The Sordid Tale of Meryell Verlen, Chapter 48

He hated waiting.

Always had.

Oh, he’d been disciplined and never fidgeted when he had to stand watch. Nor when he’d had to spend long hours keeping his eyes on nothing but the mages under his charge.

In the Tower, he’d read over their shoulders. Their reading, their writing, doodles made in the corners of parchment filled with potion ingredients and spell notes, all of it filled the silent monotony of his days.

In Kirkwall, the silence had been filled with the heavy song of lyrium and the echo of bloody memories that he couldn’t quite touch but still recalled. He’d kept his screams and nightmares to his room and done his duty as he thought (at the time) a templar should.

Now he paced in his and Meryell’s temporary room in the wee hours of the morning, unable to keep still. His hands shook with a mix of nervous energy and withdrawal, so he kept them moving by rolling his brother’s coin between first the fingers of one hand and then the other. The fact that he was feeling withdrawal symptoms despite having taken a dose the previous morning would have been worrying if Gil hadn’t already warned him that the diluted amount he was on cobbled with stress could briefly exacerbate its signs.

“You’re going to wear a hole in the floor like that,” came a comment from the open door and Cullen looked up to see Leliana leaning against the frame.

“Is there news?” he asked, not stopping in his movement at all.

There was silence in response and he sighed before briefly letting his chin fall against his chest. “Of course not,” he muttered. “It can never be that easy.”

Leliana let out a small, slightly bitter sounding laugh before asking, “Would you like reassurance? I could tell you that she will be fine, that Folke is with her and that you sent two rather capable rogues after her.”

Cullen lifted his head to look at her then and said, “It would just be empty reassurance.”

“So it would.”

There was silence for a long span of moments then, with her just there in the doorway and he continuing his pacing inside the room. He felt a question welling up inside of him, one for her alone, but he didn’t know if he dared ask it. They were mere colleagues at best, allies in a single cause.

They were not friends.

When he reached the table he was using for a temporary desk, Cullen stopped instead of turning back to continue his pacing. Placing both hands flat on the table with the coin underneath his left, he leaned forward to stare at the frosted panes of the windows and softly said, “May I ask you a question, Leliana?”

“I have told you everything that I know of what’s going on.”

He didn’t believe that for a second because their spymaster always kept a few moves back for later use. Shaking his head, he added, “It’s personal. It could be…painful.”

“For you?” she queried.

“For you,” he replied.

She was quiet for a long span of breaths that was almost painful in that the silence just made his nervousness at asking the question all the worse. Then he heard her footfalls cross the floor, heels softly hitting the marble or whatever other fancy material made up the floors in Gaspard’s manor, and turned his head as she came to stand beside him.

He could read a face and body language on a battlefield but Cullen had no knowledge of how to read Leliana.

They stood like that for a moment before she softly said, “You want to ask about Amell.”

“I know you didn’t go everywhere together,” he answered just as softly. Cullen then looked away, back towards the window, as he went on, “I…I read some of the accounts of those who met you all during the Blight while I was in Kirkwall as well as here. Since I didn’t witness any of it myself. Alistair and I may have also had a conversation or two since he arrived in Skyhold.”

“And what is your question, Cullen?”

He frowned, gnawing at his lower lip for a moment, before he asked, “How did you deal with it, with the waiting? After you two were…together?”

Leliana hummed softly in response before drifting back into silence again. They stood like that for what felt like a whole turn of a glass before she began with a quiet, “I was much younger then.”

Chuckling, Cullen noted, “I think we were all younger, Leliana. Though you’ve perhaps weathered it the best.”

That brought a bit of a chuckle out of her. “Mmm, I am not certain of that, Commander,” she replied with a small smile. “I have heard that there have always been quite a few ladies following you around with soft sighs and love in their eyes.”

He felt the back of his neck immediately heat up and knew she saw it because he was just dressed in a simple tunic and trousers since he couldn’t go rushing off into the night in his own heavy armor. Blessedly, she didn’t say anything.

Instead, Leliana’s smile faded and she said, “I dealt with waiting well enough, I suppose. There was always something usually to be done about our camp; either cooking or securing Alistair’s tent because he hadn’t tied the knots tight enough. Often, though, I would sit with Wynne when she didn’t accompany him and talk.”

“I always worried, however,” she went on after a brief pause. He turned his head slightly away from the window to look at her, finding a stark sadness in her face at that moment.

And Cullen knew that she let him see it.

“Would this be the day he came back bloodied? Broken? Or would it be the day that he didn’t come back at all?” Leliana shook her head before adding, “There was always the chance that he or Alistair would fall and leave us with no Wardens, just a handful of outcasts alone with little contacts to speak of and few allies. Not to mention, as he often reminded me, that demons are always lurking in the Fade, just waiting for a mage to slip up.”

Frowning, because he’d stood at Calder Amell’s Harrowing, had been the one assigned to hold the sword above him as he’d been sent into the Fade, Cullen asked, “Was he hounded by them more than the other mages? I’m certain Wynne was quite used to fending them off, she was always one of the more capable Enchanters, but you had that apostate as well.”

