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Once More unto the Breach

Chapter Text

Part I

Prologue

Chapter 01 - Between the Desire and the Spasm



Here lies the abyss...

 

He put his hand on her face, worked his fingers into her hair, the rich, dark brown hair that framed her face, and turned to kiss her forehead, her eyebrows, her eyes.

The early morning was quiet. The sun hadn’t even begun to rise. There were no dawn songbirds this time of year, wouldn’t be until the wet autumn gave way to the harsh winter, gave way to the wild spring.

 

...the well of all souls…

 

And despite the quiet, despite the dark, Cullen was awake. Something in his chest had stirred him, some darkness there that he could not explain and could not ease, could not silence. Eleanor lay peacefully beside him, and he wanted to be close to her, wanted to smell the perfume of her skin, wanted to know the softness of her touch. He wanted her to calm him, but she was fast asleep.

He pressed his lips against her temple and gently breathed her name. Her eyelids fluttered, but she didn’t stir. Whatever dream place she was in, it held her fast. Cullen ran his fingers along her brow, pushed little stray hairs away from her cheeks. And yet the feeling in his heart lingered. Cullen sat up and leaned back against the wooden headboard, adjusting his pillow against his back.

Ferelden was always so quiet.

 

From these emerald waters doth life begin anew.

 

In April, they’d come for a brief stay. They’d come for Evelyn. They’d come to tell the Inquisitor - to tell the Inquisition - that they’d rather return to the quiet midwest, to stay in Indiana. They’d come to say that they would handle work on their end, and would do their due diligence, but that after the Blight, after all the fighting, after all the death, they’d like to step away for a little while. To live a quiet life. To hold down the fort in Eleanor’s neck of the woods. The rift between Thedas and Earth was still open,

And yet it was autumn, and here they were still. Evelyn had hosted them at Skyhold for months, and Eleanor had become a force unto herself, relating not just the events of the previous year, but also relaying Dorian’s speculations of the Rift, the Fade - and Dorian had gone back to Tevinter to do the same. It had been Cullen who the Inquisition had asked to return, but it was Eleanor who was doing all of the heavy lifting. No wonder she was so deeply asleep.

At least, after a while, they had gotten away from Skyhold. Here, in this little lakeside cabin just outside of Redcliff, they were less than a day’s journey from the mountains, from the fortress that Cullen had for so long called home. But they were also painfully close to Kinloch Hold, and though the trauma was ten years and a different administration away, the ex-templar still couldn’t help but feel a small shiver when he looked out over the water on grey, windy days.

He had told Eleanor everything about what had happened there. She had held him, and apologized, as though she had had anything to do with it.

 

Come to me, child, and I shall embrace you.

 

A small light crept through the windows now. Small, and lonely, and pale. Sitting up against the headboard, Cullen pressed his eyes closed. He rested a hand heavily on Eleanor’s shoulder, needing to feel her breath, needing to feel the warmth that radiated from her skin. He felt her sigh hard, and she rolled over, reaching for him in a half-sleep.

“I’m here,” he whispered, not knowing if she could hear or not.

Her sleep still scared him. No, maybe not as much as scared, but it was a strange sensation to be trained as a templar and to sleep next to a mage, knowing that she had a very different connection to that dream world than he ever could, feeling small bursts of magic ripple out of her skin. Without lyrium, he wasn’t as attuned to all of the things he might have been before, but he could still feel the power in her blood, on her body, a sharp, skewed, unreal sensation. It was almost an acrid tang, the smell of the air before a storm, but now it was almost - no, not almost, it really was - comforting.

He didn’t care if he woke her now, couldn’t care, not with the weight in his chest, the weight pressing into his mind that said something was not right, was not right at all. Cullen reached out and pulled her tightly into his arms, pulled her up and against his chest, pressing his lips hard against her hair, the brown of it black in the slowly growing dawn. She grasped for him in a half sleep and her lips formed his name, but her eyes stayed shut a moment longer, even as her cheek pressed hard against his skin, nuzzling gently against the familiar warmth of his form. Eleanor tipped her head up, arms sleepily snaking around his neck, and she let him kiss her, a soft, broken moan resonating in her throat.

For a moment, her head found his shoulder, and she laid there, twisting her fingers in the small curls at the nape of his neck - hair grown too long these past weeks, he thought, though she didn’t seem to mind.

Though there hadn’t been a smile on her face, there now flashed a frown, deep, sincere, furrows forming on Eleanor’s brow, in heavy creases beside her mouth.

“El,” he said. It wasn’t a question, but it wanted for so many answers.

He thought he saw her lips form, “No.”

There was a trembling of her eyelashes.

“Something…” she breathed.

“Hm?” he said, reaching down to smooth her hair.

“It shouldn’t be,” she answered.

“Shouldn’t be what, El?” Her tongue was still heavy with slumber and a part of his brain didn’t think he was hearing her right. Another part was afraid that he was.

“It’s waking up,” she muttered, her hands still grasping, but now for something very different. Her eyes pulled open, the blue-grey like a stormy ocean in the flat light.

“Love,” he said, the word meant to be soothing but tinged with fear, the weight in his chest now a pressing, now the peine forte et dure of the mute, “what are… what are you saying?”

Suddenly her eyes darted around the room, and she pushed one hand hard against Cullen’s chest, sitting upright hard and fast. She gripped the blankets in her fist, pulled them to her chest, turned until her gaze met Cullen’s in the early morning blue.

“We have to go home.”

 

In my arms lies Eternity.

Chapter Text

They had first returned to Skyhold in early April, and the air that then had been crisp and cold was now warm and resplendent with the scent of blossoms and a burgeoning summer. Eleanor had thought, living as far out in the country as she did, that she knew what clean air smelled like. She was accustomed to the feel of a fresh breeze on her skin. In the winter, it hadn’t been so different. But in the spring, Indiana and Thedas were impossible to compare.

Eleanor walked up the stone steps, Cullen at her side. She breathed in the potent, almost thick air, rich and alive in a way she’d never known. She reached for Cullen’s hand and gave it a squeeze, closing her eyes with one last, deep inhale before she strode into the main hall.

The building - the fortress - was just as busy as it had ever been. She’d hardly had a moment to really enjoy it before; her mind had been elsewhere and the few days she had spent at Skyhold were as good as a blur. Stepping through now, she heard so many voices, so many languages, and she wanted simultaneously to open her arms and welcome the multitudes to her and to make herself as small and inconspicuous as possible, to be no different from the rest. As a middle ground, she slid her hand up Cullen’s arm and gave it a little squeeze. He turned to her and smiled.

Their things had all been stowed away, and Swiffer had been set free. Cullen had been nervous about letting the little cat roam freely around the Frostbacks, but Eleanor trusted the kitten. Swiffer knew where food was. She could find people. She knew Cullen and Dorian and Varric and had even cozied up to the Inquisitor herself during Evelyn’s brief stay in Indiana, and though Varric went back and forth between Skyhold and Kirkwall, and Dorian had, since the end of the Blight, gone back to Tevinter, Eleanor knew that Swiffer would never stray far from the people that reminded her of home. She was a smart critter, and moreover, she would never let herself go more than twelve hours without eating a treat.

All they had to do now was tell Evelyn that while they appreciated her offer and would be more than willing to continue to offer their services from the other side of the Breach, they would only be able to stay in Thedas a week or two. A month at the most, and that was only if they felt like traveling, if Eleanor felt like seeing this foreign land.

 


 

 

Evelyn was in her quarters, sitting behind a big wooden desk. There were quills and papers littering the surface, but the Inquisitor was looking out the large windows, a fingernail tapping against her teeth. When she heard Eleanor and Cullen’s footfalls, though, she sat bolt upright, using her arms to push her heavy chair away from the desk.

“Oh, it is so good to see you both,” Evelyn said, almost breathlessly, and Cullen offered his hand to the Inquisitor, but it was into Eleanor’s open arms that the red-haired woman ran. Eleanor embraced the Inquisitor tightly, and though the few weeks they had spent together were four months gone and blurred by the panic of combat and desperation, it felt instantly like she was in the arms of an old friend.

“How are you finding things?” Evelyn asked, holding Eleanor by the shoulders and leaning back.

“We’ve, ah, just arrived,” Cullen said, dropping his hand with a smile.

“Good, good,” Evelyn said, releasing Eleanor and finally grasping for Cullen’s hand. “Then I haven’t missed anything.”

Eleanor laughed. “What’s there to miss?”

“Around here,” Evelyn answered, “you never know.”

The door at the foot of the stairs opened and closed, and the three of them turned to see a woman with a black braid wrapped around her head begin to ascend.

“Inquisitor?” she called.

Eleanor cleared her throat and turned away, lowering her head and turning to face further into the room. She reached over her shoulder and pulled her long hair across her body, fiddling with it anxiously.

“Don’t,” said Cullen softly, putting a strong hand on Eleanor’s shoulder. It was a firm gesture, but one of encouragement.

The memory of Cassandra speaking  - and that was a kinder word than the situation had entailed - about Eleanor was when she had walked in on the woman berating Cullen was still fresh in her mind: Cassandra berating Cullen for what she had seen as the commander not putting enough effort into his work, and putting a bit too much, er, effort into Eleanor while Cassandra was struggling to holding up her end in Thedas. Cassandra had apologized, and she had come to Indiana to fight the Archdemon, but Eleanor and Cassandra had never really spoken, and so that first interaction still dominated the few moments that made up their relationship. Rehashing that argument wasn’t exactly how Eleanor wanted her visit to Skyhold to start.

“Hello, Cassandra,” the Inquisitor called down the stairs as the woman continued her approach. Evelyn tipped her head down and to the side to catch Eleanor’s gaze once more. “Have you said hello to our guests?” she said, keeping both eyes fixed on Eleanor, except in the small instant when the Inquisitor gave her a wink.

“Guests?” Cassandra said, huffing and puffing to the top of the stairs. Eleanor got the impression that Cassandra was in fine shape, but that this was just her manner - always out of breath to get somewhere. “I didn’t know there were - oh.”

Eleanor finally turned now and met the Seeker’s brown eyes, or would have, if they hadn’t been directed at the floor.

“I knew you both were coming back. I hadn’t known that…” Cassandra’s voice trailed off.

Eleanor’s eyes flicked up to Cullen, but he only crossed his arms and remained speechless. Eleanor gave him a less than subtle shove and said, “Hello, Cassandra.” The woman had apologized to Eleanor on the battlefield in the moments before they had brought down the Archdemon, but it had been so rushed, so anxious. Cullen had not been there, had not heard, and made it clear that he was taking this grudge for as far as he could carry it.

There was a moment of stillness, tension radiating from Cassandra, and then the tall woman almost heaved forward with relief.

“Eleanor - Cullen - I am so sorry. I was frustrated, I let my temper get the best of me -” she took three long strides forward and clasped Eleanor’s hands, looking back and forth from her to Cullen. “I bear you no ill will. Either of you. I was too harsh and spoke wrongly.”

The commander’s face remained stern, but Eleanor saw a little twitch at the corner of his lips, and she gave Cassandra’s hands a little squeeze.

“We appreciate that, Cassandra,” she said, emphasizing the “we” as she released the Seeker’s hands and folding her arms easily across her chest.

“It is so good to have you back here,” Cassandra went on. “We could use your help. Both of you,” she impressed.

“Ah, yes, well, that’s the thing...” Cullen said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

Chapter Text

They left the Inquisitor’s chambers taking long, slow strides. Cullen had his hands on top of his head and was gazing up at the ceiling as he walked.

“Well. That didn’t exactly go to plan,” he said, making his way back into the hall.

Eleanor sighed. Patting herself down for her cigarettes, suddenly feeling awkward in blue jeans and a light grey sweater instead of the robes and finery like those of everyone around her, she muttered, “It’s only a few weeks. They need our help. They weren’t there like we were,” and she pulled the half-crushed pack out of her back pocket, the lighter stuffed inside. She shook a cigarette out and brought the pack to her lips to free it, then offered one to Cullen.

He lead her out to the steps, and on the first landing he lowered himself slowly down, letting his legs hang over the side, boots scuffing against the stones. He let the cigarette hang limply from his lips as Eleanor joined him, leaning against his side.

“It’s not so bad,” she offered. “It’s nice this time of year.”

Cullen made a “hm” sound and stared into some middle distance for a moment before pulling the cigarette away from his lips and saying, “I have lived here for almost forty years, Eleanor. Here, and beyond the mountains, beyond the Waking Sea, you can see where I’ve spent my entire life. And yet…”

Breathing out a puff of smoke, she answered, “Well, we’re here now, Cul. So,” she said, looking up at him with blue-grey eyes that reflected the sky, “show me?” As he looked down at her, she went on, “You’ve seen my home. Or some small part of it. I’m sure you’ll see more. But I’ve never been here before. All I’ve seen are these castle walls. But even this… I’ve never seen…” She took a little breath, took a little puff of her cigarette. “There was a man,” she began, looking out across the courtyard, “a hundred years ago. He went to Egypt - a place far from Indiana, really far, across the ocean - to find the tomb of an ancient king. They dug and dug and eventually found what they were looking for - this tomb, this intact tomb of the boy king, King Tut. No one had ever found an intact, undisturbed tomb like this before - well, alright, so I guess maybe grave robbers had or else - whatever, that’s not the point. Anyway, Howard Carter, this guy, he peeks in with a candle, and his buddy, some lord, asks him, ‘Can you see anything?’” Eleanor stood up and turned around to face Skyhold, turned again to face the same mountain view that Cullen faced. “And Howard Carter, he says…” Eleanor’s voice slowed, and she looked back down at him, and put out her hand to his. He reached up and took her hand in his, fixing their gaze as she said, “...he says, ‘Yes. Wondrous things.’”

Chapter Text

Their first attempt at discussing the Rift did not go well.

Eleanor and Evelyn, with the help of Dorian’s painstaking notes and Cullen’s input, had put together the best sort of magical and tactical description of the Rift in the Deep Roads that they could without actually knowing what the hell they were dealing with. Dorian’s description of the fabric-like nature of things was the foundation of their work, but the both of them - the three of them, really, with Cullen looking on - admitted through looks and gestures that what they had was a grand metaphor without substance. And Dorian’s question still nagged at them all: if the Rift was a snag, what was the nail that snagged the thread?

What they did have, however, was experience, as some of the only people who had traversed the Rift - and Eleanor, of course, being the only one in Thedas to hail from the other side. What they also now had was an armed guard posted at the entrance to the cave where their party had emerged from the Deep Roads, as well as several agents scanning the area to see if other cave mouths lead down to the same section of the underground network. While Eleanor didn’t fear too many people heading into the Roads from the Indiana side of things - or heading in and surviving - Evelyn wasn’t as sure about the Fereldan side.

So they gathered what they knew, and came to a consensus of words, and wrote two copies, one in what Eleanor knew as English, and one in what Evelyn called The King’s Tongue, the same almost rune-like hashes and squiggles in which she had seen Cullen write. Her own handwriting looked preposterously irregular and loopy compared to the commander’s and the Inquisitor’s fine markings, and her unfamiliar use of a stylus and ink was not doing her any favors. As she wrote, Eleanor mulled over the fact that though the three of them could understand one another perfectly, a few odd idioms aside, there was a whole form of communication that she couldn’t participate in, that she could not even begin to parse. She supposed maybe it was time to learn, or if not now, then soon.

Their thoughts prepared, the facts, unbelievable though they were, presented in as clear a fashion as they could manage, Evelyn had Josephine and Leliana reach out to their contacts - Leliana had the lion’s share, since she was Divine, but Josephine knew and could influence nobility - so that they could present the relevant information about the Rift to the people who should know and would want to know about it.

Evelyn had told Eleanor that many would be mages, who would undoubtedly have questions about Eleanor, not the least of which would be directed at her very abilities themselves.

“Try not to get too caught up in the politics of it,” Evelyn had said, and from the corner of the room Cullen scoffed. He didn’t even look up from his papers as he added, “Right, because that always worked for you.”

 


 

 

Josephine had wanted them to meet in the great hall, but Evelyn shot the idea down. She was not sitting in judgment, and had sat on that throne all too many times for all too dark reasons. In fact, Evelyn suggested, why not have it in the garden? It would show a different side of the Inquisition: a quiet one, a calm one, and would show off their resources as opposed to their might; the Inquisitor wasn’t too big on might these days. Reluctantly, Josephine agreed, and chairs were set up between pots of elfroot and embrium, and Evelyn and Eleanor and Cullen took their places in front of the well.

Eleanor leaned against the ancient stones as Evelyn spoke, making Eleanor’s introduction as she explained to those gathered what they were about to hear. The Inquisitor had dressed Eleanor in a soft grey robe. It puckered at the left side of her neck and draped down in an asymmetrical cowl. There was a silvery-blue belt at her waist and soft black boots on her feet. Eleanor’s chestnut hair was down, pulled over her shoulder and secured with a little silver clip at her right ear.

It still took Cullen off guard, still made his breath catch when he saw her this way. Surprise wasn’t the right word, and it wasn’t that he found her more attractive - or less. He loved his rough and tumble farm girl, his practical, uncut gem of a woman. And he knew what she was, knew she was a mage, knew she had the right to wear those robes. Yet, even here, especially here, it took him aback to see her this way. She now fit as though she was a part of the world that he had known for so long, as though this was her world as well as his own, but it made her seem less the woman that he had met on a hot June day in Indiana. No, not less, never less, but with more of something else mixed in.

Whatever the reason, whatever the result, Cullen couldn’t take his eyes off of her, couldn’t wipe the look that had slowly turned into an oafish grin off of his face.

“This is Eleanor Redgrove, of Indiana,” Evelyn was saying, as Cullen looked on. It still made Eleanor chuckle to hear Indiana said that way, like it was some mighty and powerful kingdom and not the place everyone drove through to get to Chicago, a lonely little fly-over state. “She is our ambassador and liaison from the other side of the Deep Roads Rift. Whatever you may have heard about her, I ask that you hold your questions until the end. Trust me, it won’t be long. We don’t have much, unfortunately. That’s why I’ve gathered you all here. Rift magic as a body of knowledge grew quickly after the Breaches first opened, thanks to those mages and scholars who dedicated themselves to studying them from the very outset, from the very moment that the first Breach tore open the sky. And while we here were desperately trying to close those Breaches -” there was a little whoop from the crowd, but Evelyn put up her hands to quickly quash it “- they were trying to study those very rifts, often at their own peril.” Evelyn paused for a moment and clasped her hands together, right thumb rubbing her left palm almost nervously. She paced left and right for a moment before speaking again. “The truth is, we don’t know if this is the same magic or not. We don’t even know if it’s what we can identify as magic. But we’ve got some ideas, thanks to Lady Redgrove and Commander Rutherford, as well as the work of Dorian Pavus, and Varric Tethras who wished to remain nameless but will get no such luxury from me.” A small laugh rippled through the assembled crowd; Evelyn had done this before and she was good at it. “The truth is, we have maybe a coherent series of thoughts between the five of us. That’s why we asked you here today, instead of sending missives. So that we could talk. So that you could ask questions. So that maybe together, we could come up with something more than that. Because that would be a blasted sight better than what we’ve got right now.” Evelyn stopped, stood up straight, and folded her hands behind her back. “Alright, Eleanor, would you like to speak?”

Eleanor blinked a bit and stood up straighter, not realizing her turn would come so soon. She shuffled the papers in her hands and the Inquisitor stepped back, allowing Eleanor her place.

Her stance seemed nervous, Cullen noticed, feet close together and shoulders forward as she looked down quickly at her first two pages of notes. But Eleanor cleared her throat, threw her hair back over her shoulder, and rolled her neck.

“Hello, folks,” she said, and her words weren’t nervous at all. “Thanks for coming. I can only assume it was a long way. Everything seems to be a long way away from everything else around here.” She got the same peel of laughter that Evelyn had received, and the Inquisitor noticed, nudging Cullen gently on the arm and giving him an approving smile.

“So, I don’t know how much you all are familiar with, so I guess I’ll start at the beginning. As you do. We - that’s to say, the commander, Dorian, Varric, and myself, first discovered the Deep Roads Rift while exploring the ravine in Indiana - which I understand we’re now calling the Theodosian Ravine? Alright, that’ll do. We went in to gather information about the ravine, since so much was still unknown at that point - we certainly didn’t know how massive the network was; at that point we couldn’t even be sure of the depth. Cull - er, that is to say, Commander Rutherford has more details on the specifics but after quite a long walk the four of us experienced what I can only describe as a shimmer. A shiver. Something changed. We had kind of a lot on our minds at the time, as you can imagine -” another little chuckle from the small audience “- so at the time it was just one more thing to add on the pile of weird that had been the last few months, especially for me, as I’m sure many of you know. Regardless, when we passed through, we must have - well, we did - come over to Thedas. We were in what Varric immediately recognized as the Deep Roads. When the exit of the cave system let us out into Ferelden, near Redcliff, that was when we finally caught on. Again, we were a little busy at the time. Ah, so… yes.” Eleanor flipped some pages.

“It was Dorian who did a lot of this heavy lifting, I do want to be clear about that. He couldn’t be here today, but he was the one delving deep where I couldn’t even scratch the surface. With all that said, here’s what we think we know. We think the Rift in the Veil is a permanent feature. We think it has always been there.”

There was some hushed murmurs from those seated. A young man in the front row turned to his companion and whispered something in her ear, and the woman nodded.

Cullen saw Eleanor pause, and she swiveled her head to glance at Evelyn nervously. Slowly, almost cautiously, the Inquisitor bade her continue.

“We… we think that for a long time the way between the worlds was open, and remnants of that connection remain. The fact that I can speak to you right now is one. That…” she hesitated, and Cullen knew what she was about to say. “That I am a mage is another.”

The shiver in the crowd grew louder.

“Now,” Eleanor said, trying to get the whole thing back on track, “I’m not as well-versed on this as all of you -”

“Then why should we listen to you, mage?” The man in the front row stood up. His skin was pale and his eyes burnt deep into Eleanor’s.

“Uh, well, I…” she faltered. “We worked on this together…”

“Together? Yes, together,” the word was venom. “Three mages: one a Tevinter magister, one a supporter of the Mage Rebellion and the head of this illegitimate organization, and you, a know-nothing from a world whose Blight threatened our own. I say again, three mages, a dwarf, and a disgraced templar,” the man accused, pointing his finger as he spoke.

Cullen stepped forward. His sword was on the belt around his waist and he rested his hand on it, in a way that both showed he was choosing not to draw it and was a threat in kind. Evelyn put her hand on Eleanor’s arm and answered the man, ignoring his insults.

“If not mages,” she asked, “then who would you like to speak of magical things? If not the people who explored the Deep Roads, who would you like to speak of what they hold?”

“Your authority -”

“My authority has been challenged many times, serrah. And yet, here I stand.” As she spoke, the crowd continued to grow more restless. “Now, would you like to let the lady speak?” Evelyn’s eyes scanned the far garden walls, where Eleanor saw two archers raise their bowes. “Others may like to know what she has to say. It is, indeed, why we are here today.”

The woman to whom the man had whispered stood now and took a step forward. Her accent was Orlesian, like Leliana’s, though the man’s was not. “We have heard enough from outsiders these past ten years! Indeed, we have heard enough from outsiders to last us until the end of time.” Though the crowd was small, the din grew nearly overwhelming now and Eleanor took a step back, but Evelyn kept her reassuring fingers tight on Eleanor’s wrist. The Inquisitor gave her a look, stern but strong, that told Eleanor to remain calm.

And calm she could remain, but there was a rage welling up in her chest that made her fists ball. Who was this man - and more, who was he to tell her not to speak? And because she was a mage? Her eyes narrowed and she pulled her lip between her teeth, starting to move forward again, but Cullen cut her off with a small whisper of, “Don’t, El.”

“But -”

“Not now.”

“Ah, the templar speaks,” the man said. “And he still restrains mages, it seems.”

“Keep talking and I won’t,” Cullen challenged, taking two quick steps forward.

“Then let her go,” the woman said, drawing a dagger and thrusting it toward Eleanor. Eleanor flinched back, but held her ground even as her heart began to race.

“Enough!” Evelyn shouted, flinging her arms wide. “Enough.” The crowd quieted, and though the woman did not yield, nor did the man reclaim his seat, they made no further movements, and Cullen retreated to Eleanor’s side. “I will not have this. You are all of you dismissed.”

“Oh, all of us, Inquisitor?” the man spat Evelyn’s title as an insult.

Evelyn’s face remained stony. “Yes. All of you. Unless you would like to have it some other way? The Inquisition is not in the habit of taking prisoners any longer, but I’m certain we can make an exception.”

The woman narrowed her eyes and held her dagger firm.

“Did you not hear me?” Evelyn said again to the small crowd. “I said dismissed. The guards will see you out,” it was both an offer and a threat to those who might be inclined to stay.

Cautiously, the audience began to rise, to leave the little garden sanctuary. A few craned their necks to keep an eye on the action but all proceeded slowly away, except for the man and woman who had challenged them.

Evelyn frowned, shaking her head. “Don’t tempt me,” she said, turning away with a wave of her hand that told the two what she thought of them.

And then the man sprang, a knife in his own hand, and he leapt not for Eleanor, but for Evelyn. Cullen drew his sword and charged forward, but Eleanor was closer, and her magic was faster. Striking out with an open palm, she froze the man solid, stopping him in his tracks, and with a sweep of the other hand, she erected a wall of ice between the woman and herself. From across the garden, the stretching of bowstrings alerted Cullen.

“Archers - hold!” he called, and put a hand on Eleanor’s shoulder as he moved past her, moved past her frozen barricade, and knocked the still outstretched dagger from the woman’s hand with the flat of his sword. The look on her face had quickly gone from enraged to frightened to terrified as Cullen put the point of his sword under her chin.

“You had your chance,” he told her in a growl. “Take them away,” he called to the guards. “Leave them in the cells to rot. Or to thaw, as the case may be.”

Chapter Text

“Are you alright, Inquisitor?” Cullen asked as they walked quickly away from the garden.

“Commander, I’m fine. It was my own fault for turning my back on someone armed. I honestly didn’t think…” she shook her head. “But Eleanor did a fine job,” and Evelyn turned around and gave her a wink.

Eleanor was hanging back, following them almost cautiously, feeling more than a bit like she had overstepped her bounds, and that maybe using magic to freeze a mage-hating assailant might not have been the most forward-thinking strategy.

“Yes, well,” Eleanor heard Cullen say as they pushed their way toward the War Room.

“She did, Cullen,” Evelyn leaned toward him, and Eleanor wasn’t sure she was supposed to hear the Inquisitor say, “and you should maybe tell her so. Seeing as how she was the first one they drew a knife on.”

Evelyn continued walking, but Cullen stopped, and turned back around to face Eleanor, looking at first a little embarrassed, and then a little ashamed. Eleanor was hunched forward a bit, her hair in her hands, but she looked up at him and gave him a crooked smile that said it was alright. His eyebrows knitted and he walked back toward her, putting his hands on her arms and giving them a squeeze.

“Ah, El… I am sorry. I’m not very good at this, am I?”

She let herself lean forward a bit to rest her cheek lightly against his chest, just on the spot above his armor where she could still feel the warmth of him.

“You’re fine,” she said softly.

“Are… are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” she said, laughing a little now. “Everything’s fine, Cullen. Come on. Evelyn’s left us behind.”

 


 

 

“We have to find out who those two were - who sent them,” Cassandra insisted, pounding her fist on the war table.

“We could try asking them,” Josephine offered. “We do have them locked up.”

Cassandra looked at the Antivan woman like she was speaking a foreign language. “Do you think they will just tell us? Certainly not!”

“They might,” Cullen admitted, leaning over the war table as though it could offer him some insight. “They did expose themselves in a public arena. They wanted to be seen.”

“Yes, well, in the heat of the moment, I didn’t exactly think to ask,” Evelyn admitted, one hand rubbing the back of her neck, the other clasped at her elbow.

“They seemed to know exactly enough about me to hate me,” Eleanor said, leaning up against the wall by the windows.

“You’re a mage,” Cullen said, “you’ll have that. That’s all some people need to know.” He looked up at her and his smile asked for forgiveness.

“The commander is right,” Josephine said, “unfortunately. It happened when the Breaches were first opened - of course, their being opened right at the time of the Conclave didn’t exactly ease matters.”

“The Conclave?” Eleanor asked.

All heads turned toward her.

“Sorry, I kind of came in at the middle of this,” she muttered.

“Ah, yes, of course,” Cullen said, standing up. “I think Dorian told you about the Circles and the Rebellion - though his perspective might be a little… never mind. The Conclave was an assembly between the rebel mages and the Templar Order to try and come to some kind of agreement. That was when Corypheus first struck.”

“It’s when I got the Anchor,” Evelyn added, flexing her hand.

“People have always been afraid of mages for little reason,” Josephine went on, looking up from her notes, “but it was very much exacerbated around the time of the Conclave, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it were to happen again now.”

“Yes, well, at least the immediate threat has already been taken care of this time,” Cullen said, stretching his back.

“But it does make sense,” Cassandra added. “With the added… complication of you being from the other side of the Rift, Eleanor, it only makes sense that there would be people who might be suspicious of your intentions.”

“What it does not explain is why they came here in an organized group, today of all days,” Josephine wondered aloud.

“You call that organized? They seemed like obstinate children,” Cullen countered.

“Well, whatever the case, they came here today for a reason,” she said, looking down at her board as though her notes would give her some answers.

“I mean…” Eleanor said, looking out the window, her arms folded in front of her.

“Hm?” Evelyn said, walking slowly towards her.

Eleanor shrugged. “Maybe we invited them.”

 


 

 

Josephine had departed, promising frantically that she would contact Leliana and go over every single invitation they had sent. Cassandra was going to take the more direct route and head down to the cells herself. Cullen left the War Room with Eleanor, walking past Josephine who was quickly writing already, and making for the great hall. When they opened the door, a tiny grey furball mrooped under foot.

“Oh hey baby,” Eleanor said, reaching down and scooping the cat up into her arms. The little creature almost blended in with Eleanor’s robes, and the kitten seemed pleased by this, snuggling deeper against Eleanor and pawing gently at the fabric.

Cullen looked down at the pair of them and smiled, feeling a tiny bit like he was home, with these two here with him, but as he heard as much as saw Cassandra storming away, the small illusion was gone - yet, then again, if this wasn’t home, then what was? This was the life he had always known, and Eleanor was at least here with him. Nevertheless, it wasn’t the respite he wanted for himself, or for her. He reached out and slung his arm across Eleanor’s shoulders, pulling her in close.

“This was supposed to be a holiday,” he said to her, as they walked in step across the stone floor. “And I feel like for a holiday, it’s going rather poorly.”

Eleanor only shook her head and smiled. “We knew there would be work to do,” nuzzling the cat a bit, she added, “didn’t we, sweetheart?” Turning back to Cullen, she said, “And I’m glad I can be here to help. But how about we take a break? Take the rest of the day off? Save anymore

dangerous things for tomorrow?”

“I could get behind that,” Cullen answered.

“Excellent,” Eleanor said as they descended the steps. “Because I’m starving.”

Chapter Text

Eleanor went to change her clothes; for as beautiful as her new robes were, there was something to be said for a flannel and a pair of leggings. The boots she kept on, though, understanding now why Cullen had never traded his well-worn pair in for a new pair back home; these couldn’t be beat. Cullen stripped off his armor but kept on his uniform - a uniform of his own devising, to be fair, but it was something he felt like himself in, at least while on this side of the Rift. It was the first time he had been able to choose his own attire after a life with the Templar Order, and the outfit had simply stuck. It made him feel good to have some kind of uniform, not just because of his rank, but because it was one less thing to worry about, and it had come to be an extension of himself. It didn’t stop him, however, from appreciating the decidedly un-Theodosian comforts of a beat-up t-shirt, or the soothing toxicity of how many dozens of stolen cigarettes.

He smoked one now as he looked over his bookshelf, and the stack on the floor that had become an extension of the storage unit, bending down to pick up a little green volume. Cigarette pursed between his lips, he flipped the the book open, thumbing through a few pages until a wrinkled and folded scrap of paper fell out. Tossing the book aside with a thump, he stood up straight and unfolded the paper, pulling the cigarette from his lips and holding it carefully between his index and middle finger.

“‘Dear Mia, I’m still alive. Your loving brother, Cullen.’”

He spoke the words softly, a little grin creeping across his face as he read. He shook his head. “Mia. I am a terrible brother,” he sighed, but there was a kindness towards himself in his words, a kindness mixed with regret. He should write her tonight. Would write her tonight. Would tell her about Indiana and the Blight and the last year… and Eleanor. Would have to tell her about Eleanor. He was already prepared for the teasing; no matter that they were adults, he could always count on Mia to treat him like a little brother. And he was, he supposed, and would always be her little brother. Even if he hadn’t written to her in more than a year. Nearly two. Flames, he was a terrible brother.

“Interesting reading?” Eleanor said, descending the ladder in small hops, not quite daring to slide the whole way down. The wood had been worn shiny and smooth by years of use and no longer offered much in the way of traction.

Cullen waved the parchment like a small flag and said, “Letter from my sister. Ages ago. She chided me then and chides me now.”

“Maybe we can take it in shifts,” Eleanor said, standing on tip-toe and reaching up to wrap her arms around Cullen’s neck. He held his own arms out to the side to give her space, and then held her tightly with his wrists, fingers on both hands already occupied.

“Please don’t,” he said, turning his cheek to receive a kiss. Eleanor obliged and let him go, allowing him to set the paper down on his desk. He’d been here just nearly two weeks and it was already a mess, but he put the note in a visible place. He really did mean to write. But then, he always really did.

“Alright, well, Swiffer is fed. Now it’s my turn. Let’s go see what we can scrounge up.”

 


 

 

They walked to the Herald’s Rest, deciding that if they were going to take a break, then they were going to do it properly, and that meant drinks were in order. Cullen didn’t exactly have a proper place to have a meal in private in his quarters, the memory of pushing books and scrolls aside to reach his dinner all too fresh in his mind, and he didn’t see fit to impose that on Eleanor. They had been eating with the Inquisitor most evenings, but it wasn’t a permanent solution.

It occurred to Cullen that if they stayed here any longer they might actually need a place to live.

Together.

He looked down at Eleanor as they walked slowly along the battlements, her hands tucked under her arms, little coils of hair loosed from her braid, and tried to figure out why the thought gave him any pause at all. They’d been living together for nearly a year, hadn’t they? He’d even moved his things into her room before they’d fought the Archdemon, and once everyone else had headed off back to Thedas, he’d been there alone with her for more than a month while they sorted and packed.

But it still felt like her house, like he was living in a borrowed place - a borrowed place he was quite happy to hang on to, albeit, but it was Eleanor’s home, Eleanor’s space, and he had taken up residence there first as a near necessity. He hadn’t really had time to think about it, and hadn’t been in the mindset of living together when he had first taken that little upstairs room. He was more worried that the Blight, and by extension himself, there to stop the Blight, were encroaching on her space. Not sharing it. Maybe it was time to cease those worries - indeed, if it had ever been time to have them - and move on to whatever was next for them. Together.

“Ground control to Commander Cullen?” Eleanor asked, tipping her head to the side to look up at him.

“Hm? I’m sorry, my love.”

Eleanor never ceased to be amazed by the man’s capacity to get lost in thought. One moment he was there, and the next, he was miles away. “I asked, do you wanna go in through the front doors, or sneak in up here?”

“I would say we should sneak, but they’re going to see us either way.”

“Few minutes more peace and quiet, though,” Eleanor offered.

“Indeed,” Cullen said, and went to the door straight ahead, holding it open to allow her entrance. “My lady,” he said with a little bow.

“You save that for Evelyn,” she said with a small nudge to his chest as she walked past. He laughed quietly as he pulled the door shut behind them.

They sat at a quiet little table in the corner, as far away from noise and eyes as they could. They weren’t as much of a spectacle as they had been when they’d first returned from Indiana, the commander with his stories of valor and bravery - or so people had the impression, Cullen had the suspicion, thanks in no small part to a certain dwarf - and Eleanor, the strange and exotic one-of-a-kind mage from a land no one had heard of or seen. But there was enough of a buzz that even now people turned their heads and whispered behind their hands, much as they had with Evelyn for years. Some still did.

Cullen left Eleanor while he went downstairs to see what he could get for them, and she sat, staring out the window as the light faded over Thedas.

These two weeks had given her some small insight into what Cullen must have felt when he had been - been what, stuck? - in Indiana. There were just enough similarities to make her feel like she hadn’t gone very far: sitting in a bar, about to have a beer, staring out the window at a sunset that reminded her of trips through Tennessee, or West Virginia, except that if she thought about it too long, the landscape seemed much older, much more wild - and by rights, it was. There were dragons  and monsters and magic on those mountains, in those forests, and if she turned her head she could see not just people of different colors, of different nationalities, but of different races, races unlike what she understood as race, elves and dwarves and Qunari. And here she was now, with a power in her blood that belonged more in this world than her own, and yet still didn’t seem to belong, didn’t belong with any kind of safety or security or peace. Eleanor felt like she was torn between both worlds and yet not really a part of either, little parts of her pulling and pushing, and never at the same time or at the same direction.

At least she had Cullen, she thought, even if he was a symptom, a side effect, of this whole wild journey. At least she was not entirely alone. She hadn’t thought of herself that way before; though she was by herself on that great big acreage, she had never really thought about the absence of others, of any other, as a part that was missing, as a void. It was just a fact. She was by herself, and that was fine. But now, after the past year, when she thought about herself back on the farm, if she thought of herself without him, she attached the word “alone” to it. And she didn’t want to be alone. It was a good thought, and a sad one: a small loss of her independence but in service of something greater, something she felt was greater, anyway, and maybe that’s what it came down to. Maybe Cullen  had been, or was still, what she needed to help her find her way through all of this… this…

“Eleanor?”

She picked up her head and found Cassandra standing over her. Eleanor lifted her eyebrows, a little surprised, and reached out to pull out the seat next to her, offering it to the Seeker. Cassandra seemed confused for a moment, almost off put by the gesture, until she realized that Eleanor meant the gesture sincerely, and slowly, the tall woman took a seat.   

“I wanted to say…” she began, but seemed hesitant, overly careful in choosing her words, and instead chose none at all, instead making a little disgusted noise and leaning forward, putting her hands on her head.

Eleanor just smiled gently, reaching out to touch Cassandra on the elbow. The Seeker turned her head to look at Eleanor, and Eleanor gave a little wave, tipping her head slightly to the side to meet Cassandra’s rich brown eyes.

“That is exactly what I mean,” Cassandra said, picking up her head again, turning in her seat to face Eleanor more evenly. Eleanor didn’t interrupt, only adjusted the collar of her shirt and leaned on an elbow as she waited for Cassandra to go on. “I won’t pretend that I was ever incredibly close to the commander. But he did trust me with his… You know that as a templar, he took lyrium for some years?” Eleanor nodded, and Cassandra went on. “When he joined the Inquisition, he gave up that life and stopped taking the lyrium.”

Cullen had told her some of this, in more rushed, almost panicked words, the night he had come seeking some kind of solace from her after their first all-too-close encounter with the darkspawn on Eleanor’s farm. He had sat on the edge of her bed, shaking, and she had offered him a cigarette, and he had put his hand on her cheek. There had been other small moments, moments when he seemed suddenly lost, not in thought but without it, and she wondered if there were something more behind those moments than just an occasional spaciness on Cullen’s part, or his occasional uncalled for snaps of anger that seemed out of character for a man of his temperament. But he had never volunteered any more information after that night, and she had never asked, sensing that it was something that he would rather forget.

“Stopping lyrium,” Cassandra went on, her voice a little softer now, “is not an easy process for anyone. You… well, I suppose you would have heard it; the song, some call it. After twenty years of that call, the commander stopped. And he entrusted me to make sure that… that he was rational in the weeks and months after he ceased its ingestion. He did… he did well, if such a thing is not both an over and an understatement.”

Cassandra quieted and folded her hands, looking out the same window Eleanor had been glancing out only moments ago.  She took in a deep breath and her shoulders rose and fell. “After he stopped… after it stopped affecting him, he seemed better than before. Clearer. Happier. There were side effects, of course, even years later, but from what little I knew of him in Kirkwall… Perhaps it’s my own perspective. Or perhaps what happened to him in the Free Marches was enough to darken him as a person for a very long time.” Cassandra rolled her eyes and pushed her chair away slightly. “What I am trying to say is, I thought I knew what Cullen looked like when he was happy. Healthy. But now…” Unexpectedly, she reached out and put one long-fingered hand on top of Eleanor’s. “You suit him, Eleanor.”

Eleanor didn’t know how to respond. Those last, simple words took Eleanor entirely off guard. Cassandra had never spoken to her this way, didn’t seem the type to speak to anyone this way. Eleanor reached out with her other hand and placed it on top of the one of Cassandra’s that had folded over her own and gave the woman’s strong fingers a little squeeze, for lack of anything else to do.

“Thank you, Cassandra,” she said slowly, letting her hands slip away. “That - it means a lot.”

Cassandra smiled a brief smile, gone in a flash, but it was so sincere and so warm that Eleanor felt as though she had been caught up in the quickest but most sincere hug she had ever known.

“Seeker,” Cullen said, catching sight of the two women sitting together as he as ascended the stairs, laden with a tray full of food and drink, “everything alright?”

“I do believe so, Commander.” Cassandra said, and stood, pushing in her chair, but not looking away from Eleanor. “Everything seems as though it will be just fine.” She clasped her hands at her waist and with a small nod of her head bid Eleanor adieu.

Cullen set the heavy tray down on the table in front of Eleanor and took a seat opposite her, his chair screeching a bit as he pulled it out, sitting down heavily as he asked, “What was all that about?”

Eleanor shook her head, but even as she did, she couldn’t help but see Cullen, this ex-Templar, this Commander of the Inquisition, in a slightly different light. From the moment she’d seen him, she’d thought him strong. The more she’d come to terms with his presence, the more she knew that his strength was a strength of body and mind. The more she’d loved him, the more she’d been willing to allow him to be strong for her. But there was more to him than that. There was a flexibility in him that she had known in him when he had adapted to a world that was nothing like his own, and she’d admired it. It was one of many qualities about him that she found herself fond of, though she could name others by the dozens. Eleanor knew now though that he had not only the flexibility to change when forced to, the way he had when he had had to defend her home from the Blight, but had also the resilience to force himself to change, to bend and not to break of his own accord, to make himself better, to better help the cause that he believed in - and to shed the remnants of something that had clearly caused him grief, despite the experience that he had garnered from it. It was an intrinsic quality in most people, regardless of what world they were from, Eleanor thought, to fight change. She was certainly guilty of it herself. But this staunch, stoic, firm man, this commander, had welcomed change in so many ways, had embraced it, and now sat before her with a smile on his face, raising a glass of beer to his lips with just enough space between his mouth and the mug to say, “And you accuse me of getting lost in my own head.”

“Guilty as charged,” she said, reaching for a still-warm loaf of bread.

“Looks like I’m going to have to take you away.”

“I do believe you already have,” she said, and grinned a little grin as he nudged her foot with his from beneath the table.

Chapter Text

Eleanor had woken up to find the space in the bed next to her already unoccupied. Cullen often woke up beforehand, but usually made a great racket downstairs while he got himself in order. This morning, however, she heard nothing, and so slowly pulled herself out of bed and dressed. She couldn’t be quite sure what time it was - indeed, Theodosians seemed to do things quite differently when it came to exact times, which was to say, not at all - but judging by the way the yellow sun came in through the windows, she assumed that it must be mid-morning. Even upright and awake, their little tower had seemed too quiet, and so she had decided to go looking for Cullen. Right after a bath. And a cup of tea.

 


 

What she wouldn’t have given for coffee, Eleanor thought, as she leaned up against a table in the kitchen, trying to stay out of the way of the staff as she clung to a warm mug full of spiced brew. Rubbing grit from her eyes despite her bath, Eleanor almost didn’t see Evelyn walk past to steal a few apples and most of a loaf of bread.

“Morning, Ellie,” the Inquisitor said, raising the loaf in salutation.

“Mm,” Eleanor answered around a mouthful of tea, lifting her own cup to flag Evelyn over to her while. “Have you seen Cullen this morning?”

The Inquisitor slowly tipped her head, thinking as she tucked her bread under her arm to better balance the apples. She started to reply, but then caught herself, saying, “I think I saw him out near the garden? Maybe after yesterday…” she moved her occupied hands in small circles to indicate all that had happened. “If I see him before you do, I’ll tell him you’ve been looking.”

