“They can’t be serious.”
Cassandra merely blinked slowly at him in response as he paced in the tower that he’d claimed to be his own office (multiple points of entry that made it accessible to the soldiers and secluded enough to keep his somewhat worsening nightmares from disturbing anyone). She was leaning against the desk that had been moved in, a heavy thing that he currently wasn’t even using due to the tower still needing a few masonry related repairs, and shaking her head slightly at him.
“Do you think I have not pointed this out myself, Cullen?” she asked with only slight exasperation.
Stopping in his tracks facing the middle door, he bowed his head and sighed. Out of the four of them, he knew Meryell best and Cassandra was somewhere behind him with their battlefield born trust. Josephine just so rarely had time for anyone that wasn’t someone she was plying influence with (time that was even less now in their recovery stage) and Leliana was still a cautious topic for Meryell that the elf didn’t trust.
So of course Cassandra was his ally in this argument.
Lifting a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose in a futile effort to stave off the first signs of a withdrawal born migraine already pulsing behind his eyes, Cullen softly said, “I apologize. Of course you did, Cassandra.”
The woman behind him grunted before observing matter-of-factly, “You aren’t taking care of yourself again.”
“There’s too much work to do,” he growled in response. Between laying out land at the base of the hill Skyhold sat upon as grounds for the soldiery (a task which he’d thankfully had Arnald’s considerable aid in constructing) and organizing patrols around the work having to be done to the keep as well as taking stock of what was there, he’d been run ragged over the first month of their occupation. It hadn’t helped that he was more often than not too tired to give little more than a cursory grunt whenever Meryell showed up in his tent. He hadn’t the energy to find hers except on the rarest of occasions and she’d taken to showing up in his without a drop of alcohol, silently helping him out of his armor and just curling up in his cot with him to run her fingers through his hair amongst a flutter of Elven words that were soothing nonsense to his ears or the rare Ferelden lullaby.
It was practically the only contact they’d had of late as any other time they saw each other it was Inquisition related. She would occasionally rest a hand on his arm for a moment, smiling up at him before she set off again, and he would sometimes get the opportunity to pull her aside just long enough to hug her against him for a few precious seconds, one of those things that reminded him that she was alive and safe.
“The both of you should know that the whole of the Inquisition won’t fall apart if you take a few moments of the day to yourselves,” scoffed Cassandra. He frowned at her words and turned to face her, a little startled that she looked surprised at his confusion. “You didn’t know?”
“That she’s running herself as ragged as I am?” asked Cullen. Sudden ire flashed through him, his temper wrung to its end by recent events, and he flung up his hands angrily as he snarled onward, “How the fuck am I supposed to know what’s going on when I barely see her and, on the rare occasion that I do, both of us are too tired to do anything but sleep?”
He then closed his eyes tightly as pain flared through his head and lifted his hands higher to press two fingers against each temple. Vaguely he heard Cassandra move towards him and when Cullen opened his eyes, she was standing in front of him with a concerned look on her face.
“Go to your tent, Cullen,” she said firmly and despite that look and the pain in his head, he started to open his mouth to argue. In response, she immediately lifted a gloved hand and shoved him in the chest with the heel of her palm.
Stumbling backwards, he managed to catch his balance again but only barely. Mostly it was thanks to the wall behind him as one hand had flung out to catch himself and just so happened to brace against it.
“You cannot even stand, Commander.”
“I can stand fine so long as I’m not shoved without warning,” Cullen spat back but he already knew he’d lost the battle. He’d sparred against Cassandra enough since joining the Inquisition to know when he should bow out.
She sniffed in response and said stonily, “You asked me to keep an eye on you, to give my judgement upon your work.”
Shoulders deflating, he nodded and leaned back against the wall. “Yes,” he replied wearily.
“Then listen to me in this.” Cassandra’s voice then softened as she went on, “The world will not fall apart if you take a single night, Cullen. I thought Meryell had helped you learn that lesson but apparently you both have forgotten it.”
He bit his lip around the words his mouth wanted to say, that nearly dying and sending her to die had rattled them both hard. Cullen knew it, Meryell knew it, yet neither had had a real moment to talk about it. The march to Skyhold had been spent trying not to think about how damned close it had been. Inane conversation had filled their moments and nights instead, talking about company members or their life before the world had been thrown out from under their feet.
And now they both stood on the cusp of falling, toes on the knife edge, and they wanted to name her Inquisitor.
The mere thought made his mind go skittering towards thoughts he didn’t want, things he didn’t think his already over-labored head could go through, and shook himself. There was one thing though that needed to, no, had to be covered if Leliana and Josephine were determined in their course. He couldn’t argue with the placement of the position himself (it was sound logic to set the woman who’d brought them this far in charge) and knew that Cassandra couldn’t either because her mind worked in the same sensible way his own did.
Meeting her eyes, he said firmly, “She has to know if we declare it. It can’t be a surprise like they want. She’ll refuse outright if it is.”