For some reason his comment brought a bright laugh out of her.

“Morrigan laughed at demons. She treated them with such disdain, but what else would someone raised by a woman who claimed to be Flemeth herself be like?” Leliana shook her head then and continued, “I don’t believe he was pursued by them more often than the rest. He was just…always thoughtful like that. He always told me what he was doing, even when he knew I would disagree.”

“An honest man.”

She smiled. “Perhaps too honest. I know a great deal of Warden secrets that I should not because of that habit.”

Chuckling, Cullen said, “Your secret is safe with me.”

That actually brought a smile out of Leliana then she sobered as she went on, “He asked me to not accompany him to Fort Drakon at the end.” It seemed like all of the air was sucked out of the room at those words because everyone knew what had happened at the end of the Fifth Blight. They knew who had ended it.

“There was no time to worry then as we defended the city from the horde,” she said, her voice a near whisper. “There was only the next arrow nocked in my bow and where it would land in the next darkspawn. We – Sten, Zevran, Oghren, and I – did not even know what had happened in that battle until we climbed the heights of Fort Drakon with everyone else to see.”

He knew this next part but if she wanted to continue he wouldn’t stop her. Leliana so rarely shared things, even with Josephine.

She just stood there for a moment before she turned to him and said firmly, “I learned during the Blight that there is never any reassurance that those we love will return to us, Cullen. Yet we must have faith that they will, if only to survive through the moments.”

Cullen fully turned to regard her as well and asked, “And if they don’t?”

Leliana’s smile was bitter but warm as she answered, “We pick up the pieces and move on as best we can. That is, truthfully, the only thing that can be done. To do anything less is to give into that yawning maw in our chest and die.” She shook her head before continuing to speak. “Calder did not want such a thing for me, which is why he didn’t ask me to accompany him, I think. He didn’t want me to see him fall because I think he intended it to be him that took that blow from the moment we left Redcliffe. I can only assume that Meryell would want you to do the same if that is the way the Maker guides her path.”

He was just thinking Then I will pray all the harder that he does not when Cullen heard a loud cough from the doorway and Meryell’s voice asked, “You two fucking gossiping about me while I’m not around? I knew that’s what you shits did every time I’m gone.”

Turning quickly to face the door, he was starting across the room before he quite realized he was making the move and stilled himself just as he reached out towards her. Instead he drew himself up and asked, “It went well?”

Meryell grimaced in reply and that was when he noticed that there was blood on her leathers. She didn’t appear to be bleeding herself but there was no indication that it was from a possibly encountered enemy either. Folke had been with her and they had sent Hart from her company and Chance from the Chargers’ after her since they’d been the only two rogues awake and on duty who weren’t assigned to the roofs, so it could be any of theirs. Pod and Sera were also options since they’d been going in after them.

“Well enough,” she replied darkly. “We’re all back in one piece but…shit. The section of the servants quarters they were in in the Palace was a bloodbath. Elves and humans dead with no apparent regard to whether they were friend or foe and they didn’t die pretty.”

Leliana stepped forward then and asked, “Pod and Sera did not see who the culprits were?”

“They were masked and those two hid in the rafters of a small kitchen when shit started going down. There were too many of them to fight and they’d already been spotted. I guess that’s why they cut out, fear of being discovered.” Meryell huffed out a tired breath and he wanted nothing more than to just tell her they could go back to bed instead of the inevitable meeting that was going to be next. “We didn’t even see anyone but the dead when we were down there. Which is where the blood’s from, by the way; we moved some of the bodies that were in danger of getting spotted. Whoever it was cleared out, though we didn’t go beyond finding them and getting them out. Not without knowing more and going in with an actual team that’s more than rogues.”

“And a mage,” pointed out Cullen, which brought a small smile out of the elf.

She lifted a hand to point at him as she said, “Baba will be whatever the fuck he wants or needs to be when the occasion calls for it and you well know it.” Then Meryell turned back to Leliana and said, “Get everyone up that’s not already up. If we don’t sort this shit quick, there’s going to be no Maker damned way we finish this piss pot mess of a fucking ball without everything going sideways.”

The spymaster just nodded and left at a brisk pace, leaving the two of them alone. Cullen just looked at her for a long moment before he finally reached out to take her hand and pulled her into the room, firmly shutting the door behind her. He wanted nothing more than to hug her but the blood on her leathers still gleamed wetly, so he instead rested his hands on her shoulders and bent to kiss her forehead.

“Thank the Maker you’re safe,” he murmured, aware that his voice was shaking slightly.

“Had you worried, did I?” she asked, her tone trying to be bright but obviously showing the strain. He felt her hands gently touch his chest and then she let out a rattling sigh, shoulders shaking under his hands.

Cullen just replied, “I always worry when you’re gone. As Folke has told me, you’re just apt to get yourself into trouble on your own.”

“Shitheel.”

He snorted then asked, “Are you alright, vhen’an?”

Meryell slowly shook her head then tilted her chin up so she could look at him. There were obvious tears at the corners of her eyes but her gaze itself was fierce and furious.