“Thanks, Ev,” Eleanor answered, and the Inquisitor left as Eleanor slowly finished her tea. Looking around helplessly for a sink to put the cup in, a Dalish woman rolled her eyes and took the cup from Eleanor before shooing her out of the kitchen. Eleanor happily obliged.

She hadn’t remembered to bring her own clothes down to the baths while in her sleepy haze, so she’d been dressed in more Theodosian things: beige and silver robes and soft beige shoes, and her hair had been piled up on her head in a way that gave the impression that she had ever had it cut or shaped in a way that was not just to get it out of her eyes. The clothes were beautiful, and the fabric was soft and light for the warm spring day, but the robe was a bit too long - or at least a bit too long for Eleanor’s taste - and they dusted the floor with every step and made a gentle scraping noise as they dragged along the stones, small beads and delicate embroidery catching against the uneven surface, and making a twinkling sound when the folds of the robes rubbed together. Eleanor had rolled up the bell-like sleeves and was considering hiking up the train or rolling the waist and tucking it in, but she was already making her way alongside the garden and with the sun and the sound of the birds around her, she grew a little less annoyed with every step, and the dainty jingling of her metal belt distracting her as she peered among the trees and elfroot was almost charming. But through the vines and leaves, she saw no sign of Cullen.

She heard his voice before she realized where it was coming from, indeed, before she even realized that it was him. It was a low muttering at first, a slow soothing sound, and she found herself drawn toward it before she even became aware of from where it was coming. There was a door some feet ahead, open just a crack, and in she slowly peered.

Candles were burning, their soft light warm and soothing even despite the sunlight that was filtering in through a high, narrow window. At the far end of the room were low steps that lead up to a wide platform, and on it was a tall statue of a woman, her arms open wide to the sun, to the sky. Kneeling before the statue was Cullen, his head bowed, soft, rhythmic words leaving his lips.

“Blessed are they who stand before the corrupt and the wicked and do not falter. Blessed are the peacekeepers, the champions of the just.”

Eleanor tipped her head, trying not to make noise as she slowly pushed the door open just enough to allow herself inside.

“Blessed are the righteous, the lights in the shadow. In their blood the Maker's will -”

Eleanor flinched as the tiny glass beads of her robes rasped on the stone, the sound echoing off of the rounded walls of the chapel and sounding a hundred times louder than it had on the garden path alone.

Cullen rose halfway and turned around, one hand resting on his knee for balance. “El?”

Discovered, Eleanor gave him a small smile and entered the chapel, pushing the door shut behind her, the beads on the robe seeming a little more quiet now that they had given her up. “Sorry, handsome,” she said, her voice quiet in the hushed atmosphere of the room, “Didn’t mean to interrupt.” She went to him and sat on the top stair so that he didn’t have to stand, leaving a good amount of space between them. Cullen reached out, though, and took her hand, bringing her fingers gently to his lips. “You look beautiful,” he said quietly, pressing her palm to his cheek, then holding it against his chest.

A moment of silence passed between them, and Eleanor looked up at the statue. Andraste, she figured, it must be. It wasn’t exactly the way she had thought the woman would be depicted; it seemed… rough, somehow. Archaic. But at the same time it seemed honest, a lot more honest than the Western religious art she was used to seeing seemed to be. This seemed more of a people’s symbol, instead of the overwrought, overly perfect carvings she brought to mind. And though it seemed almost simple, almost unfinished, it was warm somehow. Welcoming.

“Do you…” Eleanor began carefully, not taking her gaze away from Andraste, “do you pray often?” She had never seen him pray, or not in any way that could be identified as prayer. Though Eleanor was used to being up with the sun, Cullen was often awake in the small hours of the morning, well before she was, to practice with his sword, doing drills despite being the only soldier of his army anywhere in Indiana. Maybe on those quiet, dark mornings, he also bent a knee for his god.

“Not as often as I should,” Cullen said quietly, letting his hands, still holding Eleanor’s, drop a bit so that they rested comfortably on his knee. She didn’t withdraw, enjoying the comfort and warmth of Cullen’s rough skin.

“You do - you believe, then?” Eleanor’s voice was barely above a whisper, as though her doubting might offend the statue in some way.

He nodded slowly. “I do. I - perhaps not all of it.” She felt him sigh, the pulling of his hand slightly away then slipping back towards her as his chest rose and fell. “I do.”

Eleanor wasn’t much for church. Her family never had been. To her knowledge, she hadn’t even been baptized, and she didn’t really care. They had done Easter, they did Christmas, but they did them in the same way as they had done Halloween and Valentine’s Day: no saints or souls to speak of. Hell, once or twice they’d even put aside eight days to light a menorah for Hanukkah, probably in a parental attempt to keep Eleanor’s worldview broad - and quietly she thanked them for that, now more than ever. But she had only known holidays as family events or parties, never as moments of great spiritual import. And here she was in a little chapel, sitting on stone steps before a foreigner’s god - though wasn’t she the foreigner here? - and of all the things he had seen and done, and all the tales she had heard and heard him tell, he believed. Eleanor gave a glance to Cullen, then looked back up at the stone woman towering over them before adjusting her robes with her free hand, finding a soft, less beaded patch on which to rest her knees, before kneeling down beside him, keeping her left hand in both of his.

“El, you don’t have to -”

But she cut him off with a little nudge of her shoulder against his, and silently lowered her head. She didn’t know what to think or say, didn’t even know how to pray, really, but after a pause, Cullen did it for her.

“And the Maker, clad in the majesty of the sky, set foot to earth, and at His touch all warring ceased. The vicious beasts lay down and were quieted; the meek lambs became bold and rose up, casting aside their shepherds to dance at the Maker's feet.

“From every corner of the earth the Chant of Light echoed, and the Maker…” Cullen’s voice slowed, softened, and he let his left hand drop to his side, but twined the fingers of his right between the ones on her left, giving her hand a squeeze before he said, “...and the Maker walked the land with Andraste at His right hand.”

Eleanor picked up her head and turned to Cullen, and he looked at her and gave her that crooked smile, that little amused look with the right-hand corner of his lips pulled up, and if she hadn’t known him better she might have thought he looked almost smug. But she did know him, and knew him well, and she knew that look was one of gentle delight, his brown eyes lightened, lifted by his joy. Her own mouth turned up in response, but her smile was broad, wide, her lips almost turning down in the middle before they turned up at the edges again.

She saw his gaze dart down before it met hers once more, and when it did there was something else behind it, something hesitant but firm.

“Cul -” she began, but before she could get any further he pressed his lips to her, pulling her into a deep, wanting kiss.

“Good morning to you, too,” she said when he pulled away, his lips still barely an inch from hers.

“El, I’ve been thinking,” he said, staying close to her, keeping her hand in his.

“About…?” she asked, stretching out the vowel sound, making it dip in middle.

He took a deep breath, closing his eyes for a moment, pursing his lips quickly, before making himself relax again. For a moment he let her fingers go, pushing down on his knee to rise, to stand, and he reached down to help her up as well. Eleanor smoothed her robes before he reached out to her once more, taking each of her hands in his own.

“You’ve said… I know you’ve said you’re not… perhaps not interested in marriage.”

Eleanor turned her head to the side and leaned back a bit, glancing at him longways out of the corner of her eye. “Cullen,” she said his name slowly, “what’s happening right now?”

He exhaled a small laugh that came out more like a nervous puff of air and shook his head. “Eleanor. I would never want you to - but - what I’m trying to say is, I love you. I don’t want to do this without you.”

“What… exactly… do you mean by ‘this?’” she narrowed her eyes.

He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it, dropping her right hand to run his his fingers nervously over his hair, the back of his neck, before letting his arm fall heavily. “This. All of this. Any of this. I want… to be with you. Always. If you will have me.”

Eleanor blinked, her lips parting slowly, and she looked up and away, forehead creased deeply. “Cullen, I - I…” Her eyes found their way back to his, and she saw a heavy concern there before he spoke.

“Yes - well, I don’t mean - you don’t have to answer -”

“Of course I will,” she said with a laugh, taking his hand back.

“You… will?”

“Cullen, come on. Did you think I would say no?” she grinned.

“You had said…”

She reached out and took him by the elbows, pulling him a little closer. “I didn’t… I didn’t want to rush this. That’s not who I am. And, I mean, come on. Everything was so… weird, Cullen, so impossible, right? A big hole in the sky? A big hole in the earth that had a big hole in reality? And you and me, in the middle of it all? I’m not… I’m not the sentimental type. God help you if you don’t know that by now,” she said, nudging him easily backward, and she watched his mouth twitch up. “And I don’t dig ceremonies, I don’t want one - hell, Cullen, I don’t want any of that. And if we hadn’t been through all of the ridiculous shit we’ve been through, I might still worry that we were taking this way too fast.” She sighed hard. “But we have been. We’ve been through enough for more than our two lives. And we’re still here. Together. So for the love of this lady right here,” and she tipped her head toward the statue, “if you want to tell me you’re mine and you want me to tell you I’m yours and that we mean it and we mean it for - for, like, ever? If that’s what you mean by, if - if that’s what you want out of…” she stumbled over the word a little, unprepared to say it, even as the idea warmed her, “of marriage, I would be an absolute idiot to walk away. I love you, Cullen. I really, really do.”

The commander paused for a moment then, his eyes scanning the room before settling back on Eleanor, in her silvery robes, her hair still shining wet from a bath, and said, “This’ll do, then. El,” he began, “Eleanor Redgrove -”

“Oh you stop that, Cullen, I swear to god.”

“Will you -”

“Cullen if you say that fucking word one more time I’m telling you right now I will not say yes, do you understand me?”

He laughed quietly, and put a hand on his forehead, looking away, his cheeks pink, and he took a moment to still himself before he started again. “Alright. El.” He took a quick breath in but a deep one and asked, “Will you ...be by my side?”

“Yes,” Eleanor answered, her voice quiet now, all the sharpness gone out, replaced by a sudden sincerity. “Of course. Always.”

“Always?” he asked, barely above a whisper as he tipped his head down to press his forehead to hers, closing his eyes.

“Always.”

“Promise?” he said, and she could feel him smile.

“Promise.”

“Alright.”

“‘Kay.” She let her arms reach up and she held him around his neck, feeling his hands find her waist, his fingers running quickly over the cool silver of the belt. She brushed her nose up against his and said, “This is the part where I kiss you, right? You folks do that bit here?”

“Strictly speaking, I think I’m the one -”

“Sounds like a yes to me,” she said, and despite her playfulness, she kissed him tenderly, her fingers locking behind his neck, and they hardly moved for some time, both languishing in the moment, the morning, the warm sunlight around them.

Eleanor let go reluctantly, pressing a handful of small kisses to his lips before speaking. “How long had you been planning that?”

Cullen shook his head. “I… hadn’t thought about it much at all, actually. Which - I mean to say, I’d been thinking about it since… oh, longer than I should admit. I think since the end of the Blight. But planning? I suppose I just…” he shrugged.

“Never let it be said that you don’t have excellent timing, Cullen Rutherford.”

“Indeed?”

She laughed a small laugh. “I swear.”

He ran his hands along her back, feeling the small details in her robes with calloused fingers. “You really do look lovely,” he said. “Maybe I just couldn’t help myself.”

“You don’t say,” she said wryly.

“Oh, but I do,” he said, and kissed her again, a little harder, his wide hands on her back pulling her against him, so close Eleanor was certain he could feel the beating of her heart, a little faster now, and then faster still as his lips made their way to her jaw, her neck. She made a pleased little humming sound and let her hands slide up and into his hair, her hands easing him down until his lips found the small curve of her collar, the skin of her shoulder that the robe allowed him to reach.

Tilting his head, Eleanor felt his breath, warm on her neck as he whispered, “I think perhaps we should go…”

“Or…” Eleanor said, nudging him with her nose so that he picked his head up, letting her kiss the rough stubble along his jawline.

His eyelids fluttered and he looked up at the stones above him as Eleanor returned his kisses and breathed, “Or?”

Her hands in his hair, she brought her lips to his mouth once more, rougher this time, and lead him carefully back against the wall behind him.

Parting his lips from hers but only just, Cullen inhaled sharply and said, “Ah. ‘Or.’”

Chapter Text

Cullen held fast to Eleanor, reversing their stance and pressing her back to the wall even as he breathed, “Oh surely this is some kind of blasphemy,” his lips parted from hers only long enough to speak those words before kissing her again, his hands slipping down along her body to feel the shape of her ribs, her waist, her hips. His fingers grasped roughly at the delicate fabric of her robes, at first only to touch, and then then to begin to slide them up.

The quiet laugh that had escaped Eleanor after Cullen’s utterance turned now to a soft, warm moan as his fingers dipped low enough to touch the bare skin of her thigh, first along her hip, and then brushing across her leg to come between them, low at first and then higher.

“Cullen,” she sighed, her hands grasping his shoulders tightly. Her lips brushed against his ear, and then she pulled her bottom lip between her teeth as his fingers brushed against her sex, pulling the fabric of her undergarments aside. Eleanor gasped, her eyes shut tight.

“Oh, El,” he groaned as his free hand undid his belt, the front of his trousers, and he pressed his cheek hard against hers as he bent his knees a little to allow himself to push inside her.

Eleanor bit back a cry, trying to keep quiet in this sacred space, knowing not just that this was what it was, but also that the door was neither all that heavy nor all that locked. But she couldn’t help herself from exclaiming, “Cullen!” as he reached his arms under her and lifted her feet from the floor. She locked her arms around his neck and held her ankles together as he pressed deep within her, cautiously at first, and then once sure of himself, quick, rough, exhaling hard with each push. His eyes were closed, lips parted, but Eleanor’s mouth was shut tight, eyebrows knitted as she sunk quickly further into the ecstasy of their rhythm, trying to keep herself from crying out, the sound of the stone wall against her robes now seeming silent compared to that of her heart, of Cullen’s harsh gasps, and a tightness was quickly building inside of her.

His fingertips dug deeply into her skin, grasping tight for control. His cheek was pressed hard against hers, lips brushing her ear with every forward motion, and the closer he got, the more his breaths became the sound of her name, “El, El, El…” until even that was lost.

All it took was two words from her, breathed against his skin: “Cullen - please -” and he was done for. One hand shot out to brace himself against the wall, stumbling a small step forward in his release but holding Eleanor tight, her hands splayed in his hair, her legs trembling even as they gripped him tighter still, her lungs gasping with every spasm.

After a few moments of stillness, of catching their breath, Cullen slowly eased Eleanor down, putting both hands on the wall above her shoulders, his forehead resting gently on hers. Biting her lip in a crooked smile, Eleanor looked up at him and said quietly, “And you thought I would say no.”


 

They left the chapel arm in arm after some adjusting and some laughing and a little more kissing, Eleanor resting her head against Cullen’s shoulder as they walked step for step together. There was a cool mountain breeze blowing across the garden and it caught the little wisps of hair that had fallen down out of Eleanor’s elaborate hairdo, twisting the waves around her ears, and it carried the scent of the flowers that grew all along the stone path. She hadn’t been this calm in ages. Even in the days leading up to their trip to Thedas, she’d been in a rush, unpacking, repacking, throwing things out, buying things they had thrown out that they would need when they returned home - which she hoped, now more than ever, that they would do soon. Regardless, it had been weeks since she’d literally taken a moment to stop and smell the flowers, and that was generously counting the time after the Blight when they’d been cleaning up in so many different ways, dealing with so many different things. If she ignored that, it had been…

Never. Not with Cullen, anyway. Before him. She took in a slow, deep breath, and languished in this, the first moment when she had nothing more to do, walking slowly, side by side with her… what, partner? Was she going to use that… that H word?

“Lady Eleanor! Commander!”

Eleanor froze and a sound that might have been a curse slipped out between her lips.

“Every fucking time,” she heard Cullen mutter under his breath. “What is it, Harding,” he growled as the door back to the hall swung open.

“The Inquisitor wants to see you in the War Room,” said the dwarven woman, her freckles catching the sunlight and making her look not just small, but young.

Cullen pinched his nose. “Yes, of course she does,” he said, more to himself than to anyone and said, “Tell her we’ll be right there.”

“Yes, Commander!” the dwarven scout said, and hurried away.

“Well,” said Cullen, turning a bit to tuck some of Eleanor’s loose hairs behind her ears before cupping her cheeks and tipping his face down for a small kiss, “that was nice while it lasted.”

Chapter Text

“They claim not to be affiliated with anyone, but there are reports out of Val Royeaux of anti-Rift groups,” Josephine said, flipping through a few papers, “though how organized they are is still up for debate.”

“Anti-Rift sounds very much like anti-mage to me,” Evelyn murmured, crossing her arms.

“I don’t think anyone is going to argue that with you, Inquisitor,” Josephine agreed. “It’s just one more new magical thing for people to take issue with. First Kirkwall, then the Breach, and now this.”

Evelyn’s exhausted sigh said what nearly everyone was feeling. Eleanor was staring blankly at the map, trying to figure out the distance between Skyhold and Val Royeaux in miles for no reason except to try and do it. Cullen had his arms folded tightly and his lips pursed, but didn’t seem to be looking at much of anything in particular.

“I think they’re lying,” Cassandra said. “I think they’re protecting someone. They didn’t get to Skyhold on their own. Everyone who was invited was one of our people.”

“That’s what we thought,” said Josephine, scratching her cheek. “Perhaps one of our invitations was intercepted… I need to speak with the Divine…” she said, exasperated.

“They must be lying,” Cassandra repeated, as the door behind her creaked open.

“You think everyone is lying, Seeker.”

“Hello, Varric,” Evelyn said, a smile creeping slowly across her face as the dwarf walked in. Eleanor gave him a grin as he approached the table.

“Heard you’re having problems with would-be assassins, Inquisitor. Must be Thursday.”

“Sounds about right,” Evelyn said, putting her hands on the edge of the table and bending forward. “Though it was Eleanor they made a move for first.”

“Getting a reputation for yourself already, Farm Girl?” Varric said. “You’ll wanna be careful with that.”

“Yeah, I’m gathering,” she said, raising an eyebrow.

“This is serious, Varric,” Cassandra huffed.

“It’s always serious, Cassandra; that’s the problem.” He crossed his arms and leaned back. “Do we know who we’re dealing with?”

“Well, if you had seen fit to be here on time, Varric -”

“Harding caught me up on the way, I get it. They’re not with anyone. But who are they? Names? Homes? What’s their motivation here?”

“Well, I think it’s safe to assume they’re not too fond of mages,” Cullen muttered, still surly.

“Yeah, but neither is half of Thedas - no offense,” he put up his hands for Evelyn and Eleanor, “and you don’t see them beating down the doors to stab the Inquisitor. Or any mages really. Well, not all the time, at least.”

“The Rift -”

“I don’t know. The Rift’s not really tangible enough to be a fear. It’s like the Blight, and there are people alive who’ve actually seen a Blight. But as long as it’s not on their doorstep, no one cares.”

“Well, alright, Varric,” Cassandra challenged, “what do you think it is?”

“Me?” He raised his eyebrows. “I’ve got no idea, Seeker. Isn’t that more your department?”

“Alright, alright. We’ve all made our point,” Evelyn said, propping her hip up against the War Table. “Josephine, I think our first line of inquiry is to find out just how these two got invited. Did we invite anyone with anti-magical leanings? Was this sort of a… oh, I don’t know, a reverse Red Jenny situation?”

“Why not ask Sera?” Cullen asked.

The Inquisitor blinked as though the idea would never have occurred to her before leaning over to Eleanor and asking, “Do you ever feel like the thickest person alive?”

“Oh, all the time,” Eleanor reassured her.

“Well as long as it’s not just me.”

“I can assure you, neither of you are thick. But Curly’s right. Let Ruffles do her backtracking, but get Buttercup’s people on this too.” Varric pinched his chin. “Something about this doesn’t feel right to me. I mean, between the five of us, I think we put ourselves in more than our fair share of danger, but this? Ah. Maybe it’s nothing.”

Evelyn cast Varric the most sidelong glance Eleanor had ever seen one person give another until she caught the look on Cassandra’s face.

“Hey, come on! I mean, what do I know! I’m just a businessman!”

“Varric, out,” Cassandra said, pointing toward the door.

“Come, now, Seeker -”

“No, she’s right, we’ve done all we can here. We should all get out. Start searching. And you two,” she pointed back and forth to Eleanor and Cullen, “are supposed to be having some kind of a rest. Which…” Evelyn paused and rolled her eyes, “...I admit, I have entirely kept you from.” She ran a hand through her red hair and said, “We can take this from here. You’ve done enough for now.

“Inquisitor, I -”

“Commander, no. I apologize, but I won’t hear it.”

“No, it’s not that… it’s that… my quarters aren’t really… equipped for two.” He held his hands behind his back and stood up straight but diverted his eyes, a familiar sheepishness that made Eleanor grin.

The Inquisitor tilted her head slightly. “No, indeed. You’re absolutely right, I’m sorry. I’ll have new rooms -”

“Actually, I was thinking -” Cullen started and then stopped himself, looking down at Eleanor. He reached one hand up nervously and tugged on his ear.

Eleanor’s eyes grew a little wider with impatience and she moved her index fingers in small circles to indicate that he should get on with it.

The commander took in a small quick breath and let it out just as fast. “I was thinking we might have a place of our own. Not… not at Skyhold. If we can’t return to Indiana just yet.” He looked at the ceiling the whole time he spoke, but then turned his gaze to Eleanor and said, “I’m sorry. I did mean to ask you, this morning actually, but we were a bit… sidetracked.” He rubbed the back of his neck and then let his arm drop. “If… if it’s alright with you.”

Eleanor shrugged. “After this morning, that’s what you’re nervous about?” She rolled her eyes. “I mean, it’s not like we haven’t done this before. But if we’re not going to be at Skyhold, wouldn’t it be faster just to go back to the house? The Breach is kind of, you know. Right there.”

Evelyn pressed her lips a little flat and said, “Well… yes, but with my needing to open the Breach and the turnaround time with communications and…” her eyes narrowed a little, not at anyone, but at a thought. “I’m wondering if maybe…” her voice trailed off.

“Evelyn?” Eleanor asked quietly, making a small move over to the Inquisitor.

She shook her head but slowly deigned to speak. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about. When the Blight came, we didn’t really have much of a choice. But the Breach, I… it’s a hole. It’s a tear. We spent so much time trying to close them. We might need this one we’ve made in the future, but… Perhaps we should… not stretch out the edges, you know?” Her voice was quiet, overly hushed for the room.

“Is everything alright, Inquisitor?” Cullen asked slowly, sensing the hesitance in her voice.

In that moment, the Inquisitor looked older and more tired than either Evelyn or Cullen had ever seen her look. But all she said was, “Just… a feeling.” She closed her eyes for a moment and Eleanor noticed a slight curling in the fingers of Evelyn’s hand, but as soon as she saw it, it was gone, and Evelyn was saying, “But of course. You two… absolutely. We’ll find you somewhere quiet. But close,” she said, and pointed an almost parental finger at the two of them, oscillating quickly back and forth between the commander and Eleanor. When she smiled again, the years seemed wiped away, and the Inquisitor once again looked young, younger than she was, with a playfulness in her eyes that was more effective than any cosmetic.

Cullen reached out and grasped Eleanor’s elbow, pulling her a little closer him. “That… would be fine, Inquisitor. Evelyn. Thank you.” He started to turn to go, bringing Eleanor along with him, but Evelyn stopped him.

“One last thing - Eleanor, if you would?”

Eleanor gave Cullen a small nod and nudged her head toward the door, indicating that she’d follow him shortly. He let her go and followed Cassandra and Josephine out, the women having left some moments before, but Varric remained, and gave the commander a sidelong glance as he went.

“Eleanor,” Evelyn said quietly but firmly, “I hope yesterday didn’t… put you off.”

She shook her head with a little determined frown. “Take more than that to scare me away, Ev. I’ve fought an Archdemon.”

The smile on the Inquisitor’s face was bittersweet. “Now you sound like one of us. But,” she said, leaning closer to Eleanor, “I mean it. Yesterday… didn’t go exactly to plan. I think… I think we need to focus on talking to our people for now.”

“You mean mages.”

“I do. There’s still a lot of infighting between the different Fraternities - such as they still stand. I can’t help but think that this might be our chance to bring them back together. Find some common ground. This is a magical problem, first and foremost.”

“Evelyn, I don’t know anything about -”

“You know more than you think you do, Ellie. Not just in here,” the Inquisitor tapped her temple, “but in here,” and she put two fingers low on her chest, not at her heart, but along her sternum, that place, that hollow that Eleanor could feel welling, spilling, every time she cast a spell. “There were mages long before their was a College. And you have performed admirably thus far. You’re well in control of your magic - and you are one of the strongest spirit healers I have ever seen, and without having trained. You brought the comman- well. There are things I can teach you about the Breach, about the Fade. But I’d like to find you a trainer. And I’d like you to continue your work here as well. Our first little soiree may not have worked out, but there’s still much we can do. And there’s still so much we don’t know about that Rift.”

For an instant, Eleanor was speechless. Evelyn was trusting her with so much, when she still felt so unsure in her own skin. When she needed her magic it was always there, but though it definitely took shape when it left her, a particular shape, a cold and harsh shape or a warm and caring one, it always felt so formless and unknowable inside her, and until she was acting, until she was doing, she was never entirely sure that what was going to come out was what she wanted. It often was, but it felt more like instinct than knowledge, and she thought - feared - that this was not the right or best way, and that one day it was sure to backfire. And while it was true that she probably knew as much about that Rift as any of the people at Skyhold right now, she didn’t know how to put what she had thought and seen and felt into words - or not the right words. She couldn’t talk about the Veil or the Rift except in vagaries and experiences. She didn’t know anything about schools of magic or Colleges or Fraternities or the Chantry, and all she knew about the Mage-Templar War was what she had heard from Cullen and Dorian, two ideological extremes, and what she herself had been on the receiving end of. But a trainer…

Eleanor brought her hand to her mouth and pinched her upper lip before saying, “Alright. Yeah, okay. I’ll do whatever I can. Let me… let me talk to Cullen.”

Evelyn reached out and took Eleanor by the shoulders and said, “Thank you. You’ve been invaluable so far. I wouldn’t want to lose you. But you and Cullen are absolutely entitled to a rest. I know you both just wanted to go back. And I’m happy that there’s a back for you to go to. I wish I didn’t have to ask any more of you. I… Trust me when I say I know what it’s like to be in your shoes.”

When Evelyn’s green eyes met her blue ones, Eleanor didn’t doubt her for an instant.

The Inquisitor released her. “Go. Be with him. We can talk more about this later. I’ll see what mages I can get in touch with. No more politics - well, there’s always politics. But let me see what I can do. And let me find you a place to stay,” she said with a wink.

“Thank you, Ev.”

“Of course, Ellie.”

Eleanor walked around the table and made for the door, but Varric met her stride and asked, “So what happened this morning?”

“Hm?” The comment was so far behind her now, her mind so full of so many other things, that for a moment she honestly didn’t know what Varric meant. Then, though, she remembered what she had said, and now she was purposefully vague. “Oh, that. No, nothing. We just had… a good talk. You know. Sorted some shit out.” It wasn’t untrue, but she knew Varric well enough now to realize that any specific mention of what had happened in the chapel would be turned into a two-chapter story arc that she had no intention of being in.

“Is that all?” Varric said, disbelieving.

“Yeah, pretty much. It’s been a weird couple of weeks, y’know. A lot to…” she shrugged, “talk about.”

“Alright, Farm Girl,” Varric said, crossing his arms and propping himself up in the doorway that lead to the hall. “But you’ll talk. Everyone around here eventually does. You look nice, by the way.”

“Goodbye, Varric,” she said with a wave, heading for the steps, but she got the feeling that somehow the dwarf had already won.

Chapter Text

“So,” Eleanor said, running her thumb along the spines of books as she stood in front of Cullen’s bookshelf.

“Hm?” he said looking up quickly from a missive he was writing, hunched over his desk in a way that was so irrevocably him that it almost made Eleanor laugh.

“We’re gonna live here.”

Cullen set his stylus down and stood up straight, looking over to Eleanor who hadn’t turned away from the shelves.

“I know this isn’t what we planned,” he said.

“No, it’s alright,” she said, turning to face him. “I just… So Evelyn has me doing all this work that I don’t really understand and I feel like I should. She wants me to be the face of all of this and I feel so… inadequate, you know? Like, there’s a fundamental failing of my person that’s keeping me from even beginning to get a hold on this.”

“Eleanor, you were down there. You know as much about this as -”

“No, Cullen, I mean… I don’t have the background information, I can’t do research, I mean… Dude, I can’t read.” Her shoulders slumped hard, and she bit the corner of her mouth, looking helpless. “I’m fucking illiterate.”

Cullen slowly stepped from his desk over to her, putting his hands on her arms. He had an eyebrow raised and he gave her a sad little smile. “El. I hadn’t even thought. I don’t - I don’t think any of us did.” Holding her just above her elbow, Eleanor felt his fingers tapping slowly as he thought, his eyes glancing over the books behind him.

“I have an idea,” he said. “Let me finish this, but meet me in the library. I’ll be there soon.”


She sat in a cushy chair near a window, gazing up and around at the books that towered over her. Eleanor had a thought, just a fleeting one but enough to set her mind racing, that maybe if she could read these, she could be the one who could figure this whole thing out. She pushed it down quickly, telling herself that that was ridiculous; Evelyn and Dorian were terribly smart, hell, Cullen was terribly smart, and certainly they had done their reading. She remembered Dorian sitting half on her armchair, half on the floor, surrounded by books and scrolls and codices, all of them complete gibberish to her. And he had been looking for the same answers she was looking for now. If anyone would have found them, it would have been him.

But no, maybe not. He had had the same amount of information about her earth as she did about Thedas. Leliana supposedly had agents about but they weren’t talking, Eleanor assumed for good reason. Leliana seemed the type to never not have a good reason. But she also didn’t seem the type to needlessly withhold information from her colleagues, so maybe the kind of information Eleanor wanted wasn’t the kind that Leliana’s agents were looking for.

God, she wished Dorian were here right now. He had sussed out so much while half-drunk on her living room floor. The two of them together in this repository of knowledge… well, probably mostly Dorian, but there it was again, the fact that she was the only one from earth - Earth? She still didn’t know - and maybe, just maybe…

And she missed him. She didn’t realize how much until she and Cullen had started packing up their things, and they thought they would be coming to Thedas for good, and she realized she might be able to see him again. He had taught her almost everything she knew about her magic, about the Fade, covertly let her in on things Cullen, the ex-templar, might not be willing to tell her, or might not see the same way. Cullen, who would never willingly keep information from her, but who, despite his openness, had a decidedly militant bent on things. She had grown fond of Dorian. He had become her friend. A good friend. A take no bullshit sort of friend. But now he was in Tevinter, wherever the hell that was. It was where he was from, and it sounded far away, and he wasn’t here, and so Eleanor stared down the books with narrowed eyes, almost angry at their unwillingness to give up the kind of information that her Tevinter friend had relinquished so freely.

“There you are,” said Cullen, ascending the steps with his arms full of parchment, fingers full of quills and ink. “Here, a table,” he said, and went around the cozy little alcove in which Eleanor had situated herself, dumping his armload on a free surface and sitting down. He patted the bench beside him with a smile.

Eleanor rose slowly, easing herself out of her comfortable chair to sit on the hard bench that Cullen had chosen.

“I thought,” he said, stretching out a piece of blank parchment in front of where Eleanor would sit, “that it might be good for you to have something to refer back to so that you can study on your own.”

“What now?” Eleanor said, getting situated on the bench, tucking her robes beneath her.

“You’re going to read,” Cullen said plainly. “And write.” He righted an ink pot and uncorked it, starting to set it down before asking, “Which hand?”

Eleanor flexed the fingers on her right hand, the hand closest to Cullen, and so he set the ink at the top right of the parchment before stacking all of the other blank sheets into a neat pile and gathering up the extra ink and styluses and putting them aside. He had a thick, well-thumbed book and he flipped it open to a point toward the end, pressing the spine flat in front of him. He grabbed a stylus and dipped it in the ink, dividing the paper in half with a clean, thick line before handing the utensil to her. He reached and pointed to the left column with a firm finger. “This half for…” with the same hand, he tapped his thumb and middle finger together while pointing at Eleanor.

“...English?” she suggested, holding the stylus limply.

“There you are,” he said with a snap, “and this half for the common tongue.”

Eleanor reached up and scratched the back of her neck, a hesitant expression on her face. Well, she had asked for this, after all, but his enthusiasm was both endearing and intimidating.

“So what am I writing, exactly?” she asked, looking at the open book on the table.

“Ah, well, I’ve brought The Chant.”

Eleanor’s expression remained frozen except for her right eyebrow which slowly slid its way closer to her hairline.

“I just thought it would be easy,” he said, a little defensively, leaning against the wall behind him, “and,” he added, “there’s a lot you’ll want to know in here, I should think. Scholars have been analysing the Chant for centuries.”

“Oh lord,” Eleanor mumbled. “Alright, Cul, I submit to your will.” She clucked her tongue and gave him a very forced grin. “So where are we starting?”

Cullen scanned the text in front of him, and then narrowed his eyes a bit.

“That’s not a good face,” Eleanor said, reaching out to nudge him on the chin with her thumb.

“I was going to start with the Canticle of Transfiguration,” he muttered, “but perhaps not.”

Leaning forward to turn her head up at him, getting between the commander and the book, she said, “Hey, Commander Vague, you can talk to me. I’m new to all this, okay, but I’m not gonna bite your face off. You know me better.”

Looking down at her, only inches from her face as she continued to monopolize the space above the book, Cullen pursed his lips but reached out an arm and pulled Eleanor closer, and when she finally deigned to move, he kissed the back of her head, kissed her earlobe and said, “Alright, El. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“Mm, consider me warned, Commander,” she said, and tilted her head, inviting another kiss. Cullen obliged her and then let her go, pointing to the page in front of him, a series of dark lines and squiggles that Eleanor could make no sense of.

Well, she thought, at least not yet.

“The Canticle of Transfigurations are the teachings of Andraste, regarding magic -”

“This is why I was warned, I take it.”

“I can read something else,” he said again, a little more exasperated this time.

Eleanor relented. “No, I’m sorry. You’re right. You did warn me. And I said I wouldn’t bite your face off. It’s a nice face.”

Despite his brief tenseness, Cullen felt himself start to smile. He reached up a hand to scratch his cheek and said, “Yes, well. Shall we begin?”

“Alright,” Eleanor said, dipping the stylus quickly and wiping the fine point on the edge of the small jar. She leaned forward a bit to follow Cullen’s finger as he read and asked, “Go slow.”

The commander cleared his throat and begin to softly read, “These truths the Maker has revealed to me: as there is but one world -”

Eleanor snorted as she scribbled, “So much for that.”

Cullen rolled his eyes, “Well, it’s not… entirely literal.”

She looked up at him and said, “Go on.”

“One life, one death, there is but one god, and He is our Maker. They are sinners, who have given their love to false gods.”

Rolling her eyes and hunching her shoulders dramatically as she wrote, Eleanor said, “I guess every religion has one.”

“Oh for the love of -” Cullen began, but in a dry, mocking voice, Eleanor began to recite, “‘You shall have no other gods before Me,’ or something about so-called gods or something. I dunno, Cullen, I never went to church.”

He didn’t answer slowly and said, “What’s that?”

“...the Bible?”

His look was blank.

Eleanor leaned forward and pressed a hand to her forehead, resting her elbow on the blank side of the paper as she rubbed her brow. “Well, there’s that at least.” She sat back up and reread the verse to him. “‘They are sinners who have given their love to false gods.’ Continue.”

He gave her a hard look.

“Just read, okay. Let me have my thing. I promise I’m paying attention.”

Cullen tapped his finger nervously and said quickly, with a tight jaw, “Magic exists to serve man, and never to rule over him.”

Eleanor’s pen hovered above the page, the ink never darkening the parchment.

“Yes?” he asked darkly.

“What the hell does that mean!” she dropped the stylus and threw up her hands.

Cullen put his hand over his mouth and said through his fingers, but mostly to himself, “I should have picked a different verse.” He sighed and said, “Eleanor, if you even knew how much has been written about that single line.”

“Well I can see why!” She gave her hands a little shake, calming down as she scratched her hairline. “Okay, alright. Scholarly endeavour.” She rolled her shoulders a bit. “Why don’t you teach me these little doodles you call writing.” She squinted over at the book and said, “But first I think I need my glasses.”

Chapter Text

After an hour, they had to take a break. Eleanor’s hand was cramped from trying to write in the strange hash marks that were both so similar to and so unfamiliar from anything she had ever written before, though she was starting to recognize some of them before Cullen would point to her mark, point to the page, and tell her what she was writing.

It was Cullen’s mood, on the other hand, that was a bit crunched up. He should have expected Eleanor, strong-willed, straightforward Eleanor, to put up a fight against Transfigurations. Why would he have ever thought otherwise? And he really hadn’t, not seriously, but she had been so… something, this morning in the chapel. Serene. Open.

Cullen rolled his eyes at himself. But that was not the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. Eleanor had never done anything but put up a fight, and that was what he loved about her, that and so much more. How many women - how many people, indeed - would have stood on their farms in the dark of night, in the rain, and pointed a shotgun at a darkspawn patrol? Certainly not many. He had been fooling himself in some small way, thinking he could read her that line and brook no argument.

He sat at his desk with the Chant in front of him and rubbed his cheeks vigorously. She’d relaxed, she made a joke, but he’d seen the flash of coldness in her eyes when he’d said the verse, a look that seemed only to ask him, “Are you fucking serious?” Because that was absolutely what she would say. Except she hadn’t. She’d asked what it had meant.

Should he explain it to her, he wondered. No, explain was the wrong word. She was not the kind of person you explained things to. He could find her Justinia I’s sermon.

She would tear it apart, but he could find it for her. And he knew exactly what she would say when she saw it, could almost hear her smoky voice saying the words: “This is some bullshit, Cul.”

He laughed to himself and shook his head.


Eleanor sat on the battlements with a cigarette. She’d put on jeans and a t-shirt. The day had gotten hot, but was cooling off again. It was still very much spring, but summer was fast rolling in. She could smell warmth, could smell a storm, maybe days off, but it would come. She would know that smell anywhere.

Kicking her legs over the side, the ground hundreds of feet below, she thought about the words that Cullen had read to her. Magic was meant to serve man, not to rule over him. She pulled on her cigarette.

Magic, she thought. Not mages. In her mind, she repeated it. Magic, not mages.

She pushed thick smoke out of her nose. Did it make a difference? Did it matter at all? Evelyn was a mage and she was in charge of the whole god damned world, or so it felt. And apparently Leliana’s work as Divine - she was still a bit hazy on all that, but she’d overheard a lot in these past two weeks - was doing much to make mages more accepted, at least officially, than ever before.

And then someone had tried to stab her. Or at least threatened to. Threatened her and the Inquisitor both.

Eleanor sucked her cigarette down to the end and lit another, kicking her heels against the stone.

Chapter Text

“I think I found something you’ll both like,” Evelyn said, a rolled piece of parchment under one arm as she leaned against the door of the tower.

Eleanor had been sitting on the floor, scrutinizing a page of text, making out every other letter before having to pick her head up to ask Cullen “just what the fuck” she was looking at. She could recognize simple words now, “a” and “the” and “and,” and even some nouns that popped up again and again. But being nearly thirty and having to learn to read all over again was endlessly frustrating to her, and she spent a good portion of the day not sitting but laying on the floor and looking like she wanted to cry or hit something.

Cullen was dealing with her frustration well, mostly by reading what she was going to read beforehand and reciting it back to her while he got on with other things. But when he looked over at her around noon and found her flat-backed on the floor with a book over her face, he couldn’t help but smile and be a little kinder. Evelyn was, after all, asking her to get into the most theoretical of magics, and Eleanor couldn’t even write “I like cats,” with any kind of consistency.

Well, that wasn’t entirely true. She had memorized “I like cats.”

She had been at it for a week.

So when Evelyn had come in and broken up the monotony, Eleanor almost jumped up at the chance to think about something, anything else for a few moments.

“What’s this?” Cullen asked, folding up a letter he had been writing.

“Little place near Redcliff,” Evelyn said, unrolling the paper she had brought. It was a property title. “Close enough to here that we could have important information to you in a day, far enough away that you wouldn’t be constantly bombarded by, well, this,” she said, moving her hands in a wide circle, “us.”

Eleanor stood up and stretched as Evelyn handed the paper to Cullen, and as she set the stylus she had been using down on the edge of his desk, she watched the edges of his mouth turn up.

“Inquisitor, I don’t… know what to say,” he said, scanning the document quickly.

“It’s not big,” Evelyn said quickly, looking back and forth between the two of them. “Nothing like your home, Ellie. It’s not fancy. But it’s quaint and it’s quiet and it isn’t on the battlements surrounded by constant noise and requests. It’s right near the lake, too, so you’ve got a nice view.”

Something flashed across Cullen’s face and Eleanor thought she saw him nearly drop the paper. The Inquisitor’s freckled cheeks went white and she slowly brought a hand to her mouth, looking ashamed.

“Oh, Commander. Cullen. I’m sorry, I didn’t even think -”

He shook his head hard, definitively. “No, Inquisitor. It’s perfectly alright. That was twenty years ago, nearly. This… it’s fine. It’s wonderful.”

Eleanor wrinkled her forehead, knowing that she was missing something, but also knowing that this wasn’t exactly the time to ask. She should wait until she and Cullen were alone, at the very least, but the way Cullen’s face had changed so quickly concerned her. She tugged the sleeves of her flannel down with ink-stained fingers, and repeated Cullen’s sentiment, though she was far less familiar with the area than he. “Thank you, Evelyn. I’m sure it’ll be perfect.” She opened her arms and embraced the Inquisitor quickly, Evelyn eagerly returning the little squeeze.

“I do hope you both like it. I know you’re eager to get back to Indiana, but hopefully this will make your stay here at least a little easier. And I - we all - appreciate your staying. That said, I can make arrangements for you two to be moved out… well, immediately, really.”

Cullen turned to Eleanor and smiled, reaching out one hand to rest on top of hers. “That would be perfect,” he said, and he didn’t look away from Eleanor.


They could have ridden horses, but Evelyn insisted Cullen and Eleanor take a carriage. They had at first objected, but after packing up just what little they had at Skyhold, with aching arms and backs they relented. It wasn’t just Cullen’s things, amassed over almost a decade of residence at the fortress, it was all the things that had been foisted upon Eleanor by the Inquisitor. And it was Swiffer, who knew exactly the right times to get underfoot and the right times to hide - which was to say, the wrong times. After Eleanor had chased the little grey fur-ball all over Skyhold, she had finally pressed Cullen into service, having him hold one of the last remaining pouches of treats and shaking it gently while Eleanor, in the corner, held a box. They stood near the stables - the cat seemed to enjoy the company of the horses, and the sounds of whinnies and hoof stomps covered Eleanor’s footfalls while Swiffer was distracted by the sight and smell of Cullen with treats.

At long last, the kitten was secured in the box, and Eleanor and Cullen were too tired to object to the fripperies of a carriage ride down the mountain. With Swiffer finally having ceased her mewling from the crate on the seat next to them, submitting to her unlawful captors, Cullen swung his arm around Eleanor and pulled her close, allowing the gentle rocking of the carriage to sooth them a bit as he drew the curtain closed.

“She seems like she’s warming up to me,” Cullen said. While Swiffer had never been particularly standoffish with him, it was true, but she always went to Eleanor first, sometimes seemed even to be willing to rat Cullen out to Eleanor when the commander was even two seconds late feeding the kitten in the morning, instead of waiting patiently like she would for Eleanor.

“You’re Not Mom now.”

Cullen gave Eleanor a sidelong look.

“Well, clearly, I’m Mom. I rescued her, I feed her, I take her to the vet, I give her baths, I play with her with dumb stuff on strings. She lives in my house and she knows it. I’m the boss.”

“And I’m… Not Mom?”

“Yeah. Like, she likes you, sure. But you’re an interloper. I think she’s cottoned on to the fact that you’re awake first and she can get fed earlier. And that you aren’t going anywhere,” Eleanor added with a wink and a nudge.

“So… Dad?”

Eleanor shook her head. “Not even close.”

Cullen snorted and jostled Eleanor back, but kept her pulled close. Slowly, though, his demeanor changed, and he clicked his tongue in thought.

“Eleanor, have you ever thought…”

“If this is going where I think it’s going, I’m gonna have to put a moratorium on big talks for like at least five years, buddy.”

“Ah.”

“Well?”

Cullen remained hesitant, silent.

“Well, come on, Cul,” she said, but she rested her head on his shoulder to ease him.

“Five years, you say?”

“Oh at least.”

“Well, then.”