“As we already agreed,” replied Cassandra with a heavy nod. She then flicked a hand at him in a shooing motion, saying, “Go to your tent. I will find a runner to get her or, if she proves stubborn, find her myself and drag her there. Tell her. Talk to her. Sort out whatever this is driving you two. And for the Maker’s sake and our own, Cullen, take care of yourself.”
Her voice softened considerably and she even smiled as she finished, “The Inquisition may need its Commander but I believe my friend and I need our friend more.”
Though he didn’t quite understand where exactly their friendship had come from, he was abruptly glad for it. Meryell, despite all of her cursing and somewhat rough demeanor, had softened Cassandra just a touch via their friendship. It was something that had also translated over to their own friendship, leaving them in a somewhat more annoying (since she was more often on him about his health) but all-together better place.
“Fine,” he agreed with a sigh. Then Cullen straightened up and pointed at her as he added, “If something goes wrong though…”
“I will assess it, consult with Rylen and Captain Arnald, and then determine if I need to send someone to retrieve you,” Cassandra interrupted in a no-nonsense tone that didn’t allow for a single shred of combat against it. “The whole of Skyhold will not collapse without you or her. Go.”
Knowing he’d well and truly lost, Cullen shook his head and turned, leaving his office to stride across the walkway that lay between his tower and the bulk of the keep. As he entered the rotunda that sat at the base of what would eventually be the library (it was more empty shelves than anything at the moment), he found Solas in his usual place up on scaffolding with his paints working on whatever project he’d undertaken once the room was clear. What surprised him was that Meryell was laying on the comfortable looking sofa that had found its way into the center of the room, her back towards the closed door that led to the main hall.
Glancing at the mage, who acknowledged him with a half bob of his head without turning away from his work, Cullen made his way towards the sofa. He deliberately scuffed the soles of his boots against the stone of the floor to make noise announcing his approach and was rewarded by a bleary eyed Meryell lifting her head above the arm before he’d quite reached her. Her brown hair, which had grown considerably longer than the shaggy short cut that she’d had on her arrival, was in a wildly mussed halo around her head that hovered in length between her chin and shoulders and told him she’d been asleep on the sofa for some time.
“Hi,” she mumbled sleepily as she blinked up at him.
“Hi,” he replied before slowly dropping to one knee next to her. “I didn’t expect to find you here.”
Meryell blinked then her sleepy eyes flicked across the room towards Solas’ back. Then they came back to him as she grumbled, “He may be an asshole but he at least let’s me sleep without another fucking missive to sign or whatever other shit piss that apparently needs me to do it. Keeps the lot of them off my back too.”
“You are welcome, da’len,” came the other elf’s voice from across the room.
Solas snorted and said, “Be careful. That almost sounded appreciative and not the insult you meant it as.”
Meryell wrinkled her nose and growled in response, “Lasa adahl su nar masa, hahren.”
“Ah. Now the world shall not end because you actually thanked me. I can rest at ease.”
Cullen blinked several times at what seemed like banter but the idea of these two bantering was a foreign sort of thought process. Neither liked the other and he’d been privy to at least two rants about Solas where the only word he could recognize coming out of Meryell’s mouth was his name and the few Elven curse words he’d managed to pick up. He wasn’t sure of what Solas’ opinion of her was but he didn’t imagine that it was much better than Meryell’s of him. They mixed as well as badly mismatched armor or a sword in an ill-fitted sheath.
“Fuck you, Chuckles.” Meryell sat up fully then, running her fingers back through her hair with a grimace as they caught on tangles she obviously hadn’t expected. She growled angrily at it before giving up and looking up at him with a grumpy sort of petulant look that was, to put it simply, adorable. Then she asked, “You were looking for me?”
“I actually wasn’t,” replied Cullen. “Hence my surprise. I was, ah, hoping to see you later though.” He stalled out his hand as he realized it was rising nervously towards the back of his neck and grumpily flicked it back down to hang at his side. “There’s something we should talk about.”
“Something important?” she asked, her eyes looking more awake than they had a moment before. She flicked her gaze towards Solas’ back and lowered her voice as she began to ask, “It’s not….u…”
“No,” he soundly interjected, leaning over to take up her hands in his. Her fingers curled around his and he once again regretted his gloves despite the cold.
Shaking his head, Cullen finished softly, “No, dear thief, it’s nothing about us.”
Except that was a lie but he wasn’t letting his brain go there. Not yet anyway.
Meryell nodded her head just slightly then smiled, fingers flexing against his as she said, “I can meet you this evening…” As he started shaking his head, she frowned. “Not this evening?” she asked in a disappointed sounding tone.
“Not what I meant,” replied Cullen with a smile. Gently tugging at her hands, he lifted her up from her seat and pulled her against him, distinctly not caring about Solas’ presence or anyone that might be above working on the library or rookery floors. Releasing her hands, he slid his arms around her as he said warmly, “I have been soundly told that I should rest. Apparently I’ve been overworking myself.”