“No,” she replied and there was sudden steel in her tone. “But I’ll be better when I can put a knife into whatever son of a bitch is behind this working for Corypheus.”

“We’ll find them,” assured Cullen firmly. He then looked down at her again and said, “Let’s get you out of these leathers and have someone clean them up. I get the feeling that you’re going to need them tonight.”

“Can’t I just attend tonight in them instead of a dress then?” whined Meryell as she started to reach for buckles and he dropped to a knee to work at her boots. “Also that’s a nice position for you to be in.”

Snorting, he glanced up at her before he turned back to his task, saying, “Back not even a turn of a glass and already plotting how to next end up in bed?” To his own credit, he didn’t even feel himself blushing at the comment like he might have a year or more back.

Cullen felt her hand sliding into his hair, leather chasing skin as she wove her fingers into his curls. And then he did blush as she made a filthy thrusting gesture towards him with her hips and purred, “I’m always thinking about you naked nowadays, vhen’an.”

“Maker’s breath,” he murmured, ducking his head to focus on her boots. As he finally finished with one and tapped on her knee to indicate she lift her leg, Cullen asked, “What am I going to do with you, dear thief?”

“If I had my way, fuck me into the damn wall after I get this shit off.”

He had to admit, the visual of that was…interesting. She was light enough that he probably could do it with ease…fuck.

Now she had him thinking about it and his cock was taking interest.

Love,” he growled as he moved to her other boot.

Meryell just laughed brightly and replied, “Vin, vhen’an?

“You’re terrible.”

“And?” she drawled, drawing out the ‘a’ as she finally got free of her pauldrons and chest piece, shoving both up over her head to drop unceremoniously to the floor. He straightened up then, leaving her other boot mostly undone, and clasped his hands around her hips. Then he slid his hands upward, underneath the now damp with sweat tunic she’d thrown on before donning her armor, and touched her bare skin. She let her head loll back in response, a low growl of contentment coming from her before she chuckled. “I see you’ve got ideas too,” she noted.

“Around you?” he replied with a smile. “Always, vhen’an. Unfortunately they’ll have to wait.”

“Fucking work.”

“Fucking work indeed,” he agreed before removing his hands, turning his attention back to her boot. Cullen quickly finishing undoing it and stood up after she’d stepped out of it. He then pulled her in close with one hand while tilting her chin up with the other so he could kiss her softly. “To work?”

Meryell smiled softly at what all of the ladies now joked was his trademark statement in the war room and pecked his scar with a kiss, murmuring, “To work.” Then, more strongly, “Let’s get this son of a bitch.”

Nodding, he assured, “We will, love. We will.”

ornament

“If servants are dead, we must inform the Empress,” insisted Josephine after Meryell and those who had gone with her had relayed what had happened. “If only of the fact that it has occurred, not the involvement of Corypheus.”

“You mean let her think it was Briala or Gaspard,” Meryell noted grimly and Cullen moved his hand from where it had been braced behind her on the table they were leaning against to rest on her back. The touch seemed to strike some cord because she sighed and nodded several times before speaking again. “Because better to think it’s one of the demons she knows than a new one coming up to eat her face. Right.”

“Not to mention,” pointed out Leliana, “that we are talking about cleaning up the servants quarters and replacing those who were killed with our own to make it seem all is still well.”

“The last thing you need in a job is panic amongst the sheep. It just ruins your job as the wolf,” Folke said sagely and it sounded like a much used quote. Cullen immediately noted that all of the Fangs present – Meryell, Arnald, Pod, and Hart – rolled their eyes in response to it.

The Captain himself chuckled before saying wryly, “Quoting Noralt at us now, mage?”

“As the boot fits, like he used to say,” replied the hedge mage with a crooked grin. Folke then turned starkly sober, the x-shaped scar on his cheek standing out harshly, as he added, “We need to be careful moving on. What happened down there…I’ve seen shit like that before.”

Cullen noticed his eyes flicked towards Meryell then the mage was ducking his head as he said bitterly, “I’ve made bodies like that before.” She stiffened and leaned forward, as if she was about to go to him but Cullen stilled her by moving his hand briefly to her shoulder. As she turned her face up to him, eyes a little angry, he just shook his head slightly.

He knew that bitter tone in the older man’s voice. As good as Meryell’s intentions were to likely remind him that he was a different man now, the past still rankled. His own wasn’t even half as far away as Folke’s and sometimes it seemed like the mage’s scars were as fresh as his own sometimes felt.

“None of this lot know,” the man went on, gesturing towards the three elves, “but the Captain does. He served with me before we voted him to lead all of us shits.” Arnald just nodded sagely as Folke finished, “We’ve both left scenes like that before. Difference is, we regretted it then. We were doing our jobs, even if we didn’t care the sort of carnage we left. This lot just don’t give two shits.”

Leliana straightened up from where she’d been leaning against the bedpost of the room they had convened in (Josephine’s), her eyes sharply narrowed. “You speak as if you know. With certainty.”

The hedge mage grunted before saying, “I do, Nightingale.”