“It’s kids, isn’t it,” she said, sitting up a little straighter.

He raised an eyebrow and tilted his head, indicating that she had found him out.

“Don’t want ‘em,” she said bluntly.

“You don’t -”

“Nope,” she said, with a shake of her head, and then sighed deeply through her nose. “Well, I guess it had to come up sooner or later,” and she shied away from him just a little bit, not shunning his embrace, but loosening it. She looked away for a long time before looking back, to find a much easier look on Cullen’s face than she had expected. “Wait, do you?”

He shrugged. “I don’t suppose I ever had much time to think about it. I never had the luxury of having anyone to discuss it with, either.”

A wash of guilt went over Eleanor. It wasn’t going to change her mind, but she did feel more than a little bad that she had had the privilege of coming to her own conclusion long before Cullen - or at all, really.

“So,” Eleanor said slowly, wiggling around to face Cullen on the seat, “do you have any thoughts?”

“I’m not really certain I care either way. Branson has a son, so it isn’t as though the family line would die out. Mia and Rosalie may have children of their own some day,” he said, matter of fact, then reconsidered. “Well, perhaps not Mia.” He paused before speaking again. “I suppose I always thought I would die a templar. And then the Inquisition was my life. I perhaps thought maybe one day - that’s just what people do, isn’t it? But I never really… considered the matter further. I’m not attached to the idea, and - well, look at us, El. If I had an opinion, it’s that we should probably stop receiving death threats first. And pick a side of the Rift. A family might be nice, but family can mean many things. So no. I don’t suppose I mind.”

“You’re a very weird sort of selfless, Cullen, you know that?”

“I don’t know that I would call it selfless, exactly.”

“I absolutely would. Selfless, dedicated, devoted, all that stuff,” Eleanor said, settling back down against Cullen’s side. “Sometimes you make me realize just how lucky I am to have found you,” she said quietly, easing against him, welcoming the rocking motion of the carriage, the weight of his arm around her shoulder.

The commander didn’t respond. He wasn’t quite certain how to. This entire time, this whole past year, he had felt more like a burden to Eleanor than anything. Oh, he knew she loved him and all of that, but from the moment he had set foot on her farmland, he had put nothing but weight on her. The Blight. His soldiers. Her magic - for which he had treated her more poorly than he would have liked.

And his own death, or something like it.

He had been told about those anxious moments before the Archdemon had been slain, about Eleanor’s frantic, desperate efforts to draw more mana, more magic up and out of her small body, to pour them into him. Evelyn had told him everything, from the Iron Bull dragging her away from the conflict as Stroud put an end to the corrupted dragon to Eleanor’s heartbreaking sobs when she thought Cullen wouldn’t open his eyes again. When maybe, if she hadn’t been so desperate, so desperately powerful, he wouldn’t have.

All Cullen remembered was blackness, a blackness that seemed to stretch out into eternity in all directions, in all moments in time; and then whiteness, warm at first, and then cold, so cold; and then Eleanor’s voice, broken and rough, repeating through sobs that she was sorry, and the sadness of it broke his heart.

No. Lucky was not the word he would use if he asked what impact he thought he had had on Eleanor’s life. He reached up and ran his free hand through his hair, feeling tired all of a sudden, more tired than just the effort of packing, of moving should have made him. He pulled Eleanor a little closer, working his own hand into the front pocket of her worn-out black hoodie, clasping his fingers around hers, also there.

“I love you,” he said quietly.

“I’m still not having your babies,” she answered.

Chapter Text

The house was nothing short of pleasant. It wasn’t big, but it was airy, and let light in on all sides. It was only one story but after climbing the ladder in Cullen’s quarters three times a day for the past month, Eleanor couldn’t say she really missed having an upstairs. They had a sitting room, a bedroom, a kitchen with a little place to eat, plenty of places to stash things, and a library, which Cullen immediately saw to filling with the books he had brought. Moreover, it had come full to the brim with soft, velvety furniture, thick carpets, rich wall hangings, and it seemed homey and warm from the moment they stepped inside. Even Swiffer seemed to approve, at first just anxious to get out of the box she’d been crammed in for the past eight hours - “It was bigger than her cat carrier!” Eleanor insisted after the animal swatted at her and leapt away, refusing to be held - but then quickly settling down in an armchair, curling and turning until she flopped over and fell asleep.

Eleanor and Cullen stood together on a patch of earth that could be a yard or a garden, the soil black beneath their feet, and took it in as the sun began to set over Lake Calenhad, the body of water filling the entirety of the scenery behind their little home. Cullen had his arm wrapped around Eleanor’s shoulders, and as the sun lowered down behind them, the water of the lake sparkling in their vision, he pulled a cigarette from his lips and said, “Not bad.” The breeze picked up and tugged a bit at his dirty t-shirt and he tucked his free hand in his pocket. He was tired and his clothes were a bit mussed from the little unpacking they’d done before they both decided it could wait. Cullen had changed into his Indiana things, as he thought of them, to do all the heavy lifting, but now the breeze off of the lake was a little chilly and he drew Eleanor in closer, tilting his neck to give the crown of her head a kiss.

“Not bad at all,” Eleanor agreed, and though there was still a niggling little bit of her that was disappointed that they weren’t back on Indiana soil, it was shrinking, it was receding, and when she looked at their little house, their little home, she couldn’t even begin to repress her smile.


There came a knock on the door on their third morning in the little house. They had been eating breakfast and Eleanor started to rise, but with a mouthful of eggs, Cullen waved her to sit, and he went to the door, wiping his hands on his jeans before pulling it open.

A messenger stood a few feet back from the threshold, a burgundy hood pulled over her hair, a cloak covering most of her body despite the warmth of the day. She wasn’t one that Cullen recognized, and wasn’t dressed like someone from the Inquisition, haphazard though their agents might be, and the seal on the envelope that she had in her hand was unfamiliar to him as well. He had no doubt that Leliana or Josephine would be able to authenticate it straight away, but that was not Cullen’s area of expertise, nor did he wish it to be. But his already elevated suspicion was only heightened when the woman said, “Message for Eleanor Redgrove.”

Cullen put out his hand to accept the missive, but the messenger did not budge.

After a pause, the hooded woman insisted, “I was told only to deliver it to her, serrah,” and she withdrew slightly from Cullen’s outstretched hand.

The commander blinked, not retracting his arm, and waited a stunned moment before saying, “She’s my wife.”

The messenger shook her head as though that were not the answer she were expecting, but clarified regardless, “I’m sorry, serrah. My orders -”

“Problem?” Eleanor said, walking over from the kitchen.

“Eleanor Redgrove?”

“That’s me,” she said, shuffling her hair away from her face with the fingers of her left hand. “Help you?”

“Message for you, my lady,” the woman said, bowing her head and letting her deep cowl fall a little further over her eyes.

Cautiously, Eleanor reached out and took the envelope, running her thumb over the wax seal, hesitantly saying. “...thanks?”

The woman gave a bow, one hand on her waist, the other on her back, and quickly turned, striding purposefully away. Eleanor and Cullen paused for a minute before looking at each other, both equally confused. Then Eleanor shifted her weight onto one foot, holding the letter in her hand as she popped out the opposite hip and rested her wrist on it, saying, “Your wife, huh? So we’re just going around, telling people?” as she closed the door.

Cullen tensed up and though he didn’t actually move, his whole demeanor gave the impression that he was shrinking away.

“I - ah - I had thought -”

Eleanor shook her head and closed the space between them, slapping Cullen lightly on the arm with the back of the hand that held the letter. “S’cool. I like the sound of that.”

She began to walk back to her breakfast, but Cullen held his place and turned slightly to face her, saying, “You do?”

Swiveling around, she answered, “Yeah. I can live with that.” There was a clatter behind her then, and she quickly spun on her heel and shouted, “Damn cat! Those are not for you! Cullen already fed you; get your face out of my toast!” she stormed back into the kitchen, muttering under her breath, “God damn it.”

Chuckling low, Cullen decided he could live with it too. The warmth that washed over him cleared his mind completely, until he saw Eleanor shaking a piece of paper at Swiffer as the chastised cat scurried across the floor.

“What does it say?” he said, stuffing his hands into his pockets.

“Hm?” Eleanor asked, looking up and regaining her composure. “Well, sirrah,” she said, teasing him, “I think it was for my eyes only.” She scoffed, “not like I could read it. To be honest, I’m a little scared to open it, but I’m guessing you folks don’t have anthrax here.”

Cullen slowly shook his head, but muttered, “A poisoned letter?”

“Yeah, like that,” she said, looking down at the envelope, running her thumbs along the edges. It was crisp and white. Even the Inquisition didn’t use paper this bleached, this fine.

“Who would send something like this?” she asked quietly.

Cullen took his hands out of his jeans and pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, lighting one as Eleanor flipped the letter over in her hands. He rubbed his fingers together and then extended his hand to Eleanor, asking wordlessly to see the missive. Eleanor went to his side, bumping her shoulder against his and motioning to swap the letter for the cigarette. He accepted the trade, passing the cigarette to Eleanor and receiving the letter, doing at first the same as she had, turning it over and over. He wished now that he could identify the seal, or indeed anything about the parchment. But aside from that, it was blank. No name, no nothing.

Finally, he asked, “May I?”

For lack of anything else to do, Eleanor breathed out smoke and shrugged. “Not much else we can do.”

His lips pressed thin, he nodded slowly and slid his pinky under the wax and, careful not to warp or break the stamp, Cullen held the letter away from himself and popped the seal from the parchment, shaking it open. Only a small square of paper fluttered to the floor. Holding her cigarette between her lips, Eleanor bent down to pick it up, turning it around in her hands until the writing was - she thought - upright as Cullen went to set the envelope down on the kitchen table, making sure to preserve the wax seal. Eleanor squinted, unable to suss out the contents, before saying, “Well, I can tell you it’s a short message,” and passed it on to Cullen as he returned from the kitchen.

He took it from her, and within moments, the commander’s whole demeanor changed. He took a few steps backward until he was no longer in the entryway but in the sitting room and he leaned against the sofa, his eyes scanning the words again and again.

“Oh come on, Cul, it’s not that long,” Eleanor said, her words sarcastic but her tone uneasy. When he let his hand fall, the paper still between his fingers, he didn’t look to Eleanor but out the window, his face stern, more the commander now than Eleanor had seen him since the Blight. His jaw was tight, and the lines around his mouth were deep parentheses. “Cullen,” she said, “seriously. Come on,” but her words were soft as she padded towards him, her bare feet treading quietly. “What does it say?”

He turned to her now and though his face remained hard, his eyes were soft, almost painfully so. He rubbed his empty hand along his chin, looking down at the floor before meeting her gaze, and when he did, he made a fist, and crushed the paper in his hand as he finally answered her, “It says, ‘We have seen you. You have been warned.’”

Chapter Text

“No, Inquisitor, I don’t think -”

Evelyn paced in the space between the living room and the entryway, one hand propping up her elbow, the other over her lips.

“Commander, I don’t care what you think right now. This was a threat.”

“Yeah, kinda got that from the letter, Ev,” Eleanor said, her head in her hands as she sat in the armchair, hunched forward.

“Yes. Well,” the Inquisitor said, “Regardless, Cullen, I’m going to place guards. Ah -” she put up her hands as he stood from the sofa to object more forcefully, “no. I will not hear it. You both are my responsibility. In fact, I’m contemplating sending you both back to Indiana straight away, research be damned.”

“Inquisitor -” Cullen started.

“And I’m increasing security on the Hinterlands cave. We don’t want any of these people going there, going… over.” She sighed tugging at her rusty hair with both hands. “I’m starting to think Dorian was right,” she muttered.

“Dorian?” Eleanor said, perking up.

Evelyn shook her head. “A long time ago when - it’s a long story, but I managed to enter the Fade. Physically, you understand.”

“Wait, I know this one. Varric told me this story.”

“He would,” Evelyn said, the mention of the dwarf making the Inquisitor look simultaneously more enlivened and exhausted both. “But, of course, the last time anyone made that journey, the Golden City turned black - that’s how the Blights started, you know. Luckily for us, our consequences were a little less grim… except… well… Hawke…” Evelyn got quiet a moment and blinked quickly, either batting away tears or trying to collect her thoughts; Eleanor couldn’t tell. “But Dorian wasn’t with us. And when we returned, he made it very clear that he thought the information about our little jaunt to the other side of reality should be… kept unavailable to discourage others from trying to replicate our feat. Cassandra wrote an official report for posterity, and that was all.

“Of course, no others had the Anchor, but at the same time, that might only have made the situation worse since, ah, alternative methods would have had to have been used for anyone else to make that kind of a tear in the Veil.” The Inquisitor paused and waved her hands out in front of her, trying to backtrack a bit, trying to say that she did have a point. “I’m wondering if perhaps we shouldn’t have done all of this, or, at the very least, we should have gone about it more covertly. I thought full disclosure was the best policy, to let everyone go back to their Circles and libraries with all the facts laid out for them, but now…” she frowned a wide frown, eyes low.

“You did what you thought was best, Inquisitor,” Cullen tried to reassure her.

“Yes, well, you and I both know awful things occur at the hands of those who mean well.” She walked over to Eleanor and perched herself on the footstool near the armchair where Eleanor sat. “Regardless, Ellie, we’ll be taking it down a notch. No more large meetings. All one-on-one. We’ve done enough damage.  We can no longer keep this a complete secret, but we will not advertise what we know. And Commander,” she turned her face to Cullen, “we got nothing out of the two who, well,” she mimicked a crude stabbing motion with her right hand. “Either they’re very good at covering their tracks or they really were acting of their own accord. I was very much ready to chalk it up to the second option, but with this letter,” her voice slowed as her gaze turned  back to Eleanor, and the Inquisitor gave her a deeply sympathetic look, “ah, well. We still have them detained if you wish to interrogate them further.”

Cullen declined, saying, “Between Cassandra’s methods and Leliana’s people, I’m not sure what else I could offer, but,” he added, his expression souring, “I’m not opposed to keeping them detained for as long as the Inquisition sees fit.”

“Well, they didn’t exactly achieve much other than a bit of mouthing off. Perhaps a few more weeks, contingent upon any further information we might receive.”

“Hang on,” Eleanor said, leaning back and crossing her arms.

“Hm?” Evelyn inquired.

“What if you let them go?”

“Let them go!” Cullen objected.

Eleanor cocked an eyebrow. “How good are Leliana’s agents?”

The Inquisitor flash of confusion was quickly replaced by a bright understanding, an open-mouthed grin. She put a hand on Eleanor’s knee.

“Let them go, and have them followed,” she nodded. “It’s a bit of a risk, but it just might work.”


Before Evelyn took her leave, the three made plans for the commander and Eleanor to return to Skyhold late the next week, hoping that they would have some more information unwillingly given by their soon-to-be-free prisoners by then.

As the Inquisitor was about to walk out, she said, “I had planned on coming down here for a housewarming! One hell of a housewarming, huh.”

“At this point, I wouldn’t have expected anything less, honestly,” Eleanor confessed.

The Inquisitor shrugged sadly before drawing Eleanor in for a hug. “I’ll see you soon, alright? And my previous offer still stands.”

“I think I’ll take you up on that,” Eleanor said as Evelyn released her.

“Previous offer?” Cullen asked, but Evelyn distracted him by grabbing him by his elbows and insisting, “You keep her safe, you hear me?”

Cullen chuckled and said, “That seems to have been more Eleanor’s speciality so far - but I’ll do my duty, Inquisitor,” he said, half-seriously, half with a grin.

“And I’ll have guards here by morning, regardless. Don’t worry, Commander, they’ll keep their distance. I’ll let you be the master of your domain.”

“Oh, you might,” Eleanor laughed.

Under their feet, Swiffer meeped, clearly miffed by having been ignored this whole time. Eleanor bent down and whisked the grey fluff into her arms, and Evelyn offered the cat a scritch on the head before she went. “Ah, here’s the real master,” the Inquisitor said, and Swiffer settled into a contented machine-like purring. Evelyn smiled wide, her freckles standing out on her full cheeks. “You make a lovely family, you three. Speaking of which,” and she gave Cullen one last nudge. “Your sister would love to hear from you, I’m sure.”

Cullen looked suddenly crestfallen. “Indeed,” he muttered.

“Just let her know you’re alive. You’re both alive,” Eleanor insisted.

Cullen diverted his eyes, and after so many years, Evelyn knew exactly what that meant.

“Andraste’s ass, Cullen, you haven’t told her about Eleanor?”

Eleanor gave Cullen a sidelong look, and as though understanding, Swiffer grumbled in Eleanor’s arms.

“I’ve not written her since… before the Blight.”

“Oh, Cullen. You’re hopeless,” Evelyn said, but there was laughter in her voice. “Alright, you two. I should get back before there are nary but ruins to get back to. Be safe. Don’t venture too far.” Cullen pulled open the door for her and Evelyn went to the sapling where her horse was tied, and where two more horses waited with Inquisition soldiers already on their backs. “And write your damned sister,” she said, and mounted her steed.

Chapter Text

“Alright,” Cullen said triumphantly, emerging from the library, “it’s done.” He waved two pieces of paper of above his head.

“What’s this now?” Eleanor said, picking her head up from Cullen’s copy of the Chant of Light. Her sarcasm had bled out of her after the third or fourth recitation and now she was able to identify almost half of the words in a few canticles, and was slowly but surely sussing out more by sheer context alone. She pulled her glasses off and blinked a few times, black squiggles still dancing in front of her face.

“I’ve written her,” and he fell heavily down on the sofa next to Eleanor.

“You don’t say,” Eleanor said, putting a strip of leather in her book to keep the place and letting it thunk heavily to the floor. “That’s… the last two years?”

Cullen turned the papers over in his hand. “It is.”

“All of it?”

His eyes narrowed, “Yes?”

“Shouldn’t it be… a bit longer?” Eleanor said, taking the parchment into her hands. She could only make out a word or two without further scrutiny, but it was only the front and back of one sheet, and barely the front of the other.

“I…” Cullen said, looking a bit bruised.

Eleanor couldn’t help but take pity. “I’m sure it’s fine,” she belatedly reassured him. “What does it say?”

“Well, of course a good deal of it is our work in Indiana, though I didn’t want to worry her overmuch,” he said.

“Cul, I think she’s probably heard by now.”

“Yes, well, she doesn’t have to hear it from me,” he rebuffed. “And then, of course,” he went on, “There’s you.”

“Oh is there,” Eleanor said, settling against him.

“Of course,” he said, wrapping his arms around her and nuzzling against her neck.

Eleanor flinched a bit. “Your hair tickles,” she said.

“It needs to be cut,” he admitted.

“Me to do it?” she said, hanging only as many words in her sentence as it absolutely needed, in the way that she did when she was tired, or comfortable enough to feel tired.

Once upon a time, Cullen would have needed her rephrase her question, but now he fell into her easy rhythm, answering only, “D’be nice.”

“Mm. I can do it tomorrow before we leave,” she said.

“Mm,” he agreed, and let his chin rest on her shoulder. The sun was only just beginning to set but writing the letter to Mia had exhausted him and he drifted off for a moment before Eleanor roused him again with a question.

“What did you say about me, exactly?”

“I, ah,” he said, sitting back up and leaning against the arm of the sofa. “I said that when I met you I thought you very possibly might be the death of me and some days I still do.”

“You did not!” she said, and kicked his foot.

He laughed. “Not in so many words, no. I said that while I was in Indiana I fell in love with you and the first moment I had where our lives weren’t imminently in danger -”

“So, like, the day after, because that whole thing with -”

“ - I asked you if you would be mine and you said yes.”

“Aw,” Eleanor said, wrapping her fingers carefully around Cullen’s, trying not to crinkle the pages she still held, “no wonder it’s so short.”

Chapter Text

“You’re married?!”

“Neither of you told me you decided to get married!”

Cullen stood in the War Room, eyes closed, face tipped skyward, thumb and forefinger pinching his nose. Eleanor was beside and slightly behind him, her face in both her palms. And they were both catching hell.

“We should have done something; I should have gotten you both -” the Inquisitor sputtered, but she was cut off.

“Two and a half years, Cullen!”

Mia Rutherford was not a large woman. In fact, she was the smallest person in the room by height. She had blonde hair like Cullen’s, and in a different situation her dark hazel eyes and round face might have been warm, friendly.

“Mia,” Cullen said, not moving or lowering his gaze an inch, “I was a little busy.”

“Not too busy to get hitched, I see!”

Eleanor’s body seemed to recede behind her shoulders and she took one hand away from her face to gently wave, almost whispering, “Hello…”

Mia flung the letter down and pushed past the Inquisitor, striding powerfully to Cullen. Eleanor saw him flinch a little as his sister threw out her arms and instead of bludgeoning him as he must have expected, caught him in a tight embrace. “I’m so happy for you,” she said, and even as she hugged him, something in her tone still sounded perhaps not angry, but definitely forceful, and Eleanor immediately understood every moment of reticence Cullen had ever had regarding her. She was small but intense, all of Cullen’s forcefulness, his command, wrapped up into this petite woman.

Slowly, Cullen unwound his defensive stance and wrapped his arms around his sister. “Thank you,” he said quietly.

“And Eleanor,” Mia said, releasing her brother, “I’m so glad to meet you,” and she hugged her with as much force as she had embraced Cullen.

“Hi,” was all Eleanor could squeak.

When Mia let go, she turned back to the Inquisitor saying, “She’s very pretty. Don’t you think she’s pretty?”

Slightly flustered herself, Evelyn said, “Yes, I suppose she is - I mean, of course you are, Eleanor, I -” but while Mia’s back was turned Eleanor shook her head quickly no and moved one flat hand back and forth on top of the other to signal that Evelyn didn’t need to say anything for her sake. Cullen, meanwhile, was slowly turning pink.

“I still don’t understand why you didn’t tell me,” Evelyn said.

“We didn’t want a big to-do,” Cullen said, rubbing his face to hide the blush that had risen there. “It wasn’t…”

“I’m not big into…” Eleanor’s voice trailed off and she flailed her hands in small circles. “You know.”

“Well, I can’t say I blame you. When Sera and I -”

“What?” Cullen spat.

“Oh, no, buddy. We don’t get to play that card today,” Eleanor said quietly, resting her hand on his arm. “Evelyn, really. It was just a little thing. Just for us. I promise. And the house, I mean, what else could we ask for?”

“And Mia, I am sorry. I should have told you about Eleanor sooner. I… should have told you about a great many things a great deal sooner. I will try to be better about it, though hopefully there isn’t too much more to tell.”

“Knock on wood,” Eleanor said, reaching out to tap the table gently with her knuckles.

“Oh, Cullen. You’ll never change,” Mia waved his sentiment away. “But do try,” she added, more to Eleanor than to her brother.

“A dinner, at least,” Evelyn insisted, “while Mia is here. That’s all I ask. All of us together.”

“Well,” Cullen said, running a hand over his hair, “I suppose it couldn’t hurt.”


Cullen leaned over the battlements next to his tower, looking down into the valley below. What had once been a camp of followers, of believers, either in Evelyn herself as the Herald of Andraste or in the spirit of the Inquisition, had grown into a small town, temporary tents long ago replaced by permanent structures, paths replaced by roads. Though it had been years, it still amazed him to look down their on a settlement that this - that he - had been part of the reason for. Really it was Evelyn they had to thank; Maker only knew how but she had held the thing together when it should have all fallen apart. But he had been there. He had done his part. Modesty or no, the long hours, the sleepless nights, the grey in his hair were all a testament to that. He had been there, and here he was again. A little older, a little wiser, a little more fulfilled. A little, he wondered, or a lot? He fished into the folds of red fabric wrapped around his sides - a little more than careworn at this point, even with expert repair - and found a half-crushed pack of cigarettes, seven or eight left inside.

“Yeah, well, enjoy that,” came Eleanor’s voice from down the battlement as she approached. “We’re almost out.” She folded her arms and leaned on the stone next to him.

“Blast,” he said through pursed lips as he lit the smoke.

“You’re telling me,” she muttered.

They’d been here three days, waiting for intel from their released captives - and so far, nothing. Yet with only three days gone, Evelyn must have put a rush on Cullen’s letter - of course she would - because Mia had arrived that morning. It was a day’s journey to South Reach from Skyhold for a skilled rider. Cullen and Eleanor had arrived in the early afternoon and quickly passed off their things, including his letter to his sister. The letter must have arrived early the next morning, and Mia must have left, well, post haste, to have arrived so soon. This was the first day that Cullen had worn his old things, the first day that Eleanor had traded in a ratty blue flannel for plush midnight robes. As much as Cullen wanted to convince himself he didn’t care, he was glad that Mia hadn’t walked in on him in a hoodie and jeans, on Evelyn in leggings and a button-down shirt. Though as he stuffed the crumpled pack of cigarettes back in his pocket, he thought that it might be time to get some new clothes himself, Theodosian or otherwise.

“Your sister’s… nice…” Eleanor said, sliding her arm around Cullen’s.

“She’s… Mia.”

“She’s a little scary.”

“That she is.”

“Two weeks, Evelyn said,” and Eleanor reached over to pilfer the cigarette from Cullen’s fingers, taking a long drag before passing it back to him.

“Two weeks?”

“The dinner. Two weeks to get everything ready.”

“Ah,” Cullen said, then pulled on the cigarette. “Does that sound like a small get together to you?”

“Nope.”

“Has she been talking to Josephine?”

“Almost certainly.”

Cullen looked over at Eleanor and gave her a conspiratorial raise of his eyebrow, a little knowing frown. She agreed, rolling her eyes and shaking her head.

“Well, I suppose we can go back to the lake for two weeks,” he offered.

“Actually…” Eleanor said, looking away.

“What’s the matter?”

“No, nothing like that,” she insisted quickly.

Sensing her hesitance, he passed the cigarette back to her and she accepted it, taking a tiny puff before saying, “Evelyn wants me to… work with a trainer.”

“A trainer?”

“You know.” And she waggled her fingers. “A trainer.”

“That’s… are you… asking me?”

She shrugged, and gave him the cigarette back.

“Eleanor, you…” he pursed his lips. “You are an intensely powerful mage. Part of my job was to make sure that people like you were kept safe so that you could learn to use your abilities.” With his free hand he pinched his upper lip just below his nose.

“But?” she asked, pushing herself gently between him and the stone, looking up into his eyes.

“But I would like to go back to our new house and sleep in our new bed for a very long time. Especially if Mia is going to be here for two weeks.”

Eleanor chewed her bottom lip and nudged his chin with her nose. “Sleep, huh?”

“Yes, sl - ah. Well.”

“What’s say we come back in… oh, a week and a half.”

Chapter Text

“Evelyn, look. I understand about the Breach and all,” she said, kicking the dirt in the courtyard, “but we’re out of cat treats. And cigarettes. And I’d really like to make sure my house is still there. And buy some new socks. Can we just have… two days? One night? We’ll be back in time for the dinner. And then you’ll have us for as long as you need since we’ll have prepared a little better.”

Eleanor gave the Inquisitor a pleading face and Swiffer, ever the ham, mooped sadly at Evelyn’s feet, pleading for treats that Eleanor had long since run out of.

Evelyn bit a knuckle tentatively. “Well,” she said slowly, “I didn’t give either of you a lot of warning, did I? And it’s been more than a month already.”

“Almost two,” Eleanor impressed, trying to sound like she was stating a fact more than whining, and it was a fact. They’d been in Thedas almost twice as long as she and Cullen’s worst-case scenario allowed for.

The Inquisitor sighed through her nose. “Alright. I’ll open the Breach, send you both through. First thing tomorrow morning.”

Eleanor folded visibly with relief. “Thank you, Evelyn. That means a lot.”

“You’ve got a busy day today, though, then.”

“I do?”

“You do,” said a voice behind them. It was a voice like Leliana’s but deeper, richer. Eleanor turned around and came face to face with a diminutive woman with short, dark brown hair and the palest green eyes Eleanor had ever seen. She was Dalish and she looked it, her frame even more waifish than Sera’s, her ears more square, more broad, but with that characteristic point, and her face thinner and longer than the archer’s face. Sera was the only other elf that Eleanor knew, and even then, only just, but if she had to put the two women side by side, Eleanor would have pointed to this woman in her long blue robes first when asked to identify an elf.

“Eleanor,” Evelyn said, walking to her side, “this is Grand Enchanter Fiona. She’ll be instructing you.”

Eleanor didn’t know whether to shake hands with or bow to someone with that title, but it sounded important, so she leaned forward a bit and extended her hand both. “A pleasure to meet you,” Eleanor said, and the Grand Enchanter took Eleanor’s hand and gave a firm shake with delicate fingers.

“The pleasure is mine, Ms. Redgrove. I’ve been looking forward to meeting the woman from the other side.”

“Fiona is one of the few people I talked to about you almost immediately. And with your… efforts during the fight against the Archdemon, she wanted to meet you as soon as possible,” Evelyn said, and the elven woman gave a little half-nod, half-bow. “Nevertheless, I wanted to make sure it was alright with you before I made the introductions.”

“Indeed,” Fiona agreed. “Spirit healing is not something that should be taken lightly at all. It is probably the most dangerous manifestation of a mage’s powers.”

“It… it is?” Eleanor said quietly.

“Absolutely. The spirits must learn to trust you, which is no small task in and of itself - though from what I’ve heard of your work, you might already have some friends in the Fade,” and Fiona gave a little smile that greatly softened her features, and for a moment, Eleanor relaxed. “But a call to spirits is also a call to demons, and that should never be forgotten.”

Something inside Eleanor lurched, and she struggled to keep her body still; as Fiona spoke the words, she remembered her dreams, those first dreams, strange and concerning and frightening at the time but reaching and almost peaceful, a searching feeling, and then the dreams that came later, the fearful ones, the ones full of darkness, the ones where things were not at all what they seemed. She forced her body to be still regardless, only nodding at the Grand Enchanter’s words, hoping her face didn’t give anything away - though perhaps, if she were to give everything away, Fiona would be the person to give it to. After all, she had told Cullen about the dreams, maybe not in full detail, no, but his templar training would have tipped him off if anything were truly wrong, shouldn’t it?

“In fact,” Fiona went on. “That’s a good place to get started, I should think. Tell me, what all do you know of the creatures that reside in the Fade.”

Eleanor looked to Evelyn to see if there was some right answer she should be giving, but the Inquisitor only gave a small shake of her head, so Eleanor admitted, “Nothing. Like, literally nothing.”

“I see. How strange… Nevertheless, let’s begin.”


Eleanor, so tired at the end of the day that even the walk up to the battlements had exhausted her, took one look at the ladder to Cullen’s bed - her bed - and sat down on the desk instead.. He was still out in the yard with Cassandra even as the light grew dim, but she didn’t honestly know if she could make it up the ladder on her own. Eleanor couldn’t remember having been so tired since - since when? Since the Deep Roads? Surely the Archdemon had been more exhausting, but she had been running on panic, on lyrium, on adrenaline. The Deep Roads had been a slow wearing down, an emotional erosion, punctuated by moments of primal fear. Her abiding memory of the whole experience was just how tired it had made her in the end.

She felt that was now, and Fiona hadn’t actually had her do anything. It had been a lot of talking on Fiona’s part, a lot of listening on Eleanor’s. She wished she had thought to take notes, but her fingers were still sore from copying and recopying the Chant anyhow. Eleanor’s head was swimming in facts, in myths, in speculation, and her mind was desperately grasping at, trying to tie together, all the loose ends into one cohesive series of thoughts, trying to reconcile her Rift with what she had just learned, and all she was getting for her efforts was a splitting headache. And there had been no magic involved. It had been different with Dorian, but then, that was so much more basic, so much more trial-by-fire; but then, hadn’t the whole past year been trial-by-fire? She laughed to herself, and thought perhaps it was more trial-by-ice. And yet, the past two months has somehow been even more stressful.

Fiona’s words echoed in her mind. The most dangerous kind of magic. She understood why, and now she understood how, but it seemed so absurd. She could freeze, could shatter people with a single touch, but healing them, keeping them safe: that was where the real danger lay.

A fresh wave of exhaustion swept over her, the feeling especially unkind in her knees and shoulders, and she pulled her legs up to her chest, putting her dirty shoes on Cullen’s untidy desk. Momentarily she felt bad, but the relief she felt when she bent forward and rested her cheek on her knees consigned any guilt to the far recessive of her mind. The dim light filtering from the outside was growing redder, its warm color like a heavy hand on her eyelids, on the back of her neck. She took a deep breath, her body swelling then shrinking again, knowing that she should get up, should just climb the ladder, just go to bed, and as she was willing herself to do it, gathering the strength to pick her head up off of her legs - it had been a mistake to fold herself up that way, the tiredness seeping into all the new corners she had just made - she heard the door to the tower open.

“There she is,” Cullen said quietly, his tone easy, and Eleanor was thankful for that.

“Here I am,” she answered with a weak smile.

Cullen pulled off his heavy gloves and set them on his desk beside Eleanor’s curled up form. He had been overseeing the training of new Inquisition recruits with Cassandra, and though he too looked tired, he seemed invigorated, excited, and not wiped out and worn down like Eleanor. He opened his arms wide and embraced her, curled up knees and all, kissing her temple as he quietly asked, “How was it?”

“I’m tired,” she answered.

She felt him nod against her and he offered, “We’re going home tomorrow.”

“Mm,” she said, and was glad for it, though the reminder that their time in Indiana would be so short for now - for how long? - did nothing to mitigate her exhaustion.

“Let’s get you to bed, my love,” Cullen insisted, sensing her bone-deep weariness, knowing he was not likely to get much more out of her that night. He swept her up into his arms and she cooed a bit, appreciating his strength and understanding, both of mind and of body, as he cradled her in his arms and took her to the upper level. Another night and she would have kissed him long and hard, pulled him down on top of her and stayed up maybe just a little longer until the sweat cooled on their bodies. Tonight, though, she barely had the strength to strip down to her undies and lay listless under the covers as she listened to him pull off his armor. Even with her eyes closed she could see him arranging it neatly in a pile on the opposite end of the room, next to the mound of things they’d brought with them from Indiana, and brought with them again from Ferelden.

It wasn’t just today, Eleanor knew that. It wasn’t just Fiona, it wasn’t just hearing someone say the words she had for the past year quietly suspected through the images that came to her in her dreams. It wasn’t just any of those things - it was all of them, and more, and the longer she lingered here in Skyhold, the more and more tired she became. It was good, it was important, and she needed it, needed the training, and they needed her, needed her to tell them whatever she could about her home, about the Rift, about anything and everything they might need her for. And it was the Blight, almost half a year gone now, and yet, hardly any time to resume whatever might be called normalcy. They’d ended it in January and for nearly all of the time between January and April soldiers and agents had trekked in and out of her home, and she should have been used to that too, and maybe that was the problem: maybe she was used to it. But all she wanted was the gentle, rare, quiet moment when she and Cullen were alone, moments like their first night at the bar despite the fact that the Blight had been weighing down on their minds - and that night hadn’t ended well, had it? Or moments like the morning when Eleanor had walked out onto her lawn to find the house finally painted and Cullen standing there like some hero and like some simple man both, smoking a cigarette and stained in blue - but that had ended, well, here. Here, where she was being told even by strange creatures, magical creatures like herself that she was a danger and she was in danger and just to prove the point she was having pointed daggers and pointed letters aimed at her with hardly a break in between.

Eleanor felt a small tear slip down her cheek and she pushed it away, sucked back any others that might march lock-step behind it as Cullen slipped under the blankets next to her.

She was being selfish, she reminded herself as she rolled onto her side and Cullen tangled his arms around her, his chest pressed against her back. She was being selfish indeed: here Cullen was, with his hands clasped across her chest to hold her close, going through all those same things, and he was tired, and he wanted to go home, but he never complained, only told her it would be alright, only apologized for bringing her into this when he had done no such thing, not really, had only ever helped her in a situation she would have found herself involved in either way. Here was this whole organization, this whole world, dealing with these same things day in and day out and they just went on existing.

Of course, it was the brave, resilient commander who had wanted to stay in Indiana, wasn’t it?

Of course, Thedas was perpetually at war, afraid of its own people, wasn’t it?

As Eleanor laid there in bed, a memory came back to her, something she hadn’t thought about in a long time, something she’d maybe never gave another thought after it had happened: she had told Cullen not to be afraid in a dim moment before sleep, had told him that she would protect him, and in the fresh moments of dusk, lying there in her commander’s arms, she wanted now only to ask him to do the same, to please protect her.

Instead, she told herself to go to sleep.

Chapter Text

They didn’t have anything they needed to take back with them to Indiana, so just after sunrise, Cullen and Eleanor stood near the stables and waited for Evelyn to open the Breach. If all went to plan, this would be their last round-trip; after this, they would only be going home.

“Alright,” said Evelyn, “I’ll make sure Swiffer will be fed tonight and tomorrow morning. We’ve already got people at the house, keeping it safe; I’m sure they can feed the cat. We’ll see you back here tomorrow evening. And then,” she clapped her hands together joyfully, “your dinner.”

Eleanor forced a smile, only her upper teeth showing between her lips, until she turned and looked at Cullen and saw his own grin, authentic as anything. Maybe she was being a little too harsh, being a little too steadfast in her “no pomp, no ceremony, no celebration” thing. Maybe he wanted a little bit of that. After all, he was the one who had asked. He must have wanted this.

Well of course he wanted this, she said, mentally kicking herself. He didn’t ask her to be his wife on a whim, and with that thought her smile grew so big she had to stop herself from laughing, and she twined her fingers in Cullen’s and gave an affirmative nod.

“And then we’ll get back to work,” the Inquisitor finished, saying what didn’t really need to be said. Two days of peace, two days of bliss, and then it was back to training, back to explaining, back to researching, back to commanding until they’d done all they could and were free to walk through the Breach one last time and finally stay on the other side. How long would it take? Maybe months? Maybe a year? Eleanor couldn’t bear the thought of any more than that, so that’s what she was planning for. One year in Thedas, and not a moment longer. Hopefully much, much less. She’d already had a year of this.

But she did have a nice reward for her efforts, she thought, as Cullen bent to kiss her head, saying to Evelyn, “Of course, Inquisitor. We’ll see you then.”

The Inquisitor gave a firm nod of her head and lifted her left hand up to the sky. A flash of green, and then -

- they were home.

Eleanor was almost more eager to see the place now than she had been when they’d come back from Thedas via the Deep Roads. The sky was still a soft pink around the edges, the day still shedding sleepy remnants of morning, and in that moment she thought the dark blue house against the lightening blue sky was the most beautiful sight she’d ever seen.

“Well,” said Cullen beside her, “still standing.”

“Isn’t it just,” she said happily, and she could not help but run, arms wide, the short distance across the back yard and around to the front of the house.

Cullen followed behind walking at a quick pace, but steadfastly only walking, delighting for a moment in seeing Eleanor so filled with joy. But as she ascended the porch steps, he called to her, “Wait!”

A panic lit up in Eleanor’s chest, and she didn’t know what it was aimed at, but the thought flashed through her mind: “Not here -”

But Cullen still strode up to the porch with easy steps, and he said, “Well - I - yes, unlock the door.”

Slowly, Eleanor reached out and pulled open the screen door, then fished her keys out her jeans pocket and unlocked the deadbolt, then the doorknob, and pushed the door open. “You scared the shit out of me,” she muttered under her breath.

“Okay,” Cullen said, only now coming up the steps. “Now wait.”

Holding her keys in her right hand, Eleanor folded it under her left arm, the left under the right, and stood firmly frozen on the porch. “Yes?” she said, lifting one eyebrow, the plains breeze picking up her hair and tossing it around her shoulders as she waited for Cullen to step onto the porch.

“Yes,” he said softly, “good,” and in one swift motion, he lifted Eleanor off of her feet and threw her over his left shoulder, her hair now hanging over her head as she playfully beat on his back with her fists, careful of her keys as she shrieked, “Cullen! Put me down!”

“You didn’t mind last night,” he pointed out, reaching out for the screen door once more.

“I was tired last night!” she shouted, as though that made all the difference in the world.

“Alright, I will,” he acquiesced, but only once they were in the hallway, and the screen door had slammed shut behind them.

He set her on her feet and Eleanor flipped her hair back in the correct direction, stuffing her keys forcefully back into her pocket as she grumbled. “Just what the hell, mister.”

“Threshold and all,” he thumbed toward the door. “Didn’t feel right to do it Ferelden.”

Eleanor clicked her tongue and rolled her eyes, but her lips tilted up even as she said, “Chauvinist pig,” and she butted her forehead against his chest. He smoothed her hair, still in disarray, and held her there in the hallway for a minute or two, breathing in the Indiana air, drier, dustier than Ferelden even in these weeks of spring that bordered summer.

Eleanor pulled away first and said, “Come on. We’ve got work to do.”


It had been a long time since Eleanor had driven, but the truck felt right beneath her, felt right to have Cullen in the passenger seat beside her as he hung his right arm out the window, a cigarette from a freshly-unwrapped pack hanging from his lips as they cruised slowly over the dusty road that would take them to the highway, that would take them to the store. Eleanor wanted to get everything done early, and have a blessedly quiet, blessedly lazy evening ahead of them. Then all they would have to do tomorrow would be seal up the house one last time and wait for Evelyn to signal from the other side that it was time to return to Skyhold.

Swiffer was doing well with what passed for cat food in Thedas, and she was living up to her reputation as a mouser, but the sweet critter deserved some real treats every now and again. She also deserved some flea and tick medication, now more than ever, so Eleanor and Cullen wandered the aisles, they spent a long while in the pet department, stocking up for what could be a while without modern kitty amenities. Cullen pulled a pink collar down from the shelf with a little silver bell, and Eleanor shook her head.

“I don’t think she’s a girly girl,” she objected, and pulled a bell-less green one off of a hanger instead. “And we can’t let the mice hear her coming.” Cullen nodded his approval.

“You’re Mom, after all,” he teased.

“You’re damn right, buddy.”

They headed out into the grocery section but decided that neither wanted to bother with cooking or turning the gas back on; delievery it would be. Wine, however, was in order, and Eleanor was thankful she’d had the foresight to plug the fridge back in after she’d turned the power on; the day was already hot as they loaded the bed of the truck up with new socks and t-shirts and jeans, and warm white wine certainly wouldn’t do.

Their last stop was at the tobacco shop, and an embarrassing amount of money was divested on their shared bad habit. Eleanor had thought about trying to cut back, but she decided that any noble efforts could wait until her life was a little simpler, a little less full of threats and magic. Until then, she fished a large chunk of the money the Inquisition had paid her out of her purse and handed it over to the boy behind the cash register who looked like this was possibly the sixth or seventh time today that someone had walked out of the store with several thousand cigarettes.

Once home, Eleanor sat at the kitchen table, writing checks to pay the utility bills months in advance while Cullen opened the windows on the first floor and fished in the junk drawer for a corkscrew to pop open the first bottle of wine. They’d stopped for sandwiches on the way home and he placed Eleanor’s before her as she sealed up the last of the envelopes that would have to go in the big blue mailbox at the end of the gravel street before they left. When all that was left was to lock up once more - a task that would be their only chore tomorrow - Cullen scooched his chair next to Eleanor’s and they ate their sandwiches in agreeable silence, shoulder to shoulder, drinking their first and second glasses of wine.

“Every day, huh?” Cullen said, balling up the wax paper his lunch had come in and tossing it overhand into the trash from where he sat.

“Mm?” Eleanor asked around the rim of her wine glass.

“This. Could be every day.”

“Could be. Someday.”

Cullen nodded. “Not so bad.”

“Not at all,” Eleanor agreed.

Chapter Text

    “Pizza,” Eleanor insisted.

    “Just pizza?” Cullen asked. “Not something more special?”

    “Cul, I haven’t had pizza in months. We’re getting a fucking pizza,” Eleanor said, staring at her cell phone and waiting longingly for it to turn back on after months without being charged. “And you can’t tell me for a second that you didn’t think you’d died and gone to heaven the first time I fed you a pizza. Not a freezer pizza, a real one.”

    They had moved all of the porch furniture - and the previously packed-up boxes - into the basement before they’d left last time, so Cullen sat on the porch steps next to Eleanor, cradling his wine glass in his hand and trying to remember the first time he’d eaten a pizza. It couldn’t have been long after he’d arrived; it was before too many reinforcements had joined them on the farm, and Eleanor had ordered ten extra large pizzas to feed the soldiers and themselves. They were all gone in minutes. And yes, he admitted to himself, taking another sip of wine, it had been very good.

    “Mother fucker,” Eleanor mumbled. She was sitting backwards, facing the house, since the cord wasn’t long enough for her to turn around and face the yard with her clutching her phone as desperately as she was. “I just want to order some god damned food,” she breathed, shaking the little black rectangle as though that would encourage it - or threaten it - into lighting up.

