Moments

Moment of Choice pt 6

"I will not listen to you! You have no hold here...Leave me!"

Cullen's whimpers shattered the black air beside my ear. Normally, I'd sleep through most of them; a lifetime in the forest taught me when to wake from a twig crack and when to slumber through an aravel crash. But I'd lain awake most of the night, trying to not roll enough to wake him while I watched the silvery moonlight shift through the open balcony. Every time I tried to not think of my mother, the anchor, the assassins, or the decision weighing upon my heart all my mind could dig up was an old story Cassandra told us. It was early in the Inquisition days, before she came to trust me with more than a bow to fend off demons, while Varric and Solas - both strangers then - huddled beside a fire listening to the night cries of nature.

Cassandra screwed up her shoulders as if she'd been planning this for sometime. With her signature curt tone, she announced to the silent camp, "I am reminded of a tale. There was a scorpion that needed to cross a river, only it could not swim. So it enlisted the aid of a bear...yes, a bear, to help both of them cross. The bear refused at first, concerned of the scorpion's sting, but the scorpion promised that it would not cause harm. Eventually, the bear relented, carrying the scorpion through the river upon its back. But midway through, the scorpion broke its word and stung the bear. Except its stinger could not get through the fur. That seems right. Having walked back its promise, the bear cracked open the scorpion's skeleton and consumed its flesh."

The ragged edges of her tale flapped in the wind, all of us slightly terrified to inform the Seeker about the bits she got wrong. It was Varric of all people who threw a leaf into the fire and said, "Not bad, you should tell the one about the goose that lays sour grapes next."

Goose grapes became our code for an un-winnable situation. A fade rift spitting out three despair demons and a pride one as well: goose grapes, at least until we came running back with a fire mage and a few dozen more soldiers. This whole thing was goose grapes the moment my clan appeared. Go, stay, make a difference here or there. No matter what decision I made, someone got hurt.

My fingers thrummed against the bed, inches beside Cullen's face. In the slivers of moonlight I could see only a trace of his pale skin falling slack to slumber as the nightmare faded to the recesses of his memory. It would return, bringing even more pain with it -- a lifetime left struggling with the horrors blood mages stirred in his mind. Occasionally, after a bad turn I'd catch him staring at me with pain coursing behind his eyes, regret and blame that by being together he'd passed his own curse onto me. There would be long nights and long days where he'd turn inward, anger and pain stewing together behind his brow until the pressure would finally break and he'd return.

I hadn't thought much of the future. There was surviving the breach, closing the breach, surviving Corypheus, gathering allies to stop him, and finally sending that bastard back to whatever cursed beast created him. Every heartbeat was for the moment, I could ill afford to daydream some far flung future when so much rested upon my shoulders. But now...

Cullen snorted, his mouth curling into a sneer, but he didn't return to his Templar days. "Damn it, dwarf!" he cursed - most likely blaming Varric for something. A smile at his impotent frustration curled up from my gut. I ran the lightest touch along his hand digging into the mattress.

"I want to be with you," I whispered. It was unlikely he heard me, but his sneer fell away as sleep whisked him deeper into the fade. "I just don't know how to do it," I sighed, glancing around the blackened room. The moon had moved nearly the entire lengths of the sky; the sun should return soon, and I was unlikely to find a moments rest before.

Giving up on the night long battle, I slid out of bed and rustled through my piles of clothing always wadded at the edge. I began to slide on the leather pants, when I paused. What I needed was solitude, proper solitude, not to have a dozen people watching from just in the distance, waiting so they could pepper me with questions and concerns. Bypassing the leather pajamas, I picked up my armor. The jangle of the mail caused Cullen to twist, his naked body flipping to the other side, but he didn't rise.

After getting properly outfitted, and trying a new coat with a better lining against the cold, I fished through my desk. The quill was blunt, the words blobby stains upon the page, but I left a note telling Cullen where I intended to go and that I should be back soon. Positioning the note on the desk, I rose, tiptoeing towards the landing.