“You found something?” queried Varric, his voice even and level. An obvious attempt by the dwarf to keep some peace since it looked like Leliana was veering away from calm. Cullen nodded to him and Varric just shrugged before turning his eyes back to Folke. “Don’t leave us in suspense, Scar.”

“Less found and more…felt.”

Arnald abruptly sat up straight, which made Cullen pay even more rapt attention than he had been. “A wyrding?” the man asked and he frowned at the sound of it. The word itself wasn’t necessarily familiar but the sound of it was. It certainly wasn’t Orlesian, that he knew.

“A wyrding!” repeated Dorian, suddenly sitting up from where he’d been lounging across a chair, his legs crossed over an arm. “It’s from an old word for fate, yes? I read about such things in Tevinter, where a mage might know the future?”

“It’s more feeling than knowing and it sure as all Void isn’t reliable,” Folke replied darkly. He then sighed and leaned forward, propping his arms on his knees, as he went on, “My father called it a Wilds wyrding. He was a farmer, a simple man, but he’d grown up in a village just this side of being Ferelden and not Chasind. Secluded enough that folks there held on a lot more to old ways despite the Chantry influence. My mother, on the other hand, was Chasind through and through and she said it was a gift of the gods. Which, it saved our lives from templars once or twice when I was small, so I suppose it was.”

“You say it isn’t reliable,” Leliana noted firmly and Cullen cut his eyes over to her.

“Meaning it doesn’t always show up when things go to shit. Something bad happens every time I feel it though.”

“What does it feel like?” asked Dorian, interrupting whatever else the spymaster had been opening her mouth to say. He merely smiled at her in apology and said, “I’m sorry, this is absolutely fascinating. I wasn’t aware that wyrdings actually existed!”

Folke chuckled and grinned at Leliana as he turned his head towards the other mage. “Our Fade specialist, Miriam, suspects I’m a bit Fade-touched and that that’s the reason for it. As for what it feels like…you know how your can feel your mana lessening as you use it? How it’s a certain area?” When Dorian nodded, he went on, “I feel it there. I’m not certain how to describe it other than an ache.”

Fascinating. How…” Dorian abruptly trailed off as the Iron Bull coughed, smiling apologetically. “Sorry. Folke, may I…?”

“We’ll talk later, Sparkler,” the hedge mage replied and Cullen almost groaned. Varric’s nicknames seemed to have taken hold amongst both sets of mercenaries (though Meryell remained the exception as mostly Meryell and Inquisitor or Boss) but he supposed that was apt given that he’d noticed most of them didn’t go by their real names. Meryell, Arnald, and Folke he knew were exceptions. Pod he knew enough about to know it was short for something else and Hart was a mystery even to Meryell. As she’d told him, Captain doesn’t care what you fucking call yourself, so long as you can play by the rules and answer to it. Lots of us left our past behind and that meant names too.

Folke then looked at Leliana and said, “You might not believe me, e’lu’verelan, but my feelings aren’t wrong that things will get bad if we aren’t careful. I felt it as soon as we got there and saw the bodies. Something is going to happen. I don’t know what but I’ll bet you my company commission that it’ll be some serious shit. And it’ll involve whoever killed those servants.”

Leliana frowned as she asked, “Can you provide an example of it being accurate? One of these feelings?” She sounded skeptical but Cullen could understand that idea. He was a little skeptical himself but Meryell and Arnald seemed to believe it wholeheartedly.

He could trust that and that Folke was telling the truth.

“He knew a job in Jader was going to go ass end up right after I joined six years ago,” supplied Hart. Cullen hadn’t spoken to her much, so he was a little surprised when her Dalish lilt so strongly resembled those of the clan that had lingered outside of Kirkwall. He’d just so happened to have spoken with them once during one of the years there while chasing an apostate (not that they had helped, of course) and their accents had been just so different from anything he’d ever heard that they’d stuck with him. He wondered, though, what had made her leave without earning her facial markings that were common among the Dalish.

Pod nodded and looped his arm over her narrow shoulders as he said, “I can confirm that one. Was on that job myself.”

Leliana narrowed her eyes at them then asked, “Captain?” as she turned to look at Arnald. The older man just arched his eyebrows at her and spread his hands wide.

“I’ve seen far too many of Folke’s feeling come true to account them all,” he replied. “He was already in the company when I joined and had been for…how long?”

Cullen followed Arnald’s gaze over to the hedge mage as the latter shrugged and replied, “I was thirteen, fourteen summers when I joined? I’d had my magic for seven years before then, I know. And I’d already served three when you signed on.”

“Thirteen?” repeated Cassandra, sounding a little stunned. Cullen frowned as he glanced towards her because he had joined the templars at thirteen and had been considered an old recruit. “Is that not young for a mercenary company?”

Folke snorted and replied, “Old Man didn’t care. Captain Laurens was of the opinion that if you were old enough to be a brave shit and kick templars in the shins and fuck whoever you could convince into bed, you were old enough to serve.”

Baba,” scolded Meryell, sounding more amused than anything, “you’ve never told me that story.”