    Eleanor’s muttered threats to her electronics aside, Cullen was enjoying the peace and quiet of being back on the farm. Eleanor had flipped the calendar in the kitchen over to June from where it had rested for months at April. “Almost summer,” she had said, and stabbed a finger at a square late in the month, where the tiny text must have affirmed the turning of the season, but like Eleanor in Thedas, Cullen couldn’t read what it said, only took Eleanor’s word for it. Cullen hadn’t been able to enjoy any of the summer months the previous year here; in all fairness, he hadn’t had time to stop and enjoy much of any season, though the long periods of wondering, of waiting, had come later in his stay on the farm. In the warm evening with a cool breeze on its heels he wondered if they would be back in time to enjoy any of it this year either. Unlikely, he thought, and closed his eyes, elbows on his knees, making sure he enjoyed it now, for these few hours that he would be here to enjoy anything about Indiana at all.

    “Yes,” Eleanor whispered, and it was almost a hiss, and after a few more minutes of anxious waiting, Eleanor stabbed the screen several times before pressing the phone to her ear with both hands like it was a conch shell that might divulge to her some ancient secret if only she held still and remained quiet. “Yes hi hello,” she said after a beat. “I’d like to order an extra large Hawaiian pizza, please.”


    Bellies overfull on pizza, brains more than a little hazy on wine - they should have stopped at two bottles - Cullen and Eleanor laid on their backs on the lawn, far enough away from the Breach that they could see the stars. A few wisps of clouds, their reflective white stark against the velvety blue sky, drifted along slowly, but the night was otherwise unobstructed. The grass was high but soft despite its dryness, not dead and sharp like it had been during the Blight, and it spoke in soft rustling whispers in the evening breeze.

    Cullen had his hands folded on his stomach, eyes half-open, consciousness half-aware, and he succumbed easily to Eleanor’s own fingers as she reached out and closed her grasp around his.

    “I love you,” she said, sincere in her inebriation, rid of dry wit, of humor, filled instead with only the perfection and solace of the gentle moment that surrounded them.

    “I love you,” he said back, turning his head to look at her. Eleanor’s eyes, almost the same color as the sky, were looking up, looking away, darting this way and that as though she were trying to remember every star above her, trying to keep them, save them, in case she needed them in the moments that she would not be able to see them when they returned to Thedas, whether to Skyhold or Ferelden, it didn’t matter. These were her stars, different stars, and the look on her face was intense, but was also one of pleasant familiarity. This was indisputably where she belonged, and after everything Thedas had put him through, Cullen thought he’d like to belong here too. He loved his home, and indeed, it would always be his home. Yet for as much as it had given him, it had taken an equal measure away. Maybe, he thought, maybe they wouldn’t stay in Indiana forever. Maybe the bucolic quietude would wear on him, wear on them both after a while, and they would long for the things that Thedas could give them that Indiana could not. Or perhaps by the time they felt that way, by the time Cullen had fully recovered from his own first Blight, from the mage tower, from Kirkwall, from Skyhold, maybe by the time Eleanor had recovered from a rift in the world, a rift in reality, from magic, from Archdemons and darkspawn, maybe they would be old and grey and they would sit on the porch and say, Oh wouldn’t it be nice to see Thedas again, Yes indeed it would, but instead of finding their way back, if one could be found, they would talk about it instead. Just talk.

    What Cullen found he really wanted was the choice.

    Beside him, Eleanor deeply sighed.

    “Alright?” he asked her, his tongue lazy in his mouth.

    “Nothing ever happens here,” she said, and it wasn’t a complaint, but an exaltation.

    “Aside from the…” and he pointed overhead, pointed behind where they lay.

    Eleanor batted a hand over her face as though the Blight, the Breach were insects that she could wave away. Perhaps they were, she reasoned; what were the odds that there would be another Blight ever, let alone while she still lived? What were the odds that if they came through the Breach one last time, returned to this spot and sealed the hole behind them that another would open and take them back again? No, life in Indiana would probably go on as it always had, unaware that these stranger things had ever been a part of its landscape, and the stars above would go on shining even after she was below the soil over which she now lay. Those stars now seemed to flicker through a filter of wine, of relaxation, and she took another deep breath, not a sigh this time but a meditation. No. Nothing ever happened here, and the thought was like a blanket pulled up over her shoulders and putting her to rest.

    She rolled over gently and gave Cullen’s hand a squeeze. “Let’s go to bed, handsome. It’s a good night to sleep.”

Chapter Text

The stars didn’t seem so bright now, the flickering seemed more obvious, more rhythmic, swelling and receding in a familiar pattern that Eleanor couldn’t quite place. Her eyes scanned the sky slowly, trying to suss out what they were saying, but she couldn’t focus on a single point over her head, the blurred lens of her mind hiding something from her, and, she couldn’t help but feel it was something crucial. The names, the shapes of constellations escaped her, and she squinted, but everywhere she looked, those wispy white reflective clouds obscured her view a little more, this way and that.

“I can’t,” she said softly.

“You can,” the answer came.

“No, I… I don’t understand. I can’t read this. I’m still learning,” Eleanor insisted. “They’re still teaching me.”

“I can teach you.”

“You can?” Eleanor felt dizzy, felt like the stars were the ground below her now, and she was looking down into them, and the earth was overhead, and she was under it. She bent down to touch the blue, expecting it to be soft and plush, expecting the stars to be sharp points under her fingers, under her feet, but when she made a spade of her hand and dug into the firmament, it was a cool liquid she scooped up, the dark blue dribbling away between her fingers, the stars in her cupped palm like so many diamonds. She brought them up to her eyes and they seemed clear now, and she realized that their gentle susurrations were mimicking the ins and outs of her breath. When she looked away, the ground was beneath her again, and the stars were back in the heavens, and her hand was empty, but her fingers felt nimbler, lighter, and the sky above seemed clear, and she understood.

Yet behind her there was a heaviness, a darkness, a troubling in the air and she turned quickly, and turned again, but there was no one with her in the field, nothing for miles on the vast expanse of softly whispering grass. Nothing for miles.

“I can help you,” it promised, as the heaviness around Eleanor grew, and the stars above shivered, and grew dim, “but you have to ask. We only get what we deserve.”

And something swelled up over Eleanor, and swallowed her whole, and she tried to ask, but the stars went out.


Eleanor bolted upright in bed. Her forehead, her back, her chest were coated in cold sweat, and she ran her fingers along her collarbones, wiping droplets away as her breath, her heart slowed again. With a long, heavy exhale, she shuddered, and brought both her hands to the sides of her head, sliding her fingers back into her hair and curving forward, her crown reaching for her knees.

“El?” Cullen said quietly in the darkness, his limbs rustling to life beneath the blankets.

“It’s okay, Cul,” she said, turning her head in his direction, but not rising, not releasing her hands from her hair, only dragging them a little further down. “I’m okay. Go back to sleep.”

“Nn,” he groaned, pulling himself upright, rubbing one hand across his mouth, his jaw.

“No, Cullen, I promise,” she said, even as he leaned to meet her, pulling her up slightly as her arms fell to his sides, resting his chin beside her neck. “It was just a dream,” she breathed, telling herself as much as she was telling him.

But Cullen felt the sharp sparks on her skin, invisible, unknowable if he hadn’t been what he was. He kissed the place between her cheek and ear and smoothed her hair.

“It’s nothing,” she said again, but she pressed herself against him now, glad for his presence, the comforting warmth of his strong frame. “What time is it?” Eleanor asked, and he turned his head away from her to glance at the clock on his side of the bed.

“Almost four in the morning,” he said in a whisper.

“Hm,” she grumbled.

“Should I put the coffee on?”

“You should go back to sleep,” she said with a smile, and she yawned, but instead of reminding her how tired she was it only served to wake her up further. What she wanted was a cigarette, but coffee did sound good. It wasn’t Cullen’s job to make it, though; he had been dead asleep.

Instead, she heard him say, “Right. Coffee it is.”


The house was locked up, the breakers were flipped, the water was turned off, and the shed and barn were double-deadbolted, as were the storm doors to the basement. Eleanor had even insisted on putting masking tape across the windows, just in case.

“In case of what?” Cullen had asked, as Eleanor made another X with the sticky strips.

“You know. In case,” she answered, and tore another length of adhesive with her teeth.

Now they leaned against the back of the house and smoked like truant teenagers, waiting for Evelyn to open the Breach, waiting for that green flair in the sky. The day was hot and bright but on the horizon a storm was rolling in and the wind was kicking up, blowing the high grass flat ahead of them. Everything they were taking with them was tied up in two layers of plastic bags but Eleanor quietly hoped that they would be through the Breach before the rain began to fall.

“I wonder what Evelyn has planned for us,” Cullen said, puffing slowly on his cigarette.

Eleanor shook her head. “Not too much, I hope. I’m exhausted,” and she shuffled a hand through her hair to move the tangles out of her eyes. She’d given Cullen a half a dozen haircuts over the past year, but had completely neglected her own. With the skill of the stylists at Skyhold she hadn’t thought much about it, the long braid they fashioned her hair into pinned tightly to her head, but without their aid it fell in a tangled mess down nearly to her elbows and the storm front wasn’t doing her any favors.

Cullen laughed. “My love. You know it’s going to be too much.”

“Oh well,” Eleanor said and bumped her shoulder against Cullen’s. His smile was infectious and Eleanor suddenly didn’t care what Evelyn was about to bombard them with as long as they would be mercilessly bombarded together.

Overhead, the sound of thunder split the air and though Eleanor normally enjoyed a rain storm, had grown up with the rumble of thunder rolling across the plains, the sound made her jump, and she almost dropped her cigarette.

“Alright, El?” Cullen asked, butting his own cigarette on the bottom of his shoe.

She swallowed hard. “Yeah. Just tired.”

He put his arm around her. “Last night…”

She shook her head. “It’s fine, I -” but she reached up to rub the back of her neck and squeezed her eyes shut, feeling heavy, heavy like she had in her dream, but inside of her instead of all around. “I dreamed -”

The Breach flared to life in front of them and Eleanor crushed out her own cigarette. “I’ll tell you tonight.” She bent down to pick up her share of the things and Cullen hauled away almost twice as much, but as they walked toward the flickering green, he said to her, “You know, we don’t have to…”

“We do, handsome. You know that.”

He gave her a look that was half a smile and half a frown, and said, “You know who you sound like don’t you?”

“Hm?” she asked, giving one of the bags a little adjustment with a jerk of her wrist.

“Me,” he said, and the word was sad.

She gave him a small laugh in return, and as they stepped beneath the Breach they were swept not so much up as in -


- but it was taking so long and Eleanor couldn’t feel the bags in her hands, had to fight to feel her hands at all and she was somewhere, somewhere in between, and she was falling, falling, falling -


- and the landing was all wrong. Her feet hit the ground hard and fast; moreover, her feet hit the ground. She’d never experienced any sensation of actually having moved when going through the Breach before but this time it felt like she was dropped, and the shock sung up her body. Eleanor dropped her bags and took a jerky step forward, trying to regain her footing, footing she never should have lost at all. Even on solid ground now, her feet beneath her, she felt weak, shaky, spun. She reached out for Cullen, clutched his arm and froze there just long enough for him to start to reach for her, but Eleanor pushed him away, stumbled back, and made it as far as the stable where she grabbed onto a wooden railing and purged her breakfast onto the grass.

Cullen dashed after her, dropping his bags next to hers and pulled her hair away from her face, tried to rub her arm, but she pushed out an arm, palm flat, pushed him away, gasping for air.

“What’s wrong?” Evelyn asked, jogging the short distance over to Eleanor and Cullen once her connection to the Breach had been severed.

Eleanor shook her head gently, Cullen’s hand on her hair restricting her motion, and Cullen gave the Inquisitor a baffled look.

“That’s never happened before,” Evelyn said softly. “I’m sorry, I…”

“No,” Eleanor said, standing up, stretching, spitting, gesturing for Cullen to let her go. “It’s… I don’t know. It wasn’t you Ev, it -” and she lurched forward again, but nothing came up this time. She only wobbled slightly and fell back against Cullen. He clasped her tight, held her steady -

And a shock of magic ran through her, ran through him that almost knocked him off of his feet.  She didn’t seem to notice except that a small groan escaped her, and she laid her head back against his chest.

“Are you okay?” Evelyn asked Eleanor, and then, “Is she okay?” to Cullen.

“I don’t -” he said, the little resonant shocks of power still passing through her.

“I’m fine,” Eleanor insisted, her knees buckling beneath her.

“Why don’t we,” Cullen suggested gently, “lie down for a moment?” He kept his voice light as he tugged Eleanor toward a bench underneath the tree that grew beside the barn. “Evelyn, could you… give us some space?” And he smiled at her, but it was a smile the Inquisitor knew well after so many years, a nervous smile, an anxious one.

“I’ll, um, have your things put away,” Evelyn offered. “Anything special, Eleanor?”

Eleanor shook her head and forcibly straightened her back, stood up straight, aware of the half a dozen or so pairs of eyes on her now, and though it was painstaking, she moved her feet beneath her even as the world seemed to spin until she was on the bench, sitting, not lying, Cullen kneeling in the grass beside her.

“Alright, El?”

She took a deep breath, a shaky breath, and nodded. “Yeah. Yeah,” but he could still feel a strange prickling magic coming off of her skin, not as strong as before, but still powerful, still pungent.

“What happened?” he asked, never taking those dark eyes off of hers.

Her first reaction was to say that she hated it when he did that, when he got all serious, got all templar, but she realized - she knew - that he was doing it now to help. That maybe something was wrong.

She shook her head. She didn’t know. Couldn’t help him. “I fell,” was all she said.

“Fell where? Fell how?”

“I don’t know, Cullen,” she gripped his hands tight, tighter, “I just felt like I was falling, falling forever, and then I was here, but I feel…” she bowed her head and her hair fell down over her eyes. “I’ve never felt that way when I was awake.”

Cullen pursed his lip, bit his cheek, took a deep breath in through his nose. “Do you remember,” he said slowly, “the night on the bathroom floor…”

She picked up her head quickly, blue eyes wide. Eleanor remembered. She remembered every instant, the blood, the fear, and the shocking, choking feeling when Cullen stripped her bare, stripped her magic away. “No, Cullen, no.”

He squeezed his eyes shut a moment, found hers once more when he opened them again. “I… I won’t without your say so.” Not something he ever would have agreed to ten, fifteen years ago. “Listen to me. I don’t know what happened to you. But if I cut you off from it, it might help.”

She swallowed hard and her ears popped as though the pressure around her and inside her were trying to reach an equilibrium. “This is such a pain in the ass,” she muttered. “Fine,” Eleanor said, her voice a little louder now. “Do it.”

He stood up from where he had been kneeling, knees creaky with age and wet from the grass, and he sat on the bench next to her, embracing her. She laid her head down on his shoulder, the world still gently spinning, still fuzzy, and she took a deep breath and held it.

“Ready?” he asked.

“Ready.”

Chapter Text

It was sharp, searing, stabbing, like a migraine without the pain, or the pain having been sublimated into a rigid realness that swept her up and pushed every iota of magic out of her. Hyper-aware of her body, her fist tightening around the fabric of Cullen’s white shirt, she could feel every thread under her fingers, could feel her nails reaching to meet her palm even with the cloth between them. Her eyes were closed but she saw red, the daylight permeating her skin, thin and fragile. She could feel the air in her lungs, expanding and pushing into her blood, could feel the neurons firing in her brain -

And then a brief moment of nothing.

Blackness.

Cullen’s hands, one on her hair, one on her waist.

Color, too bright, then softening.

The world seemed to be facing the right way around now, seemed to have the right amount of clarity, was neither too fuzzy nor too sharp.

She groaned.

“Are you alright?” Cullen’s voice, soft, resonant, as the last of the harshness died away.

Eleanor nodded slowly, noticing that her hand was still clenched around Cullen’s shirt, and she slowly let go, uncurling her fingers purposefully.

“Hate to admit it,” she mumbled, sitting up a little straighter, “but yeah. I’m alright.” Eleanor stretched, rolling her head on her neck and cracking her knuckles, before realizing Cullen still hadn’t taken his eyes off of her, observing her, yes, but with genuine concern. With love. “Hey,” she said, reaching out to put one hand on the side of his face, cheek rough with stubble. He looked tired, tired like she should look. “Cullen. Handsome. I’m fine. I promise,” she said, running her thumb along his skin. “Thank you.”

“Thank… me?”

She shrugged. “For asking.”

He knew that she didn’t mean for asking if she were alright. She meant for asking before he took her magic from her, even temporarily. He hadn’t done it lightly. He knew what it meant for her, for any mage. Even to help her, or to save her, she was still glad that he had asked. And then, in true Eleanor fashion, she brushed it off as though nothing at all were out of the ordinary.

“Look, I should probably get cleaned up a bit,” she said, standing cautiously and stretching out her limbs. “And I’ll probably have some ridiculous get up to wrangle my way into. When is this dinner, anyway? I’m starving,” she said, more to herself than to him, and she began to walk toward the great staircase that would take her into Skyhold proper.

Cullen shook his head, glad for her resilience and baffled by her nonchalance both.


“No. No way. Absolutely not,” Eleanor insisted. Her hair had been braided in an elaborate twist on the back of her head that made her locks look like a cinnamon bun, but she was barefoot in front of Cullen’s desk, and wearing only a towel. And she had walked across the courtyard that way.

“But Ellie,” Josephine tried gently.

“Absolutely not!” Eleanor hiked her towel up a little higher. “Look, where are my robes? I’ll just wear those, they’re fine.”

“Eleanor, this is special,” Mia had found her way into the argument - Eleanor suspected that she might have been the catalyst for it, as Mia had been here for the two weeks that Eleanor and Cullen had spent between Ferelden and Indiana, and had plenty of time to plot. Josephine had probably been sucked in by the idea afterward. Mia seemed like the plotting type, and Eleanor narrowed her eyes.

“No. It is not gonna happen. Evelyn, please,” Eleanor said, turning to the Inquisitor, who had so far remained impartial on the matter. “Can I wear something of yours? Seriously, I’ll wear anything, just not… that.” She pointed accusingly at the long, white… well, it wasn’t a robe. It was a dress, plain and simple. It was a white dress and they wanted to stick her in it and this dinner was turning out not to be at all what Eleanor had signed up for.

“Maybe we can compromise,” Evelyn tried, and looked to Cullen, who was slowly turning ever more red as he tried to make his large frame as small as possible, or perhaps blend in with his bookcase. He put a hand on his mouth and shook his head.

“Is this a party I wasn’t invited to?” a smooth voice came from the open battlements door.

“Dorian!” Eleanor said, and pushed past Josephine and Mia, almost strangling the Tevinter in a hug. “Thank god you’re here. You have to save me from them.”

Dorian blinked his grey eyes quickly a few times but didn’t hesitate in returning the embrace, despite Eleanor’s undressed state. “Save you… from them?” He looked up at Cullen. “Isn’t that your job, strictly speaking?”

“He’s useless,” Eleanor sighed dramatically, clinging to him still. “Please, Dorian.”

“Maybe one day she’ll love me that much,” Cullen whispered to Evelyn.

“Unlikely,” the Inquisitor answered.

Finally releasing Dorian, Eleanor thrust a blameful finger at Josephine and Mia. “You hold that thing up and you show him what you -”

“Is she always this difficult?” Mia asked Cullen, hoping to find common ground - or force it - with her brother.

“I -”

“You should just wear the towel,” Dorian offered. “It’s very slimming.”

“I’ll wear it, I swear to god.” Eleanor agreed, crossing her arms.

A petite woman pushed into the room between Eleanor and Dorian, between Josephine and Mia, and gave a distracted Evelyn a peck on the cheek. “Hey, Shiny,” she said, stretching out the i into a dipping vowel sound.

“‘Lo, Sera,” the Inquisitor said, wrapping one arm around the elven woman’s waist.

“Full house, yeah,” Sera said with a giggle. “Like the towel, El. Nice touch.” Dorian gave an approving nod, and Mia opened her mouth to object, but Sera went off again at lightning speed. “Need you when you have a chance, yeah? Got word from a Jenny. Orlais. Has to do with -” and she gave the least subtle look in the world to Eleanor, tipping her blonde head in the Hoosier’s direction and raising an eyebrow.

“Should I come?” Eleanor asked, both looking for a way out and realizing she might actually need to know what Sera’s Jenny had found.

“Absolutely not,” Evelyn said. “I don’t care what you wear - actually it is a lovely towel - but won’t have you, either of you,” and she turned slightly to point at Cullen even with Sera still on her arm, “worrying about this before dinner.”

“Oh for the love of - please not the towel, Eleanor. Anything but the towel,” Josephine begged, clutching the dress.

“I don’t know,” said Eleanor, reaching down and holding by the edge that fell just above her knees. “I’m pretty fond of this shade of blue.”

“It matches your eyes,” Dorian submitted.

“Does, that,” Sera nodded.

“Fine! Fine. I surrender,” Mia said, storming for the door, snatching the dress from Josephine, but just before she was out, she pointed hard at Cullen and said, “She is perfect for you,” before disappearing in a huff.

“I’m not sure if that was meant to be an insult or…” Eleanor said, still looking down at the towel.

“Take it as a compliment,” Dorian said, resting his arm on Eleanor’s bare shoulder and bending one knee. “It’s what I would do.”

“This is how I die,” Cullen groaned.

“Domestic life not what you thought it would be?” Dorian asked. “Congratulations, by the way,” he nudged Eleanor on the arm.

“I think you should wear the towel,” Sera insisted.

“Please,” Josephine deflated a little more. “Not the towel.”

Chapter Text

Evelyn had moved her throne to make way for a long table at the top of the hall, near the long windows that were letting in the last red light of evening. A space had been made for Eleanor and Cullen in the middle of the long side, their backs facing the windows so that they could see everyone around them and before them.

Cullen had gone on ahead while Eleanor bartered with Josephine, trading small details, calling for a seamstress only moments before Eleanor was supposed to take her seat. In the end, Eleanor gave in enough to wear a dress, a formal gown, and Josephine allowed that it could be a color besides white or beige. Or eggshell. Or light grey.

So they went with black, since it was the only other thing Josephine could scrounge up that, “doesn’t make me feel like a cake,” Eleanor said.

Mia returned, a little less huffy, and as the seamstress took in this and added that, her hands quick and deft, the Rutherford sister admitted that perhaps this was a better choice after all.

“So what was the wedding like?” Mia asked, as Eleanor held her arms out to the sides and the seamstress tugged hard on laces that went from between Eleanor’s shoulder blades to the very bottom of her spine.

“Oh, yes, you must tell us,” Josephine said, clasping her hands together.

“I mean,” Eleanor said, stretching out the word, trying to figure out how to phrase the fact that they’d done nothing more than ask the other if it were a good idea, and if they each agreed that it was. “Well, okay, so, it was in the little chapel thing down by the garden, and oof!” she exhaled sharply as the dressmaker tugged on the ties, “he asked me if I wanted to be with him, and I - hff!” she shuddered again as the dress got a bit tighter, “said yes, but I had told him before, you know, I don’t want to get married, nothing fancy, I just… anyway, so -” she gasped again, “he said would I be with him and I said yes. And that was pretty much it.”

There was silence. Even the seamstress paused in her tugging.

“You,” Josephine began slowly, looking from Mia to Eleanor, “really are perfect for each other,” she agreed.

“Am I supposed to be able to breathe?” Eleanor asked, letting her arms lower as the seamstress stepped away, checking her work one last time.

“Not really,” Mia answered.

“Just checking,” Eleanor confirmed.

The dress had sleeves that came to the elbow, a little V of fabric pointing slightly further down her forearms. Her right shoulder was covered, the left was bare, that sleeve starting where the neckline of the dress stopped and ascended from there in an asymmetrical swoop toward her right collar bone. The body was tight - too tight, in Eleanor’s opinion, but didn’t have a separate corset in what Josephine told her would have been proper Orlesian fashion; it was only made of stronger stuff there, and allowed the dress itself to be laced. It hugged tight to just below her hips where it flared out slightly. All over it was covered with tiny dark blue gems, most of them concentrated around her chest and becoming more and more spare as they descended the length.

“Lovely,” Mia said, tucking a little blue orchid-like flower behind Eleanor’s ear. Eleanor couldn’t identify the bloom, but the scent it produced was sweet, almost refreshing.

“I mean, it’s not what you would call practical.” Eleanor murmured.

“Ah, well, yes. That’s not… entirely the point,” Josephine assured her. “And now, a bit of rouge, I think.”


Mia and Josephine walked ahead of Eleanor as they headed into the hall. Eleanor hung back, holding up the hem of her dress, afraid to step on it, not just because it looked like a thing easily ruined, but as because she ascended the steep stone staircase, it looked like a thing that could easily ruin her. She was so busy making sure she wasn’t about to break her face even as the floor flattened out beneath her and all she had to watch for were uneven stones that she didn’t notice as the hall grew a little quieter around her.

Unaware, she softly whispered, “Motherfucking dress…”

A chair slid out loudly, and Eleanor picked up her head to see Cullen standing some yards away, in front of his place at the table, a lopsided grin on his face and a hand over his heart, the Inquisitor seated to his left, an open chair at his right. Along the table sat Dorian, Varric, Sera, Cassandra, Iron Bull, and even Leliana, the Divine, with Josephine and Mia taking their places as well.

Eleanor released the death grip she had on the fabric of the gown and said across the space between them, “Oh, hey, folks. What’s up?”

Dorian picked up his napkin and put it over his mouth to hide a laugh.

Cullen circled around behind the table and walked down the shallow stairs to meet Eleanor where she stood. When he took her hands, gentle applause broke out.

“No, hey, no, you all stop that. Shh,” Eleanor insisted, putting a finger to her lips for emphasis, but from the end of the hall, she heard Sera shout, “Now kiss!” as Varric cracked up beside her, and Eleanor knew it was hopeless to fight it, if just for this one night.

She tapped her previously shushing finger on Cullen’s chest, on what she realized was a new shirt, a new vest, more black and red than red and gold, and said quietly, “You asked for this. You wanted this,” and she snaked her hand behind his neck, kissing him hard on the mouth to a soundtrack of peels of laughter and warm applause.

“I do love you,” he said, as he lead her to the table and pulled out her chair.

“I love you too, and I have arms,” but she sat down and let him push the chair back in, just this once.

Chapter Text

They had all had more than a few glasses of wine before Varric called for a toast.

This time, it was Cullen who said, “Oh, please don’t.”

And even though Eleanor backed up Cullen’s sentiment - “Really, you don’t have to…” - Varric went on, not heeding the commander’s request as he often didn’t.

“I have seen a lot of weird shit in my life,” Varric said, “a lot of weird shit.” He paused and took a breath, and there was a collective nod around the table, agreeing not just with Varric, but with each other, each having seen their own fair share. “I thought the weirdest shit I would ever see was another world. And then I thought the weirdest shit I would ever see was you, Farm Girl. But I was wrong - and I’m not often wrong, isn’t that right, Seeker?”

“Varric, I swear -”

“No, the weirdest shit I have ever seen is how happy Curly is when he’s around you. I didn’t even know he could smile. Now I’m not sure he can stop.”

Cullen put his hand to his face to hide his teeth, because he wasn’t sure he could stop either, but across the table, Mia said, “Oh, would you just, Cullen?”

“Yeah, Cul, would you just?” Eleanor said, nudging him gently.

“Farm Girl. Cullen. You’ve got each other. That’s… that’s something.”

Dinner, as promised, was all too much, and by the time it had been cleared away and desserts set before them, Eleanor thought she was about to burst. She put one hand on her stomach and leaned back in her chair, wondering how tiny Sera was still eating if Eleanor herself couldn’t even bear to take a sip of the sweet pink wine in front of her. Gorged as she was, she found her gaze slipping slowly toward the ceiling where the firelight seemed to collect, though all the torches were hung roughly at eye level. The sun had gone down long ago and the glittering fires around the hall threatened to put Eleanor into a trance, but out of the corner of her eye she saw Dorian, seated next to Bull, arching his eyebrow at Cullen who had tipped his chin slightly forward in a questioning stance. The mage mouthed something at the commander, and Cullen answered with a silent word that Eleanor didn’t catch.

“What’s this? Oh, no thank you,” Eleanor said, looking up and into the enormous blue eyes of a brunette Dalish servant who was refilling her hardly-touched glass, and when she turned back to the table, a little wooden box sat in front of her on her plate where her dessert, if she’d had the willpower to eat any, would have been.

Dorian smiled broadly, and as if to say, “My work here is done,” turned away, instantly engrossed in a conversation with Bull, Varric, and Sera.

Eleanor looked to Cullen, who put up his hands, surrendering playfully. Evelyn and Mia, drawn in by the pantomime, leaned in.

“Alright,” Eleanor said, folding her arms. “I’ve had just about enough of this.”

It was Leliana, who until now had been stoic and observant at the other end of the table, who said, “Well, you must open it, Eleanor.”

With one hand, Eleanor reached down to pick up the box and with the other she pointed at Cullen, saying, “Don’t think for one second I approve of this,” but she barely made it through the sentiment without laughing. One hand underneath it, the other on top, Eleanor wiggled off the little wooden lid and set the top down on the table, and her hand, now free, went to her mouth. From behind it, she said, “You’re a real jerk, Cullen Rutherford,” as tears sprang to her eyes.

Cullen took the box from her hand and withdrew the singular item it contained: a fine loop of silver, twisted like a spiral the whole way around. It was otherwise unadorned. No gems or flourishes, nothing but the silver spiral. He set the box back down and with his free hand he beckoned her to allow him to put the ring on her finger.

Scrunching up her mouth to one side and rolling her eyes, half to chastise him, half to hold back tiny pricks of tears, Eleanor turned in her seat and passed her left hand to him and with a little effort, he pushed the ring down onto her finger.

“It’s nice I guess,” she said quietly, but the look on her face and the catch in her voice told another story.

Cullen smiled his crooked smile at her and folded his hands around hers.

“Well, don’t do that,” Mia said, reaching across the table to bat gently in Cullen’s direction though he was too far away for her to really reach. “Let us see!”

Obligingly, Eleanor put out her hand and stretched as far as she could as her adorned finger was paraded around the table. It was not the kind of thing Eleanor would have seen herself doing but in the moment, with her grinning spouse beside her looking equal parts the fool and the commander, she let herself give in.

Leliana was far to her left and Eleanor had to sweep her hand around to come back to that side, and as the Divine reached for Eleanor’s fingers, Eleanor elbowed over her wine glass, sending the dark red liquid cascading onto the white and gold linen.

“Ah shit,” Eleanor said, jerking her hand back quickly to right the cup and reaching for the napkin beside her plate. She pressed it against the red stain as though marring one piece of white cloth to save another made any kind of sense. “My bad.”

Across the table, Evelyn waved her hand dismissively. “Don’t even worry about it. The party doesn’t start until someone spills a drink.”

Eleanor laughed a bit, still trying to sop up the fragrant liquid. “Where I’m from, we call that a party fou- ow!” She hissed and jerked her hands away from the table.

Cullen reached over quickly, his hands going for hers. “What is it?”

Eleanor started to reflexively bring her hands to her lips, as though to soothe a cut, but stopped short. “Fuck fuck fuck,” she wiped her fingertips on Cullen’s napkin, then quickly flipped her own stained one over to reveal the liquid beneath, liquid which now was black and faintly sizzling.

Dorian’s cup was halfway to his lips but as he watched Eleanor’s distress, he slowly lowered it back down.

“No one,” Eleanor said softly, sliding her chair back and standing slowly, cautiously, “no one drink the wine.”

Chapter Text

“What the hell is happening here!” Cullen shouted at everyone and no one in particular.

He, Eleanor, Evelyn, Leliana, Cassandra, and Varric had reconvened in the War Room after hustling everyone else off to search. For what, they weren’t sure. Only Mia had been put out by not being invited to the War Room, but Josephine had thankfully whisked her away before she could add any additional drama to the evening.

“Cullen, I am so sorry,” Evelyn began but Eleanor stopped her.

“Don’t apologize, Ev. You wanted a nice evening for us. Hell, I think I wanted a nice evening for us.”

“I should… I should have been more careful, after…” she threw her hands to her sides, “...everything.”

Eleanor only shook her head, still rubbing her fingertips against her thumb.

“We all should have been more careful,” Cullen growled, and Cassandra agreed.

“Indeed. I don’t think we should allow anyone in or out until we find out who is responsible for this.”

“I hate to say this, but I agree with the Seeker,” Varric groaned.

“Yes, but -” Eleanor started.

“I’ve got Sera talking to the staff.”

“Good,” Cullen said emphatically. “If I find out one of those -”

“Cullen, please -” El tried again.

“Pavus is inspecting the wine,” Cassandra added, and Varric snorted.

“I bet he is,” the dwarf chuckled.

“That’s great -” but Eleanor was cut off once more.

“I have my agents going over this place with a fine-toothed comb, and can have ravens ready at a moment’s notice,” Leliana offered.

“Thank you, Your - Leliana,” Cassandra caught herself, and the Divine smiled.

“I just want to go home,” Eleanor said under her breath, putting her head in her hands.

Cullen watched as she deflated. Eleanor, still in her beautiful black dress, still looking lovely if a bit disheveled - but didn’t she always look lovely? - was rubbing her forehead roughly with the tips of her fingers as though trying to rub the evening out of her pores, and Cullen realized he’d done it again, trying to take care of the situation without taking care of Eleanor at all. She could take care of herself, and he knew that, but as he reached out and wrapped his arm around her, pulling her close, her forehead resting on his shoulder now instead of her fingertips, he knew that as strong as Eleanor might be, she appreciated the help. “Soon,” he told her, and hoped he could mean it.

The wicket gate swung open and Dorian came in looking flushed, his hair slightly askew.

“Let me see your hands, Eleanor,” he said, looking ready to push Cullen out of the way if either of them moved too slowly. But Eleanor backed away from the commander and put out her arms, hands dangling limply in front of her. Dorian grasped them and turned them over, looking carefully at her palms, her thumbs, her fingertips.

“Alright,” he said, letting her go, “it looks alright.”

“What is it?” Evelyn asked, stepping close to Eleanor as Dorian still caught his breath.

“Ah,” he said, putting one hand on his forehead, the other on his hip, “mostly rashvine.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad,” Eleanor said. “Like poison ivy?” She inspected her own hands now; the redness that had been present on her fingertips had already faded, the stinging - burning? - sensation already gone.

“Well, no, not usually,” Dorian agreed. “Not unless it gets into your blood. In fact, it can be used in some healing -”

“The point, Dorian?” Cullen barked.

“Yes,” he said, letting the hand on his head slip to the back of his neck. “It’s mostly rashvine. I think the other component might be blood lotus. This looks something like Antivan Fire, but it’s definitely comestible - ah, well, insofar as poison is comestible.” He shook his head. “But I’ve never seen anything quite like this. Mind you, I’m not a potions expert,” he added.

“Well, that’s more information than we had before,” Evelyn said. “Leliana, can you -”

“I’ll get my people on this,” she said, and excused herself.

“I’m not saying I know anything,” Varric said, “but this has shady underworld shit written all over it.”

“That still something you can help out with, Varric?” Evelyn asked, turning around to face him.

“No promises, Inquisitor, but I’ll see what I can do.”

“Anything helps,” she said.

Eleanor breathed deeply, putting her hands on her head before letting her arms drop heavily. “Dorian, can I ask you something?”

“Anything.”

“Was that… that shit in everyone’s cup, or…”

The mage frowned, and Cullen looked from him to Eleanor and back again.

“Just hers, then,” the commander assumed.

“You would be correct,” Dorian answered.

“Well, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that this sucks. Hard,” she amended, and let her weight fall heavily against the edge of the war table, lower back smacking against the wooden edge with a dull thud. “They don’t even know me,” she muttered under her breath, looking up at the ceiling.

“They know what you represent,” Dorian said, going to her side, leaning more gently against the massive table, “or they think they do. And they think, rightly or not, that it’s a threat, and by extension, so are you.”

“But I’m trying to help,” she argued, though no one in the room would disagree.

Across the table, Evelyn answered, “I know that. We all know that. But they - whoever they are - don’t.”

“Don’t? Or won’t?” Eleanor countered. “I shouldn’t even be here,” she breathed, but felt ridiculous for saying it before the words were finished leaving her mouth. Of course she shouldn’t be here. She shouldn’t be here, and she shouldn’t have these powers, but she was, and she did, and moaning about it wasn’t going to change anything. Unless… “What if I just went home? Went back to Indiana? Last I checked, no one was out to get me there. And if they were, they’d have a hell of a time getting there.”

“Maybe that’s best,” Cullen agreed.

“It would be safer,” even Cassandra admitted.

“Safer, yes,” Dorian said, but the lift at the end of the phrase made Eleanor turn her head.

“‘Safer, yes,’ but?” she asked, filling in the word that he had implied but didn’t state.

“But you never seemed to me much like the sort of person who would turn and run,” he said with a wink. “You certainly didn’t run from any darkspawn.”

“Yeah, but the darkspawn weren’t out to get me, specifically. They weren’t sending me threatening letters and poisoning my fucking drink,” she said flatly, raising her eyebrow high at him.

“That’s true,” he allowed, “but you were on the front lines, and you never budged. And you wouldn’t have been any less dead if they had succeeded.”

“Well, that’s a happy thought,” Cullen muttered, scratching the stubble beneath his ear.

“Yes, I’m a veritable ray of sunshine,” Dorian mugged. “But that doesn’t make it untrue.”

Eleanor had clamped her bottom lip firmly between her teeth and was sucking on it as though interrogating it for answers. “So, what, I should stay here and give this person - these people - another couple of chances to murder me? Or, what, show them I’m not to be feared?”

“No,” Dorian said, “you should stay here and show them that they should absolutely be afraid.”

There was a moment of quiet, and a smile spread across Eleanor’s lips, but it was smothered as Cassandra groaned into her hands, “Yes, because that’s worked so well for you people in the past, hasn’t it.”

Chapter Text

“What do you think I should do?”

Eleanor was laying in bed next to Cullen, her head on the pillow, arms on top of the bedclothes as she fidgeted anxiously with her new ring.

“I want you to be safe,” Cullen said. He was laying on his side, propped up on his elbow, watching Eleanor as she determinedly stared up at the ceiling.

“I want to be safe,” she said, then added softly, “for once,” but she only half-meant it. She’d almost enjoyed rushing into danger in the past, but then it was a clear and apparent danger, and not this surreptitious shit. “But I don’t want to leave while I’m needed. And I don’t want to run away.”

“Well,” Cullen said, shifting and reaching out to take her hand, “at the moment, those two states seem a bit mutually exclusive.”

“Yeah,” she answered, finally turning to look at him, “yeah they do.” She turned onto her shoulder to face him more easily and said, “I just have this awful feeling in the pit of my stomach.” “That’s understandable,” he answered.

“Whoever this is, they want me gone. And maybe that’s best. I don’t belong here.”

Cullen didn’t say anything now, but his weak smile told her that he understood.

“But,” she sighed, “then they win. And I’m a really sore loser.”

Even though her tone was humorless, the words made Cullen grin, an honest grin this time, and the look on his face made Eleanor laugh a quick laugh.

“But, really,” she said, inching closer to him, “what do we do?”

Cullen bit his lip thoughtfully. “Well, whoever they are, they certainly know how to find you.”

“They know how to find me in Thedas,” she said, leaving the rest of the thought unspoken.

“Fair enough,” he agreed, “but at least at Skyhold you’d nearly always be surrounded by people who can protect you.”

“And also always be surrounded by strangers and potential assassins. I can’t ask Evelyn to keep this whole place on lockdown for the duration. And it might not matter anyway if they’re already here.”

“Well, yes.”

“At the cabin we’d at least be able to see them coming.”

“And we’d be alone and miles from help.”

Eleanor pressed her lips thin, looking away for a moment. “Fuck,” she muttered. “What would you do?” she asked him, all out of ideas of her own.

“Eleanor,” he said, as though the question was moot.

“Really, though, Cullen.”

“I… would stay. Here, probably, or at the cabin, since it is there for us. But -” he cut her off before she spoke, “that’s what I’ve done my whole life. That’s the life I know. It’s not…”

“Not my life?” She digested this for a moment. “No… Well, no, but isn’t it though? Anymore, I mean?”

“It doesn’t have to be,” he allowed. “You never asked to be a part of this.”

“No,” she agreed again, “but I did sort of agree to it.” She gave his hand a squeeze. “And I do… I can… well, you know.”

In a flash, he remembered her on the bench, shaking, heaving with magic. She hadn’t asked for that either, had she? But she was trying to embrace it, as much as that thought still sat wrong with him, though he tried hard for it not to.

Eleanor rolled again onto her back, keeping Cullen’s fingers twined in hers this time, her eyes going back to the ceiling.

“What do you want?” he asked, “Really want?”

“I want not to be threatened or poisoned, but I already have been, and I can’t really do much about that now. And I’m tired. I would love to just slink back to the house and lay on the porch and pretend nothing ever happened. But I can’t. You know I can’t. I’d sit there every day and wonder if maybe I could have done something about the assholes who are threatening me. So what I want to do is to punch the person who’s responsible for this square in the throat.”

“That sounds like as good a plan as any,” Cullen said, after a pause.

Eleanor turned her head quickly. “What, seriously?”

“I am entirely receptive to the idea of punching that kind of coward in the throat. But, of course, ladies first.”

“I am such a lucky woman.”


They told Evelyn in the morning that the cabin was all the further they’d be going until this whole thing was sorted out.

“Good,” Evelyn said, folding her arms across her chest, “because Sera’s got a lead.”

Chapter Text

“So I get to be bait? That’s exciting.”

Cullen rubbed the corner of his eye with a knuckle, resigned.

Sera had perched on the corner of Evelyn’s desk and explained her plan.

“So, yeah. Some Jennies down in Orlais heard little whispers about the mage from elsewhere - that’s you, Nor - and what some big hat intends to do about her. Maybe heard something about the two the caused a fuss what at Skyhold, yeah? When them two got back they laid low - smart, like - but not long enough, n’that’s where they slipped up. So they go back to whatever Mister or Missus Big Hat what sent them, and maybe it doesn’t go so well for the littles that the big hat sent to, well,” and Sera made a stabbing motion and a sucking sound with her cheeks, and giggled. “So they try the poison, maybe as a last resort - I mean, that’s new, right? Didn’t see that coming. Doesn’t matter. Didn’t work. Threaten you, doesn’t work. Scare you, doesn’t work. Poison you, doesn’t work. News travels fast. Big hat doesn’t trust the littles anymore, and thinks maybe they better do the job themselves. But they’re a big hat, see? They can’t get seen with blood on their precious gloves, ew, right? Not directly, anyway. Gotta be discrete. So they need to get you alone, away from all this noise and people, like, and then, swish swish swish, splat auuuuuugh -” she fell down on the desk, talking to the ceiling now, one hand splayed dramatically on her chest, “you’re dead, and they’re away back to their fancy pants mansion, problem solved, and they get to be some big hero in their weird secret circle of big hats ‘cause they stabbed the mage from whatsits.” She sat up quickly here and pointed at Eleanor. “‘Cept you won’t be dead, ‘cause we’ll be watching, yeah, and it’s them what’s gonna be dead. So, like, we just gotta get you all alone, right? Bait, see, and then the big hat comes and then,” she laughed, “the big hat goes. Like, goes, right? Dead.”

Which was when Eleanor had said she was excited.

“Right!” Sera agreed. “Real exciting, yeah? ‘Cept for the waiting.” Here she put a thumb to her chin. “Dunno how long it’ll take.”

“What if… I can’t believe I’m saying this,” Cullen mumbled, rubbing harder at the side of his eye, “What if we go back to the cabin, and I’m called away,” he emphasized these last words to indicate the ruse, “on Inquisition business.”

From across the room, Evelyn looked at him sideways, smiling. “I can make that work,” she said. “You two go, get settled in, I’ll send a messenger, you leave,” she said to Cullen, “Eleanor is alone -”

“But not alone,” Sera interjected.

“And then whoever is behind this reveals themselves.”

“And then I shoot ‘em with an arrow,” Sera offered.

“Or we give them a proper trial,” Evelyn countered.

“Proper trial my arse,” Sera murmured.

 


 

 

“Close your eyes…”

Fiona’s voice was dangerously soothing, and Eleanor obeyed without question.

She sat on a bench in the garden, not far from where the first threat on her life had occurred, but with the Grand Enchanter there with her, it seemed like a completely different place. It seemed shadier, smaller, safer, and with Fiona sitting beside her, Eleanor closed her eyes, and the pleasant darkness overtook her.