The anchor nipped across my palm like a paper cut. I glanced out the window into the endless mountains. Who knew how many more assassins lurked in the snows of the Frostbacks, best to not go unprepared just in case. Sliding my refilled quiver across my back, I checked on a few of my better daggers, and strung my bow. Now equipped to take on a fade rift, I slipped out of the room leaving the man I loved to slumber alone.

Almost no one stopped me as I worked towards the gate, the pre-dawn hours of morning showing neither the night owls nor the early birds of Skyhold. Only the occasional patrol shifted, their golden helmets bouncing moonlight as they marched. Cullen wasn't kidding about increasing them. I smiled at the one guardsman working the gate, a dwarf named Harry who did not appreciate the jokes. He nodded at me, glancing back at the lack of an entourage in curiosity.

"Just taking a bit of a walk."

"In the middle of the night?" he asked.

"Old elven trick." It was an idiotic excuse, but it got me out of more hot water than one could imagine. Anytime someone caught me, say, foot deep inside the midden hole I'd shrug and say "old elven trick." Nine times out of ten, they'd smile, nod and continue on their way leaving the Inquisitor to figure out if her boot was worth rescuing from the pile of shit.

The walk out of Skyhold bit colder than I remembered, only a smattering of stars making it past the blankets of clouds. But I had the light of the moon to guide me towards the west. For a time, I followed the trail up to our fortress in the mountains. It was more a road now than the ruts in snow dug up by a bereft retinue of souls hoping to find succor after losing Haven. So many people passed across it that snow could no longer cling. Even after a blizzard the carts had to travel, word needed to be sent, and the ground was churned up, melting away the pristine white.

A wind whispered across my skin, softer than the blasts from around the mountains. I curled my cloak closer and turned off the road, heading deeper into the mountains. My boots moved of their own accord, driving me wherever they wished as my mind wandered untethered. If I remained here, in Skyhold, would this be my life? The hero, once savior, surrounded by stark white snows and frozen winds, slowly aging into uselessness? There was much yet to do. Orlais, while not wanting to admit it, remained in tatters from the civil war. Refugees cluttered the roads from both war and rebellion, needing shelter and the possibility of work.

While Cassandra could whip the seat of the Divine into whatever shape she preferred, smaller chantries currently suffered. So many called upon us to find them clerics, even grand ones, after they lost their own at the conclave. When traveling through a minor town in the golden hills of Orlais, a pair of sisters ran towards our banners. Upon discovering the Herald of Andraste herself stood just to their left, they fell to their knees begging me for help. The conclave took everything from their small chantry save the two people left behind to tend it. Now there was no one. They stared at me, tears streaming in their eyes, begging for an answer as if I knew a thing about chantry politics. I hadn't even set foot inside one save the meeting with Dorian. It seemed unlikely demons were a main decor choice for the chantry, but anything was possible when it came to humans.

What can I possibly add to that heartbreak? A friendly hand wave, a smile, a promise that their Maker watches over them while my gods silently fume in their prison. Or worse, they were always with us but never bothered to help. I don't like feeling helpless, my power comes from drawing my fingers across the string and loosing it, not letting my ass fill a creaking seat. If I remained would I be no better than a bowl of fire?

Ah! My naval gazing flooded away when my shoe stuck upon a rock buried in the snow. Strange to find in the middle of nowhere. I glanced around, trying to spot any assassin tracks, but the only footprints were mine into the clearing. No one had disturbed this site in awhile.

Curious, I wiped off the snow around the rock, discovering it had a brother. Two more emerged, then a bundle, until an entire ring circled the snows. Memories stirred in my mind - I reached out to run my fingers across the rock not native to this area. It came from the wild rivers in the north, plucked up because it weighed just enough to be useful without overbearing. How did I forget?

"Fingers trembling; fear, fury, fatigue. String digging into your nose, the grip too tight, liable to snap back and welt."