“Because I was a little shit and didn’t want you taking after me anymore than you already do,” replied the older man with a broad smile and a wink. Cullen laughed with the Fangs and everyone else at the idea that Folke could stop his adoptive daughter from doing whatever she wanted to do.

Arnald coughed pointedly, bringing the laughter back down, and then said, “My asking was to make a point. He’d been in for three years longer than I had and Laurens’ second, Noralt, who served as mine as well until he died, was certain to tell everyone that when Folke said something was wrong you fucking listened.”

Chuckling to himself, he went on, “I thought the man was a bit mad for trusting a practical child at the time. Then Folke warned us off a job and we heard weeks later that the other company that had taken it was lost to a man. Half a year after that he had us take another route on a job and we ended up ambushing a group of guards who had been on the other side of the door he’d told us not to take. Those are the first two I remember but there are a hundred more.”

Cullen turned to watch Leliana’s face as the Captain finished with, “I’ve trusted him with a sword at my back for many years, Nightingale. I’d recommend you listen when he says he knows a thing.” Leliana’s face was unreadable and he found his breath caught in his throat as her lips pursed.

Then she asked, “What was the last one,” and it was like the air was sapped out of the room.

Arnald stiffened in his seat, Pod and Hart leaned further into each other, Folke’s face went dead white, and Meryell’s back underneath his hand snapped into a straight line. A single shiver rippled down her back and Cullen knew that whatever this was would prove Folke’s words true.

The hedge mage’s voice was choked with emotion as he answered, “Poppet’s last job.”

Silence filled the room for a long moment before Josephine broke it with very quiet Oh that was followed by Sera’s gruff, “So you thought Quiz was all sorts of dead? Shite, that’s rough.”

Folke laughed brokenly, shaking his head several times before he managed to say, “Rough doesn’t even remotely cover it, Buttercup.” He then looked towards them and Cullen felt the pain in the man’s face like a physical blow. Honestly he couldn’t imagine having that sort of ability and sometimes just knowing something was going to happen. Didn’t think he would want such a thing ever, especially not in the idea that he might someday know something might happen to someone he loved and have to live with the idea that he had let them go when something did.

That time when Meryell moved to go towards her father, he didn’t even attempt to stop her. For all they felt for each other, all of the love that he knew they each held, it was all nothing in the wake of the love she had for Folke. She would probably shank him if he had tried.

Instead he smiled as she settled into her father’s lap, wrapping her arms around him and hugging him tightly as the mage pulled her close and tucked his head underneath her chin. Folke’s shoulders shook and that was when Cullen respectfully turned his face away. The mage had always given him the courtesy of being there but not watching him through the variety of breakdowns he’d had since the lyrium attack. He could do no less than give the other man the same respect.

“Leliana?” he queried, drawing the spymaster’s attention to him. “Are you satisfied?”

He watched her gaze flick back towards the entwined pair and then those hard blue eyes were back on him. Leliana nodded just slightly and answered, “That is…unquestionable confirmation of his ability. He couldn’t have known about what would happen at the Conclave.” Then her gaze softened just a hair as she added, “And I do not believe he would have knowingly put his daughter into such danger.”

There seemed to be a sigh of relief around the room at that (likely because their spymaster was the hardest to convince out of any of them) and then Varric asked, “So now what?”

Josephine stood up, smoothing her hands down over her skirts, and replied, “Now I go seek the earliest audience with the Empress. If we are to help keep the peace, we must get her permission to move forward.” She then frowned and began, “Inquisitor…”

“Whatever you need to do, Josephine, you fucking do it,” replied Meryell, her tone hard. She opened her eyes and turned her head to face the Antivan, never moving her chin from its contact with Folke’s head. “Full Inquisitorial blessing. I trust you. Get shit done so we can fuck these sons of bitches over.”

Cullen watched their ambassador’s normally gentle features harden and the thin smile that graced her face a moment later wouldn’t have been out of place on Leliana’s.  It was yet another reminder that Josephine Montilyet had once been a bard herself and played the most civil and yet vicious hand of Wicked Grace. The latter was a sure reflection of the fact that she could smile and pretend to deal with others with kid gloves that hid the true unflinching iron underneath.

Josephine inclined her head sharply, saying, “I will see it done, Inquisitor. Leliana, come with me, please.”

“Of course, Josie.”

His fellow advisors left the room and in the silence that followed Sera yawned in a deliberately loud fashion. The little elf stood up, stretching in a way that made the very short shift she had changed into ride up almost high enough to be scandalous, and asked loudly, “Can we go back to bed now?”

Blackwall chuckled in response from where he’d been lurking silently in one corner of the room – Cullen had noticed he had already been there when everyone else had started to arrive – before saying, “Let’s see if we need to know anything else first, Fuzzhead.”

“You ruin all the fun, Beardy.”

“Swears?” queried Varric softly, looking to where Meryell still sat curled around Folke. Neither of them moved an inch but her eyes were still open and fully aware. The dwarf noticed and asked, “What are we doing now, sweetheart?”