She arched her eyebrows as she leaned into him, her own arms wrapping around his waist though he couldn’t feel the embrace through his armor. “Who managed to convince you of that when I’ve been trying for weeks?”
“Guess, dear thief.”
“Only Cassandra is stubborn enough to take you on and win.” Meryell then grinned wickedly and leaned forward to prop her chin against his breastplate, batting her eyes playfully. “How’d she do it? I need to know for the next time you get all stuck in work.”
Cullen just smiled in reply before softly saying, “She pointed out that you were doing the same thing.”
That made her cheeks color and Meryell abruptly straightened, leaning away from him as far as the loop of his arms would allow. “I’m not doing that much,” she grumbled. “Just making sure everyone’s got somewhere to sleep, checking on the Fangs and the soldiers, making sure the kitchens have all of the supplies they need. Same things I did lots of fucking times before.”
“Before Josephine also had you running around doing other things.”
Sighing, Cullen moved one arm from around her as he curled the other more tightly, drawing her close again. As he touched her cheek with his now free hand, he rumbled softly, “Ve-hen-an-ar-rah, you were just sleeping on Solas’ couch in order to protect yourself from anyone wanting you to do something. Solas.”
Meryell went still in his arms and he realized that she was suddenly breathing hard, her eyes wide. Confused, he began, “Are you…”
“I’m fine,” she hurriedly replied. Then she closed her eyes and asked quietly, “Do you…do you know what that means?”
Frowning, thinking he’d perhaps done something wrong, Cullen replied, “No, but it obviously means something since you only say it to me. Do you not want me to use it?”
“No! I just…you can use it, Cullen. It’s…” She paused to take in a long breath, letting it go in a quick rush along with the words, “If anyone else can use it, I would like to think you can.”
More than a little confused, he asked, “Are you going to tell me what it means, dear thief?” He wasn’t about to ask the only other Elven speaking people he knew well what it meant. Mostly he wasn’t entirely sure they’d tell him truthfully (Folke probably would) but also because he wanted to hear it’s meaning from her. It seemed only proper since she was the one who’d started calling him it.
Meryell smiled then, a little bit of coyness in the expression amongst the still wide-eyed surprise, and replied, “One day.”
“Tease.” She laughed – hopefully at his playful affronted tone- and he smiled at the sound. It had become a rarity of late. Cullen then brushed his fingers across her cheekbones as he said, “Come take a break with me, dear thief. Surely there’s a quiet corner somewhere in this beast of a keep.”
Her eyes lit up then and she replied, “I know just the fucking place. You need to lose the armor though.”
“I was intending on it.”
“And grab one of Gil’s potion that she gave you for that headache.”
How she managed to always know when he was having the start of a migraine was still a mystery. He was certain that he didn’t give anything away until they were at their worst and by then he was usually somewhere secluded. Yet somehow she almost always knew.
Nodding, Cullen replied, “I’ll take one as soon as I get to my tent.”
“Good,” said Meryell firmly. She then smiled and continued, “I’ll meet you out behind the stables in…half a glass?”
“I’ll be there.”
Beaming brightly, she slipped out of his arms then and practically scampered off, no sign of her having been asleep only moments before except for the wild nest of her hair. Cullen shook his head after her and started to follow then paused, looking back over at the back of the bald elf.
“Yes, Commander?” he asked as he bowed his head over whatever bowl of paint he was currently working with.
Cullen bit his lip and this time didn’t stop the hand from rising to rub at the back of his neck. “Thank you,” he began. “For helping her.”
Solas merely hummed in response before saying, “Though we may disagree, I am well aware that we would get nowhere without her. And not simply for the mark on her hand.” As he focused back on his artwork, shoulders shifting as he lifted his arm again, the elf finished, “Never fear, Commander, despite our dislike I shall be at her back.”
“Thank you, Solas.”
“You are welcome. Though I believe you are inching close to missing your meeting.”
Taking the words as the dismissal they were, Cullen bowed his head towards the elf despite his back being towards him and left. Given that his tent was currently set up right in the courtyard just down the stairs from the main keep along with most of the rest of the inner circle, it didn’t take him long to strip out of his armor and hang it on it’s stand. As he tugged on a new tunic to replace the slightly sweaty one he’d had on underneath everything, Cullen lifted up the lid of a smaller chest nestled down into the bottom of his larger one. Inside were several potion bottles nestled into a custom made padding that protected them from clattering against each other or the sides of the box and breaking. It had been a gift delivered by Folke during the first week after they’d settled into the keep, when his withdrawals had abruptly been so fierce that he’d stayed huddled in his tent for two days under the lie that he had a mild cold.
With two of Gil’s potions in him and nearly decimating the supply of tea the hedge mage had given him what seemed ages ago, he’d come out of those two days feeling better than ever. Before the work load of restoring the keep had come crashing down on him in full force.
