functional, and we’ll make a decision later.” Sera reluctantly nodded, and the two set off for the nearest subway station.

 

__

 

Okay, so it was perfect.

Two bedrooms, a decent sized living room, and a full (though pretty small) kitchen, one full bathroom, and decent closet space. Plus, it was a corner apartment, and the bedrooms were on opposite sides of the entire space.

Astoria bit the bullet and signed the lease that day.

Sera was a little more hesitant to sign, but was secretly pleased to finally have a place to call her own.

The apartment was a ten-minute subway ride with two transfers away from Chargers. The River District was somewhat in the center of the city, a skinny fifteen-block long, five-block wide area hugging the north bank. It was mostly residential with some bodegas and cafés lining the street level, with several one-block parks dispersed throughout. It was the mirror opposite of the Financial District across the river, which was chock full of new skyscrapers and people in pressed suits, coffee shops and restaurants that were only open during the 11:00am-2:00pm lunch period.

The windows of their corner apartment looked east towards the Temple of Sacred Ashes, and north towards the mountains. Sera, an Andrastian with her own method of practice and worship, chose the bedroom facing east, leaving Astoria looking north. Which was fine, in her perspective; the last thing she wanted was to wake up every morning with a reminder of the exact organization that displaced her people for ages and led their persecution.

“Welcome home,” she muttered to herself.

 

__

 

The news of Josephine and Leliana’s engagement was buzzing throughout Chargers that morning when Astoria shuffled into the annex and shuffled out of her coat (the other day Astoria finally bought something to wear other than her long black shift; she’d bought black denim overall shorts, and with it wore a forest green bandeau, that really displayed the vallaslin on her back. It was, as best Astoria could justify it, a present to herself for finally getting an apartment). Merrill and Dorian fussed over Josephine and asked her a million questions each. Isabella was merely smiling from a distance; Krem gave his congratulations and went to work on a client upstairs, and the Iron Bull watched from a safe distance as his partner fawned over a budding and upcoming marriage.

“Holy shit,” was all Astoria had to say, and gave Josephine a hug and a peck on the cheek.

She trudged upstairs to put away her bag and set up for the day. She was cleaning her tools when her ten-o-clock appointment came in—two human sisters, obviously twins, both getting the words “Womb to the tomb” tattooed on their ribcage.

“How long have you been doing this?” asked the sister who hadn’t yet received her tattoo. The one Astoria was working on was silent and still—impressive, for her first tattoo, since in Astoria’s own experience, rib tattoos can hurt.

“About four years,” she said, returning her focus to the little typewriter-font words.

“Have you been with Chargers the whole time?”

“Yep, straight out of school.”

“Wow. That’s so cool. I’d love to work in a place like this. This old building, working for a parlor with a long reputation, and on a street like this? That’s so lucky.”

Astoria nodded her head—if she shrugged, she’d screw up the tattoo—and said “I never really thought about being lucky in that sense, but I felt very lucky to get hired in the first place.”

“Is it hard?”

“It’s just that there can be a lot of competition. Different places look for different styles. I was lucky to apply to a place that wanted my art style. I’d applied to other places that were looking for artists with styles other than mine.”

“And what would you say that your style is?”

Astoria thought about that for a moment. It was easy to look at her work and see a commonality between each piece, but to put describing words to it—she hadn’t really had to do that before.

“I guess I would say my art is generally very organic, but I mix it up with geometry. My sketchbook is on the desk over there—go ahead and take a look.”

The young woman’s face lit up, and she practically jumped out of her seat to cross the room to open Astoria’s sketchbook. She generally didn’t let people look in there, not unless she really trusted them or felt comfortable with them. A lot of artists didn’t. There was something inherently sacred about unpublished work, the sketches and the drawings that never saw the light of day but stayed close to her heart anyways. It was as if she were opening her soul to a stranger, for just a little while.

“These are incredible,” she whispered. A little light shone in her heart, blinding against the gray fog she usually kept there.

 

__

 

When the tattoos were done, Astoria walked the twins down to the desk to pay. She charged them each only seventy-five, and was tipped twenty each.

“Hey,” asked the twin she tattooed first, “is the café across the street any good? We’re starving.” It was lunchtime, after all.

Astoria made a face, thinking. “Yeah, the food’s pretty good.” The jury was still out on the whole ex-templar-business.

Isabella, who was lingering by the counter, butted in. “The food is excellent, but the men are better.”

The first twin lit up, but the second (who Astoria had let view her sketches) held a blank expression. “That’s all good and stuff, but I’m gay.”

“More for me!” the first twin grinned ear to ear.

“Hrmph” went the second twin.

“They may have the men,” Isabella continued, “but we at Chargers have all the ladies.”

Astoria didn’t miss Isabella slipping the second twin her number while the first thanked Astoria and Josephine for the tattoos.

Everyone’s hooking up with my goddamn clients, she thought to herself. She’d add “except for me” to that thought, but remembered her promise to herself to be a spinster. Life was so unfair.

 

__

 

To her credit, Cassandra was strangely attentive to Cullen’s health.

It wasn’t that he hadn’t been healthy—he exercised, he ate well, he hadn’t gotten a cold since before he joined the Templar Order—it was more that Cassandra was a stubborn sort of mother hen when it came to him, ever since he first told her he was quitting lyrium when he left.

The Seekers worked alongside the templars for ages. Cassandra knew what it looked like when lyrium took your memories away, and ate at your personality. So when Cullen has absolutely no idea what she was talking about when recalling an event from their time in Kirkwall together, she had something just short of what Cullen would call a fit of outrage.

She pulled him aside in the pub that she, Leliana, and Cullen were drinking at that night.

“I thought you stopped!” she exclaimed, unable to keep herself below a whisper. Cullen peered around her to see if any of the pub patrons had noticed. Then he turned on her.

“I stopped taking the draughts daily. I didn’t lie about that. You have no idea what it’s like, to quit lyrium after ten years. The headaches alone might have killed me, were it not for the nightmares, the memories that plague every waking minute of my life.”

“You think you are the only one who has seen horrors in the name of Andraste?” she spat.

“I don’t take it every day, only when I need to – and only in small pills, nothing like the draughts I took back then. I’m – I’m weaning myself off. Slowly.”

“It’s been a year, Cullen,” she said, and her tone changed from angry to desperate. “You told me you wanted to be completely independent by six months. This is not progress.”

He said nothing. Cullen’s jaw was stiff as he looked past Cassandra, his eyes focused on the wood paneled wall behind her head.

“I want to help you. I care about you, for Andraste’s sake. Let me help you.” She breathed heavily. “Maybe you’re not ready.”

“No,” he said, and his voice was far more hoarse than he intended it to be. “I can’t do that. I won’t live in a hospital until some doctor says I’m ready.”

“Cullen, out here you have access to lyrium. While you have the desire for it, it will always be a temptation that you will give in to.”

“Even if I were completely independent,” he seethed, “it will always be a temptation. I will always hear it’s song, I will always feel the need to take it. That’s what they did to me. That’s why my horrors and your horrors are different. Fuck, Cassandra, they made me learn to hide behind a flask when you were taught to handle your shit like a regular human being.”

His chest was heaving. He hadn’t noticed. This sudden anger made him want to get out, into the cold air, to cool off and calm down. It made him want lyrium. He needed lyrium. But he only had five capsules left – he had to save them until he could get another bottle.

“You have a month,” she said. “You have one month to be completely independent before I put you in a hospital. Damn it, Cullen, this is killing you, and I won’t allow you to just let it.”

“No,” he shook his head. A month wasn’t enough, not enough for all the things he wanted, needed – “Give me at least until Leliana’s wedding.”

She had asked Cullen to be her best man, and for Cassandra to be her maid of honor.

He could see Cassandra thinking it over. Three months to get clean on his own, or he would submit to professional help.

“Fine,” she said. “You have three months. Maker guide you, Cullen.”

 

___

 

Cullen was restocking the pastry display case when two very happy looking twin sisters came into Champions, one looking directly to the menu posted above the ordering counter, the other glancing around the shop to look at Delrin, Rylen, and Cullen himself.

He straightened and stepped over to the counter. “Afternoon. What can I get you?”

The twin who had focused on the menu opened her mouth to speak, but the twin who had focused on the men working cut her off. “What would you recommend?”

“Uhh,” said Cullen, rather untactfully, “sandwiches are good.”

“I’ll have a bacon avocado Panini,” said the Menu Twin. The Men Twin glared at her sister. “and a cup of Earl Grey.”

“For here,” said the Men Twin. Menu Twin glared back. “And I’ll have the tuna salad sandwich with one of those,” she leaned over to look at the display case, “honey raspberry tarts. And just a glass of water for me.”

Cullen gave them their receipt and took their money, and gave the order slip to Delrin in the kitchen.

He went to go make Menu Twin’s tea when Men Twin leaned on the counter, striking up conversation.

“This place is so pretty. I’m so glad you guys moved in here.” (“uuuuughhhh” went Menu Twin, already sitting at a table by the windows)

“Yeah, we really like the neighborhood,” he said, pouring hot water first into a mug, then into another small kettle for refills.

“We just came from that cute little place across the street,” the tone of her voice shifted; to what, Cullen didn’t know, nor did he particularly want to know. “My sister and I just got matching tattoos from one of their artists. She was a little standoffish” (“Allie!” scolded Menu Twin) “but she was pretty. Interesting face tattoos. Weird eyes, though - different colors,” she added in a whisper, likely so that her sister wouldn’t scold her again.

Now Cullen was interested. He collected the honey and sugar packets as well as the Earl Grey tea bag packet and arranged everything on a brown ceramic plate. “Were the tattoos vallaslin?”

“Yes!” Men Twin exclaimed, “that’s right, she was an elf. She had the vallaslin all over her body, too, you could see because nobody in there was wearing much clothing. It’s so boiling hot in there, you’d think you were in Par Vollen or something.”

“Yeah I’ve met her a couple times,” he said, hopefully casually, and brought Menu Twin’s tea around the counter for her and placed it on the table. Menu Twin thanked him, and he returned behind the counter to get Men Twin’s water. Nonchalantly, he added, “how is she doing, by the way?”

Men Twin shrugged. Cullen filled a plastic cup of water and handed it directly to her. “She seemed fine. Talked a lot with Nelly about art and tattooing. Again, pretty standoffish at first, but she was pretty friendly by the end of it. Recommended this place, actually.”

Cullen fought and failed to keep a smile from his face.

“Yeah, but that piercing artist’s recommendation got to you more,” Menu Twin said, her tone playful and teasing. Men Twin blushed.

“Yeah, and you got Isabella’s number,” Men Twin teased back. Cullen couldn’t identify the sinking feeling in his chest.

“Isabella is the tattoo artist?” he asked.

“No, Astoria is the tattoo artist, Isabella is the piercing artist,” Men Twin said. Just then, Delrin came around the counter with both of their orders. Cullen remembered to get Men Twin’s honey raspberry tart.

Astoria. It was a pretty name; unusual, but very pretty.

Chapter Text

“You couldn’t have just gone to that weird kitchy Anderfels furniture store with all the funny names, couldn’t you?” Krem groaned, “No, you had to get stupid heavy furniture from the side of the road. How much does this dresser weigh?

Astoria ignored him as he and the Iron Bull carried her new dresser up the stairs to her and Sera’s 6th floor walk-up. She carried at least forty pounds of kitchen supplies in bags – meaning she was carrying about 40% of her body weight, and was having a hard time doing it.

Astoria and Sera had decided to move everything in at once, which was a good idea at first because then they could close Chargers for just one day and have all hands on deck (plus Sera’s work friend Thom Ranier, who was a funny guy who was just as secretive about whatever the hell they did as Sera was). Sera obviously had more furniture than Astoria did, since her shit didn’t get burnt up. Astoria found basic furniture on free-and-for-sale listings, but had to cave and buy a new mattress, sheets, pillows, duvet, etcetera.

“Look,” Krem continued, “I’m a strong guy. I’m not a fuckin Qunari strong kind of guy, but I work out. And this shit is ridiculously heavy.”

“It cant be that heavy,” said Thom behind them all, two dining table chairs in his ridiculously beefy-for-a-human arms.

“It’s a little heavy,” the Iron Bull admitted, and grunted as he banged one of his horns against the wall as he and Krem pivoted around the corner up the stairs.

“I’m calling Rylen. He’s a fuckin gym rat, he can help.” The Iron Bull hollered as Krem dropped his end of the dresser to pull out his phone.

Astoria rolled her eyes at them, and slid past them to huff and heave the heavy bags the rest of the way up the stairs.

Merrill, Josephine, Dorian, and Sera were upstairs unpacking and putting things where they were supposed to be in the kitchen. Astoria kicked the propped door open with her foot and shuffled in with the bags, dropping them noisily on the floor of the kitchen.

“I think my arms have fallen off. Are they still there? I can’t feel them.”

“Astoria, dear, are the pans in any of those bags?” Dorian asked, and went over to peer into them anyways. He made a small “Ah-hah!” sound and pulled out four different sizes and shapes of cast-iron pans. Astoria groaned at the sight. Why, by the Dread Wolf, does Sera own cast-iron pans?

“I hate this ancient building that doesn’t have any elevators.”

“You were the one who signed the lease on this ancient building that doesn’t have any elevators,” Sera pointed out, “I just followed your lead.”

“No-one should ever let me make decisions ever.” She would have flopped onto the couch, if the couch was upstairs yet, and not still sitting in a moving van on the street.

A groan and a grunt sounded from the doorway as the Iron Bull maneuvered his horns through the door frame, and he and Krem carried in Astoria’s stupidly large, stupidly heavy dresser, Thom close behind them. She didn’t need a dresser that big. She owned all of two outfits. And had a decently sized closet. She couldn’t believe she let Josie talk her into picking up that monster of a dresser.

“Rylen’s on his way,” Krem grunted and shuffled with the Iron Bull towards Astoria’s room, which until now was completely devoid of furniture. There was still her mattress, desk, and mirror to carry in, not to mention all of the living room furniture, the dining table, the rest of the chairs Thom wasn’t carrying, and most of Sera’s stuff (of which she had a lot of. If Astoria’s life was bare-bones minimalistic, Sera was a borderline hoarder).

To be honest, Astoria was really warming up to Rylen. He came into Charger’s nearly every day to bring his boyfriend lunch, and often brought cupcakes or cookies to the rest of the artists there. He was funny, respectful, and always made Astoria feel like she was back in the Marches with his accent and his overall scent. That unique smell, the one that brought her right back to the open plains of heather and the juniper forests, enveloped her whenever he leaned over her drawing desk to place whatever treat he’d brought her that day before her. It was a friendly scent, a friendly and platonic reminder that despite their different backgrounds, they came from the same lands.

Rylen asked Astoria to tattoo the Starkhaven flag on his bicep, and the appointment was for next week. He asked if the Lavellan Clan had any sort of flag – Astoria replied no, no individual flag, but that the stag is a very important symbol to the clan. “Most of my skin is devoted to the vallaslin, but if I were to get the stag,” she had told him, “I’d get the antlers here,” she turned around to show the back of her head where part of it was shaved, and with both hands, drew the flow of two antlers from the nape of her neck up and out, over her ears to her hairline near her temples.

“Where’s Isabella?” Dorian asked his boyfriend when the Iron Bull re-entered the main living area.

“Watching the moving truck. Last time I saw her, she was single-handedly destroying the confidence of some scumbag who made the mistake of cat-calling her.”

“Maker preserve his spirit,” Josie said, unwrapping a newspaper-covered plate, “when she’s done with him there’ll be nothing left.”

Astoria smiled at her friends, and watched them for a moment before scampering off downstairs to retrieve more things that a small elf like her was capable of carrying.

By the time she got to the street, the caught Isabella flipping off the back of some human guy, shouting “Have a nice fucking day!”

“How’d that go?”

Isabella turned around, her face pleasant. “Wonderful, really. I think I made some real progress with that one.”

Astoria peered into the back of the moving truck, sighing at all that they still had to move in. She picked a box of books meant for the living room, not quite realizing just how heavy books could be. She instead chose to carry up the big-yet-rather-light box of her bedding.

On the grueling walk up, she passed the Iron Bull, Krem, and Thom headed back down, all leaning against the wall as she passed with her large box.

In her bedroom, she dropped the box next to where the mattress would go (Astoria decided she would simply wait to buy a bed frame until she had more money saved up, and would deal with the shitty hipster aesthetic for now). She turned to look at the dresser – it was a big, white wooden dresser, with ten drawers in it. It’d take years to fill it with clothes, same with her closet; but it would do for now.

Someone knocked on the open door. Astoria turned around to see Josephine standing in the doorway. “Come on in,” she said, and put her hands in the pockets of her overalls that she wore over a pair of orange leggings.

“Astoria, you’ve been one of my best friends for four years,” she said, slowly stepping into the room, and Astoria had a number of thoughts of where this conversation was going. “You’re a huge part of my life, and I would trust you with my life.”

“I’m flattered—“

“I want you to be my Maid of Honor at my wedding.”

Well, she certainly wasn’t expecting that.

“Are you serious?”

“You’ve been there for me for years,” she said, “you’re responsible, trustworthy, and by the Maker do I trust you to help me make this next step in my life.”

Astoria stood there, absolutely flabbergasted. She really didn’t expect that. Really didn’t expect that.

“Of course,” she exhaled, “of course I’ll be your Maid of Honor!”

Then Josephine squealed, and hugged Astoria, lifting her into the air.

“Thank you! Thank you I am so pleased!” she exclaimed, and the Antivan’s face was of pure happiness. “I just asked Dorian to be my Best Man, and he said yes too! Leliana loves you two, she’ll be so glad. So glad!”

And Josephine pecked Astoria on both cheeks and practically skipped out of her room into the main room.

Astoria twirled happily where she stood. The little light that had been growing in her heart doubled in brightness. The fog in her heart was beginning to retreat.

Then she heard Krem holler from the main room, “Rylen’s here! And he brought the baker boys!”

Astoria stopped dead. Cullen.

 

__

 

Cullen tapped his fingers on the counter. It was an uncharacteristically slow day at Champions, and he could tell Rylen and Delrin were bored. They didn’t bother making any more loaves or pies if the traffic was already this slow at the lunch hour.

Rylen called from the kitchen, “Hey guys, Krem just texted.” Cullen turned around to look at him. “He’s asking for help moving in Astoria and her friend’s new apartment. Whatddya say we go?”

“The tattoo artist from across the street?” asked Delrin.

“Yep.”

“All of us?”

“Do you see any customers coming in today?” he said. Then he addressed Cullen. “Come on, lets go. Build some relationship bonds with our neighbors and help out.”

“And see your boyfriend,” Delrin coughed.

“And see my boyfriend,” Rylen confirmed.

Cullen thought it over. He hadn’t seen Astoria since Varric’s party, and wasn’t sure just how welcome he would be—she hadn’t exactly given a warm farewell.

“Do I have to go?” he asked, sounding more like a petulant child than he meant to.

“Yes, Cullen,” Rylen said, his tone mimicking that of a mother, “you have to come, and help carry furniture.”

Wordlessly, Cullen walked around the counter to flip the sign in the window from ‘OPEN’ to ‘CLOSED.’

 

__

 

She hadn’t seen Cullen since Varric’s party, not since she freaked out on him and the memory of that terrible night had come spinning back into her mind. Astoria feared that he might have seen it, that he might think she hated him, when it had nothing to do with him, not really.

Hold up—she thought to herself—why do I care about what he thinks of me? I’m going to be a spinster. A celibate spinster. A celibate spinster who doesn’t care about ex-templar men with curly hair and scars on their faces.

He totally would judge her for her panic attack at the party, for blowing him off like she did. He saw it, she was certain. Who hadn’t? Didn’t she make a big scene? Maybe Varric said she didn’t but she felt like she did.

Why, oh why, do I always find myself attracted to human men?

Astoria took a deep breath. She squared her shoulders. She put one foot in front of the other, and walked out of the social safety of her bedroom and into the main room.

There was Rylen and Krem shyly holding hands as they greeted each other. There was Delrin, looking sheepish and unfamiliar with everyone in the room, and then there was Cullen, all golden hair and golden eyes, golden skin and tight black clothes that showed specks of flour dust on his sleeves.

Creators help me.

“Hi! She said to all of them, and then she felt stupid for just saying ‘hi’ when all three of the bakers turned to her.

“Hey there!” waved Delrin, and Cullen said a quick “Hello” and held out his hand. Astoria looked at it for a moment before remembering that humans shake hands a lot. So she took his hand in hers, and for a moment she felt the warmth there, his large human hand enveloping her small elvhen hand, his gold and hers brown. She could almost feel the softness that weeks and months of shaping and working dough had done to his hands, slowly softening the calluses that must have once covered his palms.

Then the handshake ended, and she reeled from the loss of it.

Shaking Delrin and Rylen’s hands didn’t have the same effect, but she greeted them just as warmly. Then she wordlessly stood back as Krem and Thom directed them downstairs to the moving van, where countless heavy furniture items awaited them.

 

__

 

With the kitchen set up, Astoria and Dorian started making snacks and meals for everyone. She chopped onions for vegetarian chili while Dorian prepped druffaloburgers (and one blackbean burger for Astoria), and a pot of mashed potatoes boiled away on the stovetop. In the refrigerator was a macaroni salad and two bundles of asparagus that Astoria would sauté later when almost everything else was ready. For snacks, Josephine had brought muffins and a fruit-and-veggie platter, and Dorian had made spiked lemonade.

Sera, Merrill, and Josephine unpacked the living room while Krem, the Iron Bull, Thom, Rylen, Delrin, and Cullen brought up furniture. With the addition of the three bakers, the job went by much faster than it was before, and within a few hours, the moving truck had been completely emptied, Isabella came upstairs from her watch post, and the movers were sweaty, tired, and hungry.

The Iron Bull smacked a kiss on Dorian’s cheek as he mashed the potatoes. Astoria stood at the stove, sautéing the asparagus in olive oil, rosemary, and salt, and watched as the tired movers dispersed themselves around the living room’s furniture, some retrieving drinks of spiked lemonade, some grabbing handfuls of carrots and little cherry tomatoes to pop into their mouths until dinner was ready. Krem rested his feet in Josephine’s lap and his head in Rylen’s, Merrill sat next to Delrin and struck up a conversation about foxes, and Isabella rooted through the new liquor cabinet for something stronger than Dorian’s lemonade (which is damn-near impossible; Astoria watched him empty half a bottle of vodka into the pitcher). Sera and Thom talked, Sera excitedly, and Thom calmly. And Cullen leaned back, exhausted, in Sera’s big red papasan chair.

Astoria turned off the gas stove, the asparagus thoroughly cooked. She shimmied past Dorian and Iron Bull and grabbed a tall glass from the cabinet, twirled in place to the counter where the large pitcher of lemonade sat, and filled it nearly to the top.

She walked out into the living area and, fighting the bunches of anxiety that for some reason decided to fly around her stomach.

She stopped by the papasan chair, and held out the glass. “You look like you might need this.”

You could say Cullen’s eyes flew open, and would only be slightly exaggerating. He rocked the papasan chair as he struggled to sit up in it, his eyes wide and on Astoria.

“Yes,” he said, his voice a little hoarse, “thank you.” He took the glass from her, and Astoria’s fingertips brushed his, just a little bit.

Damn it, was all she thought.

 

__

 

The dining table didn’t have enough room for all of them, so all twelve of them sat on the rug on the floor of the living room, eating on newly unpackaged plates and with mismatched silverware, getting drunk on lemonade and the bottle of whiskey Isabella had started passing around. The large picture windows didn’t let in the light of the sunset the way a south or west-facing apartment would, so Sera quickly hung and plugged in meters and meters of little white fairy lights that circled the ceiling and windows and doorways. The ambient light illuminated the room beautifully.

Astoria was a little in love with the group – old friends and new friends, getting along like they’d known each other their entire lives. The mood was merry and bright, and the apartment was beautifully unpacked and already looked lived-in.

It was nearly midnight when people started home. Dorian and the Iron Bull left first, then Merrill; Josephine and Isabella were carpooling, as they lived in the same borough; Thom was spending the night on the couch that night; then Krem and Rylen left, drunk and happy, perhaps a little in love with each other.

Delrin and Cullen were pulling on their coats, a little sluggishly from the combination of alcohol and exhaustion. Thom was already conked out on the couch, snoring away, and Sera was silently puking in the bathroom (too much alcohol. Astoria would check on her in a little bit).

Astoria loaded plates in the kitchen, intending to wash them in the morning, when Cullen rapped his knuckles on the wooden archway into the galley kitchen.

“Hey, you want some help with those?” he asked, looking at the twelve dirty plates in the sink and twelve dirty glasses next to it, as well as the pots and pans piled on the stove.

Astoria scrubbed her hand through her hair, unknowingly making it stick up in the front. “Sure,” she said, because fuck, that was a lot of dishes.

“Delrin, you wanna wait?” Cullen tried whispering to mind the sleeping Thom in the living area, but Astoria knew that the man could sleep through fire alarms if he put his mind to it.

“Nah, buddy, I’ll just take a cab,” he said, and walked over to bump fists with Cullen. “G’night Astoria.”

“Goodnight Delrin,” she said, and waved as he went out the front door.

Cullen took off his coat again and pulled up his sleeves. His black long-sleeve shirt still had flecks of flour dust on the cuffs. Astoria noticed that his arms, however golden the skin, had some light silvery burn scars on them, from the wrists to the elbows. Astoria didn’t have to guess that they came from his years as a Templar.

“I’ll do the plates,” he said, “if you do the cups.”

“Deal,” Astoria replied, and handed him one of the new scrubby sponges and pointed at the bottle of dish soap.

Astoria felt a little strange standing so close to him. If she shifted just a couple inches to the left, she’d be touching him, her black denim hip against his blue denim leg. Creators, he was taller than her. Astoria was all of five feet tall on the line, and Cullen must be over a foot taller than that.

“I like your friends,” he said, scrubbing olive oil and druffaloburger grease off the first white ceramic plate. “They’re lively and they very clearly love each other.”

“We do,” she said, and she couldn’t tell if she was getting drunker or sober in his presence. “We’re all kindof strange misfits, but we built this family together. I’m closer to them than – well, than my own family.”

Cullen shrugged next to her, his arm bumping her shoulder. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Maker knows that I haven’t seen my family in over a decade.”

“Do you not get along with them?” she asked, and looked up at his face. From this angle, the jagged scar over his mouth was more pronounced, the shadows from the fairy lights in the living room making it look larger than it really was.

“I get along with them very well,” he said, “or, I got along with them. I love them, I just…”

Cullen paused in washing the plate. He rinsed it and set it aside in the dish drainer.

“I’m going to be very blunt with you,” he said, and took up a new plate. Astoria finished rinsing out another cup. “I had joined the Templars to keep people safe. I thought I would be protecting people, mages and non-mages alike. But a year or so into being a sworn Templar, things…changed. Something happened, something really bad happened in the prison they had me working at, and after I’d seen those horrors, experienced that pain, I couldn’t see my family again. I stopped writing, didn’t tell them when I was transferred from Ferelden to Kirkwall. Things got worse in Kirkwall, so I left. I wanted nothing to do with the Order, but it’s dark mark was still on me.”

Astoria was silent, her mind running over every word he said over and over again.

“I still can’t bring myself to contact them. I – I’m not the teenage boy that they last saw. I don’t think they would recognize me.”

“But you’re family,” she said quietly, “they’ll still love you.”

“Yeah,” he said, and maybe he wanted to add more to that, but decided not to. For a minute, they washed the dishes in total silence.

“You’re friends with Leliana, right?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said, “she and Cassandra are two of my closest friends.”

“Are you going to the wedding? I mean, when it happens, because Josie said it’ll be in three months but hasn’t sent out dates yet.”

Cullen made a sound like a “hah!” and set a clean plate aside. “I’m in the wedding. I’m Leliana’s best man.”

“I’m Josie’s maid of honor!” she exclaimed, and accidentally splashed herself with soap water. Cullen chuckled a little at her.

“Then you and I will be seeing a lot of each other,” he said, “if we’re going to be planning this thing.”

“Good,” she said quietly, but sure that Cullen had heard it.

They finished the dishes and the cups, and Astoria asserted that the pots and pans would get done later as there was no more room in the dish drainer for them all. Cullen pulled on his coat again, and it was two in the morning.

“Well,” he said, his hand on the doorknob, and Astoria noted the little golden curls that peeked out from under the edge of his knit hat, “Goodnight, Astoria.”

“Goodnight Cullen,” she said. He gave her a small smile and opened the door, looked back at her one more time, and closed it. Astoria waited a moment before sliding all four locks in place.

She checked on Sera, who was awake and scrolling through Twitter on her phone with her head rested on the toilet bowl rim (“You good?” “I’m good, thanks”), and padded lightly to her own room, where she shut the door.

She let out a frustrated cry, because all of her feelings were conflicting with each other, and threw herself face-first onto her bed, and promptly went to sleep.

 

Chapter Text

With the wedding set for the 25th of August, Astoria had the last few days of Bloomingtide, all of Justinian and Solace and most of August to get the wedding ready.

Of course, it wasn’t all on her. There were five others planning, two of which were the actual Brides.

And now that Dorian and Astoria were locked into their roles as Best Man and Maid of Honor, they had to go with Josie to every dress store and fitting she had arranged for herself.

Today she brought along Isabella and Merrill as well. The four of them sat on flat sofas in the elaborate and ornate dressing room of this particular wedding dress boutique, sipping champagne (“Are you eighteen?” the host asked Astoria and Merrill both, and wouldn’t serve them until they produced ID that showed that yes, they were both actually twenty-six and twenty-seven, respectively. Neither Dorian nor Isabella were asked to show ID).

Josephine poked her head out of the screened area, and grinned. “Seventh time’s the charm!” she said, and stepped out of the screened off dressing area (this the host insisted on; while everyone else was comfortable with Josie changing in front of them, the host said her store had a code of conduct policy).

Astoria let out an audible gasp. The dress was a beautiful cream color, so long the tips dragged on the floor, and the skirt was so fluffy you could almost call it a ball gown. It had a sweetheart neckline, and the bodice was tastefully and rather beautifully beaded. The short little sleeve-straps hung below her shoulders around her biceps, loose and elegant.

Astoria looked to her left to see her friends’ expressions. Isabella’s face showed only proud admiration, like a mother. Merrill was in awe of the dress, watching with her big green eyes how the little beads on the bodice sparkled in the studio lighting. Dorian was actually crying.

“So what do you think?” Josie asked, her voice quiet as a mouse.

“I think it’s perfect,” Astoria said plainly, “but ultimately, it’s up to you.”

Josephine turned around, looking into the five-paneled mirror set up for viewing all angles. She twirled slowly, letting the skirts flow around her. The bodice did highlight all of Josie’s wonderful curves, and the skirt accentuated her wide hips until she looked like a goddess.

Then Josie turned to her friends, and there were tears in her eyes. “I think I love it.”

 

___

 

Across the city, in another bridal shop, Cassandra and Cullen put down most of a bottle of champagne while Leliana put on and showed dress after dress after dress.

(“This one is too mediocre” she would say. “I don’t like the cut” “Everyone’s wedding dress looks like this I have to have a unique dress for Andraste’s sake” “Ok. This one looked pretty on the hanger but now it’s just ugly”)

After she’d gone through half the dresses in the store in her general relative size, stressing out the hostess after she rejected the tenth dress they tried on that day (Delrin and Rylen could manage the shop, and Cassandra didn’t want to work today anyways), Leliana nearly stormed out of the dressing room into the showroom.

“This one isn’t awful?” she said, definitely as a question, her arms outstretched. Cullen was leaning back on the sofa, legs crossed and a champagne flute held delicately in his fingers, looking for all intents and purposes not at all stereotypically heterosexual with his cable knit sweater, grey slacks and brown leather shoes. Cassandra sat with the elegance of a lady, but with the air of someone who could kill you. Which, for all intents and purposes, she very much could.

In this case, both appeared equally equipped to give a proper opinion on the dress, with critiques and compliments and suggestions for changes. But also in this case, Cullen merely looked at her open-mouthed, and Cassandra was equally as awed.

It was an ivory dress, with a chapel-length train and corset-like bodice. Lace extended past the sweetheart neckline and down her arms in a three-quarter sleeve, embroidered with rose and leaf patterns with small shiny beads. Cullen thought she looked like a queen, with her red hair elegantly falling down her collarbones and shoulders, over the exposed upper back.

“Well, say something!” Leliana said, and looked once more in the mirror, nervous and worried.

“Leliana,” Cullen said, “you’re the most beautiful woman in Thedas, and that dress is just as beautiful as you are.”

Leliana turned around to look at him, her lip quivering just a bit. Then she hoisted the skirts up with her hands (much to the chargin of the tailor, who was sitting by to fit Leliana, and to the chargin of the host, who was worried about any damage that might be about to happen) and dashed towards the sofa where they sat. Cullen barely had time to pass his champagne flute to Cassandra before Leliana threw her arms around his neck and totally and completely was not sobbing into his shoulder, getting eyeliner and mascara on the beige wool of his sweater, because Leliana was known as a stone cold bitch and had to keep up appearances, right?

Cassandra put down their champagne flutes and leaned over to rub Leliana’s back, gently admiring the dress up close.

Suddenly, Leliana sat up, eyes dry as the desert. “Cass, wait until you see the bridesmaid dress I chose for you and Hawke!”

Cullen smirked at his friend, and was only a little surprised when Leliana smacked a kiss on his cheek.

 

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“Leliana and I chose your bridesmaid dresses ourselves,” Josephine explained, “and ordered them and had them shipped here.”

Josie, Merrill, Astoria, Isabella, and Dorian exited the taxi on the steps of yet another bridal boutique. “Yvette is still at University in Val Royaux, but she’ll get hers fitted when the term ends in two weeks.”

Inside the boutique, the host greeted Josephine and checked her in. Then she led them all up into the showrooms and where the dressing rooms were.

Astoria was surprised to see that Leliana, Cassandra, and Cullen were there.

“You came just in time,” Leliana said, wearing a smart pencil skirt and matching sportcoat. She was lounging on one of the sofas next to Cullen. “I just got out of my dress.”