She sighed in response and Cullen knew she was feeling the weight of Inquisitor again and hating it. Meryell moved through it, though, and replied, “We’re in a waiting game now to see what’s what. Get some fucking sleep while you all can.”

She sighed bitterly as she added in a lower tone, “I get the feeling tonight we’re going to have to all be on our toes. Elsewise we’re liable to lose our damned heads.”

“I dunno, Boss,” the Iron Bull rumbled as he stood up with a wry smile. “Could be fun to not be so on our toes. It’s been awhile since someone tried to take my head.”

Dorian snorted and grumbled, “That’s because you’re a good three heads taller than any sane human wants to be, you big ox.” He then rose, rolling his shoulders, then said, “Don’t you worry, darling. You’ve got me, after all.”

Cullen distinctly heard Madame Vivienne scoff as she left (he’d noticed more and more that she seemed to have quite the lack of respect for the non-Circle mages) but Meryell smiled in response. She freed a hand to reach out towards the Tevinter mage and their fingers entwined for a brief moment as she breathed, “Wouldn’t have any other overly attractive Tevinter at my back over you, Dorian.”

“Of course not, darling, do you know how hard it is to find someone more attractive than me?” Dorian winked at her in that overly flirtatious way of his then left the room, a chuckling Iron Bull trailing behind him. The one Charger who’d been involved in their rescue, a lithe little young man who went only by Chance and hadn’t spoken a word except to agree with what they’d seen, followed them out.

“Y’alright there, Quiz?” asked Sera then, the younger elf looking worried while trying not to. She folded both hands behind her, fiddling her thumbs together, and then murmured, “Yer pa doesn’t look so good either,” as she rocked back and forth on her heels.

Cullen noticed that Blackwall had moved over next to the little archer and smiled. They took care of each other in an odd way that reminded him of a pair of siblings. It made him miss his own but what would he share with them now, so long after he’d left them?

Meryell smiled and he fixated on that instead of thoughts of the siblings he’d barely kept in touch with. “We’ll be alright, Sera,” she answered softly. “Just…rough fucking night, yeah?”

That brought a haunted look to Sera’s face as she nodded, softly agreeing, “Yeah.” Then she held up both hands in fists in front of her, teeth bared, and hissed, “We’ll get the shits though, won’t we, Quiz? Every last one of the fuckers. Kill ‘em dead for what they’ve done.”

“Every Maker damned one “ agreed Meryell with a flinty look in her eye.

Sera nodded sharply at that, flashed a thumbs up, and then bolted out of the room. Blackwall sighed, rolling his eyes, then plodded off after her, calling out down the hallway, “Get some actual sleep, you daft git!”

“Sod off!” came Sera’s muffled voice back, causing those of them that were left to chuckle.

Solas said nothing as he left, merely giving Meryell a respectful nod which she returned (though his eyes lingered on Folke for a disturbingly long moment). Cassandra merely stood in front of them and leaned down to stare Meryell in the eye, something silent passing between them as both women nodded, before she left. Varric patted Meryell’s knee as he passed them, smiling kindly, and also thumped Folke’s back with a gruff sounding, “Take it easy, Scar,” that actually got a grunt in response from the hedge mage.

Pod and Hart left with their arms around each other, both of them nodding towards Meryell and Folke. After they left it was just him, Meryell, Folke, and Arnald.

Or so he thought until he suddenly turned back towards Meryell and Folke from glancing worriedly at their Captain to find Cole crouched by them.

“The pain was an endless wound, stuffed with ragged bits to quell the blood. Yet all it did was turn foul and fester, a reminder of failure and fate,” murmured the boy. Cullen watched him reach up and touch Folke’s knee before he went on, “It got better when he knew he was wrong but the fear lingers, lasting, flickering like the light Mother used to leave in the window to find home. He fears it happening again.”

“Cole,” Meryell intoned sharply.

The boy’s narrow shoulders flinched and he bobbed his head before saying, “That was rude. I…I am sorry, Folke.”

The hedge mage snorted and turned his head just slightly, opening one eye as he replied, “It’s not like none of that’s fucking true, lad.”

Baba,” groaned Meryell immediately after that, closing her eyes and dropping her forehead to rest against her father’s head. “I’m trying to teach Cole manners.”

Manners?” Folke exclaimed, pulling away from her for the first time since she’d left Cullen’s side to go to him. He straightened up, looking between her and Cole for a moment, before he leaned down towards the boy and rapped his knuckles against the wide brim of his hat. “Now listen up, lad. Poppet has the best of intentions but you had best not follow everything she says…or that you feel, whatever it is you do.”

“No,” Cole replied. “She’s mostly been teaching me when not to listen. Because it’s rude. Like when she thinks of Cullen, all warm hands and mouth.” He paused and tilted his head up at Meryell, added, “But…I don’t understand. Why do you want him to pin you to a wall? Is that not what Varric does with his pages to let the ink dry?”

Meryell let out an embarrassed squeak in response, hiding her face behind Folke’s, and Cullen tipped his head up towards the ceiling so he didn’t have to look Folke or Arnald in the eye. He could feel his cheeks and neck burning in equal embarrassment to his lover as he said, “That…that is, uh, two very different things, Cole. One of which shouldn’t be talked about in public.”