I whipped around from my crouch to find Cole standing beside the outcropping where I tried to hide from my people what felt another person ago. He didn't tremble in the cold despite the rags for clothes; nothing in our world seemed to touch him save pain.

"Where did you come from?" I asked, rising up, my voice stern. I wanted to be alone.

Cole's massive hat twisted, "Skyhold."

"I mean, how long have you been here?" Sometimes talking to Cole was like trying to wrestle a greased up nug - a game I lost coin on after putting too much faith in Bull and not enough in the nug.

"Since we arrived," he said, prodding into the obsidian rock with the tip of his finger.

"You've been following me," I sighed. Of course he had; compassion went where it was needed even if it wasn't always wanted.

Cole shook his head, then paused and nodded. "I forget which means yes." He pointed to the fire ring, "You were here before, we both were."

My head whipped around to him, "What do you mean we both were?"

"Arms aching, arcing. 'Shem' burned into your brain like your brother's mage fire. You want to hurt them the way they hurt you. But he doesn't fight, flee, force, only accept."

"Cullen," I translated automatically, despite it being only the two of us. My toe kicked into the fire ring, "I don't know why he risked so much on me."

"Roiling rage revolts in rivers of blood. No more. Never again will it guide his hand. Give her peace, a chance, what he needed that no one offered." Cole paused, twisting his head as if hearing a whisper, "Also, he wanted to see you naked."

I laughed at that, "That...okay, that explains some things."

"You wanted to see him naked as well." Despite being alone, a blush crawled up my cheeks. Cole spoke as crisp and plain as the winter winds, the facts immutable to him.

"I, I suppose I did. Still do," I shrugged. It felt good to voice a fact we danced around. Of course everyone knew about the Inquisitor and her commander, but they didn't need to know. Even his nights spent under my proper roof were framed as early meetings to soldiers snickering at the lie.

I picked up two of the rocks, weighing them in my hand. They'd seen me through numerous solitary trips into the woods, protecting the fire from bracken and my hair rolling too near. I don't know how I could have forgotten to bring them with me. "I nearly left, I could have left. Down the mountain, into Ferelden, and across the waking sea. It was simple enough, I knew all the steps. But I remained, circled the area outside Skyhold and wasted my head start."

"You needed to be needed."

I twisted up to Cole, but could only see the brim of his hat shielding those raw eyes. It sounded childish, like I wanted to play at being the big hero, but perhaps it was that simple. The anger blended with my heartache as I moved around the mountain not down it, until any thought of humans only brought a blinding headache. All I saw was murders. Even when Cullen stood before me, pleading to give the Inquisition a chance, my heart still sneered. How I managed to move past that in the few days I had, I...

"You," I whispered. Cole turned at the comment, then pointed at himself. "Did you, when you were describing events earlier it was because you were reading my mind, right? That thing you do."

"Yes," Cole said, nodding.

I sighed, "Then you didn't take my pain away."

"Oh no, I did that."

"What?"

He knotted his fingers so tightly, his half gloves met, "Pulse pounding, perpetuating pestilence. Please. You stared into the fire, palms pressed in prayer. Please."

"There was a family," I stepped away, glancing towards the churned up road in the distance, "a small boy - a human boy, wandered away from his caravan. I found him snagged in an outcropping he failed to fit through. Wolves circled him, sensing an easy meal but cautious. Dispensing them was easy, and at first the boy was grateful for the rescue. But when I returned him to the caravan..."

Cole took up the story, "Eyes glitter like daggers, muscles tight, weapons drawn. A stranger approaches, not just any stranger but a knife-ear. What has she done with our child?!"

"They didn't see an Inquisitor, only an elf in the garb of those who'd steal children in the night for blood sacrifices or so their stories said. I foolishly thought if I did this one good deed maybe my heart would, I don't know, heal...return. That I could return." I knotted my hair behind my ears - my knife ears. Josephine was good on her word and kept it out of Skyhold as best she could, but even the most determined ambassador in Thedas couldn't wipe out that bred in the bone prejudice.