Eleanor breathed quietly for a moment, unsure of what the next step would be but unconcerned all the same. Her hands were folded in her lap and she was aware of the contact of skin on skin, of skin on the cool metal on her finger. She was aware of the warm, dry breeze that blew tiny fly-away hairs away from her face, that rustled the collar of her shirt. She heard birds, heard leaves, heard other sounds floating in from further away; the sound of metal clashing where soldiers trained, the sound of voices, of laughter, from inside the keep. She felt as if, for a moment, she didn’t need her eyes to see; the other sensory information she was receiving told her everything she needed to know.

“Can you feel it inside of you? The power?” she heard Fiona’s voice ask her, and there was a momentary tiny voice inside her that said that that was a stupid question; of course she could, but as she became aware of that power, actively aware, she was reminded of all the moments in her life when she hadn’t been aware of it, and was suddenly grateful for the sensation within her.

“Yes,” was all Eleanor answered.

“Reach that power - don’t summon it,” Fiona added quickly, watching Eleanor’s hands flex. “Just let it be there. But be close to it.”

This was not something Eleanor was used to, being aware, being with the sensation inside her without using it, even for a simply amusement. It was almost more difficult than tapping into the feeling. It was like trying to hold water in her palms without letting it drip through her fingers: it would be easier to drink it, to splash it on her face, to flick it from her fingertips and go back for more than just to hold it in her hands. Eleanor took a deep breath and tried not to strain, tried hard to relax. “Okay,” she told Fiona, unable to form more than those two syllables without tensing up again.

“Do you have it?” the elven woman asked.

“I… think so,” Eleanor’s words came slowly. She let out a breath and affirmed, “Yes.”

“Good,” Fiona answered. “Hold it there as long as you can. Don’t use it. Just hold it.”

It was like the exact opposite of tensing a muscle to build strength, Eleanor thought. She felt her jaw tighten and willfully forced it slack again.

“That’s it,” Fiona said. “Keep it there.”

Eleanor nodded slowly, trying to visualize this ephemeral thing inside of her, some white radiance on the backdrop of blackness that were her closed eyes. It felt a bit trite, but at the same time it felt correct, this tiny fictitious star in her imagination. She turned one palm to face the other in her lap and rubbed her hands together slowly, not in any particular direction but in a motion soothing nonetheless. In her mind’s eye the color of her mana sun shifted from yellow to white to a cool blue. Eleanor rolled her head on her shoulders and as her neck lolled, the ball seemed to spin on an invisible axis, to hum. Eleanor resisted the urge to hum out loud in response but pursed her lips regardless.

Then the hum seemed to deepen, and Eleanor felt her mind reaching out somehow as though searching, unbidden.

“Hm,” Eleanor sighed, and her brow furrowed.

“What is it, Eleanor?” Fiona asked, and Eleanor felt the Grand Enchanter shift on the bench beside her.

“I don’t…” she began slowly, but behind her eyes, everything went dark blue, and whatever she was about to say was cut short, followed up only with an, “Oh.”

“Stay with me, Eleanor,” she heard Fiona caution her, but despite trying to keep still, Eleanor picked up a hand from her lap, and, eyes still closed, she reached out into the space in front of her.

In her mind, the dark blue turned into stars. She reached for them.

They reached back.

“Wait,” Eleanor whispered.

“Eleanor,” Fiona warned.

They reached back, but here, they were too far away to touch. They were aware of her, and she was aware of them, but the stars slowly flicked, faded, and then there was only blue, and then there was only black.

Eleanor opened her eyes, dropped her hand, and looked at Fiona, disappointed.

“It’s gone,” she said.

Chapter Text

Eleanor didn’t even realize she’d been staring out the window until Cullen walked past and gave her a wave, then kept on walking.

She stretched.

They were back at the cabin now, had been for a few days, and Eleanor was reveling in the slowness, the boredom of it all. She’d been sitting on the bed, books and papers all around her, a pen - a real pen, she thought - hovering about a notepad, but her focus was lost. The sky was grey outside, mirroring the water of the lake, and for some reason, the trees rustling in the wind, the place on the horizon where she couldn’t tell the sky from the water anymore, kept pulling her attention away. She pushed the paper away and looked again out the window, absently running her index finger up and down the bridge of her nose below her reading glasses, then pulling it down and letting it rest on her lips as she listened to the leaves rustling in the wind. The sky above was a no-color, a white, a grey, a nothing, and if Thedas was anything like Indiana, it meant that there was a storm on the way. She’d been here when it rained. She’d been here when it snowed. But a real storm, a summer storm - and if the humidity clinging to her skin was any indication, it was truly summer now - she had yet to see.

Eleanor put all her books and papers into a pile and let them fall heavily on her nightstand, the candle there trembling gently against the sudden thud, and she stood, pushing her hair out of her face as she made her way to the front of the house and out the door.

Cullen had been outside all morning already, first with his sword, slashing at the air, and then with a spade, digging up little weeds and the sprouts of rogue bushes that had sprung up around the house. Eleanor found him around the right side of the house, leaning up against the wood near the kitchen window. His shirt was caked in dirt and there was soil smeared across his forehead, a corresponding smudge on his forearm with which he’d wiped his brow.

“Hey,” she said, her lips pressing involuntarily into a little smile at the sight of her dirt-stained commander.

“‘Lo,” he answered, giving his head a little incline as he acknowledged her.

From somewhere off in the distance, Swiffer bounded toward them, mewling an intense shout, and wound her way around Eleanor’s ankles, then Cullen’s before skittering around to the back of the house.

“Someone’s having an exciting day,” Eleanor said, finding a space underneath Cullen’s arm to wiggle her shoulder, resting her head against his collarbone.

He put his arm around her, saying, “She’s been chasing birds all morning. I thought for sure she’d be worn out by now.”

“She’ll be worn out when she’s damn good and ready,” Eleanor said, with laughter in her voice. “I think she’s finally realized that this is home, for now.”

“Hm.”

“‘Hm’ what?”

He shook his head, and only said, “Home.”

Eleanor said nothing, but gave him a gentle squeeze. “Lawn looks nice.”

“Perhaps we could plant some… thing,” Cullen offered. “Flowers?”

“It’s a bit late in the season - I think,” Eleanor allowed, assuming growing seasons were the same as what she knew before, “But yeah. Something viney. Or bushy. What grows like that here?”

“Ah,” Cullen said, rubbing his hair with a dirty hand. “Crystal Grace grows in a sort of a bush. It’s not too common, but Evelyn might have some seeds,” he said, looking off into the distance, as though the lake could either confirm or deny this supposition.

The breeze picked up suddenly then, and across the lake there was a sharp crack, the first boom in a long roll of thunder, and with the sound, Cullen flinched, eyes snapping shut, shoulders drawing up toward his ears for just the briefest moment. He looked away, looked down, and let out an exasperated sigh. Eleanor looked up at him, eyes wide.

“You okay?” She put her hand on his chest and gave him a little rub. When he didn’t answer, she gently prodded, “Cul?”

This time he closed his closed his eyes deliberately, and the breath he took in was long. “Let’s go inside.”

 


 

 

He told her about Kinloch Hold. He told her about how the tower fell, and why he had hesitated when Evelyn told them about this cabin.

He told her about the Warden, and how his mind had not been his own, and why he had gone to Kirkwall at all.

He told her everything about that southern Free Marches citystate that Varric had not.

When he finished, it was evening. The storm had come and mostly gone, but a heavy rain still fell on the roof, the percussion of the thousand tiny drops of water a soothing backdrop to Cullen’s soft, wavering voice, as he sat in the chair opposite Eleanor on the couch, his knees forward, back bent, hands clasped. His eyes, for so long fixed on the floor, looked up at her now, not for an answer, not for a response, but just to see her there, still sitting, still listening.

And she was.

She thought about going to him a dozen times, more, as he spoke, but instead, Eleanor had sat patiently facing him, letting him speak. And now that he was done, she didn’t know what to say, so she didn’t say anything. She only got up, skirted the table between them, and got down on her knees in front of him and wrapped her arms around his legs, resting her head on his lap.

Cullen opened his mouth, but said nothing, and instead let one hand rest heavily on her hair. He took in a shuddering breath and wiped his face, still smudged with dirt. He breathed out a sigh of relief.

Chapter Text

In the morning, Swiffer woke them, prowling around on the bed and meowing frantically.

Cullen sat up slowly, batting at the cat; Eleanor beside him had merely pulled the pillow over her head and gone back to sleep. Her face was entirely hidden, and only a long brown braid and hand were visible sticking out from beneath the blankets.

Cullen rubbed the side of his hand, the knuckle of his thumb against his forehead, then reached forward to scoop the cat up into his arms.

“Shh,” he said, rubbing Swiffer’s head for a moment, and the animal seemed placated, but as soon as Cullen set her beside the bed and rolled over, the cat leapt back up again, kneading Cullen’s side vigorously. He sighed and flung the covers back once more, sitting up quickly this time and sweeping the cat into his grasp in a fluid series of motions.

“Eleanor, your cat wants something,” he groaned.

Slowly she pushed the pillow away from her face and croaked, “She wants it from you, not me,” and ground the back of her wrist against her eye. But, yawning, she sat up, and took the cat from Cullen’s grasp. “Wussuhmatter, baby?” and pressed her nose against Swiffer’s belly. The cat mooped appreciatively. Cullen shook his head and swung his legs over the side of the bed, rubbing his face, the stubble on his neck, with open palms.

Still cradling Swiffer in one arm, Eleanor reached out and ran her hand up and down Cullen’s back. “Sorry, handsome.” She scootched over and leaned forward, resting her chin on his shoulder, his cheek against his neck.

“It’s alright. I should be up by now. She probably knows that,” he inclined his head toward Eleanor and smiled. “I’m just tired.”

Eleanor emitted a little sound of agreement. After last night, she understood.

Then, outside, there came the whinnying of a horse.

“Maybe it wasn’t you she wanted,” Eleanor said, letting the cat go.

 


 

 

They dressed quickly and went to the door, just as Evelyn was approaching.

“Good morning,” she hailed them from across the lawn. Eleanor, barefoot, walked across the dewy grass to embrace the Inquisitor.

“Morning, indeed,” Eleanor said, holding onto Evelyn’s forearms. “You’re here early.”

“We traveled by night,” she said, indicating the Inquisition soldiers standing some distance behind. “Ah, there he is,” Evelyn said, her eyes catching Cullen.

Cullen nodded his head.

“So, it’s time, then?” Eleanor asked.

Leading with her eyes, Evelyn said, “Let’s go inside.”

 


 

 

“You haven’t said anything, Cullen,” the Inquisitor said from the couch. She’d given Eleanor the run-down: She and Cullen would be leaving, ostensibly on Inquisition business, while Sera, Varric, Dorian, and Iron Bull remained nearby - far enough away, however, and spread out enough, that hopefully, they would not be made by whomever was going to come looking. Eleanor would be, effectively, alone.

Cullen clicked his jaw, left and right. “Well, understandably, I don’t love the idea of leaving El here, but…” he folded his arms and leaned back against the wall, Eleanor looking up at him from the chair where she sat. The light coming in the windows to their right, Evelyn’s left, was placid, serene. Reassuring.

“I don’t see another way that this can work,” Eleanor said, finishing his thought after allowing a brief moment of silence.

Cullen reached up with one hand, rubbing the scar on his lip.

“Reinforcements will be as close as they can be,” Evelyn assured him.

“I trust you, Inquisitor. It doesn’t mean I like it.”

Eleanor smiled and reached up, nudging his elbow gently with her knuckles. “I’ll be fine, Cullen.”

“You had better be.”

Chapter Text

The loneliness was strange.

Eleanor lay splayed out on the couch, her eyes darting back and forth over pages of the Chant that she had transcribed, trying to see how much she could glean from them on a pass without their English counterpart beside them. It wasn’t much, but it was more than she thought she knew.

A cigarette dangled from her lips, and Swiffer lay on the windowsill on the other side of the room, napping in a sunbeam. Pulling the cigarette away from her mouth, letting the parchment fall down onto her chest, she took in a deep breath, held it, looked around.

Everything was still.

Everything was quiet.

“Just you and me, kiddo,” Eleanor said aloud to Swiffer, but Swiffer didn’t stir. “Okay, just me,” she said more softly, bringing the cigarette back to her lips and taking a shallow drag.

Just a year ago, it would have always been just her and Swiffer. Always been just her. Always been quiet, and still. Just a year.

Reaching over to tap the ash from her cigarette into the little glass dish on the end table, Eleanor sighed. Just a year. Just a year and she had seen things she had never dreamed of, had become them, had averted the destruction of her home, had crossed boundaries, planes, had looked into the abyss and had it look back. But it wasn’t all bad, was it? No, not at all. Dorian and Varric, Evelyn and Sera, and so many more… and Cullen. Just a year ago she wouldn’t even have been able to imagine that he or someone like him could exist. Just a year ago she would have been draped on an entirely different couch in an entirely different home in entirely different world. And she would have been alone. Not a mage, not survivor of the Blight, not somebody’s wife.

Just a year.

Sitting up, Eleanor chucked the papers to the other end of the couch and put her elbows on her knees, bending forward. It was idiotic to say that this was not where she saw her life taking her - this was not a place, literally or metaphorically, she thought she could be taken. No, the thought that struck her most as she took a drag off of her cigarette and stood up and stretched, was how weird it felt now to be alone.

“Some good you are,” she said to the sleeping cat as she butted out the cigarette.

Evelyn had told her not to leave the house until… well, until whatever happened happened, but it was barely afternoon and Eleanor was already feeling antsy. The cabin wasn’t very big, not compared to the house in Indiana and certainly not compared to Skyhold, and in either case Eleanor wasn’t used to being confined to any walls at all. Even still, she probably wouldn’t have noticed if she hadn’t been expressly instructed to stay inside.

She went to the bedroom at the back of the house and stood beside the bed, leaning her arms against the windowsill and staring out at the lake. That lake. If a geographic feature was associated with as much trauma as it must be for Cullen, Eleanor didn’t think she would have agreed to be as close to it as he had. At the same time, that cool, serene sheet of blue gave no impression that it had ever harbored anything as dark as a Circle tower under siege. A Circle tower where mages warped the minds of others…

Eleanor shook her head and put her chin in her hands, elbows still resting on the windowsill. For the past year, she’d wondered why - had been moved to anger by the fact that - Cullen didn’t trust her one hundred percent when it came to her magic.

Now she wondered why he trusted her at all. Kinloch, Kirkwall, Corypheus - the names swam in her brain, mocking her, nagging her, making her doubt what she had, what she was. Eleanor cast her gaze down, looking not at Lake Calenhad, but at the small swirls in the grain of the wood beneath her arms, letting her eyes unfocus so that the pattern seemed to twist and swim.

But he did trust her, and she knew this, knew this every night when he laid his head down beside hers and let himself fall asleep. She knew it the moment he had smiled at her at the bar, the first time he had put his arms around her and told her that no, nothing would ever be the same but that they were going to fight, together. She knew it the moment he had taken her hands in his and asked her to be his. Always.

Blowing out a sigh through pursed lips, Eleanor let her gaze drift upward, out to the blue sky above, separated from her by a thin sheet of glass. The sun through the panes was warm on her face and it comforted her, but the separation from the outside world made the room feel stuffy, claustrophobic - or maybe it was just her thoughts.

Padding back to the front of the house, Eleanor obeyed Evelyn’s orders to the letter - she grabbed a kitchen chair and drug it to the front door, which, one-handed, she unlatched and pushed open. Eleanor set the chair backwards in the doorway, the rear two legs just inches from the threshold. Swinging her legs over the seat, Eleanor sat facing forward with her chest resting against the chair back. She reached into her pocket for her cigarettes and lit one, returning the pack and the lighter to her jeans. Resting her arms, her chin on the top of the back of the chair, Eleanor quietly smoked, watching puffy clouds slowly float by. They weren’t in a hurry, and their slow, drifting motion across the sky calmed Eleanor a bit as she sent up smoke rings to join them, releasing a little bit of tension, of anxiety, with each opaque breath.

She couldn’t understand it, but Cullen did trust her, did love her, despite all that he had seen and done - and all that had been done to him. And, she realized, she trusted him, despite the fact that he was from an impossible place in an impossible time, that he had come to her as a stranger bearing news of change and ruin, and though together they had prevented the ruin, the change was permanent in both her home and herself, and he was no longer a stranger from a strange land, and almost nothing about this land was strange anymore.

Eleanor drew in a deep breath through her nose and looked out into the quiet forest, and despite the fact that she knew she was waiting, defiantly poised on the edge of her chair, for someone who wished her ill, who wished that she would never have come to this place with her magic, never crossed the divide between her world and this, she was unafraid. She was unafraid because she was not alone. She knew there were people close by who were waiting just like she was, just to keep her safe,  and she knew that the man who trusted her despite all his experiences would be home as soon as events would allow him - and that he would never have left at all if he had his way. So she sat, a sentinel, with her back to the lake and her eyes toward the forest, unafraid because she was not alone, and because she knew that the people who were with her, who were waiting, had faced a hell of a lot worse and were still here, still fighting, still standing strong in this brave old world.

Chapter Text

Eleanor was lying on her side in bed, facing away from the window. She was curled up in what she thought of as Cullen’s spot; ever since the first night he had climbed into her bed - that first night that she discovered that she had that fearsome power within her - he had slept on her right side; here, at Skyhold, and at home in Indiana. It just felt natural that way. That was where he fit beside her, against her. But he wasn’t here.

She had a pillow - her pillow - tucked against her stomach, and Cullen’s pillow beneath her head, breathing deeply to try to catch a hint of his scent, of his hair, which for so long smelled like green apples because he had used her shampoo and not thought to ask for his own, but now had the scent of something richer, deeper. She supposed it was whatever soap they used here and at Skyhold, which smelled pleasant and felt smooth, but it was also the scent of the Fereldan earth, of the air, and the way the dew hung on the trees in the shady places where the sunlight never reached. Eleanor wondered if maybe she smelled like dry wheat or honey or mud or whatever else Indiana offered in the way of fragrance, but when she tucked her chin to her chest she couldn’t smell anything. Maybe sweat. For as calm and collected as she had been during the day, she couldn’t bring herself to shut herself up in the little well room at the back of the house and splash herself off with water. If someone were going to kill her, she didn’t want to die naked and damp.

Swiffer was curled up on the other side of the bed, pleased to have the kind of space she remembered as a kitten, and had turned in dozens of circles, trying and finding the perfect spot on top of the blankets instead of being relegated to the space between Eleanor and Cullen’s ankles. She was purring softly, making little chirruping sounds in her sleep. She didn’t seem to be the slightest bit bothered by Cullen’s absence or by the impending threat of Eleanor’s death.

It struck Eleanor that Swiffer had had Cullen in her life longer than the little cat had not; she was maybe six months old when the commander had appeared out of the blue - out of the green - on Eleanor’s land in Indiana, and she had been with Cullen - in one capacity or another - for that one weird year. And yet the cat still seemed to regard him as an interloper, Eleanor thought with a sleepy smile. As Not Mom. But Swiffer knew how to play them both, Eleanor and Cullen; how to get treats from whomever hadn’t fed her last, how to look sad and pleading in front of Cullen to get extra scritches which Eleanor would not indulge, and how to be chattery and playful for Eleanor who would nonsensically chat back while Cullen would give them both a sidelong glance.

Eleanor slowly reached her head back and after some feeling around found Swiffer’s ears, giving the sleeping, uncaring cat a thankful if awkward pet on her head, then withdrew once more to her surrogate pillow, upon which she tightened her grip. She’d been lying in bed for sometime, wishing she had a clock to mark the hours by - something she had always hated back home, watching the hours tick away while she wasn’t sleeping, but here had no way to measure the time that passed until the sun came up. Finally, now, she felt the weight of sleep on her eyelids, and she pressed her cheek a little deeper into Cullen’s pillow, taking one last deep, intentional breath before awareness left her.

 


 

 

The blue was there, that dark, strange blue, dark and strange but safe, somehow, gentle. It hovered at the edges of her consciousness and lead her down a narrow path, lined with round river pebbles, toward the lake, which was the sky. Both were huge and full of stars, one not a reflection of the other but two parts of the same massive thing folded over, wrapping around on itself where the sky met the water on the horizon.

Grass grew high on the sides of the path, as high as Eleanor’s waist, and an undying breeze blew the blades in small swirling patterns, the gentle rustling sound it made faintly musical sound, not like tall grass at all, but like a brush on a cymbal, like a distant, dull wind chime.

“You were gone,” Eleanor heard herself say. “Fiona said…”

But what had Fiona said? She couldn’t remember now, could only remember the Grand Enchanter’s concerned look, could only remember the feeling of the elven woman’s dry hand placed atop Eleanor’s own. Had she said anything?

As Eleanor tried to remember, her feet moved ahead without her noticing where she was going until the sound of the pebbles shifting beneath her feet changed to the dry, hollow sound of wood. She looked down and saw slats beneath her feet, and the water that was sky beneath the slats. The grass was behind her now, further than it should have been, could have been, but still the muffled jewel-like sound persisted. Ahead of her, there was an endless expanse of wood slats, a dock reaching out into forever, and to the sides was the starlit water; above, the eternal starry sky.

Eleanor bent down, knelt, and hanging on to the dock, bent toward the water.

“There’s something down there,” Eleanor muttered. “Beneath.”

“Not yet.”

“When?” she asked.

“You’ll know when.”

Her fingers inches from the water, she withdrew and stood.

In front of her now was a tower, sparkling white against the blue of the water and the sky.

Her feet lurched to a stop.

“I shouldn’t,” Eleanor objected. “I can’t.”

“Are you afraid?”

“Afraid?” Eleanor murmured, but as her mouth formed the syllables, she thought instead that maybe she had been asked why, and couldn’t remember how to answer. She turned around to look back, to find the shore, but the grass, the stony path, was gone. There was only the dock and the lake for miles and miles. She started to walk back the way she came, even though the land was gone, and then her walking turned to jogging, her jogging to running. When she turned to look behind herself, the tower was no further away, and now it was wrapped in chains. She looked forward and back, turning in small circles on the thin wooden bridge, and then facing the tower, she fell to her knees.

“There is nothing for you there.”

“Where?” Eleanor pleaded. “I can’t go into the tower alone. I can’t go up there.”

“Not up. Not alone.”

“Not alone?”

“He trusted you.”

“He…” but then Eleanor heard her own thoughts whispered back to her, in the same voice as the chiming blades of grass.

“...every night when he laid his head down beside yours,” it whispered. “the moment he smiled at you, the first time he put his arms around you, the moment he took his hands in yours. The moment that he died.”

“No, please,” Eleanor breathed.

“You only have to ask.”

Chapter Text

Eleanor awoke with a start, taking a sharp inhale of breath. She was clutching her pillow for dear life, fingers curled into painfully tight fists. Releasing her grip, she brought one hand to her forehead, pushing her hair away from her face. Sitting up, resting against the headboard, she cracked her knuckles, looking to her left where she expected to find Swiffer, but the cat wasn’t there. Eleanor must have scared her away.

Leaning back, she let her head softly thump on the wood behind her, looking up at the ceiling for a moment, then out of the window where she saw only normal stars, if not the ones she had grown up with, dotted here and there with lingering, wispy clouds, almost flourescent white in the light of the moon. She couldn’t have been sleeping very long. She breathed in a long, deliberate breath -

- and heard the sound of a kitchen chair moving across the wooden floor.

“Oh fuck me,” Eleanor breathed, and as if in response or agreement, heard Swiffer growling under the bed, a sound she’d almost never heard the little cat make. Moving carefully, Eleanor reached over the side of the bed to retrieve the leggings she had discarded before she’d gone to sleep, cursing quietly at Swiffer as the cat’s paw darted out from underneath the bed, grabbing at the pants. She quickly hiked them on as quietly as she could, then planted her feet on the cool wooden floor.

She was supposed to signal them, to go to the window and use her magic to create a flash of light, but suddenly the gap under her door seemed huge, like a window that was more likely to signal her attackers than anyone who might come to her aid.

Rising from the bed, Eleanor took two wide steps to the other side of the room, next to the wardrobe, and grabbed her staff. As soon as she wrapped her hands around it, she felt an ease roll down her body. She rolled her shoulders, adjusting her t-shirt, and crossed the room, reaching out and letting her free hand rest on the cold, brass doorknob for a brief moment before she slowly twisted the knob, wishing in that eternal moment that she had sent up the signal.

But what was done was done. The door opened, blessedly silent, and Eleanor was glad that she had been in the dark so long that her eyes had already adjusted to the dim light of the cabin. She could make out the length of the hallway, the door to the well room on her right, the door to the small, shallow hall closet, and the door to the little library - all closed, seemingly undisturbed - then the big wide open darkness that was the sitting room where she could just make out the lumpy, blurred outlines of furniture. On the left there was only the hall, and then the shadowy opening that would take her into the long, narrow kitchen that bordered that side of the house. Near the front door was the second kitchen chair, and Eleanor wished now that she had left it in front of the door, a noisy, obvious trap. Whoever it was had bumped it, but only just. It was the only sound they had made, or at least, the only sound loud enough for her to notice. And that had been all.

Nothing seemed to move.

Eleanor swallowed, licked her lips. Either they - whoever they were - were in the kitchen, were entirely motionless in the shadows of the living room, or they had already left. The shallow hall closet wasn’t deep enough to hide a body, she reasoned, and besides that, she hadn’t heard any footsteps in the hall, so she figured it was unlikely her attacker would have chosen to hide in the library or the well room.

But then again, she could be wrong.

She could have missed the sound of footsteps.

She could have missed the sound of an opening door, maybe even the sound of one closing.

For another long moment, Eleanor remained motionless, holding her breath until she couldn’t anymore, and she exhaled slowly, only her eyes moving to scan the darkness in front of her once more.

Then, in the kitchen, the other chair was shifted.

Eleanor started to take a step forward, until she heard a soft, whispered curse.

“Shite.”

It was a voice she knew, or at least she thought she knew.

Taking three, four, five padding steps forward, Eleanor leaned against the wall, her back flat next to the gap that would take her into the kitchen. Closing her eyes and hoping, Eleanor asked the darkness, “Sera?”

For a moment, there was no answer, and Eleanor instinctively tightened her grip on her staff, ready to strike, until the voice answered, “'Nor?”

Eleanor blew out a sigh of relief, deafening in the silence, as she rolled her shoulders around the threshold, and facing where she thought Sera must be, answered quietly, “Yeah, it’s me.”

“Eller, what are you doing here?” Sera whispered back.

“This is my house, Sera!” Eleanor said, keeping her voice breathy.

Sera answered in the same sotto voce, “Right, yeah, but - you weren’t outside?”

“Outside? Are you kidding me? I haven’t left the house all day!” Eleanor breathed. “Evelyn said not to leave the house!”

“Yeah, okay, I know, but I saw you!”

“It wasn’t me, Sera, I swear to god.”

“Hm,” was all Sera answered, that short syllable an unusually serious response considering the elf’s usually expressive replies.

“Wait, why are you in here if you thought I was outside?”

“Well, I thought you were outside, see, but then I thought I saw you come back in.”

“So that was you that tripped over the chair?”

“Just now? Yeah, that was me.”

“No, the first time. A few minutes ago.”

“Ah, yeah,” Sera giggled softly. “Was me too.”

“...then who did you think you saw come inside?”

“I told you,” Sera insisted, “I thought it was you!” she said hoarsely into the darkness.

“No, I mean - oh, this is stupid.” Eleanor started in a whisper, but then gave up. “Who came inside if it wasn’t you and it wasn’t me?” she asked, speaking now in her normal voice, and finally sending a surge of intention through her staff, making the stone glow a faint blue light, just bright enough to illuminate the kitchen and part of the sitting room.

“Dunno,” Sera admitted, finally looking Eleanor in the eyes, instead of half-blind through the darkness.

“Oh well,” Eleanor said, “maybe it was nothing.” Swiffer, walking down the hallway purrooped, and pawed at Eleanor’s legs. “Were you growling at Sera?” Eleanor asked the cat. “That doesn’t seem like you…” she murmured, letting the staff grow a little brighter so that she could look down at the animal.

“Oh,” said Sera. “I think it was her,” and she pointed one long, thin finger toward the living room.

Eleanor turned to see where Sera was pointing, and then let her staff clatter to the ground.

Chapter Text

A cold chill ran through Eleanor, and her shoulders squeezed forward. She put both her hands over her mouth in the darkness, the light from her staff extinguished when she had dropped it.

“Did I just see…” she said through her fingers.

“Think so, yup,” but Sera’s casual words were punctuated by darkness, and in the gloom, the elven woman’s hand gently found Eleanor’s wrist.

“The lamp, we have… we have lamps,” she spelled out, kneeling down to pick up her staff, and she turned, pointing the light purposefully into the kitchen as though seeing by the light of an oil lamp would somehow be better, or show her something different. But on the kitchen table was the lamp, and on top of the cabinet where they had their bowls and mugs was the flint, and, with her staff tucked under her arm, she lit the lamp, then let the glow from her staff go out.

Eleanor steeled herself and Sera, mouth set firm, gave her a little nod, so Eleanor turned and, breathing out an anxious little breath, carried the lamp in front of her to the living room, staff held tightly in her left hand. Sera followed behind.

The distance from the far edge of the kitchen to the sofa was ten feet, maybe fifteen. It wasn’t far, not nearly as far as Eleanor wanted it to be. As she stepped into the brief pause between the two rooms that was the beginning of the hallway, Swiffer emerged from the darkness, winding her way around Eleanor’s feet.

“Scaredy cat,” Eleanor teased softly, more for herself than for anything else at that point, because even from here, she could see the figure lying still, devastatingly still, on the couch. “God damn it,” she breathed. She hoped that in the pale blue light she had been wrong, or she had been mistaken, or anything but this.

She wasn’t.

The Dalish woman’s body was prone on the cushions. Her blue eyes were open, but they were unseeing.

All three were silent.

Eleanor licked her lips, chewing at a bit of dry skin there, torn between averting her eyes and being unable to look away. She heard Sera beside her, rubbing her hands together. Swiffer paced.

“Well,” Sera said, after a long pause, “that’s unfortunate.”

“Yeah,” Eleanor agreed, letting the lamp lower a bit.

The front door swung open and Dorian and Varric burst inside.

“We’re coming to get you, Farm -” Varric started to shout, but stopped suddenly, lowering Bianca. “Oh. You’re already got.”

“Yeah. Thanks, Varric,” Eleanor said weakly.

Swiffer jumped up and went to Dorian, her meows sounding more like pleas.

“Where’s Bull?” Eleanor asked.

“On the other side of the house,” Varric answered. “He was convinced he was going to have an opportunity to smash in a window.”

“No such luck,” Eleanor murmured.

“Seems nobody’s too lucky tonight, yeah?” Sera groaned.

“Who’s she?” Varric asked, walking to the couch and pointing with the tip of the bolt that still protruded from the end of his crossbow.

“Dunno,” Sera shrugged, and the action of her shoulders made her own bow clack softly on her back.

“I do,” Eleanor said, setting the lamp down on an end table.

“You do?” Dorian asked, Swiffer now cradled in his arms.

“She was at the dinner,” Eleanor said, her voice still low. “She served me… the wine.”

“The poisoned wine?” Dorian’s hand, petting the cat’s belly, came to a stop.

“Yeah… yes,” Eleanor answered.

Bull pushed through the door, his heavy footsteps loud on the wooden floor. “Are we having a fight or what?” he demanded loudly.

“Not… exactly,” Dorian answered.

“Damn. Who’s the dead girl?” he pointed with a large hand.

“She served Eleanor the wine at dinner,” Varric answered.

“The poison wine?”

“Mmhm.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah,” Eleanor agreed.

“She looks just like you,” Bull commented. “You know, for a dead person.”

There was a long silence. Eleanor’s eyebrows furrowed, and she took a few steps back, sitting heavily in one of the chairs opposite the sofa. “Oh,” was all she said.

 


 

 

Cullen wanted to scream.

He wanted to howl, he wanted to bang his fists on the table and ask when enough was enough.

Instead, he ran his hands through his unruly hair and asked, “Alright, so what’s our next step?”

He did this because standing beside him, looking more resolute than she had in ages, was Eleanor. Her hair was pulled back tightly from her face and her jaw was set firm in the way that he remember from the day that he had first arrived on her back lawn and he gave her the same kind of look.

The Inquisitor’s chest rose and fell with an exhausted breath. “None of our plans have worked out so far.”

“Even the ones entirely unrelated to subterfuge,” said Varric from the corner of the War Room.

Next to Evelyn, Sera quietly fumed. Cullen knew enough about the elf to know that she was quick to anger and Evelyn was quick to calm her down, but this was something entirely different. This was a quiet, seething rage. They all knew that the plan could fail, and in so many different ways: the bait might not be taken; backup might not come quickly enough; Sera and the others could have been spotted in the woods; a dozen other things. But this strange eventuality was nothing any of them could have foreseen, and Sera was taking it especially hard.

Not that Cullen was taking it any easier.

Someone had gotten into his house, unseen. Someone had gone into his home, where Eleanor - where his wife - was sleeping, and had left a… a dead body - a dead body, a dead woman that ostensibly looked like Eleanor, as what, as a sign? And had snuck out again entirely unnoticed.

Just what the fuck was going on?

But he knew that shouting, yelling, spewing vitriol, demanding answers would get him nowhere. And he knew that if Eleanor, who was the one being threatened, who was the one being tormented, whose face was set so firm, could remain calm, and if not calm at least in control, then so could he.

He was not surprised when it was Eleanor who spoke.

“We take this fight to them.”

“What?” Evelyn asked. It wasn’t an objection; it was an honest query.

Eleanor didn’t raise her voice, but the fury was there when she said. “I am so tired of this.” She bent over the war table and pressed her hands flat on the wide edge. “They’ve tried to threaten me, intimidate me, poison me… I’ve had enough. I’m sorry, I’m done. It hasn’t even been six months since we faced down an Archdemon. It hasn’t been a year since I found out I am what they want to kill me for. And they expect me to be scared? Well, I’m not. I’ve seen worse. What I am is pissed. So where are they?”

There was no answer, not immediately. Cullen watched her as she spoke, saw the shine in her eyes, the determined glint he saw when she insisted she was going into the Deep Roads, when she insisted then that this, that other world, was her home, and she would not be left behind to watch it burn. He didn’t know why he expected anything different, but even still, her insistence took him off guard. She was intense, almost jarringly so.

And when no one spoke, she pressed, “You said there were… groups? In Orlais?”

“Orlais isn’t exactly small, Farm Girl,” said Varric from the corner.

“Alright, then. Tell me about Orlais. What is it like? Where do we go to get seen? Where would they know to find me? We’ll meet them halfway, let them know we’re serious.”

Cullen muttered the words under his breath, and Sera groaned out a sigh. The Inquisitor put a heavy hand on her brow.

“Hm?” Eleanor asked, and the single syllable was forceful, demanding an answer.

Cullen turned to her and brought his hand to the back of his neck, scratching at his hairline. “Halamshiral,” he said. “The Winter Palace.”

Varric laughed a dark laugh. “Cassandra will be thrilled.”

Chapter Text

“Maybe it’s good to send you to the Winter Palace,” Evelyn said to Eleanor on their way out of the War Room.

Eleanor turned her head and slowed her gait to match pace with the Inquisitor.

“Well…” she spoke slowly, chose her words carefully; Evelyn was no fan of Halamshiral herself, and was not looking forward to another incident like the one in the courtyard. But, speaking to Eleanor, she reasoned out her line of thought. “Maybe it will be good if they see you, see you’re just a… normal person. You can talk to them. It might help dispel some of the fear.”

“It might help the non-militant non-death-threat-sending set, you mean,” Eleanor said as they passed through Josephine’s study.

“Well, yes,” Evelyn admitted.

Eleanor scratched her face. “No one seems very happy about this,” she admitted, looking at the surly faces of those around her as they headed out into the hall.

Evelyn licked her lips, and looking up, she took a breath. “Orlais is… different.”

 


 

 

Orlais was different, indeed.

None of Eleanor’s objections helped her this time, and Josephine had insisted she be squeezed into an absurd dress, so narrow in the middle and wide at both ends that Eleanor felt like a butterfly, an opinion she would have expressed, if she could have drawn enough breath.

Instead she stood next to Cullen with her hands pressed against her stomach and swallowed hard.

“I’ve made a mistake,” she said to him, and then took in as deep a breath as she could.

Without turning his head, Cullen, in his red formal uniform, laughed through his nose and took his right hand from behind his back, rubbing Eleanor between her shoulder blades gently.

At first Eleanor had been afraid that everyone would want to come up and talk to her, and between Evelyn putting the moratorium on speaking to large groups - then again, wasn’t that what they were here for? - and really just not knowing what to say, she’d already been more nervous than she was used to feeling. But it was the opposite problem. No one seemed to want to talk to her; no, it was more than that - no one was even approaching her. In fact, the wide arc everyone was making around the corner where she and Cullen stood spoke to something deeper. They would not talk to her.

But they would talk about her, she realized, as she caught sight of many gloved hands rising to the corners of mouths, eyes sliding in her direction as faces turned away. On the plus side, it did quell her nervousness, as she now felt much too righteously indignant to care about what any of these nobles thought of her. The only negative was that if everyone was too busy avoiding her, there wouldn’t be a good opportunity for her tormenter to work his or her way close to Eleanor, since at this point, it would be rather obvious.

If her tormenter were even here.

“Are we wasting our time?” she asked Cullen, without taking her eyes away from the swirling dresses on the ballroom floor below her. “Am I wasting our time?”

“El,” he said, giving her shoulder a squeeze.

“I’m just so tired of this, Cul,” she continued her thought. “Evelyn wanted me - wanted us - back here for a reason, and I haven’t been able to do any of that which means I can’t leave, and now I can’t leave because I’m too damn angry” she whispered, her voice heated.

“I understand,” the commander answered, and stepped a little closer.

“I knew it could be bad for… for mages,” she still had a hard time with the word, even if she’d nearly embraced the concept. “I didn’t think it would be like this. I’m not saying I wish they’d succeed instead of perpetually making these stupid threats, but it would be a change of pace, at least.”

Cullen gave her a flat smile, but a smile nonetheless, and it told her he meant it when he said he understood.

“And anyway,” she went on, sucking in air, “I wish they would at least do it to my face.” She looked down and picked at a hangnail, her eyes half-seeing her hands and half-seeing the intricate patterns in the floor beneath her feet.

“...Orlais doesn’t exactly… work like that,” Cullen offered, and she could sense the irritation in his own voice.

As some sort of response, Eleanor cracked her knuckles, the action feeling extremely uncultured in this - well, a palace they called it and a palace it was. Just the curtains on the window next to her probably cost more than what she would have made in a year on the farm. Hell, the dress she was wearing cost easily that much. She couldn’t deny that it was beautiful, the dress, and the palace doubly so. Beautiful and intimidating, and Eleanor had no idea what to do with herself. Evelyn had been whisked off to some meeting somewhere; she’d heard the names Briala and Gaspard mentioned; she’d heard them before. Eleanor guessed she was only of nominal concern to them at the moment. Cassandra stood, surly, on the opposite side of the mezzanine; Eleanor could just make out her red-uniformed figure from this distance, but she could tell from the way her posture was hunched and her arms were folded that Cassandra was having just about as good a time as Eleanor was; Varric had been right about that.

Eleanor tried to roll her shoulders in the tight gown, tried to slouch, but it was more effort to do these things than to stand still and wait. She wished one of the staff - servants? slaves? - would deign to bring a tray of drinks closer to her, but even they were keeping their distance, and she didn’t feel like chasing anyone down, nor did she think she could.  Keeping a clear head was probably for the best right now, anyway, even if it was the last thing she wanted to do. She wanted this to work, she wanted her tormentor taken care of, whatever that meant, and she wanted to go home - home home, Indiana home - and to drink copious amounts of beer. Not wine. Beer. What they had here, the mead and the ale, it was good, but she didn’t want good. She wanted familiar. She spitefully thought that she didn’t want Thedas even to become familiar, even though it already stubbornly was, because what good had Thedas gotten her? It had gotten her a Blight, it had gotten her threatened, and it had gotten her these strange powers that, frankly, without the Blight, without everything she had been through, she would neither have wanted or needed, nevermind that they were useful - wonderful, even - now. So what had Thedas gotten her?

But then she looked up, looked to her left, and there he was. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but thankfully, she didn’t have time for either.

“Psst,” came a voice, seemingly from the curtains.

Eleanor looked to her right and saw nothing, looked up at Cullen, to be sure that she wasn’t the only one who had heard it - and his confused glance confirmed that she was not - and then looked back to the window on her right, out of which Sera seemingly materialized.

Eleanor blink quickly and said, “Oh my god I think this thing is cutting off the oxygen to my brain,” and she tugged fiercely at her corset.

“Nah,” Sera said, waving away Eleanor’s concerns. “S’my job, right? Be sneaky. Be surreptitious, yeah?” She repeated the word, giggling to herself. “Surreptitious.”

“Have you got anything, Sera?” Cullen said, putting an arm around Eleanor, as though any news at all might put her in danger, and if she were in danger, then being closer to him could only help.

“Think I might,” she said, bobbing her head. “Some of them noble weenies were whispering, and the walls have ears - which they don’t, I mean, the littles have ears, usually pointy ones. Walls with ears, yikes. Don’t lean up against that, right? Anyway, in between passing out drinks, the littles listened, and they heard ‘Le Conservateur,’ which is a stupid nickname if ever I heard one. ‘Parently, they’re the one what put that dead girl on your sofa.”

“Are they here?” Eleanor asked.

“Seems like, and seems like they were there in your house that night. Mighta been right there with us,” she said, and a little shiver ran down her spine.

“Not helpful, Sera,” Cullen reprimanded her gently, though strictly speaking, it was helpful, in a way. However, Sera took his meaning.

“Right, ‘course. Point being, maybe we didn’t miss ‘em. Or, well, we did, but not because they weren’t there.”

“God damn it,” Eleanor whispered under her breath. “It’s never easy with you people.”

“Is this… magic?” Cullen asked. The only other option was exceptional stealth, but there was a difference being exceptionally stealthy - Sera was exceptionally stealthy, when she wanted to be - and being completely invisible.

“Dunno, Commander, you tell me.”

Chapter Text

Evelyn appeared on the ballroom floor in her Inquisition finery, the same red uniform as Cullen and Cassandra, and was almost immediately surrounded by Orlesians wanting to have a word with her. The Inquisitor put out a hand to them and looked around, then looked up. She caught sight of Eleanor, or at least of Eleanor’s black and white dress, and waved her and Cullen down. Eleanor nodded and hiked up her skirts, making for the stairs with Cullen behind her and Sera at her side.

As she began to descend the staircase, Eleanor kept her gaze mostly on Evelyn, but even still, she couldn’t help but notice that now the Orlesians were turning their faces toward her, and moreso, their eyes were meeting hers.

Eleanor took as deep a breath as she could and tried to ignore it. But as she reached Evelyn, a gloved hand shot between Eleanor and the Inquisitor, and a young man tried to step into the space between them.

“Oh!” he said, feigning surprise. “So you’re the one from across the Veil!”

Eleanor slumped a bit. He knew that. Everyone had known from the moment she had stepped onto the palace grounds that she was the one from “across the Veil,” as it was so delicately put. But now, here she was, talking - or trying to talk - to the Inquisitor, and suddenly she was hot property.

“Yep,” said Eleanor, and gave the man’s hand a firm shake in, which seemed to take him exactly off-guard enough that Eleanor could close the distance between her and Evelyn, who was trying extricate them from the small crowd of masked figures that was gathering. Sera had snuck out and was casing the edges of the group; Cullen had turned back toward the stairs to clear a path for Eleanor and Evelyn to ascend.

The Inquisitor leaned in close to Eleanor and asked, “Has Sera told you?”

Eleanor nodded, keeping her hands clutched to the front of her dress as Cullen held her elbow, leading her slowly toward the stairs, keeping the crowd back.

“Alright. Let’s just get a moment of quiet and we can -”

“Slip away.”

Eleanor’s head picked up. “Slip where?” she asked.

“Hm?” Cullen asked her, jolting as Eleanor’s feet suddenly stopped, but she shook her head, started moving again.

“Thought I heard something.”

“Didn’t hear nothing,” Sera said, darting to Eleanor’s side from Evelyn’s.

Eleanor gave her head another shake, started back up the stairs she had descended, watching her feet carefully on the incline.

The Inquisitor said, “I think what we need to do is -”

“Look harder.”

Eleanor picked up her head, letting her dress drop. “What?”