“But they are safe.”

“Doesn’t matter, da’lath’in,” murmured Meryell.

Folke laughed and reached up to ruffle her hair, saying, “You know I don’t care, Poppet. And the Captain’s Orlesian.

Arnald just snorted and said, “Just because I’m Orlesian doesn’t mean that I’m one of that lot that throw themselves into as much cunt or cock as they can, Folke. I assume, however, that you’re talking about my not getting embarrassed by things of a sexual nature.”

“That’s the one, Captain.”

The older man just snorted and Cullen then felt a fist thump his shoulder. He turned his head just enough where he could see Arnald’s smile before he mouthed, You’re fine. Then the Captain clapped his hands together and said, “Well then, with that I think I’m going to take myself back to bed. Bonne nuit, my friends. You should do the same.”

Arnald then pause before he walked out and made a brief gesture at Cole. “Come along, lad. You can’t help here no matter how you try.”

“I… “

“Cole,” Cullen pressed softly, drawing the boy’s attention towards him. When he saw those wide blue eyes blinking at him from under the wide hat, he added, “There’s some hurts that only time and the people you love can try to heal.”

Cole just blinked at him then bowed his head as he asked, “Like your nightmares?”

He flinched at the so open mention despite the fact that everyone in the room knew already but nodded in reply. “Like my nightmares,” Cullen agreed a moment later.

The boy-spirit seemed to accept that and stood up, nodding slightly as he did so. Then he turned back towards Folke and said firmly, “I wouldn’t let it happen,” before vanishing entirely.

For a moment there was silence and then Folke asked, “What kind of spirit did Chuckles think he was?”

“Compassion,” replied Cullen. “It’s why he wants to help from what I was told.”

The hedge mage nodded at that, before saying, “Keep it up, girlie. Having Compassion on your side isn’t a thing to take lightly. They’re rare spirits.”

“I’ve never taken Cole lightly, baba.” Meryell then looked up at Arnald and smiled, “Goodnight, Captain.”

Arnald snorted in response and said, “Get some sleep you three.” He left then, leaving them alone in Josephine’s room and Cullen lifted a hand to rub at the back of his neck as an awkward feeling silence descended.

Folke immediately snorted and Cullen turned to look at him as the man swatted at Meryell’s leg. She flicked her ears and grumbled a curse in a language he didn’t know – and it certainly wasn’t Elven – and slid off his lap. As she moved back across the room and slid her hand into Cullen’s free one, the mage said, “You know I don’t care what you two get up to in your own time, isha’len.”

“That doesn’t negate the embarrassment at all, Folke,” he replied, squeezing Meryell’s hand. Running his hand up into his hair, feeling the curls briefly tangle around his fingertips, he let out a breath before he looked down at the woman at his side. She smiled brightly up at him – not quite that one he’d sworn to bring out more but it was one of such contentment and happiness that it nearly stole his breath that he inspired it – and moved to lean against his shoulder. Smiling back sheepishly, Cullen flicked his eyes at Folke and added, “I’m not exactly…comfortable…with certain things being public knowledge. Spoken of publicly, at least.”

“Well,” Folke drawled, “you’ve got people who are always going to be up in your shit not just because of who you are but because of who Poppet is. To them you’re just your titles, not people.”

“That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

“Fuck no!” exploded the older man, sounding appalled. “I’d worry if either of you were alright with it.”

Meryell nudged her elbow into his ribs and as commented, “And you know Cole doesn’t mean it like that.”

“I know, love,” Cullen replied warmly, “but that doesn’t change the fact that he says things that I’d rather keep between us.”

Laughing, Folke said, “Good luck with that, lad. Secrets are rare amongst the Fangs and few of us have got any shame about fucking or talking about fucking.” He then sobered and said, “Now, we should probably do as the Captain said and get some rest.”

At that Meryell asked, “Are you going to be alright, baba?”

The hedge mage just smiled and stepped towards them, reaching out to cup her cheek with one hand. “Don’t you worry about me, ara’vherain,” he assured warmly. “You’ve got bigger jobs to plot.”

Laughing at the offended look on her face, Cullen noted, “I think she disagrees, Folke.”

“Brat never did know what was best for her,” replied the man with a wink.

“Suck a dick, baba.”

Folke just laughed at that and patted her cheek before he turned to leave the room with a parting, “You say that as if I should be offended, Poppet!” Cullen laughed himself at the parting shot and just shook his head as Meryell turned grumpily towards him.

“He has a point,” he said.

“How about I tell you to go suck a dick?” she retorted angrily, her left ear twitching.

Cullen just smiled and turned so they were facing each other, pulling her in close. “I would remind the dear thief then,” he replied softly, “of the last time she praised my mouth.”

Meryell shivered and shook her head. “How,” she asked, “do you say things like that and still get embarrassed with bits of our sex life being known?”

“Because there’s a difference between me saying it to you alone and my men knowing what I say to you in private. Or your father knowing.”