“You chose one?” Josie asked, and crossed the room to kiss her fiancé. Leliana nodded, and took Josephine’s hand to make her sit down. “Come, sit Dorian. We’re going to watch our beautiful bridesmaids get fitted for their dresses.”

“Hi” said Astoria stupidly, giving Cullen a small wave. He waved back, a smile pulling harshly at his scar.

“Is Hawke here yet?” Merrill asked.

“Not yet,” Leliana shook her head, “but she texted me and said she was on her way.”

On cue, the front door almost slammed open, and Hawke, six feet of radiant muscle and no grace whatsoever, climbed the steps up to the showroom. Merrill dashed over to her (Lover? Wife? Astoria knew them for four years and still didn’t actually know) and kissed her lightly.

The host sighed. “Shall we begin then?”

 

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“It’s very purple.”

“It’s the wedding colors, darling,” said Dorian.

He stood in Astoria’s dressing room with her, and helped her get into the thing. It had a v-neck, which wasn’t terribly flattering for Astoria’s whole small-breast-situation, that came up to a halter clasp. It was tight fitting to the waist, and then it was extremely long with a tall slit up the leg. Actually, it was too long. Even with the sample high heels, there was just so much leftover skirt at the bottom that Astoria didn’t know what to do with it all.

“They’ll hem this,” Dorian said, reading her mind and reaching down to gesture at all the fabric that was folded up on the floor of her dressing room.

“I’m so short.”

“Well, you’re also an elf, and this dress was ignorantly made with humans in mind. Thank goodness Josie had the sense to order an extra small to accommodate your little ribcage,” and Dorian made a point of this by standing behind her to show that his own torso was a little less than twice as thick as hers, and Dorian was a lean, albeit rather muscular man.

“Astoria!” called Leliana, “are you ready?”

She didn’t want to be ready; she didn’t want to go out there, with an extra foot and a half of dress bunched around her feet, for everyone to see just how short she was. Especially not Cullen.

Hold up.

Her feelings over the last week were terribly conflicted. The day of the big move-in, Astoria seemed to almost forget their situation; that she was a mage, and that he was an ex-templar; that templars ruined her life, and she hated them.

But Cullen wasn’t a templar anymore, right? He left the Order, he disapproved of them and their actions, he grew to hate what they did behind their pious smokescreens. He respected her, was friendly to her. He stood up for her on the subway that day.

And he was very, very pretty.

Ugh.

She was sworn off of dating, off of sex and men and all their ilk. She was going to be a spinster out of pure spite. But why had she made that decision? Was it really just because he was so pretty and she was so bitter about it?

She thought of his scar. They both had big scars on their faces, scars that marred their beauty. Astoria had trouble looking at her face in the mirror. She went so far as to hang a towel over the top of her full-length mirror in her bedroom, so that she only saw herself from the neck-down. Perhaps Cullen had the same feelings about his own scar.

She thought of all the nights she would stay late at Chargers, looking across the street at three in the morning to see his lights on. Sometimes they never went off at all, and at four in the morning he would trudge downstairs into Champions to start the bread for the day. Cullen had demons that kept him up, just as she did.

They weren’t so different, really, when she thought about it. Two sides to the same coin. Templar, and mage, both survivors, both damaged, both souls permanently wounded.

She liked him and she hated that she liked him. Then she hated that she hated that she liked him. Then she got a headache.

“Come on,” Dorian said, “you look very nice. Once the tailor gets her hands on you, you’ll look even nicer.”

“Hmmph.”

But she still let Dorian open the dressing room door and lead her out to the big round stool that was built into the floor for the tailor to work on the hem. She shied her face away from everyone else, and instead focused on the large three-paneled mirror just four feet away.

Okay, so the dress did fit the ribcage well. The v-neck still looked funny to her over her small breasts, but the waist sash showed just how slender she was. Astoria usually wore loose-fitting clothing, just because it was more comfortable, but this was nice. This was quite nice.

And on the raised platform, the skirt of the dress wasn’t bunched at her feet, but hung to the actual floor, making her look much taller than she actually was. Then the tailor knelt down and started pinning the hem.

She didn’t look at her face in the mirror, didn’t want to look at her scar again, but in the mirror’s reflection, caught a glimpse of Cullen’s face behind her. He was smiling at her. Astoria blushed and looked away.

“That looks so nice,” said Hawke next to her. Hawke’s dress had already been hemmed, and the shoulder strap adjusted. She and Cassandra wore matching navy blue dresses by the same designer as Astoria’s, so they looked very similar; the same fabric, length of the bodice, and slit on the side of the dress. The only major structural difference was that their dress was a one-shoulder piece, while Astoria’s had a halter-strap.

The boutique’s stylist came to Astoria with a case of various hairpieces. Astoria felt that this was redundant, because Astoria didn’t have much hair to begin with; Cassandra and Hawke both had pixie cuts, but much of Astoria’s head was straight-up shaved. But nevertheless, she looked through the hair pieces; there were tiaras, headbands, and clips. Astoria selected a very small tiara that wouldn’t extend over the top of her head, where she actually had longer hair. So the stylist had Astoria squat briefly so that she could place the tiara, and then let her stand (and let the tailor continue her work) straight.

She dared to look at her face in the mirror. The tiara was beautiful; little glittering gems laid between silver leaves, coming up in a point that was topped with a half-moon.

“It’s beautiful.”

“It’s six hundred royals,” Dorian whispered in her ear.

“Oh fuck no,” Astoria said, and almost ripped the tiara from her head to hand it back to the stylist.

 

__

 

Once all the bridesmaids were fitted, it was the Best Men’s turn to select their suits and get fitted.

Since the colors were deep purple and navy blue, and each bride took a different color for her party, Dorian’s ensemble had to contain as much purple as he could bear, while Cullen’s was very, very navy blue.

Dorian ended up with a black suit (“I love you, Josie, but neither Bull nor Krem will ever put on a purple suit, and frankly, neither will I”) and a purple waistcoat, purple ascot, and purple pocket square.

Cullen ultimately, following Leliana’s insistence on navy blue, selected a matching navy pants, jacket, and waistcoat, with a black ascot (“Cullen, you innocent puppy you, if my groomsmen are wearing ascots, it only seems fair that you and your groomsmen wear them too”) and a white pocket square. Both men had crisp, pure white shirts to wear with their suits.

After getting fitted, clips and all, Cullen spun around to address the seated women: “How do I look?”

“Like a boy covered in clips,” Cassandra teased, but gave him an approving nod anyways. Astoria watched him from her seat on the sofa, already working on her third glass of champagne, and did her absolute damned best to hide her face behind her glass flute.

 

__

 

Astoria relaxed in her rolling chair in her studio. She’d gotten a good nights sleep before, all the champagne making her sleepy enough to pass out for nearly twelve hours as soon as she’d gotten home from the dress fittings and climbed up six flights of stairs (so-named in her group of friends the “agony stairs”) and had fallen face-first into her bed, fully dressed.

Today, she had appointments in the morning, and free hours in the afternoon to do walk-ins. Her first appointment was at ten thirty, for Rylen’s tattoo of the Starkhaven flag.

On cue, he knocked on the open door to her studio.

“May I come in? I’m a little early.”

“Yeah, come on in, that’s fine,” she said, and got out of her rolling chair and pointed him towards the reclining leather chair that sat next to the tattoo bench. She’d already cleaned and sterilized her tools and the chair; overall, she’d had a quick, productive morning. After yesterday, the light in her heart was beginning to outshine the fog. After so many years, Astoria was beginning to feel like a person again.

“How are you today?” Rylen asked, as he took off his button-front plaid shirt (he wore a tank top underneath; Astoria was briefly very jealous of Krem) so that she could better access his left bicep.

“I’m doing fine. I’m great, actually.”

“Oh?” he said, “Why’s that?”

Astoria shrugged. “I just am,” she said, and began setting up her tattoo gun. She retrieved the stencil paper and pressed the pattern for the black lines onto the underside of Rylen’s bicep. “That look good?”

“Yeah, that’s perfect,” he said, and Astoria finished getting her tools prepped. “So,” he continued, “You and I have known each other awhile, and I’d like to say that we’re friends…”

Astoria was very unsure of where this conversation was going.

“And I just wanted to know what, well, what you thought about Cullen.”

Astoria froze. She felt like a deer in the headlights. “He’s a good guy,” she said, doing her very damned best to not betray the twinge in her voice at being so caught by surprise. “I don’t know a ton about him, but he’s nice. I’d say he’s my friend.”

She dared a glance at Rylen, who seemed to be measuring her. Then his expression turned friendly again. “Alright,” he said, shrugging, “I was just checking. Cullen’s a friend, he’s been there for me when things were really rough; I just wanted to know if there was something, you know, more happening here.”

“More?”

“Yeah,” he said, and then waved his hand. “You know what? Forget I asked.”

Astoria laughed nervously. “Alright, Rylen,” and dipped her needle into the ink, and brought the needle of the tattoo gun to Rylen’s skin, and begun work on the lineart of the flag.

 

__

 

Hours later, when the lineart was finished and Rylen was sent away to go back to Champions (“I’ll do the color next week, you should really heal before I do any more”), Astoria ran up the stairs and into Dorian’s office and was very very extremely glad that he wasn’t in a meeting.

“What the devil is it?” he exclaimed when she all but slammed the door open.

“I think I like that ex-templar Cullen, and I think he likes me, and I don’t know what to do!” and then she sat down in one of Dorian’s cushy armchairs and cried.

 

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In the streets of Kirkwall, where the heart of the mage rebellion pulsed, a young man sat in the office of his clinic, hastily writing a declaration, a manifesto if you will, addressed to anyone who would read it. It demanded the freedom of the imprisoned mages, the decriminalization of the natural state of being a mage, and above all, demanded the disillusion of the Templar Order from the abusive, horrific state that it had become.

His followers would print and disperse the manifesto that very next morning throughout Kirkwall, Starkhaven, Ostwick, and Tantervale. It would be spread out of the Free Marches to other members of the rebellion in Orlais, in Tevinter, Ferelden and Nevarra and Rivain and the Anderfels, where he himself had come from, once upon a time as a boy. Every major city would be inundated with the demands of the mages; every major city would see the rebellion for what it was: not a whisper of a movement, not a small group of radicals, the mages that hadn’t yet been caught and their sympathizers, but instead as a massive movement with thousands of supporters, hundreds of mages still living free amongst men, and those that simply knew right from wrong.

Tomorrow, the world would wake up. Tomorrow, everyone would see the truth, everyone would know the horrors committed by the Templars, and would know that the mages that still existed in Thedas had no fault in their simple existence in the world. The Veil had thickened, yes, and most bloodlines lost their abilities; but the Maker himself had let these select few keep their abilities, their connection to the Fade. These Maker-chosen few across Thedas should not be imprisoned, but respected as equal citizens.

Tomorrow, the world would know. They would have to know. There was no ignoring it, no avoiding it now.

Chapter Text

Dorian threw his arms up. “Kaffas,” he swore, and got up out of his desk chair only to kneel down next to Astoria in the armchair. “So you have feelings for him. Okay. But why all the crying?”

“Dorian!” she exclaimed, as if the answer should be obvious to him (which frankly it really should), “Cullen was as templar. I am a mage. Actually, let me rephrase that a little bit better,” she said through angry sniffling, “I am a mage. In the eyes of that fucking Chantry, the one that literally hates my people and every breath we take in or out of our reservation borders, I am a wanted criminal for merely existing and not turning myself in.”

“I’m aware of this,” he reasoned, “I happen to be a mage too, as you well know.”

“But you’re with Bull,” she said, exasperated, her arms flinging wide, “who doesn’t give a rats ass about Chantry laws and isn’t afraid of magic, or mages. But Cullen was a templar.”

Dorian just nodded to tell her he was following.

“Whether he left because he disagrees with the Order or he left because he was injured or kicked or whatever, he was still a templar, he still has those – those experiences! Those fears and prejudices and all that training!”

“Is it possible,” Dorian interjected, “that maybe you don’t fear his prejudice, but you fear your own?”

“Templars killed my mother before my very eyes. That night, I fought six templars in full body armor wearing only a sweater and pants. That night, I killed six templars with my mind. Templars have only ruined everything in my life.”

Maybe she was being a little overdramatic; but she was still partially right about that last comment. Before she left for University, her life had been extremely poor and full of fear, and hatred.

“And I am afraid,” she added, tears flowing back, “that these feelings for him will keep growing, and I won’t be able to stop them, because part of me really doesn’t want to stop. And I just – Dorian, I don’t know what to do.” She told him all about her exchange with Rylen in her studio, how she felt they had been flirting at the bridal boutique, at the move-in party when he stayed to wash dishes with her. She didn’t tell him how her memory savored those moments, kept them close and warm next to her slowly thawing heart.

“Tell me what to do.”

Dorian sighed. “It’s up to you, ultimately.”

“No, tell me what to do, because I can’t make this decision, not on my own.”

She searched his face, his eyes, waiting for him to respond. She watched the tick in his jaw flicker, showing that he was grinding his teeth, something Dorian did when he was concentrating very hard.

“I think you want me to tell you to let it go,” he said, “the part of you that came running up here looking for an out, looking for someone else to tell you what to do.”

“Okay.”

“I’m not done. The other part of you, the one that knows he left the templars and told me all about the ‘cute little things,’ that one wants to see where all this will go.”

Astoria slumped back in her chair. “I knew that already!”

“Then here are your options. You play it safe, you close yourself off to him, and you retreat back into that hard shell of yours that you’ve been using like a shield ever since I met you. You cut yourself off from the possibility of partnership.

“Or you take the leap of faith and you see where this goes; you nurture whatever feelings are growing in you and, if he really does feel like this about you, you start a relationship. Weeks, maybe years down the line, you tell him you’re a mage. Maybe he takes it well, maybe he doesn’t. If he doesn’t we’ll kill him and dump his body in the river.” Astoria snorted at that.

“So my choices are playing it safe and life sucks, or taking a risk and life can be great or it can suck.”

“For all the years I’ve known you, my dear, you have been taking every move playing it safe. Maybe it’s time to take a risk to get something better in return.”

 

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“She said I was a friend?” Cullen repeated, his hands mostly stuck in a bowl of dough that he was mixing. “Did she say anything else?”

Rylen was leaning against the countertop, gently poking at his half-finished tattoo through the clear plastic bandage.

“She also said you’re a good guy, and that you’re nice.”

“Did she, I don’t know,” he said, and kneaded the dough a couple turns, and in a stroke of stupid he wiggled his hips to better make his point than words could. Of course, he thought this was stupid, which it was, and reverted back to using words. “What was her body language like?”

“Oh man,” Rylen said, and pinched a pile of flour left on the counter and flicked it all into Cullen’s face, splattering his nose and cheeks with white flour. “You got it bad.”

“I’m just curious!”

“You got it baaaaaaad.”

“I just want to know,” he said, and reached a slightly doughy hand into the nearby bucket of white flour and flicked half a handful back in Rylen’s face, “what she thinks of me. I don’t got – I don’t have anything.”

“What does Cullen not have?” Delrin asked, re-entering the kitchen after serving sandwiches to a couple seated on the bakery’s outdoor patio.

“He certainly doesn’t have tact,” Rylen said, and squawked when Cullen rubbed an entire handful of flour on his face, rubbing it into his thick black hair.

“I thought we all knew that.”

“I am about to throw this entire bucket on you, Barris.”

“Hey,” Rylen put his hands up in surrender, “I will say this one thing. She did practically freeze-frame when I asked what she thought about you, and she was very nervous and deflective for the rest of that conversation.”

“Maybe she’s just terrified of Cullen.”

Cullen gave Delrin a withering look.

“Nah,” Rylen said, comically stroking his chin tattoos as if they were a goatee, “it definitely was something else. I mean, think about what she was like on the Night of the Washed Dishes. Maker, I wish that could become a euphemism…”

“Do you want to wash her dishes, Cullen?”

“Barris I am one hundred percent serious about that bucket of flour right now. Except I’ll actually beat you with it.”

“Yeah, don’t be gross Barris.”

“But you just said—!”

“Cullen, ultimately, your decision is this: do you want to take a risk and maybe get rejected, or play it safe and don’t do anything?”

“Rylen, you know it’s more than that,” he said, his tone several shades darker. “You know how I am right now, recovering from lyrium. I—I want to, I really do—but I can’t bring someone into that. I can’t ask someone to deal with me, deal with that. Not when I can’t sleep at night, or the memories just absolutely consume me.”

Neither Delrin nor Rylen had something to say to that. They knew Cullen had been traumatized by his experiences at Kinloch, in Kirkwall – that he had seen numerous horrors twice as bad as anything they had ever experienced. Rylen himself had watched Cullen’s panic attacks, feeling useless, unable to do anything to help the man recover from his onslaught of memories.

“I can’t do that to someone I – someone I have feelings for,” he repeated. This, he didn’t say: that he felt he didn’t deserve love, or affection. Why else had he refused to contact his family after all these years?

“Then riddle me this, Cullen,” Rylen said, quietly this time, “If you feel like you have all the answers worked out, why are you still asking me for advice on what to do?”

 

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Astoria returned to her studio to eat her lunch (a banana, a granola bar, and a cup of yoghurt) alone, but also to work on a sketch she’d been slowly working on since the night before. It was a drawing of felandaris stalks intertwining with a strip of ironbark, with yellow daisies wrapped around the ironbark. It reminded her, she thought, of Keeper’s staff.

Astoria herself had a staff, when she was the First. There were only two staves in the entire Clan; only two had survived ages of persecution and the loss of magic. Her staff was made with lazurite and iron, and had a short blade fitted onto the bottom, a relic from a time when mages used staves to fight melee. The top was fitted with a quartz focusing crystal. She loved that staff, she’d felt personally connected to it the moment it passed into her hands. But it was the Keeper’s staff that she looked to.

The Keeper’s staff was made entirely from ironbark, and carved with patterns of elfroot and felandaris. It had no blade, no focusing crystal. It didn’t need these things. The staff was the perfect conduit of a mage’s abilities, and when Astoria watched the Keeper cast with it, she thought she was watching a portal through time to the practice of stronger mages in the past, before the Veil thickened.

When Astoria was younger, she looked forward to one day wielding the ironbark staff. When she left the Clan and the Clan’s politics, she left her destiny.

Sorcha held the First’s staff now. Her sister would be a capable First; certainly more interested in the role of ascending to Keeper than Astoria had ever been. Their mother, Ellyn, was the First before Astoria, and was meant to be Keeper after their grandmother passed. Deshanna was still Keeper now, however. But judging by Deshanna’s age and health, Sorcha would ascend to the role before the decade was out.

Astoria sighed, and closed her sketchbook on the drawing. Sometimes she wished to go back to her homelands; sometimes they called to her, an ache deep in her bones. But, frankly, she would never go back.

 

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“You cannot make me.”

“Just deliver the cupcakes to the front desk; I swear, okay?”

Ugh. Jerk.”

 

__

 

Astoria felt itchy, antsy. Like she needed to do something drastic. She sometimes got like this; these wild emotions that made her want to take risks. Of course, her being her, Astoria never took any actual risks – instead, she did things like shave half of her head, or donate most of her wardrobe (which she had done two years before the big apartment building fire, which frankly sucked because she’d just bought a lot of really nice clothes), or, like in this particular case, get body piercings.

Astoria already had a septum piercing. She didn’t know what she was looking for, only that she wanted something different, something she could put her mind on and pay attention to for awhile. Too many things were happening in her life; she needed something to ground her to herself, so she wasn’t so lost at sea.

She bounded down the stairs two at a time in her heavy boots and loose black shift dress, down towards the reception area where Isabella and Josephine had their studio in half of the annex. She didn’t quite know what she wanted yet. Another nose ring? Eyebrow ring? Maybe a few rings on her ears? She’d seen some other elves with very nice jewelry all the way to their ear tips. Astoria thought she might like to have some of those.

She ran right up to Josie to lean on her before she realized that Cullen was standing right in front of the reception desk.

“Hullo,” he said, surprised and perhaps a little taken aback with her sudden appearance, and Astoria remembered her morning conversation with Dorian and wow now was perhaps not the time?

“Hey there,” she waved, and looked down at the box that he was carrying. “What’s that?”

Cullen looked down at the box, as though he’d forgotten why he’d brought it over, and scratched at the nape of his neck. “Rylen’s thanks. Uh, he wanted to thank you. For the tattoo. He brought – no I brought, he made, uh cupcakes. For you.”

Creators, anyone present on the street could tell he was nervous. Why was he nervous? Did Astoria make him nervous? Did he not want to be here?

“Ohh,” she said, and desperately tried to ignore Josie’s curious gaze between the two of them and reached across the counter to open the box lid. Inside were half a dozen little chocolate cupcakes, decorated with little white icing stag horns.

“Yeah, he just had me run—“

“These are incredible,” she said, “may I?”

“Yeah.”

He put the box on the counter and slid it across for her to better open it. Astoria took one out and unwrapped the little paper cup from around the edges. She brought the cupcake to her mouth and took a bite.

It tasted really good.

“By the Creators,” she said, mumbling through her mouthful of absolute heaven, “this is really, really good.”

“I’ll pass along your sentiments.”

“Do you want one?” she asked Cullen, and pointed to the box. “Josie, have one, they’re amazing.”

Josephine wordlessly took one, but Cullen needed some more persuasion. “I’m not letting you leave until you at least try one of these.”

Cullen looked at her, giving her a whimsical look of exasperation and playfully pursed lips. Astoria was stunned by just how bright his eyes were; they shined like liquid gold in the track lighting of the reception area, focused on her own, and for a moment, she felt frozen in time, like a deer in the headlights.

“Fine,” he said, his lips pulling on his scar as he spoke.

It was almost erotic, the way Cullen picked up a cupcake and bit into it. Flecks of the chocolate cake fell in the stubble of his facial hair, brushed off seconds later with the back of his hand. The way his jaw moved, how his lips looked as he licked chocolate off of them.

It was almost too much for her.

“These are so good!” Josephine interrupted their prolonged eye contact. Astoria looked down at her hands, where she held the remains of her cupcake, while Cullen looked away, somewhere, at Josephine, an innocent grin on his face. Creators.

“I’ll tell Rylen that they’re a hit,” he said, and dared a glance at Astoria. She met his gaze.

“Ma serannas,” she said, “thank you for bringing them.”

He nodded, a short kind of bow. “You’re welcome.”

Astoria marveled at how quickly Cullen’s bashfulness had dissipated at the simplest of flirtations. Maybe her assumptions with her earlier conversation with Rylen were correct? Why else would he send Cullen instead of bringing them herself?

Then Cullen left, and Astoria watched him cross the street and re-enter the front of Champions.

“That was so not subtle,” Josie teased.

 

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“Did you plan that?”

“Was she there?”

“Yes she was fucking there, did you plan that?”

“Maker, no but I wish I did!”

 

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Astoria was working late. Though she had her own place and didn’t feel the need to give Merrill and Hawke space anymore, she was feeling the creative energies here in her studio, and really wanted to finish this one sketch for a client’s back piece.

On instinct, she looked across the street. It was one in the morning; everyone at Chargers had left, and Champions had long since closed. Cullen’s apartment windows were dark, but through the front window of Champions, she saw that the kitchen lights were on inside.

“Fenedhis lasa,” she cursed, and closed her sketchbook and packed up her shoulder bag. “This is a bad idea. I’m a bad person.”

She descended the stairs, two at a time, her boots making heavy thuds on the ancient wood. She ducked into the annex to grab her coat and fumbled with her keys to the place, locking the back door and then unlocking the front door such that she could exit through it. It wasn’t terribly cold outside; the weather had finally been getting warmer since Bloomingtide was coming to an end. Astoria locked the front door to Chargers behind her, and set off across the cobblestone street.

Her boots, heavy yet rubber bottomed, were quiet on the stones, and the silence in the street was thick that night. So when she finally reached the glass-paned door to Champions, her knocks on the glass sounded like echoing shots.

Inside, she saw Cullen slowly frosting flowers on top of a double-tiered cake. He jumped a little when she knocked on the glass, and stared at her, confused, until she waved a little bit. He waved back.

Cullen dropped the tube of icing on the table and crossed the kitchen and into the dining area. He jogged to the door, and as he unlocked the door, Astoria took in the sight of him; he wore a large gray sweatshirt, black jeans, and trainers, and over all that, he wore a blue and white striped apron. His curly blonde hair was a little disheveled, and there was a smear of flour on his cheek. Astoria became aware of the ink from her artist’s pens that stained the tips of her fingers.

He unlocked the door, and pulled it open. “Hey.”

“Hey back,” she said, and leaned against the doorframe. “You’re up late.”

“You’re one to talk,” he said, and checked the watch on his wrist. “Maker.”

“Are you terribly busy?”

Cullen looked behind him at the cake he was in the middle of decorating. “No, not really. Come in.”

He stepped aside, and Astoria put one foot in front of the other. She took in the bakery in its after-hours state while Cullen re-locked the door behind her. With most of the lights off, the bakery became one of those liminal places you only see in movies: those half-lit diners, where time seems to stop in one year and never march forward. In those places, anything could happen; words said there would stay there, and you would always remember those visits, but they would never be the same each time.

“I, uh, have this one order that’s being picked up tomorrow, and hadn’t gotten to it until tonight,” he explained, and led Astoria back to the kitchen. It was cold in the bakery—likely to keep the frosting on the cake from melting—and Astoria kept her coat on. Any place where the temperature gauge was kept below seventy two degrees was a frozen wasteland to her.

“It’s pretty,” she said, admiring the flowers. “What’s it for?”

“A wedding anniversary,” he said, and picked up the tube of lavender-colored frosting he’d dropped earlier, and went right back to making little roses and daisies on the cream-colored fondant of the upper tier of the cake.

Astoria leaned against the far counter, deciding to not mess with the table Cullen was currently working on.

“Do you stay up this late very often?” she asked, leading to the question of what are you feeling right now? What keeps you up at night?

Cullen laughed, “Unfortunately, yes, I do a lot. I know it’s not very healthy for me. I usually have to be up at four or five to start work on the day’s loaves. For some of them, we can prep them the night before so they rise all night, and we throw them in the oven in the morning. Others need to be freshly mixed before we bake them.”

Cullen painted another little flower, then furrowed his brow. “Do you stay up this late very often?” he shot back.

“Nearly every night.”

“Why?” What are you feeling right now? What keeps you up at night?

She shrugged, feeling a knot beginning to tie itself up in her stomach. “Sleep can be too much. When I sleep is when I’m most vulnerable to my worst memories. It’s not hard to look at my face and make a judgment about some of the things I’ve experienced.”

She’d never opened up this much to someone so quickly. What was she doing?

Cullen looked up at her. He surveyed her face, his eyes trained on the right side, where her scar stretched forehead to jaw.

“I know a little something about unhappy memories,” he said, “in my years as a templar, I – I think I hinted at some of that, with you, the other night. You don’t do what I did without coming out of it scarred, more scarred than just physically.” The side of his mouth quirked, tugging on the scar that pulled on the rest of the skin of his cheek.

“Was it very painful?” She didn’t specify. She would let him choose what story to tell.

“Not at the moment,” he said, and went back to painting little lavender flowers. “Not when it happened. A blood mage, actually, tried to stab me. Back in Kirkwall, after everything happened at Kinloch. We managed to subdue the blood mage and handcuff him, and it wasn’t until the truck had driven away when one of my partners pointed at my face and screamed.” He spun the cake on its rotating stand to continue on the next side. “The guy’s knife got me from here,” he pointed with his pinky finger from the bottom of the scar, at his chin, and dragged it along the jagged line to the top, below his eye, “to here.

“Cut deep into my gums, and actually took off a chunk of my tongue,” he continued, and Astoria felt a chill, just a memory of the icy feel of the knife on her face. “Had to replace three teeth, and I never got that part of my tongue back.” For emphasis, he stuck out his tongue; it was like someone had taken a spoon and scooped out a little hollow into the muscle. She looked at his teeth, and sure enough, three of them were an artificial white color, right where scar tissue had formed over his gums.

“Do you have nightmares about that night?”

“No,” he said simply. “Not about that night. I’ve had far worse nights.”

Astoria bit her lip. Cullen had returned to his work with the icing.

“I was also stabbed in the face – sort of,” she said, unprompted. But Astoria felt that it was right to explain, just as Cullen had. Her heart pounded in her chest. Just how much was she willing to reveal about herself – how much was she willing to trust Cullen with her secrets? “More like a slash. It – it was a templar, actually.”

Cullen’s head snapped up. His brow was furrowed, not in confusion, or anger really, but shame. And then, understanding.

“Where?” he said.

Astoria swallowed her fear. “Outside Kirkwall. Fifteen years ago.”

She held his gaze, waiting for his reaction. He was Knight-Captain there, he had to know the exact place and time that the old Knight-Captain had gone missing.

So she watched him think, the gears spinning in Cullen’s mind.

“I’m sorry if I ever made you afraid.”

She shook her head. “I wasn’t afraid of you. I don’t fear templars, I just – I hate them. I hate the whole Order. The things they do…”

“Yeah, there’s a reason I left,” he said. “I’m so, so sorry that happened to you.”

For a moment, Astoria had thought that he’d picked up on her status as a mage. But now she wasn’t sure. Did he realize it? Or did he think she was simply attacked, attacked for being an elf?

“Yeah, me too.”

He looked down at the tube of icing in his hands, looking at it like it would tell him what to do next. A secret for a secret?

“I was tortured in Kinloch Prison,” he admitted, “by blood mages. My trauma made me mistake fear for hatred. When I was transferred to Kirkwall, my Knight-Commander there cultivated my fear. She made me believe that all mages were blood mages, and because I was so afraid of them, I did nearly everything she told me to do.

“Then I met this one mage. She was kind, and never used magic to hurt anyone. She reminded me that mages were not to be feared. That what the Order was doing was abhorrent, that by working for them, I was perpetuating their crimes; I was an agent for their horrific agenda. I think I owe my life to Hawke, for making me realize that I had to get out of there.

“Did you,” he started, then stopped, taking a deep breath. Then Cullen looked up to meet Astoria’s eyes. “Did you hate me, when I first met you?”

“Yes.”

“Do you still hate me?”

“No,” she shook her head, “I could never hate you, not anymore.”

She felt so raw, so completely exposed and open standing there in the bakery. Cullen stood across the table from her, and the shame and queasiness in her stomach tightened as he stared at her, his expression blank. His chest slowly rose and fell as he breathed. She wanted to know what he was thinking. She wanted to know what he was feeling, then and there.

So the truth was out, the ugly, awful truth, spilled between the both of them. She didn’t expect this to happen tonight. It’s funny, how that happens. Conversations beginning lightly turn into confessions in an instant, confessions cut from deep in the heart. How can two almost-strangers just open up so widely, their chests cut from navel to chin with all their darkest secrets spilled like blood?

When Astoria spoke, her hoarse voice was barely above a whisper. “Are you afraid of me?”

There was no mistaking her intention now. Cullen seemed to ponder this, just as he might have once pondered how he could ever be afraid of an empathetic, carefree woman like Hawke.

“If you’d asked me that two years ago, I would have said yes.”

“And now?”

He shook his head. “Astoria,” he said, and she wished he would just say her name one more time, rolling the letters and sounds over his tongue in the sweet way he did. “You are so gentle, and in this last week we’ve seen each other, I have seen nothing but love in your heart for all those around you. If I fear anything from you, I fear that I could never be so deserving of that love you give to others.”

“So you’re not afraid of me?”

“No,” he said, “never.”

Creators, she felt like throwing up. “I’m sorry I hated you when you all first moved in. I’m sorry I let my prejudices judge you before I actually met you.”

Cullen shrugged, and shook his head, “To be completely honest, you had just grounds to. Three ex-templars take up shop across the street? I can’t imagine anyone else feeling something different.”

Astoria hummed, and the corner of her mouth quirked up in the tiniest of smirks. Cullen mirrored this, and it felt genuine.

“Want a drink?”

 

__

 

Cullen, Rylen, and Delrin kept beer in the bottom of the fridge, and Astoria marveled at how good Ferelden beer could be when kept at near-freezing temperatures.

Cullen finished the lavender colored flowers of the cake, and Astoria helped him slide the cake base onto a shelf in the industrial refrigerator. Then he took a beer for himself, plus one more each, and showed her upstairs to his apartment.

In contrast to the cold bakery, the apartment was pleasantly warm. Astoria admired the renovated kitchen, which still miraculously kept that 16th Age aesthetic while having been made of entirely new materials.

“Have a sit,” he gestured to the rather plush-looking sofa, and himself sat down in a leather armchair. Astoria plunked down on the cushion of the sofa, and sunk into its comfort, swinging her shoulder bag onto the cushion next to her and removing her coat. Her sketchbook fell out of her bag, and Cullen took notice of it.

“May I look?”

She paused, at first; but so much was open now, open between them, that she told herself, fuck it, and picked it up and passed it to him.

Cullen flipped open the first page, and his jaw dropped. He looked through the next two pages, before looking to Astoria.

“These drawings are phenomenal,” he said enthusiastically, and continued carefully flipping through the pages. Astoria drank from her beer, feeling amused at his admiration.

He nearly gasped at one of them, and spun the sketchbook around to show her which one he was on. “This is incredible,” he said, and pointed at it for emphasis. It was a sketch she’d done on the fly, of a male lion mid-roar, his mane flowing in the imaginary wind. She’d done light geometric shapes—triangles and octagons, solid lines and dashed, respectively—behind the lion.

Astoria shrugged, unsure really, of how to take a compliment.

“Did you draw this for a client?”

“No,” she shook her head, and told him how sometimes she just sketched tattoo designs she would like to do some day, but perhaps didn’t have the chance to.

“I kind of want it.”

“Yeah?” she said, and searched his face for a sign of teasing.

“Yeah, I’m serious,” he said, and leaned forward to put the sketchbook on the wooden coffee table, the page with the lion open. “I really like it! I’ve never gotten a tattoo before, but this, this I really like.”

She shrugged both shoulders at once. “Okay. We can make an appointment tomorrow, if you want, do a consultation and everything.”