“My love,” Cullen said. In the back of his mind, a fear blossomed, a fear that said that this could be like her incident after passing through the Breach, or worse, if she were hearing things… hearing voices… No, that he couldn’t abide. He pulled her aside, and Evelyn, though keeping her distance, expressed concern.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s nothing. Let’s go.”

“Don’t tell me it’s nothing if it’s not,” Cullen said, his voice suddenly stern, his face hard, the circles beneath his eyes looking deep. His hand held her elbow tightly.

Eleanor gritted her teeth, pressed her lips hard together. “It’s not like that,” she insisted, her expression steely.

Cullen took a long breath, looked down at the crowd watching them. “Let’s go,” he insisted, and tugged her along gently.

“Cullen,” she said softly, as they reached the first landing, “I’m sorry,” and she diverted her eyes to the window, to the garden below.

Someone ran past.

“Catch me if you can.”

Eleanor threw Cullen off of her arm and went to the window. “Didn’t you hear that? They're out there!” she said, pointing, and Sera ran up alongside her.

“Who?” she asked, pressing her hands to the glass.

“Le Conservateur?” Evelyn asked, following behind, reaching gently for Sera’s hand.

“Yes. I swear to god,” she said.

“How can you know that?” Cullen said from behind her. She turned and looked to him, and his arms were crossed.

“Cul, please, I just know. I just -”

“How do we know this isn’t another trap?”

“Cullen,” she said slowly, looking to Evelyn, to Sera, “isn’t that the point?”

“Luring them to you, maybe,” he said. “But listening to voices?”

“You have to believe me,” she begged, throwing her hands down against the front of her dress.

“Eleanor,” he said, “I do,” and he approached her, grasping the tops of her arms. “But I’m worried about you.” His dark eyes were serious.

“Worry about me when this is done,” she said softly. “Please.”

Cullen looked at her, looked to Sera and Evelyn who seemed anxious, almost afraid. “Fine,” he said. “Outside.”

Chapter Text

The garden was quiet.

The garden was dark.

“He could be anywhere,” Evelyn sighed, running her hands over her auburn hair, fingers twisting in her golden gloves.

“Yes,” Cullen agreed slowly.

“Nah,” said Sera, “I’ll find ‘em,” and she darted off into the hedges, as Evelyn was opening her mouth to speak.

“Well,” she said quietly, blinking, “I was going to ask if maybe we should stick together…”

“Oh I’ve seen this movie,” Eleanor said, hiking up her skirts. “We are not splitting up.”

“Indeed not,” Cullen said, putting his hand on Eleanor’s back.

Evelyn sighed.

“She’ll find her way back,” Eleanor reassured the Inquisitor.

“She had better,” Evelyn muttered, nervously passing her staff from one hand to the other. Eleanor clutched at her skirts with the hand not holding her own staff.

“I am never wearing a dress ever again,” she mumbled. “Bad things always seem to happen when I’m wearing dresses.”

“In all fairness, bad things just seem to keep happening,” Cullen offered.

Eleanor gave him a flat look and plucked his dagger from his belt. “Thank you,” she said, and, tucking her staff under her arm, she gathered her skirts into a knot at her front and hacked through them with Cullen’s knife, her efforts resulting in her dress now being knee-length in the front and slightly longer in the back, if uneven the whole way around. “Next time, I get a uniform,” she insisted, flipping the knife around in her hand to pass it back to Cullen.

“Why don’t you… keep that,” he offered, raising an eyebrow at her, but smiling.

“I don’t have anywhere to put it,” she said, but Evelyn caught Eleanor’s eye and motioned vaguely to her sternum.

“I… oh,” she said, and slipped the dagger down the front of her corset, a  layer of silk between the blade and her skin. “Nice,” she said, putting her hands on her hips and admiring her handywork.

“Indeed,” Cullen said quietly.

“Keep it together, you two,” the Inquisitor interjected.

“Alright,” Eleanor said, “let’s find this jerk.”

 


 

 

After a few wrong turns and Cullen and Eleanor both threatening to mow down the hedge maze, Evelyn stopped near a bench and climbed up on it to try to see over.

“Well, I can tell you this much,” she said, leaping back down, “They’re not within two hedges of us.”

“That’s a unique unit of measure,” Eleanor said, flopping down on the bench and rubbing the inner corners of her eyes.

The Inquisitor looked from Eleanor to Cullen and back to Eleanor again. “I’m… going to find Sera.”

“But -” Eleanor started, and Evelyn shook her head.

“You two go back to the palace. Find Cassandra. I’ll meet you back here, hopefully with my damned wife.”

“Alright,” Cullen agreed.

“What? No! Not alright!” Eleanor said, throwing her hands in her lap. “Never split up in a creepy maze! Friends, you seriously need Netflix out here. Or Scooby-Doo reruns. We are not splitting up.”

“Ellie, I’ll be right back, I promise,” Evelyn said, her mouth crooked with concern.

Eleanor’s eyebrows only knitted more furiously. “I don’t like this.”

“Come on, El,” Cullen said, offering her his hand. “Let’s be quick.”

She rose, letting her white-gloved fingers rest in his gold-gloved ones. “Fine, fine. Get Cassandra, get back here, proceed together. As in, not split up. I know how this ends,” she said, these last few words quieter than the rest. “Let’s go.”

The Inquisitor nodded, and headed further in amongst the hedges.

Chapter Text

They walked carefully back toward the palace, Eleanor keeping her gloved right-hand fingertips brushing gently against the hedges to keep track of the turns that they took, and held her staff in her left. She kept the palace in her view the entire time, though that wasn’t exactly difficult, considering the way it loomed ahead of them, its unlit windows looking like dark eyes amidst the ones through which she could see luminescence and people.

“So you’ve been here before?” Eleanor asked, letting her gaze wander over Halamshiral.

“Just once. But it was… plenty,” he said. “If I never came back here again it would be too often.”

Eleanor laughed, taking the next right as they’d been doing since having split up with the Inquisitor. “Yeah, I’m starting to understand why. But, like, what’s the deal with Orlais? I think Varric said something about a war but I also think I was drinking at the time.” She took a few more steps, giving Cullen time to piece his thoughts together, but when he didn’t answer, she said, “Sore subject?” and then, “Babe?” as she turned around.

There was no one behind her.

Her shoulders went slack and her mouth pulled joylessly to the left, her eyes scanning the greenery that seemed to threaten to engulf her. “Yeah. I suppose I should have seen that coming, huh.” She turned in a slow, purposeful circle, taking stock of everything before regaining her bearings and heading once again right, and right, and right, taking a long look around both sides of each corner before she made the turn.

After another three turns, she looked up and realized she was in the same place. She narrowed her eyes, and took off her gloves, letting them fall to the grass, then pulled the blade out from the stiff material of her corset.

“Okay. Left,” she said, and ran the tip of the dagger along the bushes as she set a new tack. Walking slowly, her feet falling in a steady rhythm, Eleanor began to whisper to stave off the silence. “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe. All mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe…”

She made a left.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch. Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch…”

Another left.

“He took his vorpal sword in hand; long time the manxome foe he sought - ”

Eleanor stopped, looked up, looked around. “There is no way this maze is this big,” she said, holding her fingers around the hilt of her dagger, the blade pointing down at the ground as she shifted her weight in one leg. Something was very wrong here. Eleanor took a long, slow breath.

“Cullen?” she breathed, in the faint hope that he might hear her, but there was no answer. No Cullen, no Evelyn, no Sera; no birds, no breeze, nothing.

She reached up to scratch her head, working her finger tips in behind her elaborate hairdo, and muttered, “This sucks."

Behind her, she heard a laugh.

Eleanor spun, but all that was behind her was more maze. The palace was on her right still, the stars were still above, but Eleanor had the sense that she had somehow gotten hopelessly turned around. It was as though the very greenery itself were laughing at her. She knew, though, that that couldn’t be it. She was willing to believe a lot of things, had been forced to believe a lot of things, but she wasn’t ready to admit that a hedge maze was taking pleasure in her confusion.

Which meant someone was watching her.

“Look, I’ve got some bad news for you,” she said out loud to nothing. “You’re not going to scare me off, okay? I mean, A for effort, but I’m just not going anywhere.”

There was nothing, no laughter, no sound in response.

Eleanor sagged a bit, thought about reaching for a cigarette, and then sighed. “Look, can you at least give my husband back to me? He’s got my smokes.”

Chapter Text

Eleanor sighed, her lips buzzing together. By rights, she knew she should be frightened, but being lost in a seemingly inescapable hedge maze was a little too inconvenient and at the same time a little too surreal for her fright to linger. She could see the palace, for crying out loud. She just couldn’t get there. Soon, she’d probably have to pee, and she really didn’t want to have to hitch up her skirts in a haunted garden to have to do it.

She lolled her head on her neck for a moment, looking up at the stars that were blinking into existence in the slowly darkening sky, and, open-mouthed, her brain flashed back to her dream, her dreams.

You only have to ask.

After a pause to weigh the pros and cons - pros: getting out, finding Cullen, finding her cigarettes; cons: looking silly for talking to no one, dealing with forces beyond her reckoning… so, the usual. Eleanor slipped her dagger back into the folds of her dress, closed her eyes and quietly asked, “Hey… you there?”

She waited a moment, eyes closed, arms slightly away from her sides, fingers wiggling as though she might be able to use them like antennae. She waited a moment more before she asked a little more intently, “Hello?”

“Oh, hey,” said a voice, not from inside head or from some nowhere-everywhere place, but from a few paces behind her.

Eleanor’s eyes went wide and she whipped her dagger out of her corset and pointed in the direction of the voice, magic welling up in her left hand, ready to strike -

“Jesus Christ, Sera!” She dropped the knife and clapped her right hand to her chest. “I could have killed you!”

“Unlikely,” Sera said with a laugh, and bent down to pick up Eleanor’s dagger, flipping it skillfully over and over in her hand before handing it back. “You seen Shiny?”

“I thought she was with you! D’you see Cullen?”

“I thought he was with you!”

Eleanor pressed the heels of her thumbs to her forehead, pulling her eyebrows back. “This is so stupid. This was a stupid idea. I am stupid.” She shot a look at Sera. “Don’t tell Cullen I said that.”

“Never.”

“But - to be fair. What were the odds that we were gonna get stuck in some weird magic maze?”

Sera paused, looking to her left as she thought, scratching her head with her pinky. “Well, you’re new here, yeah? So…”

“It’s high, isn’t it?”

“I mean…”

“Alright, fine. I don’t know why I expect anything different anymore. Let’s just… get out of here. Or find someone. Anyone.”

“Yeah, but… any ideas?” Sera asked quietly.

“I guess we keep walking.”

“Hoo-freakin’-ray.”

 


 

 

It felt better to be lost with Sera than without her, Eleanor decided, but she couldn’t help but wonder if the Elven woman would go missing just as Cullen had, couldn’t help but feel that this was just too much like the Deep Roads, even if Eleanor could see the night sky above her, could feel fresh air on her face.

They walked for what felt like miles, every turn they took looking exactly like and somehow completely different from the last, and at one point Eleanor realized she had never passed the gloves she had dropped. Sera had a look on her face that Eleanor didn’t recognize, and didn’t seem to suit the daring rogue at her side: she looked decidedly uncomfortable. Not just unhappy - though that too - but scared and, at the same time, displeased.

After a little while, Eleanor heard Sera muttering under breath, “Frickin’ heebie jeebie shite…”

“You okay over there?”

Sera shook her head. “You’re a mage-like, yeah?”

Eleanor shrugged. “A bit.”

“Nah, don’t be like that. Anyway, not the point - this,” she moved her hands in two little opposing circles, “this is the point, right? You know what this is, yeah?” Sera looked at Eleanor, her round face, normally comical, now very serious.

Eleanor shook her head.

“Blood magic,” Sera whispered, unblinking, stopping where she stood as though the maze would hear her, as though moving would expose her.

“...what?” Eleanor had heard the phrase, and knew it wasn’t something to aspire to. And that was… nearly all.

Sera rubbed her hands together like she was cold, shook her head like even explaining would wound her. “Not good,” was all the more she would say.

“So,” Eleanor asked, folding her arms, “what do we do?”

“That’s… like, that’s more your Culler-Wuller’s territory, yeah?” Sera shrugged, but even this gesture looked nervous, stilted.

Eleanor took a deep breath, let it out in a loud burst. “Of course it is.” She paused. “You don’t think he’s…”

“What, in danger? Nah. If anyone o’us can fend for himself, s’him.”

Chapter Text

Wherever Cullen was, it was dark.

It was dark, and it was quiet.

It was dark, and it was quiet, and it was very much like the maze he had just left, but… less real. Unreal. There was no sky above him, and though he could hear the grass beneath his boots, and there were the shapes of the hedges around him, there was no texture, there was no light, just a sort of knowing, a sort of sense of what was around him. He felt blind. He felt trapped in a sort of open, surreal expanse.

He was angry.

He was angry, and so many more things.

Eleanor was right - he had known that she had been, had had no reason not to believe her when she had heard whatever it was she had heard - but his natural inclination to be skeptical toward mages had also not lead him entirely astray as his new predicament now demonstrated.

This was blood magic. There was no other thing it could be. This was not the Fade, this was not some eluvian no-place.

He had thought so at first, for a few minutes - or was it hours? - as he wandered around textureless grey hedge corners, trying to find a way out, or even a way back into the maze from which he had come, the maze where Eleanor, and Evelyn and Sera, must still be. Unless they had found a way out.

Cullen had thought that this magic was external in nature until, from the corner of his eye, behind his vision somehow, he saw the dark sky above him, saw the green hedges around him. For an instant he smelled the crush of grass beneath his feet.

And in a flash it was gone.

The doubt crept in.

Cullen had pulled off his gloves, tucking them into his cumberbund. He clenched his fists, letting his rough nails bite into the skin of his palms, finding stability and security in the shock of the pain there; he grit his teeth and set his jaw and found a deep well of stillness within him. He squeezed his eyes shut, and then quickly opened them.

There it was again.

Just a flash, like a sensation from a memory, something clung to from long ago, something that when brought to the fore of your mind, it only slipped further away.

But it was there.

Cullen had no target. He had nothing substantial to focus his thoughts on. Nothing but the now obviously artificial landscape - idea of a landscape - around him.

That wasn’t going to make this any easier, which was to say, it never was. At least with Eleanor, he thought grimly, gritting his back molars, he wasn’t entirely out of practice.

He had to get back to her.

Cullen cracked the joints in his wrists. They made satisfying little pops. Taking in a deep breath through his nose, he rolled up his sleeves and stretched his arms out in front of him, twining his fingers and stretching out his shoulders as he curved his back, bowed his head, and brought the knuckles of his thumbs to the center of his forehead.

He focused on the darkness.

And then he focused on the light.

Chapter Text

There was a flash, a bright flash, cold in color but warm somehow, and Evelyn whipped her head around, a feeling she hadn’t even realized she had lost returning to her limbs.

She had been wandering around in the maze for what felt like hours, days, the pain in her left hand fierce, vicious, and… leading.

So she had followed.

Around every bend, around every blind corner, she had followed the feeling in her hand which was a voice in her head which was a sensation in her gut and it didn’t matter which because she was going to follow, so she followed.

She’d forgotten that she’d come into the maze with others, or maybe not forgotten, but relinquished that knowledge to the searching feeling, and to the pain.

The pain in her hand came more often lately.

But Evelyn saw a flash of light and she remembered, refocused, and was just about ready to leap over the hedgerows to get to it, her mind suddenly snapping back into shape, into form. But she stayed on her feet and ran through the maze, and it seemed much easier now to find her way, if not out then at least to the source of the light. The maze began to obey the rules of reality that it had previously discarded, and Evelyn remembered what it felt like to make progress as she moved forward and ahead instead of treading water in one evasive, meandering circle of turns and corners.

And she found Cullen.

The commander was down on one knee, his thumbs pressed hard against his forehead, trembling slightly, and the warmth and realness Evelyn had felt was coming from him. Closer now, she knew that feeling, knew what he had done though it had not been directed at her. She went down on her knees on the cool grass before him and asked, “Commander - are you alright?”

His elbows resting on his bent knee, Cullen let his forearms drop as he lifted his head, meeting the Inquisitor’s eyes, his own eyes almost black in the dim and darkening light. “Better now, I should think.” He took a breath, steadying himself. “Eleanor, is she…”

“I haven’t seen her,” was all Evelyn could say.

The commander lowered his eyes, nodded, and pushed down on his knee to stand, groaning softly as he rose. He smoothed his hands over his hair, the locks growing wild as evening dew collected on him, on the flora around them, and he wiped his hands off his trousers before offering one to Evelyn to help her rise.

“We should -” he started to say, but then he heard shouting, voices, from what must have been close by.

“I’d know that voice anywhere,” Evelyn said with a toothy smile.

 


 

 

As soon as Eleanor felt it, she knew it was him. There was a split second of fear, and then a familiar hard clarity. Where it once had been punishing, it felt now almost… safe.

She heard Sera whoop, and Eleanor tried to smile.

She tried to smile, because though she felt safe, felt comforted, in the back of her mind - no, not in the back of her mind, just outside of her mind; not quite a part of her but threatening to be - something recoiled.

“Well, at least we know which way to go!” Sera said, pointing her gloved hand definitively, and it was indeed in the same direction that Eleanor had felt the sensation coming from.

“But what if it’s dangerous?” Eleanor offered, knowing even as she said it that the suggestion was a futile one; futile because where else could they go, and futile because it was Sera she was talking to.

“That’s the point!” Sera exclaimed, and Eleanor rolled her eyes and smiled, really smiled this time, following a half-step behind as Sera jogged on toward what Eleanor only hoped was an unharmed Cullen.

 


 

 

This time they had no trouble finding him; whatever magic had kept them wandering around in the maze for so long - but how long had it been, really? - was gone. Sera planted a fat kiss on Evelyn who laughed and eagerly returned the gesture, twisting her arms around the thin elven woman as Sera worked her fingers into the Inquisitor’s hair.

Cullen’s eyes lit on Eleanor and he gave her that half a grin, reaching out to rest his hands on the exaggerated hips of her dress.

“You look tired,” she said softly, as he craned his neck to press his lips to her temple, brushing a strand of her dark hair out of the way with his nose.

“Mm,” he answered, pulling her a little closer.

“Let’s get out of here,” Eleanor heard Evelyn say, though her speech was hampered by Sera enthusiastically kissing the Inquisitor’s neck as Evelyn tried to hold back laughter.

“Indeed,” Cullen sighed, his speech almost inaudible for all the breath that came out in the word. He rolled his eyes and closed them, finally relaxing, if only for a moment, if only a bit.

“Shame we couldn’t -” Eleanor heard Sera start to say, the archer finally taking her mouth away from Evelyn, and in just that instant, Eleanor felt that inside-outside tugging in her mind, tugging her behind, and in a motion that was something like against her own will, or maybe just beside it, she found her hand going to the dagger in her corset, and she whipped around as she drew the blade with her right hand, a welling, a swelling of magic in her left as she turned, pointing the dagger and releasing the magic in a concussive blast.

For a moment, she didn’t even realize, didn’t even consider what she was attacking, who was on the receiving end, because the magic she used took her so aback, so off-guard. It was magic she had only ever used once before.

It was the first magic she had ever used, one year ago, in a dark bar in a world a thousand miles away from here.

Chapter Text

Eleanor held a strong stance, Cullen observed, with her left arm out straight, left palm flat, right arm bent at the elbow, ready to thrust her dagger at the slightest provocation. He didn’t know where she had learned that, but it looked good on her.

Her expression, however, was one of utter shock, complete surprise. Her stormy ocean eyes were wide, and for as firm as she held her pose, her lip was trembling, Cullen realized, as he came to her side. Eleanor’s gaze wasn’t even fixed on the Orlesian man on the ground in front of her, not at first; no, it had been off in some middle distance and only focused on what was in front of her when Cullen took in a small breath and gently said, “El?”

The man on the ground in front of her had one gloved hand clasped to his chest, trying desperately to catch his breath, the other hand dragging at the grass behind him while his feet, in soft leather boots slowly being ruined by the dew, scrabbled uselessly on the earth, trying to push his body away from Eleanor in an ineffectual land-swimming sort of action. The man’s mask was askew, probably knocked off of his face when Eleanor had pushed him down, and it covered one of his eyes completely, rendering the man half-blind. The sword he had held had been dropped, nearly launched away by Eleanor’s concussive force, and it now lay several feet away, harmless. It would have been enough to make Cullen laugh - did make Sera laugh, briefly, and the commander couldn’t blame her - if not for that strange expression on Eleanor’s face; if not for that, and for, much like the body of the Dalish woman discarded on their settee in the middle of the night, how much this man looked like Cullen himself.

The commander drew his own blade and pointed it alongside Eleanor’s as the Inquisitor approached, her arms crossed in a casual way that Cullen knew from years of experience was not casual at all, but deadly serious.

“Le Conservateur?” Evelyn asked, her jaw pushed forward, nostrils flared. Her face was flushed and it made her freckles stand out even in the darkness, as though the very pigment in her face had had enough.

“He said - he said -” sputtered the man on the ground, still trying to paddle, to claw himself away. “He said I had to kill her, kill you,” his brown eyes flicked to Eleanor, and Eleanor’s surprised expression narrowed now, her lips pressing thin as the man went on, “He said you would kill me, he said you would kill us all - he said you would kill me.” He repeated this last assertion again until he had worked himself up against a hedge, his eyes darting frantically between the four people hovering over him. The man grasped at the gold buttons on his red shirt, tugging fiercely as though the fabric were crushing him, strangling him. “He said you would kill me!”

“That, I think, was his plan,” Cullen sighed, letting the grip on his sword slacken, realizing that this attacker had no backup plan; the man must have been relying entirely on Le Conservateur’s spell - for this man was no mage, nothing of the sort - to hide him, and once Cullen himself had broken that, perhaps the man had thought distraction, exhaustion might serve the same purpose.

And if not for Eleanor’s reflexes, perhaps it would have.

But Cullen thought again of the dead Dalish woman in their home, and how much she had looked like Eleanon, and he did truly suspect that wherever Le Conservateur was - he could not have been that far to cast such powerful magic, blood mage or no - that Le Conservateur had expected, wanted, planned for this man to die. This man wasn’t an assassin, except in the best of scenarios. He was a message. Another blasted message.

Cullen was sick and tired of messages. He got the point, loud and clear.

Tightening the grip on his sword with newfound vigor, the commander took one swift step toward the half-masked man and demanded, “Where is Le Conservateur!” the tip of of his blade just inches from the man’s throat. Cullen stared down the length of his arm, the length of the sword, and waited for an answer.

The man only sputtered, “I can’t - he’ll kill me!” And then, as if remembering, he pointed at Eleanor, “She’ll kill us all!”

“Believe me, buddy,” Eleanor said, slipping her dagger back into her corset, finally daring to relax her stance, “I’ve got better things to do.”

Then, in the distance, and swiftly growing closer, was the sound of someone crashing through the maze, coming toward them. For an instant, the four of them - indeed, the five of them - held their breath, until, gracelessly rounding the corner shoulders first, came Cassandra.

“Inquisitor!” she exclaimed, short of breath in that way that she always seemed to be. “Thank the Maker!”

“Indeed,” agreed Evelyn, letting her arms relax and resting her hands on her hips, Sera coming to stand beside her, to lean against her, one hand on the Inquisitor’s shoulder, their matching formal uniforms blending their two bodies into one as Sera leaned her chin close to Evelyn’s face.

“And this, then, Commander?” Cassandra asked, motioning with an open hand toward the cowering man on the grass.

“The same as the rest. Take him away. Have Leliana’s people deal with him,” Cullen conceded, the heaviness, the disorienting nature of the foliage surrounding him, the effort of having broken the spell settling back into his bones now that the moment had passed. He slid his sword back into its sheath and reached instead for Eleanor, wanting to get out of the blasted maze so much more now than he wanted answers, so much more than he wanted another Maker-forsaken sacrifice.

And if this man was another just like the rest, as he himself had said, then the odds of him having any answers -

Were none, because as Cassandra leaned down to wrestle the man up off of the grass, blood began to pour from his nose and mouth, and the man began to choke, wrestling free of Cassandra’s grasp not to run, but to reach for the collar of his shirt, ripping it open as though it were the fabric strangling him and not his own thick, hot life that kept him from breathing. The blood spilled over his yellow gloves and just as soon as he had risen, the man was back down on his knees, gurgling and sputtering and gasping.

Eleanor, between her fingers, looked up from the man to Cullen and said, barely above a whisper, “They’re here. They have to be.”

His answer was a command. “We search the grounds. All of us. Sera - spread the word to everyone inside. I have no doubt you’ll be able to get back now. We need all eyes on this. Quickly, go! Cassandra, stay with the Inquisitor. I’ll stay with Eleanor.  Le Conservateur is here, and he is watching. This ends tonight!”

Chapter Text

Sera bounded away and Cassandra lead Evelyn back the way she had come. When they were gone, and when Eleanor and the commander were out of sight of the corpse, Cullen’s whole demeanor relaxed and all of a sudden, he took Eleanor deeply into his arms, pulling her close, pulling her tight, and kissing her hard and quick before letting her go.

“Oh, I see how it is,” Eleanor muttered, “don’t want to be seen with me,” but she kept her face pressed against the soft fabric of his uniform for a moment despite her faux-defensiveness. She felt Cullen’s chest rise and fall deeply once before she stood up straight again and stretched. “Well, Cul,” she asked, her voice a little louder now, “what now?”

He ran his fingertips through his hair in the way that he only did when he was truly exhausted, truly frustrated, with his nails against his scalp in the way that made his curls separate and grow unruly. While Cullen thought, Eleanor reached up and smoothed a lock of his hair back down.

“I don’t think he’s here - in this maze, I mean.”

Eleanor sighed, owning her mistake. “I think you’re probably right about that.”

“Which leaves us with few choices,” Cullen said, cocking his head to the side, toward Eleanor.

“Well, one really, babe.”

He nodded. “The palace.”

She sighed. “God damn it.”

 


 

 

They walked out of the maze - and that was indeed all it took this time, just walking - and came to the palace’s back gates, still open in the cool night air.

“The Inquisitor and Cassandra must already have gone inside,” Cullen said.

“Well, good for them. You think they can handle it?” Eleanor asked, folding her arms, looking from palace to Cullen and back again.

“Hm?”

“Well, I’m just saying, someone’s going to have to reconnoiter out here, aren’t they? Ev and Cas are two more than capable people. And Sera will have spread the word, surely.”

Cullen cocked an eyebrow, smiled. “You’re right, and not only are you right, you’re… correct.”

“And that’s why you love me,” she said. It was an off-handed remark, and Eleanor was already turning away, but Cullen stopped her, reached for her hand, pulled her back to him. He pressed a soft kiss to her forehead.

“And so, so much more.”

She took in a deep breath, let it out.

“When this is over, you’ll have to remind me,” she said, and for just a moment, she let her eyes slip closed.

“I plan on it,” he muttered against her skin.

“Mm,” she groaned a bit. “Oh, handsome…?”

“Yes?”

“Do you have my cigarettes?”

He laughed, fishing inside his uniform. “I do.”

“And that is why I love you.”

“Just that?” He handed them over to her.

With a cigarette between her lips, she said, “And so, so much more.”

Once more fortified and having nowhere to store the pack, she passed the cigarettes back to Cullen who took one for himself, and they began to walk the perimeter of the palace. Though they both knew their task was bleak, their footsteps were slow, leisurely almost. After the hedge maze, after the past weeks and months, even being this close to the person who had put them through so much torment, even thinking they were this close, felt like… relief. Eleanor thought it would have been the opposite. She thought that now she would have been on-edge more than ever, that her heart would be pounding, that her eyes would be darting from side to side, that even the potential of laying eyes on some mysterious figure with a code name would have her biting her nails in anticipation.

Instead, she was almost bored. All she wanted was for this Le Conservateur to show themself and to jam the dagger she had been gifted through their heart. She didn’t even want to waste her magic, waste the effort. And, she thought darkly, a little part of her wanted to feel it. The thought was almost absurd, that she might feel another human being die in her hands. Of all the bullshit things she had been through, dragons and magic and love, that was somehow the strangest, the least believable, to be directly responsible for the death of another human being. She almost had been mere minutes ago. And a part of her… a part of her had wanted it, until she realized that that man had not been the man who deserved it. Le Conservateur deserved it. They had killed the Dalish woman that he had left behind in Eleanor and Cullen’s home - in their home! They had killed the man that Eleanor had just failed to. And they had tried to kill Eleanor herself how many times now. And why? Because she posed some existential threat to him? Because they rode some anti-mage or Thedas First high horse and she didn’t fit that model, didn’t mesh, didn’t jive, so she deserved to die? Well, I’ll tell you what, buddy, Eleanor thought to herself, if one of us deserves to die, it sure as hell ain’t me.

She took a look pull from her cigarette, blowing a thick cloud of smoke out into the cool blue night. If she did kill them, if she did push steel through cloth and skin and flesh and bone, was she any better than they were?

Well, mathematically, yes, since she would have killed only them, and they had already killed at least two and attempted to kill at least one more, risking others in the process.

But really? Really?

It didn’t matter. Eleanor didn’t even know if she could do it. Magic may have changed her. Cullen may have changed her. Thedas may have changed her. But she didn’t think any of those things had turned her into a cold-blooded killer, even if the other guy had started it. Not when she had other avenues of recourse.

It was a nice thought, though - well, no, nice was far and away the wrong word. It was decidedly not a nice thought. But it was an appealing thought, an appeasing one, the idea of pushing a blade that Cullen had given her through the chest of the person who had sent assassins after her, after them both, had tried to have her poisoned and could have poisoned more. Maybe she would let Cullen hold them down while she did it, in this fictitious scenario, like Judith slaying Holofernes with Salome at her side. Yes. That seemed right enough.

She laughed a bitter, quiet laugh and put her free hand on Cullen’s back. Because he didn’t know what she was thinking, or perhaps because of it, he smiled.

Chapter Text

They walked counter-clockwise around the palace, Cullen’s eyes alert. Eleanor stayed on his right-hand side, and his right hand stayed across his body, resting on the pommel of his sword, ready to flex, ready to grab, ready to pull the blade from its sheath at any moment.

At the moment, though, all was quiet.

Except for the tugging sensation at the back of Eleanor’s mind.

It was like a string, a string attached not to the back of her head but to the middle of her brain and pulling, just gently nagging, nudging, nosing her this way and that. It wasn’t an impulse, exactly, more of just a suggestion, an awareness that she wasn’t able to shake.

And it may have saved her life.

Twice.

Cullen might have been quick enough with his blade. Could have been. She had seen him in action, and the man who had tried to attack them in the hedge maze didn’t seem like an expert. He seemed like a fanatic. But it had all happened so fast.

And that was the trouble, wasn’t it?

Cullen might have been able to act that fast. But she certainly shouldn’t have been able to.

Maybe, she thought, optimistically, maybe it was something that Fiona had helped to unlock inside of her. Maybe cupping her magic in her hands, her core, her mind had opened Eleanor up to some sort of awareness, some sort of strange sixth - or would this be seventh? - sense, some self-preservation mode that kicked in in times of abject stress or danger, maybe something like the same thing that had saved her that night at the bar. Maybe exactly the same thing. But then, where was it in the Deep Roads? Where was it when they fought the Archdemon?

But that was a different sort of danger, wasn’t it? That was an obvious danger, a constant danger, mostly, not a danger that was hiding, waiting to sneak up on her, on them. She supposed some darkspawn might have been able to plan an ambush down in the ravine but that was a risk she had been taking just by setting foot down there at all. This danger was different. This was unwanted, unwelcome, stealthy and subtle, worthy of a mental early-warning system.

So maybe that was all it was.

Eleanor didn’t think so.

And if she were honest, really honest with herself, she was smart enough to have started putting the pieces together.

The place with the stars, the voice that spoke, telling her things, asking her things, and what Fiona had said about what it meant to be a spirit healer, that most dangerous kind of magic:

Something was reaching out to her.

But what, and how, and from where, she didn’t know, couldn’t fathom, couldn’t say. She wished she’d read more - wished she’d had time to read more instead of being dragged all over god’s - er, the Maker’s - green earth - well, Thedas. In any case, Eleanor wasn’t even certain she had enough of a solid knowledge base to begin to speculate on the kinds of things that might want to… make contact with someone like her.

And, though she loved him with all her heart, she thought Cullen might absolutely flip shit.

She looked over at him, stretching her back a bit, and gave a long, exasperated sigh.

“What’s that now?” he said, her exhaustion getting his attention.

“Oh, nothing,” the tightness of the corset, having been forgotten in all the excitement, returning in a confining rush. “Just thinking.”

“Doesn’t seem like anything good,” he pressed a bit, and took a step toward her to press his arm against hers.

Eleanor hesitated, unwilling to give him the whole story, especially here, especially now, but she remembered too how keeping information from him before had ended, well, not badly but at the very least with a nasty shock; her coming into her magedom in an exhaustive blow.

She took in a deep breath. “I was thinking -”

There was a feeling like a punch to the back of her head, but instead of feeling like she would crumple, fall, Eleanor stood bolt upright, her hands becoming quick fists, and her eyes darted from the left to the right to the left again -

Left.

Around the palace. In the palace?

“We gotta go,” she said, and she was grateful that for all the stupid things the Orlesians wore, the shoes on her feet were low-heeled boots, good for the running that she was just about to do.

“How can you know that?” Cullen shouted at her as she took off like a flash.

Eleanor turned her head back for just a second and said, “You just have to trust me!”

Cullen caved and began to follow behind. “I do,” he said, under his breath, “I don’t know if I should, but I do.”

 


 

 

Eleanor had always been good at running.

She’d had a lot of practice as a child, running up and down country lanes, running behind tractors, running circles around her father as he tried to get actual work done on the farm while she was still young enough not to have to do any herself. She’d never played a sport, never joined track and field, but she’d always run. Her legs had always been her favorite method of transportation for getting her from place to place, especially on hot, dusty days, even when she was old enough that running to the mailbox at the end of the lane shouldn’t have been the highlight of her day. Even her half a pack a day habit had barely slowed her down.

So she ran, following this new magic, this new instinct, or whatever it was. She ran the way she’d run for years, the way she’d run when she knew where she was going, even though this time she most decidedly did not.

She didn’t know where she was, didn’t know where she was going, didn’t know who she was looking for, but she ran all the same.

Cullen kept up as best as he could, but Eleanor ran like there was something on her heels, like there was something in her blood that kept her going even when he had to find balance to turn a corner or find his footing on the dewy grass.

And then they were inside.

Eleanor had pushed her way back inside the palace, past the guards, not heeding their cries as she threw herself onto the ballroom floor, her arms reaching wildly into the crowd. She darted between lords and ladies, madams and monsieurs, deaf to their yelps even as Cullen called her name behind her, as Cassandra hollered to the Inquisitor, insensitive to the crush of silk and velvet against her skin, blind to the eyes on her ruined dress, tangling hair, muddy boots. Ahead of her, she saw - not felt now, but saw, really saw, with her own eyes - a figure darting low, trying to keep out of sight, trying to keep out of sight, trying to keep to the shadows;  a tiny flash of silver, of metal, almost seemed to sing through the darkness, making for the stairs, the darkened corners of the mezzanine.

“Oh no you absolutely do fucking not,” Eleanor said, lunging for the heels of the shadowed figure.

She missed, her whole body pitching forward and not stopping, her chin smacking hard against the marble floor, and she would have sworn if her teeth hadn’t felt like they were suddenly fused together from the impact. Eleanor didn’t care how much of an ass she looked, didn’t care that she was almost certain she’d cracked a molar - she could take care of that later, her mind said, could take care of so many things now - she only cared that she had missed, couldn’t stand to think that again, again he was going to get away, again he was going to get away because of her. Her hands scrabbled ineffectually at the stairs in front of her, trying to pull herself up despite the pain in her jaw, her neck, as she slowly lifted her head.

Above her, on the landing, she saw Varric, Bianca aimed threateningly downward; Cassandra was at his side, her sword pointing low. Eleanor’s vision blurred and unblurred, and it took her a moment to understand that they were not directing their weapons at her, but at the shape of a man, sprawled out on the stairs between Eleanor and her companions, the shadow fading from the intruder as though the light in the room were slowly growing brighter, though, even with the knock to her head, Eleanor could be certain it was not. Slowly, more cautiously now, Eleanor picked herself up, adjusting her torn dress as best as she could. She wiped at the blood that was running down her chin with the back of her hand and looked down at it for a moment, unimpressed.

“Le Conservateur?” she sighed.

“Wrong again,” said a woman’s voice from behind Eleanor, who sounded as exasperated as Eleanor felt.

“Caught this one when you tripped,” Sera said as Eleanor turned. The archer held the arms of a tall Orlesian woman, restraining her from behind. Cullen stood at Sera’s side, his own sword pointing at the neck of the woman, who had her throat gracefully extended as though she wouldn’t deign to feel fear from something as common as a templar’s blade.

Eleanor recognized them immediately.

“Do you have to crash every fucking party I go to?” she muttered, holding her jaw in her hand as she clicked her mandible back and forth, sending a cooling wave of mana through her bones to calm the throbbing there.

“Well,” said the Orlesian woman, “it’s a start.”

“We never should have let them go,” Evelyn said, approaching from behind Sera. “We should have kept them in the dungeons.”

“Don’t feel bad, Inquisitor,” said the Orlesian woman, smiling with pursed lips. “It wouldn’t have mattered.”

The man on the stairs started to stand, but Cassandra knocked him down with the flat of her sword. “Don’t even think about it,” the Seeker insisted softly.

Eleanor ran her tongue around her teeth and spat blood onto the floor. “I’m starting to think I hate Orlais.”

Chapter Text

Eleanor had, at least, been given a change of clothes and been able to wash her face. She was now seated in a comfortable chair in the library at Halamshiral wearing the same red dress uniform as the rest of the Inquisition, and she was thankful to be clean, and wearing pants. But it was late, and she was exhausted. They all were exhausted, though Cullen and Evelyn and the rest seemed better at hiding it, except for maybe Sera, who seemed better at showing it off as a form of offensive maneuver, her yawns, directed at Le Conservateur, almost an attack.

Eleanor was reminded again that she was new at this. That everyone else had been dealing with this kind of… these kinds of situations… for years. Eleanor shook her head. What could that be like? To be born into this? She rubbed her eyes hard, trying to send healing warmth through her fingers and into her face, but even her mana seemed tired. It helped, but not much. She supposed she was not a perpetual energy machine, at any rate, and magic be damned; she’d have to put something in - coffee, food, sleep - to get any more back out.

Le Conservateur was a tall human woman, blonde, with hair that curled around her ears and then was pinned back behind the nape of her neck and large, dark eyes that seemed to know you as soon as they saw you. She wore all black and wore it well, the low neck of her dress showing off smooth almond skin and shoulders that sat back, tall and strong, despite the fact that her hands and ankles were bound, and that she had both Cassandra’s and Cullen’s swords pointed at her, the Seeker and Commander both fully alert in a way that Eleanor could not hope to be if she were in the same position.

And she was a mage.

She was the mage.

She was the blood mage that had kept them trapped in the hedge maze for so long, had murdered the man who looked like Cullen, had killed the Dalish women who looked like Eleanor, had tried to poison Eleanor at her and Cullen’s de facto wedding reception, had sent the threatening message to their home just days after they had moved in.

She, and her companion, likewise bound and guarded by Sera and Varric, were the same two who had spoken up when Eleanor had tried to speak at Skyhold so long ago.

And Eleanor had suggested that they be let go.

So they had been let go.

While she was changing, before she had washed her face, Eleanor had squeezed out a few tears of frustration, but they felt futile, hollow. It wasn’t crying she wanted to do. It was screaming, and a good deal of it. She wanted to hit something, but the one punch she had feinted into a decorative pillow just made her more angry when the pillow hardly gave, her body too tired to throw the kind of blows that she needed to get out.

This was her fault.

This was her fault, and she had said as much to Evelyn, who, either diplomatically or maybe even honestly, had shaken her head and declined, saying that the Inquisition would have had to let the pair go after a few days or weeks at most anyway, and she had said as much at the time. If they had not been let go on Eleanor’s suggestion, the only thing that would have been different was that they would not have been followed. Eleanor had countered that this had done nothing, and Evelyn had responded that they didn’t know that; despite blood magic, knowing that they were being watched may have forced the pair to use different tactics, which may be why only messages and threats were sent at first, and then indirect attacks.

Eleanor accepted this all logically, and sat at the table in her comfortable chair, in her new, clean uniform, and continued to blame herself. Perhaps if they had kept them locked up Leliana’s agents or the Jennies could have found out about Le Conservateur while she and her companion were still in Inquisition custody. Maybe they could have tortured -

She shook her head, slowly at first, and then quickly, to shake away the thoughts and the sleep and the nagging, tugging feeling that had crept back in. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Le Conservateur smile at her, and Eleanor wanted to slap the grin right off of the Orlesian woman’s face. Instead, Eleanor forced herself to look away.

“But if you yourself are a mage,” Evelyn was saying, her arms crossed in that deceptively casual way, “why incite more fear against mages?”

With that pursed-lip smile, Le Conservateur looked not at Evelyn, but up at Cullen, and made no move to speak.

But her companion did.

“Mages should be feared!” he insisted. “And bringing them from worlds out- outside of this one? It’s - it’s heresy! It’ll get us all killed!”

Le Conservateur sighed as though exasperated, but the smug smile never left her face. “Oisin has… strong opinions about mages,” she said, fluttering her eyelashes at Cullen in way that was not at all meant to be seductive. “Much like yourself, Commander.”

“I -” Cullen began to say, before realizing he was falling into exactly the trap that she was setting. Instead, he turned to her companion, Oisin, and asked, “Then why do you follow her?”

This time, Le Conservateur answered. “Because how else would he get lyrium?”

“Thérèse -” Oisin objected, turning his face away as though embarrassed.

“A templar?” Cassandra murmured.

“Ex-templar,” Le Conservateur - Thérèse - insisted, as though this distinction brought her some pleasure, “...also much like yourself,” she said to Cullen once more.

From across the room, Eleanor could hear Cullen’s jaw snap as he shifted it from side to side, his eyes narrowing with the effort of keeping his mouth shut. But she also watched as the previously firm grip he had on his sword faltered, if just for a moment.

“That’s low,” Varric said, adjusting Bianca against his shoulder. “Even for a blood mage.”

“Is it though?” Sera asked back. “‘Mean, really.”

“To answer your question, Inquisitor, I think you’ll find I myself said nothing about mages at your little symposium. Though Oisin does have a point, albeit in a roundabout sort of way. A fear of mages has been… easily accepted, and useful. After all, you not once assumed that I would be a mage. Or that I was a woman, for that matter. So I let him speak for me and say his passe piece about mages this and mages that. Oisin has his beliefs and… I have mine, and on those at least we do agree.”

“Which are?” Evelyn asked, the intonation in her voice indicating that she already regretted it.

“That she,” and Thérèse pointed at Eleanor with her chin, “does not belong here, and never did.”

Eleanor pressed a palm into her forehead and thought about shouting that that was fine, because she really just wanted to go home, but instead remained quiet, unsure of what might be at all useful to say.

Thérèse went on, “And that by bringing her here, you are putting all of Thedas in danger. Mark my words, Inquisitor: if she can come through, then what else?”

“I think you’ll find,” Evelyn said, sucking on her bottom lip, “that Eleanor knows all about that.” The Inquisitor put her hands on her and Sera smiled a churlish sort of smile. “Considering, you know, that she helped us end one of our own Blights on her own land. But I’m also sure that, considering how well-informed you seem to be, Le Conservateur, you know all about that as well.”

“Which I think you’ll find speaks to my point. How can we know what else might threaten our own lands? Having her here is inviting trouble. The Fade doesn’t take kindly to disturbances like her.”

“Which is why we are studying the Rift between her land and Thedas,” Evelyn insisted. “Which you would know if you would have shut up and listened at our ‘little symposium.’”

“Study the Rift! Hah!” Oisin laughed from his chair. “You are inviting your own demise, Inquisitor, and the demise of us all.”

“Yes, Maker forbid we actually learn something of magic,” Cullen said flatly, rubbing his forehead, “something we can use.”

“You grow soft, Commander,” Oisin spat.

“Oh, you don’t have to tell me,” Cullen rolled his eyes and looked away, but Eleanor saw a smile there, and it gave her a small amount of satisfaction.

Varric snorted, and for the first time, Thérèse seemed truly put out. “You jest? We do not know what might have followed her here! She must go back and the Rift must be closed behind her. And if not that -”

“Oh, do tell,” Eleanor said, leaning forward, resting her chin on the backs of her hands, “I must be eliminated, or something like that, right? Because that’ll solve all your problems? The death of one mage? Among how many others?”