Carefully lifting one of the bottles out, Cullen uncorked it and cautiously downed half of it, judging it enough for the time being since the migraine forming wasn’t one of the fiercer ones. It immediately went to work, easing the piercing ache throbbing at his temples and the stabbing sensation lurking behind his eyes. He did, however, recork the bottle and tuck the remainder into the pouch on his belt in case he needed the rest later. If he turned out to be wrong, he would want it on him and not a long walk back to his tent away.
Rewrapping himself up in his coat, he left his tent but took longer than he’d expected to get from it to the stable. It seemed like now that he was supposed to not be working, everyone and their damned mother had something they needed him to look at or sign or wanted to talk to him. He directed most of them to Cassandra, a few to Rylen, and told all of them and every runner he managed to catch the sleeve of to spread word that he and the Herald were not to be bothered unless Corypheus himself was at the damned gate of Skyhold.
Given his vehement phrasing of that statement, he’d probably scared a few years off most of them but Cullen couldn’t really bring himself to care.
When he finally rounded the back corner of the stables after barely escaping being dragged into an in-depth conversation with Dennet over whether Ferelden steeds were better stock than others (apparently saying one respectful word about an impressive piece of horseflesh and suddenly he’s an expert according to that man), Meryell looked at him with both eyebrows arched high. And, dare he say, a little bit of caution in her eyes?
“I was beginning to worry,” she said softly.
Cullen sighed and shook his head, reaching out to take her hands in his now bare ones. One gentle tug brought her in close and he explained, “Apparently now that I’m off for the day, everyone wanted to talk to me on my way here.”
“So not putting off coming to meet me out of nerves?”
“No,” he replied with a serious frown, blinking down at her. Where had that question come from? “Why would you think that?”
“I just…” Meryell’s voice trailed off and she sighed heavily, shaking her head as she took a step closer and leaned into his chest. “Nothing,” she mumbled a moment later. “Nevermind.”
“Fuck no, I won’t just nevermind,” Cullen hissed back as he lifted both hands to her face, worried even more as he tried to tip her chin back so he could look at her and found resistance. As soon as he felt the pushback, he instantly stopped and leaned down to press a kiss to her forehead as he breathed, “There is nothing wrong with us, Meryell. I am here. I am not fucking leaving.”
Not yet, whispered a traitorous part of his mind and Cullen viciously hushed it with all the fury he could muster.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled and he stroked his thumbs across her cheeks in response.
“You have nothing to be sorry for.”
“Not even turning into a soppy bitch at the first drop of a hat because my brain is a complete fucker and I’m damned tired?”
Cullen chuckled and replied, “Soppy, maybe, but never a bitch, dear thief.” He then closed his eyes and let out a long breath as he pressed a kiss into her hair. Did he dare admit his own weakness to her? To tell her that he knew the words she refused to say, the ones that her traitorous brain whispered alongside you are not worthy, because he felt that same doubt too?
That on nights when she was not there he woke thinking it had all been a dream? That he had never lightly skimmed the skin underneath her tunic with his fingertips? That the blazing memory of her tilting her head back to take his mouth as he pressed her bodily against the Chantry wall while battle raged outside was false? That she had never settled warmly underneath his arm in the tavern or anywhere else?
That no one would ever or could ever care so deeply for the broken man he really was behind the shield of his duty and oaths and armor?
Could he give that much of himself away?
For her…the answer was undoubtedly yes.
“I know,” was what he managed to speak, lips pressed hard against her scalp and her hair muffling his voice.
Sighing, Cullen opened his eyes and leaned back and this time she let him tilt her chin up so their eyes could meet. In the darkened area behind the stable, her eyes were an almost moss green with no sign of those copper flecks that normally caught the light or the telltale gleam that gave her away as an elf as much as her pointed ears did.
“I. Know.” He repeated the words purposefully, saying them with sharp inflection in order to get his point across. When Meryell still looked at him with confusion, Cullen asked softly, “You think that I don’t have doubts myself, dear thief?”
Her mouth opened, dropping into a soft o shape, and she breathed, “You doubt…?”
“Whether I am worthy,” Cullen pressed on before he lost his nerve, before she thought he doubted them. “Of my position…of you.” Shaking his head, he went on hurriedly, “The things I’ve done…that I’ve seen…by all rights I should not be worthy of any sort of affection.”
“I am nothing more than a failed templar, a broken down lyrium addict barely hanging on to sanity by my fingernails.”
That seemed to strike something in her and suddenly Meryell’s hands were in his hair, dragging him down towards her. He didn’t know what he’d expected her to do but slanting her mouth against his, her lips warm and soft, was decidedly not it. The sudden motion rattled his entire head, sending fragmented little jolts of pain through the affected areas but it was nowhere near enough to make him flinch or stop.
Grunting, Cullen shifted his grip on her face, one hand sliding back into her hair to curl his fingers against the back of her skull. His other hand roamed downward as he willingly opened his mouth to hers, fingers dragging across the fabric of the coat she wore against the cold before he found her hip. He pulled her close even as he took a step forward, backing her against the wall of the stable. As she leaned back against it he followed, pinning her there with the weight of his own body.