Cullen smiled, a wide grin that looked so genuinely happy Astoria couldn’t help but feel happy herself. “Great!”

He looked through the rest of her sketchbook, and they opened the second round of beers. Cullen gave more compliments on her sketches, sometimes commenting on designs he recognized the symbolism of, and wandering off on a tangent with a story that had Astoria listening closely along to.

The minutes crawled on into hours, their comfortable companionship and conversation hiding the passage of time, until Astoria yawned, and they checked the time (around 3:15 in the morning) and Cullen offered to let her sleep in the guest bedroom (“I feel like it would be a crime to let you travel all the way to your apartment in this city at night. I’m a feminist, and I’m sure you can handle yourself, but it can just be plain old dangerous out there for women this time of night”). Astoria, a good guest (and a tired guest) gladly accepted, and also accepted a pair of his sweatpants and a shirt to sleep in.

She welcomed the night clothes, and followed Cullen down the hall into the guest bedroom.

“Goodnight,” he said, and for a moment, it was such a strange thing to say after the night they’d had, the early morning they’d fallen into.

“Goodnight,” she said, and if she wasn’t a little wistful, then Astoria was a fool.

She closed the bedroom door behind her, and changed into his clothes, savoring their smell; like elderflower and warm honey.

Astoria crawled under the soft sheets, pulling the plush duvet over her, and almost instantly, exhaustion pulled her into sleep.

 

__

 

Astoria awoke to the stinging, metallic taste of magic in her mouth.

On instinct she leapt out of the bed, a mind blast spell instantly forming under her skin.

Her room was empty. No, the guest bedroom in Cullen’s apartment was empty. There was nothing amiss, except for the sensation of magic spilling into every pore in her skin.

Astoria looked out the window. It faced into the back alley; it was dimly illuminated, the sky an orange-blue shade with the onslaught of the sunrise.

“Cullen?” she called. When he didn’t respond, her veins flooded with concern and worry.

Astoria crossed the room and opened the door to the hallway. The apartment lights were still off. Had Cullen already risen, and gone downstairs to the bakery?

A groan trickled through the door behind her, answering that very thought and shoving dread into her heart. Astoria frowned, and carefully reached out to turn the doorknob.

The door softly opened, revealing a dark room; dark, save for the rectangle of light from the window that spilled onto the bed in the center of the room. In the corner of the bed, she saw him.

He was kneeling, somewhat curled over in on himself. His fingers were clenched in his hair, his face pressed against his knees. She watched his shoulders and ribs flutter with inconsistent breaths. His arms were shaking.

“Cullen?” she said again, quieter this time; calm, almost that of a whisper. She walked softly into the room, across the carpet towards where he knelt. Astoria let the spell she’d prepared dissipate, and reached out to touch his hand with mortal fingers. “Cullen, what’s going on?”

Another blast of magic surged the room. Cullen cried out, loud and pained, “make it stop, make the dreams stop—!”

“Shh,” she hushed him, hastily dropping to her knees before the end of the bed, both of her hands on top of his as he cradled his head. “Cullen, you’re awake. Open your eyes, it’s me, it’s me Astoria—“

Cullen looked up, his eyes meeting hers, and his eyes were bloodshot, wet with tears. When he spoke, his voice was quiet, hoarse. “It’s real?”

She nodded. “You aren’t dreaming.”

He rose fast, his hands leaving the sides of his head, but he still held hers in them, letting their clasped hands rest together on his knees. Instantly, his attention went towards the window, and Astoria followed his gaze.

“Someone’s using a lot of magic,” he whispered. Astoria felt it.

Outside, she saw what looked like paper fluttering in the wind, as if it were falling from the sky. Cullen unfolded himself from where he knelt on the bed and led Astoria towards the window, where they could get a better view.

The papers fell from, what she could best describe, empty spaces in the sky, a couple at a time, all over the city, filling the streets and rooftops with paper.

Cullen let go of one of her hands to open the window. He caught one of the falling papers, and shut the window.

“What does it say?”

Cullen’s brow furrowed, and then he flipped around the page, as he read it. Then he showed it to Astoria.

Her heart fell. She recognized the title; the introduction, and several phrases in each paragraph. He’d had her read it multiple times when they were dating.

Anders had finally finished his manifesto.

Chapter Text

The pamphlets were distributed via magic to every major city in Thedas. Templar officials estimated that the amount of magic required to pull off such a feat could not have been done by any one individual, but instead would require hundreds, perhaps thousands, of mages. Currently, officials did not know the source of the pamphlets, but investigations had begun.

Meanwhile, riots broke out in Mage prisons across Thedas as the pamphlets were distributed even there.

Many citizens stay within their homes, for fear of more magic erupting in their street. Banks and other places of business remain closed; however, government and official offices have remained open as the investigation continues.

Nobody knows what this means for the future. The knowledge that this many free and undocumented mages are living among civilians brings many great fear, and worry about potential rebellion and uprising.

 

__

 

Astoria watched the news report on the little TV in Cullen’s living room, curled up on the sofa with a blanket around her shoulders and a mug of coffee in her hands.

Sera called an hour ago, asking where she was. Astoria told her she spent the night at Chargers – not a complete lie, but not a complete truth. She knew Sera was just worried that Astoria was involved in all this.

Cullen was in the kitchen, dividing his attention between cooking breakfast and the news report on the television. Astoria had been eerily silent after reading the pamphlet, and watched the news with an indomitable focus – she only broke that focus to accept her coffee. She barely took notice when Cullen laid the blanket around her shoulders.

Now, he fried scrambled eggs in one pan and a few strips of bacon for himself in a separate pan. Pancakes were keeping warm in the oven, and on the counter were plates of cut fruit and berries. It was an elaborate breakfast for such a sobering morning.

Cullen quickly recovered from his attack that morning. His focus was needed elsewhere today, and knowing that what he was experiencing was reality and not a dream kept him from reaching for lyrium.

The news flickered between repeated reports of the event of the morning, and statements made by various members of local and federal government, Chantry leaders and higher ups in the Templar Order. There were even taped statements from the Knight-Vigilant and Lord Seeker.

There were no reports of mages being arrested, or statements from prisoners at Kinloch, or the White Spire, or The Gallows in Kirkwall. Cullen knew Astoria was worried about this the most. While report after report and statement after statement had been made, not once had someone gotten the perspective of an actual mage.

Cullen gathered their breakfasts onto two plates, turned off the oven and stove, and brought both plates toward the sofa, placing them on the wooden coffee table. He sat down next to Astoria.

While Cullen hadn’t expected any reaction from her—except for answering the call from Sera, she had been very quiet and focused her attention on the news—he was surprised that, once he sat down, Astoria silently picked up one corner of the large blanket, and put it around his shoulders as well.

They watched the repetitious news cycle, slowly picking at their breakfasts, wondering about the future.

 

__

 

Astoria eventually went home, some time around three in the afternoon, when it became apparent that nothing new would be reported. Cullen offered to walk her home, and she gladly took it. But they were quiet on the subway, shoulders leaning against each other, observing the deserted subway car. Individually, they remembered the last time they were on the same subway car at the start of it all, wondering if the other remembered.

He walked her up the stairs to her door on the sixth floor. When she put her key in the lock, Cullen turned to go, but Astoria caught him on the sleeve of his coat.

“Yeah?” he asked. Astoria rose onto the tips of her toes and pressed a small kiss on his cheek.

“Thank you,” she said, her brown cheeks flashing red, her heart beating hard in her chest. Cullen’s golden face turned a rosy pink color. Then, Astoria turned, and disappeared behind the door to her apartment.

 

__

 

“There you are!” Sera exclaimed, jumping up from her nest of blankets on the papasan chair and dragging Astoria into a great bear hug. Astoria dropped her bag on the floor with a thud, and wrapped her arms around Sera’s waist.

Then Sera pulled away, and looked Astoria over. “You’re really okay?”

“I’m fine,” Astoria said, rolling her eyes, “I’ve been inside all day.”

“But are you okay,” she said, and tapped the tip of her finger in the center of Astoria’s forehead, right on top of her vallaslin, “here.

She shrugged. “I don’t know what to think.”

“Come on, sit,” Sera dragged her friend – possibly her best friend – over to the sofa and sat her down, perching herself on the cushions next to her. “I’ve already got Jennies across Ferelden contacting me. They’re worried, they wanna know what’s going on, and you’re our only mage.”

“Ugh,” she groaned, and rubbed her eyes. She honestly didn’t do a lot with her Friends, and no-one did as much as Sera did. “I don’t know what I could tell them that the news hasn’t already broadcasted. I woke up because there was just so much magic, I thought someone was attacking or something, but it’s because they used it all around.”

“Was it local? Or could the spell be done from miles away?”

Astoria thought about that. “I guess it depends on how connected to the Fade the mages were. Most, I think, have a weaker connection, like I do, or they just don’t know a lot of magic. I can pull and pull at the Veil, but it’s so thick I can’t get enough magic through, that simple spells will use all my mana.”

“That just sounded to me like a lot of mumbo jumbo.”

“I’d say it’s local. Mages in every city, across each city, connected somehow. Internet, or phone maybe. Or they just knew to do it at the same time. I don’t know. But transporter spells – Keeper always told me how much mana, or energy, spells like that would cost. I think at this point, my sister Sorcha knows more magic than I do.”

“Could we ask her?”

Astoria shook her head, “I’m not dragging her into this. She and Keeper are safe on the Clan reservation, where Templars have no jurisdiction. If I bring her into affairs outside of the Clan, it’s putting her in danger.”

“Damn.”

Astoria leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees, and put her forehead in her hands. Everything was going to be so complicated, so dangerous now. Life had been great—Josephine’s wedding was coming up, she had gotten on friendly terms with Cullen, she’d just moved into a new apartment—and then this happened. And she had no idea just how much it might affect her life.

“The retaliation against this,” Astoria said, “its going to be bad. It’s going to get even more dangerous for me, for people like me.”

“What should I tell the Jennies?”

Astoria thought about that. What would her people need, what would the free and undocumented mages need in a time like this?

“Tell them to keep an eye out for undercover templars,” she said, “a mage can smell lyrium on a templar who is actively consuming lyrium daily. But sometimes they can get around that smell and can sneak up on them. Just tell them to keep an eye and an ear out for them, and to protect the free and undocumented mages as much as they can. If any of the mages involved in this are arrested, then the Order might get information on the rest of their network.”

“Astoria,” Sera said carefully, “is this something we want to happen – these demands, will this really be better for the future? For people, the little guys?”

“Yes,” she nodded, “It’s going to suck and it’s going to be dangerous. But ultimately, Anders is right. Major change is needed. Let’s just hope the means justify the end.”

 

__

 

The next day, Chargers opened, as did Champions, and Dorian called a staff meeting.

“Considering yesterdays events,” he said soberly, all seven artists and owners of Chargers collected in his upstairs office, “I believe it is prudent that we take pains to stay unnoticed. I don’t think I have to explain why.”

Everyone already knew Dorian was a mage, but only had suspicions about Astoria and Merrill. Today the truth was out.

“This means, that should templars enter this building, we will give no inclination of any knowledge of mages or magic activity. None. We are a family, and we will stick together. You hear me?”

A murmur of “yes” echoed around the room.

“Anyone keeping lyrium will dispose of their entire stores now,” he said, “somewhere off the premises, somewhere safe and untraceable. Anyone in contact with known or previous templars, including our friends across the street, will not engage in this topic unless there is no other option.”

“You know one of those templars across the street is my boyfriend?” said Krem, raising an eyebrow.

“I’m fully aware of this, Krem,” said Dorian, “just don’t tell Rylen that three mages work across the street from him and everything will be fine.”

“Umm,” Astoria raised her hand, and suddenly every eye in the office was on her. “Cullen kinda knows I’m a mage.”

“Fasta vass!”

“He’s cool with it!” she said, waving her hands, “Cullen is cool with it. He’s fine. He doesn’t know about Dorian and Merrill. He would never turn me in.”

“Andraste’s tits,” said Krem, “did you sleep with him?”

“No!” Astoria exclaimed, “just trust me on this one, okay?”

“If you’re wrong, that could be a very dangerous mistake,” warned Dorian.

“Cullen would never turn me in,” she repeated, “he would never turn any of you in. He left the templars for a reason – all three of them did.”

She shared a look with Krem – an olive branch. He nodded.

“Okay then,” Dorian said, and clapped his hands together. “Let’s not tell any more people that we’re mages. Josephine, does Leliana know?”

Josephine nodded.

“And with your fiancé’s super secret higher-up Chantry government position, as well as our friendship with Cassandra, can they ensure us any special protection?”

Astoria opened her mouth to protest, but Josephine already answered, “I already spoke with her about it yesterday. All three of you, plus Hawke, are permanently off the suspect list. As long as you don’t publicly display your magic, you should be fine.”

Astoria bristled. Why should they get any more protection than any other mage? What have they done to deserve it, other than have friends in high places?

“Alright. If anyone else has anything to say, speak now, or forever hold your peace.”

The office was silent. Astoria was angry, furious, that nobody had asked her if she wanted the protection in the first place. She was a Friend of Red Jenny, she was on the front lines with the rest of the unfortunate – that’s where she wanted to be, where she felt she belonged, with the people she was sworn to protect.

“Meeting adjourned.”

 

__

 

“This is nuts.”

Delrin was reading the newspaper, ignoring the pie tins sitting on the stainless steel table that were waiting to be filled with apple cranberry filling. Rylen, on the other side of the table, rolled out pie crusts. Cullen chopped and mixed the various pie fillings at the head of the table. Rylen looked up from the pie crust dough.

“Any news?”

“There are already demonstrations in Denerim, Kirkwall, and Val Royeaux, from ‘mage rights supporters.’ Apparently the papers are afraid to flat-out call anyone a mage.”

“It would start a witch hunt,” Rylen said. Then added, “no pun intended.”

“Still no news coming from any of the prisons,” Delrin continued reading the paper, stealing a glance at Cullen, watching for a reaction from him. When he got none, he continued, “the King and Queen of Ferelden haven’t given a statement yet, nor has the Ferelden Prime Minister. The President of the UFM was quoted, though: ‘I refuse to let these magic mongrels stir unrest in my cities. If they want to riot, they can riot their way straight to the Gallows.’ Maker’s balls, if anyone didn’t know that the Gallows was the biggest mage prison in Thedas, they’d think this guy was a tyrant.”

“He is a bloody tyrant,” Cullen murmured, and it was the first thing about the topic he’d said all day. Both Delrin and Rylen turned to look at him.

“Care to share your feelings on the subject?” Rylen said. Delrin was never not surprised with how blatant he could be with Cullen; Rylen and Cullen had been friends for years, but Delrin had always seen the man as a superior, both within the Order and outside of it.

Cullen set down the knife he was using to chop apples. “Frankly, I find it ridiculous that this hasn’t happened already. I’m disgusted with myself that I didn’t stop these crimes when I was still with the Order, and I’m disgusted with the Order that this shit, which is absolutely medieval, is still happening. Blood mages are dangerous. But so are violent radicals and terrorists and suicide bombers. Are we rounding up and imprisoning everyone who is related to those people? No, because that would be ridiculous.”

Delrin shared a look with Rylen, then turned towards Cullen. “So you’re saying that you agree with the demands written on those pamphlets?”

“I agree that the imprisonment of non-violent mages needs to end, that the existence of mages needs to be decriminalized. I’m not sure how much I agree with the call to rebellion; I think that these goals may be accomplished through politics, and through discussion and reasoning between leaders and officials, mages and non-mages. Violent action sometimes achieves the goals it strives toward, but at great consequences as well.”

“Man,” said Rylen, “you should write your own manifesto, get some mages to magically distribute it in the streets.”

Cullen gave him a withering look.

“I think I agree with you, Cullen,” said Delrin, “but I’d be careful with who you say that to. We may have left the Order, but honestly, I feel like the Order isn’t done with us. Not yet, at least.”

 

__

 

That night, just after closing, Astoria knocked on the glass door to Champions.

“Hey,” she said, after Cullen had unlocked and opened the door. The warmer weather of Justinian was creeping into the mountain city, bringing life to the last few days of Bloomingtide, and Cullen was dressed in a brown tee shirt, black jeans, and had his signature blue and white striped apron tied around his neck and waist. Astoria wore her only other outfit: black overall shorts, and one of Sera’s obscure female metal band tee shirts.

“Hey. Come in,” he opened the door wider for her, and let her inside. It was only about nine o clock, and the light of the sunset was still just bright enough to let in the last orange and yellow rays of the day into the shop windows. The kitchen lights were still on, and on the big work table Astoria saw stainless steel mixing bowls and various plastic ingredients containers.

Cullen closed the door behind her, and locked it per usual, and led her around the counter into the kitchen.

“How was today?” he asked, and kept his hands busy with the mixture in the bowl – but he always kept his eyes on Astoria.

“Ugh.” She said, and hopped up on the counter that she was leaning on, letting her legs dangle. She poked at the light grey vallaslin that decorated her thighs. “Appointments came in, but we had no walk-ins. And of course, I got talk after talk after talk about being careful about everything I do, every move I make. Like I don’t know.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, and he seemed genuine, and Astoria was suddenly very glad she’d chosen Cullen to confide in.

“It’s just been a stressful, frustrating day.”

“I can imagine. We’ve been keeping up with the news, here,” he said, “everything that’s happening…”

He explained what he told to Delrin and Rylen, how he thought things would be better changed. Astoria mostly agreed with him, but was more enraptured with just how passionate he was about the very possible potential for change.

“Would you stand for that?” she asked, “publicly say what you just told me?”

“Yes,” he said without hesitation. Then he paused, as if he’d surprised himself, and scrubbed at the side of his neck in thought. “There are a great many things I would say about the Templar Order, if given the platform. I have my battles with them, battles I am still fighting.”

Astoria waited for Cullen to elaborate. But he went back to working the dough in the bowl. Another time, she thought, I’ll find out what’s troubling him.

“Can I try that?” she asked instead, pointing to the bowl. Cullen looked up, looked back to the bowl, and then back to Astoria.

“Sure. Wash your hands first.”

Astoria slid off the countertop and stepped over to the sink. When she finished washing her hands clean, Cullen held out his arm and directed her to where he stood.

“First, grab a handful of flour and just rub it into your hands,” he said, and tapped his fingers on the rim of the container of flour. “This’ll keep the dough from sticking to your skin.”

She did as was told, and looked at her hands, powdery-white with flour, just like Cullen’s hands were.

“Now, just press your palms into the dough,” he said, and demonstrated with one hand from where he stood, a little behind and to the right side of Astoria. She pressed her palms into the dough, feeling it give and squish under the pressure of her hands.

“Now what?”

“Roll the dough,” he said, and rolled his hand forward, pressing and pushing the dough beneath his hand, curling the ends under his fingers, and repeating the whole motion.

Astoria tried this, and ended up squeezing dough between her fingers. “Uhm.”

“Here,” he said, and placed his hand on top of hers.

Every nerve in her body lit up like fireworks.

With the gentlest of pressure, he moved her hand with his, rolling the dough in the mixing bowl. But her mind was elsewhere – it was on every point of contact between their hands, how his arm brushed hers as he rolled their hands together, the closeness of his body behind hers. Astoria turned her head just a little, to the side, and the tip of her long ear brushed his shirt. Oh.

Cullen reached around her, placing his other hand on her other hand, until his arms had encircled Astoria and he stood directly behind her.

One minute he’s a nervous puppy, she thought, and the next he’s the smoothest motherfucker in Haven. I don’t get it.

“Like this?” she said, knowing full well what she was doing, and let her hands follow the rolling motion of his.

“Mmhmm,” he said, but he didn’t remove his hands. Neither spoke. Neither moved, neither took the next leap into what they both so clearly felt, what they both so clearly wanted.

The back door to the kitchen flung open. Rylen stood in the doorway.

“Oh. Shit.”

Cullen and Astoria jumped apart until they stood five feet away from each other, guilt splashed across their reddening faces.

“I forgot my phone,” he said, frozen in place in the doorjam, one hand on the doorknob, the other pointing at the counter across the room, where Rylen’s black cell phone was nestled between the electric mixer and the knife block. On very light feet, he did some sort of hurried half-jog, half-walk, which was awkward in every way physically possible, to retrieve his phone. “Uh,” he said as he pocketed it, “have fun.”

Then he did the most embarrassing thing Astoria could have imagined in that moment. He gave them each a thumbs up, winked, and did his stupid half-jog back to the door and shut it.

“Umm.”

“So yeah,” Cullen said, clearing his throat, “that’s how you, uh, that’s how you roll dough. Bread dough. In a bowl.”

“Great!” she clasped her hands together, because fuck, if she wasn’t feeling just as awkward in that moment. Creators, fuck Rylen, interrupting the hottest moment I’ve had in a fucking year.

“Yeah. Yeah. I’m going to throw this in the rising cabinet,” he said, and nervously ran his hand through his hair leaving a trail of flour in the bright golden curls.

“Cool. Hey, it’s late, I’m gonna head home,” she said, at nine thirty at night, and picked up her shoulder bag and coat she’d left on the counter. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Yeah!” he said, and waved. “Oh, wait, I locked the door,” and fumbled for the keys in his pocket, and inadvertently mimicked Rylen’s dumb half-jog around the counter to unlock the front door. Astoria followed him, flour still on her hands, and waited while he fumbled with the key in the lock.

“See you,” she said, feeling the heat rising in her cheeks.

“See you,” he replied, and when Astoria rose onto her tiptoes to kiss his cheek, Cullen’s cheeks turned bright pink.

She felt frozen in the moment; his face was so close, and she could see the gold of his eyes, his long blonde eyelashes, the pale freckles that dotted the tops of his cheekbones. Specks of flour had fallen on his forehead from his hair, and his lips were slightly parted, his scar slashing through them unforgivably and beautifully.

So Astoria kissed him.

His lips were warm and soft and light. She kissed him once, and he kissed her back, gentler still, as though she were made of air.

And then the kiss ended, and Astoria rocked back on the heels of her thick soled boots, and Cullen exhaled, and she felt like flying.

“That was…really nice,” he whispered.

“Yeah.”

“Astoria?”

“Yeah?”

Cullen leaned down, his fingers under her chin to tilt her face up, and kissed her lightly. Then he pulled back.

“Goodnight, Astoria.”

Flour on her chin, she smiled, “Goodnight, Cullen.”

Then she turned, walking towards the subway station, but looked back once, maybe twice, to see him standing in the doorway, watching her go.

 

__

 

[9:34pm – From: Rylen<3] I TOTALLY just cockblocked Astoria & Cullen

[9:35pm – From: Kremmy] WHAT

[9:35pm – From: Rylen<3] I didn’t mean to !!! but I gave them some good parting words

[9:36pm – From: Kremmy] you bastard <3

 

__

 

That night, Cullen had no nightmares.

Chapter Text

When she got home, Astoria found Sera focused on something on her laptop, nestled in her papasan chair as usual.

“I kissed Cullen!” she blurted as soon as the door shut behind her. Sera slammed her laptop closed.

What?”

“I don’t know I just sort of…did it? Like the moment was right and we’d been talking and there was this point where he was showing me how to roll dough or whatever and he was guiding me with his hands and his arms were around me and it was really hot?”

“Sexy dough.”

“Sera I’m serious,” she said, and dropped her things onto the floor by the door and walked over to the sofa, where she started unlacing her shoes. “It was really great and he kissed me back and—“

“You got flour on your face,” Sera said, pointing at Astoria’s chin, “right…there.” Astoria rubbed the flour off of her chin with the back of her hand.

“And anyway, we kissed and that was great and he knows that I’m a mage and doesn’t care that I’m a mage and it was a great kiss like wow.

“So…?”

“So what?”

“Well,” Sera shrugged, “do you like him and stuff? Like, could you see yourself with him? I know you got shit in your head that makes it hard for you to be…well, you, and I wanna know if you’re good with that. If you think he’d be good with that.”

Astoria actually hadn’t thought about that. Cullen had his own demons, she knew; the other morning, she saw a glimpse into what he must deal with every morning. She didn’t see it as baggage, or a burden, but rather an understanding point of view.

“I do like him,” she said, nodding, “I think I knew I liked him after the move-in party, maybe even before then. And I think he gets it – my stuff, my trauma. I’ve told him some of it, and he’s told me some of his.”

“Cool.” Sera picked up her laptop and went back to work.

“Wait, that’s it?”

Sera looked up. “Well, I dunno, do you wanna gush more about it? Do you have other stuff about it you’re not sure about, or that you wanna talk about? If you do, I’m all ears, but it sounds to me like you’ve got it figured out.”

Astoria blinked. Then she nodded—this was mostly for herself—and stood up. “Yeah, I think that’s all? Yeah. Hey, thanks for listening.”

Sera gave her two thumbs up. Astoria picked up her shoes, bag and coat and went into her room.

That night she crawled under the fluffy duvet cover on her bed, her fingertips touching her lips, remembering the feeling of kissing Cullen as she drifted off into a deep, calm sleep.

 

__

 

The air in the bedroom was cold, but Josephine was plenty warm under the blankets, Leliana’s head rested by her shoulder.

“My abuela keeps insisting we have the wedding in Antiva City,” she said, and scrubbed at her eyes. They’d had this conversation several times; where the wedding would be, who would come, and in light of recent events, whether or not it would happen at all.

“I’m all for it,” Leliana replied, “we both know I don’t have family of my own to argue with that. I am wondering, however, if our friends will be able to afford travel to Antiva City. Flights aren’t terribly cheap.”

“No, but they might be cheaper now. Not to mention, my father is willing to pay for flights, considering you and I are paying for the whole wedding ourselves.”

“You know Astoria is too proud to take handouts.”

“Of course I know that, I work with her. If she wants to buy her own ticket, that’s fine, but Señor Montilyet and Abuela are insistent that we have it in Antiva.”

“Do you want it to be in Antiva?”

“I…would not be opposed.”

“That’s not the same as wanting it.”

“There are several factors to consider—”

“Stop. I’m asking what you want, not what others want, or what would be convenient for our friends. What you want, for your own wedding.”

Josephine was silent for a little while. Schmooples the nug jumped onto the bed and nuzzled under Leliana’s arm, his whiskers tickling her skin.

“I think I want to have it in Antiva City.”

“Think?”

“Fine. I want to have it in Antiva City.   Happy?”

“I’m happy as long as you’re happy, dear,” Leliana said, and propped herself up onto her elbows to kiss her fiancé.

 

__

 

When Cullen woke up that morning, he had several thoughts to run over.

It was the first good nights sleep he’d had in a very, very long time – no dreams, just pure sleep. Beforehand, he’d simply put the bread dough in the rising cabinet and gone simply to bed, feeling strange and conflicted.

He knew he liked Astoria’s attention; she had an empathetic personality and was the kind of person you could tell anything to, and she would listen and make you feel better about yourself. Often, he found himself just wanting to be in her presence, in that calm comfortable aura that surrounded her.

Plus, she was absolutely beautiful.

So beautiful that Cullen felt as though he didn’t deserve her affection, or anyone’s, for that matter. He thought about his earlier conversation with Rylen and Delrin, how he was so hesitant to be with someone because, well, Cullen was himself, and he was broken. But that was before he knew that Astoria was a little broken too – before she’d walked into his bedroom that morning and snapped him out of his panic in an instant, how she didn’t need to ask questions or wonder what was happening to him.

But that still didn’t solve the general feeling that Cullen didn’t deserve love and affection.

With a groan, Cullen rolled over in bed and shoved his pillow in his face, the sweet memory of kissing her on repeat in his mind.

 

__

 

Astoria was tattooing a pattern of constellations on the leg of a qunari woman when Krem ran into her studio.

“Krem!” she scolded.

“I’m sorry Astoria,” he said, and while Krem usually ran into her studio for one lame joke or pun or another, today his expression was grim and there was no mischief in his eyes. “Its – its on TV. There’s stuff happening.”

“What? What stuff?” she asked, and turned to the woman, Renya. “I’m sorry about this.”

“It’s fine,” she said, and turned to Krem. “What’s going on?”

“There was a protest,” Krem said, and pointed upstairs, to the artists lounge, “it’s on TV.”

“Lets take a break,” Astoria said, and she, Krem, and Renya climbed the creaky stairs up to the lounge.

The TV was actually the Iron Bull’s, set up in the lounge so that they could watch rugby matches without having to crowd into his studio downstairs. Today it was perched on the edge of the kitchenette counter, and half the artists of Chargers – including Isabella, the Iron Bull, and now Krem and Astoria – and Dorian were dispersed on the two sofas.

A demonstration in front of the Grand Chantry in Haven today by supporters of Mage Rights turned into a violent riot when city police brought in Templar reinforcements to help constrain the crowd. A mage within the crowd lashed out with ice magic, sparking violence between Templars and demonstrators. It is currently unknown how many have been injured so far in the rioting, but – oh, oh dear. I’ve just got word that the mage has been shot. Maker preserve their soul…

The bright warmth that had been growing in Astoria’s heart turned ice cold.

 

__

 

That night, it was Cullen’s turn to knock on the door. Or, in this case, throw literal pebbles at Astoria’s window.

She threw up the sash, and stuck her head out the window. It was eleven at night.

“By the Dread Wolf!” she called, looking down into the dimly lit street where Cullen stood, a dark pile of pebbles in his hand – where he’d gotten the pebbles, Astoria had absolutely no clue. He’d thrown on a dark leather jacket, despite the temperature bottoming out at a balmy seventy degrees.

“I didn’t know if you’d hear me knock on the door.”

“You’re one trench coat and boom box away from reenacting a highly overrated film, you know.”

“Are you,” Cullen shrugged, his neck craned up to look at her on the second floor, “I don’t know. You busy?”

She lifted one shoulder, a sort of half-shrug. “Not really. Hold tight, I’ll come get you.”

She shut the window, and mid-way through crossing her studio to get out into the hallway, she paused.

There was a strange flashback of sneaking boys and girls into Deshanna’s little house on the Clan reservation when she was in high school. Then there was the realization that she was 1) an adult, 2) in her studio, not Deshanna’s house, and 3) she was about to bring Cullen into her studio.

She shrugged off the nagging hypocrisy of chastising Krem for bringing Rylen into his studio as she descended the stairs, already thumbing through her keyring for the right keys for the front door.

It was dark in the reception room; electricity bills were expensive, and Dorian was adamant about turning lights off if rooms weren’t in use. So she saw Cullen waiting by the front door before he saw her coming towards it.

“Hey,” he said when she got the door open, and dumped his small pile of pebbles onto the cobblestones outside before side-stepping past her into the reception room to Chargers.

“Hey,” she returned, and closed and locked the door again. She turned around to find Cullen standing awkwardly in the dark with his hands in his pockets. Dork. “Come on, I’m just upstairs.”

She realized that Cullen had actually never been anywhere in Chargers, except for the reception room that one time, and had no idea where “upstairs” was.

So Astoria took him by the crook of his elbow, which released his hand from his pocket, and pulled him towards the stairs leading to the second floor. As they climbed, he exchanged his elbow for his hand to hold.

“This is it,” she said when they entered her studio, gesturing with her arm to the small room decorated with her framed designs, photos of tattoos done on clients, and a number of various band posters. There was also her desk, her desk chair, her tattooing chair, and her tattooing bench, as well as the rolling table that held most of her equipment and her little rolling stool. All in all, the room didn’t have much in the way of open space, and was very well lived-in.

“Can I sit?” he asked, pointing to the large leather chair. Astoria nodded, and took a seat at her own desk chair.

The leather creaked as he sunk into it. Cullen leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped between them. “I assume you heard about the protest today.”

Astoria paled. “Yes,” she said.

“How are you doing?”

She shrugged. “I’m ok.” She lied. “The girl who was shot, they say she’s still alive. But that just means they’ll cart her off to a prison.”

“Would death be preferable?”

“You tell me,” she said, “you worked in those prisons.”

He nodded, and scratched at his chin.

“I’m sorry, that came out more aggressive than I intended. I’ve been trying to work on being rude – I mean, I’m rude a lot, and I need to not be.”

“That’s ok,” he said. “I knew what you meant.” She wasn’t sure if he was telling the truth or not.

Astoria swiveled in her desk chair. She spotted her sketchbook on her desk, open on a in-progress sketch of an albatross.

“Hey,” she said, and picked up her sketchbook, flipping through the pages, “do you still want that tattoo of the lion?”  

“Well, yeah, if you’re offering to do it.”

“Great!” she said, and picked up her sketchbook once she found the drawing. She hopped onto her little rolling stool and skidded across the wooden floor to Cullen’s side, where he caught her with his arm to keep her from crashing into the wall. “Thanks. So where do you want it?”

Astoria held up the sketch to his arm, moving it up and down various places, even slapping her sketchbook on his chest, eliciting exuberant laughter.

“What, you’d do it tonight?” he laughed incredulously.

“Do you wanna sleep on it?” she said, her tone coy.

“Well, I’ve already had three days to sleep on it.”

“And what conclusion have you come to?”

Cullen took the sketchbook in his hands, looking at the design once more. Then, he nodded. “Let’s do it.”

Sweet.” Astoria took the sketchbook and rolled back across the room to get transfer paper from one of the drawers in her desk. “I’m gonna go make a couple stencils of this, you figure out just where you want it.”

She got up and dipped out to run downstairs, where the copy machine sat in the reception room behind the counter. Once she had two copies of the sketch on the transfer paper, she jogged back up the stairs two at a time.

When Astoria reentered her studio, Cullen was standing, looking at some of the framed photos on the walls. The one in front of him was a unique full-armed, full-backed piece of wide spread wings of a high dragon, full of high-detail and intensive coloring. It was the best coloring job she’d ever done before, and most of it was free-handed work. She’d done it her first year at Chargers, and it was how she’d met Sera.

“Took seven different appointments before it was finished,” she said, “several of those appointments were full day jobs, nine AM to six PM.”

“That’s incredible.”

“It’s the job; it’s what I love. It’s art that’s temporary, in the grand sense that we’re all going to die one day. But it’s art that means something, and is so deeply personal to whomever is getting it, that it becomes something transcendent. Being able to share that experience by giving these people their tattoos…I just love it.”