“Not just a mage!” Oisin spat.

“No, not just a mage - a human being,” and it was Cassandra now who returned volley.

“Barely,” Thérèse growled. “Maybe not at all.”

“Excuse me?” Eleanor stood, and her chair scraped loudly against the stone floor, the sound echoing around the room in a shrill approximation of the way Eleanor now felt.

“Let me ask you, Inquisitor: how much do you really know about her world? Do you know that she’s really human?” Thérèse pushed. “But then again,” Thérèse cast her eyes at Sera, “you might not care.”

“You arse-biting -” Sera began, taking a step forward, but Varric held out his hand to calm her.

“That’s what she wants, Buttercup,” he said quietly.

“Alright,” Cullen said, “I’ve heard enough. Evelyn, I think we’re done here.”

“I’m inclined to agree,” the Inquisitor assented. “Commander, do you still have templar connections you trust?”

“I do. Not many, but enough.”

“Good. Send ravens. Now. Get them here as quick as you can. I’ll stay here with these three until you can get back. And Eleanor?”

“Yes?” She stood at attention, her hackles raised now, ready to be sent on a mission of her own.

Evelyn approached her and began to lead her out of the room, whispering gently in her ear. “Get some rest.”

Chapter Text

Eleanor was put out by Evelyn’s suggestion that she alone needed to get some rest - never mind that she was the only one who was really in a position to be able to get any rest until trustworthy reinforcements arrived - so she defied the Inquisitor’s orders by half-heartedly following Cullen to the rookery instead of going to the quarters that had been prepared for her. She expected him to object, to tell her to get some sleep, to tell her he would come to bed just as soon as he could - though how long it might take templars to arrive from some far-flung locations, Eleanor couldn’t even begin to hazard a guess - but instead he remained quiet, allowing her to follow at his side, just a half-step behind him, until they reached a room full of tables, equipped for writing, and resonant with the soft sound of feathers, most of the birds resting at the late hour, mostly undisturbed.

Cullen stopped at one of the long, low benches and, kneeling down to better access the table, reached for a box of flint, pulling it an an oil lamp close. The room was lit with torches, but at this hour of the evening it was too dim to write. He had his hands on the boxes, seemed ready to begin, and then he stopped.

Eleanor saw that he was trembling.

“Cul?” she breathed in the susurrating quiet.

“She’s a monster,” he answered, his voice weak.

“Cullen, I…” but she didn’t know what to say, so instead, Eleanor opened her arms and embraced him, pulling him close. He let his head rest just below her shoulder, and she pressed her cheek against the coarse curls on the top of his head, one hand on the back of his neck, the other around his shoulders. His arms circled her waist and she could feel him taking slow, deliberate breaths, but even still, his exhales were jagged, rough.

“A fucking monster,” he repeated, voicelessly, the words barely there at all. Eleanor nodded, bobbing her head against his in agreement. Slowly, his breathing became more measured as Eleanor rubbed the space between his shoulder blades. She’d never bothered with her gloves and her bare hands on the fine silk of the dress uniform moved in a smooth circle with his inhales, and back again with his exhales until he slowly picked up his head and pulled his hands away, smoothing the front of his jacket. He closed his eyes and took in a deep breath.

“Alright,” he said finally, and opened the flint box.

 


 

 

Eleanor left him alone to write.

She found her way slowly back to her quarters, where she had changed and washed her face, letting herself get lost once or twice. She wasn’t in a hurry. She was tired, bone tired, the exhaustion having returned to her as soon as Cullen had pulled away, but she knew if she laid down, she wouldn’t sleep. She would only be alone with her thoughts. So Eleanor thought them while she walked instead.

All she knew about templars and lyrium, aside from snatches of conversation here and there, was what Cassandra had told her in the Herald’s rest and what Cullen had told her the first time he had touched her like he meant it, that first night he had touched her face. She knew it was like a drug to them, or was a drug. She knew what it was like to use it herself, after all, how it felt, and how much more she wanted it after she used it, but it was more like a hunger than a need; once she was full up, she could stop, like a rich dessert. She knew for someone who wasn’t a mage, it changed a person. She knew quitting was hard, nigh on impossible the longer a templar took it. And if this Thérèse, this Le Conservateur, was controlling Oisin’s supply… for so many things, Thérèse was a terrible person. For all the things she had done to Eleanor herself, to Cullen, she was awful. For the two people that Eleanor knew she had killed, she was a murderer, and she deserved to be locked up, put away. But if controlling Oisin’s lyrium supply was enough to make Cullen break down, to reduce him to a shuddering mass in Eleanor’s arms, and from what? From memories? Then a monster she was indeed.

Eleanor patted herself down for her cigarettes and found them in her breast pocket, but didn’t know if palaces were a non-smoking area, so she waited until she found her way back to her room - rooms, really, a suite of them - and propped herself on a bench below a tall window, pushing it open to vent the smoke from the room.

From here she could see the maze, once more nothing more than a clever novelty in the garden of the elaborate palace grounds of this equally elaborate palace, and Eleanor forced herself to close her eyes and clear her mind. It was all too… too what? The words that came to her mind were punishing in their conviction. This was all too ridiculous. Too absurd. Too unbelievable. Too unreal.

She shook her head and put the cigarette between her lips. Except it was real, and people had died. And it could have been her, and it could have been Cullen. In Indiana, there’d been less time to consider the… egregious strangeness of it all, though she had at times. And besides, she’d been home. She’d been in a familiar place, mostly, and it was that familiar place that was under threat. But sitting on a velvet cushion in a silk uniform in a marble palace while worrying about blood mages who believed that she, Eleanor, was the threat? That her provenance was special somehow?

Eleanor could believe that her own home could come under threat. Her home was just a place, not special, not protected in any way. Bad things happened everywhere, all of the time. She’d already had her own share of darkness, and why not more? But that she was a threat, well, that she had a harder time believing. She had no grand designs, was not part of some greater plan to wipe out Thedas. Surely not.

And nevertheless, she heard Thérèse’s words repeating in her mind.

She doesn’t belong here, and never did.

The Fade doesn’t take kindly to disturbances like her.

Mark my words: if she can come through, then what else?

Eleanor closed her eyes, and remembered the tugging sensation in the middle of her mind, the very force that had lead her to Thérèse.

She remembered the voice that had let her know she only had to ask.

The exhaustion that had settled into her bones pressed down on her now like a weight, and her head felt squeezed, hungover almost. She squeezed shut her eyes more tightly, pressed her palms into the sockets, holding the cigarette carefully away from her face as she rubbed the heels of her hands against her skin. She tried to remember that this was a good night - that Le Conservateur was caught now, that this was, effectively, over. She and Cullen could go home, and everyone, even Thérèse and Oisin, would get what they wanted - inasmuch as they would be getting what they wanted while they rotted in prison, or whatever it was the Inquisition would decided to do with them. Eleanor, frankly, didn’t want to think about it anymore. She thought she would find it satisfying. She didn’t.

She took a long pull on the cigarette, turning what was left of it to ash.

Chapter Text

Cullen shouldn’t have spoken to Oisin.

He was under no obligation to, none at all. He didn’t even have to look at the ex-templar, truly. And he shouldn’t have.

Oisin and Thérèse had been moved to cells - separate cells - in the lower levels of the Winter Palace, and he and Cassandra had gone with them until Cullen’s templar reinforcements could arrive. Sera and Varric were nearby, and Evelyn had gone to relay the evening’s events to Leliana via a raven, so she herself was not too far. Le Conservateur and her templar companion had been properly bound with cuffs and chains, and Cullen and Cassandra were more than capable of taking on and taking down two restrained and jailed reactionaries.

But their presence still made Cullen uneasy.

He crossed his arms and paced the ground in front of Thérèse’s cell, never letting his eyes linger on the woman; he was watching her, to be sure, observing her, sensing the room for any signs of magic, but he never let their eyes meet, never let his gaze linger on her detestable smile for more than a moment longer than he had to.

Monster.

The word repeated in his mind almost unbidden, though he knew it was a thought of his own, not put there by any dark practice except for the unwholesomeness of his thoughts, and his teeth ground together with every anxious step he took.

Monster.

Cullen looked up at her and saw that horrible smile, and again, he had to look away. For just a moment, he let himself close his eyes, squeezing them shut, blocking her out. He took a step away from the cell, far enough away that he was no longer in her line of sight, and she no longer in his, though he got the suspicion that somehow she still had her eyes on him. Nevertheless, he put his hands in his hair and gripped hard, bending backward, his muscles stiffening as one before he let himself go entirely limp.

When he looked back, she was still just smiling.

Monster.

“Seeker,” Cullen called to her, trying to keep his voice level, even as he beckoned Cassandra to his side.

“Commander,” she said, confirming his request as her feet closed the distance along the hallway that separated them, and when she was closer, he saw her mouth the words, “Everything alright?”

He rubbed his hands together a moment, squeezed his wrists one after the other to pop the joints there. They snapped loudly in the quiet stone hallway, less furnished, less decorated than most of the others in the lavish palace, and Cullen waited until the sound, the memory of the sound, cleared his ears before he took a deep breath and quietly spoke.

“I need a break. From her,” he confessed, his face next to Cassandra’s shoulder as he spoke, trying to keep Thérèse from overhearing him, though he wasn’t sure that that was possible in the resonant surroundings.  

“What has she been saying?” the Seeker asked, narrowing her eyes, but Cullen only shook his head.

“No, nothing,” he admitted, sighing through his nose. “She hasn’t said a word.”

Cassandra craned her neck to see into the cell, peering around Cullen, and then lifted her eyes from Thérèse to Cullen, catching his gaze as she put one protective hand on his red-clad arm.

“You’ve had a long -” she stopped, and her mind seemed briefly to turn, realizing that any frame of time she chose would be both applicable and incorrect. The corners of her mouth pulled downward, but her expression was soft, the lines around her mouth reflecting sympathy. “Well.” She gave his arm a squeeze, tried to smile, and said, “Go. I can handle her. Send in Sera to watch over Oisin; not that I think he’ll try anything on his own.” She let her arm drop, and nodded toward the door at the end of the hallway.

Cullen nodded, glancing down the hall the way the Seeker had come. He didn’t think Oisin would try much of anything either. The commander didn’t know how long it had been since the ex-templar had last had his lyrium, but if he was holed up in his cell for more than a few days, or even hours, Cullen didn’t think that Oisin would be in much mood to try anything at all.

Rolling his shoulders, standing straight, Cullen said, “Alright,” and took a step forward, just past Cassandra, then stopped and looked back. “Thank you,” he mouthed to the Seeker, and she softened a moment, just long enough to smile. Cullen scratched his hair and turned away, nodding.

He’d almost made it all the way down the hall and out the door, but he turned his head to look in Oisin’s cell.

The commander stopped.

Oisin was not sitting on the small bed, the single piece of furniture provided to prisoners in the cells of Halamshiral if one did not count their chamber pots. Instead, the ex-templar was curled up in the corner, his knees up to his chest, face pressed hard against his hands. He was shaking.

Cullen swallowed, running his teeth over his bottom lip. He had seen this before.

He had done this before.

The man had seemed shaky when he’d been bound upstairs, when Thérèse had been ranting and the Inquisitor had had just about enough, but Cullen had chalked it up to nervousness, adrenaline, fear.

But the way Oisin had said her name…

“Because how else would he get lyrium?”

“Thérèse -”

And she had only smiled, that same disgusting smile.

If he had needed it even then - and if Thérèse were the one controlling his supply, if she were giving him too much, if it made him more pliable, and if, if, if there were so many ifs - then this was barely the depth of what Oisin would sink to. Cullen had been on a Chantry-controlled dose for years, had had his mind about him, had not been someone’s puppet - ostensibly - and the days and weeks after his last dose had been torture. He felt its effects even now.

How much pain was Oisin in? How much pain did he have yet to feel?

Slowly, Cullen approached the bars of the cell, his eyes narrowing not out of malice but confusion, and he lifted his hands and put them against the cold iron, breathing only a single word. “Why?”

Oisin slowly lifted his head. His eyes were bloodshot, skin glossy with a thick sheen of sweat, the kind of sweat that clings to the flesh of the unwell, the infirm. He was pale. It had been only hours since Evelyn had questioned them, and already the man was falling apart. But Cullen had felt it happen to himself in minutes, like a hot wave of flu; standing over the War Table indicating troop movements in one moment, and in the next, unable even to follow his own thoughts for the sickness that gripped him. Oisin smiled a hateful smile, and with a voice like hot ash, repeated Cullen’s word back at him. “Why?”

“Why would you let her do this to you? Why leave the Order to follow a blood mage?” Cullen whispered.

“I left,” Oisin spat the word, “when it decided that an apostate Inquisitor was not just a worthy ally to the Order but was capable of leading what was left of it. Unlike some of us.” He finished his sentence with a hard swallow and a gripping of his fist, fingernails biting into the palm of his damp hand. “There is no Order anymore, Commander, in case you’d forgotten. Only an Inquisition.”

“And this is better?” Cullen asked, extending one firm arm to point down the hall to where Thérèse was being kept. “She is better than the Inquisitor? How can you honestly -”

“Last I checked,” Oisin growled, strain evident on his face, “Thérèse hadn’t taken control of half of Thedas in the service of some - some holy war.”

“That’s what you think this -” Cullen stopped himself, firming his jaw and looking away, steeling himself as he shook his head. “She’s a blood mage. And she’s using you.”

Oisin laughed, and it sounded like poison. “You think I don’t know that, Commander?” His face twisted, his cracked lips looking like he was getting something like satisfaction out of the exchange.

Cullen gripped the bars of the cell with both hands and pulled himself in close, breathlessly asking, “Then why? Did you think you could keep her in check? Did you think you could manage her? Why let it get this far?”

“Because she’s right,” came the choked answer, as Oisin dropped his head between his knees and put his hands on the back of his neck, losing his fingers in the tangles of his limp red hair.

“You’re out of your mind,” Cullen muttered and started to turn away, letting one hand drop from the bars.

“You would have agreed with her,” Oisin said, not picking up his head, but pausing to take a long, shaking breath, and something in the tone of his voice changed when he said, “once upon a time, in the Free Marches.”

Cullen stopped. “What?”

“Wouldn’t you have done anything you could?” Oisin asked, slowly lifting up his gaze, letting his thumbs fall down between his shoulder blades, elbows up. “To stop him?”

Chapter Text

A moment of panic ate into Cullen’s chest.

To stop him.

If he had known, what would he have done to stop him? To stop the destruction of the Chantry, to put a halt to those last, darkest days, those final hours? Would he have resorted to -

“No,” Cullen answered, but his voice didn’t sound as strong as he had thought it would, the refutation not as firm as it had been in his head. “That’s what we were fighting in Kirkwall. That was the whole point.” One hand still clutched the cell bars and his fingers tightened there, nails gripping the rough wrought metal. He took a deep breath in, held it, something inside him shaking.

A dry laugh came from Oisin, and it was followed by a cough that shook the ex-templar’s body for a moment. He let his head drop again. “So much good it did you.”

Cullen narrowed his eyes.

“Oisin,” he said said slowly, keeping his voice as even as he could, “look at me.”

Oisin scoffed, talking to his feet when he said, “You command a great many men, that’s true. That doesn’t mean I’m one of them.” His shoulders tensed and Cullen heard him suck in a shuddering breath, fists clenching and unclenching as the veins in the back of his hands bulged.

“It only gets worse, Oisin.”

This time, the ex-templar had no witty response. Instead, he only lashed out, slamming one closed fist against the brick wall behind him, his teeth closing down hard on his bottom lip.

Cullen couldn’t be sure at first, couldn’t be sure what he felt wasn’t just the lyrium-addled thoughts of a warped man, twisted by too much time spent in the company of someone, something dark. But something instinctual tugged at him now and he looked away, dropping his hand from the iron bar and frowning hard as he said, “You’re going to hurt him, Thérèse.”

From down the hall, he heard the malificar’s rich laughter.

Cullen headed back the way he came, slowly at first, then picking up speed until by the time he reached Thérèse’s cell he was in a full on sprint.

“Commander -” Cassandra asked, confusion written on her face as her dark eyes darted from the blood mage to Cullen and back.

“Show me your hands,” Cullen said, his voice too soft, too calm as his chest heaved.

“Why, Commander -” Thérèse began demurely.

“Show me your hands!” Cullen shouted at the top of his lungs, throwing himself up against the bars of the cell and shoving them, his face red, heart pounding in his chest, throat raw with the effort of the words.

“Cullen,” the Seeker said gently, putting one hand on his tense shoulder.

Thérèse, hands still bound behind her back, looked bored as she turned toward Cullen and Cassandra, rolling her eyes and sighing.

Eight fingernails were dug into her palms, rivulets of blood running down her knuckles and dripping slowly onto the floor.

“You…” Cullen murmured, his own own hands tightening, “you awful… you horrible,” he choked.

“Come now, Commander. You’re better educated than that,” she turned her head back to face him, hazel eyes bright. “Use your words.”

In a burst of impotent rage, he threw himself against the bars once more, growling as he roughly shrugged off the Seeker’s hand before he cried, “Let him go! Release him!”

“Surely either of you can make me,” Thérèse lifted an eyebrow.

“You’re absolutely right I can,” he spat, but behind him, he heard Cassandra say, “Cullen. That’s enough.”

The commander whipped his head around, leveled his eyes with hers. “Enough, Cassandra? That would be nothing like enough! She should be shut away, alone; she should be chained to the wall, hand and foot; she should have every single one of her fingernails torn out -”

“That is enough, Cullen,” Cassandra hissed, repeating herself as she narrowed her eyes and gripped his arm tightly. “You need a break,” she reiterated Cullen’s own sentiment from earlier, and then her own, finishing the thought this time, for his sake. “You’ve had a long night.” The Seeker tightened her grip on his arm a little more, then released him. “Go back to your wife, Commander,” she said, her voice more soft now, her usual hardness eased a bit from her face.

“Yes, Commander. And how is your wife?” Thérèse sang between the bars.

Nostrils flared, Cullen threw out his hand and a pillar of white light knocked Thérèse from where she sat on the bed, pitching her onto the floor, her back and wrists hitting the stone with a hard smack.

“Out, Commander,” Cassandra insisted, grabbing him by his shoulders and directing him toward the door. “That’s an order,” and Cullen knew immediately how she meant it - not as agent of the Inquisition, but as a Seeker of Truth.

In the cell, Thérèse rolled onto her side and groaned.

“And I don’t want to hear a word from you,” Pentaghast spat disgustedly, pointing a stern finger into the cell. “You deserved all of that. And more.”

Cullen stormed down the hall, setting his jaw firm as he walked past Oisin’s cell, his feet only slowing as he heard the ex-templar whimper, “Commander, it hurts.”

“You’re fucking right it does,” Cullen muttered, and pushed the door to the hall open roughly, letting himself out.

Chapter Text

Eleanor was sitting up in the window seat, her hair over her face. One arm was stretched out along the sill, head resting on it gently, the other hanging limply at her side. Her eyes were closed. She was perfectly still.

For a moment, panic clutched Cullen’s chest, and he was paralyzed. Thérèse’s last words came painfully back to him.

“Yes, Commander. And how is your wife?”

“No, Maker, no,” he gasped, and threw himself across the room to her, falling on his knees in front of the little cushioned bench where Eleanor was propped. He reached out and grabbed her roughly around the waist, hands reaching for her shoulders, her face.

“Eleanor -” he nearly sobbed her name.

She jerked awake, pulling herself abruptly upright.

“Cul?” she gasped, her hands flying up at first and then quickly searching downward, fingers smoothing his hair, clutching for his hands. “Jesus Christ, Cullen, what’s wrong?” she asked, her voice raw with sleep, eyes searching in the dim room for some source of his distress.

“Merciful Andraste,” he breathed, rising only enough to slide onto the window seat next to her, pulling her body to his, pushing his cheek, his lips against her forehead. Strands of her hair caught in his day’s growth of stubble.

“Babe, what’s going on?” she asked, her wits more about her by the moment, and she could see the obvious distress on Cullen’s face, and feel him shake with worry, but there was something else there too, something that looked like fear and felt like rage.

“I thought she - I thought you -” was all he managed.

“I’m here, Cullen. I’m fine,” Eleanor said quietly, running her palm over his wild curls before pulling away to let both her hands hold his cheeks and she looked in his eyes. “Everything’s fine,” she promised, and brought her lips against his, kissing him slow and long and deep before letting him rest his head heavily on her shoulder, her arms around his neck.

“I’m… so tired,” he sighed.

“I know,” she answered. “I’m sorry.”

Cullen laughed a bland laugh. “Of all the people in this Blighted world who shouldn’t be doing the apologizing, El, you’re at the top of that list,” he said without lifting his head, instead pressing his nose against her neck. “But it has been one hell of a night.”

“It’s been one hell of a season.”

“It’s been one hell of a… flames, a marriage, hasn’t it?

She smiled and pushed her cheek against his. “It has at that,” she groaned.

“Maker, El, I’m… now I’m the one who’s sorry, I suppose,” he muttered, lifting up his head.

Eleanor offered him a cigarette and the lighter from the pack, and he accepted both gratefully. “Sweet man, you don’t even go on the list of people who have apologizing to do.” She stretched a bit, letting her legs extend across Cullen’s lap. “But when we get home, I will accept gifts of wine and chocolate to make it up to me.”

“Thought you were a beer and pizza type,” he said, exhaling smoke out of the ornate window.

“I can go both ways,” she said with a grin. “Come on, handsome,” she slapped her thighs and swung her legs off of the window seat, away from Cullen. “Let’s both of us get to bed, huh?”

“‘Me finish this,” he said, hoisting the cigarette, “but you go. I’ll meet you there.”

“Mm,” she said, rubbing her eyes roughly. “That I can do,” and she stood, walking toward the bedroom.

“Wait, El,” Cullen called after her, a thought striking him as he thought of her resting so peacefully on the little cushioned bench on which he now sat.

“What’s up, babe?” she said, one hand on the door, and turning back to him, pushing her hair out of her face with the other hand.

“Were you… dreaming?”

Tipping her chin down, she gave him a knowing look. “Was I dreaming when, Commander?”

He rolled his eyes, but she was right, in a way, to use his title. “Before I woke you. Here,” he used the hand that held his cigarette to point at the window seat, and suddenly Eleanor looked wistful, sad.

“I was,” she answered, as though suddenly remembering, and she let go of the door and crossed her arms, holding herself just above her elbows.

“What about?” Cullen asked, though the question suddenly seemed more invasive than he could have meant.

Eleanor licked her lips and looked past Cullen, out the window. The first rays of sunlight were breaking through the darkness, and the horizon was tinged with a gentle orange, a pink that squeezed her, the quality of the light alone stirring up the things her dreams had begun to unearth. “I was dreaming… of my mother. Of home.” Her eyes stayed fixed on the sky for another quiet moment, and then she sucked in a quick, shuddering breath and looked back at Cullen. “Normal dreams. I promise.”

“...Eleanor, I -”

She shook her head. “No, it’s fine.” She let go of one arm and waved his concern away. “Finish your cigarette. I’ll be in bed.”

“Soon we’ll be in our own bed,” he promised, bringing the cigarette to his lips.

“I’m gonna hold you to that, Cul,” she said, disappearing into the bedroom.

He turned his head to look out the window, holding the smoke in his lungs, and wondered what she saw there.

Chapter Text

When he woke up, holding her in in his arms, he forgot for a moment that the were in Halamshiral, that these ornate sheets were not their own, that this bed was much too large, that the light coming in the windows had a slightly different quality, neither Fereldan nor Indianish, and for the briefest instant, Cullen was calm. Then he took in a deep breath and smelled an air too heavily perfumed, and saw around him walls of too fine a stone, and when he exhaled it was as a sigh. Even if they were leaving today, it was to return to Skyhold, not to the cabin, and certainly not the farm, and he rubbed the ever-deepening creases on his brow, feeling sorry for himself but moreso for Eleanor who had not been a willing participant in any of this.

But he dutifully brushed her hair away from her face and kissed her ear, whispering in it, “I believe we should be getting up.”

“Mmtime?” she seemed to ask.

He shook his head. “Don’t know. Probably late.”

She groaned, rubbing the space between her ear and her neck hard, looking up at him sleepily. “I don’t have to wear a dress anymore, do I?”

Cullen laughed. “I fear for the poor soul who tries to put you in the next dress.”

 


 

 

They were taken to baths by Dalish servants, the moral correctitude of which Eleanor was still trying to suss out without blatantly asking the next masked monsieur if and how they justified keeping slaves. She wanted to ask the elves themselves but every time she opened her mouth, they whispered something about Briala and hastily found something else to do; so Eleanor found herself soaking in a tub alone with actual rose petals floating on top, which sounded like an absolutely luxuriant idea until you realized they got all stuck in your hair and on your skin unless you actually allowed someone else to wash you, which you couldn’t do if you’d gone and scared all the servants away. So Eleanor contented herself to soak until she was reasonably certain she’d gotten out the smell and then tied her hair up on her head in an absolute non-hairdo with a single ribbon, finding a towel and a clean uniform laid out for her in the small room next to her, and despite spending nearly twenty-four hours in the Winter Palace, Eleanor found she was still entirely capable of dressing herself, though she did desperately find herself missing her stick of eyeliner and her stick of deodorant, both of which she had left in Ferelden. They were the only two vanities she had brought with her, the only two she really bothered with, one of which normally ended up smudged across her face by the end of the day - especially given the times that she ended up fighting darkspawn or Archdemons or blood mages, which seemed to involve a great deal more eye rubbing than she might have previously been lead to believe - and amidst all of the bejeweled patrons of Orlais, she felt more than a little plain, and worried that she smelled more than a little like damp cat.

But after her soak, the heat bringing a little color to her cheeks, the fragrant water leaving her smelling a little less like the landscape, and her wet hair at least off of her shoulders, she felt something like this side of acceptable, so Eleanor let herself out into the hall to find the rest of her party.

An Orlesian woman - this time not an elf - took Eleanor back to the large room where they all had congregated the previous evening to question Thérèse and Oisin. Everyone from the night before was present, along with a few faces that Eleanor didn’t recognize, all clad in a severe-looking armor; so she figured that Cullen’s templar reinforcements must have arrived in the night - or during the morning, since it was now sometime past noon, or what Eleanor still regarded as noon nevermind how time was kept in Thedas, which didn’t seem to be much at all.

“The White Spire? Is that safe?”

Eleanor heard Cassandra’s voice just before she saw the Seeker standing beside the long table that Eleanor had sat at last night. Eleanor let herself softly into the room, gently closing the door behind. She realized now that it was a library or study, or a wing of one, so much cozier and more friendly than the rest of the palace felt, especially with a fire now lit and Thérèse and Oisin far away, far below.

Cullen was across the room from Eleanor, his arms folded, back in full commander mode once more, and so Eleanor made a place for herself near the door, next to Sera. The archer gave Eleanor a bright smile and a wink, shuffling her feet as she nudged Eleanor in the arm with an elbow.

“Got ‘em good now, eh, ‘Norrie?” Sera whispered.

“The White Spire is as secure a place to hold a blood mage as any location, at least until she can be tried for her crimes, though,” a woman with jet-black hair and midnight skin was answering Cassandra, “given what you’ve told us, Inquisitor, I’m not entirely certain a trial is… necessary.”

The woman was hugely imposing, though Eleanor realized as she compared this new face to the Seeker that she was actually an inch or two shorter than Cassandra, but between the broadness of her shoulders and the severe cut of the armor that adorned them, this woman was one of the most intimidating figures Eleanor had ever seen.

“Knight-Commander, the Templar Order -”

The woman cut Cassandra off, her words stern. “Is not what it once was, thanks to your Inquisition.” But she caught herself, closing her eyes for a moment and licking her lips, letting herself soften. “I apologize, Seeker. Inquisitor. These past few years have not been easy. Without Chantry support - well. Now is not the time for a petition.”

“No, indeed,” said Cullen, adjusting his weight from side to side where he stood. “But rest assured, you are being heard.”

The Knight-Commander nodded her head graciously and went on. “Thank you, Commander. The White Spire is much diminished, yes. This is true. We are no longer a Circle so much as an outpost of people who believe there is yet good that the templars can do for Thedas, especially in this turbulent time. And we were able to send you the reinforcements you needed when you called, were we not? I believe that we’ll be more than capable of handling a single blood mage and that…” she sighed, gritting her teeth, “disgrace.” She turned to Evelyn, who was seated at the head of the table, in the chair where Eleanor had been on the previous evening. “And of course,” the Knight-Commander went on, “we would allow the Inquisition to preside over the trial of the maleficar, this… Le Conservateur. Though I would ask that you allow us to hand Oisin on our own.”

Evelyn looked first to Cassandra, who tipped her head, not agreeing so much as merely consenting, and then to Cullen, who closed his eyes and gave a deep, sorrowful nod.

It took Sera elbowing Eleanor in the ribs, this time in a less friendly fashion, for Eleanor to realize that the Inquisitor was looking now to her.

“Oh! I - uh,” she cleared her throat and have a perfunctory nod of her head.

“Ah,” the Knight-Commander turned toward Eleanor, suddenly noticing her. The armored woman crossed the room in what seemed to Eleanor one long stride, and Eleanor stiffened, like she was at school and was being approached by the principal.

“Knight-Commander Renata Hidal,” she said, offering a gloved but amicable hand to Eleanor. “So then you must be the mage from beyond. Beyond the Fade.”

Taking Renata’s hand, Eleanor gave it a firm shake, though the rest of her began to relax when faced with the slight awe in the Knight-Commander’s voice; this woman was nearly as taken aback by Eleanor as Eleanor was by her. “I feel so seen,” Eleanor said with a laugh. “But that’s a better one than I usually get,” and she let Knight-Commander’s hand go.

“How’s that?” Renata asked.

“‘Mage from beyond,’” and Eleanor said it like she was announcing a B-movie. “Sounds so mysterious.”

“Well, what do you prefer to be called?” Renata asked, as though it were only natural that Eleanor would have some deliciously extravagant title.

“Eleanor’s fine. Ellie’s good too. That one calls me El,” she gestured toward Cullen with her chin.

“I call her ‘Nor,” Sera offered helpfully.

“You’re… different than I thought you would be,” the Knight-Commander tipped her head slightly, long, dark hair shifting along the furrows and curves of her armors as her chin tilted.

“A bit of a disappointment, I know,” Eleanor smiled. Across the room, Cullen just rolled his eyes and shook his head.

“No, it’s not -”

“Well,” said Evelyn, rising from the table and taking a step toward Renata and Eleanor, “since all parties find these terms amenable, I think I speak for everyone when I say I’d like to get the blazes out of Halamshiral.”

“You got that right, Inquisitor,” said Varric from the corner of the table, and Eleanor nodded her vigorous assent without Sera having to elbow her this time.

Chapter Text

The ride back from the Winter Palace was mostly quiet, with Cullen and Eleanor both milling over how much longer a trial would require them to stay in Thedas. Evelyn had told them to go back to the cabin in Ferelden until arrangements were made at the White Spire - though they’d be stopping to keep the night at Skyhold, since the journey would be too long to make all at once - and Cullen had grumbled under his breath that he certainly didn’t know what sort of preparations could possibly take long enough for them to bother travelling all the way back to Lake Calenhad. Eleanor, though, was glad for the opportunity to go home, even it it wasn’t quite the home she wanted. And she did like Ferelden. And she did like the quiet of the cabin. And maybe now that her life wasn’t constantly under threat, ideologically and actually - though, she supposed, if Thérèse’s rhetoric had been at all effective and anti-Rift groups had formed, perhaps actually was all she could hope for, though that did seem like the better of the two options - perhaps Ferelden could feel a little more like the home that she wanted after all.

She was just coming to terms with this when Varric, sitting opposite them in the carriage, said, “So. More blood magic, eh?”

“Varric, please. Not now,” Cullen said quietly with his face in his hands, but Eleanor’s curiosity got the better of her.

“Yeah,” she said darkly, twisting her face into a frown, and asked half-thoughtfully, half-belligerently, “what’s up with that shit?”

“Bad news, Farm Girl. All bad,” Varric answered vaguely, folding his arms and sitting back against the carriage seat.

“El,” Cullen said abruptly, ready to nip the discussion in the bud, but he took a deep breath, and reconsidered. “It is…” he started slowly, “not something you should ever even…” He peeked up at her over his fingertips, elbows resting on his knees. He turned his head to better face her without turning his body, then flicked his eyes to Varric.

“I’m gonna let you handle this one, Curly.”

Yes, Cullen’s face seemed to say as he rubbed his fingertips against his tired eyes, of course you would. But then, why wouldn’t he? Hadn’t that been Cullen’s very job?

It had. It was just that the commander seemed to be so very sick of that line of work right now.

“Blood magic is…” he began haltingly, sitting up straighter and resting his palms on his knees, “the most sinister and corrupt sort of magic, Eleanor. And it is absolutely forbidden.” And if he had known her to be the kind of person to take no for an answer, he would have left it at that. But because he knew the woman that she was, he rubbed his forehead roughly, then let his hand fall back down into his lap and tried to explain. “Maleficar don’t use the same kind of power you use. They use the power in their very blood to cast spells instead of reaching out to touch the Fade, to draw from it, and indeed, over time it makes it harder for them to find the Fade, to use that power. That means that to cast more powerful spells, they then need ever larger supplies of… of blood, and…” He closed his eyes and gave his head a small, quick shake, banishing the thoughts. “Blood mages deal with demons: they are always at risk of becoming abominations - harboring those dark spirits within their very bodies. I…” He paused to take a breath, to swallow hard. “I told you what happened when my Circle fell.” He was quiet a moment, but reached out to take Eleanor’s hands in his. After a moment, he added, “And this whole blasted war was started by an abomination in Kirkwall.”

“Well,” said Varric, “there’s a bit more to it than that, but yeah. That’s the gist of it.”

Cullen gave Varric a tired look, shoulders hunched forward, eyes darkly half-mast.

Varric put up his hands and gave the commander an innocent look. “I didn’t say you were wrong.” There was pause, and then Varric muttered, “Though, strictly speaking, he wasn’t a blood mage.”

“Varric -”

“Who are we talking about?” Eleanor’s eyes flicked from Cullen to Varric and back again.

“I’m not defending him, Curly. If he were drowning, I’d throw him an anchor. I’m just saying…”

“You need to stop just saying, Varric,” Cullen said firmly, letting go of Eleanor’s hands with one of his to point definitively at the dwarf.

“I have literally no idea what’s going on right now,” Eleanor mumbled.

“The mage who blew up the Kirkwall Chantry used to be a, uh… friend of ours,” Varric said hesitantly.

“He what now?” Eleanor blurted.

“Of yours, dwarf,” Cullen insisted with no hesitation whatsoever.

“Fine, yeah. Friend of mine. And Hawke’s partner, if you can believe that shit. And,” he added quietly, “he was definitely not a blood mage.”

“He was an abomination!” Cullen spat, throwing up his hands.

“He was an awful lot of terrible things, Curly,” Varric agreed. “But he would hardly even look at Daisy after he found out about her. He drew a pretty hard line on blood magic.” Varric pointed intently at Eleanor. “Which should give you some idea of how bad it is, when even the most hated mage in Thedas won’t make that leap.”

“That,” Cullen started harshly but blinked, his shoulders sagging a bit, “is a very valid point, I’m forced to admit.”

“Alright, okay, I get it. Blood magic is bad. Blood magic is why we can’t have nice things,” Eleanor said, putting her hands out protectively, but something else was churning in the back of her mind.

“Good,” Cullen said, putting one hand on Eleanor’s leg. “Wait, I wasn’t close with Hawke’s friends, but I don’t remember anyone called Daisy.”

Varric rolled his eyes, shaking his head. “Merrill. The little one. Real sweet kid.”

“The Dalish?”

“I’m… fairly certain that’s at least slightly racist, Curly, but yes.”

“She was a blood mage and you all knew? The whole time?” Cullen put his hands on the back of his head, nearly elbowing Eleanor in the face. She bobbed away just in time.

“Oh, trust me, Daisy’s being a blood mage was the least of our problems with her,” Varric sighed, and hunched forward. “There was this whole thing with a mirror -”

“I have a question,” Eleanor interjected, pushing Cullen’s left elbow down.

“What is it, Farm Girl?” Varric asked, seeming eager to change the subject.

“This… other mage, this Chantry guy,” she collected her thoughts, scratching her ear. “He was… an abomination? He had a demon… inside of him?”

“That’s technically correct, yes,” Cullen said.

“Well, okay, if he wasn’t a blood mage… like, how does that happen? Fiona told me… some things, but… I’m not too clear on the technicalities, exactly.”

“You wanna field this one, Curly?” Varric offered.

With the hand still on his head, Cullen worked his fingers in his hair. “Eleanor, what you have to understand is, all magic attracts demons. They see mages as a doorway into this world. Some mages… are more vulnerable than others. Blood mages, absolutely, but they do it on purpose, willingly. Willfully. They try and use the demon’s power, which rarely if ever works out for anyone but the demon. But,” he looked away from her letting the hand that was in his hair drop limply, “you. Fiona… Him. Whether you’re consciously aware of it or not, the power you wield to heal comes from spirits. And their intentions aren’t always pure.”

“So you’re telling me I could become an abomination.”

“...That’s why magic is dangerous, Eleanor. Well, one of the reasons.”

“But there are good spirits,” she said, and it was both a statement and a question.

“Well, yes,” Cullen allowed.

“That’s how Blondie got himself in such a fucking mess,” Varric muttered, looking out the carriage window.

“What?” Eleanor asked

“Varric, that’s enough,” Cullen insisted.

“What, it’s twice as dangerous for me so I’m not allowed to know?”

“This is different,” Cullen deflected.

“He was kind of a… special case, Farm Girl.”

“That’s one fucking word for it,” Cullen spat, feeling his uniform for his cigarettes. Eleanor shook her head and pulled them out of her jacket pocket, passing them to Cullen to appease him, then leaned forward pressed Varric: “Tell me.”

Varric glanced to Cullen who, lighting his cigarette, gave the dwarf an, ‘I can’t control her,’ sort of look, then turned back to Eleanor and began to speak.

“Alright, Farm Girl. Before this guy came to Kirkwall, he had gotten himself in a lot of shit. He was the kind of person who was perpetually in a lot of shit.”

“I empathize,” Eleanor groaned.

“No. You don’t,” Cullen said through a cloud of smoke.

Casting an impatient glance at Cullen, Varric continued, “As… community service, let’s say, he was helping the Warden quash the last remnants of the Fifth Blight -”

“Wait - the Fifth Blight. That was the last one before, well, my Blight. The Warden? Your Warden?” Eleanor turned to Cullen.

“She wasn’t my -” he started.

“Do you want to hear this story or not?” Varric asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes! Yes, I’m sorry. That’s just… this is all very weirdly linear,” Eleanor muttered.

Varric laughed. “Maybe from the outside. Anyway, while he was with the Warden, he encountered a spirit who was trapped outside of the Fade.”

“That can happen?” She put her hands over her mouth. “Fuck, I’m sorry. But that’s… really weird.”

“Yeah, Farm Girl, you’re right about that. It was weird for everyone, including the spirit, who couldn’t get back. And it turned out that if this spirit stayed out of the Fade too long, it would eventually… I dunno, this isn’t my area of expertise. Expire, I suppose. Cease to be. Which I guess is a big deal.”

“It… would die?” Eleanor asked, turning from Varric to Cullen.

“Not die, exactly, no. Spirits always return to the Fade in some way, and if the… idea of them is strong, they’ll retake their shape, but without their memories or personalities,” Cullen offered.

“And if the idea isn’t strong?”

Cullen shrugged. “They’re not people, Eleanor.”

“That… sounds pretty much like death, though,” Eleanor said, her face twisted in concern.

“Well, apparently that’s what this guy thought too. So he did the stupidest possible thing and offered his body up to the spirit, rent-free. Apparently he was… never quite the same after that.”

“It was a spirit, though, and not a demon?” Eleanor asked.

“What’s the difference, El?” Cullen asked sharply.

“Sounds like a pretty big difference to me,” she answered back. “Evelyn called me a spirit healer; does that make me an abomination?”

“That’s entirely different,” Cullen said, putting the cigarette to his lips, but added, before taking a drag, “but it is exactly what I’m talking about. It’s why you have to be more careful than anyone.”

“It doesn’t matter anyway.” Varric said. “Being a part of this mage, or maybe having the spirit inside of him… Look, like I said, I don’t know. But the spirit changed. It had been Justice. But I knew this guy for years and by the end of it… it was more like Vengeance.” Varric shrugged. “Maybe he wasn’t always an abomination, Farm Girl. But by the end of it, he sure seemed like one.”

Eleanor was quiet a moment, picking at her fingernails, before she quietly asked, “How did he do it, though?”

“Hm?”

Without looking up, she elaborated, re-asked, “I mean, that’s my question. If not with blood magic, how did he… you know… join up with a spirit?”

“I really don’t know, Eleanor,” Varric sighed. “I guess he just asked.”

“Varric,” Cullen was saying as he rolled the cigarette between his index finger and thumb, “how can you possibly know all of this?”

“You know me, Curly,” the dwarf was answering, “stories are my business.”

“Yes, Varric. And I also know that you’re prone to extravagant lies,” Cullen was saying back.

But Eleanor was hearing none of it.

She was only hearing one phrase in her head.

You only have to ask.

And she had.

“Son of a bitch,” she muttered under her breath, bringing one hand to her lips.

Cullen gave a quick sigh. “Isn’t that the truth of it,” he said noncommittally, offering her back her cigarettes.

Chapter Text

Eleanor was quiet as the sun began to set and their carriage climbed the mountains back toward Skyhold.

You only have to ask.

And she had.

She smoked cigarette after cigarette while Cullen and Varric talked of Kirkwall, until they too fell silent in the gloaming. It had, after all, been a long few days.

When she stepped out of the carriage and into the courtyard, a now familiar place, Eleanor wanted the weight of those long hours to bear down on her, to make her feel heavy, to settle on her eyelids and prepare her for the kind of sleep where she would hate to rise the next day, would want to hug the blankets to her chin and mutter something about a few more minutes. But when her boots hit the grass, she was wide awake.

Next to her, though, Cullen stretched and yawned. “Well, my love?”

“I’ll, ah, I’ll catch you up, Cul. I need to get some blood back in my legs,” Eleanor said, pulling her hair down and working her fingers roughly against her scalp.

In the dying gold of the daylight, he gave her a smile that said he knew there was more to it than that, but he put a warm hand on the back of her neck and pulled her gently close, brushing his lips to her forehead. “Alright,” he allowed. “But I’ll be waiting for you.”

“You’ll be sound asleep,” she said with a knowing grin.

He moved his hands to her shoulders and looked down to meet her eyes. “That doesn’t mean I won’t be waiting.”

His eyes seemed so honest, and so sad, and for a moment, she thought about going with him. But there was something she had to do first. So instead she said, “I love you, Cullen.”

“And I love you, El.” He let go of her arms, his own seeming heavy, and he headed toward the battlements.

Eleanor, hands in her pockets, headed toward the keep.

She had one hand on the door that would lead her toward the garden where had last seen her trainer, her mentor, her advisor, when she heard a voice behind her. “Eleanor?”

Turning, Eleanor saw the Inquisitor. “Hey, Evelyn. Long ride,” she muttered with a sigh.

“Indeed. Thought you’d be headed to bed.”

“I wanted to see Fiona,” Eleanor admitted, letting go of the door and surveying the hall. “I wanted to… ask her something.”

Evelyn frowned. “Oh, Ellie,” the Inquisitor said, “she’s not here. She went to Val Royeaux a day or so ahead of our trip to the Winter Palace. Though,” she realized, folding her arms, “they’ll probably call her to the White Spire for the trial. You’ll more than likely see her there.”

Eleanor sagged. “Perfect,” she sighed, and reached for one of her few remaining cigarettes as she started to walk back toward the courtyard, pushing past the Inquisitor.

“You know, Ellie,” Evelyn called after her, “I’m no Grand Enchanter, but I am a mage. And you can talk to me.”

Eleanor stopped, turned halfway, throwing her hands up lazily at her sides and letting them come down heavy to smack against her hips. “Ev,” she groaned, “I just feel like I’ve got a thousand questions about…” she chose her words carefully, “what happened at Halamshiral and I can’t ask Cullen without -”

“Without a lecture?” Evelyn laughed and went to Eleanor’s side, putting an arm around her shoulders. “He’s a good man, your husband. He’s a excellent man. And if he weren’t exactly the kind of man he is, he probably would be a sputtering heap on the floor of some Circle somewhere. Some days I’m still surprised he’s not. But because of that he can be… quite serious.”