"'Please,'" Cole looked up, his ice eyes landing upon me, "'take this pain from me. I can't function with it and even if they don't want me, they need me. But Cole, you can't tell me you did this. Keep it secret.'" He paused in his recitation of events and blanched, "Oh, sorry."

I smiled at the machinations of my former self. Of course if Cole told me the truth, that I'd used him to free my heart, to take away the pain of my brother's death instead of dealing with it on my own, I'd have run right back to the clan. Stubborn should have been my last name, not the clan's one. "It's all right," I said, "I probably would have figured it out eventually."

"My words hurt you," he said, my pain reflected back upon him.

"No, mine do. I, I thought I could make this decision of my own volition. Without my mother's or the Inquisition's influence, but I'm already betrayed. How can I know what's right when my own forgiveness of humans came about because of spiritual influence? Your influence?"

Cole blinked, his tattered hair scraping across his eyes, but he never complained about it. Maybe he thought that was normal. He twisted to the sun finally breaking across the pristine landscape. After a beat, he said, "'Brave?' he asks, trying to bury the tremble in his voice, the fear of losing your approval because of what he is, who he is. You smile, 'It's not easy to abandon tradition and walk your own path.'"

I shook my head at my old words spoken to Dorian, "Why did you say that?"

"Because you wanted to hear it," Cole said.

A cruel laugh garbled in my throat, mocking me for thinking things could be so simple. "Why does the future have to be so complicated?" I ask aloud, but the spirit only shrugged. If anyone truly lived in the moment it was a creature of the fade. They only seemed concerned with the future when twisted into demons. Was that a reflection upon those of us outside their world, scheming and plotting to make the future our own and consuming the present to do it? Or the Dalish, my people, clutching tightly to shards of the past unable, no, unwilling to turn to anything new. Was it fear of losing the old ways that stayed their hand or something else? We tried once to rebuild in the Dales, but what if we could again? Not just me, not just my clan, but so many more creating something substantial.

Cole's eyes glittered below his hat, "You've decided."

"Have I?" I looked up where he stared into the sky and saw the ribbon of green highlighted from the first rays of the sun. The scar would always be there from the breach, but it wasn't the end for me. It could be a beginning. "I suppose I have."

A low growl rumbled across the snows emanating from the rocks to the east. I whipped around to face it, sliding off my bow. White moved over top white, until the dawn's light lanced across a black nose snorting the wind. It was the bear, the same one Rhodri nearly got himself killed for. Blood still trickled from the fade wound, unable to heal without a mage's touch.

I glanced at Cole. "Are you ready?"

He unsheathed his daggers and whispered, "Pain, agony splitting up her side. It needs release."

"I'll take that as a yes," I said. By the orange glow of the sun, Cole struck deep into the bear's flank while I unleashed a torrent of arrows upon her.

***

My arms strained from the pull, trying to drag the makeshift travois up the incline of Skyhold. A few guards offered to help but I shrugged them off. This was something I had to do myself. Cole drifted in and out of view, a green ghost curious to watch but not really there. His work was finished.

The dining hall sat quiet despite the breakfast hour, almost as if someone chased everyone out. Probably the four people currently screaming at each other at the other end of the throne room.

"What have you done with her?" was the first shriek I heard, courtesy of my mother.

"I have done nothing," Cullen cut back, a sneer in his voice. Elgar'non, why does this have to be so heavy? Something popped in my shoulder, hopefully a seam in the tight leathers and not one inside my arm. Gritting my teeth, I redoubled my effort.

"We know what you've done with my daughter," my mother's voice dipped low like the growl of an ogre.

"That wasn't what..." Cullen sighed, "She's her own person."

"Yes, but where did the Inquisit...she go?" Josie interrupted, trying to placate what was the possible beginnings of another war even more violent than the exalted march on the Dales. At least if my mother had anything to say about it.