Cullen smiled at her, one of his rare genuine smiles. Then he tapped his right shoulder.

“I think I’ve decided on a spot.”

“How are these sizes?” she asked, and held up the two transfer sheets. One was the same size as the sketch, the other scaled down to ¾ that size.

“I like the bigger one, but I’ll let you be the judge of that,” he said.

“We’ll see once you take off your jacket,” she said, “I’ll just set up and sterilize my equipment while you do that.”

She gave Cullen her sketchbook and the transfer sheets and went to work prepping her tattoo gun and getting her ink out. The drawing was done with only lines of black ink and no color or shading, so only black ink was required.

When her equipment was ready and Astoria looked up, Cullen was standing in the middle of the studio, completely shirtless, his jacket and shirt folded up in his arms.

“My shirt was long sleeved, and, uh, the sleeves wouldn’t roll up that much.”

“Uh huh,” was all she managed, as she took in all his golden skin and his wide, muscular chest. Blonde hair dusted his pectorals, and further down marked a well defined blonde pathway below the waistband of his black jeans.

“Distracted?”

“I’m honestly a little offended. People shouldn’t look this attractive shirtless, I feel like if you went and stood by the freeway you’d just stop all traffic going both ways.”

Cullen laughed. “That’s one way to put it.”

“Hand me the transfers,” she said, trying to distract herself from the beautiful subject of Cullen’s shirtlessness to the more permanent, non-removable or un-do-able task at hand. She worked with him to get the exact placement right on the top of his deltoid muscle.

The light colored burn scars she’d noticed a couple weeks ago extended further than she’d thought; in wisps and fragments, they seemed to end just halfway up the upper arm. She didn’t point this out, merely took a disposable razor to shave off the little invisible baby hairs that grows on everyone’s skin from the location of the tattoo, and placed the stencil.

Cullen took a very, very deep breath.

“You ok there?” she asked, “you know, we can stop any time you want. You don’t have to do it if you’re having second thoughts.”

“It’s not that,” he said, “it’s just – the whole, getting one, you know? It’s good, I want it. Just gotta breathe through it.”

“Breathing is probably a good thing,” she said, “I generally recommend breathing in all my clients.”

“Hardy-har.”

“Seriously though, do breathe regularly. I’ve had people pass out on me and it’s neither fun nor pretty.”

“I promise I won’t pass out on you.”

“Good,” she said, and stuck the transfer paper to his skin and pulled off the paper, leaving behind the purple ink stencil. “If you wanna sit down, we can start.”

Cullen sat down and leaned back in the chair, while Astoria scooted her little stool over next to the chair and where her equipment was set up. She showed him how the tattoo gun worked, what it sounded like, and described how the process might feel.

When she began, a testing prick, Cullen did jolt; but when she continued, he was very still, breathing very evenly.

“This is gonna take awhile,” she said, “we can talk, or you can talk so I can focus on this, or we can just play music.” She pulled the gun away, finishing a line, and wiped away excess ink and a little blood.

“I can talk,” he said, and leaned his head back against the chair. “I’ve got a lot I could talk about. Wanna hear about the great camping fiasco of the summer before my 12th year at school?”

“Sure, why the hell not. What’s involved?”

“A stolen cow, a broken truck, six kegs of beer, and two weeks on the Storm Coast with no adequate rain gear.”

“What the hell,” she said, and listened as Cullen delved into this wild tale while she slowly inked out her design.

The topic flowed from the story to several anecdotes about his family bakery in Honnleath, to how he met Hawke and Cassandra and Leliana, to his, Cassandra, and Leliana’s sometimes wild nights of drinking and adventuring in the city.

They started the tattoo at around eleven forty, and ended at two thirty-three in the morning, according to Cullen’s watch. Astoria was attaching the clear plastic bandage to the tattoo when Cullen asked, “so how much do I owe you for this?”

She scoffed. “You don’t have to pay me, I’ve been wanting to do that piece on someone for awhile.”

Cullen gave her a look. “That was almost three hours of work, not to mention the art itself. Come on, what do I owe?”

She took off her plastic gloves, and ran her fingers through her hair. She pulled her rolling stool closer, as though she were closely surveying the tattoo.

“I think it’ll cost at least ten kisses.”

He smiled, shaking his head. “Maker, I’d take that offer in a heartbeat if I didn’t feel like I was robbing you.”

“Well, you can pay me, or you can kiss me.”

“Can’t I do both?”

“I believe that’s called prostitution, my friend, which is illegal in the great nation of Ferelden.” She smirked at him, and he shook his head once more, and leaned over the arm of the chair to capture that smirking mouth with his.

Cullen sunk into the kiss, his head tilted sideways, his hands coming to rest lightly on her jaw. He pulled away for a moment. “You know this means I’m going to bring you so much free bread. So much. Like, two hundred royals worth. You’ll never know what hit you.”

Astoria laughed. “That’s fine. Just kiss me again.” And he did, pulling her closer to him, letting their mouths and hearts run wild in the heavy night. Astoria stood from her stool and slowly, without breaking the kiss, climbed to straddle his lap in the chair, Cullen’s hands on her waist, his fingertips warm and gentle through the fabric of her shift dress.

 

__

 

Sometime in the night, they’d gone upstairs to lie on one of the lounge sofas, where Astoria had fallen asleep on Cullen’s still-shirtless chest; he slept with one arm wrapped around her waist, holding her to him, with the other draped over his eyes.

She slept warmly, comfortably. Chargers was always warm; almost unbearably warm, depending on how many layers you were wearing. But with Cullen, her cheek rested on his chest, her legs intertwined with his…it was like being wrapped up in your favorite blanket. Warm, safe, secure. Like you could stay there for years.

He slept without nightmares, with the strangely comfortable weight of Astoria pressing down on his torso, her hair just barely tickling the bottom of his chin. There was such a peaceful aura around her, something that calmed him deeply and wholly. Sometimes he woke up, but that was only when Astoria shifted the position of her legs, or her head; he would accommodate himself, and then doze off back to sleep.

What they didn’t think about was how, as they slept, they seemed to be a perfect fit.

 

__

 

“Astoria Istimaethoriel Hercana Lavellan,” Dorian’s stern voice ripped her from slumber, “did you bring a boy home?”

Astoria groaned as she blinked in the morning light that streamed in through the east-facing window. She peeled herself off of Cullen, who was also awakening, scrubbing his eyes with the palm of his hand, and came to a rest kneeling in the place between his legs.

Dorian was standing on the other side of the sofa with his arms crossed, a sly, amused look on his face. The Iron Bull stood behind him, his one eye narrowed at Cullen as he too rose sleepily, pressing his forehead into Astoria’s shoulder.

“We were just sleeping, mom,” she said, the last part dragged with the same insolent tone she would use with Keeper. Creators, she knew Dorian loved her, but sometimes he could be like the mom friend, and Astoria was twenty-six and could handle herself.

“And I’m just teasing, dearest,” Dorian said, mimicking her, and tousled her already-tousled hair before crossing the lounge into his office.

“Cullen,” the Iron Bull said, and Cullen’s head jerked up, suddenly at attention. “You hurt my girl, I hurt you. Simple.”

Cullen nodded, a little pale, having to crane his neck to meet eyes with the seven and a half foot tall giant qunari male. “Got it.”

“Of course,” he said, following Dorian into Dorian’s office, “that is if there’s anything left after Astoria’s done with you.”

“Got it,” he repeated, paler still, and Astoria snickered.

“Come on,” she said, and untangled herself from him and stood up, “lets get your shirt on before anyone else tries to threaten you.” He followed her, and snuck a kiss before he let her take his hand and lead him back downstairs.

Chapter Text

With the invitations finally sent out, Josephine felt like she could relax for a few days.

She’d invited Dorian and Astoria, and Leliana brought Cassandra and Cullen, and the six of them sat on the floor of Josephine and Leliana’s living room with all the furniture pushed against the walls, envelopes and letters and pens spread across the carpet, all of them day drinking and polishing off four whole bottles of wine. It was an effort to find and write down the addresses of everyone in their lives they’d wanted to invite.

Of course, being an artist, Astoria had the best handwriting of them all (hadn’t she gone to school to study lettering and fonts as well as art?) and Dorian was a close-second, Josephine coming in third with neatest script, while Cullen and Cassandra’s chicken-scratch demoted them from even touching a pen.

Leliana had pulled some strings, and gotten the wedding set for the chantry Josephine would visit as a girl with her family very last-minute. The Montilyet family manor would house the reception, as well as the main wedding party for the entire week. Cullen, Rylen, and Delrin wanted to make the cake, but with the reality that they wouldn’t have access to their own materials, the bakers accepted to sit back and let Josie and Leliana hire caterers.

After the wedding, Josephine and Leliana would leave for their honeymoon in the breathtakingly romantic city of Val Royeaux. It was all planned, it was all ready, and there were two months left before it was all finally real.

 

__

 

Rylen gave Cullen so much shit.

Granted, he’d already given him shit after the other night, before Astoria had kissed him and Rylen had interrupted their…moment. He couldn’t keep his mouth shut about it around Delrin, and the two had teased him mercilessly with awful bread puns for hours.

So when he was caught crossing the street from Chargers wearing yesterday’s clothes at eight in the morning, considerably late given the bakers’ schedules, Rylen could only assume one thing.

“Cullen Stanton Rutherford you dog.

“I’m Fereldan, that’s not exactly an insult,” he’d shot back.

“You know, the first time Krem and I hooked up in his studio, Astoria gave us shit and made us leave, so I feel a little hurt at this blatant hypocrisy.”

“Maker’s breath we didn’t do anything,” he’d said, pulling off his jacket and tossing it into the back room on top of a pile of boxes. He would get it later, but at the moment he just needed to put on his apron and get to work. He had wished he had time to shower; there just wasn’t time to run upstairs. After he and Astoria had gone back downstairs from the lounge, he put on his shirt, she’d given him a sheet of paper with tattoo care instructions, and kissed him and sent him on his way.

So for days and days, he endured bad bread sex puns from Rylen and Delrin for the sake of seeing Astoria every night.

Sometimes she just came over to work on her art while Cullen worked in the kitchen, or they would lounge upstairs and talk until it would get so late that Astoria had to go home. Half of the time, however, they would be kissing on his sofa, in his kitchen, gentle caresses and touches that ended with hopeful yet unfulfilled desires.

Cullen would hesitate to go any further because Astoria would hesitate, and she would hesitate because Cullen would hesitate. So nothing ever got done, really.

She told him one night how basically everyone in their circle knew they were seeing each other. The Chargers’ artists constantly gave her sly looks, while Krem and Isabella would tease her outright, the two of them forming a double-teamed effort.

“So…we’re seeing each other?” he had said, rolling the taste of the words over in his mouth, testing how it felt on his tongue.

“Well, yes,” she’d replied, looking up from her sketchbook, the cap tip of her pen tapping against her chin. “I mean, we’re…making out every night. And I like you a lot. Do you not want to call it that?”

“No! I mean yes! I do want to call it that, because I like you too.”

So they were seeing each other, and they were happy.

But the protests and demonstrations and riots of the growing mage rebellion continued on in the background, appearing in reports on the TV, radio, in newspapers, in hushed whispers. Templars walked down the street, once, in full black uniform. Delrin had a panic attack in the back room.

Leliana and Josephine’s wedding preparation continued on through all this. It was two months away, after all.

Two months until Cullen had to get clean, or Cassandra would put him in a hospital that would make him get clean.

The progress he was making might be enough to be off of lyrium by then. Though he hadn’t taken lyrium in weeks now, and when he was with Astoria he had no nightmares that plagued his sleep, he could feel his body wearing down, weakening. The logical part of his brain told him this was because he was losing his abilities as a templar to dispel magic and the like; the emotional part of his brain, the one that acted irrationally, feared the weakening of his muscles, the decay of his organs, the collapse of his bones and the destruction of his mind. The nightmares didn’t touch his sleep, but the memories he saw in the day.

And tonight, he was worried he was running a fever.

The first symptom of lyrium withdrawal he’d seen in Rylen, and in Delrin, early on in their time together. It was the beginning of a very long, horrific period; one in which Delrin had relapsed the first time he’d gone through it.

He stuffed envelopes with nervous hands, seated criss-cross on the floor of Leliana and Josephine’s apartment, his knee touching Astoria’s. Sometimes she would get bored of writing names and addresses on envelopes and would, instead, draw on Cullen’s arm little whorls and incoherent patterns without pictures or words. She doodled up to, but not touching, the tattoo she’d given him a week and a half ago, which was mostly hidden under the sleeve of his tee shirt anyways.

They all drank copious amounts of wine already, and Leliana was going around once more, refilling glasses. He declined, the alcohol beginning to make his head hurt.

Once the last of the invitations were sealed in their envelopes, Cullen laid down on the floor, resting his head in Astoria’s lap. His head was beginning to pound – from wine or withdrawal, he didn’t know. But he relaxed as Astoria gently ran her fingers through his hair, playing with his curls, while she wrote addresses on the last of the envelopes with her other hand. Cullen closed his eyes, letting her pull his mind into momentary peace and quiet.

The next thing he knew, Astoria was patting his cheek.

“Wake up, our cab is on its way.”

Groggily, he got up, put on his coat, and kissed Leliana, Josephine, and Cassandra on the cheek goodbye, Dorian having already gone home while he was asleep.

“Be well,” Cassandra told him, her gaze firm.

He steadily woke up as Astoria led him down the stairs, her little fingers laced with his bigger ones.

In the cab to her apartment, they leaned against each other, the time of night unknown but late, sleep pulling at the pair once more, drawing them nearer to Astoria’s apartment, up the agony stairs, where they could finally sleep.

Cullen hadn’t been to her apartment since he helped her move-in, but the place continued to look more and more lived-in as the days and weeks went by. In Astoria’s bedroom, which was still sparse, she had gotten a nest of pillows for her bed (which remained on the floor without a proper frame). A nest which, as soon as she’d pulled off her boots, Astoria had fallen directly onto.

“Sleep. So tired. Very drunk.”

“I second,” Cullen said, and sat down ungracefully at the foot of the mattress to pull off his shoes, coat, and jeans, and crawled under her giant duvet cover in his tee shirt and boxers. Astoria lazily got back up to go into her closet to change, and came back in a short black tee shirt and soft-looking green shorts, where she once more flopped on top of the bed.

“You won’t judge me if I don’t brush my teeth, will you?” she asked, her words slightly muffled by the duvet cover in her face.

“Not if you don’t judge me,” he replied, and helped her get under the warm duvet cover (“Mythal’enaste you’re a furnace” “Go to sleep”). Astoria rolled over to curl up against Cullen’s furnace of a body, her head pillowed on his shoulder, his arm curled around her waist.

 

__

 

Good things don’t last long.

When he awoke his skin was clammy and his head pounded. And he could hear it – the singing. The sweet, enticing hum that only sang to him when he was so depraved that the last of the lyrium in his system had been flushed out, when lyrium was nearby.

He hadn’t noticed that chest before, didn’t remember it from her move-in day. Cullen sat up. It stood across the room from the bed, by the door. It was old, wooden, and had many, many little drawers.

The lyrium sang louder.

His body moved before his mind did, standing, walking, moving closer to the chest until he stood before it, the tips of his fingers running along the grooves between the drawers. He could feel it calling him, through the wood, deep into his mind, into his veins.

“Cullen?”

She snapped him out of his trance. Cullen turned around. Astoria was sitting up in bed, rubbing her eye. Through the curtains over the window, early morning light trickled through.

“Sorry, I couldn’t sleep.”

She patted the empty space next to her on the mattress. “Come lie down,” she said, and he obliged, returning to the bed, pulling the duvet back over himself. She tugged lightly on his shoulders, and he followed as she rolled him over until he rested halfway on top of her, chest down, his nose touching her clavicle. Astoria’s fingers began to slowly card through his hair, and though he so greatly wished it would pull him back to sleep, Cullen didn’t sleep a wink the rest of the morning.

 

__

 

He left early that morning, kissing her goodbye as she lay in bed, kissing her again as she pulled him down by the collar of his leather jacket back onto the bed, and once more when she let him go, finally.

He’d taken the morning shift off from Champions anyway, and went straight to his bedroom in his apartment, opening the drawer in his bedside table, and held the bottle in his shaking hand.

He called Cassandra.

Help me.”

 

__

 

He threw up when she flushed the last of the pills down the toilet.

“I am so, so proud of you,” she said as he retched into the toilet bowl, leaning her cheek on his shoulder and rubbing his back in slow circles. “You are so strong.”

“I feel like shit,” he moaned, and gagged, turning up more bile.

“You’re going to feel worse,” she said, “it won’t get better until it gets worse. But look at Delrin, and Rylen. Those are your success stories. You helped those men through this, and look at them – they’re thriving.”

Cullen only groaned, and rested his forehead against the cool porcelain of the toilet bowl rim. Cassandra stood up to get him a glass of water.

“Have you told Astoria?”

“Maker’s breath, no,” he said weakly. “I don’t know what she thinks, whether I’m on lyrium or off it completely. But she doesn’t know about the addiction—or the withdrawal.”

“She’ll wonder where you are,” Cassandra warned, and crouched down next to him to hand him the water. He took it and pulled a mouthful, swished it around his mouth, and spat it back into the toilet. He did this a couple more times, until he felt like his mouth didn’t taste like sick. “You’ll be out of commission for at least a week.”

“I can’t,” he shook his head, “Rylen and Delrin don’t know I haven’t quit – they think I’ve quit already.”

“Are you serious?”

“I didn’t have the heart to tell them I relapsed – multiple times.”

“This is the longest you’ve been clean?”

He nodded. “Almost three weeks.”

She groaned, but she did kneel, and place her hand on his shoulder. “Then I am proud of your three weeks. Let’s get you to four, and see where it goes from there, okay?”

He nodded. “Okay.”

Chapter Text

He could smell the sweet, sugary scent of baking cookies wafting into his bedroom. He climbed out of bed, bright with energy, and ran down the hall into the kitchen in socked feet.

As he reached for the cookies cooling on the wire rack, a sharp female voice called, “Cullen!”

“Sorry mum,” he said, and took a step back, but bounced by the oven while his mother mixed something in a bowl with a big whisk.

“Cullen, why don’t you help me with this,” she said, and gave him the bowl and the whisk. Cullen smelled the mixture; it was sweet and smelled of cinnamon.

“What are all the cookies for, mum?”

“I’m making them here,” she explained, “because your dad says the oven downstairs in the shop is broken, and the repairman won’t be here until tonight. We finished the bread while you slept, sorry baby, I know that’s your favorite part.” His mother checked on a batch of muffins in the oven, and quickly shut the lid again. “Can’t let all the heat out!” she said. Then she turned around, one hand on her hip, the other pressed against Cullen’s forehead. “You’ve still got a fever, mister.”

“I feel loads better,” he whined.

“I’ll make you some toast for breakfast. When that stuff’s all good and thorough, I want you to eat and then go right back to bed, okay?” she kissed his forehead, hot with fever on her lips.

 

__

 

His forehead burned, but his skin and bones felt cold as ice. Cullen, thirty years old instead of ten, shivered under the duvet cover on his bed, curled up as small as a six foot tall man could.

Cassandra brought him chicken broth and buttered toast four hours ago. He’d eaten slowly, and in small bites, but he still vomited it all up an hour later.

He slept fitfully, for minutes at a time, until he either heaved up stomach bile or shook so hard with chills that he feared he’d bite his own tongue off. Cass had filled a hot water bottle and made him sleep with it, but it only lasted a couple hours before he felt cold again.

His head throbbed, his stomach ached, and his mouth was dry and tasted awful. Sweet memories mixed with nightmares full of his greatest fears, pulling him back and forth, until Cullen felt constantly on edge, every nerve in his body shuddering.

Sometimes he wondered if he’d died and gone to Hell.

It was only day two.

 

__

 

“Wait, he did what?”

Rylen crossed his arms, his brow furrowed, wrinkling the tattoo on his nose. Delrin’s expression was unreadable; was it fury, or understanding?

“Cullen relapsed about a month ago,” she explained, not a complete lie, but not the whole truth either. Cassandra resigned to let Cullen explain the finer details of his condition when he was, well, in a condition to tell them himself. “He is now experiencing the full brunt of lyrium withdrawal. As the both of you have already gone through this, you will understand what he’s going through.”

She spoke to them in the same tone as she would her apprentices and underlings within the Seekers. Cassandra learned long ago that such tone could command men and women to do anything you told them to, could demand respect in a moments instance. Rylen and Delrin only nodded, arms crossed or hands stuffed in pockets, their backs rigid. She read their emotions; Rylen was full of anger, and worry, both written clear as day across his face, in his posture. Delrin was sympathetic, if not empathetic, and Cassandra could read deep concern and concealed fear from the stiffness of his jaw, the thinness of his naturally-full lips.

“I will be upstairs taking care of him,” she said, “sorry to leave you a man down.” Cassandra turned, and left to return upstairs.

 

__

 

That night, Astoria pulled the mask over her face.

She wore one of Sera’s long-sleeve shirts and a pair of black leggings. She laced up a pair of black tennis shoes – far more dexterous than her boots.

She and Sera changed quickly in a narrow alleyway in a district far from home.

“Alright,” Sera said, slapping her gloved hands together, also wearing a black ski mask over her face and head. The masks pressed their ears flat against their heads. “Take the glowy-thing and lets get started.”

Astoria straightened from her crouch, and from the backpack they’d brought to store in one of Sera’s caches around the city she pulled a film canister. Inside was a single lyrium capsule – there would be no carrying lyrium on her person tonight, and the rest of the stores were safely locked in the chest of herbs in her bedroom.

She swallowed it, feeling her mana stores soar with potential.

“Lets go,” Sera said, and stuffed the backpack in the cache’s hiding place in the stone wall.

They climbed up the fire escape to the roof. This district had been built within the last hundred years, and thus the buildings had flat roofs, fire escapes, and were all connected to each other side-by-side, which made Astoria and Sera’s jobs much easier.

Their job, however, was not going to be an easy one.

The kids had been kept hidden for years, but with the uproar that the last templar raid had caused the night before, their guardians were desperate for help.

Another Jenny in the city hacked the Haven Templar guard schedule and found that several individual homes and apartments were being watched, including this one, with five young mages under the age of eighteen. This, to the Friends, would not stand.

Sera and Astoria had no reservations or hesitations to help the children get out. Another Jenny already arranged for their travel out of the city, to a Jenny-operated safe house in the countryside near Redcliffe. Their task was to get them out of the apartment without setting off alarms or attracting the notice of the templars watching the place, and transport them to the car in a remote location several blocks over.

Simple, right?

They slowly but quickly crossed rooftops, scaling walls when buildings grew a floor above their neighbors, blending into the darkness of the night. They were blessed with a new moon, and the evening was loud enough with the ongoing protest in front of the Grand Chantry in the nearby Chantry District that their light footsteps would not be noticed. Astoria’s blood thrummed with unused power, fueling her steps, quickening her pace.

The block had ended, but the street between was narrow enough that it could be jumped with a running start. The building roof on the next block was one story lower than the one they were about to depart, giving a 50% success rate.

Astoria didn’t usually do this sort of thing for the Jennies. Sera was far more experienced in sneaking around, in breaking and entering, and running for her life across rooftops and down alleys. She only took jobs such as these when Sera needed another Jenny, or if the job was just too dangerous to go alone. Hence tonight.

Astoria sprinted, building momentum, pumping her arms as fast as she could and running until there was no more roof left to run on, and she jumped.

She rolled when she hit the gravel-topped roof, coming to a stop on her knees, panting, her lungs sucking in air. Sera landed a moment later, panting and heaving, lying on her back.

“Think they saw us on the street?” she whispered.

“Not unless you were screaming and flapping your arms,” Sera whispered back, and got up, rubbing her hip. She held out an arm to help Astoria up. “Lets go.”

On the other side of this block was the apartment with the mage children. Templars would be on the street level, or watching through the windows from the other side of the street, and likely wouldn’t be watching the roof. But Sera and Astoria still maintained extreme caution.

They slunk in the shadows, moving through perfect darkness towards the apartment under clotheslines and past outdoor furniture various tenants brought up to utilize the open space. As planned, a single candle was lit in the courtyard-facing window to denote that the children’s guardians were ready.

When they reached the roof of that particular building, Sera crossed to the rooftop stairwell entrance. She pressed her ear to the crack of the door, and waited. Hearing no sound, she slowly picked the lock until the door opened.

They tiptoed down to the third floor. The hallway was silent at midnight, the two apartments on this floor eerily quiet.

And now was the stupid part. The only access in and out of the apartment that wasn’t through the fire escape at the street-side of the building, of which Templars were certainly watching, was through the front door.

Sera tapped on the door with her finger in four successive taps, then two, then six. Then the door opened.

A tired-looking human man stood at the entrance, and opened the door wider for Sera and Astoria to enter.

Nothing could be said while inside. The apartment was, after all, bugged.

Five youths stood ready, backpacks on, wearing dark clothing. The youngest couldn’t be older than ten, the eldest possibly sixteen, and all five were human. Sera patted them down for potential bugs, while Astoria checked their backpacks. They deemed the children clean.

Sera took up the front, followed by a thirteen-year-old boy. Astoria took up the rear, the sixteen-year-old girl in front of her, who was holding the hand of the ten-year-old.

They entered the hallway and started back up the stairs, and Astoria pained with each step the children’s heavier falling feet.

Then, suddenly, they all stopped.

Astoria looked up to Sera.

She was frozen on the step, one foot mid-air, one hand on the railing and the other pressed into the thirteen-year-olds chest to stop him.

Then Astoria smelled it, metallic and sharp, the same way her mouth tasted. Lyrium.

Astoria pulled on the sleeve of the sixteen-year-old, silently telling her to go back down, slowly as possible. Each child followed suit, now their feet falling light as a feather. Sera moved with the grace and ease of a spider, watching the ascending stairs as she moved down.

They were on the third floor again. Astoria looked over from the staircase. The front door to the apartment was ajar. She could see the feet of the guardian, just peeking out from behind the door. She smelled blood.

The twelve-year-old girl screamed.

Now Astoria grabbed the sixteen-year-old’s hand and ran. She heard one of Sera’s smoke bombs detonate on the stairs above them. They made it one flight down before Astoria came face-to-face with a Templar.

He was dressed in all black with thick Kevlar armor, a ski mask hiding his face and a helmet over his head. He pointed an assault rifle in Astoria’s face.

“Move and I shoot.”

Astoria dismantled the gun.

She remembered Mamae doing it years and years ago, how the air crackled with energy when each part of the gun just fell apart in the Templars’ hands. When she did it now, it felt like walking back into that moment, that night, a willing participant. She felt as though her mother was at her side, guiding her magic.

The Templar raised his hand to dispel her magic.

Astoria was a conduit of electrical energy. She had a natural affinity for it, for pulling it from one place to another; she could collect static electricity in the air and turn it into a bolt. As a child, she stood in a field, hands outstretched during a thunderstorm, the lightning kissing her hands, dancing between her fingertips.

All the lights in the stairwell, in the hallway on that floor, burst as Astoria pulled their energy in long arcs out of their glass coverings and into the Templar in front of her. He did not have a natural affinity for electricity, he was not a perfect conduit like she was. In him, the electricity stayed, and made him shudder, and fall to the ground.

“Don’t touch him!” she barked at the children and jumped over his body. She was pulling electricity from the empty lamps, from the electrical sockets in the walls, from the static in the air. It crackled and sparked around her. There was another Templar at the end of the hallway, their gun dismantling and crumbling in their hands as Astoria ordered it to. Her mana was starting to drain; at some point she wouldn’t be able to use the dismantling spell anymore, but her electricity would never leave her.

She shocked the Templar at the end of the hall until they collapsed. “Report!” she called.

“Positive!” Sera shouted back, though she was grunting – and she heard the clang of metal on metal. Sera had brought knives to a gun and magic fight.

Three more Templars waited for them on the stairs a floor below. Astoria attacked them all with chain lightning, and she sucked more electricity from the lights and wall sockets on this floor to power her spells, feeling the electricity thrumming in her bones as she made the Templars fall.

“Report!”

“Positive!”

Astoria continued on, leading the children down to the first floor. A Templar was posted at the front door as well as the courtyard door. She dismantled both their weapons and shocked them full of electricity. The Templar at the front door fell, but the Templar guarding the back door rushed Astoria through the shockwave, drawing a nightstick from his belt. Astoria dodged his swing, but the slash of his blade grazed her shoulder.

She hissed, and her arm shot out, gripping the nightstick in her hand, letting electricity flow through the metal nightstick and down the Templar’s arm, into his body. The Templar dropped, limbs twitching as the current crackled.

“Report!” she called before exiting through the back door.

“Positive!” Sera said, and then ran to catch up, her black clothes shining wet in spots, two wicked-looking daggers in her hands. One of the children whimpered.

Astoria pressed on, bursting all the outdoor lights and pulling their electrical power into herself. With the courtyard darkened, they crossed to the entrance of the building they would have used to exit through the roof. She took watch as Sera picked the lock, then took point once more, electricity thrumming, her mana fading.

This apartment complex was silent. Astoria smelled no lyrium, sensed no Templars around them. They ran to the basement door, and descended the steps.

“Report.”

“Positive.”

They passed through the laundry room, one of the machines roaring, and Sera picked the lock of a metal-plated door. It, like so many others, opened for her.

Astoria led the kids down the stairs just beyond the door. They were back on plan. But Astoria did not let go of the electricity bouncing around in her bones, did not expel it quite yet.

They entered the subway repair tunnels and waited and listened for trains. There was plenty of space along the edge for walking should a train pass, but the issue here was that they did not want to be seen.

When it seemed as though no trains were coming, Astoria broke into a run, the kids following pursuit. “Keep to the edge!” she barked at them.

Third tunnel repair door. They needed the third tunnel repair door they came across. It would lead up to a street-access entrance, where a mail delivery van would be waiting for them.

Astoria found it, and thankfully, there was no lock on this side of the passage. She waited until Sera, at the end, had passed through the door to close it. Then, they climbed the creaking, damp stairs, up seven flights, to the street.

There were no Templars on the street, no-one watching seven dark figures exiting a concealed door in a small concrete structure at the back corner of a small one-block city park. Seven dark figures simply walked out, walked to a mail delivery van where five of them entered, and the van left, leaving two behind.

They fell back into the shaded trees of the park, where their cache was waiting. This was where their real clothes and belongings were kept – the cache in the alley wall held their traveling clothes, clothes that could be used for another job. This cache had been placed earlier in the night.

Astoria knelt in the grass, expelling her leftover electricity into the ground. She instantly felt weak and lightheaded. Sera knelt to hold her steady.

“You ok?” she asked, and pressed two gloved fingers onto Astoria’s shoulder. She hissed at the pressure on the shallow wound, when Sera’s fingers came back slick with blood. “Shit.”

“You’re covered in blood yourself,” she said, “are you okay?”

“Not my blood,” Sera said simply, and pinched the fabric of the black shirt on each side of the cut, pulling away the fabric. “Shit.”

“It doesn’t feel that bad.”

“You’re probably numb with shock, dumb-dumb.”

They changed very quickly, and Astoria lamented the fact that she was bleeding on her new gray tee shirt. Then they went home.

 

__

 

She lay in bed, remembering that night.

Mamae dismantled the guns. But there were still six Templars against two little mage elves, holding nightsticks and knives and tasers. The tasers had no effect on Astoria, who, a child, merely picked off the tiny pins.

But they dispelled Mamae’s magic, and one of them punched her, knocking Mamae to the ground. Two of them held Astoria while Mamae kicked at them, drawing a knife from her boot, attacking the templar who punched her. He hit her with his nightstick, hard, right on the temple.

Astoria’s built-up electrical energy from the taser lashed out at the two holding her. They fell to the ground, shaking and foaming at the mouth. The other four turned to her.

Astoria, just a little girl, already knew that the Knight-Captain wore a red-colored armored jacket with yellow stripes on the shoulders, when regular Templar Knights just wore black armor. So she knew who was doing it when the Knight-Captain came at her with a knife, and she scrambled back, the knife just scraping her face, not cutting her throat like he’d intended.

She looked down to her mother to help her – her mother always helped her, always came to her side when she needed her. “Mamae!”

Mamae didn’t budge.

“What’s wrong Mamae? Mamae why aren’t you getting up?”

Mamae was bleeding, her skull caved in at the temple where the nightstick had slammed into her head. Her eyes were open, unseeing.

“Mama’s gone, little mage-bitch,” the Knight-Captain told her. “This will teach your kind to stay on your own land.”

Astoria sank to her knees, her hands on her face. But her right hand came away, covered in blood, her own blood, dripping from a deep, wide gash on her face.

Mamae.

She’d never been so angry, had never known such fury in her life. She was sad and heartbroken and scared and full of so much blinding rage and hatred that her heart was too big for her chest, her heart once so full of love now exploding in destructive desires.

The blood floated up off of the palm of her hand, from the wound on her face; she looked up at the Knight-Captain, into his eyes full of hatred.

Her rage and her blood turned into power unknown to her. She watched the Templars around her convulse in their skins, their noses and mouths and eyes bleeding, until they dropped limp like ragdolls.

Astoria, a little girl, dragged her mother’s body deep into the trees, as far from the bodies of the dead Templars as she could.

The rest was a blur. She remembered digging, making a grave just a few feet deep. She buried her with a cedar branch and the biggest oak branch she could find, covering her grave with dirt, packing it down, crying and singing. Then she wandered the forest, wandered for hours, picking up all the acorns she could find, and returning to the grave to plant every acorn under the dirt, hoping and praying that just one of them would become a tree.

Astoria hadn’t used blood magic since. It made her afraid, afraid to use all that rage and hate and fear. Keeper had taught her that these things could attract demons through the thick walls of the Veil, or haunt her dreams in the Fade, and that blood magic, if used, should be used with extreme caution. But she hadn’t been cautious; Astoria was reckless, blinded with rage when she’d used it, and had put herself at the mercy of demons.

She hated blood magic. She hated what it made her do, what it had the potential to do to others.