He lost track of time in the flow of her mouth against his, of her scent – leather and sword oil and cinnamon, though he didn’t know where the last came from except that it was her favorite smell – in his nose, the taste of the last thing she’d eaten invading his mouth (something sugary, probably filched from the kitchen), and the pliant feel of her lean, muscled form molding against his own. All of those things almost made him forget the lurking pain from his withdrawals were even there.
When she put pressure enough with her fingers on his head to indicate that he should stop, Cullen didn’t want to. If he but could, he felt like he could kiss her forever.
He obeyed her silent request, however, and as he looked down at her, Meryell pressed a light kiss to the scar on his upper lip that sent a shudder down his spine.
“You,” she said firmly, her voice very nearly a growl, “are so much more than that, Cullen Rutherford.”
Swallowing, he breathed, “And you are so much more than whatever those fucking voices try to tell you, Meryell Verlen.”
Meryell flushed in response then she smiled, cocking her head to the side as she ran the fingers of one hand back through his hair. Likely completely ruining all of the hard work he’d put into it during his morning routines but hair be damned. He was no longer on duty.
She liked the fucking curls anyway.
“Knife-ear,” she breathed then and he stilled, his breath catching in his throat at the insult. “Bitch. Never anything more than an alienage brat. Not worthy of what I’ve got. Not even close to worthy of what I want.”
Cullen shook his head and whispered, “Lies. Every one.”
Meryell closed her eyes then and shuddered. When she reopened them and looked at him with tears lurking at the edge of her eyes, he wanted to tell her what he saw. The woman that he witnessed every time she was around him. Who inspired him. Who he cared for beyond words.
Straightening up, Cullen pressed a finger over her lips and asked softly, “Where’s your place, dear thief? This is no conversation we should be having behind the stable.”
Blinking at him several times, she abruptly broke into a beaming smile that had him grinning back at her simply from how brilliant it was. Her hand – small and callused but strong – slid into his and she said, “You’re right. Come on. We have a bit of a ways to go.”
“Lead on,” he said warmly and Meryell practically bolted away from him at that, dragging him stumbling after her. Literally the only thing that allowed him to keep up with her pace besides her hand in his was the mere fact that his legs were longer.
She led him on a winding path through Skyhold that started in the kitchens and went on a wild route through the lower levels that they hadn’t yet gotten to going over to figure out what to do with them or what sort of repairs they would need. Cullen tried to keep track of where they were going so he might find it again but even he couldn’t keep up with the circuitous route that she was taking him on. Which was ridiculous given the number of troop movements and supply lists that he had memorized. All that and remembering a path through their own damned fortress escaped him.
Then they were abruptly in a large open area that resembled that which was set aside for the eventual permanent location of Harritt and his forge after need for him in a more localized area was no longer required for repairs. It wasn’t quite the size of that location, probably half as wide and slightly more than that lengthwise, and it had a better view. Where the other sat over a currently frozen waterfall and saw only the sides of the mountains that rose up close, this cave-like space looked out towards the valley where the troops were located.
Blinking several times, Cullen took in the cushions that were piled up off to one side of the space where they had a perfect view of the camps. There was also a low table that looked like it had seen better days even before it was repaired hastily with a simple board to replace a missing leg, a box full of what looked like candles tucked underneath it, and a pile of books along with a plain little brass candle holder sat on top of the table. As expected, there were also two clay cups (had she already intended to bring him here?) along with a dark bottle that likely held her favorite whiskey. He immediately asked, “Just how long ago did you find this place?”
“Stumbled on it two weeks back,” she replied with a smile. Then Meryell tugged him along towards the area’s opening, which was edged with a stone railing like the other was but this one was obviously crumbling in places from disrepair. When they came to a stop, she pointed towards the distant camps and said, “You can just make out the Fangs’ banners from here.”
Cullen hummed in response and stepped in behind her, wrapping his arms around her as he rested his chin on the crown of her head. “I see that,” he noted softly, easily making out the tan banners of the company against the icy white of everything else. He then pointed to the empty branches of the trees that were below the opening and said, “Once it gets warmer, you’ll probably see less when they get their leaves in fully.”
“I know where they are,” Meryell replied firmly.
Chuckling, he muttered, “That would be your response.” Then he felt her shift in his arms and lifted his head, letting her turn so she could slide her own arms around him before resting his chin back on her head again. When she sighed happily, he asked, “Better?”
She just nodded in response and he smiled, tilting his chin enough to kiss her hair.
As she made an unintelligible noise in response, Cullen softly said, “I meant what I said.”
“So did I,” she replied. Meryell tilted her head back to look at him, her breath coming hard and hot against his cheek as she realized how close that made them since he hadn’t moved. He watched her throat move in a heavy swallow before she said in a quiet voice, “You are a brave man, a good man despite everything you’ve been through.” When he started to open his mouth to protest, her fingers slid over his lips and he immediately ceased his efforts. Instead he met her eyes as she finished, “A lesser man would have never come back from the horrible place that Kinloch took you to. If anything, Cullen, cling to that. That you came back.”