I managed to get up the landing, a few of the cowed people scattered to the edges looking up at their Inquisitor. They rose to assist, but more screaming from the advisors froze them. Only Varric caught sight of me and smirked before nodding his head at the proceedings. I suspected there was some wager on the line.

"How should I know where she's gone?" Cullen grumbled. Odd for him to keep the note a secret, but who knows what I missed.

"You're her people and you can't even keep track of her? When some murderers lurk right outside the door? And you expect me to leave my child in your hands?" She could lay it on thick when she wanted, I had to give the Keeper that.

"Commander," Leliana said softer than the two at odds.

"What?"

"You were the last to see her," the spymaster tried to politically say 'we know you spent the night together.'

"So..." he reared back, both hands on the hilt of his sword. This must have been going on for some time, the hair standing up on everyone's neck as they screamed circles around each other. Still no one would look up at me working inches across the floor. "What of you, spymaster? Do you know where she's gone? Is that not your job?"

"I was concerned with the assassin," Leliana said.

"Something else you missed," Cullen bit back. He wasn't about to let that one go soon.

Nearly to the big fancy Andraste statues, I released my grip, the travois coming to a halt along with the massive gift stretched across it. Rising my hands to my mouth I shouted, "Would you all stop bickering for a moment!"

"Inquisitor!" Josephine was the first to cry out, "You've returned with...a bear?"

All four of them turned to find me standing astride the massive carcass of the snow bear. It wasn't the most nail biting of fights I'd been in, Cole working his magic in more ways than the daggers it seemed, but after she fell it seemed wrong to leave her to rot forgotten in the snows. By the time we whipped up a travois of wood and rope Cole "found" and got her back to Skyhold it was late morning coming up on noon.

A moment of relief crossed Cullen's face that I hadn't run off in the night and then he wiped at his chin. I mimicked his movement, blotting bear blood off my face and across my palm.

"Da'len!" the Keeper shouted, banging her staff into the ground, "I feared the shemlan had done something untoward with you. More untoward," she added, glaring at the commander.

"I took a walk," twisting back to the mound of silent white fur, I added, "and then it got a bit less walkey more stabby. I left a note on my desk." The advisors all looked up as if they could see through the ceiling to my blobby paper on the desk. "You all missed it?"

"No matter," my mother said, "you've returned to us and brought a gift for the clan."

"No."

My mother blinked from my negation and twisted her body back around to face me. She'd already declared what was about to happen and moved to the next stage of her plans, berating the advisors further for some imagined slight. "No?" Her shock at my failure to play along, to fall in line as always, bit deep. Unable to contain itself, my brain jumped straight to rebellion.

"This isn't yours, Keeper nor the clans. This bear is for Commander Cullen," I shouted to her darkening eyes. Josephine squealed for a moment, then buried her face behind her clipboard.

"I, uh, you are? That's very...thank you?" Cullen stuttered, lost in the proclamation I hadn't intended to make. The bear was just something that I didn't wish to waste, but now I wanted to keep it as far from my mother's grasping fingers as possible.

Despite her advanced years, the Keeper rounded upon me faster than most enemies. Her fingers gripped onto my upper arm, trying to pull me to her. Instead of cowed, I focused my glare fully upon her.

"You dare to," she whipped her head back to Cullen, who was trying to dissect Josephine's attempts to hide her massive grin, "with that...the clan will not approve of such matters!"

"Sod the clan, mother," I said, leaning into her. She gasped, her fingers breaking free of me. Raising my voice, I tried to command the room, drawing every ear to me as I walked in a circle around the Keeper. "You came here to secure me as your new leader, not for the clan, but Wycome, yes?" I paused just long enough for my mother to glare, but not answer. "But if I accept the position it will not help our people. We don't need another accomplishment for the Inquisitor or the Herald of Andraste." I slowed in my pacing to catch my mother's eye, and tipped my head, my voice sincere. "We need a Dalish one."