Astoria rarely looked back on the memory of that night willingly. Willingly, she could handle it; she could control her emotions and march onwards through the memory. But that didn’t mean that it didn’t hurt her so much that she felt empty for hours and hours, perhaps even days afterwards.

 

__

 

Astoria was eating breakfast and watching the morning news on Sera’s TV. The protests last night got violent again; no mages were spotted or arrested, but several people went to the hospital from riot guard-caused injuries, and many were suffering from the effects of tear gas.

Sera sat down next to her slowly, jostling the sofa cushions.

“They were caught.”

Astoria almost dropped her cereal bowl. “What? Where?”

“On the freeway, on the way to Redcliffe. That mail guy the Jennies bribed? Saw one cop car and got twitchy, started speeding. They thought he might’ve had drugs or something, I guess. Turns out he had far worse.”

“Fucking shit. Fenedhis lasa, banal!” she cursed, and slammed her cereal bowl down on the coffee table, and rested her head in her hands. Her scar burned under her fingertips.

“I’ve got some Friends in Redcliffe working on freeing them,” Sera continued, “but it doesn’t look optimistic. I’m sorry.”

Astoria shook her head. Five little, young lives, now to live behind bars. Children.

Sera leaned on Astoria. “I just thought you should know.” Astoria appreciated knowing the truth – but Creators, she wished she could have lived in blissful ignorance, because sometimes, her heart couldn’t take it.

Chapter Text

The shower was running hot, and Cullen could barely stand to get into it.

“I will sponge bathe you if I have to.”

Cass.

Cassandra held Cullen’s arm across her shoulders to support him; he’d become so weak from the last four days he couldn’t do more than sit up in bed. His energy was entirely drained, spent on fighting his withdrawal symptoms, and he could hardly keep down water. Just looking into the bathroom mirror Cullen could already see shadows in his cheeks.

She dumped him on top of the closed lid of the toilet and crossed her arms. “Come on, get with the program. Hot water won’t last forever.”

“Can you, I don’t know,” he said, his clammy, pale cheeks still managing to redden, “turn around?”

“Cullen.”

“Maker, fine. Just, you know, don’t start comparing me to Varric.”

Cullen.”

“I’m changing!” he lightly shook his hands because Maker forbid he have the energy to raise them in defeat as well as change out of his tee shirt and sweatpants while seated.

Cassandra looked right at his shoulder. “When did you get that?” she exclaimed when he took off his shirt, her hand reaching out to prod the tattoo that covered his deltoid.

“A week and a half ago, or so,” he said, and grabbed the wall to stand up to turn around and take off his boxers, so at last Cassandra wasn’t looking at his dick. “Astoria did it.”

“Well, it’s nice.”

“Thanks,” he said, not as much enthusiasm behind it as he would like, and Cassandra helped him step over the bathtub rim to get into the shower. Cullen promptly sat down once more, and took the shower hose to start cleaning himself. Cassandra closed the shower curtain, giving him privacy.

“Have you,” she asked, her tone a very forced casual note, “you know, told Astoria where you are and what you’re doing, or at least tried lying about it?”

“No,” he said, his voice both echoing in the tiled bath/shower as well as was drowned out by the streaming water. “I haven’t heard anything from her since day one. I don’t know if she’s busy, or…”

“Don’t even go there,” her tone was hard, “Astoria is not going to just up and quit you, that’s not her personality.”

“I know, but I can’t help but think it.

“Ever thought how she might be feeling the same thing? Considering you haven’t contacted her in four days either?”

Cullen was very silent after that – so silent Cassandra almost ripped open the shower curtain to make sure he hadn’t toppled over and fallen asleep.

“I don’t want her to think I’m weak,” he said, in a tiny voice.

This time Cassandra did rip open the shower curtain. Cullen almost dropped the shower hose. “Maker—!”

“Cullen Stanton Rutherford,” Cassandra glared at him with the same fury she used against maleficarum, political opponents, and occasionally, her shitty neighbor who listened to Nevarran Polka Music at very loud volumes. “For what you are going through you are never going to be seen as weak in the eyes of anyone. For one thing, you are taking control of your lyrium addiction, something hundreds of thousands of Templars in the history of the Order have failed to do. Secondly, you are one of the emotionally strongest men I have ever met. Yes, your time in the Order has impacted you, but it has not weakened you. Your willingness to endure after your experiences only exemplifies how strong you are, and I am so, so proud to know you and call you my best friend.”

Then Cassandra did a very rare thing. She knelt down next to the bathtub and wrapped her arms around a very soaking wet, very naked Cullen, and hugged him hard. He was shivering in her embrace, but he leaned his wet head on her shoulder.

“Okay,” she said, and sniffed, and stood up, hands on her hips. “Finish up, get dressed, and we’ll get you back in bed and have you take another few sips of chicken broth.”

 

__

 

To be fair, Astoria was a little concerned.

She had neither seen nor heard from Cullen since he left her apartment the morning after they helped Leliana and Josephine send out invitations. The plans for helping the mage children escape took her mind away from everything – work, friends, Cullen – and until it was all over, Astoria hadn’t realized just how much she had missed in four days.

It smacked her upside the head when she was on a coffee break, headed towards the café down the street, and had passed by Champions of the Crust. On her way back, she peered into the storefront, and only saw Rylen and Delrin. She went in.

They seemed hard pressed for time, dashing about the kitchen, a semi-long line of customers waiting at the register to place their orders. Delrin was running the counter and getting drinks while Rylen seemed to be making lunch order after lunch order.

Astoria walked up to the counter, grabbing Delrin’s attention. “Is Cullen here?”

She’d be mistaken if he didn’t look like a deer in the headlights. Delrin nearly dropped the ceramic mug of tea he was holding. “Cullen?”

“Cullen? Yes? Your friend? My…friend? Works here, yea tall, curly hair?”

Delrin nervously handed the mug of tea to the waiting customer, and scratched at his shaved hair. He tried to avoid eye contact.

“Oh, yeah uh, he’s not feeling so well today,” he said, and turned to the next customer to place their order. Astoria huffed. Okay. If he thinks he can just avoid me and use Delrin to cover for him, he’s got another think coming.

 

__

 

Cassandra was reading through the manuscript of her husband’s next novel when four successive knocks on the front door echoed through the flat.

She poked her head into Cullen’s room. He was lying on his back, arm draped over his eyes, but he was awake.

“Should I get it?” she asked.

“Dunno who it is,” he murmured. Cassandra rolled her eyes at him, and closed his bedroom door. She crossed the apartment through the main living space to the front door, and peered through the peephole.

Astoria was standing on the other side, dressed in long black leggings and a white sweatshirt, holding a cup of coffee in one hand and resting the other on her hip.

Cassandra, ever the one for quick conflict resolution, opened the door. “Hey Astoria!” she said, loud enough for Cullen to hear in the far room.

 

__

 

Astoria raised her eyebrow in a mixture of query and confusion at the sight of Cassandra opening Cullen’s door. She was wearing a loose tee shirt and a pair of athletic shorts, socks and shoes, and was holding what looked like an oversized packet of paper and a red pen. She wore no makeup, and for all purposes looked like she lived there.

“Is Cullen home? Uhh, Delrin said he wasn’t feeling well,” and she could have sworn she heard two different curses from two different parts of the building.

“Yes, he’s home,” she said, her voice the same unusually chipper tone as her initial greeting, and Astoria was honestly starting to get weirded out.

“Can I…see him?”

“Well, lets see!” and if Cassandra’s tone hadn’t turned exasperated, Astoria would tattoo a chicken on her hand.

Cassandra led her down the hall to Cullen’s room, where she had been just once before, the morning of the start of the Mage Rights movement. As she approached the door behind Cassandra, thoughts came running through her mind about the situation she was about to walk into.

Cassandra slipped through the door first, keeping it ajar, such that Astoria could not see inside.

Just talk to her,” she heard Cassandra say, and Astoria felt anxiety well in the pit of her stomach.

I – can’t.

Yes you can, you big baby, she’s got to know sometime.

Her anxiety threatened to eat her stomach whole, sinking down into her gut.

Fine.

Cassandra slipped back out from behind the door, holding it closed, and stood close to Astoria.

“One thing before you go in there,” she said, absolutely towering over the smaller elf in more ways than just physical height. “Whatever you do, or whatever is said, Cullen has come a long way to get where he is, and I could never be more proud of him, or more protective.”

In lieu of a better thing to say, Astoria said dumbly, “okay,” and Cassandra stepped away from the door, allowing Astoria to enter herself.

She stepped into the room for the second time, the interior dark save for the beams of midday light that came in through the window, illuminating the bed. Among the blankets and duvet lay the long, pale figure of Cullen, appearing to struggle to sit up, finally falling back against the wooden headboard.

What Astoria noticed first and foremost were the deep purple circles under his eyes; then the way his cheeks were shadowed, as though he hadn’t been eating. She saw his bloodshot eyes, how pale his skin was when it had been so golden before.

He looked at her through half-lidded eyes, his head rested back against the headboard. His eyebrows were pinched, his lips thin, and he watched her stare at him as though he were waiting to hear her scream, yell, throw something at him.

Instead, she just set down her coffee cup on the dresser, and came to sit on the corner of the bed, her legs folded under her, one hand lightly gripping his ankle through the blankets of the bed.

“Are you sick?” she asked quietly.

Cullen shook his head, and when he spoke, his voice was tired, croaked, and dry, and he told her everything.

 

__

 

“I wish you’d told me sooner,” she said, finally, when he’d finished. He reached for a glass of what looked like cold soupy broth, but only took one sip to quench his throat. “But I can’t blame you for not wanting to tell me.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t want anyone to know. I’m – I’m ashamed, to tell the truth. I wanted to be free of this long ago. And Cassandra is monitoring me,” he said, looking down, and reached up to rub his forehead with his thumb and forefinger. “Making sure I don’t kill myself waiting this out. I know it’s survivable, but sometimes, I feel like I’m dying.”

“Ma vhenan,” she whispered, taking his hand in hers, hiding the surprise on her face at her sudden confession – and hoping Cullen didn’t understand her language. “Where is your pain?”

He let out a harsh, short laugh that almost instantly turned into a frown. “Everywhere. Everywhere hurts. It’s like my body is crumbling apart, and I’m so cold that I shiver, which only makes it all worse.”

She pressed her free hand to his forehead, feeling his fever. “I am sorry,” she said, and rose up on her knees to press a kiss to his hot forehead. She felt his hand wrap around the side of her waist, but – that was it. He had no energy for anything else.

Then, a spark of an idea: “Can you lie on your stomach?”

“I think so. Can’t guarantee I won’t vomit,” he said, but still slowly scooted himself down in the bed such that he could roll over and lie face-down, his head turned to the side facing the edge of the bed, where Cassandra had placed a plastic trash bin. “I think I’m fine here.”

“Tell me if I need to stop,” she said, and lightly, with just her fingertips, ran them up and down his back. Then she added the tiniest bit of pressure, massaging his back in light, gentle circles. He sighed, and his muscles relaxed under her fingertips.

“My neck and my arms ache,” he murmured, his voice low and relaxed despite his overall pain. Astoria moved her hands to his neck, gently rolling the muscles under her fingers, then massaging across his right shoulder and down his arm. She repeated this on the left arm, taking care not to rub the still-healing tattoo on his shoulder, before returning to his back. Cullen gave a short hum in appreciation.

Astoria worked her way down his back, his sides, up his spine and back down once more. She briefly rolled her knuckles over his round arse over his sweatpants (eliciting a short chuckle from Cullen) before massaging his thighs, then his calves. Then she returned to his neck, her fingers rubbing light circles up into his hair, his forehead.

Slowly, and likely painfully, Cullen rolled over onto his back and closed his eyes. “Thank you,” he said quietly, and took her hand in his weak grip and held it to his chest. She leaned down to kiss his thin cheek, his skin burning hot under her lips.

“I can’t stay,” she said, pressing her forehead to his, “I have to go back to work.”

“Hmmm.”

“I’ll come back after, okay?”

“Okay,” he murmured, and opened his eyes a little, so they gazed into hers. She pecked his nose, and squeezed his hand on his chest, and got up off the bed.

She grabbed her coffee from the dresser, and looked back at Cullen lying on the bed, who was rubbing his eyes. She turned to leave, an odd, unfamiliar feeling settling into her chest, her heart.

 

__

 

Ma vhenan.

The words rang through the pounding headache that tortured him. Cullen was only fluent in Common; even the ancestral languages of Ferelden were lost on him. In high school, Cullen studied Orlesian (and was not good at it one little bit), but had picked up bits of Antivan and Tevene phrases from friends or television or books. Rarely anyone ever spoke Elvhen, except for the elves themselves. But that didn’t mean Cullen had never learned of or wasn’t able to recognize a number of phrases, or words, from television, or the elves he had come across in his life as a Templar.

When she said it, it took a moment for him to remember where he’d heard it before – either on one of Mia’s TV Soaps, or from the lips of an elvhen man, one night when Cullen’s team had arrested his wife for apostacy. Both made him ache – the former in longing, the latter in regret.

Ma vhenan.

It was an idiom that was translatable easily into Common, one that resembled the little words his mother would call his father, or couples on TV would say to each other, the unspoken language of the eyes that only Cassandra and Varric seemed to be fluent in.

He held onto that little phrase, those two words that seem so small but felt so big as Astoria left, promised to return. He held onto it as it made him fear, and worry, and filled him with hope, and longing.

Perhaps he deserved this, after all – he might just deserve her.

He would get better.

My heart.

Chapter Text

When Cullen woke up, he was starving.

Astoria slept, curled up against his side, her nose pressed into his neck. Carefully, he detached himself from her, letting her fall to rest on the pillows of his bed.

Cullen stood slowly – first swinging his legs off the edge of the bed, and holding onto it as he stood up, measuring his balance. When he thought he could stand, he let go, and walked on light feet out to the hallway.

He passed the guest room where Cassandra slept and walked out into the living space. Looking out the windows, he saw early light just peeking over the rooftops of ancient buildings and into his apartment.

In the kitchen he found bread on the countertop and eggs and butter in the fridge. He worked on autopilot, slathering the bread with butter on both sides and dropping two slices into a pan, and turned on the stove to let it toast. He drew another pan from the rack above the stove to fry eggs in.

After over a week of eating only chicken broth and saltine crackers in the tiniest of amounts that his stomach could endure, he felt hungry enough to eat an entire druffalo.

While he cooked, he turned the TV on at a low volume, quiet enough to not awaken Astoria or Cassandra. A news report given by a human anchorman gave him enough background noise to cook to.

He set the kettle to make breakfast tea before flipping over his toast, frying the other side. Then he checked the eggs and lowered their heat, and turned to watch the TV.

“—meet today at the Temple of Sacred Ashes in the Fereldan city of Haven to negotiate potential courses of action in response to the growing worldwide protests for Mage Rights.”

Cullen turned the volume up a couple notches, and finished his breakfast, scooping the eggs on top of the toast and turning off the stove. He grabbed a plate and poured his tea, and brought it all over to the coffee table before the TV and sat down to watch.

The Ferelden Prime Minister and Ferelden parliament are in support of more mage freedoms for those not-practicing and non-maleficarum. Meanwhile, Orlesian congress as a whole still opposes all mage freedoms, as does the President of the United Free Marches. Rivaini and Nevarran governments are in support of mage freedoms, as well as various Dalish nations. There are still no official statements from the governments of Par Vollen or the Tevinter Republic.

“For now, ambassadors and leaders will meet with Chantry officials as well as the Divine herself to discuss a breakaway from Chantry rule over mage affairs. More at seven.”

“Cullen?”

He tore his attention away from the television to see Astoria leaning against the archway into the living room, rubbing her eye—the one with the scar—and wearing one of Cullen’s sweatshirts that drowned her.

“Hey,” he said, and muted the TV.

“What are you doing up?” she asked sleepily, and shuffled over to the sofa in socked feet, where she promptly lay down.

“I just woke up,” he said, shrugging, and let her rest her head in his lap, her faced turned towards the TV. “I was starving, so I ate.”

She jolted up, surprised, and turned to look at him. She pressed the back of her hand against his forehead. “Your fever is gone,” she said, a little amazed. “How do you feel?”

“Tired, still a little sore, but better, I suppose,” he said, “headache doesn’t make me feel like my skull is splitting anymore, so that’s better.”

“That’s a lot better,” she agreed, and gave him a small smile.

 

__

 

The Prime Minister of Ferelden stood by his and Parliament’s belief: mage freedoms, and freedom for those non-maleficarum in the world. He was backed by the King and Queen of Ferelden, and they pushed for detachment from the Chantry law.

The Orlesian Prime Minister continued to heed the word of the Divine and preached a unified stance, claiming that any free and undocumented mages will simply immigrate to Ferelden. The Fereldan Prime Minister retorted that as long as innocent people were free, Ferelden would open its arms to anyone who needed sanctuary.

Ambassadors from Ostagar – no Clan Keepers came, for reasons that everyone knew but would not speak aloud – declared that, as all Dalish reservations were free from Templar jurisdiction, they have and always will remain free from Chantry rule as sovereign states.

The redheaded Left Hand of the Divine whispered in the ear of the Divine for much of the summit. At the end of the first day, the Divine stood up at the table.

“Anyone wishing to leave Chantry Law will host a referendum,” she stated, “they must win a popular vote among all their people.

“But,” she continued, “I will only accept a referendum if your respective governments come forward with a plan that I must accept for managing mages within your borders. I will always lend my Templars to manage existing correctional institutions to those who need them.”

“Alexandria,” one of the Dalish ambassadors stood up, and opened her mouth to continue when the Divine interrupted her.

“You may address me as ‘Most Holy,’ Ambassador Mahariel.”

“I will not,” she said proudly, “for I am not Andrastian, and you are not holy to me or my people.

“As I was saying,” the ambassador continued, and the rest of the representatives and ambassadors in the room were silent with shock and respect, “It seems to me that you are playing a game you know you can win. Your Templars have escalated every protest, every sit-in, every march made in favor of Mage Rights. Your Templars have fired real bullets on peaceful protestors, and all this has been done to create a violent response from protestors. You have generated fear amongst the people – fear that any visible support for mages will be met with punishment, and increased fear of mage supporters and mages among non-mages. You have skillfully violated Person Rights in a way that neither condemns nor convicts you, or your Chantry. In fact, everything that the Chantry and the Order has done in the last several thousand years to mages violates every Person Right that the treaty states since the tenth Age.

“But this is not a situation that warrants a popular vote. The Orlesian Prime Minister made a fair point – what is to stop free and undocumented mages in Chantry-controlled nations from immigrating to free ones? This change must happen across Thedas, elected by congresses and parliaments, not the people of whom the Divine has instilled fear, fear that she controls.”

There was silence in the hall and tension between the Divine and the Dalish ambassador. The Left Hand of the Divine whispered in her patron’s ear, her silent words never reaching the ear of another.

The Divine regarded the assembly. “I will accept Ambassador Mahariel’s proposition, on the condition that my terms for acceptance still apply. Individual governments must provide me a detailed plan for managing mages within your borders, and I must accept these plans in order to allow your great nations to secede from Chantry Law.”

Then the Divine turned to meet the gaze of the Dalish ambassador. “I have not forgotten how your people have gained independence from the Maker’s rule. It must seem a blessing in all of this for your lands to be free of Templars, no?”

“It is a blessing,” the ambassador replied, “that your people no longer have the legal right to kill or rape or enslave my people. You might have forgotten this part of history, but the elves will never forget.”

Silence befell the hall.

 

__

 

The last thing Astoria would admit to is being scared.

The word was not in her vocabulary. Anxiety, caution, concern – these were words she knew, and understood and expressed. But never fear. She hid her fear like a foul trait, never to be seen by others, spoken aloud for the spirits to hear.

The night she returned to the Clan after her mother died, when Keeper took her into her arms, was the last night she let herself be scared. She hid under layers and walls, glamour’s of confidence and aloofness.

As the summit regarding the Mage Rebellion continued over the week, Astoria was surprised by her growing and developing emotions over the matter. She watched the news, C-SPAN, and watched as the leaders of the world decided her fate and the fate of those like her without the input of actual mages. She was concerned, she was filled with anxiety. She walked with caution through the streets, the subway, at the grocery store, in her own apartment building, aware of everyone and everything going on around her, watching for Templars as she heard stories of mages being snatched from their beds, their cars, their workplaces and offices.

Celebrities and politicians were accused of apostacy. Their trials were publicized in newspapers and online. Most were innocent, the rumors coming from false accusations. Sometimes, however, a mage was caught.

A witch hunt had begun. Astoria refused to admit that she was scared.

 

__

 

Delrin walked up the stone steps, his palms already sweating.

The receptionist at the front desk directed him to an elevator, giving him a sticky note with an office number and time written in bright blue ink. He tried to ignore the symbolism.

The sixth floor came sooner than he’d like, and the doors opened. Some people came in, dressed in professional suits and skirts. The doors started closing when Delrin finally stepped out into the corridor.

When he knocked on the door to the office, his heart was pounding in his ears. He looked around for a sign pointing to the restroom. He felt like throwing up.

The door opened. A petite human woman smiled at him. Her red hair was tied up in a twist, and her blouse had embroidered flowers on the collar.

“Delrin Barris?”

He nodded. His throat was dry. “Yes.”

“Come on in, the Knight-Commander is expecting you.”

He walked through her little office and through the next door into a large and well-decorated office. Knight-Commander Parson sat in his chair behind his desk. Opposite him was a sleek leather chair.

“Barris!” The Knight-Commander greeted him, and outstretched his arm to shake his hand. Delrin shook it and sat down.

“Thank you for agreeing to meet with me,” said Parson, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the edge of his desk. He was wearing his dress uniform (Delrin knew the Knight-Commander position was purely political these days): a gold jacket with red stripes on the shoulders, the red insignia of the Templar Order on the front of his jacket. On his breast were several pins—that of the Knight-Commander, several other rank pins, badges, and a few medals. For years, since he was a little boy, Delrin had wanted to wear that jacket, to be a Knight-Commander. But as the dreams of the youth typically do, they quickly faded away under the harsh light of reality.

“Of course.”

“It’s been awhile since we last met.”

“Yes, sir.”

“How’s your family?”

“They’re doing fine.” I haven’t seen them in almost a year.

“Good, that’s good. These are difficult times, with all these mages running about. These are times when it’s important to watch out for those who matter most, the little guys. The underdogs. Those without the power to protect themselves.”

Delrin did not respond to that, for he did not know what to say.

“I want to help people, Barris, and I know you want to as well.”

“I help run a bakery where we donate all the day-old goods to the homeless. I think I’m helping people where I’m at.”

“Good man!” Parson grinned, “you’ve always been a good man. Too good for us, sometimes, isn’t that right?”

“I – I didn’t fit here anymore, sir. That’s why I left.”

“How are you doing without lyrium? Have the headaches set in yet, or do you have your own supply?”

Delrin ground his teeth. “I’m doing perfectly fine without lyrium. You know I’ve been getting help from Knight-Ca—Cullen Rutherford, sir.”

“But you still want it, right?” Parson said, narrowing his eyes. “No matter how long they try to go clean for, nearly every templar who leaves, saying they’ll quit, comes back to us. They’re usually a little worse for wear, some sick, but we help them. We take care of them until they’re better, and they’re healthy, and they join once more.

“Are you so sure that you want to stay away? Barris, this was your home. These were your brothers, your sisters. Many of them miss you – I’ll hear them telling stories of the great Delrin Barris, the best Templar of them all, with the kindest heart in the Order.”

“Forgive me, sir,” Delrin shook his head, as though he could shake off the sticky words that manipulated him, “why did you call me in today?”

“We want you back, Barris,” he said, and leaned back to open a drawer in his desk. He took out a small steel box and opened the lid. Inside was his old badge, his gun, and a vial of liquid blue lyrium. “The Order wants you back with us. We need men like you serving us, the people, to protect them.”

Magic exists to serve man, and never to rule over him,” Delrin whispered, looking down at his hands, fisted against the fabric of his pants. “I’ve had that phrase beaten down my throat since I was old enough to listen to the mother’s sermons in the Chantry I grew up near. I was told all mages were abominations when I entered the academy, I’ve been gaslighted, led to believe that what I was doing was right – arresting mages that were innocent, were just living their lives and were not maleficarum, the Order made me think that people who could not help the nature of their birth deserved the worst kind of treatment. Before the Veil thickened, mages at least lived in Circles, and were given some freedoms. It’s so nice to see that humanity has devolved so much.”

Delrin watched Parson’s jaw clench, the muscle in his cheek tick.

“So you’re a mage sympathizer?”

“Oh, definitely,” Delrin nodded. “I’m rooting for them. When I’m a hundred years old and dying, I’d like to look back and know that I was on the right side of history.”

“Why did you come, then?”

“I still respected you, sir. You were my Knight-Commander during my time with the Order. Though, after hearing you speak today, I think I’d like to leave. You see, since I quit lyrium completely – that’s right, this little power move of yours didn’t work – since I quit, I’ve been trying to stay positive in my life. Surround myself with positive people, doing good things. Here, though, all I see is a manipulative bastard who gets angry when he doesn’t get what he wants.

“Have a good afternoon,” Delrin rose from his chair, straightening his jacket. He saluted his ex-Knight-Commander for the last time, and left.

 

__

 

Leliana closed the door behind her and threw her briefcase into the sofa and screamed.

Josephine jumped from where she stood in the kitchen, stirring something in a large pot on the stove.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, turning down the heat on the stove and rushing over to her fiancé.

Leliana kicked off her heels and hiked up her skirt to unhook her thigh holster. “Divine Alexandria is what’s wrong. I hate working for her, I hate trying to consul her. She’s old and racist and hates mages and I cannot stand it.

“I take it the summit isn’t going well.”

“Not for our friends, no,” Leliana sighed, and allowed herself to be pulled into a hug. “But it was too much to ask for complete freedom. Alexandria wouldn’t even listen to me when I tried to advise her before the summit, and she won’t listen to me now. She only keeps me as her asset now – her shadow, her silent gun in the dark. I’m basically a quieter Cassandra.”

“I’m sorry,” Josie said, true and sincere. “What about the other representatives and leaders? What does Ferelden decide?”

“Ferelden wants to give mages freedom across the board – except for the maleficarum – and so does Nevarra and Antiva, I think. The Dalish are always going to give mages shelter, they always have and always will. Orlais, of course, is led by a tit and will do anything to please the Divine, even though she no longer operates in Val Royeaux but here at the Temple of Sacred Ashes.”

“They’re hoping she will return to the Grand Cathedral.”

“That’ll only happen when the Grand Clerics agree to remove Andraste’s ashes from the Temple. Also, Alexandria is a die-hard dog lord – she wouldn’t move to the Grand Cathedral if Orlais offered her all the gold in the world.”

Josie hummed, and rubbed Leliana’s back.

“I’m sorry. I’m just frustrated.”

“That’s entirely understandable.”

“And now you understand why I didn’t invite Alexandria to the wedding.”

“I just figured it was a boss-employee thing, not really an ‘I hate her’ thing.”

“Well, that too.” Leliana kissed her cheek.

Chapter Text

“What are your siblings like?” Astoria asked, wiping tiny beads of blood that welled up from the line she’d just tattooed.

“Well, together, they’re all…a little all over the place,” Cullen admitted. “Mia is serious and responsible, but sweet, really. Looks a lot like me, too – uncontrollably curly hair, yellow as the sun. She’s done a good job of, well, tracking me down, finding out where I am. She’ll send me letters, find my number and call me…”

Astoria paused. “And you don’t respond or pick up?”

“It’s hard.”

“Why?”

He shrugged, and Astoria tapped his arm once more, making sure he would stay still. She lowered the needle of the gun back onto his arm, finishing out the outline for the golden chess piece Cullen had asked her to do. This time he insisted on paying for it with real money.

The tattoo would be on the inside of his forearm, on the same arm that she’d tattooed weeks ago. Cullen explained that it reminded him of his siblings – all of them played chess, learning to best each other for bragging rights as children. Astoria chose the golden color because, in her own words, it suited him so well that it would be a crime should he get it in any other color.

“The things that happened to me in Kinloch wounded my mind so much that I couldn’t bear to see my family, or anyone who loved me. For many years, I thought myself undeserving of love.” Then he was silent; Astoria narrowed her eyes at him, reading him.

“Do you still think that?”

He remained silent. He looked down into his lap.

“Cullen.”

“It was hard, okay?” he said, a little harsher than he meant to. “I’m sorry.

“I was in a rough place. As you know, I still was under the influence of lyrium, I was still connected to everything that made my life difficult to endure. For a long time I believed that if I couldn’t control my fears, my anxieties, then I couldn’t be the person that everyone thought I was, the person I wanted to be.”

“And now? You’ve been off lyrium for a month and a half now. You’re surrounded by people who love you – all your friends, our friends, all of us care so much about you. I mean, look at Cassandra. She loves you so much. And I—”

Astoria caught herself, her words stuck in her throat when she met Cullen’s gaze. And what, Astoria? She had no answer for herself, no explanation. What did she feel, really, when it came right down to it? She’d spent several days the other week supporting him as best as she could with Cassandra – keeping him sane, making sure he was keeping down fluids and as light of foods as he could stomach, wiping his forehead of sweat as he slept fitfully. Just how long had Astoria actually known the man for, how long had she been interested in him, in a relationship with him? And already her feelings were so strong that she would do this for him.

Was she scared? No, Astoria would never admit to feeling scared. Nervous was the correct answer.

She was very nervous because she didn’t know how to answer that question.

“I care about you,” she finally said, swallowing the lump in her throat. “A lot.”

“As do I,” he smiled as he caressed her cheek with his thumb, and kissed her forehead in the middle of her vallaslin.

 

__

 

“Mythal’enaste,” her sister cursed over the phone, her voice sounding chopped through the connection. From far away and across the Waking Sea, Sorcha chided Astoria through the miracles of modern technology.

“Sorcha, I’m serious. I’m not coming back, and you can tell Keeper that because even the Dread Wolf knows I’m not talking to her about this.”

“It’s safer here! No Chantry jurisdiction, no Templars, no threats. The Clan is willing to let you back, and I think you should take the opportunity.”

Astoria clenched her fist, her teeth grinding. She was curled up in her own bed in her apartment, warm and safe under the duvet cover.

“Look, the political climate in the human nations is getting really dicey – and you had to live in Haven of all the bleedin’ places. There’s got to be Templars on every street.”

“I’m fine where I am.”

“Astoria I’m worried. The summit in Haven isn’t over—and it’s been weeks—and our Clan’s representative is telling us that Keeper and I will likely never leave the reservation anytime in the near future, or perhaps anytime ever.”

“The Free Marches are in an entirely different political situation than Ferelden. I’m probably safer here than trying to fly into Wildervale or Starkhaven and taking the, what, six hour bus ride to the Clan’s reservation?”

On the other side of the call, Sorcha paused for a long while.

“Please, big sister,” she said quietly, “Please come home.”

“I can’t.”

“Fen’Harel ma ghilana. I’m trying to help you.”

“I know that, da’len.”

“I’m doing it because I love you, and I miss you, and I want you to be safe.”

“I know that.”

“Promise me that, if things get ugly in Ferelden, you’ll come home?”

Astoria closed her eyes, taking a deep breath.

“Okay,” she said, “I promise.”

 

__

 

The next day after work, Astoria went over to the bakery.

Rylen was still there, cleaning the oven, while Cullen piped icing onto a fancy four-tiered wedding cake. Astoria sat on the central stainless steel table, dangling her legs over the edge.

“The Clan is so – so closed minded,” she groaned in exasperation, and took a bite from one of the leftover muffins from the day. “Just because I wanted to do something for myself for a change means that I basically get tossed out.”

Rylen looked up from scrubbing the inside of the oven, his brow cocked in confusion. “Just because you wanted to do art instead of…what did they want you to do?”

“They wanted me to be a lawyer, or a politician,” she rolled her eyes, “something involving suits and leather briefcases and being a representative of the Clan. I love my Clan, it’s just—they have plenty of artists, craftsmen, people who can do things with their hands and make pretty and beautiful things. I was basically drafted into a role that was created for me.”

She shared a look with Cullen, for Rylen was still ignorant to Astoria’s mage abilities.

“So when I told the Hahrens that I had changed my major and wanted to become a tattoo artist and live away from the Clan, they basically said ‘don’t come back!’”

“Did that screw with your tuition? Like, did they stop paying for you to go to school?”

“No,” she shook her head, and finished the rest of the muffin. “I had so many scholarships from Redcliffe University that they weren’t paying tuition anyways. It’s amazing, really – the amount of money you can get for being an orphaned Dalish elf with straight A’s all throughout high school is ridiculously high. I was practically getting paid to go to school there.”

Both Rylen and Cullen paused – Astoria quickly realized that neither knew she was an orphan. Cullen hadn’t asked, and she never had a reason to tell him. The two humans were awfully silent and awkward, as though they didn’t know what to say.

“Anyway,” she continued, breaking the silence, “now they want be back, because of all the protests happening in Haven, and they fear for my safety.”

“Just because you’re an elf?” Rylen asked. Cullen shared a cautious glance with her.

“Pretty much,” she tested, hoping that was enough. “I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but when things get rough in human cities, elves often take a beating.”

“Oh,” he said, and the corner of Cullen’s mouth pulled to the side, a sympathetic expression—also pulling hard on his scar and stretching the skin around it.

“Who’s wedding?” she asked and pointed at the cake, changing the subject.

 

__

 

Rylen left after a half an hour, telling Cullen he was headed home when Astoria knew for a fact that he and Krem were going dancing. Astoria watched as Cullen piped out tiny pink roses on the white cake.

“I didn’t know you were an orphan,” he said, his eyes and hands still focused on the cake.

“I don’t normally broadcast it, “she shrugged, “my father left before Sorcha was born. He died in a really bad car accident in Ostwick. And Mamae…she, uh, was killed the night I got this,” she tapped on her scar, flinching when she felt the raised scar tissue under her finger. Cullen looked up.

“By the Templars?”

“She was a mage, too,” she said quietly. “I didn’t tell you because you didn’t seem to take it very well when I told you I was attacked by them.”