If there was anything he couldn’t argue against, it was that. Maybe it had been far too late for most of the mages in Kirkwall but it hadn’t been too late for the Inquisition mages or the templars. And he had realized that he’d been treading hard along the line to becoming as much of a monster as he’d considered Meredith at the end. Maybe he wouldn’t have gone as far but…he had it in him. The fact that he knew that terrified him more than a little.
Deciding to turn the tables back on her in an attempt to regain control over the tight coil of emotion in his chest, Cullen lifted a hand to close his fingers over hers and pull them away from his mouth. But not before kissing her fingertips, an action that brought a beautiful blush across Meryell’s face.
“You,” he began firmly, “may have been born in an alienage but that doesn’t make you anything less than anyone else. It took so much strength to survive losing your parents and making it without them until you found Folke. You are a beautiful, brilliant, and altogether terrifying woman and I wouldn’t have you any other way.”
She ducked her head in response to his words and shook before she leaned heavily forward into his chest. Wrapping his arms around her in response, Cullen felt her continue to shake but this was a completely different kind of shaking. Frowning, he asked, “Are you…laughing?”
A snort erupted from her and he burst out laughing himself as she gasped, “N-no!”
Meryell smacked her hand hard against his chest and hissed, “I’m laughing at us, you fucker.”
“Oh,” he said as seriously as he could while still laughing himself, “that makes me feel better.” When she scowled and hit him again, this time harder, Cullen caught her hand and brought it up to kiss her palm. As she flushed, he asked, “And why are you laughing at us, dear thief?”
“Because…” She paused to tug her hand away from him and wrapped it around the back of his neck, her fingers toying with the unruly curls at the base of his skull that he was never able to fully tame. “Look at us. Listen to us. We’re two of a damned kind with the same sort of fucking issues.”
“So we are.” He then smiled and noted softly, “But didn’t we already say that we were going to try and help each other with our issues?”
“We did,” she replied.
“There we go then.”
Snorting, Meryell shook her head at him before saying, “Well, thank you, good ser, for your help but I think I’ve had enough emotional help for the next month now. How about we sit over there in my rather fucking comfy pile of pillows, have a drink, and you tell me whatever it was that you wanted to talk about in the first place.”
Cullen immediately blanched as he remembered exactly what he’d wanted to talk about and when she commented, “I’m not sure I want to know now,” he shook his head.
“It’s not bad.”
“Well, fuck, I’m not sure I believe that from the way your face went a minute ago.”
Sighing, he pulled away from her and said, “Drink first, then I’ll tell you.” She looked dubious but then smiled and took his hand again, this time leading him across only the short distance to the cushions. As he settled half-upright on them, Cullen watched her as she poured the drinks and then grinned when she turned with the cups in her hands to scowl playfully at him.
“You were looking at my ass again,” she growled.
“Guilty,” he admitted, shifting the cup to his left hand so he could open the right up for her. As she settled against his side, Cullen pressed a kiss against her temple before growling, “It’s a lovely ass. One I certainly hope that I have permission to look at all I want.”
Meryell tilted her head slightly in mock thought and hummed before saying, “Well…” As he arched his eyebrows in response, she turned to smile slyly up at him as he took a sip of his drink. “Only if I can do the same to you.”
As he sputtered in response, she burst into bright laughter, continuing with it as he exclaimed, “You want…I don’t…what?!”
“Your ass,” she replied, still laughing. “Seriously, Cullen, leather pants and a man in fighting shape? It makes for a lovely view.”
Staring at her for a moment, he finally shrugged, saying, “I will bow to the thief’s obviously greater experience with the back sides of my own gender.”
“And, yes, you have permission to look at my ass all you want.”
When she let out a short cheer in response, they fell against each other laughing for several moments. By the time it finally died away and he was left sitting with his chin resting on top of her head, Cullen was starting to think he was going to avoid telling her. Then the word was in his throat, surging up and out, and he blurted it aloud before he could stop himself or give it further context.
“What?” asked Meryell.
Closing his eyes and cursing silently, he repeated, “Inquisitor.” Pulling away enough that he could look down at her, Cullen explained, “Leliana and Josephine put forth a recommendation to Cassandra and I to name an Inquisitor to lead the Inquisition.”
Looking confused, she said, “Alright?”
“You,” he said firmly. “They want to name you Inquisitor.”
Meryell sat there for a long moment, her eyes wide and mouth dropped open into an o of sheer surprise, and he cautiously took her cup from an abruptly limp hand just in case she dropped it. She blinked several times, her eyes unfocused, before giving herself a shake and letting out a snort. “You’re fucking joking,” she spat.