"You are one of the people," she said, ignoring the fact she'd practically kicked me out a moment before.

"And if you lead Wycome, rescue it not just for the Dalish but elves, provide succor, turn it into something great, it will show the world that more than just one of us is capable."

For a moment her pride flared, and she muttered to herself, "I never thought myself incapable." Aware of the audience she shouted to me, "What of you? For what reason..." again she side eyed the commander, "for what logical reason could you have to forgo your people?"

"For the same reasons elves with magic leave their clans," I turned on her. She rarely spoke of her own parents beyond a curt word and a mention that heartburn ran in the family. But there was steel when she brought up the choice to leave her clan, to set out for one that needed a mage. It was a source of pain and pride. "Here I can help, here I can change things. The world is still reeling from Corypheus, from the civil war, from rebellion and who knows what else."

"You would give up everything you are for them," my mother said softly, shaking her head.

My steps stumbled and I turned back to her. She deflated from a larger than life adversary to an old woman wound up in threadbare cloth, clucking her tongue at her foolish daughter. "Ir tel'him," I whispered, drawing her head up. For a moment my mother shook her head, her own pain from a life lived bumping into Shemlans showing. Losing Cadrid would bit deep, a hurt that would never properly set. I understood why she wanted to protect me, but I could handle myself.

She picked up my hands, rubbing the palms like scrubbing away dirt. After a moment, her voice broke, "Fen'Harel ma ghilana."

I knew she couldn't understand, couldn't accept I had my own life to live and perhaps, I knew how to go about it. Closing my fingers over hers, I said, "Ir abelas."

The Keeper snorted once as if my sorrow was false, but as I clutched her fingers tighter she turned to me, patting my cheek. For a brief moment, my mother returned to me.

"Inquisitor?" It was Leliana who broke us apart, "Does this mean you intend to remain with us?"

I stepped back from my mother -- her fingers clung tight unwilling to let go -- but she couldn't stop the inevitable. "Yes," I said, nodding my head and raising my voice, "Yes, I intend to remain." Applause began behind me from the dwarf standing on top of his chair for a better view and scattered around the hall, a few people waving their hands in joy. I risked a quick glance at Cullen. He had his eyes fixed upon the ground, but a smile twisted up his lips.

After the clapping died down enough, I spoke, "But..."

"But?" Josephine parroted, her quill pausing. Creators, what was she writing down before?

"I need time to myself, time to remember who I am," I turned back to my mother still stunned that she lost, "what I am. On occasion, I would like to, need to spend a week or so in the forests alone. I'd check in so no one would worry," my demands paused as I smiled at Cullen. "But I can't live my life as only a political puppet any longer."

"Understood, Inquisitor," Leliana said curtly, as if I made any greater demands of their time than I'd like an extra ration of biscuits every Tuesday please.

"So this is what is to happen? Your choice?" my mother spat, "You are to play at being Dalish for a few weeks out of the year."

"I am Dalish," I cut back, " as are so many others. Perhaps it's time we re-evaluate what that means."

She twisted her head as if every word I spoke was utter gibberish. Perhaps it was and I'd eventually fall, but I had to try, to change things. If we sat stationary for the rest of time nothing would move. Sighing, the Keeper lifted her hood over her head and turned towards the exit.

"Wait," Cullen called out, "Keeper Deshanna." My mother paused in her steps, but didn't hide the shudder at his use of her name. "I think your clan should take the bear."

That snagged my mother's attention. She twisted around to eye him up, "You would give me that gift?!"

"It seems you can make a greater use of it than we could, and..." Cullen said, wilting from two sets of female eyes drilling into him. "Skyhold doesn't require--"

Josephine jumped in, cutting him off, "Commander, you should know that..."