Cullen put down the tube of icing and braced his arms on the table, shaking his head. “Maker, how can you not hate me?”

“Cullen!” Astoria slammed her open palm against the table, “We’ve been over this! I could never hate you – you weren’t the Templar that killed her, I doubt you even knew the Templars that attacked us.” (She didn’t add that it was because she’d killed them with blood magic long before Cullen took his position in Kirkwall) “You’ve proven time and time again that you are better than the Order. You are a hundred times better than the men who did this – never, ever think that I will hate you, or that I should hate you for something you had nothing to do with.”

She reached across the table and covered his hand with hers, squeezing it. He turned his palm over and laced their fingers together.

“Truth be told, my whole family either is or were mages,” she continued, wiggling her fingers in their joined hands. “Except for my father, he wasn’t one. But his father was, and so there was magical blood in there, and that’s why he and Mamae were married. The Keeper is my grandmother, and my little sister is the First now. They don’t have a Second – that was Sorcha’s role before I left, and I suppose it’ll be left open until Sorcha has a kid.”

“Your last name is the same as the Clan name.”

“Long line of Keepers in this Clan,” she said, “usually they change their last names when they become Firsts or Seconds, but my family’s been blessed with mages in every generation for so long that that’s not even necessary anymore.”

Cullen hummed, pondering this, and brought her knuckles to his lips to kiss them.

Astoria smiled. “What was that for?”

“You’re always so honest,” he said, and kissed her knuckles again, “and you’re so kind to me, especially when I’m not to myself.”

“One of us has to be,” she brought their joined hands to herself, kissing his knuckles in return. “Believe it or not, I like you a lot, and I care about your happiness and well-being.”

He let out a low chuckle. “I like you a lot too,” he said, and walked around the corner of the table to where Astoria sat and took her other hand in his. He pressed a feather-light kiss to her lips. “I like you a stupid amount,” he kissed her cheek, “a very, very stupidly large amount.”

“What do you like most?” she asked, and kissed his jaw, the stubble of his facial hair gently scratching her lips.

“I like a lot of things the most,” he murmured, exhaling as she kissed down the column of his throat, “like your hair, and the way you love art and tattooing people, or how much you love and the pride you have for your Clan and the Elvhen people no matter how much you might complain about them.”

“Go on,” she hummed against the apple of his throat.

“I love your brutal honesty, and the loving and protective way that you treat your found family.”

“Anything else?” Her teeth grazed his throat.

A low groan rumbled in his throat. Cullen slowly let go of her hands and ran his fingertips up the outside of her thighs to her hips, pushing up the hem of her shift dress to the edge of her lace-trimmed underwear. Astoria widened her legs and he stepped between them.

“I love these,” he said, turning his head to give her better access to his neck. “Your thighs, your hips…”

He ran his hands across the tops of her thighs, his thumbs caressing her inner thigh. Astoria sighed deeply, her hands grabbing his waist and pulling him closer – as close as she could while still sitting on the edge of the table.

“And?”

“Maker,” he sighed, “there is so much more.” The tips of his fingertips ghosted the edge of her underwear, testing their boundaries. Astoria whispered affirmation into his ear and he continued, his hands running up her sides under her dress, softly skimming the smooth skin of her breasts, over her peaked nipples.

He captured her lips with his, kissing her deeply as he dragged his thumbs across her nipples. She gasped, arching her back at the sensation of pleasure that ran through her.

“Cullen,” she sighed into his mouth, but the thought she had was soon lost on her as the pads of his fingertips circled her breast.

She pulled at the bottom hem of his tee shirt, but he quickly stopped her, his hands circling her wrists.

“Wait,” he breathed, “I want to do this for you.”

Certainly too aroused to argue that point, Astoria let him place her hands on his hips. Cullen caressed her thighs, stroking her inner thigh once more.

“May I?”

Creators, yes,” she breathed.

He lightly pulled on her underwear, guiding them off her hips, then down her legs and off, dropping them on the floor.

His fingertips slowly and tantalizingly circled her clit, rolling over the sensitive organ. Astoria keened under his touch, sinking into his hand. She sighed deeply into his mouth. She felt pressure and arousal brew low in her belly, throbbing against her cunt.

With his free hand he held the small of her back as he pressed her down to lie flat on the table.

She moaned as he pressed two fingers into her cunt and kept his thumb pressed against her clit.

Cullen pulled back to kneel next to the table, pressing kisses into her inner thigh as he curled his fingers inside her, dragging his fingertips against her center of pleasure within her. Astoria inhaled sharply, arching her back off of the table. Her eyes fluttered as his lips pressed against her clit, teasing her.

He curled his fingers once more and flicked her clit with his tongue. Astoria keened, her fingers tangling in the curls of his hair, her nails scratching his scalp as he flicked his tongue once more.

She shivered as he kissed her and teased her, bringing her closer and closer. Cullen withdrew his fingers from her cunt and slid his hands under her arse, gripping the soft skin and pulling her closer. His lips spread her further, and he pulled her legs over his shoulders.

Astoria cried out when Cullen dragged his tongue over the entrance to her cunt, sucking on her clit. His grip on her arse tightened. Astoria delighted in the knowledge that tomorrow there would be light bruises there in the shape of his hands, the thought itself nearly bringing her close.

“Cullen,” she sighed, her chest heaving with the rolling waves of pleasure that coursed through her body, “Ir garasan, Cullen, I need you, I need more—”

“Anything,” he murmured into her sex, grazing his teeth against her clit. It was enough to release all the tension that had built up low in her belly and she came loudly, her moan rolling from deep in her chest. Astoria pulled his hair as her orgasm rolled through her, tightening her muscles and relaxing them.

Cullen kissed the joint between her hip and her thigh and unhooked her thighs from his shoulders. She was still breathing hard as he helped her up, limp and loose. She fell forward and rested her head on his shoulder.

“Holy shit,” she murmured into the warm skin of his neck. Cullen chuckled and lifted her head to kiss her—she tasted herself on his lips, salty as the Waking Sea.

“You were saying?”

“Oh,” she sighed quietly against his lips, her eyes half-lidded, “I was gonna say…I needed—wanted—you to just fuck me, but that was perfect.”

Cullen groaned, pressing his forehead against hers. “I’m still up for it, if you are.”

“Mythal’enaste, yes,” she sighed, reaching into the space between them for the button of his jeans.

“Upstairs,” he whispered into her mouth, “we’ve already violated at least four health codes.”

 

__

 

They put the cake in the fridge and Cullen quickly wiped down the table where Astoria had been sitting. She picked up her bag and her discarded underwear and let him guide her upstairs to his apartment.

They had barely closed the door behind themselves and dropped their respective belongings before Cullen was lifting her up and wrapping her legs around his waist, pressing her back up against the wall of the living room.

“Off, take this off,” she murmured into his mouth, pulling at his tee shirt. This time, Cullen willingly tugged it off and threw it behind him, giving Astoria the privilege of seeing and touching the wide expanse of his golden, well-sculpted chest.

She wrapped her arms around his neck as he pressed her into the wall, kissing her deeply, his hips grinding hard against hers. She saw stars every time she felt his hard cock pressing through his jeans against her bare cunt.

Astoria exhaled deeply. “Bed…bedroom, now, Cullen I need you now.”

He groaned into her mouth and lifted her again, carrying her down the hallway into his room, where he lowered her onto the bed, gentle despite ragged need that the both of them felt.

She hooked her leg over his hips and pushed off with her arm, artfully flipping them such that Cullen lay flat on his back, head on the pillows, his expression a mixture of surprise and awe.

She kissed him open-mouthed and leaned back, straddling his hips. She put her hands on his chest and rolled her hips, grinding down against his hardened cock. Cullen groaned and gripped her thighs. Astoria rolled her hips again, continuing the motion, and pulled her dress off over her head.

Cullen stared in awe. Light grey vallaslin cut over the tops of her breasts in thick lines, the pattern similar to that on her forehead. Curving lines curled under her breasts, ending in sharp points above her navel. Every line was adorned with dashes and dots, elaborate and beautiful. His fingertips traced these and he rose forward, pressing a kiss on top of the vallaslin between her breasts as though she were a sacred being and he was giving holy communion.

If asked, Astoria could not define the feeling she had felt that night. It expanded in her chest and ripped open her ribcage in the most pleasant way possible, brightening with new strength with every kiss Cullen laid upon her body. She felt it flow through her stomach down to the tips of her toes, the ends of her fingers, warming her ears and her nose. She felt like she was on fire and her heart was the smoldering core that fueled the flames.

She helped him pull off his jeans and boxers and threw them off the bed in an exaggerated fashion. Cullen laughed and pulled her close once more, smiling as they kissed. He pulled away and leaned over to the bedside table, returning with a condom. Astoria waited with her chin in her hands as he put it on, her lips turned up at the corners. They came together once more and Astoria straddled his lap. She took his cock in hand, guiding the head towards her entrance, slickened with her arousal.

“You still want me to fuck you?” she whispered, pressing her forehead against his. He looked up and gazed into her eyes – brown against blue and green – and blinked.

“Yes,” he breathed, his chest rising and falling as Astoria’s hand slowly pumped up and down the shaft of his cock. His lips ghosted over hers, never quite touching, but serving their purpose. Separately, simultaneously, their lips begged each other to love them, to love each other, and to merely love in the plainest of words.

She lowered herself onto him. Astoria gasped as his large size stretched her almost painfully.

Cullen’s eyes flew open. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she breathed, her free hand cradling his face. She gazed into his eyes and saw so much worry and concern, fear of hurting her – she kissed him softly. I’m fine, I’m okay, I want this.

She breathed deeply and evenly as she fitted herself onto him until their hips were flushed together. Cullen held her little waist in his human hands as she slowly rolled their hips together, her muscles tight around his cock. When she looked into his eyes, his pupils were blown such that there was the smallest sliver of brown against the black, and when Cullen gazed back, he only saw tiny slashes of blue and green.

She pushed him down, her hands on his chest, and fucked him slowly and sweetly. She thrust herself such that each drag up and down on his cock also dragged along her clit, bringing her more pleasure, filling her belly with heat. Astoria leaned down to press her lips against his nipple, rolling it between her teeth. Cullen’s back arched up as a loud groan escaped his open mouth. She rolled the other between her thumb and forefinger. Astoria’s ears drunk in the sounds of his moans, his pleasure – pleasure that she brought him. The knowledge had her halfway to coming at the thought.

His hips buckled under hers and his chest rose and fell heavily, until he finally came with a low-throated cry. Astoria pressed forward to swallow his moans with her mouth, riding him through his orgasm until she came as well, her arms and body shaking. As each wave of her orgasm rolled through her, she fell forward, her face pressed into the crook of his shoulder.

“Maker preserve me,” he breathed, the rise and fall of his chest lifting Astoria as she rested on top of him. “That was so good. That was so fucking good.”

Astoria chuckled into his neck, pressing light kisses against his warm skin. Her fingertips danced up the column of his throat. “Gods, you’re so sexy.”

“Sexy? I’m sexy?” he laughed, and rolled them, Astoria now on her back. He pressed their noses together. “You’re the sexiest creature alive. Maker, what an honour to be deemed sexy by the graces of such a divine being.”

Astoria smiled, laughing, and cradled his face in her hands. Creators, he was beautiful when he smiled. The corners of his eyes crinkled wonderfully, showing not just his age but also his delight. This close, she could see each dark freckle in his brown eyes; in his pupils, she saw her own reflection, the beauty that he saw when he looked at her. His smile was contagious and intoxicating. Small dimples formed in his cheeks, and his wide smile pulled against his scar and it was no longer a reminder of violence and fear but a beautiful mark that defined him and made him unique.

They kissed, warm and happy and separately, simultaneously, falling in love with each other.

Chapter Text

She blinked, her elvhen eyes adjusting to the dim room. A faint beeping from the bedside table had roused her from deep sleep.

She was warm under the heavy blankets, warm from her bare skin pressed closely against his bare skin. Their legs were intertwined and Cullen’s arms were loosely wrapped around her waist, keeping her body close, her breast pressed against his chest.

The faint beeping got louder. Cullen roused, shifting under Astoria’s body, and rolled away towards the bedside table, lightly hitting the top of his alarm clock.

“What time is it?” she murmured into the skin of his shoulder when he fell back against the sheets.

“Five,” he sighed. His voice was heavy, thick with sleep and slow from the warm, comfortable, close proximity of Astoria. She lifted her head to look at him, and found him looking back. Cullen pulled her closer until their lips met, dry from kissing all night yet still warm, and full of love.

Astoria sunk into the kiss, ignoring their morning breath and their salty skin, sweaty from sex. She could feel the bruises he had left on her hips and arse; she felt the ache in her cunt. She loved it, savored it, and needed so much more of it.

As they kissed they pulled the covers back over them, getting warm. Cullen tucked Astoria’s head under his chin.

The alarm clock beeped again.

“I should get up,” he murmured, drawing lazy circles into the skin of her back. “But, Maker, I don’t want to.”

Astoria hummed. She hooked a leg over his hip and pressed closer into his skin.

“You’re making it really hard to get up and go to work.”

“That’s because I don’t have work for five more hours,” she said, and rolled with him as Cullen rolled over to hit the snooze button again. “Join me in my laziness.”

“Or,” he mused, and pressed their noses together, ghosting his lips across her cheek, “you could join me in the shower.”

 

___

 

Astoria couldn’t stop smiling all day. Her clients that day didn’t take note of her increased outward pleasure, but Krem, Josephine, Isabella, and others certainly had.

“So who was on top?” the Iron Bull asked while Astoria was printing transfer sheets.

Startled, Astoria made a strange sort of squeaking noise, before clearing her throat to answer. “I was.”

“Cullen does seem like a bottom,” he mused. Then, he asked, “Did he at least go down on you?”

“Thrice. Once before, once after, and once in the shower this morning,” she smiled, and took her printed transfer sheets. As she walked away, she heard the Iron Bull mutter, “Good man.”

 

___

 

With the growing business and success of Champions of the Crust, Cullen had found it in the budget to hire on three part-time positions in the store in order to give himself, Rylen, and Delrin more free time. Ruvena, Hugh, and Keran were all recent Templar-defectors who personally sought out Cullen after word spread of his and his companions’ success in quitting lyrium.

He had them working on the register, mostly, until they learned the skills required to work in a bakery kitchen. At least one of them would have to reach that level while Cullen, Rylen, and Delrin were gone for a week in Antiva City for Leliana and Josephine’s wedding.

Cullen knew it was hard work – learning new skills while dealing with the guilt of leaving behind a life you’d pledged yourself to, had taken vows for. The lyrium headaches alone were difficult to work through. But Cullen—as well as Rylen and Delrin—believed in the younger three, and knew they could persevere.

 

___

 

“What do people do in Antiva City?” Astoria asked, sitting on the countertop in her little galley kitchen. She swirled the glass of red wine in her hand, watching as little bubbles formed on the sides as she did so.

“Beats me. The Jennies, I think, mostly try to bring the billionaire pricks on Princes Street down to the level of the people. There’s a lot of golfing, I guess,” Sera answered as she mixed cookie dough with a spatula. She had recently dyed her hair bright purple, and now it was sticking up in the back where her undercut was still growing out.

“Hmm. I’ve never golfed,” she mused, and took a long sip from her wine.

“Well, get used to rich pricks trying to get you to golf. But believe me, it is bor-ring,” Sera said, emphasizing the latter half of the word. Astoria wondered in what sort of situation Sera would ever find herself golfing in Antiva.

“Anyway,” Sera continued, “how’s the wedding stuff going? You’re all maid-of-honor-ey and Cullen is all best-man-ey, and now you’re kissing and fucking and stuff. Where’s that going, you and Cully-wully?”

Astoria choked on her wine.

“I’m not sure what you mean?”

“Well,” she shrugged, and dipped two fingers into the raw dough and pulled out a blob, “you’re like, a relationship basically, without the words of one and without saying ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend.’ You work across the street from each other, you spend a lot of time over there. You’re going to a wedding together. That’s really coupley. I guess we’re all just wondering if this is a fling or not.” She put the cookie dough blob in her mouth.

“It’s not a fling!” Astoria exclaimed, “We haven’t, you know, put a label on it or anything. We’re seeing each other. It’s exclusive.”

“Have you even been on a real date?”

Astoria stuttered to answer. No words or explanation came to her lips. “Well, no. At this point we don’t need to. You don’t need to go on a ‘date’ to have a…relationship.”

Sera hummed. “It’s time to bag the cow, grab the clam, paint the town red.”

“What?”

“It’s time to define the relationship. DTR. Figure out where the both of you are and where it’s all going.”

 

___

 

“You are totally smitten!”

Leliana laughed, her cheeks flushed red as her smile stretched ear to ear. She basically hung from Cassandra’s arm, her drunk legs not quite catching up to the Seeker’s.

Cullen pulled his knit cap over his face. He felt Leliana poke at his arm, and he shuffled around to the other side of Cassandra to avoid her reach.

“Just think,” Leliana continued, “when we met, all of us were unmarried, single, angry blood-mage hunters, Cass hadn’t even met Varric, and now look at us. The Iron Tank is married, I’m getting married in…a number of weeks, and Cully might be going down the same path in a year or so!”

Cassandra thwacked Leliana on the arm. “They haven’t been together two months, go easy on him.”

“What,” he started, pulling the cap away from his eyes, “I can’t be married in a year?”

“I’m not saying that,” Cassandra rolled her eyes, “you and Astoria just haven’t gone on a real date, or defined the relationship yet. Let’s not jump to conclusions on the state of your relationship a year out.”

“Aww, he’s drunk and embarrassed.”

“Put a sock in it, Lil.”

“We’ll get there,” he said, “we’re good together and we really connect. We’ll get there.”

But the anxious mood Cassandra and Leliana had put him in was quickly sobering, and had him itching to go somewhere else.

 

___

 

[11:42pm – From: Cullen] Are you home?

 

__

 

Astoria opened her apartment door. “Is everything okay?”

Cullen didn’t answer. He closed his eyes and pressed a deep kiss against her lips, his cold hands coming to rest on the sides of her face. Surprised, Astoria broke the kiss but held onto the lapels of his leather jacket. In the corner of her eye, she saw Sera get up from the papasan chair and slink into her own bedroom.

“Hey,” she whispered, looking up to meet his eyes as they opened. “What’s going on?”

He shook his head, “nothing, nothing,” he said. “I just wanted to see you.”

Astoria pursed her lips. “Come on,” she said, and led him into her bedroom.

She had the curtains drawn open. The sun had set hours ago, but the city lights in the city basin reflected pink and orange against the snow-packed Frostback Mountains that surrounded them and framed a pretty picture in the window above Astoria’s bed. She had little Santinalia lights strung up all around the window and across the ceiling above her bed that bathed the room in a soft, yellow glow.

She pulled Cullen towards her bed and sat him down at the end of it. He looked down at his hands, folded in his lap, his expression closed. Astoria sat down next to him and leaned forward, pressing a small, gentle kiss between his brows.

“I was worried when I got your text,” she said softly, “I thought something was wrong. And you say there’s nothing going on, but the way you’re acting tells me otherwise.”

Slowly, he turned his head up to look at her. His wonderful brown eyes were dark. “It’s just, Maker I don’t know,” he said, exasperated, and fell backwards onto the bed with an oomph. “Something Cassandra said. Well, Leliana too. Both of them said things.”

Astoria frowned. “What did they say?”

“Well, mind you but I’m possibly still a little drunk and I’m paraphrasing, but Leliana said that in a couple years that you and I might be married, and then Cass was trying to shut her up by saying that you and I hadn’t gone on an actual date or anything, and it got me thinking that you and I, well, we haven’t talked about the future, or our future together, really.”

While he said this, Astoria felt a rising bubble of anxiety form, reminding her of her conversation with Sera earlier in the day. Creators, she knew the conversation had to happen soon, but not this soon.

They’d been together barely two months. Astoria hadn’t been in a serious relationship since Anders, and that had only lasted about a year, ended terribly, and now she wasn’t even sure he was still living in Haven anymore they were so out of contact. Was this getting serious? Was she serious about Cullen?

Ma vhenan. She’d said that to him. She’d called him her heart. When she saw him, weak and nearly dying form lyrium withdrawal, Astoria’s heart broke for him. She threw herself into caring for him, staying with him, making sure he would get better.

Last night, when they’d slept together—Astoria hadn’t had it so good, hadn’t had a partner just instantly get her so wholly and completely the first time. The night of and the morning after were so perfect, and she’d felt so comfortable… comfortable enough to tell him she was a mage, to share intimate details of her life and the culture of magic in her Clan.

In a way, she loved him. But she didn’t know if you could really love someone after less than two months together as a couple.

“You’re being really quiet and that’s scaring me.”

Astoria blinked, clearing her loud thoughts. “I’m sorry,” she said. Cullen leaned forward to sit up once more. “I was just thinking.”

“About?”

“Us.”

He nodded, but remained silent.

Astoria took his hands in hers and interlaced their fingers. His hands were still cold from outside. “Well, we haven’t talked about the future before. Or our future, or really defined what…this is.”

“Do you want to define it?”

“Do you?”

Cullen paused, and pursed his lips. Then, he said, “yes, yes I do.”

“So do I. I want this to be more than ‘seeing each other’ or a fling; I want it to be more than that. I think we’re ready for that. I mean, last night – the sex was great, it was really amazing, and I don’t know about you, but I felt something, and it made me think that yeah, this is where I want to be.”

Cullen smiled. “So did I—so do I.”

“As childish as the terms ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’ can seem, I don’t know how you feel about using them, but ‘partner’ sounds a little bit too married for where we’re at.”

“I’d like that,” he said, “to call you my girlfriend. Womanfriend. Ladyfriend. Whichever seems best.”

“Are you sure you’re sober enough for this conversation?”

“I assure you, the run to your apartment from the Market District on this frigid night was definitely enough to sober me up.”

Astoria smirked, “okay then, we are in a relationship, I will call you my boyfriend, and we will have really excellent sex throughout our relationship.” Cullen laughed at that, and leaned forward to kiss her. Gently, he pressed her down into the mattress, his hand caressing her hip. Astoria opened her lips under his and wrapped her arms around his waist between his shirt and his jacket.

“Okay wait,” he said, pulling away a few inches. “We still haven’t talked about the future, or where this whole ship is going.”

“Well, do we have to? I mean, we just established it.”

“While we’re on the subject.”

Astoria pulled her arms away and propped herself up on her elbows while Cullen leaned on his side next to her. “Okay,” she said, “where would you like to start?”

“What Leliana said, the thing that triggered all this, about being married. I mean, we’ve only just started seeing each other—just entered a relationship—I don’t want to push anything where you’re not ready. It’s just got me thinking. Could you see the two of us, when we’re ready, doing that?”

“Getting married?”

Cullen nodded.

“Well, I suppose,” Astoria began, and dropped her arms and relaxed into the bed, “yes, a couple years down the line, I could see myself married to you. It would be hard for me—a bit tricky, really, with my Clan. I’d probably get completely disowned for marrying a shem, and if we had children, they would be elf-blooded. My Clan likely wouldn’t claim them, and I can’t imagine a lot of humans being tolerant if the children inherited any visible elvhen traits. Not to mention if any of our children were mages, with everything that’s going on…

“But,” she continued, spotting the worried expression on Cullen’s face, “all of that would be worth it, if it meant spending my life with you.”

He leaned forward, pressing a warm kiss to her lips and cupping her face in his hand. When he pulled away, he left the tips of their noses touching. “For a long time I thought I would never find myself with a woman like you, or in any relationship at all. I didn’t think I could have a future with someone. The Order, the lyrium, that’s the only future I expected for myself for more than ten years. But now, I’m clean, and I have you.”

“And theoretical half-elf mage babies.”

“Oh of course, can’t forget that,” Cullen laughed, his smile brightening his face. “I can’t even imagine you pregnant with a half-human child. You’re so small you can hardly take my cock.

Astoria squeaked in astonishment as Cullen dug his fingers under her ribs, tickling her. Giggling, she fought him to get him back, poking under his armpits and at the base of his neck. They wrestled on top of the bed for a minute, Cullen hindered by the tightness of his leather jacket and Astoria by his greater mass. Finally she landed on top of him and kissed him deeply, her thighs straddling both sides of his hips.

He pressed himself up until he was sitting and shrugged off his jacket and maneuvered his legs to toe off his shoes, kicking them off the bed and onto the floor. Their eyes held each other while Cullen peeled off his shirt and tossed it to the floor on top of his jacket.

Astoria dragged her fingertips down his chest and across his stomach. He was finally regaining the weight and muscle he’d lost while he was fighting lyrium withdrawals, she noticed. He was looking good, healthy even. His golden color was coming back.

Cullen’s lips danced across her collarbone, across the muscle between her shoulder and her neck. She continued to feel across his chest, running her fingertips through his blonde chest hair, caressing over his nipples. He sucked in a shaky breath and pressed his lips into the hollow of her throat, and exhaled.

Astoria lifted her hands to run her fingers through his curly hair. She pulled on the curls, tilting his head back such that their eyes met.

“I bought a box of condoms today after work.”

“You are the woman of my dreams,” he laughed. Astoria lustily rolled her hips over Cullen’s lap, eliciting a low groan from him, before climbing off to retrieve a condom from where she’d stashed them in her dresser with a bottle of lube. After she shut the drawer, when she turned around, Cullen was smiling.

“That’s quite the dopey smile you have there.”

“I’m just really, really happy.”

Astoria rolled her eyes, but smiled anyways, “we’re about to have sex, who wouldn’t be happy?”

“More than that,” he said while she knelt down between his legs, “I’m happy I’m with you.”

She couldn’t hide the dopey smile that spread across her own face. She left the condom in its wrapper and the bottle of lube on the bed next to them and kissed him deeply, pressing her hands against his chest to push him down flat on the bed.

She pressed a kiss against his sternum, and another above his belly button. She rested a hand atop the joint between his hip and his thigh and felt the crotch of his pants, tighten as his cock hardened. She lightly kissed the top of his bulge before looking up to meet his eyes. “May I?”

“Maker, please,” he begged. Astoria earnestly unbuckled his belt and unbuttoned his jeans, tugging them and the waistband of his boxer briefs down enough to free his cock.

She could feel her cunt ache in need and the wetness of her thong under her leggings. But she wanted to do this for him, first – to return the favor, but more importantly, to show how much she cared for him.

Astoria first poured a small amount of lube into her palm before taking him in her hand. His cock was hot and hard, and his velvety skin was smooth. She held him in her hand and twisted her fist up and down his shaft, softly, watching his chest rise and fall heavily. She licked her lips and pressed them wetly, lovingly, into the head of his cock.

He groaned when she took the head of his cock into her mouth. She continued to massage him with her hand, taking care to add pressure where it was most needed.

“Oh, fuck—,” he cursed as she took more of him into her mouth. His knees bent involuntarily, and Astoria settled in the space between his legs. His breath drew faster as she worked him with her mouth and Astoria savored the small sounds he made – his deep groaning, the sharp intake of breath when she briefly removed her mouth to lick from the base to the tip.

His climax came like a thundering wave on the Waking Sea; small, rolling, building towards a magnificent crash. Astoria caught his come in her mouth and while he caught his breath, discreetly reached for the glass of water by her bed to spit.

“Shit,” he breathed. She crawled up the bed to lie next to him, and pushed his curly hair from his forehead, slightly damp with sweat. His blown pupils entranced her, and she pressed her forehead against his. “Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome,” she whispered, but her voice was heavy with arousal, with her unsatisfied need for him. She captured his mouth in hers, with her lips reddened and swollen and sensitive. He placed his hand on her waist, just under the hemline of her tee shirt, and gently caressed her waist, her back.

Astoria suddenly sat up and pulled off her shirt and unclasped her bra as Cullen watched. He sat up and knelt before her on the bed, placing a knee between her legs and pressing her down against the bed, their heads now at the foot of the bed and their feet by her pillows. Cullen kissed her hard, deeply, bracing himself above her on one elbow and caressing her breast with his other hand. He caressed her stomach, wandering lower below the waistline of her leggings. As he breathed with her and swallowed her moans he parted her labial lips with his fingers, massaging her clit.

Breath did not come easy as the heat between her legs grew and grew and moisture pooled under Cullen’s deft hand. “Maker, you’re so wet,” he teased into her mouth.

“Take me,” she moaned against his lips, “fucking take me now.”

He helped her pull off her leggings while she rubbed herself, and quickly pulled off his own jeans and tossed them to the floor. He was half-hard again as he took the condom out of its wrapper and rolled it over his cock and added a liberal amount of lube.

He settled between her legs, letting her bent knees fall to the sides as he gently pressed his cock against her cunt while pressing a scatter of kisses against her flushed throat. Astoria breathed deeply as she took him, letting the muscles of her vagina relax around him as he entered her slowly.

He fucked her slowly and steadily, eventually lifting her right leg over his arm to get a better angle. They kissed, their lips sometimes just barely meeting, sometimes crushing, passionate, as intense and deep as his thrusts. He slid his hand between them to massage her clit, barely circling the sensitive bundle of nerves with his fingertip before Astoria fell apart under him, moaning his name.

He withdrew, and Astoria reeled from the sudden loss of his heat, his weight on her. He returned a moment later to her, his eyes filling her dazed vision. She felt him kiss her, and the world slowly ebbed back into existence.

“But you didn’t—”

“It’s okay,” he stopped her, “I’m already spent.”

He kissed her forehead, and helped her sit up. She smiled lazily at him as he pushed aside some of the nest of pillows and pulled back the duvet cover. Exhausted, they climbed under the covers, leaving the mess of the room for the morning.

 

___

 

While she slept, Cullen watched the rise and fall of her tattooed chest, and the soft way the lights above her bed reflected off her dewy skin. As gently as he could, he spread his fingertips across the flat expanse of her stomach. He couldn’t help but think of the future, of small yellow curls and small pointed ears, and hope.

Chapter Text

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.>>>

“Astoria.”

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.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

“That bitch is trying to call me in to work.”

Josephine lay on the couch in the living room while Leliana paced in front of her. Her fiancé was going to wear a trench into the 80-year-old hand-woven Rivaini rug.

“Maybe we should just postpone—”

No.” was Leliana’s hard answer to that. Her phone rang again, and Leliana denied the call. No more calls from Divine Alexandria’s office today, Leliana decided.

Meanwhile, with the wedding tomorrow, guests and family were frantically calling the Montilyet home to all ask the same thing, whether or not the wedding would continue, whether or not this was a bad omen and that the wedding should be postponed until so-and-so’s grandmother heard back from the family’s seer about a good omen, confused family elders asking if Josephine was a lesbian.

“This is a Maker-damned clusterfuck of a political nightmare,” Leliana cursed, “we already cancelled our Bachelorette party last night, I’m not postponing and I’m not cancelling the best damn day of my life too.”

“Plus, we already paid the caterers.”

“And we already paid the caterers, and I’m pretty sure wasted food is a sin. At least, that’s what I’ve been telling Alexandria. I’m really trying to push the whole ‘feeding the poor and the homeless from the Chantries’ thing, and she might budge soon.”

“Leliana—“

“Josie, let me just say this. I want to marry you, and I want to marry you tomorrow, and I will not let that terrible bullshit dog-smelling nation ruin our wedding.”

Leliana’s phone rang again. In a huff of fury, she tore off the back, ripped out the battery, and shoved it under the couch cushions.

Josephine stared in awe. Leliana looked back to her fiancé and knelt before her, and pressed a kiss to her lips.

“I love you. Nothing changes how much I love you.”

 

___

 

The drive to the Grand Cathedral was like a death march.

Merrill shivered in the front seat of Marian’s town car. In the back were Cassandra and Varric, Krem and Rylen, and Isabella and Delrin. Conversations were muted, and while the tone of the day was excitement, the mood was dour – it had been for four days.

Marian kept insisting that she would register. Once she spoke with her lawyers and her agent, she would register, and she would make it public. She just kept talking and talking and talking about it for the last two days that Merrill was sure that she only kept talking about it so that she didn’t have to think about how horrible it is.

Merrill didn’t know if she would register alongside her wife. Fear stayed her hand.

“Hawke,” she heard Varric call from the back seat, “the valet parking was a block back; you passed it.”

“Shit.” Marian slapped her hand against the top of the steering wheel. She pulled forward, put on her blinkers, and made a highly illegal U-turn in the middle of a two-way street.

Marian was simply somewhere else. Merrill understood.

The valet parking took only a minute. Marian passed over her keys and took the card from the young man in a bright red vest – so young, he still had acne spots.

Wedding guests were already making their way inside. The group stayed just inside the foyer, where the air conditioning was.   The other cars with Josephine’s immediate family and the others – Iron Bull and Dorian, and Cullen and Astoria – pulled up. Those who were bridesmaids and bridesmen, Maids of Honor and Best Men, waited together.

Merrill couldn’t stand to look around. The Chantry’s wealth and power was shoved into her face. She hated their stained glass windows and their Burning Bride, their weapons and their hatred and their Bitch Divine. It was oppressing, stifling, overwhelming. She remembered what Marenthari would tell her, back with the Sabrae, years and years ago. She remembered what the Clan school taught her about the Massacres, the Long Walk and the Fall of the Dales, everything. She felt the eyes of the Creators obscured from her in this place.

She locked eyes with Astoria. The other Dalish elf showed fear in her mismatched eyes, and composure in her spine; they shared a look that told more than words ever could.

Merrill felt a big hand rest on her shoulder. She looked up to see the Iron Bull looking down at her with his mouth in a thin line. I understand.

From the main Hall, great organ music began to play. As practiced, they took their queue. Merrill linked arms with Marian. Delrin linked arms with Yvette. Isabella walked with the Iron Bull. The pairs and couples and friends all linked arms, regardless of gender, regardless of actual pairs. Together, they were friends. Together, they were strong. Together they loved.

Merrill walked down the aisle alongside Marian, feeling prouder than she had before. She brought her Dalishness into this hall of Andraste and held her figurative middle finger high aloft.

The bridesmaids and bridesmen split just before the altar. Before detaching their linked arms, Marian pressed a kiss on Merrill’s cheek.