“I was going to say, ‘a bit of a dick.’”

Evelyn laughed. “Well, you have that right. But yes, he can be. Come on.” The Inquisitor thumbed back toward Skyhold proper. “Why don’t we get you a little… verbally lubricated, and you can ask me whatever you like. No judgments. I promise. Trust me, I’ve been on the receiving end of one Ser Cullen Rutherford.”

 


 

 

Eleanor was trying her best not to become too lubricated - she wasn’t quite sure just how much she wanted to tell Evelyn about the dreams she had been having or what she had experienced in Halamshiral, not directly anyway, judgements or no - but the wine was sweet and the view from the Inquisitor’s balcony was nothing short of breathtaking, and it was hard not to get carried away.

“So you’re not a spirit healer like Fiona and me, then?”

“Andraste’s knickers, no. I couldn’t heal myself if I were bleeding and someone handed me a satchel of bandages. No, when it became clear I wasn’t going to be able to get rid of this forsaken Anchor, I went whole hog and threw myself into what was an entirely new school of magic at the time, Rift magic. It’s still a bit… controversial,” she admitted.

“I bet.” Eleanor lifted her glass of wine, understanding.

“Ah, well, there is that, yes. Yes, it seems as though the people of Thedas aren’t too keen on mages poking around with the Veil. It’s not gotten them much good in the past. But since I had the honor of ‘healing the sky,’ as some of the more poetic souls will still say, it hasn’t caused too much drama.”

“They call you the Herald.” Eleanor cocked her head, bringing her glass to her lips, elbow propped against the balcony balustrade.

“They… do. Against my wishes. Still.” Evelyn folded her arms and bent down on the banister, looking out over the mountain pass as the stars started to peek out overheard.

“The Herald of… like, what? Rift stuff?”

Evelyn froze, then burst out laughing, bending her head forward until her red hair covered her face, back shaking with the effort. “Maker have mercy, Eleanor. Sometimes I forget.” She stood, wine glass in one hand, and shook her hair back into place. “The Herald of Andraste. They think she sent me to close the Breach, and… I don’t know, save the fucking day.”

“Did she?”

“Eleanor, I don’t even believe in Andraste. Or the Maker. You would think I would, after all… this.” She swept her left hand out towards the mountains, toward the camps below, and back around at Skyhold itself. “And I’ve seen some pretty weird shit. I’ve seen spirits and demons and big fucking holes in the sky. And I’ve seen… you. But no golden lady up on high has ever given me a clue. Or any help, for that matter.”

“Would be nice, wouldn’t it, some help,” Eleanor said, then took a long drink, draining her glass.

“In her holy blazing name.”

“A-fucking-men.”

The two women were silent for a commisitorial moment, looking up at the deep blue above.

“But!” Evelyn said, giving the balustrade a little smack with the flat of her hand. “You had questions!”

“I did. I do,” Eleanor admitted, setting her wine glass on the banister and leaning against the stones. “Sort of… tangential ones, maybe.”

“That’s fine. There’s a lot you don’t know, understandably. A lot it would be hard for you to find out.”

“Mm,” Eleanor agreed, shaking a cigarette out of the pack and remembering how remedial her reading and writing skills still were. Certainly they were not up to this level of snuff. Lighting the little paper, she took in a deep breath and said, “On the way here, we were talking about abominations,” and with the smoke leaving her lips, she said the word casually, like it was nothing, like she’d heard it a thousand times.

“Uh-huh,” the Inquisitor folded one arm, the other still cautiously holding her nearly-empty glass.

“Well, and obviously,” Eleanor nonchalantly scratched her head with the hand that held her cigarette in a careful, practiced way, “I couldn’t get a straight answer out of Cul because everything is so instantly dire with him, you know?”

“I do,” Evelyn answered, but her tone was darkening.

“And all I wanted to know was, I mean, I was like, look - I’m a spirit healer, but let’s be honest, I’m not doing much healing. Or spiriting. Until last year, my connection to the Fade was nil, right? But every single fucking thing with him is like, ‘Eleanor you have to be careful or you’re going to turn into an abomination and die.’ I mean, I’m paraphrasing, but barely, y’know?”

“You do.”

“I what?”

“Eleanor, you have to be careful.” Evelyn’s voice was firm, in a way that Eleanor almost hadn’t heard from her before. She set down her glass and walked over to Eleanor, reaching out for Eleanor’s wrists and taking them gently. “Listen to me. I know that Cullen can be… overbearing when it comes to things like this. But it’s for a reason. As much as I hated every single moment of it, they do teach you things in the Circle, things you wouldn’t have had a chance to learn. This is… one of those things. Your abilities are dangerous. And I am the last person who will tell you that you need to be watched by fucking templars or be Harrowed or any of that ridiculous nonsense. But there’s a kind of common mage sense that you missed out on. Cullen can help you in his admittedly militant way. Fiona will teach you. Dorian clearly taught you much.” Evelyn slid her hands down and pressed her thumbs into the palms of Eleanor’s hands, green eyes meeting Eleanor’s stormy blue ones. “But I’m here now, and you don’t have to play games with me. So if there’s something you’re trying to ask, ask, Eleanor.”

Cigarette dangling from her lips, Eleanor looked away, out into the ravine, and then back again. “Yeah, okay,” she said quietly.

Evelyn let her go, gave her a little space, and waited for Eleanor to speak.

Eleanor put up her hands, defeated. “So… how do you not become an abomination?”

“You say no, Eleanor. Whatever they offer you, however they try to get you to agree? You never give in. They’ll try to make it seem like it’s just help. Like it’s your choice. And no matter what, you tell them no.”

Eleanor’s heart skipped a beat. Maybe it wasn’t too late. She hadn’t accepted anything, hadn’t agreed, hadn’t asked for help. She had only… asked if it were there. And it hadn’t answered, had it? No. She’d felt it, felt its presence - she thought. She couldn’t be sure what she was feeling. She’d only interacted with it - with something, who knows what it was - in the Fade. In a dream. She hadn’t agreed to anything.

And she had said no.

She had… only asked.

“Okay,” she said in a breath. “That makes sense.” She took a long hard pull from her cigarette.

Evelyn put her hands on her hips and gave Eleanor a hard look. “Are you… alright?”

“Yeah,” Eleanor said, puffing out a cloud. “Better now. I should… I should get back to Cullen.” She started to go, then turned quickly back. “Evelyn. Thank you. So much.”

“Of course, Eleanor. Once upon a time, I thought I was thrown into a situation bigger than me. I can’t even imagine what you’re going through.”

“Neither can I, most days.”

 


 

 

On her way across the battlements, Eleanor looked up to the sky, as though it could hear her. “Hey,” she said, “we’re done. I quit, okay? Mercy.”

Chapter Text

Eleanor slept well that night. She slept better than she had in ages.

As far as she could remember, she dreamed of nothing.

 


 

 

They set off for Ferelden early that day.

“You seem different this morning,” Cullen said, stretching out in the carriage as the Ferelden hills rolled past. “You weren’t out late?”

Eleanor shook her head, grateful to be back in her own clothing - oversized sweater, a scarf, jeans - even if she had sworn her full allegiance to those Theodosian boots. This, on top of other things, was making the journey more than bearable. It was almost enjoyable.

“Not too late,” she replied, and that was the truth. Her glass of wine with Evelyn had lasted maybe half an hour and had done much to settle Eleanor’s mind. But as she had suspected, Cullen had, of course, been sound asleep by the time she crawled into bed next to him. “Different how?”

He rubbed his hand across his chin and leaned forward toward Eleanor as though to inspect her, but he did so playfully, with a smile. “Lighter.”

Lighter. That was a good way to put it, she thought. “Well, I don’t know. Maybe it’s all just hit me, I mean, with those two taken care of… we’re… kind of done, aren’t we? I mean, there’s still that trial, sure, and good riddance. But there’s no way Evelyn will still want to parade me in front of randos now, at least, not for a long time. Not until this cools off. Maybe we can stay in Ferelden a while. Maybe it’s good if Fiona has some time with me. But, babe…” she reached out and by way of finishing her sentence, she took his hand.

“It’s strange,” he said, by way of an answer.

“I know. What do we do without the omnipresent threat of our collective demise?”

Cullen chuckled and reached across the carriage, pulling Eleanor into his lap. He rested his chin on her head as he snaked his arms around her waist, his chest against her back. “El, I will tell you just as soon as I figure it out.”

 


 

 

The moment she was out of the carriage, Eleanor was berating the guards who had been posted at the cabin, and thus had been taking care of Swiffer. Had the cat been let out? Had she been let back in? Had she been given enough to eat and to drink? - and Cullen stood, one foot on the carriage wheel, and watched.

This, he realized - no, not realized, but knew, had always known from the moment Eleanor had come at him with a shotgun over her arm - was a woman self-possessed, a woman in charge, first and foremost of herself, and second of her homestead, and capable of terribly more. Of anything, most likely, but in the quiet of the late afternoon - well, quiet but for Eleanor herself making sure that everything wound up once more in its right place - Cullen found himself wondering just exactly what life might be life without constant impending doom. It was something he’d only known as a sort of brief intermission between acts of crisis. To have that, really have it, and to share it with someone as fiercely able as Eleanor…

He found it wasn’t apprehension that he felt, or even concern.

It was relief.

“So, you just gonna stand there looking like Captain America or are you gonna help, eh, sweetheart?” Her voice called across the garden as she threw open the shutters from inside the living room to let fresh air into the cabin and poked her head out of the open window.

A guilty grin split his face and he ran his hands over his hair letting his foot fall to the soft earth. He went to the back of the carriage and began to unload their things.

Yes, he thought, shaking his head with a silent laugh. This was going to be just fine.

 


 

 

End of Part I

 

Chapter Text

Part II

It felt strange to be laying in his own bed next to her again. It hadn’t been that long, not that long at all, but it felt a million miles away. It had rained that evening, and Eleanor was asleep; she always seemed to find sleep when it rained, if not easily, at least deep.

He put his hand on her face, worked his fingers into her hair, the rich, dark brown hair that framed her face, and turned to kiss her forehead, her eyebrows, her eyes.

The early morning was quiet. The sun hadn’t even begun to rise. There were no dawn songbirds this time of year, wouldn’t be until the wet autumn gave way to the harsh winter, gave way to the wild spring.

And despite the quiet, despite the dark, Cullen was awake. Something in his chest had stirred him, some darkness there that he could not explain and could not ease, could not silence. Eleanor lay peacefully beside him, and he wanted to be close to her, wanted to smell the perfume of her skin, wanted to know the softness of her touch. He wanted her to calm him, but she was fast asleep.

He pressed his lips against her temple and gently breathed her name. Her eyelids fluttered, but she didn’t stir. Whatever dream place she was in, it held her fast. Cullen ran his fingers along her brow, pushed little stray hairs away from her cheeks. And yet the feeling in his heart lingered. Cullen sat up and leaned back against the wooden headboard, adjusting his pillow against his back.

Ferelden was always so quiet.

A small light crept through the windows now. Small, and lonely, and pale. Sitting up against the headboard, Cullen pressed his eyes closed. He rested a hand heavily on Eleanor’s shoulder, needing to feel her breath, needing to feel the warmth that radiated from her skin. He felt her sigh hard, and she rolled over, reaching for him in a half-sleep.

“I’m here,” he whispered, not knowing if she could hear or not.

Her sleep still scared him. No, maybe not as much as scared, but it was a strange sensation to be trained as a templar and to sleep next to a mage, knowing that she had a very different connection to that dream world than he ever could, feeling small bursts of magic ripple out of her skin. Without lyrium, he wasn’t as attuned to all of the things he might have been before, but he could still feel the power in her blood, on her body, a sharp, skewed, unreal sensation. It was almost an acrid tang, the smell of the air before a storm, but now it was almost - no, not almost, it really was - comforting.

He didn’t care if he woke her now, couldn’t care, not with the weight in his chest, the weight pressing into his mind that said something was not right, was not right at all. Cullen reached out and pulled her tightly into his arms, pulled her up and against his chest, pressing his lips hard against her hair, the brown of it black in the slowly growing dawn. She grasped for him in a half sleep and her lips formed his name, but her eyes stayed shut a moment longer, even as her cheek pressed hard against his skin, nuzzling gently against the familiar warmth of his form. Eleanor tipped her head up, arms sleepily snaking around his neck, and she let him kiss her, a soft, broken moan resonating in her throat.

For a moment, her head found his shoulder, and she laid there, twisting her fingers in the small curls at the nape of his neck - hair grown too long these past weeks, he thought, though she didn’t seem to mind.

Though there hadn’t been a smile on her face, there now flashed a frown, deep, sincere, furrows forming on Eleanor’s brow, in heavy creases beside her mouth.

“El,” he said. It wasn’t a question, but it wanted for so many answers.

He thought he saw her lips form, “No.”

There was a trembling of her eyelashes.

“Something…” she breathed.

“Hm?” he said, reaching down to smooth her hair.

“It shouldn’t be,” she answered.

“Shouldn’t be what, El?” Her tongue was still heavy with slumber and a part of his brain didn’t think he was hearing her right. Another part was afraid that he was.

“It’s waking up,” she muttered, her hands still grasping, but now for something very different. Her eyes pulled open, the blue-grey like a stormy ocean in the flat light.

“Love,” he said, the word meant to be soothing but tinged with fear, the weight in his chest now a pressing, now the peine forte et dure of the mute, “what are… what are you saying?”

Suddenly her eyes darted around the room, and she pushed one hand hard against Cullen’s chest, sitting upright hard and fast. She gripped the blankets in her fist, pulled them to her chest, turned until her gaze met Cullen’s in the early morning blue.

“We have to go home.”

 


 

 

They lit lamps and got out of bed in the early morning light, the rain that had fallen the night before making the air feel heavy, the light seem trapped inside the glass that contained it. Eleanor sat on the couch, her hands folded in her in her lap, looking demure, looking tired.

Cullen set a lamp down on the table, sat across from her, and looked her in the eyes.

“Eleanor. What’s going on?”

So she told him.

Chapter Text

She had thought it was all over, that night when she walked back from Evelyn’s quarters. She thought that was an end of it.

She should have known better.

Eleanor had laid down to sleep in her own bed, as much as a bed in Ferelden, in Thedas could ever be her own bed, and she had thought that she might dream of her mother, as she had in Orlais, or of Indiana, as she had in the past, or even of this new place, slowly growing in familiarity, latching on and making memories in her mind. She had thought that they would just be dreams. She had thought that she might not dream at all.

She should have known better.

Something was trying to communicate with her.

It wasn’t the thing, the spirit, that she should have been worried about.

Not in the least.

Something was happening.

Something was happening, and it wasn’t happening here, or not just here, or…

Thérèse’s words stepped on Eleanor’s chest like a boot.

Mark my words, Inquisitor: if she can come through, then what else?

And something had.

So she told him.

Eleanor told Cullen everything, every single thing that had happened to her, everything she could remember, every time she might have spoken up and couldn’t, didn’t, thought she shouldn’t. Every time she said she’d tell him later and never did.

In the predawn light, she watched him reached for the pack of cigarettes, constantly present on the living room table, and deliberately flip open the cardboard lid. Slowly, he withdrew one of the white rolls of paper with its little brown filter and placed it between his lips. He took the lighter from where it was hidden inside the cigarette box and lit the end of his chosen smoke, taking in a long breath. Carefully, he replaced everything on the table and leaned back in his chair, breathing out through his nose.

Eleanor could tell that with the purpose he did each of these things, he was trying not to shake. She’d seen him move this way before, too calm, too cool, too determined. But was now it because he still shook sometimes? Or because he would otherwise be shaking with rage? She wanted to know. She didn’t want to be the first to speak. She was thankful when, after a few more deliberate draws on the cigarette, he said her name.

 


 

 

“El,” he muttered, and scratched his cheek, just above his stubble.

Cullen was angry.

Not at Eleanor, but at himself.

In a way, he had known. He had known that something was going on with her, something deeper than what she was letting on, but they were busy, they were occupied, together and separately, with everything that was going on at Skyhold. Between Evelyn and Fiona and Leliana and his own duties as commander - and Eleanor’s own short-lived attempt at being liaison, for all that had gotten her, damn Thérèse and damn Oisin - he supposed that Eleanor growing into her magic had taken a back seat to murder and subterfuge.

And, if he were honest, he’d found ways to ignore it. To put bandages over the strangeness: The house. The writing lessons.

The marriage.

If she’d been intentionally evasive, he’d been intentionally obtuse. He’d been trained to see signs like these, been trained to hold the point of his sword over the heart of a mage and watch for the smallest indications of change.

The thought came almost unbidden and seemed at first irrelevant until he thought that perhaps, in a way, this was Eleanor’s Harrowing, imposed upon herself.

He looked away, taking a final pull from the cigarette, because he didn’t know if he could judge it a pass or a fail.

Maybe, he thought, butting the filter out roughly in the ashtray, maybe she wasn’t done yet.

Taking another breath, he repeated her name. “El.”

This time she answered, unfurling the lips she had pursed to bite. “Cullen?” Her voice was low and soft and serious.

He nudged the pack of cigarettes toward her and tried to give her a smile, any kind of a smile when he asked, “What were you thinking?”

She made a sound, the sad imitation of laughter as she picked up the cigarettes. “I wasn’t. I - Well, I was mostly dreaming.” Eleanor put a cigarette in her mouth and lit it, and she seemed to withdraw behind the smoke.

That was fair, he supposed, or fair enough, but he sighed regardless. He had told her - it was the first thing he had told her back in Indiana, about the dreams.

And yet… she had held her own.

He shook his head, still unsure whether to be angry, or proud, or afraid.

“What Evelyn said to you…” he cut to the chase, leaning forward, his hands on his knees.

“I did it, I said. I told it to fuck off. I don’t know… if there’s like some ritual - look, I don’t know anything, Cullen. I wanted to talk to Fiona. I want to talk to Fiona,” she flicked ash into the bronze dish. “I should have talked to you. But… I don’t think it’s like that.”

He narrowed his eyes. “You don’t think what’s like what?”

She frowned. “Will you bear with me? For two minutes?”

“I’ve been bearing -”

“Two more minutes, then.”

He bowed his head. “Fine, yes. Two more minutes.”

She drew deeply from the cigarette. “It had its chance, Cul. It could have…” She couldn’t make herself say the word, only turned her eyes away from his. She gave a sharp breath through her nose. “It’s been trying to tell me something. Not make me do something, not… I don’t know. It’s only trying to communicate something to me. Something urgent. And I feel like… over here? I don’t know how to listen.”

He flattened his mouth, folding his hands. “Alright.”

Eleanor rested the filter of the cigarette in her lips and talked around it, nervously tapping her nails on the table as she hunched forward, mirroring Cullen’s posture, though her intention, her body language, was very different; where his was impatient but strong, hers was anxious, almost desperate. “So… I think… I - we - need to go back to Indiana. Now.”

“Eleanor.”

“No, listen, please. I just need to know. If something is back home, well, not just back home, you know, because of… but if it’s something dangerous… I just need to hear what it has to say. I just need to give it a chance.”

Cullen was still a moment, his jaw set hard. Eleanor’s nails still clicked against the table, the cigarette still hung from her lips.

“You’re saying,” he began slowly, “you want me to send you back to Indiana so that some… Fade spirit,” he spat the word, and she got the sense that that wasn’t the word he would have used, “that’s chosen only to communicate with you, a novice mage, can give you pertinent information for you to act on, because you fear your home may be at risk? Again? A fear it knows is bound to motivate you?”

“That’s -”

He slammed his palms down on the table and stood, his back hunched over as he shouted. “Are you fucking stupid, Eleanor?!” He rose up, grasping his hair with both hands and arching his back, then throwing his hands out to the sides. “Have you listened to literally nothing I have said? Nothing Evelyn told you?”

“I -” she managed weakly, but he didn’t stop to let her speak.

“Yes, by all means, speak to Fiona. I would love to hear what the Grand Enchanter would have to say about this.” He turned away from her, toward the front windows, where the first true rays of morning light were just starting to break through. “You,” he breathed, and turned back to her, pointing an exhausted finger, “will be the death of me.”

He turned on his heel and pushed out of the front door.

Chapter Text

Eleanor sat in the armchair with her fingers on her lips, elbow balanced on her knee. Her other arm dangled off of the end of her lap. Her eyes gazed to her right, out the smaller window on the short face of the living room. They gazed that way, but they didn’t really see anything. She couldn’t see the lake from here, anyway. It was behind her. She couldn’t see the lake from here, and somehow she knew that’s where he would be.

He’d never shouted at her before. Not like that.

He’d shouted orders to her, commands in the Deep Roads, and across the fields behind her Indiana home as their were battling the Archdemon.

He’d sighed and rolled his eyes and muttered things about mages under his breath, half-hearted and half-serious and rarely meant in real anger anymore. And when he’d corrected her, expressed concern, halted her actions, cut her magic off cold, it was to protect her - much as she hated it with every fiber of her being, with every part of her that lived and breathed, it was always because he didn’t want her to come to harm.

He’d even walked out once, walked away, when she insisted that yes, she was going down into the Deep Roads with them, despite her inexperience, despite her incomplete understanding, she was going to give everything she had inside of her to -

Protect her home.

Her breath came out in a shuddering sigh as she ran her fingertips, fingernails across her forehead, letting her eyes close.

Maybe he was right.

Maybe she had fallen right into a trap so obvious she had failed to see it. She had lived under a threat so consuming, so dark, so wide, that when another one was offered up it didn’t even occur to her that she could simply look up, step aside, and see the sun. Maybe she had played right into its hands.

It didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel like a trap. But maybe that’s why it had worked.

Eleanor brought the corner of her thumb to her teeth, bit down on the edge of a torn cuticle. She chewed nervously for a moment, bouncing the heels of her feet up and down on the cabin’s wooden floor, cool in the morning as autumn was slowly but surely moving its way into Ferelden, would be moving its way into Indiana, too. In a swift movement, she collected the cigarettes up off of the little table and stood, taking long strides toward the front door. She had an apology to make.

Behind her, no longer used to her humans being awake so early, unused to the tension between them, Swiffer curiously purreeped as Eleanor let the front door swing shut.

 


 

 

Cullen wasn’t near the house.

Eleanor walked around to where the lake met the shore, the little pebbles smooth and cool beneath her bare feet, the water bitingly cold. A fog hung over the calm surface of the lake, and she peered into the distance, right, then left, to try and make out the commander’s figure in the hazy blend of mist and morning sun. She thought that he couldn’t have gone far in the dozen minutes that she’d sat on the couch, letting his words sink in, but she knew him - head down, walking without purpose but with determination, he could be a mile away by now. And he’d had shoes on; his boots, unlaced, lazily slipped onto his feet to protect from the chill of the bare floorboards, but he had them nevertheless. If he didn’t want her to catch up, with the fog and the glare, she wouldn’t.

Taking a deep breath, Eleanor looked up at the sky and exhaled through pursed lips, then let her head drop and lit a cigarette, sticking her hands and the little box in her hoodie pockets. In her bare feet, her hair still tangled from sleep, she decided to walk south along the shore. With the smooth stones on her skin, she set off.

The sun was burning the fog off of the lake when she found him.

His eyes were fixed on some point that she couldn’t see, but she knew without asking what it had to be.

She approached him slowly, the sound of the rocks shifting under her toes the only sound she made.

“El,” he said gently, not taking his eyes off of the water.

The sky above was blue, but it seemed dark somehow. Cloudless, open, expansive, but something about the tone of it seemed wrong, and it took Eleanor a moment to realize that there was no spirit interfering with her mind, that this was no dream, but that there were tears in her eyes. She wiped them away with her hoodie sleeve and went to him, keeping a small distance between his body and hers, just in case.

But he reached out and pulled her close, pressing his lips to her hair. Eagerly, she embraced him, and before she could get her own words out, she heard him say, “I’m sorry.”

She blinked, looking up at him. “You’re - for -”

“You know what for.”

“I… suppose,” she drew her face into a crooked frown, not because she didn’t, but because the more she walked along the lake shore, the more she had convinced herself that he wasn’t really wrong.

“Eleanor, please,” and his words seemed almost desperate. “I shouldn’t have.” He moved his hands from her waist to her arms and held her at a small distance to be able to look in her eyes with a deep sincerity, and she saw pain in his face.

“Cullen, I forgive you,” she said. “You were afraid,” and she lifted her hands up to grab his elbows and pull herself closer to him.

He looked down, looked away. “I am afraid,” and he squeezed her arms.

“I won’t -”

He shook his head. “I’ve thought about what you said, and… Maker help me,” his voice trailed off.

Eleanor reached up and rested her hand on his cheek. “Cul, I could be wrong. What you said about… a trap, I mean, you’re the one with the experience here. I should listen to you. Should have listened.”

“Yes, well, I appreciate the sentiment,” he smiled. “It’s not often I get told such things,” he took her hand from his face and kissed her knuckles, touched them back to his cheek. “But you raised a valid point. If it just wanted… you, it had plenty of opportunities.”

“Or it needs to lure me back to Indiana to have me.”

“But why? It can obviously reach you here,” he countered. “The Fade now seems to exist on both sides, but it’s still obviously much stronger in Thedas.”

She shrugged, letting him go. “You tell me, Cullen. You’re the expert.”

“That’s the problem. I’m not,” he allowed, looking back out to the lake. “I’ve seen and done many things. I was taught many things,” he folded his arms, “but I don’t know that I can ever be this kind of expert. I can’t reach the Fade like you can. I can’t have these sorts of experiences objectively. I can only be told about them, and use my judgement. And there are spirits, as well as demons,” he allowed, though his face soured as he spoke.

“I’m sensing a ‘but.’”

“Not a ‘but’ so much as an ‘and,’” he said hesitantly.

“Well, ‘and’ what, Cul?”

He laughed dryly. “‘And,’ I can’t believe I’m about to say this.”

She passed him the pack of cigarettes half as a peace offering, half as a bribe, and he finished his thought: “I’ve got one you can talk to.”

Chapter Text

They received a raven from Skyhold that day with the tentative details of the trial of Thérèse and Oisin. They sent one back saying they would need horses. They had business at Skyhold.

 


 

 

Cullen and Eleanor arrived the day after next, and Cullen went straight for the main hall, Eleanor following in his wake. The commander knew exactly who he was looking for.

Varric was hunched over a table with a stack of papers in front of him, quill working furiously, half-drunk mug of ale at his side.

“Curly!” he exclaimed, looking up from his writing and setting down the quill. “Didn’t expect to see you again until the trial. And Farm Girl as well. What brings you folks back so soon?”

“Are you,” Cullen said, finding the words slowly as though his jaw were stiff, or he’d forgotten the sentence he needed to say, “still close with Cole?”

“Eh, the kid pretty much does alright on his own these days, but we’re not strangers. He’s really come into…” Varric narrowed his eyes. “Hang on.” He looked from Cullen to Eleanor and back to Cullen. “I don’t think you’ve ever gone to see Cole before in your life, Curly.”

“Wha - I must have. Cole is a valued member of this Inquisition and -”

“Cut the bullshit,” Varric said, standing and going to Eleanor. “That’s my job. So,” he said, looking up at her, “after our little conversation on the way back from the Winter Palace, you come here asking about the kid.”

“The kid?” Eleanor looked at Cullen. “You said -” The truth was he hadn’t said much, had mostly only told her to wait and see because his own words wouldn’t be able to do the situation justice. What he definitely hadn’t said was that they would be meeting anything, anyone, that would be tenderly referred to as “Kid.” His next words didn’t make the situation much clearer.

“Cole is a… rather singular young man,” he opened his hands, hoping that this would be enough to placate them both for a moment.

“That’s one way to put it, Commander,” Varric gave Eleanor an informed look. “He is now, anyway. I take it you’re looking for him?”

“We are, yes,” Cullen confessed.

“Mm, yeah. That’s normal, and completely expected, and wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that you and the missus were asking about abom -”

“Keep your voice down,” Cullen hissed. “Yes, Varric, and since I know how excellent you are at keeping secrets, you would have been the first person I would have told about this,” he jabbed.

Varric put his hands up, saying, “Alright, alright, point taken. But - you okay, Eleanor? Everything okay in… you know, there?”

“I’m fine, Varric,” she answered, putting a hand on his shoulder. “I just have some… questions.”

“Well, I don’t know if Cole’s gonna be the best person to give you anything like a straight answer, but the kid sure can talk. And he likes company. Come on, follow me, you two.”

 


 

 

They followed Varric to the Herald’s Rest, up and up the stairs to a top level Eleanor hadn’t realized existed. The sound from the bar below seemed sucked away up here, damp and muffled, and as she rounded the last bend, she saw a young man - a boy? A teenager? An adult? It was impossible to tell under his floppy hat, but not just because of what he wore on his head - sitting on a box and dealing cards onto the floor in front of him. Something about his face, his eyes seemed ageless, impossible, unchanging. She realized slowly that she’d seen this boy before, but only once, and only briefly, during the fight with the Archdemon. He was there, and then he was gone like a flash.

“Hey, Kid,” said Varric, his voice more soft, more gentle than Eleanor was used to hearing it. “How’s it going?”

“I am good,” said the young man, not looking up from his cards, fingers still dealing to no one, to himself, “I’m practicing. Two pairs beats one pair. Four of a kind beats two pairs. Hello, Cullen.”

“Ah, hello, Cole,” Cullen said, putting a hand awkwardly on the back of his head and looking away.

“Good work, Kid,” said Varric, angling himself at Cole’s side and looking down at the cards. “Brought someone who wants to talk to you. You remember going to Indiana?”

Still looking down at the little piles before him, the young man said, “Delving, diving, drawing, dreaming; first of her kind. Through the Fade, through the snow. Traveled far for what she sought without knowing she sought it. She found something else entirely when someone else found her.” Cole set his cards down and stood and walked over to Eleanor, cocking his head and looking down at her with glassy, pale green eyes. He smiled, his teeth endearingly crooked. “Hello, Eleanor.”

“I…” Eleanor blinked slowly, taken aback by Cole’s words, but the boy’s smile comforted her anyway and she returned the gesture, uncertain but honest.

“Cole is…? Was?” Cullen hesitated, rubbing his jaw before continuing, “A spirit of compassion.”

“Is. Am,” Cole said, turning to the commander, “How are you, Cullen? Varric says I should ask, instead of telling people how they are.”

“I’m… well, Cole, thank you for asking,” Cullen said, looking to Varric with a little nod of his head.

“Well, yes, well, a well in the house where you live, a well and a cat, which is a nice cat; we’ve met. I like her. I like cats, though you like dogs better; don’t tell Eleanor,” Cole muttered.

Cullen turned gently pink and Eleanor reached out to give his hand a little squeeze, though he could feel her softly shaking with laughter.

“Do you like it there?” Cole went on. “In your new house? It’s awfully close to the lake -”

“That’s… enough, Kid,” Varric said, reaching up to pat Cole on the back. “You did good with the questions, though. Maybe too good,” he mumbled, looking up at Cullen. “I’ll leave you three alone. Join me for a drink later?” His eyes went from Eleanor to Cullen to Cole, “I get the feeling you’re gonna need it.”

 


 

 

Cullen propped himself up on a barrel while Cole cleaned up the cards, letting Eleanor sit on the box where Cole himself had been.

“I’m glad you’re married,” Cole said suddenly, looking up from under his hat, his legs crossed like a child. “Soft, strong, sad, so much to remember, so much to forget. And lonely, alone. On purpose, though, always on purpose.”

Cullen cocked an eyebrow and bent forward with his hands on his knees, palms on the rough denim of his jeans. “Is that… Eleanor or myself?”

“Both of you. That’s why I’m glad.”

“Cole,” Eleanor said slowly, “Are you always here? At Skyhold?”

“Mostly,” he answered.

“I didn’t see you at the, uh, party. You could have come,” she told him.

“Evelyn said. I like Evelyn. Glowing, glimmering, green. Sera calls her Shiny.” He paused to put his index finger on his lip, then seemed to regain his thread. “I’m… more human than I used to be. But it’s still hard, when there are too many people. It can be loud. Too loud. I like it up here. Here I can listen for things instead of just… hearing them.”

Eleanor tipped her head. “You can hear people’s thoughts?”

“Yes,” Cole responded, and his tone, almost a question, implied that it was the most obvious thing in the world. Eleanor got the impression that if he were from her side of the Rift, and had been less polite, he would have included a “duh,” to follow.

Eleanor folded one arm across her chest and put her other hand on her face, knuckles against her cheek. She looked to Cullen, and then back to Cole. Lifting the hand that rested on her cheek, she tucked her hair behind her ear. “So if I asked you to, could you see… things that had happened to me, without me having to give you a long and frankly convoluted explanation? Or things I had dreamed?”

“Yes, of course. I could do it without you asking. But I wouldn’t. I don’t do that anymore. I try not to. Sometimes people need it, and I -”

“Cole,” Cullen cut him off, but kept his voice soft. “She’s asking you to. To do that. As a favor.”

Cole’s eyes went from Eleanor to Cullen and back to Eleanor. “A favor,” he said slowly, as though tasting the word. “A favor, yes. But I can’t make you forget. Not anymore.”

“I don’t want to forget,” Eleanor said, letting her forearms rest on her thighs. “I want to know what you see.”

Chapter Text

“I don’t understand.” Cole’s lips pursed, his shoulders sagged. “You want to know what I see when I see the things you’ve already seen?”

“Yes,” Cullen confirmed, “We would like… a different perspective.”

“Perspective,” Cole repeated.

“Do you remember when you went into the Fade with Evelyn?”

Cole seemed to withdraw, his back curving hard as though he were trying to escape without standing up. “I don’t want to talk about that.” He looked away, muttering softly, “Dark, deep, deceit, not like that, I’m not like that. It eats fears; I don’t eat. Glutinous, greedy, growing, poor Hawke…”

Eleanor’s face twisted with concern, and she looked hard at Cullen, her eyebrows knitted as she tried to understand the pain Cole must be feeling.

He shook his head. “That’s alright, Cole. You don’t have to. Just… when you were there. You knew, didn’t you? You knew Nightmare wasn’t like you. You knew it wasn’t good, that it didn’t want to help. You wanted to help.”

“I want to help; I do help. If I don’t help, you have to stop me -”

“Alright, Cole, alright, we will. I promise.” Cullen slid away from the barrel, tugging up on the fabric of his jeans to kneel beside the young man. “You know you can trust me with that.”

Cole bowed his head. “I know. Thank you, Cullen. You always care.”

“What -” Eleanor started, but Cullen waved a hand behind himself to quiet her.

“Cole, Eleanor wants to know if you can tell the same thing about some… one, or thing, that’s been… trying to reach her.” He placed a hand on the young man’s shoulder and looked into Cole’s eyes. They opened wide. “Can you do that, Cole?”

Cole smiled. “Yes. Perspective.”

Cullen gave an approving nod and stood. Cole looked into Eleanor’s eyes. “They like you, you know. You’re different, like me. Not all one thing. Not all from one place. Though… you used to be. Like me. But backwards. Or… in reverse. But then it woke up.” He tipped his head to the side, pale blond hair leaning, though his hat stayed firmly fixed in place. “It will be easier if you think about the things you want me to see. Varric says people like to have secrets, so I try not to see everything.”

“Will it… hurt?” Eleanor asked tentatively.

“If I know anything about Cole,” Cullen said, shifting his weight from foot to foot, “it’s that you won’t even realize he’s doing it until he, well, says something,” and Eleanor understood that the subtext was, “something completely inappropriate.”

Cole nodded. “You don’t feel. I feel. Smiles, sighs, shivers, things you wished you’d said. The way she looked when you both realized you weren’t just friends, and when you weren’t friends anymore at all.”

Eleanor blinked quickly a few times, color coming to her cheeks. “That’s not what -”

“Cole,” Cullen cautioned, looking over at Eleanor with a curious gaze. She folded her hands in her lap.

“Yes, right, sorry. Perspective,” he repeated the word like a mantra, adjusting his cross-legged position. He rocked a little from side to side, looking down as he softly muttered, “I… apologize, Eleanor.”

“It’s okay, Cole.”

“I would make you forget; I would start over, but I can’t do that anymore. I used to be able to do that.”

“It’s really okay,” she said, and his absolutely bashfulness made her smile. “But I’m ready now.”

“For me to see what you saw,” he confirmed, picking up his head.

Eleanor nodded, and gave him a reassuring look. His eyes were bright.

“Alright,” he said, adjusting again. “I’ll do my best. To help.”

Cole was quiet a moment, and his eyes almost closed. His voice was almost too quiet to hear as he spoke: “Reprieve, relief, release. It came because it heard you, saw itself in you, saw you in the dark, saw through all the white, shining blue on the red, asking, needing, begging. Helping, healing, heeding. It whispered, warned, gentle and soft, it didn’t mean to frighten, never meant to scare you. Generous. Graceful.” Cole paused, brought one hand slowly to his lips. “But also… Suffering. Sufferance. Sympathy.” His words grew quicker, louder, but breathier, a panic invading his speech, saying, “It felt your pain, feels your pain, will feel your pain, so much pain, if you don’t, if you don’t -”

He stopped, his eyes shooting open as he looked into Eleanor’s own, flicking back and forth between the left and the right. “Mercy, Eleanor. It needs you to go back. Mercy.”

Chapter Text

Cole couldn’t - or wouldn’t - say much more. Eleanor got the sense that it was both. After all, he could only tell them about what she had seen, or so Cullen said, and he’d pretty much covered all those bases in his vague, almost poetic way. Afterward, he seemed exhausted but relieved. He allowed Eleanor to give him a gentle hug and he returned the gesture, then plunked down heavily on his box. But when Cullen was out of earshot, walking away to join Varric for that correctly predicted incredibly necessary drink, she heard Cole say, “Eleanor. No, not Eleanor. Ellie.”

She turned back and with an open expression asked, “Hm?”

“You should be careful,” he said, looking at the floor where his cards had been when they had arrived, “but…you want to listen. I would want to listen. I would want… to help.” He looked up at her with his pale eyes. “Please tell Swiffer I said hello. I like her very much.”

Eleanor smiled at the thought of the cat and the spirit boy having clandestine meetings in the Herald’s Rest while she and Cullen were trapped in the War Room or while Josephine was squeezing her into evermore ridiculous clothes. “Of course I will, Cole.”

He nodded. “Thank you,” he said from beneath his hat. “Goodbye.”

“Bye, Cole,” she said, and made her own way toward the bar.

 


 

 

Cullen was sitting next to Varric with a drink in front of him. The fingers of his left hand were massaging his right wrist as he looked down at the surface of the table as though the grain of the wood were about to tell him something deeply important.

“So,” Eleanor said, taking the seat next to him, “that was Cole?”

“He’s a good kid,” Varric said, from across Cullen, “just a little… different.”

“I gathered,” Eleanor said, and lifted her eyebrows as she gave him an anxious sort of smile.

“Well,” Cullen sighed, “you were right.”

“Was I?” Eleanor asked half-heartedly and thanked the bartender with a nod as a drink was set in front of her.

Cullen took a drink from his own cup and said, “It’s not a demon. We can be sure of it. I don’t claim to… understand Cole, but he’s very discriminating about that. Especially since his time in the Fade. He’s demanded that if he ever shows any signs of being bound by blood mages or being turned from a spirit to a demon that he be killed. Immediately.”

“He can die?” Eleanor asked. “But I thought you said -”

“He can die,” Cullen answered. “What that means for his true nature, or what’s left of it… I can’t say. I’m not sure he can say. He doesn’t want to go back to the Fade. He feels as though he no longer belongs there.”

“That’s a very mild way of putting it, Curly,” Varric said. “Kid basically had a panic attack when we got sucked in. Kept repeating that it wasn’t right, that it shouldn’t be that way. Not that I was enjoying myself any, but I felt awful for him.” He took a long drink to drive the point home.

Eleanor took a deep breath. “Can we be sure, though? He’s only seen what I’ve seen. If… whatever it is has been that good at lying to me…”

Cullen shook his head. “I’m willing to concede. Cole has a unique vantage point here. And a very strong opinion. He also seemed to know the thing’s name, to… recognize it.”

Almost without sound, Eleanor mouthed the word, “Mercy.” She licked her lips and swallowed hard, her mouth suddenly dry despite the ale in her cup. “I need a cigarette,” she mumbled, and pushed off of her stool, heading weakly for the door.

“El,” Cullen said, and started to drain his drink, about to follow her, when Varric put his hand on the commander’s arm.

“Give her a minute, there, Curly. I know you want to protect her, but,” the dwarf gave him half a smile, “maybe let her process that. And hey, at least it’s not a demon, right?”

“Yes, Varric,” he said flatly, and went back to his drink.

The truth was, however, if it had been a demon, he could have done something. Anything. Protected her, like he wanted to, like Varric had said. But if she were right, if Cole were right - and he had every reason to think they were - then something really was happening in Indiana, or, what was it she had said when she’d tried to explain it? There but not just there?

Then they were going to experience the Blight all over again.

Maybe it wasn’t a Blight. Maybe it was something else entirely. It most likely was, some new fresh terror.

It didn’t matter.

It was always something.

It was always fucking something.

Something to hurt them, maim them, break them, wear them down, tear them apart.

He drank the last swallow from his mug and slammed it down on the bar.

 


 

 

Eleanor put the cigarette between her lips and drew from it like it were the only thing giving her life.

She leaned up against the outside of the stone building, the air cool on her skin, the structure rough on her back, just enough to press against the knots that formed beneath her shoulder blades.

There were a lot more of them in the last year and a half.

On another night, a world away, it would have been comfortable.

On another night, a world away, she’d been having drinks in a bar, smoking a cigarette in the cool  air, falling in love, when something had come out of the ether and given her a power she’d never asked for.

But her problems had started months before that.

Flicking ashes onto the grass, she frowned.

And here they were again. More problems, bringing her back home. The Blight had made her understand what her home was worth to her, and as she stood outside the Herald’s Rest, already exhausted, she contemplated the scope, the scale of something else that had come forward to take it away.

How big must this be for the very Fade to take notice?

The Fade doesn’t take kindly to disturbances like her.

Mark my words: if she can come through, then what else?

Was this her fault? Had she done this? Had she upset the balance somehow, brought too much of Thedas through, pulled too much power into her small body and upset the scales of the universe?

But wasn’t the Blight already so much bigger than her? The Archdemon alone? Not just in sheer size, she thought, drawing from her cigarette, drinking the smoke into her lungs, but in power, in being, in depth?

Eleanor crushed her cigarette out on the bottom of her boot, her face still twisted into a sneer, and stuffed the mangled filter into her back pocket.

She had not done this to the Fade.

The Fade had done this to her.

The least it could do was help.

And the thought was so ridiculous, so blatantly self-serving and unlike herself, that it made her laugh, only softly, but it was a laugh nonetheless.

She shook her head, the smile now lingering on her face where the frown had been, and closed her eyes, reaching for another cigarette and finding the pack by touch alone.

“That’s the smile I remember.”

She heard Cullen’s voice from a few feet away, and Eleanor opened her eyes to see him standing just in front of the open door to the tavern his arms folded, a crooked grin of his own on his lips. Putting a cigarette between her lips, she held out the pack to him. He took one, looking grateful, and took the lighter when she offered it. When he passed it back to her, he bumped his knuckles against hers. He found a space on the wall beside her and rested there, his shoulder against hers, both of them looking out into the courtyard in silence until he quietly brought his cigarette to his lips once more and, with unfocused eyes, looking up into the pale blue mountain sky, he said, “So we’re doing this again.”

He heard her sniff, felt her shuffle a bit. “Seems that way,” she answered.

Cullen tried to think of something to say, but all he could come up with was, “I’m sorry.”

Eleanor furrowed her brow and turned to him, propping her arm against the wall. “Sorry?” she said back to him, her tone confused.

“For this,” he opened his hands. “For all of this. I brought… I did…”

Eleanor smiled. It wasn’t strong, or confident, but it was clean, simple… kind. “Babe,” she said, reaching up to put a hand on the back of his neck, her fingers and thumb rubbing the short, coarse curls that came just shy of the collar of his shirt. “You didn’t do this. You didn’t bring anything. You came to my home to solve a problem that already existed. You didn’t even want to get me involved, remember?” Her smile transformed into grin now, and she pulled him a little closer, holding her cigarette carefully out to the side.

His face remained mostly dim. “Perhaps I never should have,” he mused softly.

“That’s bullshit and you know it.” She drew him down for a kiss.

When she let him go, he admitted, “You’ve always been nothing if not persuasive.”

“I’ve got one thing going for me, Cul. Let me have this one thing.”