"No, uh, he's right," I said, shaking my head vigorously at the helpful ambassador. "I'm not ready, I mean we're not, uh, Skyhold's not really...we don't need it." My blathering ended in a smile to Josephine shrinking behind her wedding planning and the very lost commander. I paused and smirked, "At least not yet."

"Very well, shemlan. I will take the bear as you instructed." She turned to me, her eyes watering. "Da'len, ma nuvenin," the Keeper shook her head, "I leave you to your fate." Without saying another word, she stepped out of the hall, every whack of her staff against the floor echoing until she vanished.

After counting my breath, I turned back to my advisors who still seemed dumbstruck by the morning's events - probably the entire past two days. The knots in my shoulder's ached if I even thought about them. Leliana bowed her head, "It is good to have you returned, Inquisitor."

"I'm no longer here because of need, or circumstance, or an ancient myth trying to kill us all," I said, breathing deeply. "This time it's by my choice."

"Excellent," Josephine said, still happy even if she couldn't fulfill her wedding dreams. After a moment she pointed to the massive corpse filling the walkway in my throne room. "Should I inquire about workers to clear the bear?"

***

Three days passed before the clan was able to move on. My mother spent the first two squirreled away in her aravel refusing to speak to anyone. So I spent the time sitting around the fire with Moldan telling him of my better exploits, or letting Bull and the Chargers fill his head with even wilder stories. Eria remained snippy, sitting at Rhodri's healing side, until I introduced her to Dagna. I considered it a successful exchange in unbridled blather until I caught a dark glower from Cullen followed by a series of explosions and Sera rolling across the lawn, her skin coated in soot. At least we never used that room for anything.

On the final night, the Keeper stepped free from her isolation. She tried once more to get me to side with her, to return to my people, but it was half hearted, her voice broken. It often took my mother awhile to accept defeat but when she did, the pressure broke. I let her speak to a few other elves that explored the temple of Mythal's depths, showed her the paintings Solas left behind. She wished she could make a copy of them to study, and I promised I'd get an artist on it and send it to her. We had to have one of those poking around in Skyhold somewhere.

She even shared a meal with me and Cullen. It was a bit like sitting down with Gaspard, Briala, and Celene again - everyone trying to not bite through their silverware through clenched jaws. And, of course, she grumped if I so much as deigned a glance at my commander, but it was a start of sorts. Perhaps, given enough time, she'd come to accept the idea of my happiness if not the means. That was probably the best I could hope for.

I didn't expect to feel a tug as I gave my last goodbyes. Eria was still without eyebrows, but she clutched the tempered bear fur tight in her arms while holding up Rhodri. He'd only glared at the fur he failed to bring in and wished me luck with the "stinking shemlans." It was Moldon we had to scour Skyhold for. Somehow he wound up in the stables with the Chargers, a new tattoo across his face. The Keeper sighed like an exasperated mother, but didn't scold him. I'd kicked the fight all out of her - at least for a few months. As the aravel sailed out of Skyhold for the last time, she pressed her fingers against my hand, drawing an elven phrase upon the palm. Without saying goodbye, she leaped up into the back of the land ship and sailed away with the rest.

Climbing up the steps to my throne room, I ran my fingers across the word and heard her unsaid words in my heart, "Dareth, da'len. Be safe, child." It was something, and it was much easier to build on something than starting at nothing.

"Been an exciting few days," Varric said, fiddling with his necklace.

"I'll say. Sorry you missed your earlier boat," I said.

"Forget it. That story teller of yours, he's got some good ones I can fit into my next serial."

I slipped a hand onto my hip, "Are you stealing from my people, durgen'len?"

Varric laughed, "Someone's going to, might as well be a friend. I figured I'd catch the boat with your clan, at least see 'em across the sea, keep 'em out of any crazy templar/mage harm's way."

"Thank you, Varric, that's sweet and...shouldn't you be hurrying up to catch them?"

A cruel grin twisted up Varric's face. He held up a hand and said, "Give it a moment..."