As finally Dorian and Cassandra, then Astoria and Cullen, arrived and parted to their respective sides, the organ music changed – from the normal wedding march, it changed its tempo. Now it was faster, more uplifting – it felt like a powerful swell of emotion, and just as the wave surged and began to break, the doors to the hall opened once more, and Leliana and Josephine passed through – hand in hand, their faces alight with pure happiness, and all the wedding guests – all family and friends, all coworkers and neighbors – stood to watch as the pair in cream and white streaked a path of light down the rose-covered aisle.

Merrill signed the marriage license before Marian did; her hand was shaking with excitement. The city official said the words, and then Merrill said the Dalish words, and Marian said her words, and they kissed and were married there, right there, in the Haven City Hall, alone save each other – just the way they wanted it. Their love and commitment was private and it was theirs. Marian gave Merrill the ring that belonged to her father, Malcolm. Merrill wore it around her neck, and gave Marian a tattoo across her ribs in the written language of the Dalish: their wedding vows.

Tears stung her eyes as her dear friends stepped up to the altar. The Revered Mother began to read the words, so similar to the words that Merrill listened to a year and a half ago, but different – more religion, more Maker, more Andraste was involved. Because it was for Leliana and Josephine, Merrill didn’t mind so much.

During the ceremony, she kept meeting Marian’s eyes. They shared smiles – at one point, the Revered Mother was droning on for so long, Marian pretended to sleep for a few seconds, until Cassandra elbowed her. Merrill made a face at Marian, which almost made her laugh and snort – she covered her face.

(I swear unto the Maker and the Holy Andraste to love this woman for the rest of my days)

White flower petals fell from concealed apparatuses in the rafters. Josephine and Leliana kissed lovingly, passionately – a first kiss as a married couple is always the strangest, most emotionally charged kiss. It is a kiss that says finally, and for you, and forever.

 

___

 

The reception was the most jovial event Cassandra had been to in months and months.

Though the wedding colors were blue and purple, clearly Yvette couldn’t help but arrange to have several rainbow flags sticking out of every table’s flower arrangement.

As the guests and the wedding party arrived, there was toasting and drinking and dancing. Cullen told a story from their Kirkwall days that had Leliana turning redder than her hair in embarrassment – of course, before he told her how much he loved her, how proud of her he was, how thankful he and everyone else was that she was paying for an open bar.

Dorian talked about meeting Josephine – another immigrant to Ferelden, about the two of them along with the Iron Bull building their pride and joy, their studio, and filling it with love and other immigrants to Ferelden – all of them coming together, and how Josephine was really the one who started it all, who inspired him to do more, how her resolve made him want to achieve more.

Astoria talked of how much she loved Josephine, and the support she gave her throughout their friendship. How Josephine was family now, how she had become the older sister she never had, how much she loved Josephine and Leliana together, and how happy she was that they were married.

Cassandra could barely find the words. She couldn’t say too much – she couldn’t talk about how they worked together, the Left and the Right, the arrow and the fist – she couldn’t give more detail of their Kirkwall days than Cullen already had, not without bringing up the painful memories of taking down the blood cult.

“Allow me to share with you the tale of our dear Leliana and Josephine’s first date, and how they really met.”

Of course, she left out the most embarrassing details – she kept the sinking row boat on Lake Shartan in the middle of autumn, how Leliana forgot to make reservations at the restaurant they’d intended to go to and ended up eating Rivaini street food – of course, Josephine, living in Antiva, was quite used to high levels of spice. But poor, pasty Leliana who was raised on Orlesian comfort food, could barely eat her dinner, and her face was red and her mouth was burning for the rest of the night. She kept the part of Josephine and Leliana meeting by literally running into each other and spilling their coffees over the other, but left out the fact that fifteen minutes later, in the bathroom trying to help clean the other up, they were making out, already goners.

In the center of the dance floor, Leliana and Josephine linked arms, faced opposite directions, and closed their eyes. In each hand they held a gold coin – replicas of ancient currency – and flicked the coins in the air, into the crowd. Krem and Yvette caught the coins.

After the cake-cutting, Cassandra sat down at her table, turning her chair such that she could lean back and rest her feet on her husband’s lap.

“Do you remember our wedding day?” Varric asked, taking off Cassandra’s pain-inducing high heels. He gave her a very Varric smile as he rubbed the soles of her feet.

A small, dilapidated temple on a cliff against the Waking Sea served well enough for a shotgun wedding. Cassandra had invited Leliana and Cullen, and Varric invited his agent, publisher, and Hawke. It was small, quick, and romantic. Cassandra had cried through the whole ceremony at how beautiful it was. The party as huge – all their extended circles were invited, and all the film-business connections Varric knew came – and it was held at Varric’s estate in Hightown, where they’d spent their wedding night.

“I do,” she smiled. “Admittedly, not many can say that.”

“It was one hell of a party.”

“Do you want to know my favorite part?”

Varric quirked his eyebrow, but waited for Cassandra to continue.

“My favorite part was the drive to the estate. It was just you and I, in the back seat of the car, just married. I really felt like I had you all to myself, like were the only two in the world.”

Varric smiled. He lifted Cassandra’s foot to his mouth, and kissed the top of it. She laughed.

“Want to know my favorite part?”

“Of course.”

“It was you. Only you – all you.”

 

___

 

Dorian spun and spun around and around – the Iron Bull was a large qunari, but a fast dancer. He twirled, stepped, and glided through the dance, keeping pace with his kadan, moving through the steps as though they’d been practicing since birth.

The Iron Bull lifted him high into the air – high above all the others – and brought him back down, diving right back into their fast-paced routine.

He was sweating. The Iron Bull was sweating. A smile had spread across both their faces, and their hearts beat together. Dorian put a hand against the Iron Bull’s chest.

He was sweating, so, so worried. Dorian didn’t think it would work.

He rubbed his sweaty palms against his jeans, picked up the box, set it back down, and had to wipe the sweat off his palms again. He wasn’t sure how he would try to save it if things went south – if this was wrong, if this was too fast.

Of course, the Iron Bull came in early. He tossed his keys into the dish by the door and tugged off his jacket.

 

The Iron Bull froze when he saw Dorian, pale and sweating, in the middle of his living room. It took him a moment to remember that he gave him a key three months ago – Dorian always just seemed to come home with him rather than have to meet him here.

“Hey,” he said awkwardly, and strode into the apartment. “Are you alright?”

“I—” Dorian said before picking up a decently sized box off the coffee table and shoving it into the Iron Bull’s hands. “Kaffas, just open it.”

The Iron Bull narrowed his eye at him, but opened the box. Inside were two – necklaces? The Iron Bull inspected them more. Yes, two necklaces, strung on tightly linked chains of silver. Each had a matching pendant. It looked like a carved, wooden—

“Are these supposed to be dragon’s teeth?” he queried.

“Yes—for all my searching I couldn’t find a single person or market or entity selling dragon teeth. I figured – well, I figured that I could carve them from wood, instead. They look similar enough, and I made them look like two halves of the same whole—”

The Iron Bull took Dorian by the back of the neck and kissed him. Hard.

“Does this mean you love me?” he teased.

Dorian scoffed. “I only want to spend the rest of my fucking life with you. Of course I do.”

“I love you too, kadan.

Beneath his hand, Dorian felt the wooden tooth under the fabric of Bull’s suit.

 

___

 

In the gardens outside the venue, Rylen and Krem walked hand-in-hand. They discussed plans for a visit to Rylen’s family in Starkhaven – it was about time, Krem would say, and I want to see what kind of crazy I’m getting myself into.

They walked alongside a fountain. Krem jumped up to walk on the low banister, and held his balance well as Rylen joked and teased about pushing him in. Until Krem pulled Rylen’s arm, but caught both of them, and their feet were in the fountain and the water was knee high but Krem and Rylen were too busy kissing to care.

Midsummer heat permeated into Rylen’s apartment. The men lay on Rylen’s couch in front of the fan, and ice packs rested on Rylen’s back, on Krem’s forehead, as a last-ditch effort to beat the heat.

“I think my brain is melting,” Rylen said, “I can’t think. What did we have for breakfast?”

“You big baby,” Krem teased, and took the ice pack from his own forehead and placed it on the back of Rylen’s head. He hummed, his cheek pressed into Krem’s clavicle.

“Sacrificing sacred cold and ice for me? That’s true love.”

Krem froze – figuratively.

Rylen also stiffened, out of awkwardness, because Krem had stiffened, and neither knew quite what this meant.

“Is…love?”

“Andraste’s bleeding tits,” Rylen laughed, and pushed himself up to kiss Krem straight on the mouth. “Might as well, right? I bloody love you, Krem.”

Krem gave Rylen a panicked look, which made Rylen’s stomach twist into a knot. He moved to get off of Krem, to give him space—

“Wait,” Krem said, grabbing Rylen’s arm, pulling him back on top of him. “I’m sorry, I’ve just never heard that before – no one has – yeah, you know.”

“No one’s ever told you they loved you?”

“Well, romantically, no. I’ve had friends tell me they loved me, but that’s, you know, different.”

“It’s not so different. We’re friends, boyfriends, we’re lovers, and I love you. Look – it’s okay if you don’t want to say it back. I just don’t want to…pressure you.”

“But, I think I do love you.”

“You think?”

“Is it love if I feel like my heart is too big for my chest every time you touch me, every time I see you after work, when you tell me things like ‘I love you’?”

“That’s for you to decide.”

“Then I love you, Rylen.”

Their leather shoes were probably ruined, and the soles squeaked as they walked, but Maker be damned if Rylen and Krem weren’t the two happiest men in the world.

 

___

 

Delrin smiled as he accepted Yvette’s hand to a dance.

 

___

 

It was a slow song. She’d kicked off her heels, and he held them by his two fingers against her waist as her head was pressed against his chest, one arm wrapped around his waist under his jacket and the other holding his hand tightly.

The night was coming to a close. Guests were leaving, and Leliana and Josie would leave tomorrow morning just hours before everyone else was due to fly home to Haven. Except for her.

I’ll see you soon. She was only on the phone for ten minutes, and Sorcha had arranged everything.

She just had to tell him.

After the wedding toasts, after the cake, in the midst of the dancing, Astoria felt a fire in her like never before.

She pulled Cullen out of the main room. The historical house rented for the reception had tons of rooms, and wide and varied gardens. They snuck upstairs, searching for a quiet, secluded space. Anywhere with a lock.

It ended up being a sitting room off the house’s original master suite. She kissed and kissed him, whispered her love into his mouth, and smiled when he’d revealed he’d actually done the seedy-yet-chivalrous thing and brought a condom. Actually, she’d laughed.

They made love against the wall, with her legs wrapped around his waist and the skirt of her dress billowing out behind her. He pressed their foreheads together, and she saw pure happiness across his face as they came together, as one, in as much love as anyone could be.

She smiled, smiled because it was him, because she had him for the time she had. She didn’t want to let go – she didn’t want to say goodbye.

Past midnight when the wedding party drove back to Montilyet Manor, she leaned against him in the car. He carded his fingers through her hair as she pretended to doze off against his chest. The truth was that she was tired – but she didn’t think she would ever let herself sleep ever again.

In their last night in the guest room bed, Astoria had to grip the headboard as she rode Cullen’s cock. When she came, there were tears in her eyes and she was sobbing, and he pulled her off of him and wiped the tears off her cheeks.

“Why are you crying?” he asked so softly, so kindly. Creators, she loved his kindness.

She shook her head, and tried to pull away. He gently held her by the shoulders.

Astoria.”

“I’m not registering,” she sobbed. Her tears blinded her; they fell so hot and quickly from her eyes. “I can’t do it. I can’t promise to never use magic again, I just can’t Cullen, and I need it, I’m nothing without magic—”

“Magic doesn’t make you who you are,” he said calmly.

“But it’s a part of me. It’s always been a part of me, it’s always been there, and its always showed up whether I want it to or not. Magic has been there for me when I needed it most and wanted it the least. I—it’s my mom. My magic is what I have left of her. But I can’t—”

He shh-ed her, cradled her face in his hands. “You can tell me.”

“You think I can just let go of magic, but I can’t.”

“Astoria—”

“Cullen, ask me what happened to Knight-Captain Raleigh Samson.”

He looked dumbstruck. She knew he had a vague picture, scraps of evidence tucked away in his mind. All he had to do was connect them.

“I don’t want to.”

“Fucking ask me, Cullen – ask me what happened that night, when I got this scar, when my mother died, when a whole squad of Templars went missing after tailing some elf who was seen lighting a campfire with only her hands.

Astoria.”

She nearly dug her nail into the scar on the side of her face. “Who gave me this scar, Cullen? Who killed my mother, who did I kill with magic?

He was pulling away; his legs fell over the edge of the bed. His hands gripped the sheets.

“What. Is. Your point?” he said darkly.

“I can’t deny who I am, what I am. Yeah. When I was a kid, I saw my mother get murdered by Templars and so I killed them. I wasn’t in control of my magic, it just happened. Does that mean I should be locked up in a prison, guarded by Templars, to waste away for the rest of my life—”

Cullen whipped around. “Stop!” he shouted. “Just stop.”

Astoria wiped the tears from her eyes. She saw that Cullen’s jaw was set – his eyes were wet, his cheeks flushed with emotion.

“I can abstain from magic – but only if it’s on my terms. I won’t be on some government registry, I won’t lie back and let who I am be erased from me.”

“So what will you do, huh? Where will you go?

She steeled herself. “The Lavellan Clan has invited me home.”

“You told me that wasn’t your home anymore.”

She scoffed. “Like my new home wasn’t treating me any better. I was already a second-class citizen just from being an elf – think it’s gonna be any better for me to just fucking exist with a Mage Registry breathing down my neck, checking in on me every month like I’m on parole to make sure I’m not illegally existing as a mage?

“What about Chargers? What about me?”

“What about me? By the Creators, Cullen, I can’t live for others if I can barely live freely as myself.”

Cullen stood up abruptly. He crossed the room to his duffel bag, and quickly pulled on a pair of boxers and sweatpants.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“I need to think,” he murmured without looking at her. She watched him open the door, and watched his back disappear as he closed the door behind himself. Astoria collapsed onto the bed, sobbing.

 

___

 

She saw Leliana and Josephine off at their gate, and walked away from the group, alone, to her own, AntivaAir flight 351 to Wildervale.

Astoria sat in one of the hard pleather-covered seats at her gate with her backpack clutched to her chest, her carry-on suitcase nestled between her legs. She closed her eyes.

After Cullen left their room last night, he hadn’t returned except to collect his clothes and duffel, and he’d hardly said a word. He’d taken a different car to the airport, and hadn’t talked to her or stood near her while the group waved off Leliana and Josie.

The PA announced that first class was now boarding. Astoria looked at her ticket. Seat 38C.

Rows 14 through 25 were called, then 25 through 30. Then the PA called for the rest of the plane to board.

She was standing behind twenty-some odd people with her bags in front of her and her boarding pass in hand when she saw someone running from the corner of her eye.

She barely turned her head to look when he kissed her, cradling her jaw in his warm hands.

“I can’t let you go,” he finally said, pressing their foreheads together, “I love you, I love you so much Astoria, I can’t let you go.”

She touched his face, her left hand cradling his cheek. His brown eyes, so full of sorrow, were wet in the corners, and his brow was pinched in worry. Her thumb traced over the scar across his lips.

“I can’t stay in Haven,” she whispered, “I can’t go back there now.”

Other passengers were passing her, leaving her behind.

“Is there no other way?” he begged.

She shook her head, and pulled away, out of his reach. He remained frozen to the spot as she moved forward and handed the attendant her boarding pass. Before she could step through the door onto the bridge, she turned back for one last look at him – his black leather jacket, his tousled curly blonde hair, his grief-stricken face – and left.

 

___

 

It was a four-hour plane ride to Wildervale, and a six-hour bus ride to the edge of the Lavellan Reservation.

A teenager – he hadn’t even gotten his vallaslin yet – was waiting at the bus stop on the edge of the Clan’s territory in an older four-wheel drive car that Astoria remembered belonged to Keeper. “Liam?”

“Aye, I’m loads taller now.” Liam grinned. Astoria placed a kiss onto his cheek and got in on the other side of the four-wheeler after dumping her backpack and suitcase in the back seat.

She’d forgotten, after all these years, how orange and yellow the fields were this time of year – so much like fields of fire, rolling in the summer winds. Snow-capped mountains rose in the distance, and tall green trees began to encroach on the main road as Liam and Astoria drove further into the territory.

Another half hour passed, driving in silence. Liam feared to say anything – he knew Astoria when he was a small boy, but he hardly recognized her now. Plus, she was crying.

She was crying because while she was on the plane, she was wishing, and regretting – part of her wanted her pregnancy scare to be true, to be with Cullen’s child, so that she had to go back to him, to be with him again in Haven, because the Clan would never take an Elf-blooded child nor would they let Astoria keep a human on the territory.

Of course, on the plane, she finally started her period. She had to punch her leg when she saw the blood to ease her anger and frustration, her last excuse to stay gone.

They passed small homes, homes with kids outside, homes with cars and bikes and grills smoking and making dinner. They passed other cars headed to other small towns in the territory, signs to the school and the rugby field and the cultural centers. The houses were more frequent the closer they got to Mythal’Arla, the main town on the territory.

Keeper’s house was a one-story deal. It had three bedrooms, three baths, one kitchen, and one living room. No garage. Everyone in the Clan was treated equally; no one would have a better or finer house just because they were richer, or they were the Keeper.

Liam pulled up in Keeper’s driveway and turned off the engine. “Uhm,” he hummed, “I’m glad you’re home.”

“Thanks, Liam.”

She got out of the car and grabbed her luggage. As she walked around the car, Liam handed her the keys.

“You’re not coming in to see Keeper?”

“I…nope.” He made sure Astoria had the keys securely in her hand before taking off down the street. Astoria wondered if his family still lived four doors down.

She shivered. It had been…many years since she’d last set foot on the territory. It felt so familiar, yet so alien at the same time. She hadn’t seen Sorcha’s or Keeper’s faces in years.

Before she could even get close to the door, it swung open, and Sorcha came barreling out and tackled her older sister into a crushing hug that left them sprawled on the grass. The heaving of Sorcha’s chest told her that she was crying.

Astoria looked up past her little sister’s shoulder to see Keeper Deshanna standing in the doorway. She looked so, so old – her hair was entirely white, her dark skin wrinkled. Her mismatched eyes pierced into Astoria’s, and with her stare came a judgment that Astoria could not fathom into words.

“Hey, Grandmamaé,” she said simply, “I’m back.”

Chapter Text

Keeper really did her best to make Astoria feel like no time had passed.

After Sorcha released her older sister from her tackle, Astoria stood up to greet Keeper Deshanna. She wasn’t sure at the time how she would be received – with love, or with the same coldness she last felt from her grandmamaé.

“Astoria Isthaemoriel Hercana Lavellan,” Keeper said in that tone, “you have been away for far too long.”

“I wasn’t sure I would be welcome.”

Behind her, Sorcha scoffed. “You’ve always been welcome,” she said, and hung her pale arm around Astoria’s neck. She smiled a toothy grin at her, and turned to Keeper. “And how come you never call me by my full name?”

“It’s too long,” Keeper deadpanned, and waved them both into the house. Astoria shared a look with Sorcha before running back to grab her bags and walking into the house, placing the car keys on the hook by the door – where it’s always been kept.

In the evening, Sorcha and Astoria together made dinner, while Keeper went down the street to meet with one of the Hahrens. Astoria chopped chilies and looked out one of the wide windows from the kitchen to the grassy field behind their house.

Sunset in the territory clearly never changed. The field looked like it was on fire in the descending sun, while the sky turned orange and pink and the trees cast long shadows that reached right to left across the field. She remembered playing in that field as a girl – when her mother was around, after her father left and Sorcha was born. The three of them would run through the fields, pretending to be halla, while Keeper watched from the back patio.

It was a simpler time.

“You’re twenty now,” Astoria said, “Have you thought about applying for university?”

Sorcha laughed cynically at her. “Like Keeper would let me leave the territory after you never came back from Redcliffe. No, she learned her lesson, and I get to just learn Clan politics here. She’s pretty stressed actually, our ambassador keeps sending her bad news from the conclaves—”

Astoria interrupted her. “If you’re not going to go to university, just what have you been doing with all the money I’m sending you?”

“There are other kids in our Clan who want to go to universities, ‘Tori, kids who aren’t mages. I made a scholarship for them to help them pay for it.”

“Oh. That’s, well, that’s pretty great actually.”

“I called it the Dream Scholarship. You know, fulfilling dreams and such.”

“It sounds great, Sorcha,” Astoria said earnestly.

She smiled, then turned around to pull her shoulder-length black hair up into a bun. Astoria was amazed with how much her sister had grown in the last eight years – the last she’d seen her, she was only fourteen. Sorcha was at least six inches taller than she used to be, and was now even height with Astoria. Her pale skin – paleness inherited from their father – was covered in freckles from the sun. Their father’s straight black hair, narrow eyes, and wide jaw were all copied and feminized into Sorcha’s visage. Astoria only wished Sorcha knew what Daelian Hercana had looked like – when he left, their mother burned all their photographs of him.

With her hair tied up, Sorcha gave her a toothy grin, the kind that made her mismatched eyes shine. One green eye, one eye blue; the Lavellan family trait.

“You gonna put the peppers in the rice or what?” she chided, and set to kneading a flat palate of dough for making flatbread.

Astoria looked at the flour on the counter and on Sorcha’s hands. She was suddenly two thousand miles away in a different kitchen, watching a different person she loved knead dough on a steel table, his heart in his eyes as she showed him recent sketches for her clients—

She inhaled sharply, and quickly dropped the chopped chilies into the cooked, steaming hot rice, and fled the kitchen.

“Tori?”

She ignored her sister as she called after her and dashed down the hall to her bedroom, the bedroom she’d lived in for eighteen years that still had that twin bed and that three-drawer dresser and the paintings she did in school tacked to the walls and the old roll-top desk—

Astoria sat down in the middle of the floor next to her suitcase and breathed.

 

___

 

If Astoria was a conductor for electricity, Sorcha was a natural firebreather.

Her magic was still new and rough when Astoria left, and she’d never seen her sister’s full potential until the morning after she came home. Keeper took her place on the back patio, this time with a committee of the Hahrens as well, drinking morning tea, holding her ironbark staff in one hand and a white ceramic mug with Sorcha’s baby handprints in pink and purple in the other.

Sorcha and Astoria stood in the field behind the house. Sorcha held in one hand her staff – the staff that once belonged to Astoria – and was, at the moment, screaming a vortex of flame into the sky.

She finished, coughing up smoke, and the Hahrens clapped for her. She bowed dramatically.

“Your turn, big sis.”

“I don’t exactly have a source of electricity here – not without knocking out power to half of Mythal’Arla.”

She held out the First’s staff to Astoria. “Give it a shot.”

Astoria hesitated. She was tentative to reach for it, to feel it’s channeling power again. How long had it been, exactly, since she’d last touched it?

“It won’t bite.”

“You know they’re trying to pit our magic against each other, to see who’s really meant to be First and who’s meant to be Second?”

“Of course I know that. I also know that I’ve had far more training in magic than you have, and I’ll win by a landslide. Just take the damn staff and make them shit their pants.”

Astoria grinned, and reached out and grasped the handle. Instantly, her senses felt more acute, like the Fade was aiding her ability to sense the world around her. Arguably, it was.

She breathed in, holding the staff, feeling lightning magic in her fingertips down to her toes. She held the staff with both hands, and breathed out. In to charge, out to hold—

She slammed the staff to the ground, and the morning field was illuminated by an arc of blue light as lightning blew from the top of the staff’s crystal into the sky, branching dendritically until it had nowhere else to go, and shot back down into her, then down into the ground where it disappeared.

The Hahrens clapped politely.

“They so still hate me.”

“Yeah, they kinda do,” Sorcha laughed, and took the staff back from Astoria.

 

___

 

Later that night, Astoria and Sorcha and Keeper joined hands in an aura of peace, and Astoria held the magic up while slowly tattooing Ghilan'nain’s mark into the face of a teenage girl. She chose pink ink, and was bravely silent throughout the vigil.

With three mages, the process went by much faster than it would when Merrill and Astoria would do the ritual in Astoria’s studio back home—In Haven, she reminded herself, not home—and with significantly less magical strain.

After the ritual, the Clan held a dance at the Cultural Center to celebrate Brynna’s coming of age and her Vallaslin Rite. Astoria danced with her Clan, the old dances she had nearly forgotten, and saw faces she hadn’t seen in years.

She had been so afraid that they would reject her, antagonize her, and vilify her for leaving them. So far, only the Hahrens had shown any sign of displeasure – but, nonetheless, they reinstated Astoria as Second, and watched her at the celebration without hatred or disgust.

She felt like a cup that was once shattered now glued back together – her Clan, her people were back in her life. She was with Sorcha again; she was living in Keeper’s house again.

But, whether she noticed it at this time or not, there was still a piece missing from her as she danced and sang with her sister and her cousins and her People.

 

___

 

He cooked, he made bread, he cleaned the kitchen, he opened and he closed, he ran on a clock and only stopped to pass out for a few hours and start it all over again.

Three days. He kept it up for three days. But one morning he got out of bed and looked outside and saw the light on in Astoria’s studio across the street and had felt so much hope—only to see that it was Dorian, his solitary figure in the only other shape in the room.

By day five since returning to Haven, Rylen had basically dragged him out of the bakery.

“You live and you work in one goddamn eighty foot by forty foot space, you need to get out.”

Of course, Rylen’s idea of “getting out” meant taking Cullen to a gym, because the black-haired Starkhavener was a filthy gym rat.

They were on the climbing wall on the ropes, perhaps just 45 feet up, when Cullen rolled his eyes and called him on his bullshit.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Rylen said, “I’m just bringing my friend to a wonderful co-ed gym where there are some fantastic things to do because he’s been so dour lately.”

“It’s literally been five days.”

“Dude, even your cupcakes taste like depression.”

“Fuck you.” Cullen climbed higher, finding the pathway to the top again. He honestly felt bad for the two women belaying him and Rylen because they were taking so long.

“I’m just saying, if this is what reality is gonna be like, maybe just pop a few lassies and lads and be on your way. Seriously, it’ll lift your mood.”

Cullen looked down from the elevation he’d gained to give Rylen a scathing look.

“Come on, you know I’m right.”

“I also know that you’re an ass.”

“But I’m an ass with good intentions.

“Still a big, huge, mouthbreathing ass,” Cullen chided as he reached the top of the wall, tapped his hand on the top of the wall, and gave the woman belaying him a thumbs up to start letting him down. As he passed Rylen, he gave him a cheeky grin and a middle finger as he descended.

 

___

 

Cassandra and Cullen linked arms among the crowd, so they couldn’t get lost. The din was almost deafening; Cassandra had to practically shout directly into Cullen’s ear in order for him to hear her.

Cassandra wore a ball cap and sunglasses – she wasn’t sure how well her employer would like it if she were recognized here – but Cullen proudly showed his face, and held aloft a sign painted on stiff paper, “FORMER TEMPLAR AGAINST THE REGISTRATION ACT.” He’d actually received a lot of handshakes and hugs that day.

They marched every day in front of the Parliament building with thousands of others, all sharing the same messages of love and resistance.

 

___

 

“Hello, this is Minister Elanor Threnn's Denerim office.”

“Yes, hello – I – my name is Cullen Rutherford from the Haven/Frostback Valley Voting District. I wanted to voice my opinion on the recently passed Mage Registration Act. I know Minister Threnn was one of twenty-six that voted for the Act, and as a constituent, I want Minister Threnn to know that she will not have my support in the coming election next year, unless she takes action to overturn the Act.”

“I—we’ve had a lot of calls today, thank you for voicing your opinion—Oh, madam, uh, yes—Mr. Rutherford, was it? Minister Threnn is actually in her office at the moment, would you be willing to speak with her about your concerns over the issue of the Mage Registration Act?”

“Yes.”

 

___

 

Twelve days after Antiva, he was watching the news during breakfast when he nearly choked on his cereal.

<<<King Alistair of Ferelden has ordered Parliament to cast a re-vote for the Mage Registration Act. His Royal Highness has made public statements decrying the Act, regarding it as ‘barbaric and cruel, a horrible reminder of the way Mages were treated in Ages past.’ King Alistair went on to express his disgust with the current treatment of imprisoned mages, and has challenged lawmakers and the Minister of Mage Affairs to begin rehabilitation programs for imprisoned mages with non-violent offenses. >>>

<<<We continue our story later tonight as Parliament votes once more on the Mage Registration Act. MPs across the nation have been flooded with calls and emails from their constituents to vote ‘no’ on the Act. Theodore, I think we’re watching history being made. >>>

<<<I agree, Helen, I think today may be the start of a Thedas-wide revolution for Mage Rights. Up next, we have Minister Florence Cousland, you’ll know her as the sister to Teryn Fergus Cousland of Highever, on to discuss the political campaign she’s leading for her Mage Freedoms Act. >>>

 

 

___

 

Cullen could hardly focus at work the entire day. He kept checking his phone, waiting for the news alerts, completely forgetting what he was doing in the middle of making a sandwich for a customer.

“Dude, just go sit down,” Delrin told him after lunch. He then put Keran on register and went to work the kitchen himself.

Though, it wasn’t until right before dinner when the 40/10 vote was announced, and the Mage Registration Act was deemed unconstitutional, and a new law passed 35/15 decriminalizing the status of using magic so long as it is not in violence against another person or entity.

He nearly vomited he was so happy.

Cullen raced across the street into Chargers, where Isabella and Merrill were hugging and crying behind the counter, and they pulled him in for a hug too, and Cullen asked Merrill how to get to Clan Lavellan.

 

___

 

She took Liam and his younger sister Kala in the four-wheeler out to the Clan school, so that Kala could practice driving in the parking lot.

“Easy on the gas!” she screeched as Kala zoomed forward and nearly ran into the curb. She slammed on the brakes, and Astoria was so, so pleased that the seat belts did that annoying thing where they lock on you if the car stops too suddenly.

“I’m sorry!” Kala whined, and let go of the steering wheel but left her foot pressed against the brake pedal.

“Like a feather, Kala, like a feather,” Astoria reminded her. She let Kala drive a few more circles around the parking lot, before directing her to drive out onto the main road.

“The…not the parking lot?” Kala gave her a disbelieving look.

“You’ll never get used to street driving if you don’t try,” Astoria said, and scowled at Liam through the rear-view mirror as he silently but physically prayed. “Don’t do that, Liam. I bet you were ten times worse when you first learned to drive.”

He rolled his eyes. “Yeah, but Papaé didn’t let me go on the road for like, a month. And this is Keeper’s car! Did she even give permission to let Kala drive?”

“I’m Second, and my permission is all the permission anyone needs.”

Kala drove at a snail’s pace down the road. When they came to the turnoff for the Cultural Center parking lot, Astoria made her pull in and practice parking.

She’d last seen Kala eight years ago when she was barely six. Just like Sorcha, she’d grown so much over the years, and Astoria had missed it all. Liam and Kala were like cousins to her – she would babysit them, sit down for dinner with their family once a week, and danced with them when they were young. Astoria missed so much of their growing up; she practically insisted to their parents that she take Kala to teach her to drive, and for Liam to come along.

After Kala nearly cried trying to park until she got it right, Astoria told Liam to get in the front seat and to drive them home. The siblings switched, much at the relief of both of them, and Liam expertly sped the car out of the parking lot and down the hot roads as the sun lowered westward into the horizon.

Liam parked the four-wheeler in Keeper’s driveway, and Astoria gave each teenager a kiss on the cheek. “I’m proud of you,” she said as she ruffled Kala’s short, curly hair. “Come on, both of you. We’ll have tea with Keeper and Sorcha before dinner.”

Liam and Kala walked ahead of her into the house, headed straight for the kitchen. Astoria stayed a moment in the foyer to kick off her shoes and run her hands through her hair – the shaved sides she’d had were starting to grow out, and she liked it. It had been years since her hair was even chin-length, and she was missing the look.

“Astoria, there’s a super tall shemlen in here!” Liam’s voice called from the kitchen.

Her heart nearly stopped beating. Creators, it was barely two weeks since—

Her feet moved without her willing them to. She had to see, she had to see and disprove her wildest dreams, her most secret of fears. She pushed aside the beaded curtain into the kitchen and saw him sitting at the breakfast table across from Keeper and Sorcha, so tall and absolutely human next to her kin, his hands wrapped around a glass of water that was sweating condensation onto his hands in the late summer heat, his brown eyes stuck on her.

She didn’t know what to say, so she stood frozen in the archway, the beaded curtain swishing and click-clacking behind her.

“Never had a human in my house,” Keeper said, breaking the tension, “but you always managed to attract all sorts of folk to my kitchen.” Sorcha hissed at their grandmamaé, but Astoria and Cullen ignored her.

“Why are you here?” was all she managed to say.

His face was such a mix of emotions – happiness and excitement, covered by a thick veneer of anticipation and anxiety.

“I came to ask you to come home.”

OUT,” Keeper immediately ordered, snapping her fingers at Liam and Kala. They instantly fled the kitchen past Astoria, and she heard the front door open and slam closed.

“Cullen, I—”

“No,” said Keeper, “you have only just returned to us. Two weeks we’ve had you home, just two! And who is this boy? He shows up on our territory, knocking on my door and asking to see my Astoria? Where did he learn such awful manners?”

“Honnleath,” he replied sheepishly.

“Dareth,” Sorcha said to him.

Astoria held up a hand towards Sorcha and Keeper and narrowed her eyes at Cullen. “Why did you come? I told you I can’t go back—”

“Didn’t you see the news yesterday? King Alistair called a re-vote. They voted no, Astoria. They changed the laws – magic isn’t illegal anymore.”

The news hit her like a brick. She looked at him, unknowing, unthinking. Then, she laughed.

She laughed so hard she had to grip the counter next to her to keep from falling over. Her chest hurt from it, her abs ached from wheezing. Her laughter filled the room, while Sorcha and Keeper and Cullen just looked at her.