He then effortlessly lifted her up into his arms, smiling as she wrapped her arms around his neck and locked her knees over his hips. Cullen braced his hands around her back to secure her there and leaned his head forward enough that their noses touched.

“There’s the parts of me that are for them,” he explained softly, “and the ones that are just for you, love. I like to keep them separate as much as I can. Aren’t there parts of me you’d rather keep for yourself?”

“Point made,” she grumbled. Then she sighed and leaned her head against her arms, nestling her face up against the curve of his jaw. “Can we go back to bed?” Meryell asked softly then, sounding a little lost.

Cullen turned his head to kiss her cheek and replied just as softly, “Whatever you want, vhen’an.”

“I just want to sleep.”

He knew that tone. That was the tone of voice that screamed I want to forget. And after her and the others descriptions of the chaos they’d see in the servant’s quarters, he couldn’t blame her.

Nodding, Cullen murmured, “Then we’ll sleep, love.” He made sure his grip was steady on her and carried her back to their room, making sure to close Josephine’s door behind them. At the end of the hallway one of the Fangs – Dragos if he recalled right, the former Tevinter templar – flashed him a worried look but Cullen just waved it off. He could take care of Meryell on his own.

Once inside their room, he wasted no time in taking them to bed. She was still awake, he knew, but as he worked at the buttons on her shirt and the ties on her pants, Meryell barely stirred. It wasn’t until he slid into bed next to her, skin-to-skin, that she even made a noise.

At first he thought it was a laugh and then the sound solidified into a broken sob. Cullen knew then that they hadn’t told half of the horror they’d seen.

“They killed them,” she breathed. “They fucking massacred them. They were just people. They were just people doing their jobs.”

“I know, I know,” he breathed, pulling her in tightly against him. Her fingers flexed, nails digging into the muscle of his chest where they rested, but he could handle the pain. He’d handled worse. Stroking her hair, careful to avoid touching her ears when she was so distraught, he went on, “We’ll get them, love.”

Meryell shook her head and he felt tears wet his skin as she pressed her face against his throat. Cullen just hugged her ever closer, closing his eyes and wondering how he could make this better. What way was there though?

People were dead. Lives had been stolen. Children were going to wake up without a parent.

He didn’t know of any way to make that better. If he did, he might feel less guilty about the lives he had ruined. Yet who might he be if it was that easy to make the things he’d done better? To simply paint them in the brush of duty and circumstance and move on without caring for families he’d torn apart and lives he’d taken?

Letting out a heavy breath, Cullen said, “We’ll make them pay.”

“It won’t fucking bring them back,” she sobbed in reply. “They’re still dead even if we win this shit storm of a mess. Children…” She choked on the word and tried to press herself closer to him, which made realization hit about why she was so upset. “…they’re still going to have a parent dead. What if they’re alone? What if they were all they had? What if…”

He interrupted her then, kissing her temple as he breathed, “What if they were like you were?”

She went quiet and still in reply before nodding weakly, a soft, “Yes,” coming out a moment later.

“We can’t save every child who loses a parent in this fight, love.”

“I know,” she hissed, her breath harsh on the skin of his throat. Then Meryell pushed herself back where she could look up at him, her eyes spotty and red, and asked, “But I…I should have been faster. Something. Should’ve…fuck.”

Faster?” he repeated. Cullen levered himself up onto an elbow, cupping her cheek as he leaned over her. “You did the best you could with what you had, love. You couldn’t have known that those bastards would go after the servants.”

“Shouldn’t I?” she hissed angrily in response, sitting up entirely as she jerked away and throwing off the sheets covering them. Burying her head in her hands, knotting her fingers in her hair, Meryell cried out, “What use is this damned title and this fucking job if we can’t stop this shit?”

Rising to his knees, Cullen reached for her hands and slowly forced them away from her head, untangling her fingers and then smoothing her hair back down. When he was done, he took her hands in his, running his thumbs over old scars and skin roughened by a hard life, and hissed, “You aren’t responsible for the whole damned world except to save it from Corypheus. They may have died at the hands of his minions but their safety wasn’t our responsibility. That’s on Celene.”

“But I was there.”

Sighing, he said, “After, dear thief. You were there after. There was nothing you could have done. Nothing.”

Another sob tore it’s way out of her throat and Cullen pulled her forward into him. Meryell went limp in response, her body curling inward as more sobs wracked her form, and he gathered her up in his arms. Shifting back towards the head of the bed, he propped himself up against it then settled her in his lap, tugging the blankets up over their legs. As she leaned limply against his chest, her back bowed and tears peppering his skin, he hugged her close once more and stroked her hair.

And his heart ached anew with every fresh sob because there was nothing he could do or say that would make things better.

He held her like that until the sobs and tears subsided, until she merely lay limp and sniffling against his chest. Then Cullen tilted his chin down to kiss the crown of her head and murmured, “I’m so sorry, dear thief.”

“I hate this,” she breathed, sounding broken and lost.

Nodding in agreement, his lips still pressed to her hair, he softly said, “Me too, love, me too.”

ornament

Translations:

Bonne nuit – good night

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