Incoherent screams that sounded decidedly Orlesian echoed from outside the hold's walls. These were then followed by the cold but powerful bellow of the Keeper as both circled around each other.

"That'd be the retinue from Lydes Josie's been fretting about," Varric explained. He dipped down, gathering up a bag's strap and dropping it across a shoulder.

"How did you...?" I asked, terrified of the dwarf's power.

"Come now Inquisitor, you never show all your cards." He set off down the stairs towards the screams as Orlesian and Dalish tried to work together to come unstuck. A bit down the ramp he waved a hand at me and shouted, "Don't be a stranger, you hear."

"Never," I called back. Varric smiled, a song humming under his breath as he landed in the courtyard for the last time. I turned away heading into my throne room. A few scholars rushed around, massive piles of scrolls in their hands. They'd made some major discovery within a forgotten translation and required a retinue of soldiers to protect their digging into the muck for a moldy relic. I tipped my head at them, but they were in such a frenzy of excitement most danced past. Life continued on, barely aware of what the Inquisitor nearly threw aside.

I paused at the throne, my fingers running along the arm rests. A seat of power thrown up quickly to solve a problem no one anticipated. It felt strange for me of all people to sit and judge, declaring this and that as if some forest rat had any true power over the shemlan world. Now, it was one I'd chosen to fill. So many decisions yet hung over my head, where I could best help, and in what capacity. The responsibility could one day break me.

"Are you going to sit?"

Yanked away from my thoughts, I caught Cullen strolling towards me. A smirk was on his lips, but there was still a tenderness in his eyes. I'd wounded him, whether I meant to or not.

Shaking my head, I laughed, "No, though be my guest if you'd like to try it out."

He eyed up the chair as if it could sting him, "I'd rather leave it in your capable hands." Picking up said capable hands, he pulled me closer. I knotted my arms around his back and fell into a hug. He followed suit, placing his lips against my forehead. "Are you all right?"

Always concerned about me. Creators, how could it be wrong to love that? To love him? Smiling, I nodded my head, "Yes, for the first time in awhile I feel...free."

"About these forest excursions...?"

"Those are non-negotiable," I said, even while laying my head against his shoulder.

"I know," Cullen sighed, "but I was wondering if it would be permissible, if I could perhaps join you? On occasion."

I leaned back, capturing those amber eyes, "You know it's walking in the woods, sleeping on the ground? Not a brazier or report in sight?"

Cullen snorted, "I am aware. I don't have an allergy to nature. I did grow up on a farm."

Running my fingers along his jaw I whispered, "I wouldn't have it any other way."

"Good." He tipped down, his lips whispering across mine, but I wasn't about to give up easily. My fingers gripped onto the back of his head, pulling him for a deeper kiss. He held tighter to me, that unshakeable resolve returning.

As we broke apart, I grazed his cheek with the back of my fingers, trying to lay down his stubble. "Cullen, I want you to know that if or when I decide I'm no longer of use here, that I want to move on, you'll be included in that decision. I swear."

He paused, his smile falling flat, as if he didn't believe me, but then he closed his eyes and whispered, "Ma vhenan."

"Emma lath," I added, wrapping into him. Who knew what the future truly held. I couldn't have predicted one of the Magisters that walked in the black city would split open the fade and only a mark drilled into my hand on accident could close it. I certainly never saw my heart opening for a shemlan with sunset colored eyes and a comforting arm. Whatever may come at least I knew this time it would be by my choice.

"I was curious," Cullen said, leaning back so he could look me fully in the eye, "what exactly was symbolized by you giving me that bear?"

"Oh," I shouted, jumping out of his arms. He had to see the blush burning up my neck, but I danced around to distract him, "I should go wave goodbye to Varric. Before he leaves forever. Come on!"

Cullen sighed, then laughed as I picked up his hand, pulling him towards the door, "This is your way of saying you don't want to explain. But I shall get it from you one day, I have time."

"As long as we want," I said.


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