“Oh Creators – I’m sorry, I just – what?” she giggled quite uncontrollably. “There’s no way.”

That’s when Cullen held out the newspaper she hadn’t noticed that was lying on the table. The front-page article – she couldn’t believe it – it had to be a joke -

“They really, really did it,” she whispered, and took the newspaper from him. “It’s true.”

“It’s hardly a promise,” Keeper said. “Look how quickly they overturned their previous ruling.”

“That’s because people protested it,” Cullen argued, “the people of Ferelden said no, that they wouldn’t stand up for this kind of treatment. And the King ordered a re-vote, and Parliament made it unconstitutional. They decriminalized magic. The mages are free.

Sorcha looked stricken. “But we just got her back.”

Astoria frowned as her sister held back tears.

“I need to speak to Cullen. Alone.” She turned, not waiting for him to follow as she led the way out of the kitchen to the living room and out the back door. She heard him close the back door behind himself, and she lead them through the field all the way to the tree line, to where a trail lead to the stream behind the house.

She didn’t stop until she reached the stream bank. A couple stones were rolled to sit next to each other, a perfect pair of seats, put there decades ago by someone Astoria didn’t know.

“Sit,” she said, pointing at the little stone stools, and took her own seat in one. Cullen tentatively followed suit.

“Look—”

“We have a lot to talk about,” she said, “and a lot of things to sort out.”

He nodded, waiting for her. In the dappled sunlight through the boughs of the trees from the setting sun, he was ethereally beautiful. She had to look at the stream to remind herself of what needed to be discussed.

“We need to acknowledge our fight that night. I need you to acknowledge the things I told you, and the horrible, horrible truth of what happened to me and what I did to those Templars. And don’t say ‘it’s all in the past,’ that’s fucking bullshit and you know it. I need you to acknowledge it because otherwise you’ll just resent me for killing your literal predecessor.”

He sighed, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “It’s not something that’s been sitting with me easily. I’m not saying that you weren’t wrong for killing him – Maker’s breath, he was a horrible person – but, you were also just a kid. I can’t blame you for doing it, either.”

“I killed him with magic, Cullen. Magic. I – I’d accidentally used blood magic, after he’d cut me.”

He stared at her. He blinked, and scrubbed his fingers over his eyes. “Shit.”

“You have to know how it happened. I can’t feel good about this unless you know the whole truth – all of it.”

“I – I appreciate you telling me,” he said, removing his hands from his face. “I can’t say I’m not shocked, but – it makes sense.”

“It makes sense?

“Well, considering the fact that as a child, you used blood magic to take out, what, six armed Templars?”

“Well, Mamaé had already cast a disarming spell…”

“Wait, what? That’s a thing?

“Also not the point here?”

“Right. Sorry.”

“Look,” she gestured her hands out in front of her, “use that knowledge as you will. If you’re okay with it or not, and by Mythal’s draconic tits I can’t imagine that you would be okay with it, that’s the truth of my past and I just want it all out there on the table.

“The second thing I want to talk about is just how secure this new law is. What it would mean if I was seen using magic, or if I had to publicly declare that I was a mage.”

“Neither. From what I understand, free and undocumented mages are free to remain undocumented and to use magic, so long as it wasn’t in a violent manner against another person. They specifically said ‘violent.’”

“Okay, but then that leaves it up to the Templars’ discretion as to what ‘violent’ means. Is it violent intent, or if it can be perceived as violent? And what about non-violent magic users who are currently incarcerated?”

“The Prime Minister said that they’d be freed as lawyers review their cases. After that, their records will allow them the same freedoms as any non-magic user would have.”

“And you trust Parliament?”

Cullen shrugged. “I trust some of them, but I mostly trust King Alistair.”

She scoffed. “You Fereldans and your love of royalty.”

“Excuse me? Miss Second of the Clan Lavellan? You’re practically royalty yourself.”

“Yeah, but it’s not like I’m a beloved icon of my people—“

“Your Keeper is, isn’t she?”

Astoria pursed her lips. “Touché.”

 

___

 

They stayed out past dark, working through everything that needed to be worked through, saying everything that needed to be said, until Astoria took Cullen’s hand and squeezed it tight.

She still had to talk to Keeper, and she still had to give her Clan the honor she owed them – the honor they deserved from her. After all, they just got her back.

 

___

 

“Why did you come all the way here, anyways? It’s a long way to travel if I’d said no,” she asked as she led him back through the dark. Though the moon was high and nearly full, the light did not reach quite so well through the branches and the leaves. Astoria could see just fine with her darkvision, but Cullen had to be dragged along and guided.

“Your phone was turned off.”

“Well, you’ve got a point there.”

“I also didn’t want our last interaction to be that terrible day at the airport.”

“Hmm.” Astoria squeezed his hand tighter.

“And,” he said, and stopped walking. Astoria, unable to pull him, was pulled back from her own momentum, and bumped into Cullen. “I also wanted to see your face.”

“Well, my face is waiting.”

In the dark, she could see the sly smile spread across his lips as he leaned in to kiss her – his lips were warm and soft and familiar – a lover’s kiss in name and in practice, the kind of kiss lovers in film and in novels and in the great sagas of history and of the Blights would have.

“You are making this very hard for me,” she murmured when the kiss ended, their foreheads and noses pressed together.

“Making what hard?”

“Choosing. Choosing to return to Haven with you, or choosing to stay with my Clan. They’re right, in some ways. They only just got me back. They’ve accepted me back, and I’m with my sister again. I’ve seen my cousins and my kin and those that are not blood-kin but are still family nonetheless.

“But I miss Haven already – I miss Sera and Merrill and Josie and Dorian and you. I miss my studio and the Chargers. Because all of you are my family too.”

In the dark, the cicadas and the beetles began to chirp and sing. A small swarm of fireflies migrated through the trees past them, sparkling in slow flashes in the corners of Astoria’s vision.

He smoothed his thumb over her cheek; he briefly touched her scar, she noted, and wondered how he felt about it now that he knew the truth. “Then I will wait. If you want to stay, I’ll go, I understand – your family is…your family.”

“Thank you, Cullen. Really. I mean it.”

He kissed her forehead, on the head of the raven in her vallaslin.

They returned to Keeper’s house.

 

___

 

“I’m sorry Keeper is being so…”

“Crotchety?”

“I was going to say ‘uptight,’ but yeah,” Sorcha shrugged as she held up the flashlight while Astoria and Cullen set up the old camping tent at the mowed part of the backyard, right before the field.

When Astoria insisted that Cullen would be spending the night on the territory, Keeper had refused to let him sleep under her roof. Thus, he would be sleeping in a tent in the backyard. Keeper had also made an inappropriate comment about Astoria sneaking girls and boys into the house when she was a teenager, and Sorcha promptly forced the conversation to end.

“I didn’t know your grandmother was so…adamant against humans,” Cullen remarked.

Sorcha scoffed. “Well, can you blame her?”

Astoria rolled out the rain fly. “Keeper is Keeper, and she will maintain her position on humans for the rest of her life. And she intends to live forever, so, we just have to deal with it.”

Cullen looked at the rain fly. “Is that really necessary?”

Astoria looked up at the sky. She could smell the wind, the changes in air pressure that are identifiable only in places with nature, like the Clan territory, or the Planasene Forest and the Vimmark Mountains.

“It might rain,” she said, “we get summer storms at night. Can you smell it?”

Sorcha hummed in agreement, but Cullen struggled to identify what the two women had known since infancy. He was from southeastern Ferelden – of course they didn’t get summer storms like the Planasene did.

They tied down the rain fly over the finished tent, and Cullen tossed his backpack – the only thing he’d brought with him from Ferelden – inside. “I’ll go get something for you to sleep on,” Astoria said. Sorcha left the flashlight with him and walked arm and arm with her sister into the house.

When Astoria reemerged, she carried bundled in her arms all the pillows and sheets and the thick comforter blankets from her own bed. “Open up,” she told Cullen, who unzipped the door of the tent, only for her to dump the bed dressings onto him before she herself dove into the tent and zipped up the door to keep the bugs out.

He’d set the flashlight in one corner of the tent, which Astoria and her blankets now obstructed, casting half the tent into mostly-darkness.

They didn’t need to say anything about it – they made their bed for the night, first putting down the thickest of blankets on the bottom, then the sheet and a warmer blanket on top, and the pillows on one end. They clicked off the flashlight and undressed to their underwear, crawling under the cool covers, bringing warmth to each other.

The tips of their noses touched in the dark. Astoria lifted her slender hand and reached for him, resting her fingertips in his hair. Such wonderful, curly hair, she thought, tracing her fingers through his hair, around his round ear, until her hand rested where his jaw met his neck. Gently, he wrapped his hand around her arm.

First, the rain against the tent was light – it hit intermittently, slowly, until it gained great speed and momentum and the roaring of the rainstorm filled the tent and their bodies.

Astoria pulled herself closer to Cullen, until they shared one pillow, and lifted her head to whisper into his ear such that he could hear her over the thunderous rain.

Do you believe in soulmates?

Chapter Text

His skin was clammy and the heat was stifling.

Cullen jolted as he awoke, the light from the sun already making the tent glow inside. He’d kicked off all the covers and lay flat on his back, and his arm was extended into the empty space next to him.

He was alone in the tent.

After a few moments of disbelief, wondering whether or not he’d actually come to Clan Lavellan and back to her, the tent door was suddenly unzipped and the most beautiful woman that Cullen had ever seen poked her head in.

“Hey,” Astoria said with a smile on her face, “Sorcha made breakfast. Put on a shirt and some pants, it’s too hot to eat in here.”

Cullen looked at her, the love of his life, his sun and stars. She was an object of absolute divinity – her short hair was still sleep-mussed, her eyes shining brightly, the tee shirt she wore – one of his shirts – loose and hanging off of her. He loved her like this. He loved her in every way she was, but this – sleepy, lazy, and candid – was purely her, without any covers or sheens to disguise her true self.

She squaked as he pulled her into the tent and peppered kisses all over her face and neck, protesting that it was so warm and he was so sweaty, but she kissed him back all the same as she laughed.

 

___

 

“Keeper’s gone to talk to the Hahrens over at Hahren Rhian’s house,” Astoria told him over breakfast on the back patio. Sorcha reached over her plate and grabbed an apple, while Astoria was pouring hot sauce over her poached eggs. “Probably trying to decide what to do about you, and what to do about me.”

“After you all went to bed, Keeper was really quiet – like how she gets when she’s pissed, remember?”

“Oh, how could I ever forget.”

“Does your Clan have laws against humans on the territory?”

Sorcha shook her head. “Not necessarily. We have to bring some humans in for things, like if we contract for construction, or some politician wants to meet with Keeper in person. If they spend the night, they usually do it at the hotel over by the Cultural Center. And even more rarely do they come trying to steal our kin or our mages.”

Sorcha squeaked as Astoria smacked her sister’s arm.

“Sorry,” she muttered to Cullen, not sounding very sorry at all.

“You told me before that they wouldn’t let you leave,” he directed to Astoria, “how would they even be able to do that?”

“Well, that was more figuratively,” she shrugged, “they can’t actually stop me from leaving again, but they could permanently ban me, revoke my Clan membership, and I would be stuck without a homeland. I’m only allowed a Ferelden visa because of my Clan status. The Hahrens could make our politicians take that away if they really wanted to.”

“I was the only thing stopping them from doing it last time,” Sorcha added. “I’m not a child anymore, so they’re unlikely to grant levity again.”

“That’s not fair – to take away your ability to live with the Clan, or anywhere else?”

Astoria shrugged. “That’s the way it is.”

“That’s messed up.”

“All politics are messed up.”

The sliding door opened, and Keeper stepped out onto the back patio. Behind her in the house were three Hahrens.

“We will talk,” she addressed Sorcha and Astoria. Then Keeper pointed at Cullen. “But he stays outside.”

“What, like a dog?” Astoria protested.

“He’s Ferelden, they love dogs, don’t they?” Keeper deadpanned, and waved her hand. Astoria gave Cullen an apologetic look, and shoveled a few more bites of her poached eggs into her mouth before following Keeper, Sorcha right behind her.

 

___

 

“I don’t know what to do.”

“Stay. It’s simple.”

“But if I can go back to Ferelden – I have a whole life there, I can’t just give up on everyone there!”

“Why not? Your family is here.”

“But my family is also there.

“Da’len, I don’t know what you’re talking about. We have no kin in Haven.”

“Have you never considered I have made a family of my friends? That I have made spiritual kin there?”

“…Deshana, I do not understand her.”

Astoria rolled her eyes, hard. She turned to Hahren Yanna and stared him down. “I count those I am close to in Haven as lethallan. I hold them as dear as I do Sorcha.”

“But,” Hahren Rhisa crossed her arms, “are they of the People, or are they shemlen?”

“One is of the People, the other grew up in Ferelden,” she said, and pursed her lips in annoyance. “I do have shem friends, I have durgen’len friends, and I have qunari friends. Where they are from does not matter to me.”

“And what about this male shem,” Hahren Rhian spoke up, the first time the ancient female spoke throughout the whole time Astoria had been in the meeting with them. Her long silver hair had been braided by her great-grandsons and fell in seven loose plaits across her shoulders, summer flowers tucked in the folds. Hahren Rhian’s pale, clouded eyes stared through Astoria, giving her a chill up her spine. “He comes to our territory unannounced and makes a declaration of affection for you, and asks to take you away.”

“He’s not taking me away,” Astoria politely interrupted, “I’m going of my own free will. I want to return to Haven.”

“But with this human man,” Keeper nearly hissed the words, “and not one of our own people? This man who is tall and stubborn, this man who has scars on his face and burns on his arms and spiritless tattoos on his skin—“

“I did those, Keeper!” Astoria exclaimed abruptly, slamming her palm against the wooden table in Hahren Rhian’s dining room. “Mythal’enaste, it is always the same argument with you!”

“Da’len—“

“No, listen to me. Cullen is a good man. He is a good man who has experienced much and suffered much, and yes, he has the scars to prove it, just as I do!   I gave him those tattoos, that art is my art, it is the art I have always wanted to do and have always loved doing. It is the art that you and the rest of the Hahrens have always looked down upon me for, the art that you kicked me out for! I cannot spend the rest of my life only passing needle into skin if it is for vallaslin. Art is life for me, Keeper.”

“So you would leave us?” Keeper raised her voice, her cold eyes now blazing with fury that matched only Astoria’s. “You would leave us again, your Clan, your People? Am I to never see you again when you go? Never to see my own grandchild again?”

“Of course I want to return! Keeper, I want to be a part of the Clan, but my life is in Haven. I want to be able to return to the territory, I want to come to celebrations, to see the children and the school’s graduations, I want to be able to come back and forth. Last time you shut me out, and I couldn’t come back, but I’ve always wanted to!”

She was standing, and she didn’t even realize it. Her chest rose and fell heavily as she breathed and her stomach churned.

Calmer, she continued, “I will return to Haven, with or without your consent. But I ask the Hahrens that I am allowed to return to visit the territory whenever I like or whenever I am called. Let me be a part of the Clan again.”

A moment of silence passed amongst the Hahrens and Keeper. Then, Hahren Rhian said “By the Creators, just let her,” and crossed her arms.

But Keeper was persistent. “What of you and this man—“

“—His name is Cullen—“

“—your relationship concerns me. He is not one of the People.”

“No, he is not one of the People. He is a man, and he is a wonderful, kind man, who is a best friend to me. I love him with all of my heart, Keeper. I’m so fortunate that fate has given him to me, because I could spend my whole life with him and be happy.”

“Do you want to marry this shem?” asked Hahren Yanna.

“Someday, yes,” she said, “and if we have children, they will be half-elf and they will have the blood of the People in their veins, and you will allow them membership of Clan Lavellan and allow them a place in the territory.”

“No,” said Keeper.

“It is the council’s vote,” Hahren Rhian quipped, “not yours, Keeper Deshanna.”

Astoria felt Sorcha, sitting next to her, take her hand and squeeze it tightly. She turned to look down, sharing a small smile with her sister.

“Then I guess the council is voting,” Hahren Yanna grumbled, and reached across the table for a pen and a legal pad. “Just how many things are we voting on this morning?”

 

___

 

Liam’s rugby ball soared through the air, landing perfectly in Cullen’s arms. He tossed it back, adding a backspin to it that made the ball turn into a vortex of green and gold color. Cullen had noted it was a Wycome Wyvern’s team ball – the same Wycome Wyverns his father had wanted him to try out for before he joined the Templars.

“I thought you said you hadn’t played in years!” Liam exclaimed as he ran after it, leaping and falling into the grassy field behind Keeper Deshanna’s house to catch it. Kala laughed at him as his body disappeared into the tall grass.

“I hadn’t played on a team since high school,” Cullen clarified, “me and my mates play around every so often, just for fun.”

“What’s the best team in Ferelden?” Kala asked, and squeaked as Liam spun the ball to her almost too quick for her to catch. From where Kala stood in the mowed grass, she drop-kicked the ball to Cullen, who caught it one-handed.

“That’s pretty controversial,” he laughed, “you’re definitely asking the wrong person. I support my hometown of Honnleath, but they suck. My main team is the Redcliffe Ravens.”

“Because they’re good?” Liam asked.

“They’re better than Highever.”

“We like Wycome!” Kala exclaimed as Cullen faked a pass to Liam and sent the ball towards Kala, who caught it impeccably. “We go to matches at least four times a season, whenever they come to Wildervale.”

“Oh please, Wycome is nothing compared to the Markham team.”

Cullen spun around to see Astoria strolling around the side of the house, her hands stuffed in the pockets of her denim shorts.

“I was gonna try out for Wycome, you know.”

“And if you made it on, Markham would have creamed your ass into the next age,” she smirked and held out her hands towards Kala, who spun the ball to her. “But you would get to meet their hunky full back.”

“Hunky full back?”

“Hunky,” she nodded, smirking up at him. “Very hunky.”

Astoria threw the ball high in the air, and both Liam and Kala ran out to catch it, nearly colliding while the ball landed just to the right, thumping the ground.

“How did the meeting with the Hahrens go?” Cullen asked, turning away from the young brother and sister scrambling over each other for possession of the ball.

“Well, no one died,” she sighed. “But it was rough. I won’t pretend I’m not upset about how tough it was to fight Keeper and the Hahrens. But eventually, the Hahrens listened to me.”

“Listened?”

Astoria nodded. “I get to keep my status as Second,” she said, “until Keeper passes and Sorcha becomes Keeper, I become First again – until Sorcha has mage children. We wrote out an entire hypothetical genealogical tree about this.”

“Maker…”

“Oh no, there’s more. I didn’t just sign a contract, I swore an oath to my ancestors and to the Gods that I would return to the Clan at least twice a year, and then any additional time I am called to the Clan for either a special celebration, emergency, or funeral. Which isn’t bad, really – it’s what I want. I love them and I want to be a part of them, but I’m torn between two places, two homes.”

Astoria looked down at her feet. A light summer breeze rolled through them, ruffling her hair, which was getting longer than he’d ever seen her wear it before.

“I also campaigned for any children of ours to get full Clan membership,” she whispered, just loud enough for Cullen to hear her. “But if they’re mages, they won’t be in line for the role of Keeper, since they wouldn’t be full blood.”

“But, isn’t that a good thing? They wouldn’t have the pressure of that role like you did?”

Astoria shrugged. “I would have liked for them to have the option, though. If we had mage children.”

“If we had mage children,” he repeated, quieter.

She stared into the grass for a moment longer before snapping back to her usual, more alert self. “How do you feel about camping tonight?”

“I thought we camped last night.”

“No, like, real camping. On the plains plateau. I swear, it’ll be great – the stars out there are just something else,” she grinned widely.

 

___

 

From living in a large city like Haven, Cullen had never seen Astoria drive – and had absolutely no idea just how skilled of a motorist she actually was.

As they left the main town of Mythal’Arla, houses became fewer and further between, and the trees themselves thinned out until they were driving on an empty gravel road in endless, wide grassy plains, where the blue sky was bigger than the land and the sun turned everything in his sight yellow and orange.

With the windows rolled down, hot, end-of-summer air poured into the cab, rushing over his skin. He put his hand out through the window, then his arm, and cupped his fingers such that the wind caught his hand and he felt the pressure of the air on his skin and felt so, so small compared to the endless plains.

He turned his head to look at Astoria. Her face at rest was serene; she was zoned out, like the world was built of only her and the open gravel road; and with one hand on the top of the wheel and the other resting lazily out the open window, she looked quite at peace.

She was rarely so peaceful in Haven, Cullen thought. He hated himself for trying to take her away, for being selfish enough to ask her to come back to Haven – cold, gray Haven, without these golden grasses and without this azure sky.

 

___

 

They set up the tent in a little cleared area, where someone, a long time ago, had built a fire pit out of rocks. Cullen found no other stones in the field, and assumed they were carried from some unknown distance. The sun was now starting to set in the East, but from the South came massive rolling purple-gray clouds.

“That doesn’t look good,” he commented, while Astoria carried firewood from the back of the four-wheeler.

“It’s harmless. If anything, it’ll just rain,” she said, behind him while Cullen watched the clouds loom in the distance. They were getting closer – he was sure of it.

“Aren’t the tent poles made of metal? What if we get struck?”

Astoria laughed – something short and quick, like an inside joke with only herself was just spoken – and assured him that no, they won’t get struck by lightning. And if they did, maybe they would get fantastic scars from it.

But he could feel the pressure in the air thicken, not unlike the feeling of magic in the air from his Templar days. He shivered.

He turned to her, seeing the fire pit now ablaze with warm flames that licked up the logs and cracked sparks high into the sky. A cold hand gripped his spine when he hadn’t spotted matches or a lighter in Astoria’s hands, or around the fire pit.

“Did you light that with magic?” he blurted out.

She gave him a look – was it the light from the fire, or did her skin look paler than usual, like she was exhausted? – and shrugged, yes, of course, how else?

“I—oh.”

“Cullen, have you never seen me use magic before?”

He rubbed his wrist in his hand, feeling burn scars under the pads of his fingers.

Suddenly her face looked stricken. She looked away, pressing her palm to her forehead, and inhaled loud enough for Cullen to hear it on the other side of the fire.

“Creators – you’ve never seen me – fucking fenhedis lasa…” she closed her eyes, and Cullen stood frozen, breathless, “you have a problem with it, don’t you?”

He skirted the fire, coming closer, and then just stopping short of her, his hands outstretched – burning mage-fire exploding, covering his face with his arms – again just stopping short of her.

“I—it’s not a problem,” he started, “I just haven’t seen it—I knew you used it in Antiva City, I could feel it—I didn’t mean to upset you—“

“Why are you apologizing? I should—“

“Astoria, my love, neither of us needs to apologize,” he said calmly. She dropped her hands from her face and opened her eyes, looking up at him. She tentatively reached out, her fingertips just grazing his arms, his wrists – her fingers slowly encircled his wrist, her hands surprisingly cold against his skin.

When she spoke, the far-off thunder and the crackling of the fire almost drowned her words.

“I can show you.”

“Please.”

She removed her hands from his arms, and brought her palms flat together. After a moment, she opened the top, like a little envelope, and in the center was a warm, slow flame that almost touched her skin.

He didn’t try to touch the flame – no, there were too many memories, not without lyrium – but he watched this small part of Astoria, seeing it as an extension of herself instead of a weapon to hurt, to maim, and felt like he could bear it. He could bear it. He breathed. He can bear it.

She let the flame go out.

She smiled cheekily at him. “Let’s eat before the storm catches us.”

 

___

 

Without time to properly cook anything, they ate creamed cheese and salami on pieces of flatbread and sweet jam on crackers by the fire. They drank wine from the same bottle and made music with the bottle’s mouth. Astoria taught him Dalish curses and insults. He wove crowns of golden grass and placed one on her head, one on his.

Then the storm came. It was a rainless storm, where the air was heavy and the clouds were dark but the atmosphere was both humid and dry. Cullen pulled a couple blankets out of the tent and wrapped them around himself, with Astoria curled in his lap, and they listened for the rumbling of thunder, counting between each thunderclap and lightning strike, while static electricity buzzed through their skin.

When the lightning came a little too close for Cullen’s comfort, Astoria gripped his thigh. “We’ll be alright,” she assured, “want to see why?”

He watched wordlessly as she shrugged off the blanket, stepping out into the chilly air in just her shorts and his shirt and his jacket that looked oversized on her. She skipped off into the grass barefoot, going only a few meters, before putting her hands together like she had with the flame. He watched her in earnest interest.

She drew an illuminated glyph in the air – Maker, since when could magic be so beautiful? – and arcs of purplish-blue light danced over her arms. She thrust her hands into the air.

Suddenly, a column of lightning from the clouds descended upon her. Cullen jumped to his feet in alarm – but Astoria was fine. She reached out, upwards, her fingertips touching the lightning – touching, holding, like a friend. The column jumped and twitched and shattered and reformed, but the electricity at her fingertips were soft. They touched her like he did – gently, like an old friend, full of love.

Then she let go. The lightning shot back to the clouds, and a deafening thunderclap slammed into his eardrums.

She returned, and they sat down, and he wrapped her up in the blanket.

“Your primal magic is…different than the other magic I’ve seen,” he said, finally.

“Primal magic?”

“Yeah,” he said, breathing hard through his nose as she settled over his lap, her hips flush with his, “it’s like a school of magic, or a type. Fire and ice are holotypes of elemental magic, while electricity and earth-forming are more typical of primal magic.”

“Oh,” she said, her face very close to his neck, “What other kinds of magic have you seen?” She rolled her hips, and oh, his cock was right there, his arousal pressing against his jeans.

“I’ve seen force magic push cars down lanes,” he felt her lips ghosting the lobe of his ear, while his gaze stared out at the lightning dancing overhead, “I’ve seen healers shotgun vials of lyrium before closing a mortal wound until there was nothing left but a fresh scar.”

“What else?” she whispered.

“I’ve seen entropic magic used to paralyze men in their boots. I’ve seen – I’ve seen – bolts of pure arcane magic shoot through the air like starlight.”

“And what is my magic like?”

“It’s so real,” he breathed, and pulled her close by the jaw, “it’s so, so real,” and he kissed her.

She melted into his lips, wrapping her arms around his neck, her legs straddling his thighs, his cock aching for her where her hips were flush with his. Tenderly she ground her hips down against him.

He growled, sliding his hands under the hem of her shirt and pressing his palms against the skin of her back. “I want you,” he moaned into her mouth.

She smiled, “Good,” she said confidently. She took his hands from her back and guided them to her breasts under her bandeau, while she shrugged off his jacket and pulled of his shirt that she wore. She tugged the bandeau off over her head as well, and her soft breasts peaked in the colder night air, turning to gooseflesh under Cullen’s tender hands. He pressed an open mouth against her breast and gently rolled her skin under his lips. Her fingertips slipped under the waistband of her own shorts. By the way of her chest suddenly rising and falling harder, Cullen knew she was bringing herself closer and closer to the edge.

He wrapped his arms around her back and supported her, gently lowering her backwards onto the blanket they had been sitting on. He knelt between her spread legs and braced his right arm next to her head, pressing hot, warm kisses against her collarbone. Cullen offered his left hand to aid her, his fingertips caressing down her arm to the place below her shorts, between her legs and the folds of her cunt.

She keened into his touch and moaned. Her bare chest rose and fell, her back arching off the blanket.

A thunderclap boomed overhead and the whole world was illuminated for a fraction of a second, before the only light came once again from the flickering fire just a few feet away.

“I love you,” he said, his mouth open and warm against the hollow of her throat, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

“Ar lath, my heart,” she breathed, “ar lath.”

His fingers inside of her dragged against her sweet spot, and she screamed as she came and thunder roared over the plains.

Astoria had had the good sense to bring condoms, and while they shucked off their remaining layers (Cullen wore significantly more than Astoria at this point), he fitted himself with the condom, and once again took up his position over her, kissing her, while sheathing himself within her.

She smiled as she took him, her nails dragging harsh red lines down his pale gold back. They moved slowly, sweetly, making love like this for the first time in weeks, relishing each moment, remembering each muscle and bone and sensitive place on each other’s body. Worshipping, like gods, like mortals, like two souls lost in the world with only each other to ground them.

They were, truly, soul mates.

 

___

 

It was two more days until Cullen and Astoria returned to Mythal’Arla, and the day after that, Cullen was politely, yet forcefully, asked to leave by the Hahrens. Astoria would follow him just a week later.

But neither of them would leave before Liam would have his Vallaslin Rite.

“A shemlen cannot observe our sacred ritual,” Hahren Yanna all but stomped her foot. “It has never happened before, and it never will, so long as I live.”

“That won’t be very long,” quipped Hahren Rhian, sharing a chuckle with Hahren Pema.

“I agree,” said Keeper, above the voice of Sorcha, who called for order while she and the Hahrens mixed the inks for Liam’s Vallaslin Rite – he wished for silver and orange in the sacred design in worship of Andruil. He’d also asked for Astoria to perform the rite – and for Cullen to be there.

“It’s his Vallaslin Rite,” Astoria asserted, “he can ask for whomever he wants to be there. It’s in his rights, it’s in our Clan’s constitution. You can’t deny him that right. Besides, there’s no clause that forbids shems from either viewing or partaking in our rituals. I checked.”

“Sometimes I regret making you memorize our constutition.”

And as such, that night at midnight, at the Clan Cultural Center, Astoria, Sorcha, and Keeper laid the herbs on the wide oak table while the Hahrens bathed Liam in oil and cleaned his face. In the dark, standing silently was the rest of the Council of Hahrens, Liam’s family, several dozen members of the Clan, and Cullen.

When the herbs were laid, the Hahrens led Liam to the table and laid him down among the herbs and burning incense. The silence was deafening as Sorcha used oil to slick back his hair from his forehead, and then took hands with Keeper and Astoria. They mixed and combined their auras, creating a trifecta of peaceful, sympathetic magic, and Astoria was the first to take up the needle, hammer, and to dip the tip of the needle in the pot of ink.

Liam did not make a sound for two hours as his Vallaslin was tattooed onto his skin. Excess ink, blood, and tears mixed in the creases of his eyes. Sorcha wiped these away while Astoria and Keeper took turns to conserve their magic.

Astoria’s heart ached in affection throughout the ritual, taking care while she marked Liam’s face, and offered soothing contact to the sides of his face while Keeper took over. She could feel Cullen’s gaze burning the back of her neck, his expert, practiced silence lending him great favors during the ritual as he blended into the background of the round Ceremony Room. He did not mind losing sleep for this – even if he was leaving immediately after the ceremony, driving to Wildervale to catch a flight to Haven by noontime.

It was a little past two in the morning when Astoria set down the needle and hammer. “Sulevin ghilana hanin,” she said, “Andruil mala ghilan.”

And Liam sat up, and the Hahrens approached with water to rinse his body, and before they could dry him off Liam surged forward to hug Astoria, whispering thanks and thanks and thanks.

 

___

 

At three ’o’clock in the morning, with the stars out above, the open air in the clan’s territory was surprisingly warm.

Cullen leaned against his rental car, waiting for Astoria to emerge from the Cultural Center. When she did, he opened his arms to her, and she all but fell into him, sinking into his warm body and warm embrace.

“I hope you’re okay to drive,” she muttered into his shirt.

“I’ll be just fine,” he assured. “I’ll be seeing you soon. I’m coming home.”

But he still kissed her like it would be their last.

 

___

 

Leliana straightened the lapel on her jacket, which she’d had dry cleaned as soon as she’d gotten back from her honeymoon. Now, she decided, she would have it her way.

Her sharp heels clicked on the marble floors as she made her way down the seemingly endless hallways, passing Templars in red, gold, and black ceremonial guard uniforms. Her ID badge was neatly pinned to her jacket breast pocket – though, they didn’t need that to let her through. Her face alone was enough clearance.

She scanned her ID to unlock the door of the antechamber, and the Templar guard inside opened the next door to the main office.

Alexandria looked up in surprise. She’d removed her gaudy headdress and robes, and was dressed simply – her head and hair was covered with a tightly wrapped white scarf, and she wore a plain red robe over her white long-sleeved dress. Her round-rimmed glasses sat perched on her nose, and her eyes, with deep crows feet at the corners, narrowed on Leliana.

“Nightingale, it’s good to see you,” she said, “I didn’t expect you for another few days.”

Leliana removed the envelope from her briefcase, and tossed it, with intended ceremony, on Alexandria’s desk atop the papers she was reading.

“What’s this?”

“Call it my letter of resignation. I won’t be your bitch anymore.”

Alexandria gaped in astonishment. Leliana turned on her heel and stalked out, leaving the door behind her open. As she passed through the antechamber, the Right Hand of the Divine entered.

Leliana high-fived Cassandra as they passed. “Your turn,” she said, a crooked smile slashing across her pale face.  

 

___

 

Astoria was, for all various reasons and experiences, exhausted.

She was exhausted when the plane landed. She was exhausted when she met Cullen at the gate, when they retrieved her suitcase at baggage claim, when they got in the cab to go home.

Sera met them at the bottom of the stairs, and she carried the suitcase up the Hell Stairs while Cullen carried Astoria. She was exhausted when she shucked off her overshirt and kicked off her boots, exhausted when she dropped into her bed, and she was asleep by the time both Sera and Cullen had curled up on either side of her on the bed, the three of them sleeping soundly while this person, who was so, so important to them both, was finally home.

 

___

 

“Oh my fucking Creators.”

Dorian’s smile was what could only be called a shit-eating grin. Astoria gaped, laughing, at the storefront of Chargers – no, never in her life had she imagined to ever see this.

In the window, posted up in large, professionally drawn letters, was this sign:

OWNED AND OPERATED BY YOUR FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD MAGES

Isabella and Josephine, Merrill and Krem, and Dorian and the Iron Bull squeezed Astoria into a group-hug that was too large – Krem was definitely crushing her ribs, but Creators – Astoria didn’t care. She was with her family. She was home.

She squealed in laughter when Rylen and Delrin and Cullen joined in, forming an obtuse group pile in the center of the bright, sunny street between the tattoo shop and the bakery.

Her heart, usually so full of clouds and stretched with pain, was light, and shining. Astoria was home. Astoria was home.