Cullen just shook his head and she reached for her cup, tossing its contents back in one swift motion. Meryell then leaned over to grab the bottle again and poured herself a nearly overflowing glass before tossing that one back too. Despite knowing fully well that she could handle her alcohol, he found himself reaching out for the bottle in response to the abrupt motion. She held firm to it, however, and growled at him before snarling actual words at him.
“The el’u’verelan and the air’amelan are serious that that want to name me fucking Inquisitor? Are they insane?” Throwing up her hands, she continued, “I mean, wasn’t it enough of a colossal shit storm for Josephine to try and keep quiet that I’m a mercenary?”
“Perhaps Josephine wants a challenge. It’s not like you’ve helped her story much,” he commented with a smile, earning a casual shrug and a raspberry blown in his direction in response.
Meryell tugged at the bottle and Cullen arched an eyebrow before he relented his grip on it, watching her as she poured half a glass then sat the bottle back on the table. As she settled back into place against him, he tucked an arm around her and made idle circles against the fabric of her pants along her thigh.
“‘Course I don’t fucking help her,” she grumbled testily as she lifted her cup to take a drink. “I won’t deny what I damned well am unless it’s for a job and I’m getting sodding paid to do so. Or if I find it worth the fucking effort to act like whatever I have to. Plus, that was her game, not mine, so no reason for me to play it. It’s not like me being a merc has stopped folks from coming to join up.”
He couldn’t argue against that as he’d had several fighting men leave their posts to come join the Inquisition simply on the fact that they’d heard that the Fangs were involved with it and that rumor said the Herald was one of them. A fact that they’d straight away told him, Rylen, or whichever of his lieutenants had greeted them when they’d arrived in Haven.
“What the shit do I know about leading?”
Arching an eyebrow as he looked down at her, Cullen replied, “Do you really want me to go over the particular qualifications? I already knew them but apparently Josephine thought it prudent to put them down in writing for…oh, what was it…to have irrefutable proof that these deeds were done by her.”
Meryell snorted and asked, “The fucked they do, go get proof in writing from folk?” He kept his expression flat and impassive in response and just stared at her until she looked up to catch his eyes when he didn’t answer. Immediately she started sputtering and exclaimed, “They fucking did. Andraste’s dimpled ass, you’re fucking serious.”
“Cassandra brought a packet with all of the papers to my office,” he explained. “Apparently Josephine, at least, has had this in mind for some time considering she’s been far too busy to organize that much along with everything else she’s been doing.”
“Don’t say that,” she scolded. “I swear the woman sleeps less than you do.”
Ignoring the jab at his sleeping habits – which were worse than they had been in Haven but considerably better than they’d used to be before the Inquisition and she knew it – Cullen continued, “I can’t say that I faulted their logic in naming you Inquisitor.” When Meryell started to open her mouth, her expression furious, he held up his cup-laden hand with one finger extended. “Hear me out, dear thief.”
She glared at him, her jawline tight with anger and her eyes fiercely focused on his face, then nodded just slightly to indicate that she would.
Taking a deep breath and cursing Cassandra slightly in that he had to be the one to have this conversation with her – though she probably would have murdered anyone else unless it was Folke and he probably would have murdered whoever tried to get him to do it – Cullen began.
“You freed the mages in Redcliffe from a Tevinter Magister. You brought an end to the fighting in the Hinterlands. You made the decision to help the people there. You made the recommendation that I go to Therinfal to try and recruit what templars I could.”
“Anyone could have done those things,” she growled between bared teeth. “And I had help.”
Shaking his head, Cullen asked, “Who decided to help that woman in the Hinterlands whose husband had been killed by templars? Who decided to recruit Sera? Blackwall? The Iron Bull?” At the mention of the last three it looked like she had abruptly swallowed something sour because he knew full well that she absolutely could not argue with him about those. She’d made the decision to recruit each and every one of them, though the Iron Bull had had all of their input in some fashion given that he came with the Chargers.
Meryell then hissed, “We decided to do most of that field work shit.”
“Because you thought it was a good plan.”
She curled a lip in response then her entire expression fell as her shoulders slumped. “Fuck,” she muttered before turning her head to lean it against his shoulder with her eyes closed. He tightened his arm around her as she softly added, “I’m just a merc, Cullen. I’m a thief and a liar and I’m pretty fucking good at killing people when it calls for it. Not a damned leader. That’s not even half what you want in a fucking leader.”
Sighing, he turned his head to press his lips against her forehead in a slow kiss. Then he whispered into her skin, “We’d classify Arnald as all of those things as well, ve-hen-an-ar-rah. You’ve told me that the whole company calls him one of the best Captains they’ve had since inception.” Her shoulders tensed slightly underneath his arm at his use of the Elven word but not in the heavy, wire-drawn-tight way that generally signaled fear or flight. It was more the drawing up to a fight sort of tense, like steadying oneself for a confrontation.
“You fucker,” she muttered, “I never wanted this fucking shit.”
“I know,” he breathed back.
“I don’t know anything about actually leading. Other than Arnald, we don’t have shit for a rank system other than if someone knows more shit than you do.”
Kissing her forehead again, he said, “That’s what we’re here for, dear thief. To help you. We’d be your advisors. You could even name Folke or Arnald as one if you really wanted to.”
That brought a snort out of her before she muttered, “Better make it Arnald. Folke would just make snide comments under his breath and cast little spells in order to make Cassandra or you twitch at blatant magical displays. I know, I watched him do that fucking shit during company meetings for years.”
Laughing at the idea of the hedge mage causing chaos in the middle of what he was certain was supposed to be a serious meeting (since that seemed the sort Arnald would run), Cullen began, “So…”
Meryell let out a huff of breath before she replied, “I’ll fucking think about it.”
“That’s all I ask, Meryell.”
She hummed in response before tilting her head back to butt his chin with her nose, saying softly, “Thank you for telling me. I’d have fucking pitched a bitch if they’d sprung that fuckwhat on me without warning.”
Chuckling, Cullen said, “I told Cassandra the same thing. With less vulgarity, of course.”
“’Course you did, you fucking know me. Maker’s aching cock, I really don’t have enough alcohol down here to deal with this shit. I only brought the one bottle and it’s already half gone.”
“I think I can assist the thief in such a thing.”
“Oh?” she asked airily as she leaned back enough to look up at him. “Can you now, good ser?”
Cullen grinned and replied, “Perhaps. For a price.”
“Oh-ho!” Meryell exclaimed. “We’re extracting costs now. And for alcohol, too. I’ll make a mercenary out of you yet at this rate, Cullen.”
“Do you want to hear my price, dear thief?”
She nodded and tipped her chin back in a simplified bring it motion that he was familiar with from his own training days as the gesture was common amongst most people who fought. Smiling, Cullen leaned forward so their faces were ever so close together, the side of his nose right up against hers, and immediately heard her breathing hitch and become heavy. His groin immediately tightened with pressure in response and he resisted the abrupt urge to groan as it felt like his pants shrunk.
“What does ser demand in return for his services?” she asked in a throaty sort of purr that didn’t help him any.
“Is that all?” Meryell queried softly as she tilted her head just enough to bring her lips ghosting across his. He barely registered the familiar double twitch of her ears or the dilation of her own eyes that gave away her own arousal far better than her breathing did through the haze coming over his own brain. Her fingers against his as she pried his cup out of his hands was also a distant impression as she sat it somewhere without moving away from him.
Humming in reply and resisting the very strong urge his body had to just fling her down into the cushions, Cullen replied, “Perhaps more…if the thief is willing.” Things probably wouldn’t go beyond where they had anytime before but this time they would be interspersed with the sensation of lips and tongues against each other and that made the whole thing different.
She smiled in reply and kissed him lightly, just a brief peck before she pulled away again. “Mayhaps the thief will simply take what she wants,” she said lowly before lifting a hand to his cheek, running her fingers across his face and then down his throat to his chest in a motion that left an almost fiery sensation in it’s wake and a tightness in his throat. Then she abruptly moved, swinging up and onto his lap, and both of her hands were at the back of his neck before sliding up into his hair. As he lifted his own hands to grip her hips, she asked, “What will ser do if she does that?”
“Surrender willingly to her wiles,” he replied breathlessly, his heart pounding in his ears. Then her lips were on his again, just the lightest of touches, and Cullen closed his eyes as he said with a slight whine, “Meryell. I…”
“Shh,” she replied before her fingers curled into his hair to hold tight and her tongue was in his mouth. When Meryell pulled away with a wicked smile on her lips, he briefly entertained the idea that withdrawal might be making him see things. But even his best imaginings weren’t like this. They weren’t warm and pliant underneath his hands, didn’t lean into him to press forehead to forehead, didn’t taste like sweets and whiskey, didn’t smell like cinnamon and leather and oil. That and the migraine that had started plaguing him was gone, the potion from Gil having done it’s job at least for a little while.
Cullen then refocused on her as she said softly, “I think you owe me a bottle now, Cullen.”
He just nodded slowly in response because he was a man drowning, losing himself, losing everything in this woman. She’d heard about Kirkwall from his own lips and knew about Kinloch just enough to guess and she was still there. He wasn’t anywhere close to being worthy of her but damn it he would try.
Until she is Inquisitor, hissed that traitorous part of his brain. Then what? What happens when she’s your superior?
Refusing to think of that, Cullen hissed, “We’ll call it two to make up for me making you panic earlier.” When she smiled, all broad and bright, he tugged her fully down into his lap at that same time as she leaned in to take his mouth again. He promptly lost himself in the sensation of her body molding against his, of the heat between her thighs pressing down against the aching bulge in his pants, and endeavored to let nothing distract him from her for the rest of the day. Even if all he got tonight was nothing more than the familiar feel of her hands roaming his skin and his own on hers, it would be enough.
She was enough.
air – coin
amelan – keeper
serannas – thanks
lasa adahl su nar masa – shove a tree up your ass